on problems and messes

So you might have noticed I’ve been mostly blogging about board games, and I did have a New Year’s Resolution to stay away from politicsy stuff because, honestly, I tend to find that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Buuuut it’s March and there’s been so much going on that I sort of feel it’s getting to the point where ignoring it is inappropriate.

This is going to be a typically rambly post in which I muse about GFY, the “right” and “wrong” terms for things, and the technical distinction between a problem and a mess.

Let’s begin with GFY. This might come as bit of a surprise to readers who know how outspoken, bitter and sarcastic I am, but I actually don’t have particularly strong feelings about it. It’s not especially my cup of tea and I do worry on a low-key level about the way it inherently pushes queer people out of queer narratives (insofar as a GFY story is definitionally about at least one character, and often two, who are not actually queer-identified). But, as it happens, it aligns perfectly well with my personal model of sexuality. One of the things I find troubling about the wider discourse of the LGBTQ+ community, and especially that segment of it which overlaps with the m/m community, is that it tends to treat sexuality as very fixed and categorisable. This troubles me because I know it goes against the lived experiences of a lot of people. Like Heidi Cullinan (see this post on the subject) I do feel there’s something subversive about a narrative which acknowledges that two straight men can be in love with each other. I don’t agree with all of her analysis (she tends to describe things in terms of power and I very much don’t) but, to me, a relationship that—according to mainstream notions of sexuality—is a contradiction in terms represents a giant fuck you to a normative worldview that I don’t have very much time for.

That said, I can also absolutely see why some people object to the trope.  As I mentioned above, I personally find it iffy because it’s a fundamentally straight narrative and I find that GFY in stories in practice often play up the “thrill of the forbidden” angle more than I’d like. At the risk of, well, I’d say opening a can of worms but this is a can of worms that’s already been thoroughly opened and up-ended over everybody’s picnic, Keira Andrews’ Beyond the Sea (or more specifically the strapline that was chosen to advertise Beyond the Sea) strikes me as a good example of this. While I absolutely accept that the book itself is probably lovely and sweet and well-written and well-realised, the line “Two straight guys. One desert island” sort of embodies a great deal of what I find troubling about this trope. I appreciate that the author has books to sell and expectations to meet but it’s a strapline that promises titillation, not a nuanced and compassionate portrayal of fluid sexuality. Again, I should stress that I’m not saying it isn’t a nuanced and compassionate portrayal of fluid sexuality. But it isn’t really being sold as one.

The other major objection to GFY as a trope is that a lot of bi (and pan and omni) people feel somewhat erased by it. As always with erasure, the problem is never a single missed opportunity, it’s all the missed opportunities. If bisexual people weren’t routinely portrayed as evil, misguided, inconstant, slutty or simply non-existent in fiction in general, and m/m in particular, I think the existence of texts which accept that a person can have sexual relationships with partners of more than one gender but still identify as monosexual would be much less of an issue. Not to put too fine a point on it, if we didn’t live in a world where prominent authors write blog posts arguing that there can never be such a thing as a bisexual romance, bisexual people might be less frustrated and hurt by all the occasions on which characters who could identify (or be read) as bisexual are not allowed to.

This brings us roughly round to the third thing I mentioned (helpfully, I haven’t done the second yet because that’s the way I roll), which is the technical distinction between a problem and a mess. From my limited understanding, people who like to ascribe overly narrow definitions to common terms define a problem as “an undesirable situation, the solution to which—while it may not be obvious—at least has an obvious shape.” To pick a thematic example, two men stuck on a desert island have a problem. Or, I suppose, several problems. They need to find food, they need to find shelter, they need to escape. They may have no idea how they’re going to do any of these things but it’s clear what needs to be done, and what doing it would look like.

A mess is different. A mess is a problem so complex or intractable that it isn’t even immediately clear what it would mean for it to be solved. Most significant, real world conflicts are, on some level, messes. They involve multiple competing interest groups, all of whose needs cannot be met simultaneously and amongst whom there is no clear way to prioritise. If you have three people on a sinking ship and there are only two lifejackets, you have a mess. While it was possible to save the ship, you had a problem. But once you’re in the situation where there are multiple potential outcomes, all of which are bad for different people in different ways, you’re in much—for want a less on the nose term—choppier waters.

At the risk of over-categorising, I’d say that the arguments surrounding GFY involve three core interest groups (this is a massive over-simplification). You have people who strongly identify with fluid, label-free or non-normative sexuality, for some of whom these stories are genuinely empowering. Then you have people who strongly identify as bi, pan or omni, for some of whom these stories are genuinely erasing and hurtful. Finally, you have what I can only refer to as disinterested readers: that is, people who do not have a personal, political stake in the issues at play but who enjoy reading the books. I should probably flag up that it sounds a lot here like “disinterested readers” is code for “straight women” but it actually isn’t. There are, for example, plenty of gay men who have expressed their support for GFY as a trope, rather than as something that speaks personally to their experience. I also think it’s quite important to highlight that a huge number of the people who are collectively (and often dismissively) referred to as “straight women” in discussions of the m/m community actually fall into one or other of the first two categories.

Basically, the shitter of it all is that it isn’t meaningfully possible to prioritise the needs of these three different interest groups. There’s part of me that feels the disinterested readers whose investment goes only so deep as the desire to read a particular type of story have slightly less of a stake than the people who feel personally either represented or erased, but the situation is so complicated that I’m not comfortable taking even that as an absolute. And, in fact, as someone who’s broadly in favour of free speech, I do accept the rights of people to read and propagate narratives that they find amusing or entertaining even if other people find them harmful. I think I would say that if you persist in doing something that you know another person feels harmed by you probably lose the right to expect that person to have faith in your good will, but you’re under no obligation to change your behaviour.

I appreciate that this is glib, trite and faintly patronising but it really does all come down to respect. If somebody feels harmed by something you enjoy, then it feels to me like the gracious thing to do is to let them express themselves without comment. Otherwise you’re asking someone to equate your enjoyment with their pain, and that just seems to lack a sense of perspective. That said, if someone else feels harmed by something that you feel actively empowered by that strikes me as a more nuanced dialogue, although it might not be a dialogue you can have with each other. The world is complicated and identity politics is complicated, which increasingly means that we encounter situations where people’s identities conflict with each other. If two people invest strongly in mutually exclusive interpretations of the same concept then there can be no portrayal of that concept that doesn’t alienate either one of them.

To take an example that isn’t related to GFY, I’ve been involved in several low-key but long-running debates about the correct terminology to use for a variety of LGBTQ+ concepts. In a lot of these situations, the terminology that I very strongly favour and feel most correctly reflected and empowered by is terminology that other people insist is Incorrect. For example, back in 2014, I wrote a long post (in response to another of Heidi’s posts in fact) about why I, contrary to what the GLAAD media handbook might say, have no problem at all with the phrase “sexual preference” and, in fact, consider it more appropriate in a number of contexts than “sexual orientation”. This, I admit, is not a popular opinion, but it’s one I feel quite strongly about. As I mentioned in the original post, I vehemently object to the prevailing trend in LGBTQ+ rights towards justifying human sexuality in terms of its immutability and inherentness. It upsets and infuriates me that we live in a world where queer people who articulate the fact that their experience of their own sexuality is that it is not now what it was in the past get dogpiled by their own community for having the temerity to have lived a politically inconvenient narrative.

And, yes, I understand that if you grew up in the Bible Belt and the overwhelming message you got from your community was that homosexuality was a) a sin and b) a choice then you would want to reject both a) and b) axiomatically. I can understand why, if those had been your experiences, you would want people to avoid language that resembled the language you had heard in your formative years. I can even see why you’d get together with a bunch of people who’d grown up in similar environments, or with influences from similar environments, and put together a media guide saying that any language reflective of the language with which you grew up was fundamentally unacceptable. Given the circumstances, you might even be forgiven for giving the group you’ve just formed a name which pointedly excludes a large part of the community for which you presume to speak.

The problem is, to accept the rules of LGBTQ+ discourse as established by the people who feel harmed by the suggestion that sexuality may not be innate, I would have to accept a model of sexuality that I not only do not feel represented by but also, well, don’t think is accurate.

Many years ago, I remember seeing a genuinely adorable interview with Kristin Chenoweth (and I should say I love Kristin Chenoweth, I think she is great) in which she talks about why she is okay with gay people. And her line was something like “God made you that way, and God don’t make mistakes.”

The thing is … okay, the thing is so many things.

Number 1, and this is kind of a biggie, I don’t believe in God. And while I’m glad that Kristin Chenoweth and people like her believe that a diverse range of sexual orientations (or preferences, take your pick) is compatible with their religion, this is very much not what I feel the debate should be about. The key reason that I find the choice versus not-choice, orientation versus preference debate so upsetting (apart from the fact that it leads to queer people attacking other queer people for having had the wrong experiences) is that I don’t want a world where a person’s sexual behaviour has to be divinely mandated to be okay. Not to put too fine a point on it, I want to live in a world where we accept that it’s fine to love whoever you love and do whatever you do, even if it is one hundred percent your choice.

Number 2, and I admit this is less important, is that supportive and well-intentioned as this is, it strikes me as … well … a poor argument. I’m not a theologian but it seems fairly apparent to me that God, if He exists, creates people with tendencies towards all kinds of behaviours that are destructive at best, immoral at worst. Alcoholism, psychopathy and paedophilia all show strong scientific evidence that they are, at least in part, inherent tendencies. There was some research quite recently which suggested that paedophilia probably has a neurological origin and that people who are sexually attracted to children are, genuinely, kind of born that way. We cannot put ourselves in a situation in which our only defence of non-normative sexualities is one that applies equally well to paedophiles and serial killers.

Again, we have an issue here of irreconcilable differences. And I do try to be sensitive with my language because, given the choice between two terms, one of which I know is upsetting to some people and preferable to others, and the second of which is preferable to some people and neutral to others, I’ll take preferable/neutral over preferable/upsetting. But I’m very much aware that doing this involves conceding ground that I passionately feel should not be conceded. Especially when I am told that the upsetting/preferable language choice into which I have put considerable thought is flatly wrong or, worse, that people who find the upsetting/preferable choice to be preferable, rather than upsetting, only do so only because they have been “brainwashed.” And, yes, I have been told this. And, no, I did not respond by saying “dude, if anyone has been brainwashed, it’s the guy who thinks his identity is morally acceptable only if it was given him by a deity I’m not sure he even believes in.”

This brings us back to the whole issue of problems versus messes. The situation is such that we cannot achieve the society I consider to be desirable (in which nobody cares whether your sexuality or, indeed, your sexual behaviour is a choice or not) without actively harming people who believe very strongly that their sexuality is immutable. Of course, we also can’t maintain the status quo without harming and, I would argue, erasing people whose experience of their sexualities does not reinforce the politically convenient narrative as it is defined by self-appointed community spokespeople. Worse, we justify harming and erasing these people by telling ourselves that they’re the enemy. That their expression of their understanding of their sexuality is actually internalised homophobia or a cognitive error induced by media bias.

Basically there is no way this is okay, but there is also no way to make it okay without going through several stages that are also not okay.

To bring it all back to GFY there is no way to tell or not tell these stories without harming or erasing someone. If GFY vanished overnight, then the (larger than you might expect) number of people who identify as straight but have had profound homosexual experiences (or, for that matter, vice versa) become as invisible as bisexual people arguably are right now. On the other hand, if we persist in refusing to label any character who has primarily heterosexual relationships and one homosexual relationship (or vice versa) as bisexual, we contribute to a status quo in which bisexuality (and pansexuality and omnisexuality) are undeniably erased. And because the debate tends to be about individual books you can’t even argue for balance. We could, I think, maybe all agree that we’d have a fairer, more just, more balanced genre if a significant proportion of those stories currently written and marketed and sold as GFY were, instead, written and marketed and sold as bisexual (or pansexual or omnisexual or for that matter Kinsey 1) romance. But the problem is we’ll only get there on a book-by-book basis. And when every book is a battleground the outcomes are only ever (ironically enough) binary. The characters in this book either define as straight or define as bi. It’s got to be a victory for one side or the other. And this makes it very hard to find a middle ground.

I’m sort of getting to the point where I feel I need a conclusion and the thing about messes as opposed to problems is that, well, there often aren’t any.

Basically, and maybe this is just me being British, I think it all comes down to how we communicate with each other. I’ve tried to be relatively even-handed in this article (I’ve probably failed) but I will say that what’s troubled me the most about the recent discussion inspired by Beyond the Sea is that I personally feel a lot of people’s voices have been shut down. As I mentioned in one of my posts about The Garçonnière, it is genuinely upsetting, particularly if you don’t self-define as a horrible person (and, let’s face it, who does?) when somebody says they are hurt by something that you either really enjoy or strongly identify with. But it behoves us all (and I apologise in the sincerest terms for my use of the word behoves) to listen to other people’s insights and experiences in an open and respectful way. And I’m sure a lot of people have and a lot of people are but my perception of recent conversations is that a lot of people, well, aren’t. I’m sure this isn’t what most people think or what most people intended, but from what I’ve seen from the sidelines if it feels an awful lot like queer people (at least those queer people who don’t toe the party line on stuff) are being told to get out of the genre again.

So … yeah. That’s my overlong, poorly organised post on some stuff that some people have being talking about recently.

On Friday there’ll be a review of a game about pandas.


60 Responses to on problems and messes

  1. Molly says:

    You have all these thoughtful complexities in here and I keep getting stuck on “could we not just start calling it/treating it as ‘bi for you’?” It doesn’t eliminate everything, but it seems like a simple, achievable improvement. And then we can go on from there to try to make things even better.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      It’s a tricky one because, actually, although I boiled the objections to GFY down to two, there’s quite a lot of them, and they’re quite nuanced and intersect in some quite complex ways. So, for some people, it’s the “for you” that’s the issue (which is why some prefer “out for you” which suggests that a person’s sexuality is not target dependent but their willingness to openly express it might be). And then there’s the more basic issue of what it mean to be bisexual but only with respect to one person. Sexual fluidity is itself a spectrum of which bisexuality itself is only one point, so it would be equally problematic to call anyone who ever experienced sexual or romantic feeling for people of more than one gender identity bi.

      Also, there’s an extent to which you can’t control what a trope is called. Beyond the Sea doesn’t actually have the words GFY on it. Indeed, what people are objecting to is that the blurb explicitly identifies the characters as straight.

  2. Beverley Jansen says:

    I’m not sure I actually understand all you have said in your post, but I really enjoyed reading it. I mainly stayed on the sidelines for this one until I saw people being told they should not write m/m, or that one should not complain, as queer books weren’t for queer people. I’m not sure I totally agree with all you’ve said either but I wholeheartedly agree with your desired outcomes.

    My main problem with this furore was that when someone from the queer community said he was hurt by this book – a large number of commenters left hurtful responses and it turned into mess of accusations and abuse. In addition I believe it’s fine to enjoy m/m queer romances, gfy, ofy whatever you call them but don’t use it as a sign you are an LGBTQ ally or understand how people who identify as queer feel. I apologise if this sounds harsh.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think your second point is one I especially strongly agree with. I have zero problem with people reading and writing whatever they want and I obviously have nothing against people who enjoy m/m (if I did, I wouldn’t write it). But it drives me up the wall when people act like, or in extreme cases, explicitly claim that reading m/m is the same as being an LGBTQ+ ally. Or, indeed, in one particularly frustrating comment I read recently the same as being LGBTQ+. That’s not to say you can’t read m/m and be an ally (although, for what it’s worth, I think being an ally is something people invest too much in anyway, like being A Good Person) but there’s basically no correlation between them.

  3. Pam/Peejakers says:

    May I start by saying this is not in the least poorly organized. I love the way you sort of, fling out this huge lasso to encircle all the things and then gather them into your central point. Whereas I typically wander off in all directions & get lost 😉

    This is . . . this is perfect. Perfect. Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s all I got.

    Well, okay, actually, no 😉 But you’ve said everything I would have wished to say, if I could have expressed it. And articulated all the amorphous stuff swimming in my head that hadn’t quite coalesced into thoughts.

    Thank you for this. As usual, for me at least, you are the voice of reason. And shhuushh, no contradicting me, you are, you just are 🙂 But okay, I will see myself out before I get too smooshy <3

    Anyway, just, y'know, stay awesome. 🙂 And I am gleefully looking forward to your review of the adorable panda game!

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Hmm. I have no idea why but something is not letting me follow the comments. When I get the email to confirm follow & click on it, it takes me to WordPress as usual, but then says “Your subscription could not be activated, it may have expired.” What?! Omg, what’s the meaning of this outrage?! So, trying again with this comment – if it doesn’t work again I’ll email ya 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you, Pam <3

      Panda review forthcoming 🙂

  4. Liv says:

    Last week I read (most of ) Heidi Cullinan’s post and saw Julio’s review of Beyond the Sea, though I didn’t realize they were part of a larger Thing. I also responded to one of Julio’s tweets (“Sorry MM, I’m not taking away your toys, I am your toy” or thereabouts) with the comment about how he influences what I put on the page. To me it’s about education, about learning. About making conscious choices in what I read and what I write, with (hopefully) a better understanding of how my choices could impact others.

    This post falls into that category, too; full of stuff I’m not ready to respond to directly, but that I’ll take with me to think about. I’m sure your penguin game post will be awesome, but I’m glad you wrote this one, because I believe thoughtfully articulated ideas and discussion will help facilitate change.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      For what it’s worth, I think I’m increasingly of the opinion that these sort of things should be about issues rather than personalties. That is, I hope, what you take away my, Heidi’s and Julio’s contributions are independent of the people that made them. To be honest, I think part of the reason this got so nasty so quickly is that it got quite personal. And, the thing is, these things always get personal because inevitably arguments about the portrayal of marginalised group x inevitably devolve within the space of thirty Tweets into an argument about whether it is appropriate to call person y, who is not a member of marginalised group x, a marginalised-group-x-ist. This helps no-one and gets nobody anywhere.

  5. Lennan Adams says:

    This is the best post I’ve read on this subject – you are so wonderfully articulate and compassionate. Not to sound like a hippie but it would be so great if the conversation could just be “I’m hurt for reasons” and then “I’m sorry and I’ll either fix it or not, but I hear you.” then “Thank you for hearing me.” The escalation of being offended/lashing out back and forth hurts everyone, even those of us who are just reading and not commenting on it. Although, I guess there is something to be said for the educational value of such visible arguments, even when they hurt to watch. Maybe a lot to be said, I don’t know…
    Thanks also for what you said about the “straight women” readers not always being actually straight or cisgendered. ‘Tis true. That’s probably a discussion for another day but I appreciate you saying it out loud. Or typing it. Whatevs.
    I’m looking forward to reading the panda game post. 🙂

    • Mel says:

      The escalation of being offended/lashing out back and forth hurts everyone, even those of us who are just reading and not commenting on it.

      Yes, this so much ^^
      I don’t have the energy at the moment to get involved in the arguments, but I’m still affected by this, and feel the need to stay away from social media more and more because it’s so hurtful. I’m not even personally involved but it hurts me when someone I care about is hurting because of messes and the way people treat each other.

      Thanks also for what you said about the “straight women” readers not always being actually straight or cisgendered.

      I think this really would be interesting, because just because someone looks “straight” from the outside doesn’t mean they are.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I agree that things would be a lot nicer if people were a lot more respectful of each other, although I’m also conscious that pretty much any set of desiderata of this type can wind up being a silencing mechanism. Because, actually, the way this conversation could quite legitimately go is “I’m hurt for reasons” “I’m sorry, I’ll either fix it or not, but I hear you”, “where the fuck do you get off saying ‘I hear you’ makes this better”.

      At the risk of sounding glib, the irreconcilable problem of any discussion like this is that everybody thinks that the middle ground is actually about 75% of the way towards their own position. I usually make this argument in conversation so I can do gestures to illustrate this, but basically if we’re having an argument and I’m [puts hand close to own chest] here and you’re [puts hand at arm’s length] here, then you think a reasonable compromise is [puts hand halfway up own forearm] here while I think [puts hand halfway up own bicep] here.

      All of which said, I do think things would go a lot smoother in the community in general if we all got better at not reading “this hurts me” as “you should die in a fire.”

      And, thinking about it, it’s also sometimes important to recognise that often “you should die in a fire” really means “this hurts me.”

  6. Kaetrin says:

    Thx for this. I was hoping you’d weigh in.

  7. srand says:

    I’ve been enjoying your posts on board games (and sharing them with my partner, who immediately went out and bought Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective). But I freely and unabashedly admit that this is the kind of post that makes me truly admire you as a person (in addition to admiring you as a writer) … and send out links to the half-a-dozen not-exactly-straight-women with whom I share a love of your stories.

    As Lennan Adams says, you are so wonderfully articulate and compassionate. Thank you.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for the kind words. I think its very easy to burn everyone out on too much politics so I’m enjoying the board game break. I hope you and your partner enjoy SHCD 🙂

  8. Gillian says:

    “If somebody feels harmed by something you enjoy, then it feels to me like the gracious thing to do is to let them express themselves without comment. Otherwise you’re asking someone to equate your enjoyment with their pain, and that just seems to lack a sense of perspective.”

    So much this. I don’t understand the need to be so brutally defensive and derisive when another human being is telling you they are hurting. If you don’t agree, then fine. Roll your eyes and move on. But you will never convince another person that their hurt is invalid, simply because you don’t agree. It’s not only delusional, it’s disrespectful.

    Thank you for writing this, Alexis. I not only find your blog posts illuminating, but so helpful in understanding the bigger picture.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      For what it’s worth, I actually do understand the instinct to get brutally defensive. I’ve been there myself. I think, basically, it genuinely comes down to the fact that everyone, from you to me to people who fight for ISIS, basically thinks that they’re a good person. And when somebody tells you that they are hurt by something that you enjoy or like to do that can cut right to the heart of your self-identity.

      At the risk of getting hyper-rational about it, I think when you learn more about the ways in which institutions from which you derive pleasure can harm other people (or, for that matter, things that aren’t people – if you think about environmental impact and animal cruelty) then you put in a space where you have to take one of three options. You either, change your behaviour (I will stop eating meat because industrialised farming is ecologically disastrous and needlessly cruel), accept that however nice or moral or good you think you are you actually don’t care quite enough (I enjoy eating bacon so much that I don’t give a crap about my marginal contribution to potentially devastating climate change or the abominable conditions in slaughter houses) or you embed yourself deep in denial (climate change is a myth and pigs can’t feel pain). The first option is practically and emotionally inconvenient, the second option can be a gigantic headfuck (it is, in fact, largely my attitude to bacon, but accepting that has required me to admit that I am the sort of person who cares more about my own pleasure than about the sort of things that, if asked out of context, I would have said I cared quite a lot about) and that leaves you with the third. Which allows you to preserve both your belief in your own essential goodness and the behaviour in which you are invested.

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Man, I may frame this comment & hang it on the wall. Your 2nd paragraph covers something I find myself wrestling with almost constantly, but I’ve really never seen anyone articulate this.

        I think some people are blind to the existence of that 2nd choice. Or, find it unbearable because they interpret the choices more as: 1. Do the Right Thing 2. Be aware of the Right Thing & fail to do it. 3. Be unaware of the Right Thing & fail to do it. But Choice 1 feels all but impossible: I mean, you *can* certainly change your behavior, but to eliminate *all* problematic behavior with regard to everything & everyone requires a level of selflessness I think few (if any) people can manage. So that makes it feel like the only real choice is between being consciously or unconsciously a Horrible Person. That’s kind of where I find myself struggling. I feel the 2nd choice is the only realistic one for most humans with a conscience. But as you say, it’s a headfuck. On one hand, I think it comes down to accepting you’re a human, not a saint, and trying to forgive yourself for that. But on the other, I feel like there’s a fine line between doing that and making excuses for not doing enough, or not doing anything, which requires constant vigilance to stay on the right side of. And the thought of constant vigilance about anything feels pretty exhausting and unbearable.

        What you said about bacon reminded me of this: I once read a PETA book on animal treatment that made me sob hysterically in the shower & vow to become a vegetarian. And I tried, briefly, but failed. I simply missed the pleasure of eating meat too much. But I also couldn’t live with that choice while maintaining the level of empathy that had led me to try giving up meat in the first place. So I basically . . . turned it way down. Put it in another room, closed the door, and carefully avoided looking at it. Which doesn’t seem like an entirely sane thing to do, let alone moral. But it basically works. So there you have a slight variation of the 3 choices, something between 2 & 3. Compartmentalization for the win :/

        Eek, sorry! *writes entire essay in Comments* 😛

        • Ingela says:

          Oh my god, so much this. The meat eating analogy is deeply relevant and painful. And the thing is, if you know for a fact that you’re a bad person and you don’t really want to do anything about it, it doesn’t really help the people you hurt, because you either compartmentalize or you go around feeling crappy all the time, and that paralyzes you to the point that you don’t dare to do the few good deeds you’re actually capable of, because you’ve convinced yourself that you’ll only fuck it up. Um… or is that just me? I guess it’s just me. :-/

          Moving into TMI territory, I tried being a vegetarian for a while and would love to be one (theoretically), but one of the reasons I don’t is that I’m a recovered(/-ing) bulimic, and now that I’ve finally found a way to live with food in a way that doesn’t completely fuck up my life, I’m scared of changing anything. Selfish, yes, but it might illustrate the complex nature of this whole mess. Um… Although I’m not sure that example has a lot to do with the original point… except that there’s the “my identity hurts your identity” (or possibly your life, if you’re a non-human animal) conundrum.

          • Pam/Peejakers says:

            No, it’s not just you! I try not to let it be paralyzing, but it can be, and certainly it’s painful. I don’t know if it’s fear of fucking it up exactly, but maybe, not trusting yourself to know what’s actually helpful & what may just make you feel good about yourself but do little if anything to help, perhaps even do more harm than good. Ha, well okay, yeah I guess that does qualify as fucking it up!

            But, sometimes I think its more like . . . if you can’t or choose not to do something the *whole* way, so you try to do it at least to *some* extent, is that even worth anything? You know, like, staying with the meat analogy, is it really doing any good to have, for example, one meatless meal per week? Or is that just a sop to your conscience to make yourself feel better? Like, maybe over time that amounts to sparing one animal a cruel death or contributes one less drop in the bucket to environmental issues. But if it’s not, even combined with the teeny actions of others, enough to bring about actual world change, then it can feel kind of shameful. And I think that’s what can be paralyzing. The fact that doing a little constantly punishes you with the guilt that it’s not enough. Which can, in a worst case scenario, lead to doing less, or nothing, because that allows you to put it out of your mind. 😛

            What would be really nice would be if we could disconnect this stuff completely from our own self-interest, what we think of ourselves or what others may think of us, and just do as much as we can of what is needed.

            And I think your 2nd point is actually a perfect illustration of the my life/slash identity hurts your life/slash identity conundrum.

          • Ingela says:

            You’re so right! And of course, if you look at it rationally, for the person or animal you do help, it makes an enormous difference. Thank you for reminding me of that.

            I think part of the problem for me is also that I want to be angry with others who do awful things, but I can’t, because I’m no better than them — and yet I have all this helpless anger about stuff with nowhere for it to go, so of course, like a completely sane person, I turn it inwards. 😀 Which helps no one, and we’re back to square one.

            Ugh, now I’m using this thread as a confession booth, sorry about that.

          • Pam/Peejakers says:


  9. What troubles me the most about this situation is the lack of compassion. When someone says “this hurts me” the response shouldn’t be “Shut up, I like this.” As they say, your fave is problematic. I think we could have rich, nuanced conversations about GFY but WITHOUT ignoring or dismissing the way it hurts some people (maybe I’m just an optimist). As you mentioned, if bi erasure wasn’t such a huge problem, then GFY wouldn’t be … well, such a mess, to use your definition.

    I took offense to Heidi’s post because it felt like a dismissal of bi erasure. For some people, labels can be a life raft. To discover there’s a word for what you are and there are others like you. To see people like you in stories, being the hero, finding true love — that’s empowering. Life saving.

    On preference vs. orientation, I’m in favor of orientation, BUT I think we should expand our understanding of what that means. For some people orientation changes over time and we shouldn’t deny their experience because it’s an inconvenient narrative.

    Similar to how the transgender narrative is that someone is assigned male but realizes they’re female (or vice versa) and that the person always knew or suspected their assigned gender was wrong, and they feel trapped in their body, etc. But that’s not always the case, and there are genderqueer and agender and genderfluid and all sorts of variations. They’re all different flavors of trans and we shouldn’t be policing who’s “trans enough”.

    People are creating false binaries– Either sexuality is absolutely fixed or it’s 100% choice so you can “pray the gay away”. Either you must attack a queer man for saying something hurts him, or no one can ever read or write that trope again (or you’re evil for enjoying it).

    Again, compassion. If a marginalized person says something hurt them, we should all listen.

    • Mia West says:

      “People are creating false binaries–”

      I wish I knew why this was so. It’s so grossly apparent in U.S politics in general. Is it psychologically comforting to think there are only two sides to any issue?

      • Mia West says:

        (Not that this is a U.S. issue in its entirety — I’m just thinking of our current election season.)

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Yes, I think so. It’s psychologically comforting to reduce things to a binary because it makes everything feel simpler, more easily understood, more predictable, more easily controlled. But it’s a cognitive distortion, basically it’s a psychological defense mechanism called black and white thinking.

        • Mia West says:

          I think a lot of times folks are just unwilling to do the critical thinking required to consider more than two options. So I appreciate anyone in this community who points to the 3rd podium (and the 4th and 5th…) so that we have to consider all angles.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            For what it’s worth, I think you often wind up with false dichotomy because the first step in a debate is often getting people to realise that difference exists at all. Stonewall in the UK produces as series of T-shirt / posters / banners that bear the slogan “Some people are gay. Get over it.” And, on the one hand, this is an extraordinarily unhelpful and reductive way of describing human sexuality. But, on the other hand, if you’re dealing with a society which revolts at the very idea of same sex relationships then the narrative that there are two kinds of people and one kind of person is attracted to their own sex, and the other type is attracted to the opposite sex, and that’s okay is a lot easier to sell than something more complicated or nuanced.

            Because, let’s face it, you can’t put “Sexuality is extremely complicated and can perhaps be best understood as an emergent property of a number of intersecting and overlapping factors, including but not limited to the biological, psychological, sociological and cultural. Its manifestations are many and varied, perhaps indeed as varied as humans themselves or even as interactions between humans, the possible number of which increases exponentially as our worlds, lives and societies grow ever more complex and interconnected. Get over it.” on a T-shirt.

            Although maybe you should…

          • Barbara says:

            I might buy that T-shirt. Especially if you put “Sexuality–it’s complicated” in big letters at the top. The longer I live, the more I realize that so many things about being human are complicated. It’s good to find a place where other folks think that as well.

          • Mia West says:

            I wish that statement had been the basis of our sex ed in school.

          • Amber says:

            or how about “Sexuality, it’s a spectrum!”

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think as you say, and as I said myself in the post, it’s just really complicated. As you rightly point out, for some people labels are a life raft; for others they’re a noose. I think we’re very bad at seeing how something that is harmful to us can benefit someone else or, for that matter, vice versa. And, again, it becomes very unclear how you are supposed to navigate between those things. My instinctive reaction is to say, for example, that if something person a but benefits b then person a’s harm should be given greater weight than person b’s benefit. And there are times when that’s true, like, and this is a not a remotely media culture or social justice example, if person a has a potentially deadly peanut and person b quite likes peanuts, if those two people go to dinner, they should probably go somewhere nut free.

      But to extend the slightly awkward peanut analogy it becomes a bit more complicated when the benefit person b isn’t that they just quite like peanuts but that, for example, because of the restrictions of their diet, peanuts are one of the few sources of protein they can eat. Or, to take a completely outlandish example, they literally have to eat peanuts or they’ll die. Going back to labels, as you say, labels can save lives and build communities. But I suspect there are also people who feel they destroy lives and damage communities. And so you wind up with this completely impossible situation where person a is saying “this harms me, stop doing it” and person b is saying “I need this, don’t take it away.”

      And actually, weirdly, bi-erasure in GFY is less complicated in some ways because it is completely feasible for there to exist both “gfy”-type stories where the protagonists identity as bisexual and “gfy”-type stories where they identify in a host of other ways. So, in fact, in some ways this leans more towards problem than mess in that there is a clear issue (too much bi-erasure in m/m) and a clear solution (less bi-erasure in m/m) that would basically harm no-one because it’s not like the amount of stories about gay or gay-for-you characters would be noticeably impacted. So it becomes a problem of implementation. That doesn’t make it easy to overcome but I genuinely do think that the situation we’re in (and this is really, really over-intellectualising) simply not Pareto Optimal. That is, we could improve representation of bisexual people without noticeably harming representation of anybody else. The only issue is market forces.

  10. Patrick says:

    Nothing to do with fiction, but I want to appreciate the shout-out to Kinsey 1, which is the best way I’ve found to express my own sexuality on the (not-really-a) “continuum.” We know that sexuality is far more complex than Kinsey had it, but in a world where bi erasure (among other erasures) is still so common 60+ years later, I could wish that the general conversation were even at Kinsey’s level of sophistication.

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Yeah, this is tentatively where I suspect I fall on that continuum too 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      It is deeply depressing that, as you say, the average level of discourse in this area hasn’t even caught up with research in 1948. Obviously, the Kinsey Reports are very of their time and, in their own way, still over-simplistic. But they’re an order of magnitude more detailed and nuanced than gay, straight, bi.

  11. I love coming here when there’s a mess in m/m land, not just for your original posts (which I generally agree with) but also for the comments! Intelligent, sensitive people just trying to support each other and figure out how to get along – it shouldn’t be such a rare thing!

  12. Ellie says:

    I admit I have been wondering when this post will happen 🙂
    Thank you for your thoughtful and very considerate analysis of a *messy* situation.

  13. Mel says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Alexis <3

    Whenever you take the time and energy and care to write about current politicsy stuff you soothe something in me and loose the knots I’d been walking around with inside.
    I mean, just because you write something, doesn’t mean the problem goes away, of course, but you just calm me down and that’s so precious to me.

    As Pam said, I think I’ll show myself out before it get’s even mushier 😉

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you 🙂 I’m really pleased my wittering has value for you. I have a way of approaching these sort of issues and I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s nice to know that it works for some people 🙂

  14. Lotta says:

    Brilliant, as your posts so often are. I think this might be part generation, part transatlantic culture differences. Younger people seem to be more open to things being in a state of motion, and the more I read, the more it makes sense. Things change. People change.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think that’s likely very true and it is partly because not only do times and people change, but so do battlegrounds. If you’ve spent your whole life fighting for fairly basic rights for an identity in which you strongly invest, then having other people pop up and say “actually, I don’t think your identity really exists” is a massive kick in the teeth. It’s the social justice equivalent of our grandparents / great grandparents going off to fight the Nazis (or whoever your grandparents / great grandparents went off to fight, I appreciate the WWII analogy is slightly eurocentric) and then slowly seeing a society evolve that rejects half the ideals they thought they were fighting for in the first place.

  15. Des Livres says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post. I hope you keep breaking that New Years resolution. Your 2014 post on sexuality was very valuable and helpful to my thinking around the sexuality realm. (I’m asexual, so it’s all learning for me about peoples’ identity/sexuality stuff).

    When I first read about the GFY issue (before I had read any GFY books) all I was left with on one side, was many gay peoples’ very real distress around it, and on the other, the many people I know who spent a long time in heterosexual relationships, who then went on to same sex relationships. And vice versa. It never seemed polite to demand a detailed recounting of their sexuality, so I’ve no idea what the actual deal was with those people.

    With respect to the particular book in issue, two people trapped on a tropical island after a plane crash is leaning towards my worst nightmare (if I was one of them I would try my best to ignore the other one as much as possible) as opposed to a romantic plot.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      To be honest, as we know from The Island with Bear Grylls a couple of ordinary dudes stuck on a desert island with no obvious means of support would almost certainly wind up dehydrated, near starving and in all likelihood dead without the tacit support of a Channel 4 camera crew backing them up.

      Thanks for the kind words about my posts. As always, it’s good to know that I’ve been helpful to people.

  16. Mia West says:

    Thank you, Alexis. I appreciate your point that discussions (to use the word charitably) happen on a book-to-book basis. We’re only going to see the shape of the thing, any evolution in the genre and its subgenres, from a future perspective. We’d never be able to conceive community guidelines on anything related to content or the marketing of that content because no set of guidelines will appeal to, or fully represent, every community member. Even if we had those guidelines, they’d be only that: suggestions. Eventually, someone will cross the hashed lane line because their story demands it or they just want to, and some readers will find it a brave choice, while others will feel very real pain. Not that I want content guidelines; the notion gives me the willies, and not in a good way.

    I do wish we could agree on very simple (common sense!) guidelines for the discussions themselves. As intelligent as I find folks in the romance community, the broader history of internet discourse doesn’t leave me with much hope that everyone involved would practice self-moderation. I fuck up in this regard nearly every day; it’s just that most days, I don’t click Send. 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      As you say, guidelines either for writing or commenting are problematic in a lot of ways, I think especially when you think about online communities. I sometimes feel that we don’t acknowledge enough how non-unitary the entities we refer to as “the x community” are. You get this especially when talking about marginalised groups and it’s part of the reason I get so annoyed when people wave the GLAAD media handbook around as if its representative of anybody except the specific group of people who wrote it. But you also get it when you’re talking about, for example, literary genres. I honestly feel we forget that the group of people we call, say, the romance community or the video games community or the board gaming community are actually a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who read romance novels, or play video games or play board games. I think those of us who enjoy talking about our hobbies on the internet forget that for most people liking to do something and liking to talk about that thing online aren’t particularly related.

      • Mia West says:

        I remember a queer author (*I don’t remember how/if they specifically identified) saying they thought it ridiculous to consider the LGBTQ+ community a community because, as they saw it, it was basically everyone who wasn’t straight. 🙂 Kind of like saying everyone not surnamed Smith comprises a cohesive community. (My analogy, not to be blamed on that author.) I imagine presenting a united front can help raise awareness and improve everyday lives, but I agree with something you said above, that there are probably as many different sexualities in the world as there are people. I think that just makes sense.

        Anyway, nothing new here. Carry on!

  17. Barbara says:

    Alexis, I wish more people had your sense of fairness and empathy. The Internet world is such a nasty place sometimes. Thank you for being a voice of reason.
    Yes, I am also one of those only-appears-to-be-straight fans of m/m romance. I wish I could be more comfortable claiming my current “real” identity, which feels to me like “bi with a preference for men.” And yes, sexual identity can be flexible. I’m willing to accept the idea that maybe I was “born with” a certain capability to be interested in both (or actually any) gender(s). But there are many life circumstances and choices involved. I can easily imagine “other lives” in which I never even realized I had any attraction to women, or, alternately, ended up in a long-term relationship with a woman instead of a man.
    And that pretty much goes completely again the “we should be OK with queers because they can’t help it” argument that some religious folks give. I could have decided to completely ignore or suppress any attraction to women, and never act on it. I did not. I chose to explore it. I don’t think that I was wrong or sinful to do so. Like you, I don’t believe in God (actually, I don’t believe we can know whether there is or is not a Divine, or what it is like). I actually feel that I chose to be bi rather than straight, and I am happy with that choice.
    Thank you for all your thoughtful and insightful comments. I am glad to see that there are folks like you in this contentious world.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thanks for commenting 🙂 I always feel a bit self-conscious when people share, even in a small way, personal stories with me that support things I’ve said because it always feel slightly patronising for me to turn around and say “thank you for living a life that happens to align with my slightly arbitrary values.” I very much don’t want to make other people’s lives all about me because, well, that would be really shitty and obviously there’s a really strong temptation to do that. That said, I’m really glad you shared that. It is genuinely narratives like yours that I worry are erased by the prevailing dogma that says its wrong to identify as having felt an element of choice in your sexuality.

      For what it’s worth, I also agree that we can’t know whether there’s a god or not. To put it glibly, I find it very hard to work out how you would prove the existence or non-existence of an omnipotent being that includes amongst its few unambiguously accepted properties a desire for its existence to be unprovable.

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  20. Amber says:

    I think some people are born straight. That is to say, their orientation skews entirely heterosexual. I also think they’re rare, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing for a different day. I think preference is how nature and nurture helps that all pan out. Perhaps someone was born with the wiring to be attracted to anyone, but for whatever reason when it comes down to it they prefer women. Preference vs Orientation. A bit of potato potato ;).

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think my take on this sort of thing (and maybe it’s my science background) is that I genuinely don’t think we have enough evidence to make a call one way or the other, and I’m very leery of grounding my moral position on falsifiable assertions. That is, if we’re going to base our entire case for LGBTQ+ rights on the notion that LGBTQ+ identity is decided at birth, we’d better be super super super certain we’re right.

  21. Karen says:

    When I first read this post I was all fist bumpy, and so happy that someone had written something that expressed some of the frustration that I have been experiencing, and wanted to comment right off the bat. But I didn’t.
    There were a couple of reasons for this, but as I’ve read more this week these seem …silly.
    As a bisexual GFY doesn’t bother me overly, but the reaction to people who it does bother and hurt, from people I really thought could relate and show empathy that made me mad. And I regret now not speaking up when I could have in the past, not about this specifically but about issues where I could have given support.
    So, thank you for expressing, a lot more eloquently that I can, thoughts on some difficult subjects.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you 🙂 I agree that, as is so often the case, the way that people react to other people saying they’re hurt or offended by a thing is frequently way more problematic than the original hurtful or offensive thing.

  22. cleo says:

    I managed to not know about this kerfuffle until today and then I immediately came here to get your take, so I’m glad that you decided to write it.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Kerfuffles are surprisingly easy to miss. I think we often forget how small the parts of the internet that we think make up the whole debate on something actually are. But thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked the post 🙂

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