on problems and messes

So you might have noticed I’ve been mostly blogging about board games, and I did have a New Year’s Resolution to stay away from politicsy stuff because, honestly, I tend to find that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Buuuut it’s March and there’s been so much going on that I sort of feel it’s getting to the point where ignoring it is inappropriate.

This is going to be a typically rambly post in which I muse about GFY, the “right” and “wrong” terms for things, and the technical distinction between a problem and a mess.

Let’s begin with GFY. This might come as bit of a surprise to readers who know how outspoken, bitter and sarcastic I am, but I actually don’t have particularly strong feelings about it. It’s not especially my cup of tea and I do worry on a low-key level about the way it inherently pushes queer people out of queer narratives (insofar as a GFY story is definitionally about at least one character, and often two, who are not actually queer-identified). But, as it happens, it aligns perfectly well with my personal model of sexuality. One of the things I find troubling about the wider discourse of the LGBTQ+ community, and especially that segment of it which overlaps with the m/m community, is that it tends to treat sexuality as very fixed and categorisable. This troubles me because I know it goes against the lived experiences of a lot of people. Like Heidi Cullinan (see this post on the subject) I do feel there’s something subversive about a narrative which acknowledges that two straight men can be in love with each other. I don’t agree with all of her analysis (she tends to describe things in terms of power and I very much don’t) but, to me, a relationship that—according to mainstream notions of sexuality—is a contradiction in terms represents a giant fuck you to a normative worldview that I don’t have very much time for.

That said, I can also absolutely see why some people object to the trope.  As I mentioned above, I personally find it iffy because it’s a fundamentally straight narrative and I find that GFY in stories in practice often play up the “thrill of the forbidden” angle more than I’d like. At the risk of, well, I’d say opening a can of worms but this is a can of worms that’s already been thoroughly opened and up-ended over everybody’s picnic, Keira Andrews’ Beyond the Sea (or more specifically the strapline that was chosen to advertise Beyond the Sea) strikes me as a good example of this. While I absolutely accept that the book itself is probably lovely and sweet and well-written and well-realised, the line “Two straight guys. One desert island” sort of embodies a great deal of what I find troubling about this trope. I appreciate that the author has books to sell and expectations to meet but it’s a strapline that promises titillation, not a nuanced and compassionate portrayal of fluid sexuality. Again, I should stress that I’m not saying it isn’t a nuanced and compassionate portrayal of fluid sexuality. But it isn’t really being sold as one.

The other major objection to GFY as a trope is that a lot of bi (and pan and omni) people feel somewhat erased by it. As always with erasure, the problem is never a single missed opportunity, it’s all the missed opportunities. If bisexual people weren’t routinely portrayed as evil, misguided, inconstant, slutty or simply non-existent in fiction in general, and m/m in particular, I think the existence of texts which accept that a person can have sexual relationships with partners of more than one gender but still identify as monosexual would be much less of an issue. Not to put too fine a point on it, if we didn’t live in a world where prominent authors write blog posts arguing that there can never be such a thing as a bisexual romance, bisexual people might be less frustrated and hurt by all the occasions on which characters who could identify (or be read) as bisexual are not allowed to.

This brings us roughly round to the third thing I mentioned (helpfully, I haven’t done the second yet because that’s the way I roll), which is the technical distinction between a problem and a mess. From my limited understanding, people who like to ascribe overly narrow definitions to common terms define a problem as “an undesirable situation, the solution to which—while it may not be obvious—at least has an obvious shape.” To pick a thematic example, two men stuck on a desert island have a problem. Or, I suppose, several problems. They need to find food, they need to find shelter, they need to escape. They may have no idea how they’re going to do any of these things but it’s clear what needs to be done, and what doing it would look like.

A mess is different. A mess is a problem so complex or intractable that it isn’t even immediately clear what it would mean for it to be solved. Most significant, real world conflicts are, on some level, messes. They involve multiple competing interest groups, all of whose needs cannot be met simultaneously and amongst whom there is no clear way to prioritise. If you have three people on a sinking ship and there are only two lifejackets, you have a mess. While it was possible to save the ship, you had a problem. But once you’re in the situation where there are multiple potential outcomes, all of which are bad for different people in different ways, you’re in much—for want a less on the nose term—choppier waters.

At the risk of over-categorising, I’d say that the arguments surrounding GFY involve three core interest groups (this is a massive over-simplification). You have people who strongly identify with fluid, label-free or non-normative sexuality, for some of whom these stories are genuinely empowering. Then you have people who strongly identify as bi, pan or omni, for some of whom these stories are genuinely erasing and hurtful. Finally, you have what I can only refer to as disinterested readers: that is, people who do not have a personal, political stake in the issues at play but who enjoy reading the books. I should probably flag up that it sounds a lot here like “disinterested readers” is code for “straight women” but it actually isn’t. There are, for example, plenty of gay men who have expressed their support for GFY as a trope, rather than as something that speaks personally to their experience. I also think it’s quite important to highlight that a huge number of the people who are collectively (and often dismissively) referred to as “straight women” in discussions of the m/m community actually fall into one or other of the first two categories.

Basically, the shitter of it all is that it isn’t meaningfully possible to prioritise the needs of these three different interest groups. There’s part of me that feels the disinterested readers whose investment goes only so deep as the desire to read a particular type of story have slightly less of a stake than the people who feel personally either represented or erased, but the situation is so complicated that I’m not comfortable taking even that as an absolute. And, in fact, as someone who’s broadly in favour of free speech, I do accept the rights of people to read and propagate narratives that they find amusing or entertaining even if other people find them harmful. I think I would say that if you persist in doing something that you know another person feels harmed by you probably lose the right to expect that person to have faith in your good will, but you’re under no obligation to change your behaviour.

I appreciate that this is glib, trite and faintly patronising but it really does all come down to respect. If somebody feels harmed by something you enjoy, then it feels to me like the gracious thing to do is to let them express themselves without comment. Otherwise you’re asking someone to equate your enjoyment with their pain, and that just seems to lack a sense of perspective. That said, if someone else feels harmed by something that you feel actively empowered by that strikes me as a more nuanced dialogue, although it might not be a dialogue you can have with each other. The world is complicated and identity politics is complicated, which increasingly means that we encounter situations where people’s identities conflict with each other. If two people invest strongly in mutually exclusive interpretations of the same concept then there can be no portrayal of that concept that doesn’t alienate either one of them.

To take an example that isn’t related to GFY, I’ve been involved in several low-key but long-running debates about the correct terminology to use for a variety of LGBTQ+ concepts. In a lot of these situations, the terminology that I very strongly favour and feel most correctly reflected and empowered by is terminology that other people insist is Incorrect. For example, back in 2014, I wrote a long post (in response to another of Heidi’s posts in fact) about why I, contrary to what the GLAAD media handbook might say, have no problem at all with the phrase “sexual preference” and, in fact, consider it more appropriate in a number of contexts than “sexual orientation”. This, I admit, is not a popular opinion, but it’s one I feel quite strongly about. As I mentioned in the original post, I vehemently object to the prevailing trend in LGBTQ+ rights towards justifying human sexuality in terms of its immutability and inherentness. It upsets and infuriates me that we live in a world where queer people who articulate the fact that their experience of their own sexuality is that it is not now what it was in the past get dogpiled by their own community for having the temerity to have lived a politically inconvenient narrative.

And, yes, I understand that if you grew up in the Bible Belt and the overwhelming message you got from your community was that homosexuality was a) a sin and b) a choice then you would want to reject both a) and b) axiomatically. I can understand why, if those had been your experiences, you would want people to avoid language that resembled the language you had heard in your formative years. I can even see why you’d get together with a bunch of people who’d grown up in similar environments, or with influences from similar environments, and put together a media guide saying that any language reflective of the language with which you grew up was fundamentally unacceptable. Given the circumstances, you might even be forgiven for giving the group you’ve just formed a name which pointedly excludes a large part of the community for which you presume to speak.

The problem is, to accept the rules of LGBTQ+ discourse as established by the people who feel harmed by the suggestion that sexuality may not be innate, I would have to accept a model of sexuality that I not only do not feel represented by but also, well, don’t think is accurate.

Many years ago, I remember seeing a genuinely adorable interview with Kristin Chenoweth (and I should say I love Kristin Chenoweth, I think she is great) in which she talks about why she is okay with gay people. And her line was something like “God made you that way, and God don’t make mistakes.”

The thing is … okay, the thing is so many things.

Number 1, and this is kind of a biggie, I don’t believe in God. And while I’m glad that Kristin Chenoweth and people like her believe that a diverse range of sexual orientations (or preferences, take your pick) is compatible with their religion, this is very much not what I feel the debate should be about. The key reason that I find the choice versus not-choice, orientation versus preference debate so upsetting (apart from the fact that it leads to queer people attacking other queer people for having had the wrong experiences) is that I don’t want a world where a person’s sexual behaviour has to be divinely mandated to be okay. Not to put too fine a point on it, I want to live in a world where we accept that it’s fine to love whoever you love and do whatever you do, even if it is one hundred percent your choice.

Number 2, and I admit this is less important, is that supportive and well-intentioned as this is, it strikes me as … well … a poor argument. I’m not a theologian but it seems fairly apparent to me that God, if He exists, creates people with tendencies towards all kinds of behaviours that are destructive at best, immoral at worst. Alcoholism, psychopathy and paedophilia all show strong scientific evidence that they are, at least in part, inherent tendencies. There was some research quite recently which suggested that paedophilia probably has a neurological origin and that people who are sexually attracted to children are, genuinely, kind of born that way. We cannot put ourselves in a situation in which our only defence of non-normative sexualities is one that applies equally well to paedophiles and serial killers.

Again, we have an issue here of irreconcilable differences. And I do try to be sensitive with my language because, given the choice between two terms, one of which I know is upsetting to some people and preferable to others, and the second of which is preferable to some people and neutral to others, I’ll take preferable/neutral over preferable/upsetting. But I’m very much aware that doing this involves conceding ground that I passionately feel should not be conceded. Especially when I am told that the upsetting/preferable language choice into which I have put considerable thought is flatly wrong or, worse, that people who find the upsetting/preferable choice to be preferable, rather than upsetting, only do so only because they have been “brainwashed.” And, yes, I have been told this. And, no, I did not respond by saying “dude, if anyone has been brainwashed, it’s the guy who thinks his identity is morally acceptable only if it was given him by a deity I’m not sure he even believes in.”

This brings us back to the whole issue of problems versus messes. The situation is such that we cannot achieve the society I consider to be desirable (in which nobody cares whether your sexuality or, indeed, your sexual behaviour is a choice or not) without actively harming people who believe very strongly that their sexuality is immutable. Of course, we also can’t maintain the status quo without harming and, I would argue, erasing people whose experience of their sexualities does not reinforce the politically convenient narrative as it is defined by self-appointed community spokespeople. Worse, we justify harming and erasing these people by telling ourselves that they’re the enemy. That their expression of their understanding of their sexuality is actually internalised homophobia or a cognitive error induced by media bias.

Basically there is no way this is okay, but there is also no way to make it okay without going through several stages that are also not okay.

To bring it all back to GFY there is no way to tell or not tell these stories without harming or erasing someone. If GFY vanished overnight, then the (larger than you might expect) number of people who identify as straight but have had profound homosexual experiences (or, for that matter, vice versa) become as invisible as bisexual people arguably are right now. On the other hand, if we persist in refusing to label any character who has primarily heterosexual relationships and one homosexual relationship (or vice versa) as bisexual, we contribute to a status quo in which bisexuality (and pansexuality and omnisexuality) are undeniably erased. And because the debate tends to be about individual books you can’t even argue for balance. We could, I think, maybe all agree that we’d have a fairer, more just, more balanced genre if a significant proportion of those stories currently written and marketed and sold as GFY were, instead, written and marketed and sold as bisexual (or pansexual or omnisexual or for that matter Kinsey 1) romance. But the problem is we’ll only get there on a book-by-book basis. And when every book is a battleground the outcomes are only ever (ironically enough) binary. The characters in this book either define as straight or define as bi. It’s got to be a victory for one side or the other. And this makes it very hard to find a middle ground.

I’m sort of getting to the point where I feel I need a conclusion and the thing about messes as opposed to problems is that, well, there often aren’t any.

Basically, and maybe this is just me being British, I think it all comes down to how we communicate with each other. I’ve tried to be relatively even-handed in this article (I’ve probably failed) but I will say that what’s troubled me the most about the recent discussion inspired by Beyond the Sea is that I personally feel a lot of people’s voices have been shut down. As I mentioned in one of my posts about The Garçonnière, it is genuinely upsetting, particularly if you don’t self-define as a horrible person (and, let’s face it, who does?) when somebody says they are hurt by something that you either really enjoy or strongly identify with. But it behoves us all (and I apologise in the sincerest terms for my use of the word behoves) to listen to other people’s insights and experiences in an open and respectful way. And I’m sure a lot of people have and a lot of people are but my perception of recent conversations is that a lot of people, well, aren’t. I’m sure this isn’t what most people think or what most people intended, but from what I’ve seen from the sidelines if it feels an awful lot like queer people (at least those queer people who don’t toe the party line on stuff) are being told to get out of the genre again.

So … yeah. That’s my overlong, poorly organised post on some stuff that some people have being talking about recently.

On Friday there’ll be a review of a game about pandas.

romancelandia, thinking

60 Responses to on problems and messes

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