It’s Pride Month, and that means it’s time for me to reflect on how far we’ve come… nay… how far I’ve come in my life as an LGBT American, particularly of the gay, Caucasian variety. In my life, I’ve been more privileged than most. I have a family who loves and accepts both me and my husband. I have a good job, a nice home, and enjoy folks not treating me harshly in public because of my gender, my age, my ethnicity, or my sexual orientation. On the street, you would think me just your average straight guy.
As the protagonist in Dragon Age: Inquisition said (with no tact whatsoever), I can “pass.” But I’m not here to talk exclusively about my life as a gay American. I’m here to discuss some of the challenges and implications of being a gay author of gay fiction, most in uncommon niches and genres. I’m here to discuss #ownvoices literature, and that means I may ruffle some feathers.
I’ll break this into two parts, reader and writer. This post will be about me as a reader.
As a consumer of gay fiction, I am often struck by how few #ownvoices stories there are in the specific genres and niches I like to read. I’m mostly referring to all sorts of speculative fiction, from high fantasy to LitRPG/Gamelit to contemporary fantasy stories (urban fantasy, portal fantasy, folklore-comes-to-life sort of stories), to gay romance as a whole.
When I search for LGBT fiction to read, I often find three types of books:
1. Books by straight or gay authors featuring gay main characters as the hero and protagonist. These main characters are gay but that is not a driving force behind the story, even if it transforms the way the character interacts with others.
2. Books by straight authors categorized as LGBT fiction because they contain a single LGBT character or sex scene (not necessarily the main character, either).
3. Books by *mostly* straight female authors of M/M fiction veering away from romance into other genres and niches.
You can more or less tell the three categories apart by the covers. Category 1 books feature artistic covers that show you what the story is about, either through photo manipulation or custom art, sometimes featuring a love interest on the cover if a driving theme of the story. Category 2 features a lonely protagonist where the focus isn’t on the character, but on everything happening around them. And category 3, the problematic category, features ripped shirts, bulging pecs, massive triceps, and outright objectification/sexualization of the main character, some fully nude with text, shadows, or hands pulling a Burt Reynolds.
Categories 2 and 3 push my buttons. I have given many a one-star rating to authors in category 2, pointing out that simply having an LGBT character does not make it right to classify a book as LGBT fiction. This is just wrong, especially when the authors who do this are best-selling in their own right. This is dishonest to readers, and is a shameful thing to do, especially in a market where authors of gay fiction get inundated with negative reviews because they categorize their work with non-exclusive keywords (fantasy vs. gay fantasy). Nothing pisses me off more than buying a book I believe will feature a gay main character only to have it turn into a book about a horny sex fiend who happened to have a drunken tryst/threesome involving someone of the same gender (I won’t mention the author…).
As for category 3 books, I don’t know where to begin. Many of these are M/M romance in all but name only, whose authors think having supernatural devices in their stories automatically categorize them as gay fantasy. Lots of slavery. Lots of vampires. Lots of wolf packs. Plenty of Mpreg romances. Throw in some mermen, alpha and omega males, and you have the perfect recipe for a book that is effectively M/M. I don’t read many of these out of principle, but they all follow a template where the *usually* white, gay male character doesn’t save himself but is redeemed by love. Because he’s able to exhibit excessive levels of romantic feelings toward another character, love redeems him. He gets his HEA (Happy Ever After).
I understand why readers enjoy these books. I really do. This doesn’t change the fact that I’m often left feeling ostracized by these stories. I even remember when they first started becoming really popular. Right around 2008-2009. I recall it quite clearly. It was around the same time the owner of Calamus, a now-shuttered gay bookstore in Boston, lamented how he couldn’t possibly compete with the deluge of these affordable M/M fiction books online. This was also a few years after Lawrence V. Texas and a few years before United States V. Windsor, and when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still the law governing treatment of LGBT people in the US military.
It seemed like, almost overnight, the landscape of gay fiction changed. While I was busy marching for my rights with GetEQUAL and JoinTheImpact MA, #ownvoices literature was supplanted by a number of books that followed a template of what gay characters should be like when focused through a straight lens. I read a number of these books and found, in part due to my own expectations and biases, I could no longer relate to the gay characters. They were lacking that bit of extra spark forged from the author’s own experiences.
I witnessed contemporary fiction works where the MC didn’t have any of the same worries gay men should have. The characters felt hollow. Many of the authors claimed they took steps to create genuine gay characters, but something was missing. And the trope emerged that the characters were broken and needed to be redeemed by love. Sure, it was better than the “bury your gays” trope common in film and television, but it was still just as degrading.
I missed the genuine portrayal of characters flirting the way gay men flirt, worrying about being intimate in public, engaging in relevant discussions about gay rights in America, or passionately fighting alongside their love interest (in fantasy) to save the day. What I got instead were husks of characters who seemed too weak to save themselves and needed something or someone to rescue them. Fiction was supposed to reflect the world, right? So why didn’t this new wave of stories do that? Why were these characters no longer like me?
As if overnight, the market was inundated with muscle men, fit and flexible twinks, and stories so inundated with sex one wondered whether the characters enjoyed viagra smoothies. It felt as though these characters were in Provincetown Party Mode 24×7, and I felt alone. In a niche where readers were enjoying what was being created, why wasn’t I? Where had all the vibrant gay characters gone? Enter MIKA.
Like a heard of hungry bison, M/M authors have spotted this little tiny field we gay authors of gay fiction have started to cultivate. And they’ve started to stampede in. They say things to their readers like “If the definition of M/M romance is ‘writing for female readers,’ I am not an M/M author. I write gay fiction.” Then they all move in, following their leaders, and eat up all the grass.
Mind you, I am intentionally not calling out any single author when I write this. No single author is to blame and one author’s motivations for writing gay stories is not the same as another’s. It is the collective force of them all that makes it hard for me as a reader to find stories and characters I love and identify with.
It is like when my favorite gay bar in Boston turned into a haven for bachelorette parties. No one party could be blamed. But the girls with their penis lollies and their black and gold sashes and their dildo hats found a haven in the gay club and arrived en masse. The last time I went to Club Cafe in Boston, I counted five bachelorette parties, all screaming and waving their hands in the air, all competing for the stage and taking over the dance floor as their own, claiming the nearest sweaty gay man as their accessory for the night. They turned what was a safe refuge for us LGBT folks into a safe novelty for them. And obviously felt entitled to do it because they were “allies.” Because they were with “their gays.” And many of us were not intrigued by it. Just as I am not intrigued by the state of LGBT fiction today, and the struggle I experience as a reader to find gay characters I relate to.
In my next post, I will focus on my feelings as an author.