LGBTQ History Lesson

I gave myself one, a few weeks ago ūüôā

I stumbled across a¬†post about Bayard Rustin¬†and it shocked me. First, I had never heard of this person. Apparently, he was a major player in the civil rights movement, but I certainly never¬†learned his name in school. Which I suppose shouldn’t surprise me. We only ever hear a handful of names, briefly focusing on only the most dramatic stories of what in reality was a long and multi-faceted movement.

652px-bayardrustinaug1963-libraryofcongress_cropSo, I spent an afternoon reading, doing research on Bayard Rustin. I learned he was openly gay (in the 1950’s!!), a pacifist, and a lifelong advocate for worker’s rights. The level of bravery and strength of spirit his accomplishments represent is amazing. It deserves remembrance.

I read a lot of negative material about Mr. Rustin, as well. His sexuality was a major point of contention in the civil rights movement. Black pastors and church leaders did not want to support him, and many feared he weakened the movement. His pacifism was another sticking point. Leaders like Malcom X insisted violence was a tool that should not be ignored, and thought Rustin was a fool for his nonviolent methods. Rustin was romantically linked to white men, which led to even more backlash.

Now, looking back on history, I think his contributions are clear. Though some¬†might not agree with his non-violent methods, many more applaud him for just that. His work for and with labor unions is certainly notable, as is his LGBT activism. But to me, what was most impressive was the fact he dedicated his life to activism on behalf of all people, knowing he faced opposition from so many sides. To fight alongside people who you know don’t fully support you requires an inner strength I cannot imagine.

At the Women’s march this past weekend, I know many women did something similar. Trans women marched alongside cis women who wore shirts and signs equating vaginas with womanhood. Black women walked beside white women whose feminism often excludes or simply ignores POC. I think they probably did it for the same reason Rustin did: the cause was bigger than their individual needs at the time.

I am grateful for what I’ve learned about Bayard Rustin. I’m going to use it as a starting point to learn more about LGBT history!¬†Hoping to post one each month here.

How about you? Do you know of¬†any “forgotten heroes” of LGBT history? I’d love to hear about it!

 

I might be crazy

Probably.

Latest evidence: this blog post.

Anyway, I got in a conversation today about the historical accuracy of my book. (When I say that, I mean that it was in the back of my mind and so I kept mentioning it because that’s the kind of dumb shit I do when I obsess over stuff.) So I found myself throwing facts out, intended to justify the characters I’d written and certain details of my story. (The person I was talking to was really very innocent. I was, in my mind, talking to all the people who have criticized the historic accuracy of these details. I should apologize to the actual person I was talking to.)

Then I realized what I was doing.

[deep breath]

Here’s the thing: nobody should be able to tell me what to write, or how to write it.

Romance, really, is a genre about fantasy. And the main thing I’ve learned from this experience writing historical romance is that one huge¬†fantasy in historical romance circles is¬†“forbidden love” or “taboo.” I guess I knew this. I’ve seen all those “Lord and the Laundress” type titles (please let there not be an actual book called the lord and the laundress) but in m/m it’s usually a “we’re dead if anyone finds out” kind of threat hanging over the MCs shoulders.

And the truth¬†is that kind of threat was, and continues to be, a reality for many people. It’s true. There are parents who disown¬†their kids for being gay. Absolutely. And there are many places where it is still extremely dangerous to openly challenge expectations of gender or sexuality. Some periods in history were even darker, though not many. Worldwide, we’re pretty bad now.

But there is also a lot of good.

I’m not ready to believe that at ANY period in world history, there was a time when every single parent and every single citizen would have participated in the killing or ostracizing of any and every QUILTBAG person. I’m sorry. The idea that there was a time when every single person would be willing to turn in their own child, and the state upon receiving said child would sentence them to death, and the citizens-all of them-would gather round and cheer…I can’t believe people think such a time existed! That is ludicrous!! Even more ludicrous to want to fantasize¬†about it, imo. (no kink shaming¬†intended)

Not every single person in any society thinks the same way. If this were true, slavery never would have ended here. Yet we’d never suggest that no white person in the 1800’s could possibly be accepting¬†of a black person, or that every single living soul in America who was not black at the time was a raging racist. That would be absurd!¬†And it wouldn’t fly – we loooove stories about the kindly white folks who treat their slaves/servants like part of the family. That, we find very “realistic.”

I¬†know that I could have written a story where the main character was constantly worried about being found out as a homosexual¬†(never mind that wasn’t a concept back then) and had to be super careful or he’d be hanged for his unnatural lust (never mind that America removed the death penalty for sodomy immediately upon gaining independence from Britain, and had rarely used it prior) and had been rejected by his family (never mind that would have been even¬†more socially damning than covering it up.) Yes, I could have written that, and it would have been an accurate historic possibility. But seriously, that’s not my kink.

Instead, I wrote a story where a main character is gay, and his two parents are somewhat accepting. Also, he has a best friend who knows, and still loves¬†him. (It’s only¬†privately known to these three people, he’s not “out” to the community or anything.)¬†I wrote a story where the character’s homosexuality is not a source of conflict for him. And I have received several reviews from people who say this detail threw them so much out of the story, broke their suspension of disbelief so powerfully, that the entire book fell apart for them. Because they simply could not believe that a parent in 1795 would support their child, if that child was a closet “sodomite.”

In every time period there are good people. There are people who love each other. Family, found family, neighbors, friends, co-workers: we always are making bonds. And parents love their kids, even when society does not. Every parent? No. But I’d like to think a somewhat decent amount of parents. Especially those who have raised and loved and cherished their child to adulthood. Good, kind people is also an accurate historic possibility.

I spend a lot of time and energy on my books. Every author does. And personally, I don’t want to spend energy¬†writing a story about how sad and horrible it is to be gay and how everyone hates all gays. Sorry, I just don’t want to focus my mental energy there. Similarly,¬†I don’t write contemporary stories about gay teens on the streets. Or about people who get beaten up walking home from a club after¬†they got a little too handsy in full view of the wrong drunk asshole. Or people who subtly get their work hours reduced¬†after mentioning their sexuality. I know these things happen, I know they make powerful stories that deserve to be told, I know many authors write them well. But I don’t choose to write about them.

I think it’s okay that I don’t want to write those things. I think I should be able to write whatever kind of story I want to write.

and… Because I have done a shit ton of researching on the subject at this point, I feel confident in saying it is not only “realistic,” but probable, that a set of middle class parents in 1795 would have been at least mildly tolerant of their son’s sodomite ways. Would theirs have been a common tolerance? I don’t know. I doubt it. But I don’t think it would have been very rare, either. I could throw a lot of facts around (because I’m obsessing) but instead, I¬†will throw this out there for consideration: Did any gay men survive undetected and get forced into a “straight” marriage? How about women in the same situation? Did they have children? Would they not be parents, too? Would they also call for their son to be hanged, if they found out he was gay like them?

If we can accept¬†it is possible, even if it’s rare, that a parent would tolerate¬†their child’s “crime” of sodomy, then why are we so eager to cover that up? Why do we, through¬†historical romance, perpetuate the idea that the past was so hostile? Why is it so easy for us to believe¬†homosexuality was¬†such a detestable, unforgivable crime? Is it to make ourselves feel better about how far we’ve supposedly come? Or is it that, when people reach for a historical m/m romance, what they are really wanting and expecting is the titillation of taboo¬†sex?pic1

Whatever the reason, the result is a continuation of the erasure of QUILTBAG history. There were QUILTBAG people all throughout history, in every country and during every time period. They existed and oftentimes thrived, even in unfriendly circumstances. They contributed to society and they had families and even communities who loved them. Just like they do now.

I want to write about those people. I realize this means my story will not mesh with many popular fantasies about the past. But I¬†don’t¬†write those fantasies, I write mine.

I think a good video on this topic is¬†Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s¬†“The Danger of a Single Story” which I highly recommend viewing. ¬†


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.

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historic accuracy

Or lack thereof.

That is my current battle. I’m writing a very lightly-historic Romance, and I keep running into a problem: facts¬†versus assumptions.

tumblr_leditrP8gt1qfdru5o1_500
‚ÄúLa Fraternit√© des peuples‚ÄĚ 1883. by Aim√©-Jules Dalou on the Town Hall, Paris

There are many instances where the things we assume to be true about history, the things we read in other fictional works, are not historic truth. And so I’m left with a¬†dilemma. I’ll explain.

My story is a male/male romance, set in the very late 1700s. (I never pinpoint a date, but I’m using 1790 as a reference point for my research) One of the issues that has come up is how acceptable “gayness” was then. Obviously, I have no idea. I’ve read that earlier, in the “golden age of piracy,” there were a lot of openly gay pirates and sailors. Among pirates, there were legal same-sex unions (though whether or not these were sexual in nature is unclear.) And obviously there have been same-sex unions throughout history. However, lots of critiquers have brought up the fact that my characters should be more “closeted,” as if the current level of tolerance is a modern thing. My research has not been exhaustive, but I’ve done enough to know that while homosexuality may not have been widely accepted, it was¬†certainly a fact of life then, as it is now. (It is actually kind of sad to realize that social progression in this area is totally non-linear. There were many time periods which were more open and accepting than we are now.) So as a compromise, I’ve given my characters a healthy caution, but no self-hate or shame.

footbath
FRANÇOIS BOUCHER (PARIS 1703-1770) A YOUNG WOMAN TAKING A FOOTBATH

Another thing which has given me some grief is cleanliness. There is this idea, which is repeated in so many historicals, that people of the 18th century were disgusting, never bathed, and basically just didn’t care about hygiene. This is downright ridiculous, but as recently as last year I picked up a romance which perpetuated the same nonsense. Sure, bathing (as in full body immersion) might have been a rare and difficult thing, and laundering clothing was a much larger challenge, but I hardly think that means people did not wash at all. I accept that the level of stink in 1750 was more pungent than in 1950, but reject the idea the entire world was¬†nose-blind.

So then… what to do? Do I keep everything accurate, and hope that anyone who questions it will do some research of their own before criticizing me? Or¬†do I gloss over the details, and avoid the problem all together? I refuse to knowingly perpetuate inaccuracies. Should¬†I add in yet more historic detail to support my character’s actions?

So far, I have been able to get by through avoidance. My book is a Romance, not a history lesson. But I don’t want people thinking my characters are acting oddly. And I DO want readers to be immersed in the story, to believe they are reading events taking place in¬†a period of time long gone.

I am at the final polishing stages of the draft now. So this is when I really have to be sure all those details read smoothly. Any advice is appreciated!