By Amy Lane
We had to ask it eventually.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. DOMA was repealed and marriage equality was granted. Let’s face it—for gay romance writers, the landscape has changed. Gone are the days when just being gay was a conflict, and when “this strange feeling in a young man’s loins when looking at his best friend” was a passport to a bewildering new world.
The average age of coming out is now fourteen—parenting blogs are full of tips for parents to make their gay or trans children feel accepted and loved, and the kids themselves are hyperaware. In fact, should children be unsure of where they fit in the rainbow? There is always the Internet. Any curious young man or woman can go on tumblr these days and open a box full of dicks (or breasts for that matter), and kids are continuing to invent electronic ways with which to not feel alone anymore.
In terms of acceptance, at least on the legal front in America, things are better. Unless a couple is planning to take a trip to Russia, India, or one of the countries being heavily proselytized by the venomous right--being gay is no longer a crime.
So now that what do we write about in contemporary American gay romance?
Well, hopefully, the same thing we’ve been writing about since the beginning.
I know it’s tempting to think that gay romance was just a fad. I’m sure some people believe the allure of the forbidden combined with the idea of two star-crossed lovers versus the world to create the ultimate guilty reading pleasure. Oh no! Is that the extent of the writing career of so many? Are we strawberries and chocolate no more?
Well, I don’t think so.
But then, I’ve never really wanted to write stories about just being gay anyway.
I mean, het romance authors don’t write stories just about boy meets girl and sex ensues. Their stories have plotlines and character development and crises—just like ours do. And nobody is afraid the het market is going to go belly up—as long as people yearn to fall in love and start a family of two (or more!) the romance market is going to just fine thank you.
The fact is, although sexuality is part of what defines us, it is by no means all that defines us—and so it should, by no means, define all of what our genre contains.
But it is true that romance follows the times.
When I was a teenager, back in the eighties, the romances were all about the young, bewildered ingénue being inducted into the world of love by a sophisticated older man who could rescue her from her poverty and her inconvenient maidenhead, all in one magic meeting of cooter and peen.
By the time I was in college, the stories were all about the women who had divorced the controlling cradle robbers they’d married in their youth, and who could marry the boy next door while single-handedly raising their adorable children.
Ten years later, the women were the CEO’s of their own companies, and they had to decide if their assistants were fair game or not—and if they wanted a family, with all they had on their plates.
And the world spins on, and the contemporary romance continues to change.
Six years ago, when I was writing Keeping Promise Rock, Crick could have come out in the army and taken a dishonorable discharge. He chose not to because the moral upbringing he’d received from Parrish Winters stuck. He kept his promises if at all possible.
That option would not be around today. Crick wouldn’t have had to hide his sexuality, and his alienation in boot camp and in the Middle East would not have been so acute, and his moment of infidelity would probably have never happened. In that sense, it would have been a different book.
But Deacon would still have been the shy loner trying to carry his sadness in a bottle of alcohol. Benny still would have been angry and pissed off and pregnant. The levee still would have broke, Comet still would have died, and Deacon probably would still have woken up next to a woman he hardly liked wondering what in the hell he’d done.
Because those are things that just don’t change. Those are the elements of being human that not a government in the world can legislate, and Deacon Winters probably knew that before a small boy climbed the fence at the horse arena and watched him work a stallion.
So the majority of Keeping Promise Rock would probably be exactly as it is now—but some parts would not, and those are the parts that everybody in our genre needs to think about as this genre continues to grow. If we were writing for a world where sexuality was not the end all and be all of our characters—yes, even in a romance book—then odds are our prose and our plotlines are going to develop just fine topically.
But what if that has been your writing mainstay for the last few years? What if—for you as a writer—the “gay against the world” trope was the only trope you had going for you.
Well, the best way to expand your repertoire is to go outside your box—and the next biggest sized box up is the box of books that has sold with stunning regularity and volume for the past hundred years.
Poppy Dennison, the driving force behind the Dreamspinner Press Dreamspun Desires category line, has a deep and abiding love of the tropes and archetypes that have driven romance since the very beginning. She believes these are the same tropes and archetypes that, with a little bit of tweaking, have sustained the tradition and will push the genre into the 21st century.
“Some things in romance are timeless, and now that our community has a release from fear, I think they’re going to want to read more about the celebration. That’s where our genre is going to be successful—in the joy of romance and the promise of happiness that love has to offer.”
And why not? The same subgenres that have been outstandingly successful in the het world continue to be the bestsellers in gay romance as well. Romantic suspense, werewolves, cowboys—these twists on romance have been incredibly successful in both worlds thus far, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change.
Amelia Vaughn, Marketing Director of Riptide Press, agrees. In a recent conversation, as I was blathering on about comic book archetypes and how one of the deciding draws of gay romance was the absolute clash of equals that having two men on the page represented, Amelia got incredibly excited about the genre.
“Absolutely! We are attracted to the pure personalities of the men—it’s not just two cocks on the page or the ‘oh no, I’m gay!’ story line that we’re reading for anymore. It’s the absolute respect that the two characters have for each other, coming into a relationship as equals, and how that reveals the weaknesses and strengths of each one.
Or, as my beloved publisher Elizabeth has been known to say, “Two guys, working shit out. That’s all we really want to see, just two guys, working shit out.”
It is, unsurprisingly, pretty much what het authors have been writing since the first Mills & Boone romance hit the presses—except they’ve been writing “Two people, working shit out.” Which works just as well, if not better.
“But Amy!” I can hear you say. “Aren’t you the queen of angst? What are you going to write now?”
Well, I’ve actually written more than angst since almost the beginning—and especially in my fantasy work, the level of emotion, the propensity for pain, is not driven by the characters’ sexuality. It’s driven by a cruel world at large coupled with most human beings’ ability to be absolutely horrible to one another and even worse to themselves. I’ll still be able to write angst—and so will anybody else who appreciates a chest-ripping weeper.
It’s just that the source of the angst can’t come from the big bad government against our boys anymore—not in contemporary American romance. Yes, families are slow to come around, and it has been perfectly clear in recent years that no civil rights battle is ever truly won until all parties feel welcome in their own country. LGBTQ youth are still homeless at an increasing rate, and the more vocal our trans community becomes, the more we can see clearly how appallingly they’ve been treated since the very beginning. So the conflicts in the community are still there—but the way they’re shaping up, in our writing we’ll either need to keep them closer and more personal, or wider and further reaching in scope. If we’ve been pushing the reality that all sexuality is positive and awesome, we can’t base our fiction on a “victimology” of being gay—and we never should have in the first place.
The fact is, if we’ve been writing in this genre with good intentions and a whole heart, we’ve been writing toward this exact day, when the world has opened up for our heroes and there is a whole host of other problems to address. This genre has been used to address social change in such a positive way—why would that stop now?
Every year, when Elisa Rolle presents the Rainbow Awards for LGBTQ books, she gives a list of all of the charities people have donated to as they’ve submitted their books for consideration. The recipients on that list include women’s shelters, suicide hotlines, and animal rescue—and the Rainbow Awards are just one example of the activism of the gay romance community.
In fact, the romance community as a whole has been deeply committed to seeing a better world. Perhaps it’s because we write about happily ever after, or perhaps it’s because writers as a whole are deeply empathetic, but it never ceases to amaze me that so many of us yearn to do so much good, whether it’s through our writing or our other endeavors.
That can still happen—and LGBTQ causes can still be on the top of our list.
But the world is opening up to a place with less fear and more hope—and just like we embraced the hope when things looked pretty bleak, it’s our job to celebrate the hope now that they’re looking better. And if we want to survive as writers—and as a genre—that’s going to be how we do it.
Our happy endings hopefully just got a lot happier—let’s see how bright we can write that future now!