Reader, He Married Him: LGBTQ Romance’s Search for Happily-Ever-After

Photo illustration by Slate

Mitch Tedsoe got down on one knee. “Sunshine, will you marry me?” he said, looking up at his beloved. Sam Keller couldn’t say yes fast enough. And thus began Mitch and Sam’s happily-ever-after—or “HEA” in genre shorthand.

Only a year earlier, Sam’s answer would have had no legal meaning in Iowa, the setting of romance author Heidi Cullinan’s Special Delivery. By the time Cullinan first published the novel in 2010, however, Iowa had legalized gay marriage. And so, when it came time to compose her final sentences, Cullinan could write a marriage proposal between two men. An ending that would have been purely fictional in the recent past suddenly attained the glow of real possibility.

The Supreme Court’s federal marriage equality ruling in June isn’t just changing reality for LGBTQ people across the country. It’s also changing how their experiences are reflected in romance, the billion-dollar genre that depends on a HEA. Increasing transgender visibility and a growing awareness of nonbinary gender identities and sexual orientations are also shaping what stories are told—and how they end, whether or not that includes a marriage. There’s nothing more deflating than reading—one of the most intimate, solitary of acts—and seeing nothing of yourself on the page. Losing yourself in a book requires finding at least a shred of yourself in the story. These days, more and more queer folks are doing just that.

LGBTQ stories are hardly a new trend in romance, though some are more common than others. The most popular, and lucrative, stories feature male protagonists and make up a subgenre called “male/male romance.” (Don’t confuse that with “gay romance,” a label that would denote works written by gay men for gay men with a love story that might be incidental to the plot, or that might end in tragedy as often as happiness, defying the fundamental laws of the romance genre.) In an answer to the unpredictability of older gay stories, the newer m/m romance, which is most often written by women, offers heroes the Romance Writers of America definition of a proper romance: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

M/m romance is evolving at the same time that more types of queer romance stories are being told. Sarah Wendell, the blogger behind Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, says she is starting to see more mainstream presses publish m/m romance in different subgenres and even tap into other stories in the rainbow. “Now, as opposed to a handful of years ago, I can readily think of romances with transgender characters, romances with bisexual characters, YA with lesbian characters, or stories with polyamory in contemporary, historical, or matriarchal fantasy worlds,” Wendell says. Rebekah Weatherspoon, who leads #WOCInRomance to promote women of color—and those who are transgender, gender-fluid, and nonbinary—writing in the genre, has blogged about identifying as pansexual and authoring lesbian and bisexual romance. And this October marks the second annual Queer Romance Month. The theme: “We All Need Stories.”

Riptide Publishing, a boutique press that describes itself as “actively expanding into the rest of the rainbow,” is seeking to add more lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, and ace-spectrum (or asexual and aromantic) fiction to the gay protagonists that dominate its catalog. This shift would allow more readers to embark on the journey to a HEA—and others to recognize that journey as their own, perhaps for the first time. That’s how Sarah Lyons, Riptide’s editorial director, realized her own sexual identity was kink-oriented, sadist in particular, rather than gender-oriented. (In an article for Slate, journalist Jillian Keenan explored how kink is her sexual orientation.) “Every movie villain is a sadist,” Lyons says. “I was able to understand that sadism is not necessarily the terrible thing that everybody makes it out to be by reading BDSM romances. I was able to envision a happy ending for myself and envision a way to make a successful relationship with the sexual identity that I have because of romances.”

Aside from including more identities, there’s also the question of what plots might engage readers by following similar trajectories to their own lives. Lyons and Bold Strokes Books President Len Barot question whether an emerging generation of queer readers will relate to sexuality or gender issues as the main conflict of a romance novel and to coming out, or transitioning, as the challenge that needs a HEA. Young readers today might instead connect with the growing number of post-gay or post-trans romances, in which the protagonists grapple more with an issue that’s personal to them, such as emotional baggage from a past relationship. In Riptide’s The Burnt Toast B&B, for instance, a stuntman who happens to be trans finds a HEA with an out-of-work logger who runs his parents’ bed and breakfast. In queer romance, as in all romance, being accepted for who you are is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Of course, romance trades in a certain amount of fantasy, and we don’t live in a post-gay or post-trans country. For every lesbian, or gay, or bisexual, or transgender kid raised by supportive parents, another is disowned, joining an estimated 320,000 to 400,000 homeless LGBT teens in the United States. For every lesbian, or gay, or bisexual, or transgender kid accepted by friends, another is tormented, or murdered, or commits suicide. That’s why coming out stories, Lyons and Barot agree, are still so essential in today’s queer romance, fortysomething years after its beginnings.

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Modern queer romance dates back to the rise of lesbian romance, and what would eventually become m/m romance, in the 1970s. Lesbian romance took off with the 1973 launch of Naiad Press, the first major publisher of lesbian fiction. Other presses published lesbian work, mostly essays, poetry collections, and biographies—not genre fiction that could appeal to a mass audience, says Barot. She estimates that 95 percent or more of Naiad’s catalog represented genre fiction, including romance.

Before Naiad’s launch, the only lesbian works Barot had ever seen or read were pulps, like Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker, which she stumbled across when she was 12. The pulps were revelatory for Barot at a time when she didn’t know why she felt attracted to her childhood girlfriends. Pulps didn’t come with the guarantee of a happy ending, though. Naiad co-founder Barbara Grier demanded otherwise, requiring positive, uplifting, and affirming stories.

“For women like myself, who had never seen anything like that, who had never seen a suggestion in literature that we could have complete, fulfilling emotional and sexual lives with other women, it was a revolution,” Barot says. Under the Lambda Literary Award-winning pen name “Radclyffe,” Barot writes the types of lesbian romance stories that showed her younger self a future defined by possibilities. She also publishes authors like Weatherspoon.

While gay male romances existed in the 1970s, they could not be categorized with today’s m/m romances, which emerged two decades or so later and very much adhere to a central love story that builds to HEA. Nevertheless, the origins of m/m romance are a product of the same decade. Around the same time that lesbian romance developed, women were writing a type of fan fiction known as slash in which they would couple popular characters, often pairing Captain Kirk and Spock and sharing those stories at Star Trek conventions. Slash can manifest as romance, porn, or erotica.

Though early slash authors were often believed to be straight women, “recent fandom studies and surveys would indicate that a significant percentage of those women were likely queer in one way or another,” Lyons says. Regardless, writing slash allowed women to explore issues of patriarchal power, masculine emotion, and sexual tension at a safe distance, she says. During the 1990s, slash pairings moved online and included the extremely popular Mulder/Krycek from X-Files, Jack/Daniel from Stargate, and Picard/Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation; later on, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. With the rise of the Internet and digital publishing, such stories evolved into today’s m/m romance.

Historically, gay male authors didn’t veer into romance genre territory, and works that included romantic elements often didn’t end happily. But men and other gendered individuals are now beginning to get in on the pure romance action, too. “There’s way more overlap nowadays than there used to be,” Lyons says. “More gay men who are interested in romance are perfectly happy to write for a presumably largely female audience, since it means they sell more books.”

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This raises the question: Because women are often reading and writing m/m romance, are they practicing a form of appropriation? Are they fetishizing or objectifying gay men and their relationships?

Author Josh Lanyon (a pen name) doesn’t think so.* In fact, his revised, 2013 edition of Man, Oh Man!, a guide to writing m/m stories, drops a section on why women read gay and m/m fiction. “Partly, that section is missing because the question can be answered in a single sentence: There are as many and varied reasons women enjoy male/male fiction as they are types of women,” he writes. “The other reason it is missing is that I’ve come to find the question tiresome in its implication that there is something peculiar, something requiring explanation, in a woman choosing to read about gay characters. Should women only read stories about women? Should white people only read stories about white people? Should gays only read stories about gays?”

Though Lanyon acknowledges concerns within the gay community about how “outsiders of a sometimes oppressive majority can make more money writing fiction about a marginalized people than the insider members of that minority can,” he applies the same judgment, or lack thereof, to the m/m romance authors, regardless of their gender and sexuality. In a genre with certain expectations, only a foolish author would completely disregard what the romance audience wants—a HEA.

“Which means, whether your male/male romance is written by straight women or gay men, it’s all make-believe,” he writes. “This is not to say that readers are not entitled to read and enjoy the authors they choose, or should not support GLBT authors whenever possible, but let’s be honest in our biases and not pretend that all gay men write more realistic romance fiction about gay men than all straight women who do their homework and use their experience and imagination to fill in the blanks.”

Certainly, it’s important for outsiders to approach writing m/m romance with self-awareness, as Sunny Moraine indicates in a critique aptly titled, “If you’re a straight cisgender woman writing m/m romance, sorry, you are not striking a blow for equality.” It’s also important to capture enough authenticity for a reader to recognize his experience. Gay fiction author Jamie Fessenden, who identifies as male, explores some of the tropes of m/m romance in a personal blog post investigating, and ultimately defending, the women writing it. “It seemed to me that the male authors of gay novels were either depressed or obsessed with penis size,” he writes. “I wanted romance. And for that, I turned to women.”

And it’s not safe to assume that these women are straight, even if they are outwardly in monogamous, heterosexual relationships, Riptide’s Lyons says. Over at Bold Strokes Books, Barot similarly refuses to do “bed checks” on her authors: “I look at a manuscript based on the manuscript, and if it’s a good lesbian love story, I don’t care who wrote it, and if it’s good male erotica, I don’t care who wrote it, and that’s how we handle things.”

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Pushing LGBTQ romances beyond m/m romance will require authors to continue to write different kinds of stories—and, of course, publishers to publish them. That’s hard to do in today’s publishing industry, which still needs to catch up to the times. As Barot points out, the codes that all booksellers, publishers, and librarians use to catalog and shelve books include gay and lesbian codes for fiction, and for romance fiction, but there are no specific bisexual, transgender, and queer fiction codes.

Even Riptide struggles to diversify its offerings. After all, publishing is a business, and it can be difficult to find quality titles when the supply and demand for some parts of the rainbow isn’t as pronounced as others. “A part of the problem with trans books and asexual books is that they don’t sell as well as your contemporary male/male title,” Lyons says. Authors have to be ideologically committed to writing them, and publishers to representing them, because both sides know that sales won’t be as high.

That doesn’t mean that publishers aren’t trying to make money in new areas. As writers set queer romance narratives within various subgenres, publishers are figuring out what sells (contemporary, romantic suspense series, and fantasy) and what doesn’t (historical, sci-fi), Lyons says. They’re also taking unexpected chances. She says Riptide’s inspirational m/m romance Lead Me Not is as much about the protagonists’ relationship to God as it is to each other.

It’s also important to recognize that an expansion of queer stories requires a broader idea of what “happily ever after” means. In contemporary romance, there’s not much of a difference between a HEA for straight and queer couples. “The goal of the characters is to build a life together—that’s the definition of a happily-ever-after,” Barot says. “It’s not just the, ‘I love you,’ and it’s not just, ‘We have great sex,’ it’s that ‘happily ever after,’ even ‘happy for now,’ implies that there’s going to be a continuing relationship.” And now, at least for gay and lesbian couples, that often means getting married, buying a house, and having children.

But not always. When romance is the point, marriage is one of many ways to end happily ever after. If Barot were publishing a trans romance, she would want the final pages to reflect two people happy with themselves and planning a life together, despite any obstacles in their way. For Lyons, an ace-spectrum romance like Blue Steel Chain would not end—at least, not happily—with the asexual partner’s sudden embrace of sexual activity. Nor would a polyamorous romance end with monogamy. Instead, Tom and Cass, two of the heroes of Riptide’s Misfits, bring Jake into their long-term open relationship, underscoring that marriage is far from the only way to live happily ever after.

And that’s the point. There is no one HEA. The spectrum of HEAs is as broad as the spectrum of readers. By offering stories that reflect the intricacies and complexities of real-life identities and orientations, authors of queer romance are giving readers a chance to envision their own paths to happiness, whether that’s a yes like Special Delivery’s Sam’s or something else entirely.

For more LGBTQ+ romance recommendations, check out BookRiot. Interested in m/m romance? Joyfully Jay has you covered.

*Update, Oct. 9, 2015: Since the publication of this piece, the author learned that “Josh Lanyon” is a pen-name. Additionally, “Lanyon” has only recently widely indicated that he identifies as a woman.