Representation matters

Over the past few years, I’ve shared and celebrated some Pride-focused ads here. It may seem obvious to some, but when I came out 35 years ago, I never saw relationships like mine the way we see them now in advertising, television, film, and books. It continues to be a thrill for me to see same-sex couples in media! I remember watching television with my family one night, and there was a commercial for life insurance that included two men. When I verbalized my excitement, both my kids looked at me with disinterest – it just didn’t even occur to them that it was a big deal.

Although I have noticed those moments, the reality is that commercials like that are still relatively rare, especially in this age of targeted online advertising:

“TV commercials centered on LGBTQ individuals have become more common, but remain relatively rare, according to marketing experts. Today, the world’s biggest advertisers primarily use targeted web ads as a means to market products and services to gay Americans in a hyper-focused way.” Says CNN Business, in an article entitled How gay couples in TV commercials became a mainstream phenomenon.

Most of the time, LGBTQ+ focused ads appear during Pride month, and, while still positive, there have been some justified criticisms of those corporations for ‘rainbow-washing’ – making a visible statement, but without implementing meaningful change for their employees or their customer base. Still, there are an increasing number of iconic brands who have LGBTQ+ representation in their advertising now. Everything from life insurance to jewelry. And yes, there is an intent to generate more than goodwill; this is ultimately about targeting new markets.

Over the past few years, Tiffany has been dabbling in this space. They produced an ad and video with a male couple in 2015, and again in 2019. The featured photo on this post is from their 2019 campaign entitled Believe in Love. Given the strength of their brand, it’s not surprising that the execution of the whole campaign is beautifully done. I personally love seeing two strong, masculine hands photographed together by such an iconic brand. This year (2021) Tiffany’s also announced a line of male engagement rings, that is, rings targeted at male couples.

Times have changed so much that people today – especially straight people – may not really appreciate what a big deal this is. Just over five years ago, LGBTQ+ couples secured the right to marry at the federal level. But in more than half the States, we can still be discriminated against (e.g. lose our jobs) for being gay. So, having our experience normalized in the media is important and affirming in ways that may be hard for some to understand. At the same time, there are a growing number of young people who are coming out at a younger age, and who are much more comfortable with sexuality and gender expression as a spectrum than generations past.

My writing today was triggered by two things – a recent Out Magazine article, and an LGBTQ romance series I just finished. I want to write a bit about both.

I think there is an assumption that, because of being entertainers, actors and musicians can be as flamboyant as they want. But there is still tremendous pressure in Hollywood to conform … both to appeal to the widest possible audience, and so that actors are not limited to roles representing LGBTQ+ characters. Said another way, there is significant social pressure and heteronormative expectations in those jobs, too.

The Out Magazine article is entitled 20 LGBTQ+ Entertainers Who Made the Out100, and it does share a wonderful collection of artists. But … it is still a pretty short list, a subset of the 27th annual Out 100. Still, it is really wonderful to see the varied list of public figures paving the way for LGBTQ+ rights and recognition.

I have been out of work on medical leave since shortly after I wrote my last post. As I’ve shared on this blog, I have been dealing with chronic health issues since my youngest was born twelve years ago. But I have been through a particularly difficult period in the past eighteen months, and my body’s reaction to the second Covid vaccine was a breaking point in my ability to continue to work.

Being home has been … tough. Who is a workaholic if you take away the work? I haven’t *not* worked since I was 15 years old. I worked all through college, including a full time job while getting my second Masters and my Ph.D.. So, it’s been an adjustment to be home. Being home due to the pandemic resulted in way more time with my kids and my wife. But I have responsibility for six teams comprised of over 200 people, so the demands of work kept most of my energy and attention on work.

I am working about one day a week to keep up with 2022 planning and year-end performance reviews, but I have spent most of my energy curling inwards, dealing with health issues. I’ve been to half a dozen different doctors, had several diagnostic procedures and a biopsy, and more labwork than I’ve ever had before. I have received a ton of unhelpful recommendations or conflicting advice. Mostly, I have been left with more questions than answers, and a lot of grief about the turn my life has taken.

During the first year or so of the pandemic, I watched a ton of anime with my boys. I have a post in draft about that, which I hope to share at some point. My health issues result in a lot of chronic inflammation, which is depressive. So it’s probably unsurprising that recently I have felt the need to isolate, to grieve, and to reflect as much as possible while still caring for my family. I have found refuge in reading LGBTQ romance, though I wasn’t really looking for it.

When I finished my Ph.D. I found a list of the Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time, and I read most of them. I’ve continued to read mostly in that genre since then. I read one action / romance series that had a slow burn male couple, and I was hooked. I’m not alone – romance literature is almost 40% of the paperback market – the genre is basically keeping the publishing industry afloat.

Coming back to the theme of this post – the importance of representation – I just love seeing my community, our love and our social / family challenges represented in what I am reading now. It has been so affirming, and I was immediately hooked. I want to continue to explore the many types of stories that have LGBTQ+ representation, even if the relationship is not central to the story. Some of the books are more focused on the romance, but there is a growing body of historical fiction, of science-fiction, and of a sub-genre called omegaverse that includes mpreg – a genre where men can get pregnant.

It appears that MM (and to a lesser extent, FF) is contributing to the romance reading market in growing way. From the online author / reader groups, I’ve learned that many MM authors are straight women, and about 30% of straight women watch gay porn. I suspect many of the same women are reading the genre. The community of readers seems diverse – and what is it missing in diversity it more than makes up for in warm – and sometimes playful – acceptance of LGBTQ+ relationships.

Many, many of the books touch on challenges that LGBTQ+ individuals face as they come out, navigate the world, and seek to live their best lives. I’ve read hundreds of these books now, and it’s made me realize that for almost my whole life, I’ve read about male protagonists. It’s only been in the last five or ten years that there seems to have been an explosion of exciting stories with adventuresome women at the center. In the LGBTQ+ romance market, it still seems to be mostly MM Romance (male couples). The FF genre doesn’t draw as much of an audience, and, frankly, what I have read hasn’t been great. So, while I’ve been trying to relax and focus on my own self-care, I’ve been reading MM romances and connecting to online communities for reading recommendations.

A piece of fan art depicting two men touching each other; the men have Liam and Zayn’s distinctive tattoos on their hands.

One of the series I enjoyed is called Famous by Eden Finley, which takes place in the same world as her Fake Boyfriend series. The Famous series follows the members of a boy band on hiatus, and it seems to be loosely based on (or inspired by) One Direction (1D). The author talks about the pressures each of the boys face to appear straight and romantically available for their fans. Over the course of the series we see just how destructive that pressure is to these young men and their ability to thrive.

One day, I ended up down a YouTube rabbit hole, watching videos about One Direction. Of course, there are loads of wildly obsessed young women in the audience at their shows. But there is also a body of video compilations and fan fiction which imagine different members of the band as gay couples – some of Liam and Zayn (‘Ziam’) before Zayn left the group, and many more strident voices imagining Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles (‘Larry’) as a couple.

Besties – Louis on the left, Harry on the right. I love this one, though it was likely photoshopped together, as many “Larry” photos are.

I was busy raising my boys (who are 12 and 14 now) when One Direction was together, so I missed most of the songs and the mania surrounding the group. But looking back now, they were so young when the band was formed, and there are so many videos of them all in adorable puppy piles, living, traveling, creating music, recording, and performing together. They seem to have all been physically affectionate with one another, mutually appreciative, and emotionally connected to some degree. They were young, achieving fame, and (in spite of their media training) not too self-conscious in those early days. For people desperately seeking LGBTQ+ representation in the world (myself included), it’s not hard to ship ‘Larry’ in the pictures and videos available online.

Although there will always be rabid fans obsessing about their favorite entertainers, I think it’s also the absence of healthy LGBTQ+ representation that drives some of this crazy behavior. I honestly don’t feel strongly one way or the other about One Direction – I was definitely not in the target demographic in their heyday! I know Louis and Harry lived together in London at one point, and Harry’s wardrobe is quite gender fluid, so I wouldn’t be surprised if his sexual orientation is too.

Side note: Harry is starring in an upcoming movie called The Policeman, which is based on the life of E.M. Forster. Forster was in love with a married policeman in the 1950s, and the book (and now the movie) is based on the relationship between the three of them. I love that these stories are making their way into the modern / public consciousness, because it does help raise awareness both of how far we’ve come in making the world a safe and welcoming place for the LGBTQ+ community.

Anyways, as I continued down my 1D rabbit hole, I learned that HBO produced an an animated movie that depicted Harry and Louis in an intimate (sexual) relationship with one another, and I personally felt that crossed a line that made me really uncomfortable. Apparently, as much as the “Larries” love to speculate about their bromance, and from an article on Insider, it’s clear the show crossed a line for many fans too.

Louis shared in an interview that Harry is his best friend and that the constant speculation has made their relationship awkward – “Me and Harry are best friends,” he clarified. “People look into our every move — it is actually affecting the way me and Harry are in public.” Louis also said he was “pissed”, and posted on Twitter than he is straight. He articulated how unkind it was to his long-time girlfriend, as well has for his child. In a different interview, former 1D bandmate Zayn also said that it was too much, and that the fan speculation was destructive for Louis and Harry’s relationship in real life.

In reading and reflecting on all this material, what I realized it’s that this type of fan fiction is also destructive of healthy, affectionate relationships between young heterosexual men. If all that lovely affection is sexualized, young straight men won’t feel comfortable engaging with each other in that way, and that is also a terrible loss.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I will just wrap up by saying the LGBTQ+ romance genre – and it’s associated author / reader groups – is a wonderfully affirming space. Since I’m in a bad spot personally, being able to rely on stories that are HEA or HFN (Happy Ever After or Happy for Now) has also been a really important part of being able to relax into reading the stories as an escape. There are many, many authors I could recommend, but in terms of series or books that really struck me in the past few months, here are a few:

Reese Morrison’s Love Language series is among my favorite series of the year. The books include individuals who are Deaf or hearing impaired, transgender, intersex, ace (asexual), and gender fluid. There are multiple sex scenes that include BDSM and kinks, and the final book includes polyamory, so the material may not appeal or be comfortable for all readers. I have learned a lot about my own unconscious biases along this journey, and I have come to realize that consensual poly relationships don’t bother me if they are well written. I struggle a lot more with the depiction of open relationships – perhaps because of my own insecurities? In any case, the way that Morrison represents how these individuals navigate their own gender identifies, sexual orientation, and the complex dynamics of an MMMX relationship was, I felt, really beautifully done.

I’ve enjoyed reading Roan Parrish’s entire backlist. One of the series was set near the neighborhood where I lived in Philadelphia, and it was fun to revisit some old haunts through her stories. Mostly recently I finished Rend, which is the second book in her Riven series. One of the characters deals with extreme anxiety due to childhood trauma, and I found the unfolding of the couples’ relationship to be very emotional and beautifully written. Similarly, one of the main characters (MCs) in Alexis Hall’s Glitterland suffers from bipolar disorder, and I appreciated that the MC’s mental health was central to the story, depicted in a painfully honest way that made the unfolding even more poignant and beautiful.

And finally, I recently finished E.M. Lindsey’s series called Irons & Works, which is based on friendships and romances established in and around a tattoo parlor in a small town in Colorado. In each book, one of the MCs is contending with a disability, whether it’s a military injury that has put them in a wheelchair, visual impairment, being Deaf, and more. The variety of experiences, how they navigate their lives, their relationships, and even intimacy was really beautifully done.

Towards the end of the Eden Finley’s Fake Boyfriend series, the lead singer of the band Eleven sings a duet of Chris Stapleton’s song Tennessee Whiskey with the lead singer of his opening act. The scene is fraught with tension because the two had been lovers in the past, and the performance was spontaneous. That scene really stuck with me for some reason, and I ended up writing to the author about it – see the image at right. Our exchange is what inspired this blog post.

So that’s it … seeing ourselves represented in media, hearing stories where historically hetero-centric moments (like country love song duets) are re/written through an LGBTQ+ lens are so incredibly affirming and important. I am so glad the world is changing, and that it is hopefully normalizing this kind of representation for future generations.

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