When Amber Lehman transferred schools to join her boyfriend, everyone knew something about him that she didn't.
He was gay.
Lehman, then 16, recalled a sense of bewilderment about her former beau, who exuded a "tough guy" vibe.
"I was surprised and a little shocked," Lehman said, "but mostly I was sad that he couldn't tell me himself."
The relationship petered out, and he disappeared, she added.
Along with effectively opening Lehman's eyes to the fact that things aren't always as they appear, her high school partner served as a catalyst for the Lake Forest resident's latest venture — "Boy Out of Bounds."
For the 40-year-old Lehman, the story of Phoenix, a Newport Beach teenager who is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality amid a fear of bullying, is personal.
In her early 20s, Lehman, who identifies as bisexual, witnessed her friends being harassed and roughed up. This predicament, constructed solely around her counterpart's sexuality, left deep scars.
"Phoenix is not being bullied himself, but he sees another person being bullied and feels miserable that he's doing nothing to help," Lehman said. "Standing on the sidelines and doing nothing about it makes a person as guilty as the one doing the terrorizing."
"Boy Out of Bounds," which Lehman said will probably run to about 200 pages, is currently under construction in a novel workshop class at Saddleback College.
Currently, Lehman is a few weeks shy of launching an $8,000 Kickstarter program to fund the publishing of her book. From June 1, people will have the option of sponsoring or donating various amounts of money to her venture. Each tier of contribution comes with its own awards, ranging from an electronic version of "Boy Out of Bounds" to a T-shirt and autographed copy of "Torn."
Amid keeping her fingers crossed for the initiative to go well, the author is hoping that LGBT youth centers will buy multiple copies and spread the novels around.
"If I can help even one teen by sharing the experiences my friends and I went through, by helping them not feel alone, then that makes it all worthwhile," said Lehman, who owns a publishing company, Closet Case Press. "Making a connection with someone through your stories is the most rewarding thing I can think of."
Lehman, who does most of her writing at home, finds it cathartic to jot down experiences that leave an impression on her. Her mind is constantly whirring, she said, forcing her to carry a pen and paper even to the grocery store so as to document every fleeting idea.
Lehman's first young adult novel, "Torn," the winner of 2010's Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the LGBT category, is also based on true events in the writer's life. The protagonist, Krista, relocates from Ohio to California and suddenly finds herself far from Catholic School and protective brothers. A game of "Truth or Dare" with her new, racy friends, forces her to question her life and choices.
" 'Torn' encompasses a lot of different experiences," Lehman admitted. "Some were about my friends and I being exposed to the partying scene and drugs, another was [that] my boyfriend at the time shared with me his past of sexual abuse from his older brother, which affected me deeply, [as well as] questioning intimate experiences that occurred with another girl."
"Boy Out of Bounds," although an entirely different story, contains characters from "Torn" described in greater depth, Lehman explained.
"When I was in high school, there was no literature about LGBT teens," said Lehman. "Today, even though there is more work out there, it is embarrassingly less than what 'straight' teens have access to. It is important for every story to be told."
While writing "Torn," Lehman was conflicted about what to pick from a plethora of ideas racing through her mind. Also, describing personal trauma made it difficult for the writer to hone in on a direction for her words. The book eventually reached 404 pages, she said.
Alternately, she spent more than two months piecing together her second book and capped it at half the size of the first so as to encourage more teenagers to read it. The bullying scene posed its own challenges, though.
"In 'Boy Out of Bounds,' it was hard to reconnect with genuine emotions that I've felt," she said. "I also had to adopt the position of the bully and say terribly nasty things."
Her every effort, Lehman said, is geared toward sparking public sensitivity for youth at risk of upending their education and even committing suicide. No matter who they love, she said, they retain the right to be educated and grow into happy adults. Anything else is unfair and unfortunate.
"I would hope that they would see that they aren't alone," she said. "Difficulties and struggles come with life — especially when you identify as LGBTQ — and it's not always easy to navigate, but it does get better, and it does get easier."