The Lights are On …… by Nicole Kimberling

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.

Good luck!

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:



  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. As a reviewer of gay historicals I come up against this problem more times than I like to count. I’m not saying that every book should be a catalogue of prison and punishment – heavens forbid – but SOME tinge of danger should be lurking there rather than your average homosexual Victorian passionately snogging his love interest in the street.

    • Hi Erastes,

      You’re very welcome. And thank you for stopping by.

      I’m sorry it took me a day to reply. It was a holiday here in the states.

      And yes, I agree, in a historical context a complete lack of self-preservation would be very, very strange.

  • I think some authors are just a little clueless. For my first book, my original story line was going to be my protagonists marrying so that one of them would’t be deported. Yes, I know. I didn’t realize at the time how far DOMA reached.

    I think it worked out in the end (I went with a different cliche trope from the movies, the “I need to get married to inheirit” one).

    I try to keep the tone light in my books (they are humorous thrillers after all), but even with that there are still scenes of homophobic behavior by people around them. Like being denied the right to see your husband in the hospital, or losing friends when they catch our protagonists kissing. Stuff like that can happen in even the most enlightened areas of the US.

    Also, thanks for the article!

    • Hi John,

      And thank you for commenting!

      “For my first book, my original story line was going to be my protagonists marrying so that one of them would’t be deported. Yes, I know. I didn’t realize at the time how far DOMA reached.”

      Well, you know… The states rights vs. federal mandate is tricky and sometimes hard to navigate. But maybe not forever. 🙂

  • Great post…so true! This is another part of life that needs to acted out on page and discussed.

    The other part of the healthcare issue is Insurance. I don’t see this mentioned very often. As I’m reading more stories where one MC is hospitalized or diagnosed with something, who is paying for the insurance? All couples deal with health coverage. In my family, one of us has a job where full coverage for the family is available. The other is a contract worker so no coverage. I feel very fortunate that we have the option to be linked this way and to be allowed to work as a team.

    Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Thanks for the post!

    For the USA-ers– May all your turkeys be moist… Happy Holiday!

  • Yeah, but what about speculative fiction, including gay utopian fiction — which is kinda what M/M is, right? I don’t necessarily want gay characters to feel angsty about their gayness, because part of why I read fiction is to escape from the real world. I understand that some folks can’t relate to gay characters who don’t feel this angst. For example, a lot of gay men complain that yaoi is unrealistically utopian; sometimes this utopianism is a result of the author being ignorant about real-world discrimination, but other times it’s an intentional vision of the author. It’s not always easy (for me, at least) to tell the difference.

    • Hey, there you are! Nice to see you.

      Egalitarian societies in spec fic are a whole other ball of wax. It’s impossible to have a law research fail in a place that the author makes up the laws for, you know? In secondary spec fic the characters have other internal and external conflicts (or they should, since it would be boring for them not to) and the gayness is often incidental.

      But in the post I’m not talking about angsting endlessly over their own sadness, I’m talking about the author inserting a crucial two or three sentences into a novella that demonstrates he understands that he is not universally loved (which only an idiot would think in the contemporary world.) Something like:

      “Trent considered whether that biker bar in Deming was the best place to be sporting the rainbow flag T-shirt…”

      And then the author can make a decision. He can write,

      “But he did it anyway. He was feeling lucky. And besides, he was also packing.”

      Or he could say, “So he pulled on his hoodie. He had other battles to fight today.”

      That really is all I mean. One or two sentences. Maybe fifty words tops. That’s why I’m so baffled their absence in so many pieces of fiction.

      Yaoi….. Well, yaoi is unrealistic for so many reasons. (LOL) But honestly, I challenge you to claim that you have never thought. “It’s interesting that all those burly yakuza don’t seem to care that they take orders from a boss who is really, really super gay. How super-enlightened.”

      m/m that is yaoi-based is probably exempt from the “character must notice not everybody likes gays” rule, since yaoi itself is a whole other reality.


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