How It Feels to Float Author Helena Fox on Finding the Words to Explore Sexual Identity

Just like its protagonist, Elizabeth “Biz” Grey, Helena Fox’s debut, How It Feels to Float, refuses to be categorized. This beautiful, truthful coming of age story, set in Australia, has zero interest in pretending everything’s okay. It wants something better for its lead character, and the readers who follow her heart-wrenching journey: the knowledge that even when things are not okay, life is still worth fighting for, worth sticking around for, to find out what will happen next.

Here’s Fox on the growing lexicon of identity, and her—and her heroine’s—search for the right words. 

When I began writing my novel, How It Feels to Float, I had a sense that my main character, Biz, might not be straight. I knew this because as I wrote the first few chapters, I discovered Biz had just kissed her best friend Grace. I didn’t plan or know about the kiss until suddenly, there Biz was, awake at 3 a.m., two days after the kiss, feeling all kinds of conflicted about it.

As the story continued and Biz fretted over the kiss and Grace’s response to it, I also realized Biz didn’t know if she was straight, or gay, or bi, or pan, or asexual, or, or, or. On top of all the other things Biz was dealing with—a dead father who had been haunting her memories since she was eight, and her many dark, runaway thoughts—she also didn’t know who she was attracted to, or in what way. I discovered, early on, that Biz didn’t have the words yet for her sexual identity. And as I wrote her story, I couldn’t help but relate.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have words for who I was. I do remember what I was called: frigid and a prude. I do know I thought I was broken sometimes, in my relationships with people, as I tried to do things that society and movies and books said were normal but sometimes made my body shake all over. I do know how it felt, as a much older human, to discover the terms “asexual” and “asexual spectrum.” Those words and others, like “ace” and “grey-A” and “demisexual,” with all their definitions and nuance, felt a bit like coming home and a bit like a beginning. Because then, of course, I looked for more words—I was hungry for them.

As I wrote my book, I began mindfully, purposefully exploring the great spectrum of sexual identity. I started to understand my feelings and my history, and while I am still figuring out exactly where I fit in this identity spectrum, I now know I wouldn’t call myself straight. And I now have more words for myself—each of them empowering and enlightening—than I had before.

Now I understand why I wrote Biz the way I did, because I related to her so deeply. At the end of the book, after Biz has spent most of her time dealing with her grief and trauma and her serious mental health issues, she still hasn’t quite figured out the exact words for herself. But she has embraced the word that matters the most to her: Love. She knows she is loved and holds love this big inside her. There are more discoveries to come. But for Biz, this one, huge, encompassing word is a beautiful, miraculous place to start.

Today, there are more words for who we are, and that has to mean something. We are living in a more understanding society, and by that I mean a more “languaged” society—where people can more easily find the language that fits them, and use it to find a place for themselves. That place might be online or in physical rooms; there is community, everywhere, waiting. There are ever-safer spaces—finally, finally—for people of every sexual identity.

I am so glad that today, in many societies, there is greater acceptance and understanding of sexual diversity. There is still much more work to be done—educational work and advocacy work, in all parts of the world—before people can feel safe in every community. This work is vital. It is life-saving.

But because of this work, I already see beautiful change happening, right now. Marriage equality exists in almost thirty countries (and counting). People speak out daily, in online spaces and in real life, against bigotry. Movies, music, books, and mainstream media regularly engage with and amplify stories from the LGBT+ community. As a society we are, finally, thankfully, examining our biases and heteronormativity with a stronger and stronger lens.

I am so glad that gay jokes no longer automatically litter Hollywood films. I am so glad to see love—is love, is love—being celebrated. I am so relieved that not all our heroes are straight.

And I am glad we are also talking about the figuring out we all do, now that we have more words.

Because even with all these words, sometimes we still don’t quite know the ones for who we are. For some of us, it still might take us a while. Sometimes we are floating in that in-between space, between the straight and queer communities, in a kind of fuzzy ether of: Who Am I and Where Do I Fit, and Do I Feel This or This, and Do I Need To Decide and Maybe I Don’t, and Maybe I’ll Sit For A While With This Because It Feels Almost Right, and Will Everything Be Okay?

As I wrote my book and talked to young people and older people, I realized how many others are in the same place as Biz, the same place I was when I was young and in some ways still am: unfixed, uncertain, unresolved. I realized how many people I know are still figuring out their sexuality, people in their teens, twenties, forties, even sixties.

The wonderful thing is, there is no deadline for determining or announcing your sexual identity. There’s no coming out requirement for straight people, so there certainly shouldn’t have to be one for anyone else.

Who makes the rules? We can.

If it makes you stronger to walk in the words of an identity, to sing those words from rooftops and to loved ones and online, then do it. Do it with your whole heart, do it with faith and knowledge that there is a place for you here. A community is waiting for you. I know it can be incredibly empowering and life-affirming—coming out can feel like fitting, and finding, and feeling properly alive. It has brought people I love so much joy to claim the language for who they are. I’ve seen it over and over again.

And if you’re not ready or not even close to knowing, then remember this: You don’t have to decide now. You don’t have to announce anything at all. This understanding—this growing lexicon of identity—is here to help you. The words can be guiding points through your life, as you grow and learn about who you are, and why you feel the way you do. The words aren’t here to pin or bind you. You deserve to live as you wish, to love as you wish, to love who you love, to learn and grow in a way that fits you. We are all of us forming, always.

I am so glad for the new words I have now, words that have helped me breathe. I’m so glad I get to hold them in my hands, in my body, begin to move in the world of them, to see if they feel right and how much light they bring. I hope, for everyone on this planet, that this journey into identity brings them joy and power, and the feeling of being truly here. We all deserve it.

How It Feels to Float is on sale now.

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