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Pen Names and Prejudice 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2009

Click here for “Man on Man: The new gay romance, written by and for straight women,” by Gendy Alimurung.

Take society’s worst prejudices — the homophobia, the taboos against sex, the belief that sex writers can’t write, the gender biases — roll them together, and that in a nutshell is what you’re up against as a straight woman writing gay erotic romances.

The accepted wisdom among readers, writers and publishers is that a book sells better with male bylines. “Most, but not all, of the top-selling M/M erotic romance authors out there are female regardless of the pen name or personality presented ... I’d estimate 95 percent of those authors are actually women,” says Laura Baumbach, founder of ManLoveRomance Press. “As a publisher, I can tell you my 10 top sellers at present are at a 7-to-3 ratio. Seven are female and three are male. It’s pretty consistent even when the titles change.”

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Then again, Baumbach swears there are people who won’t read anything by a known male author on grounds that men are less in touch with their emotional side — or are less willing to present it. Some gay men are offended by the very notion of women — straight women, no less — assuming they could write gay fiction.

Baumbach, who is herself an author, says that perhaps she’s naive but she’s spent her life loving men, making love to men and living with men. And she thinks she can write about being a man’s lover convincingly. That’s not to say men react the same as women. “I always keep in mind it’s two men I’m writing, not one hero and a heroine with a penis,” she clarifies.

“Most of the people who write with a pen name are doing it out of respect for their jobs or out of respect for their families,” says author Jet Mykles. “A lot of them have small children. It’s not that they’re ashamed of what they’re doing. It’s that they don’t want the hassle. People find out, and then all of a sudden they don’t want you around their kids ’cause you might corrupt them.”

Those people are not alone. The literary establishment has for ages looked down on erotica and romance. For a long time, even the big gay publishers, like Alyson Books, wouldn’t print gay romances. Alyson’s first gay romance, An Officer and His Gentleman, comes out in June 2010.

And people aren’t holding their breath for the announcement of a major award. “This is not literary writing,” says author James Buchanan, palming her stack of books. “But I’d much rather have my books on the bedside tables of women in some little town than get some big literary prize.”

Straight female authors of gay erotic romance have been subjected to a kind of reverse discrimination where literary kudos is concerned. The Lambda Literary Awards recently banned heterosexuals from entering the contest. Known as the “Lammys,” the yearly Awards recognize excellence in the realm of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature. Past Lammys have gone to Adrienne Rich, Clive Barker and David Sedaris. In making the decision to exclude straights, the Lambda Literary Foundation took into consideration “the despair of our own writers when a heterosexual writer, who has written a fine book about us, wins.”

You could write the most beautiful, sexy, emotionally resonant man-on-man romance in the world, but if you’re a straight woman, you’re screwed. Lambda’s interim president Katherine Forrest notes, “As to what defines LGBT? That is not up to anyone at Lambda Literary Foundation to decide. The writers and publishers are the ones who will be doing the self-identifying.”

Incensed, one anonymous gay romance–aficionado blogger fired back, “Is LLF going to require a dick check?”

Writers were quick to point out the ridiculousness of trying to verify gayness. “If a writer submits as a queer writer, then the foundation takes him/her at his word ... hmm,” Victor Banis, the elder statesman of modern gay fiction wrote in his blog. “Just like the U.S. Military’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

And of course, plain old-fashioned homophobia hasn’t gone away. Romantic Times, the biggest reviewing entity in the genre, holds a convention every year, and at its 2007 event, visiting businessmen at the Houston Hyatt complained about posters featuring a hunky naked man stretched out on a bed. “Reading,” the slogan above his head said, “The second best thing you can do in bed.” The saucy poster belonged to ManLoveRomance Press’s Laura Baumbach.

The Hyatt people promptly took it down. —G.A.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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