A couple of people replying to the original post said that they didn't want male characters who might as well be women, which I've said many times here and elsewhere. If I want to read a lesbian romance, I'll go ahead and read a lesbian romance. I have a soft spot for butch characters -- I love it when they get into problem-solving mode. I realize that for at least a couple decades or so it was politically incorrect to say that you like butches. Just call that one of the many areas in which I depart from the prescribed attitudes of second-wave feminism.
There was also a bit of speculation about what some of these writers had in mind:
J - "Well, it's one thing if you deliberately set out to write a queenie character, but...I'm not certain that's what's happening in many of these cases."
He can get away with saying that -- he writes some of the most gorgeous, people-you-want-to-meet characters. In one sense, his protagonists happen to be gay -- in the sense that that's just part of who they are. In another sense, the characters are quite well aware of what identifying as gay means in their societies. And I don't believe that's accidental.
What I had said on these points was my typical position:
"I definitely don't want to read about guys who start weeping over the most trivial events, and spend hours analyzing and discussing the relationship and their feelings with every secondary character they meet. There are plenty of other kinds of stories I can read if I want to read about that much trembling emotionalism.
For me, if someone deliberately writes a queeny character, it has to be done respectfully and knowledgeably. I don't want the character to come off as a joke or a stereotype. There's some dramatic potential there, though -- these men get the prejudice from both sides. In their own ways, they have to be tough. But if you have a character who's aware he's not the most masculine guy around, but he has his own charm and personality, that's someone I can identify with."
Note that in that second paragraph I was trying very hard to be politically correct. And that I didn't mention how many times I've been called a bitch queen myself, by people who ought to know.
Queen is such a very broad term, and I didn't go into my definition there. I didn't mean characters who might as well be women. I was mainly thinking of men who can't act in a stereotypically masculine manner. Okay, some don't want to, some play it up majorly, in that "if you can't pass, you may as well be spectacular about not passing" kind of way. And that's part of it, too. But I think of it more as men who are just clearly not straight, to the most uneducated eye. I meant it about them getting the prejudice from both sides, too, from the homophobes and from other gay men who put them down for not being "straight-acting."
I'm realizing that some M/M authors are trying to write less masculine men by having them be a foot shorter than their partners, and completely submissive. And I'm just realizing this, with a kind of a WTF? reaction, and some wonderment about why I was slow on the uptake like that. Those aren't the signifiers I'm used to -- I'm used to a whole different set of cues to show reader or observer that a man isn't straight-acting. I suppose having some more effeminate friends and acquaintances who were easily six feet tall or more, and who could act pretty dominant when they felt like it, just completely threw me on that one. Really, I don't think it should be so much of a challenge for an author to use signifiers in a non-stereotypical way to show that a man is androgynous, or acts more effeminate.
This could be a class in character creation in itself. You could tell budding authors to mix up those stereotypes, and write a tall, dominant character who's obviously not straight and is wryly aware of how people pick up on that. Clumsy summary, and pretty basic, but at least hopefully inspiring some reflection on how you build a character. Does he play up his mannerisms? Does he play them down, or just act in the way that's natural for him? How does he protect himself when he runs into hostility on the street? This kind of ties into that other thread of me wanting to see more realistic violence in stories. Because being, say, six foot four, broad-shouldered and deep-voiced will make some antagonists back down from a confrontation, even if our hero is queer. (Yes, there is a real-life story there.) What if the hero is something above average height, with a lean build, but is a pretty good knife-fighter? People might pick a fight with him and quickly come to regret it. (No, not a real-life story, but a scene I've written.) This is coming from what I like in straight romances and other genres I read in, but I think the heroes should know how to fight. Convincingly. It's always fun when a character can fight verbally, and if an author can write clever dialogue, there are golden opportunities here. But I truly enjoy it when a character can rescue himself from a physical confrontation, without needing someone to do it for him.
Somewhere in between characters who might as well be straight heroes, and characters who might as well be women, there's a wonderful range of opportunities for fresh and original characters. I hope I never again read a book where I think, "Has this author ever met a gay man?" Because that's a major pet peeve for me. Nor do I particularly want to read books in which authors use tired stereotypes to describe less masculine men, even if they mean it in a kind way. I want some realism in my characters. Don't get me wrong -- I love my romance heroes, but I want them to come alive as people for me.
Finally picking up on the title of the post -- how do you make it a romantic story for women if the heroes are notably not straight-acting? Many women seem to enjoy the feminized heroes, anyway -- perhaps those are the ones they identify with. And a lot of women think androgynous men are hot. They (we) don't necessarily need a stereotypically masculine hero in the story at all. I admit that with some of M/M romance heroes, my reaction is: "I want to be his fag hag." I figure that's the author writing a convincing gay character, and I respect that, because I think that I'm a tough audience that way. So I don't necessarily see a number of the heroes as sex objects for myself -- I can see what the other hero appreciates in them. But if the character is well-written, I still identify with him. I think that whether a romance is straight or gay, I identify more with the hero or heroes, anyway.
I think there are several aspects at play for me. I can identify with a pretty, less-masculine-acting man -- but note that I still want him to be a man, not a man who might as well be a woman. I can appreciate the sensuality of a beautiful androgynous man. I often find an androgynous man more sexy than a traditionally masculine one. So "straight-acting" isn't necessarily a draw for me. I want realistically-drawn characters, realistic enough that I believe that they're gay or bi, and I can identify with them. I can enjoy the romantic encounters in a story without any need for one character to always be dominant and one always submissive. So those are some of the elements that make for a romance I can really like.