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Who has the “right” to queer stories?

Amy Leibowitz books coming out current events links media news politics twitter writing YA literature

I’m a little late to the party on this, but I wanted to respond to the recent dust-up on social media involving some antagonistic, passive-aggressive tweets from Gaby Dunn directed at Becky Albertalli. There’s a lot to unpack here, so bear with me.

First of all, I do not agree with several of the things Dunn said in those tweets. No LGBTQIA+ person owes anyone a coming out. No one needs to be “comfy” with their identity before writing about LGBTQ+ people. Heck, even people who have been out for years may not have reached that point! There is a horrible sort of irony in the fact that Albertalli felt pressured into coming out after writing a book about a forced outing. It should not be hard to agree all of that is awful, regardless of our personal feelings about Albertalli or her books.

Where I think I understand Dunn (and where she should’ve done better) is with regard to several important points that aren’t really Albertalli’s fault and a few that are.

The publishing industry favors white, cisgender, heterosexual authors. It’s no surprise that a publisher pushed much harder for Simon than for books by gay authors. If we’re going to go after someone, that should be where we start. The sad truth is that this can happen even in LGBTQ+ publishing. This is clearly not within Albertalli’s control. She’s done some work to promote authors from within the community, which is good.

The second problem is that we likely wouldn’t have had any issue with Albertalli if it weren’t so common for self-identified cisgender heterosexual women to publish books about gay boys and men—and if many of those books weren’t full of bad takes on what it’s like to be queer, frequently prompted by lack of experience and understanding. Here’s where it is partially on Albertalli. She should’ve done the work she needed to so her book would not fall into the common traps. These tend to happen even when an author is queer but is writing about part of the LGBTQIA+ community other than their own.

These two things are linked within the Gaby Dunn/Becky Albertalli situation. For most of us, we have less issue with a previously self-identified cisgender heterosexual woman writing a book about a gay boy than we do with the publishing industry. And separately from that, the book is a bad take. This tweet puts it up very well. (Apologies that the text is tiny; it’s long, and I don’t have a way to transcribe it.)

To sum up, a lot of us (my own teens included) had multiple problems with Simon. And at the time, in fact up until this week, we were under the impression (due to self-identification) that this was yet another mess of a coming out story by someone who had no experience. I’m not re-hashing my issues with the book here. You can read a better summary from this review and this one, which hit most of my problems with the book. 

We would not have been able to magically discern that Albertalli was either not being true to herself or not being open with her audience. When a person identifies in a particular way, it’s my policy to believe them until and unless they say otherwise. The vast majority of people, in critiquing the book, were not antagonizing the author over sexual orientation. We were remaining critical of self-professed heterosexual writers thinking they could pen a good story centering queer experiences without putting in the time and effort to get the basics right.

I am truly sorry that Albertalli felt pressured into coming out. But when I read her Medium piece, I was left with an extremely bad taste in my mouth. Where I agree with Gaby Dunn is that an author who identifies as cisgender heterosexual and becomes famous for writing about gay teens should absolutely expect to be asked about why she made her choices. I have long advocated that no one owes a public answer, but each writer should think within themselves deeply about why they would write about people and a community they don’t identify with. (Albertalli had previously stated she got her inspiration from her work with LGBTQIA+ teens, which in itself requires some critique, given how badly she failed in many regards.)

The final thing that soured me on Albertalli’s article was the way she came across as blaming LGBTQIA+ folks, rather than cisheteronormative society, for “slamming the lid” on her questioning. This is something I have found time and again to be true: LGBTQIA+ people are almost always blamed and shamed for wanting—and needing—space away from those who identify as non-queer.

Albertalli sounded like she felt she was being dragged regarding her choice to identify as cisgender heterosexual and write about LGBTQIA+ teens. From what I saw, almost no one—not even people critiquing Albertalli—agreed with Dunn’s tweets. Albertalli has a huge following, a successful career, and a lot of money from having her book turned into a movie. I’m not trying to suggest she didn’t feel pressure, but the overwhelming odds are in her favor, regardless of her self-identification. She was not at risk from LGBTQIA+ people, and she certainly wasn’t at the same level of risk many of us face in coming out. There will always be trolls and jerks, but blaming the community you write about for being justifiably wary is yet another way she demonstrates a lack of understanding.

In any case, I have and will continue to advocate against self-identified non-queer people writing coming out stories (or any other story that centers queerness, rather than centering a queer character having other experiences). I have and will continue to recommend writers consider their choices carefully regarding why they exclusively want to write about a community they say they are not part of. I have and will continue to distance myself from self-identified non-queer folks who lack understanding about LGBTQIA+ people. But I have not and will not ever demand anyone prove anything to me about their identity.

In short: No one owes anyone their identity. No one needs to prove anything. But yes, you do need to do the very real work within yourself about your identity, and you do need to think about the ways in which the publishing industry holds back the work of queer artists.

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