How to Appropriate by Not Really Trying: An Author’s Guide to Writing Socially Marginalized Communities in Romance
I hate to start a post with a dictionary definition, but this topic needs every card laid out on the table. Let’s begin with the beginning. Appropriation is the act of using something that doesn’t belong to you as if it does.
Authors do this hourly. It’s practically our job: we’re professional pretenders. In my published career alone, I’ve appropriated more than I have time to list, but let’s tick off a few. Long-distance truck drivers. Pawn shop owners. Ballet dancers. Football players. Poker players. Italians.
Drag queens. Practitioners of BDSM. Persons with OCD and autism. Transgender women. Gay men.
Some of these things are not like the other. If a poker player reads Double Blind and feels I got something wrong, their personal injury goes no deeper than annoyance, possibly with a side order of irritation. The same goes for the truck drivers and football players and Italian families. None of these groups currently experience deep prejudice. If I screw up when I borrow them for my work, the egg is on my face alone, and they have every right to call me on it. They will do this from a position of if not privilege, at least a confidence in their semi-comfortable place in our common culture.
If I misrepresent the groups italicized above, matters change quickly. Every group listed have been significantly marginalized by the societies in which they exist, and by simply declaring themselves part of that community, the members experience prejudice, social stigma, and often outright abuse. If I screw up when writing about these groups, not only do I have egg on my face, I contribute further harm and insult to persons already bearing a full plate of social struggle. If they simply hear about it happening, that’s bad enough. But if they purchase my book to see themselves represented in a positive way, and I slap them in the face? That’s bad. That’s very, very bad.
Twitter is the world’s largest receptacle of appropriated persons crying into the wind. I’ve seen Indian-Americans despairing over the appropriation of namaste—I have to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me until they pointed out that namaste, bitches is horribly offensive and appropriating to Hindu culture, but I wince now every time I see a bumper sticker or shirt or whatever else some idiot wants to slap that on. I’ve seen readers who have epilepsy furious over poor research in a novel, where their condition is used as character color and science is discarded because it’s easier if meds and epilepsy worked a different way. (Point of order: I just looked up epilepsy as I typed this, unsure if I should call it a disease or not, and I edited out illness as a synonym too. This took me less than two minutes of Googlefu.)
This morning I was the frustrated person on twitter. Someone rec’d a gay romance, and I was all psyched because I’m always looking for a good book and this person never fails me–and then I read the blurb.
…hiding his sexual preference from everyone…
One of two things just happened. Either you read that little snippet and winced, hissed through your teeth, or were pissed, or you don’t know what I’m talking about. For those of you in column A, bear with me. Column B, come with me.
This is a link to GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide. Revisit it often, because stuff changes and gets added. Germane to our discussion at hand is paragraph three, which I will paste here:
Offensive: “sexual preference”
Preferred: “sexual orientation” or “orientation.” The term “sexual preference” is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be “cured.” Sexual orientation is the accurate description of an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex and is inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, as well as straight men and women (see AP & New York Times Style).
When I objected to this on Twitter, it was suggested preference was okay because the character in question was deeply closeted. Actually, that makes me much more nervous. One, that term has zero place in a public blurb. If the character uses that term to describe himself within the story, that’s potentially permissible, but only if he is corrected and his schooling of appropriate terminology is part of the plot. The blurb is a no-go. Because what that ONE WORD did in that blurb was take me from a well-known author of gay romance possibly reading and rec’ing that book to writing a two-thousand word blog post on why that book is probably a very bad idea. That one word tells me the author hasn’t so much as glanced at the GLAAD media reference guide, let alone done any training. That the author is usually an author of heterosexual romance makes me further put on the brakes, because now I’m worried that word was a flag hiding deeper appropriation. That might not be the case—this author might be a huge ally who has done all sorts of research and that word was simply a fart. Unfortunately, all I have is that blurb and that word, and I’m not just failing to bite. I’m running and shunning, and I would actively discourage that book if asked what I thought. Based on one very unnecessary and poorly-chosen word.
I don’t hold the blogger who rec’d the book responsible for knowing this, as she’s a reader, and she’s supposed to be able to read good books and enjoy them. Apparently the book itself is great, and I’m sorry I’m having to pass. The faux-pas is utterly on the author, and it is a faux-pas, and it should be corrected. She should talk to her publisher TODAY about getting the blurb changed TODAY up to and including the backs of print books. She’d do well to submit the book to someone in the gay romance community and say, “Would you read this and make sure that’s the only terminology/community mistake I made? I really want to get this right.” For the record, I would make time to do that reading and would be honest and patient in any education attempts. But honestly, there are a lot of qualified and willing people on the ground. While it’s not the job of the appropriated to help authors avoid missteps, in addition to being generally open to education efforts, marginalized groups often publish media guides and leave easily Google-able clues as to how they’d like to be addressed and dealt with.
Unfortunately, I meant well is not a defense when appropriation goes wrong. I’m sorry is the lead, immediate correction is the next step, and contrition is the path forward. If you’re writing about any group who experiences prejudice, get your ducks in a row and your Google on. The problem is even getting a doctoral thesis in the appropriated community can’t stop some mistakes. I have made mistakes in appropriation. Even being a member of the appropriated community can lead to argument about how the group should be represented–but when we are tourists, we must always, always proceed with respect and prepare to defer, especially when representing them in fiction.
I am a woman. When I write gay men, I am appropriating. There’s no if, and, or but about it. I’m not a gay man. I’ve researched all day long, I mind my Ps and Qs, I have put in months worth of volunteer hours for LGBT causes and have donated to them for a decade, but
I do not have a penis and desire romantic relations with men, ergo, I am not a gay man.ETA: It was pointed out to me one can in fact, be a gay man without a penis. Sorry for my screwup, and thanks for correcting me, Heidi Belleau. See how easy it is to screw up? See how easy it is to correct and apologize?
As an author of gay romance, is my job to be careful and smart, and when I screw up, it’s on me to apologize and correct. I’m quite sure there are gay men who regard me warily, seeing my bio at face value—woman married to man—writing their stories. That’s fine–that’s my work to win them, or to allow them to decline. When I pitch/sell gay romance as a type of romance to women, regardless of their orientation, I am careful about how I speak. When I am interviewed by the media, I cram for hours in advance and if it’s radio, I take notes. Every time I write a gay character, every time I open my mouth or type words about gay romance, I carry the weight of men who have been abused physically and mentally over not only generations but centuries. I forget that at my peril, and at the expense of their experience.
This seems so easy, so basic—do your research. And honestly, that’s the only sin in the blurb mentioned above. Except there’s another elephant in the room when talking about women writing gay men, appropriating gay men, and this discussion isn’t complete without bringing it up: women are fighting their own appropriation. Women are marginalized too.
#GamerGate and #WomenAgainstFeminism are exhibits A and B, see also Gamora’s exclusion from Guardian’s of the Galaxy merchandise aimed at little boys. See basically all of western culture. Writing romance novels of any orientation is a feminist act, because every one is a middle finger at the male-centric idea of romance being silly and stupid and lesser. Men in romance novels fall in love too, profess devotion, and do all kinds of things they’re not allowed to do as freely in our messed up culture. In lesbian romances, the men are secondary characters not required for love and romance.
In gay romances, however, several things are going on. On the one hand, we have beautiful accurate representations of masculinity, of strength and vulnerability. We have gay men with agency. But, particularly when straight women write gay men, or men having sex with men, there is great potential for a subversion element, the seizing of power from men. Because gay men are still men, and men still have the lion’s share of the power in our culture.
It is easy to use man having sex with a man as not a representation of gay men but as a weapon against the oppressor. Subverting the idealized, monstrous, impossible yet socially dominating straight male ideal is a heady rush, and in heterosexual romance, I have to say, knock yourself out. But the second that monstrous man wanders over the line into gay man, everything changes. Gay men know the monstrous hell of that oppression in a different way than women, but they know it. Women wouldn’t like being subverted in gay male-authored novels any more than gay men appreciate it in the novels of women. In fact, even when women write gay romances, the women in the secondary roles are closely scrutinized for misogyny by male and female readers in the community. Some female readers of gay romance will say they only read gay romances because they have been so upset by the portrayal of women in popular literature and culture, including straight romance, that they would prefer to only read men falling in love with men. There’s a lot of work there to be done in romance, to help those women stop feeling so ostracized by their own gender. But absolutely that work isn’t done by subverting the male archetype via gay men without thought or care. In fact, that will only make things worse.
The bitter pill in all this is I want, very much so, for authors of heterosexual romance to include LGBT characters, primary or secondary, in romance. But it’s well-past time we started talking about appropriation, not just in LGBT but in everything. Write outside the lines of your experience, but do your research and your homework. For LGBT romance, it’s a lot more than a few episodes of porn and a YouTube coming out video. It’s reading gay history and volunteering at youth shelters and looking in the faces of girls and boys kicked out of their homes because they dared to declare who they wanted to love. If you want to understand why preference is an insult, that’s an excellent place to start.
But this applies to everything. Any culture or group of persons whose experience does not belong to you—do your research. When you get it wrong, correct, apologize, and learn. Because there really is something worse than having no voice at all. It’s someone using your voice to insult you.
Knowing they’re making a profit from it is a cruel kick in the teeth.