I write gay romance. By which I mean, I write love stories. Boy meets boy (or occasionally, boys), there’s lots of angsty goodness, then they all live happily ever after. Sometimes there’s sex, but sometimes there’s not. Yet I am classified as an erotica writer with alarming regularity.
When AJ and I were trying to find a home for my numerous DVDs the other day, I introduced her to my rather anal system of organising them by rating and genre. Some of them, she noticed, had double ratings (12/15, or 15/18). That, I explained, was because Ireland has its own classification system and usually doles out higher ratings for LGBT-themed films. These weren’t explicit movies, you understand, but because they mentioned queerness they were deemed Not For Children.
Last week, an anonymous man in m/m was slammed for daring to complain that m/m romance is often conflated with pornography. (And yes I know that post was hugely problematic for other reasons which I’m not getting into right here and now.)
At the crux of all of this is the fact that queer bodies are almost always seen as sexual bodies. And yes, sexual orientation is about doing stuff in bed other than sleeping, but aren’t we more than that? Aren’t we still queer when we step outside the bedroom?
Too often when I’ve said I’ve got a girlfriend (now wife!) the response has been a leered “Can I watch?” and I know they don’t mean they want to watch us do the dishes, or marathon a show on Netflix, or nudge each other and say “It’s your turn,” when the dogs want to go out at 6a.m. No, they’ve gone straight to girl-on-girl-action and sexytimes, because that’s all we are to them: a living wet dream.
Queer folks don’t lead mundane lives. We’re either starring in our very own porno, reenacting all your wildest fantasies; or burning Bibles and bringing about the destruction of the world.
When kids come out, as they are doing younger and younger these days, the act of coming out is rarely seen to be about them. It’s about their desires, about their interest in someone else. It’s about wanting to have sex. And maybe that’s okay when it’s an eighteen year old who’s ready to be open about who he is, but it’s hugely problematic when it’s a twelve year old we’re talking about. We don’t think straight pre-adolescents are too young to have a crush on somebody, because we know that (generally) that crush is all about the squishy emotional side and nothing physical. When a pre-adolescent boy has a crush on another boy, it’s immediately seen as something deviant. He’s “too young” to understand what he’s feeling, because too often his feelings are automatically assumed to be all physical.
That’s part of the reason I, personally, don’t go in for sharing nude pics of guys (a startling number of which are porn stills) when it comes to discussing m/m online. Gay romance is not synonymous with erotica any more than straight romance. Yes, there are varying levels of heat, from tepid all the way to burn-your-eyes-out-hot, but romance (however searing) and erotica are not one and the same thing. Moreover, gay men are not your personal porn stars, and I have to wonder how people really view queerfolk when they’re illustrating a new release about a lawyer and a chef (a random example, not a veiled dig at anybody in particular) with honest-to-god pornography. Not because I’m a big ole prude when it comes to porn, but because whenever I see characters who are supposed to be interesting and three-dimensional stripped down to how they fuck, I feel a little bit disappointed, because I thought as people we were more than that.
It’s very hard to get away from sex being the great divider when you’re queer. The “normalising” arguments used to win marriage equality haven’t helped, either, because if everyone believes the narrative that queerfolk are just like “everybody else” then literally the only thing that separates us is who and how we fuck. The truth is, we’re not just like everybody else. I’m gay when I’m feed the cat (not a euphemism), I’m gay when I’m doing the grocery shopping, I’m gay when I’m folding laundry. It isn’t something I switch on and off when I enter or leave the bedroom. And while “being gay” doesn’t mean I have to be anything else (no, we’re not all strutting around in flannel listening to Tracy Chapman), it does make me different. My worldview is not your worldview.
The fact we’re so often reduced to a single facet underlines how little queer experience is really understood. Worse, fetishising queer bodies by making them all about sex robs us of our humanity from adolescence or even earlier. The moment we express any kind of same-sex attraction, too often that’s all people think about, and it’s then used against us to the point that even a movie with less than a kiss in it is slapped with a restrictive rating because a couple of the characters are gay.
I love romance. I love gay romance, specifically, because that’s part of my world, and when I was growing up I searched high and low for the HEAs I’m now spoilt for and never found them. I also love that it’s reached a wider audience and appeals to people who aren’t part of my world.
Allyship isn’t about getting everything right every single time. Hell, I know I’ve fucked up in the past. Allyship is about listening when people speak, making small changes, trying to do better. Queer bodies might be sexy, but they’re also human. Too often, people forget that.