In a new essay for Medium, I look at responses to Hulu’s Happiest Season and efforts by Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix to offer LGBTQ holiday stories. The total effect is that queer holiday stories are still lacking and when they do exist, are disappointing. So I propose viewers turn to queer publishing, where LGBTQ holiday novels are growing in number.
My current work in progress doesn’t have a title. Originally, it was called Strange Bedfellows, a title that made sense when the concept was about men forced to share an apartment together. This year, I decided to write it as book about lesbians, including the ghost of a woman who spent the 1980s AIDS epidemic offering care and comfort to men suffering and dying. Yes, I said “ghost” – it’s a light paranormal in which a benevolent spirit helps a lonely woman find her true love. That’s why the working title is “Spooky Ghost Lesfic.”
I know, it’s dreadful. I’ll make sure it has a good title before anything happens to the manuscript.
This book, like my royal romance The Queen Has a Cold, is ultimately happy and allows two people who may not initially seem right for each other to find love and fulfillment together. And also like The Queen, the story is complicated by intrigue that goes far beyond the romance. When I left off working on it during NaNoWriMo, the main character, Kara, had moved to Chicago after a year of grieving for a partner who had died of cancer. Unfortunately, she moved to an apartment haunted by the spirit of a former resident, Barb. Kara has to figure out what’s keeping Barb’s spirit from moving on to the next world. In the course of investigating the paranormal, the history of the apartment, and Barb’s personal life, Kara learns how difficult it was for someone to be out in the 1980s and how public health policies failed a community of men infected with HIV, who succumbed to AIDS-related complications sometimes under the care of the lesbian women who were willing to tend to them in the spirit of solidarity for the community.
This last part is something that is historically true and fascinates me. The Blood Sisters, for instance, were communities of women who organized blood drives, since AIDS patients often needed transfusions and since gay men (regardless of their HIV status) were banned from donating blood. (Men who have sex with other men are today still not allowed to donate blood if they are currently sexually active, regardless of the safety of their sexual practices and regardless of the fact that HIV affects people of all genders and sexualities. This is a rule in place by the FDA.) Lesbians also organized food banks for suffering men and provided nursing when they could. Many LGBTQ historians cite the AIDS epidemic as a turning point in relations between gay men and lesbians, who had not viewed themselves as a singular community before this.
What does all this have to do with a contemporary romance about two single women in Chicago? There’s so much to learn from LGBTQ history, and as the characters delve into the past, they gain greater appreciation for their lives and their comparative freedom. Barb’s experience working with dying AIDS patients means she’s able to help Kara see the ways her grief hasn’t fully been processed. In turn, Barb’s struggle with her family back in the 1980s makes Kara appreciate every precious second she’s able to be out, alive, and sharing love. It propels her to take action on her blossoming romance with another former resident of the apartment – this one very much alive.
Right now, the book has many threads that are nearly tied up. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a plotter, so I do know how it’s all going to sort out and finish, though I need more time to accomplish that. But as I said in my previous NaNo posts, the characters in this book threw some surprises at me last month, so there are some details I hadn’t planned at all – like Barb being from the 1980s – that require more time and research. And truthfully? I love that.
The spooky ghost lesfic remains a work in progress, but I’ll update you if that changes. In the meantime, my first book, The Holiday Detour, is available everywhere, and my royal romance, The Queen Has a Cold, is currently in editing for April release.
In my last post, I was in the exciting early days of November, which always marks for me a frenzied month devoted to National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in the month or about 1,700 words per day. When I last blogged, I was six days into the project.
Well, I finished! And I made it!
I hit the 50k mark accidentally on November 25. I say “accidentally” because I hadn’t realized I was so close, and the word count update that put me over the threshold was just casually entered. There was no fanfare or celebration on my part. I had planned to keep writing that night, too. I managed to write every single day up till then, proudly earning badges for my consistency, but reaching the 50k goal on the 25th left me with a slight dilemma. Should I celebrate my early completion and be done (and recover that time for other projects), or should I keep going to get the badge for updating the word count for 30 straight days?
I do NaNo each year to keep myself on target to write a book a year, and so far it’s worked well. It’s not an ideal time of year for me, but it’s important to have dedicated time and space for writing, or it can easily become something pushed aside for things that feel more urgent. Page proofs, for instance, usually have tight turnaround times, but writers who intend to make a career of their writing have to ensure there are always projects at varied stages of development. NaNo helps me get drafting done, so there’s a new book waiting to be revised and submitted.
One of the problems with this model, though, is that 50k is not enough for an entire novel. There are about fifty pages left to write in this year’s effort. Another problem is that the breakneck pace of trying to get 50,000 words spewed out in thirty days means very little time for revising – and, as you know from my previous posts, revising is everything to me.
Last year’s NaNo creation was the royal romance that is now The Queen Has a Cold. After last November, I spent another month revising it, including one major character change. Then the book went to an intersex consultant, and finally it underwent another two weeks of revision before it was submitted to my publisher. I will soon be getting back my editor’s notes, and then we’ll have another round of editing, followed by proofreading, before it will finally be published in April. From my initial concept last summer to publication, it will have been a 20-month odyssey.
Still, as a writer who holds down a full-time job, I appreciate events like NaNoWriMo for helping me keep my writing schedule regimented, even if it does mean November has a lot of very late nights.
Once again, I’m spending November participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The goal of NaNo is to write a novel of 50,000 words by the end of November. This works to about 1,700 words per day. I’ve done it several times in the past, and three novels have come out of it. Last year I used NaNo to draft a royal romance that, with months of revising later, became The Queen Has a Cold, which comes out in April.
This year, I’m working being a NaNo “rebel” in that I’m not starting a project from scratch on day one. I’m finessing a rough draft of what is currently being called Spooky Ghost Lesfic. Every day I take a different chapter and revise it, mostly adding details and clarifying the language. But I also had a major breakthrough a few weeks ago in which I realized some of the essential plot elements don’t work, and the characters’ backgrounds, as well as what happens to them, are being overhauled slightly. I’m excited by these new changes and hope you will be, too.
I want to give you a sneak peek of what I’m working on. In this scene, Kara has just moved to Chicago after she’s been able to move on from the death of her partner. She meets Nisha, who used to live in the apartment Kara now rents. Nisha takes Kara out to show her what weekends in the city are like. At this point, they’re still basically strangers, but you see the initial attraction and signs they might work as a couple in their exchange below.
“You said you just moved here,” Nisha said. “I’m thinking you’re not from the suburbs either. You moved to Chicago from somewhere else. Iowa maybe, maybe Wisconsin.”
“Why do you think that?”
“You actually called me back, and when I called you, you didn’t screen. You’re from some place where people are supposed to be nice to each other. I’m guessing Wisconsin.”
“That’s is not a very logical deduction, but you got it right anyway.”
Nisha tossed her hair over her shoulder and rested her chin on her fist. She smiled devilishly. “Less about logic and more about your Facebook profile still saying you live in Eau Claire.”
So Nisha had been creeping on Kara’s social media, too. That was an interesting admission on her part. “I lived there all my life, except for three years of law school.”
“What prompted the move to here then?”
Hilary. Kara didn’t want to say it. And explaining how she needed a fresh start to figure out who she was without Hilary felt like too much to explain. She opted for a less detailed version of the truth.
“There are more opportunities to get ahead here, so I took the Illinois bar exam. I had a job at home, but a bigger city means bigger clients and more career paths. Even if there are a thousand more attorneys.”
“I guess we’re a litigious city.”
“Nah, you just have five law schools.” Kara took another sip of the wine. It tasted light on her tongue, like plums and cherries, then felt earthy and relaxing as it warmed her body to the core. She could feel its effects on her hot cheeks, and all the muscles she usually held so tight were slowly beginning to loosen.
What will happen between Kara and Nisha? You’ll have to keep following this blog to find out. In the meantime, you might enjoy my current release, The Holiday Detour, or look forward to reading The Queen Has a Cold when it comes out in April.
If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, you can find me there as JaneKolven. Feel free to send a buddy request!
When Jenny Frame asked me if I had written a book set at Christmas because I loved the holidays, my answer was coy, “Does the holiday season extend to Halloween? I love Halloween. There can never be enough Halloween celebration.” In truth, like Dana, the protagonist of my book The Holiday Detour, I’m not a big fan of Christmastime. But I adore Halloween, and the difference for me is the inherent queerness of the holiday.
For many people in the LGBTQ community, Halloween is a sacred institution. It’s our favorite holiday, the one that allows to celebrate joyously without many of the burdens attached to other holidays. Some call it the “Gay Christmas.” Others refer to it as a “Gay High Holy Day.”
There are many reasons for this, and of course they vary from person to person, but in general Halloween is about costuming and celebrating those costumes. There’s an analogy there to the way drag lets us escape the burdens of gender normative expression. On Halloween, you can dress the way you want, and you get cheered for it. This can’t be underestimated in a community full of people who often grew up having their hair, clothes, speech, mannerisms, and pronouns policed by others. In American history cross-dressing could get you arrested until the late twentieth century, but historical accounts of Halloween as early as the 1900s show that police agreed not to arrest women dressed as men and vice versa on this special night.
Unlike many other holidays, Halloween isn’t centered around a family meal. On Thanksgiving, many people expect to sit at the table with a turkey and their extended family. On Christmas, probably the same. On Easter, maybe the same but with ham instead of turkey. Passover has a highly structured meal with rituals for how and what to eat. As a vegetarian, of course I prefer Halloween to all the other holidays at which I often don’t get to eat.
But it’s more than just the food. It’s the expectation that you eat with your family.There’s no secular American tradition involving a family meal at Halloween, and for people who often have very complicated, if not contentious, relationships with their birth families, this can be a relief. Since I was old enough to stop trick-or-treating, which arguably does require adult supervision, Halloween became a night to party with friends – first at sleepovers and school dances, then at bars and house parties. If Thanksgiving is a cultural or political battleground where you have to worry about whether Uncle Mike is going to say something intolerant about the LGBTQ community or Aunt Sharon is going to misgender you or refer to your partner as your “friend,” Halloween is freedom from that. You can spend it with whomever you want, probably those who share your values and love you for who you are.
I think there’s also something important to be said for Halloween’s origins in Samhain. The night when the boundaries between our world and the spirit world could be transgressed, Samhain meant appeasing the fairies and evil spirits to send them away for lasting protection. There’s a logical analogy to the way queer people have to fight back the cultural and political forces that would see us disenfranchised or nonexistent. On Halloween, we can dress up and scare them away. I love this.
There’s also the centuries old connection between lesbians and witches. Historically single adult women have suffered from presumptions that they were evil and used witchcraft when they may have been Wiccan, too educated for their time, or, you know, gay and uninterested in marrying some dude with rotten teeth. In Europe and North America, single adult women are still somewhat outcast, they aren’t usually tortured or burned at the stake as witches. (Sadly, though, this does still happen in other parts of the world.)
In today’s American lesbian communities, there is always a connection to witches and witchcraft. One of my favorite Halloween memories was at a tongue-in-cheek cackling contested at a lesbian bar. There were some damn good contestants.
My first book, The Holiday Detour, is set at Christmas. My second book doesn’t take place over a holiday, but my current WIP is about a ghost. Maybe it needs to be a Halloween book.
Lesfic – or, as it’s becoming more commonly and more inclusively called, WLW (women who love women) romance – has two basic plots. Like all romance, the goal is for the characters to get together at the end of the book. This can be accomplished by having them immediately attracted, getting together by the midpoint, and then breaking up in order to get together for real at the end. Or they can only end up as a couple at the end of the book. Let’s review some recent releases to see which plot pathway they follow and how each might find its payoff with readers.
We’re Together, Now We’re Not, Now It’s Back On
In the first plot pathway, the two love interests are usually instantly attracted to each other. This has been true in many of the books I’ve read recently, with one character usually narrating their visual appreciation for the other character. She’s hot, and it’s an immediate physical attraction.
But, this being romance, they can’t land at their happily ever after right away, or there wouldn’t be a story left to read. Usually, the writer has them get together – likely through a sexual encounter – but some outside force causes their relationship to fall apart at about three-quarters of the way through the book.
Melissa Brayden’s Entangled, for instance, has the lead couple Joey and Becca really happy with some hot sex before a series of related professional disasters cause Joey to walk away from their relationship. During panels at reader conventions and author chats, Melissa often talks about how she loves finding the moment when she can pull the rug out from under a relationship, just as readers are starting to feel satisfied with it. It’s a move that makes the reader need to turn the page. As readers, we go from happily flipping pages to see the hot sex or loving domestic scenes play out to frantically flipping pages with our hearts in our stomachs to see if the couple will be able to get back on track because we know they belong together.
Georgia Beers’ Flavor of the Month follows a similar pattern. There’s an intense sex scene between Charlie and Emma, who are just starting to understand and connect with each other, before everything falls to pieces.
But it’s romance, so of course the pieces are able to be glued back together, and the couple succeeds.
In my forthcoming book, The Queen Has a Cold, Remy and Sam are instantly drawn to each other, but there are so many things standing in the way of their relationship: a monarchy, a social class divide, a prospective fiancee, and palace intrigue that threatens the reign of Remy’s mother, Queen Clotilde. Just as Remy and Sam make an advance in their relationship, the forces against them ratchet up to a point where there’s just no way they can ever really be together. Since it’s a romance, I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you they get their happy ending, but I won’t tell you how. You have to buy the book to find that out.
This plot pathway keeps readers hooked if they’re already rooting for the couple. It also allows the writer to include a scorching sex scene earlier in the book, which can be another hook for a reader and often a way to demonstrate the characters belong together. Their sexual chemistry and innate understanding of each other’s bodies are often a physical parallel to their emotional connection. If the book features a second explicit sex scene after the characters’ reconciliation, it serves as a kind of homecoming.
We’re not a Couple….Yet
The second plot pathway doesn’t have the characters get together until the end of the book. Sometimes readers call this a “slow burn” because it takes so much time and fuel to get the relationship going. The advantage to this pathway is that the characters get a long time to know each other before they connect sexually or romantically – and, by extension, so do the readers. Sometimes this is through the enemies-to-lovers trope, in which the characters don’t initially like each other, but sometimes it’s just because the characters are slow to build their feelings.
By the final few chapters of these books, we are desperate for those characters to wake up and see the light of day – that they belong together. Or, if they already know but there are forces outside them keeping them apart, we become desperate for them to hurry up and defeat these forces.
This is the plot of most of those Hallmark movies in which one character already has a fiance or an accidental husband from when she was a teenager or a boyfriend who is more committed to work than to her. It works on Hallmark because there’s no need for kissing or sex, since the couple isn’t a couple until the final few scenes.
I’ve just finished reading Clare Lydon’s Before You Say I Do, in which a bride-to-be falls in love with a professional bridesmaid who has been hired to help the wedding run smoothly. Because Abby, the future bride, has never identified as lesbian or bisexual, it takes her a long time to recognize that her feelings for Jordan are sexual and romantic. They still have their moment of having the tower fall apart, since Abby is about five minutes away from marrying a man, but the bulk of the book is Abby’s self-discovery and awakening.
Jae’s The Roommate Arrangement is another example. Steph and Rae are opposites forced to fake being in a relationship for the sake of an apartment, and there’s not much conflict between them except that they’re blind to see how great they’d be together until the end.
My first book, The Holiday Detour, follows this path, too. Dana and Charlie are so fixated on their ridiculous misadventure to get to the Chicago suburbs to their families that they don’t realize until the following morning that they have developed feelings for each other.
While the first plot pathway gives us a chance to see smoking sexual dynamics earlier in the book, this plot pathway gives us a chance to see how friendship can blossom. And it’s fun to know something before the characters do. It might take them ten chapters to figure out they belong together, but we can tell from page one. Author KD Williamson says the slow burn can leave the reader breathless because (like sex) there is something very satisfying about a romance taking its time to reach its boiling point, as opposed to happening hard and fast.
Neither plot pathway is better than the other; they’re just two possibilities for romance to develop. Each offers readers a way of feeling those intense sensations of passion, heartache, and anticipation that make romance so exciting.
The weekend around October 10 turns out to be my busiest weekend every year without fail, even as I am desperate to have free time to talk a walk through a forest and enjoy the leaves changing. In 2010, 10-10-10 was the date of the Chicago marathon, the first I ran (and finished!). This year, I was participating in the Bold Strokes Books October Bookathon, three days of author readings, chats among authors with time for reader questions, and panels on topics relevant to romance today. All in all, not a bad way to spend a weekend, even if it was sunny and warm, probably the last of those weekends for Michigan until April.
On Saturday, I participated in a panel on the topic “Love in Turbulent Times: Is Romance Still Relevant?” with Ali Vali, Kris Bryant, Angie Williams, and Jane Walsh. I was really excited about this topic, given the pandemic, the protests taking place all summer (and still going – Detroit is on day 142), and the polarization of society that can sometimes make things like romance novels seem trivial. Recently, I saw a tweet that caught my attention:
I feel really strongly about comments like this. Romance is so easily dismissed as cheap, meaningless fantasy, smutty books that don’t show what love and sex are like in real life. Romance writing is easily dismissed as “genre writing,” not real craft that requires creative genius. It’s offensive all around, and it’s such an easy insult that doesn’t actually think through the cultural role romance plays in offering hope and positivity, the power of fantasy to serve as an escape, and – as many scholars have documented – the way romance grapples with real-life issues. Here was my reply:
It’s not that romance ignores the real world. It’s not a naive genre, and the writers and readers of romance aren’t naive, ignorant, or stupid. On the contrary, it’s a conscious choice to be optimistic.
In our panel discussion, I talked about what it meant that I spent the first part of the summer marching, organizing supplies, and trying to be as helpful to the movement as I could be. Although some things happened in my personal life that prevented me from marching into July and August, I’ve spent that time reflecting on my whiteness. In our panel, I explained that I feel I have a responsibility to ask myself daily, What am I doing to promote racial justice in my personal life? And as an author, I have to ask, What am I doing to promote racial justice in my writing?
Unfortunately, it looks like the live-stream of the panel wasn’t saved to video. I’m bummed. I’d have liked to review it. The idea of grappling with the requisite happy ending of romance in our dark, dark present moment is one I’ve been reflecting on a lot, and some of the thoughts I expressed that day, as well as the ideas of my fellow authors, might have inspired me further. I’ll have to work from memory as I go forward.
I also participated in an informal author chat with the illustrious Melissa Brayden, who is very nice, and Jane Walsh, whose Regency lesfic was named with my book, The Holiday Detour, as two of the recommended romance reads for fall. Since we’re both named Jane, we decided she’d be “Regency Jane,” and I’d be “Holiday Jane.” Her wife had a custom sweatshirt made for her with this nickname, and she tweeted a picture of herself wearing it. It’s adorable. I think “Holiday Jane” sounds like a drink, so I’m going to endeavor to create a cocktail recipe (or outsource this task to one of my friends with bartender training, anyway).
We talked about our writing process, our forthcoming books, how we do research, and what’s on the horizon. You can watch the whole chat on BSB’s Facebook page.
Finally, on Sunday, I did a reading from The Holiday Detour. In August, when I did my first ever public reading, I was so nervous that I was nearly shaking – until it came time to actually start reading. Then my background in theater and performance kicked in, and I was on. This time, I decided to read a different excerpt, the part where Dana first abandons her car on the highway and is found by Charlie. There’s less cutesy bantering between them, but some readers seemed surprised by how much of the book is Dana’s POV, so I wanted to this reading to give a better flavor of that. My reading was during a session in which several other great authors read. Kris Bryant read a really hot first kiss scene from her novel Home, Eden Derry read a disgustingly gory scene from her zombie novel Z-Town, and then suddenly it was my turn to read…about a car breaking down. How anti-climactic!
Aurora Rey also read from her latest novel (at the time – she’s prolific!) Twice Shy, and Anne Laughlin read a great morning after scene from her crime novel Money Creek. This event did make it to the recordings and is on BSB’s Facebook page.
One of the questions that came up in my author chat with Melissa Brayden and Jane Walsh was what it’s like to be a published author. I’ve been published in the past under a different pen name and through a different press. But, as we noted in that chat, there’s something special about being published through Bold Strokes. A press started by a lesbian who saw a real need for books about women, by women, and for women, BSB has now expanded into a wide range of genres, sexualities, and genders. And they regularly host events like this, now on Zoom but in the past (and hopefully again in the future) in person at things like Women’s Week in Provincetown or at popular conventions like ClexaCon. It feels special to be a part of a press that tries to connect so often and so deeply with readers and gives authors a chance to do these events together. Writing can be a pretty solitary activity, so having the chance to interact with writer colleagues and readers during events like the Bookathon is a dream.
Last week, I featured the first half of my interview with Hans Lindahl, in which we talked about the alphabet umbrella, queer politics, and Hans’ work as communications director for interAct, the advocacy organization for intersex youth. In this second half, we talk more specifically about Hans’ work as an expert consultant for literature and media with intersex characters. Often called “sensitivity reading,” this work is designed to ensure authors and producers creating characters with whom they don’t share a marginalized identity do so with respect to the community. Hans served as the consultant to my forthcoming second book, The Queen Has a Cold, which features an intersex heir to a European monarchy. In this interview, I got to learn more about Hans’ consulting process and how non-intersex creators can contribute meaningfully at a moment when audiences and readers are mindful to seek out #ownvoices work.
How did you get started doing expert consulting/sensitivity reading?
I think the first such project I personally did was for a graphic novel called Radify. That inquiry came through my work at interACT. Representation in the arts and media is huge to shaping public perceptions about what issues real intersex people face. I realized when working with the graphic novel author, how important this is.
What’s your process for doing the consulting/reading work?
I receive a good number of inquiries from my website. Once I’ve decided if a project is something I want to take on, and I’ve discussed with the author what their goals are, I do a first read of the material. Then I go back, think about their characters’ arcs, and make comments about what details might seem unrealistic. Maybe there’s anatomical combinations that aren’t really possible, or certain plot holes, cliches, or pitfalls the author might be falling into. I leave comments in the format that works for the author, and we discuss.
What kinds of things should writers avoid doing when creating intersex characters? What do you look for to flag as a no-no?
This could be a thesis. I’m tired of intersex being a plot device. If it’s a gimmick, reveal, fetish, or shameful secret representing someone’s entire personality, it’s not useful or creative.
What kinds of things do non-intersex writers do that make you especially happy or that you find especially useful or positive?
Engaging with the real issues faced by the marginalized populations they are writing. This can be through hiring a reader, educating oneself, etc., etc. I love seeing characters that aren’t just stuck in the basic place of “I have a shameful secret.” Like any character, intersex characters have other identities and motivations.
I’ve said “writers” here, but you also work with writers of prose, graphic novels, television, everything. Is there a difference in how you like to see intersex characters portrayed in print literature versus on screen?
On screen has the difficult added element of, there is no way to “look” intersex. I want to see good handling of the issues on both.
It seems to me that so much LGBTIQA literature focuses on the coming out process in one way or another. Do you think there’s a fair comparison to be made between gay, lesbian, and bi comings out and coming out as intersex, nonbinary, or trans? How do you feel about about the (over)representation of coming out in literature and media? (or do you even agree with me that there is an over-representation?
Hah! Yes, I agree. Yeah, the “coming out story” is important, but I think it’s limiting in several ways. One, these stories tend to only be about teenagers. It keeps us in the ageism of thinking, subconsciously, that having to “come out” is a newer thing or only limited to young people, or something that only happens once and then you’re done. It’s an appealing narrative in that it has a challenge, and then an endpoint, but we know in real life that it’s not an endpoint. Coming out stories might be overrepresented for some of those reasons. The coming out narrative also assumes certain things about frameworks of gender and sexuality, that are never uniform across all cultures and contexts.
Sexuality (LGB) coming-outs seem different to me than gender coming-outs (trans, non-binary). Both categories are also different than intersex comings-out. I’d even argue that intersex people don’t truly get to “come out” in the same ways—your parents and doctors and other authority figures might know very intimate details before you do, and they might make assumptions about your gender and sexuality via your body. To be intersex and have visible differences means you have less control over timing and disclosure, at least in your immediate family.
I think that’s such a useful thing for non-intersex people to understand – that intersex people are outed by parents and doctors, treated to medical interventions, had assumptions about gender and sexuality made about them sometimes before they even know they are intersex.
This is probably a good moment to talk about the body. You said before there’s no one way to “look” intersex. How do you feel about sex and nudity then?
Obviously, I write romance, and this blog is mostly about that, and romance always comes with love and usually sex. Are there specific sensitivities about love and sex that writers should be mindful of when creating romance with intersex characters? Can vivid depictions of sex be done, or should they be avoided? Are there specific things you’d prefer writers and creators to avoid or to be sure to do?
Your book does not include any sex scenes. I hope that’s not a spoiler?
It is, but it’s a helpful one, I think.
I was actually glad for that, since I think it would be challenging to write a sex scene with an intersex person as a non-intersex author. There are a lot of additional considerations: the fetishism concerns that might come with having a different body, medical trauma and scars, and different abilities when it comes to what types of sex an intersex person might be able to, or want to, have. On the other side of that, there certainly are intersex people who feel empowered and unique for their differences. It’s certainly tied to socialization and medical abuse. If a sex scene makes sense in the broader context of a story, just know the pitfalls with fetishizing or overly focusing on genitalia. Intersex people can have sensual, loving, interesting sex, just like any other person on the planet.
Otherwise, there’s also a place for good porn! God knows, we need that, too. But I’d rather see that be intersex-steered.
If we’re trying to avoid fetishization, do you think there’s value in quasi-educational narratives written for non-intersex readers or audiences? Stories, for instance, from the point of view of non-intersex people learning about intersex – or at this point, do we just need more stories from the point of view of intersex people?
Yeah, sure, let’s just do more of all of it.
What are your favorite kinds of intersex stories?
I see people from all kinds of identities saying this: just let us do regular person things. Like, we can be intersex, but can’t we be the prince, the partner, the zookeeper, the mortician, who happens to be intersex? Not all stories have to be a dramatization or over-reliance on secrets and disclosure.
What are your favorite non-own voices creations with intersex characters?
The non-own voices characters I like tend to be those that I read as coded intersex, even though I know they probably aren’t or that wasn’t intentional. For example, any character having a problem with penetrative sex, puberty, etc… I love the Netflix show from Japan, My Husband Won’t Fit, for this reason. I talked more about this in this interview.
What’s your favorite #ownvoices work with an intersex character?
I wish there were more. I love the short film Ponyboi, made recently by River Gallo.
The kind of expert consulting you do – sensitivity reading – is a growing field. As more writers seek out consultants, and as representations for intersex and other marginalized characters grows, I’m curious to know how you see this all evolving. What does the future look like?
I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ve heard some people express the view that you might have to have bad representation first, as a stepping stone to something better. I’m not sure.
We definitely need some larger cultural talking points. Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox created some of those for trans people, perhaps mainly binary transgender women. Intersex people don’t yet have that level of star power. In the case of Jenner, for example, I know she’s not the example a lot of people would have wanted, but her story certainly was a stepping stone.
I’m invested in creating nuance beyond “surgery bad, awareness good.” Do we still need to focus on the latter first? Often, we do. Although I’m seeing much more room for intersex people to tell their own stories, get discovered and elevated on their own terms. We’ve come a long way, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few years.
You can learn more about Hans’ consulting services and see Hans’ own art at hanslindahl.com.
“Gender discrimination causes intersex surgery, causes transphobia, causes homophobia. So why not team up to solve the root cause of our common issues?”
This week I’m taking a break from my usual ramblings about the structure and intricacies of romance narratives to interview Hans Lindahl, the communications director for the intersex advocacy organization interACT. Hans also served as the consultant on my forthcoming novel, The Queen Has a Cold, and regularly does this kind of work for literature and media in addition to running a YouTube channel, writing for publications like Teen Vogue, giving expert testimony in intersex-related court cases, and making appearances around the nation and on the media.
“Intersex” is actually an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different conditions associated with variations in genitalia, sex traits, and chromosomes. I say “condition” here in the loosest medical sense because a major part of what organizations like interACT want to do is remove the stigma from intersex. As the trans rights movement has taught mainstream America that gender isn’t just a binary between male/female or masculine/feminine but a spectrum with lots of genders, intersex advocacy organizations try to debunk the idea that anatomical sex is binary. In reality, there are wide variations in human genitalia, way more than you probably learned about in your junior high sex ed class.
Many intersex people are subject to medical intervention, often at an early age. Decisions about their bodies are made by doctors and parents (and those parents are sometimes guilted and coerced by the doctors). The result can be surgical and hormonal treatments that impact the rest of the intersex person’s life. Organizations like interACT staunchly oppose these kinds of medical interventions – or, at least, want the intersex child to have agency in their own medical plan when they are an appropriate age to decide for themselves. Intersex advocacy organizations want the broader public and medical establishment to understand intersex as a normal development in an estimated 2% of the population.
I first learned about intersex about twenty years ago when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a book that many intersex advocates consider harmful representation. (You can check out Hans’ fantastic explanation of why it’s an “irredeemable piece of shit” on YouTube.) Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with and being mentored by a number of scholars who identify openly as and study intersex, and I’ve learned so much about science, anatomy, history, and culture. When it came time to write my second book, I wanted to write a royal romance. Having an intersex character as the heir apparent hit two major goals for me: 1. fulfilling my promise of “romance for everyone” and 2. showing a unique challenge to the laws of inheritance that continue to plague modern monarchies. But because non-intersex writers and creators can easily do harm or misrepresent, I knew I needed an expert consultant (often called a “sensitivity reader”). I feel really lucky that Hans agreed to work with me on The Queen Has a Cold and wanted to share our fantastic conversation with you.
In this first of our two-part interview, Hans and I talked about interACT, intersex awareness, and the ever-changing politics of the LGBTIQA community. Next week, I’ll post the second half of our interview, in which Hans describes the process of doing consulting work – and the impact it’s having on the future of literature, film, and television.
Let’s start with your work at interACT. How did you get involved with the organization and become communications director?
I was a member of the youth advocacy cohort since I was a teen. Intersex advocacy had always been an anchor in my life, but I found out quickly that media work intersected very well with my education in public relations and art.
What accomplishment at interACT are you the proudest of?
Today I watched one of our younger high school advocates receive a college scholarship for their work. They were beaming, and that’s pretty cool. Helping others get their stories out there has been where it’s at for me. That’s come through writing testimony for legislative work, and from our media work, such as the articles and interviews we do.
You’re also an artist and a consultant.How do you see your work with interACT intersecting with this other work?
There’s a lot of overlap. My job during the day is Communications Director, so I’m working with press, advocates, and partners to promote the broader narratives around intersex that we want to see. A part of that is already consulting on larger entertainment projects that, say, want to include intersex characters. I personally consult on other things like scripts and books because I enjoy getting a feel for the landscape. It’s also very useful to understand what impressions creative people hold to begin with.
Can we talk a little about how intersex fits into the queer community? I know this is something you’ve talked about in past interviews. Who should and shouldn’t be included in the alphabet can sometimes be a contentious topic. Some trans activists I know would prefer to distance the trans rights movement from L, G, and B because trans isn’t a sexual identity and comes with other political and social tensions. Where do you see intersex fitting into all this? Is it an LGBTIQA community? Do the Ls, Gs, and Bs have a responsibility to include and learn about the Is, or would it be better for intersex activism if it were distinct from the alphabet umbrella?
I’m in favor of alphabet inclusion. (Considering also that there is much nuance, and there are safety considerations for people in anti-LGBT countries and home environments.) It’s about unifying social movements, and understanding the common issues we face.
I’d say to people who oppose this, can’t we move faster on solving problems with more people? If we look one level higher, the problems of gender discrimination are cause for violence against all LGBTQIA people. Gender discrimination causes intersex surgery, causes transphobia, causes homophobia. So why not team up to solve the root cause of our common issues?
On your website, you quote a comment someone left that says, “This intersex bullshit is just Satan doing evil.” Sometimes we hear the idea that “we’ve gone too far with gender” or that “kids today” like to defy tradition, etc. How do you respond to the idea that intersex is “new” or representative of some social shift away from tradition?
The ideas of gender and tradition that are referenced here have to be, like, 200 years old tops. If anything, we’re challenging recent ideas that are restrictive for everyone.
I think this is an interesting way to approach to the topic to non-trans, non-intersex people: the same gender ideology used against trans and intersex people is actually restrictive and harmful to cis folks as well. I feel like I grew up fortunate because, even though I was a girl, I was encouraged risks and be independent, but lots of girls in my social circle were constantly told what they couldn’t do because they were girls. And we know that cultural expectations for men and masculinity can result in men’s violence toward women, self-harm, and even things like mass shootings. I appreciate your point that actually dismantling some of these “traditional gender roles” might help everyone, not just intersex people.
That seems like a monumental task, albeit one that might be slowly happening, especially with younger people. But in the meantime, what’s the number one thing non-intersex people can do to be good allies?
I don’t think it can be boiled down so simply. But one thing I’d say might be, for all people, learn about the origins of ideas about sex and gender we see today. Peel back that curtain and you’ll learn a lot. Even if you’re not LGBTQIA, these ideas shape so much of all our lives, often in ways that are very restricting.
If there’s one thing: learn about how the idea of “opposite” sexes comes from recent, white-supremacist eugenics. The educator Alok does a great interview with Dr. Kyla Schuller, whose book The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the 19th Century explains the racism behind the sex binary.
Do you feel like the tide is turning on intersex awareness and understanding?
I’d like to think so!
I like the idea of ending this week’s post on that happy note. As intersex awareness grows, there are bound to be more stories about intersex people in literature and media. Next week, I’ll share Hans’s thoughts on how writers and producers can do it in a way that is respectful to people’s lived experiences while still being fun to read and watch.
It’s all about new beginnings this week. It’s the start of a new school year for many students, teachers, and professors – and parents who are no doubt taking on new burdens juggling their kids’ safety with their kids’ ability to keep learning. I love back to school. I love seeing the school supplies and class lists in stores, dreaming about stocking up on pens and folders and notebooks. I don’t because I already have plenty of this stuff. I haven’t needed to buy pens in seven years, but the promise of new pens, a new lunch box, fresh everything… When you’re no longer school age, are there even comparable ways to mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of another? I doubt it.
In my part of Michigan, we’ve had an early start to fall. I’ve been sleeping with the window open while snuggled under a heavy comforter, and I’m loving the idea of making a Rosh Hashanah feast that lets us taste all the best savory flavors of fall. Rosh Hashanah, like back to school, is the start of a new year, but if you’re not Jewish and/or don’t celebrate it, I think there’s still something poignant and magical at the idea of celebrating fall as both the end (of summer, of the harvest season) and the beginning (of a school year, of the cold, lean months). One last hurrah before we all hunker down inside our homes for the next months. And given covid-19 this year, I’m feeling much less angst about the end of dining al fresco at sidewalk cafes than I usually am. In some ways, this was the summer that wasn’t, and the arrival of fall has given me permission to accept it, instead of waking up every day to sunshine and warm weather and fretting over all the summer things I wasn’t getting to do.
This week also marks the general release of The Holiday Detour. It’s been available through my publisher’s website since the beginning of September, but you can now buy it from Amazon and other outlets. For some of you, that’s a blessing, but I encourage you to buy directly from Bold Strokes. You can get an ebook in any format, unlike on Amazon, and you’re supporting the continuation of LGBTQ publishing. (If you want to buy from an LGBTQ bookstore, that’s great, too! There aren’t many left in the U.S., and we need to keep them in business.)
Here are a few words of praise for the book:
This was the first romance I’ve read that features a genderqueer person in a leading role…I really think the author did a great job of addressing tough topics like body issues before the couple was intimate.
I also enjoyed to learn more about gender fluidity cause it’s something hard to grasp if you don’t have any experience or know someone. So all in all very well done and thank you!
Kolven is a talented writer, no doubt; The Holiday Detour is a compelling and entertaining romance, for sure. This book showcases her ability to use dialog effectively and masterfully. She can create tension and drive the plot forward in the most amusing and engrossing ways with her use of dialog. The witty banter between Dana and Charlie is so delightful and charming; readers will laugh out loud at their lively conversations.
-Deb McCall, The Lesbian Book Blog (Read the full review)
It wasn’t that long ago that the majority of Americans didn’t even know what nonbinary was, and it would have been almost unthinkable to see a nonbinary person in a romance. Kolven deserves a lot of credit for bringing another layer of inclusivity to the queer romance world.