Summer Reads: Some Gay Romances

One perk of having a Kindle is the unlimited supply of M/M romance e-books that I can now enjoy, free from concerns about privacy and shelf space. I’ve read a couple of standouts that I’ll discuss below, and meanwhile have been thinking about some peculiarities of the genre.

I was never really a fan of hetero romance novels–I didn’t look anything like the girls on the covers, and more importantly, I wasn’t attracted to the kind of meaty alpha males who conquer these ladies with a blast of pheromones. I don’t relate to the genre’s near-universal construction of female sexual response as surrender, or the notion that falling in love happens on an instinctual level where chemistry overpowers rational free choice.

I’d guess that this critique resonates with the large population of semi-straight women, like me, who read and write stories about two men in love. Besides our simple enjoyment of the male anatomy, maybe we’re looking for alternatives to the genre’s traditional gender hierarchies. We might appreciate some fantasies where we’re just spectators, not worrying how we measure up to the leading lady.

Gay men in love, at least in theory, have the opportunity to meet each other as equals. Because homophobia is often one of the obstacles to their eventual happy ending, the characters are compelled to be more reflective about the nature of desire–how do they know what their “real” feelings are, and how much weight should they give to¬†eros compared to other moral and social values? Not all M/M romances allow political consciousness to intrude, but the best ones, in my opinion, allow it to deepen the story.

The funny thing is, though, that M/M frequently carries over some of the weird patriarchal themes of the old bodice-rippers. Our imaginations are so thoroughly conditioned that we don’t take full advantage of the genre’s potential for gender liberation.

I first noticed this phenomenon in yaoi, the Japanese manga subgenre also known as “boys’ love”. These romance comics featuring male couples are primarily written by and marketed to women. However, the gender hierarchy is alive and well. There are generally clearly delineated “top” (seme) and “bottom” (uke) characters, with the latter being drawn as a more effeminate or androgynous youth. In fact, sometimes the uke is literally a teen boy involved with an adult man, which echoes another problematic theme of traditional romance fiction–the borderline non-consensual sex that the victim winds up enjoying.

Among the yaoi books I’ve read so far, Tetuzoh Okadaya’s The Man of Tango distinguished itself because both partners are depicted as adult men who switch roles, in bed and out, mutually guiding one another to open up new dimensions of themselves. As for the sex, let me just say that this book was sold in a sealed shrink-wrap and totally lived up to it.

Okadaya’s fellows also have a close female friend who is a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. The same cannot be said for a lot of works in this category, such as Youka Nitta’s hot but silly Embracing Love 1 & 2, about male porn stars who go gay for each other. Too often, women in M/M are either absent or mere foils for the men. They’re needy girlfriends, cold ex-wives, or disposable sex-dolls, who only enter the narrative to prove the male character’s virility and the inadequacy of the relationships preceding the male leads’ pairing. Considering that women are in charge of this genre, why are we building “GIRLZ KEEP OUT!” clubhouses for our sexy boys?

This brings me to another odd trope of gay romance, so common that it has its own acronym: GFY, or “gay for you”. (My mom-of-choice, who has become an expert on foreign lesbian soap operas on the Internet, reports that it’s all over the place in girl-girl plots too.) A typical romance pairs an experienced, comfortably out gay person with a partner who has never had a same-sex lover. The more plausible books (relatively speaking) at least set up some backstory that the GFY had previous gay desires but didn’t act on them because of spiritual conflict, social pressure, or trauma.

In Jamie Fessenden’s amazing Billy’s Bones, for example, the man exploring his first adult same-sex relationship is alienated from his own sexuality because of repressed memories of child abuse. Not only doesn’t he know what he wants, he doesn’t remember what he’s already done. His partner, a therapist, has to learn how to support his recovery without caretaking and controlling him. The result is a genuinely egalitarian partnership between adults. I can’t say enough good things about this book’s responsible, well-informed, and compassionate treatment of a topic that is usually sensationalized or shrouded in denial. Check out Jamie’s blog for insightful discussion of love between men, in books and real life.

Another beautiful novel, Tim Bairstow’s The Shadow of Your Wings, explores the mentor-novice theme via a love triangle among three men with a fraught relationship to the Church of England. (The book takes place in England in the 1990s, when gay priests had to be celibate, although straight priests could get married.) Jack is an elderly monk whose life has been warped by repression of his same-sex attractions. He becomes obsessed with Felix, a beautiful, virginal youth who is staying at the monastery to prepare for ordination to the priesthood. Felix has never dared to act on his sexual orientation. The third player is Jonas, the groundskeeper, a savvy young man who loves Felix and helps him see through Jack’s spiritual manipulations. This book is not heavy on the sex; it spends far more time mapping the emotional terrain of love, self-knowledge, and spiritual awakening. A must-read for theology nerds everywhere.

Felix’s loss-of-virginity plotline, the GFY trope, and the plethora of coming-out stories in M/M made me reflect on how a romance novel establishes that the central relationship is “special”. Here, too, I smell the lingering influence of purity-based morality from traditional heterosexual norms.

Romantic convention provides two main tracks for setting up this specialness, both of which I find problematic. The more experienced partner (the male in hetero romance) has had a lot of meaningless flings, but now he’s going to behave better because he’s found The One. (E.g. Jonas in Shadow, Angie in Man of Tango.) The less experienced partner is letting down his defenses for the first time because he’s found The One.

In hetero storylines, I call this the “not like other girls” delusion–an actual quote from high school stud Jake’s pursuit of virginal Marley on the TV show Glee, which consciously referenced John Travolta’s pursuit of “Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity” in the musical Grease. In both cases, he tries a little harder not to be a dick because she is purer than other girls, not because…uh, every girl should be respected? Being a dick is bad? In real life, this is not a man who is ready for a healthy relationship. He hasn’t done any of the inner work to transition from pick-up artist to husband. The clever but frustrating Steve Carell rom-com Crazy Stupid Love makes this point, but then throws it away in the interest of tying up all the plotlines with a happy ending.

“The right person will change you” is apparently very deep-rooted in the romance genre, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. While I enjoy these books, I think it’s disappointing that gay men (and their female fans) aren’t given more role models for relationships between two sexually experienced, mature adults.

Then again, my sample is limited. More research is needed. Gee, is it getting hot in here…?

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