Sexuality in NQO

Not Quite Out is a ‘coming out’ story. It’s about knowing exactly who you’re attracted to but having no idea how to tell people this–or whether you even should. This is not a universal experience. There are as many queer stories as there are queer people, and this is just one. Please don’t read this thinking I have all the answers to sexuality: I’m just a nervous kid, talking about one book.

I want to talk about how sexuality is important to three of the main characters: William, Lilley, and Daniel. The others (Cas and Peter) will make an appearance from time to time, but I don’t have so much to say about them.

THIS PAGE CONTAINS SOME HUGE SPOILERS, SO CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED!

Let’s start with Will.

Our main character–19, medicine student, chronic over-thinker–tells us on page 4 that he’s bisexual. But then it takes him until page 297 to tell anyone else. This is the whole point of the book. Subplots and other conflicts aside, William’s story is about being not quite out. And this is important.

Will is surrounded by openly queer friends. He’s a regular at the LGBT+ society–but as an ally. (Want me to talk about how important it is that LGBT+ spaces are open to ‘allies’? That’s basically what the book is about.) He knows he’s bisexual. He knows he’s surrounded by people who understand and accept bisexuality.

Except: throughout the book, Will faces subtle and relentless bi erasure. From Peter, no less: an openly gay guy who refers to Will as straight but then repeatedly asks if he’s gay. Peter says:

“I want you to know it’s okay if you’re gay. Of course it is. If that’s why you dumped Lil–“

Will sits there desperately hoping someone’s going to say “are you bi?” so he can nod or say “yeah” and then this whole horrible nightmare will be over–but they don’t. He is given option a) you’re gay, or option b) you’re straight.

This is something I think a great many of us can understand. Sure, we talk about LGBT stuff. We talk about bisexuality. But how many of us have been asked “are you gay?” and had to work out whether saying “no” is a truth or a lie?

Will spends the whole book battling himself. Should he come out? Exactly how does one come out anyway? Is it going to change things if he comes out? Who would he come out to first? Does he have to explicitly say the words I’m bisexual in order to be out?

Even when he does come out, he realises he has to keep doing it. This is something I don’t explore much, because of the pacing of the book, but you get a taste for it in the final chapter (epilogue?) of NQO. Coming out to someone you want to date is one thing. You then have to come out again and again, wherever you go together, and that’s exhausting. That’s enough to make you consider going back in the closet.

Lilley is the opposite to William.

Lilley doesn’t come out to us. She doesn’t even come out to Will. While Peter is trying to pressure Will into saying “yes, I’m gay”, Lilley says:

You don’t need to come out, Will. You don’t need to explain anything.”

Lilley’s absolute belief that it’s no big deal–that no one is owed an explanation–is a mirror image of Will’s concerns that saying “I’m queer” will change the whole world.

This was always an important aspect of the book: this idea that you don’t need to know everything about someone in order to love them. Lilley embodies this, lives this, breathes this.

Lilley ends up being the first person Will says the words “I’m bisexual” to (besides the reader, of course) and that’s no coincidence. Will knows she doesn’t care. Lilley already suspects he’s bi, but she’s not really interested. She hardly reacts. She’s much more focused on the actual issue: how deeply Will has fallen in love with Dan. Will is so hooked on what it means to be crushing on a guy that he completely forgotten what matters: he is in love. And, maybe, it’s mutual.

Right at the very end, we see that Cas and Lilley are now dating. I really hope this is a moment that makes people go ooh, because Cassie has been overwhelmingly obsessed with her best friend throughout the book. She gives her heart-eyes when they’re in the pub together. Lilley is all Cassie talks about. They get together on the Friday afternoon, after the hospital trip, and I’m low-key working on a way to share this part of Lilley’s story with you all. This might be where Lilley puts a word to her sexuality (that word is “pansexual”), but she might just kiss her new girlfriend and keep the details to herself. This would be incredibly in-character.

Daniel is everything else.

Dan’s background is critical to his approach to coming out. Firstly, he grew up in Russia during the 90s and 00s without really knowing gay was an option for him. He had a rough childhood. He had a rough introduction into being an adult, too: one year minimum of military service is mandatory for Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27. (This isn’t the place to talk about the Russian military system, but do some research if you’re feeling brave.) (And I think I mentioned why Dan ended up doing 3 years, rather than the mandatory 1, when I chatted to QueerLit. If I didn’t actually talk about it: it’s to do with his personality.)

The last thing Dan would ever do is put someone in a position where they have to reveal something private about themselves.

He could very easily become irritated with William. Why doesn’t he just come out? It’s not like it’s illegal here. But that would be missing a huge and important aspect of Dan’s character: he is kindness personified. Whatever Will’s reasons for not saying “hey, I’m bisexual”, Dan respects his silence.

You know it’s okay, don’t you? Whatever you’re scared of. Whatever it is that keeps upsetting you. It’s okay–I do not mind. Whatever it is. You do not have to tell me.

There’s another aspect to Daniel I’d like to talk about. Yes, he’s gay: he’s quietly confident with this and he says it a couple of times during the novel. But he’s also demisexual.

I never mention this by name in the book because he doesn’t actually know. No one has ever said “hey, Dan, you might be asexual”. But it’s there, in how he gives Will everything without ever once considering that his new friend–who is in his bed–might want sex.

Early on, Dan says he couldn’t have sex with someone–“not after everything”. This is so important to me for two reasons:
1) sexuality can and does change after trauma. Dan has had more than enough trauma, thanks. Losing your sexual attraction to people, and your interest in sex in general, after trauma is a perfectly normal response. (If you’re asexual and you were something different before something huge happened in your life: hi. I see you. You’re valid.)
2) sex is not always a critical part of a romantic relationship.

Will has a very relaxed attitude towards sex; Dan does not. In order to be attracted to someone, Dan has got to really love them. He’s got to really trust them. This isn’t simply because his last boyfriend was a dickhead who hurt him: this is actually one of the reasons it was so difficult for Dan to leave Matthew. Dan alludes to this when he says “He was everything to me. He was the first person I loved. He was the first person I trusted enough to tell I’m–I’m gay“. Getting into a relationship in the first place was a huge event for Daniel (what with his dad leaving his mum, his mum dying while he was working away, the absolute horrors he no doubt saw while he was working in the military, the shock of moving to a country where guys can kiss guys without being arrested…). Having that first relationship fall apart and twist into something that’s left him with not only physical but emotional and mental scars was just one more layer to the reason why he “could not have a relationship yet“.

Have I just written a high-school-style essay about my own novel? Quite possibly.

Something I was asked way back before I even had a contract for this novel was “are they in a relationship, or just friends?”. That’s it: that’s the whole book. There is so much love, respect and understanding between Will and Dan that not an awful lot changes once they get into a relationship. They sometimes kiss on the lips, rather than just on the cheek. They hold hands in public–but they kinda do that anyway. They’re in no rush.

In all honesty, Dan didn’t need Will to come out. If Will had said but I like you without the word bisexual ever being muttered, Dan wouldn’t have minded. He would really like Will to feel comfortable and confident enough around him to say absolutely anything, but he takes the responsibility of ensuring their relationship (platonic or romantic) is that safe upon himself.

“What could I have done to help?”

Sexuality is an important part of any ‘coming out’ novel. I like to think these three characters do a decent job of dealing with it, but of course I’d think that: they’re all my creations. Will’s hesitancy, and fear of how people will react (Why didn’t you say?), is stuff I still catch myself thinking. Lilley’s I-couldn’t-care-less-about-your-label-but-do-you-want-to-kiss? attitude is something I’d love to emulate. Dan’s quiet, patient respect for everyone’s right to keep their own secrets is something I truly hope I’ve adopted into my own attitude towards sexuality.

Above everything, sexuality is a deeply personal and private matter. You do not have to come out. You do not have to tell anyone your sexuality. If your sexuality changes, that’s fine. If your attitude towards sex changes, that’s fine. This is a lot for a debut novel to try to deal with, so I hope some of these ideas come through in how the characters interact.

Thank you so much for reading this, reading my book, being interested in my book, clicking onto my website, caring enough about how this queer author wrote about queer experiences to spend a few minutes of your day reading them blabber on… I absolutely adore the characters in my book. I’ve hung out with them for a while now, and it’s joyous to finally be able to discuss them with you.

I appreciate each and every one of you.

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