Readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of the Gay4U trope in m/m romance. I understand why it’s popular and there are certainly authors who are able to do a good job with it. But I’m still not drawn to those storylines.
As a faithful reader of category romances, I am not criticizing these books for being unrealistic (well, not much). I am criticizing readers and authors who defend them on the grounds that they are realistic. This distinction was crystallized for me when I was reading through a thread on a Goodreads board. I followed a link to a post defending a 2011 release against reviewers’ criticisms. I haven’t read the book in question, so I don’t have anything to say about the debate over the book, but these passages caught my eye:
As [the author] says, “Out for You” is how most gay men figure themselves out sexually, at whatever age they come to terms with their sexuality. They meet someone who arouses feelings that makes them question their self-image.” . . .
I would guess that “Out for You” happens more often than not.
I don’t disagree that individuals (gay or straight) learn about aspects of their sexuality through the process of becoming attracted to other people. I take issue, however, with the idea that Out4U happens “more often than not,” especially in the way that it’s depicted in m/m romance. Thinking of oneself as gay and living in society as a gay person involves identity, not just the gender of one’s sexual partners, or everyone who has ever had a same-sex encounter of any type would qualify as gay or bi, regardless of how they thought about themselves. But that’s not the way we use the terms.
I also don’t have a problem with readers enjoying storylines that focus on Gay4U or Out4U scenarios. Sometimes they’re ridiculously unbelievable, but sometimes they’re fun to read. It’s all in the author’s hands.
But readers and authors, please, don’t justify your enjoyment of the trope by referring to real-life scenarios. In real life, a person who has recently come out of the closet has just undergone a profound psychological stressor, and the decision usually has major ramifications for his place in his immediate and extended community. Some people may be able to enter into a healthy, committed new relationship while simultaneously navigating that process, but many will not. There’s a reason why gay men who have been out for a while often avoid relationships with the newly un-closeted. As for Gay4U in real life, I can’t say it better than TeddyPig did:
The truth is Gay Men who accept themselves and their feelings do not like hanging out with losers who do not anymore than any Straight Woman would.
Stories that explore the messy, complicated issues that arise for these individuals and couples aren’t generally what romance readers want to encounter in the genre. And as a faithful reader of category romance, that makes total sense to me. But, as someone who reads both genres, I’m puzzled by the argument that m/m is so very different from Harlequin, especially when it’s made in the context of defending Out4U as a storyline choice. The genres may differ in terms of who loves whom and the amount of explicit sex, but they share a lot of common ground when it comes to their level of (un)reality.
Harlequin readers don’t defend their enjoyment of sheikh-virgin and billionaire-secretary stories by claiming they reflect real life. Gay4U and Out4U are enjoyable, escapist, fantasy scenarios; why not just leave it at that?