In 1983, across a table at a New York City sidewalk café, my friend Jody Thomas told me in hushed tones about the "gay plague." I'd never heard of it before. Neither of us knew then that within ten years it would claim him.

I dedicated my first novel, A Secret Edge, to him. That book was my square in the AIDS quilt, in his memory.

Over the next couple of decades, after that conversation with Jody, I watched in horror from my comparatively safe het/cis world as friend after friend came down with the disease that had taken Jody. Most of them died.

Part of my horror was the apparent lack of concern from most of society—the callous lack of medical response from all but a few brave souls—because, after all, it was “just the gays.”

In 2005 I heard an interview with David Levithan. He had just published Boy Meets Boy, a light-hearted if improbably optimistic story. Having read Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, White’s A Boy’s Own Story, and Rechy’s City of Night, I was ready for a story about gay people that wasn’t dark, that didn’t end in tragedy because the characters were gay. I decided to write one.

My early books are about real boys. Boys who were just learning about themselves in all kinds of ways, including that they were gay. Boys who were bullied and tormented and treated as though they weren’t quite human. Boys who needed to understand that their destiny should not be dictated solely by whom they loved. Boys who needed to know that being true to themselves was the only path to being truly human.

The gay characters in my more recent works are in their twenties. The more stories I write, the more interested I am in other ways of being human, under that colorful umbrella of all things queer. I’ve included peripheral characters who were bi, or gender queer, or trans, or intersex.

There’s controversy in the world of fiction around the question of whether a straight woman can—or even should—write stories about gay men. Understandably, much of the push-back concerns female writers who have attempted to hide their gender, who want readers to think they are gay men.

I’ve read some of these novels, and I understand why many gay men don’t like them. I wouldn’t tell the authors they shouldn’t write these stories; I consider any condemnation of them to be the purview of the queer community. Are these authors committing a kind of cultural appropriation? I’ll leave that for others to decide. 

I never hid who I was. My website has always had a picture of me on the “Author” page. Even so, many early gay readers assumed I was a gay man, which I took as a great compliment. It wasn’t that I had fooled them. It was that I had written convincingly.

While my stories include romance, and—yes, sex—the plots are more complex than a true romance would allow. And they don’t end with the romance category’s hallmark HEA (Happy Ever After); rather, the endings are uplifting, hopeful, and usually make readers ask me: What happens next?

Today, many novels later, most of my readers are gay men. This contrasts with the readership of many female authors who write M/M romances; most of those readers are straight women.

My stories are never as gritty as Rechy’s work. They’re also worlds away from sweet stories where the gay men are essentially women with different plumbing.

My goal in writing is twofold. First, I want the world to know that the only thing wrong with being queer is how some people treat you when they find out.

Second, I want to write stories that introduce readers to topics they might never have heard about, or about which they know very little. I’m curious about a lot of things, and I bring that into my writing. I’ve included topics such as being intersex or transgender, but there’s also Christian fundamentalism. Paganism. Synesthesia. Autism. Animal behavior. Drug addiction. Mountain climbing. Living life in a wheelchair. A gay man in the priesthood.

So I guess you could say I ignore the tired old adage, “Write what you know.” One of the ways I ignore it is to write stories with gay main characters, characters who are truly male. Gay men are men, and I think straight people sometimes forget that.

But I do have a stopping point. I don’t expect I will ever write a story with a lesbian main character. A friend once asked me about that, and I told her, “I know what it feels like to want a man.”

Despite progress in the past fifteen years or so in terms of queer rights, there’s still a long way to go. I hope my stories will not only provide entertainment but will also demonstrate that queer people are just that: people.

So while there is a market for gay fiction in which the male characters seem almost female, there is also room for stories about real boys, real men. And this het cis woman—and my gay readers—believe I’ve written some of them.

Jody made me understand that even more important than gay pride was pride in being himself. And I write what I write because not every square in the AIDS quilt is made of cloth.