Almost a month has passed since the national leadership of the Romance Writers of America punished Chinese American author Courtney Milan for calling, on Twitter, a white author’s book “a fucking racist mess.”
The resulting outrage in Romancelandia, the peeling back of layer upon layer of procedural violations and systematic discrimination against authors of colour and LGBTQ+ authors (the marginalization of differently abled authors being so profound they and their work might as well not exist)—oh, and the weird personal vendettas and political machinations behind it all, the true motivations of which will likely never come to light—has the potential to change RWA forever.
Or, to kill it.
Or, to split it into two groups: some kind of “progressive” Romance Writers Association that walks the diversity-equity-inclusivity talk and where bigotry and bigots are not tolerated… and a rump old-school RWA that betrays its founders and consists of and serves the bigots… and, also, the NWLs who just don’t understand why we don’t all shut up about all this icky political racist stuff and just talk about CRAFT. Isn’t that why we’re all here? Because we all love writing?
NWL, in Romancelandia, stands for Nice White Ladies. As a white author, I’m often in danger of thinking like a NWL on issues of race, despite my passionate commitment to an inclusive, just, equitable world. But it happens: I will not be directly discriminated against by a racist RWA staff member, author or process. My pasty skin colour ensures that the first thought of the bigots and the NWLs is that I’m one of them.
As a queer person and a queer author (although one who writes for straight audiences too, because, fuck, people, love is love), the bigots hate me on principle, and I will not be accepted by the NWLs. Because—they’re so nice. They hate conflict. They want us all to get along. And the easiest way for us all to get along is for me to just shut up while the bigots and the homophobes make it very clear I don’t belong in their cozy circle. They don’t have to do this aggressively. They prefer whisper campaigns. And, not making eye contact—not shaking my hand… leaving the table when I say I that I write erotic romance but what I really want to write is queer lit, and in my current project, my bisexual character…
This isn’t theoretical, imaginary discrimination. These are all things that have happened to me in Romancelandia. Nationally. Locally.
But the outright homophobes, I can handle them. Their hate I can fight—or dismiss as coming from people beyond hope, with whom I don’t want to have anything to do anyway.
The NWLs? What they do is worse.
They say I’m welcome. They’re so happy to see me, have me. But. Oh. Could I be, like… less political?
Which, frankly, means—can you be less queer? less gay? Which means—you’re welcome! You’re really welcome! So long as you pretend to be one of us—and don’t talk about the things important to you. Also, don’t mention it when we make you uncomfortable—don’t tell us when we’re making discriminatory statements. Yeah, that’s it—don’t talk, that’s the best solution. If you don’t say anything—oh, ok, you can talk about craft and story structure, but, like, don’t mention that it was a queer romance, I mean, why did you have to do that? We were having such a nice talk here, and you know Ellie is from a religious, rural community and thinks homosexuality is a sin. She’s trying really hard to be comfortable with having you here. If you don’t talk about those icky queer things, she almost forgets who you are, and she starts to think of you as a regular, normal person and not an abomination in the eyes of her God. See? You’re welcome here. So long as you don’t remind us too often, ever, that you’re not really one of us.
Authors of colour get a very similar message, I think—but I can’t speak to that marginalization; I can’t. I can only tell you this: I’ve both seen it and been appalled by it, and I’ve completely missed seeing it when it happened right in front of me—because of my own blinders and privilege.
What I’ve seen despite my blinders is pretty awful. In 2017, when I attended the Romantic Times Booklovers Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I complimented an RT volunteer on her beautiful ball gown—Antebellum South style. “I love the Old South,” she said. “I breathe the Old South. I dress the Old South, I live the Old South. Things were better then.”
I stood, aghast. Because. Like… Slavery.
Sometimes, an issue is complicated, nuanced. Neither side has the moral high ground—compromise can be achieved—or we can agree to disagree. But… Slavery?
“Things were better then”?
I didn’t call her on it, by the way. I didn’t know how. And that’s… complicity.
It was during this conference, too, after a panel that attempted to discuss the appropriateness of discussing politics in romance novels—and as romance novelists in our Twitter, Facebook etc. channels—that I first saw discussion split completely along race lines. “I wish the white authors, when they say we should keep politics out of our work, understood that this is not an option for us,” a Black author tweeted during the panel. In the ensuing discussion, there were no dissenting voices… from authors of colour.
The NWLs? They genuinely did not understand what the big fuss was. Hush, hush, hush. Let’s talk about craft—why can’t everyone just get along, hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and just… why are we fighting over this? Romance is about escape from reality!
(Romance reflects, reinforces, shapes—and has the power to change—reality even as if offers readers fantasy and escape. But that’s another argument.)
I’m fighting the revolution for them
At that same conference, some inspirational romance authors refused to sit next to queer authors—as well as straight authors who write gay romance—at the Big Book Bash. The queer authors were upset. Appalled. The NWLs? “Well, you don’t want to sit next to those bigots anyway. Come on. We’ll move you. What’s the big deal? Maybe we should just have a separate LGBTQ+ area anyway. That way, the people who want to find you, will, and everyone else can avoid you. What? Why are you looking at me like that? Seriously. You people are so sensitive.”
This wasn’t an RWA Conference, I’ve got to stress—but. Many of the same people. All of the same problems (although at the RWA, there was an Ethics Committee one could complain to… ha ha). And it was a conference at which I met some absolutely amazing people: queer, straight, white, Black, brown. At which I learned a lot. Which advanced my career tremendously.
At which I experienced so many migroaggressions, I decided to pass for straight in most social situations, so I could get through the conference safely and sanely.
That whole night was so queer.
Read all about it.
Passing. Not an option that’s available to most authors of colour physically—but it’s one in which, appallingly, I think they’re expected to engage in by the NWLs on an emotional, intellectual—intimately psychological—level.
You’re welcome here.
Just don’t be too Black.
Don’t be so gay.
Don’t draw attention to your disability. Your neuro-atypicality.
Don’t make us too uncomfortable.
Don’t be political.
So, the problem is, by this point in this post, I have lost all the NWLs (the bigots weren’t reading it in the first place), and I’m just preaching to the choir. But here’s what I wish the NWLs knew: every time you tell me that? Every time I comply, in order to learn, survive, belong?
It’s like a little death—and not in the sexy, French sense.
All these little deaths, cuts, add up to a big one.
Can you hear me? Every time you tell me… not to be me? A part of me dies, and I can never bring it back.
It’s a denial of self. Of my existence.
It’s a violation I perpetuate on myself to… what? Keep you in your comfort zone. Keep you from having to think that my lived experience is different from yours.
Do you realize that’s what you’re asking me to do? Kill parts of myself—repeatedly—so that Ellie, with her religious, rural upbringing, can remain at peace with her homophobia?
The Nice White Ladies are upset. Here we go again, they say. You’re being so dramatic, Jane—everything’s such a big deal to you. Just sit over there, far away from Ellie, and, please, can we just focus on craft? I like you, we like you, we really do, can you please just stop being so political?
No, I can’t.
When this accusation was levied against me during the peak of the RWA fiasco—and it was an accusation, and a backdoor one—I was utterly flabbergasted. I do not, you see, consider myself an activist or much of a political person. I hate conflict probably as much as the average NWL. To be honest, there are circles—Calgary writing and literary circles among them—where, yes, I tone down my queerness and otherness. Talk about kids and male spouse and not about the ethically non-monogamous relationship structure within which my marriage exists or the women at whose feet I wish I was lying right now. I am capable of just talking about craft and marketing and writerly things—I don’t want to explain or defend, and fuck my life, be accused of proselytizing when I just want to exist.
I die a little death. Take another drink. (Think about the connection between addictions and self-destructive behaviours and denial of self… and don’t reach for a third one.)
Inevitably, find the one or two other people in the crowd who are also The Other, gravitate to them, find a safer space inside an unsafe one.
I do not consider myself an activist. Or overly political. But you see, when it comes to this part of who I am—my very existence is political.
Queer cis girl + bi trans girl hanging out together
= political photo
The accusation was not made to my face by the way. No, the NWLs do not like open conflict or discussion. It’s icky. Political. They prefer backchannels and a game of Telephone adults should not engage in. “She told me that she told her that she told her—and I thought you should know. So that, you know. You could tone it all down.”
“Tone what down?” Cause let’s face it, none of these people have seen me at my most blatantly queer. I don’t invite them to those events…
The issue? That thing that’s “militantly gay,” too political? What I share and post on Facebook.
Our book’s at the library!
That’s so gay.
Here is what I post and share on Facebook:
- Books I’ve read and loved,
- Booklists curated by sources I trust that will be part of my TBR pile… and maybe yours?
- Events I host that I want my friends and colleagues to come to, spread the word about
- Events I’m interested in attending
- Events of friends I want to support
- My own milestones and achievements
- My friends milestones and achievements
- News about queer authors whose work I love
- News about straight authors whose work I love
- News about authors of colour whose work I love
- News about white authors whose work I love
- Writing prompts (dirty… but generally not too dirty for Facebook)
- Publishing/industry trends that I’m following and engaged in (like the RWA fiasco)
- Poetry I love (and why I love it)
- The occasional selfie of an awesome dress or haircut
- Photos of cool places I visit cool things I do, cool people I meet
- Once, someone else’s vibrator review, because it was fucking hilarious
- The occasional funny meme.
Not the sort of thing I usually post on Facebook.
Until this month. #mood #rage
But mostly? Books, book lists, events.
Because my very existence is political.
You see, if you wish I didn’t exist, when I share BookRiot’s “Lesbian Romances for the Uprising,” that reminds you I exist. And that reminder makes you uncomfortable, and you think—there she goes again. God. Those fucking queers. I have nothing against lesbians but would they just tone it down? (And stop trying to take over the RWA?)
If you wish I didn’t exist, when I share Alberta Playwright Network’s YOUth Riot project for queer teens or a fundraiser for the Queer Arts Society or The Skipping Stone Foundation, you feel guilty about wishing I didn’t exist—because you want to be a good person, really, you do—and you turn that guilt into anger against me. You don’t want to think that the problem is in you and your lack of comfort with me. It’s easier to just be angry and make me the problem. Could she share something else, for god’s sake? Pictures of puppies, kittens, penguins?
I could… it’s just that if I shared pictures of penguins, they’d probably be gay (see And Tango Makes Three, written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole, published by Simon & Schuster in 2005, the year the RWA tried to define romance as something that only occurs between a male and female character… because it was afraid of lesbians taking over).
(Seriously, NWLs. There is no conspiracy. We can’t take over because there are too few of us. But when our very existence terrifies you… one of us in the room is too many and two of us is a conspiracy.)
If you wish I didn’t exist—everything I share, everything I do—the fact that I breathe—is political.
You’ve made it political.
I’m sharing who I am. I’m sharing what’s important to me.
When who I am and what’s important to me makes you uncomfortable—in what sort of world is it MY responsibility to sanitize MY newsfeed and MY timeline so that your perceptions of the world remain unchallenged?
Think about it. For two minutes.
What needs to be happening in your head when you actually think that you have a right to ask me—if in a roundabout way—to not make you uncomfortable because of what I share, post, write?
By the way, if equity was a real thing in your mind, when you saw that “Lesbian Romances for the Uprising” post—or Sharee Hereford’s “73 Black Romance Novels You Should Read in 2020”—you’d either click on them and read them if the subject interested you, or you’d scroll past them until some other book list or link (baby sloth videos are the bomb) caught your attention. Maybe, scrolling past them, you’d think, “I don’t really like lesbian romance, but cool, I’m so glad it’s out there now for the people who do.” Or you wouldn’t think. Your outrage?
Your discomfort? It’s a sign that you’re not ok with who I am.
If you’re not ok with who I am, with my existence? You know we don’t have to be Facebook friends, right? Clearly, we’re not IRL friends, because—you wish I did not exist, which is a really shitty foundation for a relationship, personal or professional. Unfriend me. cMute me. Unfollow me. You are completely free to build a social silo in which I don’t exist.
But asking me to pretend I don’t exist?
Because this is what you are asking me to do when you ask me—by telling her that someone should tell her and hoping it gets back to me—it did, of course it did, it always does, the NWLs having been playing Telephone since age five and they’re pretty good at it—that I should be less political.
Fuck you, you narrow-minded, privileged, blind bitch. I EXIST.
Almost a month has passed since the national leadership of the Romance Writers of America made an ethical-procedural mistake that shone a media spotlight on actively practiced marginalization at its core, destroyed the organization’s reputation, and put its future into question. Many more months will pass before the dust of the explosion settles and we see what’s left standing—a truly inclusive organization that has hard conversations and in which the NWLs learn to be uncomfortable… or an “as we were but now without all those pesky activists. Woo hoo! They all left! Let’s focus on craft!” evolutionary dead-end that still flies the Confederate flag.
I don’t need the dust to settle to see the fall-out in my personal relationships. It’s profound and heartbreaking. I will not collaborate and cooperate with, nor support, financially or otherwise, organizations or individuals that… tolerate me… include me… kinda… but really, not-so-secretly, wish that I’d shut the fuck up and, better yet, that I did not exist.
Because that’s death.
I choose to live.
This is, by the way, a political post.
It is also probably my resignation letter from a couple of organizations. And it’s the termination of a slew of professional “friendships.”
Congratulations. You can have your silo and comfort zone back.
Me? I’m going to continue to engage in the incredibly political act of living. Being myself.
Making and investing in personal connections with people who don’t question my right to exist. Because… like, there are a lot of them. Us.
And there will be more.
The future belongs to us.
Photo from Lizzy the Lezzy FB Page