Lessons of the Past by Izzy Van Swelm

When only a teenager my first full time job was working for the politically funded ‘Women’s Committee’ at the GLC in County Hall, London. It was a controversial place to work as we were giving grants to women’s campaigning groups. Everything from ‘The Black Women’s Collective’ to ‘Lesbians for Children without Fathers’ to funding Rape Crisis lines, and I believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing. Across the Thames, the Conservative government ensured that we were ridiculed every morning in the Tory press and I read each article as a badge of honour. The unit who researched and found these needy groups was made up solely of women, and as I was to learn most of them were Lesbians. I was 17 and as wide eyed as they come and they took me under their collective wing. I met some of the loveliest women at that time and they taught me a lot. However, one lesson I learned was that because you are a member of an oppressed group, and united in the hope to make things right, doesn’t mean you are automatically a good or pleasant person.

Within each campaigning group are the reasonable and the extreme. The extreme of this political unit were the women who exhibited misandry and indeed wished for a society completely devoid of male influence, even where procreation was concerned. A leading feminist of the time, Bell Hooks had discussed that the issue of ‘man-hating’ was a reaction to patriarchal oppression and most of the ‘sisters’ in the Women’s Unit accepted this as fact. The passion for the cause and the anger at male oppression bordered on fanatical when the funding, for the Women’s Unit, became threatened and a political time bomb.

This is when life became difficult for me because I realised in order to be accepted and happy in this environment I had never exactly been open about my sexuality. I didn’t like the misandry and made it clear I didn’t support such radical views and in order to underline this I became open that I liked men, some of them very much! From then on the majority treated me as a traitor to the cause, which was unfair as I was still a wholehearted supporter of sexual equality and an ardent feminist. I still retained some good friends but it was never the inclusive place for me it had been when I joined.

Several years later minus any job, I lived in the gay capital of the UK, Brighton. I had gay landlords, gay friends went to gay clubs and for a time I had never felt so accepted in the tolerant gay environment of Brighton’s clubland. I was older and wiser and had obviously learned that in any group or section of a population there is good, bad and ugly. This was the same in Brighton as anywhere. Sadly, I also learned that however much I wished it, technically I was not a gay man. I didn’t totally fit there either. I did however, find love and on leaving Brighton concluded that after a certain age we should resist the desire to be part of a bigger group just to fit in and hide ourselves within it. I will never fit in this hetero normative or patriarchal society, but I cannot expect a perfect fit and neither can anyone else. Eventually, we create our own groups and extended families and if we are lucky it will include people who will accept us for who we truly are.

This leads me tangentially to Queer Romance. There is a tendency for writers of Queer Romance to band together, look only to each other for support and contact those who already believe as we do. This is the same as being a teenager and wanting to fit in and then hide within the comfort of a like minded group. However, until writers of Queer Romance accept that they deserve a place in mainstream fiction, and make a move away from the protective group, our books will always remain a minority sub genre. There are writers here who are so talented and write so beautifully that to stay in a small, if accepting, group is almost criminal. It is important that Queer Romance is mainstream, seen and read by as many as possible because until that happens simple expressions of love between same sex couples like holding hands, will always remain a political statement.

 About Izzy Van Swelm

Izzy van Swelm is proudly English, an eternal student who happily studied English Studies and Literature for eleven years at University, until she had to rejoin the real world. She counts herself as a bit of a vampire expert after writing her doctoral thesis on the Metamorphosis of the Soul as Witnessed in the Vampire Literature of the 19th and 20th Century!!  Izzy has her first Queer Romance novel,  A Soul Mate for Sin, coming out in early 2015 published by Wilde City Press. As yet she has no direct links and pages on social media but that will hopefully change soon.

Although Izzy van Swelm is unknown in social media circles mention her name to www.prismbookalliance.com and Beverley Jansen will be able to answer for her.

27 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I am personally very concerned with the fact that queer romance seems to be considered ‘lesser’ within the romance genre overall. I think romance is also seen as ‘lesser’ within genre fiction but I don’t think this has to do with queer romance as much as the way the romance genre is viewed by mainstream society as a whole.

    In your last paragraph you write:
    “However, until writers of Queer Romance accept that they deserve a place in mainstream fiction, and make a move away from the protective group, our books will always remain a minority sub genre. There are writers here who are so talented and write so beautifully that to stay in a small, if accepting, group is almost criminal. It is important that Queer Romance is mainstream, seen and read by as many as possible because until that happens simple expressions of love between same sex couples like holding hands, will always remain a political statement.”

    I am really curious and intrigued by this part. What do you think queer authors can do to make queer romance mainstream? What are we not doing now that we could be doing in the future? This paragraph seems to be imply that queer romance’s ‘lesser’ status within the romance genre and genre fiction as a whole is because of something queer romance authors are doing or not doing, and I would be interested to here you expand on this idea :)

    • E.E. Ottoman thank you for your comment. I feel there are actually things that queer romance writers, or rather I think their publishers’ do to market our titles that does sideline. When I mentioned to my brother that my MCs were male and it was a romance he said ‘oh you mean gay porn.’ I was horrified by this comment, as my brother is of the ‘live and let live’ school of thought and no way homophobic. I have been researching ideas as to why he should immediately feel this way. However, to look at something simple. Covers of m/m romance especially, I could see how the books would be perceived as erotica and porn. Nearly all are adorned with naked torsos, a lot without heads! Extreme objectification. What does this say to prospective readers.

      Of course this is far too simple to explain everything, and by no means do I think queer writers are the problem by any means. I just feel that sometimes we stay within an accepting enclave on social media etc. (I am including myself in this), and don’t question how we can break down small barriers to start the process of acceptance by non queer readers.

      • This is a really interesting reply thank you for taking the time to get back to me.

        I think there is two things going on here. First is queer romance being a lesser known/less respected part of romance. I feel like that is slowly changing but there are probably more ways for queer romance authors to reach out to heterosexual romance author. I am torn though about this because I feel that while we do have some responsibility to be building bridges with “mainsteam” aka heterosexual romance, authors/publishers/reviewers/ readers of heterosexual romance to reach out to us as well. I think that is happening to some extent, for instance there are authors who write primarily heterosexual romance participating in this event.

        On the other hand the reason this event is happening at all because larger more heterosexual romance focused events tend to shuffle queer romance off into one day or one post. Also it is my understanding that large romance organization, such as Romance Writers of America, have a very mixed history when it comes to queer romance including some out right homophobia, and some of that or the consequences of that last up until today.

        Then I think there is the wider issue of romance as a whole not being valued in our society. I have too heard gay romance is the same as gay porn (my brother in law said that to me when I first started write) on the other hand romance as a whole is often referred to, even by journalists, as “mommy porn” or “porn for women.” So I tend to see that has having less to do with the way gay romance in particular is view and more to do with the way romance in general is treated.

        I think both the lack of knowledge about/acceptance of queer romance within the romance genre and the lack of respect for romance as a genre need to be address. I struggle though with figuring out how much of that is my role as an author and as a queer person and how much of that should fall upon the “mainstream” being willing to extend the hand to me, as it were.

        So I think it’s a very complicated issue but you make some good points and it definitely needs to be brought up and talked about.

        just as a quick side note on readers: I’m not quite sure what kind of queer romance you read/write :) It is my understand that f/f has a mostly queer readership but m/m readership is much more ambiguous and including a VERY LARGE number of readers/writers who identify as straight and cisgender. So I think that, at least in the case of m/m, we are already reaching well past a queer-only audience :)

        • E.E. you make good points and I totally agree that all the issues raised through posts on this website and others need to be discussed (partly because healthy debate is fun) The more important issues are discussed the more the misunderstandings which cloud the arguments are swept away. I’m someone who believes that having ciswomen read queer romance both m/m and f/f is a good way to integrate into mainstream. However, I accept your points that romance is seen as the poor relation of fiction. I was discussing this with Alexis Hall yesterday and I said then that I think romance is romance and further still fiction is fiction will be harder concepts to achieve than love is love, but I fervently believe that all three are worth striving for. Thank you again for reading my post. My first under my pen name :)

          • It’s a very complicated issue, he contributes usefully 😛

            I just wanted to say I find a lot of the conversations springing up around QRM really valuable and interesting, and I’m actually seeing those conversations *centralised* feels like something I’ve been looking for without really realising it ever since I discovered m/m was a thing that could, and in fact was, defined differently to queer fiction … which was *cough* all of a year ago. So don’t let me oversell myself here 😉

            I definitely think there are a lot of overlapping marginalisations going on here, as EE says – in that romance is a devalued genre, for largely sexist reasons, and within that queer romance is devalued again, for reasons a lot more subtle, but at the same time, not always devoid of homophobia.

            One of our prevailing principles for QRM was that we didn’t want to set ourselves up in a self-created ghetto in response to the ghetto that mainstream romance is *sometimes* really inclined to shove us into :) And that’s why I’m really glad that there are het writers on the roster who were willing to get involved and make this statement, or tell this story, or whatever you want to call it.

            I always very much value the action and support of people for whom it is not a necessity. To an extent, it’s rather easy to stand up and make a noise about something you believe in because it directly affects you, but it’s something else entirely to do the same when you could just as easily walk away and never have to think about it again.

            For what’s it worth, I didn’t see Izzy’s post as suggesting we should be waiting for the mainstream to kindly notice us, so much as operate with awareness that there are people who are trying to build bridges for us too. Obviously allyship is … politically difficult, and can occasionally come down to cookie-hunting. And while obviously it’s not the job of queer people to, uh, reward allyship, and behave in a manner that makes straight people feel comfortable and welcomed, I don’t necessarily think anything is gained by treating every ally as potential enemy.

            So while I don’t think we should stand around trying to look friendly until the mainstream decides we’re welcome to play in their treehouse, I also don’t think we plant landmines around our own 😉

          • Hey AJH :)
            I didn’t read Izzy’s article as saying we (as either the queer community or queer romance) should wait passively to be accepted either. I think what I was trying to say, maybe not clearly, is that I think that it needs to be a two way street and I often think about and struggle with how much of building these bridges is my job and how much should be the “meansteam” acting as allies.

            I’ve been pondering your interpretation about allyship. I think someone further down in the comments said queer romance and romance in general can be cliquish and I agree. I also think we shouldn’t be planting landmines around our sandbox. I DO wish more people read queer romance, of course I do. I think Silvia Violet and LA Witt spoke really well to how queer romance can be meaningfull for straight and cisgender readers. I know most of the Gay Romance Northwest Meet-Up I attended a few weeks ago was spent talking about how we as queer romance authors can reach out to a wider audience, Tracy Timmons-Gray has written a lot about this too.

            I guess I just see a lot of the community trying to reach out to a wider audience but also know that there are a lot of things working against us, more than just our desire to be an insular community. But on the other hand we could always do better.

  • I think a lot of us have been trying to make queer romance mainstream since the start. And it’s slowly but noticeably happening. RT magazine only recently started reviewing queer romance, for example. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It’s really because of the energy and enthusiasm of the authors, publishers and readers that the mainstream romance world has made a place for us at all. When I remember what the situation was like back in 2007, which was when I started, I think we can be quite proud of how far we’ve come. (Which is not to say that we don’t have a lot further still to go, of course.)

    • Oh I do hope my post doesn’t seem like I am disrespecting what queer romance authors have done or are doing. That isn’t my point at all and I would hate for anyone to feel that. I do think that simple things like covers could mislead, but really I think my point was merely that it is easy to become comfortable in a small world that is in total agreement with us, maybe because in RL we have so much to overcome or accept. Sometimes supporting our friends and fellow writers is helping them to conquer outside of the safe enclaves.

      • I guess that the assumption that we aren’t already attempting to break out of safe enclaves irked me a little, because as far as I’m aware, we are, and we always have been. It’s just that it’s an uphill fight all the way and we’ve never made as much progress as fast as we might have liked. For example, this event in itself happened as a reaction to the fact that we had been shunted off to the sidelines from a more mainstream event – so this *is* us standing up and saying ‘look, we’re here and it’s important that we’re here.’ Admittedly we’re doing this particular thing in our own little enclave, but sometimes you do that in order to recharge for the next bout of taking on an indifferent to hostile world.

        On the cover art front, you would not believe how much better the standard of cover art is these days than what it used to be. But that’s been something that a lot of people have already had to fight for. I’m not sure where you’ve been hanging out, but have a look at Samhain’s front page and you’ll see that the m/m romance is the only one without bare chested blokes. I’m continually thankful that these days they let me have covers with people with clothes on. But having said that, some people haven’t minded the cheesy covers – and there are plenty of cheesy bare-chested m/f romance covers, so there’s an element of personal taste going on there.

        And then again, this is a hugely diverse community anyway. With gay, straight, lesbian and bisexual people, cis and trans* and intersex, asexuals, aromantics and genderqueer people of all orientations, etc this tends to be a place where we already have enough diversity to have our own conflicts. An awful lot of work has been done in the community over the past few years in acknowledging and getting to grips with that fact too.

        Basically, I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you that we need to support each other in our continuing attempts to conquer the mainstream. I’m just saying that we can also afford to celebrate how much we’ve already achieved.

  • “It is important that Queer Romance is mainstream, seen and read by as many as possible because until that happens simple expressions of love between same sex couples like holding hands, will always remain a political statement.”

    I really don’t think that romance novels of any stripe–and I say that as an avid reader of them–are what’s standing between me and full equality.

    And to add to the above, “However, until writers of Queer Romance accept that they deserve a place in mainstream fiction, and make a move away from the protective group, our books will always remain a minority sub genre”–that’s a really troubling statement.

    So conclusion #1, queer romance novels going mainstream is a necessary precedent to equality and acceptance;
    Conclusion #2, queer romance writers (like those gosh-darned misandrist, straight-hating lesbians in paragraph 1 and those yes-please-appropriate-our-culture queer men in paragraph 2) are holding *themselves* back from that mainstream acceptance.

    Am I missing something? Because “it’s YOUR fault we don’t accept you” isn’t an argument I generally expect to see when someone’s professing to support me and mine. Actually–no, I do expect to see it, but I’m always disappointed, just the same.

    • I hope you don’t mind if I join this conversation. I do very much see your points here, and I feel these are valuable discussions to have, but I think I read the post as being more personal than perhaps you did. To me, it seemed like it was primarily about feeling excluded from subcultures of which you’re supposed to be a part.

      I mean, again, in my personal experience, what queer means, and who it encompasses, has actually changed quite a lot in the last decade. And I’m very aware that we’ve nominally embraced a lot of people that we, in practice, are often quite bad at embracing. Heck, there are still places where people who ought to know better are still bisexuals to pick a side, and I think it’s that unhelpful focus on sides that the post is mostly about.

      • I feel as though we read two separate pieces; perhaps this is because I don’t know the author and don’t have any background other than what’s here on the page.

        But what I’ve got in front of me is a piece that, for instance, massively misinterprets bell hooks (and capitalizes her name, which frankly kind of doubles down on the misinterpretation), who was specifically commenting on the early years of women’s lib and was VERY critical of “man-hating” and separatism. It’s a piece that flatly says that queer romance novels are going to bring about a world in which same-sex affection isn’t a political act, which is an extraordinary statement indeed. It’s a piece that creates some seriously hard to swallow straw-lesbians.

        Exclusion by the main body of the queer community of bi people, trans people, queers of colour, queers with disabilities, etc, is a massive problem. One or more of these issues may be what the author is trying to decry. However, that’s not clear on the page. What appears, instead, is that the female author felt excluded from a largely lesbian group because she didn’t hate men, and excluded from a largely gay male group because she wasn’t a gay man. Those are rather different; I hope we can agree on that. Neither of those things is an issue of mainstream queer culture (white, cis, able-bodied, monosexual) excluding people with less privilege.

        So for the author to follow up those sections by trying to conclude that what’s holding queer rights back is A) ourselves, for being too clique-y, and B) not enough straight people reading queer romance … that’s quite a leap, and it’s one that strikes me as either being ill-considered or simply inappropriate.

        • i don’t think that’s too great a leap to make at all. we ARE too cliquey.

          and not enough people read queer romance at all.

          …it’s why we’re here, now, talking about it.

          • No, sorry–the leap I mean is this one: “It is important that Queer Romance is mainstream, seen and read by as many as possible because until that happens simple expressions of love between same sex couples like holding hands, will always remain a political statement.”

            Being out to friends, family, and colleagues when it is safe to do so; supporting queer artists, leaders, and thinkers; voting and supporting those who need it: those will move us closer to “simple expressions of love” being non-political. But queer romance novels? Really? “Until that happens”–that’s a heck of a statement. Queer romance novels hitting the NYT Bestsellers’ list are the sine qua non of LGBT rights?

        • I can see how it came across that way. I read it as as an exploration of being one of the excluded queers. For example, there were some authors who didn’t want to be directly involved with QRM because they felt just as excluded by ‘mainstream’ queer groups.

          On a hopefully less controversial note, while I don’t think more people reading queer romance is going to save the world, I do think any fiction about and/or by marginalised people has some power to touch hearts and change minds and etc. etc.

  • Today I was at the library and I was upset I could not find in the database a clear cut LGBTQ section. However when I finally located a gay fiction book (and found it in the fiction section with all the other fiction books that weren’t labeled with something like Sci fi) I had another frustrated moment but then I stopped. I ran my fingers over the cover, over the spines of the near by books and I smiled. It was a victory. That’s how it felt in that moment. It was accepted. Wanted. It was out there with all other general fiction books. Thats amazing- Regardless of how annoyed I was trying to find it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us all.

  • I have rarely empathised with a post so much.
    My late teens were spent in and around the Vauxhall Tavern, and the group of people I most identified with were gay men, I didn’t want to be a man – but the relationships of my friends were alien to me. I put on a public face for a long time, with some disastrous results. I tried to explain my ‘me’ to friends, but the puzzlement – ‘so you’re a woman who likes men ? – whats the problem?’ or the accusation of attention seeking was a little crushing. I wasn’t straight and I certainly wasn’t gay, so I resigned myself to being odd. As is often the case we gravitate to similar people, and I was lucky in that.
    On the book/ community front I agree that sometimes because we operate in a small community that is very supportive it’s easy to believe that things are easier than they are.
    The gay porn comment – I’ve lost count of the amount of times that’s been said to me, often by the most open minded of people in other areas.

    • Karen your comment made my cry because I feared, in hiding many aspects of myself in my post that I didn’t explain myself well and alienated the very people I align myself with. I shall reply to my other commenters after reading them all very carefully. I do not want nor wish to offend through replying thoughtlessly. I had to say Karen your comment meant a lot to this new and naive writer

      • You are welcome, I’ve been on the verge of blogging about QRM for about 2 weeks, kind of along similar(ish) lines, so hopefully I understood what you meant. Usually reading these kinds of posts I agree with elements and disregard others, but this really was – gosh that’s just like me. I hope it was a happy cry though

  • Right to Reply –

    I want to write romance where love is love, where romance is romance and fiction is fiction, it is the equality I campaign for. I want to make readers feel good. I want to help some readers feel good about themselves. I want to bring thought and joy to the lives of people I will never know personally. I want to assist with the constant drip feed of good fiction with LGBTQ characters, which will encourage straight people, when seeing gay and lesbian couples holding hands, to smile affectionately at them NOT laugh or worse.

    I also want to make readers think about the more marginalised sections of the LGBTQ community and understand not laugh, turn away or attack. I did not realise when so proud that I was contributing to QRM that I would need to address my stance or understanding of gender politics as well as my hopes for romance novels.

    I am not a confrontational person and neither is my author persona, but I felt the need to reply, as certain comments hurt me deeply as did their misinterpretation of my post.

    I realise that my words were probably naive, and that my post has been so badly misinterpreted is my fault for misunderstanding the requirements, maybe.

    To Alex Beechcroft – I apologise. So much has been achieved by many wonderful queer writers. It was never my intention to belittle or demean that achievement. I was hoping to show my support for the progression of those achievements and one way I felt might help.

    To E.E. Ottoman – Your comments were so interesting and deeply thought out. I heartily agree with many and where I disagreed I felt we had enough common ground that an interesting discussion could be had at some time.

    To Molly – I did not suggest in my post that Queer romance or further readership of said would change or further LGBTQ rights. QRM as I see it is not about a huge tidal wave of change but a gentle beckoning to the mainstream world of fiction to offer us a hand of friendship and tolerance-
    In answer to your
    1) I do NOT believe neither did I say that becoming part of mainstream fiction is ‘a necessary precedent to…’anybody’s ‘equality and acceptance.’
    2) I do not know how you interpreted my words as you did. You do not know me but I realise that you should not need to in order to understand my post, which I have said was possibly naive as I thought we were discussing QR.
    I hold back personal info behind my pen name. However, you were reading about my 17yo self, as I did say clearly. I was looking for a place of acceptance and sharing the pain of that younger me who, having thought they had found such places, learns they have not. Those ‘lesbians’ of para 1 were my friends and colleagues who I loved as an adoring 17yo feminist and still do as an adult. Yes, some were misandrists and some hated straights and I did not agree of get on with those women that is reality. Being lesbian or gay or trans or queer does not make you automatically good and or correct. To think that would be fetishisation. I find your comments about my life in Brighton and the suggestion that I would ever say ‘it’s your fault we don’t accept you’ truly offensive.

    I not only support this community, I am part of it. I accept that some of my wording could have been better but my meanings have never been more hopeful or felt more trodden upon.

  • Oh dear, I missed all of this & feel so badly about the misunderstandings & unhappy feelings that occurred :( Though I can see where some of the misunderstanding came from, I sense nothing but good, positive intentions in this piece & can all too easily see myself in this writer’s place.

    We’re all human & it’s both sad and scary, yet also indisputably, a fact of life, that no matter how much thought & consideration we put into something, no matter carefully we try to express ourselves, it’s always possible to unintentionally convey things we didn’t mean to convey, or to simply be misunderstood. Because words & the way they’re put together, have so many different nuances. Particularly when talking about sensitive subjects.

    It never fails to amaze or sadden me how easy it is to be misunderstood, how great the potential for unintentionally hurting or offending someone when that was the last thing that was intended. And equally, the potential for being hurt. And to some degree, the more we reach out to each other across the lines that separate us, the greater that potential for all of that.

    I would just wish we can all try to be understanding & forgiving of each other’s differences & missteps & bumping into each other’s sensitive spots, and give each other the benefit of the doubt or ask for clarification, as some did above, if there is a question of meaning.

    It hurts that people went away from this hurting. At the risk of sounding like a big, sappy idiot, I wish I could give gigantic hugs to everyone involved in this discussion.

    • Thank you for your understanding and conciliatory reply Pam. I can see my faults in this piece and would give hugs to all and do digitally. I need to develop a thicker skin and maybe should have chosen a smaller arena for my virgin flight. We live and learn…

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