It’s such a loaded, nasty word. It’s negative, and no one ever wants to use it. It’s like “racist” or “homophobic.” “Anti-Semitic” sounds more like a clinical condition than a mindset one shares with Hitler, but it nevertheless carries enough context to send people scrambling for higher ground. “I’m not a bigot. I’m not homophobic. Some of my best friends are [insert marginalized group here, hopefully at least without a slur but sometimes not even that].” Distancing oneself from the label isn’t just knee-jerk. It’s self-protective. No one wants to be a bigot. No one believes they are a bigot.
It doesn’t really matter, though, because bigotry is a condition, and it takes an object. A person must be there to house the bigotry, because without them bigotry is just a nasty concept no one in their right mind would pick up.
As an Iowan, I’ve become cripplingly aware of the nature of bigotry, especially in regards to LGBT rights. Between our landmark Iowa Supreme Court case in Varnum vs. Brien (the decision that led to same-sex marriage being legal in our state) and our status as first-in-the-nation Presidential caucus, our state which is more traditionally plagued by nothing more than bad corn and pig jokes is a constant battleground over whether or not men marrying men and women marrying women will bring about the end of the world as we know it. The issue touches my friends. The issue touches my child. And while we have some incredible native champions, I’m here to tell you, the worst part of facing endless waves of bigotry are not the outright nasty bastards but the people you would normally hold the door for at a restaurant, whose children play beside yours in the mall play lots. The worst part is knowing that very good people are caught up in it and that they believe with all their heart that they aren’t hurting anyone at all, that they are in fact the victims.
That’s the lure, the candy coating that helps the bigotry go down. “I’m a victim too!” Last winter I sat on the floor of the Iowa Statehouse and listened to a parade of Iowans explain how the Varnum vs. Brien decision harmed their families and made them homeschool their children, how it pollutes the minds of their children, how it goes against God. Every last one of them believed all the way to their bones they were on the side of right, and their pastors were there backing them up. Not a single individual objected based on anything but religious principles.
Not a single one of them believed they had anything but a divine right to live in a world tailored to their beliefs. To their comfort. To their preference, to their sense of design fabricated from a text famous for holding the line on every civil and human rights issue in Western culture.
At this point in a discussion like this the Nazi references start coming out, when the fire of righteous indignation reaches its fever pitch. That does seem to be where zealous diatribes go distinctly south, no matter who is holding up the placard. But HITLER and NAZI really are the elephants in the room whenever you bring up bigotry and hate of particular social groups. The only thing worse than being a bigot is being Hitler, who made himself Emperor Almighty of All Bigots. Nobody wants to be Hitler. Nobody wants to be a Nazi.
Nazi is the Little Black Dress of name-calling. That’s what my friend Damon told me when we were discussing this, and it keeps ringing in my head. It’s what you call your enemy when you want not to really zing them hard but look cool doing it.
I wonder at what point in the universe we will figure out that we are none of us Hitler and all of us are, both at once. That just like bigotry, Hitler is a name, a condition, and tossing the title around doesn’t do anything but piss people off and how. The bigger sin is being the bigot, being the shadow Nazi, being the Hitler. Whether or not it’s named, the action is what will do the damning.
Friday I wrote a blog post about how a chapter of Romance Writers of America has decided not to allow same-sex entries into their local contest and how RWA national had affirmed last year that chapters had the right to do this. Friday I voiced my frustration with what I saw was wrong, with the obstacles in my way. Friday I asked, feeling like I shouted into nothing but wind and dry leaves, for people to help me and mine. And somehow when I spoke I carried a spark in my mouth, and it lit along with the sparks of others who have posted on the same, and suddenly we have a fire. I’ve lost track of all the links and petitions and retweets and reblogs and Facebook posts, and I know I’ve only seen the barest sliver of what’s actually out there on the issue. Courtney Milan. Smart Bitches. Suzanne Brockmann. Many, many, many people have said, “That isn’t right.”
First of all, thank you. On behalf of myself, on behalf of the Rainbow Romance Writers, on behalf of everyone who felt the slap, thank you. Let me tell you right now our little ghetto feels awfully heard. This went from feeling like the bucket of water on our campfire to a gallon of starter fluid and a heaping pile of kindling. Thank you for that. Thank you very much.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to storm the doors of RWA. We’ve sort of done that, and I promise, they heard. They president of the RWA board told me and many others they plan to address this at their March meeting. I would like to hope that this year sometime there would be an anti-discrimination policy in place for RWA. I wasn’t promised this or even hinted this, but it is what I’d like and what our chapter would like. At this point I have no further power to influence that, and neither does anyone else but the board. I would like to believe they will make the right decision. Until proven otherwise, that’s the future I’m looking forward to. I do believe RWA does adapt glacially, or at least it can, and I believe that since such a huge conflagration of its membership seems to believe it’s important they change on this issue that we can affect the change, since this isn’t a dictatorship, since the board officers aren’t just elected by us but are us, since the entire purpose of the organization is to serve its members: if enough of its members say, “You must address this,” I can’t see how they can do anything but that.
But what, as some of our members have said, can we do? Well, I talked to a few people and had myself a good think, and these are my suggestions.
If you are a member of RWA, join the Rainbow Romance Writers to show solidarity. Even just for a few months. Right now it’s “half off” because we re-up in June, so if you really, really only want to hang out for a little while, toss us $12.50, come party in our Yahoo group for a time, and then don’t pay again in June. Though of course we’d love you to join for longer. And we really don’t require anyone to write LGBT romance to join us. You have to be a member of RWA, and that’s it. We have a lot of exciting projects going on. We’re trying to gather information about our publishers and encourage/help them become RWA recognized. We want to talk to Amazon and Barnes and Noble and see if we can maybe not be shelved off in the corner exclusively as OTHER and if so if we could at least have a few subcategories, because really, there’s a lot going on in this rainbow. We want to increase our presence at Romantic Times and RWA nationals and other events and are organizing, as Damon says, “some kick-ass parties you’ll WANT to attend, making a change for a good cause and having a blast with the rabble rousers.” More than having fun, though, we want more members. We want more conversation, more everything. We would love, absolutely love to have you along.
If you are a member of RWA and a local online chapter, bring up LGBT rights issues and welcome LGBT romance authors when they join and encourage LGBT romance authors to join your chapter. Because of the same prejudice that led RWI to exclude same-sex entries, a great number of our chapter’s members have left local chapters because they felt unwelcome for what they wrote. A great number of our members feel intimidated by RWA, and a great number of LGBT romance authors refuse to join RWA because they feel they are not welcome—and this incident seems to prove them right. Invite us. Make it clear you want us there. And even if we aren’t there, stand up for us so that we aren’t relegated to invisibility by folks who wish we would simply evaporate. Wear a little bitty rainbow on your tag at conferences, and if you don’t have one, I’ll give one to you. Sometimes ribbons are mocked for being empty gestures, but I’ve never felt rainbows to be that way. A rainbow sticker makes me feel warm and happy inside. More importantly, a rainbow sticker says, silently, “Welcome, friend,” and the friends it welcomes know that symbol well. Start there, but don’t end there. Take baby steps and take your own time. And let us know if we can help. Speaking of which…
Ask RRW members to help you in your chapter contest judging and volunteer to judge yourself, especially if a contest is open to LGBT entries, and tell them that’s why you’re volunteering. The discriminatory language by the RWI chapter’s contest rested on the claim that they didn’t have the volunteers to handle LGBT entries. Whether or not that’s the true reason for the exclusion, if enough of us stand up to serve, the excuse won’t be there anymore. RRW members are already mobilizing to be your judges. We don’t need to read “just the gay stuff.” We’ll read anything and everything. We want to help. Email the current president, who will always get emails directed to firstname.lastname@example.org, and ask if he/she will put a call to membership for judges.
Ask for RWA to author a clear statement on non-discriminatory practices in all contests and events. Ghettos suck. There is never a time to ask colleagues to sit at the back of the bus or to stick to their own kind. Ask your region board member what’s being done about discrimination in RWA on this and all issues. Ask the board. Bring it up at the meeting at nationals. Bring it up at your local meetings. If it important issues don’t get resolved, bring them up again. And again. And again. And again. When you encounter the inevitable push-back, have answers and arguments at your fingertips. We’ll help you there too if you want with talking points and some form letters, especially on LGBT issues.
But what if you aren’t a member of RWA? What if you’re a member of RWA and want to do absolutely as much as you can? What if you’re a reader or a blogger or a LGBT advocate? What if you really, really can’t/don’t want to/won’t join RWA? Not a problem. No matter who you are, you can help us and everyone else out of our ghettos by drawing attention to the issues and the clear path towards tolerance and transparency.
Buy LGBT romances, and not just the kind you already like. Try on new pairings. to the m/m readers, have you tried f/f? Have you tried more than one? Have you asked who the truly excellent f/f writers are? Have you tried transgender romances? If you haven’t tried any of us, try everything and see what you like. Try ten million samples if nothing else. Enter contests for the other colors of the rainbow if you’re book buying budget is already strapped. . Step outside the box and you may discover romances beyond your imagining.
If you like LGBT, try het romance. I’ve been guilty too of not venturing back to the traditional romance, too caught up in whatever it is that makes LGBT romances so safe and wonderful and perfect. But I’m going to try again, starting with all these amazing allies we have, and I hope you will too. Because really? They’re in the same boat as us, and a lot of them are excellent writers. Don’t know who? Find out. Look on Goodreads. Twitter. Try samples over and over and over again. Give everyone a chance. Give absolutely everyone a chance—just as you want everyone to give a chance to your favorite LGBT stories.
Promote great LGBT romances. Promote independent press. Promote other-than-white-skin-tone romances. Promote quality self-published works. Promote the books who have been relegated to other ghettos, if not as flavors of the reading rainbow you enjoy reading at least as other places which could use some floodlights. If you blog, if you review, if you tweet, if you have any human contact with other readers, spread the word and spread the love. And tell us and everyone who needs lifting up, so we can all help each other. Great books help our genre grow.
It’s such a razor’s edge, riding that line between hated and hater. Be careful, very careful, to keep bigotry in your shadow and out of your heart. Justification is so easy to grasp for both sides of any argument, and shouting and fighting taken down their ultimate path only lead to war. Stay positive. Now that the anger is out, do, and do progressive, growth-inducing, educative, and above all positive things, don’t continue to be angry. Fire is powerful. And make no mistake, this has been a good and cleansing burn.
But I don’t want to storm the RWA castle willy nilly. I want to work mindfully within the system because I do believe it is a good system and worth transforming. The RWA changes slowly and hesitantly for good reason. I believe in RWA. I don’t mind other people choosing not to. But this is where I am choosing to stand. I stood up to be president of RRW not because I wanted to wear a tiara and aim my glittery rainbow dildo at RWA but because I wanted to join it, because I wanted to serve it and serve my membership within the larger organization.
In the comments my post many people have referenced other romance organizations such as RW Australia and RNA in the UK who are welcoming. If RWA is not for you, perhaps one of them is? Perhaps you are meant to begin one of your own. I of course will try to get you in our boat, but I’m for all the boats. It’s an infinite ocean.
These are my ideas for “what’s next.” What are yours? What books would you like us to read to broaden our minds and extend the conversation? What chapters should RRW members consider joining? What bridges can we make, what fuel should we use to grow, to grow all of us, not as anything but another type romance? What other conversations should we be having—where are they being held already? How can we step out of being objects and start being people together, all under the wildly varied umbrella of romance? How can we put bigotry to bed, if not once and for all, for a very long and restful sleep?
The one thing I do know with absolute certainty is that we need to do it together. I couldn’t even write this post without my husband reminding me to use English and spellings everyone can actually understand and without Damon Suede staying up late to give me a hard critique to clarify my ideas and push me into the places I’d tried to pussyfoot around. I couldn’t write without my best friend and bunker buddy Marie Sexton. I couldn’t navigate the waters of publishing without my wonderful agent. I couldn’t get through the surprising and yes, occasionally unnerving attention this issue has given me without the RRW, my amazing board and my amazing, incredible membership.
Maybe it really is as simple as that. If we can all welcome each other, gay or straight, atheist or Christian, black, brown, or pigment-challenged, monogamous or polyamorous, Democrat or Libertarian or Republican or Green or I Have No Idea and Don’t Care When Is Football On Again—if we could just all be welcome for being who we are?
It certainly would make a great start.