After-Pride 2: Shame or Sincerity?
After-Pride 2: Shame or Sincerity? – My Life in Horror
Pride has arguably been more essential in 2023 than at any point in my lifetime. Owing to the extremely influential and overly-represented anti-trans movements both here in the UK and the US, assaults on LGBTQ rights and human dignity have escalated in ways I have never seen before (only ever having encountered such in the abstract; historical accounts, personal anecdotes etc).
Barring the physical gatherings, parades and celebrations, Pride provides a time and space that belongs to us; where we can operate outside of usual spheres of heteronornativity, traditional gender prescription and the hypocritical, empty bounds of “decency” that bedevil our cultures.
In fiction and publishing circles, it represents a time of exposure and expression for demographics that, traditionally, have been excluded and hideously underrepresented. We queer writers fly our rainbow flags with as much vim and vigour as any participant in the Pride parades, crying adoration of our most intimate and sincere works (particularly those made to talk to others of our tribes and tastes; that may, under usual circumstances, alienate by dint of the idiosyncratic experiences they describe).
It’s an opportunity to be unambiguous, to be seen, celebrate and demonstrate to those who would diminish us in our essential humanity that we are here, unafraid and will not be ashamed of ourselves.
That said, it can -and often does- also function to corral us, prescribing the times, places and parameters in which those expressions can occur (which, all too often, are dictated by what is convenient for heteronormative culture -which treats the entire affair like a carnival rather than a protest- and the corporate sponsors who utilise the event to hock their wares).
In the microcosm of small press and independent genre fiction, the event provides time and space in which publishers promote and celebrate queer writers -essential, given our traditional exclusion from those arenas-, but can also open us up to the trap of tokenism and palliative representation. The issue of queer representation within the genres in question does not dissipate at the parameters of Pride, nor does the necessity of support from our allies.
Increasingly, queer rights -and basic human dignity- are under assault owing to an extremely powerful, vocal and well-funded -albeit loose- coalition of movements that range from the anti-trans or “TERF” phenomena to more extreme, right-wing and conservative ideologues that have always utilised any means or opportunity to degrade us.
In the aftermath of Brexit, homophobic assaults have escalated to atrocious degrees in the UK. Numerous roll-backs of queer rights are being openly discussed in parliament and even promoted by members of our -ostensibly- “liberal” political parties.
As before the efflorescence of queer rights in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the arts are increasingly the spaces to which we retreat, where we can explore and communicate our concerns, where we organise and cultivate community.
Genre fiction -horror certainly not the least amongst them- has become one of many arenas where we find ourselves simultaneously beset and yet represented as never before:
Whereas the notion of queer horror fiction -barring the most analogous and metaphorically camouflaged- was all but anathema in previous decades, thanks to the pioneering work of Clive Barker, Billy Martin/Poppy Z. Brite et al, we have slowly infiltrated the genre, we love, sewing it with voices, images and concerns the like of which are highly particular to queer identity and have rarely been seen there before. This has served to refresh and elaborate a genre that is prone to stagnation, periods of conservatism, and endless emulation of popular voices, providing a more fertile and dynamic ground for everyone involved.
Despite efforts by the genre’s more conservative quarters -and self-fancied gatekeepers-, the fences have crumbled quite spectacularly in recent years, resulting in an efflorescence of previously-marginalised and excluded voices, the coalescence of entire sub-genres of queer fiction and even internal debates, discussions and conflicts.
That said, even with that influx and expansion, it is essential that queer fiction does not become a bounded phenomenon; that Pride does not become the prescribed exclusive time and place in which it operates. Given the difficulties we increasingly face in so many areas of society -and the grander atrocities looming on the horizon-we need arenas -such as that provided by genre fiction- where we can operate freely, express ourselves, cultivate community, and, if necessary, organise for the purpose of protest.
With the increasing closure and diminishing of spaces such as gay bars and clubs as traditional venues of community coalescence, our abstract spaces have grown increasingly indispensable.
It is, therefore, harrowing and distressing to see conflicts erupting within the bounds of queer genre fiction, arising from within our own communities and the spaces we have made, adopted and commandeered:
Last year (2022), I was fortunate to be published in a short story anthology entitled The Book of Queer Saints. The ethos of the project was to provide a reaction to certain assumptions with regards to queer characters within genre fiction as matters of wider representation (i.e. the sadly pervasive and vocal assertion that queer characters must be reduced to “pure-as-the-driven-snow” cartoon caricatures or risk engaging in purported “negative representation”).
The title of the collection is an ironic stab at those quarters within queer writing communities that feel it is their place and platform to prescribe what constitutes “positive representation,” the stories collated within deliberately presenting troubled and problematic queer characters and relationships, serving as more ambiguous, open and honest explorations of queer experience (my own short story, The Last Disgrace, is a dual-pronged piece exploring the occasionally-predatory and/manipulative dynamics that can and do occur between younger and older gay men, that I myself have experienced from both ends of the spectrum).
In this, the collection’s manifesto was to serve as a protest and a rallying cry against those who would have us limit our own expressions, reduce our experiences and identities in deference to heternormative prescriptions and traditional standards. The Book of Queer Saints, amongst many other examples in genre fiction, serves as a stark protest to and exposure of the -ironically- sublimated, internalised homophobia within our own communities:
Those tutting and wagging their fingers over what they consider “negative representation” in genre fiction generally tend to not realise they are the ones calling for exactly that:
Sanitised, straight-prescribed stereotypes that are far removed from the lived reality of any queer person, designed to accommodate traditionalist assumptions of relationships, family and numerous other societal factors.
By demanding that we reduce and deny our lived experience and the ambiguities of our identities, they demean and dehumanise us just as profoundly as those who seek our extinction. We are shriven of our sincere humanity beneath those standards, forced to operate within parameters not a million miles away from the closets many spent years trying to claw our way free from.
Beneath the superficial language of apparent “concern” for our representation slinks something more sinister:
The shame of who and what we are, of how we love, experience and share pleasure, build connection and community. They would have us ape the behaviours and standards of our straight, cisgender siblings as though they are absolute, as though the fact of our identities is nothing but an incidence (and irritation).
Queer genre fiction is not an instrument for accommodationist pantomime; it isn’t some mask to wear or propaganda pamphlet to wave under the noses of straight society and proclaim:
“Look, look! We’re okay; we’re the clean ones! We’re just like you! We’re not like those filthy, hyper-sexual deviants! We’re the good ones!”
For reference, take a look at the fates of those who inform on their neighbours and families under outright fascist regimes to see how well that kind of accommodationism tends to go (to be explicit: not well. Those making the accommodations, pointing the fingers at their fellows, tend to be last herded on the trains, but herded on the trains nonetheless).
Art provides some of the few spaces where we can demonstrate who we really are, where we can explore our experiences in every fevered, lurid, ambiguous detail, outside of moral prescriptions or the shame imposed on us by tradition.
It is utterly essential for succeeding generations of queer readers and/or writers that we are allowed to be honest and sincere, even when that sincerity flies in the face of traditional notions of taste or prescribed morality. All too often, queer history and first-hand experience are obscured, denied or eradicated; we are not -and will not- be educated on our past by established institutions, no matter what lip service they might pay to queer rights:
We are educated through one another, through our art, our love, our protests and our relationships. It is, therefore, vital to the dignity and humanity of those who come after that we are allowed to be sincere in those expressions, whether certain quarters of culture or society deem them “acceptable” or not.
To face calls for what is essentially heteronormative accommodationism and self-censorship from within our own communities is nothing short of facing calls to surrender; it is cowardly, submissive and cedes far too much of territories we already struggle to defend.
It is absolutely vital that we -and those who consider themselves our allies- do not allow systems and traditions that would deny us humanity, dignity and -ultimately- life to prescribe the parameters of our expressions (to the power of N when those expressions occur within our own minds and private lives).
It’s therefore heartening to see not only profound pushback from within the community over this phenomenon but also the conflict itself becoming the basis for art and fiction that explores its innate tensions:
Alongside the aforementioned Book of Queer Saints, the small-press and independent horror world is currently in a state of efflorescence when it comes to deviant, bizarre, erotic, transgressive queer fiction. From the novels of Hailey Piper and Gretchen Martin to myriad collections and anthologies such as Kevin J. Kennedy’s LGBTQ Horror Volume, Ghoulish Book’s Bury Your Gays, the impending Book of Queer Saints 2 and numerous others, the accommodationist didacticism from conservative quarters appears to have fostered the direct inverse of what they hoped: There are now more queer writers creating more sincerely queer fiction than ever before. And those of us operating within those spheres can only thank whatever powers we cleave to for that.
As established, we are currently facing what may be the darkest time -culturally and politically- many of us have ever lived through. It is, therefore, essential not only to our dignity but our survival that we continue to make spaces in which we operate our own, that we express fearlessly and without shame, and communicate those qualities to others who come after.
For those of us currently operating in genre fiction, this means continuing to produce work without compromise or accommodation, work that is angry, arousing, erotic and transgressive, and that we celebrate and promote one another via any means we can.
It also means presenting consistent unified resistance against those voices from within and without who would have us diminish ourselves, operate in shame and insincerity for the sake of pacifying those who would see us exterminated regardless.