Becky Albertalli is a mover and shaker in YA (young adult literature). Her 2015 debut novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, won the American Library Association’s prestigious William C. Morris Award and became a franchise—spawning a series of sequels set in the same universe, affectionately called the Simonverse, as well as a successful movie adaptation and a spin-off TV series. This was unexpected: Albertalli’s novel is about ordinary teens in contemporary suburbia. For decades, the biggest YA franchises have featured wizards, vampires or dystopian future worlds. Simon’s success helped kickstart a golden age of YA about contemporary young adult life—a trend that is still going strong.
The novel’s success also helped launch YA that stars and celebrates LGBT characters into the mainstream, since Albertalli’s protagonist, Simon Spier, is gay. Queer YA has existed for decades—at least since John Donovan’s 1969 novel I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip—but for many years, it conformed to conservative social mores. The gay characters written in the 1970s and 80s were few and far between, and usually only the best friends or siblings of the protagonists. They often died or experienced some horrible fate as a result of their sexuality—for example, got HIV/AIDS or were victims of hate crime—which subtly signalled to readers that homosexuality leads to bad outcomes.
In the 1990s and 2000s, YA featured more queer protagonists, but their stories often revolved around coming out and facing homophobia—and tragedies still abounded: queer YA novels were issue novels; they weren’t fun.
Just as Albertalli’s star began to rise, however, online critics started asking whether a straight woman should be allowed to write—and profit from—queer stories. This question has started bubbling up more and more often in YA discussion forums, as part of a larger conversation summarised by the hashtag #OwnVoices. This term (coined by YA author Corinne Duyvis) was originally just a shorthand for books whose authors share their protagonist’s group identity (gay, black, immigrant and so on), but it has become a weapon to use against authors who do not share their protagonists’ precise group identities.
So, when is it OK for authors to write about the experiences of people with a different group identity? People who work in the publishing industry are overwhelmingly white, straight and bourgeois. Not long ago, many YAs with non-white protagonists were written by white authors from a white gaze point of view, fetishizing issues like racism and poverty. The #OwnVoices movement rightly criticises this focus, and, over the past decade, YA publishing has increasingly prioritised #OwnVoices authors.
But, to me, it’s not as simple as the people on either side of this issue would have it. In 2018—after the release of Love, Simon (the movie adaptation of Albertalli’s first novel) and the publication of Leah on the Offbeat (about Simon’s bisexual best friend)—the personal criticism of Albertalli came in strong: why was this straight lady writing about queer characters? How could readers trust that she had gotten it right? Albertalli mostly responded by saying that her characters are more than their sexualities—that she had written them as people first. She also emphasized her experience as a clinical psychologist who worked extensively with queer teens. But those answers didn’t stop the criticism, and Albertalli eventually tapered off her use of social media, switching her Twitter account to updates only.
Then, on 31 August 2020, Albertalli offered a more comprehensive and personal response. In a personal, emotive Medium piece, “I know I’m late,” she recounts her experiences—especially those of 2018, when she rocketed to celebrity and her sexuality came under heavy scrutiny. In this piece, she points out that her supposed straightness had been “enough [for some people] to boycott the film entirely” even though the director of Love, Simon is gay. She also notes that, when Leah on the Offbeat hit the New York Times bestseller list, “authors [she] admired and respected tweeted their disappointment that this first had been taken by a straight woman”—even though hers is not the first bestselling YA novel about a bisexual girl.
And despite the fact that Becky Albertalli, as she publicly revealed for the first time in the Medium piece, is bisexual herself.
Albertalli explains that it was the process of writing fiction that led her to begin asking herself questions about her sexuality. As she wrote stories set in a high school, she pored over her own high school memories and discovered that some of the strong feelings she had had toward girls had actually been crushes. Despite her liberal, secular Jewish family, Albertalli grew up in a conservative suburb in the American South, and she didn’t have the vocabulary to describe her feelings. As an adult, her writing process gave her the space to rediscover and connect with a part of herself that had been suppressed. And so, she explains, the accusations of appropriation and the assumption that she was straight had hurt her deeply:
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 [cisgender and heterosexual]. 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.
Albertalli’s coming out as bisexual should have been a joyful time for her. Sharing it with her readers and the larger community should have felt triumphant. Instead, it must have felt sad, which was an indictment of a community that has increasingly behaved as if it is entitled to know every detail of its authors’ personal lives.
“Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out,” Albertalli writes. “This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. 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.”
Albertalli’s Medium post sparked a much needed conversation about the complexity of the issues surrounding queerness and #OwnVoices. You can’t look at a person and see their sexual preference or gender identity. You can’t read a book and infer its author’s true identity. To believe that you can is to put stock in stereotypes and biological essentialism. Coming out is an incredibly complicated, personal process, and it should never have to happen the way it happened to Becky Albertalli.
As terrible as her experience was, at least Albertalli was able to become a successful author and develop some clout in the industry. The saddest thing is that, when the #OwnVoices movement attacks authors who may be closeted, it can have an even more devastating effect on writers who are still trying to get their first work published.
On 2 March 2021, Rod Pulido, a Filipino American aspiring YA author, published a blog post called “Late to the Party,” in which he comes out as bisexual. Its title echoes Albertalli’s (“I know I’m late”). He too tells the story of how, through the process of writing fiction, he came to fully know his sexuality. And he relates the heartbreaking complications that ensued when he tried to get his work published.
Pulido recounts how, in February 2016, he read an article in which famed Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao is quoted as saying that queer people are “worse than animals.” Pacquiao had been widely revered in the worldwide Filipino community, and many of its members described feeling betrayed by his comments. Pulido felt that he “could no longer support” his former hero, and that it had got him thinking: how would a young, queer Filipino boxer feel, hearing his idol say such horrible things about people like him? How would it affect his ideas and feelings about himself, about his passion for boxing and about his Filipino community?
Pulido decided to write a novel that would explore these questions. He dove into research: studying boxing technique (even allowing himself to get punched in the face a few times) and interviewing queer people about “their experiences and their views on Pacquaio’s comments.” After that, he said, the story “poured” out of him—stirring up memories and feelings that had lain dormant for years and that led him to discover his bisexuality. Pulido was already married to the love of his life—a woman—so, at the time, he decided that this discovery didn’t mean much in the real world. It was just an interesting fact that writing a story had taught him about himself.
Pulido’s novel, Chasing Pacquiao, quickly got him a literary agent, and attracted the interest of editors at major publishing houses, but all ultimately rejected it. Pulido notes that a few editors told him they were interested but had “reservations” about publishing a queer novel written by a straight man. They assumed he was straight, and—possibly for that reason—rejected the novel.
Though he was “disappointed and a bit concerned,” Pulido shrugged off the rejections. On its second round of submissions, Chasing Pacquiao attracted the attention of a young editor who told him that she loved it and wanted to pitch it to her boss for approval. But, first, she and Pulido had a phone conversation to discuss the book further and get to know each other. “After years of hard work, the end zone was in sight,” he writes. “Soon, I would no longer have to refer to myself with the dreaded qualifier of aspiring author.” The phone conversation went well until the editor asked about Pulido’s home life:
I proudly told her about my lovely wife, and how we were high school sweethearts, plus our precocious, yet incredibly messy, son. “Oh,” she replied, “I didn’t realise you weren’t queer.” Her tone had shifted from engaged to uncertain. I began to worry. She expressed concerns that the story wasn’t truly Ownvoices because of my sexuality. I wanted to reply, “But I’m probably bisexual!” I wanted to confess to her about my boyhood crushes and all the times a playground bully had tormented me with a gay slur. How those experiences informed my writing and made it true and real. But how could I? I was still in the process of re-evaluating my sexuality. I hadn’t even broached these very personal issues with my wife, how could I reveal them to a stranger? Even if I did admit my feelings, it would only appear as a desperate stab at credibility. So, I kept my thoughts private, and we cut our talk short.
The next day, Pulido’s agent told him that the editor had rejected Chasing Pacquiao.
When I read Pulido’s account of his experience, my heart sank. His book sounds fantastic and desperately needed. It’s bad enough that an editor would lose interest because of an assumption that its author’s identity didn’t match his protagonist’s. But I also found it deeply troubling to learn that Pulido’s sexual identity, if revealed, would be seen as a marketing angle to boost his book’s profile—and that he had considered revealing deeply personal information to this editor (information that he had not yet even shared with his wife), in the hope that it would get his book published.
Writers must pass many gatekeepers—agents, editors and the publisher’s marketing department—just to get a foot in the door. And, even if their work gets published, the degree of these gatekeepers’ investment in it can make the difference between remaining in obscurity and reaching the bestseller list. Publishers are increasingly basing their decisions on whether a work meets the requirements set by the #OwnVoices movement. Authors willing to reveal and label their sexuality can use those labels as branding mechanisms, and as stamps of authenticity to validate that they have written their protagonists’ stories correctly.
What troubles me most about these trends is that an author’s desire to be published can lead them to give up their privacy—even jeopardise their safety—and that those who can’t be open about their identity are at a disadvantage. Queer writers should be free to explore and express themselves through art, even when it’s not safe or possible or practical for them to come out of the closet. Readers and gatekeepers who rigidly adhere to #OwnVoices requirements will be excluding these writers from careers as published authors. As Rod Pulido puts it in his blog post,
The Ownvoices movement has done much good within publishing. Authors of color and LGBTQ+ writers are getting their books into the hands of readers who are starved to see themselves on the page. But there is also a rarely talked about downside. Closeted writers are getting passed over for publication and are being pressured to come out before they’re truly ready. Marginalized authors with fresh, vibrant voices are being shunted aside, all in the name of a hashtag that was supposed to help them get their stories told in the first place.
Queerness and gender identity can be strange, ephemeral things: many of the authors whose Twitter bios don’t proclaim the same identities as their protagonists may be in the closet. And many people discover their identity only through the kind of deep self-exploration that can happen when one writes a novel. If Becky Albertalli and Rod Pulido hadn’t written novels, they might have lived their whole lives without realising that they’re anything other than straight. The happy, fulfilled lives they have with their opposite sex partners don’t invalidate their bisexuality. Queer is queer, and we need their books.
It’s no surprise that bisexuality has been the focus of this #OwnVoices controversy. Biphobia is a unique form of bigotry, and a virulent strain of it can run through even the most progressive online spaces. It can come from both straight people and gay people. A straight person might see bisexuality as just a phase, a way of getting attention or an edgy political statement. A gay person might see bisexual people as not truly queer, because, if they’re in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, they can pass for straight and avoid homophobia. That attitude can be particularly hurtful because the reason many bisexual people discover their sexuality relatively late in life—often after they’re already in long-term relationships with partners of the opposite sex—may be what Adrienne Rich called compulsory heterosexuality: the assumption society makes that heterosexuality is the norm. Many queer people don’t stand in solidarity with bisexuals against heteronormativity. They seem to want to gatekeep queerness—to treat it like a country club with a list of membership requirements, instead of like an umbrella that can cover everyone who wants to stand under it.
Maybe someday we’ll live in a queer utopia, without a need for shame or fear in owning one’s identity—shouting it from the rooftops, even. Maybe someday compulsory heterosexuality will ease off, and bisexual people will discover their sexuality a lot earlier in their lives. And maybe someday there won’t be any online communities where people are bullied about their identities by people who claim to be anti-bigotry. Until then, we must allow closeted writers the right to privacy. That may mean that a few straight people publish novels that feature queer characters. That’s OK. I would rather the publishing industry mitigate the worst of the harms that can come from that, than shut out closeted authors entirely.