Wednesday, July 3, 2013

More Than Just a Preference: women and trans* characters and why we should not warn for either in m/m romance

I have had this post kicking around in the back of my head for a while now, but after reading a couple articles I felt now was the time to write it.The article is how I feel on these particular issues and why. I realize that many, many readers/writes/publishers/professional reviewers feel differently. 

So here it is: I am made very uncomfortable by the line of thinking that goes the reader is always right. If the reader doesn't read what they wanted or what they were expecting on the page than that is the fault of the authors/publishers who are being disrespectful/dishonest.

Now as someone who reads, and reads m/m romance I have preferences. I am not a fan of instalove, I prefer not to read it. I prefer geek/geek pairings over the old geek/jock trope (and I'm probably the only one who does.) I don't love high school and university themed dramas (I had enough gay drama of my own in high school and college believe you me.)

So I understand about readers preferring some things over other things and liking to know about the book before they buy it. Although I would never say every author who writes geek/jock books is being disrespectful by doing so, because that in and of itself would be disrespectful.

There are some things though which I see as going further than being a preference or a labeling issue. It is around these issues where I get uncomfortable saying the reader is always right. Always. Full stop.

I want to talk about two of these issues here.

The first is trans* characters particularly characters who are transgender and men or otherwise identify themselves as men. I have been told that you need to warn for trans* men or not consider books with trans* characters to be m/m romance because some readers will get mad if one or more of the guys in the story aren't cisgender.

First off to those readers I say, this view is deeply wrong, unhealthy and harmful.

If both of my characters identify themselves as men and see themselves as being in a gay (or bi or pan) relationship in which there is two men falling in love and getting it on. I am going to consider my story to have two men, who are gay, fall in love and get it on. There are certainly differences in experience, the way the world views you ... etc which set cisgender gay men and trans* gay men apart but at the end of the day the are all gay men.

I fully realize that there are lots of readers who think m/m romance should only include cis-dick/cis-dick because everyone else are not "really" men. Saying you love reading about two hot guys getting it on but only of they're cisgender, and you will not having anything to do with a story if it includes trans* men, is not okay. As far as I can tell it is the same as saying trans* men aren't "real men" and thus can't be hot men.

The thing is thinking this is not a preference, it is a problem. It is problem which will have real life consiquences for these readers and for the people around them and the world in general. As I said above it is wrong, unhealthy and harmful.

I don't expect my fantasy romance novel will change the minds of people who think this. I am a. not making it easier to continue a mind set which is hurting them and our society though, and b. not being drawn down to their level and disrespecting both my characters and real living, breathing people like them by not labeling it m/m romance.   

So if my m/m romance story has one or more trans* characters who are also men having sex and falling in love.  I am not lying, or misleading readers, or expecting too much or being naive. My integrity remains intact and it is up to those readers to check themselves. Because they are not right, they are wrong. Full stop. End of story.

The second issue I want to address is female characters in m/m romance:

Let me be clear, my stories have women in them. They have women in every conceivable role, doing every conceivable thing. My stories have women who are trans*, women who are cisgender, women who are queer, and women who are straight, women who are pan/bi. Some of my women are more sexually active than my men, some of my women have taken a vow of celibacy and are quite happy that way. Some of my women take care of babies, some of my women kick ass, some of my women kick ass while taking care of babies. Truth.

And you want to know something? I know there are readers out there that don't like female characters in their m/m romance. I know there are some readers and writers who think it is perfectly fine to have an m/m romance with no female characters at all, not even one. I know there are some readers who recoil in horror at the idea of there being women having sex in m/m romance. There are some reviewers who use the phrase "girl cooties" to express how much they don't like women being sexually active in m/m romance. 

Again these attitudes are not preferences, they are problems. We live in a world where women are supposed to be uninteresting as compared to men, where they are suppose to get all the negative personality traits and their sexualities are seen as shameful, disgusting, and, confusingly, highly fetishized. All of this in our society is wrong, and horrible. It leads to death, discrimination, sexual violence and many many other wrong and horrible things.

So not wanting to read about women as characters at all, or believing women are boring, or thinking women should only be written as doing things for men, or wishing a female character would die, or being happy when she does, getting mad at the idea of having women have sex in a m/m romance novel or believing she is not worth of her own subplot isn't a preference, it's just wrong.

Again I won't be a part of allowing readers to continue to think like that. I am not going to say my stories will magically cure sexism but I'm not going to stoop to that level either. Assume when you read my books that they have women in them, and that those women may indeed have sex lives. Why? Because any world that could ever exist will have women and some of those women will have fully realized sex lives.

Saying this is not true, or wanting to portray a world where this is not true because you are afraid there might be a vagina or even worse you simply don't want to read about women, is not okay.

These are attitudes which do have real world consiquences for the readers who hold them, the people who have to live with these readers, and the world in general.

Just like with trans* characters  I won't be a party to a. allowing these readers to think like that or b. in some way, however small, allowing them to think that is an okay way of thinking -- that it is a preference, because it is not. A preference is preferring werewolves over vampires, steampunk over historicals, intercrural sex over anal penetration. Being glad that a female character died or hoping that she will because she is 'in the way' is sexism. 

I know there are readers, reviewers and authors out there that think all these things.

But you want to know something?

They are wrong.


  1. Oh my gosh, I heart you so hard right now. Yes, to ALL of this. I cannot stand the pervasive idea that the reader-author relationship is a one-way street (author serves reader, full stop). I hate that people think it's okay to support the rights of sexy gay men and not anyone else. I hate that women tout reading m/m fiction as a sign of embracing their sexual freedom, owning what turns them on, and then turn right around and cry out in disgust at the thought of a woman having--not to mention enjoying--sex. At what point can we say, "This is why people keep talking about the number of straight woman reading m/m fiction: because there's something flat out wrong with the way some straight women read m/m fiction"? At what point can we say, "This is no longer about supporting the community, learning and empathy; this is straight up objectification, and it's demeaning to the community, not helpful"? What's next, asking me to put on a warning label if a guy's not hot but dares to have sex?

    Ugh. So many things I want to say, but you've said the best and most important of them here, and you've said it well.

    1. thank you. There has been a flurry of posts about labeling recently. A lot of talk about what should and should not be labeled as m/m romance and a lot of talk about what should or should not be 'warned' for, or how publishers should or should not categorized books.

      There are definitely some cases where I'm like fine. You want there to be a erotic romance category instead of erotic or romance? Lets talk.

      There has also been a lot of talk about whether any sort of story with a trans* character should be labeled m/m romance at all or should have a totally different trans* genre label. The argument for not including trans* characters within m/m romance is that some m/m romance readers flip out over trans* characters. There has also been talk about whether or not female secondary characters SHOULD be in m/m romance at all. Or whether it is okay to have a story populated only by men. Someone always trots out "well readers don't like female characters in m/m romance" during these discussions. Of course now there has been the whole Jessewave thing.

      I felt like there were some core issues which needed to be addressed that weren't being addressed.

  2. Lovely post dear, you summed up everything perfectly and eloquently. I love reading your posts, they're always so well-written and thought provoking. What I think a lot of the readers complaining are forgetting is that these are BOOKS, not straight up porn. I really admire the books that lt3 publishes because they are about more than just the sex. They publish books in every conceivable genre, and a lot of them are sci fi, or action or fantasy that just happen to have a m/m romance instead of a f/m one. They are not just porn, they are fully realised novels with fully developed plots and characters, and they're designed to make you think. You never know quite what you're going to get when you crack open a novel, and that's a good thing. If you just want some cliche porn with a million labels detailing exactly what it's about, go read fanfiction (not that all fanfiction is like that, mind you, but plenty of it is). With an original novel, you have to expect hat their might be something unexpected, and you might like it better than you thought. The best thing to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. That's my opinion anyway. When I read that article, I was pretty appalled. Like it or don't like it, but authors are people, not customizable smut machines. We can and do write whatever we want, as much for ourselves as anyone else. If we tried to write something that everyone wanted, we'd fail miserably. End of the day, not writing exactly what you want does not equal disrespecting you.

    1. "You never know quite what you're going to get when you crack open a novel, and that's a good thing. "

      Yes. This.

      I have really mixed feelings about the whole label thing. On the one hand I understand that romance readers really like labeling books. Plus it's the norm in the genre so it would be hard to up and stop doing it.

      On the other hand science fiction, fantasy, and mystery don't come with a whole bunch of detailed labels about what exactly is in it. There are no warns in these genres. There is just an assumption that every reader will fend for themselves.

      I think it made be part of this larger issue where romance and m/m romance wants to be treated the same as any other fiction genre but at the same time doesn't treat itself like every other fiction genre.

      Either way it's not a simple subject.