When 16-year-old Simon Spier came out as gay in Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel, “Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” and later, in the 2018 film adaption, “Love, Simon,” fans applauded his courage and genuinity. When 37-year-old Albertalli came out as bisexual last month, fans responded with mixed feelings.
In her Aug. 31st essay for Medium.com, Albertalli publicly came to terms with the romantic draw towards women she’s felt her whole life – and with the discourse within the book community surrounding her stories.
“[Love, Simon coming out] was one of the most electrifying, unforgettable, truly extraordinary experiences of my life, but having your book adapted to a film brings a lot of notoriety and attention, especially online, and it’s not always the fun kind,” she wrote in her essay.
“Unsurprisingly, there was quite a bit of discourse about my identity. In many online spaces, my straightness was a springboard for some — legitimately important — conversations about representation, authenticity, and ownership of stories. And for some people, my straightness was enough to boycott the film entirely.”
While Albertalli encourages conversations surrounding gender and sexual identity, she has found the book community to be toxic in assuming or demanding to know how creators identify.
“I think it matters; I don’t think we’re very good at talking about it,” Albertalli told the Technique. “I think it’s dangerous if we start picking apart individual authors’ identities, because when you start poking like that, sometimes you’ll find that the person that you’ve been generalizing as a cishet woman is actually not straight.”
In Albertalli’s book, when Simon was openly exposed for his sexuality without his consent, his response was, “This was supposed to be—this is mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it.”
Drawing a parallel between Simon’s and her own experiences and her own, Albertalli captioned an Instagram post sharing the link to her essay with: “Dear book community, this was supposed to be my thing.” The clear distinction she made was that she was not outed like Simon was, but it still was not fully her choice.
“Nobody forced me, but I’d say [I was] pressured out,” she said. “I would say boundaries were crossed, and there were some entitlement and very pervasive book community dynamics.”
Throughout the week following the publishing of her essay, Albertalli has continued to face criticisms for her work, some in direct response to her coming out.
“I’ve felt dehumanized,” she said. “I don’t like being a part of the discourse. … It’s a strange thing to have your coming out essay critiqued. It’s something that I kind of thought would happen, but I don’t think I could have predicted how it would feel.”
Albertalli knew she could not change the toxic comments people had written about her books, but she could attempt to change the situations for the creators who came after her.
“Some of the reaction has concerned me a little bit, because I feel like there’s been a little bit of ‘Let’s maintain this structure that we gatekeep and police everybody’s identities, but now Becky’s been put on the okay side of things,’” she said. “That’s not the point. The point is that I’m saying these things, because I have the power and platform to say it. … It’s not just a me thing.”
LGBTQ+ representation is essential, and now more than ever it is being seen in mainstream media. Some, however, such as Jonathan Pennie, fourth-year BCHM, have seen this request for representation turn into a demand.
“While I feel that it is crucial for queer readers to have representation in literature, I think that responsibility doesn’t fall on just one person,” Pennie said.
“People have a right to their privacy, and we currently live in a society that doesn’t always celebrate people for living their truth. I had many mixed emotions about her having to come out as I was glad to see more bisexual representation but was deeply saddened to see her forced into a position to do so.”
Like the character Simon, Pennie came out in high school and drew many parallels between their life and Simon’s.
“She crafted a realistic narrative that didn’t fetishize or hyper romanticize being a gay teen,” they said.
Others critize Albertalli for writing a gay male narrative as a woman, and she welcomes this criticism, but online the few negative comments always seem to outweigh the positive majority.
“Well over a thousand beautiful comments [on my coming out post], and I end up thinking about the handful of people who have slid into my Instagram to let me know that they disapprove of how I came out or wanted me to know that I still shouldn’t have written Simon and profited off of experiences that don’t belong to me,” she said. “By all means, feel that way and talk about it; I wish people wouldn’t feel the need to make sure I saw it.”
This is a part of the larger picture of people who gatekeep certain labels, such as bisexuality, often requesting some sort of proof that one is really worthy of their identity. It’s just the mental gymnastics that you haven’t earned [a label] or don’t deserve it,” Albertalli said. “There’s a lot of anxiety about taking up too much space. [I felt that] I don’t have the right to claim this, and I have not suffered enough. Now I feel I’ve suffered enough after this.”
After bearing the weight of much commentary and censure of her work and sexuality, Albertalli feels a heavy trauma, but also a strong internal drive towards change.
“I don’t need any publisher or TikToker to give me an apology,” she said. “I just think we as a community can brainstorm new ways to talk about this and to continue to do the important work of critique with an additional nuance that will keep this community safer for the creators and readers who are absorbing all of this.”