My answer to those questions is a bit complex, so bear with me.
First, a little history. This is based upon my personal experience, supplemented by some cursory research, so don’t take anything I say as absolute fact. I would love to see someone do a really thorough history of the genre someday.
I don’t know how old modern “gay literature” is. I do know E.M. Forster wrote Maurice in 1913 (though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1971). Blair Niles published a novel in 1931 called Strange Brother, which tells of the friendship between a heterosexual woman and a gay man. Authors such as Christopher Isherwood and Langston Hughes were also writing in the 1930s, but I don’t think much of it was overtly homosexual. Gordon Merrick wrote a gay novel in 1947 called The Strumpet Wind. In the 1950s, the gay pulps made a tentative appearance, sometimes as reprints of older novels such as Strange Brother, and by the 1960s, some of pulps had become sexually explicit. Victor J. Banis was one of the pioneers in this genre with his The Man from C.A.M.P. series, beginning in 1966.
There are too many authors to list in this brief overview, but I’ll add a few more groundbreaking novels here. In 1970, Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind hit the New York Times Bestsellers List for sixteen weeks. Then in 1974, Patricia Nell Warren hit the NYT Bestsellers List with The Front Runner, which became an enormous mainstream hit. In 1980, Vincent Virga wrote the first gay gothic romance, appropriately titled Gaywyck.
Now, most of the authors writing gay novels were gay men, but you’ll note that the author of The Front Runner was a woman. Another female author, Marion Zimmer Bradley, published one of my favorite gay novels—The Catch Trap—in 1979. She later wrote other novels with gay characters, as did Patricia Nell Warren. (Yes, I’m aware of the controversy surrounding Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I’m not saying I approve of everything she’s done. However, it’s still a great novel.)
When I was first coming to terms with my sexuality in the early eighties, I devoured every gay novel I could find—not that I could find many. Most of what I discovered was in the bargain bins of the local used book store. Those books were mostly dreary depictions of gay men living lonely lives, having sex with strangers, and resolving to die alone. Often they died prematurely of AIDS or violence. As much as I love The Front Runner, which depicts a wonderful, loving relationship between two men, the ending is horrific. These books depicted a bleak future for a teenage boy just coming out of the closet. It got to the point where I flipped to the end chapter of every book I picked up to make sure the main character and his love interest were both still alive before I purchased it.
Fortunately, there were exceptions. Gordon Merrick novels ended happily, though they were so obsessed with physical beauty and enormous cocks I couldn’t really apply them to my life. I did stumble across a novel called Tory’s by William Snyder which ended happily, though again the main character was rather vapid and obsessed with physical appearance. There was one wonderful YA novel by B.A. Ecker called Independence Day which had a positive impact on me. It depicted a boy my age who was in love with his best friend. The ending saddened me, because they didn’t end up running off into the sunset together, but the fact that his friend embraces him when he comes out was a big deal. I have no idea whether B.A. Ecker was male or female, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Ecker was female. I’ve already mentioned The Catch Trap, which was wonderfully romantic and ended happily.
And it was written by a woman.
At this time, I had no doubt that I preferred female authors. It seemed to me that the male authors of gay novels were either depressed or obsessed with penis size. I wanted romance. And for that, I turned to women. (Later, I would discover Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage trilogy, which couldn’t be said to be happy, really, but was definitely romantic.)
Then in college, I discovered an entirely new (to me) source of gay stories—slashfic.
I’m sure most people already know the term, but basically it’s fiction written by fans of a particular TV, movie, or book series who pair up their favorite characters for sexual escapades. The name “slashfic” derives from the slash put between the characters when people talk about the stories, such as “Kirk/Spock.” (There can, of course, be multiple characters—it doesn’t just have to be two.)
I never wrote fanfic or slashfic myself, but I saw it online. At the time, the World Wide Web didn’t exist. My college wasn’t even on the Internet until near the end of my time there—we were on something called BITNET. (Which is a fascinating subject, but not relevant to this discussion.) All of the stories I read were distributed on a text-based service called LISTSERV.
While I didn’t write slashfic, I did write original stories on a vampire fan list and I was on a Star Trek fan list, among others. The authors who posted their works of fiction—whether based in the universe of Star Trek, or Anne Rice, or entirely of their own creation—were largely amateurs. I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Some of them were very good. (Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my favorite fantasy/science fiction authors, began by writing Star Trek fanfic.) But most were unpublished at that time, like myself.
And another observation: most of these writers were female. Yes, I’ve seen rants about how this is a stereotype and completely untrue, but I’ve found at least one study in 2010 that seems to have some good data. It could all be bogus, of course, but if it’s correct, we’re looking at about 78% of fanfic writers being female. And if we’re talking about the sub-category of slashfic, which often (though not always) involves two male characters getting it on, it seems reasonable to assume a largely female authorship. Gay men no doubt write some, but I think the percentage is low.
What does this have to do with MM Romance?
Not to put too fine a point on it, MM Romance—in my opinion—does not owe its origin to mainstream gay fiction. It comes from slashfic. I’m not saying it’s the same thing as slashfic. Certainly not. It’s evolved away from its origins. MM Romance is original fiction and much of it is well-written and professional. But it descended from slashfic, and the gender demographics haven’t changed a lot. The majority of writers are still female, and the majority of readers are female.
Mainstream gay fiction is still out there. It’s actually expanded a bit to include lesbian and transgender fiction. But I confess, I still find much of it dreary. I picked up a book not long ago that was was full of critical accolades in the first pages. I read the first chapter, grew suspicious, and flipped to the end. Yes, the love interest was dead, the victim of a gay-bashing. Of course.
I don’t need that crap.
I want romance. And for that, I turn to MM Romance, which has always been a genre dominated by women. Always. There has never been a time when the majority of writers in this genre were gay men. So the question of whether women should be writing MM Romance is utterly absurd.
The real question is, can men write it?
Gay men, in fact, often find it frustrating to write in this genre. They sometimes pour their hearts into a manuscript, writing about gay characters dealing with the difficulties gay men face every day, only to have it rejected by publishers of MM Romance because there isn’t enough romance in it. Or (somewhat ironically) female readers will rate a story badly because there isn’t enough sex in it, which can make us feel as if we’re prostituting ourselves. And while there are a few gay men on the top of the charts, there are far more women up there. (I’m talking about the authors who sell thousands of copies with nearly every release.)
The fact of the matter is, MM Romance may be about gay men, but it isn’t really ours. The genre is full of tropes that often baffle and frustrate us—all couples must be monogamous, despite a very large percentage of gay couples having open relationships; the only real sex is penetrative anal sex, despite the fact that many gay men don’t like it—and many gay men have difficulty writing them. Not only that, but many gay men have difficulty reading them. Hence the reason this argument of women writing MM Romance keeps surfacing.
(Also, I am not trying to imply that all gay men agree about… well, anything. Whenever I talk about how tired I am of seeing anal sex written about as if it’s the ultimate expression of love for gay men, I get some men praising me and some men snarling at me for tromping all over something they happen to love.)
But grousing about the problems in the genre overlooks one other key fact: without it, most of the gay authors currently publishing in MM Romance would not be published, or at least they would have to resort to self-publishing. This isn’t to say MM Romance authors, whether men or women, aren’t up to snuff when compared to mainstream authors. I think many of us are. But the gateways to mainstream publishing are jealously guarded. An author nearly always requires an agent to get into a mainstream publishing house, and agents themselves take on only a small percentage of the authors who submit to them.
MM Romance publishers have provided another avenue for gay male authors—a lot of gay male authors. It’s been a boon to us. Like any market, it has restrictions as to what sells and what doesn’t sell, and it does little good to complain about that. We have to adapt to what sells if we want our stories to sell. That’s just marketing common sense. And at least some male authors have been successful at it. We do, after all, like romance too.
Ultimately, if there are things gay authors don’t like about the MM Romance genre, we’re in a good position to affect some change within it. Not by ranting, necessarily. (Yes, I’m guilty of ranting—frequently.) But by depicting ourselves honestly in good stories. If our stories are good, they’ll have an influence. Also by talking about ourselves honestly with other authors in the genre. Female authors aren’t the enemy. They want their stories to be authentic. The best do their research and hang out with gay men so they can accurately represent us. But of course, “gay men” isn’t really a unified group of people—and the information we impart about our lives is often contradictory. And they’re bound by the market too. They want to sell their books. So change comes slowly.
Overall, when I talk of “changing” the MM Romance genre, I’m not talking about a genre in need of a complete overhaul. This genre has been good for the LGBTQ community. It’s expanded our acceptance with both readers and publishers, and it’s influenced the way a lot of people vote on gay rights issues. I have no doubt that it’s expanded the acceptance of same-sex marriage in this country and others.
So I like the MM Romance genre. I’ve found a home there and made a lot of friends there. Any good author will have an influence upon his or her genre, even if small, so of course I hope to do so someday. But if I do, it will be through the quality of my work—not through any misguided attempts to drive women out of the genre and claim it as my own.