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Authors Making a Difference: Celebrating Women’s History Month with a Panel of Women and Gender-Expansive Authors

BY: Trevor News

Seeing ourselves in stories can be incredibly powerful. The Trevor Project’s editorial team invited three authors — Lamya H, Sarah Cypher, and Becky Albertalli — to talk about the importance of seeing women’s and LGBTQ+ experiences in books, and how they can help us better understand ourselves and be better allies to each other. Considering recent bans of LGBTQ+ books in school libraries, these authors show us why sharing authentic stories can help affirm young people and why reading mainstream LGBTQ+ books can be an act of resistance.

Lamya H (she/they) is a queer Muslim writer and organizer living in New York City. Lamya’s work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Vice, Autostraddle, Vox, and others. She has received fellowships from Lambda Literary, Aspen Words and Queer|Arts. Lamya’s organizing work centers around creating spaces for LGBTQ+ Muslims, fighting Islamophobia, and abolishing prisons. In her free time, she eats lots of desserts baked by her partner, plays board games with whoever she can corral, and works on her goal of traveling to every subway stop in the city. She has never run a marathon. Find her on Twitter and IG: @lamyaisangry

Why is it important to tell LGBTQ+ stories? Why is it important for these stories to be published by mainstream publishers?

I’m old enough to remember when LGBTQ+ stories were not in the mainstream, when they were mostly published by small presses or in fanfiction or were very very deep subtext. It’s so important to see LGBTQ+ stories being published by mainstream publishers because it’s important to see ourselves and our stories reflected back to us, it’s important to feel less alone. But also, what having more LGBTQ+ stories out in the world allows is a breadth of storytelling — we can tell stories that are rich and nuanced and not just about coming out or about “perfect” queer protagonists. We can tell stories with messy, complicated characters, with difficult decisions, with queer people just living.    

March is Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. What do these observances mean to you, particularly from the perspective of your personal identity and lived experiences? 

I’m non-binary but feel very deeply aligned with the political aspects of “womanhood,” specifically the importance of fighting the patriarchy, not just for women but for all gender expansive folks. What I especially love about International Women’s Day is that it’s very deliberately rooted in resistance and in bringing to the forefront feminist issues like reproductive justice, domestic violence, and the gender inequalities in labor and pay. I love that it’s a worldwide event: for example, women in Spain generally organize a strike on that day, and Bangladesh and Pakistan have huge women’s marches. I feel so inspired by the ways in which this day is a call for collective action and solidarity.  

In what ways are you writing for your younger self? What stories and writing do you wish were available to you as a young person?

I often find myself writing what my younger self wanted to read and the stories that I wanted so hungry for. I wanted to know it was possible: to be queer, to be Muslim, to find solace in both, to live in ways that felt true to who I was.    

Who has shaped your voice and identity as an LGBTQ+ writer? 

I’ve been lucky to have so many queer writing mentors in real life: Linda Villarosa’s nonfiction workshop at the Lambda Literary retreat taught me the important skill of revisiting my work and revising; Naomi Jackson taught me to follow my ideas through to the end and to explore and play with structure. Bushra Rahman — who is a queer, South Asian writer — taught me that it was possible to hold those identities and carve out literary spaces. And then the queer writers who I’ve met through their words: Leslie Feinberg, who wrote “Stone Butch Blues” — that my title is based on — taught me that it’s possible to write deeply personal stories that are also deeply political. And Audre Lorde, whose work I found when I was just coming into my queerness, taught me the importance of writing about race and sexuality, of writing through anger. One of her lines that I keep coming back to is “your silence will not protect you.” Audre Lorde taught me to never keep silent.    

What messages do you hope LGBTQ+ young people take away from your writing?

One of the main things I want readers to take away from my book is that love is expansive: it can take the form of romance, but also is a bedrock of community and faith and justice. So much of my book is about exploring these different kinds of love and the various forms they can take — and about not being afraid of love, not being afraid of letting people in. Another message I’d like LGBTQ+ young people to take away from my writing is that it’s ok to be messy and complicated, to make mistakes, to live your difference in ways that feel authentic and true to you — that don’t necessarily look like how everyone else chooses to live their differences. That it’s important to live in ways that embody justice. That anger can be a powerful tool in activism but it’s important to take care of yourself and have boundaries.

Talk about a scene from one of your books that was inspired by a real life experience. Why did you choose to share that experience in your writing and what did the process of writing do to that memory?

My book is inspired by real life events — it’s a memoir in which I retell stories from the Quran as queer, brown, immigrant stories, interspersed with stories from my queer, brown, immigrant life. I chose to share these stories in this format because I wanted to think about prophets and figures in the Quran as complex characters, not saints. I wanted to tell the story of my life in similar ways: as someone who has made questionable decisions, who has had to think through moral dilemmas and who has messed up but is trying to un-mess up both myself and the world. Writing really unearthed a lot of feelings for me — feelings that I had suppressed and hadn’t processed. It felt cathartic to write this book because I was able to move through some of these feelings — and others, I now know I have to work on. 

How can reading LGBTQ+ literature and memoir be an act of allyship? What can allies learn? 

I think allies can learn not to assume that everyone who is LGBTQ+ will have the same story or will live their queerness in the same ways. 

How can reading (and writing) LGBTQ+ literature be an act of resistance? 

My favorite tweet that addresses this by Teju Cole: “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” I think reading and writing can and should be acts of resistance — against institutionalized homophobia, against transphobia, against the abuse of power. I’m thinking in particular about LGBTQ book bans in Florida right now, and the ways they’re trying to keep.       

What’s a queer book you think every queer person should read? What’s a queer book everyone should read?

My answer for both is Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.”  

Sarah Cypher (she/her/hers) has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she was a Rona Jaffe Fellow in fiction, and a BA from Carnegie Mellon University. Her writing has appeared in the New Ohio Review, North American Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. She is from a Lebanese Christian family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and lives in Washington, D.C. with her wife. Her upcoming book follows a young, queer Palestinian American woman pieces together her great aunt’s secrets in this sweeping debut, a family saga confronting questions of sexual identity, exile, and lineage.

Why is it important to tell LGBTQ+ stories? Why is it important for these stories to be published by mainstream publishers?

Books shaped what I thought was possible for myself. I came out late, and in part, it’s because as a young reader, I didn’t feel myself represented in the stories I loved — my literary landscape gave me only narrow choices. The stories we feed our imaginations also have powerful real-world effects on who we ultimately recognize as a person (ourselves included), who gets to have a voice, and who gets to take up space. Finding more queer stories and learning from queer writers changed everything for me. It’s particularly chilling that there is such an effort to vilify LGBTQ+ books, which account for more than 40 percent of the titles banned in schools last year. It’s important that mainstream publishers — with all the clout they have — agree that we are still people and we deserve to continue being heard. It has to be a continuous effort.

In what ways are you writing for your younger self? What stories and writing do you wish were available to you as a young person?I wish I could have read and watched as many queer love stories as straight ones; I wish I could have nerded out on science fantasy novels like “Gideon the Ninth” instead of constantly trying to figure out, in the books that were available, exactly where I should be hovering if I was always oriented toward the female characters. But it was the 1990s in a small Western Pennsylvania town. No one was teaching, sharing, or reading the queer canon — no Audre Lorde or Leslie Feinberg or Samuel Delaney or Jeanette Winterson or Isabel Miller or Patricia Highsmith or Alice Walker. Even when I went to college, queer literature wasn’t really on the syllabus. I have to remind myself of this dearth of models when I regret being so slow to catch on to my own sexuality, and so slow to do the homework — to discover in books a context for experiences like ours. Mentors, librarians, and teachers matter, and so does the choice to represent in my fiction the messiness, confusion, and exhausting sublimation that went into holding on to my truth alone for so long.

Who has shaped your voice and identity as an LGBTQ+ writer? 

Courageous friends, for sure. Probably also a resistance to being pushed to write in inauthentic, more mainstream ways. As for my voice, though, the influence isn’t always direct, and it owes a lot to queer people who are no longer with us. I might spend whole weeks fiddling around with some fine point of craft, barely finishing two pages, and I have to step back and ask myself whether I’m just being a perfectionist or whether this effort is actually a struggle to create something new with my writing: something funny, or true, or beautiful, or at least a perspective worthy of the people who aren’t alive to read it, but who should be. It’s enough to say that not every queer person from my hometown made it through and out — I knew talented, courageous people who deserved to have much more time in this life. It gut-punches me on a fairly regular basis that, for a variety of reasons, I’m still here because I ended up in more welcoming spaces and had a chance to write. How can this not be an influence, and also a kind of debt? It’s my reason to work more slowly when I need to and keep looking for meaningful ways to use my skills and education.

What messages do you hope LGBTQ+ young people take away from your writing?
I don’t know that it’s a message so much as a question. We all inhabit many identities at once, and I’ve often felt a tug of war between mine — as a daughter, a partner, a citizen, a writer, a person trying to pay the bills, a person in a body that loves fresh air and exercise… It’s easy to feel like something is always slipping through the cracks. In the novel, there’s one place where I write that freedom is when it costs almost nothing to sometimes make the wrong choice. Betty is thinking about whether to stay in her community or travel with her beloved to a place she’ll have to start all over again, and in large part, her aunt helped raise her with an acute sense of what was at stake, and also with the courage to take risks. I hope readers will think about what it takes to create freedom in their own lives, and for other people too.

Talk about a scene from one of your books that was inspired by a real life experience. Why did you choose to share that experience in your writing and what did the process of writing do to that memory?There’s a passage where Betty is getting bullied at school for having cobalt-blue skin. She knows what’s expected of her — that like all the other kids who get made fun of for wearing the wrong thing or not knowing how to fit in, she is somehow supposed to feel shamed into changing. But because she can’t do anything about how she looks, she just keeps coming to school, and the other kids treat her even worse because they (absurdly) view her inability to change as a provocation, an insult to their social authority. I drew this maddening situation from a variety of episodes, or really, the entirety of middle and high school. Surviving the experience also made me a resilient and resourceful person, and writing about it all these years later, I have more respect for how much it is still in my bones. Revisiting those times as an adult, using a writer’s tools for considering human behavior, I feel somewhat freer than I used to. It’s an evolution.

How can reading LGBTQ+ literature and memoir be an act of allyship? What can allies learn? 

Toni Morrison has argued in “Playing in the Dark” that American literature incriminates itself for omitting BIPOC voices, and that books fail to be truthful (or even very strong) whenever they are written in ignorance of other experiences. It isn’t hard to extend her argument to LGBTQ+ experiences as well. I think it’s tempting for people outside of an identity to give themselves a pass, to read one or two books and say it’s enough; or to take one class and call it good. I hope that more allies make a dedicated place on their lists for stories by LGBTQ+ writers, writers of color, and writers in translation, and also read these stories on their own terms. Narratives aren’t always meant to follow one formula, one set of assumptions about what a protagonist should do or who they should love, or one kind of shape. The books that get published, reviewed, taught, promoted, shared, and awarded prizes should continue to strive to include a wide variety of voices. Reading is a way of inhabiting other ways of thinking and feeling, as well as other relationships to the worlds we live in. Ignoring those perspectives would be a loss — not just to literature, but to empathy.

What’s a queer book you think every queer person should read? What’s a queer book everyone should read?

Audre Lorde’s “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” is a classic; I’m having a hard time separating one audience from another because it’s such an important book. I re-read and rediscover new layers of it every half-dozen years or so, and it’s my recommendation for everyone. Lorde is committed to being an honest and straightforward historian of all her identities — she’s the daughter of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, working-class, a survivor of sexual violations, an activist and thinker, a Black woman in an imperfectly intersectional feminist community, and an influential writer who wrestles with the work of shaping all this into an accurate account. She reminds me just how dimensional and individual identity is, and her work is especially relevant when fast-scrolling feeds often try to reduce someone’s “identity” to a few key words. I think continuing to read Lorde’s work helps me retain some perspective on the historical moment and also give thanks for the labor that made it possible for queer writers to publish our books today.

Becky Albertalli (she/her) is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of young adult novels, including William C. Morris Award winner and National Book Award longlist title, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” (now a major motion picture, “Love, Simon”) and the upcoming “Imogen, Obviously.” She lives with her family in Atlanta, and she’s still not tired of Oreos.

Why is it important to tell LGBTQ+ stories? Why is it important for these stories to be published by mainstream publishers?

It really is so important. For queer people living without access to in-person queer communities, these stories can be a lifeline. And the involvement of mainstream publishers truly matters — larger publishers have the resources to facilitate wide distribution for the books they choose to champion. This has the power to amplify queer stories and expand their reach. These stories broaden our understanding of queer experiences — they make us feel seen, and they help others see us.

March is Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. What do these observances mean to you, particularly from the perspective of your personal identity and lived experiences? 

More than ever, it’s critical to make sure our conversations about Women’s History Month are as inclusive as possible. Trans women and girls have been targeted with exclusion, bigotry, and violence, and cis women (like me) need to be vocal, intentional, and proactive in solidarity with them. This month belongs to all of us. 

In what ways are you writing for your younger self? What stories and writing do you wish were available to you as a young person?

I grew up in the eighties and nineties in a conservative suburb in the South, and my limited access to queer stories made it really hard to wrap my head around what bisexuality could look and feel like. I really did have to write my way toward understanding my own queerness, though it took me years to realize I was doing that. I think I might have cracked the code a little sooner if I’d had access to books like Sophie Gonzales’s “Perfect on Paper,” Julian Winters’s “How To Be Remy Cameron,” Louise Willingham’s “Not Quite Out,” Jennifer Dugan’s “Some Girls Do,” and Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White, and Royal Blue.”

Who has shaped your voice and identity as an LGBTQ+ writer? 

One particular author who comes to mind for me is Dahlia Adler (author of many brilliant queer romantic comedies, including the upcoming Going Bicoastal). I’ve loved every single one of her books, and I’m deeply inspired by her tireless advocacy for fellow queer authors and readers. Her website, LGBTQReads.com, is my go-to source for book recommendations, and I’m just so grateful she’s working and writing in this space. 

What messages do you hope LGBTQ+ young people take away from your writing?

I never want to be too prescriptive when it comes to finding meaning in my books, because we’re always reading through the lens of our own experiences. But in a broad sense, I hope queer young people feel seen and included in my books — whether or not they’re out, and no matter where they are in the process of exploring their own identities. 

Talk about a scene from one of your books that was inspired by a real life experience. Why did you choose to share that experience in your writing and what did the process of writing do to that memory?

My upcoming book, “Imogen, Obviously,” is heavily inspired by the way queer community conversations affected my own questioning and coming out process. My main character, Imogen, thinks she’s straight at the beginning of the book — and then she starts falling for a girl. There’s a particular moment in the story where Imogen finally understands what she’s feeling and takes the first few steps toward coming out as bisexual. Her friend Gretchen, a fellow bisexual who has dealt with significant queerphobia, immediately suggests Imogen might be faking it or deluding herself. From Gretchen’s perspective, Imogen’s encroaching on a label that Gretchen associates with a particular set of experiences. But Gretchen’s reaction in that moment sends Imogen spiraling with self-doubt all over again. 

When I came out in 2020, there were hundreds of Gretchens. The weeks of public discourse about my identity profoundly affected my sense of belonging in queer communities and spaces, even years later. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully bounce back from that experience, but writing Imogen’s story was hugely cathartic. It was an opportunity to say so much of what I wish I’d understood at the time. 

How can reading LGBTQ+ literature and memoir be an act of allyship? What can allies learn? 

In my experience, “allies” can learn they might be more than allies!

How can reading (and writing) LGBTQ+ literature be an act of resistance? 

This question feels so important in this particular moment, when queer books are being widely challenged and banned in schools and libraries across the US (and worldwide). These efforts are designed to exclude and silence queer kids and communities, and as we watch them gain momentum, it’s hard to feel hopeful. But there’s real power in our unwillingness to abandon queer stories and voices.

What’s a queer book you think every queer person should read? What’s a queer book everyone should read?

I’m not sure that book exists! Queer (and non-queer) experiences vary so widely, it’s impossible to imagine one book having the ability to speak to everyone. But here are a few recent books that I consider to be game-changers: Malinda Lo’s “Last Night At the Telegraph Club” (and its companion, “A Scatter of Light”), Rhea Ewing’s “Fine,” Adib Khorram’s duology: “Darius the Great is Not Okay” and “Darius the Great Deserves Better,” Ashley Woodfolk’s “Nothing Burns as Bright as You,” and Mason Deaver’s “I Wish You All the Best.”

Ryan Bernsten is Senior Manging Editor at The Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention and mental health organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people. If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, our trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 via chat www.TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678-678.

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