Friday, October 30, 2009

Feature: Out of the 'Ash'

Despite improved acceptance, not all gay young adults are ready for the ball just yet...

by Ronnie Cohen

The fantasy world of Fairfax author Malinda Lo's recently published novel, Ash, unfolds long ago, in a time of kings, witches and fairies. But the tale's nonchalant acceptance of homosexual love propels the lesbian retelling of Cinderella into the future.

The turnout at an event earlier this month in the Fairfax Library illustrates just how far off a world free of homophobia, like the one in Ash, might be. Although a Fairfax librarian contacted leaders of gay-pride clubs at local high schools, only one student showed up to hear Lo speak about the book she wrote for young adults.

Two teachers who lead Redwood High School's Pride Plus Club did attend the library reading. They say some of the club's 10 or so members might have shied away from the event for fear it would lead to their parents learning about their homosexuality.

Since they attended high school, the teachers say, the climate for gay and lesbian teens has improved markedly. Kate Lorch, who teaches English at Redwood, graduated from high school in 1994. "I was so relieved and happy to find these high school students were so much more accepting and open as the culture had evolved," she says.

Still, Lorch and Greg Stevens, a Spanish teacher and co-leader of Redwood's Pride Plus, say students hesitate to announce to their families and their communities that they're gay. When they do, their parents sometimes counsel them against making public pronouncements about their sexual preferences for fear of persecution. That fear can translate into being unable to come out and hear a lesbian author talk about her work.

Casey Halcro runs youth groups for gays and lesbians through Spectrum LGBT Center in Novato. "Still, in 2009, the kids don't feel like it's really all that safe, even in Marin County, to be open and honest about their sexuality," she says. "It's been 11 years since Matthew Shepard was shot and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming. But it's only been two years since Lawrence King, a 15-year-old boy, was shot point-blank because kids thought he dressed too femininely here in California."

A 14-year-old boy allegedly killed Lawrence King in an Oxnard classroom in February 2008, a few weeks after he stated publicly he was gay. In contrast, women who love women face no threat of persecution in the world Lo creates for her well-received first book. When the main character, Ash, chooses a huntress over a prince, she does not grapple with a label or the need to come out as a lesbian.

"In Ash's world, there are no lesbians, technically," Lo says. "The fairytale is that she can fall in love with whoever she wants. There's no homophobia in this fantasy world. No one blinks an eye. So it's not a coming-out story. The fairytale is really about her falling in love, and it doesn't matter who it's with."

• • • •

ABOUT A YEAR ago, Lo, 35, moved within walking distance of the Fairfax Library to live with her partner, Amy Lovell, and their black lab mix, Spy Girl. On a recent sunny afternoon, Lo took a break from work on her second book, a young adult quest novel, to talk about how she came to be a writer, marriage, being what she calls "queer" and Ash.

Sitting at her kitchen table with Spy Girl at her side, Lo, who was born in China and moved to the U.S. when she was 3, wears jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. Her shiny black hair falls straight to her chin. In the first draft Lo wrote of Ash about eight years ago, the main character, a young girl, falls in love with a fairy godfather. After reading the draft, one of Lo's friends suggested that Ash had more chemistry with the huntress than the male fairy.

"It was a surprise to me," Lo says, still sounding surprised. "I hadn't intended to write this same-sex romance. I was worried that it would sound gimmicky to write a lesbian Cinderella. But it seemed clear that that's what I wanted to do—subconsciously, at least."

In Ash, there is no glass slipper, the prince has money and power but not necessarily charm, and he does not roam the countryside searching for a beauty with one shoe. Like Cinderella, though, Ash's parents die and leave her to serve an evil stepmother and two stepsisters. Also like Cinderella, because Lo loves parties, Ash attends balls.

In Ash, men tend to marry women, and humans tend to favor humans. But the spectrum of normal sexuality widens so that it's also normal when the fairy godfather falls for Ash and when Ash falls for the huntress.

Lo says she always loved to write, but after graduating from Wellesley College with a degree in economics and Chinese studies, she tried unsuccessfully to become a banker and then went to graduate school, first at Harvard for East Asian studies and then at Stanford, studying Hollywood as a cultural anthropologist.

Unhappy as an academic, Lo quit her Stanford doctorate program and went to work first as a writer and then as an editor at , a Web site for lesbians and bisexual women in entertainment.

From, Lo learned that lesbian women were tired of being marginalized or killed off in mass media. "It was very clear to me that these women want stories where the lesbians have a happy ending," she says.

• • • •

ASH INCORPORATES DETAILS about rituals and customs Lo studied in graduate school. And, like all good fairytales, it has a happy ending.

As an anthropologist, Lo examined marriage. Over the summer, she says, she and Lovell wed, though the state does not legally recognize their marriage. The couple missed the slim window of opportunity—from June through November 2008, before voters passed the gay-marriage ban—for same-sex couples to wed legally in California.

Lo and Lovell had only known each other for about a year when they had the chance to legally marry. They contemplated rushing their wedding last year but decided against it. "It would have felt a little like a shotgun wedding," Lo says. "It didn't seem right to push it.

"I would love to get married legally. It's too bad. Hopefully things are going to change."

Things have changed more than Lo ever imagined when she was in college and first found herself attracted to women. In the 1990s, for example, she says she never could have imagined talk of same-sex marriage.

"Marriage is really important," she says. "As an anthropologist, I've spent so much time studying marriage, family and kinship, and to have gay people enter that institution is a major step. I'm waiting to do it. I'd love to do it."

For more information on Spectrum LGBT Center's youth groups, go to

This story was published in the Pacific Sun on 10/23/09