I’ve been thinking a lot about some things in my book circles, but I haven’t been able to pin down exactly what’s been troubling me. There’s a wide range of opinions, and I’ve even engaged in battling it out over things like tropes, access, gatekeeping, and what kind of content is “allowed” within genres. I’ve voiced my opinions on how LGBTQIA literature is categorized, on whose voices should be loudest in telling our stories, and what constitutes appropriate allyship. None of it feels like it reaches the heart of the matter.
Although a lot of what I’ve seen is troubling, and although some of it makes me outright angry, it’s been difficult to pin down why it’s so upsetting. I’m torn because on the one hand, I understand the feeling of absolutely having to write. It’s what we do; we have these characters inside us begging to have their stories told. On the other hand, it often feels as though the real lives of marginalized people have become props to be used rather than humans who might have some thoughts on how they (we) are represented.
On reflection, it boils down to one broad category for me. I’m not asking anyone to stop writing whatever they are compelled to write. What I’m asking is that we all do a lot more soul-searching when creating a story, particularly when it’s about things we neither have nor can experience. This is not a calling out; it’s a calling in, a chance for us to dig deeper into our communities.
Full disclosure: I am writing about this from the perspective of a person whose books have, with a few notable exceptions, been fairly well received. I haven’t been an author for long, only two years, and I’m not one of the Big Names. However, I’ve only had a handful of things which received multiple/overall negative reviews. In fact, my most popular books have featured a bisexual man in a poly relationship (that wasn’t a threesome) and a genderqueer/femme character. So I’m not observing this from the point of view of someone bitter about having my books hated. My work has not, however, had any kind of mainstream appeal—it’s mostly been enjoyed by people who are open-minded and read books from all over the rainbow. The average m/m reader has little interest. This does not bother me as a writer; I’m writing mainly for other queer people and anyone not-queer who happens to want to read it. As a reader of books across the spectrum, however, I am very disappointed in the community.
The serious problem in “LGBTQIA” literature: Misogyny
First of all, we need to be pretty clear that the largest segment of LGBTQIA books are what are broadly called m/m (male/male) and feature some kind of relationship or romance, even the ones which have another genre (i.e., urban fantasy, science fiction, western). Other types of LGBTQIA books (gay literature, f/f, lesbian fiction, bisexual fiction, and books featuring asexual, trans, or other queer characters) each have a niche market. They are typically written by and for, and read by, people of those communities. There’s some overlap, and some lines have blurred or changed. For example, some f/f is still written by and for men, although many lesbian and bi women authors have reclaimed it (and there are men who write outstanding examples, often because they are writing for women).
It isn’t true across the board, but the vast majority of m/m is written by women, many of whom are straight. When I started writing, I assumed this was a myth, that it was mainly written by and for LGBTQIA people. (I was aware that it wasn’t strictly for gay men, many of whom really don’t enjoy it.) It seemed like another way to keep both queer people and people other than cisgender men in our place, by pooh-poohing anything we wrote as “the wrong kind of queer.” It didn’t take long to figure out I was mistaken.
There are a lot—and I do mean a lot—of cisgender straight women writing m/m romance. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Certainly women can relate to being marginalized by a patriarchal society, and plenty of women are wonderful allies to the gay community. (More on why that’s potentially a problem later.) Some women may be exploring aspects of themselves they can’t express in other ways. Some might even be genderqueer/non-binary/agender and not yet able to express or recognize that. Additionally, men have been writing f/f for their own interest for a long time, so there’s a sense that turnabout is fair play. (More on this later too.)
Which brings me to some of the more serious aspects of m/m culture, because yes, it is a culture of its own. There are a number of pressing issues which need addressing in all LGBTQIA literature (racism, classism, ageism, ableism, and fatphobia among them). Change is not happening quickly enough. While there are more writers including diversity in their work, more significantly, diverse voices are not being heard. White writers are including people of color, yet authors of color are not being included enough in the community, for example.
Another thing which isn’t being addressed, not nearly on the level it should be, is the rampant misogyny.
This is a big one for me. It isn’t merely about a lack of women in m/m books or even women being reduced to tropes (dead as a means of motivating a character to action, baby incubators, hateful mothers, conniving villains, irritating and meddlesome matchmakers). It’s about the way women in general are viewed by a community mainly of women.
There are several ways this plays out in reader communities. The first and most obvious is, of course, how women are written (or not). It’s impossible to tell whether the women writing these books actually dislike other women to that degree or are assuming most men (including gay men) have this view of women. There are elements of projecting the experience of being hated as a woman as well as elements of internalized misogyny, and the two are virtually inseparable.
The second way this shows up is in what readers allow in their books. There’s an anti-femme streak, which shows up as a preference for hypermasculine men, turning femmes into sidekicks and stereotypes, and even expressing disgust at feminine men. It also appears as a general disdain for bisexual men and erasure of them from books even when the content does not include on-page sex with women. The gay-for-you trope, for example, is born from the fan fiction practice of needing to make a canonically straight character fall in love with the writer’s preferred romantic pairing. Rather than have the character be bisexual (which is entirely possible and doesn’t even spoil the canon), they are written in a way which erases the possibility. Fell in love with another man? Gay now. Not to mention the homophobic practice of having the character spend pages and pages and pages of internal monologue about not being gay.
There are ongoing arguments about whether or not there should ever, under any circumstances, be erotic heterosexual content in m/m, even if the ultimate pairing is two men. I was shocked (and frankly appalled) to find that a lot of women refuse to read a book if it’s labeled bisexual, even if it is ultimately m/m. Some people will grudgingly accept a m/m/f triad, but most won’t accept a relationship which is m/m and m/f separately.
Some reasons given are that readers want m/m in order to escape the “societal power dynamics.” And yet, not one of them would read even a non-erotic f/f, which also eliminates the power dynamic! There’s also a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that there is high-quality m/f fiction available, including literary fiction which includes a romantic sub-plot. After a lot of arguing and digging through, I discovered a subset of women who specifically don’t read anything which involves women and sexuality because they don’t want to read about women’s bodies at all.
And then there are the blog events. I participated in a few last year, and I had to stop reading and commenting in one of them because I kept seeing straight women applauding the gay community without any mention of any other letters. There were women who said they wrote m/m because gay men deserve happily ever afters (and LBTQIA people don’t? or gay men can’t write their own?). There were the ones who lamented how hard it is to be a gay man (I guess it’s easy to be LBTQIA?). And some who only talked about how now two men can get married and how amazing that is. Cisgender women were criticizing trans people while defending each other and the transphobic things they were saying. It was a mess, and this is not ally behavior.
As I said before, I’m not too bothered by who does or doesn’t read my books. I’m happy with my small following, I like writing all over the rainbow, and I have no complaints. I’ve made some good friends along the way. But as a reader, it’s a lot more frustrating. I’m always looking for books which I can relate to as a queer person. I’m not reading m/m to escape anything or to get off on the erotic content or even because I’m struggling with my gender identity. I’m reading it one, because I like to read, and two, because I like LGBTQIA characters in my books. So it’s endlessly frustrating to read the same tropes over and over and over. It’s upsetting to read the blatant and subtle misogyny. It’s disappointing to have bisexuality erased and demeaned. It’s wearisome to read stale, unrealistic variations on coming out, an experience cisgender straight people will never have (and no, it’s not the same as making up a story about a vampire). And it makes me incredibly angry to have the lives and bodies of people like me and those I love commodified (used mainly for profit and the benefit of straight, cisgender folks).
What I’m asking for is not that cisgender straight people stop writing about us. That would be like stopping an Amtrak train with a butterfly net. I’m asking for two things: One, that you consider us more than yourselves when you write. Perhaps you could think deeply about why you wish to write about gay men for the amusement of other straight women, or why you want to write about lesbians for the amusement of other straight men. Write with us in mind, as though we were the ones reading it. Perhaps we will be! At the very least, please be very careful with regard to “but two are hotter than one.” Because that puts us in a position of being your erotic entertainment. That might be all right in fiction, but it can bleed over into how you see us as everyday people.
Second, examine yourself for any of those biases you might have. Look deeply at your feelings about your gender and sexuality. If writing helps that emerge, that’s great. But if you are still harboring misogyny, or if you have some deeply homophobic feelings, those need to be addressed by you, not by us as readers. Both of those are true of men writing about women as well as women writing about men. I may be calling in the m/m community, but I think there are men out there who are probably writing f/f for many of the reasons some women write m/m—a deep need to explore their feelings about their gender and sexuality in a safe way. It just needs to be done with a lot of soul-searching and respect when marginalized people are involved.
If in the end you reach any of the following conclusions:
- Oppression of women is interchangeable with oppression of gay men (it’s not, and it often intersects)
- Writing about LGBTQIA people is “just like” writing about mythical beings or animals (dehumanizes us and also isn’t remotely the same)
- Writing about LGBTQIA people is “just like” writing about people of color and religious minorities (no, and those things also intersect)
- Writing about LGBTQIA people is “just like” writing about a place you’ve never lived or a job you’ve never had (it’s not my job; it’s who I am)
- Coming out as LGBTQIA is similar to your experiences of having to suppress something about your cisgender, straight self (as though we never have to hide anything except our queerness)
- It’s fine to subtly undermine LBTQIA people because you’re focused on the G (we exist, and this is just a really awful thing to do)
- You are “rescuing” m/m from being about Tragic Queers (who do you think was writing gay romance before cisgender straight women started?)
Then you will fast find yourself on my no-buy list permanently. It’s a long list, and it’s growing.
I’m still going to be careful what I read, but my hope is that this can be addressed. I know I’m not the only one thinking about these things; I’ve seen hints of it all over the community. So let’s call each other in and bring about the change we want to see.