As I sit down to write this, I’m well aware of what it might do to my reputation and my writing career. But I’m angry and disappointed and weary, and at least for today, my love for other queer people outweighs the four dollars I might’ve made in book sales this month.
This is going to be long, so go get a snack, a cup of tea, and your favorite blanket. I’m going to tell you the Story of Me, what made me so angry, and why I’m more than ready to get out.
Let me back up a few years. I’ve probably told my basic coming out story plenty of times, so I won’t rehash it here. I used to be a borderline fundamentalist Christian (or tried to be, anyway). I got in some hot water at church, chose to leave, and then spend 6 months agonizing over when (or whether) to come out. Obviously I did. Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood bisexual of non-binary gender. [Insert wave here.]
The reason I came out is indirectly related to today’s Exploding Head Rage and also to this great article on cultural appropriation. (Please go read it. It’s primarily about race, but I’ll get to why the concept applies here as well.) When I went to publish my first novel, which has a bisexual main character and a same-gender (in this case, men) relationship, I decided staying closeted was not an option for me. It felt dishonest, and I did feel as though I was benefiting from queerness (financially and otherwise) without being true to myself—in effect, a form of appropriation, or at least insensitivity. Like the article says, it felt exploitive and disrespectful.
Many people may know that shortly after, I took a volunteer position as a book reviewer. When that website closed, I continued accepting requests on my own and through blog tours. At first, I took whatever people wanted to send. I quickly realized that not only is that too many books, but I also did not want to be part of the MM Romance reviewers collective. It’s big enough that it doesn’t need me, a small-potatoes blogger who also takes other literature.
So what does this have to do with my volcanic rage and cultural appropriation? And why do I prioritize other books? That’ll take some time to explain.
There’s been some controversy surrounding the #OwnVoices hashtag on Twitter, with good reason. It was becoming license to hurl accusations at people for “bad representation,” sometimes even if they identified themselves as insiders. Writers were effectively being asked to show their credentials, and people writing really good books were dismissed for not having the correct identity markers. Even I backed away from it because while I can definitely say I’m bi, I’m not #OwnVoices on being a man.
Then there was the long, contentious thread on queer women finding their identities through consuming gay (cis) male media. I won’t get into the politics of that, but it saddened me both that we’re so conditioned to see men as default and that there isn’t enough good media by, for, and about people of other genders.
All of this is unfair, to say the least, but there is something to the concept of #OwnVoices and people being able to tell their stories. And there is truth to people of marginalized communities being overshadowed by people who do not share their identities.
Which brings me to MM Romance and who it’s written by and for. I clearly cannot tease out which writers are queer women, who might be non-binary/trans, and who is genuinely an ally writing for the gay community. What I can say is that a whole boatload of MM Romance is not written with gay men in mind. It isn’t exactly what might be called cultural appropriation, but it is absolutely dipping into exploitation and disrespect. There are some big questions that should be asked about who is benefiting and in what ways.
This is a much stickier issue than the question of race and appropriation. In that situation, there is a clear oppressor taking things and profiting at the expense of marginalized people. When it comes to cis-het women writing MM Romance, they fall into both categories. That makes it significantly harder to determine when or if exploitation and/or disrespect is occurring.
There are times, like now, when my best effort at explaining my anger with some cis-het women turns me into Donald Duck having a fit. The level of disrespect and exploitation reaches critical mass. And this is precisely why I won’t take anything that is categorized as MM Romance without some serious vetting of the author and/or book. Here it is:
Cis-het women who style themselves as experts on gay-themed books or topics.
No. No, you are not an expert. You’re not an expert on what makes a good gay book, no matter how many you’ve written or read. You cannot speak to what is meaningful to a diverse population of men whose lived experiences you will never, ever share. I’m queer, and even I can’t call myself an expert. You are not an expert on gay sex just because you’ve done some similar things in bed.
And no, you are not any kind of ally if you cannot make a point of familiarizing yourself with the other letters in the Queer Alphabet. If you purposefully fixate on gay men, and say you’re “passionate” about them, but you leave out queer people of other genders and orientations, you’re not our “ally.” You’re a person who has a thing for gay men. There are terms for that, and not all gay men (or any other queer people) appreciate the behavior.
Cis-het women, you don’t get to throw around words that have meaning in queer communities just because you read them in some other cis-het woman’s book. Or even because you read them in a book by a gay man. You don’t get to act like our safe spaces belong to you just because cis-het men can be awful.
This is one more thing, like cis-het women throwing bachelorette parties at gay bars, that doesn’t belong to you. You’re a guest in our house, and it would be nice if you’d consider that before coming in. Just like the bachelorettes want to party on in a queer club but get offended if another woman hits on them (or if they stumble on gay sex in the back room), cis-het authors can have similar bad behavior. You want to throw around words like “twink” without understanding the context, but I can already see steam coming out your ears if I call you a fruit fly. Your gay BFF doesn’t give you a free pass, either.
Obviously this does not describe all cis-het women, but my primary point is that these are women who are making money through book sales, usually to other women, while gay men are frequently locked out of the same genre. They’re also often ignorant of or actively hostile to queer people who are not gay men, and sometimes even to gay men. This includes the appalling number of women who infantilize and condescend to gay men or treat them as if they ought to be grateful for the empire cis-het women built in the literary world. (I’ve lost track of how many cis-het women are absolutely convinced that before them, gay men had absolutely no positive, uplifting, or romantic stories available to them.) And book reviews? Excellent gay literature and stories about other queer people don’t stand a chance with some of these blogs, where MM Romance has top priority.
I’m not really going to convince any cis-het women to examine their motivations for reading and/or writing exclusively about gay men. I also know the problem isn’t limited to cis-het women. There are some queer people who have done massively problematic things, in their books and in their treatment of other LGBTQIA+ folks. Hatred of women (cis and trans) and vaginas is rampant in the MM Romance community, and it’s often perpetuated by queer people—including some gay men, who can sometimes be biphobic turkeys.
There are some genuine allies out there, and I want you to know I do see you. You’ve gone out of your way to amplify many queer voices, even while preferring to read and write MM Romance. What I’ve said is absolutely not aimed at you. I’d like it if more people would think deeply about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for, but I know that’s like yelling at the sky to get it to stop raining.
So the best I can do right now is to say that reviewing books that could be categorized as MM Romance are very low priority for me. Lest anyone think I’m a hypocrite for writing stuff that might very well be tagged that way: I’m getting out too. I have an agreement to finish a series, and after that, I’m done trying to write stuff that resembles Romance. I’m no good at it, and to be honest, I feel very much that I’d better put my money where my mouth is. After all, it’s why I came out in the first place.