As you may know, I’m ever on the lookout for fearsome epidemics coursing through the world of m/m romance. A few months ago I brought you my plea for writers to become job-creators by giving their unemployed protagonists something to do.
Now I’ve come to you once again with this shocking news: cluelessness has now reached an all-time high in m/m romance.
I’m not talking about characters who are TSTL—that would be an entirely different post that I’m not sure I’m smart enough to tackle. I refer instead to characters who do not seem to understand that as gays they face discrimination. In most countries they are not allowed to get married and in a few special nations, may actually face the death penalty just for expressing their sexuality.
One would think that, given the propensity in m/m for angst, these clueless characters would be all over-thinking about their inequality. But weirdly, hardly any protagonists ever seem to notice it.
And I don’t just mean thinking about politics. I am constantly shocked by how little many m/m protagonists—especially the “alpha” males—consider their own physical safety when entering a situation. While you might say, “But Nikki, having a character get beaten up for being a fag is so cliché.” And it is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. More than that it doesn’t mean that the characters would not ponder, before going into any random sports bar, lowrider convention or boardroom, how likely they are to be attacked either physically or verbally should they choose to reveal that they are gay.
Because, I’m telling you, every real gay thinks about this. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who only vote to legalize gay marriage because they “love sucking cock” takes a moment to assess an unfamiliar environment, person, nation or state for its apparent level of hostility against gays.
They have to, because that level of hostility will affect their lives in fundamental and immediate ways.
Recently, Washington State, where I happen to reside, voted to legalize gay marriage. That is awesome. But I encourage readers to take a moment to ponder that from my perspective: millions of people whom I have never met were asked whether or not I should be allowed to get married.
How weird is that?
Let’s imagine the scenario in another context. Let’s ponder a world where I got to vote on whether or not, say, tall guys were allowed to get married to ladies who were more than six inches shorter than them. The very idea is surreal and absurd—the stuff of science-fiction dystopia.
And yet that is the world that real-life gays and lesbians inhabit.
Permit me to briefly describe my own personal efforts to get married. The first time was in Portland, Oregon. In 2004 Multnomah County, in an act of civil disobedience began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. My wife and I drove down there to participate. My logic went something like this: This is never going to work out, but what if they started allowing same-sex marriage and nobody showed up for it?
So we went. We joined 1,700 other couples who’d also decided to take Multnomah County up on their offer. The atmosphere at the courthouse was Superbowl-like. Newly-married couples exiting the judge’s chambers walked through a gauntlet of cheers and high-fives from strangers waiting their turn to experience the novel experience of the civil wedding.
Later that year, when we received a letter from the judge saying that our marriage had been annulled, we were not surprised.
But the rejection of millions of people who I had never met still hurt—much more than I thought it would. (And yes, the county did refund the forty dollar fee.)
After that my wife and I tried again. In 2008, we married in San Mateo, California. The very famous Prop 8 put that one on hold only a couple of weeks later. Once again, the faceless millions had considered our relationship and found it unworthy.
Back in our home state of Washington, we decided to go ahead and enter into a registered domestic partnership. We paid our money and were issued cards stating that we were legally entangled. When I brought the card to work, one of my coworkers was deeply confused, “What is that for?” he asked.
“It proves I have the right to make decisions about my wife—like if she were in the hospital or something.”
My coworker looked at his own newly-minted wedding ring and said, “But wait, do I need a card to make decisions for Lydia? Do I have to prove that I’m married?”
“I doubt it. I think they’d probably just believe you.”
My coworker sat in silence for a moment then said, “That is messed up.”
And it was.
But back to clueless characters and how they can be made more realistic. The first and most important thing to remember is that because gays are widely despised even the least political of us will be aware of the laws governing the state in which we reside. So if a writer sets a story in, say, Nashville, the protagonist should be aware that his state bans same sex marriage, does not allow hospital visits or adoption, and offers no legal protection from housing, employment or education discrimination. One bright spot for Tennessee: they have a hate crimes law. But otherwise the Volunteer State offers little support for its gay residents, essentially saying, “We can’t actually kill you, but we’re determined to prevent you from seeking a wide variety of other everyday happinesses.”
While not always front and center, this knowledge should run like an undercurrent through his character, informing the protagonist’s behavior. The Nashville-dwelling homo will be more cautious than his New York City counterpart in revealing the details of his private life to strangers. He will be more cautious when it comes to his safety. And unless he’s got a really good reason to stay, he very well might consider moving to a state that offers him more protection from the condemning millions who voted to bar him from legal marriage.
Avoiding cluelessness does not mean that a protagonist must constantly be dismally aware of his inequality or downtrodden. The recent reversal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, combined with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland sets the perfect stage for a romance set in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Uniforms! Sailors! Gratuitous use of Old Bay Seasoning! Secret weekend getaways to exquisite Baltimore!
Alternately, a story set in Maine in early 2012 has a natural crisis and resolution. The protagonist, inflamed by defeat in 2009, could turn activist. As part of the aggressive door-to-door campaign he could meet the reclusive (and possibly closeted) love interest whose own gradual self-acceptance echoes the changing views of Mainers. How triumphant would that be? And of course it would naturally include lighthouses and lobster rolls. Perhaps even actual head given at West Quoddy Head. The sky is the limit here.
Washington State has its own share of magic. When young state senator Troy Miller asks billionaire internet magnate Arthur Dahlgren to support the passage of R-74 he has no idea that the wedding he’s fighting so hard to make a reality will be his own.
I mean, this story practically writes itself. Late nights working shoulder to shoulder. The elation of election night made even more spectacular by a proposal on bended knee! And no story about the Pacific Northwest would ever be complete without prominently featuring at least one geoduck.
The most important thing to remember is that character cluelessness can be cured. All it takes is a few minutes of research and little bit of common-sense extrapolation.
For those curious about the laws governing states where they plan to set stories, The Guardian has assembled a very nice and informative pie chart here: