Tuesday, December 27, 2016

GETTING INSIDE the controversies: An Interview with Serena Bell

Contemporary romance author Serena Bell is ringing in the new year by launching Getting Inside, the first book in her Seattle Grizzles series of football sports romances. The book features a heroine with the most stereotypically gendered male of jobs: she's a professional football coach (linebacker coach). RNFF talked with Bell about this untraditional choice of profession for her heroine, and other controversial aspects of her unusual sports romance.

SB: First of all I wanted to say, Jackie, thank you so much for doing this interview. I love this blog and the way you tackle identity issues head-on and fearlessly, and I'm really happy to have the chance to talk about Getting Inside's release here.

RNFF: Thanks to you, Serena, for agreeing to be interviewed, and for talking about the controversial aspects of this book. First, I'm curious to know, where did you get the idea to have a female professional football coach as a protagonist?

Dr. Jen Welter, coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals
SB: When I first started working on this series, the NFL hadn't yet hired its first female coach, Kathryn Smith (hired by the Buffalo Bills in January 2016), but it had hired its first female coaching intern, Dr. Jen Welter. I found myself fascinated by her, and I wanted to bring some of both her triumphs and her struggles to life on the page.

RNFF: How did you balance the need to portray the difficulties faced by women entering a predominantly male profession with the need to write a hopeful story (a requirement of romance)?

SB: Writing romance is always a tricky balancing act in this regard. On one hand, readers pick up a romance for the fantasy—the pleasure of getting to spend time in a world that's simpler and less stressful than the one they live in. On the other, if you decide to write about a controversial topic (like women in men's sports), you have a responsibility not to gloss over the difficulties of the real people who are struggling to make their way in a far grittier and more nuanced world than romance. My goal was to split the difference as best I could.

RNFF: Early in the novel, your hero, Ty (a linebacker on the Grizzlies' team) uses the "women are a distraction" argument to justify (at least in his head) his opposition to heroine Iona's presence on the coaching staff:

As soon as I lay eyes on her, I get this fierce, almost painful rush. It's just the aftereffect of going toe-to-toe with her over O's job. That's what I tell myself. Not about going toe-to-toe with her in a completely different way. Actually, there's no toe-to-toe in the video siege firing through my brain. Every other conceivable position though. This is exactly why women don't belong in the PFL. Because all this shit in my head doesn't belong in the PFL. (341)

How have women in football and other male-dominated professions countered such arguments?

SB: They've countered the argument by being good at what they do, by showing over time that they're an asset, not a detriment, to any organization. And that's what Iona does for Ty. She's steady, she's present, she's effective, and in the end, that's what convinces him, far more than any verbal argument she could present. Which is why, of course, it's so critically important for us to get more women into more roles we don't expect to see them in; it's the best way to change the kind of outmoded thinking that Ty's early musings represent.

RNFF: The first turn in Iona and Ty's relationship comes after a joint radio interview, during which a broadcaster insults Iona and Ty defends her. Iona gets angry with him, telling him she doesn't need defending. But then Ty says he would have defended any coach, male or female, and Iona thinks, "I suddenly realize that I'm being a great big douchebag" (946). Can you take us through your thinking here, regarding what's sexist and what's not?

SB: In my mind, the show's host is absolutely sexist—his blindsiding Iona (which, by the way, wouldn't really happen in sports radio; I took artistic license) with an assault on the viability of female coaches is just plain wrong. Ty may be operating out of some assumptions that he needs to revisit—the idea that Iona needs his protecting—but I don't see his motives as suspect. Iona is encountering one of her own blind spots; she's so used to being armored against the men in her life that she responds defensively to Ty's desire to protect her. Knowing Ty and Iona, I suspect she will have to tell him to "back off" more than once more in their lives together, and he will get better over time at letting her fight her own battles. And vice versa. I can see her trying to fight his battles just as easily as the reverse.

RNFF: A couple of Iona's observations struck me: First, "Pro sports are this country's hardest meritocracy, with the possible exception of the armed forces. If you make it this far, you must be good enough—it's true of players, coaches, staff—male or female." Second, "the worst sexists are aging off, and the players are so young, so most of them are used to the idea of women in positions of power. And a huge number of them grew up in single-parent households run by mothers, so the notion of a woman who calls the shots doesn't faze them." I couldn't help thinking these observations were more wishful thinking than reality, especially in light of the recent ascendance of Donald Trump. Do you believe they're true? Who was your source?

SB: Both of these observations came via a journalist friend who spent a good portion of his career in locker rooms and on sports courts and fields. His point is that—exceptions aside—pro athletes are just that, pros, and their overriding goal is to win. Everything else is just a distraction, including gender (which may be the myopia of male privilege, but I still found it be an incredibly interesting observation). He said that for most pro players, if a coach can make them better, that's all they need to know.

Now, we all know that's not how it plays out systematically. There are still almost no female coaches in pro football (or in other male-only pro sports). There are still far too few black coaches and black quarterbacks in pro football. And for sure, there is still an enormous amount of intolerant language, behavior, and bullying in pro sports—on both the player side and the fan side. I chose to focus in this book on individual positive behavior, because my primary goal was to normalize the idea of women with key roles in men's pro sports. I want readers to end up cheering for Iona's strength rather than seeing her as a victim.

RNFF: Bringing up the issue of race in pro sports leads right in to another controversial aspect of your book: you are a white author, while both of your protagonists are African American. Talk about your thinking around that decision.

SB: Around seventy percent of NFL players are men of color, and from the beginning, I knew I didn't want to write a series that suggested otherwise. (As I side note, and to reiterate a point I made earlier, this doesn't mean that positions are fairly distributed by race, something that needs to change). I struggled with feeling like it wasn't my "place" to write this story, or that I'd be taking an #ownvoices opportunity away from a writer of color. But I am hopeful about the "abundance" behavior of the romance market: the more readers encounter books with thoughtful portrayals of characters of color, the more of those books the market will demand.

RNFF: Controversy #2: workplace relationships. Falling in love on the job is a common romance novel trope. But many readers have trouble if there are uneven power dynamics involved (if one party is the other's boss, for example). In your story, your heroine, Iona, is a coach, and your hero, Ty, is a linebacker who plays under her. When they first meet, Ty is instantly attracted to Iona. He knows, though, "if she's anyone who has anything remotely to do with the team, she's off limits" (137). But by novel's end, both still retain their jobs even after they have gone public with their romantic relationship. Take us through your thinking here, about why this is a HEA, rather than a potentially squicky ending.

SB: For me, it has everything to do with the real way power is distributed in a relationship. Power is complicated. It can come from physical size and strength, from someone's position in the career hierarchy, from someone's privilege within the larger society, and from a lot of other sources. The reason the ending isn't squicky for me (squickiness is, of course, 100% in the eye of the beholder) is because when I look at the way power balances out between Iona and Ty, neither of them holds an unfair amount of it.

RNFF: Controversy #3: the "balls" issue ;-)  In an RNFF post from 2014, titled "The Anatomy of Courage," I used your book Hold on Tight to discuss why using the word "balls" as an image of courage might be problematic. And early in 2017's Getting Inside, Ty observes this of a fellow player about whom he was worried: "I grin. He's got his balls reracked"(125). Tell us why you think it's important to use such language when portraying certain male protagonists.

SB: I don't think it's essential. I think another writer might make a different decision, to give Ty a totally genderless set of language around courage. That said, it seemed pretty clear to me, given the freedom—one might say abandon—with which Ty discusses his, erm, "equipment" in this book that he'd locate male courage in his balls. I wanted him to feel credible as a guy who spends his time in locker rooms, even if he's also a guy who wouldn't tolerate, in a million years, the notion of a locker room as a place where hate belongs.

RNFF: So, what's up next for this series? Will you be tackling any of the issues about race in pro football that you mention above?

SB: You'll be hearing more about the Grizzlies! Calder's book is up next, followed by two more books about some of your other favorite characters, too. And I'd love to tackle more of the issues around race—particularly equity in coaching and quarterback positions—in future books.

Thank you again, so much, for the great questions and the space to think and talk about these issues!

RNFF: Thanks, Serena, for stopping by. I'm looking forward to seeing what develops next in this series. Given the stats in the "Gender Equality in Radio" graphic above, might I say that I hope a female sports talk radio personality might feature in a future Grizzlies romance?

RNFF readers: What are your thoughts about any/all of the above controversies? Do they make you more or less likely to search out Bell's book?

Photo credits
Jen Welter: Washington Times
Gender Equality in Radio: Visual.ly
Workplace relationships: Careerbuilder.com via Brandon Gaille

Getting Inside
Loveswept, 2017

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In-Body Experiences: Alex Beecroft's LIONESS OF CYGNUS FIVE

When I taught a class on Science Fiction and Fantasy for children and young adults (during my days as a professor at Simmons College), I spent a lot more time reading SF than I do today. In part because my interests now have shifted to romance, but also because so often hard SF does not focus on interpersonal relationships, while most SF romance does not satisfy my desire, grounded in years of fantasy and SF reading, to dwell in a thoughtfully created secondary world where ideas, not just personal relationships, matter. Which explains my delight when I heard that Alex Beecroft, one of my favorite contemporary and historical romance writers, had jumped on the SF ship.

The versatile Beecroft's latest, Lioness of Cygnus Five, is set in a space-faring future, after humans on Earth have spread far and wide throughout the galaxies. Spreading along with them is the human penchant for fighting between different cultural groups, groups that base their identities on opposite sets of beliefs. One of Lioness's protagonists is a member of the "The Kingdom," a low tech-Luddite religious force determined to colonize all other human planets for their own good. Aurora Campos was once the most gifted and revered "holy warrior" among The Kingdom's soldiers, touted by many as a new Joan of Arc, but a very public moral mistake has left her dishonored and disgraced. Shunted off to the hinterlands, she now only rates command of a lowly transport ship, staffed by other Kingdom "freaks and rejects," with a cargo of convicts bound for the prison planet Cygnus Five.

The da Vinci surgical system: a precursor to
Bryant Jones' technology?
One of those prisoners is wily Bryant Jones, who has suffered his own fall from grace. After his planet, part of the "Source," a godless, secular, and technologically advanced culture, is conquered by The Kingdom, his work as a highly reputable persona surgeon (a kind of super high tech plastic surgeon) is regarded as criminal. When one of his underground surgeries is interrupted and his patient dies because of it, Bryant is convicted of murder, and bound over to be exiled to the prison colony of Cygnus Five. But Bryant is determined to use his superior technological knowledge to take control over Captain Campos's ship before they reach the planet.

At the start of the novel, neither Jones nor Campos has much respect for the other. Jones thinks of Campos, "She was an odd-looking woman, somewhere between olive-skinned beauty and prize-fighting troll"; "it was kind of pathetic seeing a woman so butch make any gestures at all in the direction of femininity" (114, 223). For her part, while Campos finds Jones a bit more physically appealing, she still regards him as a distasteful threat:

A beanpole of a man. Black, like Mboge [her 2nd in command] but a paler shade, his oval face freckled all over like a plover's egg and his shaggy hair, which curled naturally into tight spiraled ringlets, worn like a bouncy cloud.... Yet when she looked at him, fragility was the last thing she saw. No that was a snake. A little brown vine snake of the kind that had been harmless when it left Earth, but had developed potent venom in its new home. (409)

Nor does either have much respect for the other's culture or beliefs, assuming that their own is of course far superior:

Jones on Campos:

Her planet must have been under Kingdom rule so long they'd forgotten they weren't free. She must have been born under it and raised by parents, grandparents who were born under it. It must feel like nature to her, thinking the way that she thought. He'd often said before that he felt sorry for the dupes who actually believed it all, but this was the first time he'd actually meant it" (797).

Campos to Jones, when Jones exclaims his disgusted that the escape launch has to be flown manually:

"What planet are you from that doesn't appreciate human skill, Jones?.... God gave some of us speed and reflexes because he meant us to use them, and didn't give them to others because they were meant to do something else. That's basic orthodoxy" (577).

Campos is a naïve but ruthless do-gooder, bent on self-sacrifice, or so Jones believes, while Campos is certain that Jones is a sneaky weasel, always looking out for number one. But after the prison transport is attacked, and the two crash-land together on the detention planet, they are forced to interact in order to survive. And their opinions of each other, and of each other's values, slowly begin to change:

Enhancements, he'd said. He had enhancements to tell when food was poisoned, and presumably enhancements to heal himself fast. How many of my people over the years would have lived if they'd had the same? It was an unsettling thought. Why would God disapprove of healing anyway? (1061)

"Mind rape" she'd called it [his culture's use of nanites to influence others' feelings], which was disturbing because he hadn't thought of it that way before, and having thought of it made all the times he'd done it sound kind of sordid. You certainly didn't defend people from one sort of rape by carrying out another. (1567)

Jones and Campos begin to discover the value in difference, and the value of working with someone who appears to be your total opposite.

Medical nanites
Before Jones has fully embraced this new insight, however, he transfers medical nanites to Campos (after promising her not to), as a defensive move. But when Campos decides to singlehandedly try and rescue her crew, captured by rebellious prisoners, he decides to use the nanites for her protection—by changing her body into a man's.

Without, of course, asking her first.

Beecroft has penned an adventure-filled utopian science fiction romance, an opposites-attract love story that also interrogates issues of gender and bodies, all with intelligence and a healthy dollop of humor. While Lioness of Cygnus Five will never be mistaken for hard SF, it does gift its readers with an engaging balance of extrapolative thought-experiment and unexpected romance.

What have been your favorite feminist SF romances of 2016?

Photo credits:
da Vinci Surgical System: Londonist
Medical nanites: Softpedia

Lioness of Cygnus Five
indie published, 2016

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Scientists in Love: Emily Foster's HOW NOT TO FALL

This must be my month for female scientist protagonists in romance. Last week I wrote about Kaya, a Filipino molecular biologist in Six de los Reyes's Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions; today's science nerd heroine is New York City transplant white girl Annabelle, just finishing up her B.S. in a psychophysiology lab at Indiana University. But even though both Kaya and Annie are scientists (or scientists-in-the-making), two such different protagonists are hard to imagine. Just as there are many ways of being a woman, so, too, are there many different ways of being a woman scientist.

When Annie was younger, she thought that dance, not science, would be her future career. In fact, during her early teen years, she was dancing five days a week in preprofessional training at the Joffrey Ballet. But when she was fifteen, "dancing eight hours a day and doing my academics as a hobby," she had a sudden realization—she loved dancing, but it was doing science, studying the biology of the brain, that "made me feel like me" (Kindle Loc 1238). Art and science are often constructed as binary opposites—you're a math/science person, or you're an artsy person. But Annie appreciates the science behind what she can do on a dance floor, and the artistry of what she can do in the lab.

Annie still keeps a foot in the dance camp, teaching classes at a local studio several times a week, but the majority of her hours are spent in the lab, working on her senior thesis about peoples' responses to anger. And lusting after the department's post-doc, twenty six-year-old rockclimbing dreamboat Charles. But Annie's personality won't allow her to sit and lust in silence any longer; no, she's all about the going-for-what-you-want method of barreling through life. And so, after quietly lusting for a year and a half, Annie has invited Charles to meet under the pretext of needing help with some data for her thesis. But in reality, she's planning to tell him this (which of course she has rehearsed, since she is one well-prepared scientist): "Charles: you know this is my last semester in college, and then I'm leaving for grad school. I think you and I have A Thing and so I would like to engage in a physical relationship with you before I leave Indiana. What do you say?" (45).

Annie considers including "a list of attributes I think make me a highly promising sex partner, a list that is bold, funny, and indicative of her lack of sexual experience:

(1) My brain. An asset for every other complex task I've undertaken, and I see no reason why it won't come in handy for this one.
(2) My athleticism. I don't know exactly how this will help me either, but I'm sure I've heard the phrase "athletic sex," and I'm sure I would like to try some.
(3) My enthusiasm. I feel confident it's better to have sex with someone who's really, really glad to be there with you than with someone who isn't.
And possibly also (4), my unblinking willingness to look like an idiot in public. (59)

Not unsurprisingly, when Annie springs her proposal on an unsuspecting Charles, she has to draw on all that willingness to look like an idiot in public. For not only does Charles take the out an embarrassed Annie offers when faced with the flabbergasted post-doc ("Feel free to say no! Honestly! I won't take it personally—I mean, even if you mean it personally, I'll just chalk it up to a boss-student thing" [179]), he also points out a serious oversight in the data she sent him, a unaccounted-for pattern that will mean hours and hours more time in the lab for disappointed, sexually frustrated Annie.

Charles, though, sees a lot of himself in Annie, and despite her rather ill-conceived proposition, decides to help her through her last weeks of research and writing. He brings her food when she spends too long in the lab; he takes her rock-climbing to help her relieve stress; and he generally acts as his usual all-around-good-guy, just with an extra helping of nice for Annie.

But Annie can't help but still think "The Thing" is real, especially after she gives in to the sexual tension and kisses him. Turns out that Annie wasn't quite wrong when she sensed that she and Charles had "A Thing." But since fraternizing with those over whom you have power is both a legal and ethical no-no, Charles refuses to do anything about it.

At least until his attempts to stave her off lead whip-smart Annie to back him into a logical corner:

     "We have A Thing!" I say. "We've had A Thing for ages! I thought I was wrong, but I'm not wrong."
     "I give up," he groans. "Look, why don't we talk about it after you graduate."
     "You agree with have A Thing?"
     "Yes. We have A Thing. Christ on a bike." With his elbows on his desk, he rakes his hands into his hair and stares at his blotter.
     "And you'll talk about it after commencement, on the tenth?" As far as I'm concerned, he has opened a negotiation.
     "Sure. Yes," he tells his blotter.
     "Classes end May second and I've got no finals, so really I won't be a student after that. We could talk about it then, on the last day of classes, instead of waiting until after commencement."
     He looks up at me and throws himself back in his chair. "Annie—"
     "Why not?"
     "Saints defend me. Christ and all the apostles fucked up the arse by Moses, fine. All right. We'll talk about it on the second. Now for the love of god, please get out of my office, you harpy." He shoos him with one hand, from his trench behind the desk.
     I rise, but I don't leave. "What time on the second?" (784)

A detail-oriented brain may be a necessary requirement for success as a scientist, but persistence is equally important. And Annie is nothing if not persistent.

And thus, on May 2nd, Annie and Charles become friends with benefits, both agreeing to engage in a short-term fling. A fling that gets off to a bit of a rocky start when, during their pre-sex exchange sexual histories thing (and in what might just be my favorite passage in this amazingly hilarious book), Annie informs Charles that she's never really engaged in intercourse before:

     "I guess I'm what would be called a 'virgin.'" I put it in quotes with my fingers and make a face.
     "I beg your pardon?" he says.
     "A virgin?" I say, like it's a question. "It's a medically meaningless idea, it's all just patriarchy and—"
     "Yes"—he holds up a hand an closes his eyes—"I'm a feminist too, we needn't rehearse the arguments about purity as a virtue meaningly only int he context of male ownership of women."
     (You see why I like this guy? He says it like it's just understood that any reasonable person would identify as a feminist. I didn't identify that way until, like, two years ago, but with him, feminism is taken as read. Ah-mazing.)
     And then he says, "Oh god," and he leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling. "I had no idea I was so medieval." He's laughing now, a silent chuckle, both hands over his face.
     "Apparently, I'm a terrible human being," he says through his palms. Then he takes a great big sigh and straightens a little in his chair, gripping his hands together in his lap. "The idea of deflowering you has given me a raging hard-on and filled my brain with the most shamefully barbaric thoughts. There's a bit of self-knowledge I wouldn't have bet on." He's looking out the window, where the sun has just begun to set.
     "Really?" I'm grinning, terribly pleased for no reason. It's not like I earned that hard-on, I mean, I all I did was not have any sex yet, but still!" (979)

Clearly, despite his "medieval" tendencies, Charles is the more experienced, and the more emotionally mature, partner in this duo. But he never uses either advantage to make Annie feel lesser. And Annie, with her courage, her enthusiasm, and her determination to not let embarrassment interfere with what she wants, or with understanding what Charles wants, has just as much to offer the post-doc as he has to offer her, both in and out of bed.

The "Thing," then, runs quite smoothly (quite hotly!) for a few short weeks. Until Annie, in her boundless enthusiasm, falls crashingly hard into love with Charles... and Charles doesn't with her.

Or so he (and his background of family trauma) say...

On her web site, Foster explains that she wrote How Not to Fall "because she was totally sure it was possible to write a romance about a college student who experiences her sexual awakening with an older, more powerful man, in a way that was sex positive, feminist, and medically accurate, as well as sexy as heck." After reading How Not to Fall, I'm happy to report that Foster exceeded all four of her goals. And topped it all off with the tastiest of cherries: laugh-out-loud humor.

Good thing the sequel to this cliffhanger, How Not to Let Go, will be coming out right after Christmas....

Photo credits:
Rock climber: Vertical Hold Rock Climbing Gym
Dept. of Brain Sciences: Indiana University
I Am a Feminist, Too: Thinker's Notepad

How Not To Fall
Kensington, 2016

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Love as a Scientific Experiment: Six de los Reyes, BEGINNER'S GUIDE: LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS

If you're part of a large extended family, and you regularly attend family get-togethers, you're probably used to the well-meant yet intrusive personal questions that aunts, grandparents, and second cousins once removed frequently lob in your direction. When are you going to get a boyfriend? When are you and your girl going to make it legal? When are you and that spouse of yours going to start popping out grandbabies so we have someone to kiss and coo over?

Kaya would much rather be in the lab...
Such conversations are especially difficult for Kaya, the heroine of Six de los Reyes' contemporary romance Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions, who is studying at a university in Manila for her MS in Molecular Biology. Kaya's always been different from the others in her close-knit extended Filipino family; introverted, a science nerd, and far more of a thinker than a feeler, Kaya would far rather be working in her lab than attending yet another of her family's "ostentations affairs." As Kaya explains, "In the interest of optimizing my life experience, I had abandoned casual and recreational socialization on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and repeated reinforcement that I am undesirable" (90).

But no one in the family is allowed to avoid attending a family get-together. Get-togethers where "appropriately themed music would be set just a decibel below the legal limit, and the mandatory coordinating outfits would put the rainbow to shame. Anything less than crazy and outright embarrassing in decent company did not deserve to be called a party. It didn't even matter if it was a real cause for celebration. If the day warranted capitalization, it deserved a bash" (185).  Which is why, in the second scene of Beginner's Guide, Kaya finds herself at the home of her maternal grandparents for her cousin Czarina's Engagement Party (theme: "Czarina's Crazy Carnival").

...than partying with her family
Having to dress as a mime is only the first of a series of indignities Kaya has to endure during the latest family bash. Being teased by her older brother, misunderstood by her cousins' dates when she tries to talk about her work, and interrogated about her dating life by her Titas ("What are you looking for, anyway? Maybe your standards are too high! Don't be so picky!") is bad enough. But when cousin Daphne suggests "Maybe, you know, you're not single because you work all the time. Maybe you work all the time because you're single" (304), Kaya can't help but start questioning whether there is something inherently wrong with her.

Knowing his daughter well, Kaya's father challenges her on her own terms: "Do you have any evidence supporting this claim?" he asks when she wonders if she is just not suited to a romantic relationship. And when she says no, he challenges her to do something about it: "At least try, that's what you do, right? You try things and see what happens" (340). The "repeated phenomenon" of having her singleness called out during the party "created a disturbance in my brain" (340). And while Kaya knows that "my family is hardly a representative sample of the overall population," she also wonders if "the generalized view they presented on the benefits of being in a relationship indicated that it was directly related to happiness."

Kaya knows of only one way to test this hypothesis: to conduct a scientific experiment. Kaya's lab benchmate, postdoc Eugene, helps her design her "proof of concept experiment" in the local cafe/library, In Lab. One of the key issues in the experiment is how to filter out unwanted individuals, the discussion of which catches the attention of In Lab's owner, Nero Sison. Nero and Kaya are like oil and water: Nero, an artist, is ironic, tattooed, and a member of "a world that rarely collided with mine. A world that valued aesthetics and feelings more than they did fact and evidence" (535). While Kaya's list of "unsuitable individuals" includes more than twenty different disqualifications ("one afflicted with dangerous psychological disorders, sociopaths and psychopaths, or someone with sexually transmitted diseases," etc. etc. [550]), Nero's standards are much looser: "Not Evil. And I'm telling you, I have a very loose personal definition of Not Evil" (584).

Savvy romance readers are likely to see where this is all heading. But the fun of the very funny but never condescending towards its socially awkward heroine Beginner's Guide is in the trip, not just the destination. I especially appreciated that the solution to Kaya's search for a romantic partner didn't require Kaya to throw out her preference for thinking over feeling. Instead, at novel's end, her wise father once again challenges Kaya on her own scientific terms:

     "If the evidence points towards you liking him, then shouldn't that be the recorded result of your experiment? Declaring it null and voice just because you don't like the data seems irresponsible. If your evidence points to wanting to be with him, then choosing to push him away because of an unoptimized methodology sounds to be the illogical choice here.
     "No one's perfect. Not even perfect for you. People just are, and you accept that about them, flaws and all. And love, it never happens the way you plan for it to happen. And if love is just a chemical reaction, then maybe it doesn't always happen within laboratory conditions" (2772-81)

A conclusion with which Kaya, and her readers, are ultimately happy to agree.

Photo credits:
Manila University Science Lab: Newsbytes Philippines 
Family party: A Pinoy in Korea blog
Love Chemistry: Meducator

Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions
(Talking Nerdy #1)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grieving and Loving: Sarina Bowen's KEEPSAKE and Alexis Hall's PANSIES

Mourning and falling in love would appear to be at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: the blissful highs of connecting intimately with another, the tearful, angry lows of an intimacy no longer possible. Yet both grief and love break down emotional defenses, leaving you achingly open and vulnerable. When grief comes first, several recent romance novels suggest, it can plough the untilled field, readying one for the planting of the seeds of romantic love.

In my book, the best grief/love stories are not the ones in which a new love magically heals the hurt the death of a loved one has inflicted. They are the ones in which the possibility of romantic connection with another helps one, or often two, grieving people find a path through the pain of loss.

In Sarina Bowen's Keepsake, the third book of her Truth North series, the grieving protagonist is Lark, a once fearless risktaker who is spending time on a Vermont farm recovering from being kidnapped while on a twelve-month assignment for her job with a NGO in Guatemala. Lark grieves not only for her lost sense of invincibility ("Back then I'd thought that bad experiences only made for good stories" [Kindle Loc 848]), but for one of her kidnappers, a young boy who was killed during her rescue. Lark smiles and acts "normal," determined to defeat her jumpiness, her illogical fear. But while her conscious brain knows she's safe on her best friend's rural family farm, at night, the "dragons in my heart," shake their chains and roar—in the form of scream-inducing nightmares, nightmares that jerk the male farmhands from their own dreams in the bunkhouse they all share.

It is Zach, the most cautious of the farmworkers, who takes it upon himself to help Lark through her night terrors, shaking her awake, or soothing her with his voice and with his touch when the nightmares return. Zach, too, has shouldered his share of grief, losing his family and his community after being kicked out of the polygamous religious group in which he was born and raised when he was just a teen. Diligent, quiet, feeling not quite part of the tight-knit family community at the Shipley farm, Zach knows what it is like to feel apart, to live "in the bunkhouse of life": "annexed to the farm. It was a part of it, but only in a casual way. Off to the side. Not quite independent" (452). As Lark and Zach begin to share small details of their losses, their shame, their guilt, feelings they have never shared with anyone else, emotional intimacy cannot help but follow.

But Zach has had a lot more time to deal with his grief than Lark has, and even his burgeoning love for her cannot "fix" her PTSD, no matter how hard he wishes it could. Each has to learn that "everyone has a time when they need a lot more than they can give" (3805) and that that need cannot always be filled by one person, no matter how much love that person holds.

Like Lark, Alexis Hall's Alfie Bell, the narrator of Pansies (book #4 in his Spires series), is also mourning a lost sense of self. But that self was not wrenched away by another, but by his own sexual desires. Born and raised in working class northern England, Alfie grew up believing that men want women, and that "There's not, like, space for that stuff [being gay] up there" (909). Moving to London, working as an investment banker, and discovering that he's attracted to men after twenty-eight years of assuming he was straight is wrenching, particularly since casual homophobia had been such a large part of what it meant to be a man back home ("Alfie tried to ignore the flicker of discomfort that he noticed these things. That he was a man who found bits of other men provocative" [274]). Going back home to South Shields and accidentally outing himself at a friend's wedding (the book's opening scene) is deeply upsetting: "But now he was back up north, it was starting to feel like he'd become, somehow, less than himself. Sort of a sketch. Just blunt lines and the basics. What a fucking joke. Not north, not south. A straight gay man" (386).

Alfie, who is not the most introspective of fellows, flees the wedding to drown his sorrows at a local bar. Where, to his surprise, he ends up hooking up with a small, prickly, unbelievably pretty man. A man who, it turns out, is the same boy Alfie bullied unmercifully during their school days, teasing and tormenting him for his obvious homosexuality:

     Faggot. Puff. Sissy. Pansy. Fairy. Fudgepacker. Cocksucker.
     His hands tingled suddenly. Remembering Fen across the years. Holding him down. It had all been petty. Small hurts. Humiliations. But relentless. And heedless. A habit. (6256)

Though Alfie, in his inept way, tries to apologize for his past behavior, he keeps stumbling over his own internalized homophobia to be convincing:

     "Okay, forget that. I'm sorry. Just sorry. But it was a long time ago. I'm not the same person."
     "Oh, right, yes. Because you're gay now and you feel all sad about it."
     Alfie's mouth dropped open. He knew his sense of betrayal was probably out of proportion. But it was like he'd shown his belly in a moment of weakness and Fen had responded by ripping his guts out.
     Before he could muster any sort of answer, Fen had torn right on. "You think you have it rough? Try growing up queer in a place like this."
     "I did grow up gay. I just didn't know it like."
     "Well, it didn't stop you making my life miserable."
     Alfie was still feeling too unexpectedly wounded to be capable of controlling what came out of his mouth. "Yeah, but you didn't exactly help yourself either."
     Silence. Again.
     "What," asked Fen very quietly, "the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
     "I mean, you could have kept your head down. You didn't have to make a big deal about it." (6256)

Needless to say, Fen and Alfie do not part on good terms. But back in London, Alfie can't keep the memories of his time with Fen, or the guilt Fen's revelations have forced on him, out of his mind. And so Alfie sets off to try and make things better, to try and recapture some of the loveliness of being with Fen before Fen told him who he was, who they were, back when they were kids.

But Fen, too, is grieving, not a loss of identity but a loss of family. And just like Zach with Lark, Alfie wants to fix Fen, wants to take on the burden of Fen's losses for him. But "wanting to help isn't the same as wanting to fix" (3122), a lesson Alfie consciously understands, but one which takes a long time to really know, down deep where it matters. Alfie and Fen can mourn together, but ultimately each has to come to terms with his own griefs, his own losses, before either can begin to imagine a life that includes the possibility of happiness, and love, together.

Photo credits:
Vermont Farm: Farm to Fork Fondo
Pansy Party by Wendy Westlake: Fine Art America



Friday, November 18, 2016

Courtney Milan's HOLD ME

My first exposure to transexual identity came, as I'm sure did many cisgendered folks' of my generation, via Neil Jordan's 1992 film The Crying Game. IRA volunteer Fergus promises to seek out the girlfriend of a British soldier his group has kidnapped if the soldier should be killed. The soldier does die (although not at Fergus's hands), and he eventually does seek out the girlfriend, who is named Dil, in London. Of course, Fergus begins to fall for Dil. Only when they are about to make love (about midway through the story) does the film reveal to both Fergus and the audience that Dil is transgender, in a visceral visual way.

The "big reveal" as spectacle, and the reveal/revulsion of the hero (and viewer)
Marketing for the film positioned this secret as the heart of the film: "The movie that everyone's talking about, but no one is giving away its secrets." Though the film itself is far more subtle, its structure cannot but help construct transgender identity as a secret, a secret so shocking (at least to the cisgendered) that it makes the viewer (identifying with seemingly straight Fergus) throw up in revulsion. It also positions transgender identity as a spectacle, a display that titillates even as it shocks. Even though by film's end, Fergus sacrifices himself on behalf of Dil, thereby validating Dil's identity and existence, it can never quite overcome the distaste of that initial moment of reveal/revulsion. What reviewers talked most about (or tried not to give away) was the secret of Dil's trans-ness; the shock of the big reveal, rather than the film's story as a whole, was what made the movie worth talking about.

Romances featuring transwomen often struggle with that burden established by The Crying Game's precedent (see for example Brian Katcher's YA Almost Perfect). How can you depict trans lives without turning them into spectacle, without making the romance at its heart be about the big secret, the big reveal? Which is why I found Courtney Milan's latest contemporary, Hold Me (book #2 in her Cyclone series) such a pleasure to read. Milan blows right by this "cis-person's burden" of trans-ness as spectacle by making the central problem for her heroine not the revelation of her trans identity, but instead the problematic ways other peoples' responses to that identity have shaped her, and her ability to trust in love.

The first meeting between sexy, gorgeous Maria Lopez and super-brainy physicist Aroon (aka Jay) na Thalang is a definitely meet-cranky. Maria comes to Berkeley in search of her brother, who has just joined Jay's lab. But the driven, demanding Jay has no time for distractions, especially one who looks as hot as does the stranger knocking on his door. "What are you selling, anyway? Lab supplies? Amway?" Jay's sexist rudeness catches Maria a bit off-guard, but when her always-late brother Gabe finally appears and formally introduces her to his friend/boss, her sharp tongue returns with a vengeance:

     "Did you know Jay's working on a top secret project for the Department of Defense? He uses invisible radiation to turn himself into an asshole."
     Gabe looks at me, then at his friend, then back at me. "I'm missing something."
     "Don't worry, little brother." I pat Gabe's shoulder. "His terrible transformation only happens around women. You're safe." (Kindle Loc 171).

Maria is used to having to deal with Gabe's "good guy" science friends, friends whose unthinking sexism leads them to dismiss or condescend to her, assuming that she's an intellectual lightweight. But unbeknownst to Gabe or to Jay or to any other male in the academic community, Maria is the writer of a science/fiction blog that is de rigeur reading for anyone with scientific chops. The blog, built around the premise that its writer is someone from the future who sends instructions back to the present to help people avoid apocalyptic events that threaten human existence, was Maria's way to keep her brain engaged between high school and college, during the years she was working to save up for surgery and hormones. Obnoxious Jay, who tells her during their first meeting that she needs to stop "distracting" her brother so he can focus all his energies on scoring a tenure-track job: "And look at you. You took a selfie with your brother. You're a girly-girl. You care about hour hair and clothes and pop culture. I've seen too many of my good friends struggle to get jobs. You don't know this market" (231). But Maria is proud to be a girly-girl, and won't let Jay reduce her to merely a "distraction," especially not to her brother, who was the only family member who has stood by her during her gender identity journey.

Enemies in person, lovers in print:
James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan
in Ernst Lubitch's Shop Around the Corner
Needless to say, Maria and Jay's in-person relationship only continues to go downhill as the two end up running into each other at every turn over the next few months. But in a Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail trope-move,  the commenter on Maria's blog with the moniker "Actual Physicist," the commentator with whom she's been corresponding and flirting with offline for the last eighteen months, is none other than her brother's boss, Jay na Thalang.

Milan not only rejects the big reveal of Maria's trans identity (Jay has had both boyfriends and girlfriends, and seems pretty unfazed when Maria tells him about her parents' rejection of her after she announced her desire to live as a girl at the age of twelve). She also rejects the secrecy that the Shop Around the Corner trope often demands: that even after one party discovers the real identity of their "pen pal," they must keep their own identity hidden from the one who has yet to learn the truth. For ultimately, what is keeping Jay and Maria apart is not the secrets they are keeping from one another, but the past traumas that have disrupted their relationships with their families of origin, traumas that have made both wary of trusting others with their most vulnerable selves.

Learning to trust is not about keeping secrets, and it's not about any big reveal, Milan's story suggests. Instead, it is about recognizing one's own blind spots (Jay coming to realize his own unthinking sexism; Maria recognizing her refusal to rock the boat so that she won't be rejected by those she loves). And above all, it's about the long series of small reveals, the everyday sharing of self with other, that builds a foundation of trust.

Photo credits:
The Crying Game: Deep Focus Reviews
Girly Girl t-shirt: Busy Bus
Shop Around the Corner: Film Forum

Hold Me

Friday, November 11, 2016

Romance Novels in the Wake of the U.S. Presidential Election

With the exception of romance novels that take place in political settings, romance and politics seem, on the surface, to be worlds apart. Romance is about entertainment, about escape; politics is about the real world. I'd like to take this space today, though, to think about the ways that one might influence the other—and what obligations romance writers have, or might want to take on, in the aftermath of this week's United States presidential election.

Some ideas, and some questions, in no particular order...

I'm thinking about the increase in depictions of LGBTQ rights and identities in the romance genre over the past five to ten years. Not every romance reader is a fan of romances with protagonists who are not heterosexual, but the increase in both the numbers of non-heterosexual romances published over this period and in their readership has been marked (See Jessica Freely's post, "Reading Gay Romance," on the Popular Romance Project's web site for more info). Such books provide happily ever afters for readers who identify as LGBTQ, stories that contest the insistence that such lives must always be ones of victimization and oppression. But they also serve to inform and educate those who have not encountered an openly LGBTQ person in their lives, or who have been raised in environments that demonize such identities. The evidence so far is anecdotal, but I've read many a comment on romance blogs which suggest that reading such books has opened the eyes of many a reader who had been taught by school or church or community that homosexuality and homosexuals were by nature evil and other. Though not without its downsides (objectification; #ownvoices, etc.), I take this as a generally positive movement in the field, one to celebrate. Romance is about entertainment, but it can also serve a positive social purpose: as they say in education, it can be both a mirror (to LGBTQ people) and a window (to those for whom such identities are unfamiliar).

Survey of readers of the Goodreads male/male romance group

Are there other identities that romance could be working to portray? What other mirrors and windows are we lacking? What identities do romances portray obsessively (biker, billionaire, duke), and why? What other identities do romances deliberately shun?

I'm thinking about race here, of course. Would so many white women voters have been able to bring themselves to pull the lever for a presidential candidate who utters openly racist statements if they had regularly "met" people with racial and ethnic identities different from their own via their romance reading?

How much does the restriction of romances with African American characters to African American only lines create, rather than reflect, the belief that white readers will not be interested in such stories? And how can we, as romance readers and writers, push back against such restrictions? How can we encourage cross-race reading among white readers (as readers of color have, by default, been forced to read white romances for a very long time)?

How can and do romances model cross-race relationships? Not just between lovers, but between friends? Is there room for both "we are all humans/I'm blind to racial difference" type of romance, as well as the romance that openly grapples with the struggles different racial and ethnic groups have on both an individual and a group level?

Intersectionality is more often used to think about women of color, but can we also used it to think productively about white working class identity and romance readership? According to RWA,

  • The U.S. romance book buyer is most likely to be aged between 30 and 54 years.
  • Romance book buyers are highly represented in the South.
  • Romance book buyers have an average income of $55,000

RWA used to list information about educational attainment of the readership, but such information no longer appears on the site. Given that the average starting salary of a new college graduate in 2016 is projected to be $50,566 (Money magazine), the average romance reader is likely not a college educated one (although the readership does, of course, include many college-educated readers).

Romance readership, then, seems overlaps to a great extent with the women who voted for Trump. Many proponents of the romance genre have argued that romance is by its very nature feminist; do these demographic figures, and the presidential voting results in this election, call this claim into question?

I'm also thinking a lot about class. I'm thinking about the Trump message, "Make America Great Again," and the desire that lies behind that message: a desire to return to an America where white working class men could earn a respectable wage. Are there romances that depict this demographic, that play out against a background of the disruptive shift from a manufacturing to a technology/service economy? That show this desire in a positive light, rather than link it to a racist identity? What might such a romance look like?

Do small town romances feed into the desire to "Make America Great Again"? In what ways? Is there a way to write a small town romance that is not falsely nostalgic? 

"Socially responsible daily behavior": only one small
spoke in the social change wheel

Romance, and the novel itself, are about individual characters, rather than about groups. And so they portray change happening most often on the level of the individual: if Darcy can get over his prideful nature, and Elizabeth can stop judging people, they will be able to unite as a couple and live at Pemberly happily ever after. But political and social change comes about far more often through group movements than through change on the individual level. Is there a way that romance novels can incorporate depictions of group organizing as a positive force? Where are the romances that are set against social justice organizing/work?

I'm also thinking about religion. Why is religion been restricted to the subgenre of the Evangelical romance? For many people, on both ends of the political spectrum, religion plays a major role in their lives and identities. It also often plays a large role in social change. Why is romance as a genre (with the exception of Evangelical romance) so wary of religion?

And, of course, the obvious question: what about the depiction of masculinity in the most popular heterosexual romance novels? Do romance novelists who write alpha male heroes contribute to the normalizing and acceptability of offensive male behavior, such as that embodied in our current president-elect? Do the alpha males of romance, who are strong, aggressive, and often offensively mouthy but who inevitably learn to meet our heroine's emotional needs, hold out a deceptively hopeful picture of American masculinity to female readers? Do such depictions provide validation to women who say about real life men, "oh, he says some pretty bad things, but underneath he doesn't really mean them"?

Can romance writers ask our business organization to be more proactive in fostering social justice? In particular, I'd like to see Romance Writers of America track the number of romances published each year by the identities of their characters. And to track the number of romances published each year by the identities of their authors. So we can track over time what, if any, progress is being made by people of color and LGTBQ people in our books, and in our industry.

Perhaps it is a utopian vision, but I can't help but wonder if there is some way for romance, or for RWA in particular, to foster cross-geographical, and cross-political party discussion, as well. Via panels at the annual convention? (Any writers interested in participating in a panel discussion about how to write a feminist romance, please let me know...). Via a pen pal exchange between red state and blue state writers? When we get out of our insular bubbles, and get to know people who are different from ourselves, sympathy, rather than intolerance, come to the fore. What other ways might we as a community foster communication across political lines?

Romance readers often say they read romance to escape from the grim realities of their daily lives. But romance novels are not apolitical. The escapes they depict can either encourage readers to accept and/or ignore the oppressions that exist in their everyday lives, or encourage them to recognize and fight against them.

Romance readers and writers, what are your thoughts and feelings in the wake of this week's election?

Photo credits:
Gay romance readers: Popular Romance Project
Voter chart: FiveThirtyEight
Social change wheel: Der Viator

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Doing My Feminist Civic Duty

Just got back from my local polling station, and am proudly wearing my "I voted" sticker. Bet you can guess who my choice for President was...

Encouraging all RNFF's USA readers to go out and vote, too.

I plan to kick back and watch the returns tonight, while reading a favorite feminist political romance—something by Emma Barry, no doubt.

What book would you choose?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Your Feet's Too Big? Romance Novels and the Larger-Than-Life Male Appendage

Lynn had forced herself to make a joke, but amazement ended up being precisely the right word to describe the sight of their pants hitting the floor. She found herself staring at two erect cocks. Two erect cocks that were long and thick and much, much bigger than any shed encountered before. Her first thought was anticipation—the guys obviously had a talent or two and since it was their equipment, she figured they knew how to handle it. Her second thought was, Suz is going to die of jealousy. —Vivian Arend and Elle Kennedy, All Fired Up

My spouse and I recently attended a concert by the Hot Sardines, the New York jazz ensemble "on a mission to make old sounds new again and prove that joyful music can bring people together in a disconnected world." One of their "old sounds made new again" was a cover of a song originally sung by Fats Waller, "Your Feet's Too Big." The original tune has Waller poking fun at (and expressing his jealously of?) a male friend whose "pedal extremities are colossal." Said friend waltzes onstage with two women on his arms, and later takes center stage to demonstrate how his "obnoxious" feet can dance up a storm.

Though the film clip of the performance (below) concludes with Waller as the one who ends up with a woman in his lap, the song hints at male anxieties about the common symbolic meaning of a large foot: an equally "colossal" male genital. "Your Feet's Too Big" humorously hints at the male fear that his "foot" may not measure up to those of other men, and thus he'll be at a disadvantage in the competition to attract women. (For a scholarly discussion of the symbolic meanings of the foot, check out K. J. Kerbe's " 'Your Feet's Too Big': An Inquiry into Psychological and Symbolic Meanings of the Foot," in the Summer 1985 edition of Psychoanalytic Review).

Many other singers have recorded versions of the song (including the Beatles!), but it wasn't until I attended the Hot Sardines concert that I heard a woman croon the tune. Elizabeth Bougerel's cool, deep, yet decidedly feminine vocals, as well as the changes she made to some of the lyrics, simultaneously bring male anxieties about penis size to the surface and call them into question.

Waller's verses jokingly insult the man with the big feet, but they also suggest the singer's uneasiness at the sight of a man with "feet" bigger than his own:

     Oh, your pedal extremities are colossal
     To me you look just like a fossil
     You got me walkin', talkin' and squawkin'
     'Cause your feet's too big, yeah

In contrast, Bougerel never feels the need to "walk, talk, or squwak"; instead, her lyrics consistently point to the absurdities of oversized male appendages:

     Now when you go and die, no-one's gonna sob
     The undertaker's gonna have quite a job
     You're gonna look funny, when they lay you in the casket
     Oh look at those feet, stickin' up out the basket

Both singers include the line "Hate you 'cause your feet's too big" in their chorsues, but Bougerel's version changes one of those "hate" lines with this: "Mad at you, 'cause your feet's too something." Too something—too inept? Too unwieldy? Too big to fit?

Even in places where the lyrics are the same, I couldn't help thinking about how the meaning might change, having a woman, rather than a man, singing them:

     Yes, your feet's too big
     Don't want you, 'cause your feet's too big
     Can't use you, 'cause your feet's too big
     I really hate you, 'cause your feet's too big

"Can't use you" has quite a different meaning if the singer in question is a heterosexual female, rather than a heterosexual male, doesn't it? Rather than worrying about another fellow's cock being bigger than his, a female singer singing the same lines suggests that a male member may be too big for a satisfying sexual encounter.

I have no idea of the gender or sexuality of either Waller or Bougerel (Waller was married twice), but the interpretive possibilities are even more disruptive if one imagines a queer singer taking on these lyrics, aren't they?

The Hot Sardines' version of the song ends not with Waller's signature phrase, "One never knows, do one?" but instead with the far more directly suggestive (and simultaneously hilariously undercutting)

     And you know what they say about big feet, don't you?
     Big shoes.

Why am I nattering away about Fats Waller and the Hot Sardines on a blog devoted to romance novels? Because when I heard the Hot Sardines sing their version of this song, I was immediately reminded of the way many romances hold up as ideal a larger-than-life male, including his larger-than-life male appendage. Though the quote with which this post opened, from the first book in Vivian Arend and Elle Kennedy's new Dreammakers series, features two rather than just one idealized male, change those two male bodies for one and the passage might have been pulled from almost any romance novel which leans towards the idealization of the heterosexual male: six-foot-plus muscular physique, aggressive but protective alpha personality, and, inevitably, an oversized penis.

Are large cocks always better? As a woman who is on the petite side, I have to say I've never been all that drawn to large men, and always cringe a bit when I come across such passages in my romances. I've long wondered if I was just an anomaly among the romance-reading public in that regard. But after listening to Elizabeth Bougerel's sly version of "Your Feet's Too Big," I'm thinking perhaps I might not be so alone...

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Queer for Me, not Gay for You: Alexis Hall's LOOKING FOR GROUP

Last week, I attended a panel at MIT on "The Turn to Tween," a panel discussion about the roots of the word, its connection to consumerism and marketing, and the way "tweens" are depicted in popular culture. During the Q & A period after the discussion, the issue of tweens and social media came up. One of the speakers, Tyler Bickford of the University of Pittsburgh, mentioned that most academic studies of kids' use of of social media indicate that they are typically not using these new technologies to meet and interact with strangers, but far more often with people they already know.

Even as I found myself shaking my head, wanting to disagree, or at least qualify, Bickford's statement, a student sitting beside me said the same thing that I was thinking: "That's not true for queer kids."

My doubt arose not from personal experience, but from having recently read Alexis Hall's loving tribute to online gamers and queerness, Looking for Group. As Hall himself notes on his blog, Group is a far cry from his RITA-award winning erotic romance For Real; no kink, not much sex, and lots of gaming jokes. Its narrator, college student Drew, is an avid player of the MMO (massively multiplayer online) game Heroes of Legend (loosely based on Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft). He's a bit burnt out though, both with his "guild," or group with whom he typically plays, and with the style of his own playing—methodical, aggressive, competitive, and, increasingly, joyless. And so after a major disagreement with his guild ("he pretty much admitted he ragequit his last guild over loot drama" [Kindle Loc 103]), Drew decides to apply for membership in a different one.

The book opens, in fact, with the post that draws Drew's attention:

<Same Crit Different Day> is Recruiting

SCDD is a tight-knit raiding guild (heroic and normal difficulty), currently looking for a main tank to join our mature, dedicated, and frankly fabulous team. Founded in 2011 by a group of friends with no fecking clue how to run a Heroes of Legend guild, but definite ideas about the right way to treat people—fairly, without harassment, and with equal opportunity to participate—SCDD roared past the traditional guild life expectancy of six months and has been getting awesomer ever since.

Following this post, the members of SCDD debate (online, of course) Drew's application, and ultimately decide to accept him and his game persona, Orcarella (Dread Knight tank) into the guild. During the days and nights of game play that follows, Drew finds himself increasingly drawn to the unusual ways of SCDD, "the most progressed casual guild on the server" (150). Not only do his fellow members praise him, and one another ("in Anni he'd only ever been told when he screwed up, and he wasn't sure how to handle having someone say he'd done well" [971]), but they also tackle their fights in entirely different ways than he is used to, making what was once routine for Drew into a challenge.

And Drew finds himself increasingly drawn to one member of the guild in particular: Solace, a healer elf who not only enjoys the fighting aspects of the game, but also loves wandering into unseen corners of the world just to see what they look and feel like. As Drew (as Orcarella) and Solace start hanging out in the game together, separate from the rest of the guild, they end up talking, not just about the game, but about where they go to school and what they hope to do with their lives after uni. And Drew begins to wonder: is Solace a girl in real life? Or is she, like he, female online but male offline?

Drew's upset when he finds out the answer. His fellow uni mates, Sanee and Tinuviel, have very different takes on Drew's response:

     "Man," sighed Sanee. "I know I totally told you this was going to happen, but I'm really sorry for you."
     Tinuviel pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them. "Well, yes and no. I mean, I think what you need to ask yourself is how much this changes things."
     Drew gaped at her. "Um, it completely changes things?"
     Sanee sat forward on the chair. "T, are you being deliberately dense?"
     'That's a very strange question. The way I see it, Drew's met somebody he likes. He's clearly sad at the thought of losing him. So the question is: why should he?"
     "How about: because he's not gay?"
     "Well, neither am I, but I've still had sexual relationships with people who defined as female."
     "Yes, but you're a girl."
     "Tinuviel sighed deeply. "If our friend wasn't in the middle of a crisis, I'd be quite cross with you now." (1905)

Cisgender heterosexual male Sanee thinks of gender and sexuality in a binary way: you are either a girl or a boy, and you're either attracted to members of the same sex, or to those of the opposite sex. Tinuviel, who identifies as female and pansexual, has a very different take on what is possible, both sexually and romantically, and tries to encourage Drew to think about the situation in a radically different way:

"Maybe I'm wrong, but your problem doesn't seem to be that you're not interested in this person, but that you still are."
     While Drew was sorting through that, Sanee steepled his fingers like a supervillain. "Dude, are you gay?" There was a pause. "Like, it's okay if you are."
     Drew glared at him. "I think I'd have noticed."
     Tinuviel raised a hand. "I suspect you'll think this is a weird question, but what would you have noticed?"
     "Well...." Drew hated it when T did this. She'd ask you something to which the answer was so screamingly obvious that you'd immediately start second-guessing yourself. And, right now, that was the last thing he needed. "Fancying guys for a start?"
     "Maybe you just haven't met any guys you fancy. I mean, I'm pretty sure you're not attracted to Sanee..."
     Sanee made a valiant attempt not to look horrified. "You're not, right?"
     Drew made no such attempt. "I'm really not."
     "Okay," Tinuviel went on. "And you don't fancy me either."
     "Jesus, just because I don't fancy every girl I meet, that doesn't make me gay."
     She looked smug. "And by the same argument, not fancying every boy you meet doesn't make you straight."
     There was a really long silence.
     "Holy shit," gasped Sanee. "That's a really scary thought."
     "I can imagine it would be to a lot of people, but actually there's nothing scary about rejecting heteronormative notions of binary sexuality."
     "So you're saying," said Drew slowly, "I could be gay and not know it? Because that sort of sounds like bollocks."
     Tinuviel pushed her hair out of her eyes. "No, I'm not saying that, Andrew. I'm saying that, for many people, sexuality is more fluid and less clear-cut than they're taught to assume. You might, in fact, be completely straight, but it's also possible that you're not. And, even if you aren't, you might have gone your whole life completely happy an not caring and not knowing. And that's fine. But it seems to me that right now you have an opportunity to have something with somebody, and it might work or it might not, but if your only reason for not trying is that you're scared of the idea of being gay, then that's probably quite silly and a little bit sad." (1956)

Drew spends hours going round and round in his head after Sanee and Tinuviel leave him to sleep away his sorrows, and really wishes he had someone else to talk to about it all. Someone like Solace. And once he realizes that the only thing he isn't confused about is that he really misses her (or him), Drew knows what he has to do.

And it turns out that gender and sexuality aren't really the issue, not once Drew and Solace meet in person. What does turn out to be a problem is the issue with which this post started: are the relationships you have with people online somehow different from, or lesser than, those with people you know and interact with in person? Are online gamers, who are often different in age from you, and may even live in different countries, somehow not really your friends? Should the people with whom you interact in person matter more than the ones you interact with online?

And if you're gay, or bi, or pan, or genderqueer, and looking for your own "group," do the answers to those questions matter more?

Illustration credits;
World of Warcraft orc: MMO Champion Forum
Dark Elf: DeviantArt Vmbui

Looking for Group
Riptide, 2016