A Queer Reading Of My Life

A Queer Reading Of My Life

One of the things I learned during A-Level English Literature that I hadn’t come across before was the idea of different readings of a text. I mean, I think I’d been doing it unconsciously already, but the terminology hadn’t crossed my path. I didn’t know you could do a ‘feminist reading’ of a text, let alone a ‘queer reading’. I didn’t know it was legitimate to look at material through a certain lens and see what it uncovered, and discovering that I could was something of a revelation.

Some people don’t think you can do queer readings of all texts. I’m here to tell you that you most definitely can. In many historical cases, it’s even easy — our current heteronormative system hasn’t always been in place, so that helps. But even where you wouldn’t expect it to be possible, you can do it if you try hard enough. Everybody’s queer if you just believe in yourself.

Even Tess Durbeyfield.
Even Tess Durbeyfield.

Recently I discovered that I could make almost any of my early books better with a queer reading. It would immediately undo the problematic elements I’d internalised from media around me, and make for more interesting character motivations. The same’s true of at least a dozen less-than-stellar YA books that I’ve read, and don’t get me started on queer readings of classic books. I mean, some of them are so obvious it’s hardly subtext (comparing Enjolras and Grantaire to Achilles and Patroclus wasn’t a chance reference, dude), whereas others you have to dig a little deeper.

Then again, the thing about classic lit is that you rarely see queer representation except very occasionally in the negative (depending on the time period, country, ideology etc, of course), and so it’s the only way to get that sense of belonging, of being a part of a text. Also? Tess’s behaviour in Tess of the d’Urbervilles makes a ton of sense when you consider that she might be asexual. (“I don’t want to kiss you, or anyone!” she says at one point.)

The point is not that I always like to headcanon characters as queer, however. The point is that you can do a queer reading of a text without changing the essential text or contradicting other readings. It’s a filter, a certain way of looking at things. I recently wrote an essay on queer readings of Marie de France, but they don’t make the Lais any more or less queer at heart, nor do they take away from other readings — feminist readings, romantic readings, etc. Sure, I can spend four thousand words arguing that Guigemar is the medieval equivalent of conversion therapy for a character who can easily be read as asexual, but that’s not even the only way I read it, let alone the only way it can be read by other people.

It’s just one way of perceiving what a text is trying to say.

I would also like to apologise to anyone who reads these books after me.
I would also like to apologise to anyone who reads these books after me.

I think this academic usage is one of the reasons I was drawn to the term ‘queer’ when I first started figuring out my identity as something other than straight, nearly four years ago now. It was a convenient word to use because it encompassed that ambiguous non-straightness that I couldn’t quite define, and at a time when I had no idea whether I was gay or asexual or what, it was the best fit. But even though some people object to it on the basis of its usage as a slur (and the reclamation argument is a whole other blog post), it has never felt that way for me. It’s always had the safety of academia.

That said, a quick sidenote: for me, academia is safety, even if it’s got its problems (inaccessibility, prejudice etc). I’ve always been academically gifted and rarely struggled in school, and more than that, I come from a position of serious academic privilege, with a highly educated family who value education for the sake of learning as well as a tool for getting jobs and so on. That makes academia a safe place for me — but there are a lot of people who find it threatening or exclusionary. Again, that’s a whole other blog post.

The thing about queer was that it didn’t have to become everything that I was. I was wary of terms like ‘gay’ (even when I still thought that was how I identified) because they seemed so complete, so definite. ‘Queer’, on the other hand… well, I could do a queer reading of my life, without rejecting the other aspects of it. And when I wasn’t certain of my identity and didn’t know how permanent this aspect was, something that was merely a filter seemed quite attractive as a prospect.

My admiration of other girls when I was younger? Maybe it was just admiration. Or maybe, if I did a queer reading of it, I woud interpret that as the first signs that I wasn’t straight. My position somewhere between girly and full-on tomboy, where I did ballet but hated pink and climbed trees but sometimes wore skirts while doing it, could easily just be my personality. As could the fact that I opted to go as male characters for several World Book Days in a row — after all, I was in a Tolkien phase, and his lack of female characters is well-known. So it’s perfectly possible to explain my Aragorn costume without touching on any gender-related issues.

Then again, whenever I’m struggling with gender and identity and trying to understand myself, I can look to a queer reading of my childhood and see that I’ve always had a certain androgyny, even when it wasn’t a conscious decision. I have the option to do that.

I was also the most punk rock baby ever, so, draw your own conclusions.
I was also the most punk rock baby ever, so, draw your own conclusions.

Queer readings don’t have to be definite. They don’t have to be prescriptive. They don’t have to be permanent. I can interpret something I felt or thought when I was twelve as queer, or I can decide not to. And neither invalidates the other. They’re just pieces of evidence for different interpretations of my life.

They don’t even have to be total. I can do a queer reading of a text and still take time to discuss the use of setting, or the portrayal of disabilities, or whatever. Not only is it only one interpretation of an aspect, it’s only one aspect of many.

I do very much identify as queer. The pride flag in my desk tidy and “asexual pirates are not interested in your booty” poster on my noticeboard make that immediately clear to anyone who enters my room at uni. And while I sometimes try and narrow that down, if only so I’ve got a concise answer for anybody who asks, the truth is, that’s the term that fits me best. I’m not gay, or bi. I identify fairly strongly with the term asexual, but that still doesn’t fully fit. My identity is defined more by what it isn’t (straight) than by what it is.

I’m conscious, though, that I haven’t always. And I’m conscious that these sorts of things are fluid, though I firmly believe that just because something may be a ‘phase’, that doesn’t make it any less valid or important in one’s life. It seems increasingly unlikely as time passes and my confidence in this identity solidifies, but maybe in a few years time, I’ll decide that a queer reading isn’t the most convincing interpretation of my life.

For now, it is. For now, this is the academic conclusion I’m drawing, while acknowledging that I don’t do so at the exclusion of other aspects of my identity, let alone other interpretations of this aspect.

What with my identity and my physical health problems resulting in wonky joints, there’s a joke in my family that my hair’s the straightest thing about me.

Oh, and all your favourite characters are queer. Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

6 thoughts on “A Queer Reading Of My Life

  1. Good post. I have nothing additional to say (I don’t think I can say anything that you haven’t, particularly as I got bored of reading subtexts at GCSE English Lit [though, I understand that GCSE is never the best representation or introduction of a topic]) except that I was Aragorn for my 10th birthday! :D

    1. Oh, I really disliked GCSE English and it totally put me off trying to analyse texts — like, seriously, I used to hate doing that. Wasn’t interested in critical readings, just wanted to do creative writing. A-Level totally opened my eyes, especially my A2 coursework, which made me realise for the first time exactly how engaging English Lit could be.

      I used to have fancy dress birthday parties a lot, but I don’t remember my 10th specifically. I know that one year I was the bird from the Just So Stories, mostly because we had a costume for it. And for my seventh or eighth I was a dragon. I would dig out pictures, but I fear they’re on my parents’ external harddrive at home and therefore inaccessible from uni.

  2. Miriam. Interesting post. And I wouldn’t want to declaim against any of it, as I respect that your post represents the how, where and when of your self perception at present. Also that your openness is an act of bravery that I do not see very often. My interest with your post is in what you perceive to be the difference, if any, between your “identity”; which you refer to several times in this post; and your “personality”, which has just the one reference in respect of your childhood tree climbing attire.

    I fully appreciate your analysis of academia as a “safe space”, and am heartened by your viewpoint.

    As an overall note on your post’s title I should observe that all that you have described of your life within it, to my understanding, is anything but “queer”, in the sense that it is unusual, but, in fact, perfectly “normal” or “straight” and that you should continue just as you are whatever my analysis shows to me.

    Now I can only suggest further reading (through any lens) of such authors as George Orwell (I’m thinking “Keep The Aspidistras Flying” here), Brian Aldiss (“Hothouse”) for starters. I do of course appreciate that you are a busy student and should not spend too much time following advice from a old sausage like me, but that’s your decision to make.

    Live long and prosper

    1. I use the word queer not in a pejorative abnormal sense, but because I don’t feel I fit into the rigid binary categories the world prescribes, nor do I fit the traditional mould of being interested in relationships and sex. For me, that’s something I’m perfectly happy with, but it’s undeniably queer, since it goes against the grain of societal expectations. Everywhere I go I’m bombarded with messages about how romantic love is the only fulfilling way to live, how interest in sex is normal and healthy and those who aren’t into it are clearly broken or abnormal in some way, etc etc — and while I don’t subscribe to these and I’m confident in my own sense of identity, it still underlies the idea of queerness.

      You’re right, I do use personality and identity fairly interchangeably. In many ways that’s because, when looking at myself growing up, I can’t tell which outward behaviours were signs of inward feelings I hadn’t identified yet, and which were caused by other interests and influences. I also think that identifying as queer is a big part of my personality as well as my identity because it shapes how I respond to and engage with the world around me, from pop culture to fashion, which inevitably has an impact on my personality more generally.

      I wouldn’t say, however, that my openness (at least about this) is especially brave; I dislike being private about it, and I think the world needs more open dialogue so that people feel able to explore these ideas without it having to be a big deal or cause some major identity crisis.

  3. thank you for your reply. Very interested in what you think about where or who the “rigid binary categories ” and “traditional mould” are perpetuated from. But please do not detract from your studies. These are much more important than my queries.

    I remember a lesson once where the teacher asked us to analyse tricky (or any really) problems or situations with the simple question of “so what?”. Sometimes useful, sometimes not.

    Happy studies

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