I witnessed a conversation on Twitter recently that raised my hackles a little bit. (I AM NOT NAMING NAMES. DO NOT ASK ME TO.) A reader was asking about bi rep in books and a non-bisexual author responded to mention they had written bisexual characters. Seems harmless enough. What’s the problem with that?
The thing is? I’ve read one of the books they mentioned and I had a severe problem with the way bisexuality was treated. Unchallenged bimisia* from the protagonist, and a supporting character who was potentially bi had that potential completely erased even though he hadn’t actually accepted “gay” as a label. Ugh.
*-misia is a suffix meaning hatred or dislike. Because -phobia’s use to describe bigoted hate can hurt people with actual phobias, I prefer to use -misia in its place.
If the author had been bi, we would be having an entirely different conversation because there is more nuance required when critiquing ownvoices narratives. The author is marginalised in other ways so I don’t want to put them on blast over a short tweet, but I do want to talk about the issue in general.
This post is bouncing off a thread I wrote on Twitter (this tweet is a good jumping-off point for the thread since I’ve already mentioned the context in this post):
I don’t have a problem with authors writing about identities they don’t share if they do it respectfully. I believe all authors should aim to diversify their manuscripts because having all white allocishet people is completely unrealistic, even in historical fiction.
If you’re writing outside your lane, you are at a disadvantage. I’ve spoken about this before in my How Not to Be a Dick to Bisexuals series (1, 2, 3) so I’m not going to rehash that. In short, you’re probably going to screw it up somewhere along the line and you need to be cognizant of that.
Part of that awareness should inform how you choose to promote yourself and your work. You cannot simply say you’ve written a character with a marginalisation you don’t share and expect people to fall over in their haste to worship you. Get off that mountain, Zeus-wannabe, and listen up.
I would strongly advise against self-promoting your work to people looking for rep. It comes off as kinda like you’re cashing in on someone’s else’s identity. Uplift ownvoices authors instead. You should be reading their work anyway, otherwise there is no goddamn way what you write is going to be anywhere near decent.
If you really must mention you’ve written the identity, too, then, after preferably sharing some ownvoices recs, you need to make it very clear that 1) you do not share the identity, 2) you’ve made every effort to make sure the rep is good, but 3) you are not the authority on the subject. Don’t half-ass it. I don’t care how many times you’ve talked about your writing; you will have new eyes on your words every single time.
And you better not be lying on that second point. We can tell. Get yourself a sensitivity reader, preferably more than one. I can’t find out whether the author I mentioned had a bi sensitivity reader, but it definitely appeared that they didn’t.
It frustrates me to no end when marginalised folk trample over each other. And, look, I don’t want to hold marginalised authors to higher standards. However, while white allocishet authors are often obnoxious as hell, the pain cuts deeper when it’s someone adjacent to our own community. This goes double when the author is active on social media, where we talk about issues of rep all the time. In this information age, there really is no excuse.
Ownvoices should take priority when you’re offering recs, because we should be permitted to control our own narratives. It’s cool if you want to write outside your lane, but you need to respect writers and readers who share the identity you’re writing. Being adjacent to an identity (e.g. a queer author writing about another queer identity they don’t share) does not make you an expert. You’ve got to do the hard work as much as a white allocishet author does.
So, promo ownvoices. Don’t be so hasty to grab the spotlight for yourself when people are asking for rep about an identity you don’t share. Be humble, or you’re gonna look like a dick if a reader with that identity has an issue with the way you’ve written it. And there’s a very good chance someone will. Keep that in mind.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but apparently it is.