| Arts & Culture
Queer Life As a Queer Author, I Thought I Had to Come Out Before My Books Did
Some misguided fans believe they are owed information about artists’ sexual and gender identities. As a queer writer myself, this worries me.
When I was in high school, I asked Google if watching lesbian porn meant I was gay. I was so relieved to discover all these articles that said it was a “totally normal” thing for straight women to enjoy. Almost a decade later, when I first picked up the graphic novel Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, I cried when I read the scene of Nick Nelson typing “am i gay?” into a search engine. I knew the feeling of turning to the internet, seeking answers to a question I was scared to ask someone in real life. Following Nick along on his coming-out journey helped me along on mine.
Perhaps Kit Connor, who plays Nick Nelson in the television adaptation of Heartstopper , went through a similar experience as he began to explore his own sexuality. Whatever his journey was, the public never should’ve played a role in it. Unfortunately, it did.
In October, Connor took to Twitter to reveal that he’s bisexual, congratulating online trolls for “forcing an 18 year old to out himself.” Many of those trolls were Heartstopper fans who continued to openly speculate on his sexuality since the show premiered in April; they even accused him of “queerbaiting,” a term used to describe media that is purposely marketed to queer people without ever following through with on-screen queer representation—quite literally, media that baits queers. As Connor rightfully pointed out, many fans seemed to have missed the point of the show they claimed to love so much: There is no deadline for when a person has to come out, and they don’t need to have their identity figured out all at once. However, this isn’t the first time that fans of queer media have pressured the artists behind the queer work to come out publicly.
Back in 2020, Becky Albertalli, the best-selling author of Love, Simon , came out as bisexual following many conversations that positioned her as a “straight white woman” profitting off of queer stories. Because I worked in publishing, I saw this happen with a lot of authors: Readers and publishing professionals began misusing the term #OwnVoices as a tool to interrogate authors’ identities with little regard for privacy or ethics. Originally, the hashtag #OwnVoices was meant to be used by readers in search of books by and about marginalized people—Black stories written by Black people, queer stories written by queer people. Over time, however, this push for authentic LGBTQIA+ stories led misguided fans to believe they were owed information about artists’ sexual and gender identities.
As a writer myself, this worried me.
Prior to coming out, I thought I was a proud straight ally. Since high school, I always had at least one friend who was queer; as I got older, that number only grew. However, even as I surrounded myself with more and more people in the LGBTQIA+ community, supported them in their fights for rights, and started consuming queer media regularly, I was sure my own sexuality had nothing to do with that. As accepting of others as I thought I was, I couldn’t accept myself. In my mind, it was fine— great even!—that my friends were gay, bi, lesbian, trans, ace, etc. That just could never be me.
I was raised as a nondenominational Christian. My mom and I attended church every Sunday, and almost every summer I went to Vacation Bible School or Christian sleepaway camp. I was told repeatedly that “homosexuals” were going to hell, that it was my responsibility to “accept the sinner but not the sin” when engaging with anyone queer. At the time, I thought these teachings hadn’t affected me; someone going to hell simply because of their romantic or sexual feelings never made sense to me, even as a kid. But in truth, I had internalized the homophobia I was hearing in those spaces. I didn’t begin to unravel those knotted feelings until I started writing stories about queer characters.
The first was a short work called “Dear Mary,” an epistolatory story of letters between a gay boy and his best friend, Mary, who’d grown up in a very religious household and was dating a guy who was homophobic. When I was in grad school, I aged Mary down to a tween who wanted to go to a friend’s Halloween party, but the friend’s parents were lesbians and Mary’s grandmother and caretaker was homophobic. As I wrote and rewrote Mary’s story, it became less about her acceptance of other people and more about her realization that she was queer herself. In sum, Mary was me.
Much like Nick Nelson in Heartstopper , my queerness didn’t really click for me until I developed a crush on someone, though it took me a while to admit what I was truly feeling. My crush was nonbinary, and I knew what it would mean if I had romantic feelings for this person. I was terrified to open that door. My paternal grandmother was openly homophobic, and while most of my other family members weren’t, many of them had made comments that made me unsure of where they stood. More than that, I was genuinely scared for how my life would change. I already knew how hard it was to move through the world as a dark-skinned Black woman; to also be queer almost felt like too much.
Still, after months of silently pining away for this person, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I told one of my friends about my feelings, coming out to her in the process. Even though I knew that I could trust her with this information and that she would accept me, it was still one of the scariest things I’d ever done—but also the most freeing. Once I said the words out loud, it was like a weight had been lifted and I could breathe again. It also began to feel real. Even though I was still figuring out my labels, or if I even wanted one, I knew I wasn’t straight, and that didn’t make me wrong. It just made me me.
I slowly began coming out to my closest friends, but I didn’t know how to share this part of myself with my family. For a long time, I didn’t. However, as I got more serious about writing, I knew I wanted to make books about queer Black girls. Because of all the conversations I’d seen about #OwnVoices, I felt I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t out.
When my books are published, I don’t want to be questioned or side-eyed for being in a space where some people might incorrectly assume I don’t belong. I want to fully and proudly be a part of this community. So I started posting on social media about my sexuality. It was subtle at first. A couple of retweets, some posts about being bi shared in my Instagram stories, and more posts featuring books by queer authors on my bookstagram. Nothing major.
I knew I wanted to make books about queer Black girls. Because of all the conversations I’d seen about #OwnVoices, I felt I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t out.
Then, during Pride Month in 2020, I posted some of my favorite queer books. At the time, there was a lot going on in the world (to say the least), and I wanted to use my platform to uplift what was most important to me. I openly talked about my experiences as a Black person, but when I posted about LGBTQIA+ books, I didn’t dig into why those books meant so much to me. It wasn’t until almost the end of the month that I decided I wanted to share with my followers how books also helped me step into my queer identity. I still couldn’t find the words to come out to my family, but I trusted that the ones who I knew would see the post would accept me. As for the ones who didn’t, I decided I would rather be my true, authentic self than have them only accept me as someone I wasn’t.
So I made an Instagram post featuring one of my favorite books— Autoboyography by Christina Lauren—and came out. The response was even better than I imagined. People I didn’t even know congratulated me and shared their own coming-out stories in the comments; one of them was even eerily similar to mine. In that moment, I felt understood and seen. It was amazing.
I have no regrets about coming out. I did it on my terms and in my own way. However, I wish I hadn’t felt like that was something I had to do to tell the stories I want to. At the time, I worried publishers wouldn’t risk acquiring my queer stories if they couldn’t label it as #OwnVoices. If I did get published, I worried the queer readers I wanted to reach wouldn’t pick up my book because they’d assume I was straight. These concerns led me to believe that the only way my books would hold value was if I was open about my identity.
I no longer believe this, and many people in the publishing industry don’t either. In 2021, We Need Diverse Books denounced using the term #OwnVoices, stating the following:
“The hashtag was never intended to be used in a broader capacity, but it has since expanded in its use to become a ‘catch all’ marketing term by the publishing industry. Using #OwnVoices in this capacity raises issues due to the vagueness of the term, which has then been used to place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations.”
Still, I’m thankful I was privileged to feel safe enough to come out, because I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I wasn’t. Currently, it feels like certain gatekeepers in the LGBTQIA+ community have laid down an ultimatum: If you want to create queer content, you must be openly queer; otherwise, you’re queerbaiting. Except queerbaiting was never meant to be used against real people.
There’s not yet a lot of scholarship about who originally coined the term queerbaiting and when it entered more mainstream vocabulary, but I know it best from my Tumblr days in the early 2010s. Back then, there was way less queer representation on television, but that didn’t stop us from looking for it in the subtext of shows. Fans would ship—as in: imagine, fantasize, and generate fan content about a would-be relation ship —characters like Emma Swan and Regina Mills (ship name: SwanQueen) on Once Upon a Time ; Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (Johnlock) on Sherlock ; Derek Hale and Stiles Stilinski (Sterek) on Teen Wolf ; and probably the most notable, Dean Winchester and Castiel (Destiel) on Supernatural .
At the start, these noncanonical ships were often written off as fans “reaching” to find some queer representation that wasn’t there. However, even as actors and creators of the shows denied that there was any romance between these characters, it became obvious they were leaning into these alleged relationships. For instance, previews for future episodes would emphasize a “big moment” between the two characters, like Regina and Emma finally setting aside their differences to work together. Or there would be moments filled with sexual tension that were written off as something else, i.e. anytime Derek had Stiles pressed up against a wall.
That was queerbaiting. Shows enticed us with hints that there would be a same-sex relationship but never actually fulfilled on that promise to viewers. The big exception is Supernatural ’s Destiel. After eleven years of buildup, Castiel finally tells Dean he loves him in the final season. Still, after being queerbaited for so long by the show’s writers, fans only believed it was real when the actor Misha Collins, who played Castiel, confirmed it was a romantic declaration .
In stark contrast, Heartstopper , both the original webcomic and the TV series, goes above and beyond in terms of fulfilling its promise to tell an authentic story about queer kids navigating high school. That should be the end of the conversation. Instead, Kit Connor, an eighteen-year-old boy, felt he had to come out to stop the endless conversations about his sexuality, who he’s dating, and if he has the right to play a character who means so much to thousands of people. Spoiler alert: He did and does. Whether he chose to share his identities with fans or not, he still would’ve been a queer person playing a queer character.
Whether [Connor] chose to share his identities with fans or not, he still would’ve been a queer person playing a queer character.
We, as queer people, have the right to want stories in popular media that openly and proudly express queer life and same-sex relationships. That is something we can ask for from the media we consume because it is fiction. But we are not owed a real person’s identity. Whether a person is closeted, questioning, or maybe even straight, that is not our business. As Aled—a character who does not appear in the television adaptation—tells Charlie in the Heartstopper webcomics: “There’s this idea that if you’re not straight, you HAVE to tell all your family and friends immediately , like you owe it to them. But you don’t. You don’t have to do anything until you’re ready.”
False allegations of queerbaiting will only continue to hurt our queer community and ultimately lead to fewer queer stories told. Many creators, myself included, discovered our identities through our work. Without the opportunity to explore my sexuality through my writing, I’m not sure how long it would’ve taken for things to click for me. More importantly, it is still unsafe for many people to be openly queer. Whether it’s because of where they live or who they live with, there are a plethora of reasons for why someone might be in the closet. None of them are the business of a fan, a reader, or a fellow queer person.
Our job as a community is to be the safe place for people to land when they’re ready to open that door, not yank them out before they’re ready so we can feel more comfortable consuming their work. Somewhere along the way, many of us forgot that. I hope we remember soon.