This is the first of our two discussion posts for the month. This topic is one that’s close to the ethos of this blog. We started it wanting to promote LGBT lit, but over and above that, ownvoices LGBT lit. Because God knows we get little of that as is (growing, sure, but little in the grand scheme of things). So we wanted to talk a little about the value that it has to us specifically. Ownvoices means something different to everyone, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it.
Obviously, we all know the value of ownvoices literature in general. Having people tell their own stories gives them an authenticity that you don’t get otherwise. And some stories – especially when it comes to marginalized characters – are just not yours to tell. But for each reader ownvoices books will bring back different memories, touch upon different emotions. Each reader will have different reasons to seek out ownvoices books. That’s what we want to focus on today. You all know we champion ownvoices LGBT books, so let us explain exactly why.
Charlotte: One of the best things about ownvoices lit is that warm feeling you get of someone knowing what they’re writing about. Like, in LGBT lit, I guess it manifests most obviously in coming out scenes and scenes about internalised homophobia. Where you get that kind of understanding.
Anna: This unique kind of understanding the characters and what they’re going through really lies at the heart of the matter. Sure, one can imagine what a bisexual teenager feels while they’re trying to figure out their identity. But someone who lived that themself – and yes, I’m aware that basically each case is different, but the feelings & doubts remain largely the same – will understand all the nuances. Even the ones a straight author simply just won’t think about in the first place.
Or you get a straight author who just goes the whole other direction and their nuance is “you’re a coward if you don’t come out”. And, yes, this is me still being incredibly bitter over a book I read 4 years ago that said that exact thing. Explicitly.
Yes, exactly! Straight people just don’t seem to understand what coming out truly entails, what it means to us & that sometimes it’s outright dangerous. I think you will agree with me here, if I reference a book we both recently read & loved: I Knew Him by Abigail de Niverville (and yes, you all remember correctly, I did post a review of it a few weeks ago). What I’m getting at, though, is one scene in particular, one piece of dialogue that stayed with me and made me so incredibly happy and hopeful.
“I don’t know how I’ll tell Will.”
“Then don’t,” he whispered. He gently tilted my head so I was facing him. His eyes were wide and insistent. “You don’t owe him that.”
“Don’t I? He told me he was gay.”
He shook his head. “No. You gave him safety. He doesn’t do the same for you.”
This is a sentiment that not even all LGBT people themselves realise is true. Because coming out is something we all think about constantly, making lists of pros & cons, weighing our options. And it’s not a simple, singular act either, like most straight authors seem to view it. So to have someone explicitly say “No, you don’t have to come out, if you don’t feel safe”? It’s priceless.
And also in the book, coming out isn’t this big endgame. Like in a lot of straight-written LGBT books, coming out is the be-all-and-end-all of it. You can’t be truly yourself if you don’t come out, you’re cowardly if you don’t (covered that), when you come out you can finally be free, etc etc. But when it’s ownvoices, it feels a lot less like that’s the case. Yes, often the book still has a climax with a coming out scene, but I can trust that coming out scene will be dealt with in a way that doesn’t frame it as “that’s it, you’ve come out now, you are a Certified Gay™”. I mean, of course that’s a generalisation, and there are still some straight-written books that do alright.
Ugh, I can think of so many books, especially m/m ones written by straight women, where, exactly like you say, the crux of things is one side of the couple not being out. Like it’s all that matters in our lives! Like all there is to an LGBT character is whether or not they’re out! Like we just don’t have any other agenda at all! We deserve to be seen as more than just this one single source of drama. Sure, coming out stories are important & we need them. But we need ones that will help the readers to realise that hey, maybe they’re gay, too. We need ones where the love interest won’t leave the main character if they don’t come out, but instead will support them through that process. We need ones told by people who had to come out themselves, repeatedly, every time they met a new person.
Basically all things a straight person won’t ever really understand. But we know half the time, it feels as though they’ll only write LGBT characters for one of three reasons: tragedy porn, actual porn, or brownie points. I mean, particularly in adult lit and new adult lit for the first two. Young adult is getting better but still tends towards adding in LGBT characters for brownie points at times (much like it’ll also do with characters of colour).
I can’t even tell anymore what’s worse: the gay tragedy porn or the actual porn. Because with the first one, we’re seen as nothing more than tortured souls. Those are the kind of stories where the main characters suffers and suffers, and suffers some more & none of that suffering have any real meaning, none of it leads to a happy ending or at least some weird life lesson. It’s just there for the sake of pain itself and so the cishet reader can nod their head sagely and say “yes, those people have it the worst”. But the second case? Those steamy novels (that’s always the word they use to describe them!), that have a coming out arc as the focal one, and are focused more on sex scenes than actually developing characters? It’s very clear that it’s not literature for us, not for mlm guys themselves. It’s for the straight women who think we’re just a cute fetish.
And you know they’ll also never write f/f in the same way. But what’s interesting is that a number of the women who start writing m/m are bi and do come to write f/f later. Like I don’t know if that’s because m/m acts like some kind of a gateway to realising your own same-gender attraction or what, but it’s just interesting. Of course, these are the ones that are less fetishising unlike some I could name.
Gateway is actually a good word for it. I know that myself, I used to turn to m/m books more often than any others in the past, when I was first tentatively reading LGBT books. I guess one reason for it was that those are still the most popular and numerous ones. But there’s also this thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, this “gateway” thing. Especially when I was still on the cusp of using the bisexual label (thanks, heteronormativity!), reading about two boys falling in love was just easier. It provided that emotional punch I was looking for, yes, but it was easier to swallow than if I was reading about two girls. Easier to make myself think that this is not my story. Even if I felt connected to the characters in ways I couldn’t quite explain, I was able to convince myself that I’m not a lesbian because I’m not reading about lesbians. Even if I kept choosing those kind of books time and time again, unconsciously almost… So in a way, all the m/m books were a first stepping stone in that journey of discovering both LGBT literature and myself.
Oh yeah, it’s easier to read about someone you can identify with but not too much (at least until you’re ready). I read a lot more m/m than I did f/f initially, and honestly, it’s only in the past few years that I started to actively seek out f/f to read. I think the first book I ever read with any wlw main was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, so that still holds a place in my heart. But I read it in 2014, so actually only 5 years ago. If I compare that to the books I read with a mlm main, that was way back in 2012 (it was Crush, according to Goodreads, though I’m not wholly sure I believe that. I definitely read My Side of the Story pre-Goodreads, but I’m not sure about any others).
And the point we keep circling back to: none of that would happen if we weren’t reading ownvoices m/m books. Because it was the raw emotions that unlocked something within us, it was all those very real, minute reactions that made us feel seen (but not too much). It was the authenticity of the characters. The incredible thing being, you don’t even have to know it’s an ownvoices book at the moment you’re reading it. (Well, now I can just see it and there’s no way for me not to know, but that comes with a larger reading experience.) You just appreciate the feelings it evokes in you, even if you don’t recognise them at first. But you end up wanting to find more of that connection & it often is an unconscious choice, a craving which you can’t quench with anything else. The more comfortable you become in your own identity, though, the more you start craving books specifically tailored for you. Which is to say, reading m/m books wasn’t something I truly noticed in the beginning, but reading f/f books always was a deliberate decision.
And then once you’ve read an ownvoices book, straight-written ones just lack that something, as good as they may end up being.
Yes, exactly! No one will understand our struggles like an LGBT person – someone who lived them, who survived them & bloomed despite/thanks to them. Like a person who can use that first-hand experience to help their readers bloom, too. And we’re only here for a brief moment, so we should want all of us to be as gorgeous as possible.
What do you think? What’s the value of ownvoices lit to you?