"Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it shouldn't be this big awkward thing whether you're straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I'm just saying.”–Becky Albertalli, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda
So this is my first blog post on here. If you've managed to find your way to my site through the depths of the internet, welcome. In the future I will be posting reviews of recent books I've read, updates about my writing, and maybe some random philosophical musings, who knows? This week, I wanted to talk about a book that I read several years ago, but I've been thinking about a lot in light of recent discourse. That book is Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. If you haven't heard of it by now, it's a YA book about a closeted gay teen in Georgia who strikes up an email correspondence with another closeted teen while dealing with a fellow student threatening to out him to the school. It's a book that has made a huge difference in the lives of many queer teens, but has also brought up a lot of discourse about Ownvoices and who should and shouldn't tell queer stories.
Earlier this week, Becky Albertalli came out as bi in an honest and brave letter to the writing and LBGTQ+ community. She described the harassment and criticism she received for years for writing about LGBTQ teens while being perceived as a straight woman. People saw her as profiting off of stories that were not hers to tell and taking spaces meant for queer voices. She came out, not in her own time or in her own way, but because she felt she had to in order to escape the criticism. Reading this letter was heartbreaking; anyone who has come out knows how hard it is. And coming out in such a public way and knowing the amount of discourse that would follow it was incredibly brave.
The discussion surrounding this book has felt so personal to me because several years ago, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda literally gave me the courage to come out. I'd been terrified of the prospect for months, even though I knew most of my family and friends would be supportive. My identity felt too raw, too personal, too messy to share with anyone. And then I saw the Love, Simon movie, and then I read the book, and then a week later, I came out to my family and friends. There was something in Simon's story that spoke to me so deeply. It was a celebration of coming out, of accepting yourself, of being unabashedly who you are. It made me want to announce my identity to world; it made me want to stop hiding. Knowing how much Becky helped me and others feel brave enough to come out, I feel so sad that she was forced to before she was ready.
It's time to let go of the need to gatekeep who can write queer books. This isn't to say that Ownvoices isn't important. Ownvoices stories are important, particularly in discussions about race. The publishing industry is very white, and too often white writers get picked to tell stories about nonwhite people. BIPOC authors need to be given space to write their own stories, and there are a lot of amazing LGBTQ+ books out there by BIPOC authors who have done so much for the community as well and should be given lots of attention and love. What happened to Becky is no reason to say that the Ownvoices movement is not necessary or important, and the discussion of whether white writers should write from the point of view of nonwhite characters is a separate discussion from who should write queer characters. This is because the rhetoric and language used to describe the importance of Ownvoices in regards to race can't be so neatly translated to queer stories. Queerness is messy. It often involves years of questioning and confusion. Identities change. People change. People learn new things about themselves as life goes on. Yes, it is important for queer people to write queer books and for publishers to publish them. But forcing people to publicly come out in order to write those stories is toxic and harmful.
When I was questioning my identity, I wrote about it. Even before I knew I was queer, I wrote about queer characters. It helped me comes to terms with my identity; it helped me learn more about myself. Once I knew I was queer but before I came out, I saw the way that people criticized supposedly straight women for writing LGBTQ stories, particularly m|m romance. It made me uncomfortable because at the time I was presenting as a straight, cisgender woman and I was writing those stories too. It made me feel like it wasn't my place to tell those stories, no matter how validating and affirming it was for me to write them. When I submitted stories with queer characters to writing workshops at school, I worried what my peers would think. I worried that they would scrutinize my identity or tell me I was a fraud.
Luckily that never happened to me. People in workshops were kind and affirming. They gave feedback on the stories themselves, not my identity. Fellow queer writers in the workshops told me about aspects of my stories that spoke to them and their own experiences, and that made me feel validated and like I had a place in the community. I was given the space to use my writing to question and explore aspects of myself, and now I have a much clearer idea of who I am and what labels feel right to me. I'm so sorry that not all LGBTQ+ writers have that space, and I can't imagine how Becky felt seeing that online criticism and discourse for years. I know that I would not have handled it well.
You can critique representation in stories, you can point out problematic moments, you can comment on the characters and whether they speak to your own experience. But let's stop pressuring people to disclose their identities in order to write LGBTQ+ books. It only ends up hurting queer writers who aren't ready to come out yet, especially trans and nonbinary authors. Let's give people space to question and to use writing as a vehicle for that questioning. You never know what is going on inside someone else. Don't do what Martin did to Simon. And especially not to authors who are just trying their best in a messy, confusing world where straight is unfortunately still the default and discovering who you are is so damn hard. Let's not make it any harder for people.
Becky Albertalli, I don't know if you will ever read this, but I want you to know how grateful I am to you for writing the stories you did. Your books changed my life. Coming out must have taken a lot of courage, and I wish that it didn't have to happen the way that it did. But welcome to the community. You have a space here. You always have.
Note: While Simon vs was very influential to me in my coming out journey, I want to acknowledge that it is the story of a white middle class teen and does not encompass all the diverse experiences of people in the queer community. Here is a short list of some awesome LBGTQ+ books by Ownvoices BIPOC authors who deserve all the love:
“People really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it's a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.”–Becky Albertalli, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda.
This is where I review awesome books I've read recently and share updates about my own writing.