Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Problems with Representations of Bisexuality in M/M Romance

Here's a cross-post of a piece I wrote for Prism Book Alliance last month, written in response to some of the issues being raised lately in the m/m genre. 

Bi-erasure in M/M romance is not entirely a surprise. The genre is defined by the fact that the two guys have to get together in the end. Unfortunately this reinforces one of the more pervasive myths about bisexuality that exists: that it’s just a stepping stone on the inevitable path between straight and gay.
Remember how cutting edge Sex and the City was? Remember when Carrie said this about bisexual guys: “I'm not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it's just a layover on the way to Gay Town.”
And therein lies the problem with the entire Gay For You trope, particularly in Romance where of course the guys will end up together forever, and of course their previous relationships with women can be easily brushed off as a phase, or an aberration, or a stepping stone, in this case, not to Gay Town necessarily, but to HEA Town. Which just happens to look exactly the same as Gay Town in this scenario.
When I first released Dark Space, I was surprised to see it described as “Gay For You.” I’ve said it before, but if there’s really a need to slap a label on Brady, then it’s at least Out For You. And that’s out as in queer, not out as in gay. Brady has an ex-girlfriend and--intense amount of internalised homophobia and acute self-denial notwithstanding-- there’s no reason for the reader to think that Brady wasn’t genuinely sexually attracted to that girlfriend. Brady’s out for Cam. But it’s not like Cam magicked him True Gay or anything. And it’s something that I specifically wanted to address when I wrote these lines in the sequel:
Which wasn’t to say that a hot girl in a tight shirt couldn’t still get my attention. She couldn’t keep it, though, not when I had Cam.
Brady is with Cam because he loves him and is attracted to him. At the same time he is still, and always will be, sexually attracted to women. This in no way devalues his relationship with Cam. And I feel that this is a problem in Romance as a whole. That when you meet The One, you no longer have eyes for any other. Which is probably one of the bullshittiest of all the bullshit fairy tales ever invented about love. Because, let’s face it, unless finding your true love also involves ritually removing your eyeballs, you’re still going to look at hot people. You’re still going to be attracted to them. You still have a pulse.
The thing that I find most problematic about the GFY trope though, is its logical conclusion. If Gay For You is a thing, then surely so is Straight For You. Why, with the right girl and (probably) just a little bit of prayer, there would be no gay men at all!
Because of the inherent constraints in the M/M genre, it’s sometimes too easy to play into that whole bi-erasure thing. Because an M/M HEA between two guys looks exactly the same, whether it’s gay or bi. Two men overcome whatever was standing in their way and end up together…aww. Which is why I think it’s important for writers to remind our readers that one or both of these characters may be bi.
Bi-erasure is incredibly harmful for people who identify as bi, and romance novels, which offer an escape for so many other people, aren’t as warm and fluffy when they’re quietly denying or invalidating your existence. And bi people get enough of that shit from other media. Bisexuality in popular culture is way too often associated with duplicity, with untrustworthiness. In Hollywood, in terms of shorthand for evil, bisexuality is right up there with an English accent.
As writers, I think we have an obligation to try to do better. We need to be certain that we don’t treat bisexuality as a phase, or as a part of a process of denial, or as the fucking no man’s land between where Gay and Straight have planted their flags and dug their trenches. Bisexuality is its own valid identity.
A beta reader pointed out that in my newly-contracted novel I have two instances of briefly described m/f oral sex, and that some readers wouldn’t like this. I knew that, of course. I’d thought about that when I was writing those scenes, and how fucked up is it that I actually stopped writing, squinted at my screen, and wondered if that was okay? In the end those scenes are staying precisely because I had that reaction. One of my MCs is bisexual, and just because he finds himself in a relationship with another guy doesn’t mean that it automatically wipes his identity clean and he can start over as a gay man. He is and will always be bisexual, whoever he ends up with. He is not confused, he is not in the process of realising he’s attracted exclusively to men, and he’s not Gay For You. He’s not gay for anyone. He’s bisexual, and that in no way invalidates his, or anyone else’s, HEA.

M/M Romance is supposed to embrace diversity, and promote inclusiveness. Romance is supposed to make a reader feel happy, not invisible. And that’s something that clearly needs some work. I don’t have all the answers, and I’m aware that writing this post from my position as a cishet woman that there will be things I have overlooked, or misconstrued, and am just plain ignorant about. But I know that we can do better, and I hope that we can all try.