February 23, 2009
Interview: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez on bisexuality and the haters
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a best-selling author at the epicentre of a media dispute. She came out as bisexual and then promptly went back in, last week accusing lesbian website AfterEllen of lying about her and threatening to sue a Wikipedia editor.
Now in an exclusive interview with Lesbilicious, she describes the controversy “as being the unfortunate consequence of my own cowardice”, discusses her life as the daughter of a persecuted Cuban academic, and explains why she is giving up writing.
The AfterEllen controversy
When Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s debut novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, became a bestseller, she became the unofficial champion of sassy, intelligent chick lit.
The Cuban-Irish author of breezy beach reading that tackled both feminism and race, she has been praised for her inclusion of lesbian characters, including the closeted Elizabeth in Dirty Girls.
In September 2008, she explained to lesbian media website AfterEllen that “as a bisexual woman… I feel it is important to include homosexual or bisexual characters in my work.”
But shortly after the article ran, Valdes-Rodriguez responded on her website by saying that not only did she not currently identify as bisexual, but that she had never made these comments in the first place.
After Sarah Warn, the editor in chief of AfterEllen, reported on Valdes-Rodriguez’s about-turn on last week, the writer then made a blog post apologising, announcing that she was indeed bisexual. Since then, her entire blog has been deleted and her website currently has no mention of her sexuality.
The daughter of a prominent Cuban emigre, the liberal sociologist Nelson Valdes, Valdes-Rodriguez has good reason to keep her personal life out of the spotlight.
“In many Latin cultures, the idea of gay women is incredibly threatening in and of itself,” she explains. “Pair this with a woman writing popular books about empowered Latina professionals, and it is a recipe for some interesting threats.”
The threats come, she says, “from a very small but dangerous group of Cuban exiles in Miami and New Jersey” who opposed her father’s left-wing views.
As a child, the family would receive regular death threats – the young Valdes-Rodriguez was once sent photographs taken during the autopsy of a family friend along with a note saying “Your daddy’s next.” She no longer includes Miami in her book tours, after having to be accompanied by armed guards at book signings.
‘Under attack by lesbians’
She claims that AfterEllen “broke the law in publishing private emails I had clearly marked as such,” although it is clear from the correspondence that these were intended as an on-the-record clarification about her sexuality. Despite having threatened the editor of her Wikipedia page with legal action, she says she has no current plans to sue.
She was startled by the abrupt (and, in some cases, savage) way her fans turned on her, provocatively titling her blog post in which she came out – again – as ‘Under Attack By Lesbians’.
Still, she claims that the responses she has received sadden but do not unduly bother her – “I learned a long time ago that the public image people have of me, or the “me” they think they are reacting to is never actually about me. It’s about them, their mothers, their troubled pasts, their fathers, the nuns.”
In spite of the controversy, she describes her attitude to her personal life becoming public as “Zenlike,” acknowledging that it comes with the territory. It’s clear that what does frighten her is less the reaction of the general public, and more that the vendetta of “a very small, very crazy group of people” has been inflamed by her comments. “Coming out as bisexual gave them yet another way to mobilize the forces of hatred and violence against me.”
The guilty party here is not Valdes-Rodriguez, nor is it the disappointed readers who expected a role model. Rather, it is a culture that has made it impossible for her to come out publicly without it affecting her life in negative ways – something that, sadly, her lesbian readership will be familiar with.
The people who lose out are the women who feel they have lost a role model, the respected website whose reputation has been smirched – and a woman, happily married with a child but still proudly queer, being forced back into the closet.
The end of a writing career
That Valdes-Rodriguez acted inappropriately is something even she admits: “It was so pathetic and stupid all I can do is laugh about what an ass I am.” Although she won’t respond to allegations that she has actively defamed AfterEllen, she says that their response was understandable, if insensitive.
It’s possible that she hoped to boost book sales by coming out the way she did, leaving her reputation as a seemingly heterosexual author intact because of AfterEllen’s niche market. She has a book coming out in July, and another scheduled to be published in 2010. But these, she says, will be her last.
She plans to become a schoolteacher, “a somewhat more important job, in the end.” Rather than a grasping opportunist playing on the ready acceptance of the LGBT community without repercussions, Valdes-Rodriguez comes across simply as woman whose personal circumstances do not allow her to be as open as she clearly wants to be.
Despite her impending retirement from the public eye, it is unlikely that this is the last readers will have heard from Valdes Rodriguez on any subject – including her sexuality. As she says, “I’ve weathered worse, and lived to tell about it.”
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