The Shoulder Check Problem

A couple of days ago, there was a discussion that sort of flashed past my timeline. An author of gay romance who is also a gay man was expressing the frustration over a sentiment in an m/m group that was posted—“women write the best m/m”—and how unwelcoming it can feel to gay men writing gay romance. At no point did the author say anything about who should or shouldn’t write gay characters, he just pointed out how—especially from a group of people often so vocal about being supportive allies—the sentiment wasn’t particularly supportive or welcoming.

I want to underline one part of that again: at no point was he saying that women (queer or non-queer) shouldn’t write m/m. The discussion took an immediate turn into that topic (as it always does), but that wasn’t at all what he was talking about. He was talking about how those blanket statements are unwelcoming.

It’s not a new discussion and it’s certainly not one that’s likely to ever be resolved, but as the discourse continued there were a few patterns I noticed that play out pretty much every time. This discussion also aligned with another sentiment I get quite often, and as it happened, I received a short direct message from an m/m reader about one of my novellas. Though it was a genuinely positive experience for them, they offered one critical comment.

Which brings me to the first piece of this blog: The Shoulder Check Problem.

Faux Ho Ho Cover

The Shoulder Check Problem

Dino leaned over and kissed the top of his head. Silas glanced around the restaurant, but they were tucked in a corner, mostly out of sight.

“Careful. This isn’t the Village,” he reminded Dino.

— from “Faux Ho Ho,” by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Okay, so going back to the feedback from that reader: what was the comment?

“I don’t like it when you have them check to see if anyone’s looking when they kiss. It’s sad. It kicks me out of the moment.”

That’s a paraphrase of this most recent comment, obviously, but I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had some variation of that feedback from women reading my queer romances, or had them bring it up face-to-face at conventions. As a counterpoint, I’ve never had it so much as mentioned negatively by queer men who’ve read my queer romances.

It’s the smallest thing, really. Or at least, it seems small, right? It’s something I mention when I give writing workshops on writing with an eye for queer inclusivity as an easy win. It’s literally just a note on a list of quick and easy tips writers can use to make their stories a bit more welcoming to queer readers: a dash of reality affirming what it’s like to be a queer guy in a public space with another queer guy and considering a kiss.

A shoulder check, just to make sure the surroundings are such that said kiss is going to be safe. It’s a reflex. It’s a safety thing. It’s almost unconscious (though not unconscious, because I do have to consider my safety if I’m out in public somewhere). It’s one of the reasons being somewhere that’s safe—our own home, a friend’s home, a queer bar—is so special: they’re places where I can express affection freely. It’s why those places matter.

I’m always nervous when I write these sorts of posts (fun fact: I still get hateful comments on my Pseudonyms vs. Identities post), so I want to be super-clear here about how I’m reacting to the criticism of the shoulder-check. I’m not offended. I don’t even necessarily think the reader is wrong to find that moment jarring, nor was it too harsh for her to tell me that moment knocked her out of enjoying the romantic narrative. Like I said, this is by no means the first time I’ve gotten this feedback—I get variations of it all the time, and not just about shoulder checks (but I’ll expand on that in a moment). Heck, at those workshops I talked about? I’ve had people challenge me and say “But what if I’m writing romance? Romance is about happy endings, and that’s not happy. Why include them at all? It doesn’t have to be realistic. It’s fiction.”

The why of it for me is this: it’s an example of a moment I’ve written into my fiction that reflects my lived reality, and when I write those happy endings—and in romance, yes, the characters get happy endings—those happy endings still include those doses of reality because I want the happy endings to feel as real as I can make them, even in fiction. Verisimilitude matters. To me, as a writer, verisimilitude means writing those happy endings in a world as much like the one I see around me as I can, including facets of existing while queer.

That’s why Nick is disowned in “Handmade Holidays,” finds a chosen family, and his biological family exit the tale and are never seen again. That’s not a happy starting place for Nick, but his happy ending doesn’t have to include his biological family, and for my queer readers who are in that very situation, I wrote a holiday story where the people who kicked him to the curb are gone and he is happy.

Did I get critical feedback from readers about his biological family never coming around? Yes. But from queer reader reviews, it was often noted as a strength of the story. And I treasure those reviews all the more because I know, just by virtue of numbers, my queer readers are outnumbered by non-queer readers, just like queer authors writing m/m are outnumbered by non-queer authors writing m/m.

Outnumbered

Wait, what? Outnumbered?

Yep. I mean, okay, finding numbers in Canada isn’t easy, but: in 2018, one particular survey of women-only hit something like 8% who identified as gay or bisexual; if you go to the various Canadian Community Health Surveys (which were all-gender), there’s a 1.7% gay and 1.3% bisexual result in 2014 (so, 3% gay or lesbian) in 2014. An anonymous phone survey that asked about more than just gay/lesbian and bisexual received a 5.3% result of people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender. And so on. No matter where you look for the numbers, you end up with the same result: queer people are marginalized in the numerical sense of the word: we’re outnumbered.

As a queer person, I know and am reminded of this pretty clearly on a daily basis. It just is. As a queer author, it’s no different. By writing about queer characters, I absolutely have a queer readership just by virtue of what I write—queer people are more likely to want to read about queer people—but even among my readers, there are more non-queer readers than queer readers.

It’s by no means directly proportional to the population, but even just anecdotally given my experiences at romance conventions, e-mails and messages from readers, and online discussions there are still far more non-queer people reading what I write than not, is what I’m saying.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that’s a negative thing. At all. Given the small slice of the population who are queer in the first place, and then the smaller slice of queer people who want to read about nerdy geeky queer guys falling in love (a much smaller sub-set), then factor in those queer people who want to read the kind of stories I write actually finding my stories and…

Well, you get the idea. I absolutely consider myself lucky that there are non-queer people who like to read what I write, because if my audience was limited to people like me, that’d be endgame on the whole publishing thing. It is fantastic people like to read characters outside of their own lived experiences. I mean, I’m like that as a reader, too. Many of my favourite romance reads from last year were about (and written by) lesbian or bisexual women, and I go out of my way to read BIPOC authors telling stories about BIPOC characters to try and put my dollars into the fight against the biases against marginalization in publishing.

Which, again, goes back to that outnumbered thing? Well, it goes back to The Shoulder Check Problem, and dovetails with the discussion on my author friend’s post, which—as always—derailed into whether or not it matters who writes m/m and was met by a (mostly) resounding ‘Of course it doesn’t,’ (to repeat: I agree) but then delved into something I find a bit more of a struggle: ‘What really matters is if the story is good/well-researched/well-written.’

It should be right. It sounds right. And, all things being equal, it is right.

It’s also not.

Good

This is the part of this post that’s making me nervous, and I’m trying really hard to make as clear as I can. And it’s all back to that (seemingly) correct defense of the writing of m/m romance: “I don’t care about the gender of the author. I care whether or not the story is good.” You can swap out pretty much anything similar to “good” here: well-written, high-quality, properly-researched, whatever. The quality of the piece being unrelated to the author’s gender, basically.

So, what’s that got to do with The Shoulder Check Problem? Or being outnumbered? Why does it give me pause?

The “I don’t care about who the author is, it’s whoever writes the best story/does the most research/writes the best characters” stops short of taking into account who decides which narratives have quality in the first place.

Like I said, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “I don’t like that you make your queer characters shoulder check before they kiss.” On my worst days, I have to bite back a snarky reply: I promise you I don’t like living it more than you don’t like reading it. But I write my queer characters getting their happy ever afters while still living in this world, which includes shoulder checks. But “quality” or “good” from many readers says my living, breathing experience of my life as a queer guy “kicks them out of the romance experience” and so it’s not as good as writers who don’t include that moment reflecting lived, breathed experience.

I’m not just talking shoulder checks. They’re just an easy example. I’ve had similar critical feedback for including any political commentary, especially in “Faux Ho Ho” where Silas’s family is a politically active in big-C Conservative politics. (“I don’t want to read about politics, I want to read about romance.”) Similarly, more than a few times I’ve had readers annoyed that I even mention that Dino, who is bisexual, has had previous relationships with women. (“I come to m/m romance looking for romances between men.”) I wrote those scenes knowing full well that would probably happen. And, again, those criticisms haven’t come from the queer men reading my books. Quite the opposite, from the queer men reading my stories, those slices of living-while-queer are often instead included as positives.

I cannot overstate enough my admiration for the ability to write a story that is light and captivating whilst also adroitly folding in subtle aspects of queer life—code-switching; the ill-fitting position within a superficially accepting family; the scarcity of queer heritage; the power of chosen family—that resonate with something deeply felt.

–from my favourite view of “Faux Ho Ho.”

It might sound unfair, or like I’m comparing two different types of readers here: people who read purely for escapism, and people who read wanting representation, and honestly? In a way, yes, that’s what I’m doing, though there are some caveats to that simplification of what escapist reading is.

I’m not claiming that either approach to reading is wrong, either. They’re not wrong, at all.

But the thing is? Both those types of readers directly affect what gets considered “good” (for any iteration of “good,” including “well-written,” or “romantic” or whatever you’d like) thanks to ratings and rankings and algorithms and categorizations, and that’s where I’m heading with this. “Whoever writes the best story” is of course subjective, and driven by a majority consensus. So, when the non-queer readers reach out to tell me they don’t particularly like even the small slices of my real queer life I include in my romances, I know that’s playing into the majority consensus of how my writing is received as a greater whole. The people who’ve reached out to me saying those facets of my romances are a bummer outnumber the queer readers who’ve let me know they feel differently (especially the queer men, specifically).

So, the reason the idea of “it’s about whether or not the story is good” leaves me so uncertain is because I know, first hand, me writing my queer characters living their queer lives like I live mine isn’t what a lot of non-queer m/m readers want. They’ve told me they don’t want that realism; they prefer the unrealistic. Even when it’s a happy ending queer romance in every other way, it fails a piece of expectation they desire in an m/m romance. If queer men writing from their lived, breathed experiences aren’t “good” because a majority of readers don’t want their reading experiences to include even those tiniest of microaggressions, what does that do?

Not to put too fine a point on it: it shapes which narratives are considered worthy (or “good”), and, conversely, which are less so. It doesn’t matter if one group is reading for zero-microaggression escapism and happy endings and one (much smaller) group is reading for more realistic representation and happy endings when the lists and rankings (and therefore visibility) is all drawn from a singular combined whole.

This “combined whole” bias also works both ways.

Nothing About Us Without Us

I know I keep talking about m/m romance and queer romance and gay romance differently, but I know they’re not separate entities. It’s more like a Venn Diagram with overlapping circles, and there are absolutely queer authors who write what they call and market “m/m romance” who absolutely includes verisimilitude. Like everything else queer, none of this is particularly binary. I read quite a lot of m/m written by a variety of authors, quite a few of whom aren’t men or aren’t queer (or both). I’m especially drawn to anthologies because I love short fiction, and I like to find new-to-me authors. As part of my Short Stories 366 Project last year, I read a tonne of short fiction and novellas, and a lot of them were queer romance or m/m romance.

While reading, more than a few of last year’s m/m romances, to use the same phrase, “kicked me out of the moment.” Not because of the inclusion of microaggressions, but the opposite. This is the caveats thing about the two types of readers I was talking about earlier: as a queer reader, what I consider reading for escape will have those representation shoulder check moments (or, put another way, needs to have that dose of realism), or it’ll kick me out. Escapist reading doesn’t mean no-reality to everyone. It certainly doesn’t to me as a queer reader.

Off the top of my head, these are some of the situations and scenarios I’ve encountered in various m/m narratives over the last year or so, even despite doing my best to read blurbs and dodge narratives I already know I’m likely to dislike:

A gay man working at a gentleman’s club that specializes in—or at least, was well populated by—closeted men of power, presented as conservative senators or judges or the like, many of whom were on the down-low and/or also married. At no point did anyone involved in the romance consider how these men are often ones doing major political damage to openly queer people, nor did the man working there have even a moment of self-reflection about his role supporting these men.

The “only-G” problem. Gay men, often just two of them. No lesbians, no bisexuals, no transgender people, no aces, no aros, no genderqueer people, nothing but two (or more) gay men, existing in a place where every other sort of queer person just doesn’t seem to exist. Out queer people tend to gather, especially in liberal, urban environments. Even if we don’t hang out on a daily basis, we most often know other queer people. Or, at least, that other queer people exist. But there are so many stories out there where the only queer people ever so much as mentioned are the two individuals about to have a relationship. No queer friends. No queer network. Not so much as a reference to lesbians. Where are the lesbians?

Multiple plots involving intolerant families where everyone around the queer character reiterates how important family is and how important it is that they keep trying and offer forgiveness and give the family another chance. I’ve talked about that one before.

Instances where gay men (often ones who are very demonstrative) considering vacations to places where gay men (and often any queer people) are illegal. In some cases to places where being caught in the act would lead to execution. At no point did the characters consider their safety, or consider the lives of queer people who already live in those places and how they remain safe, or find each other, or the like.

Recurring instances of anal virginity behind held up as a gift offered only in cases of true love. This sort of “your virginity is a one-use tissue that is inherently important” thing can’t end fast enough for me, but it’s amazing how prevalently it shows up in m/m romance. Another oft-repeating penetrative sex theme I find in m/m shows up just as much: “I don’t really enjoy it/I don’t like it, but because I love you, I’ll do this for you if you want.” The moment a partner says they don’t like something the romantic trajectory is to have another partner respect this isn’t something they want to do, and instead step back and find something they both enjoy.

“Clean” used to refer to men who are STI-negative (and the inference, then, that people who have STIs are “dirty”). Just stop this.

A lot of “gay-for-you” plots that failed to even have a single reference to the possibility of bisexuality or pansexuality in any form. I’ve talked about that one at length, so I’m not going to repeat it. I actively go out of my way to avoid these (if you refer to a character as ‘straight’ in the blurb, I know not to pick it up), but man, these plots find their way through regardless. Especially in anthologies.

Okay, so what do I do when these stories kick me out? Well, I tend to review almost everything I read, though in general I’m a very forgiving reviewer. If I don’t like something I try to be very specific because one-reader’s-trash-is-another-reader’s-treasure. Some of these things above are absolutely just to-taste, but I can (and do) argue that some of them do active damage and propagate harmful frames of mind or messages. I try to speak out about those where I can, but it comes back to The Shoulder Check Problem and being outnumbered again.

Other readers don’t mind, and they outnumber readers like me. So that “combined whole” works against my voice. It’s not malicious (though it might be ignorant—every time I bring up the “clean infers dirty” STI example at a writing workshop I see the lightbulb moment for writers). People don’t know what they don’t know, and that includes queer people. We aren’t born to a continuance of heritage, which I talk about a lot. This is why “nothing about us without us” is so important: if we don’t include queer men when we write about queer men, the sometimes harmful stuff that sneaks in is far more likely to go unnoticed, including by those of us within the greater queer community who don’t know what we don’t know.

I try to speak up about those things. I review them, or I discuss them here on the blog or on my social media sites. But I am one queer man, and even if a lot of queer men said the same things (and sometimes we do exactly that), the outnumbered thing still holds. My review pointing out the erasure of bisexuality might be one of a hundred, and all the rest are glowing about how hot they find “gay-for-you.” My post about the issue might flash in a pan. The social media feed scrolls on.

And sometimes I get absolutely blasted for suggesting those narratives do harm.

So What’s the Solution, Wise-Guy?

I don’t have one, sorry. If there’s a magical ratio of About Us to With Us, I don’t know it. There was the year where the finalists for the Lambda Literary Gay Romance category didn’t have a single gay man romance author in the mix, and I can pretty confidently say that’s a problem: not even one of us? That can’t be too high a goal to reach. It’s a literal “not zero” minimum. Is one gay man author on a list of top ten gay character romances “enough”? How about top-twenty? I have no idea. But zero? Zero is pretty darn awful and often one doesn’t feel any better.

I can definitely say it’s important to listen to queer men talk about stories written about queer men, and to elevate ownvoice writing, but I already do that, and even when I try my absolute damnedest to be calm and polite I get blasted with “It’s not for you!” or “Women invented m/m!” or various invectives. Even if it isn’t for us, it’s about us, so it matters how we’re represented. And whoever invented it (I don’t even want to start with that), m/m romance shows up the most when I search for gay romance or queer romance because the collective whole outnumbers us. The reality leaves readers like me trying to figure out how to navigate toward what we hope to find in the genre. I tend to hunt for ownvoice as much as I can, and I’m careful to read blurbs, but visibility and discoverability are impacted by the collectiveness of m/m romance and gay romance and queer romance.

But I think the main thing I want to underline here is how it’s complicated and oversimplifying to say “it’s whether or not the story is good that matters,” because the way m/m stories are determined to be “good” leaves the very people the stories are about outnumbered.

In the meanwhile, though, I’m keeping my shoulder checks. And at least now I’ve got a single place to send someone when they ask me why I write my queer romances the way I do.  

3 thoughts on “The Shoulder Check Problem

  1. Thank you for this. I don’t know if this reply is going to spark discussion or debate, both or neither, but thank you. Budding author myself and a lot of what I’ve finished is a sizable dose of m/m fanfiction prior to settling in to other narratives, one of the biggest containing a bisexual ghost hunter based on a character that is 75% me (who is a 43 y.o. American Caucasian bisexual woman). Reading articles like yours almost always gives me pause and makes me reflect back on the stuff that I’ve written and how I’m handling representation, which has, especially as I got older, been a big thing for me. You read the stuff that says things like “in romance (and/or fanfic) ‘hot trumps plot'” or the instances similar to what you said above: It’s fiction, what does it matter? but then I would read articles or go to panels where more often than not, primarily gay men are lambasting yaoi and fanfic writers as fetishisizing them and my own gut reaction is “I don’t want to do that! Am I doing that? DID I do that?” And to me, it brings about the want to find a balance between realism (to use your example, the shoulder check) and wanting to give the reader the romance/escapism that one would think they’re looking for. Personally, I like to think I’ve started to lean on the side of realism, even if it might take the reader out of it for the moment, but at the same time, my mileage varies. I haven’t been out in a situation where I’ve needed to shoulder check before kissing my wife. It doesn’t register to me which both makes me feel blessed and sort of “called out” for lack of a better term which makes me feel a little guilty when I read articles like this.
    So why all the ramble? I guess it’s…an explanation? A justification? Like I said, thank you for the article. I think, as a not male m/m writer, the “It’s okay, but…” is what I need to hear. The vast majority of my feedback on that kind of stuff came from (far as I know) female readers. Mostly praise, not criticism. I’d honestly like to hear what gay and male readers thought but I have to take what I can get, which,right now, is the above. It gives clarity and perspective that I don’t have and I thank you for it. For right now, though, going to stop before I babble myself into incoherence because I will. I will just end with another thank you for the dose of reality that you presented in a very wonderful way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Please keep your shoulder checks. I’m one of those straight white woman who read mm and I want it there bc I want to know about those parts, too.

    I first read mm romances last year because I was looking for ownvoices books in many different areas (BIPOC and non-binary, mainly). It’s opened my eyes, even though I thought I got it. It’s also helped me support my teenage daughter who is pan – in particular when she came out to her dad. I’ve also helped her find ownvoices books that interest her and she absolutely wants them to be ownvoices. It really means a lot to her.

    Turns out I enjoy mm and have read a fair bit, by many authors. I have read the fetishization concerns and yeah, I don’t want to do that. All of my favorite mm authors are queer (ok, one just came out as non-binary this month – last month it would have been most), most are gay men. I get thrown out of the story when characters say and do things that jar with reality and remind me that the author is definitely a straight woman. I think the solution may be traders like me understanding better what life is like so it doesn’t throw us, we just think it sucks and is not fair and maybe do something to make it better.

    I have always been a fan of short fiction and I love your writing. All of it. Please keep doing what you are doing.

    Liked by 1 person

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