Publisher’s Note: This is an interview between Kicked Out Editor Sassafras Lowrey and author Julie Ann Peters.
I became familiar with Julie Anne Peter’s work very much by accident. I was preparing to move across the U.S. All my books were in boxes. An avid reader, I was going a little bit crazy without my favorite reading materials. A fellow book-lover and coworker took pity on me and lent me a new favorite of hers by Julie Ann Peters. I’m usually a nonfiction person, but I was desperate: with skepticism, I took her young adult novel and started reading.
Very quickly, I realized that Keeping You A Secret was a life-changing book, one that I wished very desperately had been around when I had been kicked out. As a teenager, I’d worn the spines off of the two teen lesbian romance novels I’d managed to purchase the summer before my senior year when I had been allowed to go to the bookstore alone.
Keeping You A Secret is an honest, raw chronicling of the experiences of fictional teenager Holland, who struggles with her sexuality. She negotiates a blooming love with her closest friend, finds queer community, and ultimately is forced to leave home when her mother discovers that she is a lesbian. Holland takes up residence in a transitional housing program for LGBTQ youth.
Julie Anne Peters graciously spoke with me about her experiences and the thought process behind this novel.
Sassafras: Do you want to start with giving readers background into how the theme of queer youth homelessness factors into your novel, Keeping You a Secret? You have a compelling, vibrant character who deals with teenage homelessness as a result of coming to terms with her sexuality. What inspired you to write the character of Holland in the way you did?
Julie Anne Peters: A novel needs to take the main character to the very edge of a precipice and drop her off, to see what she’s made of. People want to read about courage and inner strength, resiliency and honor. Coming out to herself and her closest friend was a journey in itself for Holland, the main character in Keeping You a Secret, but to heighten the conflict and drama, I wanted Holland to experience the full range of loss—and gain—when she discovers she’s a lesbian.
I think we most fear emotional and physical abandonment by our families when we come out to them. We imagine the worst. We might even give ourselves time to prepare for it. Holland never gets that luxury. Suddenly, she’s kicked out of her house, alienated from her family, and forced to find refuge with friends. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers, and she has to ask for help. I wanted Holland to find the love and care in our community as she begins her journey toward independence.
It was a harsh way for Holland to learn resourcefulness, I admit, and I’ve regretted taking her story as far as homelessness, especially when young people write to me terrified of telling their parents they’re gay because they fear the same thing will happen to them. But then I remember all the people who have been disowned by their families, and it happens—we can’t dilute or gloss over the truth. Gay people are still in peril of losing everything they know and everyone they love.
We grow as human beings when we overcome adversity. I wanted Holland not only to fall in love with Cece, but also with herself, to mobilize her inner strength, and to trust in her ability to cope. I’d like young people to believe that, faced with the worst-case scenario, they’d be up to the task.
Sassafras: Why did you feel it was important to include a lesbian character that was kicked out?
Julie Anne Peters: I think when you lose your family, abandonment and rejection issues throughout your life intensify. I was aware of the fact that homelessness is still an issue among gay youth, and I wanted to give them a heroine who dealt with loss of home and family successfully, who found her true family in the queer community, as so many of us do.
Sassafras: What sort of background preparation did you have to do in order to write the character of Holland?
Julie Anne Peters: In terms of being kicked out, I did research the available resources for homeless youth. Even though the apartment where Holland ends up living was fictionalized, throughout the country, there are shelters and residences for homeless gay youth.
Sassafras: What are your thoughts about the epidemic of homelessness amongst queer youth?
Julie Anne Peters: It saddens me to know homelessness has reached epidemic proportions. Part of this may be the result of young people coming out earlier, at a younger age. In my day, you didn’t come out to your family until much later in life (if at all), and you didn’t risk losing your physical home. You’d probably already set up housekeeping and made a life for yourself. I applaud young people for wanting to live openly and honestly because I know the psychological torture and long-term consequences of lying and hiding the truth about yourself.
Sassafras: What do you think can be done to reverse that trend?
Julie Anne Peters: Already there seems to be a generational shift in attitude toward gay people in our society. Dismantling the taboo surrounding sexual orientation will allow acceptance to seep into our national consciousness. The more visible we are over time, the sooner we can assume our equal standing in society.
Sassafras: In the novel, the character of Holland is able to tap into resources from within the larger queer community. Do you think such access is a common experience for youth in similar circumstances?
Julie Anne Peters: Until you’re in a homeless situation, I doubt you’d be aware of available resources. Beyond outreach, networking within our community is vital for emotional and physical health and well-being.
Sassafras: What sort of reactions have you gotten from youth and/or educators about the inclusion of a character who was forced to leave home as a result of her sexuality?
Julie Anne Peters: Reactions run the gamut. The believability of Holland’s circumstances has been questioned, mostly by straight people who aren’t informed about gay homelessness. Young people still fear the dire consequences of coming out to parents. I’ve received countless testimonials from readers who were kicked out and forced to live in their vehicles, or with friends, or in shelters. One letter from a homeless kid is one too many.
Sassafras: As a role model in the queer community, what sort of advice would you offer to an LGBTQ young person who has been kicked out, or who fears being forced to leave home in the near future because of sexuality and/or gender identity?
Julie Anne Peters: Our community is compassionate, loving, embracing and committed to our youth’s safety and security. We are here, and we can help.
I refer readers to two brochures put out by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays):
These online pamphlets discuss coming out to self and family, and they offer strategies to help young people prepare. I tell readers who write that coming out is a process for both individuals and families. All people you touch need time and space to adjust their thinking to the new you, to figure out what your sexual identity will mean to them. Time is a great healer and an emotional equalizer.
Sassafras: What advice would you offer to parents who are struggling to come to terms with their teen’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation?
Julie Anne Peters: Read this book.
To learn more about Julie Anne Peters work visit her website at www.julieannepeters.com/