By Brianna Adkins (2019)
The Rainbow Romance Writers is one of the specialty chapters with the Romance Writers of America. Made up of writers of LBGT+ fiction, it is one of the earliest groups dedicated to romance books featuring marginalized protagonists. While the chapter is relatively small and new in comparison to other chapters of the Romance Writers of America, and even other groups that focus on romance novels, it helps in marking a shift within the romance genre toward helping evolve the image of what a romance is. Examining the chapter’s inception and internal structure and operations as well as their relations with external organizations, I hope to illustrate how the interactions of the Rainbow Romance Writers reflect the importance of community and communication when it comes to addressing issues within the romance industry.
About the Rainbow Romance Writers
Within the world of romance novelists, the Rainbow Romance Writers is an online special interest chapter, as well as the first chapter of the Romance Writers of America consisting of writers of LGBT+ romance novels. As noted on the history page of the Rainbow Romance Writers’ website, the chapter was officially recognized in 2009 by the Romance Writers of America (RWA herein) after author Laura Baumbach began reaching out to other authors in February 2009 to see if there was interest in forming this type of chapter (RRW). But the group did not initially exist through the RWA. According to the then secretary for the chapter, Kimberly Gardner, the group was originally a google group with over a hundred authors, a number of whom were not a member of the RWA (2009). Not all of the original members transferred to the official chapter, she notes, either due to not wanting to join the RWA in order to officially join the chapter, as the RWA requires individuals to pay to join, or hesitance toward whether the group would actually pan out (Gardner 2009). The Rainbow Romance Writers did not fizzle out, however, and currently stands at 145 members ten years later, according to the member list on the chapter’s website.
As a special interest chapter, the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter is not situated in one particular location, unlike many other chapters of the RWA, but instead consists of authors from all over the country. Being a community with members so spread apart from each other that has to really primarily on communicating through blogs, websites, and chat groups does not appear to have hindered them. The chapter regularly updates its members through posts on Twitter, Facebook, and their official website, as well as quarterly through their “Pot of Gold” newsletter and occasionally through the board member’s personal blogs and websites. At the same time, members are also encouraged to communicate through both the chapter’s blog and forum on the website as well as through the aforementioned newsletter, whether it is to ask serious questions pertaining to LGBT+ romance novels, provide helpful tips to writers, or to promote the works of writers within the group. While the group does have an executive board consisting of a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer who are elected annually, the group also features events, education, and research committees consisting of multiple members.
The chapter’s setup and efforts to actively engage members reflect a strong value of community. In fact, on multiple locations on the Rainbow Romance Writers’ website, the importance of providing help for its members is emphasized. As the chapter states on their “About RRW” page:
Our goals are:
- to promote excellence in LGBTQIA+ romance writing
- to help members succeed as artists and professionals
- to advocate passionately for our rapidly expanding market online and at both LGBTQIA+ and romance-related events
- to provide a dynamic resource for our members, the media, and the publishing industry
Of the four goals, three revolve around helping members in some capacity, whether that is through helping them as individuals or helping them when it comes to the larger romance market and publishing industry as a whole. Not only is the drive to help its members succeed reflected through words, but it has also been shown through member-hosted events and workshops and guides related to writing and navigating the publishing industry. At the same time, the chapter also regularly celebrates its members through the aforementioned promoting of novels, having monthly featured authors with personal interviews, and even an annual award ceremony, which will be discussed more in the following section.
Though the RRW is largely internally focused, the chapter also has a vested interest in the larger romance community. From romance conference and convention attendances to open workshops and even research conducted on the publishing industry, the RRW has been involved with a more public audience since it was formed. Some of these interactions have been more positive than others, as public attitudes toward LGBT+ romance, as well as LGBT+ individuals, varies widely across the United States, and have been changing considerably throughout the last decade. The following sections will take a closer look at the RRW’s interactions with other organizations, putting that in relation to the chapter’s goals and beliefs when possible.
Rainbow Romance Writers and Romance Award Ceremonies
One of the most notable things about the RRW is their relationship to various romance novel awards within the romance community. Both internally and externally, individually and collectively, reactions to various ceremonies is something that has marked the RRW and its members since its inception. Included within these ceremonies is the one sponsored by the RRW: Rainbow Awards for Excellence. While there are multiple romance awards, with the RITA Awards being the most prominent of those, and multiple LGBT+ literature awards, the Romance Awards for Excellence are the first annual awards that specifically for LGBT+ romance novels (Bell and Gardner, 2010). The Rainbow Awards for Excellence include the genre categories of contemporary, paranormal, romantic suspense, historical, sci-fi/fantasy, YA, and short/novella. Despite being sponsored the RRW, the category is open to any published authors of LGBT+ romance novels, regardless of if they are a member of the RRW or the RWA. In comparison to other romance novel awards, and even other LGBT+ literary awards, the Rainbow Awards for Excellence remain relatively small, with little coverage. Whether this is due to how niche the category is, or the lack of promotion for the awards, however, is not something that I can answer.
The creation of the Romance Awards for Excellence is interesting to consider within the romance novel community, as debates regarding how LGBT+ romance novels, as well as other books featuring members of marginalized communities, have been going on for a while now. The RITA Awards, in particular, have been critiqued due to issues of inclusivity regarding the books selected as finalists in recent years, especially after there were no novels that were finalists written by an author of color in 2016. But even before the controversial 2016 awards ceremony, another issue was being debated amongst authors: whether or not LGBT+ romance novels should have their own separate category, or if they should be considered alongside heterosexual romance novels within their respective genre categories. While ultimately, no separate category was made for LGBT+ romance novels, part of the reason for the debate was due to a lack of LGBT+ romances becoming finalists. Because of this, there were some individuals who believed that the only way that LGBT+ romance novels would stand a fair chance would be for them to have their own separate category (Frantz, 2011). One of the issues with this idea, however, is that by calling for a separate category, it can legitimize a dislike toward LGBT+ romance novels, as they would become just another sub-genre of romance, like historical or contemporary romances. This, in turn, could potentially end up hindering authors of LGBT+ romance novels, as their work would be viewed as being even more niche than it already is, making it harder for groups like the RRW to find ways to promote its authors’ works within the industry.
Historically, novels containing LGBT+ romances faced both legal and societal opposition. During the first half of the twentieth century, authors writing novels containing LGBT+ romances, which primarily consisted of gay and lesbian romances, faced the task of falling within the restraints of obscenity and censorship laws (Sönser Breen 2015). Failure to do so often resulted in their books being banned, reputations being ruined, and in more extreme cases, obscenity trials (Sönser Breen 2015). With the rise of gay and lesbian pulp fiction during the 1950s, the portrayals of LGBT+ romances was more often than not unsympathetic to the characters in the novel. An exhibit from the University of Saskatchewan dedicated to gay, lesbian, and transgender pulp fiction called “Passions Uncovered,” notes that editors pushed authors “to provide ‘moral’ conclusions in which the queer characters might be redeemed by heterosexual marriages, or punished by abandonment, fatal accidents, murder and suicide,” (2006). Thus, LGBT+ pulp fiction often concluded with dark endings, not providing the “happily ever after” endings that can be found in more modern LGBT+ romances. Though there were sub-genres of pulp fiction, such as what is now called Lesbian Survival Literature, where authors portrayed their romances in a more realistic way, it was not until the 1970s that LGBT+ romances, as well as LGBT+ literature in general, was regarded in a more positive manner (“Lesbian Survival Literature,” n.d.; Sönser Breen 2015).
Attitudes towards LGBT+ romances have gradually changed for the positive over the last century. With the rise of LGBT+ romance novels and the formation of groups such as the RRW, it has become much easier for both readers and authors to embrace portrayals of LGBT+ romances. Despite individuals and groups such as the RRW actively promoting LGBT+ romance novels and overall changing attitudes in the industry, there is still more work to be done when it comes to complete acceptance. From having their worked barred from contests to issues regarding censorship, these novels are noticeably treated differently within the romance industry. The following section will look closer at two such instances in relation to the RRW, as well as the ensuing reactions and understandings of these events.
The Rainbow Romance Writers and Controversies Regarding LGBT+ Romance Novels
One of the critiques that have popped up for the romance novel industry in recent years is that the industry has an issue with diversity (Wilson 2017). The RWA, in particular, has been criticized as being conservative, especially after events such as the RITA Awards from 2016. This notion is so common, that the third question on the RRW’s frequently asked question page is “But isn’t the RWA conservative?” (Rainbow Romance Writers, n.d). In response, the RRW actually rejects this notion, stating, “Where issues of LGBTQIA+ discrimination have arisen, the national board has repeatedly rejected language that restricted romance to heterosexual pairings and embraced diversity in its policies.” As the members of the RRW are particularly impacted by the industry’s reactions to LGBT+ romance novels, this statement in support of the RWA is significant when it comes to the debate of how conservative the RWA is. While there is no indication of when this FAQ was last updated, the RWA has shown that they are moving towards embracing inclusivity. Section 4.2 of the RWA’s current bylaws states, “Membership shall not be denied to adults because of race, color, gender, age, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or political affiliation,” (2016). Despite their support, however, it must also be mentioned that the RRW exists as a part of the RWA, and that the chapter’s opinion toward the RWA would not necessarily be as critical as individual members would be. As it stands, the RWA is only part of the industry, and there have certainly been issues of discrimination toward LGBT+ romance novels.
Since the RRW’s creation in 2009, one of the biggest incidents pertaining to LGBT+ romances that the group has reacted to was in 2012. In 2012, a chapter of the RWA called Romance Writers Ink made an addendum to the rules for its annual “More Than Magic” contest which banned individuals from submitting works depicting same-sex relationships (Davis, 2012). When this news broke out, several authors spoke out against this rule, including the then president for the RRW, Heidi Cullinan. In a statement she gave to Windy City Times, Cullinan called out Romance Writers Ink for using the loose restrictions placed on chapters by the RWA as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT+ romances (Davis, 2012). While the RWA did release a statement against discrimination, they also did not immediately act upon the incident due to their policies at the time.
An incident on a smaller scale occurred last year at a convention attended by the RRW. After a couple of RRW members’ novel covers on a banner were covered up by the hotel hosting the convention, members criticized the convention, as they believed that the convention was censoring their content (RainbowRomanceWriter, 2018). But unlike the last incident with the Romance Writers Ink, this issue was not explicitly because the books featured LGBT+ romances. As the RRW mentioned on their Twitter account, the hotel had a problem with the depiction of BDSM elements in a space that was open to families (2018). While in this particular case, it is doubtful that the censorship was due to any real prejudice, as the convention was in a place that was open to a wider audience, the incident with Romance Writers Ink could very well happen in the future. In both cases, change only occurred because of active communication and community action.
Throughout the last ten years, the Rainbow Romance Writers have been able to maintain a community who is not only active within the chapter but is also invested in issues in the broader romance novelist community. As issues pertaining to LGBT+ romances have occurred, the RRW has consistently addressed these issues, working toward creating a more accepting community. There is no easy way to examine how much attitudes toward LGBT+ romances have changed, or even how much impact the RRW has had. The power of community and communication, however, has been shown and emphasized both within and outside of the chapter. Chapters such as the RRW allow for more conversations toward discrimination occurring within the larger romance community, as well as more exposure toward LGBT+ romances. Time will tell how this chapter will continue to evolve and interact with the rest of the romance industry, but for now, I believe that community and communication will remain key for the RRW.
Bell, Sara and Gardner, Kimberly. “First Annual LGBT Romance Contest (Romance Writers of America).” Lambda Literary. August 10, 2010. https://www.lambdaliterary.org/writers/subs/08/10/rainbow-awards-of-excellence-raes/?hilite=%27rainbow+romance+writers%27
Davis, Andrew. Writing Contest Bans Same-Sex Entries. Windy City Times, 08 February 2012. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/923770445?accountid=10598.
Frantz, Sarah. “Pride Week: Book Awards and GLBT Books.” Dear Author. 21 June 2011. https://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/pride-week-book-awards-and-glbt-books/
Gardner, Kimberly, interview by Therese Walsh. Take Five Interview: Rainbow Romance
Writers 09 May 2009. https://writerunboxed.com/2009/05/09/take-five-interview-rainbow-romance- writers/
Lesbian Survival Literature. n.d. The Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection @ Mount Saint Vincent University. Accessed 23 April 2019. https://msvulpf.omeka.net/exhibits/show/lpf/lesbian-survival-literature
Rainbow Romance Writers. Frequently Asked Questions. n.d. Rainbow Romance Writers.
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“RWA Bylaws.” Romance Writers of America. 16 September 2016.
Sönser Breen, Margaret. “LGBTQ Literature: 1890-1969.” In Critical Insights: LGBTQ Literature edited by Robert C. Evans, July 2015, 3–18. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=108502121&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Sönser Breen, Margaret. “LGBTQ Literature: 1969 to the Present.” Critical Insights: LGBTQ Literature, July 2015, 19–34. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=108502122&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
University of Saskatchewan. Introduction. Passions Uncovered. 2006. http://library2.usask.ca/srsd/pulps/
Wilson Kristian. “Romance Novels Have A Major Diversity Problem, According To A Study From The Ripped Bodice Bookstore.” Bustle, 6 October 2017. https://www.bustle.com/p/romance-novels-have-a-major-diversity-problem-according-to-a-study-from-the-ripped-bodice-bookstore-2803198