I’m going to take a little moment today to talk about the latest set of heated voices in the m/m world, and I hope, as with discussions in the past of Pseudonyms vs. Identities, and Gay for You plots, and Family Reconciliation plots, that everyone can play nice. I still get nasty comments on those posts, but comment screening is magic, and they’re far more outweighed by actual, thoughtful discussion, so it still feels worthwhile.
But I’m going to come at it from perhaps a different angle in hopes I can shift the narrative a bit from finger-pointing and self-defence and so I’m going to talk plot bunnies.
Most writers I know (and especially those in the romance or spec-fic business) talk about plot bunnies. In fact, it’s pretty much a short hand. Someone in the queer spec fic group online will post an article about, say, a newly theorized method of faster-than-light travel, and I’d lay a wager that one of the comments on the article will be nothing more than: “Plot bunny!”
Seriously. We do that.
Pictures, too, can garner this response (especially pictures of models or actors, as nothing quite sparks a character like a well-crafted image—I see this more in romance, where the right fella with the right smouldering look can inspire a bunch of different takes). News articles, too, which definitely source ideas for many an author.
Most recently? I saw an article about a woman who figured out a way to rescue a moose that had fallen through the ice, and I swear I could almost see the steam coming out of the ears of a romance author who loves unique shifter stories—what if the moose is actually a shifter, and what if she turns out to be his mate, and what if..?
Well, you get the idea. Plot bunnies come from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve had plot bunnies, myself. One short story appeared through a song (“Elsewhen,” in Riding the Rails came almost entirely from the song How it Ends by DeVotchKa), and a novella was formed through a visceral reaction to the pat phrase “Everything happens for a reason,” when someone said it to a friend admitting they were facing down a severe illness (In Memoriam was the result of that anger). I’m really proud of both of those stories. In fact, “Elsewhen” continues to be my husband’s most favourite thing I’ve ever written, and I consider In Memoriam to be the most personal thing I’ve ever penned.
Now, as a writer, the whole plot bunny thing is just part of the day to day. Stuff inspires. That’s how it works. But sometimes? That stuff can also be people.
And that’s where things can get heated. Because people don’t stop being people when they’ve also become a plot bunny for a writer.
I use “#ownvoices” and the phrase “living, breathing culture” a lot when I talk about criticism, and—big surprise!—I’m going to do it again. Here’s the rub: when an author writes about people who exist (and yes, I realize they’re fictionalized versions of people who exist), they are now representing those living, breathing people.
Whether they want to or not.
That can kind of suck, and I get that. The author has, by writing those characters, opened up to criticism from those living, breathing people if they accidentally mess it up, regardless of intent.
Now, for the most part, that’s just common sense, right? I mean, if a writer screws up a factual detail in, say, a police procedural, and a real-life cop were to point that out, they’d probably be a bit embarrassed, maybe mention it in a blog, share some tips on how to avoid mistakes like that (usually it involves finding someone with the knowledge and asking them if they’d be willing to give a manuscript a once-over). It happens, though, and we’ve all done it.
The difference when these plot bunnies involve queer people, I think, is how heightened the experience is for the queer reader, and how often so much of a non-queer author’s intent was absolutely to do no harm. No matter how often I try to explain my queer life, no matter how many anecdotes I tell, and no matter how much progress is made, my day-to-day life is full of reminders of ways in which I am less-than, different-from, or anathema-to. And that’s exhausting.
Queer folk are allowed to be exhausted (so are every other group of marginalized people, by the way, in case that wasn’t clear). We’re just as human as everyone else.
Now, as an anecdote, I’m going to drop one specific example before I get back to the plot bunny thing: “Are you brothers?”
I recently went on vacation with my husband. I cannot tell you how many times we were asked that question on the trip. Now, I took his name when I married him, and my identification shares a surname with him.
So, sitting down to lunch on our disaster of delayed flights to Hawai’i, it happened: “Are you brothers?” I told the waitress that no, we weren’t, and didn’t clarify we were husbands, but whatever. We ordered a meal, and ate. At the gate when another flight had been canceled, the woman helping me asked as well. I was at one desk, my husband at another, as there were big line ups and we had no idea which line might clear faster. I got to the front first, so I waved him over. As he walked over, she asked, “are you brothers?” “No,” I said. “He’s my husband.” She went back to booking a new flight for us. More flights canceled and delayed. We made it to Vancouver, and then had to get a hotel. Westjet comped us a hotel, which was good. Our suitcase wasn’t at the airport, which wasn’t. The woman at the counter asked which of our suitcases hadn’t shown up, mine or my brother’s? “Husband,” I said. “And it’s both of ours,” I said. “We only brought one.” “Oh,” she said. “Which phone number should I put it under?” We took our hotel coupons, and left. At the hotel desk, the clerk said, “Are you brothers?” and I lost it.
“No,” I said. “He’s my husband.” It came out sharp, and angry, and had a day’s worth of flight cancellations, delays, and a day’s delay of derailed trip to Hawai’i behind it, as well as the usual annoyance of having to explain that I was with a man and he was my husband.
Every single person that day didn’t need to ask that specific question. There might very well have been reasons for them to want to know—the hotel clerk, for example, could have been confirming we only needed one bed—but “Are you brothers?” wouldn’t have answered that question. The question “One night, one bed is okay?” would have.
It wasn’t the first person who asked that did me in. It was the fifth (or sixth?) in one long day of constantly having to out myself to people who frankly didn’t need to know and who, for all I knew, could make what was already a difficult day worse because they could decide with a few key strokes to make our trip harder if they didn’t like gay people.
From the hotel clerk’s point of view, though? He’d asked me one simple question, and I’d lost it and completely over-reacted. He had no idea of my living, breathing experience that day as a queer man. Frankly, he was lucky I answered, instead of my husband, who has even less patience for that shit.
But back to plot bunnies.
When an author chooses a queer plot bunny and makes one of those mistakes—a gay for you plot that doesn’t include the word bisexual or pansexual anywhere, off-handedly saying “Oh, I identify as a gay man” when not actually meaning it on a trans-identity level, shrugging off queer criticism as “haters,” or using “clean” in the narrative as a way to describe a character as HIV negative—and a queer person corrects the issue, I imagine it can feel very much like an attack. Especially when the criticism comes across with a tone of anger or frustration, I can see how easily an author might get their back up. Especially an author that considers themselves to be very much an ally. I can see why so many authors in this situation say things like, “I wish we wouldn’t react so strongly,” or “We have to work to educate, and not attack,” or “If we remain calm, and remember we all love and support each other here, it’ll go better,” or “Please don’t lump all us m/m authors in under one hat when one of us makes a mistake,” or… or… or…
And you know what? To a significant degree, that’s correct. It’s unfair. Let’s assume the person who made that mistake made the mistake once, and this is the first offence. It certainly feels harsh to have a few dozen queer voices pop up and say, “Woah. That’s hurtful/harmful, problematic, homophobic/transphobic/bi-erasure/acephobic, and dismissive/whatever.” I know it smarts. I’ve been on the receiving end of it in other ways.
Honestly, though? We react strongly because these are our lives. They are not fictions. We do work to educate, but it never ends, and it’s exhausting, and sometimes we’re human and our education feels like an attack. We’re sick of being told to remain calm. We’re not dismissing love and support—we’re clarifying when that love and support isn’t loving nor supportive. We want it to go better. And, truthfully? We’re not lumping all of anyone in together, and it’s really, really important for those on the receiving end of criticism not to use the “not all” response, which takes the discussion away from the queerfolk at hand and turns it into a discussion about the feelings of those who aren’t even making the mistake being discussed.
Our lives will give authors plot bunnies. But those stories can, and do, go on to represent and educate. When they’re misinformed, misrepresentative, and do harm, we’re going to point it out.
And sometimes we’ll be exhausted when we do it.