Monday, August 18, 2014

RAINBOW ROMANCE: LGBT Historical Romance

by Kate McMurray

I love historical romance.

You can tell me all you want that it’s dying, or that its popularity is ebbing, or that nobody reads anymore. It hasn’t been very prominent at the last few conventions I’ve attended, that’s true. But there’s still a solid audience for it. My particular frothy confection of choice are light Regency romances, and I’ll consume eight of those in a row like they’re candy. But I love all manner of historicals: medieval, antebellum American, Civil War, Ancient Rome, etc. If I see a Jazz Age book, it’s pretty much an autobuy.

But I’m also a big history nerd. I guess that’s part of the appeal for me; I love the historical detail and being transported into a part of the past. This is good and bad; it makes the genre appealing, but I’m well-read enough that serious historical errors will pull me right out of a book. But, regardless, I would like for there to be more LGBT historical romance novels because I would read all of them.

LGBT historicals are tricky, though. There are a few traps that don’t really exist in traditional heterosexual historical romance. The fundamental issue is that prior to World War II, the way homosexuality was conceived of was completely different. It’s not so much that being gay was condemned as certain sex acts were. Gay was not yet an identity, but sodomy was referred to as a crime against nature prior to the twentieth century. Homosexual romantic relationships certainly existed but were more rare; many men who we might label as gay now married women and fathered children but had affairs with men on the side. There were codes for finding each other, including red scarves, perhaps the precursor to the twentieth century hankie code.

Even as late as the 1920s, if homosexuality was acknowledged at all, it wasn’t as widely condemned as it was by the 1940s; New York even had pick-up spots. (There was a section of the bar at the Hotel Astor in Times Square which was basically reserved for men seeking other men for sex, and the ownership of the bar was complicit.)

What’s interesting to me is that men were arrested and tried for so-called crimes against nature starting at the very beginning of the American republic, but these suits weren’t very common until the late nineteenth century, when all of the sudden, men were put on trial for sodomy far more frequently, as if the very moral code of the United States and Europe was shifting to be more conservative and punitive. (Think of Oscar Wilde, for example.) Interestingly, female homosexuality was hardly even conceived of and so mostly overlooked, though there is ample evidence that there were women carrying on sexual affairs with each other.

(If you want some further reading, I highly recommend GAY NEW YORK by George Chauncey; LOVE STORIES: SEX BETWEEN MEN BEFORE HOMOSEXUALITY by Jonathan Ned Katz; and STRANGERS: HOMOSEXUAL LOVE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY by Graham Robb.)

So attitudes were different. I recently wrote a story about a dandy living in New York in the 1770s, an era in which being a fashionable or even effeminate man did not necessarily translate into being perceived as being gay. The people of the era didn’t think that way. I suspect, and there is historical evidence to support, that the effeminate men of the eighteenth century—referred to as macaronis by their contemporaries—were experimenting with gender presentation and were likely having sex with other men, but again, “gay” as a concept is something no one conceived of until the twentieth century.

So it makes writing about affairs between men prior to the 1940s a bit difficult. Men were having sex with each other and very likely falling in love—I’d like to think so, anyway, and it’s part of why I find the genre appealing—but they would have talked about their desires differently.

The other tricky thing is that because of all this, and because sodomy in particular was a crime for so long, happy endings can be elusive. LGBT historical romances are unlikely to have a marriage-and-babies epilogue, for instance; many end ambiguously or with some kind of subterfuge committed on the part of the heroes or heroines so that they can be together. I’ve read a few with sham marriages, for example, or with the protagonists living somewhere remote, or with elaborate lies concocted so that the relationship can carry on in secret. It makes those endings feel a little bittersweet instead of happily ever after.

I think that’s why a lot of LGBT romance readers say they don’t like historicals—the happy endings are tough to believe in some cases—but I think a case can be made for those characters who do end up making everything work out in the end. What a triumph for those characters.

(And, as an aside, it’s one of the amazing things romance as a genre can do: for a long time almost all fiction with LGBT characters ended tragically, but now we can tell stories of hope, in which these characters, and perhaps our readers, can see how bright the future is.)

Still, I’d like to see authors write more historical LGBT stories because they’re about characters who are largely underrepresented both in the romance genre and in historical narratives generally. I think also that my theory on “barrier to entry” applies here; I’ve long thought that writers of LGBT romance can get away with writing books that are outside the standard romance box because the readers already have overcome the “two characters of the same gender fall in love” barrier. So, too, with historicals; once you’re asking your reader to believe two people of the same gender fall in love (or whatever; let’s not leave B, T, or Q out of the equation, and maybe it’s more than two people—we’re equal opportunity here in the Rainbow Romance column) you can pursue some darker themes. And not just LGBT-related themes; you hardly ever see poverty in a Regency romance even though London in this period was experiencing rampant and horrific poverty—maybe that can be explored in a historical novel.

Maybe I’ll take this on. Maybe a few other enterprising writers will. I’ll be first in line to buy those books.♥

Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She’s currently serving as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at

1 comment:

  1. Kate---Very intersting article! I've written historicals for years, and my research, especially about France, has indicated many references to the hidden "gay" culture. I've referred to it several times in my books. In my 17th century French book, LYSETTE, by Ena Halliday, I indicate that sodomy was referred to (but not considered a crime.) The villain tries to seduce the heroine, and she demurs, saying there might be trouble "in a nine-month". He responds that one may enter harmlessly through the back door, to avoid complications. She is shocked, then remembers some gossip she has heard (and this is a direct quote from my research), "She has so many lovers, her great moons face heavenward." In DREAMS SO FLEETING, by Louisa Rawlings, set in 17th century French theatre (even Moliere makes an appearance!), one of my actors has a gay young lover. And in STOLEN SPRING, by Louisa Rawlings, set in Louis XIV's Versailles, the king's brother, who had many male lovers, yet inpregnated his wife eleven times, is referred to merely as a man with "inclinations." (His widow destroyed his many love letters after his death.) I even used a delicious contemporary quote I had found. When a gentleman at the Court is horrified by being apporached by another man, he is told, "But, monsieur, don't you understand? In France, the nobility. In Spain, the clergy. In Italy, EVERYBODY!"