February is always a trip on social media, as it’s Black history month in the US, but queer history month in the UK. (The reverse is true in October.)
February is also the month where the West tends to focus on love and romance, thanks to Valentine’s Day.
At this time, we also see the re-emergence of all sorts of think pieces on the romance novel. Most of these grossly misunderstand the romance genre. At worst, they’re written by someone who smugly proclaims that they don’t read or even like romance novels. But we get the same bangers: declaring Romeo and Juliet “great romance,” someone saying romance novels don’t need HEAs, and so on.
One argument that crops up is the questioning of how Black, Indigenous, and other POC characters exist in historical romance. Queer characters get lumped in with this line of questioning too: after all, the past was horrible and oppressive!
If we want to insist on HEAs, then how can we possibly support BIPOC main couples or queer pairings in romance?
I’ll take a page from Shakespeare: let me count the ways.
Why Readers Think Happiness Isn’t Possible in Historical Romance
The argument that Black, Indigenous, or other POC characters can’t find an HEA in historical romance is bunk. Poke it, and the argument collapses in grand fashion.
The problem many (white) readers cite is that the past is horrible and oppressive. And yes, to some degree, that is true. Slavery was a thing that happened for hundreds of years. There was a civil war in the US to end it. After it ended, white people found knew and creative ways to keep oppressing Black people.
We see a similar story with Indigenous people. White people showed up and evicted them from their land, herding them westwards into smaller and smaller patches of land, fighting “wars” with them, and effectually committing genocide. There’s even the incident with the smallpox blankets, where white folks purposefully “gifted” blankets carrying smallpox to Indigenous people.
In short: white people did some really bad shit. That means the past was really awful if you weren’t white!
The same sort of story is true of queer people. Oscar Wilde, for example, ended up in jail for being “a sodomite.” Queer people used code to talk to each other, such as saying you were a “friend of Dorothy’s.” People who knew, knew.
Oppression Isn’t Over
Even into more recent historical periods, things weren’t exactly rosy for queer people. Stonewall was a riot; there were bathhouse raids in Toronto in the 1980s. The AIDS epidemic saw many people die needlessly and cruelly, because it was “the gay disease.” The fight for same-sex marriage dragged on in the US until 2015. We still have people jeopardizing the laws that allow for same-sex marriage.
In this year 2023, the pope said gay sex isn’t a crime—but it’s definitely a sin. Trans people are under attack in the US and the UK. The US is trying to roll back marriage rights. The Supreme Court just heard a case about a Christian website designer who didn’t want to have to create wedding websites for teh gayz.
We’ve just seen the horrific video of police brutality against a young Black man. Footage shows police beating him during a traffic stop for three whole minutes while crying for his mother. This is less than three years after George Floyd, whose murder at the hands of police sparked protests around the world. But it has been years since the Ferguson riot. It’s been a decade since Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
Continuing Oppression in the UK
In the UK, the children of the Windrush generation were threatened with deportation. Or we could talk about the press treatment of Meghan Markle, a Black woman who married into the royal family. Or, perhaps more tellingly, the royal family’s own treatment of Markle, which is something of what they’ve been trying to keep out of the press. The vehement hatred some people espouse toward her is frightening—and baseless.
While Blackness is perhaps not front-and-center like it is in the US, racism is alive and well in the UK.
We can conclude that, as much as the past might have been a “horrible time” for BIPOC individuals or queer people, the present is just as terrifying.
Yet, we argue that “happy endings” might be possible for BIPOC characters or queer characters in the present moment. If the present is just as horrific, why can’t we accept that people in the past could find happiness?
Refusing to Imagine BIPOC Joy or Queer Joy in Historical Romance
As I said, this is a failure of imagination on the (white) reader’s part. They are unable—or, more often, unwilling—to imagine Black joy, queer joy, Indigenous joy.
This is thanks to white supremacist narratives. The prevailing narrative is that Black people, queer people, and Indigenous people today have it “so much better.” This is the myth of progress—and it asks minoritized groups to sit down and shut up.
This narrative allows white people to say, “Oh, that was so terrible! What horrible things happened, I’m so sorry.” They then springboard into how much better the present is. This fictional divide between “past” and “present” allows them to ignore ongoing violence and tragedy. If someone corrects them, they point to the past and say, “Yes, but it’s so much better than it was!”
The Myth of Modernity as “Better”
White supremacist society uses this myth to disallow minoritized groups to push for better. We are asked to simply be thankful that things are “better” now. After all, we could be living in Victorian England or the prebellum South!
In this narrative, then, there is no room for Black joy, Indigenous joy, POC joy, queer joy. If joy existed for these groups in the past, the argument about “terrible past/better present” unravels. White Western audiences want to imagine “minoritized joy” is only possible in the present moment, because we have made “progress.” The conclusion is that minoritized groups ought to just be happy with that.
The idea that BIPOC characters or queer characters couldn’t find a “happy ending” in a historical romance is ludicrous. Suggesting you see joy as “unrealistic” means you are deeply invested in upholding a white supremacist narrative.
Historical Romance: Period Matters
The first thing when we think about finding “joy” for minoritized groups in the past is what era we’re talking about. Many, many people lived in Africa during the Middle Ages. There were people living in Egypt before the Greeks and Romans. What about the Indus Valley River Civilization, whom Alexander the Great encountered? Or the emperors of China or Japan? Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Oceania were living their lives long before European colonizers showed up.
In short, there was plenty of time for “joy” to show up in many places around the world. Let’s also not forget that many “pre-contact” societies were tolerant or even inclusive of queer people. We have Japanese shunga paintings to show us relations between men. Many Indigenous cultures in the Americas held Two-Spirit individuals in high regard. Even today, there are “third genders” in Thailand, India, and many of the Pacific Islands.
Is it so difficult to imagine that these people might have lived happy, joyful lives, found love, got that “HEA” before Columbus and his ilk ever showed up, before the Portuguese ever arrived on the shores of Japan?
It shouldn’t be.
Who Is Queer? What Is Race?
We might also remember that narratives about queerness and race actually shift over time. In the Roman Empire, the theory of “race” as we know it didn’t exist. It also didn’t exist in medieval Europe: Europeans didn’t really seem to identify people as “Black people” or such. While they certainly saw (and commented upon) skin color, they were, to some degree, more concerned with religion. Thus a Black Christian and a white one had more in common than a white Muslim and a white Christian.
This is not to say that medieval Europe was a paradise. There are plenty of texts that comment on “swarthy-featured” men who look “rough,” but the assumption is usually that they’re Moors or Saracens (Muslims). Thus we could argue race was understood differently than it is today.
“Queer” Identity Shifts over Time
This is an argument often made when it comes to queerness. While we might suggest certain historical figures engaged in homosexual acts, there’s a certain resistance to slapping modern labels on people. Would King James I of England have understood himself as gay? Would he have picked “bi” or “pan”? We don’t really know.
There are things we do know, though. For example, in China, gay marriage was legal until the end of the 1700s. The men were often expected to dissolve their marriages eventually in favor of heterosexual marriage and reproduction at the appropriate time. In Japan, warriors and nobles engaged with young men, in a system akin to that of the ancient Greeks. And we know the ancient Greeks had lesbians. After all, the word “lesbian” comes from the name of the isle of Lesbos, where the poet Sappho wrote her sapphic odes.
Will Shakespeare might have been “some kind of queer.” Certainly, scholars think some of his sonnets address male lovers. His queerness would have been acceptable under the theory of “like enhancing like.” Loving men simply enhanced men’s masculinity.
What about Emily Dickinson? What of the fact she stayed unmarried and wrote passionate letters to her sister-in-law?
Or we might even look at medieval monks and nuns and see asexual men and women finding acceptance for their identities in the church. In more recent history, some people want to cast Marilyn Monroe as asexual, although she may not have understood herself that way.
So, the question is how queerness was defined. And we can see that, at different points in history, different queer identities were tolerated, accepted, and even venerated.
And that’s to say nothing of queerness beyond the bounds of “white culture”!
Reimagining Happiness in Historical Romance
The final way we can look for joy among “minoritized” identities in historical romance is to ask ourselves what, exactly, “joy” or “happy-ever-after” looks like.
Is a happy-ever-after always falling in love, getting married, and having kids? That’s a patriarchal ideal that women are trained into from birth.
We might want to imagine what “joy” looks like outside the white, Western patriarchal standard of “marriage and children.”
Sometimes, joy looks like cohabitation or simply being in love. Sometimes it looks like being a shut-in, writing poetry and love letters to your sister-in-law (hi, Emily). For queer people, it might also look like an unconventional living arrangement.
Imagining Non-white HEAs
How do we imagine Black joy or Indigenous joy? There is joy in homecoming and community, in family, in rediscovering roots. We have to believe that many people did live lives marked by tragedy, racism, and hatred, yes, and many people died. We cannot deny the scars that are borne from society’s treatment. But we also have to imagine there are people who found joy, and many found joy in love.
An example might be cowboy romances. Most cowboys were people of color. Many were Black; many were Hispanic; and many were Indigenous. The rewriting of the cowboy as white is a white supremacist takeover of history.
What of the real cowboys? Were some of them “Brokeback Mountain-ing”? Perhaps. Some of them maybe never married, and cowboys were itinerant, often away from society for long stretches of time. Or perhaps they were having Wild West romances with white women (gasp), or perhaps they were sending money home to a family elsewhere. Whatever the case, there is surely joy to be found somewhere.
Joy and happily-ever-after isn’t the sole domain of white people, not throughout history and not in the present era. Sorrow and tragedy and oppression are not things we have “left behind.” If we can find joy in the present, then we can find joy in the past. All it requires is a bit of imagination—and a willingness to reject white supremacist narratives of the past as worse than the present.