Over the past few years, I have made a concerted effort to avoid online frays. Some days, I’m better at it than others. Given the intensifying discourse around Becky Albertalli, I realised this was one of those days when I had to say something. Especially given my experiences as a closeted gay author, and an out gay author.
For those who’ve missed the brouhaha, after years of scrutiny for writing books centring queer characters, Becky came out as bi. It prompted a conversation about what we, as readers, feel we have a right to know about an author who appears to write outside their lived experiences. One author said people shouldn’t write queer stories while closeted, then complain when others scrutinise their sexuality. Articles were written. Author McAuthor slams Becky Albertalli for … As a celebrity gossip journalist in my former life, I love a deftly deployed slam in the first paragraph. It heightens what’s said. Makes it physical. One body crashing into another. Conflict.
What I learnt pretty quickly as a celebrity gossip journalist was, stories hours apart could contradict each other, but so long as somebody was getting slammed, people clicked. It’s really difficult to see the bigger picture, because conflict is so damn entertaining.
I’m writing this to commit the bigger picture to words, at least, the bigger picture as I see it from my vantage point.
I was in the closet for fifteen years, from the first, “Oh, that’s different … I’m going to squash that feeling way, way down,” in primary school to that blog post that blew up my life in my mid-twenties.
I wrote and released The First Third in the closet. After my first book flopped, I took a few years off (code for having a ton of writer’s block and pursuing that career in celebrity gossip). When I came to write The First Third, I threw as much of my life into it as possible, thinking it might be my last. The book follows Bill, a character with a name very similar to mine, with a family very similar to mine, who is burdened with his grandmother’s bucket list – find your mother a husband, ungay your older brother, and make your younger brother not a twerp. The First Third is my love letter to my small but potent Greek family, but woven through it, is my first awkward, scary exploration of my queerness in fiction. I basically split myself in half – straight version of me deals with most of the family stuff, and my queerness is contained within a separate sidekick character. On a story level, he exists to give the protagonist somebody to talk to and bounce ideas off, and to break up the sometimes-heavy story with a joke or two. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day unpacking the fact that I imagined my queer self on the margins of my own story, laughing at the ridiculousness of my family dynamics but rarely stepping into the centre of the page.
Lucas, or Sticks as he’s known for most of the book, is the sassy gay friend. I was too afraid of writing a gay protagonist, one, in case my mum put two and two together, and two, because publishing was a different place back then. Lucas’s arc was the most heavily scrutinised in the editorial process. Lucas was coming to terms with what it meant to be gay and disabled in the body-image obsessed Sydney scene. Since he would have sex for the first time during the novel, he had to be aged up from sixteen to eighteen, because if he wasn’t an adult, gay sex would be … Let’s say, there were trepidations. They were worried Lucas’s shenanigans might mean librarians and other gatekeepers would label the book as inappropriate, as if having a queer character living queer experiences in the margins of the story might spoil an otherwise honest reflection of my teen life … I wasn’t out of the closet back then, so nobody saw Bill and Lucas as I did, two halves of the same whole.
Writing Lucas scared the living shit out of me, but it was freeing. My truth was hidden in plain sight.
Two things happened after The First Third’s release in 2013: Lucas was widely embraced by Australian readers – gatekeepers and teens – and Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda was released by my publisher in 2015.
At an event that year, my publicist waved that little red book and hyped it with full-throated enthusiasm. It was going to be big. The same publisher that insisted my queer characters needed to be eighteen to be sexually active was throwing their weight behind an unashamedly gay book two years later. Publishing was changing. The fear I had that writing my queerness would negatively impact my career began to dissipate. I wouldn’t have written The Sidekicks as it exists today were it not for Simon, and by writing my fears of coming out into that book, I built up the courage to publish The Sidekicks as an out gay man.
And this is where my feelings get complicated. While Simon and The First Third, two books with queer elements written by seemingly straight authors, were rarely scrutinised by Australian gatekeepers, my coming out inspired a lot of hand-wringing about how appropriate my school talks and books were for their target audience. I had to rebuild my reputation as a public speaker almost a decade into my career. I had to run speeches past principals, teach workshops under strict supervision (as in, the teachers outnumbered the students). I saw the gulf between how we treated queer books by ‘straight’ authors and how we treated queer books by queer authors. What was cute and inspiring, could be sinister and inappropriate.
It’s very easy as a queer author to feel bitter about this gulf. Heck, I sat next to Becky at an Australian signing and listened as a procession of queer teens told her they didn’t feel seen until they read Simon. I wanted to leap onto the table and scream, “ME! I’M RIGHT HERE! GAY AUSSIE! WRITING GAY AUSSIE STUFF! YOU SHOULD FEEL SEEN WHEN YOU READ ME!” But you know what that is? Ego. Envy. That’s what’s best for me. That’s not what’s best for these kids. Seemingly straight Becky and her little red book changed their lives.
Just as it changed mine. I mean, I’m a gay, Greek-Australian writer. Christos Tsiolkas isn’t reading this blog post thinking, “WHAT ABOUT ME?”
Straight authors are capable of – I know this might seem shocking – writing about us with care.
We accuse, often with good reason, the cis heterosexual community of having an overbearing obsession with what happens in our bedrooms. Would decision-makers in the industry, from publishers to librarians, have been as comfortable with Simon had Becky been out? I can’t say. But that’s an industry problem, not a Becky problem. And we, queer authors and readers, shouldn’t be obsessed with the bedroom habits of those who write about us.
Your identity doesn’t guarantee you’ve written a good story. I know. You should read the stack of horrendous gay stories I’ve written that will never see the light of day. At least, not until a publisher Go Set A Watchmans me. Coming out isn’t risk-free. I can attest to that. Instead of demanding queer confessions from those who write about us, let’s work to make the prospect of coming out less daunting in the world and the industry.