I want to say right out of the gate that this is not about winning. In fact, I have asked for all of my books (including two that were finalists) to be removed from the remainder of the competition. Yes, I’m very competitive—and who doesn’t enjoy winning a contest?—but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about being reminded at every turn that even though the LGBT genre has made progress, we haven’t made enough yet. Even though we’ve made progress, there are still spaces where we remain unwelcome.
This isn’t about winning a competition. This is about being told “who you are is offensive.”
So let me get to the point—the situation that prompted me to post this.
Recently, I was contacted by the coordinator of the Colorado Romance Writers’ annual competition, the Award of Excellence. As I do every year, I had submitted several books. One of them was my gay inspirational romance, Lead Me Not. Naturally, I entered it into the Inspirational Romance category.
As emails are private correspondence, I won’t post the actual conversation, but I was told that the coordinators wanted to move Lead Me Not into the Contemporary Single Title category. Reason being—no one in their judging pool would read an M/M inspirational.
Um…no. This book meets the criteria of the category. From the website: “Romantic novels featuring a religious or spiritual belief system as an integral part of the relationship.” Nowhere does it say “…an integral part of the heterosexual relationship.”
So no, I was not willing to move it into another category. I expressed as much to the coordinators, mentioning that this made me feel unwelcome in the competition as a whole. If judges could refuse to read an entry because it was LGBT, even though the rules did not explicitly bar LGBT entries, then maybe this wasn’t the competition for me.
After several e-mails back and forth with various coordinators, though, I believed we had reached an understanding about the situation and come to an agreement about how to move forward. Some judges had been found who would read “pretty much anything,” and would agree to read the book and judge it for what it is (you know—a gay Christian romance).
At that point, I was still less than thrilled that it had even been an issue, but thought it was resolved. That was why I didn’t say anything publicly at the time.
Well, the finalists were announced yesterday, and Lead Me Not made it into the finals…
…of the Mainstream w/Romantic Elements category.
Not only was it moved out of Inspirational, it was moved out of romance entirely and into “romantic elements.” (Spoiler alert – it’s a romance)
Upon contacting the coordinators, they insist they thought I was in agreement about moving the book into that category. However, nowhere in any of the emails did I say “Yes, move the book.” I stated I was happy with the solution when the solution was “judges who will judge it for what it is.”
The coordinators insisted they had thought it was the best solution for “a book that didn’t fit comfortably into one category, but instead straddled multiple categories.”
Nonsense. Utter nonsense.
Lead Me Not is a gay Christian romance. It’s an inspirational to its very core. Calling it “Mainstream with Romantic Elements” is a tremendous stretch unless you’re also willing to put the other inspirational romances into the same category. Which we don’t. Because they’re not mainstream. (Seriously? A gay Christian romance qualifies as mainstream?)
I entered the book in the Inspirational romance category because I wanted it judged as an Inspirational romance. If it didn’t win… fine. That’s part of competing. You win some, you lose some. And I didn’t write this book expecting everyone to love it. Not by any means. But to be refused a shot at even competing alongside books in the same genre? To be unable to see how it stacks up against the rest of its own genre? I have a problem with that.
And I just can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu over this whole thing, which is probably related to the fact that I’ve blogged about this subject before—clear back in 2012 when an RWA chapter announced that their annual contest would not allow same-sex entries.
One of the things I wrote in that blog echoes precisely what I’m feeling right now:
“I know, it's just a contest. It's not the end of the world. But you know what? It's these little things that add up to a culture that still can't offer more than lip service to the idea that being queer is okay. When an organization allows exclusion based on people being "uncomfortable," it validates that discomfort. It acknowledges that the uncomfortable thing is... well, that it's less okay than someone else's discomfort. They could have said "If you aren't comfortable with the material being submitted, with all brands of 'individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work', then maybe you aren't qualified to judge this competition." Instead, they've stated what amounts to, "Yeah, let's not include that, because... eww."”
Now, this current situation isn’t an entire competition excluding LGBT entries. This is a specific category within a larger competition, and it wasn’t an upfront ban on same-sex content. No, this was judges refusing to read what had been submitted, and the organizers deciding the best course of action was to ask the author to move the book to another category.
Basically, we’re still dealing with what was dealt with in 2012—the discomfort of judges taking precedence over the acceptance of people. Am I okay with people choosing not to read gay romance on their own? Sure! Read whatever you want. Am I okay with books being removed from competition categories because they have LGBT characters? No.
I can certainly appreciate that the LGBT and Christian communities have clashed. All it takes is a glance at the news or social media to see that there is still a tremendous amount of strife between the two. I’m not about forcing judges to read a particular topic, pairing, etc. What I object to is that when the judges wouldn’t read it, the solution was not “look for other judges.” It was “shunt the book over to another category.”
So what’s the point of all this rambling? In short, I want competitions to be explicit about what is acceptable and what isn’t. If LGBT books are not wanted—in the competition as a whole, or in particular categories—spell it out. Save us the time and money that goes into entering if who we write—and in many cases, who we are—is not welcome.