The Slash Debate continues to go on and the longer it has gone on, the more I wanted to comment on it. The problem is how to do that thoughtfully, acknowledging both sides and the shades of grey in between the major position. If you aren’t aware, the Slash Debate kicked off in response to “Man on Man: The New Gay Romance … … written by and for straight women” by Gendy Alimurung in LA Weekly. Some gay men found the article objectionable because it ignored them completely in explaining about a genre that comes out of their own tradition. This kerfluffle was on the heels of LambdaFail, where straight writers were upset over having been deliberately excluded from awards honoring GLBT literature.
I haven’t completely followed the whole argument as it morphed into a discussion about m/m slash, but one of the major points that developed was that gay men were upset about straight women writing homoerotic fan fiction for their own sexual gratification, feeling that they were being stereotyped in a less than flattering light, that m/m slash was not helping the GLBT movement and that, ultimately, they were being othered in a genre that was fundamentally about them. This upset some members of the m/m slash community who felt that men were trying to tell women how to define their own sexuality, trying to restrict their freedom to write, that gay men had no reason to complain because they did the same thing to women with their drag performances, etc.
This whole argument happened against a backdrop of 2009, where some members of fandom were upset about the portrayal of people of color in fiction, and how fandom treated people of color. Some of the dominant voices during that conversation insisted that white people sit and listen to the people of color, that people of color should be deferred that to when writing people of color, that fundamentally all white people were racists, that just because some people of color were not offended doesn’t mean that a person’s actions aren’t racist. The Slash Debate flips some of that on its head: Gay men are not being deferred to in terms of how they are depicted by others, where those offended are slotted into a minority position that should be ignored because they are not representative.
Where this argument differs from Race!Fail involves sex and the attempts to regulate kink, sexual interests, how we explore them, what is acceptable and not acceptable. People just aren’t comfortable with people trying to dictate those interests and that’s why the slash defenders are probably taking their position: We shouldn’t be judged based on personal and private kinks and getting off on m/m slash a personal turn on for many people. When we perceive these as being attacked, we tend to attack back no matter how right or wrong the defense of these may be in the context of hurting others.
I don’t have a problem with your kink. … Except when your kink involves shotacon and chan. But otherwise, your kink is your kink and it may not be my kink but that’s okay as we all have different turn ons. I just dislike the rationalizations for why your kink is not actually offensive to people who find your public expressions of your kink as harmful to their identity, undermining their community and stereotyping them in a way that is unflattering and inaccurate. Own your kink but don’t rationalize the problems away. That’s hypocritical and harmful, especially harmful in this case if you’re also purporting to support gay rights while doing what people perceive as undermining those.
One of the cases of supporting the position that this material isn’t offensive that has bothered me is that the fan fiction community that is being criticized is queer and those dissenting voices can be ignored. This is probably best expressed by Science, y’all and More Science. The author looks at some polls that demonstrate that fandom is over 50% queer. If you start breaking down the numbers from the polls that have publicly viewable results, the 50%+ number is largely a result of people who are not heterosexual and mostly bisexual. The lesbian population is about 10 to 15%. That’s what those numbers show: Yes, the self selected population in those polls is female, mostly heterosexual, with a large bisexual population and a smaller population of lesbians. What the author doesn’t show, and what is fundamentally important here, is that of the 500 or so people who answered LiveJournal polls with publicly available results? Between 10 and 20 of the respondents are male. Just ignore their orientation for now: 2% to 4% of respondents were male. The Slash Debate is an issue of gay men not appreciating how straight women depict them in m/m slash. The issue is not that of queer people not appreciating how straight women depict them in m/m slash. The female queer population is thus largely irrelevant to this discussion because, well, queer women are more privileged than gay males. If those polls demonstrated that queer males represented over 50% of our fannish population, that data would be relevant.
Why the emphasis on gender and orientation? Because in the sexuality privilege Olympics, heterosexual males get gold. Heterosexual women get silver. Asexuals get bronze and last place. (Last place because their orientation is still considered a sexual dysfunction.) Bisexual women get fourth. Bisexual men get fifth. Homosexual women sixth. Butch and African American homosexual women get six and a half place. Homosexual men get seventh. Queen and African American homosexuals (in the context of US culture) get seven and a half place. This hierarchy of privilege in the context of American culture is important for understanding this argument.
Gay men are less privileged than lesbian women. When lesbian women start talking about how this material is not offensive and how homosexuality is depicted in slash is not problematic, they are speaking from a place of privilege. In the United States, lesbian women are often portrayed as hot, sexy and not threatening to American definitions of masculinity. And anyway, a lesbian can always become straight if she sleeps with a guy. (Which, no, is not true but it is an attitude that I know some people hold which is why they see lesbians as less problematic than gay men. ) Added to that, American culture, and to a degree English culture, have idealized female friendship and elevated it. It is natural that women’s relationships might go that way. One of the major exceptions to this involves butch lesbians, who challenge traditional gender roles, face their own discrimination and are rarely if ever seen on television compared to their non-butch counterparts.
Gay men? They aren’t that privileged in the United States. Gay men are seen as challenging traditional gender roles. Gay men felt the brunt of events like Stonewall. Gay men faced people more actively trying to legislate their sex lives, to criminalize their sex lives. When people sought to prosecute homosexual sex, they tended to go after gay men. In the United States, making jokes at the expense of male homosexuals is still much more tolerated. Remember all the Brokeback Mountain jokes? People were okay with that and there was no outrage over those, much less outrage than if some one had made similar jokes about a person of color. Added to that, when American culture talks about gay males, they tend to focus on their sex lives or on stereotypes involving queens. Yes, this is changing but gay men have often had it worse than lesbian women, and I do not see the two as being being on equal footing when it comes to privilege. Any implication that they are is probably misguided. (1) Their voices should not be silenced just because it gets in the way of enjoying your own kink.
I’ve rambled on and I had another pointed I wanted to make: Some universes are harder to read and are more problematic for fan fiction writers, in terms of the accuracy issue and the potential to offend and get things wrong. Starsky and Hutch is set during the 1970s. If they got together and were out at work? It probably would not be pretty and their co-workers likely wouldn’t be okay. Star Trek, as much as we might wish otherwise, does not present us with a happy future where homosexuality is tolerated and same sex relationships are viewed as normal. When we do see queer characters that aren’t aliens, they tend to be evil. In Glee, we really don’t see lesbians and the gay kid gets picked on. (But thankfully has a supportive parent.) In True Blood, the gay male gets murdered violently and is a drug dealer. Tolerance in that universe is not really implied. On The Good Wife, the implication is that some one is in the closet for the good of their own career. (Or was mistakenly labeled a lesbian and isn’t bothered by it.) Lots of these universes are just heternormative. Squishy happy romances thus might need some care so that these realities are acknowledged, while at the same time not interfering with the audiences’s kinks. When you’re writing and when you’re responding as a reader, that may be the most important takeaway from The Slash Debate.
1. If you’re up on the historical GLBT movement, there are some major conflicts that have taken place between gay men and lesbian women. At times, they have had different agendas and their was a lot of resentment on both sides. It makes for a fascinating read if you’re interested but I just didn’t want to get into that in this post.