At this year’s Saints and Sinners literary festival, an annual gathering of LGBT writers and readers in New Orleans, I was asked to participate on a panel about love. The panel’s primary question was whether marriage equality would kill the gay romance novel. Romance, of course—in both literature and life—thrives on obstacles. Once you remove the obstacles, the panel was asked, what are you left with?
The question is a bit of a straw man. After all, straight people have been getting married for centuries, and that hasn’t afflicted Danielle Steel with writer’s block.
I felt like a bit of a ringer on the panel. I don’t write romance novels per se—where romance is defined as boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy in the end (well, maybe that last part). While my work does typically focus on love, I’m more interested in what happens after happily-ever-after. For me, Act 2 of Into the Woods offers the better music.
So, in preparing for the panel, I had to look beyond the question of the romance plot. It seemed to me that we were really engaging with a much larger question: how literature reflects the way we live at any given moment, and its responsibility to portray how we used to live, and how we should strive to live in the future.
It takes time for art to catch up with life, at least on a wide scale. For a long time gay fiction was stuck in the adolescent phase of coming-out and cruising stories, even as gay people in the real world were assimilating more and more into mainstream culture.
The turning point, tragically, was AIDS. Nothing makes a person—or a people, or a literary canon—grow up faster than confronting mortality. While AIDS was and remains a horrible truth, it is also worth noting that the pandemic vastly increased the visibility of the gay community and paved the way for many of the gains we have seen since. The struggle against HIV humanized us in the eyes of the mainstream and forced them to look at us as people rather than just practitioners of sex acts they found distasteful.
It also gave us something new to write about. With deadly serious subject matter, gay literature could be deadly serious, too.
So at first, gay people fooled around in fiction. Then they died. And now they’re getting married.
Not that they weren’t doing that all along, albeit without the license and the matching rings from Tiffany. It’s possible—even likely, I daresay—that committed gay relationships are no more common now than they were 30 years ago. But now that legal recognition exists, people are talking about them a lot more. And, finally, writing and reading about them, as well.
As Stendahl said, literature holds up a mirror to society. And so gay literature reflects the current storyline. But it doesn’t have to condone it.
The real danger of the marriage plot (or should I say, the dangerous plot behind the marriage plot) is that our literature will become heteronormative, that gay novels will now posit marriage as the expected norm and marginalize other ways of living and thereby other plots. The role of art, however, is to challenge mainstream notions, not to surrender to them. This isn’t to say that marriage, or military service, or moving to the suburbs aren’t viable options. But they’re just options, among many.
Art is a powerful thing. It not only reflects society, but has the ability to influence it. We need to make sure that we have among us the gay equivalents of Emily Brontë and George Eliot, women who refused to give in to the straight marriage plot that dominated Victorian literature and life. So long as gay literature continues to show the full panoply of the LGBT world—the diversity of the community in terms of both essence and behavior—it will live up to that responsibility. Our job as writers is to remember that, as we embark upon a brave new world, we must also reflect the world from which we came and honor it with our words as well as our lives.