Why I Write Gay Romance
“You’re a straight, married woman. Why do you write about gay men?”
I suppose this question is inevitable, as is the small whirlwind generated by Out magazine’s interview of Alex Beecroft and Erastes and Lambda Literary’s article (and Victoria Brownworth’s response). A gay man writing a gay story makes “sense.” A straight woman doing so needs a frame, unless she is Annie Proulx.
Why do I write about gay men? Because they are the characters who speak to me. Because once one gay man appeared as a secondary character in one story, he took over, and within a few years somehow everything I was writing featured LGBT characters. A character in a series became bisexual; I worried my beta readers would balk, but they said, universally (and with a shrug) that honestly they’d thought he was gay all along but hadn’t wanted to say. An opportunity to write short m/m fiction came up; I wrote one, then two, and now I have eight published works and counting to my name, all featuring gay men.
Why do these characters speak to me? This question is harder. I don’t generally psychoanalyze my characters or ask what part of my brain they come from. It feels like letting the magic out. Mostly I write about gay men because these are the stories I get. Because these are the stories which interest me.
Some of the draw, though, is because gay men are socially defined as such a stark Other. They are the ultimate sexual taboo. The sexual lines gay men blur upset people, and historically gay men simply by claiming their sexuality become men outside the lines. There is a freedom in that which draws me. I have never felt that I fit in socially or sexually, but because of my gender, my race, my orientation, and the position I drew in social roulette, I appear to fit. There are times as I listen to gay men speak, as I watch their sexual freedom, as I see the space they command that I yearn for, and writing it is a way to find some of that myself.
I can understand those who dislike straight women playing in this sandbox getting angry at reading what I just said, crying this is unfair abuse of privilege, etc. I don’t see it that way, but I understand. All I can offer to this is to say I don’t write blithely. I don’t look at gay men as my Barbie dolls I can prop up to suit my fantasies. I believe, with all my heart, that gay men and women have much to teach us all about identity, about sex, about roles, about society. I do not view this as playing in any way. I take my work seriously, and I love each one of my characters and my readers—many of whom, for the record, are gay men.
The controversy over m/m romances focuses on the straight women writing gay men, but it’s a very incomplete vision of the genre. I think this frame gets picked up because it is safe and easy to target. It’s easy to rail against straight women writing what they shouldn’t write, but it ignores so very much. It ignores the fact that Erastes, profiled as a straight woman in the Out article, is bisexual. It ignores the many gay men who write m/m romances. It ignores lesbians who write gay romance and the gender-queer authors and the bisexual and transgender authors. It ignores the men and women of any orientation who grew up outside the prescribed order of sexuality.
It ignores the straight women—writers and readers—who want, desperately, to be more sexualized than they are socially allowed, who want to be “sluts” but don’t want to be shamed. It ignores the gay men who don’t feel they fit in the roles either society, straight or queer, has given them. It ignores the men who read like gay stereotypes in every way socially but who still want only to sleep with women. It ignores the gay men who are nothing like a gay stereotype, who make the most macho of macho men look like a simpering wimp, and yet who still want cock.
Victoria Brownworth says m/m romances are “straight women fetishizing the lives of gay men.” She says also that “all these writers have either taken male pen names… or names that are… purposefully gender-vague—and write about gay male relationships.” Her entire article is woefully incorrect—she believes most m/m novels are historical, which any reader can tell you is not at all the case—and revealing. Brownworth had an idea of what these books were in her mind, did enough research to prove herself right, and damned a genre, its authors, and its readers. Out interviewed two authors, ignored much of the facts about them, and fixated on the straight women once again as the entirety of this genre, oversimplifying us and reducing us to voyeurs, to insipid, vapid intruders of privilege into a world we cannot hope to understand.
I am a straight woman. I write under a female name: my own name, Heidi Cullinan. I write romance. I don’t fetishize gay men or gay women or bisexual individuals. I don’t giggle under the covers as I read or masturbate as I write. I don’t include sex to titillate. I don’t write gay men to use, abuse, or confuse them.
I write gay men because I love them. I write gay men because they teach me. I write what I write because I like happy endings for queer characters, and I get tired of combing through stories to find them only to be disappointed—again.
I write stories with sex in because I like sex. I write sexual stories because I believe it is in sex that we are the most exposed, the most honest, even when we are trying to lie. I write sex because so much of society has told me sex is bad and dangerous. I write sex because sex can indeed be dangerous, and writing is a safer place to explore.
I write queer characters because I love my queer friends. I write queer romances because gay men write me to say they wish they could have been as open or free as my characters in their youth. I write because straight women write me to tell me how they cried when they read about my characters, because the story was a catharsis for something in their own life, usually about sex. I write because I want to portray queer characters as normal and healthy and happy and triumphant.
I write gay men because when I do, I feel free. I write gay men because I’m not writing for Lambda Literary or Victoria Brownworth or the New York Times or my college professors. I write for my gay male friend who suffered a life of abuse, who was told by his family and most of the world that he was wrong, that who he was was wrong, that how he wanted to fuck was wrong. I write for my lesbian friend who likes my imagination. I write for my straight husband who yearns for positive models of men like him in fiction. I write for my bisexual, polyamorous friend who has even less social models than gay men.
And yes. I write for a lot of straight women. And some of them might just be there for a fetish. But this isn’t the majority, and it absolutely isn’t “all.” To judge me and to judge my readers by that demographic only is to dismiss a rich host of other people. It’s the sort of myopia I’m accustomed to seeing in the extreme political and religious right. It saddens me to see it from the queer community.
I encourage anyone who sees m/m romances as nothing more than a straight girl fetish to read more of us before making claims. I encourage critics to check out m/m romance blogs and Yahoo groups and Goodreads communities. I encourage reporters to interview gay male authors and lesbian authors and gender-queer authors of m/m romance. I encourage the curious to get some actual facts about the demographics of the readers from publishers: several publishers. I encourage an honest and thorough investigation of our genre before proposing to know us.
I encourage the laying down of stereotypes and assumptions. I encourage reading a lot more of our works before dismissing and defining us. I encourage Brownworth and others to see us, to know us—just as they would wish others who judge them quickly, unfairly, and harshly to get to know them.