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 Unpublished authors have them, even.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.