It’s been a while since I blogged any truly personal thoughts on a subject. These days, I mostly review books, so today I’m appealing as a reader rather than an author. I’ve sat on this for some time, wondering how I could capture it without sounding angry or like a whiny, entitled author. I’m still not sure there’s a way to do it, and there is no way I could summarize the entirety of the problem in a single blog post.
I’m going to address gatekeeping in queer lit and the way LGBTQ+ people are frequently locked out of telling our own stories.
The reason I’m doing this now is a recent kerfuffle involving VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocacy), a journal for librarians working young adult literature. I won’t get into the particulars here; you can read some of it at this link, and there are others in the article.
This is not VOYA’s first bungle. I became aware of what happened because I’m a book blogger involved in bisexual advocacy. However, while sifting through the mess, I came across this piece, written regarding a dreadful, clueless piece previously appearing in VOYA.
To sum up, a white man made noises about how hard it is to represent youth of color. Where he failed—and where that intersects with me as an author and book blogger—is that he also claimed he was doing his best in a field it’s difficult for writers of color to break into. He was only doing what they could not.
That all sounds horribly, painfully familiar.
Time and again, I have seen LGBTQ+ authors struggle to break into the largest genre of queer lit: namely, MM romance. Now, you could argue that there are already plenty of LGBTQ+ authors in the genre, and that would be true to an extent (self included). But reality is that we do not own the genre. The bulk of it is not written by or for us in any sense.
I’m not writing about it to complain that I’m not getting my due or that I personally have been slighted in some way. I write because I like to, and it’s not my primary income. I’m thrilled when I sell copies. Is it painful to get a negative review? Yes, but only because it is for all of us.
What bothers me far more is so-called “LGBT” review mills which consistently provide the most negative reviews for:
- LGBTQ+ non-romance, particularly gay literary work
- Most lesbian fiction
- Books with “het sex” (even when the romance is MM)
- Polyamory that isn’t menage
- Trans characters
- Femme men
- YA novels without romance
- Books with the label bisexual (regardless of the relationships)
- Books by and about people of color
Not surprisingly, a lot of those books are the ones written by and for LGBTQ+ people.
Even more disturbing, when called on it, some writers claim that they are writing about us because for unspecified reasons, we somehow “can’t.” Just like Patrick Jones failed to understand that the lack of representation is not because white folks didn’t step up to the plate, cisgender straight people do not seem to understand that the lack of representation is not because we “can’t” write our own stories—it’s because when we do, they are too queer for mainstream readers, and we are consistently locked out of our own genre.
In the last several months, I’ve begun to speak up when I see straight people going after LGBTQ+ writers. In particular, this is often cisgender straight women going after gay men and then accusing them of misogyny or cisgender people going after trans folk in aggressive or pitying ways. The result has been an outpouring of private messages, emails, and comments from other LGBTQ+ people saying they feel uncomfortable speaking up for fear of being alienated.
This bothers me a lot more than when I get a negative book review. It’s upsetting, for sure. Some days, it makes me think about quitting. But it makes me a lot angrier as a book reviewer myself. How dare a straight person review a book by and for the LGBTQ+ community and tell us what it should have been or how it failed to be their version of queer?
I review a lot of books by all kinds of writers. It would make me a terrible reviewer (and probably a terrible human being) if I read a book by someone in a community I am not part of and then shredded it for not meeting my stereotyped expectations.
This isn’t acceptable in any other genre except MM romance. Even lesbian romance has been largely reclaimed—at least in a mainstream sense—from the jaws of straight male writers. And the excuses for perpetuating it in MM are so thin. No one would accept a large body of white people claiming to read books about people of color, written mainly by white folks, on the grounds that they are tired of whiteness. Most people should then turn to books by people of color to meet the need for diversity. (I realize that some don’t, but we rightly go after them, as people did with Patrick Jones.)
You cannot expect me to take you seriously if you say in the same breath that you read MM novels to escape the dynamics of heterosexual relationships while also complaining about queer lit that doesn’t imitate it. You also can’t expect me to take you seriously when you say you read MM novels to avoid heteronormativity but then complain about books written by actual LGBTQ+ people who have families and children, and write about them, claiming they have failed to capture “real” queerness.
Bisexual cisgender women*, you do not get even one pass on this either. Saying you read or write MM romance to find the “representation” you didn’t get when you were coming out is the pinnacle of bizarre, since there are many fine lesbian and bisexual women writing high-quality FF. Erasing women who love women from the equation is not a path toward representation.
So why do we allow the unchecked internalized misogyny, the objectification of queer lives and bodies, and the gatekeeping and policing of LGBTQ+ authors? There are no reasons on the planet, in my opinion, which are good enough to make me think this is acceptable. Not even the claim of gay men having male privilege over straight women holds water when for the most part, there’s blatant disregard of the ways in which gay and bisexual men have been brutalized.
Before someone voices outrage and says I’m shutting down their free speech, hear me out. I’m not looking for straight women to stop reading or writing MM romance. I certainly don’t advocate for some of the vile misogyny and biphobia which shows up in both some gay literature and in some MM romance written by men (and, let’s be honest, plenty of women). I’m not suggesting that readers need to stop loving romance or that they shouldn’t have preferences for what stories they like. Heck, when it comes to erotica, I figure whatever turns you on is fair game because that’s the nature of the beast.
What I want is an end to reviewing all queer lit like it should be MM romance (and a particularly narrow subset of the genre at that). I would like to see transparency in who is on review panels. Most of all, I want to see my fellow rainbow writers being unafraid to voice their concerns. It’s become too many of us, and we’re being kept from finding each other and standing up against the gatekeeping by way of negative reviews, blacklisting, and bullying on social media. That has to end.
Finally, I’d like to see cisgender straight women—and cis women of other orientations—examine carefully the motivations for reading and writing exclusively MM romance. Ask yourselves why you don’t think lesbian romance meets the criteria of “removing the power imbalance.” Ask why you think LGBTQ+ people cannot tell our own stories. Ask why, outside of erotica, you see the need for gay and bisexual stories to be sexy or romantic in order to be valid.
Here’s a challenge for you: If you really, truly are an ally, then find it in yourself to listen to us. Read books by us. Evaluate them on the strength of the story or the writing, not whether it fits neatly into a genre. Hear us when we say what you’re writing about us isn’t reality. Then do as you will, but don’t harm us in the process.
*I rarely feel the need to assert this, but I’m not a cisgender woman. Just making that clear before accusations fly.