Beyond the Label: Open Orientation in Gay Romance

I had the pleasure this week of reading an advance reader copy of Beyond the Sea, a contemporary romance by Keira Andrews. It’s the story of two young men who crash on a remote Pacific island, help each other survive against the odds, and along the way fall in love. It also happens to be a novel where both protagonists are straight. Or at least, they identify themselves as such at the start of the story.

This trope—straight men falling for each other—goes by many names, has many subtle incarnations and flavors, and it’s far older than the last fifteen years of what is the modern gay romance market. From pulp novels to porn to sweet romances, straight men who “turn” gay is a popular fantasy for pretty much everyone, including (yes, really) straight men. Some people focus on the word turn, the fantasy being more about subjugating patriarchal insistence that only heterosexual men are powerful. The return on investment in this remix is luring a straight man to eat his words rather than anything else. Or more bluntly, the fantasy is to put the straight man on his knees, either in front of another straight man or before a gay man. No matter how it’s done, the straight man “turning” gay speaks to reclaiming power, or perhaps simply to watching that power be taken from those with the most reserves.

But the trope isn’t only about power, and as LGBT rights rise, more and more it’s not about turning anyone as it’s about freeing all of us. More and more young adults report they’re either bisexual or uninterested in being labeled as a specific orientation or gender. Straight men of all ages are admitting to gay fantasies and gay experiences, and many more men are identifying as bisexual than ever before.

Women are doing this too, but again, we’re a patriarchal society. When women say they’re bisexual, gender-fluid or pansexual, it doesn’t grab the culture’s attention in the same way. Despite the logistical ridiculousness of it (less women having sex with men=fewer babies in the traditional, caveman manner), men abandoning heteronormative roles still makes our culture shiver, either in terror or delicious anticipation. Fictional stories of straight men in gay relationships by extension become a celebration of that freedom in a way that resonates in our collective and individual hindbrains. It’s beyond simple orientation, and it’s not even about sex, not entirely. If the straight man can be freed from his chains, so can we all.

In Andrews’s Beyond the Sea, this freedom comes with a double dose of trope: two straight men on a desert island. No societal pressures beyond what they allow onto their shores, and no future repercussions, because they know they have almost zero chance of being rescued. The only way the slate could be cleaner would be if they’d both had amnesia, but that scenario wouldn’t have been as sweet. No, instead, we witness two men become each other’s whole world, literally. They must rely on one another. They must help each other, soothe each other. It’s easy to imagine that extension into love each other, emotionally and physically. All they have to do is let go of an orientation inflexibility impressed upon them by the patriarchal culture.

This phenomenon of straight men falling in love with each other isn’t fictional at all, and it’s not about convenience, either. New science has shown men of all orientations often fantasize about one another, and it’s quite possibly all down to progesterone. The hormone, found in both men and women, is crucial to forging alliances. It doesn’t require a physical connection, but it’s absolutely why anyone, male or female, who works closely with another human feels connected in ways which are resonant and powerful.

If a culture insists on no homosexual contact, or at least makes it seem undesirable, it’s easy to imagine those whose orientation is either fluid or more tacked toward straight to shrug and focus on the opposite sex. But when those cultural rules fall away, because they’re relaxing or because those meant to follow them are, say, abruptly washed onto an island, that fluidity is back in play.

In Andrews’s novel, both heroes are stranded on islands long before that’s literally true. One man is a reluctant part of a boy band, dutifully letting himself be shuttled through life in a glass hamster wheel, plastering on a smile while the paparazzo click away. The other is a celebrated pilot hero unable to process his survivor guilt, shutting himself off from the world to the point it’s almost dangerous. Neither one of them in any way is repressing their sexuality or orientation. Both have had relationships with women, and they’ve been real relationships, not disappointing attempts where everything felt wrong, especially once they opened up to the idea of being with a man.

This means when they do fall for one another, it’s all the more magical. Their relationship isn’t about orientation but about connection. It’s not about surrendering identity but shedding old lives to make new ones. About finding themselves and each other amidst a harrowing ordeal—talk about a tale of hope! A charming, heartwarming breath of fresh air, Beyond the Sea allows us to imagine we too can sail past our boundaries and into the ocean of our own happily ever after.

As a woman of fluid orientation herself, I love and cherish this story. It got me thinking, too, about other books in this vein I’ve loved and that I know a lot of romance readers love. And since I know several of those authors very well, and because I really wanted to talk about this book and this topic now that I was warmed up, I asked them to let me interview them. They obliged.

I started the conversation with my longtime friend and sometimes co-author, Marie Sexton.

Promises_pr-1Heidi: Marie, You’re credited with coining the phrase out for you, a remix of the often-disliked gay for you. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between the two phrases, at least in your mind?

Marie: This actually happened not long after Promises came out. A reader contacted me to tell me about a heated debate on an Amazon forum over whether or not Matt qualified as “gay for you.” He wanted to know if I’d join the conversation and weigh in. I didn’t, because that sounded like trouble, but I sat there for a while being confused as to why Matt would ever be called “gay for you.” In my mind, Matt was never straight. He just hadn’t ever allowed himself to explore his attraction to men. Falling in love with Jared gave him the courage to finally accept that side of himself, but it wasn’t like he suddenly switched teams or anything. I mentioned it to my husband, and he said, “Matt isn’t ‘gay for you.’ He’s ‘out for you.'” Not long after that, the same discussion happened on Jessewave, where I repeated the phrase, and suddenly it became a thing.

savioursofoestend_800For the record, I only have one character I consider to be truly “gay for you,” and that’s Simon, in Saviours of Oestend. Like it or not, it has long been known that men who would otherwise be considered straight will resort to same-sex activities when there are no females around for extended periods of time (i.e., prisoners, pirates, sailors). This is sort of where Simon fits in. Simon is definitely straight, but forms a partnership with Frances that includes sexual favors.

Heidi: You’ve written several characters now who some call bisexual, some call straight, but from working with you on Second Hand and Family Man, I know your characters can be wont to reject labels altogether. I don’t think I ever actually said this out loud to you, but I really think reading your work in particular (and then working with you on those two projects) helped me come to terms with my own orientation, which I had never questioned as anything but straight before. Looking back, I can do some revisionist history, but it does seem odd to have to insist my perception of myself cannot change, that I had to have been “wrong” or “in denial” up until that point. Is this setup something your characters present to you and you go with it, or was this a deliberate artistic choice on your part? Does this have a resonance for you, possibly even beyond gay for you, out for you, or orientation in general?

Marie: I think my characters tend to reject labels because I tend to reject labels. I understand that for some people, a label helps. And if that’s the case—if a label feels good, or feels right, or somehow makes somebody feel more comfortable about themselves—then by all means, they should use it. But I also think there’s often too much emphasis on finding just the right box to shove people into. I also think that, especially for teenagers, we need to realize that being confused is okay. Being confused is normal. It’s part of growing up. It’s how we learn and grow. And yet, there’s so much pressure to pick a side RIGHT NOW.

I talked to a friend recently who told me about an incident her son had gone through in his late teens. He was mostly attracted to women, but occasionally liked to dress in drag. He started exploring online forums, and quickly found himself in a place where people were pressuring him to pick a label already, and then ACT IT, meaning he was told to stop any behavior that was contrary to the label, even if it wasn’t contrary to his nature. There were lots of people telling him he was just confused (of course he was!), or that he was in denial. He started thinking he needed to begin hormone therapy, even though he didn’t particularly want to be female, just because he was being pressured by so many people to transition. He was lucky enough to have parents who understood and supported him in every way, but he still spent more than a year in a severe depression, trying on different labels, trying to make his sexuality and his vision of SecondHand_600x900himself fit into some perfect little descriptor until finally, he had an epiphany: it didn’t matter. He still mostly liked girls, although sometimes boys. He still liked to dress in drag, but not every day. He didn’t *want* to choose a label, and I think that should be okay too. Love who you love. Do what you like. It’s nobody else’s business.

Did I even answer the question?

I think most people aren’t 100% gay or 100% straight. That seems pretty obvious. Most of us are somewhere in between. I think a lot of that is how we’re born, but I also think that little gray-scale slider can be nudged one way or the other by all kinds of things. If I’d had a chance to explore my attraction to women more when I was in my late teens/early 20s, I’d probably identify more as bi. As it is, I’m mostly attracted to men, only occasionally attracted to women, and often attracted to androgynous people of all genders. But, I’m also old and married and have never been all that interested in sex. Whatever. I’m just not that concerned about finding the exact right label, and neither are my characters.

My entire life view really does boil down to this: Live and let live. Love who you love. To hell with those who don’t like it.

Still not sure if I answered the question.

TrailerTrash_400x600Heidi: I ador your upcoming release, Trailer Trash. Nate seems to follow that pattern of not necessarily identifying as gay, only happens to fall in love with a man. Would you agree with my reading of that, or am I wishing my own perceptions onto your book? Do you think it changes the game at all that Nate is living in the 1980s, not 2016?

Marie: I think Nate is like a lot of my characters in that he’s somewhere in that range in between 100% gay and 100% straight. Falling for Cody (and falling hard) definitely forces him to face that side of himself. But yes, I definitely think it would have been a very different story if it’d been set in 2016. I think he would have had a lot more opportunities to question his sexuality as he was growing up. But growing up in the 80s, it was just assumed that everybody was straight. Only those weirdos in New York or San Francisco were gay. Certainly nobody in small-town America could possibly be gay! Denial is a powerful thing. (And porn was awfully hard for teenagers to come by in those days!) And so of course Nate has kind of assumed he must be straight too, despite the fact that he’s never been attracted to a girl. 

Next, I spoke with Tere Michaels.

51TDP5TQOvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Heidi: Tere, Your book Faith and Fidelity is considered to be not only a seminal gay romance but also a story many readers have considered to be moving and meaningful on very personal levels. I have a bisexual male friend, in fact, who considers your work part of his personal awakening to his own orientation. Can you speak a little to this reader reaction? Were you surprised by it?

Tere: The reaction took me off guard, to be honest. I wrote a story in my head, I got it published and people responded so intensely to it—on the one hand your ego enjoys the attention! But then the personal stories began to come into my email and I was overwhelmed.

By and large, my fan mail was (is) from men. All ages—teenagers who wanted to find a love like Matt, older men who shared their personal journeys with me. Some of the letters made me cry, because the story of Matt and Evan sort…tripping into love with each other triggered feelings in people that were very real and honest. It made it a little bigger than “yay I published my first book.”

When the third book came out, with Evan’s internal narration about labels and expectations, the mail really picked up. Men in their 40s and 50s seemed to identify with that part of it very intensely.

I am SO grateful that people comfortable enough to share their stories with me.

LoveLoyaltyFSHeidi: In Faith and Fidelity, the characters are very specific about not identifying as gay or even bisexual, and my reading was that they fell in love with each other, orientation be damned. Did you make this choice consciously, or was it character-driven? Why do you feel that aspect of their relationship is so important to their story?

Tere: I think it was character-driven, mostly because of the age of the characters. Labels are being used in a more positive and life-affirming way by younger generations but Matt and Evan grew up in a completely different time. They have stereotypical opinions as well as very specific thoughts about who THEY are. And those things don’t line up with what they perceive as “gay.”

It’s also a part of their evolution, as people and as a couple. By later books in the series, they’ve both done some soul searching and internal reorganization about who they are. But their reluctance felt organic in the first story.

Basically—I don’t think people wake up one day, slap a new label on themselves and feel completely at ease with it! And sure as hell not people like Matt and Evan, who haven’t knocked on that little dark box inside their soul for a very long time.

DutyDevotionLGHeidi: I’m asking similar questions of Damon Suede regarding his debut novel Hot Head, which also features two straight men who fall for each other despite identifying as straight, but while your books are similar in popularity and influence in the genre, your book, while not shying away from sex, has a different type of emotional connection. Whereas Suede’s characters connect through a kind of denial, your characters are drawn to each other like moths to a flame, and the conflict is less about worrying about whether or not attraction is returned and more about how to negotiate this unexpected alteration of the expected path of their lives. Can you speak a bit on why you wanted to tell this kind of story this way? Was it an exploration of characters who appeared to you, or a deliberate choice?

Tere: That’s a different answer for each character, actually.

Matt’s emotional currency is sex—before he meets Evan. Even when he starts having feelings for him, they are expressed as sexual dreams. What really keeps him there—attracted to Evan and despite freaking out about it—is the fact that for the first time, he is absorbed into a family unit and
completely accepted. This is new for him. And that desire for family and inclusion is what drives him to make things work. He’s never had it and a taste of it is actually better than sex for Matt.24838444

Evan, on the other hand, is not an overtly sexual being. In the current parlance, I’d say Evan is demisexual without ever realizing it. And his emotional currency is safety.

Evan falls in love with Sherri, his wife—and sleeps with her—because she makes him feel safe. This is something that very few people in his life have offered without it being a trap. Evan has sexual feelings for his wife because she moves past his walls and grants him a haven. And when he meets Matt, here is another person who just seems to honestly see Evan—and at that point, Evan is literally starving for Sherri’s safety. He doesn’t just miss her, he feels unbalanced. Matt walks in and boom, Evan finds his footing.

The sex is secondary in Faith & Fidelity—it’s an expression of their attraction and relief at finding someone who fulfills emotional needs more than anything else.

24532419Heidi: Is there anything else you’d like to expand upon, either this trope or this series in particular?

Tere: I’d like to think that the Faith, Love & Devotion series is less about labels and more a journey. I honestly believe people can change over their lifetime—the Kinsey Scale isn’t set in stone when you’re born! The secret to happiness (in my humble opinion) is being open to change and open to love. So call it “gay for you”—I’d like to think of it more as “Taking a Leap for You.”

Finally, I kicked this conversation over to Damon Suede.

HotHead250pxH: Damon, Hot Head is a balls-out, unabashed romance featuring two straight men. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose this trope for that story?

D: Hot Head is loosely based on a true story. My best friend went through a phase of dating married firefighters. One night her fuck-of-the-moment, a world class, charming-macho-shithead confessed in a drunken midnight conversation that he’d once been in love with a guy: his best friend. They’d grown up together, banged broads together, gone through probie school together, bailed each other out of bar fights, served in the same FDNY company together. Then one day he realized he was having these weird thoughts. And eventually his curiosity drove him into a summertime three-way with the best friend and the wife which went very badly. The wife flipped because of his focus on the friend. The friend flipped because he was acting “so fucking weird.” After twenty years as near brothers, they stopped speaking. A terrible rift that nothing could bridge. All he wanted to do was confess this impossible attraction/affection/longing, but it had divided them.

And then the World Trade Center came down, and his best friend died.

Before any explanation or confession could happen, he’d lost the person he loved most without being able to tell the truth, and it almost destroyed him too. When he told me his terrible secret, half-drunk in the middle of the night, it was still clearly killing him slowly.

When it came time to write my first book, I tried to think of the most romantic scenario imaginable, and decided to write their story but give them the happy ending they deserved.

So on the one hand, I chose that trope because it was the core of a true story with angst, pathos, and painful redemption baked into it from the get-go. But on the other hand, I believe that story was so romantic because of the ways that our society cages male desire and denies male vulnerability. The fact that they were both firefighters, the realities of 9/11 and homophobia in the FDNY only added dramatic grist.

But at core, the straight-men-in-love-with-each-other trope is about forbidden desire and redemption. To my mind, that’s the most hopeful, seductive thrilling notion in the world: that our pain has value and that we are forged in the fires of our own suffering, smelted and hammered into shape like bright swords.

Now, I think any obstacle can be romantic. But in gay romance in particular, in which gender expression and sexual norms often sit front and center, that hungry chasm between straight-identifying men affords all kinds of dramatic mojo to a canny author of gay romance. So too, the mythography of heroes involves their entanglement with villainy and weakness. Angels need devils to wrestle. No one would read Spider-Man if it was about an annoying adolescent who gets bitten by a spider. But make that spider radioactive and turn his puberty into an operatic spectacle of web-slinging and wall-clinging, and you create superhero gold.

PentUp250H: Since your most recent novel, Pent Up, features two men even more adamant about being straight until they meet each other, you’re obviously a fan of this trope. Would you expand a bit on this?

D: Like many of my projects, Pent Up literally began as a thought experiment. I wanted to see if I could write two men who started out straight, who literally fell in love in front of our eyes. In Hot Head, the guilty longing and personal history predates the opening of the book, unrequited love playing out over a decade. I started Pent Up wanting to show the full journey from their freaky meeting to the HEA. I left Ruben and Andy nowhere to hide, from us or from each other.

Frankly, it’s too easy a reach to create straw dummies to knock over on a whim…gorgeous, lonely, erotically-charged men who live one cocktail away from fucking each other on every available surface. That just seems so facile and boring to me. Two hunky jocks get horny and hump sounds like a porno snoozefest. For me an HEA must come at a cost or it feels trivial.

Look, desire is complex and subtle and weird. Men aren’t baked out of Viagra and gingerbread. And two straight-identifying dudes don’t just fall head over heels casually. That shit takes time and compromise and soul-searching. Pent Up let me play around in dangerous waters. Romantic suspense is all about danger and proximity. Since the book was bodyguard/billionaire voyeurism, violence, covetousness, and extravagance would shape their interactions. And then they were both wrestling with addictions. The homoerotic tension wove through that. In a way the secretive crime elements ran in strict parallel to the hidden desire they felt for each other. Pressure cooker, right? Not for nothing is the book called Pent Up.

Forbidden desire, and the anxiety/kink/danger/envy was a huge part of that attraction… wanting something and someone you’re not allowed to want in a blue-collar culture that simultaneously overvalues strength and courage (to the point of excusing violence and patriarchal behavior) and also undervalues it so much that these men can’t earn a reasonable living. Firefighters, bodyguards, cowboys, soldiers, pirates…these are not folks who run the world, but they resonate deeply across the spectrum. They are heroic in a primal, mythic way, possibly more for LGBT folks who have traditionally been barred from those roles in pop culture and pop consciousness.

Class and gender power also reflect economic barriers. In genre fiction, your body is your maleness, but so is your money, and your knowledge, and your authority, and your power, and your tenacity. And spiraling down under all of them is that secret beating heart of romance: male emotional vulnerability. We live in a culture that devalues male emotion and its expression.

Gay romance blasts right through all that. It rakes the patriarchy over the coals while playing out all the goofy macho bullshit that is so damn sexy. That right there is a cake-and-eat-it situation for a genre fictioneer. Pent Up let me unpack all those classic noir tropes: crooked deals, shady connections, divided loyalty, loving deceit, double-crosses and conspiracy, friendly violence, the collision of vast wealth and grinding poverty, and two shifty characters who were made for each other in the worst way. I learned so much writing that book, because I gave them nowhere to hide, but (as I learned) I gave myself nowhere to hide either: no flip flirtations, no cutesy banter, no candid declarations. Ruben and Andy thrummed with barricaded impulses, and writing them tested my mettle in a great way.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00070]H: I know you also read and loved Beyond the Sea. I’ve had my say on how powerful it was to set a romance between two straight men on a desert island; what did that mean for you? What do you think this novel adds to the romance, gay, straight, or refusal-to-declare-an-orientation canon?

D: Well, for me Keira Andrews has a real gift for male tenacity. Her heroes often waver between fragility and relentless independence. That’s a super sexy strip of emotional terrain to mine as an author. Beyond the Sea let her play out all the meaty feelings that make two dudes falling for each other so seductive…but it sidestepped any porno reading of same. I can think of at least four books that use “studs trapped on desert island” to create sunburned shenanigans in the tropics.

cover-lovematchThat’s not Keira’s mode at all. I’ve loved her writing from her first book, Love Match. She always digs past the glib, facile connections between her characters, and that was what I dug so much about this book: it took it’s time so that these characters could find their way across the emotional landscape. She has a bright, deft hand that pulls characters into unexpected tenderness. Yes, please! For her, desert island proximity actually creates more problems than it solves, and THAT is the mark of a gifted writer, someone who avoids the groundfall pears in favor of the fruit hovering just out of reach. All my favorite books do that: eschew the obvious in favor of irony, subtlety, and meaningful anagnorisis. Aristotle knew his shit, yo! So does she.

H: Is there anything else about this trope you’d like to add?

D: Well, I’ll come right out and say that straight men falling for each other isn’t just a trope in LGBT romance: it denotes and describes something seductive and true about human desire. People are complicated. Love makes big messes, and sometimes a relationship can transform an entire community. As a part of our cultural moment, gay romance does all that and more. That’s amazing and inspiring to me.

On a personal, social level, that’s how actual men in the actual world navigate homoerotic impulses no matter how they identify. Secrets have a cost. Deception corrodes relationships. We have feelings for people and then we deal with them. That’s not fiction, that’s called COMING OUT. This is why we say sexual orientation and not sexual preference: people don’t turn their hormones and hearts on and off like a spigot. We don’t decide to lust after our straight buddy or choose to fantasize about people we know are unattainable. For real-life romance, the distance between experience and expectation is massive. This trope cleaves right to the marrow of LGBT romance: the power of love to transform us and the world so that we can participate in it. Powerful stuff for escapist fiction, and they’ll pry it from my cold dead fingers.

That’s one of the things I love about Marie Sexton’s refiguring of fanfic’s creaky, misguided tag “gay for you” as “out for you.” LGBT people don’t BECOME gay; they come out. Only someone who’s never experienced this kind of desire would think it turns on like a light. That’s childish and silly. We fall for people, and then we have to deal with the implications in the rest of our life.

Why is abduction and pursuit still so popular? Why do so many romances deal with dubious consent or extreme sexuality? Why do sociocultural tensions make for such intense drama? Because we’re fucking monkeys and we live in a state of rubbernecking voyeurism. We crave safety and adventure equally… and therein lies the delicious rub of all genre entertainment. Friction and fiction, baby.

I want to talk a little bit more about Pent Up before I close this essay, because it’s quite a bookend to Beyond the Sea on the shelf of the two straight men in love trope. Like Beyond the Sea, Pent Up is not about men who are out for you. They are men who considered themselves straight until, after developing a slow, powerful friendship, they discover they want that friendship to also be a romantic relationship. Whereas Beyond the Sea is all about innocence and isolation, shaking off the civilization in order to become free, the characters in Pent Up do this dance on the top of a high-rise in New York City, literally trapped by the city itself and the financial chicanery of one of the heroes’ past and family connections. They must step over the world around them to claim their HEA. Their connection is powerful, resonant, and shattering both to them and to the reader. Andrews sweeps you away; Suede slams you against the penthouse wall and winks wickedly as he pushes you to your knees.

Both stories are a valid spin on the tale. Both are important to the romance canon. So are the stories referenced above by Michaels and Sexton and countless others we ran out of time to discuss here. What I love, though, is that every single one of these stores in this essay is not about turning. It’s about setting characters, readers, even the authors free. It’s about opening up to possibility, not claiming. (Well, I acknowledge I did just suggest Suede wanted us on our knees. But it’s to let go and have fun, not to learn to behave.)

I love it when romance blooms in inclusive directions like this. I never want my stories (the ones I write or the ones I read and claim in my heart) to be LGBT romances. I want them to be romances which happen to include LGBT people. Sometimes we want to sit with Marie Sexton and throw all the labels overboard and just be.

Beyond the Sea is out now or coming soon to a retailer near you. I encourage you to let Keira Andrews sweep you away onto Golden Sands, and if you haven’t read the other books mentioned in this essay, pick them up too. If you already have them, perhaps bump them to the top of your reread pile. Remind yourself of the possibilities and wonders of romance without labels or boundaries, and let these talented authors wash you gently in the waters of hope.

35 Comments on “Beyond the Label: Open Orientation in Gay Romance”

  1. Thank you for posting this! I really enjoyed reading your take on this trope and the interviews were gold!

  2. Fascinating and thought provoking as always. Thanks for your (and your guests) wise words.. I’ll be re-reading all these books with a new perspective.

  3. I love this, Heidi! Thanks for putting this all together. It’s really great.

    I’ve long eschewed labels, which is why I love romances where people defy labels or realize that those labels matter very little sometimes when we find someone we love.

  4. Cool discussion and many great points made. I think the one thing it perhaps underemphasizes is the fear of the flipside of gay-for-you. So much of the fight for gay rights is based on the idea that you can’t change from gay to straight. There is no amount of effort or prayer or psychotherapy that will do it. That’s why it’s an essential liberty.

    If you can have gay for you, theoretically someone is changing their fundamental orientation. Now, if you don’t add in the fact that it is illogical to claim to be gay and hide/deny your straight side in today’s world, and if you don’t see that these really are opening to bi/gay orientation, not changing it, then GFY implies that change is possible.

    I have seen people in the LGBTQ community very upset by the concept of GFY because, at the superficial level, it risks negating that fundamental lever by which they are trying to change society and obtain rights.

    • I actually have a plot bunny running around about a gay man and a lesbian falling in love. Unfortunately my TBW pile is huge. And that one requires a lot of chewing.

      I don’t care for the term gay for you, because as stated above, I feel it leans on the TURN rather than FREE emphasis. Out for you to me is more about having not been ready to say one is gay but already knows. What I love about BTS and PU and F&F in particular are that they are all men who feel they are straight but fall in love with another man anyway.

      • I’d be interested in seeing you write it – I think that there can also be pressure from the gay community these days not to be bi… so it could be out-for-you from the other side, now. But yeah, the approach would have to be right.

        I love all of those books too (except haven’t read the new KA yet – looking forward to it.)

        But I know with The Rebuilding Year, which is also double Out for You, I got some of those kind of comments and even an email or two about the damage the GFY trope does to the “you’re born gay” platform. I actually made a point particularly in the second book of having Ryan claim the “bi” label, once he thought it through. And having John not deny his early love for his wife in falling for Ryan. But I can understand their issue with the way we label such stories – we were less sensitive to that perhaps 5 years ago than now…

        • It’s tough because it’s a conflation of denying gay is a choice and acknowledging orientation is fluid and that with acceptance comes a blurring of lines.

          I would say 80% of my reader mail comes from bisexual women. Most aren’t out. The bisexual men never are. The one I reference in the essay has panic dreams about being found out, and sadly it’s fear from the gay community as much as the straight. None of it is necessary, either. There is room for open orientation as well as established orientation.

          I appreciate it’s a tough issue. I hope we can all continue to have constructive, open conversations where we don’t insist on sides and lines. That never helps anyone.

          • Apologies: I meant to say, 80% of my reader mail from women comes from bisexual women. My gender breakdown is more half and half, and an increasing percentage of non binary.

            • I’d love to see taking sides and unhelpful labels go away. It is promising that less than half of all millenials identified as 100% straight in recent surveys, and the number who claimed some degree of gender fluidity is quickly increasing, as is acceptance of the concept of gender and attraction as a spectrum. So hopefully the issue will decrease substantially in the next decade. Sad that right now so much policy is being made by older rigid straight-identifying men who leap on any loophole to deny the obvious universality of rights. But I just understand where some of the negative comments are coming from, that’s all. It’s not hate of authors ignorantly playing in the GFY playground as much as fear of losing an inch of hard-won ground. May it also be assuaged by us doing the best jobs we can.

              It’s interesting you get so much mail from bi women (although my readers rarely tell me their orientation unless they are the YA kids I work with on my group, so who knows.) I have seen studies claiming as many as 2/3 of women express some degree of same-sex attraction when asked in a safe context so maybe you represent a safe context.

              • I’m pretty open about identifying as bisexual myself, which probably helps!

                Yes, I love that the upcoming generation is basically waving their hands at labels and going their merry way. I hope we can give them a good environment to explore that freedom in. Though they seem impressive enough that if we fail, they’ll make it for themselves.

    • I agree with you Kaje,

      I think julio’s review of this book really brought my attention to the destructive nature of this trope. But I think what Heidi is saying here is a really nuanced understanding of the trope as it is used in the genre.

      I agree with both, the answer is always more complexity <3.

      • It’s true, the trope can be used badly–when it’s using gay men as objects. To call Beyond the Sea guilty of that sin, however, would be inappropriate.

        • I have never ready any of KA’s writing, so I can’t talk of this work specifically.

          But I think there is validity in trying to push back on the GFY trope so that there is more responsibility on the part of writers and readers to *want* more complex understandings of sexuality, romance, and character development.

          From my understanding of KA’s writings she *does* do that and is not afraid to take it on, but I think that her work and the work of other authors of GFY need to be in constant conversation with the potential misogyny, transphobia, and bi-erasure that the trope brings up.

          • I’ve never cared for the term “gay for you,” as I don’t care for “m/m.” I wouldn’t characterize this book as that, though I know other people define the term differently. I would call this book an open-orientation book, not out-for-you.

  5. Pingback: Links for your weekend reading 11/03/2016 | stompydragons

  6. I posted this on GR on your book review, and decided to post it here too:

    Erika Interesting post, Heidi, and thanks for including a gay male author’s perspective on this issue.

    I will say that I completely understand and champion all the many gay/bi/trans people I’ve seen coming out to condemn GFY as a trope after reading Julio’s review. As someone who is fluid myself, I get where they’re coming from and support them wholeheartedly. Like many people have been saying on social media: just because some people would like there not to be labels, many other people feel that those LGBTQIA labels are necessary in helping them come to understand themselves. Saying “well labels aren’t necessary” can be very alienating to these same people.

    I also will say that I have loved quite a few books in this genre that some people might call GFY but that I prefer to call OFY, because truly it’s more, like Damon Suede said, these people thought they were straight but ultimately found out they weren’t. I do prefer if the author makes sure to explicitly lay that out in the book, because I think that not doing so contributes to this GFY fetishization issue.

    As for the book at hand, the issue arose because it seemed specifically worded to capitalize on this titillating and fetishistic angle of GFY. Before the brouhaha even started, I read the first line and immediately thought, “Oh hell no” and went on my way. Apparently I was not the only one. I’m glad the author decided to reword the blurb, because it is much more inclusive now.

    Regardless of anyone’s thoughts on the matter, I’m glad that people are finally discussing it and hopefully realizing that just because they personally feel one way about an issue doesn’t mean that other people aren’t hurt by that same way of thinking.

    • It’s absolutely fine for some people to want labels and some to not want them. We can all exist in the world together.

      I’m all for communication and discussion. So long as we can be civil.

  7. GFY and OFY are the same thing. It’s just OFY seems to be a rationalization so that it feels like you’re not (even though you are) essentially fetishizing gay/bi/trans men and kind of erasing all of them as well.

    I get and understand the arguments about not being labelled. Which is perfectly fine. But OFY and GFY need to die a horribly fiery death. I don’t like it when it comes to men, women, non binary, or any other identified (or not) persons. It feels like erasure and fetishization. But ESPECIALLY with men/male identified people.

    Also please DON’T write the story of a gay man and a lesbian falling for each other.

    • You are entirely free to dislike certain stories and prefer others. However, many have expressed, here and elsewhere, that the stories mentioned in this post and many like them speak to their experiences and bring them hope. We are all allowed to have our stories.

      You’re excused without prejudice from reading the gay man and lesbian story. It doesn’t sound like it’s for you.

      • It’s not much of a matter of if it’s for me or not. It’s more of a matter of usually stories like you’re mentioning in this post as well as the idea to write gay male/lesbian woman erases and fetishizes specific people. People who identify as gay/lesbian for the fetishization. And erasing bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, demisexual, all across the asexual spectrum, and people who refuse to identify their sexual attraction. As well as the romantic orientations as well being erased (because yes, romantically a gay man and lesbian woman *COULD* be interested in each other, but sexuality wise? It generally wouldn’t work especially given the majority of white gay men and their views on vagina having people). And erases trans identities and non binary identities.

        It doesn’t change how harmful the GFY/OFY trope is. All I’m seeing is OFY is just rationalising so you don’t have to answer to those who say that it’s harmful. And being straight/bisexual doesn’t really give you the experience to write good and nuanced m/m type books without having betas who ARE gay/questioning/etc and listening to said betas. And right now, the m/m romance community and writers as a whole are actually doing harm to living, breathing, gay/queer men. Which of course, no one wants to talk about or even address because those of us who do are just “ruining everyone else’s fun”.

  8. I’m interested in the start to this piece. You say:

    “the fantasy is to put the straight man on his knees, either in front of another straight man or before a gay man. No matter how it’s done, the straight man “turning” gay speaks to reclaiming power, or perhaps simply to watching that power be taken from those with the most reserves.”

    I ask, who is reclaiming this power? The writer? In all but one example in this article that is someone other than a queer man. And, yknow, good for you if you get something out of doing that, but it’s being acted out in the bodies of queer men. And while Mr Suede is most certainly entitled to his opinion, I’ll be another data point as a queer guy who finds this dynamic incredibly disempowering and upsetting.

    The glee with which the m/m community eats up GFY is really upsetting. It says actual gay people aren’t good enough. Not romantic enough. It says bi people aren’t a thing. And “GFY” ALSO erases the fantastic diversity and fluidity of sexuality that you rightly acknowledge is a really important part of the human condition. You say you don’t like the label “gay for you”, but I think this discussion is useless without squarely addressing the label. I’ve read almost all of the books you touch on here, and I think most are super respectful to their characters’ sexuality – Ms Michaels’ Faith & Fidelity series in particular is a favourite of mine – but I wouldn’t call ANY of those books “gay for you”.

    And Ms Andrews has deliberately marketed her book as such. It may well be as nuanced as you argue. But the tag line “two straight guys, one desert island” (which, I might add, was deleted from release day review blurbs, but has now been added back in) says “come glory in the GFY.” It’s reductive, it’s hurtful, and it misses all the nuance that your rosy-tinted picture of the concept espouses.

    “People like different stuff” isn’t a good enough response. The use of the label GFY as shorthand for a m/m story where men explore their sexuality isn’t good enough. And can I say saying “We are all allowed to have our stories,” to someone I presume is a queer guy complaining about the erasure of queer guys in m/m is somewhat tone deaf.

    • The version of trope where men are meant to be subjugated doesn’t fit any of the books in this essay; it’s an acknowledgement of an aspect which can be troubling. This is the difficult aspect of gay romance: if this were not a patriarchy, there would be less interest in it as a whole. The popularity of gay romance with all genders and orientations is nuanced, complex, and has enough meat to deserve an essay twice as long as this with many more references and people participating in the discussion. But it’s this element which muddies issues all around: gay for you, out for you, straight men falling for each other–however you name it, it encompasses people wrestling with the patriarchy.

      I don’t care for (and therefore didn’t hold up as examples) gay romance which has no respect for men, which wants to enslave them (unless that’s what they want, or if it’s part of a journey to freedom and the end-goal is clearly agency) or demean them (again, unless that’s their jam). So while I agree, that’s a frustrating aspect, that’s not what we’re discussing here.

      Beyond the Sea as a story does not participate in this negative version of the trope. As for the blurb, the Goodreads version was edited several times (the log shows the record), with some librarians violating policy to alter the blurb as they saw fit. A blogger who had access to the revised blurb (the tagline was never removed, but some bloggers chose to remove it on their own) put up the slightly tweaked version. If you can point to a discussion online where Ms. Andrews declared she was interested in manipulating a trope for profit, I’d be interested in reading that.

      • Thanks for the clarification on the blurb. The fact that it was never changed kind of makes my point even more strongly. Stand by the rest of what I said. If you can explain what “Two straight guys, one desert island” could possibly be other than GFY-bait I’d be happy to listen. Otherwise I think that on its face I’m entitled to think the blurb was encouraged to entice people who wanted to glory in two straight guys screwing.

        • As a genderfluid pansexual person, I’m with you on that being GFY bait. And honestly, GFY/OFY stories make me really disgusted. It’s one thing to say that x character is confused/interested in exploring sexuality. It’s another to say straight persons a and b are now in z circumstances watch what happens! (which is EXACTLY what I think it’s saying for “Two straight guys, one desert island”).

        • I’ll share with you what my friend from the essay (the not-out, bisexual male) said.

          He read this essay and immediately wanted to read Beyond the Sea, because to him, that logline was code for “this is a book like me.” Even though this isn’t about two not-out bisexual men, as in, they don’t say they are bisexual before they meet each other. This kind of discovery book, hidden desire, or perhaps rather, desire not yet discovered, spoke to him.

          Speaking of myself, when I read the logline, I thought, “Oh, this will be like when I wrote Vinnie in Family Man. They don’t know they could be attracted to men until it happens to them.” Which is again, the way it happened to me. It wasn’t that all my life I actively repressed the possibility. It was that one day a person (genderqueer, as it happened) appeared and woke up that part of me.

          Would I, my friend, and even the characters from Beyond the Sea believe differently about our orientation if our worlds had been more accommodating to being open or fluid? I think so. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For me, “Two straight guys, one desert island” delivered exactly what I’d thought it would.

  9. I have nothing to add here,really. Anything I might have said, you already said in the post and through answering people…But I’m leaving a comment to say thank you for bringing some of the most popular writers in this genre here to discuss this topic. Thank you for sharing your insight with us and most importantly, speaking strictly for me, thank you for making me feel better. I’ve honestly been down these past couple of days over this debate and what it has turned into, and this post…this post made me focus again on why I even started to read this genre and not on the toxicity and divide present right now. From my point of view, this is not small thing and I thank you for that.

  10. I’ve had the tab for this blog post open for days so that I could read it when I got the chance and I’m so glad I was finally able to.

    I’m not going to rehash things already said by others, but I will say this: since I started reading LGBTQ romances I’ve loved gfy/ofy stories. Because to me, as someone who bounces between identifying as pan and demi, these stories feel the most *real* to me. They are about falling in love with another person because of who they are as a person and not what gender they identify as.

    As to that, I think it is possible for a person who has identified as gay their entire life to fall in love with someone of the opposite gender. Because people are people, not caricatures of their sexual orientation.

    Umm, so yeah. That’s my two cents.

  11. Thanks, everyone, for the discussion. I’m closing comments because I’ve got a busy week ahead of me, and I’m starting to have to delete some remarks which aren’t discussion, only attacks. That said, I’m happy to discuss on social media or email with anyone who wishes to dialog.

    Comments are now closed.

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