[Edit to add: This one has become a topic that pops up again and again. It was originally written, as it mentions below, in a response to an #RWChat discussion. But it’s like a weed. It grows back. So if you’re landing here because I shared it again and wondering why I shared something from three years ago? It’s because it’s exhausting saying the same thing over and over again.]
There are a couple of parallel discussions going on right now that have Venn-diagrammed their way into my feeds, and last night’s #RWChat cemented something I’ve been feeling vaguely “off” about for a while.
I’m not a sub-genre.
Let me explain.
Sub-Genres of Romance
There are a couple of places you can go to get different lists of sub-genres for Romance. Obviously, the RWA has a list: Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, Religious/Spiritual, Suspense, and YA. Wikipedia adds a couple: breaking down part of what the RWA calls Paranormal into Science Fiction and Time-Travel, and adding Multicultural (more on that in a bit).
That was the stage set, so to speak, for the discussion on #RWChat about sub-genres in romance, and one of the questions was “should there be new sub-genres?” and, of course, queer came up as a suggestion.
And that’s where I started to flinch.
Queer as a Sub-Genre?
Now, before I start, I do want to point out where the notion comes from in the minds of most, and that it’s from a good place. Let’s be honest, queer characters don’t get the recognition in romance that their non-queer counterpart characters do. That’s just the current reality.
To ground this in my own experience, I’ve been waffling over joining the local chapter of the RWA. I got invited to a lunch, I already know a few of the authors though awesome events like Romancing the Capital, and my romance output is rising, so it seemed like something worth exploring. Shortly into the dinner, one of the authors announced that they didn’t believe men could be bisexual.
So. I had a choice. I could make a bit of a scene and speak out, or I could wait and see what happened. I chose the latter (I regret that) and nothing happened. I think I managed a weak “I’m not sure you get to decide that,” a few moments later than would be effective.
I haven’t joined the RWA. Maybe another year.
So, when I see organizations like the RWA and their awards go (almost exclusively) to non-queer characters, I’m totally not surprised. And I get why it seems like making a sub-genre just for queer characters is a great idea. I can even see how there’s some merit to it.
Yes, Queer is a Sub-Genre!
For one? There’d be a queer winner of a RITA every year, right? There’d have to be, if there was a sub-genre just for queer characters in romance, rather than the occasional one here and there, and some years not at all.
For another? Visibility. Those titles short-listed would be a quick, easy, one-stop shop to show people some queer characters in romance.
Even more? Legitimacy. If someone like the RWA (okay, maybe not my local chapter) was loud about saying “Queer Characters are Welcome in Romance!” that’s a big deal. Their history with that isn’t so great, and it would go a long way.
So why don’t I like it?
No, Queer isn’t a Sub-Genre!
Honestly? It’s the flip side of the positives I listed above.
For one? There’d be only one winner of a RITA every year with a queer character, because any book with a queer character would be shunted into the queer character box. Never mind if there was a contemporary romance with queer characters that was far and away better than the non-queer character contemporaries on the short list, and also a YA romance with amazing trans characters that blew the non-queer character YA romance shortlist out of the water: only one of them could win. Because they’re queer, and they get one award, competing against each other, even though they’re vastly different sub-genres with only their queerness in common.
For another? The rest of the awards become a queer-free zone by default, and the notion of non-queer characters as “normal” or “default” is increased. Because if there’s one queer romance sub-genre, but thirteen other genres that aren’t, how is that not the message? Books with non-queer characters would get to be considered in groupings of their plots, tropes, and against similar titles. But queer would judged for being queer.
Last? From a publishing point of view, it can actively delegitimize. “We have a sub-genre for queer stories” sounds solid until that becomes a limitation. Think about what women of colour face in the romance world (and, thereby, their characters). “No, we have the four titles we’re publishing for our black-women line this month.” “Oh, but my book is a romantic suspense with a black lead, you publish eight romantic suspenses a month, so…” “No. It’s a black-woman, so it only goes here. Four titles a month. Period.” This is why I get twitchy about “Multicultural” as a sub-genre, too.
Not to mention queer people of colour exist. Where do they go? The multicultural romance, or the queer romance? Which one trumps the other? This is why “people as a sub-genre” gets messy. People are messy. We don’t fit one box.
Oh, yeah, and what happens when that line gets canceled?
Okay, Smart-Guy, Solutions?
Yeah, I didn’t say I had a solution.
Well, no, I do: judge romances with queer characters alongside those with non-queer romances and do so on a level playing field with judges capable of reading them without bias but ha ha ha, yeah. I could barely finish that with a straight face. After all, men can’t be bisexual, right?
The good news is I’ve heard from other readers that romances with queer characters are making strides. Radclyffe, who writes lesbian romances across many romance sub-genres, has been a finalist in many RWA chapter contests in the correct sub-genre category for her books (thanks for that info, Ruth!). That’s progress.
I also totally respect the opposing opinion here. I’m just as tired as anyone else of queer characters barely making it to the foreground of awards and recognition and bestseller lists, and I can empathize with “I don’t care if it means there’s just one winner every year and one short list. At least it would exist and shows we exist.” Like I said above, that’s a fair freaking point.
And maybe it has to go through that step first in places like the RWA, with the ultimate goal of later disentangling it into the sub-genre awards? I don’t know. But I think things like the Rainbow Awards, the Publishing Triangle Awards, and the Lambda Literary Awards (and other queer awards) fill a niche of queer-character writing awards, and they have genre breakdowns built-in. It’s still about the genres there.
I want places like the RWA and Goodreads to step up, not pen us in.
So, I guess, that’s my solution. Not that the RWA and Goodreads will do it, but that we need to make them do it. Groups like Women of Color in Romance (if you don’t follow them, go follow them, right now) do fantastic work to make noise and highlight the incredibly talented women of color writing romance out there who already exist but don’t get the same massive attention the white authors do because publishing is so very, very white.
Publishing is also so very, very non-queer.
I want more noise. Noise about all the #ownvoice writers and characters that exist in romance—queers included—and maybe that’s what it will take to get those books on the shortlists in the sub-genre categories where they belong.
Yeah, that was the other circle on the Venn Diagram, and I don’t want to say it all again, but once again the Goodreads Choice Awards are up, and soon it’ll be time to vote and there’s a petition going around to create an LGBTQ+ category to vote in.
But there were next to no books with queer characters on the initial list of titles. And that’s not a surprise. Because while queer people are expected to read non-queer books and be satisfied, the opposite isn’t true. And no one can force someone to read a book they don’t want to read. We’re outnumbered, and will always be so.
So, no. I’ve got no happy solution. But I did write-in a book with queer-characters into every slot where I thought that book was the best book I’d read this year. That’s what I can do with the system the way it is, and so I do. And sometimes I didn’t add a book with queer-characters (I voted for The Hate U Give in YA, even though there’s zero queer content, because that book was amazeballs and freaking important and I want it to win all the prizes and I hope They Both Die at the End wins all the Lammies and PTAs and Rainbows and that’s why I love that there are queer-character awards, too).
I’m not a Sub-Genre.
My final thoughts on this snarl are exactly that: just mine. I’m not speaking for all of queer kind here. I can’t. I’m only queer in my own way.
As a reader, I want to see queer reality in all the genres. In science fiction, in mystery, in literature, in romance, in YA, in all the categories. All of them. Even horror, which I barely read. Readers deserve to see themselves. The magic of digital tagging means readers can drill down to find those titles, too.
But I—again, just me, speaking for me—don’t want it to be “Queer,” with a sub-category of “Romance” if that means when I click “Romance” there will be no queer. Queer belongs in romance. Period. I want to click “Romance,” and then “Contemporary” and then be able to find the queer titles. And I want to see shortlists for awards where “Contemporary Short-form Romance” includes a novella with trans characters.
If that means places like the RWA have to learn men can be bisexuals first? Well. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and get back to teaching instead of waiting to hear what they currently say.