Part of the 2015 Gay Romance Northwest Meet-Up Keynote, “Read with Pride”.
When I was growing up, there was no “reading queer literature” as far as I knew. Every so often I would come across a story with a minor gay character in it, or—more commonly—a cartoonish villain who was designed as a caricature of queerness. This feeling of queerness being freaky and wrong and tragic even permeated many ostensibly queer-friendly stories I read as a young person.
I loved all those sad queer characters, because even early on I could recognize that I had something in common with them. But I’d be lying if those characters didn’t make me believe some terrible things about myself. Picture a child feeling that he has more in common with campy Disney villains than Disney heroes. When the only examples you see of queer people are evil, tragic, comedic caricatures, dead, or simply treated as unworthy of having their stories told… it doesn’t lead you to expect that you, the little queer kid, are a good person. Or even a person with a future.
Which brings me to Brokeback Mountain. I love Brokeback Mountain, but I wish it were a romance novel. Or at least I wish there had existed, in 2005, a popular romance equivalent. Because when I first watched Brokeback Mountain, I was still young enough that seeing any film where two guys kissed was a total rarity, let alone one that depicted such an intense, passionate, romantic love between a same-gender couple. But then, as I watched this film for this first time, I started to get scared.
I wanted so much for it to not be a tragedy, but I knew it was going to be. Because that is what queer stories were to me—stories about unrequited love, homophobic abuse, transphobic violence, death, tragedy, death. And I didn’t want another story like that. I didn’t want something about the evils of the human condition, the cruel horrors of how we treat each other.
I wanted a love story. Specifically, I wanted a story that told me that I could be loved. I didn’t want to watch these people who I identified with suffer and die like I always watched the people I identified with suffer and die.
So—imagine with me—what if Brokeback Mountain were a romance novel? We know what would happen, right? Jack and Ennis would have their meet-cute on the mountaintop and there’d be some raunchy sex scenes, some gut-wrenching twists and turns and moments where it all seemed bleak and hopeless—but in the end, we’d see two people fall in the kind of love that lasts a lifetime, and we’d see that love triumph and find a way. We, as romance readers, would know from the start that this was a story destined to end happily. We would know with certainty that Jack and Ennis get what they deserve: joy, forever.
I’m not saying that stories like these always end happily in real life; we know that they don’t. But stories of enduring love and happiness, stories of safety and joy and recovery, are so valuable. So true. And so important. Quite honestly, they are undervalued, but they might be more important—and to me, growing up, they would have been revolutionary. I didn’t read queer romance as a young man, when I was questioning both gender and sexuality, but I wish I had. I wish I had picked up the kinds of books I read today.
Because when I read a queer romance novel, I know I won’t be martyred at the end. I won’t be left alone and heartbroken, the victim of a cruel world. Instead, I’ll be loved. And that’s actually pretty revolutionary. Telling different kinds of stories about queer people is revolutionary, and romance narratives are very different. Romance narratives promise the opposite of tragedy, and let us reclaim ourselves from stories about deviance and shame. Romance says: we deserve to be loved; we deserve to have our stories uplifted. We deserve a world where our partners respect and care for us, where we get the help we need, where we succeed in loving each other the best we can. Where we are beautiful, sexy, and desirable, and safe.
Here’s another example. Do you know how often, since I came out as a trans man, I’ve had people tell me that Boys Don’t Cry is a must-watch for me now? In case you’re unaware, Boys Don’t Cry is a film about a trans man being murdered. What if, instead (or at least in addition), people valued and recommended stories where trans men are respected, loved, protected, and adored by their partners? Give me Burnt Toast B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz or A Boy Called Cin by Cecil Wilde or A Matter of Disagreement by E. E. Ottoman—all romance novels released in the past few years that have made me feel touched, blessed, and loved. These stories make me feel as though the authors see my potential—for love, for success, and for joy. These stories are fantasies for those of us who desperately need to dream.
If I’ve reached any personal conclusion, it’s that we must keep reading, writing, and sharing queer romance. We must keep telling these stories. And we must keep loving and valuing each other as best we can—with our words, with our actions, and maybe most of all with books.
GRNW 2015 Keynote
Listen to Read with Pride
Austin Chant is a bitter millennial, passable chef, and avid reader and writer of queer/trans romance. He lives in Seattle with his partner in crime, a pleasant collection of game consoles, and an abundance of tea. In the regrettably large amount of time he spends not writing romance novels, he attends college and works as a game designer. His first publication is “Coffee Boy” in the Silver & Gold Anthology from Less Than Three Press (October 2015). He’d love to exchange words with you on Twitter (@AustinChanted), and his website is AustinChanted.weebly.com.