I did Q&A with Savage Love columnist and author Dan Savage, for the U.S. paperback of The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington. He’s a very nice person. And he knows a lot about sex. Here’s our conversation about gay adolescence, the tedium of weddings and the enduring appeal of red Speedos.
Dan Savage: All adolescents feel a sense of estrangement from their own bodies during puberty. For gay adolescents, that sense of estrangement is made more intense by feelings of betrayal – “How could my body be doing this to me!” I think that’s the animating idea of your novel. As a gay man, what was your reaction when your body informed you that, like it or not, you were going to be gay when you grew up?
Brian Francis: My body and I always made better enemies than friends, so when it told me I was going to be gay, I was like, “Whatever, bitch.” From a young age, I was engaged in the emotional – and sometimes physical – tug-of-war with myself. Ah, the quest for normality! It kept slipping through my chubby adolescent fingers! I survived by doing the one thing that gay adolescents do best – avoided thinking about the issue and focused on my hair.
DS: Do you think gay men ever full recover from that sense of betrayal? So many of the social pathologies that plague the gay community appear to be some sort of subconscious effort on the part of gay men to punish their bodies: the smoking, the abuse of recreational drugs – for the record: not all drug use is abuse – and the physically and emotionally damaging extremes that some gay men carry promiscuity to. And then there’s all the chest waxing, eyebrow plucking, and tanning. What’s the deal?
BF: I’m sorry, I was just coming out of a K-Hole. What was the question again?
DS: Most fiction is about closeted, gay adolescents seems to be about – how best to put this? – fantasy figures. Closeted jocks, closeted presidents of the student council, closeted semi-professional surfers. Basically adult fantasy figures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book about a gay teenager who was so repulsive – funny as shit, of course, but repulsive. It seems to violate some unwritten rule of gay fiction: “1. Closeted gay kids have to be hot, hot hot.” Was it an act of bravery creating a character who, like a lot of gay kids, is lonely, fat and lives in a fantasy world?
BF: It wasn’t bravery so much as it was liberation. I was at the point of frustration. I knew that I was never the closet jock or the student council president or the semi-professional surfer. Call it “Revenge of the Fat Gay Kid,” – grab your Twinkies and CHARGE!!! – but I was itching to give someone like Peter Paddington a voice. It was one I hadn’t read before and more importantly, it was a voice I felt needed to be heard. And for the record, I don’t think Peter is repulsive. Pimply legs can be quite pretty, given the right lighting.
DS: Why do you think most gay men prefer to forget about their actual adolescences and focus on fantasy versions? Are they too painful? Or just too banal?
BF: I think it’s a combination of the two. There’s a lot of pain, but there’s a lot of boredom during those years too. Fantasies are really about escapism, and whatever your motivation – boredom, pain, control, acceptance – they really all serve the same purpose.
DS: How much of this story is autobiographical? You’re a slim, attractive gay man living in a big city and you’ve got a boyfriend. You’re not a Peter Paddington – now, at any rate. Were you ever?
BF: Let me put it this way – I didn’t have to job-shadow any fat paperboys in the name of research. But I was more of an extrovert than Peter. I was the typical funny fat kid – the one who went out and bought dirty joke books for material at recess. I used my humour as a distraction. The difficult thing about being overweight is that there’s simply no place to hide. You’re out in the open, waiting for someone to target you. So you try and stall people in whatever ways you can. But when all is said and done, no matter where I live or how much I weigh or what I look like, I’ll never disown that fat kid. He acts as my compass in the world.
DS: Hey, you’re a gay Canadian with a boyfriend. Any plans to turn that boyfriend into a boy-husband?
BF: It’s an option, but it’s not a pressing one. To be honest, I can’t really visualize what my gay wedding would be like. I mean, I’d give my left nut to have The Facts of Life girls as my bridesmaids, but I doubt it will happen. And does my mom walk me down the aisle? And do we wear matching tuxes? And which one of us wears the garter? Part of it is my own exhaustion with the whole wedding spectacle too. I’ve given up a fair number of precious Saturdays – and eaten my fair share of chicken breasts in mushroom sauce – to watch couples I barely know declare their undying love for each other. And part of me just doesn’t get it. I think your relationship should be private. Your love should be private. But hell, if it means getting a new washer/dryer, slap on the garter.
DS: Bedtime Movies: I think a lot of us when we’re young and gay fantasize about scenarios in which same-sex love, more so than same-sex sex, is, if you’ll pardon the expression, thrust upon us. Guys show up at our houses and need something to wear and all we can find is a red Speedo, or the attractive adult male husbands of neighbours fall in love with us, through no fault of our own, and we wouldn’t want to hurt them so we reluctantly return their affections. We’re the victims/heroes in these fantasies. Peter’s fantasies are almost as cinematic as they are hilarious. Why do you think this kind of fantasizing is so common among gay men?
BF: Whenever I allowed myself a gay fantasy, whether it be sexual or romantic in nature, there was always some kind of catch. Like, I had to be bullied into it. Or it was what all the guys did after football practice. Or I happened to look like Heather Locklear. That was the only way I could rationalize my desires. Of course, a teenaged guy wanting to look like Heather Locklear isn’t the most rational thing in the world, but I digress. The bottom line was that there were too many horrific implications in permitting myself to openly feel desire for another male. It went against every rule I was taught as a kid. So I think a lot of gay youth create worlds where that desire is natural and permissible. And that’s the catch – the fantasy worlds created are ultimately more satisfying than reality. It’s only when you start calling yourself “Heather” that you could be in trouble.
DS: When I was a kid, I used to tell my mother I wanted to be a girl when I grew up – which I’m not now, of course, and I don’t have any desire to be. But I knew at age five that I wanted to have the kind of relationship with a man that I saw my female relatives had with their husbands. So I thought, well, I guess I’ll just have to be a girl when I grow up. How else will I get what I want? I guess this isn’t really a question, just a stroll down memory lane.
BF: Thanks for sharing, Dan.
DS: What makes straight women and gay men so compatible – emotionally speaking? It has to go beyond lusting after boys, don’t you think?
BF: It’s the shoes. It’s all about the shoes.
DS: Why the hell do you hate Italians so much?
BF: Are you high? Daniela Bertoli is the only character with balls in the book! For the record, I’d like to state that my partner is Italian, so however Italians come across in the book is his fault entirely. Actually, the truth of the matter is that I’ve always been jealous of Italian culture – the food, the theatrics, the freedom to say “fuck” in front of your mother without getting your ears boxed. Atsa nice!
DS: I can say “fuck” in front of my mother – and she’s Irish.
BF: My mother’s idea of swearing is “Jesus Murphy.” ‘Nuf said. To wrap this up, I think it’s only fitting to turn the tables, Mr. Savage. As I mentioned, The Facts of Life girls would be the ultimate celebrity bridesmaids at my gay wedding. Who would be yours?
DS: The Finnish Men’s Synchronized Diving Team, of course, in red Speedos.