The Problems with Representations of Bisexuality in M/M Romance ~ Outside the Margins with Lisa Henry

Join Prism Book Alliance® as Lisa Henry goes Outside the Margins today.

Lisa-Henry-OtM

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.

celebrate-bisexuality

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.

~Lisa Henry

About Lisa Henry

Lisa likes to tell stories, mostly with hot guys and happily ever afters.

Lisa lives in tropical North Queensland, Australia. She doesn’t know why, because she hates the heat, but she suspects she’s too lazy to move. She spends half her time slaving away as a government minion, and the other half plotting her escape.

She attended university at sixteen, not because she was a child prodigy or anything, but because of a mix-up between international school systems early in life. She studied History and English, neither of them very thoroughly.

She shares her house with too many cats, a green tree frog that swims in the toilet, and as many possums as can break in every night. This is not how she imagined life as a grown-up.

My links:

 

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

Brandilyn
This post may contain affiliate links.
Prism Book Alliance® assumes no liability for the ownership of photos or content used in guest posts and interviews.  The post author assumes all responsibility and liability for this content.

20 thoughts on “The Problems with Representations of Bisexuality in M/M Romance ~ Outside the Margins with Lisa Henry

  1. Nice blog… just want to say that the “bi today/gay tomorrow” stereotype has it’s roots in the 70s and 80s. At that time, there was a perception that straights found it easier to accept bi-sexuality than homosexuality since it was at least a little bit straight. At that time, it was very common for someone to claim bisexuality before becoming comfortable with themselves as gay. Over time, with the acceptance of homosexuality, I think straights actually find it easier to understand someone who is opposite then anyone in the middle. A switch is easier to grasp than a dial. So, there isn’t that pressure to be “just a little bit different” anymore. And… also with greater acceptance people give more consideration to who they are before they come out (accept a label) … what once was pretty common is now rather rare, I believe, though the perception still lingers.

  2. This is one of the clearest and most sensible posts I’ve read on this subject. The recent furore was as much about listening to people when they said they were hurt. This was ignored by many authors, and laughed at by others. You have addressed this too by being willing to listen and learn. Thank you.

    • Thanks BJ! I think what’s been most disappointing about this entire furore is that so many people weren’t listening. As someone who write in the genre, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I definitely needed to listen.

  3. I’ve heard many RLgay men describe bisexuality as “one train stop to gay”. I’ve listened to some RL men say it was easier to claim bisexuality than go for broke coming out as gay bc they wanted to “test the waters” of their fam/ friend reactions before coming out as gay. They also dated girls to “cover up” being gay. I was one that didn’t want to read about lady bits in my MM because I reserved that for my MMF etc books. but I’d rather read about lady bits and who a bi character would date, marry, and do, rather than read anything misogynistic which is prevalent whenever female characters are written in MM. Great post Lisa

    • Misogyny is another huge problem in the genre, and one I’m sure I’ve been guilty of in the past. It’s so easy to add the “evil female” character without giving her any reasons for being evil except, you know, she’s the woman.

      That’s another thing I think writers in the genre need to work at, and I’m including myself in that as well.

    • the reality of that circumstance doesn’t negate the reality of real-life bisexuals having real-real life problems in our real-life community.

      sincerely,

      a real-life father who’s fatherhood never made it past the housepet stage

      • Exactly so. Marshall earlier raised a good point about the reasons some people may label themselves as bisexual, because it’s less confronting to their family or friends than coming out as homosexual. But this again leads back to the problem of bi-erasure because the assumption then becomes that bisexuality is a period of transition between straight and gay, and not it’s own distinct identity.

        A gay person claiming bisexuality doesn’t exist is as hurtful, and as ignorant, as a straight person claiming the same thing. Bisexuals cop erasure from both sides, and that’s not good enough.

        • my feelz are that it’s fine so long as SOME people don’t use the existence of transitional queers as evidence that the stages they transit through on the spectrum of sexuality don’t exist except as rest stops for gay men.

          the fact that some gay dudes need to do this to manage the difficult process of coming out in a world hostile to them doesn’t in itself mean there’s no such thing as bisexuality.

          or any other identification between hetero and whatever the hell adam lambert is today.

  4. Great post, Lisa. I hope people can start focusing more on the *solutions*, like you did, and less on pointing fingers at whomever they think is at fault for supposedly creating or perpetuating the problems with the trope.

  5. Interesting post. I agree that we can do better in consciously eliminating bi-erasure from our work. Please be aware, though, that the following statement could be construed as erasing demisexuality:

    “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.”

    I don’t feel sexual attraction to people based on how they look. The happily-ever-after of romance is my truth, my lived experience every day of a decades-long marriage.

    • Thanks, Andrea! I certainly didn’t mean to ignore demisexuality. Thank you for reminding me to chose my words more carefully next time!

  6. Thanks for a great post, Lisa. As one of the Real Live Bisexuals writing queer stories, I’ve found the most hurtful thing in this community has been the flat out denial from writers in the genre that bisexuals exist and that we can have romance stories.

    Bookriot ran an excellent blog post this week about using the word bisexual in fiction, and it’s worth a read. One thing it touched on which I think is important is the “bisexuals don’t want to be labeled” trope. That trope exists because of the negative, harmful stereotypes of bisexuality: that we are promiscuous, greedy, and incapable of fidelity. “i don’t want to be labeled” “forget labels” “why do we need labels?” perpetuates the most damaging stereotypes about bisexuality, and refusing to use the word/label perpetuates bi-erasure.

    • As far as I’m concerned, if we start limiting who can have romance stories, then romance is no longer a genre I want to write in.

      I’m not a fan of putting labels on my characters, but I do understand that labels are very important to real, living people, particularly those who are pushing back against hate, or erasure. I think, at the most basic level, labels help people belong to a community, and to know they aren’t alone.

      I know that the past few weeks have been horrible for so many people out there, and my main hope from this mess is that everyone can try harder to understand why it’s been so hurtful, and to do better in the future.

      Thanks for the heads up about the Bookriot post – I’ll go and find it now.

  7. I think everyone here is on the same page. Now only time will tell if authors will make the conscientious effort to write bi stories within the MM genre w/o increasing Misogyny because as I’ve stated previously as a reader, when I’m looking for bi stories I automatically selected MMF books. So I for one can’t wait to see how the MM genre reshapes bisexuality in romance. Excellent points raised by everyone!

  8. The authors I know are looking at the tropes more critically, and finding ways to give readers what they want while educating them and working to eliminate the stereotypes. It’s been a difficult few weeks, but I believe the community is better for it.

Leave a Reply