Queer Storytelling

Hi all, I’m just back from my writing retreat with Alex Iantaffi where we finished the first draft of our new book – How to Understand Your Relationships! This completes our How to Understand Your… trilogy. Hopefully we’ll edit the book over the next few months and it’ll be out at some point next year. Watch this space for details. We’re already mulling possible next projects. Queer spiritulity and queer creativity are major themes we’re hoping to explore further together…

While I was away, I was included in an interview about the Out on the Page and Audible Pride List of Queer Storytelling. I was one of the nominators for this amazing list of queer stories and storytellers. It’s a brilliant resource if you’re looking to expand your queer reading.

Attitude magazine interviewed me, along with Shivani Dave and Juliet Jacques about our own relationships to queer storytelling. This was particularly exciting, for me. All my published books to date have been non-fiction, but I do attempt to tell queer stories through these books, particularly the graphic guides. Also I’m increasingly creating more fictional and comic/zine stories alongside that work, and exploring queer creativity specifically. It’s affirming to be thought of as a queer storyteller.

You can read the interview with me, Shiv and Juliet here, and read my answers in full below.


How has the writing process aided you in your gender journey?

In so many ways. I’ve been fortunate to be paid to write about gender for a general audience. Writing Gender: A Graphic Guide with Jules Scheele enabled me to learn all about gender, weaving together history, psychology, sociology, biology, cultural theory and more to come to my best attempt at making sense of how it all works. Writing How To Understand Your Gender with Alex Iantaffi helped me to reflect – again – on my own gender and to write the book I wish I’d had as a young person.

Nowadays I write fiction to further explore the multiple gendered parts of myself and to bring them into better communication with each other, as well as journaling in dialogue between them – both for myself and on my blog.

Who would you say is the most influential gender-diverse writer in history? 

I’m going to say all the gender diverse writers who never got to write and who we’ve therefore never had the chance to read. Thanks to the rigid white Western binary model of gender, and the way it’s been enforced around the world, so many voices have been silenced. Even now – as writers like Travis Alabanza and Juliet Jacques have pointed out – we only hear particular narratives of gender diversity: those that fit the dominant culture’s narrow sense of allowable transness. This severely closes down the options of how we can understand, experience and express our gender diversity and creativity.

I would point people towards Kit Heyam’s wonderful history book Before We Were Trans which tells the stories of gender diverse people across time and place, including those who have been silenced or written out of history in various ways.

Who are the most influential gender-diverse characters? 

Anna Madrigal from Tales of the City was the first gender diverse character I remember reading as a late teenager. Armisted Maupin’s books had a huge impact on me way before I realised my own transness, and on so many other people I know.

The depiction of a wise, kind, older trans woman was radical for the time when – as the Disclosure documentary shows – gender diverse people were generally depicted as objects of ridicule, dangerous perpetrators, or disposable victims, if they were depicted at all. Maupin’s later books – and the TV shows based on them – include many other great depictions of various forms of gender diversity. 

What text exploring gender-diversity is most important to you?

I picked Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater for the Pride list because it depicts a plural experience of gender diversity – someone who has several different selves, or spirits, of different genders – as well as exploring how gender and spirituality can be interwoven. This was huge for me as there are so few books that depict plurality as part of life – outside of mental health memoirs. 

I also picked Becky Chambers because she writes so affirmatively about many types of gender, sexual, and relationship diversity, and about relating kindly across difference. Her most recent series has a non-binary lead character without that being a big deal or central to the plot.

What are some of the most common obstacles faced by gender-diverse writers and how do we change them?

Juliet Jacques, Travis Alabanza, Juno Roche, Shon Faye, CN Lester and others have written eloquently about the ways in which only certain stories of gender diversity are welcomed, such as stories that centre our transness (and often white middle class transness), that focus on medical transition, that draw on the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative, and that present us as poster children for trans by being normative in every other way.

They have also highlighted the fraught cultural moment that we are writing into – where we are still often assumed to be deluded and/or dangerous – and how incredibly hard it is to write honestly about the complexities of gender, and about our experience, when we know how people are likely to misrepresent us and attack us.

We need everyone’s support to shift the current toxic culture around gender diversity so that it becomes safer to tell diverse stories of gender, and so that people can find the stories they need to help them on their own journeys.

How can the literary community better support gender-diverse writers?

I was very struck by an answer Juno Roche gave at a book launch event where they were talking with H Howitt. A cis person asked Juno how they could best write trans characters. I think we were all expecting Juno to say something like ‘don’t’ or ‘educate yourself and talk to lots of trans people’, but what they actually said was along the lines of ‘find the trans person in you and speak from them’. 

Personally I love this challenging of the trans/cis binary. I think the most helpful thing that people in wider communities – including the literary community – can do is to undertake deep reflective work around their own gender diversity, their own gender transitions, and the ways the rigid gender binary has hurt them. Then it won’t just be trans people who have to write about this stuff, and we can work for change in the gender system – and other intersecting systems of oppression – in solidarity.

What is the best way to respond to the rise of book banning in schools and libraries?

I couldn’t say that I know the best way to respond. I guess I would say it’s important to do our best to make sure that there are as many places as possible – on and offline – where people, including young people, can access stories and supportive resources around gender diversity. It’s also great to encourage young people to create their own stories and resources in ways that are safe enough in the current climate.

What books from Audible and Out on the Page’s collaboration have you read and added to your reading lists?

There were so many books on the list I haven’t read! I suppose I’d want to reassure people that that’s ok. We can so easily get the sense that we should have read all the things, or even that we’re not queer enough unless we have an encyclopaedic knowledge of queer literature. I believe it is fine to focus on the stories and voices that speak to you, even returning to them time and again as trusted friends, rather than forcing yourself to read everything. 

We also need to challenge any sense that certain kinds of writing are superior or inferior. It’s so fine to be into genre fiction or comic books, for example, and some of the best queer writing I’ve read is in online fanfic communities. 

When we expand our understanding of queer to include being neuroqueer we have to acknowledge that people take in information and stories in very different ways, which is part of why having books available in audio format, as well as diverse kinds of fiction, non-fiction, graphic books and poetry, on a list like this is so important.

That said, hopefully a list like this can give you a flavour of the kinds of amazing books that are out there, and why people love them so much, so you might flick through some of them and pursue them if they grab you. 

Personally it was lovely to see how many other people chose my old favourites like Alison Bechdel (who Shivani Dave and others mentioned), Jeanette Winterson, Alice Walker, and Mary Oliver, and to get some pointers on other authors I might like to read. Particularly I came away wanting to read some of James Baldwin’s fiction (having only read essays by him). Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward really appeals because it uses multiple genres in one book. I definitely want to read Here Again Now by Okechukwu Nzelu, which several people nominated. Two of the books that Juliet Jacques recommended grabbed me in her descriptions: Lote by Shola von Reinhold and Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt which plays with haunted houses and explores cultural transphobia. As a comic fan I also fancy The Pride Omnibus by Joe Glass which Alex Bertie says is like the Avengers but queer.

Why are campaigns such as this important to you and the rest of the LGBTQ community?

For me what stood out was the way it celebrated diverse writing forms, genres, authors, and stories, from around the world and across time. For me there’s far more to queer storytelling than representing LGBTQ people, it’s about representing diversity within queerness and raising more marginalised voices. It’s also about telling stories that challenge normative narratives of what it is to be a person, to love, or to have a successful life, for example. Hopefully the list will inspire others to read these books and to explore their own creativity in different ways as well.

What is your advice to an aspiring writer who is gender-diverse?

When I was asked about this by JKP I said: go where it is live and juicy and vulnerable-as-hell and write from there. My experience is that writing from that place really speaks to others, and that’s far more important than how good your vocabulary or grammar or any of that stuff is. All of that can be fixed up after.

We have to learn to create in the ways that feel nourishing for us, not the ways we feel we should do it, or the ways the world expects us to do it. Finding what that is for us is hugely important. As gender diverse people we’re already treated non-consensually enough. It’s vital that we treat ourselves consensually when it comes to our creativity, and what we put out there and when. It’s fine to create just for ourselves, or to share only with trusted others. It’s absolutely okay to not write at all. The best writing comes from a radical acceptance of not writing.

My nominations

Becky ChambersA Psalm for the Wild Built

Becky Chambers is my favourite novelist. Her sci-fi books are filled with tender characters doing their best to relate across difference. A Psalm for the Wild Built is the first in her Monk and Robot series, which features a non-binary lead character as well as imagining beautifully queer, sustainable forms of loving, living, and community building. Becky’s stories are just the kind of gentle, warm, hopeful read so many of us need right now.

Travis AlabanzaNone of the Above

None of the Above is a beautiful, profound, and heart-breaking memoir by Travis Alabanza in which they time travel back through their life via various comments people have made which stayed with them. The book raises vital questions about why it is the non-binary person – rather than the white western capitalist gender binary system – who is called upon to explain themselves. I love Travis’s embracing of paradox, complexity and liminality, as well as how they question all of the binaries imposed on us in order to determine who is valued and who is not.

Akwaeke EmeziFreshwater

Freshwater is non-binary novelist Akwaeke Emezi’s semi-autobiographical book about a girl growing up containing ogbanje (Igbo spirits). It’s a stunning book, and a wonderful literary depiction of multiplicity, which meant a lot to me as someone who experiences themselves as plural. I love the way that Akwaeke questions the spirit/body binary as well as the gender binary through their writing, and how they write across multiple genres rather than restricting themselves to one.

More on Queer Writing…

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).