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Fellow author Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post on his blog recently, about women writing M/M romance, which you can find —here—. It’s well worth reading and thinking about.

This is an issue that has arisen on discussion loops and author blogs for years, often in some combination of complaint, disrespect, snark and defiance. Recent posts on the topic are less strident, I’m grateful to see.

I really appreciate Jamie’s approach, since it offers real commentary, and avoids the outraged “Women don’t write us right!” or “I write werewolves, does that mean I have to be one to write authentically about them?” arguments, both of which which basically miss the point.

“Who the heck is this ‘us’?” this particular gay man asks. The diversity even just within the European / North American gay male demographic is too fabulously far-ranging to function with an individual spokesman. And with werewolves, an author can make up their behavior to suit any whim. It’s a more complex issue when writing about a gay man, since, you know, we actually exist.

Frankly, I’m relieved we’re getting beyond the “You can’t do it right!” vs. the “Yes I can!” arguments because they’re neither helpful nor relevant.

I don’t think anyone disputes that women can write great romance stories featuring gay male characters. They shouldn’t, anyway, since it’s so very obviously true. So what’s the real issue?

Is it that MM romance stories written by men might be a little different from those written by women? When I read one of our stories, sometimes the gender of the author is obvious to me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if you paid me a fortune. (And if you offered to pay me a fortune, believe me I’d try. I’m an author, after all, and need the cash.)

Just as there are significant differences between one author and another of the same gender or orientation, so also there are significant differences between female and male authors. Why is that a bad thing? I see that as something to celebrate. It means we each can bring something new to our stories if we take the time and effort to do it.

I accept that Fessenden is right in seeing current MM Romance as an extension of its origins in slashfic, but speaking personally, I want our genre to continue evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic. The baby is growing up, and the evolution I feel coming will require MM stories written by authors of every gender identity and sexual orientation.

I also agree with Fessenden’s observation that while MM romance might be about gay men, it doesn’t really belong to gay men. In fact, I’ll hike out farther on that limb — the genre doesn’t belong to either women or men, regardless of author or reader demographics. It belongs to whoever has compassion and respect for gay men and how we love.

Stating the obvious, women and men are different from each other — completely different emotional, psychic and psychological creatures. I personally believe those differences are stretched more along a shared continuum than isolated into two separate camps, but using John Gray’s simplistic analogy, some men are from Venus, and some women are from Mars.

Even though it doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s some value to looking at a bell curve. The trouble with focusing on exceptions is the same as the trouble with anecdotal evidence. Whatever general observation might be offered, no matter how rational and relevant it might be, it can be contradicted by recounting a single exception. “Well, I know a woman who…” or “I’ve known a man for years who…” That creates a logical impasse that prevents us from exploring what I see as an important and necessary evolutionary threshold for our genre.

Still, there are some fundamentals that are inescapable. Research indicates that a female’s brain matures faster than a male’s, which takes until about age 25 to get there. One of my criticisms of many current MM stories is that they’re essentially YA or New Adult stories, even if the main characters are over thirty, because they behave with the emotional maturity of a 22 year-old. That makes the story New Adult, as far as I’m concerned. YA and NA stories are an essential part of our genre, but what’s the point of having a New Adult story featuring two 30+ year-old males?

While chronologically mature men sometimes do act in immature ways, painting male characters over 25 as having little more than 20-something communication skills, insecurities, angst, values and behavior pushes me out of the story, becomes boring to me, and maybe to other readers. I’ll go further and say it’s insulting to men in general to portray a thirty-five year old man with the emotional IQ of a twenty year old — unless he’s psychologically puer aeternus and that’s the key to his character arc.

Of course such chronologically mature/emotionally immature men exist, but their frequent appearance in our stories raises a question for me — why would any author repeatedly write such characters? What’s the message in that? Is it a form of sexism, saying that’s what men are like? I hope not.

I suggest mature masculine psychology offers terrific material for MM romances, and is seriously under-represented in our stories. I believe that writing main characters emotionally older than 25 will force us to address the depth and complexity of the mature masculine in our stories. The downside is that an emotionally mature male character might take more work from the author to realize than opting for some familiar character shortcuts to emotional conflict that are plausible for an immature protagonist.

Ultimately, generalities prove insufficient in any real conversation, but there are any number of scientific studies that shed light on important psychological and emotional differences between women and men — the way we process images, grief, anger, forgiveness, sexual energy, relationship. Some differences might be cultural, others intrinsic to our basic sexuality. In some ways it doesn’t matter — they’re all important and wonderful. Diversity is a good thing!

If those differences are real and important and good, why then should the majority of gay protagonists feel the same way about trust issues, monogamy or marriage as the majority of straight women? Why should the familiar tropes of het romance dominate MM romance? Why should the story question, “Does she dare open her heart to love again?” be automatically translated into “Does he dare open his heart to love again?” Why should a gay man’s HEA look like a straight woman’s?

I’m not saying they can’t be the same — they certainly can. But isn’t there also room for more than that? What else might they look like? Let’s get adventurous! Some authors will dismiss these questions with the observation that this is how it always has been, and what “the market” demands. Those voices have every right to be heard in this discussion, but I personally don’t believe those voices are on the side of evolution.

I believe that MM romance is on the wonderful threshold of an evolutionary leap. Evolution is risky, however. The troublesome thing about change is that it brings change. I feel growth coming!

One of the most common impulses in a person who encounters unfamiliar diversity is to look for the common ground. In discussions of gay romance that’s led to remarks like, “gay men are just like other men except that they love men instead of women.” We’re not. Please accept that. Believe me, a man of some race other than Caucasian is NOT interested to hear, “You’re just like a white man except for the color of your skin.” That approach, while probably well-intentioned, is ignorant, and profoundly insults our differences.

In the most useful diversity training I’ve taken, I was instructed to first honor the differences just as they are without trying to smooth them down into comfortable common ground right away. There’s plenty of time later to find the common ground after the differences are acknowledged and at least partially understood.

The practice is first respect for the difference, and second for the gifts that the difference brings. That’s much harder work than the more naive (but usually equally well-intentioned) approach of claiming that we’re all the same. We’re just not.

I attended a writing workshop a few years ago with about ten other authors. During one session, the instructor gave each of us the same group of characters, same character agendas, the same setting, the same external events and conflicts. He had each of us write the scene, and later we read them aloud. Each one was completely different. I mean completely different. It was a revelation. I can’t write the same as my colleagues even if I try, and the same is true for every author.

In his post, Fessenden raises the startling question as to whether men can write MM romance. Of course they can. There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist? It’s time to acknowledge and appreciate the differences for what they are, without bickering over which is “better” or “more real”.

So I’ve referred more than once to some looming evolution in our genre, and I feel obliged to get more specific about that. After all, I see it already occurring in the work of many authors I respect and follow.

I see us moving toward thematically deeper characters and varying-themed stories, moving away from slashfic-like work where a handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot could pass muster. Every author has done that. Even though I’m still fond of it, I’m grateful my first book (a swords and sorcery effort) is out of print!

I see us expanding the parameters of romance beyond the rules inherited from het romance with its overwhelming emphasis on the story of deliriously happy monogamous dyads fading to black before the arguments about squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle begin. Not abandoning all the ground rules, necessarily, just expanding our scope. This also is already happening, through a healthy variety of authors.

I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.

Not every author will write transgressive romance, or even write chronologically mature protagonists. Not every author will write protagonists under 25. Each writer of each gender identity and each orientation brings something of value in her/zir/his best work, and one way or another it contributes to our genre’s evolution.

I believe this respectfully inclusive, “room for everyone” approach will take us forward into a fecund, more emotionally powerful genre than any of us can presently imagine.

Letter to a new Generation of Gate Keepers

I’m writing this letter to you in the fervent hope that you will come to believe something. If you don’t believe it now because it seems too crazy or impractical, I ask that you put the idea aside gently, making room for the possibility of believing it at some time in the future. This idea is the single most important thing that I can give you. When you do believe it, you will see with new eyes and new heart as the world offers unexpected possibilities to you—possibilities invisible to most.

You have been given a great and sacred gift—you are gay. Some peoples called us “Two-Spirited,” and held an honorable place for us in daily life. You might be surprised how many cultures viewed men like us with respect. That, as you well know, has not been the historical experience in mainstream North American culture.

I want you to believe that your being gay is not a meaningless fluke. You are gay for a reason—the Universe has entrusted you with stewardship of a certain kind of spiritual consciousness and power that no heterosexual man can ever carry. It is entrusted only to people like us.

I’m not saying this to make you feel grandiose. I’m saying this because you have important work to do. This work is found on a spiritual path that is open only to men like us, and traveled by comparatively few of those to whom the path is open at all.

When I say a spiritual path, I want to make sure you understand the distinction I draw between religion and spirituality. Religion is a formal system of doctrine, behaviors, and belief that offers to codify our relationship to universal spirit. I see spirituality as the evolving, unstructured, and direct individual experience of universal spirit. For some, the highly defined paths of religion provide an adequate spiritual experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But for others—and I think you are one of them—the inner guidance of the soul leads away from and beyond the comfortable certainty of those conventional structures. That begins a much more demanding journey, but its rewards are unspeakably beautiful and full of creative power.

The spiritual path for many of my generation focused on awakening—realizing that in spite of being taught that homosexuals were broken, disgusting, or pathetic, we were spiritually and morally right to be ourselves. We lucky ones then learned to live openly, insisting that we be given the same societal and legal rights that heterosexuals enjoyed. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this spiritual awakening among us was resisted and condemned most vehemently by followers of religions who did not see our openness as a spiritual awakening at all, but the work of their devil. Although many of those religious folk might not agree, that battle is over. Spiritual awakening won.

Now a bigger job lies ahead precisely because that awakening occurred, and I think the job belongs mostly to you and your generation. What is homosexuality for, in spiritual terms? What does it mean to be a spiritually alive gay man bringing his unique gift into the world?

A beginning point in understanding the sacred gift of homosexuality is self-evident: you are different from the majority of human beings. Regardless of what ethnic or cultural minority a gay man might belong to, he is still a minority within that. I believe we are supposed to be a minority.

The core of our gift is the energy of the other—so similar, yet mysteriously different. Being different doesn’t mean better than others, but it certainly doesn’t mean less than, either. In our generation, some sought to establish an in-your-face defiance to honor our difference. Others wanted to get married and raise children in the suburbs, complete with dogs and a station wagon. While I don’t think either of those interpretations of our spiritual awakening is wrong, I also don’t think they are adequate models to guide your generation in expressing the beauty and power homosexuals can bring to society.

Bear in mind that our generation had very few who modeled for us what being openly, authentically, and triumphantly gay would look like. While we had many wonderful inspirational elders like Leonardo da Vinci and Walt Whitman to look to, we had almost no social mentors. We had to be our own cultural midwives. Defiance and assimilation were two of our most important experiments.

Some will suggest that you really are just like a heterosexual except for the incidental fact that you love your own gender. I disagree. I tell you that the reverse is wonderfully, shockingly true: you happen to love men because you are wired up radically differently from heterosexuals. I don’t think gay men should be concerned about assimilation or being defiantly different any more. There is no more need to be either artificially different or artificially similar to heterosexuals. Finding out what it means to be naturally, authentically both similar and different will lead you to spiritual power.

When I was coming out, I was fascinated to read that the Dagara people in West Africa call homosexual men Gate Keepers. In their way of seeing, Gate Keepers are responsible for maintaining the living connection between the earth and the spirit world. If this living connection between the invisible and the earth is lost, the earth will die. What an interesting vision—that the very survival of the earth depends on homosexuals!

What if this spiritual role of Gate Keeper were true not just metaphorically but literally? What if the job of every gay man was to keep certain energies alive in the earth, without which the earth would perish? I am absolutely convinced it is so.

How can you find out what—if any—of this is true for you? When I finally accepted that I was gay, I was a minister in my mid-forties, married, with a family. Since then my journey as a gay man—including divorcing, declaring bankruptcy, changing careers, getting sober, building a new life, surviving a pulmonary embolism, needing surgeries for cancer, and marrying a wonderful man—has required one thing of me: to listen to what originates from the other side of the particular Gate I keep. Any advice that I have for you is based on what I’ve learned by that listening.

Listening is a challenging and inexact discipline. It took courage for me to listen. What I heard through my Gate was so different from what I heard around me, often different even from my own internal voices. Learning to listen like this takes practice. As you practice, you will discover astonishing things about yourself and the world you live in. I suggest you try doing something gentle to raise your receptivity while you are listening. Meditation, writing, and music have been important for me. Tai chi, gardening, or working with animals could be just as effective, I think.

To listen well, I think you must cultivate a sense of wonder. The clever, bitchy ennui that has been fashionable among men like us serves no purpose in Gate Keeping that I can see. At the risk of seeming naïve, celebrate your happiness in small things—it’s great exercise for the spiritual ear. Being delighted to see things anew and to be amazed by the familiar will improve your ability to listen. Be open to noticing little surprises at the periphery of your perception and imagination. Not every such surprise will be a message from the spirit world seeking your attention, but some might be the envelope, so to speak, containing a message.

Practice kindness and friendship, hallmarks of spiritual strength. I can’t emphasize this enough, so I won’t try. Gate Keeping is a discipline of the heart, and through the heart you will find your tribe of like-hearted souls—straight and queer, all together.

This work will change you and, through you, the world around you. Whether those changes seem small or big to you, they will be profound. There’s much more to Gate Keeping than I’ve put in this letter, but I expect this is plenty for now. Think of Gate Keeping as a performance work-in-progress rather than a static, well-defined job. Given the chance to exercise, your spiritual gifts will grow and evolve with age. Learning to share those gifts with the rest of the world is a lifelong project from which there is no retirement. We lucky ones, we grow old and get more time to practice, more time to feel the fulfillment of being a Gate Keeper. May you be lucky, too.

You have a wonder-full path of pioneering ahead of you. You are a young man of remarkable quality and gifts. If there is anything I can do to assist you, to encourage you, to support your growth, I’d consider it an honor to help as I can. After all, my fulfillment as a Gate Keeper requires that I assist your generation in carrying our spiritual gift in ways that mine could not. But you will have to ask me for my input—otherwise I may offer more advice than you want!

I am certain that you and your fellow Gate Keepers will become more adept than we in my generation have been. Then you will help the generation after you in the same way. Only through this continuity will we ensure that the particular Gates between the visible and invisible for which gay men are responsible are sustained, that they flourish. I don’t know how you will do your part, but I am certain you will keep your Gate beautifully. Blessings in profusion to you on your journey.

© 2009 Lloyd A. Meeker, all rights reserved

Okay—you have a brand-new book by a new-to-you author, and you’ve been itching to dive into it. Finally you have enough peace and quiet to start. The strong writing draws you into the story world right away. As we expected to, we learn that Brad, the hero, is a good guy. We like him. We’ve learned his dog shelter is in deep financial trouble, and we’ve seen his devoted kindness to the rescue dogs. He hasn’t taken a salary for three months in order to pay his assistant. He’s got unpaid bills, and the mortgage payment is due in two weeks.

Besides that, though, Really Bad Things have happened to Brad. He’s sleeping on the shelter’s reception area couch, because a week ago he came home unexpectedly to find his partner in bed with their hunky neighbor, whereupon the partner announced that he’s moving in with hunky neighbor. Brad can’t afford their apartment on his own, nor can he afford first month’s rent and the deposit on a new one.

But thirty-five pages in, even though we’re rooting for him, a problem quietly pushes itself into the story. Yes, Brad is suffering. He’s in a tough spot. But he’s utterly passive. What is he DOING to fight his way out of this situation? Maybe there’s a throwaway line in his internal dialogue, that he would talk to the bank manager again about restructuring his loans, but we know the banker will again say no because his situation hasn’t changed. Although the stakes are high (he might lose his shelter and end up on the street himself) and his angst is intense, he is psychologically and physically passive. For a protagonist, this is a big problem, and as I see it, is often overlooked in our stories. Suffering is not enough. A protagonist must act. That’s his job, if it’s his story.

There’s a pervasive concept that in order for a reader to empathize with a hero, the hero has to suffer. “Don’t hold back! Pile it on! Torture your protagonist!” the how-to handbook exclaims.

Yes, a protagonist has to have problems. But I’m going to suggest that the problems a hero faces must serve a bigger purpose than just making him miserable. That’s a minor part of the equation. The larger part of the equation is this: Those problems are his opportunity to show what he’s made of, and how resourceful, how determined he is in pursuing his goals.

It seems to me that all too often the second part of this equation is neglected in favor of noble helplessness. As a result, we end up with a lot of limp, suffering heroes populating our stories. That’s the equivalent of the “damsel in distress” trope of het romance, a trope now generally rejected as misogynist. It’s just as hateful to men. Is our hero Brad so overwhelmed with his despair about the shelter that he’s paralyzed and has to be rescued? Damsel in distress.

So here’s my argument. By page thirty-five I should know what Brad is doing to solve his immediate problem. I don’t have to know all his back story, or that he wants abuse of dogs to end forever. But I do need something grounded, to know what our resourceful Brad is going to do TODAY, in the circumstance just as it is, about his situation. What does he want, and what is he going to do to achieve it? What’s his plan? What’s his first step? When he takes that step, he’s a protagonist again, and driving his story.

What the hero wants in the first few pages is rarely what he’ll want all the way through the story. And what he wants may well vary with the story’s genre. But the more a hero simply reacts to events initiated by others, rather than initiating them himself, the less of a protagonist he is. A passive hero simply is merely the subject of the story, playing a minimal role in shaping the plot. A passive hero has no chance to reveal his character, simply because he doesn’t act. Feelings alone don’t reveal character. I love internal struggle, but it must lead to action or internal struggle simply becomes an emotional hamster wheel. Actions reveal both feelings and character. 

How often have we authors been exhorted to show, not tell? It applies here. Describing the internal state of the hero is not enough to reveal character. The hero must act, and his actions will reveal his character. Actions speak louder than words.

Some might argue this idea just applies to “action” stories, but I don’t think that’s true. Not every action has to show the hero reclaiming Dragon’s Eye, the mighty sword of kings, from the corrupt priesthood of Xanthrax to take his rightful seat on the throne of his murdered father. It could just as easily show the hero setting all the clocks in his apartment to the same time, a declaration of his commitment to reality. Action can be of any scope, appropriate to the story’s context. 

Last year I wrote a short solstice story from the point of view of a little boy who wanted to find a new husband for his dad. An eight-year-old boy is not able to act in the same way an adult can. So with the help of his aunt he builds a solstice altar to attract a partner for his dad. He works at it every day. Regardless of who the hero is, his actions reveal his reality, which is also his character.

Over and over in a full-length novel, the hero’s goals lead to his actions, which create repercussions he then must face. He grows by facing them, by clarifying his goals, and by acting to achieve new ones. No matter how much he suffers, if he simply navigates his way through the actions of others, he’s not really the protagonist. He is an observer. A protagonist takes initiative and thereby changes the unfolding story.

I mentioned psychological passivity earlier, and rather than make this article way too long, I offer two examples.

The first example is peripheral: the set-up phrase, “He was tired of meaningless hookups.” This is usually authorial convenience, a shorthand set-up to show that the protagonist is maturing, and now is ready for a “Real Relationship.” But on examination this moral judgment is an insult to the protagonist’s character. It casts him as needy and psychologically weak: If his hookups are meaningless, what is so wrong with the protagonist that he has repeatedly failed to BRING any meaning to his hookups? Is he that lazy? That selfish in sex? Does he expect his hookup partner to deliver all the meaning he craves?

How pathetic is that? Most of us have learned the hard way that depending on others as a source of meaning is a false premise. The open door to greater meaning is the meaning we ourselves bring to what we do. To know love, first we ourselves must love.

The second psychological example is more central—the protagonist is allowed to hang out in desire or intention instead of taking action. Brad wants desperately to save his dog shelter. He sincerely intends to find a solution. But what does he actually do? Talk to his banker again without creating a new business plan to show her? Hardly enough to qualify as a protagonist. Does Brad take a second, or even a third job? Does he sell the cherished antique tea cart that belonged to his grandmother, the only person in his estranged family that ever really understood him? Does he become a sex worker on the side? Does he rob the bank? How badly does Brad want to save his shelter? What he does to solve his problem reveals his character. If he does nothing but fret, he is a limp hero, and I lose respect for him.

Too often the Brads in our stories are conveniently rescued by another character—perhaps by the handsome, high-powered attorney (with money) who comes to the shelter to find a puppy for his niece. The meet-cute is charming, the romance is lovely, Brad even refuses the attorney’s financial help at first because he’s too proud to say yes. (Which is a pretty negative message about Brad’s character, that he’d let his pride condemn his beloved shelter dogs to death.) But ultimately, Brad is rescued, and becomes the gay male equivalent to the now (happily) out-of-fashion damsel in distress.

This isn’t an issue of plot or genre. It’s an issue of agency. The job of a protagonist is to act. His actions must drive the story, or the story ceases to be his.

(This article first appeared November 2017 in my column “Through My Lens” for Genre Talk at http://www.thenovelapproachreviews.com.)