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November 1, 2022

Local author pens LGBTQ+ teen novel: ‘Singlets and Secrets’

Before Joe Chianakas’ book signing at Bobzbay Oct. 28, the Peoria native discussed his most recent work with the Inkspot

When Joe Chianakas, a Peoria native, set out to write “Singlets and Secrets, his newest work of fiction, he wanted to give teens struggling with their sexuality a “superhero” of sorts.

When the author was growing up in the ’80s in Central Illinois, there was “the Karate Kid,” “Rocky” and “Rudy.”

“I love stories,” Chianakas said, “I love reading.”

But the stories he saw on screen and what he read on the page, lacked characters a young Chianakas could relate to–LGBTQ+ characters, characters who shared his struggles and experiences.

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So Chianakas, now in his mid-40s, penned his own.

“I always loved writing,” the author said.

Writing, Chianakas said, has provided him with a voice. One he is using, he said, to celebrate the LGTBQ+ community.

“I’m going to own being a gay author and write in that voice,” Chianakas said, “…because that’s what I want to do.”

That voice is responsible for “Singlets and Secrets,” published in late August, a novel Chianakas describes as his “gay ‘Karate Kid.’”

The story follows 14-year-old Aiden on a journey that sees him join the wrestling team while wrestling with his teammates’ homophobia.

Aiden’s life takes a turn when he befriends Matteo. Their budding romance forms the heart of the story, a narrative that showcases the importance of acceptance and love.

“It’s a story of hope and full of surprises and little twists,” Chianakas said.

As Aiden struggles with being bullied for his sexuality, Aiden’s English teacher, Mr. Samuels, a stand-in for Mr. Miyagi, imparts martial arts skills and life lessons.

Chianakas, a former high school English teacher himself and current professor of communication at Illinois Central College, brought his personal experience to the crafting of this narrative.

Chianakas’ own negative experience with a childhood teacher sparked the realization that he could do better for kids, both in the classroom and through his writing.

“If you get a teacher like me,” Chianakas said, or “encounter authors like me, the best thing that I think I can do is maybe inspire someone to have more confidence in who they are and less fear about it.”

And Chianakas’ confidence is evident.

“I’m queer as a rainbow,” the author said. “I’m married and happy about it, and forget anybody else who tells you that that’s not okay. Because I’m going to live by example and tell you, ‘here’s what success and joy look like.’”

But not everyone in the community feels the same level of acceptance. That is what drives his work.

Chianakas’ next book, “Darkness Calls,” is a young adult horror novel set to be released in 2024.

“I grew up on scary movies, and Stephen King, and I can geek out on that just like “The Karate Kid,” Chianakas said.

While “Singlets and Secrets,” the author said, is “obviously an LGTBQ book,” his upcoming release “doesn’t necessarily talk about gay themes.”

Still, Chianakas said, “it does what I always wanted to do, it represents.”

“There are a lot of people in the LGBTQ community that love scary movies, that love superhero movies,” Chianakas said. “When I start to ask myself why… I think we see ourselves as the person behind the mask. If I am trying to protect myself in certain places in society and I don’t want to come out, I’m putting on a mask, I am a different character.

“I think that that’s why a lot of us like those types of stories,” Chianakas continued.

His next release features a gay character, he said, but that detail isn’t what drives the plot.

“Sexuality doesn’t have to be a plot point,” Chianakas said. “They just are who they are.”

And as in life, that character is forced to “fight monsters”–a metaphor, Chianakas said, for homophobia.

“We’re just trying to survive,” the author said. “I think that’s why we like a lot of scary movies. I think we relate to that fear of what others might discover about us or who might come after us.”

But Chianakas’ work, he said, is not just about addressing the struggles faced by LGBTQ+ teens but about celebrating love and diversity, promoting compassion and understanding for the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.

“I just want people to kind of get over these stereotypes,” Chianakas said. “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these stereotypes.”

“Singlets and Secrets” is available on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.

This story was originally published on Inkspot on November 1, 2023.