Why I Wrote Cam Girl by Leah Raeder

I wrote my third novel, Cam Girl, for a very personal reason: because I couldn’t put off being honest with myself about my gender identity any longer. And like most writers, I deal with things best (well, at all) by writing them out.

When I was a kid, I never thought of myself in terms of being any particular gender. Instead I identified as a character, a role. I was Robin Hood saving Marian from the evil Sheriff, or Link rescuing Princess Zelda from Ganon, or Simon Belmont plunging a stake into Dracula’s heart. When we played house I insisted on being the dad, or I’d quit. As I got older I refused to wear dresses, bought boys’ clothes, cut my hair short, and edged farther and farther into masculinity. At the same time, I realized I liked girls. A lot. Like, alot a lot. So I thought: okay, this is expected. This is just what some queer girls are like. We’re tomboys.

Except I wasn’t a tomboy. I knew that, deep down. A tomboy is someone who identifies as a girl but acts like a boy. Whatever I was, I knew I wasn’t a girl.

Yet I put off thinking about all of this because Tumblr didn’t even exist and I’d never heard the word “transgender.”

In my twenties, I struggled with finding a label for my sexual orientation. I liked girls almost exclusively, but “lesbian” always felt like the wrong word for me, viscerally. Like it was making a statement about my identity that I knew to be deeply untrue. But I was female–at least, my body was–and I liked girls, so what the hell else could I be? I read book after book searching for an answer. I found glimmers of it in Jeanette Winterson and Virginia Woolf: characters who fluctuated across gender boundaries, reveling in their androgyny. Okay, I thought. That’s closer to what I am. But androgyny was only part of it–the blurry part of my gender, the part I presented externally to the world. The short hair and boy clothes coupled with the high-pitched voice and petite frame. It was my gender expression, not my gender identity. What was the core shape beneath that? Was there one?

After writing Black Iris and spilling my guts out on queerness, I found myself weirdly unsatisfied. I’d thought that book would be some epic unburdening of the queer identity that I’d been bullied for, that I’d hidden and downplayed for so long, but it felt like a minuscule revelation compared to whatever was still lurking inside me. When people called me a “girl who likes girls,” I just smiled and nodded, because being acknowledged and validated as queer was hard enough. How could I expect anyone to understand it was more complicated than that, when so many of them were just now coming to terms with the idea of same-sex love? When I didn’t even know what the hell to call myself, anyway?

Ironically, I had no refuge, no secret identity to hide behind any longer. Everyone knew I was queer as fuck, and most of them were cool with that. I had the acceptance and support I’d craved so much as a teen.

But they were accepting and supporting this girl who wasn’t me.

Win Things: Leah will give away two galley copies of Cam Girl to random commenters.

I spent so many nights browsing Tumblr, searching for something that would resonate with me, make me feel less alone. It was my twenties all over again. Here I was, this accomplished, thirty-something author being praised for the way I portrayed queerness and for helping other queer people feel validated, yet I felt completely isolated from that validation myself. I’d boxed myself out of the acceptance I needed. Everyone was over there having a grand old party under the rainbow rave lights, and I was alone again in the dark corner, the freak, the odd man out.

It was thanks to a certain person that I finally started thinking seriously about gender. He made me realize that my gender, not my sexuality, was what I needed to come to terms with. I started watching FTM transition videos, obsessively. I read story after story and looked at pic after pic of trans boys who were assigned female at birth, but knew they weren’t girls inside. I watched them go through the same rituals and reinventions I had: from tomboy, to butch, to something else. And I knew: That’s it. That’s me. That’s why I’m okay with being called “queer” but not “lesbian.” That’s why I dress this way, want people to see me a particular way. I fit somewhere on the transgender spectrum.

It’s pretty fucking terrifying to come to this realization when you are one-third into your life. But at the same time, it was something I’d always known. I’d just never had the words for it.

When I realized all of this, Cam Girl came pouring out of me in a raging flood. It’s confessional and personal like all of my books, but it’s the closest to my heart by far. As Ellis says in the novel, gender nonconformity is still one of society’s biggest taboos. Some people may finally be “tolerant” of cisgender gay folk, but trans people are still at the highest risk of abuse and harm, from others and from themselves. The gender binary is ingrained deeply in most cultures and most people. It’s woven into our languages, religion, law, art, into the ways we see and think about the world. It’s an incredible falsehood that’s immensely difficult to break free of, but some of us have no choice.

So I wrote Cam Girl because I had no choice. It’s who I am. I’m a queer, nonbinary person who was assigned female at birth, but who doesn’t identify as a girl. I’m not quite sure what I do identify as yet, but it’s okay to simply know what you’re not. And I wanted to tell others: it’s okay if you don’t know yet, too. It’s okay if you’re questioning, trying things out, experimenting with pronouns and presentations. It’s okay if you land somewhere indefinable, blurry, in flux. You are okay, just as you are.

I wanted to give people words for this, because I needed them once, and couldn’t find them no matter how hard I looked. It’s a whole damn book about finding the right words. I hope someone out there who’s struggling with their gender identity, just like I did, finds this book, and feels a resonance, and realizes:

I’m not alone. And I’m okay.

Win Things:

Leah will give away two galley copies of Cam Girl to random commenters.

About Leah Raeder

Leah Raeder is a writer and unabashed nerd. Aside from reading her brains out, she enjoys graphic design, video games, fine whiskey, and the art of self-deprecation. She lives with her very own manic pixie dream boy in Chicago.

(And she still writes pretentiously lyrical fiction.)

About Cam Girl

cam girlFrom the USA TODAY bestselling author of Unteachable andBlack Iris comes a new, sexy romantic suspense novel about two best friends who are torn apart by a life-shattering accident…and the secrets left behind.

Vada Bergen is broke, the black sheep of her family, and moving a thousand miles away from home for grad school, but she’s got the two things she loves most: her art and her best friend—and sometimes more—Ellis Carraway. Ellis and Vada have a friendship so consuming it’s hard to tell where one girl ends and the other begins. It’s intense. It’s a little codependent. And nothing can tear them apart.

Until an accident on an icy winter road changes everything.

Vada is left deeply scarred, both emotionally and physically. Her once-promising art career is cut short. And Ellis pulls away, unwilling to talk about that night. Everything Vada loved is gone.

She’s got nothing left to lose.

So when she meets some smooth-talking entrepreneurs who offer to set her up as a cam girl, she can’t say no. All Vada has to do is spend a couple hours each night stripping on webcam, and the “tips” come pouring in.

It’s just a kinky escape from reality until a client gets serious. “Blue” is mysterious, alluring, and more interested in Vada’s life than her body. Online, they chat intimately. Blue helps her heal. And he pays well, but he wants her all to himself. No more cam shows. It’s an easy decision: she’s starting to fall for him. But the steamier it gets, the more she craves the real man behind the keyboard. So Vada pops the question:

Can we meet IRL?

Blue agrees, on one condition. A condition that will bring back a ghost from her past.

Now Vada must confront what she’s been running from. A past full of devastating secrets—those of others and those she’s been keeping from herself…

Available November 3rd 2015 

Pre-order on Amazon US

Or Amazon UK

53 CommentsLeave a comment

  • thank you so much for sharing your story. i enjoyed Black Iris alot and pretty much neeeded to read whatever else you wrote. thus i then read Unteachable and i’m eagerly awaiting Cam Girl :)

  • This is wonderful and it speaks to me so much. I haven’t read Cam Girl yet, but I can’t wait to, and your journey sorta reflects mine. BI helped me come to terms with my queer identity (more, anyway. I was already AWARE, but there’s a difference between knowing and KNOWING) and I fully expect CG to do the same for my non-binary/genderqueer/genderfluid identity. So, thank you.

  • From the time I heard about this book, I’ve wanted to read it. Not only that, I’ve grown to appreciate Leah as an author/person on Twitter. The gender binary is something we as a society are still trying to adopt, but the battle is difficult.

    Regardless, ridiculously looking forward to this title!

  • I’ve been a fan since Unteachable, but when Black Iris came by… It was groundbreaking for me to read. A book that unapologetically told me that my sexuality is defined by me and only me and will not fit a definition that’s been imposed.
    But more than that I found probably the best descriptions of friendships I have ever read. The intimacies that come simply by knowing someone as more than an acquaintance.
    I can’t wait for Cam Girl, regardless of how much that specific experience is not mine, the way you write delves so much into HUMAN relationships, that’s impossible not to find a bit of yourself in your books.
    I am a huge fan. Thank you, for your posts and for your books.

  • As a mother of a 15-year-old daughter who is trying to figure herself out, I appreciate you opening up and sharing your story. From what you’ve said, I see so much of her and her struggle. I remember feeling the same way after reading your Acknowledgments in Black Iris.

    Thank you for writing in a voice that isn’t the norm but still needs to be heard and helping a mother (Me) see my daughter a little better.
    I can’t wait to read Cam Girl!

    • Thank you so much for saying this, Cristin. It gives me huge warm fuzzies to know that my books have helped you understand and connect better with your kid. She’s lucky to have you.

  • I’m only about two-thirds of the way through Black Iris and I can’t put it down. Your writing is so raw, I really don’t know how to describe it. When I first heard about you, not too long ago, I was so excited to start reading. I loved Unteachable. I cannot wait for Cam Girl. Thank you so much for writing these pieces of yourself.

  • I love this post. Black Iris was one of my favorite reads this year and I cannot wait until Cam Girl release. I also hope to be able to convince my sister to read both as a way to kind of open her eyes to everything my niece is going through right now. It’s because of people like you and books like this being so open that is making it easier, at least in a public setting, to help people to be able to understand more about both sexuality and gender identity. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Erika. I love that people have been using these books to help others understand their loved ones better. That’s all kinds of awesome. Hope your sister and niece both reach that point of understanding together.

  • This really spoke to me. When I was in high school I knew lesbian wasn’t the right word for me either, because I didn’t feel like a girl as well. It took years to figure out what was right. I am so happy that your writing has helped you figure out who you are–mine has as well. You seem like such an awesome person and I am absolutely looking forward to this book!

    • Thank you, Kelly. It was really strange to go years and years without knowing why the word “lesbian” felt wrong for me. I kept trying to convince myself that it was *my* problem, that I was just scared of it and should learn to embrace that word and identity. Finally figuring out why it felt so wrong was an immense relief. I don’t feel scared or like I’m being queer in the “wrong” way anymore, and that’s priceless.

  • I love this post so much. Thank you for sharing this, and your books, with us. I’ve learned loads from you on Twitter and I really can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of CAM GIRL. Thank you for continuing to share your experience and speaking frankly about a lot of important things, but especially gender.

  • Well. That resonated somewhat.

    It took me a really long time to figure out I was queer (I was nearly seventeen, and even then I was no idea whether I actually liked girls or whether I was asexual and didn’t like anybody — I still don’t know, three years down the line), and even longer to figure out that that extended to my gender as well as my sexuality. I understand that visceral sense that a word isn’t right. I don’t know a better word. I don’t know why telling people my name always feels ever so slightly like a lie, when no other name works either (for the record, Finn is a pseudonym, the closest I’ve come to a name I’m comfortable with). I don’t know who I am, just that this isn’t it.

    Since the overwhelming narrative I come across is, “Oh yeah, I always knew,” or “I figured it out when I was about twelve,” or whatever, I’ve always faced a sense of denial that comes from feeling invalid. Because I figured things out later than my friends. Because I still don’t have an answer. Because there’s no version of me that feels right yet.

    Glad to know I’m not alone in that, at least.

    • Hey, Finn. Thanks for sharing this. Your comment resonated with me, too.

      There’s so much pressure to be positive and proactive and to embrace a label that definitively states who we are. Being anything outside the cis/het norm means we have to fight to be recognized as human and deserving of basic human rights, so in some ways it’s actually easier to say, “I’m trans and I deserve the same rights and respect as any cis person.” That’s something concrete, a solid concept others can understand, that lawmakers can write protections for, etc.

      But what about all the people that leaves out? People who are at a point more like, “I don’t know what I am yet…I might be trans, I’m definitely not cis, maybe I’m nonbinary but I’m not sure what you should call me…can I still get support?”

      Sometimes I resent that I came to these realizations later in my life, because I missed the window to transition while I was young and build my life around an identity that felt more natural to me. But there’s an upside to it, too–I’m more comfortable now identifying outside the gender binary. I don’t feel pressured to choose between female or male. I don’t hate my femininity anymore and don’t want to eradicate all traces of it from my life. I might never find a better word to call myself than “nonbinary,” and that’s okay–I’ve realized I never would’ve been happy in one binary gender box or another. “Male” is just as constrictive and repressive for me as “female.”

      It sucks not having clarity on this stuff from an early age, as some others do. But delay and uncertainty can also be a blessing. You have a perspective on yourself that you’ve earned with age and time, even if all you can say for certain is, “I’m not any of these things you’re telling me I can be.” Knowing what you’re not is a powerful thing, not a weak one.

  • Thanks so much for writing this post, and writing Cam Girl, and for pretty much everything you tweet and such about gender identity. It has really helped me a lot in discovering my own identity.

  • I’m dying, I cannot wait to read this. Your prose is like crack(I’m guessing on the crack comparison) I like following your journey through the aspects of self identification and gender identification. It’s bonkers, I’m almost 32 and there is finally terminology and conversation happening about what I thought isolated me in high school and all of my twenties. No one said things like gender fluid or believed bisexuality to be anything more than a phase. I’m happy with the person I chose but when I chose him I didn’t believe there were other options for me, my history with girls was wrapped up in New Year’s kisses and drunken field parties. I like exploring your exploration, I think through fiction that hinges on non-fiction you are doing something ridiculously important and I envy that as a writer and saturate my brain in it as a reader. Can’t wait until November ?

    • Thank you, L. And oh man do I feel this comment. A good friend recently came out as bi in her thirties, and she’s dealing with the same thing. We’re forced to make all these huge life-altering choices before we really know who we are–choose a partner, choose a college major, choose a career path. Our 20s are supposed to be all about self-discovery but society is designed to punish anyone who doesn’t make definitive choices as soon as possible.

      I feel like my real life didn’t begin until after 30, when I had the experience and perspective to understand all the crazy shit I went through in my 20s. But I’ve had to commit to so many things that aren’t easily changed. Can I get a do-over, plz?

      Writing and reading books is wish fulfillment for me, and for lots of others in these situations. We can safely explore all this stuff without wrecking our lives and committing to irrevocable changes. I just kinda wish someone ELSE had been writing my books when I was still in my teens, and giving me the guidance I needed to figure myself out. But at least I can do that for others, now.

    • ack, yes! I feel this. it’s so strange to expand your definition of who you are after you’ve already sketched out what your life is supposed to look like. I’m deliriously happy with my choice of partner, even now, but there is a part of me that wonders how things would have turned out if I’d felt safe to explore my identity earlier.

      thanks for sharing.

  • I haven’t read this book, but I fell in love with Leah’s writing while reading Unteachable. I decided I definitely need to read everything she will have ever written. Cam Girl sounds so amazing.

  • You are an amazing person and thank you for sharing your story with us. You are a big inspiration writing books like Black Iris. I’m still figuring myself out but I’m starting to accept things that is part of me that I’ve been denying for so long. Also I’m not a fan of labels cuz it doesn’t defy you. I am what I am and You are what you are.

  • thanks so much for sharing, Leah! I really hope your story can give readers the reassurance they’re looking for.
    And I cannot wait to delve into Cam Girl!

  • Thank you so much for writing this post, and for writing Cam Girl. As a cis-gendered, straight woman, it’s the gender side of the LGBTQ spectrum I’m most interested in when it comes to books, because that’s what I kind of struggle to understand. And, as an ally, I want to understand. So thank you for your book; as well as helping other nonbinary people, you’re helping allies become better allies. I’m so looking forward to reading Cam Girl!

  • Leah, thank you for this post. It brought tears to my eyes. Your books have taught me courage and how to love myself better, and I am so grateful for them. And you. Because of Maise and Laney, I know myself better. (Even though you say you aren’t nice, I hope secretly, you’re smiling if you read this.)

    My heart sings knowing that you are more comfortable in your own skin. ❤️

  • Ive got no words. Stunning. As the godmother of a sexually confused teenage girl I Cant even half relate.. However, over the years… our Hayley/Hayden story was much the same i assume in what you described.
    Hayden’s parents had a hard time letting go of Hayley but in sooo happy that they never let him know it. They provided him with counseling that specializes in gender confusion/reassignment. He is now a thriving 17 yr old boy in his first relationship with a huge social life. Activie in the LGBT community and most recentley started hormone replacement. Its been the most beautiful transition to witness whenb there has been love surrounding him.
    My only wish… That more terns had an oz of that understanding from ANY direction

  • I’m completely speechless. Leah I’m pretty consistently in awe of like, most things you do.

    as another quarter-way-through-life questioner – I appreciate this so much. even if I’m asking different questions it’s nice to know that discovering and coming out and finding your words isn’t something that’s specific to adolescence, that we’re constantly in flux and learning how to fit into our new selves.

    thank you.

    • Thank you, T. It’s so true–we keep learning shit about ourselves our entire lives. It’s terrifying but also sorta comforts me that we never stop growing and understanding ourselves better.

  • What an awesome post, I found this extremely moving. I already have Black Iris on my tbr, just did the pre-order for Cam Girl as it sounds amazing

  • Leah Raeder, your writing, whether it’s a tweet of yours I read, or one of your books, always stirs a budding excitement within me. You have opened my mind to so much, widened my perspective on sexuality and morality. Black Iris especially made me ponder on the latter, or really, Black Iris really did it for me.
    To be introduced to characters who hold the same desires I do, whose actions I can without a doubt give justice to, which you have, is one of the best things to ever come across.
    I’ve been awaiting Cam Girl for so long and soon enough it’ll be there for my taking, and for others. Please, I could cry. You matter so much to me, and so do your opinions. I love reading about through your tweets, interviews, books.

  • I’m another person who’s figuring things out after 30. I always wanted to be a boy but didn’t have a word for what I was. The few trans people I saw in documentaries and such talked about being so miserable they wanted to kill themselves. I didn’t feel like that so I figured I couldn’t be one of them.

    I finally embraced my trans identity two years ago after seeing a happy, out coworker give a presentation. I wanted to be like him, to have a better life.

    I feel like you Leah. I was fine with “gay” but never felt comfortable with the word lesbian. Because that’s a GIRL who likes other girls, and I was never a girl.

    And I also worry about coming to this realization so late, like god I wasted so much time! But at least I know now.

    • Hey Devin. Thanks so much for commenting, and congrats on embracing your identity. You bring up a great point: being trans doesn’t necessarily mean being miserable. Cis society loves to push the tragic trans narrative. And while that’s true for many, and is a prime reason why transgender folks need compassion and support, it can make those who don’t experience the same amount of depression, dysphoria, or other negativity feel invalidated, like they’re not really trans. For a long time it made me feel like I couldn’t be trans, either.

      It was incredibly relieving and empowering to realize that there are as many ways of being transgender as there are folks who are trans. Some trans folks *are* miserable and that is an absolutely valid experience for them; some have much milder dysphoria, if any, yet they still know they’re trans, and that’s valid, too.

      My friend Sam Schooler wrote a great post on this for QRM, and said: “Trans is trans is trans.” All of our experiences are valid. We need more stories about people like us so that we can see all the different paths to understanding our identities.

      • Yes! And it was a learning experience for me when I found out there are trans folks that aren’t male or female, or both, or change depending on the day.

        Even within the trans community, we have a lot to learn from each other. :)

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