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Why So Much m/m Romance Isn’t Actually Gay

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I’m a long-form writer, so I rarely wade into threads on social media. One of the issues with social media is that it is simply not a good medium for discussing nuance. That’s why people shut down conversations around stuff like why m/m romance is dominated by (white) cishet women writers.

Two men sit in the center of a field of pink tulips, one leaning over the other's shoulder to press a kiss to his cheek.
This looks like something out of a yaoi manga! (Cole Keister / Pexels.com)

And it is. And there’s a reason. But there is also valid criticism of why this happens to be the case. There is valid criticism of why what cishet women writers produce isn’t actually … gay.

I know. I did it myself, eons and eons ago, when the internet was still new and bright and shiny.
So: why is so much m/m romance not actually gay?

Why Women Like m/m Romance

To understand why cishet women fail to produce actual gay narratives, we need to understand what these people like about m/m romance.

I’m an anime fan myself, and I quickly became enamored with the gay stuff. There are a number of theories about why cishet women like the stuff.

A screenshot of Cloud Strife, the protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, dressed in drag. Cloud typefies the "anime pretty boy" many cishet women prefer in their m/m romances.
Gateway drug of the early aughts right here.

The first is simply that it’s taboo. It’s a little bit edgy, it’s a little bit naughtier, and that makes it more attractive to the reader. Of course, cishet women usually deny sexual feelings or interest. They usually don’t confess to looking at straight porn, let alone gay word porn.

There are also theories that suggest it’s simply like male attraction to lesbians: two dudes for the price of one. What cishet woman wouldn’t imagine herself getting into a threesome with two attractive dudes?

That brings us to the last, and what I feel is the most likely, explanation. It circumvents discomfort around female sexuality and the female body. By getting rid of the female body in a heterosexual relationship and replacing it with a male one, we don’t have to confront misogyny. We don’t need to feel any discomfort around a woman expressing sexual desire. And we don’t need to worry about body image issues.

The Rise of Yaoi in Japan

This is certainly one reason given for the rise of yaoi in Japan. Japanese censorship laws around portraying the female body are strict. Audiences, steeped in misogynistic beliefs about women and sex, tend to shy away from stories that feature heterosexual sex. Swap the female body for a male one and you’ve neatly sidestepped these issues.

A screenshot of Sailor Moon holding up her weapon as she prepares to attack.
We love Sailor Moon, but we’re really not interested in seeing her go beyond a kiss with Tuxedo Mask.

Of course, I’d argue there are always a mix of factors. Not everyone is attracted to the genre for the same reason. Some people may like the taboo; others may be fetishizing in the worst way. Some may simply be trying to get their jollies in a way that doesn’t make them confront the female body.

It would be wise to note that we also need to account for folks who may be exploring gender. A good number of trans men started out “just liking” this kind of stuff, without realizing deeper desires to be masculine themselves.

There are still many cishet women who read and write m/m romance with very little suggestion that they’re queer. And that’s where we start running into problems.

Writing M/M Romance as a Heterosexual Relationship

One of the things I did when I was a wee writerling was “swap” a female body for a male body. In essence, there was this notion of top and bottom, indicating “dominant male” and “submissive male.”

I was not the only writer who did this. It was rife in fandom (and potentially still is). It was mirrored in every example of doujinshi and manga I had.

The moral was clear: this is how you write gay relationships.

It took between five and ten years before I actually encountered Real Queer People writing in the same circles. And what they were writing—and what they were saying—was eye-opening and instructive.

The diagram I’d been given by doujinshi and other fanfic was flawed, inaccurate. This isn’t how real queer relationships work.

I was also then fortunate enough to take a class on lesbian pulp fiction. That further debunked the notion that one person was always the “top” or the “butch” and the other was the “bottom” or the “femme.”

It became clear to me what I had been doing: simply mapping stereotypical heterosexual relationships onto my “gay” characters. The “top” was always (hyper)masculine, while the “bottom” was always (hyper)feminine.

Gay and Queer People Exist Outside of Heterosexuality

If you pause for even just a second, it becomes clear how ridiculous that is. Queer people, by definition, exist outside the confines of heterosexuality.

So why the heck are we trying to write them like they’re straight?

This comes back to the major reason cishet women are attracted to m/m romance. They see one partner as a stand-in for themselves. Thus they want that partner to be (hyper)feminine, next thing to a woman without actually having an XX-phenotype.

They want the body to be masculine. Then they can take all their shame around feminine desire and sexuality and shove it in a closet. When both bodies are male, sexuality and sex can become “free,” because we all know men are (hyper)sexual creatures.

And while it’s certainly understandable that women want a space where this is possible—for them to experience sexuality without shame—this approach has pitfalls.

Replicating the Issues with Heteronormativity

One is obviously that gay men and queer people fall outside the bounds of heterosexuality. The “rules” of heterosexual relationships do not apply.

This means that any queer relationship is a challenge to heterosexual norms. By writing gay men as neatly slotting into the heterosexual paradigm, cishet women fail to acknowledge that. They fail to critique heterosexuality or problematize its norms.

We end up with all the same problematic shit in Harlequin romances being replicated into a (supposedly) queer relationship. Nobody ever pauses to question this.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t some gay men who do fall into these more stereotypical roles. There are certainly gay men who are hyperfeminine and there are gay men who are hypermasculine. But we fail to imagine anything beyond the “masculine” top meeting up with the “feminine” bottom.

Even heterosexual relationships rarely function in the “idealized” way, something that writing queer relationships helped me to realize. Once I saw that queer relationships have to critique heterosexual norms, I saw that heterosexual “norms” aren’t quite as normal as we think.

Don’t Say the G-Word

Cishet women also tend to shy away from labeling their gay characters as gay. Rarely is it confirmed that a character is gay or bi or pan or anything. The characters are simply attracted to men. Sometimes, the other character is the only man they’re attracted to (the “gay-for-you” trope). In other cases, they are attracted to other male characters, but whether or not they’re gay is left open.

This is, I think, intentional and it’s somewhat sinister. In this, we have relationships that, on the surface, look queer. But they aren’t actually queer, and the characters themselves may or may not be queer.
This is fetishizing. Cishet women fail to imagine their characters as fully human in this instance: they lack a true identity. They aren’t really queer. They’re just two good-looking boys who happen to want to bone.

This allows us to sweep aside any kind of examination of identity. It allows us to put those heterosexual norms into play sans critique. It also maintains the fantasy that either (or both) of these two men could be available, at any time, for the cishet woman reader.

This Hurts Real Gay and Queer Men

I’m not going to critique anyone for their preferences. We have them, and that’s allowed. So cishet women are allowed to prefer hairless pretty “gay boys” in their fiction.

A screenshot of the Fellowship of the Ring, from l-r: (back row) Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Boromir, Gimli; (front): Samwise, Frodo, Merry, Pippin. This group was subject to a lot of m/m romance fanfic in the early aughts.
Unless you’re writing LOTR fanfic. With the exception of Legolas, all these boys are hairy.

But …

There’s always a corollary, and the issue here is that cishet women writing and reading m/m romance tend to prefer a particular kind of “gay” boy. They want to see particular kinds of sex or particular kinds of relationships.

And this usually comes at the cost of drowning out real gay voices. Cishet women dominate m/m romance, whether in trad publishing or in fanfiction circles.

Instead of lifting up queer voices, particularly those of gay men, we often shout them down and drown them out. Cishet women refuse to clear space for the gay men who actually have the kinds of experiences they put on the page.

The Failure of Imagination

That should strike us as an issue. It’s a failure of imagination on the part of cishet women: to envision real queer relationships, to move beyond heterosexuality, and to imagine their characters—and subsequently real gay men—as fully human.

That really should be setting off alarm bells. If we’re unable to imagine queer relationships in all their messy complexity, if we’re unable to envision a relationship that exists outside of a narrow heterosexual norm, what the fuck are we doing here?

This is where it is instructive and beneficial to listen to gay men themselves. And beyond merely listening to them, we should be working to clear space for them at the table.

Gay Men Should Be the Loudest Voices at the Table

It makes no sense that a category about gay men is dominated by women who are not trans and not queer themselves. Yet whenever this comes up, cishet women writers and readers double down and harass and attack the queer folks who are legitimately calling them out.

I’d suggest a moment of self-reflection here, ladies. If you love “teh gays” so much in your fiction, why aren’t you bringing that energy for them in real life?

Nobody is saying we can’t have “gay-ish” m/m romance, where everyone is hairless and we always get the “right” amount of fingering prep. What we are saying is that there are other stories that exist beyond this narrow, gay-adjacent portrayal of gay men.

And those stories are equally valid—if not more so—and they deserve to be told. Why are we letting one demographic, who doesn’t even exist in this space in their day-to-day lives, dominate the conversation? Why is there only one voice at the table, when the voices of gay men and queer people are so wonderfully varied?

The answer is never to shut people out or shut them down. It is always, always to make more space at the table. And we would do well to listen.

Gay-Adjacent Stories Hurt Women Too

The other thing that most cishet women don’t realize is that these stories hurt them too. It allows them to skirt, rather than confront, misogyny and shame around female sexuality. And it allows heterosexual norms to creak by unchallenged and uncritiqued—the same norms that drive domestic violence and abuse.

M/M romance seems a lot more sinister when you put it that way.

Again: people have preferences and preferences are fine. I myself still love my anime pretty boys. But, after listening to queer people critique m/m romance, I found myself more able to engage with these issues critically.

I was able to see the harmful tendencies of heterosexual romance. I understood I had merely imported those tendencies to a relationship that “looked” queer. And I was able to question and critique the “alpha male” and the “violent protection and jealousy as love” tropes.

And I was able to grapple with misogyny more easily. Opening myself to the idea that gay relationships are different allowed me to begin thinking beyond the heterosexual norms box. That then opened the door to a world of wonderfully different (and refreshing) cishet relationships. And it allowed me to critique the inherent misogyny embodied in fandom’s tendency to shit on any female character that comes within 100 miles of the “m/m OTP.”

Really Listening Leads to Better m/m Romance

We don’t realize we’re doing this, more often than not. By listening to queer people and reading queer stories, we can have our eyes opened.

My experience with this happened more than a decade ago. There is not a moment where I am not grateful or indebted to those queer fandom elders who opened my eyes. Since then, I’ve been able to more richly imagine the constellation of different relationships my characters can find themselves in. I’ve been able to reimagine not just queer relationships but heterosexual ones too. And I’ve been able to imagine, more fully, my characters as human beings—not just cardboard cutouts or dolls to play with.

Nobody’s saying we have to put the dolls away, necessarily. What we do need to do is recognize that there are real gay people who can tell their stories—and we should always give them the opportunity to do so.

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By Cherry

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