“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.”
— E. M. Forster, Maurice, Terminal Note
Romance as a genre has two simple prerequisites. First, that the central plot of the story must revolve around a romantic relationship. Second, it must have a happy ending—at least happy-for-now, if not happily-ever-after.
These two prerequisites are absent from most fiction about the LGBT community.
Mainstream LGBT fiction, particularly literary fiction and YA fiction, is often praised for its “realism.” “Realism,” in this case, is code for “ends badly.” (For more on the realism of HEAs in historical romance specifically, please check out KJ Charles’s excellent post, Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA.)
In the best case scenario, if a LGBT couple exists at all, they will break up before the end of the story. In the more common scenario, at least one of the LGBT characters dies. TVTropes calls this phenomenon “Bury Your Gays”—and yes, it happens often enough to have a trope name all its own.
E. M. Forster observed this phenomenon as well in his Terminal Note to Maurice. Maurice is a novel with a very simple story; a man who is attracted to men falls in love with a particular man and they live happily ever after. Though Forster began writing the novel in 1913 and finished it 1914, by the time he wrote its Terminal Note in 1960 it remained unpublished and unread by all except a few of his close friends. The reason for this, in his own words, is the happy ending—his motivation for writing the book in the first place.
While the United Kingdom rolled back the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 (changing the punishment to mere life imprisonment), the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 expanded the crime of homosexuality to include any “indecent acts” between men—with an absurdly low burden of proof. Every token of affection between men was now punishable by two years of hard labor in prison.
Homosexuality remained a criminal offense in the United Kingdom until 1967—seven years after E. M. Forster wrote the Terminal Note for Maurice. Maurice itself wasn’t published until after the author’s death in 1971. Because of the legal status of homosexuality in England at that time, no publisher would touch Maurice before then, even though its author had already produced such literary feats as A Room with a View and A Passage to India.
Or, in E. M. Forster’s own words:
“If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime. […] the only penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace.”
On the few occasions that LGBT characters exist in fiction, they are even more rarely the heroes. Throughout the 20th century they were most often cast as villains, with a trend towards comic-relief sidekick at both the beginning and end of that century, if they appeared at all. Their romance, assuming it exists in-text and is not merely divulged through the author’s Twitter post-publication, is by no means central to the story, may be easily deleted for homophobic markets, and has little to no effect on the character’s life, much less the plot.
Only recently—and by “recently,” I mean “within the last five years,” has the tide begun to turn.
The romance genre helps turn this tide. After all, a romantic relationship must be the core of a romance novel. If one writes a gay romance, one cannot merely hint that the heroes are romantically interested in each other. It must be readily apparent to the reader, otherwise there is no story.
Likewise, a romance must have a happy ending. Therefore, if we continue with our example of a gay romance, neither hero can die at the end. Nor can they deny they ever felt any attraction to each other. They cannot break up. They cannot commit suicide. They must continue on living together in romantic bliss—or, as E. M. Forster put it,
“I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”
And, despite ongoing persecution from the outside world, there is a great wealth of historical evidence in favor of LGBT happily-ever-afters.
Edward Carpenter and George Merrill, for example, were not only life partners but gay rights activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Neither man went to prison for “indecent acts,” despite their living together as a couple deeply in love—possibly they escaped such persecution due to their self-imposed exile from society on their shared farm. They were together for 37 years, from their first meeting in 1891 until George Merrill’s death in 1928. It is their real-life love story that inspired E. M. Forster to write Maurice—and Forster’s longing, as a gay man, for a happily-ever-after of his own that demanded Maurice end in the same bliss.
Much like Forster, I don’t see the point in writing if I can’t give my protagonists a happy ending.
My personal goal, as an author, is to keep writing happily-ever-afters for LGBT characters until their number equals all the LGBT tragedies and all the straight happily-ever-afters combined.
I recognize that this is an unlikely goal, and so will content myself with writing until my hands fall off.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Rhode Island Romance Writers monthly newsletter.