Sunday, November 13, 2011

Making a Molehill out of a Mountain

A week ago the gay fiction world had a different landscape. The authors of gay fiction could generally be categorized: L/G/B/T/Q/S/M/F with the S standing for straight.
Then we had the names: female/male/ambiguous (gender neutral or initials).
And finally, we had real name versus pen names. For those of you who think you know where I’m going with this, I ask that you please keep reading. I may surprise you.

A week ago I thought the biggest challenge of our genre was fighting the stereo type that women weren’t qualified to write MM erotica. Then a blogger pulled one of the writers out of the pen name closet, and I discovered something far uglier lurking under our pretty covers.

In 1959, a Caucasian journalist named John Howard Griffin underwent supervised medical treatment to turn his skin brown, and traveled through the Deep South as an unemployed Black man. He kept a journal of his experiences, and a few years later the book, Black Like Me, was published. It was an extraordinary account of his six-week journey into a world of white-only bathrooms, segregated lunchrooms, and where lynchings still occurred with disturbing regularity.

His book was a raw, often terrifying look at the world of a Black man at a time when America was still struggling to come to terms with the idea that separate was not equal and six years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The disturbing pace of change is fodder for another blog. Today, we are talking specifically about the world of gay fiction, particularly gay romance and erotica.  

More than thirty years after I first read Black Like Me, there are still lessons to be learned. Griffin came as close as any White man could to understanding what life was like for a Southern Black man in the late 1950s, yet no matter how dark his skin, no matter how terrifying his experiences, Griffin was still a White man. When his journalistic assignment was completed, he would shed his adopted identity and return to a world of White privilege. The reality of his race could not be completely erased in the name of journalistic integrity. This is not a criticism, by any means, merely an observation of the true difficulty of actually walking in another’s shoes.

It would have been completely inappropriate for Griffin to emerge from his “Black Like Me,” experience and offer advice “as a Black man.” Just as it is inappropriate for any author, other than a gay male, to offer advice or an opinion as a gay male. Period. Some rules are complicated, this one is not.

If you think all the rage and bitterness aimed at the outed author is about the right to use a pen name or gender identity – you aren’t paying attention. In the case of this week’s outed author, the false identity grew far beyond the cover of a book. Grew until the author was considered by many to be a subject matter expert on the gay male experience, and as such offered advice, reviewed gay fiction, and critiqued other authors in the genre.

There would still have been backlash if we had been talking about a onetime gender-bending experience and the author emerged with a story of “Gay Like Me” to tell – but this was not that story.

Drawing once more from Griffin, it’s clear he targeted his investigation to the volatile south for a reason. This was where the Black experience was the most volatile, most intense, most dangerous. It wasn’t chance that the Civil Rights movement grew from the fertile soil of discontent and deep prejudice.

It is safe to assume that the primary audience for Black Like Me, wasn’t the Black men living in the Deep South, who were all too aware of the reality of their existence. No, this was a book for the majority, a look into a world that was unimaginable, and would soon become untenable. However, the subsequent articles and the book also spoke to other Blacks living in different parts of the country, to people of all races, spoke to people of compassion and to people of hate. And therein lies my final lesson from this book.

This past week, women and straight males been publicly challenged by gay males who are questioning both their qualifications and their right to write MM fiction. I unequivocally believe that only a gay male has the right to speak as a gay male. Actually, I can’t even believe such an obvious statement needs to be made. However, I don’t believe that only gay males can speak effectively about the gay experience. Nor do I think we need over-analyze what many of us write.

Whether the reader is a gay man or a straight woman or any combination listed at the beginning of this post, it’s likely he or she is interested in being entertained and possibly enlightened by our genre. Some readers will take comfort in knowing the author is just like them; that the author knows what it’s like to hide, to suffer, to hurt, to love, to have that first forbidden taste. Many other readers are satisfied with a good romance, with a touch of the ‘against the odds’ sensibility to take them away from reality for a time. They look for nothing more earth-shattering than a good read.

Griffin never intended to permanently become a Black man, nor did he ever profess to speak “as a Black man....” He also never claimed there was only one Black male perspective. What he did was bring a small slice of the Black experience to the rest of the world, into the pockets of America who believed there could be such a thing as separate but equal. His account was an in-your-face demonstration of the need for society to change. His was not the only voice, nor did it remain so. Black Like Me has its detractors, but ultimately, it was one more piece of evidence in the growing case for the need for change.

Through our collective works, we are also making a call for change simply by making the world of the LGBTQ community more accessible. Most of us never started out to change the world, yet we are an acknowledged, economically significant genre of fiction, that contributes to the growing voice for change, for equality.

Bottom line, the lessons I have taken from this past week: 

1. Authors, don’t lie. If you want to use a pen name, that is your personal business, but don’t create a false public identity and market yourself as an expert member of a group to which, by definition, you can never belong.

2. Our genre does not need to be a series of unrelenting “Gay Like Me” stories. Authors, stay true to the story you want to tell while respecting the class of people you represent. Never underestimate the power of your words, even in the most frivolous of stories. There is plenty of room on the shelf.

3. Let the writing speak for itself. Make no presumptions about the ability of someone to write from a gay perspective or tell a good story based on their body parts.

Let’s end it there. Let the writing speak for itself.



  1. Well said, Laura. I remember reading Black Like Me. I was given a copy in high school, and I was moved by it. It has a very powerful message.

    As for the current brouhaha, I'd like to add something that people are ignoring, for the most part. AJ Llewellyn is not a woman - he's a transgendered ftm. That makes him a man. Which is not the same as a straight woman pretending to be a gay man, by any means. Remember the T in GLBT? Yep, it stands for transgendered.

    So all you naysayers and bitches and shit disturbers - shut the hell up. AJ's personal life is his business. Either read his books or don't. But quit bitching about it.

    To the rest of you - have a great day!

  2. I read Black Like Me years ago, and have never forgotten the experience.

    And you're right in the connection. Even walking in the shoes does not make the person an adequate spokesperson of the life itself but only of the reactions.

    And I agree 100% about our efforts to make the community more accessible, not trying to be experts. Good point!

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Julie, do you know for a fact that AJ is FTM or are you blindly accepting it as fact simply because AJ said so?

    AJ lied about being a gay man for four years and was exposed as a fraud. And now you're willing to blindly believe that she's transgender now?

    Her claims of being FTM are merely a diversion from the other bothersome aspects of this case and one that others who have been exposed for conning both readers and friends trot out too.

    Plus people who really know her and have, you know, actually met her in the real world insist she's a woman. All woman.

    And don't you dare attempt to silence me or anyone else, Julie. To do so is straight priveledge at its finest.

    You use us as posable sex toys for profit and then you reveal yourself as not giving a damn about us in reality.

    We're not your toys. We're human beings.

    Back to Laura's article...


  4. I have to agree with the last comment. AJ has lied about being a gay man and for me when a person lies they lose my trust and I will NOT blindly believe anything they say again. The only person that is saying AJ is a FTM Transgender is AJ. But how can we trust a liar?

    Great article Laura!

  5. Julie, Thanks for your response.

    I think the point I would hope you can understand, is not AJ's own orientation. It was AJ's claim to speak as a gay male and for the gay male experience that has so many upset. If someone is transgendered, I don't believe anyone would dispute that person's right to say..."As a transgendered male..."

    As you so correctly point out, if AJ is transgendered, it is different than being a straight woman pretending to be a gay man. Instead, that makes him a transgendered man pretending to be a gay man.

    Either way, it is the speaking as a subject matter expert for a class of people to which he doesn't belong that is the issue. I believe the gay male community would hold a lesbian writing as a man and speaking as an expert on behalf of gay males to the same scrutiny.

    Thank you for engaging in the discussion.

  6. Good article, Laura, and I couldn't agree more that this issue is not about pen names or gender or even transgender for me. It's about the elaborateness of the lies that were wound around AJ being a gay man AND in a gay relationship with another gay man.

    The relationship between the two of them was what brought me to their books in the first place because it seemed so sweet and loving and highly unusual in the m/m genre. I admit to being sucked in by the sweet posts they shared and the way they talked about their "boyfriends" and I know it's my own fault for believing something that was shoved in my face.

    Regardless of whether it was my own naivete or need to make myself part of such a sweet relationship, it was still deceitful to build such a lie-based persona for the two of them in order to sell books. The fact that AJ made non-fiction posts as a gay man just makes the whole scheme more elaborate to me.

    I don't care if you're man, woman, trans, black, white or purple, readers do not deserve to be lied to to that extent. Keep your personal life personal, that's just fine, but don't re-invent yourself as someone or something that you totally aren't and then blame someone else when your deceit is revealed.

    This is only my opinion so I have no use for flamers trying to change my mind.

  7. Anonymous 1, Thanks for your response.

    It's a delicate balance we all walk between writing characters from a gay male perspective. I'm not one (LOL, have I mentioned that?) and a lot of the conversations this week have left me feeling the need to apologize for that fact. Or apologize for making money writing MM erotica.

    I don't want to apologize, nor do I want to feel guilty for being a straight woman. Let's just consider my gender as much of accident of birth as anyone's.

    I enjoy telling and reading stories in the gay genre, but I don't consider gays toys or tools to use to make money. The parts of my life that are painful, happy,easy or hard help me to capture some of those same emotions in my characters. My healthy fantasy life, conversations with my gay friends, and research helps to round out the frame of reference. I would always welcome input from a gay male when I screw it up, but I would probably rather receive the feedback privately. Thanks again for your perspective.

  8. Thanks K-lee, that was well-said.

  9. I didn't believe, when I started writing M/M erotica and romance, that I was changing the world. It was not my intent, I only wished to entertain. I am not a gay man, nor do I want to be. I could never walk in their shoes. No one can. I applaude them all in their struggles to equality. It is nothing less than what we all deserve.
    The definitions of gender identification can be very ambiguous. I know this for very personal reasons. Not for myself, but for someone I loved. I could be an expert on ftm transgender, that said, I AM NOT an expert on gay men. As Laura said, I enjoy the genre, do research and talk to gay men. I try to make my stories as real as possible, and appreciate feedback as well from any gay or bisexual man. Also in private.
    I think, from what I'm hearing, it's not the issue of the author's orientation that is so inappropriate, but the lying. No one likes to be duped. But, as I hope we all are, we are adults and therefore, have the choice to let this go. Rise above it. I have and I hope, in our close knit community, that there is forgiveness as well.

  10. As a reader, what I find appalling is the way AJ made this whole elaborate charade or stack of cards around the author persona. I don't care about an author's personal life as long as I enjoy the books because for me that is all that matters. What I am hearing now is how this author used that persona to talk about something they may not know anything about. To me that smacks on lies, deception and feeling as if your readers are mindless sheep, which we are not. AJ was wrong-plain and simple-and I am not condoning her actions at all. What I didn't like was the hate fueled postings once this shit hit the fan and it morphed into something much bigger. Do I believe AJ is a Transgender? No idea. Do I care? No idea yet on this as I reserve judgment until all facts-if they ever come out-are in place. I do know if you are off spouting information, saying your a Gay man and talking about subjects that Gays experience and it comes out that you are talking out of your ass, well I sure hope you have one good reason why or karma is going to bite you in the ass big time.

    Do I want my favorite MM authors to apologize for not being a gay man? Nope because I don't care if you are straight, gay, purple or a martian from Mars, what calls to me are your books and as far as I am concerned, as a reader, that is all that matters to me. So keep writing my favorite stories and I will be one happy reader.

    Laura, your article was great. Loved it.

  11. I can only agree with K. Lee. Well said! And great article Laura!

  12. CR,
    I think the first step in this type of situation is an acknowledgment of the elephant. Many of the folks surrounding this genre have in fact stepped up and said, "well shit...looky there, we have us an elephant." It's unlikely that every one will join us at the table...but you know what they say about how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It is my hope that we can start healing, one bite at a time.

  13. I am confused.

    If you are a transgender female, then that is what you are. You are NOT a gay male. They are not one in the same.

    So, if AJ indeed IS a transgendered female, why not have been honest all along and say THAT, rather than pose as a gay male.

    The scurrying to claim the tired 'gay male in a straight woman's body' as soon as the 'truth' (and gods, do I ever use THAT term loosely) seemed to reek heavily of cop-out. Why did she simply not claim this all along? If it indeed was true?

    I hope the other comment was true, that indeed if trusting people were bamboozled, that karma will for sure reach out and knock such a claimant off their butt.

    Because, if she is lying about any of this, she has thrown crap in the face of transgendered females all over the world by using them to hide behind. To take their plight so lightly that she would resort to pretending to be one to save her own hide.

    Yes, I am very confused. And I am very weary of hearing about her.

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  15. This was a well written and presented article, Ms Harner, and I am very proud of you for posting it. Hopefully, there may be some apology to her fans at the very least for duping them in this manner.

    I'm sorry...I'm not a gay man...I am not a transgendered female either...nor am I a lesbian. But my understanding of being an ftm is that she wishes to become a man, physically. I have never heard mention that every ftm once their operations and transformations are complete, begin to sleep with men. So... what the hell has being transgendered got to do with is neither here nor there. AJ is not a gay man, whether she aspires to be one eventually or not...therefore she is no more qualified to give out non-fiction expert advice on being a gay man than I am.

    It was a fab post and I applaud you my lovely

  16. Well said, as usual, Laura. I have known several transgendered authors who have had the courage to be honest about their struggles and their identification.

    While I do believe a writer has the right to privacy if they choose, I also applaud those who have the balls to tell their stories. Their true stories.

    The cynic in me has to wonder, after all the misdirection, why this twist in the story in the confession.