The Shoulder Check Problem

Like a lot of my blog posts here, this one was sparked at a specific time over a specific conversation, but over the years I’ve seen this particular topic come up again and again like waves on a shore, so I’ll often point back to it, rather than hashing out the same things I’ve already said over and over again. Part of the Queer Experience ™ is that whole exhaustion over having to have the same 101 (or more complicated) discussion over, and over, and over. So, if you find I’ve aimed a link back here, and you find yourself maybe thinking ‘Wait, this is from X years ago!’ and wondering why? That’s why.

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.


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. The most recent numbers I’ve seen from StatsCan (here, if you’re curious), is “Canada is home to approximately one million people who are LGBTQ2+, accounting for 4% of the total population aged 15 and older in 2018.” 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.


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 review 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-men 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.

Even more? From the point of view of a press, those ideas of “good” (or whatever iteration) go into every level of decision making, because publishing is a business so obviously publishers want to sell and what sells the most becomes a very, very large slice of what’s considered good.

And 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, especially when it comes to experiences from other parts of the queer alphabet or across intersections). 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 when I suggest those narratives do harm (or even just for pointing out ways they could be handled inclusively).

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.

It also can’t turn into ownvoice as a kind of requirement, because queer people don’t have to out themselves for other people (and, frankly, for some that’s just not a safe option). So, absolutely, on those lists of ten people it’s 100% possible there are closeted queer people. Weaponizing ownvoice to force them to come out (which happens) isn’t what I’m talking about when I talk about including more ownvoice. It’s not a keycard required for entry.

I am definitely saying it’s important to listen to queer men talk about stories written about queer men, and to elevate ownvoice writing, to avoid those moments of “uh, there are no people on this list who visibly live this life.” 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.  

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.

34 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

  3. Nathan, thank you so much for such a thoughtful and careful analysis. You’ve clarified many of my own general reactions to the mutually exclusive feedback we get from readers who want stories that mirror the realities of living while queer, and those who don’t. It’s not as simple as saying it’s a queer vs straight thing.

    In lesbian fiction it’s not as common to be simply outnumbered for lesbian/wlw readers and writers. But the very same idea of “as long as it’s a good story” comes up, with varying evaluations of what that means, and then varying application of those standards based on where the story exists (mainstream, own voices lit, fanfiction, etc) and who it is intended for, and sometimes who wrote it.

    A personally held view is that many excellent queer writers don’t cross over to mainstream popularity because they won’t give up the shoulder-check. I can’t give it up; after many years and many books, knowing in my heart that it was authentic to myself has been essential to preserving my creativity. It’s not that I can’t envision a world where it’s not necessary, I am still telling the truth to my readers that it is.

    These are treacherous waters to navigate and you did so well.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As a gay man writing gay erotica rather than romance, I run into similar issues in that segment of the market. I agree with your analysis 100%. I’ve gotten a little pushback from female readers on one of my novels where the MC is closeted and dealing with a mother whose health is declining—my male readers have been much more positive.

    And can I say—anyone who thinks women invented m/m romance needs to sit down and read the novels of Phil Andros or the pulp novels of Chris Davidson and Richard Amory. And of course there were the more high-brow works of Forrester, Baldwin, and White. These men were writing in the 1950s and 60s, long before the first m/m romances by women and before the emergence of slash fiction in the 70s. It’s honestly kind of insulting that women have so aggressively colonized gay fiction that they think they invented it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I think of all the “Best Gay Romance” anthologies I own, and how many of them include when the authors died in the biographies, I get even more angry about it, but that’s a rant for another day.


  5. This is great article. I struggle a lot with the question of #ownvoices, for a whole slew of reasons, most certainly including that it’s, as you say, easy to weaponize. I’ve also been having a lot of discussions over on my room comms as to what it means to be #ownvoices writing m/m. Because I think there’s this weird slippage where queer persons in general are considered #ownvoices, and as a lesbian, honestly, I find that… flattening.

    As someone who grew up surrounded by gay men, including my uncle, whom I lost to AIDS, frankly, the fact that you’re including mere shoulder checks in a published m/m book is a fairy tale ending of it’s own type. So I suppose, for whatever reason, I fall into category two. (Admittedly, most of what I read is historical m/m and there are almost negative #ownvoices authors available there.)

    I have avoided the GFY trope because it strikes me as insanely homophobic, to be perfectly honest. The whole point of GFY, right, is, oh, I’m not GAY, you’re just really hot. So I think suggesting pansexuality or bisexuality would undermine the inherent fantasy there: those dudes aren’t QUEER, GASP, they just want to suck reach other’s cocks. For the hawt. And here’s the thing: straight dudes have been doing this to women since vaginas became a thing and all, so maybe that’s fair, idk, but it doesn’t feel good to me.

    So, yeah. Thanks for this, and if you have recommendations of gay men who write m/m historicals, for all that’s holy, throw that my way, would you?


    • I tend to avoid historicals but I’ll definitely have a think.

      And thank you—one of the things I say in my writing workshops is queer is queer, but L isn’t G isn’t B isn’t (necessarily) T isn’t Q etc. Our experiences have commonalities of queerness, but I 100% agree, that I would never feel comfortable writing, say, a romance with bi women leads—I’d much, much rather suggest bi and lesbian authors who are writing women-loving-women books! I’ll include the whole alphabet in my books because I’m aiming for verisimilitude, but POV characters? Narratives around queer POV characters? For those I stick firmly to my own lane with various queer fellas. That isn’t to say there aren’t queer (or even not-queer) people out there who do an amazing job of writing outside their lived experiences, just that I, personally, don’t feel good with the idea of doing so myself. It’s not my skill-set, and I’d rather boost from within.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Check out the Whyborne and Griffin novels by Jordan L. Hawk, which are set in Victorian-era US. Quite a bit of reality in those, thrown in with the fantasy elements. There are also other letters aside from G.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Romance librarian here! You may already know this, but Alexis Hall (of Boyfriend Material) has come out with some historicals this year– Something Fabulous in Jan (sequel Something Spectacular coming March 2023) and A Lady for a Duke in May.


  6. Thank you for writing this, for linking to ‘For You’, and acknowledging the damage done with bisexual erasure in GFY romances.

    I’m a middle aged woman and have been attracted to men and women since I was young. But have had people refer to me as a former lesbian who is straight after marrying my husband. I’ve had people joke that I was always straight since I dated masculine-presenting (butch) women and a Trans woman. I’ve had former friends tell me that since I can pass as straight, I’m not part of the queer community anymore.

    It meant a lot to me to read your words of support.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you so much for this informative and beautifully-written article. It makes me volcanically angry that there are straight women out there who take the view of “it’s not for you anyway, it’s a fantasy for straight women” in relation to gay men’s reactions to m/m work, and use that as justification for writing inaccurate, insensitive, or straight-up damaging material, when those same women likely get apoplectic over the existence of, say, m/f rape porn tagged with the justification of “it’s not for you anyway, it’s a fantasy for straight men”. The hypocrisy is sickening. I’m also astounded that people are entitled enough to take issue with realism “messing with their escapist fantasy” whilst completely failing to recognise that, actually, that realism is the lived reality of a huge amount of people of various orientations and identities around the world.

    I’m a 26 y/o AFAB person who currently identifies as non-binary. I have been questioning for several years whether or not I am a trans man, and I typically write about male characters, and often gay male characters, as a result of this, since it gives me a way of expressing who I truly feel myself to be outwith the constraints of my physical body. Fetishisation and appropriation have always worried me however, since I am not anatomically male at present, have been socialised as female (or at least female-adjacent), and all my romantic and sexual experiences so far have been from that perspective. Your article has reaffirmed me for the importance of sensitivity, respect, and robust research and fact-checking when writing about experiences different from one’s own; your point in particular about considering local laws when travelling had, I’m ashamed to admit, never occurred to me prior to reading your article. The most important thing for me when writing is that my characters come across like real, living, three-dimensional people you could meet in the street, and that those whose experiences, orientations, or identities fall outwith the sphere of my own are portrayed as accurately and sensitively as possible. Thank you for helping me become a better writer by penning this article.

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  8. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.

    Not as a criticism but as an addition: it is my experience (as a bisexual fat cis woman, which has a different set of audience issues) that the requests for escapism rather than representation often come from within the group as well, not only from people outside of it. Some fat readers absolutely want to hear about everyday size acceptance struggles, some absolutely don’t want it mentioned. Some lesbian readers want a world free of homophobia, or sometimes of men entirely, and others feel very much more seen when a story includes struggle and when characters explicitly identify as lesbians and deal with what that means. Some female readers want viewpoint characters to be constantly thinking about sexual violence against women and the acts they take to try and protect themselves from it, some readers want to know that they will never have to be at all worried about sexual violence in the story they are reading.

    No matter what I write someone will be unhappy with it, and many of them will accuse me of ‘pandering’ to some other group or fetish because of my choices, even if I choose differently from work to work.

    I do think it’s important that a diversity of experiences is represented and the idea of a gay fiction award with zero gay male authors included is depressing. But at least in my area, it isn’t as simple as “the authentic in-group experience” vs “the outsider fantasy”


    • I certainly had intended to make enough “in my experience” and “for me” and “when I write” and “the feedback I’ve received” style comments to make it clear I wasn’t stating some sort of universal experience, but rather my own experiences in writing and reading gay/bi+ male queer romance; if it read that way, I clearly didn’t do enough of it.

      I do think there’s room for escapism alongside verisimilitude, but 100% I agree that those within a group don’t have some sort of unanimous idea of authentic/representative/escapist romance. Again, if I made it sound like that, I failed in my attempt on this blog. My point was more that when those reading and writing come from outside the lived experience outnumber those within, the genre is shaped by that majority, and those within can end up underserved, and specifically in the gay/bi+/queer/m/m romance readers and writers, that divide has—again, in my experience—led to a two very distinct desires for a reading experience to be considered as one giant whole when it comes to lists, categories, publishing opportunity, reviews, awards, reviews, etc., to the detriment of those the stories are ostensively about.

      Most of my author friends who write women-loving-women fiction bump into very different issues from their readerships (especially with the inclusion of bi+/pan characters and biphobia/erasure) but from what I’ve seen, it’s not a readership where the majority of the readers and writers aren’t made up of those who are not women who love women. That’s not to say there aren’t authors of other genders or sexualities who write it, but that the “majority” of the voice (and thus the shaping of the category, sales, publishing, expectations, reviews, etc.) is coming from within (with, of course, the giant asterisk that is all the usual issues of racism, ableism, etc).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. ‘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.’

    This is the part that struck me like a cement truck, it’s such a clear & concise explanation of something that’s bothered the back of my mind about the representation debate–for all the questions of who can add queer characters to their stories and what kinds of queer characters and in what kind of stories, the debate keeps re-centering cisheteronormativity. “Are cishet authors allowed to do this?” Why is that the question when we were talking about queer authors? For all ownvoices was meant to center and emphasize creators telling, if not authentic narratives, then at least narratives filtered through their real experiences (by which I mean, the stories may take place in entirely fictional worlds but the characters at least ring true), the debate returns to those with privilege arguing about how much space they’re going to take up (and the ownvoices are drowned out in the noise again). I immediately thought of how creators of color get shouted over and derailed to talk about whether white creators and white consumers are allowed to do this or that, all supposedly in the name of ownvoices too. It also reminds me horribly of the metoo backlash (because I guess I want to drag in every controversial hashtag in the comments section, sorry about that), of “men can’t even talk to women anymore! What’s a man allowed to say, can he say this? Or this? Or is that too sexist? What if he–” The focus always returns to the privileged.

    And I don’t buy that it’s purely ignorance. Granted, I’m paranoid, but in a world where not long ago it was considered acceptable to openly discriminate against X-group, and now it’s not necessarily accepted in the open but still excused if someone makes a claim of ignorance, I don’t trust that readers, other authors, publishing companies, people in general really care about “good” stories as much as they care about maintaining their status and worldview…especially when the argument against something is that it ruins the ‘escapism’ of the reading experience. That’s just “keep this family-friendly, think of the children” with a palette swap–“don’t bring up your life in a way that makes me uncomfortable.” Doubly so when the loudest group determines the profitability of telling/not telling a narrative; if it becomes more profitable to shut down anything that threatens the enjoyment of the privileged few, then marginalized creators have no platform and they’ve been silenced once again. Particularly insidious when non-marginalized creators can continue to profit off stories revolving around the identities who have no say in the matter.

    This comes off as a conspiracy theory bulletin board, I should break out the thumbtacks and string. But this line from your post hit something so true that I think has been ignored for too long. If the privileged decide which marginalized narratives are acceptable or worthwhile, the privileged are still determining who gets to speak.

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  11. Thank you, thank you for this. If I get to teach a queer literature course, I’m going to include this essay, and hell, include a book! Because shoulder checks are part of being queer. Going to go do my best to buy more queer romance from queer folks but also give them amazon reviews, etc, to counter the outnumberedness. And, lordy, you make me want to write some of it, too. 🙂 Thank you, Nathan! Off to buy books!

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  13. Thank you for this!

    I (a gay man) randomly discovered the mm/gay romance genre about 9 months ago (via the What Women Want: Gay Romance documentary) and had the classic “I had no idea this existed” reaction – and realized that the stories I’ve been coming up with and trying to fit into screenplays actually fit perfectly in the romance novel genre. Since then I’ve been soaking things in, not rushing to push something out there.

    Some things I’ve noticed:

    Looking at the Lambda awards for gay romance – it looks like the winners were exclusively male up until 2015, from which point all but one of the winners have been women. It feels extremely odd that women would submit their books for this award. If I wrote a book with lead characters who were lesbian, or Black, or Hispanic, I can’t imagine putting myself in the running for awards that celebrated those identities/backgrounds/categories. Why is it an accepted thing in gay romance?

    Talking about taking you out of the story – what’s up with all the MARRIAGE PROPOSALS? It’s telling that gay romance written by women has really seemed to have exploded since 2015, when same-sex marriage became legal in the US. Now it seems like 90% of novels end in at least a marriage proposal. I’ve been with my partner since 1992 and the idea of getting married now, because enough straight people are okay with it, just feels…gross. I know that’s a complicated personal thing, but I’ve yet to come across a gay romance novel that really acknowledges or grapples with this in any substantial way. In other words, heteronormative relationships seem to have become a genre expectation for many readers, and that’s…maybe problematic?

    Anyway, I’m SO curious to see how this genre evolves, and what I may be able to contribute to it. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Re: the marriage ‘endings’—it’s funny, but I think I’ve only popped a marriage proposal into one novella—where the men are friends over fifteen years first. (I’d also love to see more queer relationships in romance show how marriage equality meant legal protections, not just ‘woo, love is love’).

      I’ve also bumped a lot into “and now we adopt a child!” plotlines, too, which… Kind of completely skips the absolute intense, invasive, *incredibly* taxing process that is adoption and turns it into “of course now they have children, they’re a couple!” heteronormative ending. It’s not like ordering pizza.

      As for the Lammies… oof. Yeah, I… I don’t even know how to feel about those any more.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks for making this very thoughtful discussion. As a gay man the handful of male /male romance stories I read felt very inauthentic. They didn’t exude the versimilitude of my life, the shoulder check as you describe, and some of the physical sensations during sex acts were not described correctly. A little digging revealed that in fact the author was a woman. It was a nice try, but it fell short of working for me. And this was a book that was kind of a bestseller and widely touted.

    I’ve written gay erotica for a while. I didn’t really have to worry about shoulder checks or wondering who my audience was because I was writing shorts that were mostly for quick fun and unambiguously targeted directly at gay men. But I eventually stumbled into a story that was really powerful, and quite to my surprise pivoted from quick erotic horror short to a full-on gay Christmas romance/urban fantasy novel. People actually begged me to publish it so they could buy a physical copy. So suddenly I was a gay romance author. (I actually did self-publish my book this past Christmas, and got moderate sales from it.) While writing it, I was worried that I was the only gay man out there writing a story to the terms of his own satisfaction, and that because I wasn’t writing it in that unrealistic fetishized way that the books I’d previously encountered were written, it wouldn’t resonate with people.

    I’m so happy to find that I am not out here alone. And I’ve even gotten comments from some women who enjoy male stories who told me they just loved every single bit of it. And I’ve got a shoulder check moment or two in the book. So I guess I have been lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Such a fascinating post. Thank you. Your point about how unwelcoming “women write the best m/m” feels to gay writers is so important. As a woman, I’m a little annoyed that some female readers say such things, and I hope we can consider why it’s inappropriate and take this on board. In terms of allyship, I also agree there’s a lot that women can learn in how to be better allies to gay men. I think we think we are, but perhaps we aren’t listening to gay men enough. (My own personal bugbear is how some women treat gay men as a sort of trendy accessory, like handbag or a chihuahua. “Oh, he’s my gay BFF. Isn’t he adorable? He’s just like a girl but he’s boy!” Etcetera. Which is (a) patronising and (b) feeds into a pretty stereotypical picture of gay men.)

    As regards the shoulder check, surely this is down to “straight privilege”? As a bisexual who thought they were straight for many years (doh), it took me a long time to recognise that part of this privilege is in never having to second guess yourself with your partner in public, never having to be on a kind of psychological guard because it may not be safe to show affection, and so on. Straight people don’t get it. Not because they are bigots (although some are, of course, but screw them) but because it’s a blind spot. (Like I, as someone who can walk well, never noticed a single thing about how people who use wheelchairs must feel with all the stupid narrow doorways in shops and lifts, until I had baby with a huge pushchair and the lightbulb went on.)

    I also wonder if, in addition to being (perhaps understandably) blinded by a straight privilege, and (less understandably) not listening to gay men enough, some women think they “own” romance – including what’s called “m/m romance”. Obviously, as I’m commenting here, I like gay romance/erotica (as many women do, for feminist reasons I won’t go into here, but which are important to recognise) and I also like wider gay fiction too. I once joined a m/m readers group, and, honestly? I thought I was age 13 back at my old-fashioned British girl’s school. It was so cliquey and childish, a kind of social club for girls, and I left pretty quick. I wonder if this is partly what has left you feeling outnumbered? The schoolgirlish nature of the community, along with the narrow & unsophisticated view some may have of what being gay is actually like, shows a kind of condescending ignorance of the profound cultural, social, even historical implications of MLM relationships in a fiction setting. It’s not intentional, but that doesn’t make it any better, because the lack of thought is the problem.

    I appreciate your considered tone on this whole issue – and the respect you are careful to give women, who are, after all, also a marginalised group – and I’ll continue to think over your points in days to come.


    • Thank you for your thoughts, and yes, the one thing I didn’t want to do was make anyone feel like I was saying they ‘shouldn’t’ write something, just rather examine why they want to and how doing so might impact those they’re writing about.

      I don’t think it’s so much that I “feel” outnumbered, though. Queer men writing queer men romance are absolutely outnumbered by non-queer authors writing queer men romance, which is the crux of the issue.


      • Fair enough point about use of “feel”. It’s better to use “are”, because it’s a fact.

        Thinking about the “why” more deeply, however, is a good idea. It may help gay male writers to understand that women come into these arenas not to oppress, but to liberate themselves from their own oppression. Just as – rough analogy – some gay men appropriate femininity & femaleness in drag, to find safe spaces where they can be free to express parts of themselves that they otherwise can’t in wider society. Women’s relationship to their own sexuality, self-objectification & lack of connection to the male body is complex and oppressive – created, really, by patriarchy. In male-male fiction women are freed from some of that. They can be the subject, not the object. It may in some cases have problematic effects, just like drag can. I guess it’s up to the individual to decide whether, or how far, we gatekeep these things. From my point of view, none of us should be oppressing or silencing another marginalised group at the expense of protecting our own, in any direction.


  16. I’m not familiar with m/m literature, but I find it strange that women are taking that much space in this niche- I hope “niche” is not offensive.
    I guess this is what literature does, it opens doors to an infinite number of lives that aren’t our own- for reader and writers alike. But as a polynesian native woman myself, I’ve grown up so acutely weary about whose narrative is told by whom. Here we’re talking about romance, a lighthearted topic, not historical or cultural material. Or aren’t we? How can a gay character be developed without the historical/cultural/political weight tied to his gayness? What does it say about a “happy ending” if it can stand the trial of reality. Escapism is good, I think, but smoothing representation into a fantasy has serious flipsides. As a polynesian who’s bisexual, I’ve heard and seen both pivotal traits of my identity being narrated to me, objectified, alienated by people who were foreign to my experience. Of course harmful clichés, tropes came from that, nurtured even, and not only by ill intentioned people. Sometimes it was the opposite, people claiming their respect, paying homage to whatever they found in my identity that wasn’t sufficiently interesting/thrilling in theirs. How surprising was that biphobia often times didn’t exist or, on the contrary, was the only struggle coming in the way of love relationships? Anyway this is not a conversation for me to have, after reading your piece, I can only support your clarity and wish for your community (gay authors writing m/m stories) to come together make your voice heard.
    Misrepresentation is not that big of a deal until it’s repercussions snowballs into generations being deprived of their voice, because the romanticized version of who they are was more fun. If the truth is a mood killer, in romance, or comedy even, then, maybe this is the definition of “not so good” literature. Or of “not so good” readers.

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  17. This is a brilliant essay. I read it the day it came out, I’ve read it a stack of times since, and I’ve hawked it around to any bugger that will listen. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for saying so eloquently what apoplectic hotheads like myself could never put into words. It had a huge influence on me and was one of the few kicks in the butt I needed to find and secure a publisher for my own queer fiction. I was out in the wilderness, convinced there was no place for the realism I wanted to inject into my gay romances, yet stubbornly digging my heels in and refusing to change. “The Shoulder Check” convinced me I didn’t need to and gave me the hubris to get those first couple of books out.

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