Why I Write Gay Boys
As a writer, as a reader, as a human being, it’s always good to pause and examine why we do the things we do. Why do you believe what you believe? If you don’t believe science, why don’t you? Taking a critical look at your own knowledge and beliefs is never out of order. Knowledge, thanks to science, changes. It’s ever evolving, and what we think we know today may not be true tomorrow, as we learn more about our amazing world.
Some people find that scary, but I find it particularly neat. Yes, it can be challenging, and we do tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when information flies in the face of what we think we know. But if we’re open to being critical thinkers, to evaluating our own positions and new information, then there’s a world of amazing discover just waiting for us.
Sometimes, it’s important to evaluate our own impulses and reactions. Why do we fear spiders? Why do some people love death metal music, while others loathe it? “Personal taste” accounts for some things, and we could just leave it at that. But knowing ourselves is almost always as useful as critically questioning the world around us.
So why would a straight, cisgender, white girl like myself choose to write about gay guys?
Let’s start with the fact that I encountered yaoi and slash at a formative period in my life. I’m not sure what originally attracted me to these stories; I’m still ultimately exploring the initial attraction.
But the established fact is I encountered yaoi and slash when I was in my early teens. It was something I’d never seen or heard before. I knew “gay people” existed, vaguely, but I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t understand homosexuality at all at that point in my life. It was just something that didn’t exist in my personal realm of experience.
Reading yaoi and slash was exciting and new to me, in addition to being taboo. It was something I knew I “shouldn’t” be doing. So perhaps that was a large part of the initial allure.
Let’s be perfectly frank here: misogyny is rampant. Just pick up a romance novel by a guy and look at the description of the woman. Look at fainting heroines and damsels in distress. These are the roles women were given in the media that formed my childhood. We were always princesses or wenches who needed rescuing. (As a note, I often identified with female villains more, since they were usually given greater leeway—or princesses who at least exuded some sort of power.)
Obviously, stereotypes about men and women inform relationship dynamics, particularly in media. This particularly came to bear in Gundam Wing, which was really my first “fandom” and introduction to yaoi. Releena, the major love interest of main character Heero Yuy, isn’t exactly a shining example of a strong female character, although she plays a major role in the story. She gets shepherded around and manipulated by other people, and though she espouses strong ideals, those ideals amount to not much more than “love and peace.”
Other female characters, like Lady Une and Noin, were more interesting to me. Une suffered from the issue of being a “strong female” so long as her male interest wasn’t around; later in the series, she evolves into a soft-spoken and gracious woman who exudes all kinds of feminine charms. When she does break and slip back into her hard-ass role, this is treated as a move “backwards.”
Can I really root for a female love interest if I dislike the female characters I’m given?
Male Companionship and Friendship
The same thing happened in most of the fandoms I moved through afterwards. I’ll examine one here, Naruto. Sakura is initially set up as a lovesick, lovelorn girl. She’s smart, but weak. Her crush on Sasuke gets in the way; she and Ino fight over him. In short, she’s a stereotypical pathetic girl. Sakura later evolves into a badass, but she still ends up with Sasuke.
The dynamic between Sasuke and Naruto was far more interesting to me. Sasuke initially treated Naruto like dirt, but Naruto would fight back against him, get angry, and ultimately, earned his grudging respect. This is an enemy-to-lovers trope in essence, although the canon never suggests the two of them were anything more than friends, rivals, and, at some points, enemies.
But it leaves open the door on questions about male companionship and desire. At what point do we cross a line from “platonic love”—such as we see in Lord of the Rings—and move beyond it to romantic love?
We have to give that these feelings are often highly charged. These male characters hate each other at times, grudgingly respect each other at others. At some points, we see them showing perhaps even a little tenderness towards each other, showing that they do deeply care about their friend.
Crossing the Line to Desire
As I mentioned, part of the intrigue of this is where the line between friendship and romantic love is drawn. For that matter, we can ask if sex is always romantic or if there are times when strong emotions might overwhelm two people and instinct takes over. (Turns out, there totally is; sex is sometimes very aromantic.)
This was a interesting line of questioning for youthful me, who was obviously curious about this sort of thing. It’s still something I explore in my writing. The tangle of human emotions, how we form affinities, how we come to hate, how we come to love, is something of immense interest, I think, to most writers. We’re ultimately examining the human conditions.
And, of course, when you’re a teenager, you’re still figuring all this shit out yourself. Most mainstream media tells you about “love stories” and sex is almost always “making love.” As a teenager, you begin to suspect this is fairly idealized, and you begin to pry underneath the shiny veneer to really get at the messiness of human experience and existence.
An Arena for Exploration
I’m not going to say we’ve said all there is to say about heterosexual relationships. Ideals and norms are changing and being challenged. The idea of the “strong female character,” such as she was written in the 1990s and 2000s, has become outmoded and is being replaced, perhaps now with women who are truly strong.
But we’re less apt to examine masculinity in a heterosexual relationship. Romance novels are largely for women, by women, and about women. (Unless you’re writing in some subgenres of LGBTQIA+.) Men are often presented as idealized heroes—problematic as they often are—and relatively less is said about their masculinity or how they perceive romance or relationships.
In fact, one of our dominate narratives about masculinity is that men don’t feel much outside of sexual urges. We must know this to be patently false, but men are given much less rein to explore their desires.
Exploration of homosexual desire between two men then takes on an even more subversive tone. It circumvents established male/female roles, opening up spaces for relationships that function in many different ways. It opens up possibilities for different ways of performing masculinity, of being men. And it subverts the dominate, prescriptive narratives about all of this, challenging them, questioning their authority and legitimacy.
The Female Gaze
Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that I, like many readers and writers of m/m works, am female. This thus becomes an exercise in subverting and reversing the male gaze and the objectification of women. There isn’t a woman in sight here; there are only men, subject to my gaze. I view them, I objectify them, I sexualize them. There’s a kind of power in that.
That’s not to say it’s not problematic. Obviously, simply inverting the objectifying gaze doesn’t change the fact it’s still an objectifying gaze. There’s certainly a danger in doing this, and a tension. As much as it normalizes, it exoticizes. As much as it gives power to one person, it disempowers others.
In short, it’s a bit of a tangled mess for women to write m/m works.
At the end of the day, I’m telling stories, and I tell the stories I want to tell. With all the difficulty and tension around being who I am and writing what I do, I try to negotiate the “slippery slope” as best I can.
I see no reason why there shouldn’t be more stories featuring queer characters. (I’ll conceded, m/m tends to be overdone, however.) And we most certainly need queer voices writing those stories; I don’t want to take shelf space so much as I want to share it with a diverse range of voices writing a diverse range of stories. And if someone like me writes “queer” stories, perhaps, in some small, problematic way, it can help legitimize and normalize those same stories. You don’t need to be queer to support or respect queer people; you should most definitely include queer characters in your stories.
I don’t see myself as a crusader in this, nor would I ever give into the conceit of thinking my contributions are somehow more important than those of queer people themselves or somehow unproblematic.
But perhaps I can do no harm while also writing what I like or, optimistically, do even a tiny bit of good—even if that’s just critically examining my own motivations and acknowledging that what I do can be and is often problematic.
But, at the end of it, I write gay guys and queer characters because I love these stories and want to tell them.