On the state of #Ownvoices in queer SFF: A look at popularity, library recs and awards

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Most of us would agree that diversity and inclusion are good things. Perhaps especially in science fiction and fantasy (SFF), a white, cisgender, heterosexual male perspective has dominated the genre since the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells,  and largely neglected fully-formed portrayals of women, people of color, and LGBTs, among other marginalized groups. Cultural marginalization creates political marginalization, and vice versa, so when all we see and read in SFF are worlds with white, male heroes, often populated solely by white people, it reinforces the belief that the dominant culture is superior, and the only norm; the rest of us are the “others.”

That tradition has changed somewhat through the success of celebrated female authors like Ursula LeGuin and Margaret Atwood and authors of color like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. Recently, N.K. Jemisin became the first black, female author to win the Hugo award for a novel, and three of the five titles that were shortlisted in 2016 were written by women. The annual output of SFF has become more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and other characteristics, but surveys show we still have a long way to go to bring representations of people of color, women, and LGBTs out of the margins.

It’s hard to find data outside of the YA world, where, for good reason, a lot of the attention to diversity has been placed. The YA data I did find may or may not reflect the state of diversity in SFF as a whole.

For example, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center tracks a rising number of SFF books about people of color over the past few years, though in the last recorded year (2015), those books represented a little less than fifteen percent of all SFF releases. Regarding LGBT diversity, Malinda Lo’s most recent (2014) LGBT YA by the Numbers also showed a growing, yet still disappointing number of SFF releases about LGBTs: a total of seventeen in 2014.

CCBC also tracks how many SFF books are written by people of color, and that share is even smaller at ten percent. That gap in authorship is one of the reasons behind the #OwnVoices hashtag.

Started by YA author Corinne Duyvis in 2015, #OwnVoices was created to uplift books about marginalized groups that are written by authors who are members of that marginalized group. In addition to concerns about depth of characterization and accuracy, Duyvis says her interest in #OwnVoices grew out a collective concern that many minority authors who write about their own communities experience marginalization within the publishing industry, in the form of less recognition, lower advances, and less promotion than their privileged peers who garner kudos for writing diverse characters.

#Ownvoices supporter Ellen Oh tweeted home the point with the example: “Everyone knows Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden but not Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki.” In terms of queer SFF, you might say: everyone knows the gay wizard Dumbledore, created by J.K. Rowling, but not the gay wizard Jessex, created by Jim Grimsley (that observation is especially depressing since Rowling didn’t even write the character as gay, but she was lauded for promoting LGBT diversity just by saying she had envisioned him as gay).

Duyvis makes the important distinction that #Ownvoices refers to titles, not the authors themselves, since not all minority authors write about their own communities. It’s also not a campaign against authors outside of minority groups writing about minorities, who are often allies, but rather a campaign for uplifting #Ownvoices titles.

That point is important to me as I segueway into my analysis of #Ownvoices in queer SFF. A good number of authors writing about gay SFF characters, for example, are women, and as I’ve gotten involved in the queer SFF community, I have tremendous gratitude and respect for the many female authors who are my colleagues and my friends and my Twitter and Facebook “buddies.” They are a source of inspiration and have opened up opportunities for me as an author. Maybe it should go without saying, but repeating the point from the paragraph above, my interest in #Ownvoices in queer SFF is not to criticize female authors (or non-gay male authors) who write gay SFF or to suggest that they should not be doing it. I’ve read, and on occasion, participated in online discussions about appropriation and objectification, and I do think those are important conversations for authors and readers to have. The data I compiled, however, does not and is not meant to speak to those issues.

My purpose is to delve deeper into the state of queer diversity in SFF. Good and plentiful portrayals of queer characters are one dimension of progress, and one that many of us would argue could stand for some improvement. But authorship is important to consider as well. Queer authors have historically faced censorship and discrimination in the publishing industry (and beyond) when writing about queer experiences. Authorship is an aspect of diversifying literature that hasn’t been well-explored in a quantifiable way. If efforts to diversify literature seek to promote cultural fairness, I would argue, as #Ownvoices does, then they should acknowledge the differential experiences of privileged and disadvantaged authors who are writing diverse books, and seek to remedy the disparities that exist.

All segments of the queer spectrum need to be considered. I chose gay male SFF as an appropriate starting point because I know that genre most intimately as an author and as a reader, and I also have lived experience as gay man. By compiling some data on how gay SFF #Ownvoices titles fare in the publishing world, my hope is to begin to examine diversity from the perspective of authorship.

It would have been useful to count the number of gay SFF titles published each year by the big houses (Tor, Gollancz, Ace Books) and determine how many were authored by gay men, as a measure of disparity and “status.” Those big house titles have access to trade reviews, wide distribution, marketing, libraries, and awards programs to a far greater extent than small press and self-published titles. Unfortunately, I struggled to find data on the annual output of gay SFF books, and the prospect of researching the many hundreds of releases listed on the publishers’ websites was just too overwhelming; though I’m happy to cheer on anyone who endeavors to do that. 🙂

Malindo Lo’s meticulous investigation of big house titles, just in the YA world, those seventeen LGBT SFF books she found in 2014, are not identified by title or author or L or G or B or T. Lo also noted in her report she couldn’t estimate with accuracy proportionality with respect to the total number of published books due to the complexity of capturing that data.

A little easier to analyze are lists of books that are popular among readers, and recommended lists, and winners and finalists in awards programs. I decided those were decent places to gather data.

Looking at the top 100 books in Goodreads’ Listopia “Best Fantasy Books with Gay Characters,” 89 of the titles are authored by female authors, including the top ten. Of the eleven titles authored by male authors, five are authored by self-identified gay men, two are authored by a self-identified heterosexual man (Richard K. Morgan), and four are authored by men whose sexual identity I could not determine. That’s a rather paltry five, or at best nine percent share by #Ownvoices titles.

My method for determining an author’s gender and sexuality involved looking at biographies for pronouns and mentions of “husbands,” “wives,” or male “partners,” and in some cases delving into media interviews in which the author talked about his sexuality.

The fantasy Listopia leans toward “M/M” category romance titles like Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series and Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage, so despite its title, the voters may not be so representative of the range of gay SFF readers and buyers.

So I also looked at the top 100 books in Goodreads’ Listopia “Best Science Fiction Books with Gay Characters,” where I found that 69 of the titles were authored by female authors. Twenty-two of the titles were authored by self-identified gay men, six are authored by heterosexual men, and three were authored by men whose sexuality I could not determine. That seems to indicate that sci fi #OwnVoices titles do a little better than their fantasy counterparts, though Goodreads members are still much more aware of, and/or enthusiastic about gay sci fi titles written by non-gay authors.

ALA’s GLBT Roundtable compiles recommended GLBT titles each year, based on “exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender experience.” I analyzed their lists from the past five years (2012-2016). The Roundtable creates two annual “Over the Rainbow” lists: one for Young Readers and one for Adult Readers (18+). In the past three years, their Adult Readers list did not include any SFF titles. Their Young Readers list has more consistently included works of SFF.

In total, over the past five years, the Roundtable chose thirteen SFF titles featuring gay protagonists or secondary characters for its Young Adult list. Seven gay SFF titles figured into its Adult list for the years 2012 and 2013. Selections from both lists lean toward futuristic, dystopian and short story collections that are reflective of contemporary issues faced by LGBTs like religious and political persecution and coming out.

Out of those twenty selected titles, only six or 30 percent were authored by gay men. The Adult lists favored #Ownvoices titles a little more at 42 percent. The Young Adult lists included just three #Ownvoices titles out of thirteen books or 23 percent: Tim Floreen’s Willful Machines, Steven De Los Santos’ The Culling, and Alex London’s Proxy.

Another source I looked at was the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards. Their picks tend to be more “hard” and high concept SFF rather than M/M or books with educational themes. With its mission to: “honor outstanding works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which include significant positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues,” you would expect to find lots of titles by gay authors on its shortlists, right?

Erm, not exactly. Spectrum nominees include a mix of lesbian, transgender, bisexual and gay male-themed titles, and of the twenty books with gay male protagonist or secondary characters that won awards or were shortlisted by Gaylactic over the past five years (2012-2016), exactly zero were written by gay men. Most were written by women, and two were written by heterosexual men.

Last, I looked at the winners and finalists at Lambda Literary Awards over the same five year period. The Lammys combine SFF and horror into one category, and, like Gaylactic, they don’t separate out the L, G, B or T. I did not consider horror titles in my analysis, and one challenge was that Lambda’s SFF picks lean toward literary speculative fiction, which in some cases defies conventional categorization, e.g. contemporary stories with some surrealistic elements (Robert Levy’s The Glittering World, Craig Laurance Gidney’s Skin Deep Magic) and stories that imagine gender and sexuality in fantastical ways (Mary Anne Mohanraj’s The Stars Change). I decided to include all of their SFF titles that contained some depiction of gay male sexuality, regardless of whether the SFF elements were “light” or “heavy.”

In total, I found eighteen titles that fit those criteria for the period of 2012-2016. Nine of the titles were written by female authors. Eight were written by gay male authors. One was written by a male author whose sexuality I could not determine. The upshot: 44 percent of Lambda’s picks were #Ownvoices titles.

Taken together, my analysis of five data sources seems to indicate that popular, recommended, and award-winning gay SFF titles are significantly more likely to be authored by non-gay authors, primarily women. The highest proportion of #OwnVoices titles I found was 44 percent within Lambda’s shortlist over the past five years. The lowest proportion was zero at Gaylactic.

And, wait for it…I made a chart!

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More research is definitely needed. For example, I’ll be the first to indict my preliminary analysis as one dimensional. I have not as yet taken the time to cross-analyze the titles and authors I found by characteristics like race/ethnicity, which is immensely important to consider. I would hypothesize that #Ownvoices titles by gay men of color receive even less recognition than their white-authored counterparts.

My findings suggest there is indeed a gap between #Ownvoices titles and non-gay authored titles in gay SFF, and that gap appears to run across M/M romance titles (where one might expect to find the biggest disparity), but also, more surprisingly, titles with educational themes, “hard” and high concept SFF, and literary speculative fiction. The results also suggest that gay authors who are writing gay science fiction and literary speculative fiction may be having more success than those who are writing fantasy romance and high concept SFF. It raises a questions worthy of further exploration: why aren’t #Ownvoices gay SFF titles received by readers, librarians, and awards programs with at least the same amount of enthusiasm as gay SFF written by non-gay authors?

Banished Sons Gets Honorable Mention at the Rainbows!

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There hasn’t been a whole lot of good news to report since, erm…November 8th. But here’s a little something I just found out about today: Banished Sons of Poseidon garnered an honorable mention at the 2016 Rainbow Books Awards. And it’s still in the running to win or earn a runner’s up spot in the Young Adult category. Those winners will be announced in December.

Here’s the link to Banished Sons’ honorable mention.

Meanwhile, between the day job and being active with the movement to #resist the incoming presidential administration, I’ve been slowly working on the manuscript for the second book in the Lost Histories series, a follow up to The City of Seven Gods.  This is always a tough time of year to eke out writing time, but I’m getting it in here and there. I also have a more substantive blog post planned in the upcoming weeks on the subject of #ownvoices in gay fantasy.

Hey! If you haven’t had a chance to pick up Banished Sons of Poseidon, why not give it a try? It picks up on the story of what happened to Atlantis, from a gay teen’s perspective, and I’ve heard from a lot of readers that it works just fine as a standalone. Though you could always start with The Seventh Pleiade too. 🙂

Might I suggest you make your purchase at the publisher’s webstore, which matches other retailers’ pricing and offers discounting when you spend $25 or more?

Wishing all of my American friends a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday!

History Imagined features an interview with Cleito

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Images of Cleito are hard to find. This is an artist’s rendition of Rhea, mother of Poseidon, that I found on Pinterest. I thought it was also a good prototype for the character.

Historical fiction fan site History Imagined asked me to do an interview with Cleito for their weekly Getting into Character feature. It was a lot of fun playing a James Lipton-style talk-show host to the obscure queen of Atlantis, illuminated for the first time in my recent release Poseidon and Cleito. She was one of my very favorite characters to write, and as I hear, one of the favorites among readers. Smart, eloquent, dry-witted, and maniacally determined, she is a force to be reckoned with in the story, straddling the line between hero and villain.

You can read the interview here.

History Imagined is the creation of authors Linda Bennett Pennell, Caroline Warfield, and Becky Lower. Their blog explores many facets of historical fiction with a particular interest in strong portrayals of women.

 

Queens LGBT Book Night 2016

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Something very cool happening in November: I’ll be part of the second annual LGBT Queens Book Night, joining a fantastic group of local authors for readings, discussion, Q&A, and general, queer literary hijinks.

If that doesn’t sound fabulous enough to interest you, I thought of a number of reasons why you and every one of your friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, and Twitter crushes should go.

  1. You’ll hear a preview reading from my just-released title The City of Seven Gods, which is sort of The Persian Boy meets Game of Thrones if they brought along their buddy Gods of Egypt and some hot dude named Gilgamesh showed up, forcing everyone to reconsider their motivations. Now you see why I’m lousy at elevator pitches. Never fear, my talking points get better.
  2. You probably know what you’ll get from me, but there’s something for literarily everyone on the panel. Joe Okonkwo is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and his début novel Jazz Moon is the story of a black, gay poet set against the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. Deborah Emin is the author of the Scags series, which chronicles the coming of age of a young lesbian in the midwest in the 1950s and 1960s. Our curator and moderator Nancy Agabian is a writer, teacher and liteary organizer, whose work has explored Armenian family history and queerness.
  3. Let’s face it. Queer literature is transcendant, subversive, ecstatically affirming, and studies show that it reduces aging by 25-40 percent.
  4. If you’re an aspiring writer, the event is the place to ask us all how we did it, and I promise we won’t be jaded or pompous at all.
  5. Are you single? LGBT community events are a great place to meet that special someone without the shadiness of bars or the pressure of gimmicky dating enterprises. Or, you can double your chances and after the event grab a beer at one of Jackson Heights’ fine drinking establishments.
  6. I’m guessing if you’re here visiting my site, you probably care about the health and sustainability of the LGBT arts community, which creates LGBT visibility, cultural fairness, and political equality, thereby benefiting all of us. LGBT Queens Book Night is an opportunity to think globally and act locally. Coming out to the event supports local writers and builds community!
  7. Last of all, the event is totally free! It’s underwritten by generous sponsors who are listed in the above flyer. You literarily have nothing to lose. (Notice how I cleverly used literarily twice?).

So come on down to Jackson Heights for a great time, and make sure to tell them who sent you (and say hello!).

A reflection on National Coming Out Day

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October 11th, 2016. It’s National Coming Out Day (NCOD), and here’s a little history. According to the Human Rights Campaign, NCOD was first celebrated in 1988 on the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Gay-affirmative psychologist Rob Eichberg and activist leader Jean O’Leary are credited with creating NCOD, and Keith Haring donated his artwork (above) as the logo. The purpose is for LGBTs to share their stories and thereby raise awareness and visibility.

I was not dancing out of the closet in 1988. I was a college freshman and only slightly aware that my stubborn, unrealized attraction to guys, which I was trying to suppress, meant that I was gay. I had had crushes on guys going back to elementary school, though I wouldn’t have described them as such at the time. In some ways I didn’t have the reference points to understand what I was going through. People in my world rarely talked about the possibility of boys liking boys, and when they did, they talked about it in a way that scared the hell out of me.

In high school, I became more aware of the existence of gay people, though mostly as an abstraction. I saw frightening images of gay men dying of AIDS in the media, and that was happening in big cities like New York and San Francisco as far as the national news was concerned. I was in suburban, upstate New York. No one declared that he was gay in my high school, and the few guys who fit the stereotype were the butt of jokes and shoved around the hallways at school. I was never a bully, but I laughed along at fag jokes and distanced myself from anyone rumored to be gay.

If that was what being gay was, I did not want to be that. I made a pact with myself that I would not be that, never, ever, no matter what I had to do.

I’ve come to understand that’s a bargain a lot of LGBT people make. Though, funny, as determined as I was mentally to not come out, my body and I might say some better sense I didn’t even know I possessed was more powerful. It was sort of like a spiritual experience, or as close to that as I can imagine, being an atheist. I do believe that something truer than I was, something stronger than I could consciously be, led me out of the closet and probably saved my life.

That’s certainly not to say it was all joyous and affirming at first. My journey out of the closet began with a crushing sense of loneliness and panic attacks that strangely didn’t seem to have any particular trigger. I’d feel like I was having a heart attack in the middle of class, and sometimes that chest-constricted, dizzy, breathless feeling just happened when I was alone in bed at night. I went to doctors, and medical tests showed there was nothing wrong with me, even though clearly this wasn’t normal. My body was rebelling against me, and in retrospect, I came to understand that it was demanding that I deal with part of my nature I was trying to banish.

I picked out a psychologist from a referral book at the college counseling center, quietly drawn to a group of words in her list of specializations: “male identity issues.” Deciding on a therapist based on that bit of info was not much more discerning than flipping through the book and landing on a page, but boy was I lucky. I think she understood what I was going through as soon as I walked through the door. Over a year of sometimes confrontational techniques, she helped me understand that my gayness was nothing to be ashamed of.

I remember leaving her office one day, and saying the words out loud: “I’m gay.” In that moment, the world was unveiled, and it was bright and colorful and full of possibilities, and I realized what it was like to walk down the street without my eyes pointed at the ground, and yes I felt incredibly free. Of course, it wasn’t always so easy coming out, but making that connection–that my loneliness and panic stemmed from suppressing my sexuality–it was like finally getting a diagnosis and a cure for a mysterious and debilitating disease.

As a side note, I should mention another thing that helped me tremendously was Rob Eichberg’s Coming Out: An Act of Love, which my psychologist recommended that I read.

I place myself among gay men in that in-between Gen X cohort, who came of age in the post-sexual revolution/AIDS-phobic 1980s and before the kinder new millenium with LGBTs on primetime, Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools, and marriage equality. Certainly there’s variation, but I think that many of us followed a trajectory of keeping our gayness hidden in high school and coming out when we were “out of the house,” whether going away to college or moving away from our families. It makes me happy to hear young people say: “I was never not out.”  I’ve worked in private practice with older men who came out in their 50s, after marriages and raising kids.

Is one path harder or easier than the other? I don’t know. On one hand, coming out older brings to bear regret and often relationships to repair. On the other hand, coming out young sometimes puts kids in situations like bullying and rejection, which they’re not yet emotionally equipped to handle.

As I reflect on my coming out journey and those of younger people and older people I’ve known, a common thread is joy. That moment of knowing yourself, feeling free to be yourself, well, it may sound cliché, but it’s a gift that we get as LGBT people. And that’s worth celebrating for sure.