On Time Travel and Being Gay
August 30

On Time Travel and Being Gay


Catherine Friend blogs:

I am a chrononaut, which means I travel through time just like astronauts travel through space. The most accepted methods for such journeys are through doors, closets, or a certain cave located in northern Spain. British phone boxes have been known to do the trick, as well as rips in the time-space continuum (but these are quite rare and difficult to find).

My method of time travel is to write novels in which a woman from today accidentally travels back in history to an unfamiliar time. In some time travel novels, the travel is on purpose, like Connie Willis’s amazing Blackout and All Clear. I’ve yet to take this step—so far it’s always a surprise to my intrepid heroine, which for me is still part of the fun.

Why not just write historical novels? I do that too, but there’s something magical about writing time travel. With time travel novels you’re able to watch a modern woman struggling with life in the past. Time travel is a way to examine both the past and the present through the eyes of a modern woman and her sensibilities.

With a time travel novel, I’m able to take a sarcastic woman named Jamie and put her in front of Queen Elizabeth I in 1560. The powerful queen didn’t really take kindly to sarcasm directed at her, so just by Jamie being herself, she was putting her life in danger. Freedom of speech is something we’re so used to that even when it’s not there, it’s hard to not speak our mind. Jamie struggles with this in my new novel, Spark.

My first time travel novel, The Spanish Pearl, was the most fun to write because I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no expectations of ever publishing it. Poor Kate finds herself in eleventh-century Spain, so far from a world she could understand that she was constantly putting herself in danger just by being herself.

Hmm. There seems to be a thread developing here: being in danger just by being yourself. I can only think of one source for that thread. When I came out in the late 1970s—

(Holy crap! I have been out for forty-one years. How the hell did that happen?)

—as I was saying, when I came out in the 1970s, it was very dangerous to be yourself. For our own safety, most lesbians never held hands in public, or exchanged loving glances, or let any sort of visible affection pass between ourselves and another woman.

Repression came from all directions. It came not only from a straight society that thought us deviant and dangerous, but it also came from a lesbian culture that believed we should only listen to women’s music or dress a certain way. I was nearly forty before I began to defy lesbian conventions by wearing pink. In my day, to wear pink was to invite real scorn from other lesbians. But it turns out I look great in pink, so screw that.

Maybe for me, time travel is a way to work all this out, to find a way for a woman to survive in a dangerous time, and still be herself. Modern society and lesbian culture have both evolved enough that Melissa and I can, now and then, feel safe holding hands in public, and I can wear pink and not be accused of trying to pass as straight. But that unsafe feeling never quite goes away, so perhaps that’s why I continue to travel back in time and help my heroines find the courage to be themselves.