Out and…Pretty Neutral About It: Characters Who Don’t Feel Empowered by Their Identity ~ Outside the Margins with JA Rock

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My best friend once asked me if I’d consider writing a romance that featured a queer character dealing with shame. He’s read some of my books and knows that I occasionally use coming out/self-acceptance as a plot point, but he wasn’t talking about writing closeted or self-loathing characters. He was talking about something a little more nebulous.

He and I were both raised in liberal households where we were accepted and loved for who we were. We entered high school at a time when it was mostly considered uncool to bully someone for being queer, but it was still a world where the gym teacher could call my friend a faggot with zero repercussions, and where I kept my feelings for Shakira very, very secret.

So I knew exactly what he meant when he talked about shame—it was just that neither of us knew quite how to define it.

“It’s not like I’m ashamed of being gay,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s not like anyone directly makes me feel bad about being queer,” I agreed.

“I don’t hate myself.”

“No, of course not.”

“I’ve actually got a pretty good life.”

“Yeah. Thanks, the Internet.”

“It’s just…”

Yeah, it’s just…

Our queerness is always there. It informs who we talk to and how, and the ways and places we feel comfortably pursuing sex or romance. And while we know any prejudiced bullshit we hear isn’t true, it still gets under the skin. To the point where we’ve both wondered aloud if we’d rather be straight. Which is not a very pride flag-waving thing to say. But…it has come up.

I can remember us arguing when we were in our early 20s and highly opinionated: He said he didn’t care about the LGBTQIA+ rights movement and didn’t think he had an obligation to care. I claimed we didn’t get to not care, because, you know, This Affects All of Us. Plus I freaking love pride parades. Nowadays, I understand his point of view better. I think these are questions marginalized people often struggle with: Is it okay to opt out of a social justice movement? To feel occasional shame about who we are without working to eradicate it? Are we allowed to decide that we’re post-queer (or post-anything) when society itself is not post-that?

This is also something I struggle with in my writing. Sometimes, I like post-queer characters in a post-queer world, where identity politics never come up. But more often, it feels a little disingenuous, unless the genre is some variation on SF/F. But what also sometimes feels disingenuous is the idea that all characters must feel empowered by their identities—or at least reach that point by the end of the story. Otherwise their arc is somehow incomplete, or fails at positive representation.

Maybe identity isn’t an arc. Or maybe it’s an endless arc. I’m way more out and open and comfortable about being queer than I was in high school, but there are still things I’m sorting out. I’m still not sure where I fit in the “community,” or if I even want a community. And if I’m fighting for a world where LGBTQIA+ people won’t have to be defined by those letters if they don’t want to be, then shouldn’t I accept my friend’s assertion that he doesn’t have to participate in the fight at all?

I don’t know.

Romance is traditionally supposed to give us heroes—characters with fixable flaws. Situations with an acceptable level of moral ambiguity. These concepts are, of course, subjective. Is it a flaw—and if so, how egregious—for a character to never fully embrace (or even acknowledge) their identity(ies), their communities, their ties to the centuries of struggle and oppression that have brought them to this somewhat safer but still massively imperfect world?

The Subs Club series gave me some opportunities to dig into all this: Miles isn’t sure it is healthy to be as into pain as he is, and worries that his BDSM lifestyle might interfere with fatherhood. He also determinedly denies that his racial identity needs to be a defining factor in his life, while simultaneously criticizing his sister for the way she “performs” hers. Gould admits he likes being humiliated by straight guys in scenes, not as erotic role-play, but because he gets off on the reality that straight men are institutionally afforded more power than he is as a queer man. Dave, fairly secure in his own kinks, is still outspokenly uncomfortable with others’. And so on.

Those issues are charged, and I knew I’d faceplant in some of my efforts to navigate that rocky terrain, but I wanted to include those elements because I know people like this. I am people like this. People who are in the constant process of figuring out how these identity markers: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, etc. impact us and those around us. If we’re relatively comfortable in our own skin, are we allowed to turn a blind eye to those who aren’t—or who don’t have that luxury? If we’re uncomfortable with who we are and don’t work to change that, do we undermine the progressive goal of a post-queer, post-racial, post-gender, post-kinky, post-everything world? What happens when our investment in the struggles of our own communities interferes with our awareness of or empathy for the struggles of others?

In a culture where critiques about how we “do” identity come not just from outsiders, but often from our own “groups,” fiction has enormous power to get real about the pressures of representation. But what about romance? How does it play, in an HEA genre frequently steeped in positive fantasy, to have a queer character hold potentially challenging views about their own identity? What if those conflicted—or downright unpalatable—views aren’t something to be cured in a “now I see the light” ending, but are just…there. Always. For my friend, that would feel authentic. To other readers, it might feel too much like a throwback to the days of All the Sad Queers.

For me, representation isn’t just about getting to see myself as a hero. It’s about getting to see all those human aspects of myself, even the ones that make me uncomfortable. And getting to form my own opinions without the author trying to signal Good Queer, Bad Queer, Improved Queer. In my effort to make sure everyone in my books gets a happy ending, I don’t want to write off the complications of identity. The complications that go beyond the obvious. The idea that, even if your label isn’t a millstone, it still might not be a source of pride. That while acceptance of and/or pride in one’s identity is individualized and deeply personal, we’re still living in a world where the way we engage with (or refuse to engage with) identity has effects that ripple beyond us.

I want to see romance go there.

And it’s gone there. It’s going there.

But go there more.


~JA Rock

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One thought on “Out and…Pretty Neutral About It: Characters Who Don’t Feel Empowered by Their Identity ~ Outside the Margins with JA Rock

  1. A person’s identity is more than just one thing. My son doesn’t just want to be that trans/gay guy. While he’s outspoken about some LGBTQIA+ issues, he’s not always waving his rainbow flag either. I guess he decides which battles he wants to fight & marches in sword waving. The rest of the time, he’s just some college student. *shrugs* I’m just his mom. Outspoken about some issues, hiding under my bed when the fur flies other times.

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