As I’m sure is obvious by now, I read a lot of books with queer characters, and quite a few of them are romances. There are themes and ideas that repeat throughout genres, and romance is no different. Some pop up in queer romances more often than others, and some… Well.
I’m going to do something I rarely do, and I’m going to ask you, gentle reader, to shut up for a second, and listen to a sub-sub-subset of an #ownvoice for a moment. And, especially, I’m talking to writers who don’t belong to that subset.
Now, what subset am I talking about?
Quite a few readers did notice that none of my main characters in the Triad books have family. It’s on purpose.
Those of us who got kicked to the curb. The disowned and disinherited. The queers who, upon coming out, ended up losing biological relatives. Not due to our nature, but due to theirs. Their hateful or bigoted or ignorant choice to cut us off.
Now, I bring this up because I just bumped into yet another book where a queer character is treated abysmally and tossed to the curb by their family and by the end of the book the family has come around, and this is seen by all as a good thing, and the whole they’re family and family is acceptance and love trope has played out in full.
And I hate it.
If you’ll bear with me, I’m going to draw two (perhaps imperfect) romance parallels.
Parallel the first: A woman is emotionally abused by a man she is seeing and living with. He treats her terribly, manipulates her, destroys her self-worth, all because he feels a woman’s place is to be heard, not seen, and he finds her desire to be a sexual being in control of her own choices disgusting and backward. When she dares to tell him she wants to be in control of her body, he locks her out of their home, changes the locks, empties their joint account, and leaves her with nothing. She is very, very lucky and survives being penniless and alone long enough to put her life back together. Then he contacts her, and tells her he’s changed.
Would you want to read a romance novel where they reconnect after he wakes up to the bare bones basics of feminism and they end up together? Would you maybe wonder about the message being sent by a novel that paints this man as the romantic hero, or this woman as the romantic heroine, given that she gives him another chance?
Parallel the second: A woman finds an abused animal that has run away. She nurses the animal back to health, and slowly, over time, the animal recovers its ability to trust human beings. Then, one day, the animal reacts to a man when they are out for a walk. She learns this is the man who abused the animal. He has, however, since entered a discussion group for men with anger issues and come to terms with his reasons for kicking the dog and locking it outside with no food or warmth and letting it run away. He wants his dog back.
Would you want to read a romance novel where she hands the dog back over and falls for this guy because he’s changed? Would you be more in the camp of ‘people like that should never be given another animal ever again, let alone the one they hurt originally?’
You’re probably getting the point I’m trying to make here.
I’m not sure why this specific story—the queer kid kicked out who eventually gets the love of his family and they all get back together in a tearful ‘I’m so sorry’ moment—is told so often.
It’s certainly not realistic.
Now, I know what’s coming: it’s fiction. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic (though, you know what, I’m not sure I agree there: if you ask me fiction has to have verisimilitude, and that’s harder than realistic—fiction has to make sense, which real life certainly doesn’t have to do).
But, more to the point, I imagine many of you are thinking: it’s not just a fiction, it’s a romance. Romances have happy endings.
Right. I agree.
So what’s so happy about reuniting an abuser with the abused? Make no mistake, abandonment is abuse. Why is it that this narrative about queer happiness includes someone who disregarded their health, safety, happiness, and emotions “getting” that they’re worthy of those things, and why does the story need the queer character to not just forgive them (which, let’s be clear, they do not have to do) but to also invite them back into their lives?
What’s the message of that narrative?
I bounced this one out as a question on Facebook, and the replies were pretty interesting and thoughtful. But there was a single thread I’m going to mention first going back to that whole “shut up and listen” thing I said at the beginning.
Not a single person I know who has lived through getting turfed to the curb wants anything to do with their families. Some might speak with them now—I’m one of those, though it’s out of a desire to connect with my niece and nephew more than anything else—but what none of us showed a desire for? Reconciliation and reintegration with the people who tossed us out.
What’s my sample size? More than you’d likely think. And my little post turned into a couple of posts on friends’ walls, too, and as I read those, the same thing happened: no one who’d lived through it had the slightest inclination to get their so-called “real family” back.
I say it jokingly, but I do mean it: Blood is only thicker than water in one way, as far as I’ve determined: it stains worse.
So. Knowing that, I looked at the books where I’d been seeing this narrative, and I noticed a few of things.
One, when it was possible to find out, the vast majority of these stories weren’t #ownvoice authors. That stood out. My first thought there was to wonder if any of the authors had spoken to someone who’d been cut off from their family, or if they’d just heard the facts about the rates of disowning/LGBTQIA+ homelessness, and used it as a plot point with no further research.
Two, the narratives written by #ownvoices which still included this “reunion/reconciliation” generally had a trace more realism, like one parent coming to terms and leaving the other to stand by the kid, or the queer child in question being very skeptical and not allowing the parent or parents in question access to their life on anything but their own terms. Or, the breakdown from the family wasn’t extremely harsh, or came later in life when the character has resources of their own, which still stings and is horrible, but if the turnaround on the part of the family is pretty quick it can almost read more like a fight or a bad reaction rather than the emotional abuse that is complete rejection and detachment.
Three, it was much, much rarer to find stories that rejected this narrative and lined up with something closer to the reality as I and so many others experienced it: where the queer character forms a chosen family, and the parents don’t return to be a part of the queer character’s life—and those generally were written by #ownvoice queer authors.
So my question is this: why? Why is this facet of queer kicked-out-youth reality dealt with so unrealistically in fiction?
I have a few theories, but no real answers.
- Maybe it’s intended as a hopeful message that people can change. Well, yeah. Of course that’s a goal in queer culture. That’s the whole point of education and fighting the roots of queer hate in the first place. Obviously we want people to change and move away from hating us queerfolk. But this narrative goes a step further than showing that people can change, in that it takes the abuser and turns elevates them to a position of respect, trust, and love, and assumes (or enforces) a forgiveness on the part of the abused. Let’s talk random bigots who attack us. Do we really want to snuggle up with the people who used to shove us into lockers, throw garbage at us, or beat us up on the street? No. We just want them to stop. When it’s the ones who were supposed to love us who are doing the hating, that doesn’t change. If anything, it makes their initial rejection all the more scarring.
- Maybe it’s intended to show the reader that family is more important than… something? Anything? Hate? Bigotry? Whatever? That one’s biological family has an inherent value that needs to be maintained and repaired no matter what? Because, well, no. An abusive relationship is toxic and should be escaped for your mental, emotional, and physical health, regardless of blood relation. We have whole departments and organizations to help people escape toxic environments. Hell, a tonne of queer youth on the streets are afraid of those organizations because they don’t want to be forced back to live with their families.
- Maybe it’s intended to show queer kids want their parents to love and accept them? Well, yes. Don’t all kids want that? But here’s the thing with this: that story is already told when the parents reject the child, too. It’s pretty clear that’s not what the queer individual wanted. So, message received. That sucks, and isn’t what we wanted. But if the story continues to bring in the parents after that, then you’re not telling the queer kid’s story any more. Now the narrative is as much about the journey to acceptance the parents are making. And if I can be blunt, as I said up above, the last thing any kicked-to-the-curb queer I know wanted, after abuse/being kicked out, was the love and acceptance of the people who did the kicking. Some wanted love, sure, but not from their parents. Most would have preferred never having to see them again.
- And maybe, if I allow myself to be a bit more cynical, it’s just thoughtless. It’s a trope, after all, based on a pretty culturally-pervasive fallacy reinforced by pretty much every kind of entertainment narrative we see. Family comes first. Blood is thicker than water. Maybe these are cases of writers who haven’t lived a certain experience and haven’t realized what the reality is like, and so projecting without considering there’s a message being propagated at all.
So. Where does that leave me?
To put it clearly: I can think of no reason I’d ever want to be closely reunited with my abuser/family under any circumstances, period. I don’t want it—I have faith in the love and trust I’ve found elsewhere that I can’t even imagine trying to have with my biological. And this doesn’t feel like a loss or a failure.
I do not have to forgive. I am not broken if I don’t forgive, or holding on to some toxic poison that will give me a spiritual sickness. Forgiveness is conflated with a lot of things. Reaching a state where someone doesn’t think about it any more, or can think about it without feeling shame/pain/hurt is a kind of forgiveness, and has nothing to do with the abuser. People seem to think reaching peace has to include facing the person and letting them know/letting them apologize if they’re willing, and that seems a dangerous a conceit in my experience. Some people take a path that includes forgiveness, being face-to-face with their abusers, and that’s fantastic. But it’s not the only path.
If that’s the only story ever told, I think there’s a problem. What message is that sending to queers in that position? Hold on to hope, they may come around if you wait long enough, and there’s inherent value to having a relationship with these people just because they’re related to you?
That’s… just not true.
So, that’s where I ended up, and it occurred to me that perhaps it was worth sharing. If you as a writer are including in your queer character’s narrative a familial disowning, emotional or mental abuse, assault, or a complete breakdown ending in a kicked-out scenario, and you’re not drawing on an #ownvoice experience, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to ask yourself why you’re doing so if the narrative ends in a reconciliation.