Imagine my surprise the other day to be tagged in all my social media (multiple times) because a simple idea I posted months ago had become a meme. In fact, it was passed around to so many people, I kept getting pinged with private messages, wall posts, and emails asking me about it.
Short version: I said this in response to something I can’t recall. When I said it, I wanted to capture something common to any of us who have experienced marginalization. It takes different forms, it intersects, but this is the one thing which I have seen to be true across almost every sphere. A few friends asked to share it at the time, and I said that was no problem. Thus a Tumblr meme was born, and I lost track of it because Life Happened.
[Black text on white background. The quote reads: “This is literally what it’s like to be part of a marginalized group. Politeness is met with a refusal to listen, and anger is met with demands for politeness.” Attributed as A.M. Leibowitz, bisexual author of quirky LGBTQ+ romance (via bialogue-group)]
Fast forward to this week. Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey posted the quote in meme form on her Facebook page. Now, if you have no idea who she is, please watch pretty much any video at the link I provided. They’re all good. She breaks things down for people like me who don’t have degrees in this stuff. You would think that as a writer I can word good, but I actually have trouble absorbing things I read if I have to look up half the terms. Anyway, I love her, and I spent the rest of my day blushing furiously over the attention.
Which brings me to why I’m really writing this. It’s not because I want to brag on being quoted. (It is pretty cool, though.) It’s because of two things.
First, I do not deserve cookies for this. I stated a fact, and I stand by it. But more importantly, it’s not what I said that matters. It’s what I do. I have to live by these words—be willing to listen regardless of how the person is telling me about their experiences or the way the world works. I have some places where I’m privileged, others where I’m not. Where I do have privilege, it’s my job to do the hard work of being an ally without expecting a big thank you and an Edible Arrangement over it. I can meme-quote all I want, but if I’m a lousy ally, my words are trash.
Second, this pertains directly to my career as an author. (Can I start with how it made me smile to see my books called “quirky”?) Having my words go viral as a meme, with my name and job description attached, means people can find me. They can read my author bio and my novels. They can see me on social media and send me messages via this blog. Which means they are seeing a representation of who I am as a person.
Here’s the thing. I don’t write as a way to play Queer Studies 101 with my readers, and I don’t primarily write with an audience of cisgender (i.e. not transgender) straight people in mind. True, I have an oddly loyal following of cisgender straight guys reading my novels about gay and bi men, and also true that many readers of m/m lit are women of all orientations. However, my goal is always to write with an understanding that the characters represent the real people who are most like them. I have to ask myself whether my friends and family would be angry, hurt, or embarrassed by anything I write or if they would feel proud, honored, and heard through it. This is true regardless of the characters’ race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, or sexuality.
This is why every word I write means something to me. I want to do right as an ally through my work and in my everyday life. This includes representing those most like myself in a way which is true to me and my kin. It’s possible to be part of a marginalized community and yet have so many internalized -isms that we fail to be allies to our own selves.
I can’t represent every facet of every community in any given book or even in all of them. There will always be people who think I’ve written it wrong, even when I’m writing about my own experiences. There will also always be people who just plain think I’m a terrible writer. That’s okay! They don’t need to give me cookies either. (Though if you like my books, and you happen to want to send me bi-pride or rainbow frosted unicorn cut-outs, I won’t say no.) It’s more important to me that my words not cause harm or uphold damaging ideas.
As much as I’m committed to writing with those values in mind, I’m also committed to reading with them in mind. As a rule, I prefer to review books written by, about, and for their communities. We already have a problem with straight white cis men being overrepresented on our bookshelves, even as early as the picture book stage. Currently, we have an overrepresentation of white gay cis men in our queer lit. The voices and lives of other people deserve to be heard, and our words deserve to be read.
The next time you pick up a book, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, think about who the story is about and who it is for. If you find yourself primarily locked into a pattern, break out of it. If the book challenges your thinking, go with it and see where it takes you. Here’s to listening well, even when that comes in paperback format.