GRL: maybe a very good place to start?

I spent the last five or so days at two conventions in Chicago: GayRomLit, and the Kinky Kollege Homecoming. Both were fun, and I had an awesome time meeting new people and reconnecting with friends, not to mention getting to spend time in Chicago while the weather was perfect (bonus: all the canoodling with Sarah Frantz).

But here is the thing about GRL and the Kinky Homecoming. One of these cons wasn’t a particularly queer-friendly space, and involved a lot of sexual fetishization I was sometimes uncomfortable with…and the other was a kink convention.

It’s been a Very Queer Month for me, between Queer Romance Month and GRL and other things. Although I’m completely out as queer in my personal life, I’m also divorced from a guy, have two kids, and don’t particularly flag as queer—so most people’s default assumption about me is that I’m straight, because that is just most people’s default assumption, period. And since I usually write het (I have no idea why, that’s just what usually comes out when I start typing), the same is generally true in my professional life. Not through any design or intent on my part, I get the benefit of a lot of straight privilege most of the time, and one of the obvious benefits of privilege is not having to think about things from the perspective of the non-privileged groups. So it’s been interesting this month to shift my focus a bit and deliberately spend some time thinking about issues and challenges relevant to queer romance and queerness in general. And it’s made me realize that I probably have been letting the convenience of borrowed privilege keep me from expressing an important part of myself. It feels good to have a voice, to demand to be heard as who I am, not who people assume I am. That shouldn’t be only a once-a-year experience.

I went to GRL hoping to keep that theme going—to go ahead and let myself be queer, be seen as queer, and maybe find some spaces where that was not only tolerated but celebrated. I really wanted GRL to be a space like that, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t. It was a splendid event in many ways, with a lot of great talks by a lot of great authors, and I had a lot of fun (I got to spend time with some of the Riptide Publishing folks I hadn’t met before, and they are all delightful!). But it was very much a space for writers and readers of m/m…and that’s just not the same as an LGBT/queer-friendly space.

Our own AJ Cousins spent some time talking about GRL on her blog (she was there longer and did more) so check out her post if you’re interested in further deets about the con itself. My own takeaway was pretty personal and had less to do with what I saw at the con, and more to do with what I didn’t see there: I saw room for “gay” (m/m) voices, but I didn’t really see a venue for queer voices. And I saw a lot of fetishizing of m/m sex, in particular. If you name events things like “Cockwalk” or “Sausagefest,” it’s really hard to then claim you’re primarily interested in giving marginalized orientations a voice in romance fiction; you’re focusing on sex, not romance. Instead of saying, “the important thing is the relationship, not the genitals of the people having it,” you’re literally showing that the important thing is the phalluses. Especially since there was no “Fix-Your-Own Fish Taco Night” or “Ace Awareness Bingo” for balance.

I don’t lay all this on GRL, of course. They’re just bringing together existing writers and readers. The publishers are still perpetuating this focus on m/m marketed to primarily straight female readers. Samhain sponsored the Sausagefest. Carina press recently had a “pride month” submission call where they name-checked “the LGBT community” at the top but then asked for exclusively m/m submissions. That isn’t pride (sorry, Carina); that’s an unhappy combination of fetishization (of m/m) and erasure (of every other queer identity under the LGBTQUIA umbrella that “pride” is supposed to apply to).

Publishers are businesses, and they want to acquire what they can sell. Sadly, a lot of publishers tend to lack vision regarding what could sell if they marketed it more widely. Twenty years ago, did any of them imagine they’d have a solid and growing market in m/m? Of course not. So there is progress, even if it’s slow and incremental (AJ mentions this, too, by the way—she attended a panel where somebody asked about interest in more non-m/m queer pairings, and over half the audience raised their hands, so I think there’s definitely hope). But that doesn’t really lessen the sting of being queer and seeing “pride” and thinking, “yay, maybe that means more books about people like me,” and then finding that—once again, and pretty much as always—I might as well not exist in the eyes of most publishers (Riptide is a glorious exception, and I’m proud to edit for them). Or in the eyes of the GRL organizers.

I probably wouldn’t have been struck so much by the “this isn’t actually a space that celebrates me” quality of GRL if I hadn’t also attended the Kinky Kollege Homecoming that weekend, and been struck by how very much that event was a safe, welcoming space for queer voices of all kinds. Trans people, gay dudes, lesbians, poly/leather household groups, whatever. All the identities, all the orientations. Everybody doing their thing and being accepted and celebrated, inclusivity instead of exclusivitiy. And it was absolutely delightful, and just such a relief. And okay, sure, like some of these events do, this one leaned toward maleDom/femsub combos (less of a supportive vibe for femDoms, particularly for the few femDom/malesub pairs in attendance). And there are kinks not everybody gets, so there are always going to be conversations about that. So it wasn’t perfectly balanced or anything. But the conversations were respectful and inclusive of all the perspectives involved. The fetishes were presented as options everybody was perfectly free to take, leave, sample, without value judgments. And overall, in many ways, the convention that was actually about fetishes was engaging in…less fetishization than the convention about romance books.

And no erasure. And far fewer representations of phalluses.

For me, the openness of the kink conference was a hopeful thing, because it proved such a thing is possible. That vibe is what cons like GRL (or cons in general) could aspire to.  That openness to different perspectives is what publishers could aspire to. To reflect all the options out there, rather than focusing nearly all the attention on one “norm,” then allowing a very narrow subset of the marginalized groups in to play on a limited basis and calling that diversity. The open, inclusive model is what GRL could become, and I think they’re off to a great start. After that…RT? And after that, obviously, world domination.

Blog posts are supposed to end with thoughtful questions to prompt discussions, but I’m the worst at that, so…insert your own thoughtful question here, I guess. Something-something-did you go to GRL, what did you think of the Cockwalk-something-something-sure, ask me about the kink con!-something?

About Delphine Dryden

Areas of wonkery: geek culture, kink/BDSM, science for those who are not mathematically inclined, educational psychology. Read more >
This entry was posted in Life & Wonk, Thinky. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to GRL: maybe a very good place to start?

  1. ReeCroteau says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you. I have to go away and think very hard now. THANK YOU.

  2. Isa K says:

    I think in general the GRL people are receptive to this type of feedback and I think they need more of it, more often.

    The main problem that GRL faces is that it is a conference organized by writers who felt like second class citizens at more mainstream romance conventions. So from the very beginning it was designed to cater to the needs of a small specific group of authors, not readers. GRL’s inclusion problem isn’t just about M/M versus a broader LGBT community. GRL isn’t particularly inclusive even within M/M. For example they have little interest in mainstream Japanese manga (which offers a wealth of content for M/M lovers) or fanfiction (which at any given point in time half of their core audience is obsessed with). They allow self-published authors but do very little outreach, even when these authors achieve levels of success that eclipses many of the big names among the core GRL group (C. S. Pacat is a great example of this).

    They end up acting extremely cliquey, which is unfortunate because I don’t think anyone wants it to be that way. But when all your content is 100% focused on giving authors or publishers a platform to promote themselves and the forums for discussion are only offered to a curated list of authors you’ve heard of and the only non-author centric activities are parties or silly games … how could the resulting event be anything BUT cliquey and exclusive?

    I get the impression that a lot of the GRL community is extremely threatened by change. They would be open to F/F and trans fiction as long as it came up from the same channels that they’ve invested in. They like the basic concept of gatekeepers because to conveys a sense of legitimacy. And a lot of them are afraid that the world does not consider them “real writers”. A system that requires people to pay their dues, combats this insecurity. So they cling to it and end up shutting other groups out.

    • Well. As a Big 5 author myself, and an editor (though not an acquiring one) for a small but well-regarded publisher, I really can’t in good conscience denigrate the concept of publishing gatekeepers on the whole. I rely on that system for my living, and I don’t have any problem doing so. Gatekeepers are there for a reason and honestly, for every single piece of work that is just brilliant but before its time and not recognized as brilliant by traditional pubs, there’s an almost infinite slew of stuff that hasn’t been traditionally published because it simply isn’t good enough (this isn’t a queer/het issue, not even a tiny bit, it’s just a general quality-of-submissions issue; there is a lot of really, really bad stuff in any submissions pile).

      For what it’s worth, I felt the same way back when I was writing and beta-reading/editing fanfic; I only wrote for sites that were pretty heavily moderated, because…have you *read* some of the stuff at the Pit of Voles? I still avoid it, and only dip into AO3 etc. when I am following a specific rec. And reading slush for the site where I was one of the moderaters was an activity I came to view with a combination of horror, dread, and yet a sort of revolted, train-wreck fascination with the infinite variety of the human mind and what it could accomplish given enough free time and sense of permission. I only accepted a very small percentage of submissions. I don’t squick easily when it comes to, you know…stuff most people would probably consider squicky (one of my fave all-time fics features Filch in a doomed romance with the giant squid who lives in the Hogwarts moat, and it’s amazing and tender and romantic and makes me cry every single time I read it, despite the hentai overtones). But when it comes to bad writing? The ol’ squick-o-meter goes from 0 to infinity pretty quickly.

      But I agree that the inclusion of manga (which…is totally gatekept, actually, just not by Western publishers) and *discussion* of fan fic could be a cool addition to any romance cons, not only GRL (I want to say RT had a session last year where fic was discussed? Not sure, I rarely get to attend the actual sessions anymore at the big cons).

      We did have a big discussion about gatekeeping here early this year, that you might or might not find interesting. But I don’t know that we came to any definitive answers. It’s a tricky issue.

      But from what you’ve said, maybe it’s really good that I raised this issue, and that AJ Cousins (who writes for Harlequin) had some similar feedback. If enough mainstream authors (who happen to also be queer and/or write queer) indicate that what they’d really like is to participate in an expanded GRL that welcomed their queer stuff as well as m/m, there will be change! Probably slow, incremental change. But sometimes that’s what lasting change has to look like.

      • Isa K says:

        This issue isn’t the benefit of gatekeeping itself, it’s the role that the impulse to gatekeep plays in developing the con culture and environment.

        So, if they were just excluding self-published authors (even super successful ones) and fanfic discussions then… sure, I could understand the rational in that. But they also exclude more mainstream LGBT fiction, published by much more established and respectable literary imprints of the Big 5. If you want to be a con focused on readers who love LGBT fiction, why do that? Boy Culture and I’m Not Myself These Days have just as much a romantic hook as anything put out by DSP, sure those authors are big names and will be difficult to book but there are hundreds of other writers trying to follow in their footsteps who would jump at the opportunity. Other than a Hail Mary shot at JR Ward two years ago I don’t think GRL has really made any attempt to engage LGBT authors that aren’t coming up through a handful of small epubs. You can’t possibly be arguing that excluding authors published by a traditional publisher in favor of authors published by infinitely smaller companies with less reputable business practices (eg – Ellora’s Cave and Silver Publishing before them) is gatekeeping that benefits the audience? It isn’t. It’s gatekeeping that keeps GRL focused on the needs of a specific group of authors who sell more books by playing big fish in a tiny pond.

        For the record I don’t think they’re excluding deliberately to exclude. I just think they don’t know how to do outreach beyond the channels they are familiar with from personal experience.

        • I…really am not familiar enough with the structure of the con to comment on any of that. I’m sure outreach would be good? Because it usually is. And I was not attempting to make any particular argument one way or the other, about the gatekeeping, because this wasn’t really a post about gatekeeping but about how cockwalks are problematic. :-)

  3. Emma Sea says:

    Thanks for the post. You raise some good points. I notice day 2 of GRL featured a what I think is a gogo dancer, who is wearing an ‘Indian’ feathered headdress. I think there might be a lack of thoughtful reflection going on. Or, you know, clue-having.

    • Could’ve been a Village People thing…? I’m just trying to think of a possible context in which that could’ve arisen. But it certainly sounds unfortunate, in any case. :-( I’m frequently surprised by how many people haven’t gotten the memo about, “hey, maybe don’t use somebody else’s cultural heritage as your costume,” but…a lot of people have not gotten that memo.

  4. Cecilia Tan says:

    I feel I should say something coherent and intelligent about how intelligent and right on this post is about a lot of things, but I’ve been up all night typesetting a book (why am I not in bed right now? it’s 5:30 am…) and so I am neither coherent nor focused enough to say something intelligent at the moment. Thumbs up, like, star, favorite, and I hope we get to talk about all this some time when I have two functioning brain cells!

    • *hugs* All-night typesetting! That sounds about like all-night editing in terms of the thrill level. None of it as exciting as all-night writing. I keep expecting to one day become a grownup and organize my life in such a way that all-nighters are no longer necessary. I’ll alert the media if that ever happens.

  5. AJH says:

    Thank you for this post. I am loving QRM – I am so happy for the focus on queer, and the multiplicity of voices feels very … oh … real to me, I think? There’s this inevitable sense of queer as monolithic, and about one thing, and even though it means there’s some inevitable bickering … that’s what community is.

    People talk about community a lot when it comes to reading and writing, and I’ve never really had much sense of one, a least not one its appropriate, or unharmful, for me to be a part of because, obviously, there are so many intersectionalities of marginalisation in romance.

    But QRM feels close to me. Even when its ugly.

    Also thank you for your thoughts about GRL. I’m such a small name, that I’d feel a bit of an imposter showing up at a conference anyway, but I’ve long since felt that conferences, and m/m conferences (it seems … actively wrong to call them queer romance conferences, since as you say it’s so heavily m/m-centric) particularly … might not be for me.

    And that’s, y’know, that’s okay. I don’t feel communities (there’s that word again) have any particular obligation to make any specific individual welcome or involved. And I can’t quite articulate why or how … and sometimes I just think I’m English and prudish and that’s the problem. But things like Cockwalks and Sausage Parties very much scream “not for you” to me … even though I like both cocks and sausages. And I don’t necessarily want to be wandering around trying to talk about books in the vicinity of mostly naked male models … and I like mostly naked men, and also books, so, again, I can’t quite navigate my own anxieties here.

    I mean romance of all kinds, straight romance included, has always involved a fair bit of glistening mantotty. And given the prevalence of booth babes, and such, (to say nothing of active sexual harassment of female participants) at gaming cons and SFF cons … I guess there’s nothing noticeably different about GRL and its cockjokes and its naked dudes … except for the gender reversal of objectification.

    Which, I can see, might feel … empowering or exciting if you lived in a world that consistently casts you as the objectified rather than the objectifier.

    I suppose my own take would be that we do not balance (what I perceive as harmful) things by replicating them. But, then, I’ve written and thought about a lot about m/m, and the intersection of queer-centric m/m romance and romances about gay men that use them as avatars to explore issues relevant to a different marginalised group. And obviously that has value too.

    So my thoughts about GRL are basically that it’s not for me, and not meant to be for me … but that it has value for a group of people who are not me … and that’s, well, that’s that really :)

    On the other hand, have you investigated GRNW?

    I am sick I live on the wrong side of the world from this because it seems … amazing, frankly. And not a sausage in sight.

    And Tracey Timmons-Gray wrote us a fabulous post for QRM about raising he profile of queer romance with communities:

    It gives me a lot of hope that it is possible for romance readers/writers, queers, and queer romance readers/writers to bridge the intersectionality divide.

    • ::epic eye-roll::

      Dude. I think already being a multi-published author and attempting to demur about your qualification to attend a conference because you’re not more of a “name”? Is frankly more than a little insulting to all the pre-published and debut authors who attend all these conferences on a fairly regular basis. So…are they all imposters, then, because they attend with no books out, or only one book out? That’s what you’ve just implied, and that’s ridiculous. And that’s also not at all the vibe at these things, even remotely (which…I guess you’d have to attend a few, to realize, but still). Conferences are not just for Famous(TM)/Real(TM) Authors to show up and shower publisher-supplied fairy dust on adoring fans on the other side of a velvet rope. Conferences are for everybody who wants to attend; you just show up if you want to show up. There’s no magical cutoff of fame at which it becomes reasonable to attend. The only qualification is that you pay for registration.

      But, obviously, choose a conference you think will be worth the price of admission, and give you back value beyond the possible cost to you in stress. Maybe don’t even consider the ones where you know there will be built-in issues of marginalization, etc. For a lot of people, I think the draw of a con like GRL is its size and relative intimacy. It’s really cool to get that kind of access to authors, to have a panel of three authors and be in an audience of fewer than fifty people and get to ask open-ended questions (and it’s cool as an author to get to interact with readers that way, and have a back-and-forth in person). And there’s vastly more of that cool stuff (even at GRL) than problematic stuff. But there are also many other small cons that offer the same environment but without the difficult themes.

      For a con that maximizes reader interaction, though, I’d actually recommend RT. Although its size can be overwhelming at times, it’s generally relatively well-organized and–possibly because they’re actively trying to make it accessible for as many people as possible–it’s usually not a venue where a lot of controversial programming happens. There’s a lot going on, but none of it’s difficult to take on the merits, if that makes sense? It’s sort of the Disneyland of cons; they do it big, they do it well, it’s kind of bland and pre-packaged but that’s really part of the point. RWA is similar in scope, but less reader interaction, more industry professional interaction. Neither of these events is likely to feature anything remotely like a Cockwalk, and if for some reason that changes, they’re more than large enough for you to simply avoid that event and ignore it entirely. They’re not generally about that.

      Go to some cons and find out first-hand, though. Nothing bad will happen. If you don’t like it, lesson learned, and you don’t go back. But it just doesn’t have to be a big deal, and it really shouldn’t require overthinking. It’s an environment full of introverts on their one big trip out for the year. An entire hotel full of that. You won’t be the only one experiencing any anxiety or concern you might experience. And since fully half the attendees are packing anti-anxiety meds at any given time, there’s a good chance if you get in a real bind somebody will offer to share.

      GRL could be better and I hope it will get better, but don’t use the slightly problematic focus of one small niche con to bolster an argument against con attendance more generally. Go to cons! Because mostly they are all about a sense of community. I never experienced that until I’d been to one, but it’s a remarkable thing and, I truly believe, an important thing for writers. We work in isolation or with only limited circles of friends so much of the time that confirmation bias and epistemic closure are real and ever-present dangers. Getting out into a wider community is vital to help re-calibrate your sense of what’s normal, and what’s possible.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        I am duly rebuked. I apologise.

        I think to an extent it might be a cultural thing – intimacy with artists has never been something I’ve craved or sought. I mean, obviously I have friends who are artists but they were, err, friends who went on to do extraordinary things rather than the other way round. I’ve always been a consumer of culture, rather than an interacter. So while I can absolutely see the real value of a space for intimacy with artists … I might just be too English for that kind of thing :) I think I own one signed book in my entire collection. It’s The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, and he was signing a pile of them in Waterstones when I went in to buy it. And he said “hello, would you like that signed” and I said “that would be very kind” and he said “there you go” and I said “thank you very much.” And we both went away enriched as people, thinking deeply on the profound and meaningful connection that exists between all humans.

        • The actual value of interacting with other writers is really specific and twofold. 1) you learn a lot about craft, which is valuable. And 2) you learn that just about any feeling you may be having–about the work, about your career progress, about the philosophy of it all, whatever–is neither novel nor unique to you. Others have been there. None of us are the special snowflakes we start feeling like we are when we work in isolation all the time.

          Nothing reinforces the reality of this quite like a convention, because all those narratives you’ve been telling yourself about yourself, in your most secret heart? You’ll hear each and every one of them repeated again and again, from all corners. Mostly in the bar. Because they are actually part of the collective narrative writers have about themselves. It’s a valuable growth experience to learn that.

          I think maybe you have an exaggerated impression of how much of a given con is spent in signing-type activities, where there are writers on one side of a table and fans on the other? That’s…a couple of hours, out of several days. It’s really not the primary experience. Mostly it’s just people hanging out in various formats. In the bar. In restaurants. Outside panels. In people’s hotel rooms. In whatever comfortable conversation areas the lobby of the hotel may provide. “LobbyCon” is kind of the actual event. The signing is just a few hours on a less-than-ideally-comfortable chair. If you even participate in the signing, which…is not a requirement, but it is actually weirdly validating.

          And…if you’re too English for cons, I am not sure what that says about all the English writers who DO show up. I think you mostly just don’t want to go because it’s a big unknown thing and you’re going to be stuck there for a few days if you don’t like it. Which is fine, but that’s really all it is.

          Go to cons or don’t, because you’re a grownup and that is your choice. You don’t need permission to do either; nor do you need to justify your decision based on some self-selected external criterion like Englishness (or the philosophy of queer marginalization or whatever). If you’re going to be misanthropic, at least be a confident misanthropist. Own your misanthropy!

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Actually, I just realised I’m completely lying – I begged Sandra Schwab for a copy of The Lily Brand *only this morning*. So there we go :)

            Also while deciding something is not for you because it seems focused on people who are not you in a way that you suspect make you feel uncomfortable (while also rationally entirely supporting their right to focus wherever they choose, and do whatever they choose, etc. etc.) may not need justification, I don’t think it necessarily constitutes misanthropy.

        • Mostly I just think people should not overthink the con thing, and should go and try it, even if they have (as I do) anxiety issues or whatever about it. Because that is a Thing a lot of authors do, and countering it has become kind of a Thing, for me. So much so, in fact, that I wrote a whole post about it here on this very blog:

          It’s really not personal to you, it’s just…I’m a con-pusher. I do this to everyone.