Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Here We Go Again

Let me start off by saying it’s not my intention to single-handedly bring diversity to the world of M/M romance. Or romance in general. Or any genre currently dominated by straight white characters. I myself am straight and white, so that’s my default position. As with a lot of businesses and institutions in the U.S. of A., publishing tends to be dominated by straight white people. I almost wrote “men,” but I recall reading somewhere that there are more women than men involved in the publishing industry, at least in editorial. Somehow I suspect it’s a man sitting in the CEO’s chair. It usually is. Men are obsessed with sex and money, while women would rather read a book. That’s right, sweetie, she’s faking it. You’re nowhere near as good as she’s making you think you are.

That’s neither here nor there, however. We’re talking about diversity.

There’s been some squawk among readers and writers about all the straight white males that populate popular literature. Where are the gay, bi, and trans characters? Where are the people of color? Where’s the Asian trans bodybuilder and the asexual black queen of the fantasy realm? I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, but if so, they’re minor characters. The leads and their circles of friends are still predominantly white.

A glaring example: DC Comics. The characters they’re now trying to make billions with in movies were created back in the 1940s. Take a look at any copy of Justice League from the 1960s, during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and you’ll behold a sea of white faces. (Okay, Martian Manhunter’s green, but when he changed form to fake humanity he changed into a white guy.) They tried to course-correct in the ‘90s cartoon by including the John Stewart (a black guy) version of Green Lantern, but now that a Justice League movie is looming on the horizon they’re reverting back to whitebread Hal Jordan. Cyborg, formerly of the Teen Titans, is now part of the Justice League as their sole black member. Welcome to tokenism, Vic.

Marvel Comics has it a bit easier. They came of age in the 1960s, with younger, hipper creators than stodgy old DC. They’ve always had racial diversity. Joe Robertson, editor of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man comics, was always a black guy. Marvel had the first black superhero (Black Panther, born in Africa) and the first African-American superhero (the Falcon). Okay, there was Wong, Dr. Strange’s Asian servant, but nobody talks about him. And Nick Fury wasn’t always Samuel L. Jackson. He used to be a white guy. And almost every prominent character in the first Avengers movie, with the exception of Mr. Jackson and Ms. Johannsen, was white, male, and supposedly straight. (Loki has been a woman in the comics, so he gets a pass.) I never said the system didn’t have its glitches.

The point is, pretty much everybody populating those thousands of books in the Barnes & Noble is a straight white person, probably male. The readers buying those books, however, run the entire gamut of the racial and sexual spectrum. They want to see characters that reflect who they are. Can you blame them?

Just try to swerve off the straight white path if you’re a straight white writer, however. Publishers will smell the possibility of a lawsuit on your manuscript and email it right back to you. Apparently only people of color or different sexual orientation can safely write about characters of same. Then they’re told there’s no market for their books, and the status quo perpetuates itself.

True story: a straight, white male writer of children’s books wrote a story about a biracial boy. It was rejected by the publishers he sent it to, and word leaked back to him the reason for all the nos was because he, the writer, was a white guy. Here’s the kicker: his wife is black. His son is biracial. So it’s okay for him to raise a biracial kid but not to write about one. A point he publicly raised at a publishing conference, in front of an audience and panelists that was mostly white.

What does all this have to do with me and my M/M stories? Nothing, usually. I stick to my Caucasian comfort zone. Except when I find I don’t have a choice.

Like now.

I’ve written black characters before. My last ménage had a brown-skinned lead character, but the book took place on an alien planet so he slid under the radar. I work the system by not calling attention to any character’s race. I’ll drop in a couple of hints that suggest a different ethnicity and let the readers picture them any way they want to.

The problem reared its head when I started my current WIP, which involves a circus populated by shapeshifters. I work on the theory that a shapeshifter’s human ethnicity is determined by their animal form’s continent of origin. Shapeshifters can’t stay animal all the time. They have to blend in with the human population. Therefore a tiger’s human form will be Indian, wolves will be white European or Native American, and horses will be white European, or maybe Arabian. Simple evolutionary survival.

What do you find at the circus? Elephants, tigers, lions, bears, camels, the occasional monkey. Where did those animals originate? Not in the white countries, that’s for damn sure. If I’m to remain true to my personal rules, my white hero is going to walk into a predominantly African/Asian/Native American environment and meet the other hero, a lion shifter. Who I originally pictured as a white guy, but if he’s a lion his human form will have to be African-American.

I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing an interracial gay romance. It just turned out that way. I’ve already given in to panic and made my lion shifter half-human, so he can keep his blond hair and green eyes. (Clearly his mom was a white woman.) As for the rest, I won’t dwell on race. There’s a brief passage where the hero considers the ethnic diversity surrounding him, then it’s never mentioned again. If an editor asks me to delete that scene, I will. Or maybe I’ll just change it to the shifters and the human circus workers eating at separate tables and make that the only overt racial diversity. (Another true story: during the filming of the original Planet of the Apes movie, the actors had to go to lunch in full ape makeup. Within days they began segregating themselves: chimps ate with chimps, gorillas with gorillas, orangutans with orangutans, regardless of the skin color of the human actor underneath the prosthetics. Birds of a feather. We are indeed a strange species.)

With the race problem out of the way, I can concentrate on the important stuff, like my human hero falling in love with the lion man while trying to catch a killer. The killer’s a straight white male, by the way. I’m not taking any chances.

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