It wasn’t a big surprise when Katie Heaney came out as a lesbian.
Heaney may be best known for her first memoir, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, but she was on my radar well before her literary debut in 2014. Way back in the annals of Internet history, she and I both wrote for the late, great Hairpin, which was about the most queer-friendly women’s site at the time that wasn’t specifically geared toward lesbians. Heaney’s recurring column, “Reading Between the Texts,” was, in retrospect, a highly accessible introductory course in both literary analysis and emotional processing. Those are two of the most popular lesbian pastimes (the third is a tie between fisting and craft beer).
Never Have I Ever is a very specific yet intensely relatable story about a girl who just can’t seem to make it work with men. When Heaney wrote it, she was 25 and had never had a boyfriend. The book is a paean to romantic disappointment, but also to the life-sustaining female friendships that make it bearable. Quick, what’s another word for a woman who has more fulfilling relationships with women than with men?
I’m mostly kidding here; it’s shitty to speculate about a person’s orientation based on their incidental resemblance to homophobic stereotypes, and lots of straight women struggle to find a compatible dude. All I’m really saying is that, when Heaney announced a couple years ago that she had found not a boyfriend, but a girlfriend, I was like “Oh, that makes sense.”
And when I read her new memoir, Would You Rather, I spent a lot of time being like “Oh, that makes sense.” Heaney’s story of her 28-year journey to coming out (and, spoiler alert, finding love) is very different from mine in many ways. Still, the way she captures the particular joys and struggles of queer lifeborrowing clothes from one’s girlfriend; being disappointed by Pride; having a lot of feelings about Shane McCutcheonis phenomenally engaging. Without hitting the reader over the head with The Takeaway, Heaney uses her own story to illustrate important points about what kind of gay narratives are gaining visibility and who’s getting pushed to the side. She also captures the confusion of coming of age in a world where heterosexuality is so deeply ingrained that even queer people can have trouble imagining a world outside of the boy-meets-girl paradigm.
Most importantly, she is warm and genuine in the telling of a vulnerable story. Heaney’s narrative voice is so affable that it’s easy to miss the skill with which she crafts her prose and get caught up in the sensation that you’re just shooting the shit with a friend. When I got the chance to interview her, it felt like a continuation of the conversation we’d been having in my head the whole time I was reading the book.
INTO: Would You Rather is a coming-out memoir, but it’s also a pretty universal narrative of being in your late twenties and realizing that your life is not going to look the way you once imagined. What audience did you have in mind while writing this book? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
Katie Heaney: I definitely hoped that the young women who connected to my first book would want to read this one, too, and you can see that in the bookI really worried about letting them down. Now I can see I was putting too much pressure on myself, and when I came out to The Internet I got so many lovely and supportive messages from people who’d read the first book and still accepted me. That meant a lot to me. So I hope they’ll read it. But I also hope this book reaches the queer teenagers and twenty-somethings who are spending time on weird Internet quizzes and blogs trying to figure out if they’re gay or not, because that was me not so long ago. I spent so long trying to figure it out. And that’s what I hope people take away from this bookthat you don’t have to figure anything out by a certain age, but also, you don’t have to figure everything out before you try something! If you think you might be into girls, date girls! You don’t have to be a 100% self-aware capital-L Lesbian since birth first. You can just be you.
INTO: You ended up in a serious long-term relationship with the very first woman you went on a date with after coming out, and I hope you don’t mind me saying that that is THE GAYEST SHIT EVER. Are you the Chosen One? Should we rebrand U-Hauling as Heaneying? And more seriously, how are things going with Lydia?
KH: Hahaha. I know, right? The only thing we could have done to be gayer would be to make a “girlfriend tag” video for YouTube and get engaged after like, six months. We moved in together after 10 months, which isn’t even that fast for lesbians! Right?
Things with Lydia are good! We adopted a puppy about five months ago and named her Rindy Aird, after Carol’s daughter in Carol. Which is pretty gay.
INTO: It took a long time to identify your distaste for dating men as a sign of your queerness, because complaining about one’s dates or romantic partners is so normalized in straight culture. How is dating as a ‘mo different? Is there any advice you wish you could go back and give yourself when you were still dating men?
KH: I mean, the advice I wish I could give myself when I was trying to date men is: Please, just stop. Nobody here is having any fun. It’s supposed to be at least a little fun. Yes, straight women complain about dating, and rightfully so, but for the most part, they REALLY don’t treat it with abject dread the way I did. I never actively wanted to hang out with guys. Even ones I thought I liked! I chalked it up to nerves, which you can do to a point, but with Lydia I pretty quickly found that when I wanted to see her or kiss her, it was relatively easy to get over those nerves. I can’t really speak to how dating is different now, because like you, said, it’s just been Lydia for me, but I will say that the week or two I spent on gay OkCupid and Tinder before meeting her was extremely pleasant and harassment-free, which cannot be said for all the time I spent on dating apps as a “straight” person.
INTO: Do you think the LGBTQ community does an effective job of supporting people who come out laterish in life?Obviously you, like me, are still very, very young. Is there anything you wish people understood better about taking some time to realize you’re queer?
KH: On a personal level, I’ve felt very supported by my queer friends, and my straight ones too. I’ve been lucky. But I also think that some of the “Born This Way” rhetoric complicated things for me, and oversimplifies many people’s identities. It eliminates our agency and, I think, reduces us to our biology. It feels like a very early-aughts and cis-specific way of thinking. I think it maybe helped get the job done as far as marriage rights, but I think it’s outlived its use as like, our motto.
I don’t feel like I was born gay. I feel like I was born myself, and that over time, the person I was shifted. I really did have crushes on boys when I was young. And I am sure that socialization played a role in that, as did heteronormativity, but I don’t think I was completely ignorant of myself, either. For me, there has been a definite element of fluidity. And that makes it super confusing when every queer story you encounter is about a person who knew they were gay since they were five, and then remained closeted until high school or college, and then came out. That just wasn’t me.
INTO: How has coming out affected you as a writer? Do you find that your style, your goals, etc. have shifted at all?
KH: It’s certainly changed the types of stories I want to tell. I want to write queer characters, and I especially want to write queer characters who aren’t suffering for their queerness. I love chick lit, I love rom-coms, and I want to write that kind of thing for queer girlsespecially teenagers. Coming out narratives are dominant in YA for a reason, they’re super important, but I also want there to be a point at which you can have a fun, lighthearted, happy love story about two high school kids who are both queer and it’s not some major crisis.
INTO: You talk about how Shane McCutcheon was crucial to your nascent understanding of your queer identity, and Lesbian Jesus knows you are not alone in that. Who do you think will be the Shane of the next gay generation?
KH: It’s Kristen Stewart, right? It has to be her. After her, I feel like it might be someone like Kiersey Clemons or Amandla Stenberg. I feel a hundred years old saying this, but I’m so impressed by how politically conscious and self-aware some teenagers are today. That was so not my high school experience.
INTO: Do you wish you had realized you were gay sooner? If so, what would you have needed to make that possible?
KH: I do. I actually talk about this in therapy a lot! I can really upset myself thinking about all the things I missed out on. My girlfriend came out at 14, and even though some of her stories from the years afterward are really sad and difficult, I think I glamorize them, and feel jealous of all her experiences. Because I wasn’t dating boys either. I was alone a lot of the time.
And I think as you get older it gets easier and easier to get caught up in your own mortality. Like, I’ll never have had high school sweetheart. I’ll never have the unrequited crush on the straight girl in my English class. I’ll never have had the college shenanigans some of my friends did. I know those aren’t all universally positive experiences but I do feel sad, thinking about what I’ll never have the chance to do. It’s sort of a grieving process. But I also try to remind myself that I was, for the most part, a pretty happy kid and young adult. I really liked high school and college. I was single and “straight” and not dating anyone but I adored my friends and I loved school. And who’s to say I wouldn’t have royally sucked at dating as a gay teen and 20-something, too?
INTO: Apart from falling in love, what’s been the best thing about coming out? What aspects of LGBTQ culture have made you feel welcome? What has been hard about coming out?
KH: It’s been really rewarding to make some new queer friends, and connect with them on a level I often had a hard time getting to with my straight friends. It’s been fun sort of living vicariously through some of those friends’ dramatic love lives, and watching bad lesbian movies together, and just generally hanging out without cis straight men around. [Laughs] Sorry, I know there are some good ones!) I think a huge amount of pressure was taken off me when I realized I didn’t have to listen to dudes in bars anymore. I love being gay and deeply uninterested.
As far as what’s been hard, it’s been almost the same thingI still crave friendship and community and connection. That didn’t get easy when I came out. It’s taken years and I still want more. And my friendships with my straight women friends have definitely changed, not always in ways I would have anticipated, or that I’m happy about. But a lot of that is just part of getting older, I think.
INTO: Hayley Kiyoko though, am I right?!
KH: She’s a true star. I am so impressed by what she’s doing for young queer kids. Like, about time. Thank goddess.
INTO: What advice do you have for young people who have questions about their own identities and futures?
KH: Know that it’s okay to follow your own path and your own timeline. Know that you do not need to know your Kinsey score, or the percentage breakdown of your attractions. Know that it’s okay if either of those things changes. No two people are queer the exact same way, and your way is legitimate. It’s okay to be scared of asking people out (it’s terrifying!), but when you really want to do it, you will. In the meantime, being single really isn’t so bad: all that time and possibility, just for you. There will always be someone who figures themselves out before you, but there will always be plenty of people who figure themselves out later, too. And I mean, I’m not done figuring myself out. I always wish that were a thing, but I don’t think it is. I’ll keep wracking my brain til I’m dead, I’m sure.
Would You Rather will be released on March 6, 2018.