Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the Presumed Heterosexual Cisgender Audience and Writing LGBT Romance

This whole argument that only straight cisgender women write and read LGBT romance needs to stop.

First of all there is no evidence that this is true, there has never been any widespread surveys done on either the readership or writers of LGBT romance. The largest statistical survey of romance readers was done by Romance Writers of America, and did not include data on sexual orientation or gender identity. Small survey attempts have been limited and inconclusive. While anecdotal evidence would call a cishet majority into question.

Therefore the assumption that any branch of LGBT romance is prominently written/read by straight cisgender women is questionable at best.

And here is the thing, the vast majority of the time when this assumption is brought up it is in the context of shutting down conversations about diversity, GLBT politics, representation, fetishization, sexism and racism within romance.

Usually this argument goes "well this is what sells because this is what these cisgender heterosexual women want to read. I wish it were different but if you want to sell books you just have to put your ideals aside and get back to writing bare-chested firefighters."  This is a problem because it supports the status quo and shuts down important conversations that need to happen. It also paints cisgender, heterosexual writers and readers in the worst possible light, as more interested in getting off than being allies.

Over the last three years that I have been actively writing in the romance genre I've come to the conclusion that this argument and assumption just needs to end. Whether or not it is based in any kind of statistical reality, we need to stop relying on it.

Not only does it shut down important conversations that need to happen but it also automatically assumes LGBT people are outsiders in a genre that deals primarily with representing them. It also assumes that the most important voices in the LGBT romance community are cisgender heterosexual ones.

For instance a lot of m/m romance publishers assume their readers and authors will mostly be cisgender heterosexual women with some gay cisgender men thrown in and the language they use reflects this. A lot of presses that started out as het romance publisher and have since branched into GLBT romance also use language that presumes cisgender heterosexuality. As does some presses that started out as m/m romance presses and became GLBT romance presses. Review blogs that started out or focus on m/m romance also often uses language rooted in this assumption. As does a lot of general romance, m/m romance or LGBT romance blogs.

Language is important. Inclusive language is something I look for when trying to tell if a publisher, blog or community will be welcoming and safe for me as a queer author and queer person. It doesn't really matter how many rainbows you plaster onto your website, if you participate in homophobia awareness events, or post lots of pictures of gay men kissing. If the language used is homophobic, transphobic or reads like this is a cishet only clubhouse it's going to give me pause. Or it may make me back off and not want to be part of that space all together.  

For instance when I first came into the m/m romance community the phrase "chicks with dicks" was used a lot. Publishers used it, reviewers used it, authors used it. Now I've been in fandom, I've written fanfiction, I know that's where it comes from. On the other hand the phrase itself is incredibly sexist, marginalizes both cis and trans effeminate men and vilifies trans women.

Right from the beginning it's common use make me, as a effeminate trans dude, extremely uncomfortable, and made the space of m/m romance seem unwelcoming and unsafe for someone like me. Luckily people began to voice concerns with it's use, as did I once I was no longer a newbie, and it has since widely stopped being used. But these kinds of language choices that actively marginalize LGBT authors and readers should not be a part of the LGBT romance community at all.

What would cut down on these kinds of language issues I think is if publishers, reviewers, bloggers and authors would stop assuming a cisgender heterosexual majority.
I truly don't think right now the majority of publishers expect all or even the bulk of their authors to be GLBT identified. I think their language reflects this and because for most LGBT people being cautious is a matter of safety, it becomes self-fulfilling. On the other hand I've watched publishers who changed their language to become more inclusive and emphasized a full spectrum of LGBT romance gain dozens of GLBT identified authors.

This doesn't just go for publishers but for writers too. Take that whole narrative of straight cis women liking sexy men and two sexy men being better than one, put it in a box and bury it in the backyard. Because when we write romance novels about queer people assuming our audience is completely or mostly cisgender heterosexual we run the risk of doing several things that are kind of a problem.

First Othering and alienating actual queer people and queer experiences. By assume your readership is straight than you can more easily end up having a large part of your romance being about explaining what it's like to be queer to people who have never had that experience. Which says to those of us who live with those experiences everyday 'this book isn't meant for you.'

In fact there is an unfortunate tendency within contemporary gay romance to 'explain' to the readers that not all gay men are music theater loving hairdressers. It is not something any queer person needs to be told and quite frankly shouldn't be something straight people need to hear either.  Yet it is so common multiple queer romance authors, completely independent of each other, have come up with special terms to refer to it. Laylah Hunter calls it the "Broadway musical moment."

Reading something like this pulls me out of the story and tells me I am reading something that isn't for me despite the fact that it is supposed to be about me. It feels like I've just walked into some straight fantasy of what my life should be like instead of representing any kind of reality I inhabit.

Which brings me to the second risk of writing LGBT romance for a presumed straight heterosexual audience, you become much more likely to fetishize queer people. Because queer people in stories aimed at cishet people are often not reflective of queer experiences or exploring queerness, they become much more of an exotic subject for people to live out their fantasies through. They become objects usually only defined by their sexuality and physical attractiveness.

Consider these very common statements:
The only thing better than one hot men is two hot men having sex with each other.
Why would I want to read a gay romance about men who aren't hot?
Why would I want to read a sex scene if there's no dick?
The reason straight women like gay romance is because straight women like dick.

The accusation of fetishization gets thrown around the m/m romance community a lot, and often in pretty sexist, and even transphobic/homophobic ways. BUT it is important I think for straight cisgender readers and writers to think very critically about the way they talk about queer bodies and queer sexualities within this community.

I am not saying this always happens when gay romance or any other kind of LGBT romance is written for a cisgender heterosexual audience. But it is a lot easier to reduce a gay couple down to the fantasy of two hots guys, a lesbian couple to two hot chicks, and trans people into sexual fetishes when you assume the actual people represented will not be the primary audience for these books.  

Speaking directly to a queer audience will limit the amount of time a writer will spend describing queer identity and queer bodies as strange, exotic or Other. It also becomes a lot harder to fall into the trap of dehumanizing a gay, lesbian or otherwise queer couple, if you write with the intention that the majority of readers will be themselves queer.

I also think speaking directly to a presumed queer audience will encourage cisgender, heterosexual authors to police themselves, and think critically about their internalizing homophobia, transphobia and their privilege. 

Another issue with a presumed heterosexual cisgender audience is that it puts pressure on out queer authors to write about queerness in certain ways that might not feel authentic or only write about say, gay men, rather than queer women or nonbinary people. It also teaches a heterosexual readership that they can demand certain things from queer authors and are entitled to get them. That if there is queer romance authors writing LBGT romance our experiences and our voices must always come second to heterosexual cisgender voices and experiences.  

I can't count how many times I've been told or watched queer author friends be told "all gay romance is written by straight cisgender women for straight cisgender women." Thus denying the identities and very existence of all queer authors, privileging straight authors over queer ones, books written for straight readers or queer ones, and stopping conversations about queer voices within LGBT romance from even happening.

I don't know how many times I've voiced my opinion as a queer trans person only to be told "Yes, but most readers are ..." the heterosexual cisgender majority myth again. The assumption is this is the voice with the buying power, thus this is the voice we should be listening to. The reality being cishet comfort or personal taste is privileged over queer experiences and opinions.

This is how I ended up being lectured by a cishet man who was mad that I chose to write lesbian sex in a way different from what he found most appealing. Or how I get told that because cishet women don't like vagina I can't write about trans men and call it m/m romance. This is how the queer identities of a huge number of authors get erased every time the whole 'women can't write gay men' argument gets brought up.This is how we end up with situations where trans authors are forced to 'prove' they are not really 'women pretending to be men.'

In fact the whole controversy around trans men as characters gay romance does not stem from all straight cisgender women (or cisgender gay men) being against trans inclusion. But because the ones that are know that their voices will be privileged because they are automatically assumed to speak for the majority.
read from the bottom up
Because this is the thing, queer people are actively oppressed by cisgender heterosexual society. Trans women are murdered, queer kids are forced to live on the streets, queer women are raped, people loose their jobs, their homes and their families because of homophobia and transphobia. That is the reality of the world we live in.

LGBT people don't have adequate representation, they don't get to see themselves heroes, don't get to see themselves has being deserving of happy healthy relationships, or non-judgmental partners, they don't get happy endings.

That's what romance brings, a chance for LGBT people to see themselves reflected in narratives that aren't solely tragic.

What kind of an industry are we to turn around and cynically say "but you don't matter. It isn't about you, or your happiness, or your pleasure." Because that what is really being said when someone says  "our readership is cisgender heterosexual so this is the way things need to be" instead of talking about issues of diversity, fetishization, and language. 

It says, we know these books are supposed to be about your but your not as important as the presumed cishet readership.
 LGBT romance needs to first and foremost be about LGBT people. Even if we were to one day do a wide spread comprehensive survey and find that the majority of LGBT romance readers are indeed cisgender heterosexual people that shouldn't matter.

We cannot continue to write, publish, market and form communities under the assumption of a heterosexual cisgender majority. Because when we do we assume heterosexual cisgender needs and opinions come first, they carry the most power, they count for more. We should never ask or expect queer authors to cater their narratives to a cishet audience.

We can no longer continue this behavior where we hold the specter of a heterosexual cisgender readership over the heads of authors who want to write alternative kinds of queer bodies, transgender characters, non-penetrative sex or even female characters.

We can not privilege cisgender heterosexual voices, desires and tastes over queer authors, readers and politics.

We cannot say "all LGBT romance authors and readers are straight cisgender" and erase the queer identities of the authors (especially female authors) already working in these communities, the readers already buying our books. 

40 comments:

  1. This is really, really good and thoughtful, and I will be sharing widely. Thanks.

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    1. thank you I'm glad you found it interesting and clear. And thank you so much for sharing it.

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  2. For me it's all about the conflict. I like reading - and writing m/m & f/f romance because the barriers the characters need to work through are real and meaningful - issues of personal identity and societal restriction. It makes me sad to think my appreciation for a genre could potentially marginalize the people who are living the experience. I won't always get it right, but I hope my attitude is more about celebration than anything else.

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    1. I don't think the attitude should be cisgender heterosexual people shouldn't read or write LGBT romance. But instead that we shouldn't assume they are the majority or the most important voices within the genre.

      I personally know a lot of really amazing cishet authors in these genres, that think really deeply and critically about all sorts of things including gender and sexuality. I've read books by cishet authors with images of queerness I, as a queer person, really identify with.

      But I also think there is a sense of ownership among some, maybe even most, cishet readers and writers of this space that I think can and has become a problem. Further I think people making assumptions, without meaning to, about who they are writing for or publishing has lead to some unfortunate language use, writing styles and marketing strategies.

      I've never been one of those people who think cishet people shouldn't write or read LGBT romance in fact I'm willing to stand up strongly for their right to do so.

      I just think we all need to be more mindful of the underlying assumptions we make.

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    2. I see E.E. as saying (and absolutely agree) that the question isn't whether or not cishet authors and readers should be "allowed," but rather, who's space is LGBT romance first and foremost? Who rightfully "owns" it? Whose voice is the most important within it?

      If it's cishet space in which actual LGBT people are merely guests in a space defined by stories (purportedly) about *our* lives, relationships, and sexualities, then it's appropriative, fetishistic, and oppressive. If it's LGBT space in which cishet people are guests with whom we share the opportunity to create and enjoy stories about our lives, relationships, and sexualities, it's none of those things.

      So obviously, the morally acceptable answer is that the LGBT romance genre should be understood as an LGBT space. That doesn't mean cishet people aren't welcome or valued participants. It only means that, as guests in someone else's space, it isn't their place to demand that the space cater to their own desires before or above the LGBT community's needs.

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    3. thank you Jake, you just boiled down into three paragraphs exactly what I was arguing in the post :)

      I think you are absolutely right. It is that LGBT romance should be queer space, and although I firmly believe that cishet authors and readers should be welcomed there needs to be an understanding that they are guests in a space not their own.

      I think you put it very well and thank you so much for commenting.

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  3. Excellent post, thank you. There's no such thing as too much critical thinking when you're writing about LGBTQ people.

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  4. This is a really great post, thank you. I have found this whole thing confusing and frustrating, to be honest. It hasn't helped that I appear to be, on the surface, a cis-het woman, but the truth is I am none of that on the inside. It hasn't helped to feel I'm probably considered 'proof', as it were, that it's mostly cis-het women writing male-male romance - when I know from my own experience that it's all far more complex than that. A person's truths aren't always self-evident, and I'm all for recognising that in 'real life' as well as exploring that in fiction.

    Thank you again for the thought-provoking post!

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    1. I guess I could qualify here that when I talk about a cishet readership/writer-ship I'm not talking about people who might be perceived as cishet but how people self identify. If you're not a cisgender heterosexual person than you're voice isn't going to be adding to the problem unless you're actively trying to silence other queer people.

      More importantly I think the assumption most people make that there is a cishet majority within GLBT romance (something I actually doubt is true) is what I want to address. The fact that we might lump queer writers/readers in who are the closet into a cishet category because if they're romance writers/readers and not out and proud than they *must* be cishet I think is a symptom of this assumption.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and I'm glad you found the post useful.

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    2. As a cis bi woman who writes f/f (and occasionally other stuff) under a pen name but is shy and semi-closeted in "real life" and frequently mistaken for straight, I feel the same way...and I'd like to thank you both for pointing out that not all queer people (in or out of the LGBT romance community) are out or obvious.

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  5. Really interesting and thought-provoking post, EE. I almost wish it could be separated into pieces, because there's a lot hear to discuss. (Maybe people can set up another queer romance blog series where we can talk about these topics--because they are tough and complex. A couple things I pondered while reading:

    1- Discussing Privilege--I found privilege really hard to understand unless you're directly affected about it. It's hard for people to, say, wake up in the morning and realize their privilege, whether if it's based on race, sexuality, economics, background, abilities, etc. They have to really face it and think about it to start to realize it, and then start to break down those feelings (of feeling bad if they have more privilege, of feeling powerless to change things, etc.)

    The more we discuss, hopefully the more pondering will go on, as well as exercises, like what if we added a queer lens to things like Unpacking the Invisible Backpack (http://boingboing.net/2012/01/16/unpacking-the-invisible-knapsa.html) or the Step Forward, Step Back Racial Equity exercise (http://www.scribd.com/doc/233399550/Step-Forward-Step-Back-Racial-Equity-Activity) and does that help to start to build a picture of what queer readers face as opposed to straight readers? e.g.:

    - I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my sexuality widely represented.

    - I am never asked to speak for all the people of my sexuality group.

    - I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

    - Do I come from a sexuality group that has ever been considered by scientists as “inferior"?

    - Have I been called names or harassed because of my sexuality?

    It's a super complicated issue, and very similar to other groups that feel and are marginalized (race, religion, disabilities, etc.) Not to say we shouldn't talk about it, but looking at these other groups helps me understand why it's so hard, why it's so important to keep discussing, and also, why it's important to keep bringing people to the table to discuss.

    2- I think partially the image of a straight audience is reinforced because there are more straight spaces (online and in-person) to celebrate romance (RT, RWA, etc.) To help increase awareness of queer readers and writers within the genre, I think it's really important to keep pushing into those spaces as well as create more queer-friendly spaces. But that image of who the audience is won't disappear unless there's more active inclusion (as well as "invasion") to say, "I'm here!" This puts more expectation on spaces to change, but also for queer readers and writers to enter into those spaces. Mostly straight spaces won't change unless there's active involvement/participation/support/motivation for change, and a great motivator is going into the spaces and being visible and active and "I'm not going away!". (<----This can take a lot of work, can be tiring, frustrating, and "why am I doing this?", but is really important if the end goal is better representation and understanding. If we only set up queer-only spaces, there's no reason for mostly-straight spaces to change.)

    - TTG (and continued below. I got cut off!)

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  6. Continued!!

    3- Hot People in Romance - I think this issue (Hots dudes in Gay Romance, Hot Ladies in Lesbian Romance, etc.) isn't a limiter on just queer romance, but is a characterization/demand on the overall romance genre, straight, queer, etc. This is why we have subgenres for romance with women who aren't skinny, because they needed to make something that wasn't part of the majority of what's published. We can come down on this, sure, but this is an issue across the board. Queer romance gets it in a different way once you start talking about stories with gender queer characters/bodies, or characters that are more butch or femme in genres that the majority buys in the opposite, but it's still part of a broader issue where any "different" body that isn't super hot/fantasy is less than. That's also an issue that is faced within the queer community--the accepting and embracing of the many different queer bodies and how not everyone is that perfect 20-year old cis-gendered person.

    Lots to think about! As someone who works on this stuff, I'd like to hear ideas what people would like to do/see changed and how they would like to go about it. Like, what's on people's Queer Romance Action Plan? Or what's on your wish list? From there, we can help build on these discussions into goals. - TTG

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    1. Thank you for your very long, and very well thought out and articulated reply! :)

      I think your right there does need to be lots of further discussion about privilege in the romance community in general. Specifically in GLBT romance better understanding of what heteronromativity is and how cishet privilege works. But I know there has been a fair amount of resistance to having that discuss already. It's something we need to keep chipping away at I guess.

      I think I've seen Unpacking the Invisible Backpack modified to talk about cishet privilege but I don't remember being that impressed by that version of it. Still I agree these kind of tools are useful for addressing the issue with groups that may never have been challenged to think in that way before.

      I totally 100% agree that we need to keep pushing into primarily cishet spaces within the romance genre that already exist and demanding space. That is absolutely the only way things will change.

      Hot People in Romance is something that I could do (and maybe will do) a whole different post on. Suffice it to say I think it's a problem with society in general not just the romance genre and definitely needs to be pushed against. Yet I've experienced a lot of push back here as well so it will definitely take a bunch of people working on the issue not just me :)

      A Queer Romance Action Plan is something I'm going to think more about and may comment back to you with some ideas later.

      Again thank so you much for taking the time to come up with such a detailed response.

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  7. As others have said, this is a well done and thought provoking article. The assumptions are there that when someone writes within the genre you're either a heterosexual woman or a gay man. And if you're reading it, then you're either one of these as well.

    So then you have the invisibility of quite a few individuals. Not just our lovely Transgendered and Bisexual individuals, but the small few heterosexual males who read this genre too. GASP! What crazy claims I make!?

    Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.

    As Julie above has said, I am assumed to be a heterosexual cis female because of what I have chosen to write. Does anyone have any factual evidence about me to back this up? Nope.

    So much of the readership and writership is rendered invisible. It's frustrating, disheartening, and as you have wonderfully put, hurting what could potentially be hidden gems. But is that really any different than the industry has been for decades?

    Pushing for equality is good. Women had to do it in order to be given the chance not to -have- to write under pen names. Men are -not- the only top writers in the world anymore. Now this is spreading to other marginalized groups. This is a good thing.

    One of the other 'problems' that has been mentioned I think Anonymous above said wonderfully. The 'beautiful people' issue. It's why I do not often read hetero-related romance. There are very few couples within those books that I can relate to because of the way they are portrayed. And it's not just physically, it's also in interactions. But anyways.

    There -are- those who produce works with a variety of characters in shapes, sizes, and in a rainbow of colors, orientations, and so on. Do they get picked up by publishers with inclusive language? Eh...Perhaps a few lucky ones.

    But you know what? Some people make their own luck. Some people fight to be seen and fight to get their words in front of you. Perhaps those are the people that we should be giving a look.

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    1. While I think cisgender heterosexual men who read romance do get overlooked a lot more often than they should, I am cautious about including them in this conversation because they are still cisgender heterosexual people.

      While not included in the "all romance readers/writers are cisgender heterosexual women" statement they still carry the same power and privilege as any other cisgender heterosexual person. In fact they care even more power and privilege than cishet women because they are also male.

      Male privilege (whether gay or straight) within the romance industry is something I think needs to be addressed but that would be a totally different post.

      I think the key thing to watch when talking about these kinds of issues is power. Assumptions are themselves not great. But the real danger comes from allowing ourselves to make assumptions that place even more power into the hands of oppressors over the group they oppress. That is what I am pointing to here.

      "But is that really any different than the industry has been for decades?"
      Industry as in publishing in general or romance in particular? I think that writing like every other industry has a long history of giving opportunities, awards, attention and time to privileged groups over less privileged ones. This is why female authors are often more harshly criticized and held to a higher standard than men. This is why authors of color are still much less likely to become best sellers than white authors are. But just because this is the way it's always been doesn't mean that's the way it need to remain going into the future.

      Anyway thank you for taking the time to write out such a detailed response :)

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    2. I don't believe heterosexual men who read LGBTQ titles are going to have a whole lot of power. At least, some of them do not feel that they do. Let me try to explain.

      It's an interesting slot for them to be placed. To reduce a reader or even a writer who happens to be a heterosexual into a space of 'oppressor?' Person of privilege, I can agree with. But there are things within romance, especially when LGBTQ titles are involved that will seemingly 'rob' a person of that perceived 'power.'

      This is a large problem. As you say, the entire issue of marginalization and assumptions. -Anyone- who reads certain romance titles are reduced to the assumptions currently laid out, as you so eloquently put. People assume that you are either a heterosexual woman or a gay male. Everyone else is invisible, so there's not much power for anyone. Not within this specific area. That is the only space in which I am speaking. If you do not exist here, then you 'do not have a dog in the race' as the saying goes.

      Of course, it's not true. Everyone potentially exists here.

      But anyways...

      As you say, the assumptions that we are making within our own groups is putting even more oppression into an already oppressive situation. We're oppressing each other. We're making already marginalized groups into subgroups and some individuals completely invisible.

      And yes, I meant the publishing industry. As I went on to talk about how women were once forced to write under pen names. It is not quite as segregated as it used to be. Best selling authors can and are non-white, female, and on rare occasions, transgendered.

      I stated. Push for equality. It wasn't past tense. I in no way meant to even so much as imply, that just because something used to be one way that it should remain.

      In fact, I believe, and perhaps I wasn't clear...I was trying to get across that if a publisher refuses to be educated and refuses to change the way they present themselves...stop paying attention to that publisher and look to those unsung heroes within the writing industry that don't use them.

      Look to those who do not compromise, who try to put forth a good effort and ignore stigmas, stereotypes and all the underlying assumptions. Look to those who do try to be educated and change for the betterment of everyone.

      And thank you. :)

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    3. to go off of what we were talking about on twitter last night and because I might not have been as clear as I could be in my blog post.

      Yes I do think that oppressor is the correct language to use in these situations. Society systematically oppresses LGBT people and gives the power to carry out this oppression to cisgender heterosexual and makes them complicit in this oppression whether they want to be or not.

      Cisgender heterosexual people carry the power of oppressors into even light hearted and fun spaces like romance. Which is how we end up with a status quo in romance were heterosexual cisgender peoples tastes and comfort are privileged over queer representation and even sometimes queer safety. Where queer people need to fight to have their voices heard, and be taken seriously even in genres that are supposed to be about representing them. Where many queer authors don't feel safe enough to come out of the closet even in genres that are supposed to be about representing and celebrating queerness. Where queer identity gets called into questions and belittled not just sometimes but on a regular basis.

      Heterosexual cisgender writers and readers need to start asking themselves "am I acting like an oppressor or an ally?" ESPECIALLY when they are in spaces like LGBT romance. Because too often writers and readers assume that just being in GLBT romance space automatically makes them an ally when in truth they are acting like oppressors.

      What I'm talking about is more than just making assumptions about readership. I'm talking about these systems of oppression that get plaid out in LGBT romance spaces. This isn't a problem that affects everyone. This is a problem that works to oppress LGBT writers and readers, especially queer female righters and readers.

      And I know we both agree, it needs to stop :)

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  8. Such a great post. I think other commenters have said most anything constructive better than I can. As an aside (that's relevant) I've read some of your fiction (and love, love, loved it). Actually, I found it because I was searching (fruitlessly) for some f/f romance featuring a butch woman. It's pretty hard to find any f/f romance full stop, especially when the book covers usually put me off, straight off the bat. Then I found Selume Proferre (LT3's covers are the best) and I haven't looked back. And then I found all your other stories and a whole new world was opened up to me. So thank you. :)

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    1. Thank you! <3 I am so glad you liked the post and overjoyed to hear you like my books! It's always great to hear positive stuff from readers. :)

      I have a particular soft spot for Selume Proferre and I'm so happy you came to it through it's butch content. I originally came up with the idea and started writing it because I wanted to read f/f stories with two masculine of center love interests and couldn't find any. It ended up becoming its own thing. But I'm always thrilled when readers tell me the found it through looking for good stories with queer masculine of center characters. (Selume Proferre's cover is one of my favorites too!)

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    2. I think there's a fair bit of butch contemporary f/f out there (I seem to recall having seen a bunch from Bold Strokes Books) but very little butch paranormal/fantasy/SF. (In fact, in the general scarcity of f/f, there's a particular scarcity of non-contemporary f/f, butch or otherwise.)

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    3. Althea: do you know of any of these books have butch/butch pairing, or masculine of center/masculine of center pairings? I've found most f/f simply doesn't have butch, stud or masculine characters. Those that do though are almost exclusively butch/femme. While butch/femme pairings can be hot and wonderful as a trans masculine person attracted to other alternative masculinities I prefer butch/butch.

      My experience has been that these books are almost impossible to find thus why I write my own. If you do know of some though, even contemporary, that would be amazing and I would love to read them.

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    4. With regard to butch/butch pairings, although it's certainly not a contemporary novel, you might be interested in something I ran across in my Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog series: an 18th century novel featuring two cross-dressing women who travel through Europe together, having romantic entanglements with women and unmistakably in love with each other. (The end up living HEA together, though they return to living as women at that point.) I've blogged my read-through and analysis here (http://hrj.livejournal.com/tag/mlle%20de%20richelieu). The original novel is hard to track down (and much harder to slog through!). But you might be interested in terms of historic models for the sort of story you're looking for.

      (This is hrj posting -- I'll probably have to post this as anonymous due to my browser's peculiarities.)

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  9. This is an excellent post. I was a very active member in the GoodReads MM Romance community for years. I don't call it LGBTQ Romance because almost no one except for cishet gay men is represented. From what I've seen and experienced it might appear that the audience is mostly cishet women (which I don't think it is) is because for a long time they were the most vocal. The GR community was full of women who identified as cishet. They spoke the loudest, posted the most, and fervently posted pictures of naked or near naked white men, wither solo or in some kind of sexual position. (I'll get to the fetishization thing in a moment)

    For a long time GoodReads was where you went if you wanted to put your finger on the pulse of the M/M Romance community. If publishers were seeing what I was seeing, and didn't dig any deeper, then they would think that it was only cishet women reading MM. To telly you the truth I think that's exactly what happened, and most publishers just haven't let go of that impression/assumption.

    Now, on the subject of fetishization...please forgive me if I get a little worked up in this next paragraph but I'm pretty passionate about this. First of all, if it walks and talks like a duck, I'm going to damn sure think it's a duck. When i first started reading M/M I was in the closet as a lesbian. Reading about anything in the LGBT community was comforting and I flocked to it because it was just nice to see people who said "This a safe place for LGBTQ people". As the years passed though I became extremely disillusioned and very sad. So much so that I stopped reading MM, stopped participating in the community. Now, this doesn't apply to every person who reads MM but I saw the attitude a lot. What am I talking about? Women who said they were allies but were obviously interested only in "hot", white, gay men or young gay men, or cis gay porn stars. There's this strange and disturbing air of these women viewing the stereotypical gay illusion as a possesion. To me, that is fetishization and people need to understand that wanting to watch or fantasize about gay men having sex does not make them LGBTQ allies. It's fetishization, plain and simple.

    As a black, gay woman I felt completely ostracized from this community that claimed to welcome everyone in the spectrum. It was pretty hurtful. Now, I'm starting to see more representation but I'll admit that I'm gun shy. There are spaces where I have to, as a black person, demand to be recognized and respected. There are places where, as a woman, I have to demand to be recognized and respected. Why should I have to do that with people who claim to be supporters? It's tiring. It ruins my reading experience because part of what I love about reading is sharing ideas with people.

    Hopefully, something happens that makes me trust in a safe reading, review, and community space again but until some of these problems are rectified? I just don't know.

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    1. Thank you so much for your incredibly insightful post.

      I want to highlight what you say about the cishet female readership being the loudest (and possibly most aggressive) therefore may very come across as looking like the majority or even the entirety of the community.

      I also want to lift up what you say about fetishization. I think your dead on and it's a real issue that needs to be talked about. I would totally love it if you ever felt like writing an entire post about it sometime :)

      For most of my life I assumed that I wouldn't ever be a published author because the characters I wrote about were queer. When I first found m/m romance I was overjoyed because the community marketed itself as a safe haven for authors, who liked me, wanted to write queer characters. It wasn't until I was in the genre that I realized a large part of it was more interested in sexy representations of perfect, able bodied, cis young men. When I pushed back against this I got a LOT of negativity from both readers and writers alike, basically telling me I needed to lighten up.

      I can't support myself on stories about queer women, trans men and nonbinary people. Yet when I want to talk about this people just shrug it off as "just what the market is" and basically tell me to write standard m/m instead.

      And this from the community that is supposed to be about supporting and representing me, from people who are supposed to be my allies.

      So yeah, I am angry, alienated and loud. But having a romance genre that represents a full spectrum of authentic queer experiences for a queer readership and a safe community to write and read these books in is I think worth fighting for.

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  10. I'm curious about your use of the phrase "LGBT romance." My impression is that if you're going to call it that, what is built into the definition is "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender." Most of your concerns seem directed to what I would think of as "M/M romance," which is majority -- perhaps supermajority hetero female. Did I miss something and M/M romance publishers are now advertising themselves as "LGBT romance," and just happen to not release much in the way of L, B and T?

    I know that back in 2009/10, the Lambda Lit Foundation made the rule that only those who identify as LGBT could receive their awards. To me, this was a response to the rise of M/M. Then, in 2011, they dropped the rule (perhaps to many queer people's chagrin)....so, is the assumption now that LGBT romance is just one big hetero/queer family, and there are no borders between M/M and LGBT romance?

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    1. Hey, thanks for commenting :)

      I refer to GLBT romance because I think some of what I talk about is also applicable to lesbian and bisexual romance writers/publishers as well. Bisexual romance is tied strongly to het romance with a presumed heterosexual audience. While lesbian romance has a complicated relationship with lesbian erotica which is often marketted for heterosexual cisgender men. Trans romance is right now, for the most part, being written by authors who started in publishing writing m/m romance and has since branched out. So a lot of the issues seen in m/m romance especially with audience is also something trans romance is now struggling with

      That being said I do focus a lot specifically on m/m in this article because it is at the moment the largest branch of non-het romance. To a ridiculous level actually but that's a whole separate issue.

      Also right now there is a push for a lot of presses that started out as m/m romance to branch out into lesbian, bisexual and trans romance as well. So this article is partly in response to publishers and authors who made it big in m/m romance and have now started looking into writing/publishing lesbian, bisexual or trans stories and marketing themselves as LGBT. Yet who still have the 'for a straight audience' mentality of m/m.

      I think over all within the romance genre having a clear distinction between m/m romance and a more queer focused "LGBT romance" isn't going to happen at this point. M/M romance is too big and too popular. Too many authors start out writing m/m romance, too many publishers began as m/m presses. There is LGBT lit which seems to be its own separate thing but any kind of LGBT romance as far as I can tell is going to have at least some ties to m/m. Thus any kind of conversation about queer readers, writers, or characters within the romance genre will have to address m/m romance, it's assumptions and legacy.

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    2. I hope that made sense and answered at least some of your questions :)

      I personally would like there to be more of a distinction between m/m romance and LGBT romance. But being realistic I don't think that's going to happen, or at least not for a very long time. M/M romance is just too powerful and dominant a force in the romance scene.

      For example I know presses that started very purposefully to be LGBT romance presses NOT m/m romance press but have ended up being heavily weighted towards m/m romance anyway because that's the authors and readers they ended up getting.

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    3. I am also not sure, reading over your response what you mean by 'LGBT romance' being "just one big hetero/queer family." Could you expand on what you mean by this? are you asking about the identity of authors, the identity of the targeted audience, both?

      If we are talking about authors, I know a very large number of queer authors who at least started out writing m/m romance and many who still do. So while I think people in romance can (and obviously do) argue about how much of the readership is cishet. It's simply a fact that there an ever growing percentage of m/m romance authors who are queer.

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    4. So, I can add my two cents to this area, but my experience is probably a little different then others.

      We do public events around LGBTQ romance--with libraries,nonprofits, and bookstores. Part of our goal is to help spread awareness about these books and these writers by doing these events and organizing author readings, etc.

      Having done about 10 public reading events in the last 12 months, plus working with multiple LGBTQ nonprofit partners around queer genre fiction, I've found that a lot of people don't understand the terms m/m (and f/f). If I go up to them and say, "We are organizing an m/m romance event", no one knows what we're talking about. But if we use the terms LGBTQ romance or queer romance, people get it. "Oh, romance books with LGBT couples. ...Wait, that exists? Cool."

      The only way we've been able to do as much as we have was to use terms and words around our events that the greater community would understand. (I think m/m and f/f are really only known to those who follow the genre.)

      The challenge there also is once we start using those bigger terms, you have to also think broader and not limit yourself to just one kind of queer romance. A) That's the right thing to do and B) People get confused if they only see one part of the spectrum, unless it's a very targeted event like "Lesbian Mysteries" or "Trans* Fiction Reading".

      So, I'm very pro using terms like LGBTQ romance fiction or queer romance fiction because it's so much easier to have what we're doing understood by others, and way easier to get people, including partnering organizations, on board to support. A lot of people don't know these books exist still because the books are not very prevalent, so whatever terms we can use to make it easier for people to know what we're talking about, I'm all for.

      I'm for Lambda relaxing their rules and allowing any writer to submit to their awards as long as the content aligns with their mission. It must have been a nightmare for that one year to become "the queer police" and have to get into discussions about what people are and are not, who is out publicly, and who has the right to write about something and who deserves to be recognized for their writing. The not-so-funny thing is that the majority of straight romance writers of queer romance, the ones who aren't JR Ward that is, are also locked out of romance awards, like queer writers, because queer romance isn't being recognized as a whole. The RT nominees for this year were hilarious! 300 nominees and only two LGBTQ--one YA work and a menage work in erotic romance.

      So, until we can get more movement into broader awards, it's great that things like Lambda and the Rainbow Awards will award to writers for their LGBTQ writings, and right now, they are some of the only places that will celebrate queer genre fiction.- TTG

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    5. RE: "just one big hetero/queer family," what I meant was, we live in what often seems a post-identity age. For example, when Lambda Lit made the rule a few years ago (which, again, they subsequently dropped) that only LGBTs could receive the organization's awards, people complained that a text should be judged by its content, not by the identity of its author. Part of me agreed (if only because "LGBT" does not precisely work as a way to think about queerness worldwide, and thus its own problems). But another part of me was flabbergasted by the attitudes of female hetero M/M romance writers complaining of discrimination toward them, that "ethically" an LGBT lit organization should not be so "close-minded." It reminded me of the "reverse racism" argument. "Reverse racism" simply does not exist.

      It's interesting that you say that LGBT lit is its own thing (which I agree), and that any such "LGBT romance" gets invariably tied to M/M, which is tied to hetero romance (you can read this connection by looking at cover designs). But what the Lambda dispute tells me is that LGBT lit itself, in many people's minds, isn't its "own" thing. The idea is that we need to toss aside restricting identities and become "just one big hetero/queer family." I even hear this among my gay friends who cringe when I jokingly ask if they're going to get "gay-married" instead of just "married." The reason I ask is to remind that very recently the LGBT community was proud to be "different" instead of "normal."

      Well, even if we're just looking at the texts, this "big hetero/queer family" is clearly not the case for reasons you outline above. Personally, as a gay male interested in attractive gay males, one would think that a lot of the M/M romance aesthetics would align for me. But then, I'm more of an "LGBT lit that includes romance" type of reader (when I have time to read for pleasure) because of the fact that it would be too time-consuming for me to navigate through the het world of M/M, even if a number of authors are queer. Generally, I just follow a few authors whose work I already enjoy.

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  11. A very insightful post, although like some other commenters I was a bit confused by the repeated reference to LGBT romance when the concerns and examples were almost exclusively m/m-related. My experience in the lesbian fiction community is that the issues and concerns tend to be significantly different from what you're discussing. This can create the potential that addressing specifically m/m issues under the label "LGBT" can erase lesbian-specific concerns. (For example, it's certainly not a presumption that the majority of writers and readers of lesbian romance are cis-het women!)

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    3. (sorry for the multiple drafts of this comment I was trying to get it done while chasing my two year old nephew around)

      First of all thank you so much for commenting! :)

      Although I have written several lesbian romances I am not as familiar with that genre. I know that issues with feeling like the readership or the space is not specifically queer but more cishet is a concern for gay romance, bisexual romance, trans romance and I have heard it expressed from some people involved in lesbian romance specifically lesbian erotic romance. However it may not be as pervasive in lesbian romance and I thank you for pointing that out.

      Also if a strong cishet contingent (either male or female) that feels ownership of the genre is something that lesbian romance doesn't have to deal with I think that's great. Really, that's what I want to see for all queer romance. :) I do think that it is important that cishet readers and writers know that they SHOULDN'T feel ownership of or entitlement to any queer romance including lesbian romance though. All branches of queer romance should be queer-centric.

      I'm sorry if by including lesbian romance in that I erased some of the concerns of lesbian romance as a genre. It was definitely not my intent.

      Just out of curiosity in your experience what are some of the largest or most pervasive issues facing lesbian romance? I am aware of the fact that it doesn't sell as well or attract the writers that other queer romance genres do. But besides from that what do you think needs to be changed or addressed?

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    4. (Long thoughtful response entered which then disappeared when I tried to post it. My home computer hates the blogspot interface and eats my posts. I may try to re-create tomorrow on my work computer. Too tired now. Sorry.)

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  12. (OK, let's try this again.) I'm not the best person to speak to the general issues in lesbian romance. I don't read contemporary romance, which is the bulk of the lesbian romance market, and although my own novel is published by a lesbian press, my "home culture" is SFF, which means I'm an outsider both in my publishing community and in my target audience.

    With that as a caveat, the main difference I see is that there is a distinct, vibrant, deep-rooted publishing and reading community of books by-and-for-lesbians (which I will shorthand here as "lesbian fiction") that appears to be relatively impervious to influence from the community of "books involving two women having sex where there is not necessarily an expectation that the author, readers, or characters identify as lesbian" (which I will shorthand here as "f/f fiction"). I honestly don't know the relative numbers in terms of what's being published, but the impression I get is that two groups do not tend to consider themselves as in the target audience for each other's books, and therefore the existence of each has little influence on the sales/distribution of the other. This is, of course, a gross generalization and fails utterly on an individual level. And there are certainly crossover books that are popular in both communities. And there are people who use "f/f" as a cover term that includes "lesbian fiction" (although this is more typically people who are in the f/f community).

    If there is an "issue" that I'd identify in the lesbian fiction community (by my definition) it might be the tension between those who see the guiding principle of the field to be inward-looking (focusing on the "for lesbians" part of the equation) and those who would like to see more lesbian fiction get a general readership outside the community (holding up the popularity of authors such as Sarah Waters as an example that it can be done -- note that Sarah Waters doesn't really fall within the "lesbian fiction community" in the "community" sense, though her books are certainly popular there).

    And there is a certain tension because some writers/readers in the "lesbian fiction community" who don't consider "f/f fiction" to be authentically lesbian (individual books may be, but the category doesn't get an automatic pass). And on the other side, there are lesbians writing for a lesbian audience but using the tropes, marketing look-and-feel, and reading protocols of f/f fiction who feel their lesbian identity is wrongly dismissed by the lesbian fiction community.

    But overall I'd say there isn't the same sense from the lesbian component of lesbian/f-f fiction of being "under siege" and being crowded out of their own genre as one finds in m/m fiction.

    Someone else's perception of the dynamics of the field is almost guaranteed to be different. I think one of the issues I have with using "LGBT romance" as a label when talking primarily about m/m romance is that I honestly don't see "lesbian romance" and "m/m romance" as being part of the same overall genre. I think that f/f romance and m/m romance do overlap more in terms of genre definitions, authorship, and potential readership, but grouping f/f, m/m, and all the other similar letter permutations into the umbrella term "LGBT fiction" based on that overlap then tends to exclude "lesbian fiction" (using my definition" from that umbrella category. And when the issues of "LGBT romance" that get discussed are clearly those specific to f/f-m/m-etc, it's a clue that this oversight may exist.

    I hope that makes my thoughts clearer? (And I hope I'll succeed in posting this version!)

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    1. Thank you so much for your long and thoughtful reply. I think it's interesting and thinking about my experiences both as a reader and write I do agree with you. I think there is a division between what you call 'lesbian fiction' vs. 'f/f.'

      I think for me I see romance as a genre with trans romance for example being included in that wider romance genre, and being in dialog with the literary tradition of the romance paperback novel, all be it with a queer voice. This is why I often interact and network with not just queer romance authors but also authors of heterosexual romance as well. Also why I think it's important that the larger romance community (say for instance Romance Writers of America) acknowledges and supports queer romance. Which is why for me it's natural to use umbrella terms like queer romance or LGBT romance. Because whatever other differences each subgenre might have, I still see them as subgenres of a wider (and mostly heterosexual) romance genre.

      But I can see were you are coming from. Definitely from a perspective that lesbian romance is more closely related to 'by lesbian for lesbian' fiction and not at all to the older tradition of the paperback romance novel it would be exclusionary to speak of lesbian romance in relationship to gay romance in the way I do in this article.

      Thank you for bringing this up and taking the time to work through it in these two comments :)

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    2. Re: your next to last paragraph. Exactly. The genre that I'm identifying as "lesbian fiction" contains "lesbian romance" but in a somewhat fuzzy continuum with lesbian mystery, thriller, historical non-romance, and non-romantic contemporary all coming out of the by-lesbians-for-lesbians writing community. And that community -- rather than having roots in the straight romance genre -- sees itself as an enlightened evolution of the old sensationalist "pulp lesbians" of the '50s and '60s (indeed, with some lesbian authors having made the transition from the sensationalist pulps to the lesbian presses when they came into being). That is: a lesbian romance from a lesbian press has far more in common (in terms of genre expectations, readership, and historic roots) with a non-romantic lesbian thriller than it does with a straight romance or with an m/m romance. That's sort of the short version of what I was trying to say.

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    3. As a newbie f/f writer whose home culture is also SF/F and who is a youngish bi woman, I'm interested to see your verbalization of the distinction between "lesbian fiction" and "f/f", which I vaguely felt but didn't know the nuances of.

      I think you've explained in part why I came so late to f/f romance. "Lesbian romance" as part of the "lesbian fiction" world didn't interest me for years, because I rarely read contemporary romance and because I am bi, not lesbian (and wary of the biphobia sometimes unfortunately found in lesbian writing). It's important that lesbian romance/lesbian fiction exists and no doubt it speaks to many people, but I just didn't feel any connection to it; the lesbian cops and ranchers didn't have anything to do with me, my friends (queer or het), my interests, my imagination, or even my fantasies. I searched in vain for bi elven sorceresses and lesbian space marines and awkward nerdy queer women who felt like outsiders in both queer and straight spaces, and for publishers that would be open to stories about such, until I found the small but promising f/f selection at Less Than Three Press (which, as someone else pointed out above, has the *best* covers, lovely and tasteful, and that's part of why their website yelled "home" to me).

      I briefly tried writing het romance before that (in addition to a mostly non-romantic fantasy that I utterly failed at) but even though I like reading about/looking at men as well as women and often like f/m romantic subplots in non-romance media I just couldn't get into it. The gender roles (especially the obnoxious "alphahole" men) just pissed me off too often, and the genre conventions are way too rigid - there's contemporary paranormal and Regency England and straight-up contemporary with rich rich alpha male and anything else is pretty rare. I might write some m/f someday if I can find a publisher that would let me break out of that rut and write something with a shy adorkable man and an SF or constructed-world fantasy setting and possibly one or both of the protagonists being bi.

      My stance as a writer is that I don't know what my readers identify as, and that I'm open to any of them. I don't think of myself as writing only for queer people, or only for women, although I expect that geeky bi or lesbian women will probably make up the majority of my readers. One of my favorite f/f stories was written by a man who *might* be cis (I don't know; I also don't know what his orientation is) and I have no problem with that at all; he writes about women respectfully (and beautifully, and hilariously). One of my favorite m/f subplots in non-romance media, for that matter, was written by a gay man. I am wary of writing m/m or trans* stories myself, though; I do plan to try an m/m story soon but am worried about fetishization and about representing something so far removed from my experience and identity.

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