First, a little preamble.
I’ve written more than one thing that’s been marketed as M/M romance – including Line and Orbit (and I’ve alluded to my slight disagreement that that particular book deserves that particular label). But in fact I’m not especially comfortable with the idea of being an “M/M” author. I don’t like that I have that discomfort, and I wish I didn’t feel that way, and I recognize that feeling that way is also sort of problematic, but nevertheless it’s the way I feel. And a lot of that has to do with what I’m going to talk about next.
Simply put, I’ve come to feel – perhaps unfairly – that the “M/M” label doesn’t capture the diversity of the writing that I think I do and hope to do more of. I’ve written about gay men, lesbian women, trans* people, bisexual people, pansexual people, genderqueer people, and I hope to write more in the future about asexual people. I’ve also written about straight people. I try to include more than one part of the spectrum in any given story, when doing so is appropriate for that story. I prefer “queer” fiction or “QUILTBAG” fiction. I don’t like borders. I don’t like expectations of what something should be, which mean that it’s always going to risk failure in ways that have nothing to do with quality.
I understand that it is, first and foremost, a marketing label. But I think we should all understand that how things are marketed has major social consequences. It affects culture. It affects culture in ways that are not necessarily okay.
Enter Jesse Wave.
Read the pertinent post here. Well, how charming: The post has been deleted, but here’s a screencap. I don’t want to go into a lot of depth about the post itself but instead to outline some of my own problems with what’s going on in it. Essentially, Wave takes issue with what she frames as a recent influx of review copies of books that feature “on-screen” sexual content involving people who do not have penises, which violate her review policies. She characterizes such books as “disrespectful” to the genre as a whole:
Why are M/M readers treated so disdainfully? Are we not on par with het romance readers? M/M romance has been around for a decade, so why can’t our authors get it right? Clearly we are not respected because if we were this wouldn’t happen, and so often. Would authors insert graphic gay sex scenes in het romances? Not f*****g likely, unless the book is a ménage or a bi romance.
I think that characterization is a huge part of what’s gotten some people up in arms. If she had said that the submission of review copies that don’t follow the site’s guidelines was disrespectful, I think there would have been less of a backlash.
But anyway. There was the usual THIS IS MY SPACE response, and WRITERS CAN WRITE WHATEVER THEY WANT response, and I’m honestly surprised that the word “censorship” never came up, except maybe I missed it.
Look, here’s the thing: I don’t think the primary issue is one of policies or guidelines or labeling. I think it’s one of attitude. And yeah, I think there’s some misogyny all up in here, along with a tasty helping of trans*phobia.
Wave’s problem is that she’s reducing this entire thing to body parts and what happens when they get mashed together. For her, it comes down to sex acts. She claims that she’s fine with straight characters (or, I presume, bisexual characters or various combinations featuring trans* characters) engaging in romantic activity – provided that she isn’t exposed to the details of said activities.
That is really not okay.
The thing about homophobia is that, while the core of it is patriarchy, its visceral component lies in the reduction of all the nuances and complexities of erotic love to sex acts and then finding those sex acts icky. Straight love is fine because – at least traditionally, though this is starting to change – the social legitimacy of heterosexuality allows us to accept heterosexuality in forms that go above and beyond sex. Heterosexual relationships are not only accepted but assumed. They are the default. Being gay is about penises, and that’s where homophobia draws a lot of its visceral power from.
A great example of this can be found in a study done by CBS/the New York Times wherein 500 people were asked via phone survey whether they supported the open inclusion of “homosexuals” vs. “gays/lesbians” in the armed forces. The results were dramatic.
“Homosexual” includes the word “sex”. We hear it and we immediately think of queer sex acts. Which – because they challenge gender identity, because they challenge heteronormativity, because they challenge patriarchy – make people uncomfortable on the level of the gut.
The reduction of complex human identities to sex acts is essentializing. It’s dehumanizing. I’m guessing that most of us have heard someone at some point say something like “I have nothing against those gays. I just don’t want them flaunting it or anything.” Which really means I want them invisible. I don’t want to have to confront the fact that they exist because they threaten me.
If you’re okay with two gay guys walking down the street together but you freak out when you see them making out, yeah, I’m going to call you homophobic. Doesn’t mean you’re an awful person, but you do have some homophobia going on there and maybe you should look to it. By the same token, if you find lady parts viscerally icky – to the point where you say you want to be warned about it, to the point where you call it things like shocking – I’m going to go out on a limb and say you have some internalized misogyny happening.
By the way, that blew my mind: Some people in the comments in Wave’s post, including Wave herself, were talking about including warnings for non-gay male sexual content as though that content was triggering in the way that rape and excessive violence is. There followed a bunch of backpeddling and claiming that really it was just about labeling things for consumer reasons, but sorry, no: once the word shocking shows up, I don’t buy it.
[Addendum: It’s also worth pointing out something else that Wave doesn’t seem to understand at all, which is that sexual organs ≠ gender. You can be a man with a vagina. You can be a woman with a penis. You can be any permutation of any gender with any set of organs. So to assume that “gay” means “two penises” is just so cissexist that I can’t even.]
And no, claiming that it’s okay because the straights all do the same thing is not a good argument. It’s a stupid argument. It’s bad and the people making it should feel bad.
Of course, this is all problematized further by the fact that Wave is right about one thing: mainstream romance has been traditionally heteronormative, with gay relationships often made invisible or presented in ways that are less than positive. Because hey, that’s the entire culture. The culture is changing, and things are getting better in most respects, but there has indeed been a lack of space – for queer romance of all kinds, not just the gay stuff. So yes, the inclusion of straight romance in a book that’s focused on a gay romantic relationship isn’t quite the same thing as the inclusion of gay romance in a book that’s primarily focused on a straight romantic relationship. But you know? Anytime someone starts saying things like “keep your ____ out of my ____ because it SHOCKS ME” I get really uncomfy.
And you know what else? I think Wave’s attitude does readers of M/M romance a disservice. I think a tremendous number of them are way more open to variety and diversity than that.
I’m not saying that Wave has to change her review policy or that readers shouldn’t read what they want for whatever reasons they care to have. But again, we’re at the point where individual preference crosses over into the wider culture, and I think we need to have a conversation about it that rises above the level of I’M NOT A BIGOT I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. This is a great opportunity to be more self-reflexive than we really have to be, and to confront some difficult things. We’ll be better people for it. So will the genre. I want to be comfortable with the M/M label. I have high hopes that someday I will be.
For what it’s worth, a great response by Heidi Belleau can be found here. Sara York also has a good post on the problems with “disrespect”. LA Witt and Aleksandr Voinov weigh in and both are very worth reading.
Oh, PS: Wave – and others – don’t say “het”. Oh my God, do not say “het”. I immediately infer so much about you when you do, and none of what I infer is flattering.