Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Queer for me. Out for Me.

I started reading romantic fiction when I was in my late teenage years.  I ate up stories of pirates, cowboys, and Scottish lairds.  My mom and I swapped titles and plots like trading cards (“I have a great one with a facial scar!” “Oh, I have one who was kept as a slave by his father’s enemy!”) and we would laugh, sigh and read as much as we could.  When I came out to my mom at the age of 19, one of her biggest worries was that I had felt the need to pretend to like those things, and that I had been denying my own feelings to please her.  Over time she became reassured that that was not the case at all, because what has drawn me to romance has always been the feelings, and not the genitals.

As I have been (loosely) following the Gay For You (GFY) discussions within the MM community, I recalled this conversation with my mom.  I began reading gay fiction as soon as I came out, and when I discovered MM romance, it was like the marriage of two of my favorite things.  I’d read several classics of lesbian literature, but I didn’t find the romantic elements that I craved.  I’ve always loved the promise of an HEA, and the way a romance could pull me out of my life and sweep me into someone else’s.  I didn’t care if the voyage took me over the seas, into space, or into a world I could not have dreamed up.  If the feelings were there, the vulnerability, the angst and then the all curing love, then the story had done its job by me.  In MM romance I found those HEAs, but I also found love stories that validated my own. 

When I came out, gay marriage was a distant dream.  I couldn’t see myself walking down the aisle in a white dress, and what I loved about MM romance was the love that developed in spite of, not because of.  That was a love I could identify with.  Even when gay marriage became a legal reality, as a queer woman I still faced judgment and intolerance, and I found my experiences reinforced in MM romance.  Once again, the love “in spite of” resonated with me and showed the strength of people who loved like me.

When I read the GFY debate, what struck me as ironic was hearing that people find it an erasure of bisexuality, or even transgender identities/love.  In my experience, it has been validating of those identities, and the idea that love is not restricted to the genitals of the person in front of us.  I came out in the 1990s as a lesbian, because there were a lot fewer letters in the acronym, and therefor a lot fewer options that I knew of.  I still fall back on that label occasionally, but queer is probably the most comfortable for me.  I have loved women, and married one for 12 years.  I have been attracted to cismen, transmen, and people from all over the spectrum.  I feel like pansexual is too big of a label for me, but lesbian is too narrow, though it is pretty universally understood, and it represents the life I have led.  Queer seems to sum it all up, so I use that one the most. Some of my favorite books could be classified as GFY or Out For You (OFY) and part of what has drawn me to them is the message that they reinforce- love comes in all different packages, and often breaks the expectations of those who experience it.  In my experience, that has been the truest reflection of love yet.

Though I can understand someone objecting to the name GFY based on the idea that someone can be gay JUST for one person, but like porn stars who perform as gay for pay, there is a difference in the act and the identity.  First off, and most importantly, I think we get into a murky area when we label someone based on our perception of their behavior.  I have a friend who identifies as a lesbian, but was married for many years to a man.  She came out as a lesbian and now is in an exclusive relationship with a woman.  She identifies as a lesbian, but to say her identity is an erasure of bisexuality is to deny her right to identify herself based on her own truths.  How is that different for a character in a book?  Of course bisexuality exists, and I have read many stories where men develop feelings for a man and do decide that they are bisexual, but we also can’t generalize from an individual’s experience to reinforce ideas that we want to see represented.  In my opinion, that is an erasure of a real life as well.

Sexuality and identity are wonderfully complex things.  We turn to romance hoping to see our lives reflected and represented.  Sometimes that happens in bodies that look like ours, but sometimes it does not.  I understand and validate the need and desire for more representations of sexualities and identities, but our desire for those stories cannot come at the erasure or mislabeling of others.  This recent debate came out around Kiera Andrew’s newest release, Beyond the Sea.  One of the vocal respondents against the trope in this novel stated the reasons why he would not even read it, and named the erasure of bisexuality and trans*sexualities, and I think that is a tragedy.  I just finished this book and I adored it.  Andrews handled the coming out of both men by explicitly addressing the complexities of sexual identity, and I think she did a beautiful job.

I have always been interested in why people are drawn to the books they read.  I used to think I was the only woman who would read MM (ha!) and then that I must be the only queer identified woman (ha ha!) and when I found out how wrong I was, I felt like I had found a community who appreciated the beauty of love the way I do.  Joseph Campbell writes about the archetypical hero’s journey, and discuss how the hero is typically from a challenging home life, has lost family, and is different from those around him/her (think Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, etc.)  He says that we are drawn to these heroes since we all feel isolated, alone, and misunderstood to some degree.  I think the same is true in romance.  We all feel like we have had to fight to be loved or to find love.  Whether ace, pan, queer or trans or straight, we have all had to fight to be ourselves, find ourselves, and show ourselves to the world.  When we find people who can open themselves up to love and who have the courage to be true to themselves no matter what, is it any wonder that we feel drawn to these characters? 

As a queer woman, when I read Andrew’s book it was another beautiful example of the strength of queer love- and in some ways, isn’t all true love queer? Doesn’t all true love break some rules?  A great romance speaks to a love that cannot be stopped by identity or physicality, and which supersedes the labels we hold for ourselves and others.  Lets celebrate the stories we have and write the ones we need.


  1. You raise a good point about the reviewer(s) for Beyond the Sea who are posting "why I won't read this book" comments. From what I've seen, though, the main issue for some of the furor is that people who've said they found the trope hurtful have been told to keep quiet because other people like it, which I think is a problematic response. You make an eloquent case for why the trope works for you, but I can see the other point of view, too. There's not an easy answer. I think there's valid truths on both sides.

    1. But isn't it just as problematic if people say that GFY isn't realistic because *they* don't see it as realistic and someone who's always been attracted to the opposite gender but has experienced a same sex attraction reads it?

      It seems to me that the big issue is with the label itself. Unfortunately, a relationship is either classified as "gay" or "straight" given the fact that, unless there are multiple people in that particular relationship, it is either a same sex or opposite sex relationship. Many of the stories that fall under GFY are based on an emotional (demisexual) or intellectual (sapiosexual) connection, or the character is sexually attracted regardless of gender (pansexual). None of those are as widely discusses as gay, bisexual, and asexual, and none of those automatically make a person feel that any of the "standard" sexuality labels fit them.

      Technically speaking, those fall more under the Queer label than anything else, but with there still being a negative connotation regarding saying someone is queer (unless you are speaking about yourself), an author who labeled their books as Queer For You would also likely face backlash.

    2. Sloan, you appear to be using a definition of bisexual that doesn't fit with the definition used by most bisexuals. In the Bi+ community we use "the attraction to more than one gender". Also if a majority of books only ever use the GFY in their writing and never use the terms Bi, Pan, Demi, or Sapio they are erasing the largest group of people in the LGBT umbrella.

      Let me share with you real world example involving a romance story shared one chapter at a time. The story is one I enjoy and I won't stop reading it. In this story one of the main characters admits that she doesn't care what gender the person she falls in love with is. Quite clearly from the words the character said they are part of the Bi+ community (doesn't really matter which part) so I requested an update to the chapter tags to include bisexual (no other tags for Bi+ people are available). The request was rejected because the character wasn't actively sleeping with people of multiple genders during the same chapter. That kind of mentality is everywhere even your post hints that such behavior is required to give a character such an identity. That isn't OK in real life, why is it OK in a book? That is erasure of all those identities you just listed.

    3. I have found bisexual to mean very different things to different people, and sometimes that is part of the confusion because we are using the same words, but not meaning the same thing. I also don't find many books actually using "GFY" so mush as being tagged "GFY." Sadly, I can easily believe the situation you mentioned for book tagging happening. I won't deny that there is a lot of biphobia out there. Unfortunately, people like labels that are nice and tight, and bisexaulity threatens those carefully constructed walls.

      Lastly, in the book I referenced in my post, the author *does* use those words, which I find especially ironic given that it was the book that rekindled this debate. I agree though, there are many places where this could and should be done better. I know, as a queer woman who sometimes has gender fluid attractions for people, I love seeing and learning about people who do the same. I know the importance of seeing your reality reflected in the literature that we all love.

  2. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and their feelings, of course, but I don't think its fair to label a book as fitting into a trope if you haven't even read it. In this book its very clear that the characters are not straight, and don't identify as straight or "GFY" once they realize their attraction. I can understand not liking a trope, as a queer woman I *hate* the trope where a cool queer girl who is "one of the guys" is turned into a straight woman by some guys' magical penis...Stories like that (like from Chasing Amy) drive me crazy because they minimize my identity, but someone like Amy Jo Cousins wrote a great book about a woman who is in relationships with women, and then falls for a guy...it wasn't a Magical Penis trope at all, but I only know that because I read it.

    I totally agree- everyone has a right to say what works for them, but labeling someone else's identity, or saying that their self label diminishes yours goes too far, IMHO. I can acknowledge that something makes me feel uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their own reality, whether its not liking a trope or identifying their own sexuality.