Since you asked so nicely … The VM ponders authenticity

by Sunita

I woke up this morning and saw my own name in my RSS reader. Huh. Was not expecting that. Thanks for the compliments, TP, I learned a lot from our back and forth as well. You asked that I expand on what I meant when I commented on the repeated focus on the authentic gay male voice in m/m (I’m calling it m/m here rather than gay romance because the community is more m/m than gay romance, in my opinion). First, my take on the AJL mess and then I will try to answer your question.

I see two sources of outrage in the AJL situation.

(1) An author was outed as a straight woman. This author had apparently manufactured a complicated and entirely false story, complete with photographs, of a gay male authorial persona and life. This went beyond an author bio using male pronouns to include descriptions of an ongoing relationship with another gay male author, stories about coming out, tips on how to write m/m from a gay male perspective, etc.

(2) The deception crossed from the personal and fictional author-bio realm to non-fiction blog posts, thus extending the commonplace types of fictional authorial persona (male pronouns, gender-neutral discussions of personal life, etc.) into a non-fiction environment.

I was really bothered by (2), even more than (1), which I find reprehensible but not totally unusual when it comes to authorial personas. I’ve written about the persona v. author topic before so I won’t rehash it here. I’m not saying people aren’t right to be bothered by (1), and I do think it crossed a line, it just wasn’t as heinous to me personally.

And then, as I was busy being righteously outraged about (2), the situation became murkier.

AJL wrote a post in which he self-identified as a gay male. That put him in the trans category (the T in LBGT). So to call him any kind of woman, let alone a straight woman, was to deny his self-identification. Rumors have flown about this. Some people who seem to have reason to know say he’s really a straight woman, others say he has self-identified as a male for a while.

I’m going to assume he is who he says he is. I’d rather believe him and be a fool than disbelieve him and be a cruel and incorrect cynic. I’m willing to be a generalized cynic but not this type. This does not mean I believe the “coming clean” post. It means I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt. In large part I do this because when people who don’t have a lot of information decide not to believe AJL, it resonates beyond his individual case.

The chatter on the internet has hit at least the second-highest category on RRR Jessica’s kerfuffle alert scale (adjusted for m/m). The debate on Goodreads has been especially lively, and some of it has centered around Damon Suede’s post at the YA LGBT group.

I wasn’t actually thinking of Suede’s post and the reactions to it when I made the comments about gay male authenticity at TP’s (I was thinking about someone else entirely, to be honest), but of course it’s an example of what I’m talking about. His comments are rocketing around the internet in part because they capture a lot of the outrage certain observers feel, but they seem to have added resonance because the commenter is a gay male. My problem with the latter is that it is the opinion of one gay male reader (and in this case writer), but it’s being treated as if it’s more salient than other opinions on that basis (I’m unable to link to a couple of illustrative comments because they’re in a closed Goodreads group, but here’s the same idea in a slightly different context).

I had a mixed reaction to the post. His anger at the deception was something I agreed with, unsurprisingly. But his consistent use of female pronouns felt unnecessarily aggressive and disrespectful. And when he went beyond the AJL case in particular, he totally lost me:

I have known there were female authors actively deceiving their readership about their gender since I started reading gay romance. In some cases it’s blatant enough to be comical, in all cases it’s sad, gross, and ironic in a genre which should be about tolerance, wholeness, and integrity. Shades of the Vichy, methinks. I have blogged about this several times, and suggested each time that the entire community offer amnesty to impersonators willing to come clean. I understand the fanfic roots of a lot of the impulse to impersonate, but fraud is fraud. Umm, duh?

Do I think Llewellyn and others like her are evil? No.

Aside from completely failing to understand how this is like Vichy (AJL is Pétain? His supporters are collaborators? Women with pen names are anti-gay?), what on earth is the amnesty comment all about? How will the entire community do that? A Constitutional Convention? An Executive Order? A public ceremony? And that reference to Llewellyn and others like her [sic]? WTF? Someone else is doing (1) and (2) above? Really? I am not a fan of this kind of drive-by anonymous accusation. If you’re not going to name the “others,”, then can we please just stick to the topic at hand?

Look, I get why readers and authors elevate gay male writers and care about authenticity. At least some of m/m romance purports to be about real-life-type gay men, and many m/m authors are sensitive to and actively supportive of gay rights. But so many of these books are light years removed from anything approaching reality, just as Harlequin Presents are light years removed from real sheikhs and billionaires (and secretaries, for that matter).

I am thrilled when I come across an m/m book that reflects a historical or contemporary reality I recognize. But my reality is also only a tiny slice of the big, complicated reality that is out there. And so is every gay man’s experience. Holding up an individual gay man’s view as more important because it’s “the gay position” is a fool’s game. It’s no different than telling someone who violates some stereotype you hold about an ethic group that they’re “not really Asian” or “not really Latina.” It’s just the positive version.

Suede’s comments are resonating for a lot of people because they agree with him, and because he’s a gay male writer they feel additionally validated in their anger. But go back to that Goodreads thread, or to AJL’s own blog post, and look at the gay male voices who support AJL. They should be seen as just as authentic and influential, but they’re ignored or argued with. And what about the gay male writers who haven’t said anything (I can think of at least one)? Why aren’t we following their example? Suede is the voice of one gay man (and for many observers, he’s a very articulate and compelling voice). But that’s it.

Like a lot of readers, when I read a book written by someone I’m 99% sure is a gay man (hey, it’s the internet, if I haven’t met them face to face I’m not 100% on anybody), I unconsciously give it points for authenticity. But I don’t assume I’m getting some Generalizable Gay Experience, or start measuring all other books by that particular novel’s depiction of gay life. And when I read an unsatisfying or badly written book by a Real Gay Man I don’t assume that it’s reflective of what all gay men write either.

There are plenty of books I’ve read by women (yeah, AM Riley and Jordan Price, I’m looking at you and assuming you’re women, sorry if I’m wrong) that give me the same feeling of reading something that could be real. It’s just not written from personal, lived experience. It’s the power of their imaginations and their talent that create that effect. There’s a tradeoff between imagination and authenticity for writers who aren’t, say, Sean Kennedy. I refuse to give up the former to gain the latter.

Do I like being lied to about someone’s “true” gender? Not particularly. But I’ve also become very aware that gender identification is a lot more multifaceted and complicated than I once thought, and I don’t have enough information about any author to be confident that I fully know why they make the choices about author persona that they do. So unless I’m hit in the face with an unusual type of deception, as happened in the AJL case, I don’t think about it a lot.

I didn’t read AJL before this because the books didn’t appeal to me. If I had, and I had loved them, would I keep reading? I don’t know for sure, but I think I might. At the same time, though, I won’t read Anne Perry. See? I’m inconsistent. But I know it, so I get uncomfortable passing judgment. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

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