I recently joined the RWA despite knowing full well it wouldn’t necessarily be a place I’d be welcome. I’m a queer writer of queer stories—including romance—and seeing some forward motion in the organization made me think perhaps it was time.
Or at the very least, it was time enough to try and get involved, rather than just watch warily.
It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to watch people debate your humanity. To see spirited discussion from “both sides” of an argument where one “side” espouses that the way you love doesn’t qualify as a happy-ever-after, or reading suggestions that judges should be able to opt-out of stories about people like you because they just can’t “connect” with them? Or—this was only the other day—doing a search for “queer writers” in a forum and finding the only use of the term coming from someone who catfished everyone into thinking they were a queer writer.
Honestly? It’s exhausting.
The replies sparked by the wonderful “Reclaiming Historical Romance” from Elizabeth Kingston, and the online discussions that followed, is another case of this.
The original piece’s clear presentation was so refreshing and so correct: our histories—here I specifically mean to stay in my own lane and discuss queer histories, though of course it’s not just queer histories—have been untold. Not just hundreds of years ago, either. I have witnessed this in my lifetime, as obituaries of queer friends were re-written by their families to make sure others wouldn’t know. From those smallest of these written histories to the larger discussions, we have been (and continue to be) actively erased.
This is made all the more damaging by virtue of our culture; for the most part, queer people are not born into queer families, so there is no inheritance of oral narrative. I didn’t have bisexual parents and trans grandparents and non-binary cousins, aro aunts and ace uncles telling me how they survived, or what to expect or who came before—I had a family with zero other queer people in it, all of whom where incredibly angry to learn they had a queer person in their midst.
It’s another thing I say often here: there is fallout of non-inheritance. Queer people don’t even know what we don’t know, and this is reinforced by the way “history” is taught through the straight-white-cisgender-Christian lens Elizabeth Kingston discussed.
We are not taught, not discussed (unless we’re vilified), and that crosses over everywhere the keepers of the histories that are told have sway.
And yes, of course that includes historical romance.
For most of us queer people, fictions are where we see a “first me.” I’ve told this story a few times, but it bears repeating: my “first me” was a character in a short story we read in an English class, and the character died a gruesome and violent death. The teacher explained why: the character was gay. Class continued, and no one even blinked. Except me, of course, who was sitting there stunned by the apparent revelation of what I was to expect from life.
I’m not sure it’s possible to explain the impact of that moment: first, what it’s like to make it to young adulthood without seeing a single representation of someone like you in fiction; second, to have that first representation be a violent death.
And prior to that? Nothing. A vacuum of non-queerness. Later, of course, I’d learn that wasn’t true: we discussed Alan Turing in history class, and Sally Ride in science class, but never their queerness. Those are just two examples, but you get my point. We were there, and no one sees fit to tell us. Many of the queer people I know (especially those of my age and older) discuss this moment: the moment you realized how much queer history was stolen from your education, and how much it would have meant to you to have had access to it back then.
Calling for writers to be more aware of the damage done by writing historical romances where entire peoples are erased is not some form of censorship. It’s not a—pardon my pun—straight-jacket on the creativity of authors. It’s a call to consider the message sent to readers by this absence—especially in a genre specifically devoted to the notion of deserved happy endings.
History wasn’t queerless. We existed. We have always existed. If someone only reads the mainstream history provided, however, they might not know. But as Elizabeth Kingston notes, the harm is done whether or not the writer knows better.
But when someone who does know—as anyone who read Kingston’s article now knows—chooses to write a history (or a future, or a present) that erases a people, the harm becomes exactly that: a choice.