Oppression as Inspiration

So someone on facebook yesterday made a comment asking about the continued appeal of m/m Romance in the face of growing LGBTQ* equality. It was a fair question, even if it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t really address the parts of the post that bothered me on facebook, but I have been thinking about it and I’ve realized this same issue has surfaced a bit in my upcoming release, and so I thought a blog post was in order.

The post in question was by a very nice author who was just sort of thinking-out-loud, I’m sure, so certainly I don’t mean this as an attack, but the basic post was: “…Let’s face it, we had a vast reservoir of material for angsty storylines. Now, not so much. While there are still critical challenges facing GLBT youth as well as trans men and women (some of which result in unspeakable tragedy), the level of persecution has significantly declined. Are readers less invested in our stories because of this? …. I just can’t help but wonder how m/m romance writers are going to maintain the genre’s original appeal…” I didn’t really touch those questions in my response. Instead I talked about sales, I read the other replies, and I also checked out this blog post that sort of asked a similar question.

iStock_000035746746SmallAll day today I thought about the use of anti-gay sentiment as a conflict source for m/m Romance.

It isn’t something that I care for, and I guess I didn’t realize just how popular it is with readers and writers. Personally, I don’t want to read stories where a gay kid gets kicked out of his home, or beaten up, or bullied. I know it happens, I know it is horrible, and I’m not pretending it doesn’t exist. I’ll read about it in the newspaper or talk about it with other parents, it just isn’t something I want to read about in my romantic fiction. I read Romance as an escape, and I want a fantasy. Maybe that is lame, but it’s the truth.

It’s also not something I feel comfortable writing. In my soon-to-be-released historical Romance, a few beta readers suggested that there wan’t enough angst related to the character’s “gayness” and that maybe I should kick that up a notch. I didn’t, and here’s why:

  • It isn’t my truth to tell. I am not saying you can’t write what you haven’t lived, but that kind of thing falls closer to “gay fiction” than Romance, to me. I can write about love, and sex, and emotional connections all day long. Those things are universal and I understand them. But being rejected because of who you choose to love? No. That’s a line I can’t cross. It feels too much like appropriation. (Nothing against those who do write it, this is a personal decision.)
  • I have no frame of reference. Even if I wanted to write it, I’ve got nothing. All the gay men I know had a fairly good “coming out” story. I don’t personally know anyone who was kicked out of their family for being gay, or gay bashed, or anything like that. (Or if I do, they’ve never spoken of it to me.) I DO know about microaggressions, and the subtle disapproval that parents can direct toward their LGBTQ* kids. I know about teasing and exclusion, and all the ways people can be quietly hurt. Those things I can write with truth, and sometimes I do.
  • It isn’t what drew me to the genre. I am not a “slash fic” reader. I don’t care for fanfic. The “forbidden love” element of m/m is not at all exciting to me. If anything, it kind of turns me off. I realize this is just my personal taste, but an entire story where the conflict stems only from society’s unwillingness to accept the gay MCs is not a story I care to read or write. (Again, no offense intended if this is anyone’s preferred plot.)
  • I prefer to write positive things. Okay I know this sounds really stupid, but when I write things, I am thinking about them a lot, giving them a lot of attention, and really almost celebrating them. So I don’t write about things I don’t want to celebrate. Maybe it is like ignoring bad behavior in the hopes that it will just go away. And maybe it is weak of me. But I don’t want to write about a world where such horrible things happen. I want to write about the good parts of life. Every book is like a little world I have created. I don’t want to create shitty worlds. We already have a shitty world. I’d rather make a better world, even if it is fictional. (I’m not judging if you like reading/writing darker stuff. Just talking about me here.)

So then I’m left wondering: Is the forbidden love trope one that draws a lot of readers to m/m? Is it really that big? How many people read m/m strictly for the “taboo” of it? And I guess I’m also wondering if this is a tiny part of what drew me to m/m so long ago. I was really young when I first started reading m/m stuff, and it was mostly erotica back then. Was the “forbidden” an element of my attraction to it? I don’t remember! What if it was? What does that mean, for me? (besides the fact I’m old and have a bad memory)

Anyway, I am grateful to the person who posed the original question on facebook. I think it is always good to explore the reasons we write (and read) what we do, and I will certainly continue to think about this issue.

13 thoughts on “Oppression as Inspiration

  1. I hope it’s not appropriation or ignorance when I write about stuff beyond my personal experience or the experiences of people I know personally! I wonder if I should worry.
    On topic, though, there is soooo much more to the experience of any person’s sexual orientation than just whether other people approve.

    • I agree! I also feel that orientation is only one facet of sexuality. People have different preferences and needs when it comes to emotional intimacy, physical touch, monagomy/not… there are all kinds of things that make us who we are in romantic relationships.
      Definitely a lot more grist for the mill than socialized self-hate.

      And I certainly don’t think it is wrong to write outside our experiences. There wouldn’t be much to write about if we all limited ourselves that way!
      I only meant that when writing about the experiences of an oppressed group, a little more sensitivity isn’t a bad idea.

      Of course, if you’re writing LGBT characters, you’ll probably touch on oppression. To ignore it completely would be unrealistic in many settings. But to use it as the only source of conflict, or the major plot and subject of your story? To me that is over the genre line into gay fiction. And I feel like gay fiction should be the domain of gay authors.
      Now, maybe this feeling is baseless and silly, but I can’t shake it.
      And again, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m not claiming to be “right.”

      • Why should gay fiction be the domain of gay writers only? I mean, I write crime fiction, and no one has suggested that should be the domain of criminals. And why is gay fiction different from gay romance in terms of who is allowed to write it?

      • Well, marginalized groups are not just any other group. It’s not like saying “I wrote about a plumber and I’m not a plumber.”
        As an outsider, and one who does not personally share in the oppression experienced by LGBT people, I don’t feel comfortable representing that group.
        I’m not saying no one can do it or that is never can be done well, but just that I don’t feel it is right, for me.

        Romance is universal. It is outside of gay fiction, because by definition it is a fantasy, an idealized love story. Gay fiction is not a fantasy. It is a reflection on the experience of living as a gay person. And that is not something I personally feel I could comfortably or accurately write.
        Again, just me personally.

      • Would you say a man could never write about a woman? They’ve got privilege and haven’t experienced sexism firsthand. They don’t personally share in the oppression experienced by women.
        This is fiction. I never pretend to be the person in my books or pretend that they reflect my personal experiences. Fiction takes us to places we’d never be able to visit otherwise. If all I was allowed to write about was being a relatively privileged white housewife, that would be very unfortunate.

      • I’m not saying I am not “allowed” to write gay fiction. Just that I personally am uncomfortable with doing so.
        And I would never tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t write.

        But yes, a man writing “women’s fiction” would make me extremely uncomfortable. That is entirely different from a man writing a female character.

      • Are you considering writing gay fiction? I wouldn’t categorize anything I’ve read of yours as gay fiction. Is that how you plan to market it?

      • What would you consider to be gay fiction? Mine is about gay guys. I would have thought that made it gay fiction. There’s some elements of societal oppression if that’s the defining factor. Is it?

      • Is it about being gay? Is the societal oppression the only source of conflict? Is it a coming of age story about a gay character? Is the entire story centered on the character’s sexual identity?
        Or are you writing a story with a character who happens to be gay?
        I write gay men, too. And sometimes there are elements of societal oppression. But my plots are romantic.

      • I don’t think social oppression is ever the only thing in someone’s life. But yes. It’s a coming of age story of a bisexual man. His sexual identity is part but not all of the story.

      • Ah, so now I understand your animosity toward my opinion.
        For the sixth? seventh? time, let me repeat: this is only my personal opinion. I am not saying no one should write gay fiction if they themselves are not gay. It is something that feels wrong TO ME.

        I am also not an expert on what constitutes “gay fiction.” Maybe someone would consider my stories to be gay fiction. I don’t know.
        For me, gay fiction are the stories by and about gay people, where their sexuality is foremost in the plot and story (not a sideline or a detail, but driving the entire story) I don’t feel comfortable writing that.
        I do, however, feel comfortable writing characters who happen to be gay.

        There are plenty of gay stories written by people who are not gay. Some have become classics and are highly regarded. (brokeback mountain is one I can think of off the top of my head.) So I don’t think you need to feel uncomfortable about it as long as it feels right to YOU.

        Recently I stumbled across this post: http://www.stacylwhitman.com/2012/11/02/nanowrimo-resources-diversity-in-your-nano-writing-cross-culturally/ which has some good links to explore. I’d also advise spending some time in gay fiction spaces: subscribe to blogs, join goodreads groups, etc. just so that you can get a feel for what is being produced in the genre, and are able to listen to the readers and writers of gay fiction.

        From what I’ve read of your work I don’t think it is what I’d consider gay fiction, necessarily. But I have not read all the way to the end of either of your novels. What I have read doesn’t seem to be driven by either of the MC’s sexuality. Though since it is “literary” and there are LGBT characters, I can imagine it might get categorized as gay fiction, at least by some.

      • If it’s that sexuality is the driving factor in the story, then I’d think romances would count. Certainly the experience of sex, love, and relationships is driven by one’s sexual orientation, and stories about sex, love, and relationships are very much tied up in one’s identity. Fundamentally understanding and experiencing a character’s sexual orientation and identity seem essential for writing about relationships. But of course I’m not a romance writer, I don’t really know.
        However, it seems like it’s getting to be a question of semantics what is gay fiction. I guess I’m going off of what you might find on Amazon’s literary fiction LGBT page or on a college course syllabus, since that tends to be the kinds of books I read.
        Anyway, it was a really interesting blog post, and thank you for humoring my contentiousness 🙂

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