So you may have noticed that I won a RITA yesterday, or at about 4 o’clock this morning, my time. In the acceptance speech that I hastily threw together on Friday in the full expectation that nobody would ever actually need to read or hear it I said that my book would have been either the first or second LGBTQ+ novel to win a RITA and that if it was the first, this was awesome, and if it was the second then that was even more awesome. Courtney Milan has since pointed out that For Real and Him were not, in fact, the joint-first LGBTQ+ novels to win a RITA and that the distinction, in fact, goes to Tiffany Reisz’s The Saint, which won best erotic romance in 2015.
And she’s right, and I’m genuinely thankful that she pointed this out. Obviously, I don’t really get to decide how people interpret anything I write, but when I wrote the acceptance speech I never expected anyone to give, my intent was to say that I would be happier to be the second LGBTQ+ novel to win a RITA than to be the first. I am, therefore, even happier to realise that I’m the third (or joint-second or whatever). And I am actually pretty embarrassed that an LGBTQ+ novel managed to win a RITA in 2015 without my, or as far as I can tell anybody else in the LGBTQ+ romance community, noticing.
So the first thing I want to do is to give a genuine, if somewhat belated, shoutout to Tiffany Reisz: like I said (or Courtney said on my behalf) I passionately believe in the power of romance to empower people regardless of their sexuality and reaching a large mainstream audience and getting a RITA with a series about three polyamorous bisexuals is fucking enormous. And I honestly can’t believe I haven’t noticed before. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even see it mentioned when there was that was huge debate about bisexual romance earlier this year.
And while my primary goal with this post is to admit to my own mistakes and explore my own failure to recognise the success of a fellow LGBTQ+ romance writer I do want to take a moment to think about why this book’s triumph at last year’s RITAs wasn’t celebrated as the milestone it was back in 2015.
Tricky Language Issues
The problem here is partly caused by my choice of the phrase “LGBTQ+ romance novel” rather than “m/m romance novel.” For Real and Him are (and I am really pretty darn sure on this one) the first two m/m novels to win a RITA. Because I am a believer in the value of romance across the LGBTQ+ spectrum I have a tendency to unthinkingly describe the sorts of book I write as LGBTQ+ rather than m/m (partly for the very simple reason that I’ve written f/f and books with genderqueer protagonists so the term wouldn’t be accurate for the whole of my body of work). Unfortunately, with hindsight, I think this is one of those situations where an attempt to use inclusive language can actually be inadvertently erasing. By using the more general term LGBTQ+ when the more specific term m/m would have been more accurate I unintentionally minimised the contribution of an earlier LGBTQ+ novel because it was marketed as het.
I think this a genuine problem with sensitive language in general. For example, I’m often made quite uncomfortable by use of the term “equal marriage” to describe same sex marriage. I mean, obviously there are a great many reasons why equal marriage is a better term than gay marriage (not least because not everyone in a same sex relationship identifies as gay) but there’s always a part of me which is concerned that it isn’t appropriate to label as “equal” a legal framework that still almost by definition privileges some relationships over others. After all, I’m sure there are people in polyamorous relationships who would like their love to be legally recognised and who don’t necessarily feel they’ve achieved equality in the current system.
And for that matter, LGBTQ+ has issues as a term because it implies the inclusion of groups of people who are often, in reality, excluded by the mainstream LGBTQ+ community. And, bringing this back to publishing, it’s especially problematic in romance because very often LGBTQ+ is used to basically mean m/m. And part of me says that the use of inclusive language is a necessary precursor to genuine inclusion, but part of me says that it can be used as a smokescreen to disguise to absence of that inclusion. And my poor word choice at the RITAs is a good example of this. I instinctively used the more general term and, in so doing, betrayed my own failure to recognise the achievement of a writer of non-m/m LGBTQ+ romance.
That Darned Bi-Erasure Again
If I should take anything as a lesson in humility it’s having to apologise for overlooking a bisexual romance only a couple months after I wrote a really long blog post about bi-erasure in which I reminded myself that I have to do better with this shit.
As an old university friend would put it, this is a reason not an excuse but quite simply I didn’t mention The Saint in my RITA acceptance speech because it hadn’t registered with me as an LGBTQ+ romance, and it hadn’t registered with me as an LGBTQ+ romance because it wasn’t marketed as one. And, actually, this overlaps very strongly with the language issues I was talking about earlier. There is such a strong tendency for the LGBTQ+ romance community to view LGBTQ+ and m/m as synonymous that we often ignore romances with LGBTQ+ protagonists that aren’t targeted at our very m/m focused corner of the market.
I’ve always been really bothered by the fact that LGBTQ+ romance is categorised by pairing rather than by sexuality of protagonist. This seems to be an expectation of the genre (and I’ve talked a lot about not liking to see LGBTQ+ treated as a subgenre before) but that convention is inherently bi-erasing. A person doesn’t stop being stop being bisexual just because they’re in a same sex or opposite sex relationship. And, obviously, this winds up being a bit of a double edged sword. Part of the reason The Saint passed me by is that it’s published by Harlequin and Harlequin, as far as I’m aware at time of writing, doesn’t solicit LGBTQ+ romance. And so we wind up with the troubling situation where the capacity of bisexual characters to be represented in “het” romance causes them to be overlooked by the LGBTQ+ romance community. Frankly, this isn’t okay and I’m genuinely annoyed at myself that I essentially fell into exactly the same trap that I have criticised the wider genre for falling into: defining an LGBTQ+ romance as necessarily involving a same sex relationship.
On Saturday I said in my RITA acceptance that For Real and Him were the first LGBTQ+ novels to win RITAs. It has since been pointed out that they weren’t – The Saint was. I should not have made that mistake, I will pay more attention in future. Genuine serious and belated congratulations to Tiffany Reisz. That was an actual milestone and I should have celebrated it last year. And I very much regret that I didn’t.