Queer, Coded

Brilliant artwork via Inkspiral Design.

When I started writing “Hope Echoes,” my novella in the upcoming Three Left Turns to Nowhere, I knew right away I wanted to include something I’d not touched on before but is intrinsically locked in my head with queerness: codes. I don’t mean code-switching (though, also that) but rather actual cryptography—hiding messages inside messages, coding and decrypting messages.

In “Hope Echoes” my main character, Fielding Roy, finds a letter tucked into a book, but when he unfolds the letter, it’s just a series of numbers on a piece of paper, and he realizes whatever is written there—it eventually turns out to be a long-lost love letter from one girl to another—was encoded. He figures out how, is lucky enough to have what he needs to decode it, and this sends him on his mission of trying to get the letter to where it belongs, albeit many decades late, most likely.

Why are codes and queerness intertwined in my head?

Because of a diary.

I kept a diary from the time I was thirteen until my university years, once I was working full-time at the bookstore and things like Livejournal came into being, which scratched the same itch of scribing down details of the day, but also hit the “being social without having to go anywhere” button (a button that still takes up a large part of my dopamine-producing brain, if I’m honest). That first original diary was a little blue book with one of those silly key-lock flaps that had zero actual security to it, and had one page for each day that didn’t have much more room than a square on a wall calendar. My largest entries could only grow to about a paragraph, and often included such brilliant declarations as: “I wish they’d include Windcharger more often. I like his tractor beam!” (a reference to my love of the Transformers cartoon) or such incredible insights as “Kirk is a terrible leader. He doesn’t listen to anyone.” (I wasn’t a Kirk fan, apparently. All my praise tended to go to Spock.)

It also included the realities of thirteen year-old me: “Moving. Again. I hate it.” or “Gym today. I hate it.” or “[Insert rotating bully name here] on the bus again. I hate him.” I had a lot of things I hated when I was kid, is what I’m saying, and putting them down in my diary was a way to get those feelings out, because I didn’t really have a lot of places I could say them out loud. Moving? That was because of my father’s job, so to declare any frustration with that would be tantamount to criticizing the breadwinner, which would never fly, and besides, why couldn’t I be more like my sister and just make new friends? Gym class? My father was an athlete, as was my sister, so they didn’t understand my visceral hatred of gym class (which only grew as I began to understand many of the reasons I was so uncomfortable). I should just try harder. Bully of the week? Ignore him, and he’ll go away. Or he was just jealous of me. (Neither of those things were true).

Then, an incident with my bank passport for my savings account happened when I was fourteen or fifteen. I’d taken some money out of my account and transferred it to my sister, who was older and living in another province, because she’d gotten behind and needed cash and didn’t want to let our parents know it had happened—this was a sentiment I completely understood, not wanting our parents to know anything about me myself—and even though those little passports were held shut, and I’d put it back in my drawer, the very next day my mother asked me what I’d done, and she said the passport had “fallen open” when she was putting something away. That wasn’t possible, at all, and the conclusion was simple: my mother, at least, was snooping into my bank passport. And it was in the same drawer as my diary.

That was when it clicked for me, and some past conversations replayed in my head with a kind of horrifying understanding. After particularly awful days at school, which I was sure I’d managed to pretend weren’t happening—I so did not need another lecture from my father about how to face-down bullies, given he’d only ever been a bully and not the bullied—my mother would often ask, rather pointedly, about “any friends at school.” When I’d gone to my room to “study” and instead had created Dungeons & Dragons maps, my mother had told me I should study more, forbidding me a television show until I spent another hour at it—at the kitchen table. And so on.

My mother was absolutely reading my diary.

I’m not sure I can explain the terror of that moment, because those were the years I’d started to realize. I was different, and I the inkling of how I was different was absolutely settling in with utter dread because everything I knew about that specific kind of different—I so wasn’t going to use any of the words I knew, given they were all bad things—was clearly not a good thing to be. But I re-read my diary, wondering if my mother—or, God, my father?—might have seen anything in there.

In retrospect, there wasn’t much in there. I’d not even gotten to the point where I was willing to write things down, so much as I mentioned feeling “bad” that day, or how I just wanted “to go find somewhere quiet to draw for a while” or my enjoyment of Quantum Leap (read: how often Scott Bakula ended up shirtless) or or or…

But the diary, this outlet of expression, was compromised.

Unless

Enter codes. I’d always enjoyed codes, and I often took books about codes out of the library, but I realized a simple code wouldn’t work. For one, if my diary entries were suddenly gibberish in code, then my parents (or was it just my mother?) would be on to me knowing I was on to them (her?) and that wasn’t what I wanted, because it might lead to questions. Eventually, I stumbled on a simple—but hidden—code that worked perfectly for my diary. It involved drawing, which was already my favourite, as you’d put little pictures, stars say, or bees (that was the example in the code book), and write around them. On a little strip of paper, you’d write out the alphabet in some order, and then you’d write your message by putting your little pictures, from top-to-bottom or side-to-side, by sliding the paper along and drawing the images beside where that letter was located. Then, you just filled in your diary entry around the little pictures, and it just looked like you’d drawn a picture.

I often used stars, or snowflakes, or leaves, or raindrops, and to make my image harder to decode, every single entry where I encoded something—not every day, but quite often—I’d make my decrypting slip of paper out of the entry from the day before, using the first words, up to the first repetition of a letter, as the start of the order of the letters.

So, if an entry began: “Today it rained…” The little slip of paper would be: T-O-D-A-Y-I, and then all the rest of the letters in order: B-C-E-F-G-H-J… and so on. I had this down to an art, destroyed the little strip of paper I’d use to make my drawings right away, and then rarely even needed to make a new one to decode, since I often just remembered what it was I’d written.

Like the day I got caught with a guy I was tutoring in French in a rainy cabin and had my first kiss. ‘I kissed [Name]’ was encoded in raindrops on the diary, hidden in my mundane description of a walk home in the rain with [Name]. I can picture it in my head, even today, mumble-mumble years later, and I don’t think I ever once recreated the paper for that day, instead just knowing what those raindrops meant.

Those diaries and journals are all gone, unfortunately, lost to the mad scramble of finding somewhere to live, but coding my secrets where I could be sure I could put my thoughts down and be safe from those I didn’t dare let know? That’ll always be tucked into my head as something queer, and I’m so looking forward to having that tiny piece of my experience of existing as a queer kid tucked into “Hope Echoes,” albeit in the hands of a young girl who had to encode her own conversations in a different way, and even more years into the past than mine.


Three strangers heading to a convention in Toronto are stranded in rural Ontario, where a small town with a subtle kind of magic leads each to discover what he’s been searching for.

Ed Sinclair and his friends get stuck in Hopewell after their car breaks down. It’s snark at first sight when he meets local mechanic Lyn, but while they’re getting under each other’s skin, the town might show them a way into one another’s hearts.

Rome Epstein is out and proud and clueless about love. He’s hosting a giant scavenger hunt at the convention, but ends up in Hopewell. When the town starts leaving him clues for its own scavenger hunt, he discovers a boy who could be the prize he’s been searching for.

Fielding Roy has a gift for seeing the past. His trip to reunite with friends hits an unexpected stop in Hopewell, but a long-lost love letter and two local boys give him a chance to do more than watch the past. This time, Fielding might be able to fix the present.

Three Left Turns to Nowhere — Jeffrey Ricker, J. Marshall Freeman, & ‘Nathan Burgoine

2 thoughts on “Queer, Coded

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