Her book inspired Love, Simon, but her own coming out story brought out the worst in the online queer community.
You know what’s a mindfuck?” asked Becky Albertalli in the Medium post she wrote to come out publicly on August 31. “Questioning your sexual identity in your thirties when every self-appointed literary expert on Twitter has to share their hot take on the matter.”
Albertalli is the author of award-winning gay YA novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – the basis for the hit movie Love, Simon (2018). She claimed her identity as a bi woman publicly for the first time not because she felt empowered to take a step towards self-acceptance, but because for years she’s dealt with the thing that scares me most about writing about queer topics: waves of online hate and harassment. Most bisexuals wade through a certain amount of invalidating messages every day, but Albertalli – who also wrote Leah on the Offbeat, starring a bisexual teenage girl, and co-wrote gay teen romance What If It’s Us – said her share has been deafening and constant as Twitter’s #ownvoices movement attacked her for being a ‘straight’ woman profiting from queer stories.
“Imagine hundreds of people claiming to know every nuance of your sexuality just from reading your novels. Imagine trying to make space for your own uncertainty. Imagine if you had a Greek chorus of internet strangers propping up your imposter syndrome at every stage of the process,” she writes.
She added: “Even as I write this, I’m bracing for the inevitable discourse — I could draft the twitter threads myself if I wanted to.” A couple of days later, writer and activist Gaby Dunn kicked things off with a Twitter thread asserting that writers who were still in the closet shouldn’t “profit” from telling queer stories – instead, she said, they should get comfortable with the queer community first, “because we can tell”.
“If your own queerness makes you uncomfortable, how can you and more importantly why would you want to spotlight that on yourself and centre your work in queer spaces?” she added.
Leaving aside the fact that Albertalli has the high profile she does partially because Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti, a gay man, saw himself in the story, Dunn’s comments blamed Albertalli for a publishing industry that still considers straight, white authors to be more marketable. It’s also surprising to hear Dunn, who’s also bi, talking like all queer people are both happy to be part of the queer community and fully aware of their queerness.
Like Albertalli, I came out well after my teenage years, when I was already married to a man. My offline environment, like hers, couldn’t have been more supportive. I didn’t even need to worry about how my husband would take the news: he’d been out as bi for years. And still it was, and is, a struggle to tune into my own inner voice past the noise of “Who cares?” “You’re faking it for attention.” “Bihet.” For Albertalli to have made it to this point shows strength I’m not sure I would have had.
“We can tell”. How often have I fought with my own impostor syndrome in queer spaces, wondering if everyone can “tell”?
Albertalli used her coming out moment to call for nuance and kindness in the push for #ownvoices books. She believes the movement has become obsessed with examining the details of an author’s identity to make a final ruling on what they should be allowed to write. She is far from alone; see an unnamed YA author’s plea to Dear Prudence in August for advice on how to get their #ownvoices book published without being forced into coming out to make sales.
The movement was originally a hashtag coined by fellow bisexual YA author Corinne Duyvis ‘to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group’.
“I won’t police either the hashtag or people’s/characters’ identities,” Duyvis states on her website. “It’s not my place to decide what counts as diverse/marginalized, nor what counts as ‘same group’…Nobody is under any obligation to disclose any part of their identity. Safety and privacy are essential.”
Queer people who experience their identity with any kind of fluidity dread movements that evolve into what #ownvoices has become. The whole point of bisexuality is that neither hetero nor homo rules apply, which means we especially understand the need to make space for questioning and evolving. We spend a lot of time explaining why bi does not mean confused to combat the assumption that we’re just monosexuals haunted by indecision, but the big secret is that bisexuality embraces confusion. You can be entirely bewildered by the question of who you’re attracted to and to what degree and still belong under the bi+ umbrella. For some people bi is, as Carrie Bradshaw famously called it, “a stopover on the way to gay”, and I welcome those travellers. Bi gives you room to move, wherever you may end up – but there is no wiggle room on the Internet.
I’m grateful to Albertalli for making her voice heard. We all deserve grace and patience as we try to understand ourselves. As a community, we agree that no one should be forced to come out because of bigotry and hate; surely we, who ought to know better, should not pry anyone out of the closet.
I’m also thankful for another visible representation of my relationship situation – something I still feel uncomfortable owning in queer spaces. Albertalli previously called herself straight in early interviews before she stopped discussing her sexuality publicly due to backlash. I understand that my spouse and I escape a lot of violence and microaggressions by passing as straight in the wider world, although the fact that we both now have the same shaven topknot hairstyle probably counts against us. But the point is that a hetero-presenting relationship is inherently something a bisexual person can have. It is part of our queerness and assuming straightness from it is not a privilege for us. Before I came out, I didn’t understand why my spouse was uncomfortable when I called ours a straight relationship. I get it now. Perhaps if Albertalli had been given space to explore and mess up, the way I did, we’d all have known that her books were #ownvoices years ago.
In many ways, bi+ women are having a cultural moment, with celebrities and public figures coming out wherever you look and more media representation than we’ve ever had. It’s wonderful; it’s long-awaited; it’s going to spur even more of us to come out. We need to be ready to accept them, in all their glorious confusion.