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.
Heidi: 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.
For 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 himself 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.
Heidi: 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.
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.
Heidi: 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.
Heidi: 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.
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.
Heidi: 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.
H: 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.
H: 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.
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.
That’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.