Edit to add: I wrote this post a few years ago, and link back to it whenever I see discussions around “does it really matter if an author is X?” going around. So, even though the specific post below was originally inspired by multiple times women authors have pretended to be gay men, it applies whenever someone presents themselves as something they’re not (including the opposite, when a cisgender men adopts cisgender women identities, which has also happened multiple times).
That discussion about pseudonyms is happening again.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the briefest version is this: once again, for what feels like the millionth time, it turns out there’s another female author who writes under a male pseudonym while writing m/m fiction (and/or gay fiction, which is another huge debate I won’t get into with this post, I don’t think).
Now, for the most part, the vast majority of feedback has been, simply put: Oh, who cares? I read the book for the content, not for the gender of the author. If the book is good, it doesn’t matter.
Do I agree? Yes.
And, deep breath, also no.
Now, please, understand. There’s a lot more to it than that statement, and I want to draw a very important divide between a pseudonym and an identity. I also want to talk a little bit about appropriation, about minorities (visible and nay), and – hopefully – make some sense in the process about why I both agree and disagree with shrugging off all instances of women-writing-as-men-while-writing-about-gays on the sole merit of the content.
I’m actually going to start outside of the m/m genre completely, and bring up two things I think are somewhat parallel to the discussion. First, Rachel Dolezal; and second, Yi-Fen Chou.
You’ve likely heard of the first. Rachel Dolezal is a woman whose parents “outed” her as not black. She worked as the president of a local chapter of the NAACP, and reaction to her outing was divided. Understand, she had been hired at events to speak about her experience as a black woman. To quote wikipedia: “Dolezal’s critics contend that she has committed cultural appropriation and fraud; Dolezal and her supporters contend that her racial identity is genuine, although not based on biology or ancestry.”
The second, unless you’re much into poetry or follow diversity discussions, might have slid under your radar. Basically, Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym (and falsely presented biographical detail) put forth by a poet accepted for The Best American Poetry 2015 who turned out to not be of Asian descent at all, and instead a white guy who’d figured this increased his chance of publication. And, as the editor himself points out, “in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.”
Now, in these cases, I’m going to take what might be a very unpopular opinion and say that, yes, both these folks did indeed commit cultural appropriation and fraud. They took facets of an identity that was not theirs to leverage what comes with that identity to their advantage.
But that’s not a pseudonym.
The way I think most people use pseudonyms is basically branding. The first time I wrote erotica, I considered a pseudonym, but I decided not to. I don’t regret that, but a lot of authors do use a different name to differentiate between different genres or themes. Having a name for erotica different from romance can be a really smart idea if your romances, say, are super-cozy and very fade-to-black. You don’t want a reader to pick up your super-smutty BDSM book and freak out when they they think they’re getting another super-cozy fade-to-black romance. Similarly, authors will sometimes do the same thing when they’re crossing from romance into mystery, or chick-lit into thrillers, or… well, you get the idea. The author bios might be a wee bit fantastical, author photos might have different angles or outfits, but it’s the same person. Many of them will even point out the other names the author writes under – which does open up readers to crossover, but without the jarring impact of “Woah! BDSM!” like in my example.
Pseudonyms can also be for group authors – be it Frank Dixon or Carolyn Keene – and again, that’s about branding (and, frankly, shelving the darned books). One of my favourite authors, Timothy James Beck, is actually four authors working together.
Those situations are what I’d happily consign to the “shrug and read” response to pseudonyms. It doesn’t matter, right? The book is what the book is, and the names used aren’t anything more than a way to shelve the book alphabetically.
I’d say the same for the vast majority of women authors who write under male pseudonyms, and having worked at a bookstore for twenty years, I also know the inherent misogyny in a huge chunk of the reading public. Believe me, I’ve had more than enough readers tell me, “Oh, I don’t read women mystery authors, they’re just not very good,” and then pick up the next P.D. James when I recommend it (for example), because it’s not obvious a woman wrote it to their casual misogynist ears. I also delighted in letting them know they’d read a woman author the next time I saw them, but maybe that’s just me being petty and trying to crusade just a little bit. I also know the reverse occurs in the romance section, where male authors writing straight romances use female pseudonyms for more or less the same reason (though, in general, I found most women readers were far less likely to care whether or not an author in most sections was male or female, though even there I can think of exceptions, like erotica).
So, when I see an m/m author with a male name or initials, I don’t much care. I’m also likely to assume – after decades in bookselling – that nearly any contemporary name that begins with initials is probably a woman. I have zero stats to back that up – like I said, it’s an assumption. And, again, I don’t much care. I want to read the story. I do pay attention to whether the book is marketed as m/m romance or gay romance, as I’ve generally come to expect something different from the two labels, but I don’t care about the gender of the author much.
Let me make that clearer: I do not believe the quality of writing in any genre has anything to do with gender. I also think that argument gets conflated with the notion of pseudonyms in the world of m/m or gay writing, and I think it’s a crap argument. Elizabeth Lister, Kayleigh Malcolm, Rebekah Weatherspoon… I could go on and on listing awesome women who write fantastic queer characters. That’s what authors do. Authors write. They can attempt to write any voice, any setting, any character. Whether or not they do it well doesn’t depend on their gender, it depends on how hard they work (and there’s definitely more room to do damage). Is it easier for me to write a character that is like me? For sure. Does that mean I should only write those characters? Nope. Not at all, though I’ve said often enough my deep POV characters are going to definitely stay as much in my lane as possible, that’s how I choose to write. It’s not proscriptive, and my worlds will definitely be full of diverse characters, but I’m not going to write a lesbian romance, for example, because the world does not need me to do that. I’d rather boost queer women writing queer romance between women.
Now, way back at the beginning, I said I agreed and didn’t agree with giving any thought to whether or not a male pseudonym belonged to a female author in the m/m or gay fiction world.
There’s pseudonym, and then there’s identity.
There are instances I know of where an author used a male pseudonym, or adopted the bio of a gay man, or even sent a man to an author appearance to take the place of that author. There was also a piece where an author claiming a gay male identity did a lengthy Q&A interview piece about why “he” chose not to use condoms in the age of HIV/AIDS. Another false author conned personal stories out of queer men to use in their writing, under the guise of being a fellow queer man they could talk to. “How-to” books have even been written by “gay men.” (Edit: And, in another example in a different direction, a cisgender man pretending to be a cisgender woman to write erotic women-loving-women fiction has absolutely had sexual conversations with women online who believed they were interacting with a bisexual woman.)
In those instances a line is crossed. That’s claiming an identity. That’s not a brand, or making a distinction between different genres, or just not having an author photo and dodging pronouns.
When an author presents themselves as a member of a different culture, minority, or oppressed group, they’ve taken a voice that belongs to that oppressed or silenced group. They are now using a brand based on a projected falsity.
Put as kindly as possible, that’s problematic. It’s appropriation. It’s dismissive, and is like “playing” at being a culture without suffering any of the negative realities of belonging to that culture and history. It also adds a kind of authenticity to anything said outside the prose. If someone who has claimed this gay male identity posts a review of another book and speaks personally about how real or unreal the gay culture represented in the book being reviewed, there’s a weight given to those words. Weigh in on a debate about equality under that identity? You are speaking with a voice that – frankly – hasn’t been earned.
Now, the thing about queer culture that’s different from a lot of other cultures is that many of us can “pass,” and that there’s usually no inherited continuance. It’s not the same as race (though I’d also point out that intersections exist), but if I draw an imperfect parallel, were I to craft a pseudonym of, say, a black man, and used that voice online – even if I thought I was saying good things and fighting the right causes and reviewing books positively – I do not have the right – because I do not have the life experience to claim the voice of a black man. I really don’t think anyone would argue with me about that, and yet when this situation arises with women adopting gay male personas as writers – and then blogging, reviewing, and otherwise using that voice – I don’t see much of a difference.
Now, I hope I’m being very clear about some key things. I absolutely don’t think women can’t write m/m or gay fiction (please re-read that as many times as you need to believe me, okay?) I also don’t see anything wrong with using a pseudonym. I don’t even think there’s anything inherently off about using a pseudonym that isn’t aligned with the gender you identify with. But if you’re adopting a whole persona and identity from a culture – be it a race, sexual orientation, gender, neurotype or any other group to which you don’t belong – and you choose to speak from that role in any way that isn’t just sales-related branding, you’re stepping over a line.
Let me offer up one last way to think about it. I’m a white gay man. If I write a YA book where the main characters are all Deaf or hard of hearing, you bet your butt I’m going to do a tonne of research, and you bet I’m going to communicate with as many Deaf or hard of hearing people as I can. I’m also probably still going to make mistakes, though I would do my damnedest not to. Now, let’s say that book gets an amazing response and something awesome happens: I get listed for an award. Awesome, right? Yes. Totally.
Now let’s pretend that since I was releasing a YA book for the first time that I used a pseudonym, so my YA author name wasn’t linked to the same author name I have for gay erotica. I would probably do that. And let’s say I decide to market that book to as many Deaf and hard of hearing organizations as I can.
In a moment of ignorance, I decide to present that pseudonym as a Deaf man. Now I’m in trouble. Anything this persona now says has an authority that isn’t real, from a culture that is very real. I’ve screwed up. Now let’s say that award I was talking about isn’t just an award for a YA novel, or even an award for a YA novel featuring characters with disabilities. No, it’s an award for a debut author who has a disability.
I’d turn that down in a heartbeat. Same as if I’d written under a female pseudonym and somehow managed to get nominated for a Bailey’s Woman’s Prize.
After using that example, I feel like I need to clarify that I’m not talking about the Lambda Literary Awards here specifically because the Lammies are awarded for content, not the orientation of the author, but the Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award, the Jim Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize and the Pioneer Award do take the queerness of the author as necessary for consideration.
It doesn’t take winning an award, though, to see where this gets problematic. If I present myself as something I am not, I don’t have the life experience to back up the opinions I am presenting as belonging to a group that already has to fight to be heard. As a white guy – even though I’m queer – one of the things I try to do as much as I can is “pass the mic” to those who have less voice than I do. If I start to “speak” as a woman, or as a person of colour, or as though I were transgender, I am doing active damage. I am not helping – I am silencing. I am taking voice, not giving it.
There’s also the reader’s choices. One of the things a reader can do as a consumer to support voices fighting for air time is to actively seek out and purchase works by those voices. In my own personal reading, one of the things I try to do is to ensure I’m reading diversely – I’ve been consciously trying to go out of my way to find books written by BIPOC authors, and review them, for example. I also find books written by trans authors. My support of voices – even just as one reader, even just a wee bit – helps combat a mainstream publishing where authors are underrepresented by a system that’s biased to the white, cis, allo-and-heterosexual, and male voice. It also steers and reinforces the narrative of what kind of story sells, and reinforces representation that may well drift away from the authentic. There are nuances that are easily missed when using a voice that is not your own.
Finding out an author I chose to support wasn’t who they said they were, when I was specifically trying to put support into a specific voice? That’s not the kind of vibe I imagine a writer ever wants to give their reader.
I realize this post is super-long. I probably TL;DR’d it a bit. And I really hope I didn’t do the one thing I’m most afraid I might have done, which is somehow give you the impression I think authors shouldn’t write characters that aren’t like them. All I wanted to do was spark some thought about what it can mean when an author takes a pseudonym further than a very basic brand – especially when that brand steps into an oppressed culture of any kind.
Was this helpful? If it was, I’m glad, as that’s always my hope with posts like these; but if you also feel like maybe tossing a buck or two my way, I do have a gay erotic short, Rear Admiral, and a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey gay romance novella, In Memoriam you can nab.
69 thoughts on “Pseudonyms vs. Identities”
Thank you. You’ve put into words some of the things I’ve been mulling over.
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No, thank you – I had hit a point of wondering if I was overthinking and was quite nervous to post this.
I think you’re making a really valuable and useful distinction, here. Whichever direction we’re coming from, I think clarification of terms, and the concomitant clarification of ideas, is really important.
Purely coincidental, of course, that I totally agree with you about the rest of it! A name is just a name. The rest of it, though? It gets tricky.
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Thanks. I was incredibly nervous posting this.
For the most part, I agree. Where the bright lines break down for me and I’ve never quite been able to generalize is with FTM writers who start out as straight-seeming women, but through their exploration of fiction writing and/or inhabiting a writing persona come to grips with their own gender dysphoria and ultimately transition to male. After transition we’re no longer supposed to deadname folks or out them as other than what they appear, so where should I stand on transmen who, to use your example, review or give advice based on their authority as gay men? I believe in respecting a trans person’s right to their new identity. At this point I have probably worked with 6-7 erotica authors who started out as married women with kids who adopted a gay male persona first and then transitioned fully over time. If I know that many there are surely many more, as well. Note I’m not bringing this up to contradict your stance, but trying to work through for myself where to draw my own lines, I suppose. It doesn’t seem as if a person should have to legally transition to “validate” an opinion and yet that’s the philosophical stance it leads me to–that I shouldn’t be labeling something appropriation of gay male culture if the person is living as a gay man, but should if that same person hasn’t taken that step. Questions of personhood arise. But maybe I just answered my own question: a person who hasn’t literally taken that step in gay men’s shoes can’t speak of living that experience while those who live as gay men simply can, no sophistry required.
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I think I find myself where you ended up in that comment, there, yes. I absolutely include trans* men as men, trans* women as women – but I’d have a similar struggle if someone spoke of growing up poor but in reality had never been anything but comfortably middle class, and has only become poor recently (that’s a clunky analogy for seven a.m. after a night where I was out past midnight, and I’m not happy with it, but…) There is current insight – valid current insight – but the history isn’t quite there. I don’t know. That’s definitely more tangled, and I absolutely don’t ever intend to suggest that trans* men (or any member of the LGBTQ rainbow family) need not apply.
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One thing I would like to add about trans people though is that despite having lived as seemingly straight married people, they may also have had episodes of living in their true identity a long time before fully transitioning. So stories about teenage experiences of discrimination can still be true.
Absolutely – and it’s certainly not a simple nor clear-cut line by any means. I certainly didn’t intend to address concern over a trans* man presenting a male identity – because, frankly, that’s absolutely what I hope that individual has the freedom to do. It’s more when someone who is not a gay male (be that cis- or otherwise) co-opts that voice to speak with an authority that isn’t present that I struggle with.
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Beautifully said. You’ve distilled an important distinction. I had a rambling reply here I cut but might make into a response blog post if I can communicate a slight muddying of waters with any, um…, clarity.
Back to agreeing with you. I’m wondering what you think of something further. I don’t know the details of Rachel Dolezal’s mental state, but if she suffered from narcissistic personality disorder or some such, I wouldn’t be surprised. Meanwhile, “Yi-Fen.” I don’t know what to make of the New Republic article “Cheat! It’s the Only Way to Get Published!” but I’m leaning towards the conclusion – “This is horse manure.” But what do you think? Am I missing something?
If it will let me link, here you go:
Rock on, ‘Nathan.
I think people will cheat – and that sucks – but it’s absolutely *not* the way to go. But maybe that leaves me outdated and finishing last.
I applaud your bravery in airing these really important points in such a sensitive manner. There are issues of trust that could do with being considered more widely.
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As a gay writer (and someone who has been a bookseller for decades), I think my biggest piece as a *reader* is that I know my purchases support people, and I know how important it can be to support a particular voice – be they LGBTQ folk, authors of colour, a debut author, or some other quality that I want to show the publishing world I care about with my purchase.
It’s easily muddled, and it’s a conversation I’m seeing discussed with a lot of heat and name calling and anger, so I was hoping (and still am hoping) to discuss without that level of rancour.
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Then we’re tying for last.
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I will join you in the finishing last spot. WYSIWYG and all that.
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Thank you! I’ve been working on my own blog post on this subject for over a year now, but I still haven’t published it. Breaching the subject of people taking up the identity of minority groups is like stepping on a pressure plate, not knowing if the bomb is going to tear you up or not. You were brave to post it, and you explained it so well. In the future, I’ll link to this post when I get into debates about this, because you put it so well.
For me, there’s more to it than the appropriation. It’s the fact that some people coming out as non-minorities (be it authors or Rachel Dolezal – I’ll use authors in my explanation) and their supporters lash out at anyone who is hurt or angered about their feelings having been played with (and I mean seriously played with: some authors write blog posts about their lives that readers get sucked into. Some readers spend long periods of time composing a comment to show their support, all the while agonizing with the author over whatever it is). People have every right to feel upset when they learn they’ve been played and all those up and down feelings they went through with the author were completely unnecessary, because said events never happened. I’ve gone through this, although there weren’t authors behind the screens. Fact still remains that feelings are being played with and then those feelings – sometimes tears – are completely dismissed often with rude comments and you-should-have-known-better-than-to-believe-this-was-real’s. It’s hard to trust after that. For the other women writing in the genre, it’s harder to be taken seriously after that. For the actual men writing in the genre, who haven’t been to public appearances, some people will doubt they are who they say they are. People who say there’s nothing wrong with this practice are dismissing so much more than they think.
Recently there’s been the added justification of women being the underdog when it comes to book sales. There are people who only seek out books by gay men, true, but women are *not* the underdog in this genre. For the lack of a better term, women rule this genre. What’s happening outside the genre doesn’t apply here. Women are making thousands of dollars in royalties. Many make much more than many male authors I know. Some men are really struggling, and that lone should prove that this has nothing to do with gender. The men may have more adoring fans on Facebook, but women are doing perfectly well and some are just as adored. Take Amy Lane as an example, who has longer lines of fans at GRL booksignings than any of the men. There may be a few who are only looking for books by gay men. Let them. There are so many more who will read books by women. There are men who pointedly argue that women are trespassing on their turf and shouldn’t be writing books about gay men. They’re wrong, so let them argue until they’re blue in the face, it won’t change anything. But don’t drag your readers through an emotional roller coaster they think is real but you know is not. Don’t belittle their feelings if they’re hurt after they find out. Try to at least understand that people don’t feel it’s okay to appropriate a voice of a minority group when you – like Nathan said – don’t have to suffer the negative realities of that minority group. And to the people who are angry and hurt by the authors? Try to be polite or at least constructive when you express your feelings. The author has most likely agonized for months over whether or not to come out and is nervous as hell about how people will react.
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I had the same trepidation posting, so thank you. And you’re right – it’s such a tangled knot of identities when it starts to unravel, and sudden vitriol helps no one.
Awesome post. I was thinking the same thing but I can’t express it as well as you did. I was also thinking what if this person never really stated if they were a gay men. It’s everyone who saw the name and made their own conclusion. Like the not Chinese guy up there. If he never admitted he was Chinese, and later turned out he wasn’t, was he guilty because he used a Chinese name? I know names are typical for each culture, just like names for each gender. But now there is a trend in my place to use Arabic names while they are not Arabic at all. It’s not their fault people will think they are from Arab at first, seeing their names. But when people see they’re not, those people get mad thinking they have been cheated, while it’s they themselves who made conclusion at first.
Sorry if I seem to ramble.
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At the very least, I think that game can be disingenuous – but you’re right, if the claim isn’t made, that’s certainly better. It’s also quite different to publish under a name like that – and nothing else, other than, say, announcements of new titles, or the like – than it is to also weigh in on interviews, or discuss the works of others, and present an identity (even if it’s passively and without ever saying you are a member of that identity).
As another example, if I wrote under Natalie instead of ‘Nathan for a piece, and then went on to speak about the experiences of women in publishing differ from the experiences of men – but never say outright that I am a man or claim to be a woman – I think I’ve still done wrong.
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“I am taking voice, not giving it.” This theme seems to be everywhere right now. Having sat through Gamer Gate and the Hugos/Sad Puppies debacles over the last year, this is the important message, and it is being overwhelmed by the dissent. There is such a fine line between pseudonym and identity, between giving voice and taking it. Thank you for an exceptional overview and illustration of finding – and not crossing – that line.
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Reblogged this on The Story Struggle and Beyond and commented:
I really enjoyed all of these thoughts on the topic. I don’t usually reblog posts, but today I’m going to. I wanted to say something about the kerfluffle that has been flying around about Lanyon, but didn’t have the best words to do it. I would like to say, that I write gay romance or m/m romance (though actually, what I write is urban fantasy with a paranormal element and romance), but I’m female. My name, my real name, is somewhat ambiguous due to the spelling, so I chose to publish under my nickname, which hilariously enough gets pegged as a “woman’s” name more than my real name. That being said, I know sometimes there is confusion. Through various functions of my personality and the fact that I consider myself gender fluid my blog posts tend to be fairly neutral pronoun wise. I’m also pansexual, so there’s the fact that I’m queer in such a way that some people actually take issue with it. I like women and men and other, but I’m currently married to a CISman. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m not queer and I don’t have a place to speak about issues that have to deal with the community, but I certainly would never conclusively try to speak about issues that gay men are dealing with.
I don’t like the idea that having a pseudonym can be seen as “lying” to people as long as I don’t present myself falsely to my readership and the community in the ways described in this article. Having a pseudonym, creating this unique name and then writing your heart out under it, almost like a creative muse, a creative spark, is part of the fun of being a writer.
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I am also gender fluid. I use a female sort-of pen name (It’s my nickname and middle name) and generally refer to myself as a female author because I’m anatomically female, even though I identify as a male more often than not. Why? Because explaining that gets real old REALLY fast. It’s not a secret though because I do talk about it openly because I think it’s important for the minorities minority to stand up and say yeah, this is who I am and being me is nothing to be ashamed of. If I can make a difference for even one gender fluid person then every time I’ve had to defend my sexual orientation while being told that “there is no such thing as being gender fluid and that I’m taking the easy road by not making up my mind and choosing who I want to be based on the circumstances” is totally worth it to me.
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Thanks for this post. It really clarifies a lot of disjointed thoughts I’ve been lately about voice and identity.
I also appreciate how respectful and intelligent the discussion in the comments has been.
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You’re very welcome – and I’m glad, too. I will admit I was worried a bit.
Reblogged this on Michael Mandrake and commented:
The best answer to writing under a pseudonym.
Thank you very much for a very well-written article. You state many of the same points I have tried to argue for a long time. It isn’t a question of writing under a false name, it’s the usurping of an identity and authority which one has no claim to. I knew about Rachel Donezal, and I think she was totally wrong in what she did, especially if she accepted monetary gifts that were meant to go to minority students (of which she is not one). And the fake Chinese poet is simply appalling and belongs in the same class as the journalists whose so-called “true stories” turn out to have products of their imagination.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the women writing as men would just step up now and admit it and this issue can be done and over?
I certainly don’t think everyone should have to use a gendered name if they don’t wish to, but I do think if they’re using a voice that is false *outside* their work, there’s a greater chance of a misstep.
This states far more clearly the point I was trying to get across while tying myself in knots hoping not to upset any friends, so thanks for that.
Thank you for this, the most sensible and compassionate post I’ve read on this subject. I fully appreciate the issue of appropriating a “silenced group” for a public persona, but for me the issue is even more basic. It’s the feeling of distress that some people will feel at having connected with someone / chatted with someone / trusted and shared feelings with someone – who proves not to be wholly that persona. This has happened to me personally in the past, though thankfully I learned from it. Yes, the words and feelings expressed may be totally real, but most of us (especially online, where we don’t meet or speak to friends face-to-face) also make assumptions about the person talking based on their online persona. I consider it a characteristic of social media – before you could “speak” to an author, we cared even less who they were in real life! – but nowadays we interact with many of them, and a LOT. Should people avoid making these assumptions? I expect so, but I also don’t think human nature can cope with that. People make assumptions, people have prejudices, people have preferences, people are the product of their cultural background. It’s natural, and I believe isn’t discrimination until you apply it to decision-making that disadvantages or harms or denigrates another section of the population.
But many people are *not* wary enough of this, they believe in and are invested in the online persona, they CARE. It upsets me to think they’ve been misled, whether deliberately or by omission, and are now embarrassed or hurt.
It was once the case (and sometimes still is?) that in some circumstances there *is* discrimination against the gender of the writer. But I think if there’s no case for personal danger, why continue the pretence? I have several pen names, not all active at the moment, but I have no trouble with readers knowing they all relate at heart to me, as one person.
You were worried at posting this – and so am I, showing my naivety in public! – but thank you for leading a proper discussion. You should have nothing to worry about in discussing a valid and sensitively expressed view.
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I have been really joyful in the replies and discussions – I’ve been gently corrected on a few things, there are other opposing sides to any point of view, and it’s all been very, very cordial.
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Brilliant blog post. You’ve taken my exact feelings on the subject and written about it. I wasn’t brave enough to post any of my feelings on the subject – but I will definitely stand by this post, because it’s how I believe the situation is.
As a writer, you have a choice of what name to publish under. I am one of those female authors of M/M, and when choosing a pen name, I thought about what name to use. I considered a male name and instantly rejected it. It’s not right – and to deceive readers by taking this identity is to break their trust when the truth comes out. Because the truth will come out. If you don’t wish to reveal your gender, the wonderful thing about authoring is that you don’t have to. Initials, names that work for both genders, no photo… all of this is available, and can be done successfully.
In the end I didn’t wish to present myself as anything other than me. I’m female, I’m a mother of two young children, I’m Australian. If you have any problem with this, then I must say I don’t care.
I also don’t care what gender is the author of the book I read. But the identity of the author, as you say, is important.
I write books based in Western Australia. It’s my home, and I’m familiar with the locations, the culture, the speech patterns, etc. People who read my books can be relatively certain I know what I’m talking about. But what if (for arguments sake), I had been pretending, and somewhere down the line, I reveal I’m a 64yo woman from Brazil, who’s never been to Australia? I’ve spoken with authority to say I know what I’m talking about when writing about WA, and that I’ve experienced that world. I took on a false identity. There would be those who don’t care and just liked the story I wrote anyway, but there would be those who spoke to me online, joked about Perth football teams, asked me about holiday spots, etc – all of that would be untrue. As you said, this is stepping over the line. To pretend to be gay, a different race, a different religion, etc in a minority group, and then write about it “with authority” – it’s making their voice worth even less.
There is the argument of, “Well, when Josh started writing M/M, you couldn’t write under a female name.” I agree with this whole-heartedly. But that was years ago. What has stopped “Josh” from telling the truth before now?
Once again, well done on a great post.
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Bravo. This is a well thought out and appropriate post. I applaud you for your truth, honestly and sensitivity. I like you have no issue with ‘pen names’ but having been personally badly hurt previously by false identities, I am very upset by those who choose to create an identity. I am more irritated by the attitude now shown by the current author in question and many of the people defending her. They are trying to change the argument for pity. Pen names are a must for many people (I use a different family name on FB because of my profession) but a totally new identity claiming to be an authority on a different group is wrong.
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It’s been as debates on tricky subjects should be!
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Wow, Mr. Burgoine, you said everything I tried to say only your post is so… grown up! (*snort*)
Thank you for taking the time and anxiety-induced energy to convey the issue of pseudonym vs. identity in such a beautiful, diplomatic way. In this new online age of publishing, who we are matters. You can change your name to protect the innocent but beyond that it becomes a “trust” issue.
Following and adding you to my author list!
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Thank you so very much – though I’m not sure I want the mantle of “grown up” maybe when I’m sixty? Seventy? We’ll see. 😉
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Reblogged this on 10 Minutes Past Coffee and commented:
Simply wonderful post that conveys exactly the issues entrenched in the Pseudonym vs. Identity conundrum. From the post:
“But if you’re adopting a whole persona and identity from a culture – be it a race, sexual orientation, gender, neurotype or any other group to which you don’t belong – and you choose to speak from that role, you’re stepping over a line.”
Beautifully said. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
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This was very interesting. Thank you!
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I dislike the way she handles the situation and the way she treats the readers who want to talk about the situation. her blog entry lacked empathy. i dislike her “i won’t read the negative posts” attitude. well, maybe she should read them. she caused this situation and now that it doesn’t work to her purpose anymore she acts (in my opinion) like a stubborn person who doesn’t want to deal with the consequences. and btw where are these “negative posts”? i tried to find one single disrespectful comment because her whole group is complaining about all the nasty comments and i wanted to know what they are talking about. but i couldn’t find one. i only saw comments from people who were confused and hurt and who tried to express their feelings in a respectful way. that’s why i enjoyed this article so much. this is exactly what bothered me about the whole situation but i couldn’t find the words.
“Well, I do think that some of the people who insisted that only a man could write my stories are now feeling a bit betrayed.
But to be quite honest, that was the original point in taking a male pen name.
This idea that a woman could not believably write from a male perspective? I have *hundreds* of letters from men that would indicate otherwise.”
she should read your article. i think she doesn’t understand the situation.
Thank you – If I’m completely honest, one of the reasons I didn’t use a specific name or call out a specific person in this post was to fly a bit under the Google radar. I know of multiple instances of similar situations, so I figured a more “generalized” version of the discussion would be better. (And maybe a little safer from some potential wrath.)
oh i’m sorry. i didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. feel free to delete my entry. i don’t mind at all. actually i appreciated that you didn’t mention a name. i think it was really classy. i guess i got carried away after i read the comments. i didn’t mean to cause any trouble. so yeah feel free to delete the entry. i don’t mind !:)
Don’t worry at all – it’s fine! I think said cat is far out of the bag already. 😉
This blog post is EXACTLY how I was feeling about this whole situation but couldn’t quite put words to. Because I know for a fact from older blog posts by the author that we are indirectly discussing that they *did* make it seem like they were, in fact, male. I’m going to rant very genteelly for a minute here, so I’m apologizing in advance, but I just heard about all this in the past hour: I thoroughly dislike the cavalier attitude that is being displayed towards people that find that this author took on a male identity for so many years problematic. This “Oh well, you should’ve known anyway” attitude is very not cool.
I’m well aware that women did have to write under male pen names back in the day and I fully support that to this day. What I don’t support is the taking on of any minority identity, or even majority identity, for personal gain or just in general, as you mentioned in this post. I also don’t support that this person took so many years to “come out” as it were. The time for women needing to hide their identities when writing any genre is long past, and at some point it became a very deliberate deception, in my opinion.
Ok phew… I’m done. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and spot on blog post and I hope I didn’t take away too much from the extra calm and mannered discussion going on in these comments.
You didn’t – and thank you. 🙂
I guess I’m still confused about the difference between a male pseudonym and identity. Nathan, you say above that you don’t much care when you see a M/M author with a male name, and that you assume that any contemporary name with initials is likely to be a woman. You then give examples of “crossing a line,” such as sending a man to an author appearance, or doing a Q&A about condom use.
To my knowledge Lanyon has done none of these things. As has been pointed out during this recent discussion, she has not used gendered pronouns to refer to herself since the original Dear Author kerfuffle (2008?), at which time she stated that she was not going to reveal her gender but would only say that “Josh Lanyon” was a pseudonym. Nor has she claimed to be gay.
There are quite a few women writing in this genre with male pseuds. Are all of them appropriating gay male identity? Why is it only this one who has caused all this bad feeling?
First – thanks for posting.
You’re right that none of the examples I posted were about Diana Killian, and they were never intended to be. In fact, though the post – and my thoughts on the subject – were triggered by this latest instance with Diana Killian, I specifically went out of my way not to mention specific author names or pseudonyms in the post because the notion I wanted to discuss wasn’t about a particular instance, but what I thought was a line that can be crossed between a pseudonym and something that goes beyond that (which I chose to call ‘identity’).
I get that any discussion about this topic right now will obviously bring the Josh Lanyon / Diana Killian issue to the forefront, but those examples I listed were from quite a few different authors, and I have more – I could have easily included “reviewing other books from the position of a noted male gay author” or “writing a how-to that benefits from being perceived as being written by the voice the how-to is marketed to teach writing” or “allowed a nomination to an identity-specific award” or any number of other examples, and again I’m not going to assign author names to those (who are, again, applicable to at least three authors who weren’t the identity they were projecting; one presenting as a gay male, one presenting as black, one presenting as mixed race). On an original Facebook discussion about this topic, I did mention a single name from one of the original examples I listed in this piece, and that author contacted me with what I felt was a pretty heart-felt “mea culpa” so I removed the name from that original discussion thread – and then it struck me that if I wrote a post about the topic, it would be far less “finger-pointy” and more likely to involve actual discussion of the ideas presented if I didn’t drop names at all.
And it has been – this post has been pretty darned rational and lacking in angry words and cussing, and that was always my goal: to talk about how often LGBT folk, as a different sort of minority, don’t have the same “feel” as owing to their invisible minority reality, and draw the parallels with racial appropriation as best I could.
Do I think, personally, that Diana Killian allowed that appropriation to continue, even past 2008? I do. There’s a world of difference between not answering questions and sitting silent while other authors or reviewers or readers are lambasted for suggesting your pseudonym doesn’t belong to a gay man. No, Diana is not responsible for the actions of others, but – again – as I listed in my original piece, there was benefit that continued. In fact, though only once, I specifically bought an audiobook (after 2008, mind you) because I’d seen a review talking about how nice it was to listen to a gay audiobook written by a gay man. I try very hard to support LGBTQ voices in my purchases, and so – yes – when the truth was revealed to me by a friend in the know, I did feel like I’d been duped, and put some money where I’d rather it had gone to an authentic voice; the same way that I would have felt if I’d bought a sweater that I was told was made in Canada and found a made in China label, or a book of poetry about the struggles of black women written by a white man with a pseudonym.
I don’t think there was a massive amount of malice, and I really didn’t want to have this particular discussion about authors on a case-by-case basis, but there you go. Post-2008, you’re right, I don’t know that Diana claimed Josh as a gay man, but there was a vocal and strident voice doing so regardless, and a single word from her would have shut that down. I didn’t see the Dear Author kerfuffle – I was solely in the gay writing world then, which hadn’t much tipped over into the m/m world and vice-versa – but the persona of “authentic gay man writing gay mystery” was very much alive and well for a large enough group of readers for the reactions to occur. The reality is, there was benefit to that misconception, and I think that did indeed cross the line into appropriation. Maybe without malice (in fact, almost certainly without malice) and maybe without realizing how dismissive it is to those in the LGBTQ community who have suffered directly because of their status as LGBTQ people. Again – I wonder if she had, instead, written as Naoto Takeo, (to pull a name out of my hat), and written mysteries all set in Asian American communities, and then written a book about how to properly represented Asian American culture, would it be so unclear as to why it felt “off”?
Now, specifically, you asked me a two questions there. You asked me if I felt all women with male pseudonyms were appropriating gay male identity, and absolutely no, not at all. I’d hoped I’d been clear with that in the original post, and if I hadn’t, that’s my fault. There’s a difference between a pseudonym used to brand a collection of writing into one bucket, and even to have a blog or a twitter or facebook feed with that name for the purposes of marketing or branding or notifying fans of a new release. But starting to speak about gay issues without being clear that the male name is a pseudonym, and that the male name doesn’t belong to a gay man? It starts to get iffy. Speaking about how-to, or offering criticisms or critical and/or negative reviews? That’s worrisome, because without a clear notion that this name doesn’t belong to a gay man, there’s a borrowed authenticity to the voice. In the same way a woman’s opinion about feminism has to have more weight than a man’s – she has experienced the world the way a man cannot – the same is true of, for example, a trans woman’s opinion about her experience as a trans woman in feminism has more weight than a cis woman’s opinion on the same topic. There’s a difference.
Put another way – you can support a cause. You can be an ally. You can do amazing and positive things for a minority. But you cannot speak for that minority unless you belong to it. And it’s very easy to cross that border from a pseudonym in today’s world of social media.
Second, you asked me why it was only this one who has caused all this bad feeling, and the answer there is it hasn’t. At all. This particular instance was the spark to have this conversation. People are talking about it, and I wanted to put forth an opinion on the debate that – I hoped – pulled away from conflating the discussion with “women can’t write as well as men” crap that I saw floating around. That’s a misdirection, to me, of what the real issue was in this instance – and many other instances (as you noted, the examples I listed weren’t specific to Diana Killian’s Josh Lanyon persona). I think it has served as a kind of flashpoint for quite a few discussions, and if I can urge you to look at some of the other gay men speaking about the topic – even if they are specifically only speaking about Diana Killian as the most recent example – I think you’ll see more along the lines of my original post.
Hopefully that makes a little more sense and answers your questions.
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This is very helpful in clarifying your position for me (which is not to say your original post was muddy or lacking; this is just a very complex issue I think). Thank you for taking the time (and the hit on your stress level) to compose it.
this post and the resulting discussion are extraordinarily helpful. i thought in particular that the dolezal parallel was apt as fuck.
just like you distinguish between pseudonyms and identity, i’m coming to understand a distinction is necessary between what has upset some of us and how some of us react to it.
many gay men are notably misogynist; some of this is exaggerated by our portrayal in popular culture, and some of it is real and a thing we have all probably experienced first hand—some homo extravagantly complaining that he doesn’t see the appeal of ladyparts, for example.
many cis-het, cis-female readers of m/m are also misogynist; one need only spend fifteen minutes having a look at book reviews and facebook updates and general twitter hue and cry every time one of these scandals happen to come to that conclusion in relative surety.
that some of these misogynist men and women do not approve of some aspects of lanyon’s behavior is an intersection.
in other words, it’s possible for those people to be misogynistic and appalling and for lanyon to have done a wrong thing—at the same time.
it is possible for such people to be as recognizably disenfranchised by a thing as they are recognizably crazy.
these things are not mutually exclusive. yet distinctions must be made in order to have any hope of success making sense of it.
thank you, ‘nathan, for expressing what next to nobody is saying right now.
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I am struggling to get my PC to let me reply to any of this. Apologies if this posts twice… LOL
I’ve stayed out of this discussion in a wider sense since the *shit hit the fan*. Mostly because as an author I feel I need to protect my public persona, and there was so much vitriol flying about that it was difficult to duck! It seemed to me that the crux of the matter for my own opinion is exactly what Clare London posted above.
“But many people are *not* wary enough of this, they believe in and are invested in the online persona, they CARE. It upsets me to think they’ve been misled, whether deliberately or by omission, and are now embarrassed or hurt.”
I have been catfished, way back in fan fiction days, and it was th emost awful online experience I have ever had. I’m not saying the JL case is catfishing, but to invest in a person only to realise that they weren’t who they purported to be is hard.
Not to mention readers and authors alike were very visibly suggesting that anyone who didn’t support Jl were wrong, or misguided, or stupid, and they would be *defriended immediately*.
I do wonder what would have happened if a less well known author had done the same thing? Is it one rule for JL and one rule for another?
Very sad situation.
This was a lovely written post, and I wish I had found it sooner. Now I will just link to it whenever I can not argue this subject coherently.
p.s. RJ is my writer name, because I always wanted a name with initials in it! My bio, photos, posts about my family, all emphasise I am a married mother of two. Too late to rethink my name now… LOL
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I wish I had screen-captured it, but at one point a few years ago, I’d replied to a comment where someone had asked if anyone knew if a particular author was actually a gay man or not and got absolutely pounced on by others for asking the question and declaring it “irrelevant.” I defended the question from the point of view of a consumer wanting to put financial support behind particular voices, and no one replied – the thread just sort of stopped. I think people do tend to surface think this one: “it shouldn’t matter if the author is a woman” is indeed correct on a certain level, but there’s a lot of other “shoulds” involved, too, and unfortunately, sometimes they intersect when it goes beyond a simple pseudonym.
What she said!
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Great post overall. Just one thing:
” I’m not talking about the Lambda Literary Awards here specifically because the Lammies are awarded for content, not the orientation of the author, but the Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award, the Jim Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize and the Pioneer Award do take the queerness of the author as necessary for consideration.”
Be careful there. There are quite a few lesbian/queer women who write under male or gender-neutral pseudonyms. Yes, many writers of m/m romance are straight women, but that doesn’t mean queer women aren’t there, or when they talk about their life experiences as sexual minorities that they’re appropriating.
I’m not sure how I put forth that to you, it wasn’t intended. All I meant to point out was that the various categories of the Lammies aren’t limited to authors who identify as queer, with the exception of the Mid-Career and Pioneer awards, which do.
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