Cabral: On assuming good faith in queer literature

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

Last quarter, I wrote a piece on the need for more queer authors. At the time, I was satisfied with my explanation, portrayal and challenge of an industry I still believe is not representative of the diverse and changing queer community. However, after a Zoom call with Becky Albertalli, the author of “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” among other works, I realized my attempt to explain the nuanced reality of queer publishing missed a few ideas worth considering. 

One of the first things Albertalli and I unpacked was the widely-held belief that most authors of queer books are cisgender, heterosexual, white women.

“The reality is much more nuanced than the question of whether or not there are/were queer authors,” Albertalli said.

Only when we begin to challenge this assumption can we see it is actively harming the authors of these queer books, like Albertalli. In August 2020, she published an essay on Medium detailing how the constant accusations, criticisms and invalidations of her identity after the publication of her books “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” and “Leah on the Offbeat” forced her to come out as a bisexual woman. A community that prides itself on being accepting, that touts the idea there is no right way to be queer, somehow believed with certainty that Albertalli was an allosexual, cisgender and heterosexual woman. 

Albertalli’s experience is not an exclusive one.

“Casey McQuiston was similarly pressured out of the closet by members of the book community,” Albertalli said. “In fact, this has happened to so many queer authors in the last few years. The nonprofit We Need Diverse Books released a statement in June of 2021 stating that they would no longer use the term ‘own voices’ in discussions of diverse (children’s literature).”

To address this harm, instead of assuming authors who have not explicitly shared their identity with us are exploiting a community to which they don’t belong, we should assume the authors are acting in good faith. 

This is not to say we should assume every author who writes queer stories is queer, but we should make space for the possibility they might be. Because when we don’t approach these books with the belief that authors are writing in good faith and we assume authors who have not come out are allosexual, cisgender and heterosexual people trying to commodify the queer community, we harm closeted people. 

“Immediately after I posted my essay,” Albertalli said, “I received private messages and emails from about 100 people in the industry who either a) are currently out, but felt similar pressure to come out to preempt scrutiny and harassment, b) are trying to navigate how and when to come out because they know they’ll have to when they publish or c) are actively avoiding writing about their own queerness because they can’t or don’t want to be out.”

By forcing authors to either come out as queer, or be criticized for writing across difference, we are effectively telling queer authors that their queerness, and the stories they want to tell, are only valid if they are publicly out.

Assuming authors are acting in good faith does not mean we have to stop acknowledging the flaws of the publishing industry and writing community in general. 

“I’ll never forget that lots of publishing houses turned down Adam Silvera’s debut in 2013 because it was both gay and Puerto Rican, and they didn’t see a market for that,” Albertalli said. “But there are still so many issues and biases at every stage — acquisitions, marketing, positioning, international sales, access, money, reader biases, etc.”

The publishing industry, and the way queerness is represented within it, is an ever-changing landscape that should be studied with more nuanced perspectives than a 700-word article can accommodate. Additionally, the way we approach queerness in literature cannot be extrapolated to race, gender, disabilities, class and other identities. However, I hope Becky Albertalli and I have left you with ideas worth considering the next time you walk into a bookstore looking for a queer book to add to your bookshelf.

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg Sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.