Let me get this straight ... or not: Stella Duffy and Julia Crouch on sexual identity

The novelists Stella Duffy (who is gay) and Julia Crouch (who is not) discuss issues of identity and authenticity that can arise when your lead character is a lesbian – and why authors should simply ignore them all

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The Independent Culture

Julia Crouch: When I started writing Tarnished, I realised pretty early on that my main character, Peg, was a young lesbian in a stable relationship with her girlfriend Loz. This happened for many reasons: both my previous books had been about put-upon thirtysomething wives and I wanted to inhabit a different world. To me, the relationship between these particular young women just provided a more stable and equal base from which poor old Peg embarks on her journey of unwelcome discoveries. But mostly I just didn't ever picture Peg with a boy. She had always liked girls. Full stop. I didn't want to make a big deal about it, and nor did she.

Stella Duffy: I'm glad you didn't want to make a big deal about it. All too often, when a character is gay, the writer uses that sexuality as their defining characteristic. Worse still – and TV and film are usually more guilty of this than fiction – is when writers think it's enough for a character to be "a lesbian", as if that were a job description. What does she do? She's a lesbian. For me, lesbian as adjective is so much more useful than lesbian as noun.

Julia: There are only a few points in the novel when Peg's sexuality ever becomes an issue, and these are when she has to deal with the homophobia of her family – she is forced to keep certain things secret. This is useful for the plot, and realistic for a young woman in Peg's situation. But it is in no way central to the book.

Stella: As a writer, I absolutely understand the value of secrets and of antagonistic characters. In my own life however, I always question the desire for secrecy, especially around sexuality. It's not as if, in Britain, we're living in one of the countries where it's illegal to be gay, or we're going to put our family and friends at risk by being out. And of course, the more we treat it as if it's something to hide, to be ashamed of, the more we buy into homophobia. I'd encourage any real person to do away with secrets and lies – they're great for plotting, rubbish for real life.

Julia: I agree – and Loz is critical in exactly that way of how Peg hides herself from her family. "Buying into their homophobia" is how she puts it. But even with all this thought, as I was writing, my conscience prickled. Did I, as a mostly straight woman, have the right to put lesbian characters at the centre of my story? Memories of the factionalised women's movement of my twenties, when I sometimes felt guilty for fancying men, began to trouble me. But then I look at my 23-year-old daughter's friends, some of whom are lesbians, and their lives seem so uncomplicated by the weightier personal/political concerns of 1980s feminism. Like Peg, they just fancy and fall in love with women. As do my older lesbian friends.

Stella: Yes, I have those memories too, especially of the factionalised politics, and I do think many things are more open these days. That said, I believe that there are still real issues for LGBT people that are sometimes easy for straight people to miss. From the question of which pronoun to use in response to perfectly ordinary questions about one's partner, and knowing that being out will always be treated as "interesting", never ordinary, to assuring hotel receptions that yes, we do want a double room, to very real dangers faced by LGBT people in many countries, and being aware of our own good fortune in living here, to regularly being told that we are responsible for the demise of the family. As much as many gay people consider themselves perfectly ordinary members of society, there is still a vociferous section of society keen to tell us that we're not.

Julia: And that's it: which is why I felt it was so important to show Loz and Peg as a perfectly ordinary couple (whatever that means). Love is love and there is no such thing as a typical lesbian or straight relationship. And if I can't imaginatively inhabit the world of a character who is different to myself, then what kind of writer am I? If I need it, that's my defence.

Stella: I don't think you need a defence, any more than I do when I write straight characters or black characters, or when either of us write men. Years ago, when I'd just written my first book, I did an event with Walter Mosley, and talked about my concerns around writing a black character, my fear of getting it wrong and being seen to do so. Walter simply said, "If you don't, who will?" Yes, there will be mistakes, and yes we'll all get it wrong sometimes, but the more we people our work in the way the world is peopled, with all our variety and difference, the more likely we are to write a real world.

Julia: Perhaps I ought to mention also at this point that Peg is black ....

Stella Duffy's most recent novel, 'The Purple Shroud' (Virago, £7.99), will be available in paperback in June. Julia Crouch's third novel, 'Tarnished' (Headline, £13.99) is out now.

Tarnished, By Julia Crouch

Headline £13.99

'Peg hunkered down into her parka and listened to the sound of the sea, carried inland by the wind. The delay, the cold, the sodium-yellow light and bitter, metallic tang of the railway station could have pulled her spirits down, but excitement at the prospect of seeing Loz buoyed her.'