Doctor Who? How a TV show highlights the world’s problem with equality
Do you watch or follow the English Sci-Fi series Doctor Who? I don’t. I’ll be honest. Never seen it, never watched a single episode. But I understand that it’s to the English what Star Trek is to the rest of us (sort of). Like I said, I haven’t seen it. But apparently, they announce new doctors every now and then, and this week, the BBC announced that the thirteenth doctor (anyone superstitious?) would be a woman, for the first time. In a healthy society, this would’ve been met with shrugs all around, because this would only matter to the aficionados. Some would love it (because they like the actor), some would hate it (because they dislike the actress). However, our planet is not a healthy society and before long, the Internet was overflowing with hatred, “too little, too lates” and then some… But it was this article in a Scottish newspaper that had my head spinning. Here was a “feminist” decrying the move as hurtful to equality. He makes some interesting points, which is why it took me a long time to wrap my head around it. Particularly since I don’t watch the show.
Captain Chris Pike and his female Number One (in the pilot of Star Trek) Pike was replaced by Kirk and Number One wasn’t cast again until the Next Generation in the eighties when it was – of course – a guy… The first female captain was seen in the first Star Trek Movie in 1979, in a small role. Source: Tumblr
Here’s the thing. I agree with Mark Smith initial statement: to cast a woman in the lead role of a sci-fi show in 2017 is hardly “edgy”. Had they done it in the 1970ies, yes, but even an “edgy” show like Star Trek couldn’t (wouldn’t? dare not?) cast a woman as First Officer aboard the Enterprise in the sixties. See the interesting pilot with Eugene Roddenberry’s wife as First Officer, aka Number One. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was later cast as a nurse (how female, right?) and as the computer voice. Eventually, in the movies, she advanced to Doctor (1980s). Here’s the problem: women are still universally seen as lesser beings than men. In every aspect of society with the exception of child rearing and ‘care’, where the opposite is the case. Naturally, both views are utterly wrong. Men can be as caring as women and men can be as “worthless” as women are seen.
Yet when a woman replaces a man after twelve instances, people are still either outraged or bored. Let’s assume the opposite. What about Doctor 14? 15? 27? What if the next thirteen doctors were all female? Imagine the outrage! Most major countries in the world have still not had female leaders, and once a woman has had the position, she’s replaced – almost assuredly – by a man. Because “they’ve had their turn, can we return to normalcy now?” NO, we can’t and we shouldn’t. Normalcy won’t be until we don’t even notice what gender, sex or sexuality a person has when it’s equally “normal” aka boring for a superhero to be trans as it is for them to be a man. But for now, we can assume that doctor #14 will be a guy again, that the next English PM is a guy again, that the next German PM is a man again etc. We could, of course, say the same about other countries and “occurrences”. While we applaud the fact that Ireland has a PM who’s gay, you can rest assured this won’t happen again (anytime soon), or that Iceland had a female AND Lesbian PM (her successor was straight, corrupt and yeah, a straight guy). It’s how our society works. For a while (2010-2012), Switzerland had FOUR female ministers in its seven head government (plus a female federal chancellor), a majority, for the first time, ever. Now? We’re down to two. And that’s what most people, even women, consider “normal”.
The “kiss” that rocked the south… Source: Wikipedia
It’s not just gender though, is it? When Star Trek “featured” their first Lesbian kiss it was only acceptable because one of the women was a man in a previous life, and the worms they carry inside their humanoid bodies are basically sexless (gods know how they procreate). And even though there was an outrage when Kirk kissed Uhura in the original show (she was black!) it was under “duress”, not because they wanted to. Imagine if Kirk had been of sound mind, wanting to kiss a black woman! The outrage! The show would never have aired. Even as recently as the 1980s, when Stephen Carrington came out as gay and had an (ex) boyfriend (subsequently murdered (!!!) by the show’s main character and Stephen’s dad), Stephen was almost instantly recast as “bisexual” to soften the blow and later married Sammy Jo. No wonder bisexuals have a bad rap… Bisexuals DO exist, trust me, but bisexuality is not to meant to be a tool to ease heterosexual discomfort… facepalm But yeah, I could go on and on and on, but just stay with Blake Carrington killing his son’s boyfriend and getting away with it, and his son forgiving him for it… Yeah, that’s what my youth looked like! And we complain about a TV show in 2017 casting a woman in the lead… If I have one complaint is that it’s at least fifty years too late (the show first aired in 1963, three years before Star Trek premiered).
Allow me to make it worse, if possible. On Facebook, some of the people I follow, decried the Doctor Who thing as “robbing boys of their last male role models” and it made me wonder: how did girls survive the past millennia with ONLY male role models? Utter rubbish, and utterly sexist, and yes, sadly women are as sexist as men and often step on their own feet of potential advancement. Why, please tell me why, shouldn’t a boy be able to see a girl as a role model? A hero? WHY? Am I missing something? Are girls so much smarter? Because they’ve had no problems seeing Spiderman, Superman, Aquaman, or Batman as role models. But I’m only a gay man, what do I know. We all know that I’m possibly located even lower on the scale than women, just above Lesbians and trans people… frown I do my best to let my son watch the movies/shows he wants, and he loves Elsa as much as he loves Merida or Moana/Vaiana, strong characters, “despite” being girls. And yes, he likes Spiderman, too, or his other cartoon characters in the shapes of trains, little buses, ambulances or what not. Oddly, he is still young enough to not have his mind polluted by the construct of gender. I cherish every moment it stays that way, although I know it’s a battle I’ll lose. Just the other week someone said that Sascha “looked more masculine with his hair short”. Needless to say, I’ll let it grow out again if he wants to. What an insolent comment. As if manliness resides in short hair! But yeah, that’s where we are in real life, in 2017! facepalm
Because in the end, that’s really what matters, right? REAL LIFE. How we educate our kids to be good citizens, respectful of everybody, no matter what, and I for one will do whatever I can so that my son has role models based on their actions, not their gender, sex, sexuality, age, skin color, ethnicity, faith, culture etc.
Notice the representation on this stock image I once bought for my company? Yeah, no blacks and no Asians, but at least we have gender equality…
So how do we move forward? I’m a liberal (in the European, original, sense of the word), I don’t really (want to) believe in quotas or affirmative action, but I’ve also seen how we (in Sweden) have achieved a considerable level of equality, due to quotas. Here it’s a given that approx. half of our parliament is female, that half our government ministers are female. Sweden is far from perfect (re pay gaps), but we constantly talk about it and make slow and constant improvements. The current Canadian government is also a great example of inclusion, but look at how Trump rules in the U.S. and note the not so subtle difference.
So yes, quotas can help. When the Swedish government threatened publicly traded companies with legislation about a 40% female quota on their boards, companies began to look for women for their boards. Sadly, before that, they were mostly complaining about quotas and how they were looking for the right people, not their sex. Suddenly, they found women who were competent. Odd, eh? It’s getting better, slowly, way too slowly. In TV and film, various ratings (e.g. F on IMDB or the Bechdel test) guide viewers to movies with a healthy representation of sexes. And while I can frown upon commercial stock photos with your Asian, your black person, your brown person and a white one, perfect representation of the sexes, I also realize how important it is, and that companies have realized that. Problem is, we’d (as a western society) not accept a commercial with an all black cast or an all Asian cast, as we just wouldn’t see “ourselves” in it, which is problematic at best (I spoke about that with regards to love in my review last week.) This is something we all need to work on, and I believe literature has an important role to play, as our characters don’t have skin colors, don’t have ethnicities unless we give it to them. Why not let them be secrets until after a book is released and then tell people? Yeah, I know, most will assume an all white cast, and that’s at the core of this debate, right? But what if you had a character named Chris who turns out to be a black, Muslim, trans woman? Gotcha! You thought Chris was a straight, white guy… Yeah…
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this conundrum, but I know one thing: blaming a TV show for being too late won’t help. Instead, make sure they stick with it, not by being representative to the dot, but by being inclusive in all things, and that means not just adequate representation, but seeing beyond all that, to go beyond skin-deep, to the human core of us all, until we get to the point where “what” we are isn’t as important as “who” we are, our character. What’s your take on all this? Do you have any ideas on how to fix this?
If you like 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 great weekend.
I wrote a wedding scene. A beautiful one. Then I had to re-write it
I’m in the editing mode of my latest WIP “disease”. I finished the first rough draft yesterday and went back to the beginning, reading through it again, adding bits here and there, checking the time line etc. There is a wedding scene in the book (two actually), and I really like it. Only it doesn’t work. Insert colorful expletive here. Because here’s the problem, allow me to demonstrate:
A straight writer writes straight wedding scene:
- write couple
- write officiant
- write scene
- move on to next scene
A gay writer writes gay wedding scene:
- write couple
- write officiant
- write scene
- wait, hang on, could we get married in that geography? At that point in time? What sort of “marriage” could we get?
- [colorful expletives] as extensive research begins
- research concluded, delete the scene, start over
I wrote this beautiful wedding scene, right here, in the town of Amalfi in southern Italy, when… Photo: Max Pixel, Creative Commons Zero
I’m not joking, and this is just a tiny morsel of the complications of writing LGBT fiction. We are in a constant battle to keep up with legislation, this ever-changing monstrosity where one day we’re granted civil rights only to be hauled off to execution camps the next, re Chechnya. The couple in my new book get married, only they don’t, as I had to painfully realize today, because of where I later placed them in world geography, I blame it on 5th Avenue, a geography that did not allow them to get married until Obergefell two years ago. So, back to the drawing board, research your state legislation, and find a way to rewrite the scene so that it matched not only the legal requirements I needed in terms of what I was aiming at later in the story, preserving the emotion of that scene while still being historically accurate. I’m telling you, being a gay writer sucks at times! And this is just one aspect.
I just had another long discussion about why relationship (or romantic) stories are so popular with the gay community (at least those of us who read), and why our “need” as gay men is different from the expectation of a straight female reader. Women reading gay romance do it primarily as an escape, a nice fantasy to escape to without the stereotype role models still largely at play in het romance (damsel in distress, alpha male to the rescue type). For us, romance isn’t an escape, it’s a possibility. Does that make sense? For eons, and way into the 1980s, the expectation we had on gay characters in novels was to die, often horrific deaths. We were the villain or the misunderstood freakshow of movies and books. We died. Best that could happen to us, along the lines of the old adage “only a dead Indian is a good Indian”.
Alex and I tied the knot in 2004 and saw our “partnership” upgraded to a marriage in 2009. The first five years remain unrecognized by t.he state.
As recognition of the fact that we had a heart and a soul began to root itself in society, and our struggle for equality began, so began our thirst for new stories, more hopeful stories. We wanted to read about us getting married, having families, children (or not), and to be happy. It was no longer a fantasy (which we wouldn’t have read because that would’ve been too cruel), but a possibility, a hope, something that might actually come to fruition. Do you see the difference? To us, reading about love and relationships is not about escaping reality for a few hours in the comfort of a good book, it’s about our future, a distinct possibility, a reality even for many of us. I hope that makes sense.
To exemplify the rapid changes, what about this. In this country, the royal court would send out greetings cards to centennials and couples married for sixty years or more, a diamond jubilee. By the time Alex and I get our card from His Majesty (or Her Majesty presumably), we would have been married for sixty-five years. Why? Because the first five years were a “civil union” and thus not recognized as marriage to this day. Not that I care much for a postcard from Stockholm, but still… The discrimination lives on.
Anyway, I will have to spend the next days and weeks editing my story, and hopefully, make it work. But today was a sad day, realizing that my beautiful wedding scene was just “pretend”. [Final colorful expletive] I feel very sorry for my two characters, and I may yet have to find a way to make it up to them…
Have a good weekend. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I’m also gratefully accepting donations of any size from fans (see top right on the page).
“Muscle memory” isn’t the right word, it’s a bias really, but the consequences are as dire
Three things that happened this weekend had me think about why it is so difficult for us humans to change, why our “muscle memory” or bias gets in the way. As we grow up, we learn, we absorb lessons, and we learn most from what people do, how they act, not what they say. As a parent, I see this every day. I also see the hierarchy of credibility. I see my son come home (he’s 4!!!) and how he trusts the stories his friends in school tell him: about things “boys” do, and what “girls” do, from dresses to colors to jobs. As parents, we still have the upper hand, we still have more “cred” than our son’s pals, but not for much longer. We argue constantly for the equality of boys and girls in all aspects of life. The more we see, hear, observe, the better the lesson sits, and if you look around our society, it’s pretty simple to see why progress is slow: our society is still in a pretty bad state, even in progressive countries like my own.
The forces we fight against are powerful, and they’re mostly working in secret. No, I’m not prone to conspiracy theories. The forces I’m talking about are the biases we humans have, mechanism built into our brain that help us navigate life, but that also make it difficult to change. Let me take a couple of examples:
Most people are not racists. When confronted with their racist behavior (and I include myself in this), we tend to get upset. But let’s be honest for a minute, shall we? When we (and this is geared to any dominating ethnicity) see someone from a disenfranchised group, e.g. blacks or gypsies, we react instinctively: we pull up information about that group from our memory. And what is it we’ve learned? Blacks are… [fill in blanks], gypsies are […] I remember a cruise with one of my best friends who’s black, and how officer after officer walked up to Alex, Sascha (two! at the time) and me and greeted us, but completely and utterly ignored my friend Claudine. She was invisible. Why? Did they merely see our servant? A nanny? Rather than the highly intelligent and senior physician with decades of professional experience? I don’t know, but the scene was harrowing. When confronted, each of the officers denied being a racist, yet they’d acted despicably.
We are still far, far away from equality of the sexes. Sadly, women are as bad as men, which makes progress even more slow. We are so stuck in our ways, in how we view the roles of men and women that we don’t even see just how sexist they are. Here’s an unusual example of sexism.
Misogyny and gender roles, are themes in this novel.
My husband and I are most likely the family in Sweden who’s been approved to foster a child the longest. Five years and running. Still, no placement. Most of the other families in our mandatory course already had their placements ready when we went through the training, we didn’t. Yes, part of it is homophobia, but I seriously doubt that social workers, who are so well educated and trained, are all homophobes. No, but their muscle memory, their bias is sexist. We had asked for the placement of a young child, a placement for a child to grow up with us. Now that we are parents to our own, biological child, that is unchanged. For Sascha to have a sibling, the child to be placed in our care would have to be +/- 3 years. Last time we were in touch with social services they “offered” us an 18 year old! Who needs to foster an adult? As bad as I felt for the young man, a gay man from Iran who apparently needed role models, a placement in an LGBT family wasn’t the solution. Quite the contrary: what message do you send when you do this?
But no young kids. Why? I think that social workers suffer from “mommy” syndrome: when they see a baby or a toddler who needs placed, they automatically think “we need a mother!” Why? Because! Look at society… They are incapable of stopping in their tracks for a split second and considering “why” they think that child needs a mother (or not). It’s quite obvious that we still see women primarily as care takers, and most women will agree, that’s what they’ve been prepared for, trained for, by their own mothers and grandmothers. Generation after generation. I’m no different, neither are you. Just picture the last time you saw a small child all alone on the street or in a park. I bet you looked around to see where its mother was. I’ll be honest to admit that I do. But I’ll be equally relieved to see a dad.
And as long as we equate “care” with “female” and “provide” with “male” society will not change, and Alex and I will never see a foster child, never see a sibling to our son.
Homophobia is a topic in many of my books, but it’s central to my second one, Jonathan’s Hope, and how one man’s internalized homophobia (which is still a very common thing) threatens his son’s life.
I saw this article the other day and was shocked. Then again, things like that are to be expected. I remember the day we came back from India, five weeks after Sascha had been born. Upon entering European soil from another continent with dodgy security procedures, we had to go through a new security control at Frankfurt airport. With a little baby, we were slow. One of the security guards (a female) approached us and wondered where the child’s mother was. Because two men and a baby is so unusual. This belongs more to the misogyny aspect, but trust me, we often get glances from other people about being a gay couple with kids, and when you look at EVERY country discussing marriage equality, kids are always the opposition’s prime argument, because gays = pedophiles. It was something we simply had to get used to. But it’s no less painful. Particularly when you’re at the receiving end of it
How do we move on?
That’s the real question, isn’t it? The challenge is to stop for a moment, before you act, before you speak up. Because we have two enemies: a) our own honesty, and b) the speed at which our brain works. I have had more conversations with people who will swear to everything holy to them that they aren’t “racists” etc, and they would never, ever admit to acting, thinking that way. I know. It’s difficult. Even for me, even though I’m fully aware that I am. I grew up in a society where racism against several minorities was common. I know that my brain has racist tendencies. Imagine the irony when I learned that I was a quarter gypsy, after having been imprinted just how untrustworthy, thieving and stealing a people they were, all my childhood. Ouch!
I was also raised a misogynist, of course, we all are, and I was also raised a homophobe. My brain, even for a split second, reacts MORE when I see a gay couple kiss or hold hands than when I see a het couple lick each other in public. It’s how I was raised. For many people, admitting this is difficult. But necessary!
So what can we do? We have to teach our brains to stop for a split-second after that initial reaction. We may never be able to completely obliterate those neural pathways, but we can learn to take a deep breath and think: why do you react this way? Before we act, before we speak. If we all did that, society would quickly improve, because we all know beyond the shadow of a doubt that behavior is not a factor of our skin color (you’re still very much the same person, even after the sun burn from hell!), our capacity to love and care is not a factor of our genitals and love knows no gender and sexuality/gender isn’t hereditary (or there would be no LGBT people)
Think about that for a few days, try to think of instances in your own life when you’ve acted, spoke “too quickly”, instances where you brain’s “muscle memory”, your biases, got in the way. I still do, even after working on myself for decades. Luckily, I catch my thought lapses before I can act upon them, but I’m still as ashamed for every time my brain jumps to conclusions as I was when I first realized just how badly “trained” my brain was.
Have a good week. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I’m also gratefully accepting donations from fans (see top right on the page).
Go, claim your copy now and discover new characters to love and cherish!
PS: Today’s the final day of the spring edition of the Big Gay Fiction Giveaway. Have a look, there are dozens of free stories, books or excerpts out there, new authors, new voices to discover. And since it’s a giveaway, it’s all for FREE! I’m participating with my fourth novel, The Fallen Angels of Karnataka.
When readers ask you difficult questions, they’re obviously onto something, aren’t they?
It began with an innocuous question about why so few people comment on my YouTube videos. My answer was simple: because almost no one watches them, and on average only one in twenty ever respond. Then they dropped the bomb, right in front of my feet:
“But some male authors, gay authors, sometimes give the impression they prefer to write for gay people. In a way as if they look down on the mm romance thing and their readers. […] As if they feel about the female readers as people in BDSM feel about the readers of 50 shades of gray.”
Image #1: M/M andF/F are only a fraction of all the available romance books available on Amazon
I understood the second I saw the question that I was in trouble. Maybe I was being “accused”? I am, after all, one of those “male authors, gay authors…” For those of you who are not following the little bubble of LGBT fiction, you may not understand what this is all about, so allow me to explain:
Amazon has many categories where they “stuff” books. If you navigate to the Romance section (image #1) on Amazon, you’ll find all the various sub-genres. There are screen shots taken from Amazon in this post if you want to have a look. (Self-)publishers obviously enter certain search words when they upload their information, but Amazon’s algorithm ultimately decides where books end up, and many of the books that are “romance” also end up under “Gay Fiction” (please note the complete absence of Bi & Trans as categories!)
Amazon’s genres aren’t making it easy
Image #2: there are a great many LGBT books on Amazon, even though it is the second smallest of all Amazon categories. Only test-preparation is slightly smaller…
As you can see, Gay Romance (and Lesbian Romance further down even less so) is just a fraction of the overall Romance genre, where contemporary and the more sizzling Erotica are the largest ones. Move over into the “Gay & Lesbian” section (Image #2), many of those same books will appear here, too. And this is where it becomes tricky.
If you drill down into the “Literature & Fiction” subcategory, you’ll see the third image further down to the right. And it shows that almost half of all the books in Gay & Lesbian Literature are in fact “Erotica” or “porn on pages”, and when I first started to look into publishing, I realized that even Romance novels these days are littered with sex, more or less on page. The difference between “Romance” and “Erotica” is often fluid, and many of the Erotica stories are of the darker and more violent variety (with frequent scenes of rape and physical abuse. I wrote about this
a bit over a year ago.)
Image #3: almost half of all LGBT literature is in fact erotica.
Fiction v Fantasy
It gets more complicated. When I was young and growing up, gay fiction as a genre didn’t exist. When I was a young adult, the only books you’d ever find about being gay were in the psych section of the book store or (“life style”, my favorite hate word, in the U.S.) Fictional books about gays were just to be searched for under literature, by author name, as was customary then. If you didn’t know what to look for, you didn’t find it until you virtually tripped over it. And the stories were not uplifting (watch my video from a couple weeks ago on this subject
), as we were often depicted as villains, sickos, freaks or child molesters, and later as “AIDS fuckers” who deserved to die. Lesbians? Well, their plight was worse, as female sexuality has always been treated as a non-existing thing, so why bother… That is still a problem, just look at the number of lesbian romance novels v gay romance novels. Bisexuals, Trans & Intersex? Yeah, exactly… But at some point in the middle of the last decade, some female authors of romance decided to branch out. I don’t know why, but maybe werewolves, shifters and paranormal story lines weren’t exciting any more, or titillating enough. I honestly don’t know. So they began writing romance novels about two men falling in love. And as is pointed out for everyone to see, every time a shit storm hits the genre, it was a “genre created by women, for women!” Not my words, hence the quotation marks. Romance is a huge genre in fiction, yet, overall it is less than a quarter as large as the total volume of “Literature & Fiction” on Amazon (image #4). In the LGBT space, the romance novels are the dominant force. I don’t know if they’re 80% or 90%. It doesn’t really matter, I haven’t looked at them all, but they are the vast majority. Per se
that isn’t a problem. LGBT people who read are as likely to like romance as their het counterparts. And there are quite a few, some very successful, gay writers of the genre.
So what’s the problem?
Image #4: Romance, in “general” fiction is a lot smaller than “Literature & Fiction”. In the LGBT space it’s the opposite, but a lot more pronounced.
Here’s my theory. Romance novels are primarily about escaping into a fantasy world, traditionally an Elizabethan or Victorian set drama where the damsel in distress is rescued and swept off her feet by a dashing hero (Mr. Darcy anyone?) And let me just say this, so I don’t have this thrown back in my face. That is okay. Escapism is great, heck I wish I’d had these books readily at my fingertips when I was a struggling gay teen (I’ve written about that, too
) Alas, I did not.
When I wrote my first books, I had read a couple of gay romance novels, but I didn’t know there was a thing called “MM” (and it’s Lesbian equivalent of “FF”) or “M/M” Romance, depending on how people prefer to spell it. What I did know was that the publishers in romance often expected sex, on page, at regular intervals throughout the story. I knew that my stories weren’t meant for those publishers, because I’ve always felt that sex, unless it furthers the plot, has no business in my stories. But that’s because I’m not a romance writer. I write gay fiction.
So what’s the difference, you ask?
Now this is a very good question. As I point out in my video, there is a significant overlap in the storytelling in Romance and Fiction. It’s about love (a human condition), relationships, parenting, failure, evil and what not. But there are differences, too. Because you won’t find “Catcher in the Rye”, “Lord of the Flies” or gay “A Single Man” in any romance section. Even though they deal with some of the above. Why? Romance, in my humble opinion is about “escapism”, getting away from reality, not having to think about your loser of a husband, the trouble your kids cause at school, the pain in your body, your drunk neighbor or the fact that you barely make ends meet. You look into the mirror and you see a woman (since 8 out of 10 readers of books are women) that wouldn’t make it on Heidi Klum’s Runway. She might be a little too old, a little too round, and a little too worn after multiple pregnancies. I think you know what I mean: real, live people. But you open that book and suddenly you are eighteen years old again, you’re the daughter of a count, you wear pretty dresses and you get to go on the adventure of a lifetime and you’re rescued (and fucked to the high heavens) by Mr. Darcy himself. Phew! For three or four hours you were someone else, laughing, crying, and ultimately riding off into the sunset of the obligatory Happily Ever After (aka HEA).
I can almost guarantee you that Christopher Isherwood had a somewhat different premise when he wrote A Single Man. His premise (as is mine) was reality, to describe the grim reality of what it was like to be a gay man in California in the 1950s. “But”, I hear you say, “romance novels deal with grim and harsh things, too!” And you would be right, of course, the difference is two-fold: a) the HEA and b) the way the story is told. A romance novel is all about the “romance”, i.e. how the characters get together. It’s the primary aspect of the story. Everything else takes the back seat. In fiction, it’s the opposite. There may be romance, but it’s in the back seat, and something else – whatever that may be – is the main driving force of the storytelling. Semantics? Maybe, and I am not sure that all romance authors would share my definition. And to complicate things further, there are many stories that are sold as either fiction or romance, but could easily fall into both categories.
So where does the question above come from?
Ah, right to the core after all this time, eh? Huh! Okay, say you would like to find a book about a gay or Lesbian couple raising children. I have at some point, when we were pregnant. You want books that are about parenting, the challenges you face as a gay couple in society, all the nitty-gritty details. I’ve found a few, but they weren’t primarily about the “raising” or the “parenting” aspect, the driving force behind those stories was the romance, and the books ended with the dads being a couple. That’s not what I was interested in reading. My questions “will the kid(s) be okay?”, “will the kid(s) be bullied?” and “how do you deal with this shit?” were left unanswered. After three or four such books, I gave up. I wrote my own instead. Remember: one hundred and thirty thousand books. How is anyone supposed to find anything in there? It’s like the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Personally, and in this post I can only ever speak for myself, I don’ have a huge issue with this. I tend to be on the side of “laissez faire”, rather than restricting people. But as far as I understand, some members of the LGBT community (and this post is primarily about gay men, because that’s where the frictions are) feel that the “hets have taken over our space” (which is complicated by the fact that gay men, too, write gay romance…), and that is sometimes expressed in angry and even hateful slurs. And that it is very hurtful to the authors and readers of gay romance books.
Allow me to infer a little parenthesis here. I call it gay romance. I really, and I mean really, dislike the acronyms with the two letters MM, FF etc. It’s degrading to reduce human beings like this, be it men or women. People are objectified beyond measure, they’re basically reduced to their genitals. You might as well say D/D (dick on dick) or C/C or D/C (you get the gist). Worst, in a genre so dominated by women, the het equivalent is still labeled M/F, the male is still mentioned first. If I ever use the acronym, I use F/M.
Back to our reader question. Picture a forest, it’s a huge forest with over a hundred thousand trees. The big trees, beautiful, proud and dark green spruces stretching to the sky, are our romance novels. They enjoy large numbers of readers (for many reasons: more women than men read, and there’s ten het women for every gay man), their success is propagated further by constantly being in the top sales lists on Amazon. Now in this forest there are also small saplings, books that sell maybe a copy a month, some less, some more. They struggle, because they’ll never really have any chance at a top 100 spot, because they are stories about the victims of AIDS, they are stories about being black and gay (Re Moonlight), there are stories about old men and women realizing they’ve lived a lie all their lives, and how this impacts their families. Some of these stories have happy endings, some of these stories do not. Some of these stories are based on things the authors have experienced themselves, fictionalized of course, but real. There is no escapism, there is no Mr. Darcy, no proverbial horse ride into the sunset. The covers of those books aren’t adorned by half-naked beauties with photoshopped eight-packs and unblemished faces, because that’s not what they’re about.
And that is where some gay male authors (the problem is worse for all other siblings in the LGBT community, but it’s different) have an issue, because they can’t find those stories, literally. And those books will never get a shot, because they just cannot, ever, reach a top 100 spot in a genre so humongous. It’s impossible.
Then there’s the quality and the way gays are described…
That’s not all though. I have read a lot of romance novels, because even though I didn’t set out to, that’s what popped up in my searches online. Allow me to make an example: anal sex. In reality, sex attitude research tells us that only about four out of ten gay men ever engage in anal sex. In romance it’s more like ninety-nine out of one hundred. In real life, when a grandfather is called to school, to pick up his grandson, who was bullied and beaten up, he’d be so shaken and worried about the child, that he’d spend the rest of the day in that child’s presence, making sure they were okay. Maybe watch a movie or whatever. And if the kid wanted to be alone, grandpa’d be on stand-by. In Romance (and I have read this in a book), the grandfather is driven to the school by his love interest (so far so good), and as soon as they’re home, the kid’s sent to his room by the author so that grandpa can be fucked senseless by his very manly former marine stud of a hunky-dory man. See the difference? Two extremes maybe, but alas. Then there are some authors (and this is true for ANY form of literature) who just don’t do their research. I know writers of gay erotica who didn’t know what rimming was, feces/santorum is hardly ever mentioned, not to mention the agonizing pain that anal sex can be, particularly for a newbie. Anatomic fuck-ups (a 69 with the ball sack slapping against the chin instead of the nose or maybe forehead if it’s a big sack?), or worse, those really, really bad authors who merely change the name and the genitalia on one of their protagonists and produce a girl with a dick. Gay men see that immediately, in the way they talk, behave, mannerisms etc. And we cringe.
Now before people come back and hit me over the head with this: no, most authors don’t write such crap. Some do, and it is hurtful when you, as a minority, which is already beleaguered and discriminated against, a minority still being exterminated (re Chechnya), still hated, not just within the safety of book pages, but in real life, today, when you are described like that, objectified like that. Does that make sense?
For my LGBT siblings, Lesbian, Bi/Pan, Trans & Intersex, the challenges are different. Their relationships have not been “usurped” by a majority group for their escapism; worse, their relationships, their sexuality don’t even matter (as one reader told me, “I just can’t FF. I can’t. The sex. They just don’t have the right parts”), and for Bi/Pan, how do you accurately describe the way they “tick” in a one-person relationship which the romance novel is about? Bi by definition means two at least, so if you want to accurately depict a bisexual person, you’d need to have two relationships, and my bi friends often complain that their ultimate choice effectively washes them gay or straight. For trans & intersex the challenge is different again. Their struggle is so complex that by the time they’re done with their transition, it’s time to wind up the story. And the trans books I’ve read were in the place where gay novels were thirty or forty years ago, focused on coming out, on being their true selves, transitioning. Parenting, relationships, careers aren’t the first thing on your mind when you can’t even go to the bathroom! Capish?
So what are you saying then?
My first novel ever published. For some odd reason, some romance readers took it to heart, even though the story at heart is a very different one, romantic, maybe, but not a romance at heart, Jonathan’s Hope is one gay man’s dream to start a family, a dynasty. It’s only at the end we see a glimpse of that, and it took me two more novels to flesh it out, befitting the first true “gay dynasty”.
Here’s my two cents. Yes, undoubtedly there are gay authors (although I’ve not personally talked to one who feels this way) who hate the fact that “M/M” hogs the limelight. I’m not one of them. Quite the contrary. I think it’s amazing that young gay teens can read all those stories that they’re legally not supposed to, with all that sex and all the bubbly happy endings. I mean who cares about age limits anyway? How old were you when you saw your first R-rated flick, huh? I was welcome into the community with open arms, I’ve made some amazing friends, too many, far too many to mention, I’ve read books from incredibly talented writers, mostly women, I’ve had the opportunity to partake in extraordinary life stories, women who aren’t as female as they seem to be, horrible back stories which have propelled their writing to great heights, and besides, the gay romance genre evolves. I can’t even recount all the discussions with authors who dream of breaking away from the rigid rules of the one true Harlequin novel.
They want to tell their stories, even if it doesn’t always end well, in that ride into the sunset with Mr. Darcy. I’ve met authors who do their research, authors who contact me to ask about things they don’t know, anxious to get things right. This is one of the reasons why I sponsor gay romance events like GRL, because they allow me to attend, make me feel welcome.
There’s also the amazing readers who’ve discovered my books, because yes, as tiny as my sapling is, I sold 736 books online last year, each and every one of those purchases by a reader represents a ray of the sun that nevertheless made it all the way down to me. Had it not been for my accidental affiliation with gay romance, who knows, I may have sold seventy books instead, because like all writers, nine out of ten of my readers are women, and some of them are now dear and close friends of mine, and they greatly outnumber my male readers and friends.
I can’t speak for others, and while I see their point, and while there is validity to their argument, my conclusion is a different one. Without gay romance, would there even be a “Gay & Lesbian” section on Amazon? Would we have the visibility we have today? I don’t know. Somehow, I doubt it. Had my novel Jonathan’s Hope
not been mistaken for a romance, my fledgling career might have flatlined before its seed had a chance to sprout into the tiny but proud sapling it is today.
If you have further questions, please let me know. If you have comments, if you feel you want/need to clarify or even correct me, the comments are open. My apologies for such a lengthy post. I wanted to make sure to get it right, and now I have to go back and re-read it, to eradicate the worst of my typos and grammatical errors. And I sincerely hope I haven’t pissed anybody off, because in this day and age, that can be accomplished in a single sentence, let alone thirty-four hundred words… <3
If you’ve read all this way, thank you, have a wonderful weekend, and if you like what you read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS: There are two ways you can make an author’s day: a) is to buy one of their books and b) to leave a short review of it on Amazon. Good or bad, books without (or few) reviews are generally ignored.
My name is Ayla is a much needed story about honor or what honor is not
Two Novaks in one month? The girl is productive. Just a couple of weeks ago I reviewed her novel Love of the Game here and it’s already time for a new release from this productive Gothenburg author. My name is Ayla was originally commissioned as a Holidays short story, with a Christmassy feel to it, but once Phetra got going, it developed into something else entirely. My Name is Ayla is a novella I wish every high school kid would read, particularly if they live in a city like ours, Gothenburg, where people from over 130 cultures live together, mostly peaceful, but yeah, not always.
And a pretty cover it is… Ayla looks stunningly androgynous and the main canal of Gothenburg so peaceful. But don’t let the calm deceive you!
I once wrote a blog post about honor, and how what many cultures consider honor is the very opposite thereof. Young men and women are locked up, locked in, abused, and sometimes even killed in the name of preserving their family’s “honor”. I have to use quotation marks, because there is no way that family “honor” can ever be used without that. I had an incident last year, where I made sure that my family compensated an elderly woman after a minor (!) traffic accident where a relative of ours handled the situation below par. I felt it was the honorable thing to do. But make no mistake. This wasn’t about the Hirschi Family honor, this was more about me being able to look myself in the mirror. I felt very sorry for the old woman and wanted to make it right. Now, point two here: no violence. Not like I sought her out to take her lights out. Quite the contrary. We sent her flowers and chocolates and a nice card apologizing for the emotional trauma the accident had put her through. Afterward she called my uncle (I did this in his name) and she was very happy.
But to keep people from loving the person they choose or fell for? NO, that’s never honor. That’s cowardice. To claim that a woman’s virginity (which biologically doesn’t even exist) is what upholds a family’s honor? Says more about the men in that family… But it’s not about honor. It’s about misogyny and cowardice. Phetra dives right into that. Now I know Phetra, she’s a great friend and I know she really, really cares about these issues, and she would probably singlehandedly save every single boy, girl or person threatened by their family. But alas, how? And who?
My Name is Ayla is a story about educating people about the risks of the so called “family honor”. Ayla is a trans woman who is almost beaten to a pulp at the beginning of the story, and I got to read an early ARC to facilitate my honest (as always) review. I didn’t know what to expect from this book. The cover looks so innocent, the cover model androgynous and beautiful, the view of the city peaceful, but this book is anything but peaceful. The pace is fast, a lot happens in the 40K or so the story comprises. And it’s hard to talk about the story without giving away the plot. But needless to say, you’ll need plenty of tissue before you’re done with it. This story will shred you to pieces emotionally, because the story of Ayla, while fictitious, has far too many parallels to the real world, from Fadime Şahindal to countless others, in Sweden and around the world. Often, such cases never even make the light of day, because victims and perpetrators hide behind the veils of their cultures.
Here’s the odd thing about “family honor”: our western societies, where we’ve mostly left this shit long behind us, do not understand what is going on, how girls suddenly disappear behind veils, or are locked up after school, we often choose to ignore the shiner under their eyes or their bodies. Even deaths are often mislabeled as suicide, because we just don’t expect a mother to push her daughter over the balcony on the fifth floor. Instead, it’s an accident or suicide. Worse, it is really difficult for anyone to talk about this. Given the tensions between the western world and the Middle East, the refugee crisis, the terror by ISIS etc. anyone who criticizes people from the Middle East for their actions or deeds (or culture) is quickly labeled an islamophobe. However, and this is really the crucial thing here. This is about culture, not about religion. And it’s not limited to the Middle East. This occurs within Christian families as much as it occurs in Jewish families or Muslim families (Shia or Sunni), and the Middle East is home to orthodox Christians in several countries, from Turkey, to Syria, Egypt, There are pockets of Jewish populations in Iran, too.
I couldn’t agree more! Phetra is an extremely talented writer with a heart the size of a small town!
Ayla’s family is Persian, and they’ve lived in Sweden for a long time. Ayla’s parents were born here, so you assume they’re well “integrated” (a cultural buzzword here) or even assimilated. They even celebrate Christmas, even though they are Muslim. But when Ayla comes out as a trans woman, all hell breaks loose. My Name is Ayla is a story you do not want to miss. You will be touched by it, and at the end of it, you, too, will want to do something about this.
I can’t recommend this story enough, even though it’s still painful to think about it. My Name is Ayla is published by “Cool Dudes Publishing” and releases today May 1, so head on over to Amazon to get your copy!
Have a wonderful week, and if you like what you read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Alphabet Soup: LGBTQIA+, are you with me?
Once upon a time there was a boy, we can call him Adam. He was an unusual boy, because Adam didn’t fall for Eve, he fell for Steve, not just romantically, but sexually, which was pretty much all they had, since they couldn’t love each other openly. One day, Adam and Steve (persecuted by society “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”) met a girl, we can call her Eve. Now Eve was also unusual, inasmuch as she fell for girls, not boy. Romantically and sexually. Eve was madly in love with Alba, and their plight was great. They had both been married off husbands they didn’t choose and who they didn’t love. But at that point, the gay and lesbian movement was formed, and the four, as little as they had in common, began to fight for their right to be with the one they love.
But it’s always been a strenuous relationship, because the boys were always in the public eye, because they’re men and thus more visible, and because two men kissing or holding hands was so much more against societal norms than two girls doing the same. Plus women’s rights weren’t even on the table, and women’s sexuality was still largely invisible. Our four friends know two more interesting characters, let’s call them Brady and Brandi. Our boy Brady here joined the movement early on. He was as gay as the rest of the. But what Brady didn’t share was the fact that he was – in fact – Brianna. Brady is transgender, MTF (male to female), back then he was called transsexual or worse, a “transvestite” or “cross-dresser”. Brandi joined for similar reasons. Since she was totally into girls, she was outed early on as a dyke, a Lesbian, but alas, Brandi was really Brad, and brad is a totally heterosexual man, a trans man, FTM (female to male). At the time in the middle of the past century, there was little talk about them and many gay men would often dress in women’s clothes on weekends and put up shows, as drag queens. So the Brady fit right in, as unhappy as she really was, in a body that wasn’t really hers. And the same was true for Brandi, or Brad, but tom boys had always been a thing, and while frowned upon, when Brad dressed in jeans and flattened tits behind tightly woven bandages and wore a loose t-shirt, he passed as a boy. But back then, Brad and Brianna didn’t really exist, they lived largely as Brady and Brandi, and they were gay and lesbian.
Let’s talk about Bill, now he is a special character. Bill had crushes on boys early on, and he joined Adam and Steve to fight alongside with them. But our friend Bill here happened to also fall for women sometimes, which confused him immensely. How can a gay man fall in love and be sexually attracted by women as well? This was finally resolved when some kind soul informed Bill that there were some people who were bisexual, with the capacity to love and be sexually attracted to both sexes. Bill stood up at a meeting and demanded that he and other bisexuals be recognized. After much debate, the gay and lesbian movement became the LGB community. The struggle was still the same: recognition for who we really were, and equal rights and to end discrimination. Then came AIDS, and suddenly, our fight for recognition became, for Adam, Steve, Brady, Bill etc a fight for survival. Alba, Eve, Brandi and others were amazing during that time, standing up when we were dying, fighting for us. It brought us closer, and cemented a movement that was strong and powerful.
Our struggle for freedom is far from over. Marriage equality was easy compared to fighting for our right to be ourselves. Assimilation is not necessarily freedom!
Eventually, we received that first recognition in the form of civil unions, and in the wake of that success, Brianna and Brad began to demand that we now focus on their struggle. They wanted to live openly and in their “right” body. We agreed and the LGBT community saw the light of day. Now with the T’s, the odd thing is that once a trans person has transitioned, many become straight, and seems to fall out from under the rainbow, but their struggle doesn’t end, because let’s face it, Brianna couldn’t really transition until she was in her early fifties, and the damage done to her body by decades of testosterone roaming freely is visible across a large and muscular frame, and for Brad, getting rid of the tits was easy, but still, to this day, medicine can’t really create a passable penis. A vagina, yes, but the penises (and medicine has really tried hard) are still far from “perfect”. Maybe one day, they’ll be able to transplant them, but we aren’t there yet. In the end, Brad kept his vagina.
The political success and the long-lasting debates around the LG, LGB and LGBT movement created a more political and philosophical movement, the queer movement, and suddenly gays, bisexuals, lesbians and trans people called themselves queer, in an effort to blow up society’s rigid gender roles, which we realized were constructs rather than a biological necessity. Suddenly, people were no longer transsexual, but trans persons, or gender queer, some identified as gender fluid (i.e. moving between genders as befit their mood or frame of mind), or even agender (not feeling home in any gender really) The queer movement was refreshing, exciting, as it stretched far and wide, looked at literature from a queer perspective, even created its own economic theories. Alas, some in the queer movement also harbored much more revolutionary ideas, ideas about not just ‘explaining’ things, but violently altering the world in a direction they wanted. Those tendencies scared many in the LGBT movement, and while many use LGBTQ, some refuse, because of what the Q sometimes stands for or is used as.
One day, Brad brought a friend, let’s call her Tanya. Tanya was born with a chromosome damage, affecting about one in a thousand children. Tanya is intersexual, and when she was born, she had both a penis and a vagina. Shocked, her parents asked the doctors to remove the “appendix” from their precious daughter. Sadly, the doctors removed the “wrong” appendix, because Tanya always felt like a boy, not a girl. So while born intersex, Tanya, or Tony as he prefers to go by, is a trans man. Another letter was added: LGBTQI. Meanwhile, the struggle for equal rights continues, and while gays, lesbians and bisexuals now enjoy the right to get married, adopt children and are safe from discrimination in some places, the fight hasn’t even begun elsewhere, and we fight it on a great many fronts today. For every win there are countless setbacks, and given the added complexity of our trans- and intersex friends, we now also fight for our right to use the “right” bathroom, to be able to compete in the right sports category etc. Intersex athletes, most of them female, as it is medically a lot easier to surgically remove a penis than sew close a vagina, are particularly exposed. Caster Semenya, a formidable runner from South Africa saw hir most private details splattered across newspapers and TV screens around the world when she wasn’t even an adult yet. To get parents of intersex born children to abstain from surgery, to wait and see how the child develops, is excruciatingly hard for parents, and they often opt for the easy way out… No matter the cost to their child.
Love conquers everything, including hate, but we have to work for it. It doesn’t just happen by itself.
Until now, every added letter to the rainbow alphabet was about discrimination, legal rights. But recently, we’ve added the letter A, when Amelia and Jerome joined the crowd. Amelia doesn’t like to have sex. It’s revolting to her, and she recently divorced her husband because she simply couldn’t put up with it any more. Amelia is a CIS-woman, she’s Korean, but yeah, totally straight. She falls in love with men and is looking for a man to love without having to engage in the exchange of bodily fluids. It’s just not her thing. Amelia is asexual. Jerome on the other hand doesn’t mind the eventual romp, but Jerome is completely uninterested in love, romance. The idea of spending his life with one woman in a relationship is unthinkable for Jerome. Jerome is aromantic. He identifies as a straight, black man, and he does have sex with women every now and then, but he just doesn’t want to take that next step. Both Jerome and Amelia are frowned upon by their peers, their friends and families. We are now looking at the LGBTQIA+ community. The plus is sometimes used to identify both A-gender, A-romantic and A-sexual. Do you think we’re done? No, have I mentioned Peter? He’s pansexual. He’ll sleep with anything with a pulse (just joking..) No, seriously, Peter has the capacity to be attracted, sexually and romantically, to people of any gender, any sex. He’s lucky that way, but no, it’s not easy being in Peter’s shoes, because the demands from society to conform are tremendous. His mother always says, “but son, if you can fall in love with a nice girl, why don’t you?” Peter and Bill often discuss this conundrum they share! In many ways, the LGBTQIA+ community still struggles to obtain the most basic of human rights, as it states in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
We are no way near those rights. In a dozen countries we don’t even enjoy the right to live. Women’s sexuality is still largely a taboo, which helps lesbians to fly under the radar, but it’s a treacherous safety, because sometimes it’s better to be seen and persecuted than to be invisible, ignored.
Author Hans M Hirschi was born a CIS gay man. While perfectly happy in his body bad (as flawed as it may be), he’s also acknowledging the fact that his maleness is largely a social construct. He embraces all the qualities of his personality, no matter whether they be generally labeled “female” or “male”. He is happy to have been able to marry his partner of 16+ years, Alex, and to have had the rare privilege of having a child, their son, Sascha, four. While he usually writes about gay men in his books, he’s also branched out into the rainbow in his short stories, exploring various aspects of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
Here in the west? Far too many societies still struggle with basic gay and lesbian rights, while the Internet connects the world in new ways, making people aware of our diversity in a global way. And while we’ve moved past the pure legal battles of old in some countries, e.g. Scandinavia, where LGBT people enjoy almost full protection under the law, it’s easier to focus on the right for the A+ to be who they truly are, and live their lives fully. Elsewhere, gay & bisexual men and pre-op/pre transition trans women fight to survive, e.g. in Chechnya. Please DONATE to this cause, if you can!
Remember Adam? We survived the AIDS crisis of the eighties. Steve did not. Adam is seeing Bill at the moment, and it seems as if they might have a thing, although Bill’s elderly parents aren’t thrilled that he divorced his wife to be with Adam: “are you gay now?” (No, Bill is still very much a bi man!) Eve and her wife Alba are happy. Their oldest son just became a father, making the two gray haired ladies proud grandmas. The struggle continues, but here and there, rainbow families have begun to sprout, happiness spreads, and we continue to fight, and who knows what letter we’ll add to the rainbow next? They would all fit under the rainbow!
In the end, I think most in the community would agree that it would be nice if we could just replace them all with an H, for human. In the meantime, some suggest we stop adding letters and simply use the word SAGA, the story of a Sexuality And Gender Acceptance in society. Is SAGA a saga or a future for humanity? Stay tuned…
Happy Easter and make love, not war!
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