This has been an issue that has been weighing on me for a long time. With the great things that #ownvoices has brought us, it has also brought us this movement for authors writing Queer stories to out themselves in order to give them the “validity” to write the story they are writing. Over the summer, I had a specific experience at a book signing that prompted me to write this post.
As a bisexual reader who hasn’t even been out for a year, I feel particularly invested in this issue because I’m still raw from the circumstances that made me feel forced to come out to a specific group of people. It really breaks my heart when I see this happening.
When I was at a book signing for a book that featured queer main characters, a reader in the audience asked, verbatim, “why did you feel the need to write a [insert sexuality] character”. The author was visibly uncomfortable and startled when the question was asked. The question came off in a “why do YOU feel the right to write this story” kind of way. Now, I don’t think the person in the audience was trying to put the author in a uncomfortable position. Nonetheless, it still came off that way.
This was an author that I had never heard explicitly talk about their sexuality before. They had talked in a way that implied that they weren’t straight, but I had never seen an explicit statement from them. Then, the author answered it by saying they were [insert sexuality of the book’s main character]. I looked over at my friends and we all gave each other this look of “Oh, no”. I sat there thinking “Did that person in the audience just cause the author to out themselves?”. The fact that that author had to potentially out themselves at a book event because some person in the audience asked why they had the right to write their own story…. It stayed with me. Authors shouldn’t have to out themselves for the sake of readers.
Labeling queer books as #ownvoices isn’t the same as labeling other books with certain marginalized identities as #ownvoices. To be an queer #ownvoices book requires the author disclose their sexuality and/or gender identity. Both of which is extremely personal information.
I think that #ownvoices is great. I love that I can easily seek out books about my identity written by other people who are also that identity. That being said, we still need to be mindful of what we’re doing when we ask authors about their gender and/or sexuality just so we can check their book off for a list.
I get it the want for knowing. I’m a bisexual reader. When we know that books are #ownvoices, there is a lesser chance of us getting burned by bad representation (but then people go bashing #ownvoices stories for not fitting their experience & then question the author’s identity… Alas, that is an issue for another time). Unfortunately, in this push to label books with queer representation as #ownvoices, we’ve aliened closeted authors and have cultivated this feeling that to be able to write queer stories, you have to be out.
There’s a lot of reader entitlement with regards to knowing all of an authors identities. It’s easy to feel that way when an author is one click away on Twitter, but authors don’t owe you information about their personal lives. When you’re demanding that they disclose information about their personal life just so you can label a book #ownvoices or not, you need to take a step back, especially if you’re a not apart of the community, and think about the ramifications of what you’re doing.
You don’t know an author’s circumstances & their personal life. Just because they are writing a story about queer characters, does not mean they’re ready to come out. They might not be ready to come out at the time, or they might not want to ever come out, whatever the circumstance is, this want for labeling queer books as #ownvoices cultivates the feeling that to be taken seriously and write your story, you have to come out to validate your right to write queer characters.
That’s why the question that was asked of an author at the signing has still stuck with me. All I could think about was ‘why do you need to potentially put authors in that position’. I know if someone asked me why I was writing an queer story & I wasn’t out, I would be defensive. The only way to defend yourself writing these stories is by saying you are what you’re writing about. It’s hard to hear people ask why you would write about your own identity when it’s something so central to you, even though people might not know.
Think twice before you put an author in a situation that could potentially cause them harm. Your want to check a book off on a list is not nearly as important and someone else’s safety and wellbeing.
Another thing to keep in mind for labeling queer stories as #ownvoices is to make sure that an author is actually out before labeling it #ownvoices. You might have stumbled upon a private conversation or the author might’ve implied being a certain identity, but please don’t use that information to start labeling them as #ownvoices and accidentally out them in doing so. A rule of thumb I use is that if it isn’t in their biography on their website or twitter bio, you probably shouldn’t label them #ownvoices unless you’ve seen explicit statement. One alternative to labeling a book as #ownvoices when trying to recommend a book with good representation is by saying “#ownvoices reviewers like [insert blog name] have praised this book for [insert representation]”. That way you don’t have to potentially out an author to showcase the presentation while still letting other queer readers know that the representation is positive.