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