Ah, it’s about time we had this argument again, isn’t it? Who is allowed to write a particular identity or voice? Who is allowed to read it? This often comes up when we start talking about M/M romance.
There’s been a good deal of talk about how the #ownvoices tag fell from grace. It went from uplifting writers who wrote their own identities in fiction to a stick to beat authors “co-opting” identities. The end result is that many authors have been forcibly outed to “prove” their writing is authentic. Others have to defend their identities: Becky Albertalli was accused of being “not queer” because she’s married to a man.
This kind of argument predates #ownvoices. There’s long been consternation and fighting over who is “allowed” to read or write gay romances—or, more accurately, M/M romance.
That’s something that’s been lobbed at Albertalli too—her biggest hit to date has been Simon vs., which is about a gay cisgender teenager. Albertalli, being a cisgender woman, doesn’t share Simon’s identity, even if both author and character are queer.
Ladies Love the Gay Bois
I’ve kicked around fandom long enough to remember yaoi paddles and when fanfiction dot net hosted explicit fic. (Yours truly got booted in the great purge.)
And one of the things I’ve noticed about fandom is that it tends to be a feminine space. I obviously don’t know everyone, and I’m sure there are plenty of trans and masculine people participating in fandom. But fanfiction spaces, especially in the early days of the web, seem to skew to having a largely female demographic. (I mean, I remember the trend of everyone identifying themselves as “authoress” in their fics, so!)
This is interesting, given that there’s also a large part of fandom that writes gay shit—slash, M/M, yaoi. So, a good deal of fandom is about a bunch of (ostensibly straight cisgender) chicks writing about gay boys.
Theories on Cis Attractedness to Queers
This isn’t entirely new, of course. There are plenty of theories about why women are attracted to two dudes going at it. One explanation ranges along the lines of male explanations for enjoying lesbianism. It’s a two-for-one deal. Another suggests that the female gaze is more comfortable with objectifying two men.
The most popular explanation is that replacing the woman with another male character removes taboo around female sexuality. By replacing it with “male” sexuality, these stories allow women a “safer” space to explore their own sexual desire. They don’t need to worry about the shame that surrounds female bodies or female sexuality.
There are other theories. These women might be queer, they get off on the “taboo” of it, or even fetishize gay men. Whatever the reason, the long and short of it is this: cishet women seem to love them some gay bois.
Get Your Hands off My Gays
That, of course, presents us with a problem. To a large degree, M/M works by cishet women are fetishizing. They do a disservice to real gay men by presenting them in highly stereotyped ways. Women then expect real gay men to conform to these standards. They may also display heightened interest in being friends with gay men, and so on and so forth.
The tension here raises a question about who M/M romance or gay romance or what have you is actually for. Cishet women write gay characters differently and they have different expectations for how those characters should perform. As a result they may actually denigrate romances written about gay men by gay men.
In turn, gay men may find work by cishet women difficult to stomach. They may complain about stereotyping and fetishization. They may feel these stories don’t accurately depict or even grapple with the realities of being gay.
In short, gay men often find themselves out in the cold in a genre that is ostensibly about them. That … should strike us as a problem.
Yet many cishet women writers do not see this as a problem. In fact, they may see gay men as the problem, asking them to give up their fetishized stories. “It’s not for you,” they might say.
But if gay literature is not for “the gays,” then who the fuck is it for?
Setting Up a Divider between M/M Romance and Gay Lit
This leads to a kind of divide within literature. At this point, “M/M romance” tends to refer to the kind of literature by cishet women. “Gay romance” or “gay fiction” would indicate something by gay men, for gay men.
This is obviously imperfect and problematic. Gay men should absolutely be writing and reading M/M romance. “Gay fiction” would suggest perhaps something more literary, which may not be what these authors are creating.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have cishet women categorizing their books as “gay romances” too. The divide becomes impossible to sort. This is another way cishet women tend to bully gay men out of spaces where they legitimately belong. Whether it’s M/M romance or gay romance, gay men absolutely should have a place in writing and reading these books.
Of course, we then start coming up against the sticky wicket of #ownvoices. Initially, we can see how the idea of ownvoices would be useful in a situation like this. It would help to distinguish gay male authors who were writing from their own identity from cishet women. If you wanted something more “authentic,” less fetishizing, then you could turn to an ownvoices author.
The Demand for OwnVoices Gone Awry
There is concern about the authenticity of representation, for good reason. The above story of how M/M romance has been colonized by cishet womanhood points to exactly the issue ownvoices wants to solve. In giving something the ownvoices label, we push back on cishet normativity in queer spaces.
We try to escape the norms set up by cishet understandings of queerness. And we make space for authors to more fully explore experiences and offer “authentic” representation.
Yet here is where ownvoices begins to become a stick with which to punish authors. Suddenly, if you’re writing an M/M romance, you’re going to be asked to show your cred. You need to “prove” that you’re “allowed” to be writing this. Are you actually able to authentically represent this experience? Or are you co-opting, fetishizing, profiting off a marginalized group while members of that group struggle to tell their stories?
Given these concerns, it makes perfect sense that people want to demand authenticity. Marginalized groups of all stripes are tired of being exploited for the entertainment of the publishing industry. They want to stop poor representation and stereotypes and the fetishization of queer pain that often end up on the page when people from outside write these stories.
Yet … this then does harm to ownvoices authors.
Demanding Particular Performances: Who Is “Queer Enough”?
We come back to Becky Albertalli here. Albertalli is bisexual. She did write a book about a character who shares her own identity. (Leah, who is Simon’s BFF in Simon vs., got her own book.) Yet people didn’t want to stop at Albertalli “appropriating” the voice of a gay teen male. They also called into question her queerness. Albertalli is bisexual, although she’s married to a man and, by her own admission, has never kissed a woman.
People have used this to say she’s not “really” bi or not bi enough. Biphobia (and panphobia) is quite common in this regard: you’re either not queer enough or you’re gay. If you’re dating same-sex, people want to suggest you’re just gay. If you’re dating opposite-sex, people say you’re not really queer.
This comes back to the issue of queer performance. People want to judge whether or not someone is queer based upon their performance. So if a bi woman doesn’t sleep with both men and women, if she settles into a relationship with one or the other, her performance dictates that she is not “bi,” but that she’s straight or queer, as the case may be.
What this fails to account for is that sexual attraction is experienced on an individual, personal level.
Why Demands for Proof Are Useless
Trust me on this: I’m bi myself. And, much like Albertalli, I’m in a relationship with a man. Although our relationship looks straight on the surface, it is very much not. (My partner has even asked me why our relationship is so much different from representations of cishet relationships he’s seen. The answer? It’s a queer relationship, because I am queer.)
And here is the crux of the issue: nobody else can possibly say whether I experience attraction to anyone else. All you can do is accept my assertion that I do indeed experience the attractions I say I do.
The problem for most people is they then want evidence of this. Proof. Performance. If I do not perform the way they expect, they then doubt the authenticity of my stated experience. Of course, it’s not for you to say if I experience attraction to men and women or whomever else. You can’t possibly know, because you’re not in my head, in my body.
It’s a very difficult concept for people to get their heads around, seemingly. They want performance to line up with their own preconceived notions. They want proof—what I say is not proof enough.
This is how ownvoices becomes a problem. People, who have different notions of how an identity should be performed, use ownvoices to ask that authors “prove” themselves. If authors don’t, they’re accused of appropriating, fetishizing, exploiting.
Authors may feel the need to “out” themselves, to announce (and perform) their identities to support their writing. Writers end up stuck: it may not be safe for them to come out or perhaps they aren’t emotionally ready. If they fail, though, the reading audience will attack them for appropriation.
What’s Authentic for You Is Not Authentic for Me
The other issue is then that readers ask authors to perform their identities in ways that feel familiar to them. People will complain that representation doesn’t feel “accurate” to them or doesn’t line up with their own experience. Then they call the author’s “ownvoices” status into question, suggesting the person is pretending in order to exploit, profit, and gain clout. And unfortunately, we have seen this happen before (anyone remember Santino Hassell?). Readers and communities have been burned before, so it’s not exactly out of line for them to suspect people.
More often than not, they’re attacking someone who shares the same marginalizations for not performing in a particular way. Ownvoices then becomes a way to gatekeep identities and performance.
That, obviously, is a tool of oppression and it works to enforce cishet normativity. By delineating very narrow “authentic” performances of queer identity, one can easily begin to discount anyone who doesn’t conform. In turn, many queer people are then written off as “not queer” or not queer enough. That reinforces the myth that queer people are few and far between (rather than the norm or majority). Cishet normativity is upheld.
Queerness is confined, fences erected around it, the area roped off for those who will perform in a way that pleases cishet normativity. In this way, queerness becomes defanged; it is neat and tidy, performed in predictable, understandable ways by a small minority of people.
The Goal of Boxes
It also becomes much easier to manage that group, dictating that they must perform in particular ways. When people perform predictably, it’s easier to single them out. The people within the roped off bounds of queerness also suffer, because it’s very easy to discriminate and denigrate them.
When queerness is a much larger mess, it becomes far more threatening. Cishet normativity is overwhelmed by it; it cannot contain it. It is performed everywhere, by many people, in an endless variety of ways. You can no longer pick the queers out of the crowd; everyone may be a queer lurking—even the bi woman you assumed was straight because she’s married to a man.
This is why gatekeeping in the queer community is so sinister. It upholds the work of cishet normativity, bludgeoning both conforming queers and non-conforming queers alike. When we refuse the scripts we’re given, we become far more threatening.
Yet, as I’ve noted, there is a reason to desire authors who openly share the marginalizations of their characters. We ache for characters who are similar to us. Women look for women characters, queers look for queers, Black readers long for relatable Black characters on the page. The desire to demand ownvoices confirmation is understandable. And with the threat of white cishet normativity colonizing and appropriating, exploiting and profiting from any marginalized group hanging over us, the drive to demand that authenticity is even more understandable.
Who Is M/M Romance for Then?
Let’s circle back to the question I posed: who is M/M romance for? We could argue it’s for gay men. We could argue it’s for cishet women. Or we could argue it’s for trans men or nonbinary folks or almost anyone.
And I think that has to be the conclusion. M/M — and anything else really — has to be “for” anyone, to a degree. We can press for authenticity; readers are certainly allowed to complain about stories that don’t seem to “ring true” to them. They’re allowed to call out bad representation and call authors on the carpet for potential appropriation. We have seen, time and again, the harms done by this.
But when we demand that M/M romance or other stories be only written by a particular group of people, we box ourselves in. By erecting boundaries, we bludgeon our fellow queers into performing in ways that cishet normativity deems acceptable. We hurt ourselves when we do that. When we demand “proof,” when we discount people who don’t offer it, we allow cishet norms to prevail.
So, yes, we need to rail against exploitation and fetishization. Yes, we need to call out harmful representation and stereotyping.
But using something like ownvoices to beat up our own, to blockade them, only serves one purpose. And it is not representation of queerness or diversity in publishing.