AJ LLewellyn and Appropriation in M/M Romance

Sorry for the long absence between posts — and thanks to all the posters new and familiar who continue to do completely awesome and eye-opening things while I’m off in the wilds of conference planning and manuscript editing. I’m making up for the lost time by writing an extra-long post — aren’t you excited?

Earlier today, romance blog Dear Author posted a news item that m/m romance author AJ Llewellyn — oh, what was the delicate phrasing they used? — “admits adopting male persona despite being female.”

Now, it’s pretty common in romance to have a pen name. Unpublished authors have them, even. I have one and I’m not afraid to use it. Picking a pen name is a complex decision involving which web domains are free, which genre you write in (try publishing a contemporary under the name Wadsworth McBigglestaff), whether your family knows what you write and wants to be associated with it, whether the office you work in is particularly conservative, whether you have kids or work with kids or sometimes walk past kids on the street, etc etc etc. (For an example of why pen names still matter even in het romance when overprotective parents get involved, check out the whole Judy Mays pearl-clutching fiasco from earlier this year.) Using initials to deflect questions about the author’s gender is also fairly common, especially in mystery and erotic and m/m romance.

What I’m getting at here is: pen names and personae are expected, in romance. Romance gets a lot of crap in the culture at large, and m/m romance especially. Fans and fellow writers understand why someone would want to maintain a distinction between their personal life and their public life as an author.

This seems to be how things started, according to AJ Llewellyn’s blog:

When I started writing M/M four years ago I was advised to do so as a man. I chose initials instead of a name and found very quickly that I was very comfortable being A.J.

I relished the freedom being A.J. meant for me as a writer and person.

I very much identify as a man and no, I have not had surgery but I live as a man and my former co-writer knew this.

To me, this has very strong echoes of a Border House post by Quinnae on how role-playing games helped her come to terms with herself as a trans woman:

It all started with The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, and my discovery that I felt so much more comfortable and even empowered when I played as women characters. Same with Knights of the Old Republic; the women characters in that game, like the Jedi Bastila Shan, provided me with secret role models that gave me hints of the kind of woman I’d like to be.

Except: AJ Llewellyn wasn’t playing a game. He was selling books.

There came a point where AJ had a male friend stand in for him at a book signing. And kept that friend’s pictures as profile pics on his author blog and Twitter and Facebook. And then he wrote articles on gay men, romance, and condom usage (!!), and he wrote blog posts including scenes like this:

Several months ago when I was invited to submit a book to Silver Publishing, I took the opportunity to address the gay circuit parties that are a monthly fixture in Palm Springs. I attended one that my frequent cover model Adam Killian was performing at and was astonished at how…well, prudish I felt. I’m not a bad looking guy and my body’s okay but I’m a writer for God’s sake, not a model and no way was I gonna take off my clothes and walk around naked with the incredibly hot guys that hung out by the pool.

And now we’re very clearly in territory that Womanist Musings identifies as appropriation.

And just about everybody’s pissed off.

Author Ann Somerville sums up the reaction nicely:

There are many – too many – authors pretending to be gay men in this genre, and these are not actually transgendered. It’s a practice that needs to stop but it’s on the rise again. But this affair goes deeper than mere appropriation. This goes to the very heart of the exploitation of the lives of GLBT people of which we writers are often accused and too often guilty. Llewellyn has perpetrated a con and his apology is gutless and dishonest. Like him, really.

To illustrate: I write romances set in the 19th century, some of which are Regencies. My readers (those few, those happy few!) know damn well that all my information comes secondhand, that I did not grow up in Regency England. My books do not have the implicit authenticity of, say, Jane Austen’s. This is not what makes Jane Austen a better writer than I am — that would be her talent for deft understatement, among other things — but it does mean that she has access to a certain experience, and I don’t.

One thing that I find troubling is that AJ himself never once uses “trans” or “transgender” in his apology for the deception. (Though Ann Somerville does — and gets her pronouns right, too.) He calls himself “a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.” Which phrase makes me cringe, because A) it sounds like a chuckling frat guy who’s claiming he’s “a lesbian trapped in a man’s body,” and therefore B) reeks of m/m romance’s fetishization of gay men by straight women, which Somerville alludes to above, and C) makes me kind of sad because it makes me wonder if AJ knows there’s a whole internet full of words to describe very clearly what he’s going through as a trans man. He’s a writer, so words matter to him, and having words to put around the changes in his life could be really helpful if he wants to discuss them further. He can even keep the pseudonym; that’s not where the trouble lies.

No, the trouble here lies with the unknown quantity of privilege being ignored.

Here’s the entire passage with the phrase “gay man trapped in a woman’s body”:

When I did that book signing in 2008 I was not comfortable in my body, nor did I feel like I could come out as a woman. I liked being a man. I felt, like so many others that I was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.

Part of why I have never revealed myself as ME is both because my work has already alienated my family who call me a prostitute and because it has also affected my career. I lost a job I love when I told a fellow co-worker what I write. They fired me because I quote, write porn.

When AJ says that he did not feel like he could “come out” as a woman even though he describes himself as biologically female (which implies a certain amount of passing privilege in non-internet life) — when he says that he liked being a man — it makes me wonder how much of all this was the result of a newly realized trans identity, and how much was the result of discovering that male privilege definitely has its perks. Even pseudonymous gay male internet privilege.

Because one of the things that I haven’t seen discussed yet is related to that earlier stuff about the author’s experience: gay male authors of m/m romance have a double dose of privilege in the romance community. Male romance authors are rare beasts (though not as rare as you’d think, eh Leigh Greenwood?) and tend to garner intense interest from female authors. Also, gay male authors of gay male romance also have a burnished gleam of authenticity to readers’ eyes that eludes straight female authors of m/m romance.

By adopting a persona marginalized in general culture, AJ Llewellyn also adopted a persona with great advantages in the niche culture he participated in. And this niche culture responded by giving him money (I don’t know and don’t care how much). The comfort he felt with the persona and the subsequent changes in his own lifestyle all came after that initial decision to mislead his readers. At the same time, the reaction from the romance community has shown definite strains of transsexism and bigotry that sadden me as an advocate for romance reading and feminism and social justice. (Some of them might appear in this very post! I am still fairly new to discussions of trans experience and will welcome any clarification/verbal cuffs upside the head).

I sympathize with AJ Llewellyn. His life just got a million times more complicated. But I also sympathize with his fans and readers, who feel rightfully betrayed.

It’s all very disappointing.

21 thoughts on “AJ LLewellyn and Appropriation in M/M Romance

  1. @alicia, welcome back. It’s always great to hear from you.

    Sadly this issue is nothing new, and by no means is Llwellyn the only writer. And this issue is far bigger than Llwellyn. I know of at least five others who use bogus identities. This is why gay and other queer men steer clear of the m/m genre. Our lives and identities are appropriated and pimped out and we get fetishized, demeaned and denigrated. They do to us what cis straight men with a “girl on girl” fetish do to women, exploit and fetishize a marginalized group. Only difference is those straight men don’t add insult and gaslight to injury by propping themselves up to be allies in the gay community.

    Furthermore, fake male pseudonyms isn’t the only form of appropriation. I’ve been LOL at a lot of these female m/m authors who’ve been using this latest fustercluck to score points and prop themselves up as “doing it right.” “I’m not like THAT m/m writer. See I’m a real ally.” *winks eye*

    Many of these “writers” (and I use the term loosely) have engaged in online stalking and harassing of gay writers and gay men, if they dare call out the rampant homophobia and heterosexism.

    As a matter of fact, a friend sent me link to a forum where a gay man was asking for suggestions for books written by gay men because wanted to read stories from authors like him who understand his experiences. The pearl clutching commenced as female m/m writers and their gaggle of flying monkeys bullied and harassed him as they were determined to put the uppity homo in his place. They did everything they could to make his life a living hell.

    And these would be the same women who would call out cis straight fanboys on their privilege, but can’t even be bothered to practice what they preached.

    But again what else is new. These are the same type of people who will out transwomen on a blog and then prop themselves up as feminists. These are the same people who denigrate black women and other WOC on the regular and prop themselves up as feminists and white allies.

    White privilege at its finest. And make no mistake, appropriating and exploiting m/m culture IS white privilege. Because only white folks think they are entitled to exploit the culture of the OTHER without blinking an eye but then have the gall to clutch pearls when they get called on their bullshit.

    This is why when it comes to my queer fandoms and spaces, I primarily deal with WOC and a few trusted white females who have a great track record with me. This isn’t to say that POCs don’t have privilege or fail, but when we call out problematic behavior in these spaces, WOC and other POCs ACTUALLY listen. There tends not to be any of this goalpost shifting and gaslighting and Lord of the Flies bullshit that POCs and queers have to deal with in white spaces.

    What really infuriates me about this is that I’ve heard too many stories of gay men who can’t even get published in our own genre because it’s overrun and dominated by people who are not gay or queer men.

    Notice how few, if any, of these female m/m writers are using their positions or their privilege to give ACTUAL gay and queer men the opportunities to write and produce their own stories.

    And this latest debacle changes nothing. These female m/m writers and their readers are going to continue to pillage and plunder from their gay fashion accessories, go batshit crazy if anyone tells them they might be doing harm, and continue to exploit an identity and a culture that’s not theirs.

    If these people REALLY wanted to address the problems in the m/m genre, they would ask why aren’t actual gay and queer men going anywhere near their spaces. What problems are in the genre that they don’t belong to.

    But they won’t, it’s bad for business. And worse, it shatters their illusions that they’re doing it right, or aren’t homophobic assholes. And make no mistake, it is homophobia. And we just can’t have that.

    Bottom line:

    If you’re a white fan of Anime and Asian culture and the forums and spaces you visit, are run and dominated by weabos and Asian fans are nowhere to be seen, there’s a reason for that.

    If you’re a white person who props yourself up as an anti-racist and the “anti-racist, pro-POC” group and forums you visit are run and dominated by white people and POC members are few and far between (if that much), there’s a reason for that.

    If you’re not a queer male and the m/m genre forums and spaces you live in are run by non queer males, and ACTUAL gay and other queer men avoid those cesspools like a Kryptonian to Kryptonite, there’s a reason for that.

    It’s for the same reason why a woman would avoid a “feminist” space that was run, operated, and dominated by men.

    Privilege, it’s a helluva drug.

    • I think one of the problems with discussing m/m romance as a subgenre is the temptation to treat it as one big monolithic thing. Either it’s all appropriation, or it’s all harmless creativity. No subgenre of romance is ever that uniform, as author Eloisa James suggested at a recent romance conference. (http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2011/11/tweets-from-new-millennium.html) A lot of how queer relationships are treated in fiction is going to vary by author; because writing talent has no correlation to someone’s moral compass, some authors are going to do better than others.

      Leaving aside the question of individual books, the culture of m/m romance definitely has more than a whiff of the “exotic” about it. Hot men making out with hot men — so taboo! So daring! It makes me wonder how much of this is about real gay men, and how much is a carryover from the fetishizing of the hero in straight romance. Sometimes I think it’s not so much that m/m romance is about real-life gay men as it is about writing two romance heroes who happen to fall in love.

      Though that does leave the ever-troubling question: where are all the gay male romance authors? I suspect some of them are writing under female pseudonyms somewhere, like they do in het romance.

      • “I think one of the problems with discussing m/m romance as a subgenre is the temptation to treat it as one big monolithic thing. Either it’s all appropriation, or it’s all harmless creativity.”

        This is true. However the appropriation needs to be called out. And it needs to be addressed because too often when gay men speak out on this (after all it affects us directly), there’s far too much hemming and hawwing and goal post shifting.

        ” No subgenre of romance is ever that uniform, as author Eloisa James suggested at a recent romance conference. ”

        This ultimately isn’t about romance. This about people coming from a place of privilege and writing and/or appropriating a marginalized group that they don’t belong to.

        ” It makes me wonder how much of this is about real gay men, and how much is a carryover from the fetishizing of the hero in straight romance”

        It’s about fetishizing. As a gay man who can’t even go to a gay club with his bf without being harassed by a straight white woman, make no mistake this is fetishizing, I assure you, it’s fetishizing.

        Look I’m certainly not going to begrudge anyone for enjoying hot m/m action. Hell, I’m usually more than happy to point folks to some excellent resources in that regard.

        But when we’re asking not to be treated as humans and to check privileges, suddenly too many people act as if we’re asking folks to defy the laws of thermodynamics.

        ” Sometimes I think it’s not so much that m/m romance is about real-life gay men as it is about writing two romance heroes who happen to fall in love.”

        No, it’s more about homophobes getting off on derogatory fetishes because it fulfills their view of how gay men should be.

        “Though that does leave the ever-troubling question: where are all the gay male romance authors? I suspect some of them are writing under female pseudonyms somewhere, like they do in het romance.”

        No. A gay man who is an actual gay man will get more support for their work than outsiders.

        Otherwise, fiascos like this one wouldn’t be happening.

        The problem is, there are only a small number of actual gay publishers out there. People acted sooooooo shocked over the diversity in YA scandal like this was something new. Gay men and other queer peeps have been fighting for years to have their voices heard only to be told that their work wasn’t good enough or not a good fit, or make the gay protagonist straight, or make him into a minstrel and then they would get it published.

        And I can’t tell you how many times, myself and other gay writers have been told that our work wasn’t authentically gay (ie doesn’t play into offensive tropes).

        I could easily a m/m piece and get it published if it fulfills every offensive trope possible. But dare to write a piece where queer folks are actually portrayed as a human being and people act as if I’ve grown two heads.

        The fact that gay men aren’t being heard or aren’t allowed to share their stories, is proof right there that something is terribly broken in the m/m genre.

        • I think a lot of the defensiveness you’ve seen among m/m authors happens because realism in romance is a seriously charged critical term. Romance is “unrealistic,” it’s “fantasy,” it’s “delusional” and dangerous. This is a separate issue from the question of representation and stereotype, but unfortunately the same terms tend to appear in both discussions and people start talking at cross-purposes. Plus, we’ve got straight privilege on the one hand and male privilege on the other — and there’s definitely a sense in some m/m criticisms that “the ladies just don’t know what they’re talking about, ever” — and now my brain has kind of broken down from thinking itself in circles. Intersectionality kicks my ass sometimes.

          There was a point in here somewhere.

          I think that the tendency of female m/m readers to get excited about gay men writing m/m romance points to a desire for romance stories that come from authentic lived experience. But it’s going to be a long process to root out dehumanizing tropes and cliches — though there’s a parallel in the way het romance rehabilitated itself from the rapetastic days of yore. If we can make romances more feminist-friendly, surely we can make them more queer-friendly.

          • But the defensiveness is not an excuse. Neither is romance not being realistic. This is about outsiders defining offensive tropes as reality for a marginalized group.

            If straight men complained about being defensive because of “critically charged terms” when women call out offensive tropes, those men would get ripped a new asshole, and rightfully so.

            The rule is simple: just because you’re a minority in one respect, doesn’t mean you don’t have privilege in another.

            Even though I’m a queer black male, I know that I have to check my cis privilege, listen, STFU, and sit my ass down when I’m on trans spaces. Because even though I’m a double minority, I can still do harm.

            It’s not hard to root out dehumanizing tropes and cliches.

            The thing to do is to treat us, the way you (general you, not you specifically obviously) you’d want to be treated if this was your marginalization. If the issue was feminism or race or whatever marginalization that you’re personally affected by, rather than orientation, how would you like people to listen and check their privilege.

            Also it goes back to what I mentioned before:

            1) Check privilege
            2) STFU and listen and learn
            3) Give gay men the opportunities to tell our stories

            And the fact that m/m romance IS NOT queer friendly, proves my point.

  2. This is a sharp piece, and does a killer job bringing clarity to the issue of appropriation, which privileged folks like me like to pretend doesn’t exist. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Uhm what? Offensive fetishist caricatures of gay people are just as harmful as happy slaves. AJ Llewellyn is not trans, she’s an attention (ahem) hog and possibly a self-hating misogynist.

    Freedom of speech does not entitle anyone to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. At one extreme, there’s protesting injustice, which is obviously good for society. At the other extreme, there’s hate speech, which is obviously harmful. Offensive stereotypes are closer to the latter than the former.

    I want gay characters to be more representative of actual, normal gay people, the ones that you’re likely to encounter (only more awesome, because a fictional story has to be more interesting than my daily life). Sure, the world is big and it has at least one gay coprophile in it. If that sick fuck were to write a book, would it have a positive effect on the gay community?

    You might think, good exposure helps, shit exposure does nothing, so the more gay characters are there in media, the better. NOT SO. Negative stereotypes cause actual harm. That gay coprophile is our national celebrity, an iconic gay so to speak, and yes he did write several books. There are iconic lesbians, too (not actually lesbians, just douchebags – but at least they don’t eat shit). No positive media examples: normal gay people apparently aren’t marketable.

    I spent my adolescence thinking I should transition and being horrified by the perspective because I really didn’t want to. See, I fell in love with a woman and thought I must be “a man trapped in a woman’s body”, a freak of nature, rather than one of those “amoral lesbians”. Plus, everyone knows women are weaksauce, right? Then I got Internet access.

    And there’s the problem of deceit, the sexual equivalent of racebending (or pretending to be a doctor and giving lolrandum medical advice). It’s fine to write about people who are not you, but don’t claim more experience than you have. Real, living people will try to relate to what you write. Don’t tout yourself as a drug addict, or a war hero, or a celebrity’s lover unless you actually are one.

    Finally: the problem of enforced gender roles in homosexual relationships wasn’t invented by fetishists. It is very real and very old. Gay men who played the “obligatory” passive role were subject to prejudice throughout the ancient world; Christianity introduced “equal-opportunity” gay hate. The one and only lesbian site in my country suggests that a normal lesbian relationship is between a “man” woman (awesome mccool) and a “woman” woman (whiny airhead), but sometimes two awesome women might love each other so much that one willingly accepts a passive role so that they can have a proper relationship. Seriously. (There’s a difference, however: while in “traditional” heterosexual relationships it’s the woman who’s supposed to lie back and think of England, in a lesbian relationship with enforced roles the ideal “man” doesn’t derive any sexual pleasure from sex apart from taking pride in pleasuring the “woman”.)

    Anyway: porn, per se, is not bad. However, heterosexual people have a vast collection of representational media which is “not porn”. Gay people don’t have this luxury. There’s too much fetishist shit and too few good stories, and the shit poisons the cultural space. Therefore, I humbly suggest that heterosexual people who enjoy gay fetish porn keep their hands in their pants, away from the keyboard.

  4. I’d wondered some about this since hearing about the story some time ago, but I had no idea that the authour in person had such a complex problem going on with regards to his identity.

    On the other hand, it also boils down quite simply to privilege, and it feels that much worse since AJ himself is making money off of his deception.

    I do know that in reading some M/M fantasy romance, I’ve felt almost dirty not from the fact that there’s love or sex going on between two men, but because it felt like I was reading wank material.

  5. Why we should care–or speculate–about any author’s sexual orientation is beyond me. I personally find it repulsive to “out” someone, to push anyone into revealing this very personal and private part of his or her life.

    Romance as a genre requires a growing love relationship between its main characters and a happy ever after (or a “happy for now”) ending. Heroes, whatever their sexual orientation, have to be strong and vulnerable because that’s what the readership wants. I suggest that anyone wanting completely true-to-life gay men should be reading literary fiction, not romance.

    While you’re trashing A.J., let me tell you a secret: She’s laughing all the way to the bank.

      • Unfortunately, I do believe so… in fact, I think she commented on one of my episodes of Brain Food before, reviewing the marriage of Kevin Keller.

        First off, yes, a writer’s orientation does have some importance because it has an impact on their writing. To showcase another example, there was a mini-series with Midnighter, an openly gay character, released by DC Comics that was written by Chuck Dixon, a straight guy who was also very homophobic. When someone who comes from a place of privilege to write a character who is a minority, be it their skin colour or orientation, they bring with them whatever privileges they have, and that can carry over into their writing, making the character and story they’re writing a charicature instead of a character.

        And so Chuck Dixon wrote Midnighter very badly, portraying him as incompetent and not as able as the straight character he was partnered with.

        Another example is Carrie Vaugh, writer of The Golden Age novel, whose portrayal of gay people in her other books were abysmally tragic, with characters getting AIDS, beaten up, and dying off, thus giving the straight lead angst.

        For those of us who are straight, or white, or male, or all three, we carry those privileges with us when we write minority characters and thus we have to be extra careful not to perpeptuate stereotypes or continue the message that if you’re not straight, white, and male (or female) then… you’re not right. Some writers can do this really, really well, like Greg Rucka’s writing of Kate Kane a.k.a. Batwoman, who is a lesbian, and he himself is a straight man. Gail Simone has also written gay men, bisexual men, and gay women, and on the one time she did fuck up in the potrayal of a gay man, she owned up to it and apologized.

        Now, those authours are authours who we all know are straight. They did not deceive people into thinking they were of a minority as AJ did. When AJ did that, not as a form of dealing with her own issues as the example in the article pointed out, but as a means of MAKING MONEY, she participated in appropriation.

        After all, pretending to be a gay man means that, unlike gay men, she can still get married (if she isn’t already, I don’t know) and won’t be beaten up or harrassed for being straight.

        (Please engage in some reading comprehension here, in that I’m pointing out his lack of harrassement for BEING STRAIGHT. I do know that women in general put up with a lot of patriarchal, sexist bullshit from almost all sides everyday, so keep that counter argument to yourself, please.)

        So, we have a straight woman basically enjoying the ‘perks’ of being a gay man, mainly by making money off of their identity, but without any of the risks, and now that she’s being called out on her appropriation, you’re attempting to say her orientation doesn’t matter.

        Plus, I love the implication that gay men can’t have loving, fulfilling relationships with this line:

        “I suggest that anyone wanting completely true-to-life gay men should be reading literary fiction, not romance.”

        Because only straight people know what romance is, not gay men, and so only straight people can write romance… Riiiiighhhtttt…

    • *checks date on this post*

      Actually aside from this post I don’t know anything about AJ and really don’t have an opinion on them one way or another so I couldn’t care less what they’re doing as long as it’s away from me. Because trust me, I got more pressing matters to worry about.

      “Heroes, whatever their sexual orientation, have to be strong and vulnerable because that’s what the readership wants. I suggest that anyone wanting completely true-to-life gay men should be reading literary fiction, not romance.”

      And I suggest anyone who’s not a gay man should stop lecturing to us and STFU. Preferably forever. Or go play in traffic. Whichever.

    • “what the readership wants” is homophobic fetishisation. Just because you want it, doesn’t mean that it’s not homophobic or outright bigoted – and doesn’t mean you’re not homophobic or bigoted for dismissing the concerns of gay men which is so utterly prevalent in the m/m genre and why it is such a cess pool I’d advise any gay man to stay away from if they value their mental health.

      And yes, when writing about marginalised people the identity of the author matters. And pretending to be a gay man when you’re not is grossly appropriative. Author authenticity matters, marginalised people telling their own stories matter, our lives matter. Don’t tell me that actually being revealed as straight is suddenly terribly personal information – straightness has never had a problem wearing its identity on its sleeve.

      Ultimately this comes down the the base problem in the m/m and slash cultures – we’re objects to them not subjects. As objects, why does it matter if they take our identities? Why does it matter if they appropriate our identities? Why should they care that it’s becoming nigh impossible to fish out a book about gay men written by gay men? Why does it matter if we’re poseable fuckpuppets? why does it matter if they insult and degrade and dehumanise us? We’re objects, we’re things, we’re tools, we’re toys. And so long as they’re laughing all the way to the bank making money off using us, why should they care about us? it’s not like we’re people to them after all

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