by Robin Talley
Last week I spoke to a group of middle schoolers about what it’s like to be a writer. It was an all-girls school, and the students were earnest, smiling, and full of questions. For the most part, they asked the same sorts of things everyone else asks ― how do you deal with writer’s block, when did you first start writing, what made you want to write a book about school integration ― but quite a few girls also had questions about the fact that my books star QUILTBAG characters.
I was delighted. When I was in middle school, I never would’ve said the word gay out loud to anyone, and certainly not to an adult. I had only the vaguest sense at that point in my life of what it meant to be gay in the first place, but I definitely knew it wasn’t something you talked about out loud.
These girls, though, were perfectly happy to talk openly about sexual orientation, and they clearly knew a lot more about it than preteen-me had known. Most of them asked about why I enjoy writing gay characters (we didn’t get to talking about the rest of the letters in the acronym, unfortunately). Then one girl raised her hand to say, “Have you ever wanted to write a book about straight people?”
This actually wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that question. (And, by the way, I’m totally fine with being asked about this. It isn’t as if there aren’t plenty of QUILTBAG authors who have written about characters who are straight, cisgender, and well outside our universe of acronyms.)
So I gave the girl my standard answer ― “Never say never” ― and went on to explain that, although I’m not opposed to the idea of writing a straight, cisgender protagonist someday, pretty much every book idea I’ve had so far has starred at least one character who fell somewhere under the QUILTBAG umbrella. My first book had two decidedly non-straight leads, and my next two books both star entirely gay, bi, and trans casts in the major roles.
At the moment, those are the stories I’m most interested in telling. It’s partly because I’m trying to make up for the historical lack of those stories, and I’m sure it’s also partly because my writing reflects aspects of my own experience growing up as gay/bi (I used to oscillate between those two labels when I was younger). But the truth is, these are just the characters I find fascinating. I want to read about queer kids coming out, or making trouble, or falling in love, or fighting crime. I want to write about those things, too.
There are plenty of books I’ve loved that star straight, cisgender protagonists. I don’t want to rule out the possibility of ever writing one of my own.
But for now ― I’m going to stick with writing about my QUILTBAG teens. I still have a lot of stories to tell about characters dealing with every facet of their lives, including these aspects of their identities. Eventually, I suspect, as the number of titles on shelves starring non-cishet protagonists keeps growing, we’ll start hearing complaints that there are “enough” of these stories already. (We’re already hearing that about “coming out” stories ― which always makes me grumble loudly.) But we’ve still got a long way to go to make sure kids and teens who aren’t straight and aren’t cis are represented in literature.
So, for me, it’s never say never ― but not right now.