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.
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
- Recognize and reward quality literary works about women who love women;
- Provide learning opportunities, encouragement and assistance to new and established writers in developing their craft;
- Provide opportunities to promote lesbian-themed literature including events that bring readers and writers together;
- 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(!)