Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rainbow Romances

Sarah’s already written a little about gay romance, and I can’t mention the topic without adding a reference to Scott and Scott’s description of their heroes, but what I want to focus on are the ways in which homophobia, as well as acceptance of homosexuality, can be expressed via the secondary characters in romance.

The controversy that was triggered last year about homosexuality in romance is still alive. It began, or at least garnered a special report at All About Romance, when
we learned that RWA sent out a questionnaire to its 9,000 members presenting them with possible new definitions of Romance. I have not seen the questionnaire, but have been told by those angered by it that it was part of a calculated plan to close off RWA membership to writers of Romantica and Gay/Lesbian-themed Romances.
Whether or not that is true, in fact, is almost besides the point. Because by now many of RWA's members believe it to be the case, and quite a few authors have resigned their memberships in protest.
Now Kate Rothwell has commented on
a letter published in the Romance Writer’s Report written by Jan Butler, in which Ms Butler argues that the Romance Writers of America’s definition of romance should be changed to exclude homosexual romances. She brings in morality, slippery slopes and paedophilia to justify her argument. This prompted a characteristically strong rebuttal from the Smart Bitches. As many on both these threads have pointed out, paedophilia is completely different from homosexuality, but the technique being employed here to smear homosexuals is one which is used worldwide. For example:
The “Australian Family Association” (AFA) represents itself as a guardian of the “traditional family” of mother, father and natural children. In its campaign against the Western Australian law reforms [‘affecting the status of homosexual men and lesbians to ensure equality in the eyes of the law’], it used newspaper adverts, leaflet drops and billboard posters inter alia, to represent its position and to try to influence public opinion and to persuade the government not to proceed with these changes. These public representations consistently focused on the "age of consent" issue and portrayed homosexual men as sexual predators against young boys - rapacious paedophiles.

In contemporary Australia conscious vilification of the “other” has been increasingly apparent as a significant tool in stirring group fears and mobilising paranoid-schizoid anxieties. (Shafer, 2002)
This technique is one which is identified as homophobic by PACE, a UK charity ‘promoting lesbian and gay health and wellbeing’:
Homophobic attitudes may consciously or unconsciously be expressed through:
  • stereotyping
  • pathologising (not normal/deviant - mad, bad or sick)
  • hostile/aggressive (verbal & physical abuse)
  • ridiculing (e.g. jokes, offensive slang)
  • pitying (e.g. "what a shame")
  • ignorance/confusion/embarrassment voyeuristic (e.g. prurient interest in what lesbians do in bed)
  • sexist (e.g. "not a real man/woman", "all she needs is a good ****"
  • marginalising/seeing as "other"
  • rejecting
  • indifferent to suffering caused
  • confusion of homosexuality with paedophilia, leading belief that lesbians and gay men should not be around children
  • discriminatory - aware or unaware, formal/institutionalised or informal
  • over-compensating (e.g. insincerely "nice", "some of my best friends ...")
It seems to me that homophobic attitudes in the romance writing and reading community are expressed within romance novels as well as in the opposition to gay and lesbian romances.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I mainly read historicals, and in the medieval, Regency and Victorian periods when most historicals are set, homosexual activities were illegal, so a lack of gay and lesbian characters isn’t unrealistic. They’d mostly have been well-hidden inside their closets. But there are a few romances which do have gay characters. I’ve also read some contemporaries, and come across a few gay and lesbian secondary characters. I’ll also draw on All About Romance's (AAR’s) resources, since they’ve read far, far, more books than I ever could, so their conclusions draw on a much wider base of evidence.

Let’s begin with the first manifestation of homophobia mentioned by PACE, stereotyping. This can be both positive (to an extent) or negative. The positive stereotype is often mixed with ‘over-compensating (e.g. insincerely "nice", "some of my best friends ...")’, because this type of gay secondary character is often the ‘heroine’s best friend:
Usually braver, spunkier, more daring than the heroine, unless the heroine herself is super-spunky, in which case the friend will be the voice of caution and reason. She appears in all subgenres, although in contemporary romances, her role may be played by a gay male. She often gets a secondary romance of her own, or a starring role in the author's next book. (Note: the latter does not apply if the part is played by a gay male.) Colleen McMahon, AAR
A gay male ‘best friend’ is useful because, as in the case of Miranda Lee’s Marriage in Peril, he doesn’t pose any competition for the affections of either the straight hero or heroine:
‘You and Vince are going to make a great team. I can see my investment will be in safe hands. Besides’, he added, smiling ‘with Vince being gay, I have no worries on that little score.’
Brooke frowned at that remark. ‘Would you ever really worry about me on that score, Leo? What if Vince hadn’t been gay?’
‘Then I wouldn’t have let him within a million miles of you,’ he replied in all seriousness.
‘But why? Don’t you trust me?’
‘I trust you. I simply don’t trust men.’ (2000:153)
Vince is a fashion designer, and another of the gay best friends I’ve read about works with the heroine in the cosmetics department of a large store, in Kylie Adams’ Fly Me to the Moon (2001). Ricky, as the AAR reviewer says, is ‘gay and her best girlfriend’. His problems with a lack of acceptance by his father may be realistic, but not much else is. So why are gay men stereotyped as being honorary women, interested in clothes and perfumes? In addition, as noted in AAR they’re extremely unlikely to get their own romantic relationship, and they aren’t often even seen with a boyfriend. This portrayal makes gay men seem as unthreatening to straight men as eunuchs, and given their apparent celibacy, they don’t offend the sensibilities of those who believe that gay sex is immoral.

So much for the 'positive' stereotype. The negative one manages to combine ‘pathologising’ attitudes with ‘marginalising/seeing as "other"’ and ‘confusion of homosexuality with paedophilia’. In AAR’s At The Back Fence, there was a segment on a stereotype they dubbed the ‘Gay Villain’. Candy Tan commented that
It seems that almost every time I pick up a romance, most of the really sicko bad guys turn out to be gay. I, personally, am fed up with the constant and pretty much consistent association of homosexuality, bisexuality and almost anything other than regular heterosexual sex with everything evil including (but not limited to) pedophilia, psychosis, misogyny, incest, sociopathy, bestiality, abusive tendencies and bad personal hygiene.
a fellow contributor to the column, Mary Novak, agreed:
I share Candy’s distaste for the Multi-Pervert Gay Villain cliché. I don’t have a problem with gay characters that are obnoxious or even evil - obnoxiousness and evil are traits available to all classes, creeds, and genders. I do object, however, to the wholesale bundling of every pathology under the sun, particularly misogyny and pedophilia, with homosexuality.
Candy cites Robin Schone’s The Lady’s Tutor as having this sort of gay character, and I came across one myself in Sally Mackenzie’s The Naked Duke, although possibly one should describe the villain as bisexual, since he enjoys raping and murdering female prostitutes.

Not all romances descend into cliché and prejudice when it comes to the depiction of homosexuality, though. Suzanne Brockmann states that:
gay characters in romance novels (along with TV shows and many contemporary movies) tend to be asexual. They come in, redecorate the heroine's house, say something witty and exit stage left.

Don't get me wrong -- I think it's great that gay characters are showing up in more and more books. This kind of diversity is a big step toward tolerance and acceptance.

But the truth is -- and I believe this completely -- that love is love is love.
So she gave a gay secondary character his own romantic subplot in Hot Target.

Jennifer Crusie has a number of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters: there’s a gay couple in Faking It who’ve been an item for years; the heroine’s mother in Crazy for You has a lesbian lover as well as a husband; in Bet Me Shanna, a lesbian character, has a relationship during the course of the novel and later ‘Shanna and Linda parted company after a year with no hard feelings’ and Shanna soon meets the love of her life with whom she ‘went to China and adopted a little girl. Shanna is a stay-at-home mom’ (2004: 390).

I’ve also just read Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight, and I’m certain that the aunts who brought up the heroine are lesbian lovers, although, perhaps in deference to the sensibilities of the Victorian age in which the book is set, we are told this in a somewhat coded way:
Emma and Milly [...] were both women of a certain age. They had been something more than very good friends for years, sharing not only a home and the responsibility of raising a child, but a seemingly endless variety of enthusiasms and interests. (2004: 55)
I'll end there, but I hope I've given just a tiny flavour of the range of attitudes towards homosexuality in romance novels.

Crusie, Jennifer, 2004. Bet Me (New York: St Martin’s Press).

Lee, Miranda, 2000. Marriage in Peril (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).

Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Ltd).

Shafer, Allan
, 2002. ‘ “Wanted, Your Teenage Son!”: Homosexuality, Paedophilia, And The Vilification Of The “Other”: A Socio-Analytic View Of Some Fundamentalist Organisational Dynamics’, paper presented at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, 2002 Symposium.


  1. Thanks, Laura. Isn't it odd that in most business-related ventures, conservatives say they are in favor of "letting the market decide," but not when it concerns homosexuality. If there is no market for romances with gay/lesbian characters, then they won't sell and no one will be harmed. But if there are readers out there who are interested in reading about gay characters, or who are not bothered by the issue and just want to read about interesting characters, then why not let their purchasing speak for itself?

    Like you, I mainly read historicals, so I don't expect homosexuality in those books to be treated as openly as "Will and Grace." On the other hand, male and female society was much more segregated, so one can only assume those practices went on a good deal and that the taboo against it may cause the discovered practitioners to act in a desperate fashion.

    I liked the frank, realistic treatment of the issue by Diana Gabaldon ("Outlander"), both in the character of Jack Randall, a villain, and in Lord John Grey, an honorable man and a firm-wristed friend.

    The topic was also at issue in Loretta Chase's "Captives of the Night." The heroine's gay (bisexual?) husband was a villainous sort, but I didn't feel that homosexuality was being demonized.

    I have not heard any outcry against these romances or any others containing gay characters. But out of the piles of romance novels published every year, I think there must be something for everyone. I would not demand publishers take God out of inspirational romances any more than I would demand graphic sex be removed from erotic romances. Man-Boy love romances probably exist as well.

    I think most writers are more interested in characters than they are in moralizing, so I haven't read many romances that I found to be homophobic. If I did, I simply wouldn't read that author any more. I might write the publisher, but probably not. I have ceased to be surprised at the stuff that gets published nowadays.

  2. Isn't it odd that in most business-related ventures, conservatives say they are in favor of "letting the market decide," but not when it concerns homosexuality

    Yes, but then, people can be 'pro-life' and 'pro-death penalty', which seems like a huge contradiction to me, but they don't see it that way. On the economics specifically, have you seen the Political Compass? It distinguishes between different sorts of 'conservatives' and 'liberals', and helps to explain some of the apparent contradictions.

  3. On the subject of homosexuality in the past, I really like E. M. Forster's Maurice. He finished it in 1914, revised it in 1960 but it wasn't published until after his death. It vividly portrays the problems faced by gay men, but it also has a happy ending. It doesn't have the conventional romance structure because it begins with Maurice's childhood, so perhaps it might not technically be considered a romance since it doesn't have a 'central love story', but it's certainly romantic:

    He had brought out the man in Alec, and now it was Alec's turn to bring out the hero in him. He knew what the call was, and what his answer must be. They must live outside class, without relations or money; they must work and stick to each other till death. But England belonged to them. That, besides companionship, was their reward. Her air and sky were theirs, not the timorous millions' who own stuffy little boxes, but never their own souls. (1972: 208-209)

    Forster, E. M., 1972. Maurice (London: Penguin Books Limited).

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I loved Brockmann's Hot Target and I hope Jules gets his own story and HEA.

    As for Maurice, I read it ages ago and liked it a lot, but I should look at it again.

  5. I saw the movie "Maurice" a long time ago (starring a young Hugh Grant!) and did think it was romantic and, best of all, full of handsome men.

    Thanks for the Political Compass. I still don't see how I could be left of the Dalai Lama, though! : )