I was chatting to a friend on Twitter this morning about Gay For You / Out For You, which is something I’ve been meaning to blog about since I saw this post on Romance Novels for Feminists. Sorry, it’s really old, but it’s a good summary of the key issues.
As with anything, I can absolutely see why GFY (both the term and the trope) bothers some people, and I can absolutely see why others are okay with it. Like many tropes, I suspect a big part of the problem with GFY is with its prevalence rather than its nature. I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way, but I am interested in the debate surrounding it because I think it highlights several important things about both the genre and wider social attitudes to homosexuality and queer identity.
Like always, there are two slightly unrelated lines I want to go down with this, the first being to look at GFY in the wider context of the romance genre, and particularly as it compares to other tropes and trends in het romance. The second is to talk about the GFY/OFY debate, and what I consider to be the problematic assumptions it seems to be grounded in.
So let’s talk tropes.
One of the big objections people often have to GFY stories that is that the GFY character will have experienced no feelings of homosexual attraction until his encounter with the hero. This is inconsistent with a worldview in which people are born either gay or straight , and since – as I will discuss later – this worldview is central to a big part of the debate about gay rights (particularly in America) a lot of readers understandably object to this. But, looking at the wider romance genre, it’s actually very common for characters, particularly heroines, to have experienced little or no sexual desire prior to meeting the hero. Ana Steele is a prime example of this: it’s very explicit in Fifty Shades of Grey that she is not merely a virgin, but has actually never experienced sexual desire of any kind (indeed, its strongly implied in the text that she rarely, if ever, masturbates). It is common for romances, of all flavours, to underscore the specialness of the relationship between the main characters by understating or, in extreme cases, actively denigrating the prior sexual experiences of one or both partners.
Of course, because heterosexual romances tend to be gendered, the denigration of these experiences tends to fall along gendered lines. The prior sexual experience of heroines is limited and unsatisfying. The prior sexual experience of heroes is often significantly less limited, but is equally unsatisfying, although the hero is only permitted to recognise this once he has sex with the heroine and realises what he’s been missing.
I should probably stop at this juncture to observe that one of the problems in talking about m/m is that it inherits many of its tropes from het but because they necessarily manifest differently they become more noticeable. This leads to an helpful style of argument which can broadly be summarised as: “this feature of m/m is problematic” / “that feature of het is also problematic.” There’s a tendency, in both m/m and het, to cite similarities with other parts of the genre, or indeed other genres, as a means to justify things, rather than to illuminate them. When I suggest that GFY is another incarnation of the common romance trope of sexually inexperienced character awakened by sexually experienced character (which you might usefully summarise as Rake & Virgin, although it’s common, albeit less explicit, in contemps as well as historicals) I mean it in a value neutral way. That is, to an extent, if one is problematic, the other one is problematic for the same reasons, and vice versa. And, obviously, context matters, especially when you’re talking about marginalised groups, although you have to be a bit careful here because one of the things that makes marginalised groups marginalised in the first place is the fact that a conversation that isn’t explicitly about those groups is assumed to have no bearing on them when, in fact, it often does.
To unpack that idea a bit more, you could make a reasonable case that R&V in het has problematic connotations for queer people that GFY actually subverts. The core idea of R&V (and of a lot of romance in general) is that there is a Right Person out there who will be the key to unlocking your sexuality and your happiness. But the prevalence of this idea in heterosexual romance reinforces the notion that someone who is not attracted to members of the opposite sex just needs to wait until they find the Right Person. This actually erases the identities of not only homosexuals, but also asexuals and, for that matter, people with low sex drives. If I knew someone like Anastasia Steele in real life, I absolutely wouldn’t be pressuring her to look for a sexually dominant billionaire. I’d be trying to encourage her to accept that not being particularly interested in sex (or sex with men) is a perfectly valid way to live.
In this context you can almost see GFY as an attempt to balance the scales. We raise children on the idea that no matter how uninterested in the opposite sex they are, they will eventually meet someone who will change that. You can argue that it is valuable to present the opposite case: that it is equally true that no matter how little interest you have your own sex, you may one day meet someone who changes your mind. And, to be very clear, when I say “equally true” I probably mean “not necessarily very true at all” but if the idea of a sexual awakening keyed to a specific person is going to be part of our cultural narrative of heterosexual romance, it needs to be part of our narrative of homosexual romance as well. Otherwise we have a situation where heterosexuality is seen to be something you can come to at any time in your life, while homosexuality has to be established early on for it to count.
This roughly brings me to the next issue which is the GFY/OFY debate, and the question of whether it is especially harmful to present the idea that a person who has not previously experienced same sex attraction could suddenly experience it for one person. And this is a difficult issue because it is deeply grounded in ideology.
Something I have learned from my many years on the internet is that there are many different ways to win an argument, and that the most effective and the most subtle is often to make sure you’re the one who picks what the argument is about. Take, for example, the debate about whether the government should cut taxes to help the economy or increase spending to help the poor. The fact that this debate exists is actually evidence that one side has already won. If the Left argues that it is more important to help poor people than to improve the economy, it intrinsically concedes the point that rich people are more economically valuable than poor people. In fact, there is good evidence that cutting taxes harms the economy, and increasing spending boosts it (at least at times when there’s a deficit in demand).
In the same way, I tend to feel that the Right, particularly the American Christian Right, has framed the debate on homosexuality in a way that the Left has uncritically and unhelpfully accepted. A couple of months ago, I watched a documentary called Cure Me I’m Gay in which a gay British doctor called Christian Jessen travels around America sampling various “gay cures”, talking to “ex-gays” and generally revealing what he argued was the fraud of the whole gay cure market.
Obviously, I fully supported the intent of this documentary and I understood the point that Dr Jessen was trying to make, but it felt to me like the entire “experiment” effectively conceded to the Christian Right a huge chunk of ground that I would rather he did not concede. His whole goal was to prove that gay cures didn’t work and, thereby, that homosexuality was not a choice or an affliction and, therefore, presumably that it is not immoral.
The problem with this approach, to my mind, was that it internalised the worldview of the Christian Right. It implicitly accepted that the moral acceptability of homosexuality is predicated on its being innate, biological and unchangeable. This struck me as fantastically dangerous. In fact, I feel this is a massively important debate that we surrendered without even noticing we were doing it. The question is not, and should not be, “is homosexuality a choice?” The question is, “should homosexual relationships be seen as equally valid to heterosexual relationships?”
People who favour Out For You over Gay For You do so on the basis that the idea of a person who has had no prior homosexual feelings suddenly finding themselves attracted to a member of the same sex reinforces the idea that sexuality is a choice or is changeable, and that this undermines the validity of homosexual relationships. But this only the case if you accept the Right-Wing, religiously-derived idea that sexual behaviour must have been encoded by God for it to be moral.
This very, very problematic line of reasoning is encapsulated by Jackie in the post I link to at the top of this article:
Only when responding to the comments to the post, though, did Suede explicitly name the problem with the phrase “Gay for You”: “GfY is a weird hybrid, enshrining the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive genre.” The logic of homophobia inherent in the trope being the idea that you can turn your sexual orientation on or off with the same ease you do a light switch (and if homosexuality is a choice, why shouldn’t you just choice to be heterosexual?)
It’s the bit in brackets that particularly troubles me. Ironically, I feel that it – far more than the phrase Gay For You – enshrines the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive environment. And, to be very fair, to the original post, I should stress that the blogger is summarising an argument that is not actually her own, so she may not doing herself or the argument justice, but the sheer heteronormativity of suggesting that homosexuality can’t be choice because, if it was, everybody would just prefer to be straight is … almost mind-boggling.
And, yes, I do understand that gay people experience discrimination, and that therefore what the original argument might have meant is “why would someone choose a lifestyle in which they are discriminated against over one in which they are not?” Except, of course, people do. Even if homosexuality is not innate, gay people can get a lot less flack by not being out. Bisexuals do not overwhelmingly choose to be in heterosexual relationships (although there is a certain cultural pressure to go that way). Religion is a choice, and people face discrimination because of it. They do not generally give up their religions as a result. And we certainly don’t argue that everyone is born with a particular religion, and that religions can’t change in a misguided effort to encourage religious tolerance.
If the only argument we can make against homophobia is that sexuality is immutable then gay rights are on very, very unsound footing. Not only are we basing our entire case for equality on a falsifiable biological claim which may prove unfounded, but we’re also erasing large sections of the community who don’t fit into the simplistic, binarist model which we’ve invented to placate the Christian Right.
In this context, there is part of me that feels Out For You is as problematic as Gay For You. For a start, it seems to presuppose that you’re only “out” if you’re actually in a same-sex relationship. If you look at the distinctions people draw between (bad) Gay For You and (good) Out For You stories, the difference seems to be that the OFY characters have pre-existing, acknowledged homosexual feelings they have merely chosen not to explore, whereas in the GFY stories they haven’t. But this is actually wholly unrelated to being out or being not-out. Plenty of people have plenty of gay sex without being out. And plenty of people are out without being in homosexual relationships or, indeed, are out while being in heterosexual relationships or, for that matter, celibate. So ultimately the argument for OFY seems to be grounded in an ideological desire to reinforce the idea that sexuality is determined at birth, and that it is – in essence – quite simple.
And I can see that this is a politically useful message to reinforce, especially when the debate continues to be framed in terms that conflate what is natural with what is acceptable. If nothing else “Some People Are Gay. Get Over It” is a much better T-shirt slogan than “Human Sexuality Is Remarkably Complicated and Intersects in Difficult Ways With Gender. Get Over It.” But the problem is, that there is a real danger in denying the validity of a narrative merely because it is not politically useful. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have seen Gay For You stories played out in real life in that I have known people with no previously acknowledged homosexual feelings who have fallen in love with, or found themselves attracted to, members of their own sex. And I suppose advocates of Out For You would argue that these people have been gay all along and have only just “realised” it. But this is an unprovable assertion, and needlessly devalues every relationship these people have had previously.
The basic problem is that sexuality is a wholly subjective experience. I, ultimately, have no way of knowing that the way I experience my sexuality is the way that another person who claims to have the same sexuality as me experiences theirs. One of the things I found frustrating about Cure Me I’m Gay is that it basically consisted of two sets of people with utterly closed beliefs about sexuality talking past each other. When Dr Jessen was talking to people who claimed to have changed their sexualities, he refused to accept their descriptions of their own lived experiences because his worldview required their experiences to be impossible. In the same way, a lot of the gay cure specialists he talked to held axiomatically to the view that everyone was naturally straight, and that homosexuality was a learned aberration. But there was no way that either side could prove their case to the other. No matter how unsuccessful the gay cures where on Dr Jessen, the cure pedlars would insist he was just resisting treatment. And no matter how many “ex-gays” Dr Jessen met, he continued to insist they were living in denial.
Sexuality is a complex emergent property of desire, emotion, thought, experience and behaviour. Being gay or being straight is not one thing, and our idea of what it means to have a particular sexuality is, in many ways, socially constructed. Just to be very blunt for a moment, it’s kind of like pegging. An awful lot of straight men will fundamentally refuse to be anally penetrated (by their female partners) in no small part because we culturally define that sort of behaviour as gay. And, by the same token, there are some gay men who don’t like anal sex at all but we as a society tend to forget this. But the flipside of this is that once you start to recognise that sexuality does not, in fact, consist of specific sexual acts, it becomes very hard to see what it does consist of. If we accept that it is okay for a straight man to enjoy taking it up the arse, or for a gay man not to, and we further accept that our perceptions of gender are culturally created and that many of the physical characteristics we associate with men and with women are more mutable than we willingly admit, it becomes increasingly hard to hold onto the idea of sexuality as something innate, monolithic and unchanging.
As I said at the very beginning of this piece, I suspect the biggest issue with Gay For You is not really its name or its nature, but its prevalence. And if there is a single element of the trope that gives me pause, it is the implication that sexually experienced gay men (like sexually experienced women) are not seen as sympathetic protagonists. I very much do not have a problem with the implication that a person’s perception of their own sexuality could change over time. To me, it is much more troubling to suggest that it can’t.