As same-sex unions continue to gain acceptance across the U.S.—at press time, 37 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage—a shift is taking place in publishing, too, and books featuring LGBTQ characters are earning recognition in the traditional romance world.
In 2013, Roni Loren’s Melt into You (Berkley, 2012), featuring an F/M/M (female/male/male) relationship, was shortlisted for the Romance Writers of America awards, better known as the RITAs, in the contemporary category. This year, three LGBTQ works were shortlisted for RITAs: the contemporary romance Fever Pitch, by Heidi Cullinan (Samhain); the erotic romance Bonds of Denial, by Lynda Aicher (Carina); and the historical romance The Bells of Times Square, by Amy Lane (Riptide); winners will be announced on July 25 at the RWA Annual Conference in New York. Not only is this the first time that M/M works have made it onto the ballot, but it’s also the first time that more than one LGBTQ book has been nominated in a single year.
“That’s a huge deal,” says Angela James, editorial director of Carina Press, a digital-first imprint from Harlequin. “The fact that we have three M/M titles in a romance contest suggests that people now expect to see M/M in the romance genre—and romance is a reflection of the acceptance in society as well.”
When it comes to LGBTQ romance, larger houses such as Harlequin tend to concentrate on M/M titles, which appeal to an audience primarily composed of straight women. This trend, which at first may seem counterintuitive, got its start among fans of the original Star Trek, who would pair up Kirk and Spock in what became known as slash fiction, or slashfic, because of the punctuation used to indicate a romantic relationship (Kirk/Spock). Slashfic, much of which is written and read by straight women, includes such pairings as Starsky/Hutch, Harry Potter/Severus Snape, and beyond.
As subsequent generations have grown up with slashfic, they’ve taken the M/M phenomenon to original fiction, and a wider audience. “We focus on what’s popular,” James says of Carina Press, and “the other titles [aside from M/M romance] are so niche that they don’t really fall into what we sell.”
The same holds true at InterMix, a digital-first imprint of Berkley/NAL. Cindy Hwang, the imprint’s executive director, says of her books, “These are M/M romances, as opposed to more traditional gay fiction. Most of our target audience are women interested in reading about two men together, so it’s slightly different than a gay/lesbian audience.”
Some established writers of straight romance have been testing the waters by incorporating gay characters and story lines into predominantly heterosexual series, releasing M/M romances as print or e-book novellas. The recently published Hard to Be Good, by Laura Kaye (Avon Impulse), ties into her Hard Ink series and features a tattoo artist and a computer genius who find love amid constant danger. Melting Point, by Kate Meader (S&S/Pocket Star, Aug.), likewise spins off from the author’s Hot in Chicago series and stars a playboy firefighter who falls for a moody chef.
While larger publishers tend to stick to M/M romance, a wider variety of LGBTQ romance is being published by the smaller houses. These include Riptide and Bold Strokes, LGBTQ publishers that include romance among an assortment of other genres on their lists, and Less than Three and Interlude, which are LGBTQ romance houses. Even among these publishers, M/M titles have a heavy presence, but their lists also include lesbian, bisexual, trans, and asexual stories.
It’s been a slow build, though. When Less than Three launched in 2009, CEO Megan Derr says, “It was all M/M. We could barely even get lesbian works out there. M/M has come into its own in recent years, but it’s hard to get a mention on the rest of the spectrum.”
One subcategory that has been gaining ground, Derr says, is books with transgender protagonists, such as the forthcoming A Boy Called Cin, by Cecil Wilde (July). “It doesn’t hurt that there are shows like Orange Is the New Black that have trans characters, and those actors are getting more attention,” Derr explains. “What becomes popular in one medium tends to pick up popularity in others.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rachel Haimowitz, Riptide’s publisher. “Trends in publishing are going to follow trends in pop culture. There’s a lot of awareness, in society’s general consciousness of transgender issues, and so we’re seeing a much higher demand from our readership for trans stories. This is something that just two years ago was almost impossible to sell, even in our own little niche of queer romance.” Recent Riptide romance titles featuring trans or genderqueer characters include the contemporary romance The Burnt Toast B&B, by Rachel Haimowitz and Heidi Belleau; upcoming offerings include the postapocolyptic Y Negative, by Kelly Haworth (Oct.), and the Soulstruck series by Jessica Freely, which explores gender in an SF setting (Jan).
At Bold Strokes, most of the romances feature lesbian characters, says Ruth Sternglantz, editorial consultant at the publisher, but the list also includes bisexual, gay, and genderqueer romance. Bold Strokes romances cover every subgenre, in what Sternglantz says is a deliberate attempt to replicate the traditional romance market, only with LGBTQ characters. “Every single flavor of romance you find in mainstream romance, we’ve got with characters who are not straight,” she says. “I would not say that the queerness of our characters is secondary. But the conflict in the story does not come from their queerness. The queerness is part of the character; it’s not the plot.”
This marks an ongoing movement away from LGBTQ romances as “issues” books to romances that happen to focus on LGBTQ characters. Titles encompass a full range of subgenres: historical, contemporary, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and mystery. “We have stories that [include] every kind of romance trope,” Sternglantz says.
As examples, she points to books such as the newly released The First Twenty, by Jennifer Lavoie, a YA postapocalyptic lesbian love story; and A Royal Romance, by Jenny Frame, which is set in 2040 and features an affair between the openly lesbian Queen of England and a working-class woman. Break Point, by Yolanda Wallace (Oct.), sees a German tennis player falling for a U.S. rival during Hitler’s regime. Other offerings include a new contemporary from Julie Cannon, Countdown (Oct.), set against the backdrop of the NASA space program, and Heart of the Lilikoi, by Dena Hankins (Oct.), a genderqueer romance featuring the mysteries of an ancient Hawaiian burial ground.
Riptide is expanding its diversity in other ways. Blue Steel Chain, by Alex Beecroft (July), is an asexual romance, addressing the presence of attraction amid the lack of sexual desire. Meanwhile, Ann Gallagher explores the intersection of Christian faith and homosexuality in Lead Me Not (Aug.), which Haimowitz calls the publisher’s first “queer inspirational.” It’s all part of Riptide’s goal to produce queer-positive stories for as wide an audience as possible, and to enhance representation across the spectrum. “It’s so important for people to open up a book and see themselves reflected in it,” Haimowitz says. “People like themselves being
heroes, hunting zombies, getting happy endings. Especially with kids, with youth. If you’re 15 years old and coming to terms with your sexual or gender identity, and everywhere you look all you see are cisgendered heterosexual white males, you’ve got no mirrors. We’re starting to produce a lot of fiction that addresses that issue.”
The Next Generation
To that end, Riptide is preparing to publish titles under its first YA imprint, Triton. The original launch date, late 2015, has been pushed back to late 2016, while the publisher seeks out the right manuscripts. The company is actively soliciting books with polyamorous, transgender, bisexual, and genderqueer main characters, among other diverse orientations.
In June, Interlude, which began publishing LGBTQ romantic fiction in 2014, is launching the Duets YA imprint. Among its first releases are The Rules of Ever After, a gay fantasy romance by Killian B. Brewer, and Summer Love, an anthology whose nine stories include gay, lesbian, trans, and asexual characters.
Bold Strokes has been publishing YA (ages 14–18) and new adult (ages 18–25) titles under its Soliloquy imprint since 2010. Even though the books aren’t marketed specifically as romances, the intersection between young people and romance is a strong one, Sternglantz says. “YA and new adult are full of romance. You get a lot of first loves and experiences, with people leaving home, going to college, getting their first job. It’s their first time out from under their parents’ wing. There’s exploration of identity, gender, and sexual orientation.”
YA publishers in general continue to push boundaries, as more books explore LGBTQ issues. In the past, YA fiction was marketed simply as YA, so romance-centric titles were lumped in with coming-of-age, slice of life, science fiction, and the rest. The evolution of the e-book market, and the ability to easily tag books online as belonging to multiple genres, is making it easier to label subcategories of YA.
“What we’re seeing are a lot of genre mash-ups, and I think that comes down to the fact that e-books don’t have to be shelved,” Sternglantz says.
Readers interested in YA books with LGBTQ themes will, as a result, have an easier time finding a book such as Carrie Mesrobian’s Cut Both Ways (HarperCollins, Sept.), which sees its main character falling in love with male and female friends, in a rare exploration of bisexuality and romantic versus physical attraction.
More Sugar, Less Spice
Sex and romance sometimes seem irreversibly intertwined in the romance genre, and all the more so with queer romances. “There was a period a few years ago when we were seeing a lot of erotic romance in queer lit,” Haimowitz says. “There was a time when if something was gay, it was automatically shelved as erotica, whether or not it had any erotica. This is something we’re only just beginning to escape. Queerness does not equal sex.”
As LGBTQ romances gain wider acceptance, there is less insistence that they be erotically charged. “We have a lot of authors come to us because they don’t have to write sex,” Derr says, because Less than Three emphasizes romance over erotica, with very few of its releases containing explicit material. “Our tenet,” she says, “is that we don’t require smut.” To that end, the publisher is also seeking asexual works; one example is the forthcoming Alexey Dyed in Red, by A.M. Valenza (Nov.), which also addresses polyamory, pansexuality, and bisexuality.
At Riptide, erotica makes up less than 10% of the list, Haimowitz says. The publisher is seeking something of a middle ground: “We’re moving away from erotic romance, but also away from sweet romance.”
Cindy Hwang at InterMix says her imprint still publishes a fair amount of sexy stories, but readers, she says, are looking for storytelling first and foremost. “It all depends on the chemistry of the characters,” she says, a sentiment that could apply not just to LGBTQ stories but to any romance novel. “As long as the romance part is believable, the sexual component can vary. But the relationship has to be compelling.”
Michael M. Jones is a writer and reviewer. He is also the editor of Scheherazade’s Facade (Circlet, 2012).
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