This post was written for Read a Romance Month, and will link from Suzanne Brockmann’s wonderful piece going live on the 26th August.
LGBT Romance Matters
A while ago, I was watching an episode of The Mentalist with my partner. Back when, y’know, The Mentalist was good. The show opened with the victim of the week getting his head smashed in on a golf range. Imagine my delight when it was later revealed that he was gay. No, really, I actually was delighted. You only find out the character was gay because the team speak to his husband over the course of the investigation and there’s no suggestion that his having been married to a man was in any way unusual or in any way connected to his death. The episode focuses specifically on his professional life as a doctor and, sure enough, the whole thing turns out to be about organ trafficking. To put it another way, it was just another episode of The Mentalist not a Very Special Mentalist Episode About Homosexuality. I turned to my partner. “You see,” I cried. “This is exactly what we’ve been fighting for. The right to get murdered before the opening credits just like everybody else.” Of course, it would have been nicer if there was an LGBT character in the actual central cast, but, hey, it’s a start.
The reason I’ve started this post about romance by talking about a dead gay man on a TV crime show is that I think it highlights the fact that one of the most powerful things popular culture can do is normalise the diversity of life and human experience. In her post at the RARM site, Suz Brockmann talks about the ways in which the romance genre has become more accepting over the past twenty years. Thanks to people like her who’ve pushed the boundaries of the genre, the marketplace I find myself entering in 2013 is completely different to the one she entered in 1993.
For a start, LGBT romance is a thing.
Except it sort of isn’t. And, perhaps, in an ideal world it sort of shouldn’t be. And this is already all sorts of complicated. And that’s sort of what this blog post is about.
When it comes to queer representation, romance is in a very funny position because, in some respects, it’s years ahead of the other popular genres and, in other respects, it’s years behind. There’s no other genre of popular fiction which has a whole subgenre of books with queer protagonists. If you want to read a fantasy novel with a gay hero, you have a find a fantasy novel with a gay hero (and there are some, which is great). Similarly, if you want to find a mystery novel about a gay detective, you have to find a mystery novel with a gay detective (and there are some, which is great). But if you want to read a romance with queer protagonist (or, if I’m being very honest here, with a gay male protagonist) there are hundreds and thousands of books you could read. There are entire blogs and websites dedicated to reviewing these books. The m/m community is thriving, especially when compared to analogous communities in other genres.
This should all be wonderful except there’s part of me which feels deeply uncomfortable with the idea that two men or two women falling love is a somehow seen as a different type of story to one about a man and a woman falling in love. All other romance subgenres are about, for want of better terms, setting and context. But, seriously folks, being gay is not the equivalent of being a werewolf, a sky pirate or an FBI agent.
Once again, this is getting really bloody complicated. I’m aware these issues are huge and important, and this is just one blog post, from a guy who has published one novel.
The thing is, there clearly are some people who prefer to read m/m and some people who prefer not to. In my personal utopia, those sorts of preferences would be meaningless. As meaningless as basing your reading preferences on whether the book has an odd or even number of pages, or whether the hero’s name begins with a vowel. But we don’t live in my personal utopia, we live in the real world and, rightly or wrongly, whether a relationship is homosexual or heterosexual cannot help but affect the way people react to it. And I absolutely include myself in this – in my case, I over-invest in representations of same-sex relationships in popular culture. I would love the luxury of not caring. I’d really like to be able to watch Spartacus without being aware that the director was under constant pressure to “cut out the gay shit”. I’d have liked to have seen Tara’s death in Series 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as no different to Angel’s death at the end of Series 2 or Riley whigging out in Series 5. But, unfortunately, as things stand, queer relationships exist in a different context.
It’s probably also worth remembering that genres, and subgenres, aren’t handed down from god – they’re just a convenient way of expressing the preferences of a particular chunk of readership. And so I can absolutely see why LGBT romance as a subgenre exists, since romantic stories about same-sex couples appeal to some groups of people but don’t appeal to others. And I think what makes LGBT romance (and m/m romance in particular) controversial is how those two groups are made up and how they perceive each other.
At the risk of using a horribly a mixed metaphor, it seems to me that there’s a kind of trench warfare going on between two factions trying to claim the moral high ground (and this is why I don’t write military romance). To some people, refusing to read a romance because it’s about a same-sex couple is, for want a less confrontational term, flatly homophobic. From a certain point of view, it is literally refusing to read a book because the protagonist is gay. And, in any other context, that would be pretty unambiguously not okay. On the other hand, there are people who would argue that specifically choosing to read a romance because it a concerns a same-sex relationship is, for want of a less confrontational term, fetishisation. And, again, if you were talking about a book that was read primarily for titillation, this would be pretty unambiguously not okay either.
Yet again, this is really freaking complicated because writers aren’t monoliths, readers aren’t monoliths and genres aren’t monoliths. It is certainly true that some people who don’t read LGBT are homophobes. I know at least one writer who was advised by her agent not to publicly endorse Glitterland on the grounds that it might alienate her readers. Assuming her agent isn’t completely wrong about the marketplace, there are clearly some people who read romance who believe homosexuality is genuinely wrong. But I like to think that the vast majority of readers who choose not to read LGBT are just expressing a literary preference that isn’t grounded in any wider political ideology.
Although, as I’ve said, if we lived in a post-heteronormative society it wouldn’t make sense to have those preferences. But we don’t. So people do. And that’s okay. I’ve got a very good friend who just can’t get her head around homosexuality at all. She’s not homophobic, so just can’t understand why you would want to do that. And, although she’s not a romance reader, she would naturally find it hard to invest emotionally in a same-sex love story. I should probably also point out at this juncture that a lot of people avoid reading LGBT romance, and particularly m/m, specifically because they’re concerned about appropriation and fetishisation. And, obviously, it would be more than a little silly to suggest these readers are just being big ol’ homophobes.
Which brings us back to fetishisation, which is just as thorny an issue. On the one hand, it’s important to recognise that the stereotype of m/m romance (and slash fiction to which it is often, rightly or wrongly, compared) being exclusively written by and for heterosexual women is not only inaccurate (there are gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, trans* and genderqueer people both writing and reading these books) but it’s also irrelevant. The romance genre is dominated by women, it’s unsurprising that its subgenres are as well. This being said, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the segment of LGBT romance involving two hot men getting it on is by far the most popular, which is not really what you’d expect if LGBT romance readers were en masse genuinely blind to gender and sexuality.
Once again, I want to emphasise that it’s perfectly okay to have preferences – either for or against reading about a particular type of relationship – and I can think of reasons why someone would specifically choose to read m/m over het or f/f that aren’t just “wahay two dudes is hot.” Although fetishisation is always something that you have to be extremely careful about when you’re reading or writing about someone who is more marginalised than you (insofar as that can be remotely quantified) I am equally wary of dismissing as fetishisation the very real and very complex motivations of those who choose to read m/m romance. Just as I am uncomfortable dismissing as homophobia the decisions of those who choose not to.
This whole issue is a minefield but, hey, at least, we’re tiptoeing around on it. To me, more than any other genre, romance is asking the questions that need to be asked and talking about the things that need to be talked about. As Suz says, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. But I also genuinely believe that romance has the potential to change the way we think about the world and each other.
To me there is simply nothing more powerful than the truth at the heart of any LGBT romance: that a same-sex couple is just two people in love.
I actually read quite a lot of het but since I’m currently waving the rainbow, I’ll recommend two of my favourite LGBT authors. Just as Suz very kindly presented Glitterland to you as a romance like any other, I’d say the same about the work of both of these writers. They write truly beautiful love stories.
The first is Kelly Rand who is just a gorgeous, delicate wordsmith. For me, the stand out of all her works, is actually a short story called Pearl. It’s set in Prohibition era America, and it’s about a young woman called Edith, trapped in the stultifying routine of small town life, and Clark, a transman who awakens her to the possibilities of life. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric story that engages with a lot of complex issues in a deft and subtle way. Like a lot of Rand’s work, it feels very liminal, a moment from which many futures spiral, captured and held suspended for the reader. A completely mesmerising piece of writing.
The second is Alex Beecroft who mainly writes m/m historicals, although she has at least one contemporary in her catalogue. Like Rand, Beecroft is a breathtaking writer, and she has a real talent for evoking historical depth and detail. I love absolutely everything she’s written but, for me, I prefer longer works over her novellas, simply because I want to soak myself in the text and I tend to get pouty when her stories end after 35k words. So if you like historical romances, I’d start with False Colours – this is basically gay Hornblower, I don’t know what else I need to say at this juncture. If you’re prefer contemporary, then take a look at Shining in the Sun, which is an almost painfully fragile holiday romance between a man who has everything but freedom and a man who has nothing else. Also, it’s set in a gorgeously portrayed Cornwall and I enjoy UK-set romances.
What is the craziest or ugliest object in your house, and why do you keep it?
The strangest object in my house is probably my giant cuddly syphilis. Here he is:
As is so often the case, he was a present from a previous partner and I’ve carried him with me ever since. Sometimes, when people come to my house, I give him to them.
The reason my partner gave me syphilis was because I’ve always been very into the Restoration poets and I secretly believe a true gentleman should have syphilis.
Awesome people who have had syphilis (though not from me) have included: The Earl of Rochester (of course), Charles II, Beau Brummel, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Leo Tolstoy and Byron probably (but Byron had everything).
If there was a movie made about your life, what would it be called? (And just for fun, who would play you?)
I thought about this for way, way too long.
I think I’d like it to be called Robert de Niro’s Waiting and I’d like it to be a jukebox musical with music provided by Bananama. Not because my life has been anything like a jukebox musical but because I kind of wish it had been.
As for who would play me, for some reason after seeing Suz Brockmann pick Martin Sheen I sort of re-interpreted the second part of this question as “who would play you assuming it had to be an actor who appeared in at least one series of The West Wing.”
So, Allison Janney, totally. Triple threat, baby.
What is the best non-monetary gift you ever received?
I’m pretty fond of the syphilis.
If you had to pick one romantic scene or couple to recommend to a first-time reader of YOUR books, which would it be? (Any picks for romance novels in general?)
Um, I’m kind of new at this. I’ve only written, well, one book. So I might just skip this question or look very silly.