When I was fifteen, I decided to challenge myself as a writer. I wrote mostly fantasy, so I wanted to write something set in the “real world.” I wrote all girl protagonists, so I decided to write a boy. My main characters were straight, so I decided to make him gay.
The result? The very bad, very first draft that would become I Knew Him.
There was freedom in writing this story back then. I don’t think I fully understood it, but I think that was the reason I kept coming back to try and fix the story so it could actually be published.
For many LGBTQ writers, writing a protagonist who isn’t straight is often the lightbulb moment for them. It’s the moment they realize what this character feels is what they feel as well. It certainly was for me writing Julian. While he started out in a way that I felt was totally different to me, over the years he shifted to reflect my experience more and more. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Julian was gay in earlier drafts, but as I grew older and learned more about bisexuality, I felt it was more fitting for him to also be bisexual based on how he spoke about his ex-girlfriend in previous drafts. I became so wrapped up in learning about bisexual representation in media, and felt true despair when TV shows and movies failed to acknowledge it as a valid identity. It was only after several years of writing this book and caring so much about the bi representation that I began to ask myself why.
But that wasn’t the only place that I found joy and freedom in writing I Knew Him.
As a young writer, I found freedom in expressing Julian’s anger. In earlier drafts, this was more apparent, but as I grew up writing the story, this aspect of his character softened. I felt anger as a teenager towards friends and school situations I couldn’t control, but I had no way of fully expressing it. In school, boys who got upset hit walls or each other and it was seen as somewhat acceptable. But what could a girl do to feel the same release? I had nowhere to put the feelings I had. Even so much as speaking firm to a friend was seen as hostile or aggressive. So I wrote a character with whom it was acceptable to express this anger, and channelled mine into him.
As I got older, and I learned better to deal with negative emotions, Julian’s character also shifted. He still felt a lot of anger and despair about his current situation, but there was a softer edge in his suffering. Instead of seeking to tear things apart, he sought to put them back together. He sought to find balance in his very imbalanced life by building a safe support system in friends like Sky and Kelsey.
I also wrote Julian to be more caring of the people around him, more “soft” as some might call him. The more I grew up as a young woman in this world, the more I saw the poison of toxic masculinity in everything and everyone. I wanted to write a boy who did not exactly abide by the rules, who had tried to fit into them in traditional ways by playing sports and picking fights, but ultimately felt deep hurt within that structure. I wanted to write a boy who respected the girls around him, who valued them as close friends. A boy who valued gentleness and felt great sadness to experience it, after so long going without it.
I might not have achieved all those goals a hundred percent, but that was my motivation in writing the version of Julian that now exists in the published novel. Writing Julian, there was so much I wanted to say, and I felt best saying it through him.
After writing I Knew Him, I decided to return to my “roots” so to speak and write another girl protagonist. This would later become Kat of We Go Together. Her story, her pain, hit so close to my heart. Among many things, We Go Together is about how the world is unkind to young girls, and how many queer women fall into toxic relationships with men for fear of being different. While writing Kat’s story was in many ways fulfilling and constructive, it was also incredibly painful. It felt so real, like a situation myself or a friend of mine could go through if fate was unkind.
I’ve since drafted ideas for other stories with young bisexual girls, and they are equally painful. The constant presence of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity weaves its way into all these narratives, whether I like it or not. It is ever-present, it is everywhere, much like in my daily life. It is so difficult to write about.
So, I turned to a new project. Another male narrator. And while he also experienced many painful realities of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, it wasn’t quite so suffocating. I felt freedom again. And, like all my protagonists, he wasn’t straight either. I don’t think I can ever write about straight people again.
In some ways, writing a male protagonist is like imagining a world with slightly less danger. It’s like going for a walk at 2am without constantly checking behind you. It’s moving through certain spaces without the same concerns. Obviously, queer men also face dangerous situations. It’s not like they’re free from fear themselves. But it’s different worries, different fears. And it doesn’t hit so close to my heart to write about them. There’s a certain distance between me and their realities that makes it easier to explore in my writing.
I am currently striving to push myself into writing an uplifting story featuring a group of girls. I long to feel the freedom in them that I have writing Julian or my other newer boy protagonist, but I have a feeling it will be a challenge every step of the way. I must try to build a world, however unrealistic it may actually be, where girls run through their neighbourhoods at 2am, where they wander around town without restriction, where they rage and love with the same fire as the boys I’ve written about. We’ll see if I succeed. But until I do, my readers have these boys to read about, and love with all their hearts, as I have.