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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 24, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 52
An Unconventional Life: Author explores a life of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
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An Unconventional Life: Author explores a life of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

I've read my fair share of 'Gay themed' books. More often than not, I find myself skimming ahead hoping against hope that something real will appear; please, oh please, dear writer - pen something I can relate to. In my never-ending search for good Gay literature, I came across An Unconventional Life by Jonathan Clift and nearly read the book in three days. I couldn't put it down.

I'll explain. I'm a Gay veteran. I spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy and served under the now extinct 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT) policy. The hiding, scheming, and paranoia that surfaces when you are forced to serve in silence is very real. In An Unconventional Life Clift captures those feelings - and more - brilliantly.

Based on a true story, John is a country boy and as a teenager in England during the 1950s thinks he will be married by the time he is 25. When his best friend Mark seduces him John thinks it's just a teenage crush. They part when John has to go into the Royal Air Force. During the time he is away, he realizes he is Gay and marriage is not an option for him. Life takes a few unexpected turns when he returns home.

Clift told Seattle Gay News that it took him a year and a half to write the book. 'I began writing it during a year when I became suddenly ill,' he recalled. 'Before that I was on the World Senior Tennis Circuit. I was unable to travel for a year.' The author said that although he drew heavily from his own experiences to write the content, the book is not an autobiography. 'I think it is essential that you write about things that you have knowledge of,' he said.

Clift told me that he was 'so pleased to know that you could relate to certain sections of the book as that is what I was hoping to achieve.'

'I was also hoping that people who are not Gay could enjoy the book,' he admits, 'and oddly enough I find that often ladies compliment me on it, which is surprising.'

Throughout the book, there is a lot of loss suffered by the main character. Clift says that he believes that he has more than their fair share of sadness in life. 'I had a good friend who was killed just like one of the characters in the book,' he explains. 'Of course we have all lost friends to AIDS. I count myself fortunate to have been young during the 1960s before this terrible disease began to surface to any great extent. I definitely think that Gay people in general are more susceptible to difficulties in their lives.'

Clift told SGN that he knows all too well about the sorrow and tribulations of being forced to serve in the armed forces in silence. 'I was raped while serving in the military and I didn't dare expose my attacker for fear of reprisals,' he said. 'I was fortunate that it never happened again.'

Just by accepting Gay people in the military, he said, does not guarantee them protection from victimization.

'There will still be people who feel aggressive towards Gay people,' said Clift. 'There is no protection when this happens. Still, Gay people are beaten up when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and in some extreme cases they are murdered.'

I want to point out that I did not find the book depressing or dark, in fact, in a word, the book is honest.

In An Unconventional Life Clift writes a great deal about the pressures of marriage and how many closeted men give it a try only to realize that, in the end, they are Gay and living a life of deception can have consequences.

'Most parents now accept the fact that their child is Gay, but still some find it very difficult to understand and often think that going to therapy can cure their child,' he said. 'But they don't seem to realize being Gay is not like having a cold that will be gone in a few days time. If a person is Gay it often causes more heartache to try to change them. By encouraging them to get married it often produces problems later on, especially if children are involved. In an ideal world parents would love their children regardless of their sexual orientation.'

An Unconventional Life was received so well, that Clift set about writing a sequel.

A Smouldering Flame follows John during the 1980s where he is living in Mallorca with a past love. After just two years his lover dies in a boating accident and John thinks he's suddenly facing a future alone. However, former boyfriends and friends from the past come out of the woodwork to make for an enchanting tale of friendship, love and endurance.

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