Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows. This month’s entry takes a slightly different approach…
Ever since reading Sarah Gailey’s wonderful, moving Between the Coats essay about navigating their queerness through their writing, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my own queer/narrative trajectory. Among other things, it made me realise that I have no obvious ur-moment for seeing myself reflected in the stories I read in my tweens and teens, because people like me were never there; or if so, it was only ever unnamed, peripheral, tragic. And that makes me wonder: how might things have been different, if I’d known myself in fiction?
The first time I ever had bisexuality explained to me, I was fifteen, hanging out with friends, and experienced an immediate eureka moment – “Oh, so that’s why I feel the way I do about Mila Jovovich!” – that saw me claiming the label on the spot. It bothers me now that I can’t recall what topic sparked that revelation, what show or joke or book we were talking about. I’d like to think it was Daria, and maybe it was, but I can’t be sure. Even so, I remember the word bisexual clicking home for me as clearly as I do a moment two years earlier, when a girl wearing a flamenco dress for multicultural day winked at me across the playground and my entire body flushed hot.
I didn’t know what I was feeling, that first time: only that it was meaningful. It wasn’t something that happened in the stories I read or the films I watched; I didn’t know how to separate the way I was taught to objectify myself by magazines, compulsively examining my body in the mirror, from how I felt when I looked at the models to whom I compared myself. Women were meant to be beautiful, and they were beautiful, and I was meant to want them even as I felt alienated from what they represented. Fiction confirmed that for me, too: no matter what else was happening, story after story went out of its way to emphasise how beautiful the female characters were, as if they wouldn’t be worth including otherwise, and while I encountered some narratives that broke the trend – well. I didn’t know how to learn from them, then, even if they spoke to me; I just knew they were outliers.
I remember reading about a pair of requisitely beautiful lesbian Mord-Sith in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, judged as wrong by some characters and accepted by others: a rare sliver of ostensibly queer content. But what I took away from that portrayal wasn’t that women loving women was normal; instead, I carried away the image of the hero, Richard, stripping one of the couple in front of an audience that included her lover, feeling her breast and then pointing out some mark on it that meant she’d been corrupted by evil. When he cut the mark off, the women renewed their allegiance to him, their narratives only ever a periphery feature of his. Like the famous scene in Cruel Intentions where Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar made out, it taught me that liking women was inherently performative: you kissed for men, or to practice for men, and that was right and normal – so long, of course, as the men approved.
After realising what I was, I never hesitated to describe myself as bi, but looking back, there was something reflexively superficial about how I processed that part of my identity, in that I didn’t, really. I had no context for queerness beyond the immediate: I liked girls and boys, and so did some of the other girls and boys I knew, and there was a great deal of complicated, friend-incestuous drama around various people in our social group kissing and crushing on and dating and breaking up and sleeping with one another, to the point where you could fit any five of us in a car and have a 90% that everyone present had at least kissed everyone else. But those of us who were queer and not just experimenting – and a few of us did; I know experimentation gets used to dismiss actual queerness as not-real, but sometimes people do test the waters while figuring themselves out – were baby gays, completely disconnected from any wider sense of community or identity or adult-gay supervision. We experimented with kink long before any of us had any notion of how to do it responsibly, which was exactly as risky as you might imagine, and we thought we were so, so knowledgeable, because we had nothing and no one healthy against which to compare ourselves.
One night when we were sixteen, we all crammed into someone’s furnished garage and watched But I’m A Cheerleader!, which was the first piece of explicitly, purposefully, exclusively queer anything I’d ever encountered besides Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. It was funny and moving and wonderful and remains one of my favourite films, but it was also about American kids finding love at a gay conversion camp, the protagonist struggling to reconcile her Christianity and traditional femininity with her attraction to girls. For an Australian tomboy-who-didn’t-yet-know-she-was-genderqueer from a liberal atheist family, it wasn’t exactly the most relatable setting; it still mattered, of course, but at the same time, I never quite felt that it was about me, either.
I had the same problem with Alec and Seregil in Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series. I remember understanding, once it was spelled out to me in the narrative, that Seregil was gay and interested in Alec, but as a trope-literate reader who had by that point encountered a lot of heterosexual romance, I felt weirdly and continually frustrated that Alec and Beka weren’t a couple, because that’s what stories were meant to do, wasn’t it – put the men and women together? Only these books weren’t doing that, which thirteen-year-old me could only view as a sort of stubborn, deliberate failure. The fact that the series was recommended to me by a queer female friend with a crush on me only makes the whole thing more ironic in retrospect: she’d lent me the books in part as a see me gesture, hoping I’d enthuse about Alec and Seregil with her, and instead it went completely over my head. Though she later confessed her feelings during a sleepover, I was years away from knowing I was bi; and by the time I did, her aggressively Christian high school had shoved her into the closet.
And all the time, I never knew I was genderqueer as well as bi, completely unable to label my dysphoric moments as anything other than weirdness. I loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Liveship series, but I never understood the Fool/Amber as someone I might relate to. They were always alien, ethereal, their gender never quite named, and always there was the spectre of Regal, villainous and implicitly queer, hanging over the story. In fact, that was true of a lot of queer men in even my most beloved and formative SFF series. Outside of Flewelling’s work, what I far more often saw – for a given value of the word ‘often’ – were stories where men were raped by men, or where the paedophilic interest of older men in young boys was the requisite backstory to any queer adult characters, both in SFF and elsewhere. Queer women were even harder to find; trans characters rarer still, and when the latter appeared, they were almost always shown as cartoonish at best and monstrous at worst.
A metaphor enacted: my childhood bedroom was two rooms, one of which had originally been a balcony that was later enclosed with windows, so that the two spaces were joined by a connecting door. In my head, from the age of about eight onwards, one room was feminine and the other masculine. I’d periodically change my mind about which toys, which possessions, which posters and bits of décor counted as which, and I certainly never told anyone how I thought of it, but it’s a thing I did nonetheless. A literal act of compartmentalisation; and I am, even as a self-aware adult, a very compartmentalised person. It’s a chicken and egg problem to me, these days: did I compartmentalise because I didn’t know how to express myself, or did I not know how to express myself because I compartmentalised? And would seeing different, more and better portrayals of queerness at a younger age have made a difference either way?
To me, it’s telling that I only really started to explore queerness in my own writing once I started meeting other queer people in person, online, and talking to them. The box in which I’d put that part of myself began to open, the contents slowly, gradually filtering into my writing. Discovering fanfic helped speed up the process enormously – a not uncommon experience. And now I look back on the limits I used to set myself, on all the things I pretended didn’t matter, and wonder how I ever occupied so small a narrative space.
With all the amazing queer content that’s become available in the past few years, it’s hard to say exactly which books or shows or films would’ve made the biggest difference to my younger self. But one thing I feel certain would’ve struck a chord is Steven Universe: specifically, the character of Amethyst, who frequently shapeshifts between feminine and masculine. Amethyst is almost painfully relatable to me at times: she’s constantly eating, habitually and unapologetically messy, extroverted and confident, except when that confidence crumbles and she’s reduced to bouts of depressive self-hatred, snarking jealously at everyone or else bitterly feeding eggs into the garbage disposal as she struggles to leave the house. That I have a character like her now in a show I love – along with so many others – means the world to me; but what would it have meant, to have known her at eight or ten or thirteen?
I can’t ever know the answer, but I can sure as hell write stories that help other people to answer it for themselves. And that, I hope, is no small thing.