It was news that shocked the celebrity world — JT LeRoy, HIV-positive former transsexual prostitute and darling of the glitterati, was outed as a fraud. Not HIV-positive, not a former hooker, not a crossdresser, transsexual or even the slightest bit queer, LeRoy turned out to be the nom de plume of 39-year-old Laura Albert, a failed San Francisco musician and writer.
The outing happened around the same time as Oprah’s beloved James Frey was similarly outed as having “embellished” his memoirs, and the literary world was in uproar. But whereas the everyday suburbanite who reads Oprah’s recommendations and felt the sting of betrayal from Frey’s fictions was concerned about the state of memoirs in general, the revelation about LeRoy was relegated to a footnote under Frey — just one more literary hoax. I heard some reaction from the celebrities and journalists who had befriended “LeRoy” over the past 10 years and how they felt sick at having been so manipulated, but there was just silence about the queer youth who identified with LeRoy’s story and were now left grasping.
Why is it that no one seems to be asking the questions about how Albert manipulated queer culture? Is it because LeRoy’s works were presented as fiction, and therefore not of the same weight as Frey’s “memoir?” But though LeRoy’s work was shelved under fiction, it had always been with the understanding that these were the thinly veiled tales of a street kid who grew up competing with his mother for tricks at truck stops in the South, and who was later “rescued” from the streets of San Francisco.
Albert threw herself into the role, using the talent for voices she honed after years of working as a phone sex operator to manipulate a lot of people into caring a great deal for this poor fragile kid. Albert, as LeRoy, used to call up newfound celebrity friends and give pained, tearful confessions of suicidal thoughts. She similarly made many in the queer community respond to a kid with whom they could identify as a wounded member of their own.
There seems to be some consensus that Albert’s incorporated some personal experiences from a few rough years on the streets of Manhattan, but what about the voice of queer youth that she claimed as her own? Her construction of the character must have been informed from somewhere, and popular culture is rife with the depiction of gays as poor suffering victims.
Victimhood was doubly played in this hoax: gay youth as victim and sex worker as victim. Both wrapped up in one literary character. It’s a common presentation in Western culture and Albert played it for all it was worth. Is that why people responded so well to LeRoy’s stories? Does our culture expect that a young crossdressing/transsexual prostitute is always a victim? Because LeRoy wrote so eloquently about being just that kind of pathetic soul, did it make our hearts bleed that much more for him?
I’m forced to wonder if the world would have responded if the character of JT LeRoy had not been a damaged victim, but instead a queer kid who became empowered through sex work after years of abuse. Or perhaps as someone who was crossing and blurring gender lines and lived a radical countercultural life? Eloquently written or not, would the world have opened their hearts to his stories in the same way?
I suspect that in our sex-negative society, LeRoy wouldn’t have made the same kind of impact. Who wants to read about someone who found a positive outlet for sex as a tool of empowerment when they could instead read about how much sex had hurt them?
Queers have become so used to playing the role of the victim that when we came across someone whose very identity was so tailored to accommodate that role, most of us fell for it. Sure, we lauded LeRoy as someone who had risen above his troubled past and was now this huge literary success story, but we still bought the story because it was steeped in victimhood. There’s a lesson here for us.
That Albert was able to so successfully tap into that energy should make us realise just how important it is that we place more emphasis on telling our stories of sex-positive lives and empowerment. The more we reinforce to the world that we’re not all damaged goods, the less likely another Laura Albert can come along and claim our voices for us.