October 11 is National Coming Out Day. It’s a day that aims to celebrate those brave enough to “come out of the closet” and be open about their sexual orientation. Sometimes coming out is joyous. But sometimes -in the case of Becky Albertalli – it’s anything but.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda — better known as Love, Simon, the name of its film adaptation — is a 2015 novel written by Becky Albertalli. It follows Simon Spier, a high school junior who hasn’t told anyone he’s gay. Through a series of secret emails, he falls in love with an anonymous boy in his school who is also closeted. When Simon’s emails are discovered and published by a blackmailer, Simon is forced to come out to his friends, family and his entire school.
The book was generally well-received. I myself considered it heart-warming and easy to read, while still never shying away from the homophobia Simon experienced. While it faced backlash from those who didn’t approve of its LGBT themes, that wasn’t Simon‘s biggest problem.
The problem was the author. Because she was obviously straight.
Becky Albertalli was in her mid-thirties, married to a man, and had two children. At the time of the book’s publication, she had not officially commented on her sexuality. She didn’t bring it up in interviews, and would later describe the book’s LGB themes as “the elephant in the room” during promotions. Readers presumed that Albertalli was straight. She was married to a man, and she’d never said that she was lesbian or bi. By the time the film premiered, Simon’s audience dramatically increased, and even more spotlight was cast on her.
She still hadn’t commented on her sexuality. The truth was undeniable. Becky Albertalli was straight.
The #OwnVoices Movement
Started by Corinne Duyvis, a disabled and bisexual author, #OwnVoices describes a book whose author and character share a marginalised identity. For example, a blind author whose book features a blind protagonist is #OwnVoices. “All #OwnVoices does is center the voices that matter most,” Duyvis writes on her website.
#OwnVoices doesn’t come without its drawbacks, however. While Duyvis writes on her website that no one should feel pressured to share a part of their identity just for having written a book, this statement unfortunately comes after audiences weaponised #OwnVoices against authors. People began to believe that no one should write a marginalised character unless they belonged to said marginalised group — and this opened Albertalli up to intense scrutiny.
Many claimed that the story just felt like it was written by a straight person. So already Simon was tainted, warped in its authenticity by her straightness. Others complained about how Nic Robinson, Simon’s actor in the film adaptation, was straight by his own admission. “This definitely shows in his performance,” a student journalist wrote for Susquehanna University’s Red Inc. “There is no way to look or act queer, but Nick Robinson’s Simon doesn’t act, talk, or look like a majority of real queer people do.”
So here was the deal: the author of the source material had to be gay or bi. So did the actor playing the main character. For that matter, the production team should be, too — what gives these straight people the right to profit off a gay story? Never mind that sexuality is often a confusing and personal topic. Never mind that being gay or bi doesn’t necessarily come with intrinsic physical or personality attributes. Absolutely everybody involved in Simon should be happy to publicly come out. The Internet demands it so.
Becky Albertalli did not come out when the book was released in 2015, nor the film in 2018. In August of 2020, she published a Medium article titled “I know I’m late”, where she shared that she was bisexual. “This isn’t how I wanted to come out,” the article reads. “This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe.” But Albertalli felt that she had to come out: not because she couldn’t handle criticism of her books, but because she was tired of her sexuality being scrutinised and dissected on a public stage.
Albertalli’s Medium article is, just like Simon, honest and heartfelt — but also sad. It isn’t how she wanted to come out, and she acknowledges the immense pressure there was on her to make a public announcement about something personal.
“Own Voices” stories are absolutely important. But somewhere amongst this we seem to forget about issues of privacy, and about who these stories benefit.
If a gay teenager reads Simon and feels seen and appreciated, and possibly more accepting of their sexuality — isn’t that the end goal? Isn’t that why we write: so that people can connect with our stories?
When we get caught up in author identity politics, we forget the fact that not all authors want to discuss their personal life. We forget that many use their writing as a way to work through and make sense of certain topics. That’s certainly how it worked for Albertalli.
Ultimately, Albertalli hopes that her story will serve as an example; maybe the next closeted author will be given more patience and privacy.
“Can we make space for those of us who are still discovering ourselves?” Albertalli writes. “Can we be a little more compassionate? Can we make this a little less awful for the next person?”
I hope we can.