Recently, I witnessed a good friend, someone who loves what I do get caught up in yet another terrible game of catfishing. The whole debacle was rather painful for her which only brought about pain on my part because you never want to see any of your friends go through something like that. What made this round particularly painful was that my friend only recently started writing herself. She is a champion of my works, something I still find astounding, so naturally I wanted to comfort and help in any way I could. You’d have to be living under a very large rock, and have been there since the early 2000s to not know what catfishing is. For those that don’t, I’ll give you a quick rundown – I looked it up.
Oxford’s online dictionary defines it as:
US informal [with object] Lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.
In the case of gay fiction writing, particularly in the MM Romance genre, it is generally a woman who professes to be a (gay) man in order to establish legitimacy within the genre. Catfishing should be a thing of the past – indeed, if there was any real reason for it to have existed at all – because I’d always assumed (yes, I know where that gets me) that the feminism cause was to have parity with their male counterparts in every way. Full equality, right?
Evidently, not so much.
I’ve come to think the real danger of Catfishing is that it sets the feminism cause back decades when someone does it. Sure the degree of that “resetting” is tempered by how prominent or prolific the catfishing author was at the time of exposure. But you see, that’s where I start to scratch my head. Why do it if you’ll run the risk of being caught? And you always get caught. I’ve not witnessed any catfishing author that wasn’t found out at some point in their career.
I get why authors use pen names. There are a great many good reasons to do so. Anonymity being just one of them. I use one. Not because I want to hide behind it – on the contrary, I’ve made it quite public via the Wrote Podcast how I came to use a nom de plume. It was a gimmick on my part. I used it because the book I was writing at the time was being told by the main character’s (MC) point of view. I thought, rather silly of me at the time, why not have him write his own novel? Thus, Sebastian Alexander Collins became SA Collins. That’s the only reason I did it. Which is now rather odd considering that I’d shelved that particular book’s development in favor of my current series.
So pen names, yeah. The reasons to use one are varied and have been used probably for as long as publishing has been around. I get that part of the game.
What I don’t get is the need to use one to purposefully to employ deceit in the name of legitimacy. That part escapes me. Why profess to be a gay man at all when you are a woman? I think that women who do this aren’t confident in their own work enough to let it stand on it’s own under your own (female) name or a pen name that doesn’t try to come across as a (gay) male. And that part is most puzzling to me.
I have a daughter and granddaughter that up until recently had lived with my husband and myself. A multi-generational home. I spend a great deal of my time worrying about their future. Fretting over what society will try and throw their way as they make their way though life. I’m a parent and grandparent – it’s part of the job. I want what’s best for them. I want them to have amazing lives that are (hopefully) better than mine. It’s how my parents reared (not raised, by the way – you raise corn, you rear children) to be. I want equality for them with as much passion and conviction as some of the staunchest feminists out there. The recent women’s march that consumed the globe a little over a week ago was so incredibly awe inspiring that I often misted up as I watched all the videos play from around the world. Truly breathtaking stuff.
Which brings me back to this whole catfishing thing.
I mean, even JK Rowling (arguably the most successful female writer of all time) used a male nom de plume for her first book written after the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter. But she was quickly found out and when asked, she simply said that she did it because she wanted to see if the work could stand (it was her first adult oriented novel) on it’s own – separated from her fame. It was an experiment of sorts. Got it. And she quickly copped to it when it was discovered. I don’t consider that catfishing – and if some do, then I’d like to understand how this fits into that category. Rowling didn’t do it to deceive and establish legitimacy as an author. She already had decidedly established that. I think her use of a male pen name was only to push that association with her even further out to watch if her work really was as good as people kept telling her. Could she be equally successful in the adult fiction category? Would it stand up under that level of scrutiny? Maybe the male pen name didn’t hurt in that regard, I suppose.
But back to the MM romance genre (which is where most of this catfishing seems to come from as of late). I struggle with their reasoning of why do it at all. MM Romance (as a recent genre) was started by straight women writing for other straight women – something that when pressed up into my grill I often fire back that while they can write what they want, they need to understand they are writing about a very oppressed community and with that comes great responsibility. I am all for women writing about we gay men. But if they cross that line and try to tell me how gay men are I’m gonna step up right into their grill and push back … HARD.
But maybe that’s where this catfishing thing stems from. I don’t have any answers here, just pondering the whole thing as I watched the recent events concerning a woman who not only professed to be a gay man writing MM romance, but a veteran, a staunch Trump supporter (which I think was the beginning of her undoing – that one is a real red flag for queers though there are some who actually do support him which is beyond all reason), and always tried to come across as if the IQ level in the room rose significantly the moment they arrived. She kept telling my friend that her male catfish persona was the smartest person around.
To which I replied to my friend, “Yeah, people who feel the need to profess their intelligence, often aren’t that intelligent at all. If you’re intelligent, people will glean that for themselves. You don’t have to go charging into a room like the proverbial bull and bellow I’m the smart one in the room. People will perceive that for themselves.” In reality, that was probably the biggest red flag of all. The audacity to presume they were the smartest at anything. This was revealed to great effect when the catfisher’s author persona “had a heart attack” but was released the following day. As someone who has gone through FOUR such situations as I have with my husband I can tell you that NO hospital would do such a thing. The catfish was unwittingly revealing herself. It was the biggest stupid move she could’ve made, thereby proving my earlier statement. Not the brightest crayon in the box by any stretch of the imagination.
This is something that my husband has always maintained – “Just keep giving those type of people rope. Eventually, they will hang themselves with it. You won’t have to lift a finger.”
But it was still painful to watch someone I cared about go through the reveal. Practically everyone in the writing community that writes MM Romance chimed in. I was just as angry as my other gay brothers. It bordered on nothing less than queer culture appropriation. And again, that brings me back to why not just be who you are (as a sex – not the name being used)? Some of these women don’t seem to get that on the social totem pole Queerdom is at the bottom and not likely to move any time soon – especially with Tyrant Trump and his ilk in office.
Some female authors have said to me on the topic (and we’ve interviewed several on the podcast) that females struggle to “make it” in the business. So let’s look at that, shall we? I think you’ll find the answer to that question rather telling at dispelling (to a degree) that myth.
The first interesting article I read came from the Guardian in the UK. This pretty much has been the established argument. But what I find particularly telling is that while women find it extremely hard to get their works reviewed and taken seriously, a number of those reviewers are women. Why would women not value or press to review other women’s work – if anything, just to give rise to it’s legitimacy? That particular point I find very troubling. I realize there could be extenuating circumstances that preclude them from doing just that. I don’t presume to “have the inside scoop” on the goings on of the reviewing side of the industry.
But it was this little ditty that really was an eye opener … while it doesn’t remove the stigma women face to get noticed, it does however show that in terms of moving vast numbers of book units, women are the dominating factor here. The headline alone explains it –
So while there are more male writers and reviews for their works, it seems that if you’re a woman who cracks the top and becomes a major player, you sell big. BIG TIME sort of big.
Admittedly, this was published nearly two years ago. But I don’t doubt it’s validity. So maybe it’s just getting the work noticed? Because once you do, female writers are extremely successful.
As I said before, I don’t have answers. I am only pondering this as I help my friend pick up the pieces of her burgeoning writing career (she was doing PA work for said catfishing author who insisted that she (my friend) personally endorse this author and recommend them to others). My friend’s personal and professional integrity were called into question because she had unwittingly put herself in the cross hairs of this recent catfisher.
So here’s my takeaway – ladies, write from who you are. I’d rather have truthfulness and authenticity in picking up a book and knowing who the author is to whatever degree they make their lives public. I don’t crave to know everything about them, but a little goes a long way to forming an opinion of their work. I’ve stopped reading other catfishers work simply because I can’t stomach it. That deceit clouds everything. And that probably is the hardest part to swallow. I know what goes into writing a novel. I do it myself. It’s lonely and (at times) grueling work. Literally your blood, sweat and tears go into it. So why run the risk of having all that hard work tarnished by publishing it under a lie? It’s a waste, that’s what it is.
Maybe that only points out the lack of confidence in the work or some form of self-loathing that is just convinced that the work won’t be taken seriously unless it is written by a man. But if women never push at that with author names that proudly proclaim it was written by a woman, will we ever see parity? JK Rowling did it. EL James, Toni Morrison, the list goes on. Women can be extremely successful in the industry. You just have to find some inner Rosa Parks and sit further up in the bus and demand that parity. I know it’s always easy to say, “but I’m not big enough to take this on.”
I would say, “Remember this: the history makers are those who put themselves out there, taking the risks; they don’t play it safe. They don’t go with the status quo. They lean into the hardness that come their way. You, my brilliant sisters, can do this. On your own terms. But it has to start somewhere. Why can’t it be you?”
I once asked an author on our show why she wrote MM romance and not MF romance with a strong female character. The response was rather telling – they claimed that they just couldn’t envision that type of strong female character within the confines of a MF romance trope. I was flabbergasted by that. My immediate thought (I just know the ghost of John Adams rages inside me) was, why not upend the trope then? Why can’t it be you? And maybe that’s the critical difference between male and female writers. Men take risks. They are not adverse to them because from our youth we are conditioned to be that way. Maybe that’s the cue women need to take then in order to bring their cause forward? I’ve always been a supporter of women moving into fields dominated by men. I think it benefits both when there is parity. The world would certainly be a better place if we did.
There is a brilliant book I think all women should read – Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, ISBN 006223062X ASIN: B00DB368AY. It is written by two women I admire greatly. I think they’ve nailed it when it comes to women seeing the value in themselves and believing it. I highly recommend it to anyone. Men would find it fascinating.
But as I’ve said, I don’t claim to have answers, just musings on this recent catfishing scheme within our gay fiction writing community. One thing is abundantly clear: when it happens no one wins. That much is certain. I just wish that women wouldn’t feel the need to do it. Believe me, there is nothing lower on the totem pole than a gay man. Our lesbian sisters are oppressed, too. But in a male dominated society, gay men are still seen as the most perverted, the most reviled. To be honest, writing as us in the MM Romance genre is probably not going to win you any points as an author anyway. So why not be the “you” you’re willing to put out there (nom de plume or not)? I’d love to hear some thoughts on this topic.
Until next time …
– SA C
Today I’ve been mulling things around. I do this, as I am sure you do it too, from time to time.
But here’s my dilemma, of sorts: I’ve gotten caught up (with my mental ramblings) in a conversation going on with other gay authors and the lack of our representation within the M/M genre and what that means to our voice within our own community. By that I mean real gay men’s voices writing about our own experiences, or at the very least experiences that reflect the reality we all live in. I mean you can have gay vampires, weres or what have you and still have it rooted in what we, as gay men, have to deal with in our lives. How we feel, how we cope.
I know I’ve preached from the Rechy alter before. I just love his work, I have since I was a boy. There are others, but he was the first one I found – sentimentally clinging to his work more than any other, I suppose. The hubby actually found his website out on the net. Well, that’s sort of redundant, isn’t it? Where else would one find a website? Isn’t it funny how I’ve been such a pro-Rechy reader that I never thought to see if he had a website? That really fascinates me. The idea that I can be so vocal about something that has dominated my views on reading for so long and never once seeking him out on the web. I think I know why that is and I’ll come to it anon.
I suppose that some part of it has to do with what I’d built up in my head that was his allure. Well, I’d like to think so – he’s one helluva sexy man – Hollywood sexy. If anything, I am still that 15 year old boy who found Sexual Outlaw on a low shelf in the Gay and Lesbian Studies section of a bookstore. Believe me, I was just as surprised that there was such as section like that in 1979. But there we were…me in my shorts and t-shirt on a hot summer day, and there it was in all of its seedy and semen soaked glory:
I know I’ve written before on how amazing this work is and how it saved me from plunging headlong into a wanton and lascivious chain of sexual exploits. Exploits and adventures that in that era (we’re talking the cusp of the HIV pandemic) might just as well have killed me. I know I’ve covered that before. What I haven’t said is that while that book “opened doors and windows I never dreamed existed…” (paraphrasing Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame now), it also allowed me to mentally and sensually let myself fall into the main character’s exploits. Okay, I’ll be blunt about it. I rubbed several of my own creative juices out while reading it. It was like heady, sperm filled porn to me and I was fucking hooked. The odd thing was, it wasn’t porn by any stretch of the imagination. I was titillated all right, but only because I had no other outlet to explore the sex that was contained in that book.
But it was more than that too.
When my parents found out about me, when I confirmed it to them, my dad didn’t really have a huge reaction to it. Just told me that sex with a woman was pretty damn great, but if I wasn’t into that, then maybe sex with men might be great too. And that was about it. Conversation over. It wasn’t like I couldn’t bring it up again with my dad. I didn’t have a problem with that, nor did he, it seems. My dad was pretty goddamned awesome. I’d like to think he knew that. But even with a great male figure in my house to give me guidance and unconditional love, he was right in thinking that he didn’t have much in the way of advice with what I was dealing with inside.
That’s where John came in. John Rechy became my mentor, of sorts. Not that I put any of the responsibility on him. I wouldn’t presume to think such a thing. But I needed something, mind you. I needed someone male to give me a heads up on what was out there and how it sort of worked. I needed a primer. Sexual Outlaw became that primer. He was like my kinky Mr. Rogers (wow, there’s GOT to be some therapy in that statement somewhere), and I soooo wanted to be a part of his neighborhood.
I explored that part of my sexuality. I had anonymous sex in the park, I had encounters with nameless men. I had sex. Quite a bit of it too before I ever had my first boyfriend. No one knew about this, of course. I put on a very good face to friends at school and the new gay social friends I’d made. But I still found time to have anonymous sex. I was careful – well, insofar as I could be back then. I didn’t go off to some john’s house or somewhere I knew could literally be a dead end. Yeah, there was a degree of fear in the whole equation. But that also heightened the sexual tension. It made it come alive. That wasn’t Rechy’s fault. I’d already had those thoughts, those desires. Rechy just gave me the wherewithal to admit to them, to embrace them to some small degree and let me know that I wasn’t half crazy with the thoughts and feelings I’d been having. Somehow, I’d survived. Somehow I got very lucky. I know that, believe me I do. It’s not something that I would advise anyone else of doing either.
Women don’t get how powerful and potent testosterone can be. How intoxicating and bewildering and utterly dominating it can be within a man. I saw a documentary on men and their penises called Private Dicks. It was a somewhat humorous way to look at men and how they view their dicks. Sort of the Vagina Monologues but the men’s side of the fence. There was a trans (F to M) man in the film named Spencer. Spencer had spent part of his life as a woman. After the sexual transition, he became acquainted with testosterone very intimately. He said to any woman who was watching it that having been a woman and now was a man, he could say without a doubt, that women have no idea just how potent and powerful that hormone drives men to do what we do.
He’s right about that. It is potent. It is powerful, heady, and lusty. The need to seed is intense.
Anyway, that’s what I want to explore with my own writing. That incredible rush that men get when our sexual potency is heightened. That’s why Angels of Mercy doesn’t shy away from my boys sex lives. It permeates the book because that’s how teenaged boys are. If they could have sex they would – no questions asked. Marco and Elliot have quite a bit of sex in the book. It’s honest. It’s forthright and it is unabashedly male in all of its splendid semen laden fornication. I did quite a bit of research on the topic – mothers would be surprised just how much their teenaged gay boys are having sex – and how much of it they’re posting online. And just to be clear, there was no under-aged stuff within my research. All 18 and above, but there were several postings from these boys that it became quite clear they’d been at it (posting their sexual encounters) for years. Marco and Elliot toy with that as well – sex and social media. These are boys of the internet porn age. They act accordingly but not beyond the realm of their natural characteristics. I don’t call upon the reader to make a huge leap of faith when Marco or Elliot explore their sexual relations. The sex happens organically, as it should.
But, as my hubby keeps reminding me, it is NOT erotica in the sense that I am writing sex to titillate – because he’s quite clear that I am not. The sex Marco and Elliot is very hot and heavy, but it also drives the story forward as these two boys discover how sex becomes another character in their story. The sex they have is varied and pointed and sometimes downright angry. I didn’t want to shy away from it. It’s also why I think it will never get picked up by a traditional publisher. I think it warrants a decent publisher. I believe in the work that much, but I am also a pragmatist – there are too many cards stacked against a ‘gay’ novel already. To use cum play like I do because my boys are into it is definitely pushing the envelope too much. But again, it is a very intrinsic part of who they are – both as a couple and individually.
In Elliot’s book (Volume One of the series) I never really allow Elliot to give voice to how his orgasms are. He says that he has his orgasmic release, but he never gives it any weight – you never get to experience it from his perspective. It’s always about Marco’s ejaculate that Elliot fixates on. For Elliot, it is all about Marco’s release. That’s very much a theme between them. Elliot talks a lot about every time Marco makes love to him. How much he applies himself to learning what pleases Marco as a lover. But Elliot never gives his own desires much voice. My husband says many times over (as he’s had to read it many times over) that what I have is a character study of these men’s lives. Their lives happen to coincide with the love they feel as they come together – BAM! Like a head on collision of two bullet trains – it’s hard, fast and intense – almost to the point of being violent. The hubby also says that I shouldn’t ever refer to my work as erotic. He thinks it is far more than that because of all the little things I’ve woven into Elliot’s psyche. The hubby ought to know – being a retired psychiatrist himself.
Maybe he’s right.
The hubby also did something else: he looked up Rechy’s website and sent me a bunch of blog entries he’d posted. Several of which I have opposing points of view on. I guess this is why I cringed when the links to the blog entries were in my inbox. I knew what he was trying to do. He was trying to get me to see why Rechy’s work meant so much to me and how far I’d gone into left field – over thinking elements of my work when I should be just concentrating on the work itself and not the minutiae that surrounds it. He also knew the temptation to reach out to Rechy would be too great. I knew then as I stared into the iphone this morning at all of those links to Rechy’s site, why I’d never looked him up.
Fear – plain and simple. Over the years I’d built Rechy up as a monolithic mentor. He’s never been anything of the sort, just to my 15 year old eyes and in my 15 year old heart. I sort of fell in love with him through his works. He was my first (virtual) boyfriend. I know how that sounds. But I remember that feeling that Rechy was talking directly to me, because I needed it. I needed someone. Sexual Outlaw was it. Then it was City of Night, then Numbers. Yeah, I pretty much did them all. Rabid about it, I was.
So yeah, I was fearful that whatever I’d say I know I’d embarrass myself somehow. And I am not usually like that. I come from theatre and opera. Working with big names in the industry is second nature to me. But John Rechy is different. No one wants to be thought of in those epic monolithic tones. He’s human, same as the next guy. I get that, I do. But my romanticized 15 year old self, yeah, he’s not so convinced. It’s this duality when it comes to him that colors what I write. It’s that strong voice that I am constantly striving for, trying like hell to lock it down for myself. Try to make my own mark – no matter how big or small it may turn out to be.
So yeah, fear… fear that I can’t or fear that I won’t. But I know I have to try. Writing is what I want to do. Writing is what drives me each and every day now. I could lament on the years that I did nothing with that passion, but I’d much rather concentrate on the here and now, right? Rather than the shoulda, woulda, coulda’s…huh?
I hope it wouldn’t be fear of something that I’d say or write – though thinking on it now, yeah I could so gush all over Mr. Rechy and it wouldn’t be pretty. I’d go all Japanese fangirl on him, I’m sure. I wrote him a decent sized email this afternoon (and felt immensely guilty for doing so right after I sent it). He’s a busy guy, I am sure he didn’t need me to prattle on about my life to him. I know I embarrassed the fuck out of myself. I sort of liken it to being that Japanese fangirl walking up to one of those waifish boys from One Direction and just well, sort of fall apart. There might even be some tears involved. How fucking embarrassing would that be? Uh, VERY… he’s gonna think I am some sort of fucktard and will investigate the steps he’ll need to take to ensure his safety from my impending fangirl moment.
Let me lay that to rest for ya, John – I’m too damned embarrassed already. I’ll stay put under my rock if it’s all right with you.
But it’s done now. I’ve had my say to him – thanking him for the inspiration, for being a guiding light in my young gay boy life to the man I’ve become today. I suppose actually, in some strange way he’s left such an imprint upon me that some part of me that was 15 has never grown up. Like a sexually driven Peter Pan, he’s still tucked in there. I still get giddy when I open Sexual Outlaw now. That same feeling never fails to rear its head when I open that book. I immediately go back to that moment when I first found it. My skin sort of tingles, knowing what’s in those pages already – the surprise has long since worn off – only to be replaced by something far greater: my younger self. I am there, trapped and forever lost in those words. Words I can’t fully escape, nor would I ever want to. They’re what gave me the courage to seek out my own voice in this world. Outlaw gave me the balls to seek it out for myself.
So yeah, I may have just fangirl’d all over John (sorry!) in that email I sent to him (I am too afraid to even reread the copy in my sent mailbox because I know I’ll cringe). How teenaged girl can you get? Not that I am disparaging teenaged girls – on the contrary, I am commiserating with them. I’ll take the embarrassment. At the very least I can say that I’ve had my say on it. I’ve told him what his works have meant to me – let the chips fall where they may, right?
Fifty years in and I am still trying to sort out my own voice. I think I am close. Angels of Mercy is helping me get there. And when I do find it, by the gods, I will make sure I stick to it and never let it go.