LGBT+,  Publishing,  Uncategorized,  Writing

Writing WLW Fiction as a Bisexual Woman? I’ve Been Rejected

Back in July 2018, I decided to make a change to my use of language when it came to promoting my books. Up until that time I had begrudgingly been using terms like “lesfic” and “lesbian fiction” to advertise my books, and myself as an author.

The thing is, I don’t like using those terms because I don’t feel that they fit. You see, I’m bisexual. I’m not a lesbian. And therefore I’m not a lesbian author. Yes, I write books about women who love women, but it’s not necessarily true that they are lesbians either. Some are bisexual, some are pansexual, some don’t want a label at all.

And so I started to use terms like FF, WLW, and sapphic to describe my books. They are all terms that mean women in a relationship with other women, without putting the term lesbian on them.

Now, I have nothing against the word lesbian, or lesbians. I married a lesbian, and she’s great. But the word doesn’t always fit. I’m not a lesbian, some of my characters are not lesbians, and many of my readers don’t identify as lesbian. In fact, in the last WLW fiction survey 30% of respondents identified as something other than gay or lesbian. In fact, it’s common knowledge that more people are identifying themselves on a spectrum of sexuality rather than 100% homosexual than ever before.

Now, for the purposes of actually selling a book, I have no choice but to use the Amazon (and other major distributors) category system and use lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. There is a bisexual romance category but it’s dominated by threesomes, and that’s not what I write.

Around the same time that I made this change, I approached GCLS. Up until that point, I had been privately boycotting GCLS because of their non-inclusive language but it had only then occurred to me that I was boycotting them but not explaining why I was doing so. So, I sent an email to GCLS, which went like this:

Dear Ms Phillips,

Firstly, congratulations on another successful GCLS conference. As a marketing consultant who has been involved in organising many events over the years, I know the volume of work that goes into the planning and execution of such large events.

I wanted to get in touch with you as I recently realised that I was privately boycotting GCLS. I did not even consider attending the conference, I deliberately left GCLS out of my awards applications, and I allowed my membership to lapse. I did these things for reasons I will explain below, but it was only over the last couple of weeks that I reminded myself that change only comes if requested.

My private boycott will have precisely zero effect if I don’t raise my issues with GCLS with you and the board. And, I’d like to renew my GCLS membership and be a part of the organisation again. I go out of my way to help our writing community, I support many authors in terms of marketing and publishing advice. I am active in many online forums, running a couple myself. So, it makes sense for myself to be a part of the leading organisation for writers and readers in my community.

My primary reason for discounting GCLS is one of language, I’m referring to the term “lesbian literature”. Myself, and many other authors and readers, find this term to be non-inclusive. I am a bisexual woman, married to a lesbian, and while I write novels about women who love women… many of them are not lesbians. They are bisexual or pansexual. Therefore the term lesbian does not apply to myself, nor to my books.

GCLS is not the only organisation guilty of using lesbian as a catch-all term. My biggest online distributor, Amazon, does the same. To the point where I am forced to list my books under “lesbian romance” if I am to find any readers, as well as call myself a best selling lesbian romance author, even though I loathe this term as it is not accurate and not representative of myself, my books, nor the majority of my readers.

But, I don’t expect a business such as Amazon to understand the subtle differences, the fact of the matter is that most of our genres aren’t even split by sexuality and are grouped in LGBT categories. Such is the way of big business, we are a very small cog in their working machinery. But, I would like for our leading organisation to represent me and other authors and readers like me who feel that the terms lesbian fiction, and lesfic, are now outdated.

A replacement phrase is a difficult question to answer, many people feel very strongly about the choice of word used. Personally, I use F/F and WLW, and I know many are reclaiming the word queer. It’s something for debate, but I respectfully request that you do consider the matter and look at changing the term lesbian fiction to something more inclusive.

I have conducted some research and have found that a number of authors and readers have allowed their memberships to lapse for similar reasons to mine. A lack of inclusivity with language as well as identifying a lack of diversity when it comes to ethnicity, as well as questions surrounding the awards process. Many authors with a younger fanbase, such as myself, don’t bother to mention GCLS to our readers due to the perceived negativity surrounding the organisation.

Personally, I noticed a small improvement from 2017 to 2018 when it came to ethnic diversity, at least from the photographs I saw online. There was no longer a blanket of white faces, and I understand from your hiring of a Director of Inclusion this must be something you are aware of and trying to remedy.

But, there is a very long way to go. There are many private discussions about GCLS being dated, and non-inclusive. I feel a change in language would help to demonstrate that GCLS is trying to make positive changes for the future. Indeed, the gesture of such a language change could generate a return of members which could lead to funding to drive forward further inclusivity changes.

From my third-party position, I see that many people are boycotting GCLS for the reasons mentioned above. But I can also see that GCLS is trying to remedy some of these issues. The very people you are trying to make changes for, are the ones who continue to withhold their membership and stay away from the organisation. I have heard many accusations about the awards being given to the same names, both authors and publishing houses, but my response to that is—if we’re all boycotting GCLS, then, of course, the awards will go to the same people. If people boycott GCLS due to a lack of ethnic diversity, then, of course, it will be a sea of white faces.

I hope you take my thoughts and suggestions into consideration. I passionately believe that a change in language would be a very public way of demonstrating that GCLS is committed to the future of our community, in all its shapes and sizes. And I would be pleased to renew my membership and encourage others to do the same if I see these changes taking place.

Best regards,
Amanda

I was very pleased to hear back from Mary Phillips, the Executive Director/President of GCLS. She said a few things, firstly she said:

Language is indeed important. It is one of our primary goals to become a more inclusive organization and bringing on a Director of Inclusion was the first step. We needed someone dedicated to this both internally and externally. Cheryl is awesome in this directive making sure that we, as an organization, or becoming more inclusive as well as keeping up with the pulse of the community. The next step we took was to have a strategy planning session with the full board to review and revise our mission statement. We concur that language is important. That statement now reads:

Mission: To increase the visibility and quality of lesbian-themed literature

Our goals:

  1. Recognize and reward quality literary works about women who love women;
  2. Provide learning opportunities, encouragement and assistance to new and established writers in developing their craft;
  3. Provide opportunities to promote lesbian-themed literature including events that bring readers and writers together;
  4. Be inclusive of friends/supporters of literature that celebrates women who love women

Another item we discussed at length is – GCLS does not determine how anyone identifies themselves. We accept all members who support our mission and goals regardless of identity.

Since this conversation with Mary back in August of last year, the new GCLS website has gone live and it does indeed state the goals as above. But it also states something else:

Vision: The GCLS is the leading lesbian-themed literary organization for editors, publishers, readers, writers, and friends/supporters. The GCLS is inclusive, welcoming, professional, and financially viable. As a versatile organization, we strive to recognize changes in our community, our literary industry, our membership needs, and social trends. We align our initiatives to these changes when and as appropriate.

I’m not sure I quite understand what lesbian-themed means. Lesbian-themed surely just means lesbian? Right?

Let’s change genre a minute, let’s use science fiction as an example. What is the difference between science fiction and science fiction-themed? Nothing, right? So, we’re still basically just using lesbian. Is the “themed” being tacked on for some vague stab at inclusivity? Because if it is… it is missing the mark. Maybe I’m missing the point. Or maybe it’s just being fancy. But whatever it is, it’s not very inclusive.

Something else Mary said to me last August, was that there were some proposed changes in language coming up in a future board meeting:

To reflect growing diversity, all GOLDIE categories include this in proposed judging guidelines:

These books must include significant themes, characters, situations, and/or other content about lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, sexually fluid, asexual, and other women who are attracted to women.

It does not matter how the author identifies.

When I read this, I was super happy. This is the kind of inclusivity which I feel we need if our market is to grow. I waited patiently for the new website to go live. But when it did finally happen, I couldn’t find this statement anywhere. Then I looked a little closer at some of the PDF documents on the site and I saw this:

 

That wording was rejected.

The wording that included bisexuality, queer, transgender, sexually-fluid, and asexual was rejected.

We do get women who love women. But all of the rest of it? No.

I previously said that GCLS was doing their bit and now it’s time for us to do our bit. For all those of you who were, like me, privately boycotting GCLS… I said it was time to go ahead and attend the convention, apply for the awards. Well, I did apply for the awards, and I’ve been nominated as a finalist which I’m very grateful for… but I now have mixed feelings.

You see, I wonder if I fit into the GCLS family?

For all the talk of inclusivity, the board rejected my preferred label.

I’m sure this blog post will cause a lot of anger, directed AT me rather than BESIDE me. I’m sure people will want to jump to the defence of GCLS, the board, its members, and those who are lesbian and do write solely lesbian fiction. Last time I brought this up, I was told by someone that I should just “leave and start my own GCLS for trans and bis… get out of our pool”. But it is pride month so I get to say what I want to say. I don’t have any answers. I hope things change.

Oh, and happy pride(!)

 

6 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    A.E.
    As always, thank you for your thought-provoking blog. As director of GCLS I am always open to new ideas, comments, and concerns.

    In this instance, I fear that your position lacks context. The wording that you have been calling “rejected” was not about people, but it was about the words and language on the judging form. The GCLS board favored a more succinct choice of words keeping in mind that this verbiage would be repeated on every judging form for each category. We must work for clarity and succinctness with the instruments as the job of a judge is already herculean. We favored tagging in our mission of lesbian themed literature AND women loving women, instead of naming all the different kinds of women loving women. We give our judges credit to recognize who falls under the women loving women umbrella. That is all that it was – to be more succinct with language for the purpose of evaluation.

    You also take issue with our mission statement “lesbian-themed”. If the story is lesbian themed it means that it contains qualities of lesbian literature, specifically women who love women regardless of how they identify.

    Your conversation has reminded me that we need to be diligent with our inclusive language and we will be updating our diversity page.

    We are really saying the same thing, but we are choosing different words. Whether or not you agree, I hope you can appreciate our intent even if you would choose different words.

    • aeradley

      Hello Mary,

      Thank you for coming to my blog and adding your thoughts, I appreciate you taking the time.

      I understand that you are saying that the phrase “these books must contain significant themes, characters, situations and/or other content about lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, sexually fluid, asexual and other women who are attracted to women” was rejected as language used on a judging form. I can see how this sentence would be arduous to be repeated over and over again on each judging form.

      However, surely it would be possible to put this phrase somewhere, anywhere, on the website. At the moment, a search of the entire site for the word “bisexual” only comes up with eight results, none of which are official GCLS terminology but more quotes from individuals. I feel like putting this phrasing on the site would go a long way towards inclusivity which is currently considered by many to be lacking.

      I have to argue the point when you claim we are saying the same thing with different words. If our situation was reversed, I’m sure you’d see my point of view. If bisexuality had been GCLS’s default position and all the language said bisexual fiction rather than lesbian fiction, you would see the difference. As I’ve said before, I am not in a lesbian relationship and I do not write about lesbian relationships, I write about a range of women-loving-women relationships, including bisexual ones. To say that we are saying the same thing with different words is not correct, we operate in the same area with different language which would not require much change to be the same.

      As clarity and succinctness is an important factor for GCLS, I believe I can offer a solution. Remove the term lesbian fiction or lesbian themed fiction from the entire site and replace it with Sapphic fiction. As I’m sure you know, this covers all women-loving-women relationships, and is obviously much easier to say than lesbian themed. This change would mean inclusivity goals are met, would meet the requirements for succinctness and would truly mean we are saying the same things… with the same words without the need to assume intent.

  • KD Williamson

    We’ve talked at length about diversity in regards to race and sexuality. I’m glad you put yourself out there to advocate for change. It is indeed tragic and nonsensical that the old guard refuses to change and recognize just because they are the guard they don’t represent anyone but themselves and their interests. I am a lesbian but more times than not I write about bisexual women in wlw relationships. It’s caused me some backlash but I’m beyond caring. Plz continue to do ur thing. I applaud you. Don’t stop pushing.

  • Devlyn

    Firstly I will say I have always been a fan of GCLS from afar but costs prohibit me from ever attending a conference in the US.
    Having said that, I feel a bit bad that I have never looked into the ‘lesbian’ tag and considered the other people on the spectrum. I enjoy reading what I’ve always referred to as lesfic as I thought that was the correct term for what I was reading but you have enlightened and educated me on a broader issue that I admit I should have been more aware of. My experience and the response from the GCLS shows how insular we can be in our thoughts sometimes and for that Feel
    Like I should apologize. I have always enjoyed your books and never once considered the angst you were up against. All it takes is someone to educate us to change the world and even if it is just one person at a time then it is a win. I will continue to enjoy WLW and ff romances and will congratulate my author friends as they win GCLS and Lammy awards and others but at the same time I will spare a thought for those who I support who do not fit into the exact category societies try to put them into. Thanks for the blog.

  • Anne Hagan

    Hello A.E.

    I knew what I was going to be reading when I saw this post. You and I had a brief discussion about GCLS some time ago along these very same lines.

    While I do identify as lesbian, I too found things quite tilted toward lesbians and away from all other women and transwomen who do not identify as lesbians when I attended the Chicago GCLS Conference in 2017. GCLS paid bare lip service to ‘queer’ women then, at that con. Too, there were women of color, but few. Still, those women and a couple of men nearly outnumbered women under the age of 45.

    The 2018 con marked a major turning point in the thinking of an organization that was aging quickly past it’s prime. The ‘appointment’ (not ‘hiring’, GCLS is an all volunteer organization) of Cheryl Head as Director of Inclusion is a part of that. The membership meeting included a committment to both diversity and inclusivity and several panels, including New, Now, Next, which included Pamela Stewart, Coca-Cola USA executive and Co-Chair of GLAAD’s National Board of Directors, featured diversity, inclusion and internsectionality proponents.

    During the week of the last con, I heard the word ‘queer’ almost as often as I heard the word ‘lesbian’. Too, I witnessed a surge of younger, queer women like Rae D. Magdon and coming into their own, talking about their lives and their work. I had a conversation with Suzi Carr, a bisexual romance author who is a GCLS Director of Membership about being an out bisexual in an organization like GCLS. Things are changing there. It’s taking time, but the old guard is realizing it’s evolve or die.

    You changed my mind, back in our early conversation. I used to tag blog and social media posts with #lesfic and the occassional #LGBT. Now, I use #WLW too and I’m starting to use #Queer more and more as it is a hashtag millenial and younger readers look for. Do you see what happened there? One heart, one mind at a time.

    That’s the way we effect change. One heart, one mind at a time.

    • Tammy

      I struggle with many of the same things you mention here. I love GCLS, but I want more inclusion, less marginalizing from this wonderful group and from a lot of the publishers who frequent it. Please keep sharing your words and your work with the world.

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