On Queer Writing
by Meg-John Barker
To celebrate the launch of this awesome new queer writing magazine I thought I’d reflect on queerness and writing. I’ve been writing, myself, for my whole life in one way or another, but I would say that queerness has only gradually infused my writing – as it has my self – over time. Perhaps it has followed something like the journey through queerness which I’ll follow here.
In addition to writing myself, I currently mentor a number of other queer writers including Simon Forsyth, Daniel Morrison, Jeanne Devlin, David Darvasi, Stacy Bias, Katie Green, and Russ Wolf, whose work is referred to here. It’s through my dialogues with them that I’ve come to approach both the content and process of writing ever more queerly. I’m deeply grateful to them for the wisdom and learning they’ve shared, which very much inform this piece.
Jules Scheele and I started our book Queer: A Graphic History by exploring the different meanings of the word queer, and I thought that’d be a neat way to structure this piece. So let’s consider queer writing in relation to otherness, to being LGBTQIA+, to being non-normative, and to the overall project of queering everything.
Queer as in other
The original meaning of queer from the 16th century was of something strange or illegitimate. You might think of phrases like ‘nowt as queer as folks’ or ‘queer as a three dollar bill.’ From the late 19th century, this meaning became attached to same-sex attraction specifically, and queer began to be used as a term of homophobic abuse, for example in the letter from the Marquess of Queensberry which become famous through the trial of Oscar Wilde.
It’s due to this meaning of queer that a magazine like Queerlings is necessary at all. We still live with the legacy of queer people being regarded as something different, something other, something abnormal or illegitimate.
It remains rare for queer experience to be the focus of mainstream fiction or non-fiction. For years queer characters have been depicted as the bad guys, as tragic, or in tokenistic ways like the ‘gay best friend’. We still see this today, particularly in the representation of trans people, as highlighted in the recent documentary Disclosure.
Novels and memoirs centring queer experience are generally targetted specifically at queers, seen as only of relevance to us. This is unless they sensationalise queer experience in ways deemed interesting to a cishet audience, for example by depicting a promiscuous bi person or by telling a conventional narrative of a trans person ‘changing sex’ through medical procedures, with before and after photos.
While things are gradually shifting, there remains a sense – sometimes even explicitly taught in creative writing classes – that the white, cishet male protagonist is the only one that audiences can really relate to, or want to read about.
For these reasons we need magazines, bookshops, writing classes, and more which centre queer experience, and outlets which publish specifically queer stories that may well not be accepted or celebrated by mainstream publishers. Bravo Queerlings!
The reclaiming of the word queer from the 1980s onwards has led to it being used as an umbrella term for gay, lesbian, and eventually also bi, trans, intersex, ace, and other groups beyond the cishet supposed-majority. This is the meaning of queer that Queerlings is using when it says it ‘seeks to publish queer works of fiction, non-fiction and reviews from LGBTQIA+ writers.’
There are many reasons to encourage and celebrate this understanding of queer in relation to writing. As I’ve said, we need people to write about queer experience, as LGBTQIA+ people, in order to get queer stories and voices out there, to counterbalance the heteronormative cisnormative nature of so much that is published, and to claim our place in writing and in the world.
Writing therapist Simon Forsyth quotes poet Ted Hughes who said ‘what’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life’. In a world where queers remain marginalised and stigmatised, where our identities are up for debate and our realities are called into question, writing ourselves as queers, and writing characters who represent us, could be seen as a vital personal and political act.
Many people who use the word queer – rather than gay, lesbian or bi, for example – often mean something more than being under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, however. They’re questioning both heteronormativity and homonormativity, or normative ways of being LGBTQIA+.
The battle for gay rights was historically fought on the basis of being members of a minority group who were treated unequally in society. This battle often involved arguing for the right to do things that the normative majority got to do, such as getting married and serving in the military, and having the ‘pink pound’ recognised as a valuable target of consumer capitalism. The more revolutionary understanding of queer challenges this approach.
We might question whether the institutions that people have fought for the right to join are anything that we should support. This might involve, for example, pointing out the problematic history of marriage in relation to the ownership of women and children, taking an abolitionist stance towards policing and the military, or questioning consumer capitalism for its built in injustice and the toll it’s taking on the planet.
Such an understanding of queer often endeavours to centre the voices of the most marginalised, rather than trying to present queers in as normative ways as possible in order to gain acceptance to normativity. Core agendas may be ones like addressing trauma, poverty, homelessness, and violence, rather than relationship or occupational rights, for example. It is this understanding of queer that Queerlings are referencing when they say ‘we especially encourage submissions from BIPOC, Trans, Non-binary and other underrepresented voices in our community.’
What are the implications of this understanding of queer for queer writing? As well as centring the voices of the most marginalised, we might attend to the diversity of queerness represented in our writing. In our fiction are we including gay and lesbian characters, but not bi, trans, intersex, or ace ones? If we do include gender and sexually diverse characters are they mostly white? Middle class? Non-disabled? Do we represent queer experiences and agendas beyond the more normative ones? Of course there are important considerations here about who we can and can’t adequately represent beyond our own lived experience, and there are many good resources out there addressing these tensions and how we might navigate them.
In non-fiction we could ask which views and knowledges we’re centering. This is something that Jules and I have endeavoured to address in our graphic guide series by bringing the thoughts of activists alongside those of academics, by emphasising the voices of BIPOC, trans and non-binary scholars and activists, and by ensuring that the characters who we depict navigating the terrain of the book are diverse in age, gender, sexuality, class, disability, race, and more.
I hope that readers will see themselves represented in the books, in both the characters and the experts, and that they’ll be able to connect with what the characters are navigating. There’s still a long way to go, of course, in decolonising my own knowledge as an author with a background in white western versions of psychology and psychotherapy, and I’m constantly endeavouring to learn more from the margins.
It’s my hope that these graphic guides function as a jumping-off point for people to learn about other people’s work, so it’s important for me to think carefully about who I represent and how. It’s also important to carefully consider who I can adequately represent, and where my job should be, instead, to step back and raise up other voices. Being part of a queer writing community feels important to me for this reason, because there’s the opportunity, for example, to offer mentorship, to facilitate writing events, and to endorse other people’s work and get it out there as widely as possible.
The final understanding of queer that we covered in Queer: A Graphic History challenges the sense of queer as an identity at all. Queer theory and queer activism view the fixed hierarchical binary identities which people are put into – man/woman, straight/gay, cis/trans, etc. – as part of the problem.
For a start, we might question whether queer really is a minority position. Added together, the vast majority of people tick one or more of the boxes of:
- Being attracted to more than one gender,
- Experiencing their gender beyond the rigid masculine/feminine binary,
- Being fluid in their expression of gender and/or sexuality over time,
- Enjoying kinds of sex other than penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse – or no sex, and
- Doing their relationships outside of normative coupledom.
Yet more people are queered off the heteronormative model of a lifecourse at some point. They don’t tick certain boxes of being a ‘successful’ self such as marriage, kids, home-ownership, career progression, etc. This may happen due to choice, disability, mental/physical health conditions, unemployment, caring for others, infertility, etc. As Jack Halberstam has suggested, we could regard such ‘failures’ as queer, because of the challenge they present to normativity.
As well as denying the reality of many people’s invisible queerness, fixed binary identities support the division of people into normal and abnormal, legitimate and other, healthy and unhealthy, and so on: all of which serve the power structures of neoliberal capitalism, encouraging people to police and monitor themselves and each other, and strive to conform to cultural ideals.
What might the implications of these kinds of understandings of queer – as challenging identities and binaries – be for queer writing? In this case queer writing might look something like what architect and writer Kyna Leski describes when she says ‘a creative process comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilising what you (think you) know’.
Rather than focusing on which identities or experiences are represented in our writing, we might turn to explore which stories are told, and which are not, and in what ways we do or don’t tell them. For example, does our queer romance novel conform to a standard heteronormative story of falling in love, getting together, having the first kiss and first sex, moving in together, and living happily ever after? What might different queer love stories look like? Might they follow a different narrative arc, or include multiple stories, or start and end in different places, or celebrate different kinds of love – like ace or aro love for example.
A great example of queering writing in these ways are the wealth of trans memoirs which have been published in recent years. Many of these deliberately mess with – or queer – the conventions of a trans story according to the standards of a medical approach to transness and/or of what is palatable to the wider public. The conventional trans narrative is frequently an account of always having known you were ‘born in the wrong body’, having a moment of realisation, coming out, getting ‘the surgery’, and living happily ever after in a new gender.
Authors like Juliet Jacques, Travis Alabanza, Juno Roche, CN Lester, and Amrou Al-Kadhi have all queered this standard trans memoir form in interesting and important ways through their writing. For example they:
- Centre experiences other than surgery,
- Celebrate trans as a gift for others to be around rather than depicting it as a loss for others,
- Explore the ongoing experience of transness beyond key moments of transition,
- Focus in on everyday moments of transness,
- Offer multiple equally valid answers to an early sense of difference,
- Foreground who they are beyond their transness, and
- Mix up their trans stories with other people’s tales and/or with non-fiction elements.
I’m excited by the idea of queer writing as writing that tells different kinds of stories in different ways. For example, some of the queer folk I’m working with, and reading, engage in projects where they:
- Capture different aspects of themselves and their experiences in multiple characters through a book,
- Tell stories of past interwoven with stories of present, queering standard linear narratives of experience,
- Deliberately interfere with the way queer and trans people have been depicted in previous works of fiction by cishet authors, by writing alternative versions of those stories or the same stories from different character perspectives,
- Create artistic/writing pieces where ‘seen’ stories are told on one side and ‘unseen’ ones are told on the reverse, or where their own stories are interwoven with the stories that have been told about them,
- Play with incorporating elements like ‘choose your own adventure’ to offer multiple possible journeys through the same life,
- Mash up different genres and/or fiction and non fiction elements,
- Include narratives which challenge any normative sense of which aspects of our lives should be viewed as ‘success’ or ‘failure’.
Ideas I’ve played with myself include a memoir where I take all the different common stories of transness that are out there and write a chapter telling my gender story through each of these different lenses. I would present all of these approaches as offering something potentially useful, but as inevitably being only a partial story. This gets beyond binaries of right or wrongs stories to ask what different stories open up and close down. I’m also keen to write a graphic plural story of my life where multiple, differently gendered, sides of me are represented as engaging in the unfolding narrative, also challenging binaries between ‘real life’ and imagination, and plurality as a form of madness or sanity.
This connects with what author and writing teacher Anya Achtenberg says about the importance of finding a multitude of voices in our writing, as well as the writing prompts she offers such as ‘what story lies next to the one you are writing?’ It also makes me think of Juno Roche’s response when asked at an event by a cis author how he could best write a trans character. Juno responded that he should find the trans person within himself.
So writing queerly might involve thinking beyond the identities that we depict in our writing to the form, structure, and narrative arcs that we engage with. We might deliberately endeavour to queer – or trouble – standard writing formats.
I was fascinated that most people I mentor began with a more standard kind of project – a memoir or a novel for example. However during the pandemic many of them moved towards something very different. A couple of these projects question the divide between art and writing by incorporating both words and visual or three dimensional aspects. Some engage with explicitly transgressive modes of writing. Many have moved away from aiming at conventional publishing, towards alternative forms of putting words out there, via social media, zines or chapbooks for example. Some are challenging the writer/reader binary by drawing people into conversation and making that part of the work.
One person is collecting together the experiences of queers during lockdown and how they have engaged in creative processes of self-shaping through this time, which makes me wonder about seeing the creation of (queer) selves as, in itself, a creative/writing project.
This leads me to my final consideration, that queerness might be a way in which we approach the process of writing as well as the content.
When I became a writing mentor, the thing that surprised me most was how much I ended up encouraging mentees – and myself – not to write. This became such a theme that I’m now considering writing a whole writing book on ‘not writing’!
My stance on this came from what I’d learnt in queer community about consent. I noticed that most of us were engaging in writing from a non-consensual place. We were trying to force ourselves to write when we didn’t want to, we were trying to undertake projects because we thought that was the kind of writing we should do, or because it seemed most likely to get published, we were aiming for a certain number of words per day and feeling bad if we didn’t manage that. All of this seemed to me very much like the heteronormative way of approaching sex: feeling that we have to do it, that it should happen a certain amount, and that it should take a certain form (PIV) and result in a certin outcome (orgasm) in order to be valid.
One thing I’ve learnt from ace community is that sex can never be truly consensual unless we know absolutely that it’s okay not to have sex right now, and indeed that it’s okay never to have sex. We need to know that we’re free and safe enough to not have sex, that we’re under no pressure to do so, and that nothing else is contingent upon it. All of this is pretty threatening to the heteronormative – and even homonormative – way of doing sex and relationships.
So I figured that writing worked in the same way. We can’t be in consent, as writers, unless we know that it’s absolutely okay not to write. What most of us, myself and my mentees, found, when we stepped away from writing in our previous way, was that we ended up engaging in different forms of creativity which were far more fulfilling to us, many of which challenged those binaries around ‘proper’ writing vs. play, art vs. writing, writing practice vs. therapeutic/spiritual practice, and creation-of-writing vs. creation-of-self.
All of this takes me to a place where I also have to question the writing/not writing binary! Going through a very personally traumatic year, during a pandemic, I’ve ended up having to tell a lot of people that I’m not writing, despite having given up the day job to ‘become a writer’ in 2019. However I then take a look over at my bookshelves and realise that I’ve probably written more words this year than ever before, it’s just all been in the format of journaling through my process. And even if I hadn’t been journaling, I’ve been working on myself more this year than ever before. Could that not be seen as an act of writing: of writing myself?
What about the stories I tell myself in the form of fantasy, to soothe myself to sleep each night or to enjoy a solosexual moment in the middle of the day. Do those only count as ‘writing’ if I physically write them down? If other people read them? And what about all the painstaking emails and messages I’ve written in the last year, as I navigate trauma, letting people know what I’m going through, expressing my needs, and setting my boundaries? I never count those as ‘writing’, but of course they are: and they are a way of writing myself and co-creating my relationships, and my not-relationships. Another not-binary for you!
Most of my mentees struggle with something that I also still struggle with, 23 books in, which is whether we get to call ourselves a writer. ‘I’m not a writer because I haven’t been doing it very long.’ ‘I’m not a writer because I haven’t published anything.’ ‘I’m not a writer because I haven’t written a full book.’ ‘I’m not a writer because I don’t write fiction, or poetry, or something proper like that.’ Imposter syndrome is incredibly high around being a writer.
But, taking a queer perspective, is it even possible to be a writer, or indeed to not be a writer? Neither of these things is a stable identity, and this binary is as questionable as any of them. So perhaps we can lift the burden of trying to determine which category we fall into. Personally I love authors on writing like Natalie Goldberg and Lynda Barry who take us back to the bare bones of writing: back to the little queer selves we all – perhaps – once were, who simply enjoyed playing with words and/or stories and/or pictures, not worrying whether we were ‘writer enough’ or ‘normal enough’, or even ‘queer enough’.
In her wonderful essay The Uses of The Erotic, Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde questions the divisions we have made around what counts as ‘sex’ and the disciplining, oppressive functions these have. She suggests expanding out our understanding of ‘the erotic’ to encompass all kinds of sensual and creative experience, including making love to a partner in a patch of sunlight, writing a poem, and constructing a bookcase.
This is perhaps why it makes so much sense to me to apply the same understandings to the writing process as I do to the process of sex. If we can expand out our understanding of queerness, and writing, and queer writing, in such ways, perhaps we can acknowledge the personal and political power of claiming all of us as writers, at least of our own stories and the stories of our (queer) communities.
“Once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of… This is a grave responsibility… not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” Audre Lorde.
Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, Gender: A Graphic Guide, How To Understand Your Gender, Life Isn’t Binary, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice. Websites: rewriting-the-rules.com, megjohnandjustin.com. Twitter: @megjohnbarker, Instagram: @meg_john_barker.
You can read writing therapist, Simon Forsyth’s piece, where I found a couple of the quotes included here at: writing.ie/resources/writing-therapy-and-the-power-of-the-pen-by-simon-forsyth
You can read about Daniel Morrison’s project on queer lockdown here: facebook.com/Queer-Spirit-in-the-Great-Pause-116361600151780
And there’s some great videos about queer writing during lockdown here: newwritingsouth.com/within-the-four-walls-queer-lockdown-stories
You can read my thoughts on writing, and on queer failure, on my blog here:
Jules’s website is: julesscheele.com
Anya Achtenberg can be found at: thedisobedientwriter.com
Lynda Barry at: thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com
Natalie Goldberg at: nataliegoldberg.com
And Audre Lorde’s essay at: uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/11881_Chapter_5.pdf
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