NEW ORLEANS REVIEW
How has the past year been for you since coming out?
It’s hard to wrap my head around it. It has been up and down; parts have been great and parts have been horrible. It was a traumatic coming-out experience in a lot of ways. I did feel it was under duress. How do I want to say this? I had braced for the discourse and the influx of attention that I expected would follow, but I don’t think I fully anticipated how hard that would be and how invasive that would feel, and it was meaner than I expected. People took it to places I didn’t think they would go – the idea of just boldly, openly, questioning the validity of my identity – so it was hard navigating all of that, but there have been a couple of silver linings. One of the things that was somewhat expected, but not to the degree that it happened, was the volume of people who reached out to me; not just friends, but people from the book community who could relate to my essay. I mean, it’s devastating, but at the same time it feels like an honor to be entrusted with that. People have no idea how common these anxieties are, particularly in YA, but also across categories where people are outing themselves preemptively. Sometimes people who we see online as openly queer, I didn’t realize how many people did that because they felt like they had to in order not to be dragged for writing what they had chosen to write. [There’s also] the other category of people, who are avoiding writing about certain things that they otherwise would want to explore in their work, but they are just not up for it yet.
What was it like working with queer youth when you were a therapist and do you think, coming into your sexuality, you would have been better at empathizing with them?
I wish I had known that in my work. It’s hard to know. On one hand I believe fundamentally that there is not a universal queer experience. Understanding my sexuality wouldn’t necessarily mean that it would have anything to do with the person working with me. Back when I was a therapist, the thing I would always keep in the front of my mind was that my job was to be in the room with this person and listen to their experience. Creating associations with my own experiences and my own life can sometimes be helpful, but it’s critical to not let that warp whatever that person sitting there is telling me. I don’t think it would have made me a worse therapist, but I don’t know if it would have tangibly changed the way I practiced. But it’s hard to say. And I do wish I had known that about myself at the time.
I don’t think I am going back to [being a therapist]. If I were to ever go back to being a psychologist, I’d probably stick with psych testing, but I’d have to do a lot of continuing education work. I made the decision a couple of years ago to let my license expire because it was expensive and time consuming to maintain and I was beginning to understand that it would be a very long time before I used it. I would need to do the continuing education just to catch up professionally; there is a whole new version of the DSM; there are new versions of the tests since I practiced last. I don’t think there’s a way for me to do the work I was trained to do, and particularly, I worked a lot with teens, and I worked a lot with queer teens. I think I’ve become too much of an open book. I’m too known, both by my books and by the whole experience of everybody seeing me come out. That’s very loaded and that’s not something I would want to [bring to] the therapy room. It has a way of sucking the focus away from the person who should be the focus.
How did writing Leah on the Offbeat help you with your sexuality and how much do you relate to her as a character? I just finished listening to it and I really enjoyed it. But I read it when I started researching you, and I thought, “Leah is so confident in her bisexuality.” I know you came out in 2020 and this book was published in 2018, and I’m curious if this was part of that journey for you.
First, thank you. Also, Shannon Purser [the audiobook narrator] is amazing, she’s wonderful. She also grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta like Leah and I did. It’s interesting because clearly it was a big part of that process for me, but I didn’t realize it was happening at the time. Some of the mechanics of denial are so absurd. Around the time of writing Leah and when it was coming out, I would say things like, “If I were Gen Z I would definitely identify as bi,” which is true. Maybe it would have been easier to figure out if I were Gen Z. But Gen Z doesn’t own that label; it was right there for me to take. Also, that was around the time that I took down [the disclosure statement] on my website that said I was straight. It was there because I felt like I owed it to readers. Transparency was something that had been grilled into me, that I needed to disclose my positionality, and I feel completely different now. I took it down because I [thought], “I don’t think I’m going to answer questions about my sexuality anymore because I don’t think people should ask them, and in solidarity to closeted authors, I, a great ally, am going to stop answering those questions because I believe in the principle of privacy for authors.” [She does a hand-whooshing motion over her head]
But in terms of Leah, it’s funny; I think most people think that Leah, out of all the characters I’ve written, is the character I most identify with. I’ve seen strangers boldly say, “Leah is clearly her self-insert,” and I mean, there is clearly a lot I don’t understand about my own writing [and] Leah definitely has a lot of me in her, but she is also the most I have had to stretch for a character’s voice. In my mind, she is the most different from me of [any] of my characters. I wish I were more like her in some ways. She’s self-aware; I’ve always thought of myself as self-aware and now I’m like, “I’m a dumbass.” In terms of who I’m most similar to in my head, it’s probably still Simon. Leah intimidates me, and in a way, she represented something for me; it just seemed like everybody understood themselves earlier. I remember thinking, “When would a bi girl know that about herself?”
I didn’t realize until I was 16, but I remember being 14 reading [gay] fanfic and saying “They just have a good storyline.”
I’m sure you were a great ally. It’s like, “I as a reader am very open minded … I’m glad that I’m such a good ally … I really ship this, and it’s so funny,” and then it clicks and you’re like “Oh.” It is always interesting because a lot about Leah’s story taps into things that I think were preoccupations for me at the time, but the perspective of that story is told through the lens of somebody who was in a very different place than I was.
There are several instances of biphobia in that book – like how Leah points out that sometimes straight girls will kiss for a guy’s attention and their sexuality isn’t called into question, but guys can’t do the same thing. Also, people might be using that to test their sexuality. What type of harm do you think is caused by straight people’s misconceptions of what’s going on and how they act?
This is a good question because I think I have a different take on this than most people in my circle. I’ve not talked about this anywhere, but right now the book that I’m working on – this [idea] is fundamentally part of it. There’s this phenomenon of girls kissing at a party with the male gaze, and all the different layers to it. That’s very real. It’s a thing I know has hurt people I care about, people I’m friends with. I think it taps into the conversation around who should be at a gay bar and who shouldn’t be, like a bachelorette party at a gay bar or straight people at a lesbian bar. You have a queer woman who should be in a safe space to approach somebody as a romantic possibility, and the idea of accidentally approaching a straight woman is different than being rejected because of “Nah, I’m just not feeling it.” I see that difference. And it’s [about] being respectful of a space that wasn’t made for you; however, when we get overenthusiastic about creating that boundary and carrying that torch, I don’t think that we as a community have fully reckoned with best practices for welcoming questioning people.
The first thing I would ask [myself] would be, “Why would a straight girl want to go to a lesbian bar?” And this is just projection, but [I’d guess] she’s going to come out as queer in time. There is something that draws you to that space. I don’t get to decide this hypothetical fictional woman’s sexuality, but it’s more just the idea of making space for that possibility.
It’s hard because you want to protect the sanctity of safe spaces for queer people, but I was so careful about not wanting to overstep; that’s why I said I was straight in so many interviews because I felt like I owed it to people to disclose that, and then I got boxed in. I mean we talk about fluidity, but that doesn’t guide the way we act around navigating queer spaces both in real life and online, especially online.
There’s also an instance in your book where Leah doesn’t understand Abby’s coming-out process and tells her that she needs to be all in with her sexuality and they get frustrated with each other. There is a lot of pressure for people to have a fully formed sexuality before they come out. How do you think this hurts people who are questioning their sexuality? And what advice would you give to someone who is questioning their sexuality or gender?
I think this is the first time I’ve ever been asked this directly, and I’m so glad, because more than anything else in that book, that’s something that I have been heavily criticized for. I get it; I don’t have the right, after a book is out and in a reader’s hand, to explain, “No, actually this is what I meant.” That’s not how books work, so however people read it is valid. Some people have stepped over that line speculating about me as a person and my own relationship to that discussion. Everybody assumes that I’m Leah or that I feel how Leah feels, but Leah’s my worst fear. Without realizing it I wrote out what I most feared and that’s exactly what happened to me, really, but through Abby. Abby’s experience is the closest to my own and my anxieties around it because I thought, “Do I count, can I fully claim this?” In my mind I know exactly why Abby called herself “lowkey bi,” because she didn’t want to admit it, because she didn’t want to take up space that wasn’t hers. And it’s intimidating to be in a conversation with somebody like Leah who [already knows her sexuality]. From Abby’s perspective, too – she mentions it a little, but you’re not really in her head in the book – Abby’s cousin Cassy, a character in The Upside of Unrequited, is queer and has always known it. Cassy’s had these conversations with Abby, like, “You know, what fucking feels like shit is when somebody experiments.” So when Abby finds out Leah’s queer after they kiss, suddenly this turned what Abby thought was cool – “We’re straight girls, we are figuring this out, I’m not hurting anybody” – to “Oh, I’m a straight girl who just did the thing. And it was [Leah’s] first kiss, cool.” Then Abby is off on her own frantically trying to think it through because she feels like she owes it to Leah to sort out her shit. And it’s too fast.
I don’t know what I would fully recommend for how to make questioning people feel less pressure. There are some people who just know, and some people are going to figure it out when they make out with somebody or write a book about it. And when we think about it, when we engage with media, we don’t need to assume queer until proven otherwise. If somebody says they’re straight, that’s fine; you don’t have to overthink it and put a lot of effort into it. It’s just a matter of making space for people.
In terms of books, go ahead and criticize books the way you normally would, don’t tag the author (but that’s a different issue), but a way of making space is simply not speculating about the author’s [sexual] identity. I don’t think we should be doing that anyway, turning it into some kind of qualification that an author has to be this queer to ride. To me that’s how you make space, but it gets complicated as I think we saw with my situation.
People really were grappling with it in real time in a way that is so human and so normal but was also deeply unfair to me. It shook people’s frameworks for Ownvoices; anybody who’s using Ownvoices is a good faith kind of person who believes in authenticity and inclusivity and diversity and expanding access to publishing resources for people who have not historically been given opportunities to tell their own stories. It’s so well intentioned and it’s had such a profoundly positive impact, but some people have used it to gatekeep. I think a lot of people were grappling with feeling a certain way about some of the ways they might have used it. For example, somebody reviewing a book, not liking the representation, assuming the author’s straight, and writing a line in the review that talks about that.
I saw on your Instagram that you were able to talk to Gabi Dunn. What was it like having a conversation with them?
It was surreal. I reached out to them via their manager, and I did not expect them to be open to talking. It wasn’t a confrontational kind of reaching out, it was that I had been such a mess over everything for such a long time and I’m a people pleaser [who hates] conflict and I just had to try. It was Yom Kippur, which meant something to me in terms of atonement and forgiveness, and I realized that Yom Kippur was also the first day of bi visibility week. It felt like a sign from the universe. I just reached out in good faith to see if they would be open to talking about it, and I was a little nervous at first. We went into it on the same page about a lot of things: it’s going to be face to face, this is not going to be anybody berating each other or dehumanizing each other or any opportunity to publicly reopen anything and it’s obvious that we coordinated the posts, but we talked about that first. That was done very intentionally and carefully because even before talking it out I felt that Gabi had done something very cruel, but also that Gabi had been designated as the scapegoat. Gabi got bulldozed more than they deserved and more than was warranted. We knew going into it that I didn’t want to cancel Gabi and once we talked it through it was helpful for me to know what was going on in their head, and I felt like I had the opportunity to say everything I wanted to say.
A couple of things they said stood out to me. First, they did not know that I had come out ten days before that happened. I believe this is totally sincere. I saw [Gabi’s] face when they said it; they said, “Ohhhhhh,” and I said, “I had come out ten days earlier, and I had come out to my parents and my family a few days before that. This is very real for me and very new,” and Gabi said, “I did not know you had just come out.” I don’t think Gabi ever read my essay. I think Gabi was just responding to discourse around my essay and Gabi thought I had come out in 2018, around the time the movie came out. You don’t need to make an attack thread on somebody either way, and if you are going to be popping off on somebody I think you owe it to your audience and to that person to know the context. They admitted that and they apologized for that, and for more than that.
How do you think we should change how we engage with others online, especially in queer spaces?
I have put a year of obsessive thought into this, and this is informed not just by my experiences, but I talk a lot with certain people like Sophie Gonzalez about it. She has talked a little bit publicly too about some of her experiences, which have mirrored mine in some ways and have been different in other ways. Also [I’ve talked with] Rod Pulido, whom I have become good friends with as well. He’s an author who posted his coming-out essay in March of this year and I always think about his experience. Rod was entering the industry [and] had written a book that was very personal and important to him. He was very close to a book deal – I’ve been in publishing enough to know editors don’t like long conversations with random authors that they’re not planning to acquire – and this editor shut down after Rod mentioned having a wife. He wasn’t out to anybody, he wasn’t out to his wife, and in that moment he had the choice of coming out as bi to this editor before anybody [else] or not. The book deal fell through. He has since gotten the book acquired and I’m going to be reading it soon; I’m excited. These are not the only two people whose experiences are in my head; a lot of people whose experiences are in my head are not public, so I’m holding on to that quietly as well.
It is never wrong to uplift openly queer artists. Nobody’s ever upset to be left off a list – you know, if you’re closeted and you’re left off the list of queer authors, nobody’s complaining about that. It’s wild how many people will base a whole argument on, “Well, how was I supposed to know; how could you be upset about not getting the benefits of being a queer author if you’re not even going to come out?” Nobody is upset about that. So I think a lot of it is just good faith, compassionate ways of interacting with each other, where all the rest of it flows naturally from that. You enter these spaces holding the understanding that a part of queerness is fluidity, and there’s a whole subset of people who are queer and maybe don’t know it, and certainly you don’t know it, nor do you deserve to. It’s not that you have to assume everybody’s closeted, but I think we owe it to our community not to engage with people in a way that is harmful or toxic, that would hurt them if they were closeted. In addition, one of the things I think we don’t sufficiently acknowledge is how much of this toxicity comes from observing it happening to other people. You want to pile on some author who you assume is straight, and maybe they are straight, but still, don’t pile on them a) because that author doesn’t deserve it, you don’t need to do that, and it’s not helping anybody, and b) you’re also hurting however many hundreds of closeted creators who are watching that happen and thinking, “I really am gonna have to come out if I want to write this, aren’t I?”. Ditto for actors and everyone else. It sounds like an oversimplification to say, “Just don’t harass people,” but it comes down to that. We don’t have to talk about creators’ sexuality, identity; we don’t have to, as strangers, know this stuff [or] discuss this. This is something that we as a community have normalized and it needs to change. If an author wants to talk about it, and a lot of authors do, now I want to talk about it too, but it doesn’t mean that it’s an open forum for us to ask every author where they are coming from in that sense.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda explores the coming-out story of a young teenage boy. While you came out later in life, in what ways do you think your experiences were similar and what ways were they different? Also, can you relate to being forced to come out, which was part of the theme in Simon?
It’s kind of eerie to have this book that I wrote in 2013 with absolutely no awareness, but I also don’t think it’s unrelated to me coming out. That’s one thing I hear a lot, too: “How convenient that you wrote this book about a gay teen, got criticism for it and now suddenly you’re claiming to be bi.” You could look at it as: Simon was yet another example in a long line of examples of me being drawn to queer stories, queer media, queer communities, in ways that I did not consciously understand at all. It’s all these things that I didn’t put together until recently. I did a major project in high school, [about age] 16, on queerness in anime, of all things. As a psychologist I was working with queer teens, I was volunteering with this group, I had all these different connections and, in my mind, it was like, “Oh yeah, I’m working with these queer teens because I have this experience volunteering with the group,” and everything’s connected, I guess.
With Simon it was different. His story leading up to understanding his queerness was different from mine. From what I can tell – and this is a huge generalization – it’s not unusual for monosexual people to have more examples in the media of “Oh, this might be what’s going on.” Sometimes it does take bi, pan, and nonbinary people a little longer, possibly when there are not a lot of blueprints for that. Especially if you’re older; there is nothing. In conservative Atlanta suburbs in the ‘80s and ‘90s there [wasn’t] anything, so generationally, Simon’s coming from a different place. Simon also would have seen more representation – he had the internet, he had more access to things that could help him understand – so he’d come to that much sooner than I did.
Some of the things that I think were similar … it’s not that I think my parents are going to freak out on me; nobody who matters to me in my life is going to have any serious problems with it, and I’m deeply fortunate that’s not my main fear. But I just don’t wanna talk about it. I don’t want to have this conversation over and over again. I don’t want people to look at me differently. I don’t want to be different even in one small way to people who have had a certain idea of me for a long time. I don’t want to be talked about. So [I had] a lot of the same anxieties. I didn’t realize this until after it happened, but I did the same thing Simon did – the first person he came out to was his new friend, Abby, and the first person I came out to was my new friend, Sophie. Sophie Gonzales and I are good friends now, but at the time we were texting; we knew each other through a mutual good friend, Jen Dugan. Sophie’s bisexuality seemed to manifest similarly – it seems like an oversimplification – we have the same type; we also present similarly and get read similarly by queer and non-queer people. It was meaningful and helpful to have somebody to have these conversations with and to navigate. She understood every bit of that even from the beginning so she’s really my Abby.
And as far as being forced out, I don’t look at it – I’ve never said I was forced out – I don’t think I was forced out. Other people have absolutely said that, and then other people have gone back and ripped me to shreds for claiming to be forced out because [someone else said so]. But I’ve never said that. I don’t think I was forced out. I think I was heavily pressured out; I think I was bullied to a staggering degree, to the point where I couldn’t see another way to exist in this publishing space. It didn’t feel like I had control over it, but I wasn’t outed. And in a way [it was] quite the opposite; it wasn’t like people were saying, “Oh yeah, she’s totally queer.” People were more and more bombastically [saying,] “It’s so obvious she’s straight, here’s more proof of it, look at this and look at her writing, you can just tell she’s straight,” and it was unbearable. I was going to try to write it out. I didn’t want to come out; I didn’t want to have that moment because I knew it would be big [and] there wasn’t a way to do it quietly. So it’s funny: if you look at the timeline and if you have any understanding of publishing timelines, you can see that after 2018, which is when things were really hard, what I put out next [were] two straight books. I don’t think Kate in Waiting is straight at all; Kate is very bi in my opinion, but I wouldn’t count that as rep. But [I wrote] books that stake no claim to queerness. I was like, “I need a break.” And then I wrote Love, Creekwood which [was] pretty spur of the moment. I wrote it very quickly because my publisher [said], “Are you sure you don’t want to do a Love, Victor tie-in book?” and I said, “I can’t.” I would not tell it; I would not be the person for that story.
So I wrote this little queer novella, but I refused to profit off it. It’s all for the Trevor Project. If you look at the wording of my announcement, it’s the initial advance, [but] it’s all going to the Trevor Project. That’s legal language to protect myself because if I say, “royalties in perpetuity to the Trevor Project” and I die, my family could get sued if they miss a payment or something. I have no intention of keeping a dime. And this is all related to [my not wanting] to come out; I’m just not going to profit off queerness. Then the sequel to What If It’s Us, that Adam [Silvera] and I had been planning to write forever, it was finally the right time for it, and I was like, “Fuck. This is going to hurt Adam, for one thing, and this is gonna be a whole thing,” and it turns out we didn’t even get that far because Love, Victor came out and everything blew up with Love, Victor. The harassment hit another peak. It wasn’t as bad as 2018, but it was not great.
What advice do you have for young queer writers, whether they are out or still in the closet?
OK, the first and most important piece of advice — oh my gosh, I hope people internalize this – is that you do not owe strangers, friends, anybody, any kind of disclosure until you are ready, if you are ready, and it’s OK if you never are ready. It is not the cost of entry to writing about queer stuff. Write what you feel pulled to write. Go into it with a foundation of research and understanding of what sorts of content have hurt people in the past, but everybody should be doing that. I do that. Somebody’s going to find your book hurtful no matter what, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t make a good faith effort to minimize harm and do the work on the front end. Don’t listen to the toxic and very fucked up discourse that says you are taking up space that doesn’t belong to you because if you are closeted, if you are questioning, it most certainly belongs to you. If you are not, but you are drawn to this, I think it’s valuable to see your project through and see if you come out of it with a better understanding of why you are drawn to this. And if you come out of it saying, “No, I’m pretty allocishet,” that’s also a thing to understand about yourself. You still don’t deserve to be harassed and pushed out of spaces, assuming that you are putting out good faith, uplifting work; you are doing the service of helping to give closeted authors a place to hide.
When it comes to engaging with that discourse and community, it’s a cultural norm that we have developed, that I want to say is changing a little bit. Not changing in the sense that Ownvoices has no use, but it’s changing in a sense that we approach it with a little more nuance. Ownvoices functions really well for different types of identities and that there may be more to the story than you, a stranger, know about or need to know about. If you are a new author and you are closeted or questioning, I think – I have been told this many times in a “suck it up, buttercup,” tough-love kind of way, and this is not how I mean it and I think that’s harmful – but to say, “Welp, people are going to want to know,” you know I truly do not mean that in a suck-it-up-buttercup kind of way. I think it is helpful to have an eye on the community discourse and to understand what that looks like, to be critical of it and understand that this is a toxic dynamic, but it exists and to have a strategy for how you’re going to navigate it. That strategy does not mean you need to come out; that is not ever, ever anything that anybody gets to decide for you. And know there are a lot of people who have your back, who are invested in protecting closeted and questioning writers and creatives.