By Alex London
As a closeted teenager, thinking about any kind of future for myself was an act of speculative fiction. I attended a conservative all-boys prep school, a place where, at the time, athletes were kings and heroes and there was only one way to be a man. Any deviation from that way was seen as a personal failing.
And I was failing. I had deviant desires and strange daydreams.
I was different.
I also had no gay role models and no books with gay characters to look to. Without any external guidance to look to, my imagination had to provide. When I daydreamed about a life out of the closet, a life of openness, I was writing fantasy. I had to create a world so very different from my own. When I read a character in a book as gay, in spite of any authorial intent, I was writing fan fiction. I created the world I needed in an alternative universe, one where I was out, my friends and family were accepting, and the heroes of my favorite books were just like me (Ironically, I considered Ender’s Game the queerest of all my books, and loved it largely for that reason…just goes to show, readers bring what they need to a book and the author best get out of the way…).
Amazingly, in the years since I finished high school, the world of my fantasies became my reality. I came out; I traveled; I fell in and out of love, then in again. I was lucky to have friends and family who embraced me, and later embraced my husband. Thanks to generations of LGBTQIA+ activists, I was able to bend reality to match my teenaged daydreams.
And yet, in the books I loved, the speculative fiction that had trained me to dream other possible worlds, the characters were still mostly straight.
So I set out to write the YA novel that I wished had existed when I was a teenager.
Proxy is a cyberpunk thriller (okay, it’s often called dystopian but I’m fighting the good fight for cyberpunk), with a queer protagonist. I wrote it because I loved cool technology and surprising plot twists and explosive action. I wrote it because I wanted a gay character to have the chance to be the hero in the kind of story where robots blow up. I wrote it for myself and I had no idea who would read it once it came out. Did readers even want a gay action hero?
When the reader emails started coming in, I was thrilled. Actual teenagers cared about the characters and the story I’d created! It was kind of a shock. They found me on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook; they came up to me at conferences and festivals. I started to hear from teens who were struggling like I had struggled, struggling to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. More than one email brought me to tears. Some kids wrote to say they couldn’t come out in their communities, worried that a happy future was basically science fiction. They described their current lives as dystopian (never as cyberpunk, alas). But they also said they found hope in Proxy. They found a way to see that their story wasn’t limited by any one aspect of themselves; that reality was as bendable as fiction, and anything at all was possible. Not easy, but possible. The first step to being a hero is to imagine yourself as one.
But it wasn’t just the queer kids who wrote to me. As Proxy started to find its way onto state reading lists (because librarians are superheroes), straight guys starting writing to me. Reluctant reader guys. They started finding me at festivals and conferences and school visits. Some of them made my heart stop as they approached, looking so much like the guys in high school who concocted an infinite variety of disgusting ways to describe guys like me, with no idea that I was standing beside them, dying inside.
But I wasn’t living in that world anymore. These guys started to tell me how they loved the action, loved the technology and the plot twists but how they’d never identified with a gay character before. They were always careful to say “I mean, I’m not like that myself, but…” and then they’d talk about the main character’s ‘coolness’ as an action hero, their hope he could forgive the wrongs that’d had been done him, and their hopes they could be a little more like him one day… “but not like that” they usually added again.
They talked about how he was tough and kind and clever and brave. They talked about his humanity, not his sexuality. And through him, they talked about their own humanity. They confessed the thing I hadn’t realized about those guys in my high school: every one of us felt different in the infinite variety of ways that every teen feels like a lonely astronaut among aliens. The main character’s homosexuality became a window for them to see that gay guys weren’t so different, but it also served as a mirror for them to see that any teen has doubts and struggles, just like they do. We don’t all have killer robots after us, but we all have our own quotidian battles to get through in those middle and highs school years.
I’ll never forget one 7th grader who came up to me at a junior high in Texas to get a copy of Proxy signed. He’d already gotten one signed, so I was confused.
“It’s for my friend, R_____,” he said. “R_____’s gay, and I think he’d like this book too. I want to give it to him as a gift so he knows we can, like, talk about it.”
Another boy, overhearing this, said with the uncertain sarcasm unique to 7th graders, “Yo, I’m not gay but I like books too! You should buy me a copy!”
“You can’t even read!” The first kid punched him in the arm.
“Your mom’ll read it to me in bed!”
They traded semi-sanitized-for-adult-ears insults at each other and I gave the third kid an extra copy of the book that I had with me. “Start a book club,” I told them.
“Cool,” he said with a quickly suppressed grin, then ran off to play basketball at recess.
Every act of growing up is an act of writing fiction. We write and rewrite our futures all the time, trying to find the path between the reality we’re living and the one we dream about. Books can be a bridge between the two. It’s our job, as those who share books with young people, to give them as many ways to cross those bridges as possible, as many ways of helping others cross too. I thought I’d written Proxy for the closeted teen I had been. But readers always know more than the author. They aren’t reading it for the past; they’re reading for who they might become, and the possibilities for them are infinite.