For years now, many queer readers have been focused on the ‘issue’ of presumably straight women writing books about, specifically, gay men—though the argument is also levelled against any supposedly non-queer person writing about the queer experience.
In some ways I can understand the argument; non-queer folks can never fully comprehend the lived experience of queer folks. As such the worry is that the depiction of queer characters in books written by straight authors will either be inaccurate, offensive, or even potentially dangerous to queer people in the real world. These concerns, in their own right, are valid.
However, readers and internet trolls alike turned the prosecution of cis-women-who-write-gay-stories into something of a witch hunt on TikTok and Instagram, and in 2020, things came to a head for one author in particular. Becky Abertalli, the author of the 2015 novel Simon Vs The Homosapien Agenda, which you might know better by the title of its 2018 film adaptation, Love, Simon, was forced out of the closet by angry fans. In an open letter to fans and critics alike, Abertalli wrote: “I’m 37 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 realised 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 realise the girl crushes were crushes.”
Abertalli explained that she felt compelled to come out about her bisexuality after being continually berated by readers who claimed that she’d intentionally exploited the LGBTQ+ community and their experiences for profit through the sales of her book and subsequent film and television franchises.
The YA author, who said her own feelings of queerness started to reemerge as she began writing her novel Leah On The Offbeat, a love story between two women, clapped back at fans for their vitriol.
“This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe,” she said. “Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinised, 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.”
I believe part of the reason why we need to move away from this mentality that only queer authors can write queer stories is that, like Abertalli, the pressure to come out before they are ready may well keep some authors from writing stories that might not only be pivotal towards their own journey of self-discovery, but that could be the difference between queer kids feeling seen as opposed to invisible.
Furthermore, if you think that straight women writing gay stories is anything new, then, to borrow Abertalli’s phrasing, you haven’t been paying attention. While it can be assumed that women have been writing as long as literature has existed, and that queer relationships, however explicit or not, have been the subject of literature for just as long, the trend of cis-het women dominating the world of gay (MLM) literature can be traced back to the 1970’s.
According to Camille Bacon-Smith’s 1991 book, Enterprising Women: Television, Fandom, and the Creation of Popular Myth, male homosexual storytelling gave women an outlet to explore their own sexuality in a world where female desire was so frequently oppressed and censored.
But that was the ‘70s and today, while I won’t go so far as to say that female sexuality isn’t oppressed, it should, in theory, be less oppressed than it was 50 years ago—so why are so many straight women still writing gay stories, and why are people so upset about it?
Part of it goes back to the fact that, until very recently, queer representation in media of any kind, but especially literature, was something that was only hinted at, or that was otherwise relegated to erotic sub-genres and therefore only accessible to certain parts of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as only reflecting a sliver of our lived experience. In recent years, however, queer characters have been abundant in literature, though not always in the way we might have hoped for, and almost never as representative of the entire LGBTQ+ community as it ought to be.
It’s unsurprising that queer stories have been particularly popular. Queer readers are desperate to see themselves on the pages of the books they read and so, as these stories become more readily available to all readers, they fly off the shelves. Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novel is an amazing example of this, all four volumes of which have just topped the New York Times Best-sellers’ list.
As queer stories become more popular, it’s inevitable that some people are going to assume that straight authors are simply attempting to capitalise on the ‘trend’ for a quick buck. And I’m not in a position to say that, in every case, this isn’t potentially true. The publishing world, as much as it is about telling meaningful stories, runs on revenue, just like the rest of the world. But it’s vital to remember that, as all writers strive towards creating a more inclusive literary canon for the next generation, they are going to have to venture from their own lived experiences for the purposes of storytelling.
Some of the best-selling, and best-written LGBTQ+ novels have been written by presumably straight authors. Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name come to mind immediately. Love them or hate them, they have made a massive impact on contemporary queer literature, and they have both been written by, presumably, heterosexual authors.
This doesn’t mean, however, that all authors don’t bear the burden of responsibility to accurately represent characters with different sexual orientations, gender identities, races, nationalities, etc, that are different than theirs to the best of their ability and with input from members of the community. For example, an author who has never met or spoken to a Trans person, probably shouldn’t be writing a story centred on a Trans character. This is true for authors within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community though.
At the end of the day, the influx of queer stories, regardless of the identity of their author, is an amazing thing, especially for queer youth who are now able to grow up with access to a library with all kinds of representation. It’s something I could have only dreamed of as a kid. So this Pride month, instead of worrying about whether the author of that queer novel is actually queer or not, spend your time reading more about people whose experiences are different from your own. It is through this and this alone that we will be able to start to break down the barriers of ignorance, even such ignorance, like the coerced outing of Becky Abertalli, that happens within our own community.