On April 4, a message went up on the Romance Writers of America (RWA) blog: Important Message Regarding 2005 “Definition of Romance” Survey. Here’s what it said:
At the November 2015 Board of Directors meeting, one of the issues discussed was an RWA survey conducted in 2005. Though this occurred eleven years ago, the ill effects of that survey still linger for many members. The survey was included in the Romance Writers Report and asked RWA members to vote on whether romance should be redefined as being between one man and one woman. The survey responses were never acted upon, and RWA’s definition of romance was not changed.
The survey, however, sparked a discussion that compelled our LGBT+ members to justify their existence to others and to participate in debates about their humanity and their capacity to love. This incident was a low point from which RWA’s reputation has never recovered. The organization later reaffirmed RWA’s commitment to making sure that “any definition of romance should be broad and inclusive.” This statement, however, did not make it clear that, in issuing the survey, RWA failed its members, its genre and its mission. We want to make that clear now.
We apologize for letting our members down and for failing to treat all our members with the respect they deserve.
RWA is committed to creating an inclusive, respectful environment where all career-focused romance writers can advance their professional interests, regardless of the happily ever afters they create and celebrate.
Although the blog post was published only this week, according to the post, this was something that was discussed at the RWA Board of Directors meeting in November of last year.
In August of 2005, RWA sent out a press release announcing that they had accepted gay novelist Scott Pomfret as a member. But in July of the same year, RWA sent members a controversial survey about whether gay romance was romance according to RWA. You can read about it on author Shannon Stacey’s blog. Author Lynn Viehl was also pissed off at RWA during this time.
The survey was included in an issue of Romance Writers Report (a publication that goes to all RWA members). RWA members were given two options: redefine romance as a romance between one man and one woman, or redefine romance as a romance between two people. Many people saw this survey as insulting to LBQT romance authors, as well as straight writers of LBQT stories; authors of polyamorous stories (such as menage books); and even authors of chick lit and woman’s fiction.
As discussed in one of Laurie Gold’s columns at AAR, it’s worth noting that same year, author Ann Jacobs was told by RWA that she could not sign her latest release at RWA’s booth during the Book Expo America because it did not meet the controversial Graphical Standards guidelines. But another source at RWA claimed that it was decided she couldn’t sign it because someone decided it was “Not a Romance.” There we go with definitions again. Who decides what is a romance and what isn’t, and is someone at RWA always the right person to make that decision? Who decides what’s graphic? How come an Ann Jacobs cover is “too” graphic while a Linda Howard cover with a similar picture is just fine and dandy?
2005 was a fiery time for the RWA. It seems as if someone at RWA got tired of telling people that romance fiction isn’t just “smut for women” and tried making romance more respectable. And while they were at it, they decide to exclude some types of romances based on the sexuality of the couple. That only succeeded in angering authors, not to mention readers and the newly growing erotic romance industry. Author Alison Kent resigned from the RWA that year.
For what it’s worth, RWA didn’t act on the responses to the original survey, and ended up not redefining romance. That might be because the membership of the board changed, especially as a new RWA president was elected. (Most writers organizations change their officials on a yearly basis.) Or that could be because of the outcry, or a combination of the above. The president at the time of the controversy was Tara Taylor Quinn, but then she was succeeded by Gayle Wilson. There have been 10 presidents since then.
Still, the survey itself left in its wake a lot of controversy. Anyone who remembers the discussion from 2005 will remember that there was a lot of frustration, and yes, anger. Some writers, especially LGBT+ writers, wanted to quit RWA because of the controversy, and some did quit because they didn’t feel welcome. I know of writers who decided against joining RWA because of the controversy. It’s hard to tell a potential member that things are different today when so many still think back to the infamous survey.
It’s also not the last controversy involving the RWA and gay romance. In 2012, Author L. A. Witt blogged about a controversy where the Romance Writers Ink Chapter of RWA announced that they would not accept same-sex entries in their More Than Magic contest. Why? Some judges were “uncomfortable” about reading same-sex material. This was supposed to be an “open” competition. But it wasn’t. Not because some judges didn’t like gay romance (not everybody does), but because they were made “uncomfortable” by it. Eventually, the contest was simply cancelled. So no one was happy, and lots of people were “uncomfortable” with the fact that some stories were banned from the contest.
Maybe things are changing, because on April 4, the RWA admitted that “Though this occurred eleven years ago, the ill effects of that survey still linger for many members.” Not only did the survey force the RWA’s members “to justify their existence to others and to participate in debates about their humanity and their capacity to love.” The RWA also recognized it as “a low point from which RWA’s reputation has never recovered.”
The post also admits that while the RWA later committed to an inclusive definition of romance, the organization did not go far enough at the time. The RWA now wants to ” make it clear that, in issuing the survey, RWA failed its members, its genre and its mission… We apologize for letting our members down and for failing to treat all our members with the respect they deserve.
So what do you think of RWA’s statement? Are you happy that they were able to make this statement? Do you wish it had come years sooner? Or do you fall somewhere in between?