Engaged, married, and betrothed

How to end LGBTQ romance in the age of marriage equality

You’ve probably heard the adage that comedies end in marriage and tragedies end in death. This comes from careful study of Shakespeare’s plays, which are often grouped according to their endings in addition to their subject matter. There are even entire books dedicated to the role of marriage in cementing allegiances and serving as narrative closure in Shakespeare’s work.

In romance, whether it’s a drama or comedy, the story ends with what literary scholar Pamela Regis calls a “betrothal.” This can be a wedding or an engagement – and, in more contemporary novels, it might just be some unspoken sense of commitment between the couple. But for Regis, if the story doesn’t end in a betrothal, it’s not a romance.

When I started writing LGBTQ romance, it was before 2015, when the United States achieved nationwide marriage equality. Between 2005 and 2015, laws concerning marriage varied by state in the U.S. In some, same-sex couples could legally marry, and in others they could file for a domestic partnership, the privileges of which often varied. And in some places same-sex couples were not afforded any civil union that legally demonstrated their commitment or shared assets.

Although those were politically and personally trying days, as writers we had fun figuring out how to conclude our LGBTQ romance novels. So much of what happened at the end of the book depended on where the couple lived and in what year the book was set. Did the couple live in Vermont? Then let’s have them get engaged. In the sequel, they can throw a big wedding. They were in Illinois? Maybe they went to Iowa, knowing their marriage wouldn’t be recognized by the state of Illinois when they got home. Or maybe the couple got engaged with plans to marry legally if – when – marriage equality laws changed. Maybe they didn’t believe in marriage at all, and their betrothal was just a promise to stick together and love each other as best as they could.

The differences in state-to-state laws, which by 2013 were changing faster than I could keep track, also meant that how the couple responded to the marriage question shaped what kind of LGBTQ representation the story had. Some couples were normative, seeing marriage as the ultimate and appropriate demonstration of their commitment, while others protested marriage as a heterosexual institution with a long, troubled past and found queer alternatives. (For the record, I never wrote stories about characters sealing their commitment by wearing each other’s blood in vials around their necks or anything like that, but certainly, especially among paranormal romance, these stories existed!) The complicated ways we had to organize our lives back then translated to sometimes writing deeply political characters and stories that served to educate, though it didn’t have to mean this.

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, and the court’s opinion meant immediate nationwide same-sex marriage equality. I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

After marriage equality, the possibilities became less complicated. If the characters wanted to marry, they simply could. If they didn’t believe in marriage, they didn’t have to do it. But the political ramifications of each choice remain, just as they do in real life. Marriage has a history that makes me uncomfortable: “selling” women to unite rival factions, treating them as property for fathers and husbands, insisting on a woman’s virginity until her wedding night. Then there are the wedding industry problems: leading us to believe that “wedding” and “marriage” are synonymous, and that we aren’t really in love if we don’t spend more than we can afford on a party to celebrate getting married. And, of course, the history of marriage that excluded interracial couples and same-sex couples yet allows young girls to be considered “old enough” when it’s convenient for the much older men in their lives.

TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress normalizes consumption by depicting dress shopping as a romance.

But marriage equality also means that we, people in same-sex relationships, now have access to something other people had before us, and it’s important to take advantage. Romance novels might position marriage as purely about love and fidelity, but, depending upon which state you might live in, marriage actually involves over 1,000 rights, responsibilities, and benefits from tax breaks to inheritance laws, and it’s important in a just society that everyone has access to the same rights.

For romance novels, that can create tricky business. Do the author’s politics on marriage have to be reflected in the ending? What if the author created a character with different politics? In my forthcoming novel, the characters never get so far as having to figure this out. Their “betrothal” is just an admission of love and a promise to try to start a relationship together (HFN, or “happy for now” in romance-speak). In other books I’ve written, I try to remember that my views, society’s views, and my characters’ views may not always align, and I have to do what is authentic to the story and the characters.

We have forged new ground politically and socially in the United States in the last four years, and for novels set in a naturalistic world, this has created lots of new possibilities. The wider range of possibilities we explore in the “betrothal” part of LGBTQ novels, the wider range of LGBTQ representation our books will have.