In honor of PRIDE month, PHS Columnist Aleksandr Voinov takes a retrospective look over twelve years of experience in LGBTQ+ romance and views the future with optimism.
Over the past 12 years I’ve been active in LGBTQ+ romance, I’ve seen a few developments that have given me a great deal of hope. It is, in my view, one of the self-made genres out there. Much like erotic romance, which was considered “too hot” by big publishers and came of age at small presses, LGBTQ+ romance very much started as the unloved step-child. Large romance blogs didn’t review it. Romance writer associations didn’t take it seriously and often didn’t support it.
All that has changed.
For much of its existence, LGBTQ+ romance, with the exception of some lesbian romance, which was supported by established lesbian presses, made its own way. I’m not saying it doesn’t have problems, but looking at it from the perspective of the weekly meltdowns in other genres, I think we’re doing all right.
Not a “straight” genre
For a long time, LGBTQ+ romance has been focused firmly on gay or m/m romance, both in terms of volume and profitability, and I’m arguably most qualified to talk about the G, B and T. One issue that often comes up in essays on the genre – often written by outsiders who haven’t actually talked to anybody on the inside – is that it’s “gay porn for straight women”.
As these “accusations” were leveled, I didn’t recognize the genre I’ve been active in, namely that the people who are regarded as “straight women” are anything but when you get to know them. For a genre which is allegedly “written for straight women by straight women”, according to some detractors, I’ve met a hell of a lot agenders, bigenders, asexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, gays, lesbians and trans people, who are both readers and writers, we have a good amount of cis gay/bisexual male writers, and really only a tiny minority of those end up getting outed as catfish.
(I’ll add that there’s nothing wrong with being a straight woman enjoying LGBTQ books – there’s a whole discourse to be had here about how and why society has made many women more comfortable inhabiting male characters in fiction, both socially and sexually, but that’s a different essay.)
Readers, too, are a very mixed bunch. I had a reader come out to me as asexual at a conference, and I saw her whole face change in front of my eyes as she told me that reading LGBTQ+ books helped her work out her own identity. I have a dozen stories like that. Like how romances and stories with happy endings greatly alleviated a mother’s concerns her trans kid may end up “miserable and unhealthy” because she grew up with stories about how trans* people are all messed up and broken, and every mother really wants her kid to be happy. Showing trans* folks as the beautiful, strong people they are in reality can help a lot to counter these destructive narratives. And I meet middle-aged gay men who are first shocked and then delighted to find out there are thousands and thousands of books with happy endings for people like them. When I meet them a few months later, they might tell me they’ve just read “everything” the authors I recommended ever published – quite a feat considering how productive some of us are!
Will publishers put their money where their mouth is?
When it comes to large publishers, I've started seeing lesbian historical romances pop up in the mainstream. For example, one of my friends just sold her lesbian historical psychological thriller to Amazon, (it’s not a romance, but there’s a love story in there). But, I have to admit, I’m slightly worried big publishers consider LGBTQ+ romances a “trend” or “fad” and simply publish a few to tick some diversity check-boxes.
Personally, as a writer, I want to see a lot more commitment from them over several more years before I believe those efforts are genuine or I’d even entertain the thought of submitting my work there. Never mind that some of those publishers belong to large corporations which have been pushing anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-democratic agendas around the world – I really don’t want to help a corporation make money when their agenda and values are in direct opposition to mine. But the good news is, romance doesn’t really need the big publishers anymore should those green shoots and half-hearted “diversity exercises” amount to nothing.
Not a charity case
Overall, my view of LGBTQ+ romance is it’s a vibrant, active place, with lots of talent and dedicated readers. Could more be done to support it? Absolutely – more publishers could open their doors to it, editors and sales forces could stop telling us to “tone things down” in terms of queerness or queer identity, or take LGBTQ+ books with happy endings and fulfilling love stories more seriously. But, in my view, that's a struggle of the wider romance genre as well. In fact, it's the same for all forms of story-telling entertainment. (I have high hopes Ruby Rose’s lesbian Batwoman will shake some things loose for all of us.)
I also think much of LGBTQ+ romance doesn’t reflect queer lives very well. Many romances still read very heteronormative to me. For a time every gay couple in m/m needed to have a big wedding and a baby. In some ways it can feel like the rules of straight romance have simply been imposed on queer couples, even though queer identities can be very different. Authors who deviate from that face a backlash, even if they write about their actual lived experience and are at the grittier and more realistic end of the romance spectrum.
Some live in the past, and not in the good way.
After all those years, I feel like LGBTQ+ romance is largely accepted within the more progressive parts of the wider romance genre. There’s clearly work left to do, it feels like there are quite disturbing layers of old-school romance out there that’s socially conservative. Places where romance seems to be considered a comfort blanket for those brains which prefer “women know their place” and like to pretend queer people don’t exist. But in my view that simply reflects the society we live in. There are those who live in the past and do everything they can to maintain their little bubble because they’re scared of everything and everybody who’s different.
Arguably, there has been a clear push-back against the advances made in terms of rights in some countries (to marry, to serve, to access healthcare), but I still believe history’s overall arch largely bends towards social progress. With so many millennials and Gen Z kids who identify as queer, it’s only a matter of time. In any case, thankfully, the ability of those parts of the industry to stop us writing and publishing is currently about nil. And as the tide of readers rises...
Alek's latest book, Moonstruck, is out now. You can follow Aleks on Instagram and Twitter, and find out more at aleksandrvoinov.com.
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