by Meredith Russo
One of the things most often praised about my book If I Was Your Girl isn’t the book itself, but the author’s note at the end (or the beginning, depending on if you’re reading the ARC or the final print) where I lay out my hope that cis people won’t take Amanda’s rather normative story as a set of rules trans people must follow and, more importantly for this post, where I admit that I had to make some concessions so the story would be more palatable for them. Let’s talk about those concessions, because they’re something I still think about a lot. Let’s talk about one in particular.
Making Amanda completely heterosexual was a pretty minor concession since it fit with her character anyway, but it was still kind of a Thing for me. I don’t know what to call myself moment to moment, but I’m sure as heck not straight, I’m more attracted to women than anything, and this was a HUGE problem for me when I was a teenager. My dysphoria wasn’t very bad when I was a little kid because masculinity wasn’t really imposed on me by my parents (I was still too scared to do anything overtly feminine where people could see) and, honestly, if I were cis I would have been a pretty big tomboy. Things got bad when I hit puberty though; I knew something was wrong, I knew I felt twisted and detached inside, and I knew I had to do something about it, but there was a problem.
Even if pop culture hadn’t convinced me from my earliest memory that a trans woman is one of the worst things a person can be (and that’s a big if), the fact that I was attracted to girls made my actually being trans impossible, because this was the early aughts and even after some pensive googling the best info I could find labeled me an “autogynephile” (google that if you feel like getting angry and depressed). So I came out as bi at thirteen, hoping that would relieve some of the pressure, and while it did it still wasn’t much. A few years after that I came out as gay, insisting that I only liked men because, for some reason (hyuck) I couldn’t handle how it felt to be with a girl as a boy, and the only time I ever really felt okay was when a boy made me feel desired and pretty in a way I now recognize, looking back, as how I imagined boys treated girls. Ask me about cognitive dissonance some time, because I am old hat.
So, obviously, that didn’t work. I eventually found a bunch of real, actual trans women online in my first few years of college, came to terms with the idea of being trans, and started processing that. But my attraction to girls was still a huge problem. I could never quite shake the idea that this made me that word, autogynephile, a freak who fetishized the idea of myself as a woman rather than a woman who happened to be attracted to other women. Other people didn’t really help, as the most common reaction from cis people I told was, “So, wait, if you’re into girls why transition at all?” As if loving a woman as a man and loving a woman as a woman are equivalent (believe you me, they’re not), as if straight trans women are just extremely gay men and gay trans women are… well, you get the idea.
I don’t think I really learned to feel completely okay about it until two years ago when I read A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett, which features more than a few short stories about trans women with cis women and, gasp, scandal, other trans women! I know, right? But it happens, and honestly it rules. I recommend it. Anyway, the relationships in the book aren’t all happy — many are dysfunctional or worse, but they’re still there, and the women in them understand themselves as queer, bi, or gay, and that isn’t questioned by the narrators, and that meant so much to me. Can you imagine if I had seen something like that in a movie, a TV show, or, more germane to the topic at hand, a YA novel when I was younger? Can you imagine how that might have changed my life? Because I can. I think about it a lot.
I’m sad that wasn’t something I could find a way to include in If I Was Your Girl. I intend to depict a more diverse trans experience in future books, but until then, hey, consider this an opportunity for you to do better. I promise I’ll be first in line to buy that book.
I had the INCREDIBLE opportunity to be able to sit down with David Levithan & Nina Lacour when they came to Addendum Books on the You Know Me Well book tour. This was literally one of the best experiences of my life and I am so thankful to the authors for taking the time to do this and to everyone else who had a hand in making this possible. We got to talk about the new narratives You Know Me Well brings to the table of LGBTQIA+ YA, how the collaboration on YKMW began, and what its existence means in the wake of the Orlando shooting. This interview meant SO much to me, and I hope that everyone is able to get something out of watching it! You can also check out my review of You Know Me Well here.
We ended up doing the interview right outside a gym (it was actually one of the quietest places!) so that’s where all the background noises are from. 🙂 We will also be adding subtitles as soon as possible!
Lastly… You Know Me Well is GayYA’s June Recommendation! We’ll be hosting an hour long #GayYABookClub Twit Chat TONIGHT, June 29th, at 8pm EST– come join us! We’ll try and keep it spoiler free, so feel free to lurk/participate even if you haven’t read the book!
Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really?
Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed.
That is, until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night. Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.
When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other—and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.
Told in alternating points of view by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, You Know Me Well is a story about navigating the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.
Empire of Dust by Eleanor Herman
In Macedon, war rises like smoke, forbidden romance blooms and ancient magic tempered with rage threatens to turn an empire to dust
After winning his first battle, Prince Alexander fights to become the ruler his kingdom demands—but the line between leader and tyrant blurs with each new threat.
Meanwhile, Hephaestion, cast aside by Alexander for killing the wrong man, must conceal the devastating secret of a divine prophecy from Katerina even as the two of them are thrust together on a dangerous mission to Egypt.
The warrior, Jacob, determined to forget his first love, vows to eradicate the ancient Blood Magics and believes that royal prisoner Cynane holds the key to Macedon’s undoing.
And in chains, the Persian princess Zofia still longs to find the Spirit Eaters, but first must grapple with the secrets of her handsome—and deadly—captor.
New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Herman entwines the real scandals of history with epic fantasy to reimagine the world’s most brilliant ruler, Alexander the Great, in the second book of the Blood of Gods and Royals series.
Hi, Eleanor! Thanks for joining us on GayYA to talk about Empire of Dust, the second book in your Blood of Gods and Royals series! I’m thrilled to be chatting with you as I just finished up Empire and I am completely in love with this series. First, I’m going to try and do this interview without any spoilers…which is hard, but I think we can manage. –Katherine Locke
- I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Alexander of Legacy of Kings, the first book in the series, is based on Alexander the Great and so the historical figure’s sexuality comes into play in Legacy and much more in Empire. How important was it to you to include Alexander’s sexuality? And how would you say your Alexander identifies?
Historical records indicate that as a teenager Alexander was so ambivalent about girls it worried his parents—not because there was something bad or wrong about being gay (it was considered merely a matter of personal preference at the time,), but because the king and queen wanted grandchildren! So his mother and father hired a ravishing young courtesan named Kallixena to seduce him, but we don’t know if she actually did. We do know they didn’t get grandchildren from her. Some sources say Alexander never touched the 365 women in King Darius’s harem when he conquered Persia. We do know that when he finally married his first of three brides at twenty-seven, he was head over heels in love and had a child with her.
There’s no doubt that he deeply loved his best friend, Hephaestion, and called him a second version of himself. Many people after Alexander’s death thought they were gay lovers, and it’s certainly a possibility, but we have no records from the time saying so.
I picture Alexander as a person focused on ideas, strategy, and action. In the series, while Hephaestion and Jacob are sexually very interested in girls, Alexander prefers to have an emotional or intellectual connection with them.
- How did your understanding of Alexander change as his sexuality plays out more on the page? Did you find yourself writing him differently? Did it open up more plotlines for him or did it close doors?
Some of my other characters couple up and initially I wanted to give Alexander a girlfriend, boyfriend, or both. But the more I studied Alexander, and the more I got into the character’s mind, it just didn’t seem right. While Alexander flirts with romance in Empire of Dust, he doesn’t get physical like the other characters. He’s focused on ruling, winning, becoming a great king. The needs of the body aren’t that important to him. According to historical records, when he went on campaign, he could put up with heat, cold, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and pain without a complaint. He turned down the beautiful girls and boys offered to him at every city. I think he lived mostly in his mind.
- Did you ever worry that you’d get pushback from your publisher/editor/marketing team because of Alexander’s identity?
No, I have an incredibly supportive team at Harlequin Teen. Plus, there’s a whole genre of YA LGBTQIA+ fiction these days. The Blood of Gods and Royals series can’t really be put in that category, but it does address Alexander’s rather perplexing sexuality as part of the historical past.
- There are many intertwining storylines and characters in both Legacy and Empire. How did you choose your characters? Are they all based on historical figures?
The historical characters are Alexander, his parents King Philip and Queen Olympias (who really was considered a witch and did keep snakes in her bedroom), his half-sister Cynane, Hephaestion, his tutor Aristotle, and Great King Darius of Persia. I invented the other characters as new threads to weave into the historical story, threads of magic, conflict and darkness.
I also wanted these fictional characters to show what life was like away from the glitter of the palace. So Katerina and Jacob are raised by a potter in a tiny village and know what hunger feels like. Zofia of Sardis, though she has grown up in a luxurious Persian palace, soon finds herself captured by slave traders and goes on a physically demanding, psychologically demeaning journey with every privilege gone. The world of Alexander’s time was as multi-dimensional as our own is today, and when my readers close my books I want them to say two things. The first is, “Wow! That was an amazing ride.” And the second is, “I know so much now about ancient Greece and Persia.” I call it stealth education. You sort of sneak it in there while the readers are enjoying themselves.
- Tell me about your research process, especially as it pertains to depictions of sexuality of that time period.
There are many fascinating books on sexuality in the ancient world, and I’ve probably read them all. Anyone interested in learning more should go to bookfinder.com and in the title box search for “sexuality ancient world.” In order to write authentically about a different place and time, you need to have two streams of research. One is the things that people used: the houses, food, clothing, transportation, lighting, heating, medicine, and weapons. The other is the ideas that affected people’s lives: religion, government, conquest, philosophy, and issues regarding slavery, women, and sexuality. You need to have a good grasp of them all before you sit down to write because on any single day in any character’s life they were all important.
- Empire of Dust takes Alexander to a new and darker place. What’s it like writing a character who seems to be straying farther from the person he imagined himself to be?
In Empire of Dust, Alexander deals with the pressures of ruling as regent of Macedon in his father’s absence. While it was easy for him to criticize his father’s decisions, now that Alexander is in charge he has a new appreciation of how hard it is to rule. Everything seems to be falling apart as he deals with invading warriors, pirates, and Persian spies. In his desperate attempts to make people respect and fear him, he launches into a brutal direction that isn’t who he really is.
Sometimes we all stray far from the people we imagine ourselves to be. It can be a good thing, getting in touch with who we really are rather than who we pretend to be or who others want us to be. Sometimes it’s a bad thing when we venture into areas that simply aren’t right for us. Even those cases, though, can have an upside. We learn the lesson, correct our course, and get back on track.
- Any advice to aspiring authors writing LGBTQIA+ characters?
I would tell them to remember that our sexuality, while certainly important, is usually not the single defining aspect of who we are. We are first and foremost kind and funny, supportive and smart, courageous and compassionate. We are loving sons and daughters, caring friends, and inspirational co-workers. And we are also gay, straight, bi, asexual, or transgender. So I would advise aspiring authors to make sure their LGBTQIA+ characters are well nuanced and fully human, not a cardboard cut-out with a label on his forehead that says GAY.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of such labels. Alexander’s society did not. They didn’t care who someone loved, and in that respect they were way ahead of us.
Thank you so much and we’re so happy to be adding Empire of Dust to the LGBTQIA+ YA shelves! Empire of Dust is out TODAY, so go pick it up!
New York Times best-seller Eleanor Herman brings her skills as a historian to an exciting new Young Adult series on Alexander the Great at sixteen, the four-book Legacy of Kings: Blood of Gods and Royals. Eleanor has hosted shows for The History Channel and the National Geographic Channel on Henry VIII, the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, and the Hindenburg. She is an expert commentator on numerous episodes of a national show coming out this fall.
Eleanor lives with her husband, their black lab, and her four very dignified cats in McLean, VA. She is a member of the National Press Club, where she often moderates book events, a queen mother of Cameroon, an elections officer, and a volunteer for the aging in Fairfax County, VA. She can be found online at www.eleanorherman.com
One of the amazing authors I got to interview at BEA was Caleb Roehrig! Caleb and I were both slightly food-deprived and wholly overwhelmed by the massiveness that was BEA, so some of our questions and answers were a little off the wall (frex: after the interview, I learned some fun facts about the population living around Lake Superior). But we also discussed new narratives in LGBTQIA+ YA, how his debut book Last Seen Leaving fits into the mix, and our favorite LGBTQIA+ YA books. So I’m SUPER psyched to be able to share this interview!
(Also apparently I cannot pronounce EITHER Caleb or Roehrig but *shrug emoji*)
Vee: I am here with Caleb Roehrig, author of Last Seen Leaving, which comes out in October of this year. So, yeah, to start off could you just tell us a little bit about this book?
Caleb: Sure! Okay, so it’s a novel about a teenage boy whose girlfriend disappears, and this is at about the same time that he’s starting to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay, and so the book is a little bit about his self discovery and a little bit about the secrets she kept from him and why, and it’s about the secrets that they kept from each other. And how those secrets impacted those lives and sort of the powers of secrets and whether it does more damage to keep a secret than it does when you reveal a secret.
Caleb: Something else that I really wanted to do with this book is that I really wanted to play with perspective. The girlfriend, January, is missing when the book begins, and you never seem to meet her, you meet her through flashbacks and in stories told by other people, so every story you hear about her is filtered through somebody else’s perspective. And so it’s sort of up to the reader to decide whether or not they believe or doubt the purity of her motivations and doing the things she did and keeping the secrets she kept and what lead up to what ultimately happened to her in the story.
Vee: Yeah! That sounds really interesting.
Caleb: [laughs] my long, convoluted-
Vee: No, that’s fantastic! So when I was reading about this book I was like, that’s like a plot I’ve never seen before in, particularly in LGBT YA, but like all YA in general too-
Caleb: That is exactly, this is– when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, this is the book I wish I could’ve read, because there was no such thing as gay interest YA back then, there was barely YA– but y’know and I thought, I was like a mystery/suspense junkie and I just wanted to read a book where somebody like me was the hero, you know what I mean? Where that could be like a thing, and I feel like– it’s been so baffling to see how any books now address LGBT, like the greater spectrum of queer characters, like it’s so cool, and it’s so important! So it was important to me to contribute to that and some of it was, I don’t know, when I was writing it I worried that maybe no one would be interested in it because it wasn’t just a coming out story or it wasn’t just, yanno, and I, my experience had been, when I was growing up, gay characters were always tragic figures, or like, offensive stereotypes played for comic relief, so it was kind of like… I don’t know! but the reception’s been incredible. The way that people’ve have responded to it has been really incredible.
Vee: Yay! That’s so great. What (if you can do this without spoiling) is your favorite scene in the book?
Caleb: Someone asked me about this and I struggled through answering it without giving any spoilers, but I think I can do it. So, there is a scene about ¾ of the way through the book where Flynn, the protag is sort of hot on his girlfriend’s tail and well, I guess I should say he’s still trying to figure out what happened to her and he’s still trying to find a number of threads and he goes to her school, she attended a private school, he goes to her school and he meets some of the girls that went to school with her. He knows that she didn’t like it there but he knows very little about her experience and in talking with these girls they present a completely different version of who January was than the girl that he knew. And it was one of those scenes where I actually learned things about the character when I was writing the perspective of these people who didn’t like her. And it was sort of looking at, and that’s the thing that’s so rewarding to me as a writer is when I discover there’s something I didn’t know about my own character, which sounds like a weird way to put it.
Vee: No, yeah, I can understand that!
Caleb: But it’s because it’s like these are my characters and you think you know them but at the same time it’s like… I had to reframe the narrative about her in a way I hadn’t really thought about prior to setting the scene up so I really enjoyed writing that scene because I really enjoyed learning something about the character and I learned something about the process so that’s really cool.
Vee: Yeah, that’s really cool! You had a signing today, was that your first signing?
Caleb: Yeah, that was my first official signing. I was a guest on the Fierce Reads tour last week, just in a suburb outside Chicago. So I flew here last week and then I flew back again this week. And they raffled off twenty copies of my book so it was my first signing experience. And last night, there was a book blogger party so I signed some copies there as well but this was my first sit-down signing.
Vee: How did that go?
Caleb: It went really well. Sometimes I feel really put on the spot about how sometimes people ask me questions about the book or about me and I don’t know why but I can talk about all the stupid stuff that I’ve done in my life. I have a story about every stupid thing I’ve ever done but like talking about something like- I just get tongue-tied. My very first… on the fierce reads thing, there, I was so nervous. Like throughout the whole thing, I was so nervous! And finally, I relaxed by the end of it but it was too late, I had all this adrenaline in my system and I couldn’t sit still. And then I’m signing, and I was telling people, you know those movies where the guy gets his arm chopped off and then he has to get a replacement from a serial killer’s so it’s a murder arm and it has a mind of its own, that’s what it was like. I was trying to sign and my arm was doing all this stuff and I was like ‘I’m not making it do that!” So my signature was a giant scrawl, like really sideways.
Vee: [laughs] That’s fantastic. I’ve asked a few authors that question and you had the best answer.
Caleb: Yes, that’s good!
Vee: Special prize *laughs*. Okay my last question is do you have top favourite LGBT+ YA books?
Caleb: Oh my gosh.
Vee: Or like recently?
Caleb: I have a terrible time picking favourites, I just read I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN and I loved that one. So many feelings omg. That was a tremendous book, I had a book hangover for a week after that one.
Vee: Yeah, I was like that too!
Caleb: I love that. I loved WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON. And I really loved that book because it was the first time I had really seen a gay character portrayed with depression, someone who was fighting a totally different battle. Not just coming out, not just adjusting– and it was really interesting, and really sensitive. So I really responded to that.
And I just read Tess Sharpe’s FAR FROM YOU and oh my gosh! I just read that in March and I loved it. And again, it’s one of those things that I recommend to everybody because again it was a thriller that touches upon themes that are important to the greater queer community, and bisexual representation, which you don’t see a lot.
Vee: Yeah, that was a book that made me feel okay as IDing as bi. And I just came out to my mom (C: congrats! V: it was a time) as bisexual, and was telling her like “there’s this book that really helped me” and now she’s reading it.
Caleb: Yeah, the thing is that the environment in which young people are coming of age and coming out has changed so much now which is a great thing but it’s still so intimidating. And I think people don’t realize that. So my husband and I have been together for almost 11 years now and have been married since 2011, coming up on our 5 year anniversary, and sometimes it’s intimidating. Meeting someone new, and it’s a thing you have to bring up, not that you have to but it’s instead making a conscious effort to not bring it up.
Vee: Yeah, I get that. You never quite know-
Caleb: Yeah you don’t know. Most people are okay but you never quite know who you’re talking to. Or where they’re coming from.
Vee: That’s really interesting.
Caleb: My husband is a linguist. We’ve been living in Finland for the past four years because he’s been working with a small community of, historically, they spoke a dialect of South Estonian, but they live entirely within the borders of Latvia, east in the countryside. It’s small villages, that are often very religious. And for him, it was always an issue of whether he could [tell them] or if he would be safe or if this would be an environment where he could find himself shut out of the environment that he needs to do his research. So it’s a tricky thing. So the more stuff that’s out there, I say, yes.
Vee: It’s interesting because WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON was one of the first queer YA that I’ve ever read and that was still during that time in the beginning, when my sister and I started GayYA and we still identified as straight, like “we are the straight allies coming to help these gay people!” which turned out great. Like whoops. I should re-read that, because at that time I was like “man, all these gays are so angsty” but now I feel like I could appreciate what’s going on in the book. So yeah, I’d like to re-read that.
Caleb: Yeah, it was one of the first books that addressed it, that was like a gay YA novel.
Vee: So that’s all my questions, thanks so much for the interview!
Caleb: thank you! It was so nice to meet you.
by Mariko Tamaki
I need a second to tell you this thing.
There are no rules.
Okay. Wait. Hold on.
There are some rules. You can’t eat a grill cheese in math class. You can’t walk barefoot in places that have a sign that says you can’t walk barefoot there. Sure sure, I get that. I’m not here to get you in trouble.
Allow me to clarify.
There are no rules about who you can and cannot be.
You think there are rules because people tell you there are rules. People say stuff like, “Girls wear make up, boys don’t.” Or they tell you something is weird, in a way that suggests “weird” is something you should avoid instead of cherish.
There are standards and expectations. People expect boys to act a certain way, and people expect girls to act a certain way, and these expectations make it easier to classify things, to keep order and understand certain people certain ways faster. It also makes it easy to sell things to certain people.
But this should not be something to worry you. Because, no matter what the motive, gender expectations are still just expectations. They’re just the first sentence in a long paragraph, in the novel that will be your life.
You can break expectations, you can see beyond them.
This is easier to do when expectations are something that are really messing with your life.
When I was a teenager, I was a chubby teenager who lived daily with the frustration of failing to be a girl the way I was supposed to be a girl. I was never not aware that I was fat. I was never not aware that I was fatter than everyone else and it was a problem. People talked about my fat my whole life like it was something I would grow out of, like a cocoon. Except the cocoon was my body, and my cocoon of fat wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t shake it. Instead of becoming a woman I felt like I was becoming something else, a fat girl.
At one point, I set myself the goal of being a size 12 since being a size 12 seemed to be the max size I could be to be a girl, since all the girly things I was supposed to fit into were a size 12 max. Whenever I went shopping with my mom I would look for all the dresses that were in a size 12 and pray they would fit me. Because I had to fit into these dresses if I wanted to fit in.
If I didn’t fit in I was #FAIL this girl thing.
All this stopped in college, the first time I went to a queer bar, and I saw my first queers. Here was a crowd of people dressed the way they wanted to be dressed, in a combination of “masculine” and “feminine” clothes that seemed to be pick both at random and joyously. And here in this crowd were these amazing powerful, BIG, dancers, of all genders, dancing in polyester dresses from Value Village, in men’s work pants and too tight frilly tank tops, soccer jersey’s and frilly short shorts. Whatever.
It was my first encounter with a community of fat people who were proud of their size. Who didn’t give a crap what other people thought was #FAIL.
Suddenly it hit me. Like, “Oh. I’m not #FAIL. I’m fat. That’s totally fine. AND I can wear or be whatever I want. I don’t have to fit into anyone else’s size 12.”
I’m telling you that it was queer fatties who made me realize that there are no rules about being a woman, or about being awesome. That’s not to say you can’t be all these things and be straight. But I think part of what opened up this space, this place where fat could be awesome, for me, was a queer community where rule breaking was already happening, where a bunch of people had already said, “I’m queer. There are no rules on who to love.”
There are no rules on who you can be.
There are places and people and reactions to who you are. Some of these reactions make it hard to be someone who isn’t following the rules.
Sometimes it’s tiring to have people telling you that you being you is wrong, or makes some of the people you encounter in life uncomfortable.
Sometimes it’s empowering to refuse to conform.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we can push our ideas of what it means to be a rule breaker on other people, because we have an idea in our head about what it means to be queer, as much as what it means to be straight.
But there are no rules.
There are no rules most especially as long as we remember that this is true. We need to share this with people and let them know it’s true.
We need to spread this to all the changing rooms where girls are struggling to squeeze themselves into a size 12, into all the playgrounds and classrooms where kids are getting crap for not fitting in, we need to spread the message in our homes where sometimes our parents are worried we’re not conforming and people are going to make fun of us, we need to spread it in our brains to combat the fear of what it means to be weird.
It’s not going to be easy but I think it’s worth it.
Whoever you are, you are awesome. You are not breaking anything by being who you are. You are just another glorious reminder of that thing I keep saying over and over.
You can be who you want to be.
You are #WINNING no matter what they say.
If it’s hard to be you, hang in there.
If you see someone who needs help, help out.
There is no #FAIL.
There is only #YOU.