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.
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.
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
From 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