How to Appropriate by Not Really Trying: An Author’s Guide to Writing Socially Marginalized Communities in Romance

appropriation

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…

*record scratch*

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.

6 Comments on “How to Appropriate by Not Really Trying: An Author’s Guide to Writing Socially Marginalized Communities in Romance

  1. I appreciate your passion and commitment Heidi. But I’m not sure I agree with this post.

    Like you, I’m queer, and I didn’t see anything offensive in the blurb you quoted until you explained it. I guess I knew that the term sexual orientation is now generally used instead of sexual preference, but it doesn’t have the same fingers on blackboard effect on me.

    I’ve read enough discussions in the queer community about this choice / not a choice issue to think that it’s not that cut and dried. Some queer people feel like they did choose to be queer – some feel like they were born this way. I’m honestly not sure it matters – I shouldn’t be persecuted for loving women whether or not I made a conscious choice to be bi, because persecution based on sexual orientation ( or preference or whatever) is just plain wrong.

    I get that you see the use of preference as a sign that the author didn’t do their due diligence, didn’t make an effort to use commonly accepted language. And that very well may be true. I don’t know the author or how they identify or why they or their editor chose to use that word.

    I’m not sure what my point is. I’m not usually a fan of “but I wasn’t offended” comments online, because I think the underlying message is that if I’m not offended, no one else should be either, and that’s not helpful. But in this case, while I completely understand why you were offended, I have to say that I wasn’t.

  2. I’ve read the book in question (loved it) and I didn’t find anything appropriative or offensive about it. Like Cleo, I appreciate why it bothered you but on the plain meaning of the word “preference”, well it wasn’t something which offended me. (Although I’m not queer so I realise what offends and does not offend *me* is not terribly relevant).

    Ultimately, *if* it’s a choice to be gay (even though I’m not at all sure that’s what “preference” means in this context) – that’s perfectly fine.

  3. Slightly depressing that the only two comments on a post about appropriating gay male experience in m/m writing are, I think (and forgive me if I’m wrong re gender) two women saying they’re not offended. Which rather misses the point.

    I, at least, will say I think this is a valuable post, and these are things we should all be aware of in writing about groups of which we are not members. (Hell, even about groups we ARE members of – inappropriate fetishization is possible within groups as well as from the outside.)

    • I’m probably the odd one out here because I’m not queer identified. I can’t speak for you of course, but I understand both Heidi and Cleo identify as queer.

      I do have friends who are queer and who are not offended when/if “sexual preference” is used in place of “sexual orientation”. In fact, I have friends who believe that their sexual orientation is a choice and [they would say] what of it?

      I am a reviewer and I try and call out fetishisation and inappropriate language when I see it (it’s an evolving process) and it is in that capacity I spoke. I think I freely acknowledged that my opinion isn’t all that relevant because I’m not queer.

      I think the point we can all agree is that no minority is a monolith. No one person or one organisation can speak, with complete authority, for everyone.

    • I agree with you that this is an important post. I don’t think I made it clear in my first comment that I agree with the main argument – I absolutely agree that appropriation is bad and authors need to be careful when writing about marginalized groups.

      But I do personally disagree with the example – I get why Heidi was offended by the use of the term sexual preference and I respect that, but I don’t agree that every queer person everywhere will be offended by it or that using it automatically means the author is guilty of appropriation. I think it’s more complicated than that.

      I commented in the first place because I read the opening of this post and felt like I failed some sort of queer awareness test because I honestly didn’t see what was wrong with the quoted blurb – and as a bi woman who identifies as queer, that annoyed me. I didn’t mean to derail the conversation.

  4. I think cultural appropriation in books is much different than in daily life. As a straight white woman, if I suddenly decided to start using slang and manners of dress associated with the black gay community of New York (a very old and very distinct sub culture) that would absolutely be appropriation. But if I were to write a romance featuring two men from that culture, I don’t think so. Here is why…the book I would write would be an accessory to that culture, just like the clothes they are wearing (probably made in China) and the music they listen to (mostly belted out by straight women). I am nothing in that situation but a name on the cover of a book. I am not participating in the culture, enacting it, or in any other way “wearing” it as a person in daily life. In fact, many women who write mm romance keep the fact a secret from their friends and family. This isn’t a dreamcatcher keychain or a namaste bumper sticker for most of us. As you stated in the beginning of your piece, writers basically have to write about topics that are outside the realities of the author’s real daily life. If we did not, the world of literature would get very small very quickly.

    I can absolutely understand your concern about misrepresentation, though. If someone is going to write about cultures and groups that ARE outside their personal experience, they had better do their research, and probably utilize beta readers from those groups. That being said, there are warehouses of straight romances written by straight people that are HORRIBLE representations of real straight relationships and the way people actually behave. That’s called bad writing, and it’s everywhere.

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