Thursday, November 23, 2017

Turn About is Fair Play: Gay Male Characters and the Women Who Write Them

Female Authored Fantasy Fiction about Gay Male Protagonists Conceptualized as an Expression of Reciprocal Appropriation between Femaleness and Male Homosexuality

In the 1970s, women (lesbian, straight, and otherwise) wrote many of the eeriest fantasy novels featuring gay heroes and including romance between men, including The Chronicles of Tornor (Elizabeth A. Lynn, 1979)  and The Tale of the Five (Diane Duane, 1979). Over the following decades, gay heroes were popularized by a multitude of best-selling female authors, including Ellen Kushner, Fiona Patton, Mercedes Lackey, Storm Constantine, Tanya Huff, and Lynn Flewelling. Their gay protagonists often fit a recognizable type: beautiful, pale, and magical (a.k.a.  the “gay mage” cliché); and beset by terrible and undeserved tragedies.  Often a romance subplot existed alongside a typical fantasy “chosen-one-saves-the-peasants-from-the-dark-lord” adventure. It became apparent that these stories were wildly popular and tapped a market that seemed to be made up predominantly of women.

These artful gay “Mary Sues” might be seen as a response to old pulp fiction codes that equated homosexuality with sinister and unwholesome villains, except that this negative stereotype had been rare in speculative fiction since the 1930s. Which is not to deny examples like Baron Harkonnen in Dune or Baron Harparin in The Elenium, but overall, new wave fantasy was noticeably less bigoted than mainstream culture and most other genres, and so not especially in need of such vehement subversion.

So on one hand we had women and gay men writing similar fantasy books for similar readerships, and on the other we had a conflict arising (directly and by proxy) between the two.

Towards the end of the 20th century, this tension began to show on the surfaces of literary and popular culture. The first obvious ripples came in the 1990 with gay men in Japan objecting to female-created “boys love” manga (called the yaoi ronso). One of the interesting themes arising from this debate (notably from Wim Lunsing) was that it is difficult to critique yaoi written by women as inauthentic when gay male creators in the same genre use the same tropes.  One must either blame the consumer for creating an aberrant demand or the artist for hegemonically adopting a flawed creative paradigm, but in either case what is “bad” writing for the goose must also be for the gander, surely?  Yet gay male-authored works were notably absent from the gay critics’ complaints, on the assumption that the author’s identity gave them license to create any kind of content, however clichéd, such as the pervasive theme of protagonists who identify as straight even while embarking on gay relationships.

Beginning around the year 2000, a similar conflict bubbled to the surface in relation to American fantasy fiction, partly

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From “Kaname x Zero,” an example of yaoi ronso

influenced by the emergence of a romance subgenre focusing on gay males (referred to in slash fan fiction parlance as “M/M”), which often used fantasy settings and was again predominantly written by women (e.g., Megan Derr, P.L. Nunn, Kirby Crow, Kate Douglas).  Some of these titles made the erotic elements of these gay trope stories fully explicit and so made the arguably fetishistic nature of some of these stories far more overt. The claims of cultural appropriation and exclusion of female authors from genre in-groups began to come fully out into the open.

In 2009, Lambda explicitly (but temporarily) stated, “The Lambda Literary Foundation (LLF) seeks to elevate the status of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people throughout society by rewarding and promoting excellence among LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives.  As such, it should be noted that the Lambda Literary Awards are based principally on the LGBT content, the gender orientation/identity of the author, and the literary merit of the work.” This was the most obvious of a number of moves that represented rejecting female-authored M/M as “gay fiction”.

Many commentators, including the authors of prominent romance blog “Dear Author”, concluded that this was “a direct response to the rise of straight women writing m/m fiction.” Others, most notably lesbian author Victoria Brownworth, supported the move as opposing “straight fetishizing of our relationships.” However it was noted by gay blogger “Teddypig” that Brownsworth herself wrote gay male erotica, and did so under a male pen name.

Many gay male authors have explained their own relationship with the relationship between fiction and identity, such as a gay author describing how gay fiction is, for him, a “scared space” (Huffington Post, 2012). While others, whether or not they we fans, asserted their lack of objection to all things female authored and/or M/M (e.g. Vaughn R. Demont, 2012; Ashley John, 2015).

This discussionbecame more heated with a series of “outings” of apparently female authors using male or androgynous pen names. This development was presaged by the 2005 revealing of ostensibly semi-autobiographical gay literary icon JT Leroy who was revealed to be a persona of Laura Albert—and then entered the realm of speculative fiction with authors including AJ Llewellyn, 2011; Theo Fenraven, 2015; and Josh Lanyon, 2015. Rather than simply being pen names, these authors sometimes used male personas to varying degrees on and/or offline.

While deception is innately questionable, it is equally questionable to judge what a person’s “true gender” is. Errors are often made such as in a 2010 “OUT” article based on an interview with Erastes and Alex Beechcroft where both were assumed to be heterosexual without actually being asked if this was the case. And where is the lie crossed? With use of an androgynous or opposite-gendered name for marketing purposes, a practice also common with male authors of heterosexual romance and even J.K. Rowling, or only the use of a full persona? In some cases mentioned above, the gay male presentation of an ostensibly female author represented part of their evolving identity as gender queer or a trans-male

As an author of gay fantasy fiction, I have previously defended this activity as an aspect of creative freedom. I still feel that the freedom to write characters that are “other” is paramount, although it certainly does not come with immunity from critique on a case-by-case basis.  . Fantasy archetypes are often by their nature idealized types with characteristics that are extremely unrealistic.  And the same could be said of romance, erotica, and any combinations thereof. Stereotypes and strange inauthenticity abounds within gay tropes and without.  For example, in both M/M and Japanese yaoi, one person in the relationship is often represented as more feminine and is pursued and penetrated by the dominant (larger, older) male. It often feels highly and conservatively gendered.  The biological realities of gay sex are sometimes poorly handled: many commentators express discomfort with tropes such as rape fantasies, male pregnancy, and positively presented literal master-slave relationships.

But a stronger case for tolerating and perhaps accepting the virtues of female-authored fantasy fiction can be made, and the main feature of appropriation—power imbalance—is not present in this scenario. First, it must be noted that both femininity and homosexuality are not traditionally privileged identities.  But more importantly, their equivalent status is apparent in the existence of reciprocal appropriation between both communities.

As one example of male homosexual appropriation of femininity, consider drag, a male homosexual performance of feminine traits, specifically highly stereotyped and exaggerated conventional feminine traits (“hyper-femininity”), including respectful homage (sometimes disparaged as “fishy”) at one end of the spectrum and extremely vicious parody at the other.  Modern drag, in particular, inherits a tradition of men suppressing the ability of women performing on stage in their own right and the substitution of male performances of “proper” femininity.  For this reason as well as for the unsympathetic portrayal of femininity, some feminists label it as fully part of a misogynist tradition. Some gay academics have also critiqued drag as a form of exercising masculine power by symbolically oppressing or mocking females and ultimately reinforcing conservative notions of gender. Thus, drag is sometimes presented as just another example of misogyny (against females) and/or effeminophobia (against femininity) arguably prevalent in gay male culture (which romance author Roslyn Holcomb once characterized as the gay version of “bros before hos”).

So it is unsurprising that gay and fantasy fiction by gay men, historically and currently, is seen as expressing hostile and stereotypical attitudes toward women or excludes them as characters of significance (e.g., Shadowdance, Robin Wayne Bailey, 2014). This critique is as well founded as the gay critique of the failings of female-authored materials with gay protagonists.  Authors from all backgrounds run the gamut in terms of literary quality and authenticity-versus-objectification. Out-groups are employed erratically, either as an embraced ideal or a “defining other” in extreme and transitional depictions, often within the same book. One defense made of sexism in gay-authored fantasy is that it is no worse than sexism in fantasy in general, but conversely, homosexual realities in female-authored fiction are no worse than that written by men (with some differences in the nature of preferred exaggerations and persistent distortions). And one would also have to accept that symptoms of misogyny are also present in works authored by women, such as the writing team of Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett (Havemercy, 2009).

But, returning to the issue of drag performances, the cultural response to this phenomenon is generally positive even though it can only be seen as a type of appropriation of the cultural markers of femininity from those who are female.  Drag is typically seen as critiquing an essentialist assumption that equates sex and gender into an orderly heterosexual dichotomy. And if a man performing as female is seen as positively transgressive, on what basis is a women writing a gay male protagonist negatively transgressive?

And why is there a pervasive assumption that author, protagonist, and reader do and should align when it comes to characteristics such as gender and sexual orientation?  This pattern is broadly accepted as “normal” and contributes to a lack of diversity in both traditionally feminine genres, such as romance, and masculine genres, such as Westerns, and creates fractures and conflicts in genres in transition, such as erotica (previously presumed to be a largely masculine domain but now being flooded and largely overwhelmed by erotic romance). Not to mention what is often referred to as science fiction’s “sexism problem”.

Different cultures contain and sometimes condone different stereotypes and prejudices.  Within this framework, the expressions or misogyny within gay male culture and objectification of gay men within female culture provide neither community with the moral high ground. However, to take a more positive point of view, emerging from the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s, individuals aligned with various identities and communities, and it is possible to track constructive alliances and interchanges between these.

Instead of seeing the gay trope as a homogeneous, somewhat inexplicable phenomenon, it should be seen as one small part of the robust and constructive exchange between femininity and male homosexuality as the sociological nature and role that both identities have evolved during the modern (to post-post-modern) era.  This interchange between femininity and male homosexuality should be a rich and productive interface for creativity from which both benefit.  Problematic? Hell, yes. But not in the simplistic way that appropriation (as performed by/on either group) is typically framed. It is at worst an interaction between communities that are, as a writer at geekfeminism.org wrote, “privileged (or not) on different axes”.

If we start to see these interactions as generally reciprocal, robust and positive, what else does this perspective bring to light? Like most commentators, I have treated the categories of male homosexuality and (often allegedly straight) femaleness as largely distinct, homogeneous, fixed, and mutually exclusive. But people are more complex and fluid than that. For example, many authors of the gay male fantasy trope who are biologically/chromosomally female are known to not identify as cis female heterosexuals but as homosexual, genderqueer, and/or trans male (e.g. Elizabeth Lynn, Poppy Z. Brite). Many others may not be members of the cis-female-feminine–heterosexual-heteronormative-etc.-etc. group to which they are assigned as some kind of “default” based on their (pen) name and (where known) their physical appearance.

Many critics are quick to specify that female authors of gay fantasy are heterosexual because it places them in at least one “privileged” identity, but I definitely question that given how many authors seem to fall somewhere on the “queer” spectrum (a phenomenon also apparent in general fanfic and “slash” communities). This makes it difficult to level a charge of appropriation from a position of gender or sexual orientation privilege, which some critics assume based on superficial sources of information and their own cognitive biases.

But even if we look specifically at straight females, this is also a dynamic with much to recommend it. In many ways friendships between straight females and gay males (and vice versa) are a haven for safe intimacy, which hearkens back to the close, emotional, and physically demonstrative friendships common before the rise of ubiquitous homophobia.  This tends to cause same-sex friends (especially males) to abandon any overt demonstrations of intense bonding for fear of having this interpreted as sexually romantic.  This same type of emotional constipation has been applied so long to friendships between straight or straight-passing males and females that people still seriously ask if it is even possible for men and women to “just be friends.”  (One wonders how impoverished their life experiences have been to not already know the answer to that question)

And a discussion of this topic would not be complete without mentioning the male sexual interest in lesbian (“girl-on-girl”) activity that is expressed in staged photography, movies, and other visual media, as well as prose. This trope is generally not even considered as a valid sexual interest on the human spectrum, even when part of highly respected fantasy fiction (e.g., Stranger in a Strange Land, 1961). Material of this type is often compared to female-authored material about gay males but with an implicit message that as male interest in material depicting lesbians is “obviously” disgusting, the same must be true even for the presumably more refined and morally elevated (insert skeptical eyebrow here) female of the species.

The reason female-authored gay fantasy is less often described as outright objectifying may be because an obvious weakness exists in suggesting that females as a general identity are guilty of sexual objectification, since objectification of the female is so widespread as to be effectively normalized. (As if one cannot both give and take when it comes to these kinds of dubious interactions). Or perhaps it is simply because objectification is a passé objection. For the last several decades, so long as other misogynist elements are not present, objectification is frequently no longer seen as problematical within modern feminism (ditto pornography and erotica in general, since the 1980s “pornography wars” led to the mainstreaming of sex-positive feminism).

What seems to be at work in the background is an idea that this legitimizing of objectification is extended only to the artist and/or consumer’s “fair game,” that being a person with whom they might theoretically have a real romantic and/or sexual relationship—even if the person is in fact fictional and even if the goal is absolutely not to have a real relationship. In essence, does this not represent a desire to regulate or invalidate another person’s desires? I struggle to see a logical basis for this reasoning any more than the idea that only men who want to have sex with women can be misogynist (thus exonerating any gay man). In the absence of this assumption, we fall back into having no strong moral objection to consensual objectification or objectification of fictional persons so long as it is not abusive or potentially abusive based on a differential in power (of individuals) or privilege (of groups).

Thus I find myself circling in the eddies caused by the interaction between two communities and associated clusters of ideas, both sides of this exchange sharing an equivalent degree of qualities such as homage, exploitation, admiration, hostility, idealization, other-ism, ignorant stereotyping, distorting fetishes, and objectification. It is fundamentally a two-way street at the meta-level, and a matter of personal responsibility for any particular individual. That is: if a person writes a stereotyped or hateful piece of nonsense or a lazy example of stereotype, then they can be called on it, no matter who they are. But such weaknesses or hostility should not simply be assumed for entire identity groups, sight unseen, no matter what they write about. At the same time, as individuals and groups, we are obliged to engage with the work to be done in our communities in regard to all types of bigotry, and that obligation falls on us all in relation to discrimination/unfair exploitation of both our in-groups and our out-groups.

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