Every so often, a tweet or meme will go around asking people to respond with all the screamingly queer things they did before they knew they were queer — stuff like being obsessed with the Indigo Girls, writing gay fanfiction, or volunteering with queer kids for ten years. Or how about this one: writing a book about a closeted gay kid in Georgia who doesn’t want to come out because he doesn’t want people to make his sexuality a big deal, and then (right after the release of the film adaptation) publishing a number one New York Times bestselling sequel about, what else: a closeted bisexual girl.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to 2015.
My debut YA book, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, came out that April, and I knew nothing about book promotion. But I figured out one thing pretty quickly: when you’re a brand-new author, the first thing interviewers want to know about is your inspiration.
I hated that question.
Mostly because I never had a good answer when it came to Simon. I’d talk about how the book was based on my high school. Or how I reread all my teen journals before I wrote the first draft. Or I’d list all the ways Simon and I are alike. But there was always one particular follow-up question I dreaded: why is Simon gay? Why did you, a cishet woman, write a book about a gay teen boy? So I’d talk about my psychology background and all those years working with queer kids, ignoring the real neon sign of a question: Why’d you work for ten freaking years with queer kids, Becky?
Y’all, I didn’t know. I legitimately didn’t realize.
I’m thirty-seven years old. I’ve been happily married to a guy for almost ten years. I have two kids and a cat. I’ve never kissed a girl. I never even realized I wanted to.
But if I rewind further, I’m pretty sure I’ve had crushes on boys and girls for most of my life. I just didn’t realize the girl crushes were crushes. Every so often, I’d feel this sort of pull toward some girl I vaguely knew from school or camp or after-school dance class. I’d be a little preoccupied for a few weeks with how cool or cute or interesting she was, and how much I wanted to be her friend. It just never occurred to me that these feelings were attraction.
I guess I didn’t have a frame of reference for it. I grew up in the eighties and nineties in a conservative southern US suburb, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see two people of the same gender kiss until Greg Berlanti made it happen on Dawson’s Creek. I’d met a few people who were openly gay or lesbian, but I don’t think I met an openly bi person until college. And even then, my understanding of bisexuality as a concept didn’t entirely track with how I see it now. For one thing, the idea of sexual fluidity wasn’t even on my radar. And there didn’t seem to be a word for girls who basically liked guys, but were sometimes (randomly!) fascinated by girls. But the girl stuff was always so vague, and it didn’t really fit with how I saw myself. So my brain did what brains sometimes do. It edited out all the parts that refused to make sense. And for over two decades, I basically forgot those feelings existed.
Until Leah on the Offbeat.
It was my first time writing a love story between two girls — actually, it was my first time writing from the perspective of a character who’s attracted to girls. I worried I wouldn’t be able to feel what I’d need to feel in order to write a convincing love story.
Turns out, that wasn’t a problem — and maybe that should have been my lightbulb moment. But denial comes with its own kind of logic. I was just immersed in Leah’s perspective, I decided. It was all part of my process. Definitely just a writer thing. And none of this had anything to do with the small handful of actresses I openly crushed on. Because the thing is, I was straight. At least I was straight if you rounded up. Was heteroflexible a thing?
In retrospect, you could say I was beginning to question things.
But then it was 2018, and a couple of things happened. First, Love, Simon came out in March, which was one of the most electrifying, unforgettable, truly extraordinary experiences of my life. But having your book adapted to a film brings a lot of notoriety and attention, especially online, and it’s not always the fun kind. Unsurprisingly, there was quite a bit of discourse about my identity — how could there not be? Love, Simon was the first gay teen rom com to be released widely by a major film studio, and it was based on a book written by an allocishet woman. Yes, the film’s director was openly gay. No, not everyone cared (frankly, a lot of people still don’t know Love, Simon was based on a book). But in many online spaces, my straightness was a springboard for some — legitimately important — conversations about representation, authenticity, and ownership of stories. And for some people, my straightness was enough to boycott the film entirely.
Then Leah on the Offbeat came out about a month later, and the discourse exploded all over again. There were thinkpieces based on the premise that I, a straight woman, clearly knew nothing about being a bi girl. There were tweets and threads and blog posts, and just about every single one I came across mentioned my straightness. And when Leah debuted on the NYT list, authors I admired and respected tweeted their disappointment that this “first” had been taken by a straight woman. Of course, Leah wasn’t the first f/f YA book to hit the New York Times list. And maybe people were wrong about the other stuff too. But the attention and scrutiny were so overwhelming, and it all hurt so badly, I slammed the lid down on that box and forgot I’d ever cracked it open.
At least I didn’t remember I remembered.
I deleted the sexuality labels from my website. I declined to answer certain questions in interviews. I’d get quietly, passionately indignant when people made assumptions about other authors’ gender identities and sexualities. And I’d feel uncomfortable, anxious, almost sick with nerves every time they discussed mine.
And holy shit, did people discuss. To me, it felt like there was never a break in the discourse, and it was often searingly personal. I was frequently mentioned by name, held up again and again as the quintessential example of allocishet inauthenticity. I was a straight woman writing shitty queer books for the straights, profiting off of communities I had no connection to.
Because the thing is, I called myself straight in a bunch of early interviews.
But labels change sometimes. That’s what everyone always says, right? It’s okay if you’re not out. It’s okay if you’re not ready. It’s okay if you don’t fully understand your identity yet. There’s no time limit, no age limit, no one right way to be queer.
And yet a whole lot of these very same people seemed to know with absolute certainty that I was allocishet. And the less certain I was, the more emphatically strangers felt the need to declare it. Apparently it was obvious from my writing. Simon’s fine, but it was clearly written by a het. You can just tell. Her books aren’t really for queer people.
You know what’s a mindfuck? Questioning your sexual identity in your thirties when every self-appointed literary expert on Twitter has to share their hot take on the matter. Imagine hundreds of people claiming to know every nuance of your sexuality just from reading your novels. Imagine trying to make space for your own uncertainty. Imagine if you had a Greek chorus of internet strangers propping up your imposter syndrome at every stage of the process.
The thing is, I really do believe in the value of critically discussing books, particularly when it comes to issues of representation. And I believe in the vital importance of Ownvoices stories. Most of the identities represented in my books are Ownvoices. But I don’t think we, as a community, have ever given these discussions the care and nuance they deserve.
Consider the origin of the Ownvoices hashtag. It was created in 2015 by author Corinne Duyvis, with the purpose of highlighting stories written by authors who share the same marginalized identities as their characters. But Corinne has always emphasized caution when it comes to using Ownvoices to determine which authors can tell which stories. And she’s been incredibly clear and emphatic about not weaponizing the term to pressure authors to disclose private aspects of their identities.
So why do we keep doing this? Why do we, again and again, cross the line between critiquing books and making assumptions about author identities? How are we so aware of invisible marginalization as a hypothetical concept, but so utterly incapable of making space for it in our community?
Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out. This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted. And if you think I’m the only closeted or semi-closeted queer author feeling this pressure, you haven’t been paying attention.
And I’m one of the lucky ones! I’m a financially independent adult. I can’t be disowned. I come from a liberal family, I have an enormous network of queer friends and acquaintances, and my livelihood isn’t even remotely at risk. I’m hugely privileged in more ways than I can count. And this was still brutally hard for me. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for other closeted writers, and how unwelcome they must feel in this community.
Even as I write this, I’m bracing for the inevitable discourse — I could draft the twitter threads myself if I wanted to. But I’d rather just make a few things really clear. First, this isn’t an attempt to neutralize criticism of my books, and you’re certainly entitled to any reactions you might have had to their content. Second, I’m not asking you to validate my decision to write Simon (or What If It’s Us, or mlm books in general).
But if I can ask for something, it’s this: will you sit for a minute with the discomfort of knowing you may have been wrong about me? And if your immediate impulse is to scrutinize my personal life, my marriage, or my romantic history, can you try to check yourself?
Or how about this: can we all be a bit more careful when we engage in queer Ownvoices discourse? Can we remember that our carelessness in these discussions has caused real harm? And that the people we’re hurting rarely have my degree of privilege or industry power? Can we make space for those of us who are still discovering ourselves? Can we be a little more compassionate? Can we make this a little less awful for the next person?
Can you tell I’m angry? Because I’m angry.
But I’m grateful, too, for those of you who understood the hidden (and not-so-hidden) threads of my books before I did. I’m grateful for the writer whose vulnerability made all of this finally click into place for me. And the ones who put their hearts on the line to hold space for people like me. And the ones who made me feel like I was allowed to care about this. And, of course, I’m grateful for the books. Some of you have no idea how much your words have helped me find mine.
Anyway, all of this is to say: I’m bi. Sorry it took me so long to get here. But then again, at least the little red coming out book I needed was already on my shelf (in about thirty different languages).
I think I finally know why I wrote it.