Yesterday, a Facebook friend made a post about the “Gay For You” or “GFY” trope popular with readers. The trope is sheer garbage: a character is straight as an arrow, never questioning their sexuality for a moment or even aggressively asserting their straightness. Then they meet “The One”, the romantic love interest. The straight protagonist knows, deep, deep down, that this is their One True Love™, and that love can overcome any odds. Even if that odd is that one of them is straight and the other is their same gender. “It’s okay,” the trope reassures us. “He’s not really gay. He’s just gay for him.”
This is seen most often in M/M fiction. M/M romance is written by people of all genders, but within the romance community it’s no secret that women are the target audience. Romance readers in general are voracious, but M/M readers seem to have a voracity and budget all their own. At a recent conference, I met a woman who said she reads M/M exclusively, and that she buys up to a hundred books a month. But the genre is still competitive, with some authors releasing twenty or more titles a year. As a result, M/M romance reaches–and influences–people who aren’t LGBTQA+, for better or for worse.
Gay For You is one of those areas where the “for worse” comes in. The GFY trope satisfies the reader’s desire for a happy ending by promising that the couple will find happiness together despite their sexualities, rather than finding their happiness through discovering their sexualities. Homosexuality is treated as a hurdle to be overcome, a tragic circumstance that could have destroyed the relationship had the romantic connection been less intense. That’s not just homophobic. It’s biphobic, and it’s bi/pan erasure.
It didn’t come as a huge surprise to me that the conversation quickly became heated, with lovers of the trope defending it as “just fiction” and actual LGBTQA+ people desperately trying to explain why the trope erases bi/pan people. In one particularly frustrating thread, a reader took the position that it’s “just fiction” and people shouldn’t be using it to learn from. She stated that she herself would rather learn from “real people” about these issues, but when four very real bisexual/pansexual people tried to engage with her on the subject, she refused to listen and cited her transgender cousin and “lots of gay friends” as proof that she can’t possibly be homophobic.
Because actually interacting with these types of readers and authors is frustrating beyond belief (and because bi/pan people were being tone policed by straight, gay, and lesbian readers and authors in the Facebook thread that inspired this post), I thought I’d create a handy guide to the most common defenses of the trope and the reasons that all of those arguments are 100% Grade A USDA Certified Trash.
“It’s just fiction!” The old saying “life imitates art” didn’t spring up for no reason. Our earliest histories were stories painted on cave walls and told around fires. Stories inform the way we see our world. The first time I saw two women kiss on TV, it was Mariel Hemingway kissing Roseanne Barr on primetime television on the sitcom Roseanne. If you’re unfamiliar with the episode (titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), the kiss takes place in a gay bar that the title character of the show, Roseanne, visits in an effort to prove that she’s okay with gay people. Hemingway’s character kisses Roseanne without asking her permission, and the kiss goes on for an uncomfortably long time as the camera fixes on her shocked expression. When Hemingway pulls away, Roseanne makes exaggerated faces in an effort to wipe her mouth off. Seeing this cemented two things in my mind: one, that lesbians were predators out to make straight women uncomfortable, and two, that normal, relatable women should be disgusted by F/F sex. And while the show was fiction, it was the only way the information was ever presented to me. No one took me aside and gave me a list of resources to change my mind. The show did end with Roseanne acknowledging her homophobia, but the kiss scene had already done its damage.
For many readers, fiction is the only chance they have to interact with people outside of their own experience on a deeply personal level. That’s why #OwnVoices is such an important hashtag on social media: it’s not enough to just put marginalized people in stories. They have to be portrayed in a way that’s authentic, or risk reinforcing stereotypes that harm real people. If your defense of “Gay For You” is, “It’s just fiction!” then you’re ignoring the visceral power fiction has over our minds, and how often it’s used to transform them.
Sesame Street is fictional, too, but I bet it still taught you your ABCs.
“Gay For You happens in real life all the time!” No, it doesn’t. A person might realize late in life that they’re gay, and that might be the result of an attraction to a person of the same gender. But that’s not Gay For You. Is the character gay? Then they’re gay. Is the character still attracted to and wants to have sex with a member of the opposite sex? Allow me to introduce you to the concept of bisexuality or pansexuality. Is your character attracted to anyone, irrespective of gender, but with preferences that change throughout their lives? Allow me to open your mind to the idea that sexuality is fluid, and that the sexuality of a character who wants to have sex with just this one particular guy but no other guys can be described more accurately without the word “gay.”
This might sound like some kind of weird homo-gatekeeping. Don’t get me wrong, people are free to label their sexuality however they’re comfortable. But authors using “gay” to describe all same-gender sexual relationships, even those engaged in by people who don’t identify as gay, isn’t just bi/pan erasure. It’s homophobic. And saying, “But it happens in real life!” doesn’t magically fix that when there’s so little accurate representation of bisexual and pansexual people in entertainment in the first place.
“So what if it’s not realistic! It’s not like women can actually fall in love with vampires or something!” This argument relies on a false equivalency between bisexual people and vampires. One of these things is not like the other, in that one exists, and one does not. If you write a vampire book, but your vampire really looks more like a werewolf on paper, you’re not hurting vampires and werewolves. If you write a Gay For You book, you are hurting real gay, lesbian, bi, pan, queer, and sexually fluid people.
“I read GFY all the time, and I’ve never once read one that erases bisexual people!” The very fact that you’re calling it “Gay For You” erases bisexual and pansexual identities. It’s not being marketed as “Bi For You.” It’s not being marketed as “Pan For You.” “Gay” cannot be used as a shorthand for bisexual or pansexual in this context without erasing us, because it reinforces the belief that all bi/pan people are just undecided voters.
In fact, “For You” in any context when describing sexuality is reductive, because it reinforces the idea that all sexuality is defined by the genders of an individual’s partners and not by the individual themselves. This is the type of thinking that leads to “gold star lesbian” and “fake bisexual” labels. This is the type of thinking that totally removes asexual, aromantic, and gray-ace people from the discussion entirely, as not having sex or not having romantic relationships leaves them undefined in the narrative.
“But the GFY books I read call the characters bisexual.” That’s nice, but see above. If you want to read about bisexual people or people coming out, super. But don’t refer to those stories as “Gay For You” in shorthand. The second you say “gay” when you mean “bi/pan,” you’re erasing us.
“I write stories about bisexual characters and people who are realizing their sexualities as adults, but I market them as GFY because they sell better.” Let me translate this for you: “I don’t care if it hurts real people. Reinforcing harmful stereotypes also reinforces my bank account, so I’m going to keep doing it.”
Marketing is hard, especially when so many books are out there. You want to find your audience. I get that. But think of it this way: do you really want to find the audience that is looking for books that reinforce ideas and misconceptions that result in real-life harm to people? Do you really want your work to appeal to them? And if it does, what does that say about your work? What does it say about you?
Plus, saying, “I don’t really believe this, it’s just how I’m marketing the books,” isn’t a magical shield against criticism. If LGBTQA+ people question your integrity as a result, it’s their right. They don’t have to believe you have good intentions. They don’t have to absolve you or give you the benefit of the doubt. If their real life struggles mean less to you than your bank account, and you’re willing to state that in public, don’t be surprised if people call you out on it. And if you do it again and again, don’t be surprised if people grow tired of it or terse with you.
Write what you want to write. Read what you want to read. But if those things are harmful, stereotypical, or downright bigoted, then you need to own that. I’m fond of saying that there’s no such thing as unproblematic media. As long as we live in the culture we’re living in, that’s going to remain true. But don’t defend it. Don’t argue with the people it’s hurting. And if you’re not willing to listen, say so at the outset instead of wasting everyone’s time. If you don’t like being thought of as homophobic or biphobic, maybe the easiest way to avoid that is to stop being homophobic and biophobic. Maybe stop asking, over and over again, why people think GFY is wrong. And if you’re a reader or a writer who truly wants to read about bisexual characters and portray them accurately, stop touting your stories as Gay For You.