Author Harry K. Malone – Coming Out or Gay-for-You: What’s in a Label, Anyway?

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.

HollywoodVersion[The]300One 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.

13 Comments:

  1. Thank you for hosting me, Charlie!

  2. Hi Harry! Thank you so much for being a guest. I completely agree that everyone has the right to decide their own labels. Personally, I don’t like labels, or the idea that everyone has to fit into a specific tidy box. I think you said it beautifully. Sexuality is complicated, and although there are certain “rules” for m/m romance, I enjoy reading stories with characters who reflect this, who remind us that everything is not black and white.

  3. Great in depth look in such a small word count for a complex issue. Labels. I wonder what our need to label ourselves and each other stems from? The Hollywood Version sounds like a great read, Harry.

    • Thanks for reading, Chris. Maybe labels are like the sorting hat at Hogwarts. They just help us figure out who to sit with at lunch. I’m not sure that analogy works – I’ll have to keep playing with it 😉

  4. sounds different please count me in.

  5. What a wonderful, thoughtful post, Harry. As Chris noted, you made a short blog post of a complex subject, and yet you managed to touch on so much. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve often read from authors who said they had to take things out of their books because editors said they were too unbelievable, and it’s always the things they took from real life. I’m trying to imagine your two real life examples as plots of a book, and I don’t think too many readers would appreciate them as MCs. I wonder, too, if that has more to do with people’s lack of acceptance of these fluid sexuality ideas. At our core, we (the stereotypical “we”) like knowing what things are and what they aren’t, and maybe the full spectrum of human experience is just too much to understand. No wonder people hide things (which is different from just not telling people things) because they know there’s not going to be understanding, and worse yet, there’s judgement and punishment.

    For me, I’m all about the characters being who they are. If they say their gay or bisexual or just happened to have fallen in love with someone of a sex they previously hadn’t been attracted to or whatever, then it’s all good. I don’t need anyone, real or imagined, to justify themselves to me. I just enjoy the experience that’s shared with me. One of my favorite m/m books is Hot Head by Damon Suede. I always think it’s amusing that, as a gay man, his first m/m book is a story about two straight men who are best friends, where one of them is dealing with the developing romantic feelings for his friend. Having read about his inspiration, it’s perfectly understandable, but it’s non-traditional in the sense of it not being two gay men, or one gay man and the straight man who falls for him. And of course, that takes it back to the labels. If these men were previously straight and are not sexual with anyone else (and assuming the same into the future), are they now gay? Are they bisexual? Or are they just a person in love with another person, and the label doesn’t matter.

    For me, I love to see the various configurations of people reflected in my fiction, that goes for their culture, sexuality, personality, body type, etc. I love learning about people, and I love being drawn into their world. And yes, I love that all those people get to have love because I’m an unapologetic romantic at heart.

    OK, I think I’ve got to be done talking before my reply is longer than your wonderful post. (I have a not-shutting-up problem.) Thank you for sharing with us, and thank you to Charlie for hosting!

    • Truth is always stranger than fiction! I once did a piece wherein I wrote nothing but the truth – awful truth, bad things I’d done in my life and wanted to atone for – but never clarified whether it was fiction or nonfiction. You can guess what happened. Readers assumed it was all made up and congratulated me on my creativity. (BTW, it was therapeutic to get it all out, even if I was a little off the hook because no one knew I was confessing!)

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful reply. I haven’t read Hot Head yet, but I’ll put it on my Goodreads TBR shelf.

  6. This is a really excellent post. I’m 51 and I have a number of gay male friends that dated women exclusively certainly through their 20s – whether because of social pressure, family pressure, confusion, timing of the AIDS epidemic, whatever. Once they started to date men, I don’t know that too many people were surprised or bothered about it. I guess by the time people are in their 30s, they’ve seen enough to realize that there a lot of ways to live a life and the most important thing is to find love and happiness.

    • I’m lucky enough to have been too young for the height of the AIDS scare, but I do have some older friends and mentors who lived through it. I can imagine how something like that would indeed prompt some men to turn to women. Or abstain, anyway….You’re making me realize we didn’t talk about “asexual” as an identity in the post. Maybe I’ll save that for the next one.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Sadonna.

      • Hey, Sadonna, by random drawing, you’re the winner! Email me with your contact info and preferred file format, and I’ll get you an e-copy of The Hollywood Version. I’m harrykmalone at gmail.

        • Hi Harry! Sent you a message – apologies for the delay. GRL has thrown me off my game 🙂 Wonderful time and then it takes me a week to recover each year. Thanks for your generosity and I look forward to reading your book.

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