A Balancing Act
I originally planned to write a different blog for today. Since today is four weeks until Paper Flowers comes out in paperback and Silk Sheets has its cover reveal, my original post was about my revision progress and the method I use to self-edit and prepare my final drafts for publishing. However, in light of the horrible discourse currently filtering through my twitter feed about Own Voices writing and the LGBTQ+ Community, I decided a much different blog was necessary.
Today we’re going to talk Own Voices fiction, outing, and how there are members of the LGBTQ+ community co-opting racial discourse that doesn’t belong to them in order to gatekeep queer literature. (I really hope this entire thing makes sense, I’m just really upset right now and need to get this out).
This entire issue has always been touchy, but it’s exploded since Becky Albertalli came out and wrote the equally beautiful and heart wrenching essay about self-discovery and being forced out. I want to make it clear that this situation is infuriating, and awful, and horrible. It shouldn’t have happened. I may not know her personally, but Becky is a wonderful person who gifted us with beautiful and genuine queer stories. I had never picked up a YA book where I related so closely to the protagonist until I read Simon Vs The Homo-Sapiens Agenda and Leah on the Off-Beat. We owe her gratitude for those stories, not pervasive, prying discussions over why she chose to write them. What’s happened to her isn’t fair. Our identities belong to us, and the world is not entitled to them, yet because Becky gifted her voice to the world through her stories, the world decided it was entitled to her identity when she wasn’t even sure of it herself. Nobody should go through that, their identity being yanked away from them before they’re ready, when they’re barely figuring it out.
And even if Becky was straight, that doesn’t mean the stories she gave us mean any less. They’re still beautiful stories that gave queer kids (and adults) around the world a sense of belonging. Even if the stories weren’t written by a queer person, it doesn’t mean they have no value. Yet members of the LGBTQ+ community seem to think no story is worth anything unless they have access to the identity of the person writing it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of Own Voices storytelling. I always have been, and I always will be. Nothing is more valuable than somebody’s courage in giving the world insight into their heart by piecing parts of their own story into the one they’re telling. Our experiences make us who we are and using those experiences in our writing gives them depth and value somebody outside of those experiences misses in their storytelling. I believe wholeheartedly and with great conviction that all forms of media should prioritise minority voices and OV stories, but that doesn’t mean I think people need to openly express their identity before offering a story to the world.
In this, I am explicitly talking about Own Voices stories about sexuality, gender, trauma, mental health issues, and other subjective and invisible experiences. I am not talking about race and culture. Those are separate issues in my eyes, and I’ll expand on that in a minute, let me focus on sexuality and gender for a moment. Sexuality and gender is a spectrum, trauma and mental health are subjective, these are things you cannot argue, and nobody is entitled to somebody else’s trauma or identity, so demanding somebody’s “credentials” when writing about those topics is invasive and inappropriate—to say the least. When a writer openly claims their work as Own Voices, celebrate it, tell everyone about it, support the author in their endeavour to tell their story. When an author doesn’t claim Own Voices ownership of a story they’re telling, it doesn’t give you the right to demand why they would write it. You can choose to read/watch their work or not, that’s up to you, but you have no right to their identity or experience.
Our identities belong to us, and the world is not entitled to them
There are people who claim I have no right to tell stories about gay and bi men, or trans characters, because I’m a cis lesbian. But here’s the thing, I don’t claim anything I write is Own Voices unless my protagonist is a queer woman. But I will not let anybody take away my right to tell the stories that are important to me. I’ve always been drawn to writing male characters, that’s just the way I’ve always been, and a lot of that has to do with my internalised homophobia and misogyny from repressing my sexuality for so long. But now it’s simply what I’m most comfortable with. I have plenty of plans for lesbian and bisexual women in the future, but the stories I’m telling right now have male protagonists and writing those sorts of stories in my late teens and early twenties helped me learn how to be comfortable with my sexual orientation without freaking myself out. My deeply closeted self could never have written two girls kissing without crying and feeling sick, but writing men helped me because I have no attraction to them and while I could feel a kinship I didn’t want to name with their queer love, I didn’t feel threatened by it.
Writing queer men helped me, a lesbian, come to terms with my sexuality. And nobody will ever be able to take that away from me. Nobody will ever be able to stop me from showing my appreciation for all the queer male characters who made me feel comfortable, by adding to their ranks. I have stories about queer women coming, but this is what I’m writing now, and nobody can stop me.
If I hadn’t been able to write the stories I wrote from 17-23, I wouldn’t be in the place I am now. And this is why we cannot gatekeep queer literature.
Yes, prioritise OV. I’ll always spruik the OV mlm storytellers. I read their stories, I tell others about them, I leave them reviews. I support them because their voices in mlm fiction are the most valuable. Just like queer women’s voices are the most valuable in wlw. And trans voices are the most important in trans literature. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for other stories, it just means we have to recognise when we’re not an OV storyteller. And that’s fine.
And a straight woman can as well. There’s nothing wrong with exploring voices and experiences through your writing, as long as you’re respectful of using other people’s experiences, and as long as you support the OV writers who are telling the same kind of stories.
I think the reason members of the community have become so relentlessly gatekeepery about is because of the discourse surrounding racial fiction and POC and BIPOC authors. It’s ignorant to claim Own Voices in the LGBTQ+ community and gender sphere is at all the same as racial and cultural Own Voices stories. They’re not.
White people have no right to racial narratives. We have to write diverse casts, we do. We have to include people of colour, of varying cultures and ethnicities throughout all our work. But we have no right to cultural narratives that don’t belong to us. And I’m probably going to get some hate for that, but I won’t back down on this. I’ve reworked multiple stories I’d planned because I realised how wrong it was for me to take a story that I do not, and cannot ever, understand because of my undeniable privilege as a white person. It’s not my place to tell a story about a black man in love with a white man with a racist family. It’s not my place to craft a fantasy world where the entire story is rooted in the narrative of America and Australia’s histories with genocide and slavery.
Writing characters of colour in narratives that are not racially focused is a whole other kettle of fish that I don’t want to get into so let’s just leave this part of the topic here. Racial and cultural narratives belong to people belonging to those races and cultures. Those aren’t my stories. There are plenty of stories I can tell, those ones aren’t mine.
But just like white people like to take stories that don’t belong to them, members of the LGBTQ+ community have co-opted this discourse about race and OV storytelling and they’re applying the same principles to gender and sexuality OV storytelling. And they are not the same thing.
The entire situation is rife with TERF ideology, and it’s gatekeeping, pure and simple. The people who are claiming you shouldn’t write queer stories unless you’re happily out and proud are the same kind of people who like to dictate what level of queer you have to be to belong to the community. And it’s not okay. Sexuality and gender are complex, and as writers we tend to explore our feelings through our writing, so you have no idea what someone might be going through when they choose to write a story exploring these concepts and identities. If they don’t claim it’s Own Voices and their story isn’t harmful, leave them be—by all means, call out any damaging stories but don’t demand someone’s identity. The writing community should be focusing on writers who write racist, transphobic, abusive, misogynistic, or homophobic stories, not people who are giving the world something good, regardless of their identity.
To summarise, my main takeaways are this:
1: Don’t force people to out themselves and don’t out people. This is never okay, in any situation.
2: Exploring gender and sexuality through writing does not entitle anybody to someone’s identity.
3: Prioritise Own Voices storytelling but don’t demonise other voices who aren’t OV for writing in that area if they haven’t written a harmful narrative.
4: Call out ALL harmful narratives regardless of the circumstances of the author but do so in ways that don’t damage groups or people—in other words, don’t let racism or transphobia or homophobia or misogyny (etc) stand but don’t be an ass about it.
5: Race and cultural Own Voices storytelling and gender and sexuality Own Voices storytelling are not the same things and co-opting the discourse of one to justify gatekeeping behaviour is gross.
And finally, please support Becky Albertalli right now because she’s still being attacked and it’s awful. She doesn’t deserve it. Nobody does. Call out the people gatekeeping the community and queer stories, call out the people being gross about other people’s identities. This behaviour is not in line with the inclusivity and love that are the heart of the LGBTQ+ community.
Now to end on a lighter note which is still relevant to this discussion, everyone should go and buy Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas as he just broke onto the NYT Bestseller list with his debut and if I’m reading the articles correctly, it’s the first time a book about a trans character written by a trans author has done so. I’m still waiting on my copy, apparently the shipment is delayed to the place I bought it from, but I have heard nothing but good things so go and support this amazing story!