Strong, Silent Types
The red-hot new stars of lesbian romance novels: Secret Service agents.
While the world is watching Barack Obama's inauguration, I expect I'll be distracted. Instead of listening to the speech, I'll be straining to pick out the new president's Secret Service detail. That's because, like many consumers of lesbian romance novels, I have developed a bit of a thing for the men, and especially the women, of the protective services.
The protagonists of disposable lesbian fiction—romances and mysteries—have had varied lines of work over the years. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, Beebo Brinker—the butch anti-hero of the first pulps in which lesbian characters weren't all evil, sick, or suicidal—delivered pizzas and operated an elevator because those jobs allowed her to wear trousers. In the 1980s, feminist presses published lightweight lesbian novels that featured crime-solving protagonists from a broad range of professions—including a printer, a translator, a restaurateur, and a travel agent—rather than the usual lineup of cops and PIs. (I've always suspected they avoided such characters in part because they were too stereotypically "butch"—it seemed vital in that era to break from narrow notions about lesbian gender roles—and in part because left-leaning feminists in the '80s weren't big fans of establishment figures who carry guns.) Over time, though, the market shifted, and cops and private detectives have come to dominate lesbian pulps, just as they do mainstream mass-market titles.
In the last few years, though, a new hero has emerged: Braver, fitter, and more sensitive than a cop, more honorable than a PI, the Secret Service agent is the perfect romance paragon, particularly for lesbian readers.
You'll find several variations on the shelves of your local bookstore, but the best examples of this protector-protectee romance subgenre come from a writer known as Radclyffe. In 2002, the Philadelphia surgeon published Above All, Honor, a slim novel in which gorgeous, brooding Secret Service agent Cameron Roberts is assigned to protect gorgeous, troubled Blair Powell, the president's daughter. Six years and six installments later, Radclyffe brought the series to an apparent end in Word of Honor, in which Cam and Blair tie the knot at a Colorado ski resort. (Radclyffe's books were so successful that she abandoned medicine and is now a full-time writer and publisher based in upstate New York.) In the course of the series, Cam is shot, burned, blown up, hit by a car, and almost drowned, while Blair evades bullets, bombs, anthrax, and breast cancer. In between these aggravations, the two of them negotiate the boundaries of protection and freedom and enjoy a tremendous amount of mind-blowingly awesome sex.
It's easy to be snarky about the Honor series and about lesbian romances generally. I certainly was. I worked in feminist publishing for a decade, and although I knew that the buy-them-by-the-armful down-market dyke romances kept a lot of feminist bookstores in the black, I wasn't in the business to churn out trashy bonk-busters. I read one every few years, maintaining an expression of smug superiority throughout. Then, a couple of years ago, I picked up Honor Bound, the second title in the series. Within a matter of weeks, I'd inhaled more than 20 of Radclyffe's novels and reread the Honor series several times.
The books are quite explicit; and since Radclyffe introduces more couples as the series progresses, toward the end, there's far more sex than intrigue, which probably accounts for much of their popularity. But there's also a more high-minded appeal, something aspirational about the archetype of the honorable agent. Everyone admires a civil servant who will take a bullet in the line of duty, but one section of the population may feel the attraction more strongly than others, because the traits that make a good Secret Service agent are especially valuable in a lesbian.
It isn't just a matter of looking good in a suit and being able to handle a trigger. Although lesbians no longer hide in the shadows, everyone appreciates discretion, and Secret Service agents are the ultimate strong, silent type—they fade into the background without hiding, they keep their mouths shut, and they have your back. But the question of protection is especially complicated territory for women involved with other women. Since our relationships aren't recognized by the state, we aren't always able to shield our partners from hardship and can't offer them the social-welfare benefits that marriage confers. And just as the first daughter must sometimes take care of her protector, a good lesbian must be skilled at shifting roles.
Reading a romance novel won't give readers the coal-black hair, the chiseled profile, or the sexy gray eyes of its protagonist, but we can take a few life lessons from selfless Cam Roberts and conflicted Blair Powell: In the real world, security is a fantasy even more desirable, and more elusive, than endless love.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.