Conversion Therapy, Revenge Porn, and Criticism

I always feel like I need to start blogs like this with a caveat: I’m not telling someone they can’t write something. I will never tell someone they can’t write something. Much like my latest “Why You?” post over at SpAN, or previous discussions over Pseudonym vs Identity or Gay-For-You, I want to be super clear on this point, again, just in case: I’m not suggesting a limitation who can write what. At all.

What I am suggesting is there are topics that need a tonne of forethought, and that some topics are definitely going to get critical feedback. This? This is critical feedback.

So. A book crossed over to my radar yesterday which had multiple plot threads that gave me pause. I only ended up talking about one of them because I had spoons enough for one go, but I’ll touch on more today likely.

Now, this book hit my radar because of a review, and between the review and the blurb, I knew enough to know this was not a book I was going to read. The set-up is this: a gay man who is the sun of a reverend who runs a conversion therapy camp is outed viciously by another gay man who will stop at nothing to bring down the conversion therapy camp, so he films them having sex and releases it to the public. Years pass, and the man who released the video is now a war veteran returning to the same town, the conversion therapy camp is still running, and the man who was outed speaks at the camp in support, while dating a woman and trying to defeat his gay demons. Oh, and then they fall in love, forgive each other, and the religious fellow finds balance in his faith and his queerness.

And, deep breath.

Now, where I got frustrated yesterday was with the framing of the conversion therapy camp. The review made it clear that while the camp isn’t successful, and the story in no way says “it works, you can be cured!” and even touches upon how damaging it is, the father is presented as not-a-monster, someone who is misguided, who really does love the kids in his care, and that’s a really big problem, and is the first part of my criticism.

RTC - Nathan Teaching

I talk about writing queer stuff at conferences often, and questions of “real life stuff as plot bunnies” comes up a lot.

With respect: there is no loving way to support conversion therapy, and presenting a scenario any other way humanizes a dehumanizing, violently homophobic practice that kills queer people. I get this is fictional, and the character(s) of the father and son (who, again, works/speaks at this camp) might be written as otherwise amazing and compassionate, but no. One of them owns/runs a conversion therapy place, the other works there.

Conversion therapy kills queer people.

This strikes me as similar to the “redemption of the homophobic parent who kicks out the queer kid” plot I struggle with, but—frankly—all the worse. The review read very much like the character is perhaps “meaning well.” Like, somehow the father believes these children will truly be cured of their queerness and that would be better for their souls. Certainly, there are religious elements out there who feel that way. But framing it as coming from a loving place? That’s not loving, not at all. It’s somewhere in the Venn diagram of bigotry, gas-lighting, and brainwashing, just done super politely and with an “amen.”

It’s an imperfect analogy, but maybe compare this plot set up to any story where children die because the parents believe faith means they should use maple syrup rather than any form of medicine. The important thing isn’t whether or not those parents meant well otherwise, or aren’t outwardly abusive, no? It’s that the kid needs the medicine and if the child dies, that’s neglect/abuse/murder. You don’t see empathy levelled at parents who let their children die, nor would a redemption arc be welcomed.

Now, within the book review were mentions of suicide attempts, and mention was also made that this may have been a turning point for the reverend character. A person running a conversion camp is literally, actively, completely responsible for that. Deconstructing their motive as loving/not-so-bad/not-intentionally-awful?

That’s a poor choice. There’s no mention of whether or not the camp is shut down in the review, or whether or not the reverend goes to jail, or whether or not the rest of the children in his care are rescued and removed from their parents or, or, or… But the review did make it clear that care was taken to paint the reverend as a complex man who truly does, gosh darn it, love and care for his son.

No. No he doesn’t. He can’t. Not if he’s involved with conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy is abuse. Supporters of conversion therapy are abusers. They are not loving, misguided parents who just need a NOH8 face sticker and our empathy so they see their institutions are bad. Those places need to be fought to a standstill, outlawed, and torn apart. They still exist. Today. They run. They’re not fictional. They’re awful and evil and kill queer people.

But, like I said, maybe the book does all these things to make it clear the man is evil, the organization is evil, and the queer kids are rescued and the institution is burned to the ground and the reverend ends up in jail. Maybe I’m misreading the review and the blurb, but it sure sounds like these characters are presented as “bad, but y’know, they do love them in their own way.”

And, again: no. All the no.

Conversion therapy kills, maims, tortures and destroys queer folk. Even if it’s wrapped in some “we love you, but pray hard to be different!” snuggie, it’s still all of the above.

So. I said all of that yesterday, and then stopped because I didn’t have more in me, but I also want to talk about the other character, too.

He videotaped himself having sex with the reverend’s son and then released it to the world to out the son. That’s… reprehensible. And, like conversion therapy camps, this is a scenario with a similar occurrence in reality. A young gay man, Tyler Clementi, was outed via a web-cam as a victim of homophobic cyberbullying. He committed suicide. His tormentors were charged, though one got community service.

I imagine the intention was to spin motivation as a key factor. The gay man in question is trying to destroy the conversion therapy camp, which is a solid goal. But to do so by violating and assaulting the closeted gay man is abhorrent (and let’s be clear, he did not gain permission for this act—this is assault). Revenge porn—even to bring down a hateful conversion therapy camp—is abhorrent.

And this character is a romantic lead.

Because, yes, this is marketed as a romance. A happy-ever-after (or -for-now) is in the cards for these two men.

And this is the second part of my criticism. I’ve mentioned this before with the whole “redemption of the gay basher who turns out to be gay” thing, but I struggle to imagine a romance scenario where a man would violate and assault a woman in the same way—film his taking of a woman’s virginity for any reason, without her consent, and air it to the world—and would still be considered redeemable as a hero for a romance novel.

And that’s just considering him a worthy romantic lead. Going one step further and pairing a man with the very person he violated and assaulted publicly? Putting the abused with the abuser as a romantic happy-ever-after or happy-for-now narrative under the umbrella of “forgiveness” is worrisome. Surviving (and thriving) after violence, or assault, or any form of traumatic victimization is in and of itself a lifelong effort. Pairing the survivor of trauma up with the person who traumatized them?

That’s a choice. And framing it as romantic is another choice. If those who’ve survived trauma criticize this choice was abhorrent, and dismissive, and adding to the struggle and stigma that already exists around surviving trauma and the pressure of “forgiveness” from others, I don’t think “it’s a romance” or “it’s just fiction” will really cut it. It’s similar to the whole “gay-bashers-aren’t-hot” discussion I had recently.

Anyway. This is already too long.

Conversion therapy is hateful, violent, and kills queer people; people involved in it cannot be allies or claim to love queer people.

Revenge porn is abhorrent and a violation and an assault; no one has to forgive someone who violates and assaults them.

It’s unfortunate that has to be critical feedback.




Soap Bubble, from PixaBay.

I only know my own part, but that’s all any of us can say. But before I begin, I need you to understand one thing above all: I was rescued twice, not once, but I was never kidnapped.

But I should start at the beginning, which I guess is the garret.

For most people, if you live in a garret you get two views. One is the view through your window, where you can see the whole city, up high like a bird. The other is the way people view you, which is the complete opposite. Us poor people lived in the garrets, where even as young as I was when all this began, I had to duck down on one side of our room so I wouldn’t hit my head on the slope of the roof.

And in my case, I had a third view but it had barely started. A glance in water, a moment in front of the small mirror my mother kept, or catching a glance at the side of a teapot.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I did have a grandmother, but I lived with my parents and brothers, too, all of us in our two rooms with one window, but if people talk about my family they only talk about my grandmother. I had friends—we garret kids had the top set of stairs to ourselves, after all—but mostly there was Gerda.

Gerda didn’t live in my building. Her family was in the one next door, but if I scarpered out my window I could climb into hers, and between the windows her papa built a box where my grandmother grew vegetables, some herbs, and sometimes even a flower or two.

They weren’t roses. You don’t grow roses in garret flower boxes.

I guess that’s the first thing you’ve been told that’s wrong. They were pansies. And it’s more important than you’d think. Pansies are tough.

It took me quite a while to figure that part out for myself.




It was my grandmother that told me about the Queen of the Snow. When winter came, and the last of the things that grew in the box were gone, she’d tell me stories by the light of the window, or read to me from the only book we had in our rooms. My parents worked most of the day—my father chipping away deep in the stone of the earth, my mother keeping one of the great houses fed without being seen. Two of my brothers were already working with my father—I imagined that would have been me, too, if not for everything that would come—and my third brother was out selling, carrying his tray-box around his neck and stomping his feet in the cold.

My brothers always looked at me like I’d done something wrong being born last. Like somehow, staying home with my grandmother and holding the yarn while she knitted, or cleaning the floors while she cooked up a stew from bits and pieces was a great life they’d missed out on for having been born before me.

Me? I watched them climb down all the stairs every day and go out into the city and walk through the streets and thought they had freedom.

We were both wrong. They were no more free than I was, they just got a different view and had more people to talk to.

I should say my Grandmother never meant to be cruel. When they say she loved me, I suppose in her way, in a fashion, she did. Same with Gerda, really. But there’s love and there’s love. So when my grandmother warned me about the Snow Queen, she thought she was doing me a good deed.




I heard the same stories year after year—my grandmother only had so many—but when frost started to draw patterns on the glass of our window, that was usually when I’d hear about the Snow Queen. The frost reminded her, I think.

“She’s a queen like bees in their boxes have queens, my boy. You have to watch the snow. Sometimes what seems white and pure and delicate isn’t—that’s her.”

My grandmother would trace her finger on the glass, pressing it against the surface until the frost melted.

“Watch for the snow. Sometimes it’s not snow. When you see the snowflakes gathering in the light make sure they’re not hers. They’re more like bees, my boy. Like bees made of ice so sharp and fit to cut you like glass.”

After that, she’d knit for a while in silence, and I’d watch the ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller until the candles grew dim and it was time to start the evening tea, and I would go down all the stairs to fetch water or sweep the room and after I’d look at the frost on the window and wonder about bees made of glass.

“Beware her kisses, my boy. One kiss and you’ll be as cold as she is, two and you’ll be as heartless, and if you allow a third…” Here she would pause, and look over her glasses at me. “A third is death.”

That winter, the winter they talk about, I barely slept. I lay by the fire in my blankets, shivering with a cold that had little to do with the drafts of an attic room. My grandmother had started to ask about my friendship with Gerda.

My eldest brother would soon be married, and he would leave us in spring.

I knew what she was asking, and I knew I couldn’t answer.

I gave up trying to sleep and paced the small room, wishing the movement and stoking the fire would warm me inside where the cold of fear was settling. To the window. Back again. In the other room, the rest of my family slept. I tried whispering rhymes to myself—Gerda had a silly rhyme about pansies she liked to sing to me—and sometimes that would help.

But that night it didn’t.

The cold inside me only grew worse the more I thought about the days ahead.

So I went to the window.

It was just a glimpse. A woman, tall and beautiful, in a cloak as white as freshly fallen snow. She was walking through the street, and the angle between the two buildings from our garret window meant my glimpse was brief.

But she turned, and she met my gaze.

Her smile seemed kind.

I pulled away from the window, went back to my bed by the fire, and pulled the cloth over my eyes. I should have been terrified.

Instead, for the first time in months, I finally felt warm.

That night I realized I liked the stories of the Snow Queen better than the ones from the book, which so often made my insides twist, desperate and terrified, even as my grandmother swore we’d all be welcomed in paradise. She said she knew our hearts, and we were all worthy.

I knew better. I only had to see a mirror to be reminded.

And I knew better than to say so.




For all the warnings my grandmother made in winter, it was in summer it began. I had brought a bucket to the plant box between our garret windows and Gerda had a picture book. I don’t know where she got it, but it seemed like a very beautiful thing to me. There were dancing ladies and men in great coats and so many birds.

I was using a ladle to water the plants. If that seems silly, understand: if I could, I didn’t want to have to go get a second bucket of water and carry it all the way up all the stairs to the garret. With a ladle, I could be careful, and water each vegetable enough with just one bucket.

“Look at these two,” Gerda said. She pointed to a group of pipers, each man playing music. Her voice was hushed, as though she was telling me a secret.

I looked at the picture. Two of the pipers were holding hands.

Heat and cold warred inside me, despite the summer day. I opened my mouth to say something, glancing down at the bucket, and I saw Gerda’s reflection.

She was recoiling from me, pulling away and shaking her head. Disgusted, or afraid, or just pitying. It was hard to tell on the surface of the water, but I was sure of one thing: like every reflection I happened to look into, it was telling me a truth.

It was a warning.

“It’s a terrible thing,” I said, meaning one thing, but knowing Gerda would hear another. She gave me a little nod and closed the book, and helped me water the rest of the vegetables.

I watched as every ladle lowered the water in the bucket. Gerda seemed to get further and further away.

“Gerda,” I said, before there wasn’t enough water left to show her face. “Are we friends?”

She smiled at me. It was a sunny smile, as warm as the day. “Of course we are.”

Her reflection shook her head.

I poured the last of the water into the garden. The pansies were bright and pretty, even though the wind had been strong for days many were a little beaten down. I wished I had half the courage they had.




It was easy to catch my grandmother’s reflection, too. Between the basin where we washed the dishes, and the small mirror in the garret, it just took a little forethought. When I allowed myself to think of myself as I was, and whisper a word out loud, her reflection would turn from me. Or raise both hands to the heavens, pleading and afraid. Or weep.

That was the worst.

After, I kept my own counsel, and I tried to avoid anything that reflected, but it wasn’t always possible. My grandmother noticed. So did Gerda. And my grandmother even noticed how little Gerda and I spoke, and that gave her more concern.

“Have you argued?” she asked me, one autumn afternoon.

“No, grandmother,” I said. I was always respectful. I did nothing to give her any reason to worry about me. But I knew it couldn’t last forever. Her face was full of concern.

“Good,” she said, but I knew she felt it was anything but. Her stories turned to tales of those who didn’t allow love in their hearts, and the various cataclysms befalling them. Every story seemed to begin with someone who lost love from their heart and become cruel, and ended with someone who loved them bringing them back from some dark place.

I learned to close my eyes when I passed the garret mirror, and keep my gaze above the water when I washed plates or watered the plant box.




By winter, the tales my grandmother told were once again of the Snow Queen, and I was barely sleeping. I could not find enough blankets, and I singed myself by sleeping too close to the fire. Nothing thawed the fear every mirror, window, or pool of water revealed to me: if they knew, they would turn away.

And worse, I knew if would eventually be when.

After a particularly heavy snow, and a productive morning, my grandmother suggested I go outside with my sled. I knew she wanted me to go with the others my age, and especially Gerda, but I took her to her word and no further and carried my sled outside by myself. Between the fear in my chest and the snow that was still falling, I was soon chilled through, though I did ride down the slope of the lane a few times.

It was there, at the end of our lane, I saw the carriage sleigh. It was beautiful: its wood painted white, trimmed with fur and bells and somehow stately in a way I couldn’t explain. And on it, as though she were waiting for me all this time, was the beautiful woman herself, in her white furs and smiling her kind smile for me.

Children would hitch their sleds to carriage sleighs like this, to have a ride. But this was her carriage sleigh, and I looked around and saw no other children and the snow in the air seemed to swirl in and on itself in little circles, less like snow and more like bees.

My grandmother’s warnings conjured nothing. I should have been afraid. I shivered, but it was not born of fear of this woman.

I tied my sled to the carriage sleigh, and her smile stole any shred of worry I might have had.

The ride out of the city was incredible. There were no crowds of people in our way. Everyone seemed to step aside just in time, and I found myself laughing as the snow itself blew into people’s faces and made them turn, or twist, or pause. We flew through the streets, and when we came to rest outside the gates, I was panting from laughter.

I untied my sled, and went to thank her.

The woman on the carriage sleigh was no longer just a beautiful woman in white fur. She had cast aside her fur coat, and beneath she wore snow and ice gathered like a fine gown. Her eyes were the palest blue I’d ever seen, and I could see my own reflection in them.

And just for a second, I saw myself smiling, and happy.

“You are the Snow Queen,” I said.

She nodded once. “I am.”

“Are you here to hurt me?”

Those pale blue eyes filled with a sadness so familiar I ached for her. “Do you think I am?”

I shook my head.

“Most people can’t see me,” she said.

“I see things,” I said. “In mirrors. In glass. In water. In…”

“Ice?” she said.

I nodded. “Reflections.”

“You see a person’s heart, then?”

“I think so.” I swallowed. “Yes. Truths, I think. Words in my head make truths in reflections.”

The Snow Queen waved her hand, and snow whirled in a circle beside us, a swarm of flakes that wove the air itself into ice so perfect and smooth I could see both of us on its surface.

“And what do you see of me?” she asked.

I looked at the reflection, and I allowed myself to imagine telling her more of myself. Not just of the things I could see in mirrors.

In the ice, the Snow Queen opened her arms in welcome, and I stepped into her embrace.

“I do not love,” I said. “Not as they want me to.”

When the Snow Queen embraced me, she kissed my forehead. And finally, the cold fear that had lived inside my heart was gone. My grandmother was right: I was as cold as she was.

It was just that she wasn’t cold at all.

“They’ll never understand,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

And so the Snow Queen kissed me again.

I was not made heartless, either. The second kiss drew a distance in my thoughts and memories, though, and a clarity to know I could not be what they expected. It wasn’t heartlessness. It was understanding that some hearts could not be pleased.

Enough understanding to know it was time to leave.




There was indeed a magic in reflection, and I could touch it. The Snow Queen took me to her palace, tucked away in the northern woods where snow and pines reigned around us in a peaceful and beautiful rest. She had friends, people like us, who would visit a while from time to time, but mostly she lived alone, content and happy with her own company.

She took me to a lake frozen mirror perfect, and began to teach me.

“I work with snow and ice and memory,” she said. “You work with words, reflection, and potential. I’m not sure how much of what I know might guide you, but for me, it always comes to a thought—a word as a truth—and the magic takes the rest.”

It was like that for me, too. I had only to imagine words of truth on my lips, and I could see the reactions that those words would bring in the reflections of those around me, but to do so with a purpose beyond discovering how others would react?

We started with simple things.

The Snow Queen would speak of winter, and for her, the snow would shift and twist and fly around in squalls about us, covering the world in a layer of white that no longer left me cold.

And so I spoke those words, and beneath us, the surface of the lake showed me winters around the world, where people woke and shared greetings, or where those who were alone would gaze out upon the snow-covered beauty of the season, and perhaps see something in it worth knowing. And, a few times, I even saw others like us—a valiant antlered deer who seemed to be fighting off wolves with a blazing light, and a woman who could pull time taught and hold it steady, and a young slight man who drew patterns of frost on every surface he touched with his bare hand—and I knew that even in the simplest words and truths there was much to learn.

I would often spend the whole of the night outside, for it seemed to me that the reflections I saw in moonlight were different from those in sunlight, and besides which, I had no fear of the cold thanks to the Snow Queen’s first kiss.

If I was not happy, it was not that I was unhappy.  If I was alone, it was worth saying that I was not lonely. The Snow Queen would visit, and she would see what words I had uncovered, and often join in for a while to speak them herself and see what, if anything, they would do when she used them.

When I said “home” under the sunlight I saw my family, who believed I had drowned in a river. When I said “home” under the moonlight, nothing would appear beyond swirls of light and colour.

When I said “escape” under the sunlight I could watch myself hitch my sled to the Snow Queen’s carriage sleigh, and ride off to the freedom I now enjoyed. Under moonlight? The same word showed me myself, sitting on the lake, speaking word after word, trying to find the right one.

One morning, the Snow Queen came to me, and draped a beautiful white cape across my shoulders. I tied it closed. “Thank you,” I said, though I was confused. “It’s lovely.”

“It’s a day for giving gifts,” she said, and I realized just how long I’d been working my magic on the lake.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I keep thinking there is a word I’m missing. Something I could say that would show me where in the world there is a place for those like me.” I smiled at the Snow Queen. “And yet here I sit, in a place you’ve brought me to that is place enough.”

“This is mine, and it is perfect for me,” the Snow Queen said. “But for you? I’m not sure. I think you’re right. There’s a word you still seek.”

“I’ll keep trying. But, for you?” I gestured to the lake beneath us. “Gift,” I said.

I kept my eyes away from the ice, for it felt private, but seeing the joy that crossed her face at whatever it was she watched play out beneath us a gift in and of itself. Her laughter made beautiful snow zephyrs dance around us.

“You’re talented,” she said, once the vision had ended. “Perhaps tonight you will join me for a dinner?”

I said that I would, and I did. But come the morning, I returned to the lake and the hunt for my words.

And just before sunset game Gerda.




“The pansies wouldn’t die,” Gerda said.

She stood facing me. I had no idea how long she had been there, watching me conjure magic from the reflection in the lake, but when I finally saw her, the expression on her face was exactly as I’d seen it in the bucket. Disgusted. Afraid.


Now she knew, and I knew I’d been right not to tell her.

As victories went, it was hollow.

“How?” I said.

“The pansies… and then I went… I went to see a woman. She… She was like you, but I thought, to save you, it was worth the risk… She tried to stop me, but the pansies, again…” Gerda was shaking her head. “They broke through and I knew it meant you were okay.”

A coach stood by the edge of the lake. I hadn’t even heard it approach. It must have been how she’d come here. I never did find out if the thing about the Prince and Princess was even a little true, but this much was: her adventure had served her well, even if my “rescue” was not at all to be at her hand.

And she did look so fine, dressed in beautiful winter clothes. She couldn’t feel the cold in those layers of beautiful cloths and furs.

“Aren’t you cold?” she said. It was like she was reading my mind.

“No,” I said. “It’s part of…” I bit back the words. “It’s part of all of this.”

“Will you come home?”

“Home.” I repeated the word, and the magic of it escaped me. Beneath us, the lake showed us my family in their garret, gathered for a meal. Gerda gasped, stepping away from me, her eyes on the magic.

And then the sun set, and the lake changed to the swirls of light instead.

“Why are you doing this?” Gerda said. Then, angrily, “Why are you like this?”

Snowflakes began to swirl around the edge of the lake. The Snow Queen, protecting me.

“Gerda,” I said, not sure what else to say.

“Come home with me,” Gerda said. “Come back to us. We’re your family. We love you.”

“Say that again,” I said.

Gerda frowned, but repeated herself. And when she said “We love you,” I caught her words and let the magic free.

Beneath us, she saw the truth of her words reflected in the ice. She saw my grandmother weep and pull away, my brothers full of scorn and spit, my mother turn her back, my father’s anger… And her own disgust.

“It’s not true,” she said, shaking her head. “We do love you. If you just free yourself from her. From what she’s done to you.”

Around the lake, the snow swirled faster.

“She rescued me,” I said.

“No!” Gerda stomped her foot, as if wishing her fancy new boot would break the ice and drop us into the frigid water deep beneath. “No, you are not… This isn’t you. You’re not…”

“A pansy?” I said.

She turned away. “You don’t have to be.”

“But I am,” I said. “And I always will be.”

The ice beneath us filled with the swirling light again, so bright that the snow swirling around the lake seemed like lace curtains in motion. Gerda took my hand, frightened.

“It’s okay,” I said. I tried repeating the word that had set the magic in motion. “Always?” The light flared. It wasn’t quite the right word, but it was of a family with the one I’d been seeking all along.

Gerda was crying now.

“It’s okay,” I said. She buried her face in my shoulder. I tried another word. “Forever?”

Closer, still.

“Please don’t,” Gerda said. “Kai. It’s like her. It’s the snow. It’s the Snow Queen!”

“It’s not,” I said. It was so close. Almost the right word. I could rescue myself, I could find the way to a home, if I just got it right. “It’s not her. It’s me. It’ll always be me. Forever. It’s…”



Light again, a moment between breaths, and then we saw all the places where I belonged.




In the story you were told, we came back together changed, adults in the space of the fallout of a single magical word. And I suppose, if you look at what happened a certain way, that might be true for me at least. But it took me time to go to all the places I saw, and it took me a bit longer to figure out what it was I was looking at.

And Gerda went home without me.

The lake showed me a pretty house in the woods, planter boxes on the windows, but also a row of stone houses in a city much bigger than the one where I’d grown, each colourful door with a basket hanging above. And a farm. And some docks lined with barrels. And so many gardens, one even by a palace.

I thought one of those places might be where I belonged, and so I went to them. It took days, then weeks, then months. I grew stronger, and taller, and in each of those places my magic was welcomed by one or two people, and I used it to help them speak truths and see things they didn’t yet know.

And I would say the word “Eternity” and I would see all the places I had been already before the rest. Sometimes the order was different. Sometimes some of them were gone, replaced by others. It was a different kind of riddle, but as I traveled, I met others like myself.

It’s possible you’re wiser than I, and have spotted what it took me years to notice myself.

The pansies.

Pansies in flower boxes or baskets. Pansies on the hillside of the farm. Pansies on the docks. Hardy things, those flowers. And they’re everywhere. They make it even when the wind breaks them down. They bloom, and grow, and thrive wherever they can.

It’s possible all the various mirrors who’d shown me where I needed to go to find a home where I could belong could have been a bit more clear, but, well.

They reflect. It’s what they do.

People come to my home from all of those places: the city where I was born, the farms, the row of stone homes, villages, and ships. Over water or glass I help them find the words they need, and outside, I hang a mirror. Each morning I stop, face it, and say the word.


The mirror is there for people who need it. People who need to look and see a truth they might not know themselves.

There have always be those like us.

There always will be.

And where we belong?


You’re tougher than you think.

Just like pansies, children who live in garrets, and the Queen of the Snow.








If you’ve read Handmade Holidays, my wee holiday chosen-family romance novella from NineStar Press, you probably noticed there’s a theme around the ornaments Nick decorates his tree with. Not in the sense of an actual matching theme, but in how they’re added to each year, one or two at a time, building up his story on the tree.

It’s a wee bit biographical. Okay, it’s a lot biographical.


I’m a wee bit more happy about Christmas these days.

I’ve had a tradition since 1996 that deals with Christmas ornaments in a similar way as Nick. Now, the inciting incident—being on my own during the holidays—goes further back much further than that, but 1996 was the first year there was enough space and I could afford it. Just like Nick, I bought a floor-model tree that was on clearance the night before Christmas and just like Nick I lugged it home on a bus and just like Nick I realized I didn’t have any ornaments only after I put the tree up.

Prior to having an actual space to put up a tree (I had a long succession of living with roommates post-disowning), I often was lucky enough to be included in the holidays of my friends, especially those who stayed in Ottawa during the holidays.

And sometimes? I went out and saw movies on Christmas Day. I always volunteered to work both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, since it meant a nice paycheck and also meant someone else could have a day off.

But that first year with that tree in an apartment, my roommates already gone home for the holidays? Kind of sucked. Funnily enough, a friend who did cross-stitch ended up giving me a cute little ornament in a Christmas card, so on Christmas Day it turned out I actually did have an ornament. A box of candy-canes dealt with the rest of the tree, just like Nick.


One of the few remaining “filler” white ornaments.

The next year, I had picked up a package of inexpensive plain white ornaments, and a couple of strings of lights. And, once again, that year I received another ornament from a different friend when I hosted a small party I called “Christmas for Losers.” And a tradition was born. I hosted parties for anyone with nowhere to go, and I kept an eye out for ornaments, adding them to the tree as the years went by.


So, yes, that went into Handmade Holidays, too.

When I first met my husband-to-be, I was still working retail and was a manager, so I was still working both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and so Christmas wasn’t really a favourite holiday by any means. Now, he liked themed trees, and I had my box of mish-mash nostalgia ornaments, and so we did the only responsible thing: we put up two trees. One at my apartment, and one at his house.

As I decorated the tree with him that first time in my awful little apartment, I walked him through the ornaments. “This was the year I got the job at the bookstore!” “This was the year I finished my degree!” “This was the year I started reconstructing my jaw!” (That last one isn’t a favourite, but hey, not all memories can be winners, right?)


Husband’s First Frog ™

That year, in his stocking, our first Christmas together, I got him a little glass frog ornament (he likes frogs). And when we hung it on my tree, I said, “This was the year I met you.”


When I moved in? We had a long talk about it that Christmas and decided to do the only responsible thing: we put up two trees, one in the entrance way, and one in the living room. Every year, we added to our ornament collection: a trip to Scotland we picked up a Thistle. In Houston? We found a beautiful star. And our friends, who have always liked and supported my ornament tradition would also gift them to us. When we renovated a spare bedroom and turned it into a library? A little Mr. Moose Fix-It ornament showed up under the tree. And so on.

1996 was twenty-one years ago. Quite literally half my lifetime. And because all those years have passed, there was a tipping point: there were as many ornaments about us as there were from before us.


Husband. Dog. Tinsel. It’s a thing.

Four years ago, when I snuck in permission to get a dog inside my first novel’s acknowledgements, a realization smacked us: the dog’s bed was where we always put one of the trees. There was nowhere to put two trees. And so we sat down, and my husband looked at me and said, “Let’s just do our tree. The nostalgia one.”

That was a big year for me, sniffle-wise.

The holidays can be a special slice of awful for queer kids who were kicked to the curb. There’s a relentlessness to the message of the holidays about family that—much like Nick in Handmade Holidays—I’ll likely always struggle with. But now, when I put up the tree with my husband and the dog (he helps by letting us cover him in tinsel), that tree? It’s full. It’s full of us, and the life we have together. And every ornament we hang on that tree makes us smile, and every year, somehow, we’ve forgotten a few of them and have this wonderful moment of remembrance.


This year’s ornament.

This year it was: “That was the year we paid off the mortgage!” “Our first Christmas with the dog!” and “Moe’s thumbprint ornaments!”

Oh, and this year? This year’s official ornament we picked up in Hawai’i, the same day I finished writing acknowledgements for Triad Soul. It’s made of wood, it’s super-light, and it’s a lovely reminder of a brilliant vacation that recharged and restored us both from a pretty wretched Ottawa winter.

So that’s the real world origins of the ornament tradition that waves its way throughout Handmade Holidays. Nick, Haruto, Phoebe, Fiona and Matt are a group of queers modelled very much on people I know and love, who face off against the holidays every year with each other, in the warmth of a chosen family that grows and evolves, and brings some warmth to the season.


Handmade Holidays

At nineteen, Nick is alone for the holidays and facing reality: this is how it will be from now on. Refusing to give up completely, Nick buys a Christmas tree, and then realizes he has no ornaments. A bare tree and an empty apartment aren’t a great start, but a visit from his friend Haruto is just the ticket to get him through this first, worst, Christmas. A box of candy canes and a hastily folded paper crane might not be the best ornaments, but it’s a place to start.

A year later, Nick has realized he’s not the only one with nowhere to go, and he hosts his first “Christmas for the Misfit Toys.” Haruto brings Nick an ornament for Nick’s tree, and a tradition—and a new family—is born.

As years go by, Nick, Haruto, and their friends face love, betrayal, life, and death. Every ornament on Nick’s tree is another year, another story, and another chance at the one thing Nick has wanted since the start: someone who’d share more than the holidays with him.


Handmade Holidays: Third Christmas


Chosen family, Christmas, and a happy-ever-after fifteen years in the making.

If you picked up my wee Christmas Novella, “Handmade Holidays,” you may have noticed that over the course of the book, a few years get skipped. The third year—where the most famous of all the ornaments was up for grabs—is one of those skipped years.

If you’d like to revisit the Misfit Toys, here’s “Third Christmas,” where the ornament game was born, and the five original Misfit Toys spent their last Christmas in Nick’s terrible, tiny bachelor pad.

“Handmade Holidays” is available from NineStar Press, as part of this year’s seasonal themed series for the holidays.

Third Christmas

“So, just to be clear, what are the rules?” Nick said.

“You’ve never played the White Elephant game?” Matt’s eyebrows rose.


Fiona laughed. “Of course he hasn’t played the White Elephant game. This can’t surprise anyone. I mean, come on. You’ve all seen him open presents. He doesn’t even rip wrapping paper.”

“I think he only does that to annoy me,” Haruto said.

Nick was about to protest, but Perry stepped in to save the day.

“I don’t know how to play either,” he said.

“See?” Nick bumped shoulders with Perry. “It’s not just me.”

“Okay, usually it’s names in a hat, but I use a deck of cards,” Matt said, holding up just such a thing. “It’s easier.”

“Clever,” Fiona said.

“Thank you.”

Matt slid the cards out of the box, and pulled out five cards. Once he was sure they were all different, he went through the rest of the deck until he had all four suits for the five cards he’d drawn, and then the rest went back in the box.

“Okay, here’s how it goes. I’ll deal out one of each of these,” Matt said, taking the top card off the five piles and shuffling them quickly. He handed them out.

“I’m the King,” Nick said. “Does that mean I win?”

“Hush,” Haruto said. “No one wins or loses. There are no losers.”

“Next we shuffle the rest of the cards into a deck,” Matt said, ignoring them both. Once he’d shuffled, he stopped, rubbing his hands. “So the first person gets to pick one of the packages to unwrap, which will be…” He flipped over a card. “Whoever has seven.”

“First and most fabulous,” Haruto said.

Between the five of them sat five small wrapped packages. It had been Haruto’s idea, of course, and built on a tradition that had sort of crept up on them over the last two years. When Nick had been alone on Christmas Eve, Haruto had helped him assemble his massive tree in his tiny apartment and shoved it far into one corner, only to realize that Nick had no ornaments. A box of candy canes and one hastily folded blue paper crane—both courtesy of Haruto—had more-or-less solved that problem, and by the following year, Nick had been able to afford some basic white baubles to decorate the tree with.

Last year, Haruto had also given him the cutest handmade ornament: a little mouse sitting at a typewriter. Both were near the top of the tree, given pride of placement.

And now, on the floor between the group of them, were five more possibilities for his tree. Haruto had suggested they all pick up an ornament, wrap it, and have a White Elephant game at Nick’s annual Christmas for Misfit Toys party, and while Nick hadn’t entirely understood what a White Elephant game was, he’d been happy to oblige.

He tried not to smile too widely when Haruto reached forward and grabbed the box wrapped in silver, which Nick had brought. Haruto positively shredded his way into the box, tossing tiny bits of paper around like the point of the process was to make as many pieces out of the wrapping as possible.

When he finally got the box open, he pulled out a white square cloth ornament. It was a cross-stitch, with a pattern of two gold bells, red ribbon, and holly. Haruto held it up. “This is pretty.”

“One of my co-workers does cross-stitch,” Nick said. “I bought one from her.”

“I like it,” Haruto said.

“Okay,” Matt said, grinning. “Now I draw the next card, but this time, the person gets to decide if they want to unwrap, or if they want to steal Ru’s ornament. If they steal Ru’s, then Ru gets to open another one. And if I draw the same person twice in a row, I shuffle the card back in and draw again.”

Perry and Nick nodded. Matt drew another card. A three.

“I want his,” Fiona said, pointing at Haruto.

Nick blinked. He was surprised. He didn’t think the little cross-stitched ornament was really Fiona’s style, but she reached over and took it from him.

“Never admit you like something,” she said, winking.

Ah. That made more sense.

Haruto, though, just shook his head, and grabbed another package. This one revealed a silver snowflake, engraved with the year, tipped with little blue crystals.

“Very bling,” Haruto said, then eyed Fiona daringly. “I like it.”

“Well played,” she said. “I see what you’re doing there.”

Matt drew again. “Ace.”

“That’s me,” Perry said.

“So you can steal Fiona’s or Haruto’s ornament, or you can take from the middle. And now if you steal Ru’s, he can take Fiona’s, too. But nothing changes hands more than once a round.”

“I’ll just take a new one.” Perry pulled out a package, and to Nick’s delight—and more anguish from Matt, Fiona, and Haruto—he carefully unwrapped it without disturbing the paper.

Perry pulled out the ornament, and smiled. “This is so cute.”

It was a rainbow unicorn kitten. Pink at its nose, moving red through purple by the time it got to its tail, it had a little pearlescent horn and as far as Nick could tell, it was the most perfect rainbow unicorn kitten ever created.

“Mine,” he said, just as Matt said, “I need that.”

They eyed each other.

“I’m beginning to see the appeal of this game,” Nick said, pointing to the cards. “Draw.”

Matt did, and got himself. The rainbow unicorn kitten was passed over, and Perry opened the fourth package, adding what appeared to be an angry elf holding up a “On Strike Until We Get Paid!” sign into the mix.

Everyone looked at Fiona.

“What?” she said. “Anyone could have brought that.”

Matt drew Fiona again, and the rainbow unicorn kitten was hers. Matt smiled at the cross-stitch, and pointed at her. “It will be mine.”

She flashed her tongue stud at him.

Matt eyed the other ornaments, but shook his head. “I’ll keep this.” He flipped another card. It was a King.

“Kitten,” Nick said. Fiona handed it over, then reached to open the last present, revealing a pair of tiny mittens that looked to have actually been knitted.

Matt looked at Perry. “This was you, wasn’t it?”

Perry nodded.

“I didn’t know you knitted,” Haruto said.

“Where’d you think I got my scarf?” Matt said.

“Wait, you made that gorgeous scarf?” Fiona said.

Nick was just as impressed. Matt had shown up with a tri-coloured scarf done in white, a very pale blue, and a kind of sparkly silver wool that reminded Nick of the snow outside. Fiona was right. It was gorgeous.

Perry shied away from the attention. “I like to make things.”

“Handmade gifts have heart,” Haruto said.

“I’m feeling a bit pathetic for buying my ornament now,” Fiona said.

“Hey, so did I,” Nick said. “That was someone else’s handmade.”

“The star was mass produced,” Matt said. “Probably by children in China.”

“Lost-wax casting. My last year with access to all the awesome art department stuff, so…” Haruto shrugged. “I might as well use ‘em before I graduate.”

The game went on. By the time there were only two cards left, the tension in the room was almost palpable.

“I just want to point out there’s no losing this game,” Haruto said, eyeing Matt and Nick, who were the only two who hadn’t had their third draw each. He had the rainbow unicorn kitten in his hand.

“But there’s definitely going to be a winner,” Matt said, and flipped the card. A nine.

“And it isn’t going to be you,” Nick said, crossing his arms, smug.

“There is no way I can make this work,” Matt agreed, but he stole the kitten anyway, setting off one more round of trades.

“Go on, flip it,” Nick said.

“We could always stop now,” Matt said.

“Flip the card.”

“I mean, we’re all happy, and like Ru said, there’s no losers…”

“Flip. It.”

With a sigh, Matt flipped the card. The King of Diamonds had never looked so good.

“Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” Nick said.

“The Grinch has nothing on you,” Matt said, but he handed the kitten over, accepting the mittens from Nick in return. Matt traded them with Haruto for the elf, and then Haruto ended the game by keeping the mittens. Fiona had the star, Perry the cross-stitch.

“Okay,” Nick said. “That was awesome. I love you guys.”

“Says the guy with the rainbow unicorn kitten.” Matt rolled his eyes.

“I could always make another,” Haruto said. “At least until April.”

“No,” Nick said. “No, there will never be another rainbow unicorn kitten quite so amazing as this first, best, one. Better just to let the legend exist.” He stood and hung it on the tree with a flourish.

“Before this devolves into bloodshed, I have to go.” Haruto rose. “My mother will flip if I’m not home in time for dinner.”

They all hugged him in turn before he left.

Nick walked him to the door. “The kitten is amazing. This ornament trading game idea was amazing. You, Ru, are amazing.”

“You may continue the praise,” Haruto said, pulling on his hat. “You have plans for Christmas Day?” He asked every year, just to make sure Nick had something for the day itself.

“A long sleep in, of course, then I’ll open my presents—you shouldn’t have, but we’ve already covered that you’re amazing—and I think I’m going to go out this year and catch a movie. Lots of popcorn.”

“Okay. Let me know which movie and when. If my mother doesn’t mind, I might slip out and join you.”

“I will.”

They hugged again, and Haruto left.

Fiona had turned on Nick’s small television, and they settled in to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Perry and Fiona sat on Nick’s bed, and Nick paused at his stove before joining Matt on the two-seater couch. When the kettle started to whistle, Nick got up to make hot chocolate for everyone, adding a dollop or two of Bailey’s to each, and they toasted the third year of Christmas for Misfit Toys. As if on cue, the pizzas arrived, and they watched the show while they ate the slices.

“Did I tell you I got a tree?” Matt said, while Rudolph’s father covered his shiny nose with mud on the screen.

“You did?”

“Yeah. It’s not as large as your beast, but it’s something.”

They clinked glasses. “That just leaves Fiona without a tree of her own.”

“Never gonna happen,” Fiona said. “You know I hate everything about Christmas, always have, always will.”

“Do I need to put on some carols?”

“I really can’t stay,” Matt sang. Fiona threw a wad of wrapping paper at him.

Perry had to leave before the show ended, and Fiona offered to give him a ride home. Matt and Nick brought the show to a close, then rose, stretching.

“Thank you for this,” Matt said. He held up the angry elf ornament.

“I think Fiona brought that.”

Matt shook his head. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Nick said. “You’re welcome. And thank you, too. You guys make this…” He gestured to his tree, his little bachelor apartment, and the world at large. “Better.”

“We do, don’t we?” Matt said. “You’d almost think we’re worthy of a reward. Like, say, a rainbow unicorn kitten.”

“Let it go, Matthew.”

“Never,” Matt said. “And that’s a promise.”

They hugged. After Matt left, Nick went back to the tree and touched the little rainbow unicorn kitten, setting him swinging on the branch.

“There are no losers,” he said, then went to go make himself another hot chocolate.



I Shouldn’t Have to Tell You Queer Bashers Aren’t Hot

Yesterday I clicked and read a freebie book on my phone, and it made me so very angry. I clicked it because the blurb made it sound like a “gay guy goes back to small hometown where he grew up and swore he’d never return” story, and I generally like a second-chance romance. I like the stories where the gay guy comes back to the place that made him feel small and wrong and shows them that he is neither, and falls in love along the way, probably with his “arch nemesis” (described in the blurb).

That’s what the book sounded like. But the blurb was way, way off.

It went to incredibly off the rails on nearly every level. If I’d just looked at some of the other reviews first, I might have avoided it (I say might because this book has mostly positive, gushing reviews about how lovely the romance was), but I was on my phone, I didn’t, and there’s a lesson learned.

Instead, I got a book where a former bully is a romantic lead, which… okay, that’s one way to consider an “arch nemesis.” The guy tossed him into garbage cans, for one example, but I’m supposed to buy him as the romantic interest, which is iffy enough.

It didn’t stop there. The book doubled and then tripled down on how it treated abuse survivors.

  • Give the main character an abusive, alcoholic parent who kicked out the queer guy but who deserves forgiveness and a second chance? Check!
  • Main character wasn’t just bullied, but was nearly beaten to death, including broken skull among other bones and long-lasting trauma over the past five years (including passing out at random)? Check!
  • The man who nearly bashed the main character to death turns out to be a closeted gay? Check!
  • Surround the main character with “friends” who constantly suggest he needs to check in with the abusive father who kicked him to the curb? Check!
  • Those same friends non-stop questioning the main character for not being over it (it was only five years ago he almost got beaten to death, but hey, get over it) and telling him the town has changed since then? Check!
  • Main character has a moment of “realizing” that tolerance has to go both ways? Y’know, he needs to be more patient with the “you are sin” crowd? Check!
  • Massive amounts of forgiveness to everyone all around—including inviting the closeted gay guy who nearly beat him to death to come live with them once he’s out of jail, and forgiving his father within moments of being given an AA chip and an apology? Check!

Now, I’ve talked before about the whole how reconciliation with a family that kicked out a queer kid is not a happy ending before and is such a misstep if you’re crafting queer characters, and I’m not going to reiterate it all again, but it’s here if you want to read it.

I should also mention that when we see, over and over, forgiveness as the only path to peace for survivors of abuse that we’re doing a massive, massive disservice to actual survivors of abuse. Moving to a peaceful, happy place and thriving after surviving violence does not require the forgiving of the abuser. Some people do. Many don’t. If only forgiveness is shown as the path, that’s a problem. Say that as many times as it takes until it sinks in.

But, back to the bashings. That’s right, plural, because this novella doubled down, but I’ll get to that in a second. First, let’s talk about the main character’s history—again, the blurb gives no mention of this, just “bad memories”—which has left him with trauma. He was so violently bashed he had multiple bones broken, including part of his skull, and has fainted a few times over the last five years since thanks to said trauma.

As someone who has bled on a sidewalk, I cannot tell you how infuriating it was to watch his friends be surprised he hadn’t “gotten over it” and how much of the narrative centred around the character himself buying into this narrative. He starts to berate himself as a coward for leaving town, for letting it chase him away. Are you shitting me? You do not stick around when people try to beat you to death. Especially when you’re kicked out by your parent. If you can possibly do it, you go, you find somewhere safe, and you never look back. Or at least, you do if you’re an actual, living, breathing queer person who has somewhere to escape to—and he did, he got away for school. But instead, by the end of the book, this character is written to consider that “tolerance goes both ways” and he should be more patient with the people who want to cleanse his soul.

Queer people do not have to tolerate the intolerant. It is not bigotry to oppose a bigot. For crying out loud, this is basic stuff. If someone calls queer people sinful, you don’t have to listen to their freaking beliefs and be patient about giving them a chance to “explain their side.” That’s not a free-speech moment or a rational debate, that’s someone deciding you are less than human because you are queer. That’s just wrong.

But I mentioned bashings plural. And this is the real point I wanted to make today, though it’s taken me way too long to get here, and I’m mad, and this isn’t coming across anywhere near as calmly as I’d like (but see the previous paragraph about not having to be okay with people treating you as less than human): I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: abusive hate, bullying homophobes, and violent bashings aren’t romantic lead fodder.

So, in this book, the main character—who survived a violent bashing, as I mentioned—has one real good gay friend in school. That friend is an athlete and studying to be a teacher, maybe phys-ed or something. Near the end of the book, said friend is bashed nearly to death. His hip is so damaged he will likely never walk again without a cane, and—wait for it—the hero of this book berates himself because it’s not the first time this friend has maybe hit on someone he shouldn’t have, and if only the hero of this book had been around to make sure he didn’t do that.

Did we really just blame the guy who might die from brain swelling, the guy with the shattered hip, the guy who was nearly beaten to death by some random homophobic sociopath for being nearly beaten to death? Yes. Yes, we did.

But wait, there’s more!

The hero of this book asks if his friend can come live with them for recovery, and of course his redeemed bully of a lover agrees and that in and of itself would be decent (because, again, this man’s family has also disowned him), but then we find out that the man who beat the hero of this book nearly to death is also going to come live with them because, after he went to jail/came out, the redeemed bully character said he could come stay with him once he was out of jail.

And his victim is okay with that. Because forgiveness.

If I had only bumped into this “former homophobic bully/abusive asshole” redemption-as-love-interest notion once, I’d maybe have tossed it aside. But I keep bumping into it in book blurbs. And after reading this one? I just… I just need to ask.

Why is this okay?

Why is this a trope in romantic fiction about gay men? It makes zero sense, it certainly isn’t respectful of queer men, and personally feels like someone going out of their way to punch me in the stomach and say, hey, that trauma of yours? It totally made me think sexy thoughts.

A man nearly beat another man to death. He is not a hero. That is not sexy. And when he shows up in book two, he’ll be paired with the best friend from college who has been beaten just as badly as this man beat the hero of the first book. The storyline next time is about a survivor of a hate crime hooking up with a person who went to jail guilty of the same damn hate crime.

I’d like to take a moment to discuss how many fellow survivors I’ve met and how many of those survived at the hands of someone who later came out as a gay person and turned their life around. Respectfully? Dozens, and none. Do closeted queer people make the worst homophobes? It’s up for debate—there are studies out there where arousal responses correlate with more vocal homophobes, but whether or not they make for the most violent homophobes isn’t known, and anecdotally, I can’t think of a single instance, like I said, where after a violent bashing someone (a) came out, and (b) turned their life around, so why is this such a propagated falsehood in what’s supposed to be a romance?

And that’s key. This is supposed to be a romance. I’m supposed to want this man to have a happy-ever-after. I’m supposed to look at a man who was beaten nearly to death by a man because he was queer, and want him to spend the rest of his life happy with someone who beat another man nearly to death because he was queer.

That’s… I don’t even know what that is. But I do know what it isn’t. It’s not romantic. And it would never fly if it wasn’t queer men.

I mean, I can’t imagine this storyline would ever, ever hold up in a heterosexual romance: a woman is nearly beaten to death by a man who can’t control his feelings for her, and the next book in the series is about him finding love with another woman who has survived nearly being beaten to death by a different man, all while they stay together in the same house while this second woman recovers from her assault and the man just got out of jail? Do you see how ridiculous that is? How harmful and hateful and not romantic? No chance. Not redeemable as a romantic lead.

But somehow it’s okay—not just okay, but romantic—because… why? Because it’s gay men?

There is so very much wrong with that I don’t even know how to begin.

Not That Kind of Sub

There are a couple of parallel discussions going on right now that have Venn-diagrammed their way into my feeds, and last night’s #RWChat cemented something I’ve been feeling vaguely “off” about for a while.

I’m not a sub-genre.

Let me explain.

Sub-Genres of Romance

There are a couple of places you can go to get different lists of sub-genres for Romance. Obviously, the RWA has a list: Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, Religious/Spiritual, Suspense, and YA. Wikipedia adds a couple: breaking down part of what the RWA calls Paranormal into Science Fiction and Time-Travel, and adding Multicultural (more on that in a bit).

That was the stage set, so to speak, for the discussion on #RWChat about sub-genres in romance, and one of the questions was “should there be new sub-genres?” and, of course, queer came up as a suggestion.

And that’s where I started to flinch.

Queer as a Sub-Genre?

Now, before I start, I do want to point out where the notion comes from in the minds of most, and that it’s from a good place. Let’s be honest, queer characters don’t get the recognition in romance that their allocishet counterpart characters do. That’s just the current reality.

To ground this in my own experience, I’ve been waffling over joining the local chapter of the RWA. I got invited to a lunch, I already know a few of the authors though awesome events like Romancing the Capital, and my romance output is rising, so it seemed like something worth exploring. Shortly into the dinner, one of the authors announced that they didn’t believe men could be bisexual.

So. I had a choice. I could make a bit of a scene and speak out, or I could wait and see what happened. I chose the latter (I regret that) and nothing happened. I think I managed a weak “I’m not sure you get to decide that,” a few moments later than would be effective.

I haven’t joined the RWA. Maybe another year.

So, when I see organizations like the RWA and their awards go (almost exclusively) to allocishet characters, I’m totally not surprised. And I get why it seems like making a sub-genre just for queer characters is a great idea. I can even see how there’s some merit to it.

Yes, Queer is a Sub-Genre!

For one? There’d be a queer winner of a RITA every year, right? There’d have to be, if there was a sub-genre just for queer characters in romance, rather than the occasional one here and there, and some years not at all.

For another? Visibility. Those titles short-listed would be a quick, easy, one-stop shop to show people some queer characters in romance.

Even more? Legitimacy. If someone like the RWA (okay, maybe not my local chapter) was loud about saying “Queer Characters are Welcome in Romance!” that’s a big deal. Their history with that isn’t so great, and it would go a long way.

So why don’t I like it?

No, Queer isn’t a Sub-Genre!

Honestly? It’s the flip side of the positives I listed above.

For one? There’d be only one winner of a RITA every year with a queer character, because any book with a queer character would be shunted into the queer character box. Never mind if there was a contemporary romance with queer characters that was far and away better than the allocishet character contemporaries on the short list, and also a YA romance with amazing trans characters that blew the allocishet character YA romance shortlist out of the water: only one of them could win. Because they’re queer, and they get one award, competing against each other, even though they’re vastly different sub-genres with only their queerness in common.

For another? The rest of the awards become a queer-free zone by default, and the notion of allocishet characters as “normal” or “default” is increased. Because if there’s one queer romance sub-genre, but thirteen other genres that aren’t, how is that not the message? Books with allocishet characters would get to be considered in groupings of their plots, tropes, and against similar titles. But queer would judged for being queer.

Last? From a publishing point of view, it can actively delegitimize. “We have a sub-genre for queer stories” sounds solid until that becomes a limitation. Think about what women of colour face in the romance world (and, thereby, their characters). “No, we have the four titles we’re publishing for our black-women line this month.” “Oh, but my book is a romantic suspense with a black lead, you publish eight romantic suspenses a month, so…” “No. It’s a black-woman, so it only goes here. Four titles a month. Period.” This is why I get twitchy about “Multicultural” as a sub-genre, too.

Not to mention queer people of colour exist. Where do they go? The multicultural romance, or the queer romance? Which one trumps the other? This is why “people as a sub-genre” gets messy. People are messy. We don’t fit one box.

Oh, yeah, and what happens when that line gets canceled?

Okay, Smart-Guy, Solutions?

Yeah, I didn’t say I had a solution.

Well, no, I do: judge romances with queer characters alongside those with allocishet romances and do so on a level playing field with judges capable of reading them without bias but ha ha ha, yeah. I could barely finish that with a straight face. After all, men can’t be bisexual, right?

Heavy sigh.

The good news is I’ve heard from other readers that romances with queer characters are making strides. Radclyffe, who writes lesbian romances across many romance sub-genres, has been a finalist in many RWA chapter contests in the correct sub-genre category for her books (thanks for that info, Ruth!). That’s progress.

I also totally respect the opposing opinion here. I’m just as tired as anyone else of queer characters barely making it to the foreground of awards and recognition and bestseller lists, and I can empathize with “I don’t care if it means there’s just one winner every year and one short list. At least it would exist and shows we exist.” Like I said above, that’s a fair freaking point.

And maybe it has to go through that step first in places like the RWA, with the ultimate goal of later disentangling it into the sub-genre awards? I don’t know. But I think things like the Rainbow Awards, the Publishing Triangle Awards, and the Lambda Literary Awards (and other queer awards) fill a niche of queer-character writing awards, and they have genre breakdowns built-in. It’s still about the genres there.

I want places like the RWA and Goodreads to step up, not pen us in.

So, I guess, that’s my solution. Not that the RWA and Goodreads will do it, but that we need to make them do it. Groups like Women of Color in Romance (if you don’t follow them, go follow them, right now) do fantastic work to make noise and highlight the incredibly talented women of color writing romance out there who already exist but don’t get the same massive attention the white authors do because publishing is so very, very white.

Publishing is also so very, very allocishet.

I want more noise. Noise about all the #ownvoice writers and characters that exist in romance—queers included—and maybe that’s what it will take to get those books on the shortlists in the sub-genre categories where they belong.

Wait, Goodreads?


Handmade Holidays is a contemporary romance. It has gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people in it. It’s still a contemporary romance.

Yeah, that was the other circle on the Venn Diagram, and I don’t want to say it all again, but once again the Goodreads Choice Awards are up, and soon it’ll be time to vote and there’s a petition going around to create an LGBTQ+ category to vote in.

And all those same reasons for it to be good—and bad—apply. Because I think back to 2014, and Two Boys Kissing deserved to be the winner in YA, not LGBTQ+. Ditto They Both Die at the End this year.

But there were next to no books with queer characters on the initial list of titles. And that’s not a surprise. Because while queer people are expected to read allocishet books and be satisfied, the opposite isn’t true. And no one can force someone to read a book they don’t want to read. We’re outnumbered, and will always be so.

So, no. I’ve got no happy solution. But I did write-in a book with queer-characters into every slot where I thought that book was the best book I’d read this year. That’s what I can do with the system the way it is, and so I do. And sometimes I didn’t add a book with queer-characters (I voted for The Hate U Give in YA, even though there’s zero queer content, because that book was amazeballs and freaking important and I want it to win all the prizes and I hope They Both Die at the End wins all the Lammies and PTAs and Rainbows and that’s why I love that there are queer-character awards, too).

I’m not a Sub-Genre.

My final thoughts on this snarl are exactly that: just mine. I’m not speaking for all of queer kind here. I can’t. I’m only queer in my own way.

As a reader, I want to see queer reality in all the genres. In science fiction, in mystery, in literature, in romance, in YA, in all the categories. All of them. Even horror, which I barely read. Readers deserve to see themselves. The magic of digital tagging means readers can drill down to find those titles, too.

But I—again, just me, speaking for me—don’t want it to be “Queer,” with a sub-category of “Romance” if that means when I click “Romance” there will be no queer. Queer belongs in romance. Period. I want to click “Romance,” and then “Contemporary” and then be able to find the queer titles. And I want to see shortlists for awards where “Contemporary Short-form Romance” includes a novella with trans characters.

If that means places like the RWA have to learn men can be bisexuals first? Well. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and get back to teaching instead of waiting to hear what they currently say.