When I finished my edits for Christina’s Portrait, I tweeted the following.
I feel my book is ready for the world, but I'm not sure if the world is ready for my book. #WritingCommunity
— Matthew Arnold Stern (@maswriter) May 19, 2023
Frankly, I’m not sure if I’m ready for this book.
This was a hard novel to write. It wasn’t just the tragedy that initiated it. I had to confront many difficult truths about growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the seventies—as well as serious issues facing society today. Some scenes were uncomfortable to write. But those are the things you must write.
One of them is the role LGBTQ+ people played in my high school experience.
When I was in Vocal Ensemble, I performed with some talented young men. I met one of them in junior high. Another was my first new friend when I started high school. I didn’t know they were gay at the time because they were deeply in the closet. They dated girls, went to school dances, and didn’t show signs they were anything but straight. I didn’t know until years later, the same way I didn’t know about my brother. Sadly, I only found out about my high school friends when they died from AIDS. For that reason, I put LGBTQ+ characters in my novel.
Yeah. A straight white male Boomer writing LGBTQ+ characters. What could possibly go wrong?
To be a good author, you have to write about characters who are different from you. You must write them with depth, honesty, sensitivity, and humanity. You can’t fall back on lazy stereotypes or create flat characters to use for a plot point and throw them away. Writing LGBTQ+ characters is harder because I know what’s at stake.
A lesson we straight cisgender people learned too late is when LGBTQ+ people are free to be themselves, so are we. When they can talk about their sexuality, we can learn about our own. This knowledge enables us to make healthy choices and offers protection against those who want to take advantage of us. When the LGBTQ+ community talks about gender fluidity, we realize we are not locked into the roles society expects from us. Women can be strong and assertive. Men can be sensitive and nurturing. This is why LGBTQ+ people are the first to be persecuted by repressive societies. They show us we don’t have to accept the roles orthodoxy imposes on us. And that threatens those who want to control society.
Homophobia goes hand-in-hand with racism, which was also part of the landscape of the 1970s San Fernando Valley. This was a period when red lines started to come down. Students were bussed in from South Central and East LA, and white residents were moving out. Racism also reared its ugliness in the aftermath of Mary Ann Henderson’s murder. The night she was killed, Reseda was playing San Fernando—one of the few areas of the Valley at the time with a large Black and Hispanic population. Suspicion turned towards them. Supposedly, a mob had planned to go to San Fernando to take revenge. Fortunately, her killer (who is white) was caught before anything happened.
Christina’s Portrait isn’t just tragedy and ugliness. It shows the transformative power of storytelling. When we face the truth about ourselves, we can find healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. History isn’t a cinder block of shame, but the foundation for growth. As a character says, “History is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Where we came from. Why things are the way they are. What we had to overcome and what we have to learn.” Facing the truth about our past gives us clarity in the present and helps us build a better future. Writing Christina’s Portrait did that for me.
Still, it is a novel that scares me. I could get unfriended over it. I could find myself uninvited to reunions and homecomings. I know it will be banned in at least 17 states. But the book that scares us is the book that needs to be written.