RWAus19: Diversity Panel

If you missed the Diversity Panel at RWAus19 conference, here it is. This panel was aimed at the mostly white, straight, women in the audience* and thus was designed as a very simple introduction to the topic. *My observation was that 95% of the audience fitted that profile.

The intention of this slide was to demonstrate how romance publishing in Australia prioritizes books that feature characters who are white, straight, able-bodied, and young. However, the statistics show that this erases large portions of the Australian population. If our books are to reflect the real Australia that we live in, we need to be mindful of this data. What I didn’t say, due to time and nerves, was that I believe in reading books by #ownvoices writers in proportion to the population statistics. Now, that could be just because I’m a data geek, but I do pay attention and ensure that at least 1 in 5 books I read are by non-white authors, at least 1 in 9 books I read are by queer authors, etc. Also intersectionalism is real and is worth doing additional research on if you are interested in how it changes the framework for a character.

Nicole Hurley-Moore spoke next, and her section of our panel can be found here:

MV Ellis spoke next. Part One of her section is here on her blog:
Part Two:

“The wider conversation about diversity in fiction is not ‘white people please write brown characters for us’”

My section came next:

Anne Gracie spoke yesterday morning about how she came to love romance because the women didn’t die in the books. Unlike in literary ‘classics’ – in romance, women find happiness. And agency over their lives. And all the good things.
The same should apply for queer characters. I want them to find happiness – they don’t have to be your main characters, they can be side characters, shopkeepers, incidental people – whatever. I’m tired of reading about the gay villain (who is the only queer person in the book), the dead gays, the cheating bisexual, the cautionary tale. Romance, for me, is a safe place as a cis-woman. I want it to ALSO be a safe place for me as a bisexual person, and by extension, a safe place for everyone.
The simplest way to do this as a community is being inclusive in your language – official rwa documents do this well, but most panels I sat through on Friday and yesterday used hero/heroine. And I catch myself doing it sometimes too. It’s hard to unlearn habits. Main characters or protaganists is more inclusive.
If we talk about Relationships in romance, we can include the whole range – ff, fm (or mf but I like to put the heroine first), mm, enby/f, mff, etc. As a side note, for an apparently feminist genre, I find the use of a capital H for hero and small h for heroine particularly misogynistic.

The graph—if you are like me and love graphs—is pretty self-explanatory. Everyone can answer the three questions.
Side note: A couple of people on social media asked about the horses in this picture. They don’t mean anything – I just wanted a pretty picture with a rainbow and I like horses. 

Who are you? Cis-gendered (that’s basically anyone who identifies with the body parts they were born with), Trans, Non-binary, and Intersex. Does anyone know what intersex means? (One person put up their hand). Intersex is about the genetics you are born with—and is a catchall for people who have chromosomes that aren’t xx or xy, like for example Klinefelters where someone is born with xxy. This is 1% of the population so not a small group.

One day, hopefully it won’t matter what is happening inside your pants, but the world does seem somewhat obsessed this, from gender reveal parties to the policing of trans people. The plus side of labels is that they help people realise they aren’t alone with having whatever feelings. Anyway, the who are you fits over the top of the whole graph. It doesn’t matter who you are, the graph works. Incidentally, that’s why there are so many labels – because people are trying to describe where on this graph they feel like they fit.

Who do you love? This is the Kinsey Scale which is a range from heterosexual through differing ranges of bisexual/pansexual to homosexual.

And How do you love? (or lust perhaps). Most people are visually attracted – “they’re so hot”; through to differing amounts of demisexual. Demi is, in romance speak, slow burn or friends to lovers; physical attraction only comes after intellectual attraction. And along the graph to grey or asexual – doesn’t feel sexual attraction much or at all.

The world is designed for and by people in the top corner – cis gendered, straight, insta-lust. That socialisation has been personally tricky for me as a bisexual person. For a long time it was easier to push those feelings away as ‘social awkwardness’ or ‘an intense friendship she didn’t return’ because those feelings didn’t fit with what I’d been taught about the world … and I also had other feelings that did fit to the world. For a long time it was very confusing! Other LGBTIQ+ people don’t get that option – and again, the numbers are big with 1 in 9 people self-identifying as LGBTIQ+. The rates of depression and suicide among LGBTIQ+ teens reflects how hard it can be when you don’t fit the world’s expectations. Again, labels help because they stop you feeling alone. Also feelings are fluid. People also can change over time – it’s not just pick your label and stay there forever.

Amy T Matthews spoke (to the predominately white, straight audience) about what to do when you get called out on something in your books, as well as the Australia Council Protocols.

We concluded with some advice for writers who want to write a more realistic (ie diverse) world in their books.

If you use a screen-reader that doesn’t read out the images, this slide says:

A Method for Writing Diversely
1. Ask yourself WHY? Diversity is not a trend
2. Read books written by #ownvoices authors
3. Broaden your real-life circle of friends
4. Research stereotypes, understand and avoid harmful tropes
5. Follow people on social media and listen
6. Pay a sensitivity reader for your manuscript

Questions from the audience.

We had several questions that were statements, not questions.

“How do we approach diverse characters in historical romance and be historically accurate?”
My answer – All white historicals are not accurate. Look at who wrote history, people were erased by old white men and we shouldn’t perpetuate that under the guise of accuracy, when it’s not accurate at all. Looks for the gaps in historical record, look at who wrote history to discover who is missing. People have always existed – the spinster aunts, the bachelor who lived with his ‘lifelong friend’. There are so many stories to be found simply by understanding the gaps in the records.
Additional answer – if you want to read more about this, and about how Georgette Heyer inspired Regency romance only shows a very narrow band of society and isn’t accurate at all, check out this excellent post by Elizabeth Kingston.

“How do I find an audience for my menage books?”
MV Ellis answered – There is a market for anything. I work in advertising and I can sell anything.
Additional answer – We didn’t have time to talk about this, but my answer would be to look at other writers in the same space. Holley Trent has exemplary marketing, and Carina Press market a lot of menage books. Locally, Escape Publishing published RuBY finalist Annabelle McInnes‘ menage series.

And then we ran out of time.


  1. […] of the diversity debate. As the other panelists have shared their inputs – Renee’s here, and Nicole’s here, I’ll share just […]

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