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This is a modern, living history of what it means to be queer

Amelia Abraham’s Queer Intentions journeys through Serbia’s heavily policed Pride, an LA drag convention, and runways walked by trans models

When equal marriage for same sex couples became legal in England and Wales I was unimpressed. It was March 2014 and I was out at dinner (in Soho, fittingly) with four friends, all of them gay. Someone at the table mentioned that the The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 had just come into force. ‘Oh god who cares?!’ one friend said, rolling his eyes. ‘It’s good we’re equal under the law but marriage can fuck off”, said another. It was before I transitioned, so at that time the new same sex marriage legislation affected me too. Like my friends, I was pretty scathing about gay marriage at the time. Partly because I was single and  in my mid 20s and partly because I was a queer child of divorced parents, which left me uncharmed by the resoundingly hypothetical option of a wedding. Looking back, though, sneering at so monumental a shift for other LGBTQ+ people was partly because we were complacent. My friends and I had grown up in the 00s when the grip of overt homophobia on public life had slowly weakened and, by 2014, we were all living in London and moving in circles where homophobia was verboten. It was pre-Brexit and pre-Trump.

Then, a year later, I came out all over again. The relative comfort I had enjoyed in my early 20s disappeared when I realised how much further behind acceptance and equality for trans people was compared to gay people. Now that I’m older, and I have sometimes worked alongside campaign organisations like Stonewall, who lobbied for equal marriage, I have a new appreciation of even the assimilationist gains LGBTQ+ people have made and the reassurance of being allowed to assimilate, even if you don’t want to.

This option, however, creates new questions about whether LGBTQ+ people and the culture we have created for ourselves is being subsumed into the mainstream, and whether we can – or even should – resist that. In her new book, Queer Intentions (out now) the writer  – and Dazed Beauty’s managing editor – Amelia Abraham sets out on a journey that takes her to the United States, Turkey, and across Europe to ask drag queens, rich bougie gays, sex workers, and trans journalists, in a time when LGBTQ+ people have never been more accepted and normalised, what it means to be ‘queer’.

I read your new book over the May Bank Holiday weekend, and there’s a chapter on the significance of gay bars and their closure where you talk about venues in London like the Joiners’ Arms. Reading it that weekend made me realise how old I am, to be honest. To think consciously about how so many of those venues you discuss have closed and now I sit in on bank holidays and read instead of going out to queer bars. Whatever. I had a good run. That sounds like I’m dying.

Amelia Abraham: I know what you mean. In the book I discuss when I first started going out to gay bars at 18, 19… and that was basically 10 years ago. Horrifying. I sat down to write about what I still vaguely thought was my current or recent social life – then you realise it’s already historic.

How did you come to write the book?

Amelia Abraham: I moved abroad for a relationship, which then ended, and I had to return to London after having left my job and flat. So I was back here post-breakup and had nothing better to do! More professionally, I had been writing for various online outlets about queer culture and I realised that it would be interesting to put that into a format where it had more longevity. Online journalism has such a short shelf life and I found these discussions about the way life for LGBTQ+ people is changing so interesting. I thought it would be good to do something in longer form – a proper document of the weird time we’re living in.

That breakup you describe was with a woman you dropped everything in London to move to Iceland to be with, and you write about it in the book! I found the fact you did that wild, but it was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book – it combines genres. It is travel writing and queer political analysis and personal memoir too. There’s some pretty personal stuff in there – your relationships, and occasionally sex.

Amelia Abraham: That can be confusing to people early on when you’re trying to get the book published, and then how it’s marketed. The fusion of different genres and forms felt more queer to me. I’m also a Gemini and I like doing six different things at once.

The people who appear in the book share so much of themselves – it only felt fair that I be willing to do that too.

“Writing the book made me feel more like I could self-describe as queer because all the people I met were so accepting of me” – Amelia Abraham

‘Queerness’ is such an elusive idea, I find, because two people can be using the word  ‘queer’ and you’re not sure they both mean the same thing by it. I wasn’t sure if you feel a personal affinity with the term. It seemed sometimes like you felt you might be too conventional or something? I know in the book there’s a couple of times you have to tell your interviewee that you’re a lesbian yourself because they have assumed you’re straight.

Amelia Abraham: I’ve never personally identified myself as queer. I think because it’s an oppositional term. It’s about a position of challenge to existing political structures and, yeah, I think at times I felt that in many ways I blend into them because of a certain degree of privilege. For some people, it’s about expressing a particular kind of ambivalence about gender.

Writing the book made me feel more like I could self-describe as queer because all the people I met were so accepting of me. In places like Serbia, where there’s very little mainstream interest in LGBTQ+ rights, the people I met were so forthcoming. That slowly made me feel less conflicted about the term.

I have a similar thing. I actually used to proudly identify as queer when I was younger before I transitioned. As I transitioned and became a woman, I became more conventional. The way I dress, the values I’ve internalised, the men I date – it’s all a lot more hetronormative. So I feel less claim to queerness. I now find I only use the term to describe myself in connection with others. If I’m around vibrantly gay, queer, or gender nonconforming people, what I have in common with them rises to the surface and I can say ‘we’re queer people’ – it’s about sharing something.

So – you’ve cleverly released this book as we enter Pride season, which means soon everyone in the LGBTQ+ community who has social media is going to start arguing about Pride! I was pleased to read in your book that these arguments are universal. New Prides are always springing up here too and London is going to have its first trans pride this year. Is it a good thing?

Amelia Abraham: I think different Prides are a good thing, but often the reason a different Pride begins is because someone feels unrepresented or excluded, so it’s also important to think about the reasons why a new Pride might come about. One size is never going to fit all, but the more accepted we get and the bigger Prides get with huge corporate sponsorship and massive numbers it can be, just on an individual level, really overwhelming. Smaller Prides offer something pared back, where you actually get to meet other queer people. It can just be a nicer experience. Big events are very draining.

I’d love to pretend the reason I hate big Prides is political, but a lot of it is actually because Britain has been going through such a wave of transphobia in public discourse. One of the few ways I keep my mental health together is not drawing attention to my transness in public. And at Pride, this massive event full of cis people and straight people, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.  I would never march – I would feel very exposed. People will stare and a drunk stranger might shout something. I feel safer walking down the street on a regular day.

Amelia Abraham: We all might have different issues that make such a huge event very overwhelming in terms of comfort or accessibility. Someone I know who is nonbinary told me they feel read as a gay man in the context of Pride, because there are so many gay men there. Or there may be disabilities which make people at that kind of event very overwhelmed. It’s good to have different options. The level of branding now makes me feel dispirited on an emotional level rather than a political one. Well, they’re connected, but walking around it just feels depressing and gross.

“We’re not as used to hearing sex workers talking about what visibility means to them, or a Turkish trans woman discussing the hypocrisy of living in a country that has famous trans pop stars, but no Pride parade” – Amelia Abraham

I find it depressing how many offers I get in my inbox to collaborate with brands in the lead up to Pride. I’ve worked with brands where they give a percentage to Stonewall. I’ve regretted saying yes to a couple of things, but I’ve also been asked to do really well paid collaborations with companies that notably exploit their workers, or are directly involved in the machinery which deports LGBTQ+ asylum seekers – and, they clearly want me to shoehorn in my gender identity so that everyone knows they’ve worked with a trans person. Just fuck off. They co-opt your identity and in doing so extinguish what’s challenging about your politics.

Amelia Abraham: It’s come up in my career too. Where brands offer you an opportunity and you are like ‘I need to get paid’, but it’s about in each case whether you feel it’s ethical. There’s an expectation that people market their trauma. It is hard to know to what extent you can use a platform to bring greater discussion of our own issues. We live in a capitalist society and can’t opt-out of that system. I’m reassured that some of the smartest people I know don’t find negotiating this stuff to be straightforward, because even the ability to have purity politics about it often relies on a degree of financial privilege.

Well, can we talk about RuPaul on that note? I think he is the embodiment of this conflict. He is like this mass of contradiction – he’s a black drag queen from a very poor background, historically that’s one of the most marginalised and politically radical elements of the American queer community, yet he’s the biggest mainstream crossover figure and his show is sometimes accused of perpetuating misogyny or anti-blackness. Trans women have come out left, right, and centre after doing his show yet he seems startled by the existence of trans people. He champions drag as this anarchic art form, but he recently refused to go to the Met Ball in drag because there was no fee! He loves money so much – I’m obsessed! In the book you look at the Los Angeles DragCon event and this huge empire that’s grown out of the show. What did you think of that?

Amelia Abraham: It’s so intense. Whole families go – straight people, Republicans, Christians. It is like Disneyland, in a big corporate conference centre and they make millions of dollars on the floor. I have written a lot about drag in my career as a journalist – it’s everywhere now. For us, it’s easy to feel fatigued by it – especially because I think it’s one of the biggest examples people our age have seen of queer culture moving into the mainstream. That’s why I wanted to go to DragCon – to talk about that in a context some queer people might not have experienced first-hand, but also because I hope straight people will read the book too, and it’s likely that they will have seen or watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. For a lot of straight viewers, that show is their one standalone view of queer culture. What is interesting about this huge industry arising from the show is how it is producing oppositional forms of drag on local scenes that are trying to do something different from the very particular form of it you see on the show. A lot like Pride and splinter Prides. When something gets big, it gets diluted, but ‘selling out’ can also encourage more alternatives that are more original or grassroots. It’s complicated.

As you were writing the book a lot must have been changing – two years is a short time in publishing, but a long time in queer politics. Were you concerned about that?

Amelia Abraham: The fact the book could date or age quickly was a concern, especially in this climate where Trump does something horrific affecting LGBTQ+ rights literally every week. I predominantly focus on individual, human stories. A person’s experience of homophobia or transphobia throughout their life isn’t going to change as swiftly or dramatically as policy or laws can. It’s also easier to empathise with. We can all read stats on BBC News, but we’re not as used to hearing sex workers talking about what visibility means to them, or a Turkish trans woman discussing the hypocrisy of living in a country that has famous trans pop stars, but no Pride parade.  

Would you like to revisit these subjects in 10 years and see how things have changed? How do you think they might have changed? Are you hopeful?

Amelia Abraham: I think it depends where in the world you mean – in the West, it may be that being LGBTQ+ will be more normalised in 10 years given the trajectory I identify. That’s not guaranteed, though, so I would definitely like to revisit. I also would like to do more reporting on LGBTQ+ people in other parts of the world where it’s not on that trajectory and stories aren’t being told. I guess there’s a question of how I do that in a way that isn’t patronising or imperialist, but it’s something I’m interested in thinking about for the future. Overall, meeting so many different queer people in different countries and feeling like we had some kind of mutual understanding showed me that despite assimilation or mainstreaming, we’re still a kind of global community or family, and that filled me with hope – but progress doesn’t always move in a straight line.

Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture by Amelia Abraham is out now