Shedding the Labels in Fiction and Life

This guest post is from Julian Winters. Julian is the best-selling author of contemporary young adult fiction. His debut, Running With Lions (Duet, 2018), won accolades for its positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer. How to Be Remy Cameron is his second novel. You can find him on Twitter at @julianw_writes.


Spring in Atlanta is something to be reveled in, a time to replace dark winter layers with the light, bright fabrics of graphic T-shirts that welcome in the sun. These are the months for afternoon walks in the city or enjoying fun, heartfelt romantic comedies just before the wave of superhero and action movies sweep over the summer.

It’s how I found myself walking the streets of downtown Decatur in March 2018 wearing a graphic T-shirt that celebrated the newly released Love, Simon, a successful teen romantic comedy about a gay boy navigating high school while trying to come out on his own terms. The shirt featured the titular character, Simon, with a rainbow flag covering his face.

I loved that movie. I loved that T-shirt. And, for most of that day, I loved who I was in that shirt: a debut author on the verge of being published, celebrating a film that spoke to teen-Julian. A film, as well as the book it originated from, that gave a voice to a new generation of LGBTQIA+ teens.

That moment was fleeting. On the way back to my car, two young white men approached. They both gave me a look. It wasn’t one I was unaccustomed to. It wasn’t friendly or welcoming. I did as I’ve always done in these situations—I smiled, kept my eyes straight ahead, and picked up my pace. I was armed with an “excuse me” and “thank you” just in case I didn’t provide enough space for them on the sidewalk.

How to Be Remy Cameron started with a simple premise: I wanted to write a fun, swoon-worthy romance that was family-oriented, diverse, and a lighthearted exploration of labels. But I also wanted to delve into what it means to be constantly seen through the lens of a stereotype. Throughout the writing process, there was something I couldn’t ignore—that day in downtown Decatur and how it was like countless days where I’ve been looked at, treated differently, spoken to in a tone not associated with the people around me.

Did they not like me because I was in their way? Did they not like me because they were having a bad day? Did they not like me because I’m Black?

Did they not like me because I love to wear T-shirts that are bright, bold, and representative of my interests, I walk a certain way, and I don’t fit the categorical definition of masculine?

Did they not like me because I’m queer?

As a person of color, this is something that happens all the time. As a queer person, it’s a daily occurrence when our queerness isn’t an invisible feature of who we are.

This was the biggest reminder of why I needed to write Remy’s story. Because this is not an isolated incident. It’s reoccurring, and more so for teens.

In How to Be Remy Cameron, I examine something not often talked about, especially when it comes to teens who face these labels head-on daily in school or social settings. I dive into how labels are also used to remind us what we’re not. In an otherwise lighthearted novel, it’s a serious theme I knew needed to be explored.

In the book, Remy, an out-and-proud junior in high school, is mostly living his best life. He’s the Gay-Straight Alliance club president. He’s everyone’s friend. Remy’s also a transracial adoptee with a family he adores. He’s navigating that space between getting over an ex and crushing on a new guy. But his world shifts when, in order to pass his AP Literature course, he must write a themed essay: “Who Are You?”

Remy is forced to analyze all the things he’s known for: the Black kid, the Gay kid, the Adopted kid, and every other label he carries when other people look at him. All the things that indicate “This is Remy Cameron.”

An amazing young adult novel, Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, thoughtfully explores similar themes. The main character, Darius, is—in his words—a “fractional Persian” who loves Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and all things geeky. He lives in Seattle, where his appearance and mother’s background make him a target. Fractional or not, his classmates only see him as Persian. When he ventures to visit his mother’s family in Iran, he is occasionally viewed as “not Persian enough” because he doesn’t know all the social cues, the traditions, the landmarks, or their native language.

Remy, Darius, and many teens share this same space where they must live up to strictly defined labels or expectations because of race, sexuality, gender, or religion. They’re forced to ask the same questions: “Am I too much of this?” and “Am I not enough of that?”

Since that incident on the Decatur sidewalk, a familiar question from my childhood has reemerged: Why am I not good enough for them?

I spent most of my adolescence in the suburbs of a small town in upstate New York. I was popular—by elementary standards, of course—in my classes, a great student, and the instigator of a lot of clubs dedicated to popular TV shows. I loved it.

But I also wasn’t very self-aware. I didn’t understand why some students didn’t sit with me at lunch. I didn’t comprehend why kids laughed at me for liking RuPaul’s “Supermodel” song or because I enjoyed matching all my T-shirts with my jeans and shoes. I didn’t recognize that being one of four Black students in my entire school was an issue. After all, Lisa Turtle from Saved by the Bell was the only Black person in her friend group on TV and that was okay.

But was it?

Thanks to being in a very religious community since birth, the preteen version of me decided being queer wasn’t “right.” All the queer people in movies and TV died. Unconsciously, I buried that part of me. I did it for safety, and because I didn’t want anyone at school to not like me because of all these new, confusing thoughts.

But I didn’t know being Black, being a person of color was considered less than.

Not until my older brother, who was also well-liked at his high school, came home with a swollen hand. Not until the kids on the bus told me he got into a fight with another boy. Not until my tearful mother told me that the other boy shouted a racial slur at my brother as he casually walked down the hall between classes.

Some classmates stopped hanging around my brother. He was violent. Angry. He liked hip-hop. Their parents didn’t approve. Suddenly, his skin color mattered.

My brother was wearing all these invisible labels. He was put into all these categories.

I was also wearing labels that I couldn’t see until I was a teenager and aware of what made me different: Being Black from a lower-income family. Being a closeted gay kid who couldn’t pass as masculine enough for his peers. Liking a certain kind of music. Having a mother who was adopted at birth, raised by a Black family, but fair-skinned enough to be white passing.

The weight of those labels made it hard to get out of bed every day for school. As a teen, I wanted to be liked. I didn’t want to stand out for the “wrong” reasons. But I couldn’t escape the labels.

On every test, form, and application, who I am was regulated to the “Check Other” category.

To those two men on the sidewalk, I was every label except for the most important ones: Kind. Funny. Human.

But it’s not the looks and harmful words from people like those men that do the real damage. It’s the ways we dissect ourselves to try and figure out what pieces aren’t good enough for them. It’s the energy we put into learning to be what they want while simultaneously diluting who we really are.

Throughout the book, Remy tries to figure out if all his pieces fit an image someone else created of him. Eventually, with help from his friends and a figure from his past, he learns to give the real Remy a chance. He stops living his life at 80% and defines himself, completely.

After that incident, I knew I owed teens who are ready to strip themselves of defining labels more than just a lighthearted comedy. I owe queer teens of color the right to walk down sidewalks, wear what they want, and be who they are with the knowledge that they aren’t less than and there is no right when it comes to their sexuality or identity.

I hope they find that in How to Be Remy Cameron. I hope this book is a reminder that we don’t need labels as the sole definition of who we are. We don’t need someone else’s approval to love ourselves completely.

We deserve to exist as who we are, always.

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