Why smart lesbians read (and write) fan fiction

When I first discovered Bad Girls fan fiction, I called in sick to work three days in a row and devoured every morsel I could get my hands on. Over the course of 72 bleary-eyed hours, I saw Helen and Nikki navigate their post-prison life in London. I watched them give birth to an absolute flock of children. I saw them move to Canada, to Australia, to New Zealand, to New York. I saw alternate universe actor Helen Stewart win an Oscar for her portrayal of the world’s most talented symphonic composer in a biopic about alternate universe Nikki Wade. And Lordy, Lordy, did Helen and Nikki ever have all the sex. When I returned to real life after my fanfic binge, I felt like I’d accidentally unearthed the internet’s most valuable treasure.

Last week, The Huffington Post ran a piece called “Why Smart Women Read Romance Novels,” and the author, Anne Browning Walker, made a really good case for the rapidly growing genre. As she laid out her points — “[It’s] a safe space to explore your fantasies and figure out what turns you on. Nothing dumb about that.” — I decided it was time for me to write about a similar thing I’ve been thinking on for a long, long time: Why smart lesbians read (and write!) fan fiction.

Of course, fan fiction got its start long before the internet. Back in 1967, a group of Star Trek fans launched a fanzine called Spockanalia and in it, they decided to play around in the show’s subtext, answering unasked questions with fictional answers. The most prolific one being: What if Kirk and Spock’s relationship is really a relationship? It’s the queer query that launched 10,000 slash ships. And it set a precedent for gay TV viewers that still continues to this day. What can’t this show tell us? we ask ourselves. What won’t this show tell us?

Picasso famously said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” And there’s no telling how many gay people have discovered their own truths by stretching themselves across fan-written narratives that poke around in the grey-areas of established fictional universes. When I was a tween, I experienced an intense, unbreakable bond with another girl, just like Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables. I forged an affectionately quarrelsome partnership with another girl, just like Blair and Jo in The Facts of Life. If only someone had shown me how to take those stories one tiny step further, I’d have known I was gay in middle school (instead of in my 20s).

But fan fiction is more than a safe space where lesbians can understand and embrace their sexuality; it’s also a safe space where lesbians can explore their sexuality. The very best fictional worlds and characters come to life in our imaginations, lingering long after we close a book or turn off a television. Even if we’re satisfied with queer characters and couples, we still have questions about their lives after we leave them. And what better way to examine the deepest, most desperate desires of our own hearts than with characters we already know and love. Even Flannery O’Connor confessed to writing because: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

You want to know how Naomi and Emily forgive each other for their series four cheaterpants shenanigans after the Skins curtain dropped? There’s a fan fiction for that. You want to know how Callie and Arizona work out their sex life after having a baby on Grey’s Anatomy? There’s a fan fiction for that. You want to know what happens when Glee‘s formerly straight Rachel and Quinn move out from under the thumb of the dude they both loved by moving to new lives in new cities? There’s a fan fiction for that. You want to know how a gay character can reconcile her Christian faith with her sexuality, how a late-in-life lesbian can come out to her husband, how two formerly straight co-workers can embark on a romantic journey of epic epicness, how gender zigs and sexuality zags and lesbian sex is awesome and hope always springs eternal? There’s a fan fiction for those things too. There’s a fan fiction answer for nearly every gay question, and if you can’t find it, you can always write it.

We lose ourselves in stories, but we also find ourselves in stories. Fan fiction isn’t just a way for us to gay-up straight characters (or sex-up gay characters); it’s an exercise in molding narratives that resonate with our unique life experiences. Fan fiction readers and writers aren’t waiting for networks and showrunners to hand them a beautiful bouquet of freshly picked roses. They’re planting their own gardens and fertilizing their own imaginations and pruning and weeding and growing something proud and strong. They may have borrowed the seeds, but the blossoms are all their own.