The rest is drag

As usual I’m going to start by linking to someone else’s post and saying I mostly agree with it before going off on a random and largely unrelated tangent. The post in question is this one by E.E. Ottoman. It touches on a lot of complex issues so it’s quite difficult to summarise but broadly it’s about the difficulties inherent in the assumption that the primary audience for LGBTQ romance is heterosexual, cis-gendered women.

I do, as I observed in the first paragraph, basically agree with everything Ottoman says. There is an unchallenged assumption that the primary audience for LGBTQ romance is, should and must necessarily be cis-gendered straight women. And, like Ottoman, I feel very strongly that this is not okay. But where I think we part ways is that I feel it’s important to distinguish the is from the should from the must be.

Ottoman persistently refers to the idea that the majority of LGBTQ romance readers and authors are cishet women as a myth. I simply don’t think it is.  I mean, yes, you can argue there’s never been an in-depth longitudinal study but you only need to run down the author lists of any m/m press to see that there is a clear trend in sex and admittedly a slightly less clear trend in sexuality and gender identity. To argue from the position that cishet women do not represent the numerical majority of the audience for LGBTQ romance is to argue from a false premise. Not only that, but it is to argue from an unnecessary premise. It is perfectly reasonable to assert that books about queer people should, by default, assume a queer audience and that to do otherwise is erasing and othering. In questions of – for want of a less contentious term – ethics, the realities of the market are neither here nor there. You can make a strong case that it is wrong to write books about queer people that exclude queer readers, no matter how many straight people would buy them, and no matter how few queer people would buy the alternatives.

The problem is, to a great many people, the realities of the market are extremely important. I, personally, am in quite a privileged position here. Being a middle-class person with no dependents and a good income, I don’t actually rely on my books to pay the bills and I can, as a result, afford to write what I want and what I think is appropriate without worrying too much about whether it will sell. And I’m in the fortunate position of having an agent and a publisher who are both very supportive of this, even though it would be strictly better for both of them if I tried to write more commercial material. The thing is, not everyone is in the same position. And if you really need the money, then you do have to pay attention to the market. And, yes, there hasn’t been a formal academic study of the LGBTQ romance audience, but publishers do have very good demographic knowledge of their customer base. The simple fact is, the vast majority of demand for LGBTQ romance is demand for a very specific type of romance between two men, who are themselves of a very specific type.

And this, I think, cuts to the heart of the issue. When people say that the audience for LGBTQ romance consists primarily of heterosexual, cisgendered women, what they’re really saying is that the audience for m/m romance consists primarily of heterosexual, cisgendered women and that m/m romance makes up the vast majority of LGBTQ romance. And I find this particularly difficult because I have, in the past, argued very strongly against drawing an artificial distinction between m/m romance, on the one hand, and LGBTQ romance on the other.  And, indeed, part of the reason I object to this distinction is exactly what Ottoman outlines in the post: the fact of an assumed cishet female audience is used to justify content that marginalises queer readers. The flipside of this argument, though, is that if we don’t distinguish between that category of m/m which is written primarily by and for heterosexual cisgendered women and broader LGBTQ romance written with at least the awareness of a potential queer audience we run the risk of the former squeezing out the latter. Or, worse, the assumption that the former constitutes the latter.

This next part might seem like a bit of a tangent, but stay with me. About six months ago, the UK National Curriculum was revised in such a way that To Kill A Mockingbird was removed from several GCSE syllabuses. This caused massive outrage, partly because the book is rightly recognised as a classic, and partly because the book has a reputation for being The Way You Teach Kids About Racism. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think To Kill A Mockingbird is, in many ways, a remarkable book. But, specifically, I think what it does remarkably is capture the experience of being a middle class white girl in the American south in the 1930s. What it isn’t, however, is the final word on race issues in America, let alone race issues in general. The thing about TKAMB is that it absolutely has value, but it also represents an unfortunate tendency for books about marginalised people written by and for people who are not themselves marginalised to dominate our understanding and our public dialogues of marginalisation.

One of Ottoman’s key complaints about the current state of LGBTQ romance is that it often describes queer experiences with the assumption that the audience has not lived through them. There is a strong tendency for LGBTQ romance to be about queer people, but for straight people. This is really difficult because, on the one hand, this is kind of not okay because it is, in essence, systemically excluding a group of people from books that are ostensibly about them but, on the other hand, books about marginalised groups targeted at people who are not part of those marginalised groups have real social value. It is, after all, useful to have books that teach white kids not to be racist. Unfortunately, the nature of power dynamics in a socially unjust society have a strong tendency to privilege narratives about marginalised groups targeted at people who are not marginalised above narratives in which marginalised people tell their own stories. It leads to a very strange and subtle form of objectification in which some groups of people are perceived to exist only in order for other groups of people to be educated about them.

Of course, not all LGBTQ romance written for a straight audience is necessarily about educating that audience with regards to queer issues. And this is the kind of LGBTQ romance – and, by that I almost exclusively mean m/m romance – that I have most the difficulty with. As well as those stories which try to speak to queer people, and those stories which try to speak about queer people, there is a third category which uses the trappings of queer identity (especially gay male identity)  to explore fantasies or fears or other issues relevant to the author or the reader. You get a remarkable number of writers and readers in m/m who specifically say they write or read it because they want to escape from the gender dynamics of heterosexual romance or, indeed, of conventional, mainstream society.

It is this third category of (primarily) m/m romance which I think is the most visible and most problematic. It’s also probably the hardest to talk about because it gets into some very complex intersectionalities. Women are, after all, a marginalised group as well and it would be equally problematic for me to turn round and start telling them how they are and are not allowed to explore their sexualities and experiences. Nevertheless, these stories also perpetuate a culture which erases and marginalises queer experiences and which treats queer people as existing merely as decorations in a heteronormative world.

This type of m/m used to sit really uncomfortably with me until I had an epiphany. And that epiphany was this: it’s drag.

By my understanding, for some people, reading and writing m/m is a means to explore aspects of themselves, their sexualities or their experiences which they are either socially prevented from or personally uncomfortable with exploring in an m/f context. This includes people who want to write characters they feel they couldn’t get away with writing as female and people who want to work with ideas that would be difficult or, indeed, triggering for them to write about if they were not doing it through an assumed identity from which they can maintain some emotional distance. To me, this feels very similar to the notion of men dressing as women in order to explore or express parts of themselves which they don’t feel able to express as men.  And this clearly has value to the people who do it.

Obviously, this analogy only works if you don’t think drag is unacceptable. And I think what I’m doing here is challenging my own beliefs rather than anybody else’s. The way I tend to approach ethical issues is to compare my instinctive responses to two analogous situations, and if those responses are different to try and understand what makes them different, and if I cannot, to recognise that this must be a contradiction. The thing about drag is you can make a strong case that it is appropriative and indeed othering: it is one marginalised group using the trappings of another marginalised group’s identity to explore its own. And while drag can be performed respectfully, it can also edge very easily into misogyny. Although drag is a very complex subculture, which takes many different forms and means many different things to many different people, one thing it definitely isn’t is primarily addressing an audience of women. And I can’t reconcile the fact I am okay with drag, which you can argue is gay men appropriating female identity, with my resistance to that sub-category of m/m which is women appropriating gay male identity.

I should stress that I recognise that both are problematic and for very, very analogous reasons. Both perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the imitated group, and neither are particularly interested in representing the authentic experiences of the people under consideration. And, obviously, it’s perfectly reasonable to be against both or neither or one or the other but I can’t articulate to myself any argument that would make drag acceptable and the third category of m/m unacceptable. And, once again, I find myself concluding that the issue is not that it exists, but that it is conflated with the less common and less popular type of story which genuinely seeks to explore queer issues from a queer perspective.

In theory, I would love to say that there is room in romance for all kinds of LGBTQ stories. The problem is that this is only partially true. The most commercially successful and most socially dominant narratives will naturally squeeze out more marginalised voices.  The fact that heterosexual cisgendered people control the bulk of the buying power means that there is necessarily pressure to produce books that appeal to and are within the comfort zones of heterosexual cisgendered people. I would absolutely never condemn someone for responding to that pressure but nor would I condemn someone for railing against it. Like many social injustices, it’s an unacceptable situation that is nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault. If more people wrote romances that did not assume a cishet readership, more people would read them. If more people read them, more people would write them. But no one person can meaningfully change a market by changing their behaviour, and so nobody has any particular incentive to challenge the status quo. Indeed, a lot of people have massive, massive disincentives because they have real money on the line.

This certainly doesn’t mean that people who write books for an assumed heterosexual audience are bad people or should be thwacked hence with distaffs but deeper injustices in our society allow the desires of the majority to overwhelm the needs of the minority, which is why it’s important every so often to stand up say “I get that’s how it is, but wouldn’t it better if it, y’know, wasn’t.”


43 Responses to The rest is drag

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