From Gay Oppression to Women's Equality: The Evolution of a Novel

Having breakfast in early morning at home.
Having breakfast in early morning at home.

Sometimes when you confront the origins of your own oppression you can be surprised by the common bond you have with others being held down by the same ideas.

I attended a Catholic high school in England. Despite the religious setting, no civilian teacher, nun or priest ever mentioned damnation to hell for being gay, whether in class or at compulsory school mass.

Under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, all schools were banned by law from discussing such topics. While being gay wasn't openly condemned, it obviously wasn't talked about in a positive light either. So I spent my youth largely unaware of exactly how the Church felt about gay people.

Of course, I didn't remain naïve. After graduating, and with organized religion behind me, I quickly learned of the Church's hostile stance toward gay people. But the British -- with our staid views and diffident stiff-upper-lip-ness -- tend to be quite private about religion. So I never really heard the relationship between the church and the gay community openly discussed.

That all changed when I moved to America seven years ago. Suddenly, I was confronted with religious organizations openly promoting homophobia. I was shocked at how unashamedly vocal they were. I couldn't reconcile the pundits proclaiming slogans like "God hates gays," and "Your sins will send you to hell" with the heartbreaking true-life stories of LGBT kids suffering physical assaults at school or being thrown out on the street by their so-called "Christian" parents. The imaginary hell to which they were condemned couldn't have been much scarier than the living hell they already endured every day.

Despite my Catholic upbringing, I am not a religious person. I shouldn't care whether someone thinks I am going to hell. But the truth is it still frustrates and annoys me that some vocally self-proclaimed religious people act so inexplicably justified and righteous when telling me where my "sins" will lead me -- and in such a spiteful and abusive way. So I decided to write a novel to challenge the common narrative.

"What if a gay man was chosen to raise the Daughter of God?"

It wasn't meant to be shocking or offensive. Instead, I wanted to offer an alternative to LGBT people constantly hearing that God hates them.

While I initially intended the story to counter the biblical quotes forever used as ammunition against gay people, I had to consider the story itself. If God did have a daughter, what would be the mission of a female messiah? It seemed obvious that she would concentrate on womankind. So three years ago I began researching the issues affecting women. And almost immediately I discovered a particularly poignant quote:

"The truth is that male religious leaders have had -- and still have -- an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter." - Jimmy Carter

What I discovered -- the reality of worldwide violence against women -- shook me to my core. And as the former President said, much of the oppression of women stems from skewed interpretations of religion that underpin patriarchal societies that relegate women to second-class status.

The numbers are hard to comprehend. I could compare them to the capacity of football stadiums or the populations of entire countries, but repeating large numbers seems to numb and overwhelm the underlying stories. For example, of the 800,000 people sold and trafficked across international borders every year, 80 per cent are women and girls. Each and every one of them has her own horrifying experience of being sold into slavery, of being raped, and of daily threats and unthinkable physical violence.

The sheer enormity of the issues and problems weighed heavily on me. I was extensively traveled with what I foolishly believed was a decent grasp of the world. Though I broadly knew that women were treated unfairly, particularly in parts of the developing world, the scope and scale was so much more endemic than I imagined. So writing the book took on another, broader purpose: to raise awareness of the worldwide oppression of women.

Women certainly have suffered under the pretext of religious ideology throughout history in far greater numbers than LGBT people. But the two groups have a common history and origin to their struggles. We share many of the same oppressors and have had to fight for our own dignities. These intertwined struggles led the story I was writing into unexpected tangents. It wasn't just about my background and experiences anymore. The main character remained a gay man battling oppression, but it was not his own. Instead, the battle now centered on his adopted daughter's world as she confronts global women's inequality.

At the same time I was writing the novel, I launched a Twitter account to raise awareness of both women's and LGBT issues. The online reaction has been amazing, and I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have so many incredible people welcome me and help bring attention to the issues. And while my pro-equality, anti-misogyny messages frequently draw abuse and derision, positive comments and words of encouragement far outweigh the naysayers. The experience has been its own reward. In spite of the harrowing statistics and horrifying stories, I've also seen real courage and dedication to improving the world, especially for women. Rather than despair, I'm filled with hope.

My outlook of the world has changed. I am far from perfect. Like most people, I have made dumb and insensitive remarks in the past. This is perhaps even more shameful, as I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of barbs and insults, and I am fully aware of the role women have played in supporting the LGBT community. But I have learned that being released from your own feelings of personal oppression gives you new perspective - a chance to empathize with others whose oppression inexplicably still seems to hover on the periphery of Western consciousness.

I set out to write a book to shift the narrative of the gay community and the church. Instead, I ended up writing a different story. After broader exposure to the vast challenges standing in the way of achieving the true definition of equality, the novel aims to shift the narrative of women, the LGBT community, and the determination we all need to achieve real and concrete progress for both.