Guest post by Dani Jansen
Is it weird that I’m sometimes jealous of the main character in my own book?
Don’t get me wrong! I do NOT want to go back to high school. Okay. You might argue I never left—I’m a high school teacher—but there is a big difference between watching the show and being in the show.
Being a teenager is hard. I’m exhausted just watching them sometimes. So if I don’t want to go back to high school, why am I jealous of my teen protagonist? Because she’s out. She knows she likes girls. I, on the other hand, couldn’t understand why I felt jealous when a girl I thought was “just really cool and, like, a great friend” started dating a guy.
My protagonist is out and she’s only 17. I came out at 39.
A little over a year ago, I posted this message to Facebook:
As I edit my book, I am reminded that one of my protagonist’s struggles is defining for herself how out is “out enough.” It’s funny that only now do I notice how this resonates for me. I don’t think I’ve told most people in my life I’m bisexual. Like my protagonist, I think that coming out is an unfair pressure put on people who aren’t straight and cis. Add to that the fact that I’ve been in a heterosexual relationship for a really long time, and I haven’t seen the “need” to come out. But as I prepare for this story to enter the wider world, I want to be honest with everyone. So there you have it.
A friend commented that coming out via literary analysis was “the most Dani move.” She was right. I understand the world through stories, which is why I’m a writer and an English teacher. Coming to know my main character, who like me is nerdy and overthinks everything, helped me better understand many aspects of myself, including my sexuality. I saw how free Alison felt when she came out and since I was the one writing her that way, I suspected I might feel the same if I came out too.
I wrote The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life because my students wanted more funny books. I also wrote it because some of them were struggling with something that felt oddly familiar to me: their families and friends were open-minded people, but coming out was still complicated. My husband has known I’m bisexual, or at least “not straight,” for almost as long as we’ve been together, but despite being surrounded by caring people, many of whom are LGBTQIA+, I haven’t known how to come out. For a while, I wasn’t even sure how to label myself. And without a label, how do you come out? (I understand many people aren’t comfortable with labels, and I respect that.) Finding a label has helped me feel less alone. However, even when I decided bisexual felt right, I still hesitated.
Some of my hesitations stemmed from internalised biphobia. Was I really queer if I was married to a man? I’d never seriously dated a woman, so who was I to claim an identity others had fought hard to make visible? Wouldn’t people just think I was a poser? Was I just a poser? Even when I helped students and a fellow teacher found a Gay-Straight Alliance at our school, I let everyone assume I was a straight ally. It seemed easier, safer. I realise now that I missed out on an opportunity to show that sexuality isn’t defined just by what people see and that bisexuality is legitimate.
In the end, I decided I’d be a hypocrite if I published a book featuring an out lesbian while I was still mostly closeted. Writing the story forced me to have important conversations with others about what it was like for them to come out. I am so grateful to those who shared their stories because without them, I don’t know if I would have come out. I might have let the loop of “am-I-queer-enough” questions keep playing in my brain instead of trusting the people in my life to understand that sexuality is complex.
Coming out was awkward, honestly. I felt too old to be coming out. I cringed at the messages of support I received because I didn’t feel like I’d done anything brave. I still presented to most of the world as a straight woman. I wasn’t in any kind of danger. My community was supportive, I didn’t fear for my job and my life hadn’t changed in any outward way. I’m socially awkward at the best of times, and I had no idea how to properly respond to the kind messages from friends and family. I was glad the conversations mostly took place online, where I could shape my responses. (You may find some similarities to my protagonist here as well.)
Despite feeling awkward and old, I’m glad I came out. I feel more genuinely myself than I did before. I’ve been able to work on the internalised biphobia that held me back for so many years. I’ve also had fun finding other bisexual folks to follow on social media. When I cut my hair into a bob with straight bangs, I enjoyed the gentle ribbing about finally getting the “bi bob.” I felt a sense of community in these moments that I didn’t have before.
So why is my main character lesbian rather than bisexual? This is going to sound like writer woo-woo, but she just is. Over the months and years that I wrote the book, I got to know Alison very well, and she likes girls. Just girls. If you give them enough time, the characters you create become their own people. They tell you about themselves, and you ignore that at your own risk. Alison is anxious about A LOT of things, but whether or not she’s lesbian is not one of them.
Though there’s a fair bit of me in Alison, she is not me. For one, Alison is more self-aware than I was as a teen, hence the jealousy. I think most teens today are. They are better informed about the many ways sexuality and gender diverge from the binaries we’ve long clung to. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that a teen helped me come out. As a teacher, I know that we have a lot to learn from younger generations. I’m excited to see what I learn next.
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