I’m opening this conversation because I’ve been out as a member of the LGBTQIA community for about three years, and I’ve been a published author of books with LGBTQIA characters for just over two years. Over that time, I’ve had many discussions in particular about the MM romance branch of queer lit. This is of interest to me for a couple of reasons.
I don’t technically write romance or even “MM” (male/male) pairings. As a result, I’ve had some negative experiences with reviewers who had expectations I didn’t deliver. I began to notice I’m not the only one. While I may find this mildly annoying when it comes to my books, it bothered me much more when I saw it happening to other authors. I also saw many people asking for MM to open its doors to a wider range of genres and characters. At first, I agreed with this, and to an extent there are things I still agree with (like the inclusion of asexual and trans characters).
However, I now see that the way forward is not to make a closed genre open itself. I think MM romance is a highly specific category, and unless we allow it to return to being as narrow as the name implies (that is, exclusively books about two male characters in a relationship), we won’t see progress.
In the act of asking to be let in the door but knowing the expectations, few options are left to authors. They can openly defy the parameters; they can quietly subvert them; or they can conform their writing to them. The first one frequently leads to ostracizing and poor reviews. The second may gain some ground but ultimately can feel like suppression. The third leads to a vast number of problems which can be summed up with the following formula:
1 penis + 1 penis = “MM” romance
That’s a bit crass, so let me be more specific in how that looks:
- Trans women but not trans men are included in “MM” (and excluded from “FF”)
- Non-binary people are exclusively transfeminine
- Transfeminine people are hypersexualized and often depicted as sex workers, “everyone’s fantasy” (because they “look like a woman” but have a penis), highly sexual, conventionally beautiful, immodest, and/or mentally ill (either as part of their sense of gender or with an overemphasis on self-harm and eating disorders)
- Transmasculine people are erased entirely
- Intersex people can exist as long as they “appear male” enough to satisfy the fixation on genitals
- Bisexual men must downplay their enjoyment of relationships with people who don’t have a penis (this is frequently shown by having the character describe sex and romance with vagina-equipped people as lesser, sloppier, or unsatisfying in some other way)
- Asexual characters, if they do exist, must at some point become sexual without any examination or discussion within the context of the relationship
- Asexual, trans, and particularly non-binary/gender non-conforming characters being cast as mythical creatures or aliens in a book full of otherwise human or humanoid characters
- Disabled characters who never experience any kind of sexual dysfunction nor any need to address their disability before or during sexual situations (aside from the occasional “maybe you won’t find my body attractive”)
- Misogyny, expressed through violence against women and lack of positive representation
In other words, for the most part, MM conforms to a cisgender and/or heterosexual gaze. This is unsurprising in a genre heavily populated with cisgender heterosexual writers. (I have not delved into the issues within FF romance, but I gather some of the same themes occur there, perhaps to a lesser extent.)
I am by no means suggesting all MM authors play into those tropes, nor that all MM books can be lumped together. Still, it’s disconcerting that these things happen so often that I can make a list. Over the last two and a half years, I’ve read over 400 books, which isn’t a small sample size. Expanding beyond that are all the conversations I’ve had with people who have read an entirely different set of books from mine yet see the same patterns.
For me, it boils down to a problem of who is being empowered and who is controlling the market. I have no problem with authors writing characters who are not like themselves, and I would not suggest that cisgender heterosexual people should stop writing LGBTQIA characters. The question is, who is benefiting from it and in what way?
The argument in favor of cis-het authors writing queer lit is often along the lines of “But we write about elves, vampires, and werewolves, and we’re not those things either!” True, but since those things do not exist, they are also not protected classes of people within society.
So I think we need to open the conversation about, in particular, what queer readers want and need. If we are writing about LGBTQIA folks, they should be our top priority. Allyship, cisgender heterosexual women’s sexual empowerment, and education of cis-het people should all be secondary. I want queer readers and queer authors to be empowered (including those who are not yet out, perhaps not even to themselves).
Here is a list of things I see as community needs to balance out the heavy emphasis on what I call “pairing romance” (i.e., specifically romance or erotica which emphasizes the binary gender of the couple: MF, MM, FF, MMF, FFM, MFM, FMF, and other multiples; MF is included because bisexual and trans characters are still queer, even in relationships which look cisgender heterosexual).
- A free list where authors and readers alike can make entries of books
- A de-emphasizing of MM romance as the main category of queer lit
- A de-emphasizing of binary gender pairing in general
- Inclusion of books which contain no romance or romance only as a secondary/sub-plot
- Discussion and dialog led by LGBTQIA people about our books (and a gentle reminder that A = asexual, not ally)
- Reviews (either by fellow authors or by readers) for a wide range of queer lit
- Safe space for LGBTQIA people to have conversations about what is empowering and what is harmful, without fear of repercussions from cisgender heterosexual readers and writers
- Safe space for LGBTQIA people of color specifically to have dialog about what is empowering and what is harmful, without fear of repercussions from white readers and writers
- Opportunities for authors and readers to connect, including linking authors with beta and sensitivity readers
- Anything else that LGBTQIA readers and writers would like to bring to the table
- People willing to come together to organize this into something to which we can all contribute
It’s not an exhaustive list, of course. This is to open us up for discussion on what we’d like to see the queer lit community become. My main concern is that we provide a way in which people can sift through what may be considered mainstream in order to find what we’re looking for.
Maybe it’s too much to ask, but given how many people seem to be looking for more (even if they aren’t sure what more means), I don’t think it is. With so much going on in the world right now, I think more than ever we need something to bind us as a community.
Leave me a comment, start a discussion, anything to get this going. What do you think? What would you like to see in a queer lit community?