Kayla Bashe: When I was young, I didn’t really know that a lesbian was a thing I could be. Sure, one of the neighborhood kids I hung out with had two moms, but they were old and boring and never seemed to do anything interesting.
The girls I met in books and TV, though? Awesome as anything.
Adriane from the Circle of Magic series had dark hair, a temper, and loved wolves, just like me. My favorite part of the series was when she realized that she couldn’t save the world by herself, and that friendship with other girls made her stronger. And when she and her magical wolf companion charged in to save bubbly, impetuous Kara from dark magic? I couldn’t stop smiling the entire day. I’d spend hours wandering around the local wildlife preserve or talking to my collection of wolf Beanie Babies, searching for magic gems, pretending I was Adriane. All my daydreams were about having super-cool best friends like Kara and Emily. Further on in the series, Adriane met a boy. He rode a dragon and fought an evil sorceress, and all her friends teased her about having a crush, even though they’d only had one adventurer together.
I couldn’t explain why reading about it made my tummy feel gross.
One time, I told my mom “I think I have a crush on my best friend.”
She just said, “Oh, it’s normal to like your friends so much you get those feelings confused with crushes. A lot of girls go through that phase at your age.”
I shoved it to the back of my mind and didn’t think about it any further.
The summer after middle school, I was starting ballet and in love with the anime Princess Tutu. My favorite character was Rue- aloof, bitter, elegant, and super-protective of anyone younger, especially her amnesiac boyfriend. A guy I’d been talking about zombies with asked me to the dance. I didn’t really want to go with him, but every movie I’d ever seen taught me that dating cute guys was what cool girls did. If you were sixteen and you’d never kissed a boy, you were the Ugly Best Friend or the Shy Glasses Nerd. I wanted to be the Interesting Girl, the protagonist of my own story. So I kissed a boy.
I kissed some more boys.
I thought they were just really bad at kissing. I thought I was frigid and a prude. I thought I’d never be able to love anyone, even though I desperately wanted to be loved in return. I thought all my friends were just abnormally boy-crazy.
Then I kissed a girl.
It took me months to admit what that experience had meant to me, and years to realize that I was a full-on lesbian. I knew my parents had a bunch of gay friends and that there were gay people in New York City. But no one had ever really told me that I could have a full, interesting life without having to like boys.
Queer representation is important to me because I want the next generation to not have to go on as many bad dates.
F: In what ways do you think queerness intersects with feminism?
KB: As a lesbian, I have the luxury of being completely able to center other women in my life choices. I’m able to devote all my energy to uplifting other women without having to worry about whether or not boys will think I dress frumpy. It’s incredibly freeing to be the lesbian menace Betty Friedan warned all her friends about.
F: What has your overall experience been as a feminist storyteller? Has your perspective as a writer changed over time?
KB: When you’re a woman and an artist, people are going to feel entitled to not only your body, but also your creativity. Even from within the queer community, I’ve had people say things like:
“Why is your fiction so suspenseful? It should be happier.”
“Why do you write so many love stories? Not everyone wants to be in a relationship!”
“Why are you talking about how brothels in the Victorian era were bad workplaces? That’s sex-negative!”
And meanwhile, straight people are saying that my characters are “special snowflakes” and that it “pulls focus” for a protagonist to be both transgender and mentally ill.
But part of developing your voice as a writer is realizing that you can’t please everyone all the time. I’ve been able to recognize which opinions don’t deserve my time, and I’ve learned a lot from listening to those worth hearing.
F: Why do you think it’s important to have female role models in books?
KB: During my gap year, I worked with underprivileged kindergarteners, and even the youngest children constantly parroted the reinforcement of gendered norms.
“You can’t play with us. Boys can’t play with dolls.”
“You can’t play with us. Girls can’t be superheroes.”
When I cut my long hair to keep toddlers from using my braid as a climbing rope, even kids who’d known me for months looked at me suspiciously and asked if I was a boy or a girl. The teachers were no better, telling me not to coddle four-year-old boys and accusing infant girls of crafty manipulation with their homesick tears. The experience made me realize how much gendered stereotypes play a role in our lives. And people don’t just get this brainwashing from their peers, they get it from the media as well.
Mainstream TV characters aren’t really allowed to experience the full spectrum of human emotion. Could you imagine a female movie protagonist getting to be a swaggering, suave drunken-yet-heroic shit show like Jack Sparrow? Or a tween boy on Disney Channel who’s as obsessed with fashion, boys, and neon purple leopard print as the girls on Shake It Up? (Which just got canceled, by the way… dang, I feel like an adult.) People need to learn that their gender doesn’t occlude their innate humanity, and that anyone is capable of owning whatever mode of success calls to them most.
F: How do you think your work will empower girls and women?
KB: Stereotyping hurts everyone, but I think it holds girls back the most. We’re told that if we stand up for ourselves, succeed, or wear practical clothing, we’re not being ladylike enough and should feel ashamed of ourselves. According to commercials, if you get hit by a car and the hospital paramedics find out that you have hairy legs, nothing could be more humiliating. In fiction, girls are presented as vapid and shallow, except for Our Heroine. That’s why you have so many girls saying they’re not like other girls. It’s often hard for women to see each other as allies instead of competitors, even once they’re starting to grasp feminist ideals. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of amazing female role models, but I know for the majority of my peers, that absolutely hasn’t been the case. That’s why I write lots of different female characters- ugly women, elegant women, spunky women, women who are hurting on the inside, women who wear their pain as shields, women who fight wars, women who sing. Women who draw their greatest courage from other women. I think everyone should be exposed to the power of female strength.
F: Would you say that one of the goals of your writing is to encourage your readers to accept a broader spectrum of identity?
KB: I love my family, but they’re always suggesting that being more feminine will help my career. I should wear a dress to work, shave my armpits and legs and bikini line, get a mani-pedi. I don’t think things like that are important, but the reply I get has always been “You have to do these things because you’re a girl.” I know they mean well, but it still bugs me.
At the same time, it often seems like like a lot of the queer circles I move in don’t really understand the concept of a butch identity. I’ve had people think my name is Kaiden, Taylor, and Kyle. I’ve had people take one glance at my pixie cut, flannel, and beat-up sneakers and ask me if I want a free binder or when I plan to start transitioning. I feel like I’m getting the message “You can’t be a girl and do these things.”
Something I’ve been trying to explore in my writing is that no matter a person’s gender or body, they should be able to present however they want. I hope my readers will pursue whatever empowers them and makes them feel free.
Kayla Bashe is currently a student at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studies theater, creative writing, and history. She’s a graduate of the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Workshop for Young Writers. Additionally, several of her plays have been produced by local theater companies. Her lesbian mystery novel Graveyard Sparrow is available from Torquere Press, and her story A Muse Afire was featured in the first issue of Vitality Magazine.