Stepping into the Teen section of my favorite bookstore, I’m bombarded by colorful covers and familiar names. The YA community is exceedingly active online, always heralding their favorite books. I stumble upon a new title—clearly displaying the makings of a gay romance on the cover—and read through the cutesy synopsis and author bio to find that it is, in fact, an #ownvoices gay romance.
Ownvoices—a term coined by Corinne Duyvis—is a hashtag used to denote that a character and their author share a marginalized identity. In this instance, it refers to gay authors writing gay characters.
As I scan the other shelves, I stumble upon so many familiar, gay titles praised by the online YA community, and I can’t help but think: why not this one? And then I realize: it was written by a gay man.
I see online discussions about how ownvoices gay books (books by gay people about gay people) are rarely received as well as the same books by straight women. Looking at books like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Autoboyography, and even Song of Achilles—which isn’t YA yet has been heralded by the YA crowd—I have to wonder why. What is it about gay boy stories written by straight women that makes these books so much more appealing to mass audiences?
Not all gay books written by AFAB (assigned female at birth) authors are written by straight women, as many are written by closeted trans and nonbinary people exploring their gender through fiction. These stories are still a vital—and, potentially, #ownvoices—exploration of the gay, male experience. However, with estimates of the trans population numbering 1 in every 250 adults, trans people can’t possibly account for the overwhelming instances of seemingly straight women dominating the gay male fiction demographic.
So where do these numbers come from? A 2017 article in The Atlantic states that 55% of YA readers are adults. While YA is supposed to be a demographic for readers 13-19, the lines between reader demographics has blurred so the main influencing numbers in YA book sales are over the age of 18, while it’s younger generations that are increasingly more queer.
When the audience is largely straight cis women, books by straight cis women sell the most. This ties into issues regarding the queer community—fetishizing of queer men at the forefront—but also showcases a key issue surrounding the diversity movement. When majority readers view diversity as a “trend”, they read to participate without considering authenticity.
Gay male characters who read more like cis women—feminine and flamboyant—are more relatable to cis women, and appeal more to these audiences whereas other types of authentic gay characters are seen as unrealistic or unlikable.
Tropes like the “sassy gay friend”, “wearing the pants in the relationship”, and even the gay character who is “as beautiful as a woman” are abundant in stories written by cis straight women even as queer people point out that they’re often harmful and dehumanizing. While gay men who fit these tropes do exist, gay men under the “straight gaze” have often been forced to live this reality or be denied their gayness, but for cis straight woman readers, these gay characters allow an opportunity to read “diverse” books, while still being able to insert themselves into the narrative as the more feminine of the men. It also makes these gay relationships more palatable by reinforcing images of how these gay couples are “just like” straight couples.
Readers who read YA in search of representative diversity often struggle reading books by cis gay men because these books are overwhelmingly written by white cis men who fail to explore intersectionality. Many Goodreads reviews for these books discuss racism, misogyny, transphobia, and other issues as really distracting from the good in the book.
The tone of ownvoices gay stories also tends to differ from the ones written by cis straight women. Even lighter, romantic ownvoices stories tend to touch upon issues of homophobia and queer pain. The non-ownvoices books are more likely to bypass these topics. Many queer readers are weary of reading about queer pain, yet these stories serve to undercut the allocishet voices that have been dictating these stories for years.
There’s no simple answer to garnering gay men the same readership as straight women. The world is rife with homophobia, and diversity is still viewed as “unnecessary” by many readers, but acceptance isn’t passive. It’s our job as readers to acknowledge our own biases. We must also do our best to support marginalized writers in what we read and what we promote.
Looking to read more ownvoices gay books? Check out some of the authors below:
In fact, you can read an author interview with Julian Winters right here!
What have been some of your favorite ownvoices gay books? Share them with us in the comments or on Twitter!
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