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Writing award-winning book was catharsis for Bemidji author

Everyone has the right to expect safety in the streets; secure in the knowledge that one can walk in the dark or in the light without fear of being molested by another person. We take that right for granted until something happens to someone we know and we are once again shocked into reality that "yes, bad things do happen."

Local author and playwright DeeJay Arens said that it took the eight years he spent writing his prize-winning novel, "The View From A Rusty Train Car," to exorcise the fears he felt as a young gay man growing up in middle America.

The book was a finalist in the INDIE Book Awards, which Arens claims was a honor in itself. It also went on to win the top prize in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) fiction for 2012. His publisher, Writers Amuse Me, submits several publications each year for the Next Generation INDIE book awards. This non-profit works toward bringing recognition to the next generation of writers who have little to no chance of being published by the large publishing houses.

Arens admits to feeling honored by the nomination, but winning the top award in his category was gratifying and thrilling. And that was followed up by the 2012 silver award from "Forward Reviews," a juried competition by librarians and booksellers.

"I don't necessarily write for that genre (GLBT fiction) because I was hoping that it would reach out further, (to) people who are not of the gay community," said Arens. "But there are just so many labels and genres, and that's where they put me. I am hoping that there will be readers with some general interest mainly because we need to stop the political issue thing. There are many young people out there who are completely frightened and confused as was I."

Arens grew up in a loving family of five siblings. He was the middle child in an average middle class family that went to church on Sundays, and eventually one sister married her high school sweetheart.

"I knew early on that I didn't fit the mold of what was expected of boys; playing baseball for example," said Arens. "I was not ready to deal with it (homosexuality) at the time nor did I know how to. My book started out as a catharsis because I was working through old feelings and fears. And during the eight years it took to write the book, I would just keep going back to those spaces and would feel more confident each time. Now, if I can reach that one person who was as scared as I was, that would be cool. If I can reach the people (family and friends) around that scared person, that would really be cool."

Being brought up in a close-knit family finally took its toll on an confused adolescent, who confessed to leading two separate lives: out to his friends and "in the closet" at home. It took three years of counseling and a lot of personal courage to come out to his family.

"For a while I was living two completely different lives," said Arens. "I was open to my friends but when I went home it was completely different. I didn't talk about anything that dealt with my personal life. I kept them separate. Eventually I broke because I knew I could not have these two separate lives any more and being on the cusp of coming out there was another scary thing that I had to face. I was afraid of how my family would react, and imagined the worse which turned out not to be true."

Arens spoke of the Matthew Shepard murder in 1998, the same time he was a student at the University of North Dakota majoring in theater. Gay young men were being tortured or murdered at the whim of other young men who apparently had no other way to deal with their own insecurities or homophobia. These incidents finally led to state and federal legislation to deal with hate crimes.

"I would be nervous walking into a convenience store and could hear snickers, laughs and the word 'faggot.' That happened to me time and time again," said Arens. "When I first came out, I was very stereotypical. Once I made the decision to come out, I thought, 'Well here it is, take it or leave it. This is who I am and this is how others have to take it.' And then, I didn't have to think about it anymore.

"Once I came out, I didn't go back to that scary place. I realized that as an adult, because life had turned out better than I had thought and it was nice to deal with the issues rather than pretending it didn't exist."