I do apologise for the long run of posts all about the m/m genre. It’s just I’m trying to process its … existence, I think, and my place in it. Or if I have one, or am meant to have one. I’ll go back to talking potatoes any day now.
This is a belated reaction to an interesting post by Kate Sherwood called “Any Lawful Impediment: Conflict in Romance (especially m/m).” Its central thesis, with which I broadly agree, is that a significant challenge for a romance writer is to present obstacles to the protagonists’ relationship which could be reasonably be diagnosed as requiring exactly one novel’s worth of action to overcome. She goes on to point out that, in a lot of m/m, homophobia fits the bill perfectly, but as society has become more tolerant and more accepting, it has become less and less plausible as a source of conflict (at least in contemps).
This is usually the bit when I say “where I disagree is…” but, actually, in this case I’m not sure I have a specific point of disagreement. I just think there are some ideas in the post that bear exploring in greater depth. In particular, I’d like to talk about the different sorts of conflict that keep couples apart in a romance novel, and the ways in which homophobia can fulfil the functions of those different sorts of conflict. And finally, I want to talk about how its ability to fulfil those functions changes as society becomes more tolerant.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Broadly speaking, I think you can define the obstacles or conflicts in a romance novel as either intrinsic (inherent in the characters) or extrinsic (inherent in the world). I don’t want to over-generalise, but I think often the sub-genres (paranormals, romantic suspense, historicals, and so on) tend towards extrinsic conflicts (he’s a vampire/she’s a werewolf, people are trying to kill them, he’s a lord/she’s a match girl) while contemps have a tendency to focus more on intrinsic conflicts. Contemp m/m is unusual in this regard in that homophobia often represents a source of extrinsic conflict and, to an extent, it’s one of the few sources of extrinsic conflict you can get away with in a contemporary romance set in a western, liberal democracy.
Both sources of conflict are easy to mishandle, although I think extrinsic conflict is more suitable to a broad brush style of storytelling. I think, strangely, the biggest pitfall of extrinsic conflicts is that they’ll often take the form of social taboos or, in some cases, actual laws or professional ethics guidelines, and there’s quite a good chance that a proportion of your readers will actually agree with the taboo that the characters are breaking. This is exactly the problem Kate had with The Only One Who Knows. If you want to write about a forbidden relationship, then you basically have two options: you either write about a social taboo that negligibly few members of your audience are going to agree with (like, nineteenth century social mores, or – assuming an m/m sympathetic readership – homophobia) or else you deliberately confront the reader with a relationship that has legitimate and potentially insurmountable barriers (psychologist/client, teacher/pupil, incest).
I think it’s this specific function of homophobia-as-conflict that is becoming less plausible in m/m. Obviously, there are a great many cultures and subcultures worldwide where being gay is still a massive taboo, but in a relatively cosmopolitan city in the industrialised, liberal west, a same-sex relationship is much less likely to face explicit, externally imposed obstacles than it was twenty years ago. And, interestingly, it occurs to me that part of the issue here is that the default setting for books actually tends to be quite limited even within relatively prosperous, English-speaking countries in the west. The vast majority of books set in modern England are set in London, not Newcastle, or Truro. It’s probably true that if you are a middle class university student or white collar worker in London or New York then you’re comparative unlikely to face the kind of explicit homophobia that makes a good source of extrinsic conflict. But that becomes much less true if you move away from the financial and cultural capitals. I think homophobia actually remains quite a strong source of extrinsic conflict in stories set in more traditionally conservative areas.
I still feel, however, that homophobia or internalised homophobia remains a very strong source of intrinsic conflict, but the challenges of intrinsic conflict are very different to those of extrinsic conflict. Extrinsic conflict goes wrong either because it’s ludicrously improbable, or because it genuinely seems legit. Intrinsic conflict goes wrong for much more subtle reasons that all add up to a lack of emotional plausibility. The baseline problem with internalised homophobia as a source of intrinsic conflict is that it’s very, very easy for it feel one-note and stereotypical: “I hate myself because I am gay.” “But I wuv you.” “I don’t hate myself because I’m gay anymore.” I think I would argue that, in order for homosexuality or homophobia on its own to be an emotional satisfying source of intrinsic conflict, it has to be grounded in a nuanced understanding of queer identity and experience. Which, I should stress, is not monolithic. And, indeed, I would suggest that an easy way to mishandle homosexuality as a source of intrinsic conflict is to assume that it is monolithic. That is, to assume that everyone’s angst about being gay is basically the same.
Weirdly and, this is no way to related to genre-romance, the best example I can think of to illustrate what I’m trying to say is Cyrus Beene from the TV show Scandal. No-one he interacts with is in any way homophobic towards him – even the really right wing Texan guy whose name I can’t remember – and he’s not in any way angsty about being gay qua being gay. But, because he lives in a society that is still, in fact, deeply heteronormative, being gay has circumscribed his ambitions, and shaped his life in a profound, and very personal, way. To put it another way, his arc is about him as a character, and being gay is part of that, but the important thing is that it remains a story about a man who is gay, not a story about a gay man.
This sort of intrinsic conflict isn’t going away any time soon. It’s probably worth remembering that we’re only just at the point where same-sex relationships are starting to get full de jure equality with opposite-sex relationships. This is to queer rights roughly what universal suffrage is to feminism. And, obviously, de jure equality does close down some plotlines and eliminate some sources of (extrinsic) conflict. Gay men no longer at risk of execution and, if you wanted that be plot point, you’d have to set your book in the past (although not that long in the past) and, to extend the women’s rights analogy, if you wanted to write a het romance between an MP and a suffragette you would, again, have to set it in a time before women got the vote. But the fact that same-sex couples can get married in a lot of countries now clearly doesn’t mean that same-sex relationships are seen as equivalent to opposite-sex relationships by all, or even most people. Any more than getting the vote meant that women were immediately seen as fully equal to men in all areas.
Same-sex relationships still face challenges that opposite-sex relationships don’t. Most of those challenges are no longer based in law and many of them are no longer based on socially mandated, systematic discrimination, but all that means is that prejudice is less overt, not that it has gone away. For example, it’s basically illegal in England to fire someone for being gay. But I was reading an article in the Times Education Supplement only a few months ago about a guy who’d been applying for a Head of Department job at a posh private school and one of the things he’d been asked at interview was “would you wife be willing to help at school functions?” to which he, of course, had to reply that he was sure his husband would. He did not get the job.
This is a very different kind of conflict because it is a sort of incessant, low key, grinding down. It’s being persistently reminded that when the world talks about loving, romantic relationships – or, indeed, marriages – they aren’t really talking about yours. I can see why that’s a much harder thing to turn into a dynamic, powerful conflict in a romance novel, but I think that’s its own problem. Extrinsic conflict provided by explicit homophobia is very easy to invest in. It provides a hero to root for and a clearly defined villain to defeat. Quiet, more everyday forms of homophobia or heteronormativity are comparatively invisible, and as a result they aren’t something the reader can set themselves up in opposition to. Institutionalised prejudice is not a compelling bad guy, and can’t be solved over the course of a three hundred page novel.
Of course, the other side of the coin here is that whether homosexuality and homophobia remain viable of sources of conflict or not, there’s also the question of whether it’s desirable for them to be the main source of conflict in a large proportion of m/m novels. Realism aside, society aside, progress aside, sometimes I just want to read a book with a gay protagonist where the thing that gets in the way of his relationship is that he’s a vampire, and he fancies a werewolf, or that space zombies are trying to kill him. Throughout this post, I’ve argued quite strongly that the experience of homophobia remains a reality for the vast majority of queer people but it’s important to remember that it isn’t an inherent and inalienable part of queer identity and queer experience. And, even though any contemporary romance is necessarily set in a heteronormative society, a book with gay protagonists doesn’t have to be about homophobia (intrinsic or extrinsic) any more than a book where the protagonist is a doctor has to be about medical ethics.
This clearly doesn’t mean medical ethics don’t exist, or that they’re no longer a potential source of narrative conflict, just that there’s more than one story to tell about doctors.