What exactly is "queerness"? Is it identifying somewhere beneath the LGBTQ+ umbrella? Is it prescribing to a certain set of ideals, ones which deviate from the heteronormative frameworks we were raised with? Or is it more fluid and intangible than that? Eve Sedgwick, an American academic and queer theorist, described queerness as "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances" in relation to gender and sexuality. Was she right?
For years, I internalised an "us" and "them" mentality in relation to my life choices. "Them" being people who get married in a church, refer to their partner as "my other half" and have "date nights" with two other monogamous couples. "Us" being those who are whatever that isn’t. People who form their own families, have fluid relationships, feel more at home in a club than a registry office. I’m not saying these ideas are intrinsically bound up with queerness (the stereotype that queer people are inherently "deviant", for example, is untrue and damaging), but for me they were. In other words: why would I want to behave like straight people?
Over the past decade, though, a binary understanding of these ideas has begun to look more and more simplistic and reductive. Same-sex marriage is legal in 26 countries. Many of us can have children, settle down, buy our own "live laugh love" posters and live like our hetero grandparents. The way LGBTQ+ people are treated is far from equal – especially for trans and BAME folk – but in the West, visibility and assimilation is more widespread than it ever has been. So with more options available – for both queer and straight-identifying people – the culture has shifted, and is still shifting. Some queer people want a more conventional lifestyle. Some straight people don’t. Fundamentally, it’s about the right to choose.
In Amelia Abraham’s new book, Queer Intentions, out on the 30th of May, she grapples with these questions and more. Combining rigorous journalism with her own personal experience, the book sees her travel across Europe, Turkey and the States, from drag conventions to Pride parades and Britain’s first ever same-sex marriage, all to ask one essential question: what does it mean to be "queer" in 2019?
VICE: Hi Amelia. Can you tell me a bit about why you decided to write this book?
Amelia Abraham: The mainstreaming of queer culture is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. And it was something I started thinking about more in my early-twenties, when a lot of the gay bars I loved were closing – so, like, 2014? Which was also the year that same-sex marriage was legalised, and the year Barclays sponsored Pride. So we were in this moment where queer culture was becoming quite mainstream – both politically and culturally. And when I was writing about these gay bar closures – probably for VICE, actually – a lot of people were saying, "Maybe we don’t need these separate spaces?” That was when I first started thinking about the topic of the book.
And then I decided to actually write it in 2016, when I moved to Iceland to be with my girlfriend and the relationship didn’t work out. It ended after ten days. I came back with nothing else to do – I’d quit my job to be there. But also, that relationship made me think about marriage and kids and whether a "heteronormative" life was something I wanted. The complicated feelings around that were really the driving force behind the book; how these personal decisions relate to the wider political moment we were in.
That makes a lot of sense. I definitely grew up with the mindset that prescribing to "heteronormative" ideals was incongruous to my queerness. But it’s only now I’m older that I’ve started looking back and questioning whether it’s not that I didn’t want those things, but that I thought they weren’t for me, or I didn’t consider them possible.
Yeah, totally. If same-sex marriage has been legalised since 2014, that means I had 23 years of living under the idea that gay people couldn’t get married. So when that becomes an option for us, it’s confusing, right? Suddenly you’re allowed, and it’s like… what are the implications of that? Is it "selling out"? We’ve forged a radical, alternative culture – generally speaking – for so many years. And same-sex marriage is a big example of a cultural shift where maybe we asked, "Oh right, maybe we don’t have to live in queer or underground ways."
But there’s also a great loss there. That’s what I was thinking about a lot: what is at stake? What will we lose, if we did all decide to get married tomorrow? Imagine if every gay, bi, trans person decided to get married. It would probably be quite sad. And if you’re a minority, it can feel as if your decisions are more loaded.
Yeah, definitely. So would you consider "queerness" as something bound up with orientation, or lifestyle, or a combination of the two?
It’s good to define our terms. I think "straight people" – in inverted commas – can be queer. I think it’s an attitude, a mindset or an ideology. It’s about questioning dominant power structures – white supremacy, heterosexuality – and thinking in challenging ways. Naturally, that starts to play out in the way you live your life.
There’s that Eve Sedgwick quote where she describes queerness as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances".
Yeah! I actually think the best definition for queerness that I came across while writing the book was when I was talking to my ex girlfriend in Sweden, and went to meet who I consider her "ultra queer" friends – I mean, let’s not put queerness on a scale, that’s silly – but they’re all in the kink scene and polyamorous and non binary and make me look like the most normie person in the world.
But I was talking to her about them and the way they lived their lives, and we were talking about how they created structures around their desires rather than the other way round. So rather than receiving pre-existing structures about how we should be – male or female, monogamous or non-monogamous, etc – they created those for themselves. I think that, for me, is a great example of what queerness can be.
Throughout the process of writing the book, and upon finishing it, did any of your opinions change about the mainstreaming of queerness and its culture?
There were so many sub-stories, and within those, many small ways in which my beliefs shifted slightly. One example is that I had been quite skeptical about the commercialisation of Pride and corporate sponsors. Even just on an emotional level I felt weird about it. Like, banking logos make me feel empty inside. But it was interesting speaking to this guy, Hans, who organises Amsterdam Pride, which is one of the biggest in Europe, with over 500,000 attendees. He was like, "This is only possible because of the money." Whereas in a country like Serbia, where brands don't want to touch Pride, it was much smaller and closed off from the rest of the city.
People see brands as diluting the message of Pride, but they never consider the other side, which is: maybe Pride could improve brands? Amsterdam Pride goes in with: "If you want to sponsor Pride, then you have to do X,Y,Z towards diversity within your company. We have to hold you to account." And they can use that as a way to hold brands responsible for the way they treat their staff, and the money that they give. I had never thought of that, and it made me see Pride in a new light.
Do you think your skepticism about other things decreased while writing the book, or vice-versa?
No, but I think I viewed things in quite a binary way. Like, I either get married and have kids and live that conventional life, or I just fuck my way through life and go to gay bars forever, which obviously sounds very reductive. But it only sounds reductive in 2019 because the chasm is closing. Ten years ago, we were in a very different place. And it did feel like “that’s what straight people do, that’s what gay people do”, and the book explores how those boundaries are becoming blurred.
So as I explored those boundaries, I stopped thinking about things in such a binary way. Like, maybe I could get married to my girlfriend, but I could also have a kid with another queer couple and raise it as a four? Basically, all these possibilities that fell outside my old fashioned binary conceptions of straight life vs queer life emerged for me. I saw there were way more possibilities, which is a nice thing to have learned.
Yeah, if you'd asked me even five years ago, I'd have thought there were only two options available also, even just subconsciously. It's positive that that's no longer the perception.
Yeah, it's interesting these times we're living in. I've been pleasantly surprised to hear from straight female friends in their thirties, and how they didn't realise the book would relate to them because they were like: it's an LGBTQ book! But it's also about the expectations of heteronormativity – getting married at a certain time, having kids at a certain times, living in a "respectful" manner, blah blah. blah. Basically, “respectability politics” – and those affect all of us, whether we're straight or gay. I think straight women in their thirties feel the pressures of heteronormativity more than anyone.
And we all plunge into an existential crisis after a break-up, which is how you open the book...
Exactly. Like, I'm going to die alone! Especially with this one, because I'd also quit my job and my flat, so it felt as if I was off my "trajectory”. But what are these trajectories of success we have? This is why Jack Halberstam's book, The Queer Art of Failure, is so important. It's basically about how sometimes failure can be helpful, and why do we consider certain things to be successful anyway? As Amrou said [in Queer Intentions]: “Why did no one send me a bunch of flowers for sucking someone off in a darkroom?” Why is that life choice not celebrated, while having a baby is?
Haha, yeah, I feel like “success” has never really been equated to happiness or satisfaction, necessarily. It's something else. It's about having more.
Yeah, and coming back to what we were saying about queerness – I guess because I went on a literal journey as well as an emotional one – maybe appreciating the journey more than destination is something that I learned. And I think that links to what we've been talking about... and the meaning of queerness in general.
'Queer Intentions: A (personal) journey through LGBTQ+ culture' is out on the 30th of May. Click here to pre-order.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.