Pride month brings up calls for #ownvoices, but why?
June means pride month, not just my birthday. And already, just six days into this year’s June, we have great news from the European Court of Justice, and the Bermudian Supreme Court, along with a Salomonian verdict from SCOTUS. Congratulations, we all get what we deserve!
Pride and #ownvoices
Pride month always means a lot of people talk about #ownvoices. I’ve always been a skeptic of that concept, not just because I often write about minorities other than my own (blacks, Sami, Latinos, disabled people, etc.) but also because I disagree with the whole concept of #ownvoices as a matter of principle. This has gotten me into the hot seat before, with hateful messages and threats on Twitter because I wouldn’t promise and LGBT Maori to never, ever, write about them in one of my books. I refused, for two reasons: a) it is my right, protected by the constitution of Sweden (and New Zealand), to express my thoughts freely, without prior censorship. Freedom of speech is an important right many of us have died for and still do, in countries where speaking your mind can get you killed. Why would I give it up freely just to please someone else, someone who isn’t hurt in any way shape or form by my voice? No, thank you. But more importantly, I believe that b) a great author must be capable of writing about any person, any group. How else could Shakespeare write about Italians? How dare he, Englishman as he was? How could Stephen King write about Annie Wilkes in Misery? Clearly, with the strict #ownvoices argument, a man can never write about women. It couldn’t be #ownvoices.
The (futile) hunt for #ownvoices in LGBT fiction
#ownvoices is a foreign concept to me, even though I’m currently (read “Pride month”) featured on a daily level on Facebook and Twitter by readers and fans as one of many #ownvoices with regards to gay fiction. But let’s look at this for a moment: does the fact that I, a gay man, write gay fiction, make me a better writer than the hundreds of straight women who do the same? Or is it the fact that 90+% of what most consider LGBT fiction out there has NOTHING to do with the reality of gay men? “M/M romance” was never meant to be about gay life, and gay authors are told again and again: “m/m are stories from str8 women for str8 women and you [i.e. gay men] better know your place and shut up! (Not my words, but I, along with many other gay writers, have been told so on numerous occasions.) It’s a genre so filled with preconceptions, prejudice and false assumptions about gay men that I have long ago stopped taking it seriously.
Some readers (men, women, gay and otherwise) understand that, and they look for “realness” (thank you mama Ru!), for genuine stories about the lives we live, to celebrate LGBT authors during Pride month. To find those stories is hard, impossible even, given that we’re just grains of sand on a vast beach. The proverbial needle in the haystack.
Is #ownvoices not fiction?
In one of those discussions, I came across this passage from a straight female author:
I also do not write #ownvoice stories. I consider my books to be fiction.
This had me puzzled because #ownvoices is fiction, unless it’s a biography (and even then… We’ve all read those, and often enough, they seem more fictitious than based on reality.) So wtf did the author mean by that? Is it the fact that she doesn’t do her research into her “male/male” characters? All those “gay for you”, “May/December”, “mpreg” and other stomach-churning sub-genres out there? Or is there actually a deeply held belief somewhere that gay writers only write about their own lives? Or something else? I honestly don’t know. What I do know though is that the only difference I can spot between a writer who writes about his own minority and a writer who isn’t a member thereof is the amount of research that may have to go into a book. And let’s be honest: in real life, things are a lot more complicated. A South Korean who grew up here in Sweden, adopted by Swedish parents at birth, is no more Korean than I am. He simply looks like one, while I don’t. Does that make him more #ownvoices if he had written my latest novel? Of course not. On the other hand, a European who’s spent his life in Korea would (at least in my book) be considered a more qualified expert in the field than either of us, my adopted Korean pal or I. What we are, who we are isn’t so much a function of our DNA (I’d say), but of how we are raised. The difficulty lies in how we are treated by others, how they view us, but that again, is per definition, racism. An entirely different post.
So what’s wrong with M/M and why isn’t it ever #ownvoices
This is just a guess, of course, and one that is very specifically related to the LGBT community, and gay men in particular. Romance as a genre has a bad reputation, always has. This is, of course, a result of the lack of women’s choices being attributed equal value to men’s. Most literary critics don’t take it seriously, and you’ll never see a Harlequin (let alone an m/m) win a Pulitzer, a Man Booker or a Nobel Prize. Duh!
Not that there is anything wrong with Romance. I could’ve said the same thing about Thrillers, Sci-Fi, Horror or Fantasy, which are more “male” genres, even though, all in all, women are–by far–the biggest reader category. Clearly, Romance is popular. It’s the world’s biggest genre with more books published in one day than the world probably produces in literary fiction in a year. Readers around the world love to get lost in a world where there is still good to be found and where happy endings reign.
The challenge lies in the rules of romance. As a genre, to be crass, it’s porn for women who read. While guys usually turn to RedTube or Pornhub these days, as they did to Playboy, Penthouse et al before the arrival of the Internet, women get off reading their books. And just as vanilla porn nor longer does it for many guys, many women are no longer content with damsels in distress being fucked to the high heavens by their long-haired alpha males from the eighteenth century. “Two men are better than one” promises better reading and happier endings (literally!) M/M, as are all trad romance novels, is littered with sex. The problem lies with the stereotypes, false or even dangerous, propagating the image of homosexual men as sex-crazed beings who think of nothing else but the next fuck. This isn’t our doing. we didn’t label ourselves. Str8 people did that to us.
So wtf is this desire to read #ownstories all about?
And while we may be more sexually openminded than the het majority (or so we believed), that doesn’t mean that we don’t relish the ‘mundane’ aspects of life, that we don’t take our jobs seriously, love our children. But when romance authors describe how we abandon children to fuck our latest love interest, you not only write fantasy, you perpetuate a dangerous stereotype. Clearly, that author did not do her research (or she is simply latently homophobic.) When anal sex is depicted as the gold standard of gay sex, the author has no fucking clue what she is writing about. How could she? Gay porn is clearly not a good source of information.
I use “she” with regards to those authors on purpose because that’s where I think the demand for #ownstories stems from, a desire to read stories that are truly well-researched, stories that showcase men who are “real” men (not merely girls with a penis*), where the sex serves a purpose and is depicted realistically (I could tell you stories…)
BUT, and this is an important but: women, straight women, as well as (gay) men can write those stories. I know so because I’ve read amazing stories written by straight women. They may be romances, following many of the typical norms of the genre, but the characters are flesh and blood, they feel real, even to me as a gay man. And no, they’re obviously not #ownvoices. Who cares?
But in a world, where it is so damned difficult to find the good stories in a sea of “not so good ones”, I can understand that gay men, at least during Pride month, ask for #ownvoices. Because we all know, come July, it’s hetero world again, and the straight women will tell us to shut up and know our place again, for the next eleven months, where we still don’t matter, can be ignored and discriminated against, where it’s okay to appropriate an entire literary genre to once again make a minority invisible.
My beef with “M/M” isn’t primarily about the reduction of human beings to letter combinations, from mm to mmmmmm to mf or mmf etc. It’s not even about the fact that women label the het variety mf rather than fm, putting men first (that says so much…) My beef with “M/M” is how it suppresses gay fiction, how some authors and readers (far from all, just to repeat that!) are trying to push gay men (readers and writers) out of the genre, as stated above.
I don’t think that happens anywhere else. No, women did not invent gay romance. It’s been around for eons. Some women were simply clever to rebrand it. The result we see today. And while I applaud the hundred thousand plus stories out there, as a treasure trove for young LGBT kids to delve into,
I’m also aware of the pitfalls, how we are once again threatened of being expulsed from our own spaces, as so many times before in our history. That is worth thinking about during Pride month.
Hans M Hirschi
Author of Gay Fiction
*I know that trans-, genderfluid, and gender queer people read this. The expressions “real man” and/or “girl with penis” do not, in any way shape or form, relate to the TQ+ aspect of our community, but simply to characters so badly developed that you’d think the author simply changed names. There is of course nothing wrong with female, male, masculine or feminine attributes unless you’re trying to depict something else entirely. I felt it was important to clarify this here. I could go into a lot more detail, but that would mean another post.