Since today is National Coming Out Day, I’d like to talk about coming out, sexual identity, and labels. Often in the m/m world, we think in broad strokes: gay characters, gay romances. While some readers are quite vocal about the fact that they don’t like to see their favorite m/m character involved with a woman – even if the encounter only reinforces the man’s love for other men – in real life sexual identity can be much less easy to define.
One of the most frequent questions I get about my first novel, The Hollywood Version, is whether the book is a coming out story or a gay-for-you story. The main character, Mark, is married to a woman but deeply in denial about his feelings for his male best friend. At the end of the book, Mark ends up with a man. (That’s not a spoiler! This is m/m, after all!) For many readers this ending means Mark has finally recognized his homosexuality and won’t go back to women. Others disagree and read Mark as “gay for” the man he ends up with, since after all Mark’s never labeled himself as gay and it’s undeniable he’s been attracted to women before. (Surprisingly few people have declared Mark bisexual.)
The idea of being “gay for” someone is contested, of course. Some feel a more appropriate label might be “out for you,” since it’s not about someone making a character gay (you can’t catch it from a handshake) and more about a character’s willingness to admit certain things to himself and to the rest of the world.
While I can understand the curiosity of romance readers to pin down the genre of a story, in real life figuring out sexual identity isn’t always so easy. Consider these examples from among my friends:
- A woman who identifies as a lesbian, although she’s only had sex with men for the past few years, because she imagines settling down to have children with a female partner.
- A man who identifies as queer and is currently dating a woman. For him it’s a combination of factors that led to his identity: he’s been in relationships with other men, and he doesn’t believe in marriage as a socio-economic institution.
I believe everyone has the right to decide his or her own label, no matter how seemingly incongruous it might be with what the rest of us perceive. As important as these labels are (after all, they help us figure out who to flirt with!), sexuality is fluid, and we’d be foolish to deny it.
But how does that play out in m/m romance novels? I’m currently writing a book about three men who meet at bisexual speed dating. There’s Drew, who is proud to say he sleeps with both men and women but won’t date anyone; Henry, who’s recently divorced from a woman and has a history of swinging; a third character, who’s only ever been with men. The guys have some work to do reconciling their self-described identities with each other’s expectations.
Let’s get back to Mark for a second. Mark spent his whole life thinking he was straight, although his experiences and feelings didn’t necessarily match that identity. I deliberately left the question of what Mark calls himself open at the end of the novel. If you asked him then, in January of 2011, he’d probably say he just happened to be in love with a guy. In the sequel, which takes place starting a year and a half later, Mark has had time to adjust. He now accepts that he’s attracted to a variety of men (don’t worry, he doesn’t act on it!). If you asked him today, he’d probably say he was gay. Not bisexual, although he was married to a woman, because Mark doesn’t understand the world in gray terms. He’s having fun participating in gay male culture in all its glory, and he can’t imagine ever being with a woman again.
Sexuality encompasses a broad spectrum. We’re attracted to a variety of people for a variety of reasons, and often whether we act on those attractions or use them to label ourselves is often shaped by cultural and political pressures as much as biology. I’d love to see more m/m stories and characters who reflect how complicated sexuality and sexual identity labels can be.
So, what do you think about the role of sexual identity in m/m romance? How do your favorite characters add up? Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of The Hollywood Version. Winner will be chosen at random on Oct 19th and notified via email. For more information and weekly free fiction, be sure to check out my blog.