I was fourteen when Queer as Folk first aired in the UK; eighteen when I moved to Manchester and became a part of the gay scene which that show represented. In the interim, there was plenty of backlash against the characters depicted in QAF. Plenty of gay people were horrified to see so much hedonism, so many gay men drinking to excess, taking drugs, sleeping around, and chasing their youth (or youths, more generally). “That isn’t us!” came the battle-cry.
Fifteen years later, after an avalanche of PR, court cases, and editorials in newspapers from wet-eyed couples who just want their kids to grow up in households recognised by the state, one could be forgiven for thinking we’re all living according to a new dominant norm. Except that isn’t the community I know and love, it’s just the “That isn’t us!” cries have become quieter.
Maybe these days I’m an old hypocrite, given in a few short months I’ll be living the wholesome, gay-married-with-kids life that we’re all supposed to be living now, but I hate that my community—the diverse, vibrant, multicultural community I came of age in—has prostrated itself before the public and sworn those days are behind it. Like everything between 1969 and gay marriage was a rather unfortunate adolescence but now we’ve all grown up.
I know plenty of people who haven’t “grown up”. Plenty of people who don’t want marriage, or kids, or even monogamy. And that’s okay. There is no one way of being straight, or white, or middle-class, or anything else, so why should there be only one way of being gay?
Kids now are richer in more ways that I was, in more ways than I can count. They have thousands of films, TV shows, and books in which they can see their futures projected—futures with a HEA, not an untimely death, social ruin, or prison walls. I love gay romance for that more than I can say. I write it for that reason, because when I was growing up, I searched for it so hard and never found it. I want kids to see that no matter what their parents, teachers, priests, imams, or rabbis say, there is hope. There is a future for them. And I want that message to reach all the kids out there in need of hope—the kids who don’t identify with male/female-gay/straight binaries; kids who are drawn to various aspects of BDSM; kids who don’t want to settle down or get married.
This is where romance limits us. In part, that’s the fault of the genre. Boy meets boy, they fall in love, and live happily ever after. That’s the nature of the beast. And sure, boy can meet boy who likes getting a little freaky in the bedroom and they can still live happily ever after. Boy can meet boy and together they can overcome the indoctrination of a conservative, religious upbringing and still live happily ever after. But where’s the story for the boy who doesn’t feel like he’s missing part of himself; the boy who’s happy with his own company and maybe a string of somebodies to help him scratch an itch?
The answer, of course, is that romance is stumped when it comes to independent living. The latter boy is what our romance hero should be before he meets the love of his life. Then he’ll realise how empty his prior existence was, the illusion of being previously happy will melt away, and he’ll understand that he was missing something all along.
Except I don’t buy that.
Firstly, I think the narrative that we’re all better when we’re with somebody is incredibly damaging. I’ve seen too many people stay in toxic relationships because they can’t imagine anything worse than being single. Self-worth is too little addressed in our culture, particularly in romance.
Secondly, the thing I love most about my community is its diversity. That’s what we celebrate every year at Pride when we watch LGBT firemen and policemen, athletes, drag artists, Dykes on Bikes, doctors and vicars, old and young, black and white, Christian and Muslim, strippers and dancers and accountants and shopkeepers marching together for a common cause. Whoever, whatever. We celebrate them all. I can’t imagine anything sadder than seeing all that diversity wiped out for the sake of appearing palatable to “everybody else.”
Our civil rights are not dependent on us living lives that other people deem acceptable, and nor is our happiness dependent on us fitting into a neat little box, be that in life or in romance. Which is why I’d love to see more diversity within m/m. Not just other-than-white guys, but effeminate guys, overweight guys, guys who aren’t particularly attractive. Guys who have open relationships without it being a big deal; who don’t long to settle down but want to keep moving, see the world, experience everything it has to offer.
TV offers some strides in that direction, but romance is depressingly uniform. Built, beautiful, straight-acting white dudes meet, fall in love, get married. Don’t we want more than that?
The answer, sadly, is that very few people do. At least as an overall percentage of the genre’s readership. Too many times, I’ve seen people melt down on Goodreads because an MC noticed a waiter was cute after he’d met his intended, and therefore he was cheating. Too many times, I’ve seen brilliant, brilliant books—books that nail the community I know, and the people who inhabit it—passed over because they’re different. Because people don’t want the reality, they want to lose themselves in an alphaman fantasy.
I get that it’s only fiction, and romance is supposed to be an escape where we forget our hang-ups while we drool over someone else’s chiselled six-pack, but there’s also the issue of representation. The LGBT community came together and changed the narrative from hedonism-without-consequences to married-with-kids for a reason: because what one of us is seen to be doing, we are all seen to be doing, and when the actions of that one earn the disapproval of people who are holding our civil rights over our heads, we can all lose everything. That only happens to minorities (look how many people demand their Muslim neighbours apologise for the actions of ISIS, but how nobody expects their Christian neighbours to apologise for the KKK, for example).
In het romance you can have as many silly alphaman/damsel-in-distress tropes as you like, because there are plenty of counter-narratives to remind the impressionable that they’re only fiction. With the LGBT community, those counter-narratives don’t exist (or if they do, they’re frowned upon). Either we’re married-with-kids or we’re going to hell in a handcart, and that’s why I think it’s our responsibility as authors and readers, queerfolk and allies, not to suppress those counter-narratives, but to welcome them with open hearts and minds.
Authors (and I include myself, here) need to be braver about writing more diverse characters, but readers also need to give them a chance. Ten or fifteen years ago, everyone was losing their minds at the idea that flogging someone could be hot. Now you can’t move for BDSM titles. Perhaps it’s time to open another new frontier in romance, celebrate diversity, and make realism the new sexy.
Born in Liverpool, Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of the #1 LGBT romance titles 'What He Wants', 'Ace', and 'The Slave', and other critically acclaimed works.
She has the best of friends, the worst of enemies, and a mischievous muse with a passion for storytelling that doesn't know the difference between fact and fiction. Kate is engaged to award winning author AJ Rose, and together they plan to take over the world.