Friday, January 24, 2014

Gay for You or Out for You?

While perusing Heroes and Heartbreakers' Tori Benson's recommendations for outstanding erotic romance reads for the month of January, I came across a phrase I had never heard before. To categorize River Jaymes' new release The Boyfriend Book, Benson used the common romance descriptors "sexy," "m/m" and "contemporary." But she added the unfamiliar (at least to me) expression "gay for you" to the mix. Intrigued by the synopsis of Jaymes' book, and interested in finding out more about a subgenre/trope whose title seemed to simultaneously convey both positive and negative connotations about homosexuality, I both purchased a copy of The Backup Boyfriend and began to poke around a bit on the Web in search of others who had written about the "gay for you" trend.

"Gay for you," I discovered, is a trope primarily found in m/m romance (although present in the occasional lesbian romance, too). The trope describes a story about a previously heterosexual person who suddenly finds him/herself attracted to a member of the same sex. The person who goes "gay for you" has never experienced any degree of sexual attraction to anyone of the same sex in the past, and still is not attracted to other people of the same sex in the present—except for his or her one new love interest. In such romances, the two same-sex lovers act on their attraction, the formerly heterosexual person turns "gay for" his or her new same-sex partner, and the two have a traditional romance HEA.

The best discussion of the trope I found was in a July 2011 post by JesseWave (of the now regrettably defunct Reviews by Jessewave blog, devoted to m/m romance novels). JesseWave argued against both the use of the term "gay for you" and m/m books that depict insta-love (or insta-chemistry) changing someone's sexual orientation. "I'm sure this does not happen in RL [real life]," JesseWave argued, adding "Many of you [readers] have said that you're not into reality you just want the fantasy, but shouldn't the fantasy have some basis in something that makes sense, or is that too much of an oxymoron?" Following the lead of m/m writer Marie Sexton, JesseWave suggested that a better term for books of this type would be "Out for You," not "Gay for You": the sexual orientation-switching protagonist might not have realized that he was gay, but in fact he was, all along. Writers who acknowledged this were writing better books than those who depicted sexual orientation as something one could take off and put on at the drop a hat, JesseWave implied.

JesseWave noted the popularity of this trope amongst heterosexual women readers, but wondered what gay male readers thought of it, and asked Damon Suede, a popular gay male romance writer, to weigh in with his thoughts. Suede echoed JesseWave's ideas, noting:

When a man realizes that he has romantic and erotic feelings about another man and acknowledges those feelings as a part of his identity, he COMES OUT of the closet. He isn't Gay-For-Anyone-But-Himself! He is Out-For-You.... for the record that is the way 80-90% of GLBT people discover their sexuality. Duh! Actually that's how ALL people explore sexuality in their adolescence: they meet someone that makes them feel differently than they have before.

Only when responding to the comments to the post, though, did Suede explicitly name the problem with the phrase "Gay for You":  "GfY is a weird hybrid, enshrining the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive genre." The logic of homophobia inherent in the trope being the idea that you can turn your sexual orientation on or off with the same ease you do a light switch (and if homosexuality is a choice, why shouldn't you just choice to be heterosexual?)

So: Gay for You, ideologically problematic; Out for You, OK. Now, time to actually read one...

Jaymes' The Backup Boyfriend is better written than your typical e-book romance novel. Her two main protagonists are well-realized and appealing, and their relationship both sweet and pleasure-inducingly hot. But I was disappointed, because the more I read, the more I feared the book going to turn out to be more "Gay for You" than "Out for You." The story's heterosexual half of the couple, working-class motorcycle repair shop owner Dylan, tells Alec, the sweet, slightly inept doctor whom he finds himself attracted to, that he's an "only-one-woman-a-night" kind of guy. Their mutual friend Noah asserts that "Dylan's as straight as they come." Dylan's only ever had sex with women, and his strong bond with his one true friend, Rick, who died five years earlier, did not include any erotic feelings, he assures both himself and Alec. When the two are at a football game, Dylan takes pleasure in ogling the cheerleaders. And twice during the story, Dylan deliberately looks at other men in bars, only to find that every other man besides Alec leaves him sexually cold.

But Jaymes showed herself conversant with the issues behind the "gay for you"/"out for you" debate, or at least sensitive to the potential homophobia in the overtly "gay for you" storyline. Dylan eventually realizes, and tells Alec, that his feelings for his dead friend Rick might have included sexual ones. His difficult past—he and Rick met as homeless teenagers, lived on the streets, and sold themselves sexually in order to survive—gave him no real chance to think about his sexuality, never mind begin to explore it. And Rick's romantic relationship with another man soon after he and Dylan managed to scrape enough money together to rent their first apartment meant that any such exploration was put on hold.

Interestingly, part of Jaymes' plotline revolves around Dylan's refusal to be labeled. Is his refusal to be called Alec's "boyfriend" a negative rejection of his own identity as gay or bisexual? A residue of the homophobia inherent in the "Gay for You" trope? Or is it a positive refusal to allow labels to define him? I'll leave you to read the novel and decide for yourself.

In her post, JesseWave wondered what it was about the "Gay for You" trope that so appealed to female heterosexual readers, a question that got a bit lost in the following slew of comments about GfY vs. OfY. It's a question worth exploring, though, one I'll be thinking about and hopefully will write about in the near future.

Have you read other GfY or OfY books? Do you, like JesseWave, think OfY books are better than GfY? Or less homophobic? What fantasies do GfY books fulfill that OfY books don't?

18 comments:

  1. I was nervous when I saw the term "gay for you", having read the Jessewave debate at the time it took place. I was relieved to see that you'd found it, and thank you for covering it in detail. I agree with Damon Suede's views on this, and dislike the term "gay for you" for those reasons. I prefer "out for you", if any such classification is necessary.

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    1. Thanks, Helena, for stopping by. When you write "if any such classification is necessary," are there times when you think it is? And times when you think it isn't?

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  2. Gender expression is not strictly binary. Neither is sexuality. That's why Kinsey came up with the Kinsey scale; there are others that include additional variables

    Contrary to what Wave says, adults well past college age have become attracted to, fallen in love with, and entered into committed relationships with people of the same sex when they've previously never experienced same sex attraction and have had long-term opposite sex relationships that they would have classified as happy and fulfilling but which pale in comparison to what they feel for their current partner. I've read blog posts to that effect that I have no reason to question. If anything, such people might be classified as latent bisexuals who had never before gotten to know anyone who pinged their same-sex desires.

    We could also look at sexuality as continuum over time based on circumstance and preference, as per Fritz Klein. Someone who's exclusively attracted to a specific group (say, members of the opposite sex) isn't likely to become exclusively attracted to a completely different group (say, members of the same sex), but most people will hover near, but not necessarily stay at the same point on the continuum throughout their lives.

    There are also people for whom the individual is the basis for the relationship, not their gender or their level of sexual desire. This encompasses many relationships with trans people and intersex people as well as the various shades on the asexual spectrum, including demisexuality. For some, it is precisely that sense that love transcends gender or classification that gives so-called "gay for you" stories their power.

    Wave and Damon Suede are to a large extent missing the point. Sexuality is more than gay or straight. (It's telling how they use the term LGBT and then proceed to completely ignore the B and T.) So while I agree that the idea that someone "made you gay" is wrongheaded, so is the idea that it's impossible to experience same sex attraction for the first time as an adult after experiencing bona fide opposite sex attraction and relationships.

    Because of this light switch view of sexuality, very few writers actually write gay-for-you scenarios.. Instead, repressed same-sex attraction, usually accompanied by some form of sexual experience that can be passed off as fleeting or experimental, is part of the backstory, and the existence of any orientation other than straight or gay is ignored.

    Having said all of that, I read The Backup Boyfriend and enjoyed it very much both for the reasons you enumerate and for what you see as potential drawbacks. I applaud Dylan's resistance to labeling himself, and view his past, where economic necessity led him to sex acts with men that were not pleasurable, as a large part of the reason he refused to even consider the possibility that he might be attracted to other men. The fact that Rick contracted and died from AIDS might also have something to do with it as well as the fact that Rick became partnered with someone else.

    Also, to me (at least) the book did not suggest that Dylan wasn't in fact attracted to women. He just happens to be more attracted to Alec than to anyone else, While "bisexual" is the easiest label to give him, even that label assumes a binary model.

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    1. Hi, Lawless, and thanks for (as always) your intelligent and informative comments. In the comments section of the JesseWave post, several readers argued the same point that you mention above: that it is not unheard of, or even uncommon, for some people to not experience same-sex attraction until well after their college years, something that both JW & DS acknowledged.

      I'm with you on the continuum view of sexuality. What I'm wondering, though, is the potential for homophobia in the "gay for you" trope, particularly when the trope's reader embraces a binary view of sexuality rather than a more fluid, or more continuum-based definition. If your sexuality can be flipped like a light switch by finding the one right person, might homophobes use this to argue that those who embrace a homosexual identity just haven't found the right person to flip their switches in the correct direction.

      I also didn't mean to be flip when I wrote "I leave it to you to decide" about how to interpret BACKUP BOYFRIEND's Dylan's refusal to allow himself be called Alec's boyfriend. I think there are pieces of all three possible interpretations in the text, although the author clearly wants us to read Dylan's refusal positively, as rejecting limiting labels.

      You write:

      >For some, it is precisely that sense that love transcends gender or classification that gives so-called "gay for you" stories their power.

      I hadn't considered this as one of the pleasures of "gay for you" stories. Are there other titles you can recommend that articulate this pleasure more clearly in their stories?

      What do you think are some of the other pleasures on offer in "gay for you" stories?

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    2. Oh, and can you say more about how "bisexual" assumes a binary model?

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    3. Jackie, bisexual assumes a binary model because many people identify themselves as transgender, agender, bigender, etc. Gender is perhaps as much a spectrum as sexuality. Those for whom love transcends gender or classification might be considered pansexual rather than bisexual.

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    4. My answer is similar to Anonymous', although I come at it from the other direction: the term bisexual is binary because it assumes there are only two biological sexes and two genders, neither of which takes into account intersex persons or people who identify as transgender or are otherwise genderqueer (alternate/third gender, gender fluid, or don't identify with or recognize the existence of gender).

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    5. Turning to your initial response, thank you for the compliment! I often feel like I'm being annoying rather than helpful because my perspective not infrequently differs from that of other commenters.

      Before answering your questions I want to examine the assertion that "gay for you" stories are or have the potential to be homophobic. Misleading or confusing people about the nature of homosexuality is not homophobic, strictly speaking. Homophobia plays a role here only if the person who is "gay for you" is in fact exclusively gay and is just fooling himself. That's not what's going on here (though it would make an interesting premise for a story); we've established that people can and do enter into long-term relationships with a member of the same sex after years of relationships exclusively with members of the opposite sex.

      While there is a possibility that using this storyline will confuse people who've never wavered from a sole attraction to one gender or the other, that's because they believe that gender-specific attraction is (or should be) the rule for everyone. Just because an aspect of the trope can be twisted to support homophobia doesn't make the trope homophobic,.nor are the people who would so use it likely to be swayed by proof that homosexuality isn't a choice anyway. To them, the issue is a moral and emotional one not susceptible to logic..

      Also, the only stories I consider "gay for you" are those in which there is no reported prior attraction to or interest in a member of the same sex and/or no prior same-sex sexual experience. By that definition, The Backup Boyfriend and other books often described as "gay for you," like K.A. Mitchell's Bad Company, are "out for you" books, not "gay for you," where "out" means anything other than exclusively heterosexual. That means that the only books I've read and can think of that qualify as "gay for you" are Kaje Harper's The Rebuilding Year, which I recommend, and Tere Michael's Faith and Fidelity and Duty and Devotion from her Faith, Love, and Devotion series. The Tere Michaels books focus on the formation of a new family (the "gay for you" partner is a widower with kids) and is, in my view, also not as convincingly written.

      As for other pleasures of "gay for you" stories, they are variations on the one I articulated: that love is based on a recognition of individual worth, not on classifications or traits, is worth crossing boundaries that may result in social oppobrium. That love can lead to the formation of new non-traditional and non-biological families if we're open to the possibility. Love crosses the artificial boundaries and borders we've set up. Such stories also model and encourage acceptance and tolerance of non-traditional relationships.

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  3. The expression is new for me, too, I'm happy you have investigated about it. What I don't understand is why this trope is popular among heterosexual women. I mean I think I'd find it troublesome because you could feel threatened by the possibility of your straight significant other being suddenly atracted not only by any other sexy younger women but also by some special man!
    Being heterosexual myself, I have the tendency to think that you are clearly one thing or the other, so when I read this issue I thought it wasn't a very believable trope.
    But then I thought,... well you have read anthropology & history, and you know that in many societies there's no such division in gay/straight people. And you have read 'Sexually Speaking' by Gore Vidal, who states -more or less- that homosexual is not something you are, but some act you perform, so he accepted that you could do, in your life, both homosexual and heterosexual acts...
    I don't know. Is it a homosexual fantasy that an heterosexual friend suddenly falls in love with him/her? I don't know, that question should be answered by homosexual people. Me myself, I don't want my lesbian friends to fall in love with me, frankly, and I'm sure they would laugh at the idea.
    Anyway, my answer is: I don't know. But I tell you that I know at least one lesbian that has this tendency to fall for heterosexual married women, and she's so amazing that at least three times she has found these women to be 'Lesbian for her' and before and after her they kept on being only with men. So it might not be so implausible.

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    1. Thanks Joane, for sharing your thoughts, and your story of your friend who falls for hetero married women. Do you think her partners think of themselves as "gay"? Or as Lawless discusses above, might they think of attraction as being beyond the bounds of categories/labels we use to discuss sexuality?

      For a hetero female reader, there's definitely a potential downside, as you note, of an increased pool of people to be jealous of!

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  4. Great topic (as usual). I've wondered about all of this, too. Is GfY harmful for the future of GLBTQ-whateverelseyoucanthinkof acceptance by the ignorata? I've read a few m/m and m/m/f novels with this theme, and enjoyed several, but I didn't really consider the difference between GfY and OfY. Well, I can just head back into the fray and re-read, I guess!
    Anyway, what I really hope is that when my kids are my age, it won't be a blog topic, because everyone will just be whatever they are, whenever they are!

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    1. Thanks, Teri Anne, for your comments. What changes will we have to make in how we think about sexuality and sexual identity in order for your dream that when your kids are your age, "everyone will just be whatever they are, whenever they are"?

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  5. I'm in complete agreement with lawless523 above me. Sexuality is a scale for many people rather than a binary. Perhaps this trope is so popular because much of the heterosexual audience -let's face it, most of the audience is- can relate or imagine that one same-sex friend they would consider or that someone might come along like that, more easily than they can imagine being attracted exclusively to the same gender.

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    1. Thanks, anonymous, for adding your thoughts about a possible explanation for the appeal of the "gay for you" trope to heterosexual readers. Is it a way for readers to "ease into" the idea of sexuality as a continuum rather than a binary?

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  6. I was going to get all ranty, but Lawless said everything I wanted to say and probably way more articulately. I'm close friends with a real life couple, one half of which is GFY. They're going on 16 yrs together and are raising a child. To say that their choices are somehow invalid or "dont happen" is just shitty.

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    1. Sorry, CG, for provoking an almost-rant. Wasn't my intention to suggest that your friends' choices are invalid or don't happen.

      I was more interested in thinking through why this trope, which I'm guessing appears more often (percentage-wise) in fiction than it does in real life, is so popular. And thinking about the implications of the concept of "gay for you," and its potential for homophobic undertones. Thanks to you, Lawless, and other posters for showing us there's an upside to the term, too.

      Does your friend use the term "Gay for you"? Does s/he consider her/himself gay? Straight? Bisexual? Reject labels altogether?

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    2. OFY suggests that previous relationships were "living a lie" to some degree and are straight out bisexual phobic, no undertones required.

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  7. No worries. She used to consider herself straight, but now pretty much rejects labels although if she had to pick one I think now she might say bi. On the flip side, I have another friend who has considered herself a lesbian for most of her life and is now in a relationship with a man *shrugs* Havent had a conversation with her about this change of heart because she gets pretty uncomfortable when it's brought up.

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