Going from Yaoi to M/M: Writing Queer Male Relationships With Respect

TW: discussion of homophobia, the AIDS epidemic, sexual assault (briefly) and sex.

It feels like I’ve written about, ranted about and tweeted about this topic thousands of times in my life, and that’s probably true. That said, it’s an evergreen one, and always worth revisiting. Especially in an era where sensitivity readers are becoming more popular and the #ownvoices hashtag exists – how do you write m/m respectfully?

For the unfamiliar, m/m means “male/male” – that is, any romantic relationship involving two men. Previously in the fandom world, this got called slash, yaoi or shounen-ai, words with a lot of history of their own (which I won’t delve into here, but I’m not a fan of most of them.) The use of ‘m/m’ rather than gay means that the actual identities of the characters can be varied, including bisexual, asexual, aromantic, etc. The historical problem with writing m/m with respect is that for a long time, the writing of m/m has been a project for women. (Usually cishet women, but there are plenty of queer women involved in it as well.) As time has gone on, trans men have gotten more involved with the fandom side while being out and proud, and queer men have started being published again with their own stories.

Many queer men have made their distaste with the more extreme parts of slash, yaoi and shounen-ai culture pretty clear over the years, but the tides have only now started to shift in favour of respecting those whose stories are getting told. Still, if you’re somebody who began writing in one type of culture and now wants to change that – where do you start? Here’s a few tips.

1. Familiarize yourself with history.

Queer male stories written by non-men tend to lean heavily on works by other non-men for inspiration. Yaoi culture, for example, is pretty insular – it’s more common to read other fanfiction with queer men in it than to seek out, say, Tales of the City. This is how stereotypes, untruths and myths get passed around as fact – if so many people have written it this way, then it must be true!

If you’re interested in writing queer men a little more respectfully and worried that you haven’t been, get to know the history of the queer male community. For example, the AIDS epidemic is not taught in classrooms, and certainly not to the extent it should be. It’s hard to grasp just how many people died – and specifically, how many cis queer men and trans women were victims of the disease. The effects of this also get erased; for example, there was a modestly successful enterprise of queer male books in the 70s and early 80s, which quickly died out. Why? A lot of the authors were dead, sick or worried they’d be next. (A particularly tragic example is the case of Peter McGehee, a Toronto author. McGehee wrote two books that took place during the AIDS epidemic, and passed away shortly after the publication of the second. His partner Doug Wilson’s wrote a third book in the series, Labour of Love, which was only published after Wilson’s death – only 5 years after the first book.)

It sounds helplessly sad, and honestly, it kind of is. Institutional homophobia is the reason that there aren’t as many queer male authors as there should be, and the queer male authors who have achieved canonization (Gore Vidal) write violent, stereotypical stories designed for the straight gaze. Until you understand what kind of context you’re writing in, it’s too easy to make mistakes. A recent m/m book depicted the main queer male character, for example, as deliberately spreading a plague… an accusation frequently levied at queer men who dared to show their face in public during the height of the AIDS crisis, under false assumptions that breathing the same air as a queer man would get them sick. Other m/m books fall into the pattern of making the ‘bottom’ in the relationship significantly younger, sometimes to the point of questionable legality, and don’t appear to be aware of the chronic problem of older men (particularly in the 80s and 90s) using homophobia and the closet as a shield to sexually abuse young, queer boys.

It would be lovely if we were at a point where we could just write whatever we wanted devoid of historical context – but ultimately, every book and story we publish connects with every other one. “Bury Your Gays” is a problem because of historical context; many of the tropes mentioned above are, too, but aren’t acknowledged because of how specifically they affect queer men. Ultimately, even writing the trope itself isn’t bad – but the moment you know the history surrounding it, your writing of the trope changes.

2. The politics of attractiveness

Let’s face it; a lot of people write m/m because they find it hot. There’s nothing wrong with that, on its surface. Plenty of people write erotica for things they personally enjoy, or romance for their own fantasies.

However, what we find sexy or attractive doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Often this is something that non-men can acknowledge in relation to themselves – the magazines are airbrushed, makeup can work magic, etc. – but not necessarily for men. Culturally, we aren’t used to talking about the politics of attraction for men, because it affects women (and other non-men) so much more severely. However, queer men are subject to a lot of the same biases you’d expect anywhere; anti-fatness, racism, misogyny and just plain old “pretty privilege” come into play.

Ask yourself: why do my characters look a certain way? Are all your m/m characters white and tall with square jaws? Are they all slim and slightly effeminate? Do they have perfect hair and are feminine but “not too feminine, because that’s gay”? Challenge that in yourself and in your stories, because lord knows the queer male community has enough of that. Trans men in particular are subject to a lot of this three times over, and if we come up in m/m at all, it’s to give people an excuse for m-preg or a “realistic” way to have the Cute, Slim, Uke. (Pro-tip: don’t do that, either. Trans men can look pretty dang masc, and prioritizing our feminine traits is creepy and voyeuristic. We can be drop dead sexy and treated like people.)

This also comes into the concept of the ‘seme/uke’ or ‘top/bottom’ as hypermasc vs. hyperfemme – they’re usually the ideals of each type of attractiveness, without a lot of room for variation. Realistically, anybody can be a bottom! Anybody can be a top! And some relationships don’t even use that model at all – top and bottom are almost exclusively related to penetrative sex, with a little bit of superimposed BDSM dynamics. It’s a lot more common than you’d think to have the roles have no meaning in a relationship.

3. The reader insert

Yes, you can stop laughing at ‘insert’ now. The ‘reader insert’ character usually refers to a character designed for the reader to project themselves onto, especially for escapist or wish-fulfillment fantasy. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but reader inserts reveal a lot about the intended audience of a story. (The preponderance of white male reader inserts in fantasy, for example.)

In m/m fiction, particularly stuff that falls into yaoi or shounen-ai categories, the reader insert is usually the younger, smaller, obviously-the-bottom character. The association of those three traits is a problem on its own, but even more so is what it reveals about a story’s intended audience. If your reader insert – the character designed for your readers to identify with – is written as effeminately as possible, and is smaller, younger, inferior to the top, obedient and waifish…

… then, you might not really be writing m/m so much as repurposed heterosexual romance tropes. The awkwardly sexist ones, at that. I’m trans and non-binary, so I’m not going to waste time on ‘write men like men’ because that is flagrantly not true and insulting to boot. But don’t write your queer bottoms like quivering damsels in distress. If it isn’t a good look for a female character, it sure isn’t empowering for a queer man. (We get compared enough to women as it is.)

The main issue is also that this assumes – sometimes explicitly – that your audience is going to be female. This might surprise you, but queer men like to read about queer men! Even a moment of considering your audience can change your outlook on something.

4. But I don’t WANT to be realistic!

Most of this column is pretty kind (I think) but this is one of the things I won’t budge on: If you want to write about somebody, and won’t listen to the people you’re writing about – ALL of them, not just the ones who agree with you – then you shouldn’t be writing about them. Queer mens’ experiences have been treated as up for grabs for a very long time, and that isn’t fair. Take a moment to consider why it is you think you “deserve” to write about queer men, and what being kind in the process will actually take from you – and try to be honest with yourself.

One of the arguments I see a lot is that fujoshi culture and yaoi are a way for women to process sexism – which I don’t think holds that much merit, because if the only way for you to process sexism is to tear other people down, then you’re not processing much. You’re just emulating what was done to you to other people. If your response is that men don’t know what it’s like to be sexualized – then you’re betraying that you treat all men like they’re allocishet men.

These are just four very general tips to get you started – and honestly, it’s hard to get specific, because there’s no such thing as ‘no such thing’. I can’t tell you not to write effeminate queer men (and I would never) because effeminate queer men are real! We exist and we’re very fun. I can’t tell you not to write difficult or abusive relationships, because everybody has their own reasons for writing those, and showing toxic relationships is just as important as the healthy ones. Sensitivity readers are a godsend, and it’s worth looking into especially for things with complicated history.

The main thing, really, is to treat queer men as a topic that you don’t know. If you’re not a queer man, then you don’t know! And that’s okay. That isn’t a value judgement – you’re not doing anything wrong by writing about queer men if you’re not one. But it does mean that you have to do that little bit of extra legwork to write authentic and heartfelt characters, otherwise you won’t even know when you draw on unconscious stereotyping and other biases. Research! Talk to queer men! Read writing by queer men! It means your characters will come even more to life, and your readers will breathe a little easier.

Lightning Round!

Here’s a few tropes to reconsider your use of – there are ways to use them respectfully, but being aware of the issues helps a lot! Besides, sometimes we fall back on tropes without thinking.

Gay For You: “I’m straight, and you’re the one exception. Bisexuality doesn’t exist.”
Stalker with a Crush: “I’m obsessed with you, usually the small obviously-gay uke, and there’s only one possible way for me to show this: stalking!”
Your Mouth Says No But Your Body Says Yes: …Enough said. If you’re going to write things with shaky consent, at least know you’re doing it and craft it deliberately. Otherwise, this isn’t romantic.
Masculine-Feminine Gay Couple: This trope isn’t bad. Plenty of relationships function this way – except what are you coding as masc and what are you coding as femme? Also, is every m/m couple you write like this? Challenge it.

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