I have a confession to make. I’ve spent most of my life hating romance novels. Even before coming out, I was put off by the ripped heroes and swooning maidens that Mills & Boon popularised with their cover art. Those images – and the stories they represent – eroticise a power imbalance between the sexes in a way that I have always found stifling, not sexy. I became aware of sex and feminism at roughly the same time, around age fourteen, and whenever I came across romances it was like being confronted with a nightmare vision of what society thought I as a young woman should aspire to.
I’d think to myself, surely there are different stories? Which, of course, there are. Lesbian romances have been published since before I was born, normalised by feminist publishers from the second wave. But at no point during my Catholic childhood was I taught that they were acceptable reading material. That revelation came only in my early twenties, when I began volunteering at Glasgow Women’s Library – a babydyke in search of books and community.
In a room with a giant banner proclaiming LESBIAN BOOKS, clearly no furtiveness was required on my part.
At GWL I found more than I bargained for: not only lesbian stories, but the courage to actively seek them out. In a room with a giant banner proclaiming LESBIAN BOOKS, clearly no furtiveness was required on my part. This was a novel experience. My first encounters with lesbian stories, read on fanfiction dot net, were sly and cautious things. With the mouse hovering over the exit button, listening for the tread of footsteps on the carpet, I could never quite lose myself in the magic of those stories. So the openness with which lesbian books were celebrated, borrowed, and read at GWL was mind-blowing.
I never exactly hid the lesbian books I’d borrow from my grandparents, but neither did I share with them the sapphic commonality between the stories overflowing from my book bag. GWL has book sales every so often, when they sell duplicates of their collection for as little as 20p a pop. To begin with I’d only buy feminist texts – the tools of my trade first as a Gender Studies student, then a feminist writer. But over time I began to stock up on the lesbian romances that kept me entranced on the two train journeys home. Curious Wine, Montana Feathers, and so many more.
As a lesbian feminist and commentator, I’ve let go of the shame once attached to my sexuality. But it’s only recently I’ve become an out and proud romance reader. As part of the Women Aloud Northern Ireland festival, curated by lesbian author Hilary McCollum, I attended a workshop on writing romance. There, Catherine Tinley taught me a lot about the expectations of romance readers and publishers. She also undid many of the snobberies I’d held onto about romance books, devalued as trivial like every other form of culture primarily created and consumed by women.
Then I did what any sane person would do and ordered a bundle of 35 lesbian romances from eBay. Under 50p per book.
I realised there’s only person who loses out if I pretend to be too sophisticated and cool for romance novels: me. Then I did what any sane person would do and ordered a bundle of 35 lesbian romances from eBay. Under 50p per book. As a Scotswoman and Sapphic, this bargain thrilled me. They arrived on a Saturday morning that felt like Christmas. I launched myself at the box, poring over every title. Then I sat the box on my bed while I decided where to store the books. What I hadn’t banked on, as I fired up the PlayStation, was my grandmother’s curiosity.
She knocked and came into my room, perching on the edge of my mattress better to dig through the books. It was her who inspired my love of reading. And it took a conscious effort on my part to stay focussed on blasting aliens, as though there was nothing out of the ordinary about her sifting through a pile of lesbian stories; as though a box of 35 lesbian romance novels appeared on our doorstep every week.
Until that point, our unofficial policy for me bringing lesbian books into the house was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ My Nana’s not a stupid woman. She knows full well that I run a lesbian book group, though we have never directly spoken about it. And while she may not recognise the cultural significance of Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue, she has borrowed enough books from my shelves to be familiar with their contents. Still, it was a strange moment. But not an unpleasant one. The eBay seller had the good sense to put the one volume of erotica at the very base of the box.
I have no regrets. These books are such a joy. Sitting in my bed at night, listening to Girl in Red as I thumb through Karin Kallmaker’s Touchwood, I feel truly happy. Lucky to be living this lesbian life; at peace with myself and my place in the world. Reading about a 29-year-old who falls in love with a bookshop owner twice her age, it’s as though this novel was written just for me. And I’ve learned enough about romance tropes to know that my relationship with lesfic follows a perfect Enemies-to-Lovers arc. It was meant to be.
Claire Heuchan is an author, essayist, and Black radical feminist. She writes the award-winning blog, Sister Outrider.
Katherine V. Forrest (author of Curious Wine) has some fantastic lesbian novels.