Making a Difference: Allison Burnett
by Josh Aterovis
Black Sheep Productions
Many authors of gay-themed books face a very public coming out when their books are published, but not
Allison Burnett. He found himself going into the closet—the straight closet.
Allison was born in Ithaca, NY. The family moved frequently as his father, a biologist, sought teaching positions. They settled in Evanston, Illinois when he was ten, and there he stayed until he graduated from Northwestern University. He wrote comedy sketches, poetry, plays, and short stories all through high school and college. At age twenty, he moved to New York City where he briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an actor, but gave up after his first professional gig—a disappointing turn in a George Bernard Shaw one-act play. He was drawn to writing, and in 1981 he became a fellow at The Juilliard School. He spent the next ten years writing plays and fiction while working thirty-five hours a week as a night proofreader and a tutor. “I was exhausted to the core and desperate to make a living as a writer,” he says of those days.
While in New York, he wrote a couple of screenplays with a writing partner who had spent some time in prison. In 1990, Allison moved to Los Angeles when he and his writing partner sold one of those screenplays to Roger Corman, the King of B-movies. “We were paid six thousand dollars each for the privilege of watching our lovely, serious, moral script about race relations in prison turned into a C-Grade kickboxing movie—Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight. I am not making this up.”
Within a year, Allison and his writing partner were making a living as studio screenwriters. Three years later, he went solo. While living in New York City during the 80’s, Allison had written a thousand raw, unpublished pages about NYC life. When he sat down years later in an attempt to make something coherent out of it, B.K. Troop emerged.
B.K. Troop is the fictional narrator of Allison’s debut novel, Christopher. B.K. just happens to be gay. Allison is straight. “I didn’t question or analyze it.” Allison says of his character. “I just began typing. How many times in a writer’s lifetime does he conjure a character whom he loves with all his heart? For me to turn my back on the creative impulse that underlies BK Troop, just because he is gay, would be the height of folly, I think, if not ingratitude.”
When his agent sold the completed book, she confessed to Allison that the publisher had been so excited to discover a promising gay author that she had done nothing to correct his false assumption. She knew Allison was already working on a sequel and she advised Allison to do the same and keep his heterosexuality a secret. “It wasn’t that she wanted me to lie, exactly,” he says. “It was simply a matter of don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Allison now faced a decision: Did he go along with her lie of omission, or come out as a straight man. “I went along with it, because I was desperate for Broadway Books to publish the sequel, The House Beautiful. I had no idea how my editor would react if he knew I was straight. But I told myself I would never lie about it and I didn’t. I finally told him because he made a comment to which offering silence as a reply would have been tantamount to lying.”
He was now “out” to his editor, but when his book was released to critical raves—both within the mainstream and gay media—once again, everyone made the assumption that he, like his main character, was gay. Before long, Allison found himself being asked to submit work to gay anthologies, speak on gay-literature panels, and read at gay bookshops. “My need to promote the book, as well as a complete lack of ad support from the publisher, gave me little choice but to make my closet as comfortable as possible. But still, I hated my confinement. I lived in continual anxiety, feeling thwarted and half-expressed, and certain that I was just moments away from being found out. The only consolation to my self-esteem was that I had yet to tell a lie. In one interview, when asked for my opinion on the state of contemporary gay fiction, I simply answered, ‘I have no idea.’”
Eventually, though, it all became too much. “I was exhausted by the lie of omission. Plus, I discovered that I had been interviewed on a site that was specifically for gay writers. I hadn’t realized it at the time. I felt as though I’d deceived them. Jesse Oxfeld at mediabistro.com gave me a place to tell the story. After it came out, Advocate.com picked it up.”
Reactions to his coming out within the gay community have been largely positive. “The gay literary community is made up of some of the most openhearted, wonderful people in the world. There is an incredible inclusiveness and a stunning lack of judgment.”
Allison’s experience has given him a unique insight into the lives of closeted gay people. A self described “unrepentant lefty”, he is a supporter of equal rights for all people. He reports, “I have always been comfortable in gay circles and have never really thought of a person’s sexual preference as being a big deal.”
His attitude, experiences, and current role as a straight author of a gay-themed novel place Allison in a position to be a sort of liaison between the gay and straight communities. When asked his thoughts on that subject, he said, “As a sensitive man with a girl’s name, who wore an earring back in 1976, who loves antiques and who recently wrote a Lifetime Original movie, I have always felt like a liaison between categories. I have been mistaken for a woman countless times by those who have never met me, and for gay by those who have. As a screenwriter, every script I have ever sold to the studios was bought by female producers for female executives. I wrote the original version of Autumn in New York, which as everyone knows put the “ick!” in chick flick. On the other hand, I love boxing and football, and, as a younger man, was as much of a pig with women as many straight guys. I also wrote and directed a testosterone cocktail of a movie called Red Meat. In short, I am sort of a freak.”
If he’s a freak, then we could use a few more freaks like him on our side.