In politics and psychology, the war to explain sex and gender is hotter than ever. Why?
A few weeks ago I listened to a segment on our public broadcasting radio. They were interviewing a psychology professor who was vehemently defending biology as the defining factor to distinguish gender, men from women, male from female. Leading up to our election a couple of weeks ago, our conservative parties were ranting against “gender politics” and “norm critical” education in schools. Which made me remember my own studies of psychology and the lessons we’d been taught there, how our teachers painstakingly tried to explain the differences between biology, sociology and how we don’t really know how they interact with each other, what ultimately is the defining factor, except one. More about that later.
DNA, chromosomes, and hormones
I have yet to hear anyone argue that a newborn boy and a newborn girl are the same. They’re not. Obviously. Chromosomes decide what sex a child will have, even though Mother Nature has been known to surprise us with various varieties, children we consider intersex, kids with various chromosomal defects, for lack of a better word. We also know that the male hormone “testosterone” and the female hormone “estrogen” impact on how male or female a body appears. Boys with little testosterone will have less body hair and softer features, to exemplify.
So far so good. We also know that hormones will affect our mood, potentially even our personality. However, we also know that all of the above isn’t a given. It’s not a law of nature, like gravity, with no exception. In fact, that is where “nurture” comes in and starts to change things. There are plenty of experiments with how children are affected who are “raised” as the opposite from their birth sex, and there are – of course – our gender fluid and trans friends, not to mention intersexual people. Nature vs nurture. Who is more important?
Front cover of my new children’s book The Dragon Princess, which released September 20, 2018. Get your copy today!
Nature vs nurture. Why is it so important to some?
Seeing how people fight and argue in this debate you’d think it actually matters as if the future of humanity were at stake. But does it? And why? Looking at research and what little I know about nature vs nurture, my take is this: so what? Whether our gender is predetermined by DNA is really not important, because plenty of people live perfectly happy in bodies where their DNA and chromosomes do not match their gender. The opposite is–unfortunately–also true: people who are miserable in their bodies even though the chromosomes perfectly match how their bodies appear.
It’s probably not a big surprise that I believe in choice, that I believe that nurture is much more important than nature. Sure, nature provides us with different preconditions, but that’s it. It merely determines our position at the starting line of life. How well we manage to go through the parkour of life, that’s an entirely different question, where I believe nurture plays a role, and–most importantly–personal choices. These personal choices will, of course, be influenced by both natural predisposition and how we were nurtured.
In a perfect world, that would be it. People would be allowed to determine their own gender expression, whether it’s trans, gender fluid or even genderless/agender. Unfortunately, society complicates things, for a great many reasons.
Conservatives vs progressive
In politics, you’ll find resistance against “free” individual gender expression on the conservative side (on the famous GAL-TAN scale, which is different from the classic left-right scale, as many socialist countries also discriminate against gender expression) while progressive voices usually are much more open-minded.
In our western society where “liberalism” is the lodestar (sorry, couldn’t help it, and no, I’m not behind the infamous op-ed) people’s individual choices are at the center of the economy, and most conservatives want us to make our own choices. Yet oddly this is different. Boys are blue and girls are pink. As mentioned above, our conservative parties in the election fought a fierce battle in the recent election against gender politics, against a preschool where kids are given a choice and taught that it is okay for boys to play with dolls and for girls to play with tools.
Somewhere, there is this idealized picture that we have a pre-defined role closely associated with our sex, our gender and the expression thereof. If you dream of a society where women are the care-takers, child raisers, cooks, and homemakers, it may seem comfortable to find your explanations in biology. You can tell the frustrated women that they don’t really have a choice: “don’t blame me for inequality, blame Mother Nature. I’m sure she knows what she’s doing!” Take it a step further and replace Mother Nature with a deity and you have the perfect storm. And gender politics is evil, as it fights–like Don Quixote–against that which is predestined.
Choice, however, makes things much more complex. Suddenly, you have individuals who live in a soup of biological factors, social factors, and personal choices to be made. And gender politics are a tool to help them find themselves. Some boys will be more “masculine” in their gender expression, some will realize that they are really girls and will want their bodies to match that. The very same is true for girls. At the end of the day, we all find ourselves on a spectrum, from one-hundred percent masculinity to one-hundred percent femininity, where the vast majority is somewhere between the poles.
Nature is at the core of my coming fantasy series. A story for youths and teens primarily dealing with the big threats our planet is dealing with today. Coming November 15, 2018.
What are you, my friend?
Part of the conundrum is the value society attributes to the two poles. Like a battery, masculine is “+” and feminine is “-“, male attributes are desirable, feminine ones are not. That is the sad truth at the core of it all. Our entire world is seen through those lenses. A woman crying in a public hearing is weak, hysterical, a man doing the same is passionate, in touch with his emotions.
I’m a man, but I’m also gay, and thus very much associated with all the negative associations attributed to women. In Turkey, for instance, the word “gay” is exclusively used for bottoms (or receiving men), whereas a top is not. It’s the “female” role that defines who’s gay. A large part of my coming out process (which is a life-long thing btw) was focused on my gender identity/expression, to come to peace with that which makes me a man and that which might not. I have loads of traits which society might consider female and I have spent years trying to figure out whether I should “blame” nature or nurture for them. You know what? I don’t care why. It doesn’t make any difference to how I feel. It shouldn’t matter to anyone. The important thing is how we feel if it’s due to chromosomes, hormones or socialization is irrelevant, or it should be.
But what makes a difference is how I am perceived by others, how my choices are reflected in society. When people or groups keep insisting that my choices are wrong, even though they are just right for me, that’s hurtful. Do I care? At my age, I can barely care enough to lift a middle finger, but I understand that it is a HUGE issue for our young, our impressionable members of society. Our teens who define themselves not based on who they are, but based on their relationships with others. They are at the epicenter of the struggle. It is them we need to support.
On my mind…
I often write about stuff on my mind, big, small, important, inconsequential. And I love to debate. Grant you, it would be easier and more welcome to do so over a cup of coffee/tea, sitting in comfy chairs, but that will have to be another day. For now, feel free to comment and add your two cents, or three. What is your experience? Do you agree with the above or do you have a different view?
Here’s the thing. If only we keep talking, across the great divide of diverging views, we can bring them closer to each other. Yelling, screaming and tweeting will not. So feel free to add your comments. Have a wonderful week.
My first children’s book, a book about love, available today
I had to redesign my website the other day, specifically the book-page. I don’t even remember off hand how many books I’ve released since my first in July 2013. Let me go check: nineteen. Today marks my twentieth release. Wow. Twelve novels, two non-fiction, one short story collection, and three anthologies. Today, I embark into new territory: children’s books. With the release of The Dragon Princess, I give you a book, unlike anything I’ve written before. To write for children is radically different than writing for adults.
Love is love and dragons are evil or are they really? The Dragon Princess is a story about love and how it holds the power to transform even the coldest of hearts. A classic bedtime story for children of all ages.
My son and I.
When my son was little, my husband and I were actively looking for books. Reading had been important to me when I was a child, and we wanted Sascha to be read to and to read by himself, too. We began to buy books, we were gifted lots of books and his bookshelf is well filled. But there are, at this stage, only two books that portray rainbow families and diverse love. Our son is five years old and he is starting to understand the differences between moms and dads. To him, having two dads is totally okay. It’s just the natural state for him, but just this morning he asked me if his mother was still alive. I know that he is trying to make sense of things, subconsciously. Ever now and then he’ll ask a question, and we’ve talked about this repeatedly.
Sometimes, it helps to have children’s books to help parents explain things. That was my starting point when I began to write about Valerius and Evander, the heroes in the book, two years ago. I wanted to create a series of children’s books where I could explore LGBT themes for kids, on a level they would understand.
Easier said than done
First, I wrote a text that encompassed sixteen scenes. I wanted to try and tell a classic fairytale. There are a lot of kids who love dragons and the struggle between good and evil. It needs to be a relatively simple plot, with clear-cut roles. And it needs to end well. Writing the first draft took a couple of hours, but I wasn’t happy with it. I don’t think I’ve ever edited and rewritten a text as many times as I’ve worked on The Dragon Princess. Sometimes I would edit the text several times in a day, then let it simmer for months. All in all, it took me over two years from the first draft to a final manuscript.
One of the amazing illustrations by Felicity Swan in the Dragon Princess.
When you write for small children, pictures, illustrations are a given. Kids like to read along, and when they can’t read, the pictures is where they ‘read’. They see the words in the picture, and as you read, they try to find those words in the illustration. My son is beginning to read for real, and it’s only now, at the age of five that he’s showing interest in the letters for the first time, asking me things like: “does this mean…?” pointing at the words on the page. In Felicity Swan, I was lucky to find a great illustrator to work with.
A new genre, new audience, a new approach
Yeah, how do you market a children’s book? I live in a country where marketing toward children is strictly forbidden and frowned upon. I have always been a genre hopper. Maybe it’s the Gemini in me that always sees new and shiny objects everywhere. From romantic love stories to gruesome books about child abuse, discrimination against first nations to debilitating dementia, I’ve covered new topics in every book.
To me, branching out into children’s book was a small step. Difficult, but small. The biggest challenge for me is to find my audience. We’ll see how that goes. For now, my take is simple, hoping that my existing audience buys the book for the children around them, from their own offspring to grandchildren, bonus kids, nieces, nephews etc.
Front cover of my coming children’s book The Dragon Princess, releasing September 20, 2018
A great big thank you to my publisher…
It’s no secret that I am very happy with my publisher. They’re a small house, but they treat every book as a gem in its own right. I felt that The Dragon Princess was handled even more carefully than my adult writing. Working with me and the illustrator, they put in a ton of time to make sure the book would be as perfect as humanly possible.
There is so much work going into even something as seemingly trivial as a forty-page kids book, from web pages, publishing, paginating, layout, proofing, editing, to making sure it’s available on release day on every single of the dozens of sites (and distribution) that sell books.
Beaten Track Publishing has that little extra love for children’s books. As an author, having my work treated that way makes my heart skip a beat. Thank you! Have a look at their catalog of children’s books.
Valerius and Evander are now yours to treasure, I hope you enjoy their first adventure in The Dragon Princess!
Hans M Hirschi
Back from vacation, back in the saddle
Words! So powerful. As authors, we use them to create entire worlds. We elicit the strongest of emotions with them. We make people laugh out loud, we make them cry, we kidnap their attention for hours on end. As a linguist, I’m also painfully aware of the flipside of words, how deceptive they can be. That which may be oh so obvious to me may hold entirely different connotations, different meaning to someone else. Words can cause pain, intended or not.
Front cover of my coming children’s book “The Dragon Princess” about love being love. I love the way Felicity Swan has interpreted my text.
A month ago, I wrote a blog post which caused pain, completely unintended of course. For that, I would like to apologize. I have no control over people’s reactions, how people feel, how they choose to interpret my words. I most certainly did not intend to cause pain or even tears as it were in some cases. It’s been a month and the reactions still sometimes keep me awake at night. Some might find that a small consolation.
I stand by my message
I worked a long time on that blog post, and re-read it countless times. I do not regret writing it (quite the contrary) nor the message I tried to convey. You can go back on this blog and see that I have tried (unsuccessfully) to address the issue of appropriation and misrepresentation of gay men many times before, just as I have highlighted the importance of romance novels.
Sadly, to hold meaningful discourse this day and age is extremely difficult, not just within the confines of literature. In the past, when I’d use temperate words, I would simply be ignored, or patted on the back, and even though I really try hard to always see both sides of any issue, and after having thought to have built credibility in the industry over the years, I finally realized that you need to shout to be heard. That makes me sad. My message isn’t new, the delivery was. The shouting that came back, however, was somewhat unexpected. I’ll readily admit to that.
My second shitstorm, and what a shitstorm it was/is. Emotionally, it’s been difficult. Luckily, I left for a long vacation just a couple of days after publication and while I stayed away from most of it, the threats (including death) against me and my family caused me several sleepless nights. Thank big pharma for sleeping pills! Financially, it’s been a boon, as I’m literally saving thousands of dollars, euros and pounds that I was sponsoring MM events with, money swiftly returned to me as my name has apparently become so toxic that I’ve been declared persona non grata across the entire “mm” community. I choose to wear that epithet with pride. My family is most grateful for those funds that will be put to good use elsewhere. Always holes to stuff when you have small kids!
Let’s get things straight (for once…)
My coming fantasy novel is the first book in a planned series of three. A story for youths and teens primarily dealing with the big threats our planet is dealing with today.
I do feel strongly that I need to clarify a few things that have been claimed in the comments to the post and from (what I heard through the grapevine) online:
- I do not hate women. Nothing could be further from the truth. My issue is with the misrepresentation and appropriation of gay men in MM, not the genitals of the person doing it. Dicks can be dicks, too, just saying!
- I do not advocate censorship. We must make a distinction between our right to speak and our right to critique the message. I may not believe that some things should be said/written/published, but that is not the same thing as advocating to stop people from doing so. It is a most important distinction. The only time I may be advocating restrictions to free speech is when it directly incites violence.
There is a lot more I would like to say, could say, but at this stage, I won’t. I just don’t think I can find the appropriate words when everything I say can and will be used against me… The issues at hand are extremely complex and branch out into many different directions, from women’s rights to the definition of community and discourse in our time. Many issues need to be discussed, e.g. as we currently do within my publisher’s circle: the underrepresentation of women, non-binary and other main characters in fiction.
So many important, difficult and complex issues to discuss and analyze. For the time being, I will try to limit my contributions to smaller circles, where people are given the benefit of the doubt.
Last night, we returned from our annual summer vacation and I really want to get back to my work and try to put this behind me. I never felt I was part of the MM community, and now I have that in writing. My next two books are so far removed from everything “MM” that it will help cement that reputation: my children’s book “The Dragon Princess” and the first book in a fantasy youth series called “The Golden One”. I’ll be working hard on those two over the coming weeks.
2018 “pride” month is over and we’re in the first of eleven straight months
That’s probably the first thing straight people will react to, a “straight month”, what’s that? Well, that’s what the LGBT community lives through when it’s not Pride day, week or – in the US – month. It’s our everyday life. Someone told me just today that “I can understand how gay people would only ever read gay fiction…” I’ve yet to meet that person. I doubt they exist. Why? School! Tell me a single school where gay literature is an integral part of the school’s curriculum, where “LGBT” isn’t just confined to sex ed, or being damned and banned altogether. We’ve all grown up watching straight TV, straight movies, playing straight games, seeing straight couples everywhere and, yes, reading straight literature, from our kids’ books to adult literature. Straight people don’t realize it, but the world is awfully straight. Everywhere. It’s a wonder we turn out alright after all that brainwashing. LOL
There is a lot on my mind these days, and I’ve reached a point in my life where I am once again enraged. Not just by the injustices against my people in barbaric countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Russia, but so-called civilized countries like the UK, where the minister in question thinks it’s perfectly okay for “female only” events to ban trans women or the US, where… Yeah, let’s not ruin the mood completely, shall we?
Worst kind of “con crud”…
A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a convention for LGBT writers, and while there was a significant LGBT representation there, most of the attending authors and readers were not (which per se would not be a problem), and at one point, when discussions began to circle around “mpreg” (the in-word for male pregnancy, and we’re not talking about trans men here!), I had to leave the room. So much of the “m/m” world is so badly homophobic that I became physically ill. When later in the evening, we were discussing an upcoming panel at another convention, the “male writer panel” was quickly identified as “that’s where we learn the mechanics of it all…” Let’s just say if that’s going to be the case, despite assurances by the organizer to the contrary, I’ll leave that panel. But let’s face it, as a man, a gay man, in “this genre” (generally depicting male-male romances, which are nothing but reading material for women to get off) I have long ago been reduced to a sex toy, or – alternatively – an instructor to teach straight women the basics of anal sex, since you can’t ask questions on porn channels. Dare I open my mouth, I’m told to shut my filthy trap and stop mansplaining.
And so I shut my filthy trap and make fists in private, for the longest time. I dared not speak up against penises as swag, at “cock-walks” which aren’t about roosters or all those perfect half-naked specimens of male models on the covers, or all the porn actors that dance around some authors like flies drawn to the … I’ve once wondered why it always had to be porn actors and not regular teachers, or mechanics, bakers or homemakers. I guess we’re not good enough masturbation material, and we most certainly suck at being PR material when it’s time to sell our latest oeuvre… Nothing wrong with porn actors per se. I’m sure they’re nice people like the rest of us, but let’s not fool ourselves. The interest in their personalities is about as deep as someones next orgasm. “I know a porn star!” Well good for you. I know many human beings, regardless of their profession, but I don’t collect them by profession.
“You hate romance, that’s why…”
If anyone were to actually read this, I’d be accused of hating romance, and they might not be entirely wrong. I’ve really begun to dislike the genre as a whole, but not because I dislike love stories, it’s because of the many rules regarding sex in romance and particularly the appropriation of gay men in M/M. Just the other day someone told me they read M/M because the het equivalent (which I depict F/M (but predictably, women put the men first and call it M/F) wasn’t realistic enough… Yeah right, I can totally see that… If a grandmother came home with her bullied grandchild from school, a child she looks after because her daughter is dead, a child she had to pick up from the principal’s office, would you deem it realistic if she sent said child to their room to be able to fuck her lover? No, of course not. No sensible female would do that, right? Totally unrealistic. She’d (rightly) be expected to realistically comfort that child, look after them, send loverboy on his merry way. But the gay grandfather in the M/M? Sure, let him be fucked brainless by the ex-Seal from across the street. It was, after all, time for that sex scene in the chapter, right? We can’t disappoint our readers now, can we? Totally believable, and so realistic. Who really cares about the grandchild. Move away, orgasm on the way here. Men are sex pigs after all. Especially those gay guys. They’re the worst. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? Redtube, Pornhub, those CockyBoys… Totally “realistic”! NOT! #DNF
I’m enraged. I’m enraged because so many of the 130,000 books on Amazon that supposedly are about LGBT people, in fact, aren’t. The men in those books aren’t real, they’re about as real as vampires or shapeshifters, probably less so. Gay men (and more) have been appropriated by mostly het white women to make money. They color their hair and nails in rainbow colors, but if you point out to them that their depictions aren’t realistic, you’re labeled a male chauvinist pig and you better stop mansplaining them, and besides, and I quote “M/M is a fantasy, created by women for women, not men!” My favorite defense of all times when faced with criticism of how they write about gay men: “I have a gay friend.” #facepalm
So where do stories about real men go? Those of us (regardless of gender) who write outside the M/M sea label them “gay fiction”, but now even that is contested because some of the M/M authors claim that if “M/M is about fiction primarily for women, then I’m not an M/M author. I write gay fiction!” Thank you very much. Now you’ve just taken our last refuge. I feel like the proverbial Indian being evicted from his reservation! No offense to my native American friends, but you get the point. These people don’t care about us, they care about their balance sheet, and gay men are the pen(ises) to balance their checkbook. #CulturalAppropriation
Great stories are lost in the vast sea of M/M. Books worth reading are like grains of sand on a beach. How do you know which is which? #NeedleInAHaystack
Actually, I don’t, but don’t let that stop you from saying so anyway…
What makes it so heartbreakingly difficult is the fact that there are some truly amazing gay romance stories out there, that there are authors, men, women, others, gay, straight, bi, other, who pour their life’s blood into each and every book they write. People who do their research, people who know what they’re writing about. I think I’ve said it before that I’m no big fan of #ownvoices because we’d never have seen characters like Othello, Romeo, Julia, Lady Macbeth or Hamlet see the light of day at Skakespeare’s hands if #ownvoices were da shit, because: how dare he write them? He was white, not black, like Othello, a dude, not a girl like Julia, a man, not a boy like Romeo, not evil like Lady Macbeth or Danish, like Hamlet. Empathy is every great author’s tool. And therefore any great het writer should be able to bring gay characters to life. There is precedent, just saying. However, in the romance genre, the rules are followed all too rigidly by far too many, strange reader expectations and author desires for a quick buck are dangerous ingredients in a foul-smelling blend.
It’s difficult to explain to an outsider how it feels to be appropriated by another group for their (sexual) amusement. Insiders have tried, like this great author friend of mine. Authors using cock-shaped key chains as swag. I ask you this: if men showed up at an RWA convention with cunt-shaped swag, would you laugh hysterically, jump up and down and scream “OMG I need one of those!”? If I were to collect money for say, a charity to benefit abused women, auctioning off countless cunt shaped objects, quilts, macramé, pottery etc., would you find that amusing? Or if I’d invite Stormy Daniels to perform at the RWA gala dinner, dangling her tits over your entré? Titillating? Would you be able to keep your hands in check or would they be all over her? What if I wrote erotica (!) where the intestines and vaginal tracts of the heroine were torn apart (literally!) again, and again, and again by (take your pick) dinosaurs, dragons or ancient gods only to magically heal by divine power or the “magic” semen of the male beast in dub-con/non-con (I call it for what it is, rape) scene after scene? Book after book?
Allow me to exemplify…
In M/M, that’s not only possible, chances are the bottom ends up magically pregnant, not to mention that all is forgiven and they end up happily ever after in the end. This is of course also true for the trans woman who is so badly injured by her rapist that she is hospitalized for months (!!!), hanging on to life by a thread. Needless to say, she ends up moving in with her rapist in the end. Why did he rape her? He was upset she had certain dangly parts left… Totally believable, right? Transphobia & rape, all beautifully wrapped on KU for Her to get off. I have read things in M/M that have left me traumatized for life, and these are just a few of the examples.
It’s weird, you know, attending an LGBT writing conference, listening to a panel about diversity (a good panel, mind you, nothing wrong with that), and how we should be more inclusive of mental disease, ethnicity, age etc. and how important it was for, and I quote “accurate and true representation”. Yet I sit in the audience and wonder, why doesn’t that basic and healthy concept of “accurate and true representation” which these panels demand for just about every nuance under the limitless rainbow, why does this basic concept not apply to gay or bisexual men? Why is it okay to see us pregnant even though so many of us are involuntarily childless, suffering that pain, that emptiness, day after day for our entire lives. To be reminded of that in fiction, callously shortened as mpreg is, is utterly disgusting and heartless, and no matter what attempts at justification these authors and readers may offer, there can be none. Why is it okay for men to be “gay for you” even though there is no such thing in real life. We’re all on a spectrum between the two poles. Denying that, to maintain that “illusion” of heterosexuality, simply because it has a higher status? Shame on you. Your homo- / biphobia disgust me! True representation? My ass! #outrage
Life is rarely simple. I know some amazing authors, but they make bad friends in real life. I know some really crap authors (with regards to the above), yet they’re good people. The same can be said about readers. Such is life. I am angry, really pissed off, but this post isn’t about you, not you personally anyway. Chances are it might just be about your reading choices or your writing decisions, but it’s not a judgment of you as a human being. Most likely I don’t know you personally, and even if I do, it’s probably superficially at best, from social media or a brief hello at a conference. So please, as you go through various emotional reactions to this post, keep that in mind. Most people are kind, some are simply ignorant. Some never actually think about the ramifications of their actions, what signals they send. I was once told by a reader of these rape books that she “liked her men to suffer, just as she had once suffered at the hands of her rapist, and then some, just for good measure.” Revenge is a dish best served horny, it seems. Might I suggest a slightly more constructive choice of therapy? Counseling maybe? I understand the pain of rape far too well (#MeToo), and if writing helps you cope, heal? Great. But does it have to be published? And why do you feel the need to punish gay men for your heterosexual rape?
Think about this for a moment…
In closing: yes, I’m angry, furious at a literary world where gay men are reduced to vibrators, and I’m incredibly saddened that this happens while my people in the real world still fight for their lives, their dignity, and their happiness. Think about it, for every sex scene that you jerked off to in your latest M/M, a gay man was hung in Iran, flogged in Saudi Arabia, tortured in Chechnya, imprisoned in Uganda, thrown off a roof-top in Syria, fired for getting married in America, disappeared forever in Russia, or China; stoned in Afghanistan, burned with acid in Pakistan, mass raped by an angry village mob in rural India, denied to adopt his partner’s child in Poland, or killed outside a gay club in London. I could go on and on (and I’ve said nothing about my sisters, bisexuals or trans/intersex people who all suffer through variations or hells similar–or worse–to ours.)
Yes, the (LGBT) world needs positive stories, we need romance, we need love. What we don’t need is to be reduced to toy boys for your reading and masturbation pleasure (or bank account.) Can we at least agree on that?
Hans M Hirschi
Writer of gay and LGBT fiction
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
The struggle for love never ends, and it is in these the darkest of times, that our resolve to love is tested the most.
#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?
The rainbow flag heralds love and inclusion. It’s the main reason I love it so much. Yet as humans representing the rainbow, we’re not always as loving… We are, in effect, merely human.
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.
Racism in publishing: if you believe Riptide is the outlier, you’d be wrong
Another scandal in the LGBT publishing sector. After cat-phishing, it’s sexual harassment and racism. Make no mistake, the LGBT community ain’t no different than the rest of the world. We are as guilty as every other community of white-washing, racism, and all those other inherently human flaws. Why? Believe it or not, we are human, too (despite what Mikey Pence and his cronies will have you believe.) The problem with racism in publishing isn’t that it is so common, that it is as institutionalized, as structural as it is in the rest of society. No. The problem is that we, as intellectuals, as artists, who are supposed to see through this shit, expected to lead the way, to be that painful stick-up society’s ass, aren’t more aware of this. We should be mirrors to society, not of it.
The typical reaction
The statement from Sarah Lyons on POC on Riptide covers. She clearly indicates the financial reasons for it. No excuse, but sadly a valid explanation. From Xen’s post.
When Xen’s rightfully angry blog post hit the air-waves, Riptide almost instantly pulled the plug on the editor which had made those racist remarks on their behalf, and later issued statement after statement after statement about how sorry they were and that they would do better, somehow, someday. I for one don’t really believe they’ve really thought about the underlying issues, but are scrambling to save a business, anyway they can. That’s fine of course, I just hope they ‘really’ do their homework. But the comments I’ve read online about Sarah being a racist and that she’s to blame for all this? NO, that’s making it too easy. It’s letting Riptide off the hook and it’s assigning way too much blame to an employee.
An editor doesn’t get to make decisions about a publisher’s corporate policy about what goes on a cover (or not). She merely informs authors of her boss’s rules. Ms. Lyons transgressions in the department of sexual harassment are an entirely different thing…
I challenged myself to go through Riptide’s covers, to see how many POC they actually have on their covers today. The e-mail to Xen was three years ago. Do the same, and you’ll see that very little has changed since. I found five “diverse” covers before I got bored, five out of maybe 100? Now go do the same for other publishers, from the big five to M/M romance behemoth DSP or any other publisher. Just for fun (I haven’t.) You’ll see a very similar thing, everywhere. Minorities are grossly underrepresented everywhere.
It’s not just Riptide…
The problem with structural racism or white privilege (two sides of the same coin) is how it is affecting every aspect of society. When a character in a book isn’t described in terms of ethnicity, we automatically (subconsciously) assume them to be white. If we don’t say they’re gay, they’re assumed to be straight. If we don’t mention they’re Jewish, they’re assumed to be Christian. Even minority readers fall into that trap because that’s what they always see, read, watch. There’s that nasty thing called socialization. It takes a conscious effort on behalf of every individual to overcome that bias, it’s a lot of hard work, and you’re never done. It sits so deep within us that it’s become invisible, like muscle memory.
I could say the same about homophobia. Even as a gay man, more than halfway through my life, I am a homophobe, subconsciously. I still react negatively (instinctively) at seeing a camp man, I find feminine behavior in men (and vice versa) difficult to reconcile at first, and I really, really have to consciously make an effort to keep my mouth shut and to smile and treat that human being with dignity. I’ve been raised a homophobe, and it’s difficult to get that shit out of your system (which makes coming out so fucking difficult for so many of us.) By now I think I’ve got my brain under control and people don’t see/notice, but I still do, every time, and it’s painful.
I’ve seen racism at play, and it’s utterly disgusting. I tend to forgive though because most people aren’t hopeless. I want people to have a second chance. They’re not evil. They’ve been raised that way by society. I’ve come to understand why we are the way we are, and I’d much rather have a conversation to show that person their erroneous ways than to shout from the rooftop just what an amazing person I am (not really), compared to the rest. On Twitter and Facebook people scream, yell and are all high and mighty. They pretend to be holier than thou, but yeah, that’s easy, because there’s no one to point a mirror at them, point to what they really feel, deep down. How they act. Nobody to force them to look at their own privilege.
White privilege is almost invisible to those who have it
Sometimes white people will ask you “how am I privileged? I’m poor, I have less money, fame, and success than a lot of [insert minority rep of your choice]” Privilege is hard to pin down when you’re inside the bubble. Money is a sort of privilege, of course, so is education. A rich white person is obviously more privileged than a poor white person. But they’re still both white. Just as I pointed out in the blog post linked above, white privilege is only visible to POC. To a white person, seeing six Star Wars episodes with only white actors in the lead doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s natural. Normal. But boy did those same people raise hell when one of two lead humans in episode seven suddenly wasn’t white. That would be racism. The former is white privilege.
When an innocent white person walks down Broadway toward Times Square and meets a police patrol, they feel safe. When an innocent black person is in the same situation they’re thinking about what might happen: will I be stopped, abused etc. When a white person walks into Macy’s to buy make-up, they don’t notice that all the models have fair skin. A black person looking for makeup will most likely have to frequent a specialty shop to find make-up for their skin tone. Same thing for hair products. Or even band-aids. Skin-colored band-aids are light beige. I’ve never seen anything that wouldn’t scream loudly on a person from South India or Africa. That’s white privilege. But most white people don’t think about this ever. It’s just normal to them. But it’s painfully obvious to everyone else.
Black Panther? Heard of that blockbuster movie from Marvel? That is so very much the exception to the rule that it is a slap in the face of the black populace of the world, just as Lando Calrissian was in Star Wars. From the first short Superman movie in 1941 to 2017, that’s seventy-six years without a black superhero in a major film. White privilege. There is a painfully well-written (and played) episode in Star Trek DS9, Far Beyond the Stars, where Captain Cisco is dreaming about being a black comic author, essentially inventing “Captain Cisco” and facing the ridicule of the time. If you haven’t seen that, watch it. It’s on Netflix. It explains this all so well.
So what can we do?
Willem is one of the very few whites left on Earth. Everybody else is black or brown. In this story, Willem is the POC.
First of all, forgive. Second, seek a conversation, a dialogue. I remember back in late 2014 after I had begun work on my novel Willem of the Tafel, only a chapter or two. I sent a message to my New York publicist, excited about my coming novel about a black man in an underground (literally!) culture in South Africa. The message back was a shock: “are you sure you want to do this? Nobody’s going to buy a book about a black hero…” Racist statement? One could also argue that said publicist (a POC!) was trying to warn me of the consequences of pursuing such a story. He simply pointed out that I sell most of my books in America and that most people buying books in America would not buy a book about a black hero. That’s also what’s at the core of the Riptide decision (at one time) not to feature POC on their covers. Most readers of LGBT books are white, they are economically privileged and have the money to buy books (another aspect of said white privilege.) And most of them are not interested in POC. Putting them on the cover would be an automatic signal to move on.
It’s also the reason why there are over 100,000 M/M novels out there and almost no F/F. Simply because most straight white women (who are the dominant reader base) don’t get moist when reading about two women forking. Publishers, editors, and authors are in the business of making money, and therefore follow the money. There’s money in M/M, but not in gay fiction. There’s money in beautiful, handsome, white men, but not in POC. There’s money in healthy characters, but none in disabled characters (my friend Tracy says “we’re invisible” about her condition. Sadly, she is right about it.)
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
There is another complexity to all this. Writing about POC, minorities etc. is hard work. As an author, you need to do your research properly and get it right. And there are those out there who will still put you through the ringer no matter how hard you worked to get it right, even if you did get it right. It’s a thing, a dogmatic belief in some that only members of a minority should be allowed to write about that particular minority. I don’t subscribe to that, but it shows that even if you try to write diverse stories, you can’t please them all. Their main argument? Privilege; majority privilege. They don’t have the privilege to write those stories because they have to work, or because they don’t have the connections to publishers etc. They do have a point, of course, but forbidding others to write while basking in self-righteous pity only makes their minority more invisible. And thus deny their minority the chance to become popular in fiction.
Not everyone is in it for the money…
I make $500 bucks a year (give or take) in royalties. I don’t make a living off my writing. I get to write the important stories, the difficult ones, along with some other amazing authors who don’t (have to) care about money (or compromise their creativity to get it.) We care about the stories that need to be told. And we are lucky to have found a home with publishers who indulge us, who also don’t put money first. Or they increasingly self-publish, thanks to modern technology.
When I got the original feedback on Willem, I was scared. Scared of sales losses and what it might do to my reputation. I was still new to writing and quickly decided to change my approach, and I killed my intended main character in chapter two in an accident that gets Willem’s story rolling. I thought long and hard about how to tackle the subject. In the end, Willem of the Tafel turned out to be a big middle finger up white privilege’s ass, as Willem is literally white as white comes, but the rest of his future Earth is almost 100% POC. I reversed racism, thrust it in Willem’s innocent face to showcase how ugly racism really is. Hopefully some lily-white asses were appalled by how miserably Willem and the few remaining whites are treated, and hopefully, one or two realized that Willem is, in fact, a mirror of our world, set 500 years into the future. Willem is indeed a POC.
From Willem to Martin
My coming novel, Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm (sign up for the newsletter, top right, to be the first to partake of the cover reveal this Thursday), features a black, main character. Martin is amazing, and I am very proud of him and his life. I’m no longer afraid. So what if no one buys the book? The ones who do will like it, and they’ll like Martin. I’m sure because the story is a beautiful one. Martin has taught me a lot, particularly about the country he longs back to, Korea. The second main character is a Korean. I consciously try to paint my characters in different colors (pun intended.) I’ve included various aspects of disability, ethnicity, religion, and gender regularly, mind-fucking my readers (I once had a proofreader question why a man would take his wife’s last name, to just state one example!) As an author, I think this is my responsibility. Make people question their assumptions about what is (right) and what isn’t.
Publishers have a responsibility, too. Encourage diverse stories, from a diverse authorship, but even from the (existing) mainly white authors. Last not least, readers have a responsibility, too, to engage with diverse stories, just as those of us who are “diverse” have been forced to engage with mainstream stories in school, books, TV, the movies ever since our childhood. We need to talk about this. We need to have a discourse about racism, not attack each other on Twitter and pretend to be flawless. Because we’re not. None of us are. They who cast the first stone… Just saying! So let’s not judge Riptide too harshly. Yes, they fucked up, badly, but a) there are very good (as disgusting as this may sound) business reasons for them to have done so, and b) they’re not alone.
Author Hans M Hirschi, here with his oldest feline friend, is a member of multiple minorities and sadly all too familiar with racism and discrimination.
They just happened to be the first one caught in the cross-fire. Hopefully, they’ll learn their lesson and will find a way to combine making money with embracing diversity, fully, and honestly. Either that or quietly disappear into the darkness of oblivion.
Famous last words…
Let’s talk about this… I’m curious to hear your points of view. Mind you, I monitor all comments and if you’re not civil in tone, I won’t approve it. As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Have a good week. And be forgiving.