Becky Albertalli’s debut YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, got a lot of attention and was made into a movie, Love, Simon. It also got her some questions about why a seemingly straight woman was writing a book about a gay teenage boy. Her newest book, Imogen, Obviously, tells the story of Imogen, a staunch LGBTQ+ ally who realizes she might be bisexual. It reflects Albertalli’s process of realizing that same thing in her 30s. PW spoke with Albertalli about the complexities of denial, biphobia, and being an ally within the LGBTQ+ community.
In your letter to readers of Imogen, Obviously, you ask “what does it feel like when your brain hides a piece of itself?” That’s an interesting way to put the experience of realizing you’re not who you thought you were. Can you say more about that and what you wanted to show through Imogen’s experiences?
I would say that this is a lot of what drove me to write the book. That question was a piece of my last couple of years and my experiences around coming out and sorting things out in my head. It was the mystery underlying it all. The process was fraught because I had a position in the public eye, but if you take that piece out of it, it was fascinating for me. I was a psychologist; I have a doctorate in clinical psychology, and my focus was doing affirming work with queer clients. I had always considered myself to be self-aware; I didn’t feel like I was avoiding anything. I found the whole mechanism of denial to be fascinating. My bisexuality was hidden in plain sight. There was always an alternate explanation; I could always explain my experiences so that they blended in with the background.
You used the word “denial,” which has an active quality to it. Is that accurate?
I love this question. That was the whole thing for me. Imogen grapples with that; she says something like, “I know about denial—denial is like a curtain with a clear truth behind it. But I’m looking right at it; it can’t be denial.” I’ve heard that experience described as denial, and I’ve heard it described as compulsory heterosexuality. There are different ways to talk about it. What was really important for me was the fact that the active quality I associate with the word “denial” made me feel like that wasn’t what was happening. It didn’t match up with what I had always thought denial meant. It’s one of the things that makes this experience hard to wrap your head around.
Imogen is affected not only by compulsory heterosexuality, but also the idea that there’s a correct narrative of when and how one should understand one’s sexuality. What did you want to portray about received narratives and how they affect people?
First and foremost: I don’t think there’s a right way to do it or a right way to be. In terms of the messaging out there, it might not affect every single queer person, but it affected me. You end up seeing certain shared experiences—not universal, but common—and there’s a lot of comfort and joy and even humor in it. I don’t check all those boxes, but when I do, there’s a moment of “hey.” It’s kind of like, for me, the feeling of when I meet another Jew in the wild, and we ask each other what camp we went to. At the same time, if you take those tropes of queer experiences literally, it can feel kind of alienating. If someone is uncertain and looking for some kind of sign, then those tropes can be a factor either way.
But I think these conversations focus too much on American and western cultural norms. I have readers from all over the world and a lot of closeted queer people write to me. When I think about queer communities, that’s always there for me, the idea that there are sides of the story that aren’t being shared loudly and publicly because they can’t be. Queer communities include closeted people as much as people who are openly queer. Being closeted isn’t a step down.
You came out as bisexual in 2020 and while there’s a B in LGBTQ, biphobia is prevalent in both gay and straight communities. How do you think that affected you and what did you want to show about that in the book?
For me, what biphobia has looked like is people questioning whether I count as queer, whether I’m telling the truth, whether I’m deluding myself or have some other motivation, whether I’m too privileged to need access to the community. And it’s complicated, because what I personally encounter day-to-day looks a little different from what friends of mine have experienced in terms of homophobia. I’m not getting slurs yelled at me in Target. And that’s really important; that’s a massive privilege. I don’t take that for granted and I try to hold onto that as part of the big picture.
Lots of what I’ve experienced comes from the queer community, sometimes from monosexual people, sometimes other bisexual people. I think that when queer people lash out at other queer people, it can’t be separated from the homophobia that comes from broad allocishet norms, because often that lashing out is rooted in self-protection. I get it. With communities that form around safety—which is not always the center of queer communities, but can be—there’s a tendency sometimes for people to want to protect that, and to worry about people who look like the oppressor slipping through the cracks and compromising the safety of the group.
Is part of this about a perception that some people have, even queer people, that bi people can opt in and out of the queer community at will?
Bi is doing some heavy lifting in the discourse: it’s standing in for somebody who’s not measurably marginalized, who’s not experiencing the same kind of discrimination as someone who is visibly queer. But things are more fluid than that. There’s no way to measure who hurts more, and I don’t want to do that, but the straight-appearing person, like Imogen, if she’s walking down the street holding hands with her girlfriend, in that situation, she would be read as gay. And online, there’s a whole other sphere of social interaction. I came out in 2020 and for a long time, with the pandemic, that was my community. My picture is straight passing, but when I came out in a Medium essay that everyone in my professional community and everyone I’ve ever met and will meet read, and it became a focal topic of internet discourse for two weeks, I was visibly queer online. Online is different from walking down the street, of course, but it’s a part of the experience. Both are valid and carry the potential for trauma and for connection and community-building. It just can look really different for different people.
You used the word “discourse” here, which is something Imogen’s very conscious of. She’s happy to defer to queer voices about queerness, but instead of clear answers, she gets a cacophony of different opinions. Do you have advice on how to have useful and mutually respectful conversations given the reality of a large community that doesn’t always agree?
I have some broad best practices for being online. Fundamentally, I assume good faith. I would rather be scammed by someone pretending to be queer than call someone’s queerness into question. Another core value is the importance of listening to people’s experiences without trying to fit them into a framework based on what it looked like for me. Just because I fought my way into figuring it out in my 30s doesn’t mean it’s impossible to know your sexuality at age six. It is possible. Or you can be six and have no idea; that’s also legit.
A lot of online tempests and discourse stem from people’s different reactions to media. My fundamental rule about that is that you have the right to curate your media consumption. You have the right not to read gay books written by women; if you’re making a list of the 10 best gay books, you have the right to leave off books you think are written by people who aren’t queer. What you don’t have the right to do is project those expectations onto other people. You have the right to not see Love, Simon because it was written by a woman; you don’t have the right to harass the woman who wrote it.
One recurring issue is Imogen’s desire to be the best possible ally to LGBTQ+ people. What do you think productive allyship looks like and how did your experience as an ally affect your exploration of your own sexuality?
For me the idea of myself as an ally was so fundamental to my own process that it made my exploration harder, which is not always the case. A lot of people start out as allies and that gives them access to more perspectives on queerness. Where it got tricky for me was that since I was in the public eye, I felt like I owed a sense of my positionality to my public, and I had to ’fess up.
“Ally” had been how I defined myself, and it was hard to break out of it and interrogate it. It’s important to remember that allyship is not fixed—it’s a directive to show up and be in solidarity with people who are marginalized in ways you are not, and that can and should happen under the queer umbrella. As a cis queer person, I believe that we need to show up for trans queer people. That’s allyship within the queer community. And that’s a more helpful framework: neither label is fixed, queerness and allyship co-exist and ebb and flow over time.
How has writing this novel affected your next project?
I’m not very good at hiding the fact that this book is my baby. I never understood authors who say, “oh, this is the book of my heart.” They’re all the book of my heart; otherwise, I couldn’t finish them. But this book has been so hard for me to move on from. I’ve started drafting the next book, and usually there’s a moment when it clicks, when I’m getting to know the characters and am fully along for the ride. I feel like I should be there, but I’m not.
This book is so personal; are you worried about the kinds of questions you’ll be asked?
I’m nervous because I haven’t been traveling much, but I’m less anxious than I’ve ever been about answering questions. I used to dread the “Why are you the person to write this story” question because I didn’t fully understand why I was the person. Now I feel like I know how to answer any questions, and I know where my lines are.
Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 May 2 ISBN 978-0-06-332526-5