Let me introduce you to my friend Mark.
This is Mark. (And yours truly. In case you’re wondering, I’m the one with the tits.)
He is the quintessential gay BFF—cute, sassy, good for a second opinion on which jeans make my ass look good, a reliable source of reassurance and rationalization when I’ve spent a bit too much money at the shops, and of course, someone I can turn to in good times and bad, always ready with a congratulatory word and the proverbial bottle of champagne when a celebration is in order, and armed with a box of tissues and the collector’s box set of The Complete Sex and the City when the news is not so great. But the fact is, Mark is so much more than that. We’ve been pals for going on a decade now, and we even dated for a bit before either one of us knew he was gay. Even though I like to joke about it, I don’t think of him as just my “gay BFF” when I consider the role his friendship has played in my life—he’s my friend and confidant, period, and a very good one at that.
In fact, I’m sure some of our conversations borderline on oversharing, which is probably a generous way to put it; a few weeks ago we had an in-depth discussion about thumbs up the butt (to be filed under “Things That Are Awesome”), and his rating system of the people I go on dates with usually comes down to “I’d sit on that” or “I wouldn’t sit on that.” Simple yet effective, and proof positive that there isn’t a whole lot we don’t feel comfortable discussing with each other. Like all friends, we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is our ability to share secrets openly and with confidence, regardless of the subject. He was the first person I came out to as bisexual, the one I speed-dialed after losing my virginity, the one who taught me to cover my teeth with my lips during a blow-job, the man who held my hand and whose hand I held back every time one of us went through a traumatic breakup (and oh, there have been breakups). And since I first met Mark in a class on Literary Criticism in uni, he’s also been one of the most honest, intelligent, and trustworthy critics I know when it comes to sharing my writing.
That is, until I started penning m/m fiction. In which case I sort of treated it like a dirty secret, something I don’t do.
You’d think coming clean would be easier. Like many authors of gay romance, I identify as queer, and that’s something Mark and I frequently bond over; certainly it is something I have bonded over with other authors and readers in the m/m genre, too. But I have this theory, and if you can bear with me through some gross assumptions and generalizations for a second, I would argue there are probably a lot of us out there who have struggled more with how to come out of the closet as someone who writes gay male fiction and erotica for a living than gay/bi/trans/asexual/insert your queer identity of choice here.
For me, coming out as bi was relatively painless. Sharing that side of myself with loved ones and, eventually, the world at large was scary and at times challenging, yes, but ultimately I’m aware of how easy I had it—the responses I got ranged from “Cool, cool” to “This is news?” Nothing too traumatic. It’s a sad reality, however, that far too many people who queer-identify experience a great deal of fear, ambivalence, and a sense of shame associated with copping to one’s sexual orientation. I experienced some of those things at times, too, but when I look back now I had a super supportive group of friends who made coming out easy. Of all things, I honestly didn’t expect those feelings to kick in when it came to talking about the types of books and stories I enjoy writing.
Perhaps I should’ve seen that coming, especially as someone with degrees in English and Creative Writing—I spent four years of undergrad learning how to be a literary snob. I won’t lie; in my career as a librarian I have made my fair share of wisecracks about the books in the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Romance sections, preferring instead to associate myself with the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Pat Barker, or any of the other “literary” authors I not only enjoyed reading, but emulating—even badly—in my work. It’s probably best not to discuss how many digs I’ve made at Fifty Shades of Grey with my colleagues, all while secretly thinking I’ve probably read (and written!) stuff that’s far dirtier and dodgier. While I have always loved queer fiction, queer romance seemed a step outside of my comfort zone (as a snob, let’s be clear—fortunately I was never a prude, and I discovered Anne Rice’s erotica early). Of course, that all changed once I started seriously reading it, and promptly learned that a book’s genre or label says approximately fuck all about its quality; that changed even more once I started writing m/m fiction myself, hoping to represent myself as a literary author in a niche most “serious” writers and publishers tend to overlook. In this way, I definitely know I’m not alone—I’ve read plenty of m/m books that deserve to be on the NYT bestseller lists, leagues above anything E.L. James or Charlaine Harris could hope to write in terms of quality, characterization, plot, and literary merit.
But that’s a rant for another post. For myself, I’m fortunate to have a strong support system of female friends—straight, gay, and everything in between—who also write in the genre, some of them published, some not. They’ve been my backbone over the last few years, some of them since I even started writing seriously in my teens, and I can say with absolute certainty that my first novel, Bombora, wouldn’t have been written or published without their encouragement, tough love, guidance, and free editing services. We all know by now that m/m romance’s biggest demographic is women, and if there’s something thrilling and freeing about reading two men shagging each other silly, breaking up, then shagging each other silly again, well, it’s even more wonderful to be able to talk about it with like-minded individuals who also happen to have vaginas. I will never tire of discussing m/m fiction with that sect of girlfriends, ever, but the question often crossed my mind if I’d ever be able to share my love of writing gay romance and erotica with my male friends, too, especially the gay ones. Like Mark. (See? We just came full circle. I’m sure you were wondering when that would happen.) I had no idea how to bridge the gap, how to make him understand and accept me for who I was, and suddenly it was like being closeted all over again.
With regards to the men in the genre, and they are out there (hi, Josh!), discovering them sometimes seems to simultaneously spark feelings of glee and terror, like a whole group of people just did something really embarrassing and then realized there was someone else in the room the entire time. Or at least that’s how I felt the first time I accidentally referred to a “he” as a “she” in conversation (acronyms are misleading, okay?). While I certainly don’t think being gay, a man, or a combination of the two makes anyone more qualified to write in the genre, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking they have a unique perspective and set of experiences (assuming they haven’t been fabricated) that women writers do not, and that it’s interesting to see how things are on the other side. Just, you know, to get a sense that you’re doing it right, and to find out how a dude really feels about the words “his winking hole.”
Call me pathetic, but I so desperately wanted to have that with Marky-Mark. If you like, you can insert a montage here of me daydreaming about all the fabulous discussions we’d have about gay erotica, which, curiously, strongly resembled all the times we’d actually watched gay porn together and developed a commentary that involved a lot of giggling and agitated noises, or else took place in total silence with our heads cocked in mirror image at the screen, until our hands brushed against each other over the bowl of popcorn and we remembered there was someone else sitting there. I became convinced this was something my life was missing, and hankered after that heightened state of existence, of being able to sleep soundly at night knowing I had a fact-checker for anatomical correctness with hands-on experience and references. The female slash writer’s holy grail, if you will. I longed for it so badly that one day I sat down to write an email to Mark as a hello (we currently live in different cities), and instead found myself pouring out a full confession about my writing habits before hitting “send.” The deed was done. Then I proceeded to hit the refresh button about a million times as I awaited his response. (Ironically, this is exactly how we started dating ten years ago.)
In the end, Mark was totally cool with it. Anti-climactic, right? (Yeah, a little. I had a whole argument planned about why m/m fiction is awesome, with sources, which I never got to use.) For reasons that aren’t worth going into here, we didn’t actually talk about the progress of my writing until after I got my first publishing contract with Dreamspinner and was well into the final editing process. But because Mark is wonderful and knows how much writing means to me, he was immediately effusive in his congratulations and genuine happiness that I’d finally managed to realize my dream. Naturally he wanted to read Bombora straight away, which in retrospect I probably should’ve seen coming. (I’ve continued to make this mistake with various individuals, including my octogenarian uncle, who likely now believes I made the whole publishing contract up since I won’t show him any evidence it happened.) I was totally on-board with the idea, and even went so far as to start re-editing the novel in preparation for it reaching his eyes. Two chapters in, I stopped—more like came to a screeching halt—when the porn started, overcome by the worst case of bashfulness I’d experienced since my first kiss (ironically, also with Mark. Sensing a trend?).
I couldn’t do it.
The situation got more complicated before it got better. Just to be a dick, I sent Mark the first two chapters, then proceeded to dodge his emails and texts requesting, then demanding, to read the rest. I was behaving worse than someone who owed a large sum of money to some dude named Boris. Mark wanted to know what happened next, damn it, and I was all, “How about those rainbow suspenders? Pretty cool way of keeping your pants up,” or else trying to distract him with pictures of Jon Snow, whom I know is his weakness. Meanwhile I wanted him to read the rest of my book, too—so badly—but couldn’t for the life of me get past the mental block I’d created over the idea of him reading the words, “Nestled in the bed of dark hair that trailed from his navel, his cock was still half-hard, magnificent, curving in a perfect Playgirl arc down over his balls” (page 40, y’all). I mean, Jesus. I would’ve rather talked about his first awkward fisting experiment again than let him read that—or my awkward fisting experiment, for that matter. There was no rhyme or reason to what my brain had designated as “kosher” and “NOPE.”
I think that, when I tried to picture Mark reading the dirtiest, most shameless parts of my book, I was overcome by a parade of awkward images that ranged from him being disgusted and throwing it away, to him being quite the opposite of disgusted and maybe reading it a couple times in bed. With a flashlight. Under the covers. And then passing it to his boyfriend to read. Bizarrely, I was completely at ease with my female friends who openly admitted to having masturbated to my writing, and had actually given the book to a couple of my very close, very straight male friends before Mark, knowing they’d just skip over those parts after a couple lines and never want to talk about it again (maybe they don’t want to give me blackmail material, who knows).
In retrospect, deliberately withholding my work from someone I trust as implicitly as Mark seems pretty damn silly. Not for a second did I think he would treat my work with anything less than thoughtfulness or respect, but I was held back by my own fear of his judgement, especially around the porny bits, because quite frankly the only two responses I could envision were glowing approval, or something along the lines of, “You know nothing about how the male body works; give up now.” (“But—but—how different can anal sex with two dudes be?” I would plaintively whine.) Rationally speaking, I know this was all because his opinion means more to me than a lot of other people’s, and I was afraid of his disapproval.
The kicker here is, I’m writing all this in past tense as though this is all something that’s already happened, and I can go on to tell you how we got past it with some hugs and a round martinis. In some ways we have, because by now I’ve talked a bit more with Mark about the process of writing porn, but the reality is I literally just mailed a copy of Bombora to him yesterday. Lame. While I consider that an achievement, having sealed my fate with a Canada Post shipping label, the real test of our friendship is still to come. Or maybe not, since I’ve already managed to stop being an idiot long enough to trust the guy with my words. The jury’s still out on that one (both what his reaction will be and whether it’s humanly possible for me to stop being an idiot). Whatever happens now is out of my hands, and I just have to wait for him to get back to me with his thoughts, or discuss it with me over coffee when I see him in two weeks (or even coffee and porn—see what I did there?). Perhaps he’ll read it on the train from Montreal and not be able to put the book down, and I’m enough of a jerk to admit the thought of him getting an awkward boner in public makes me smile with positively evil glee, even as I want to hide my face behind my hands and blush until I feel light-headed. When I find out what happens, I’ll let you know.
All of this has led me to wonder—are there any other m/m writers out there who have gone through a similar experience of having to “come out” to a close, trusted friend, gay or otherwise? I’m really curious to hear people’s stories and how they turned out, or even just whether my tale is a common one. It’s got to be, surely, because pseudonyms exist in this genre for a reason. Who knows? Maybe my experience coming out to Mark will help someone else come clean to someone dear to them, or another writer’s story will help me sort out some of my own fears and insecurities when Mark does eventually get back to me with his review of my book. Leave your stories and responses in the comments! And just remember; you’d have to try really, really hard to achieve the level of idiosyncrasy I’ve detailed here, so don’t be shy.
My name is Mal Peters, and I am simultaneously a writer, librarian, fencing coach, freelance editor, and full-time neurotic living in Toronto. My first novel is called Bombora, available now through Dreamspinner Press, and you can visit me on the web at MalPeters.com.