A conversation with ‘Queer Intentions’ author Amelia Abraham on Pride and same-sex marriage: what does assimilation of queer culture mean?

Book cover for ‘Queer Intentions’. Courtesy of Amelia Abraham.

Nearly one year ago, I started my blog to discuss and question gender constructs, by focusing on heteronormativity and homonormativity through the lens of performing arts and photography.

Growing up in a catholic small town in Central Italy, I have internalised an heteronormative idea of marriage and so it was difficult to me at the beginning to embrace the idea of being queer and fluid with regards to relationships and dating life.

Over the last decade, progresses have been made in the LGBTQ+ community in terms of same-sex marriage, adoption and fostering: beyond that, I believe that we should focus on more pressing issues such as making gender affirmation surgery more accessible to trans people, providing an LGBTQ+ education in schools and using our privilege to give visibility to people who live in countries such as Kenya, where same-sex relationships are banned by colonial-era laws.

‘Queer Intentions’, the first book of London-based journalist (Vice, The Guardian, Refinery, Dazed), Ted Speaker, and Dazed Beauty‘s managing editor Amelia Abraham, provides an honest insight into what it means to be queer in 2019, taking the reader on a journey around the world from L.A. DragCon to the heavily policed Pride in Serbia.

The book was envisioned in 2016 when Abraham faced an ill-fated break-up with an Icelandic girl, met through Tinder. Amelia left London to stay with her girlfriend but her relationship didn’t last more than ten days; enough for her “to think about marriage and kids and whether a heteronormative life was something [she] wanted”, as Amelia says in an interview with Vice.

Amelia Abraham. Ph: Undine Markus.

Below my conversation with Amelia Abraham:

Francesco Ferranti: Hello Amelia, I would start by saying congratulations on making this book accessible to everyone. You tackle pivotal themes with accuracy and wit.

Amelia Abraham: Thanks.

Francesco Ferranti: Can you tell me more about the creative journey of envisioning then writing ‘QI’?

Amelia Abraham: ‘Queer Intentions’ was in my mind a long time before I wrote it – that’s because examples of the mainstreaming of queer culture were popping up everywhere in my personal and professional life; the closure of gay bars, more and more people getting into drag culture cause they saw it on TV, Pride starting to feel different because it was so branded. But perhaps most poignant for me was going to Britain’s first same-sex wedding to report on it for work – the ultimate example of gays going mainstream! – and wondering whether this was something I would want in my own life.

Francesco Ferranti: Gentrification led to the closure of many legendary LGBTQ+ venues in London, such as The Black Cap, The Joiners Arms and the First Out Café. How do you feel about the topic of safe spaces in relation to the corporatisation of queer culture?

Amelia Abraham: I think it is a tragedy when these places close. We know that we need them – we’ve seen from recent attacks on queer women in Britain that even the streets our major cities are not safe spaces for same-sex displays of affection, queer spaces like bars provide places for intimacy and meeting people that feel sheltered. Especially when familial homophobia can mean that people can’t always do this in their own homes. Queer spaces are also places to meet like-minded people, find a community, and organise. The argument goes that corporatisation and mainstreaming of queer culture supposedly makes us more accepted in society, and therefore, in some people’s minds, less likely to want to be siloed into a separate queer space. But even where we don’t need them (and as I just mentioned, I think we do), we should still want them! We deserve to have fun – and queer spaces like bars and clubs are a place to have fun, to escape the discrimination, shame and pain that most LGBTQ+ people inevitably experience at some point.

Francesco Ferranti: Heteronormativity and homonormativity are discussed in depth in the book, with regards to the shifts brought by the legalisation of same-sex marriage. What did you learn from the experience of meeting couples around the world? I grew up in a very conservative town in central Italy and the idea of ‘happily ever after’ has definitely been rooted in my mind for a long time, making me suffer.

Amelia Abraham: I wonder if growing up in a Catholic context with a strong focus on monogamy and the family made you feel more like you want to marry or not marry as a gay person? But anyway! I learnt that there are many ways to be happy as a queer person and that marriage is one of them. It’s perfectly legitimate to want to get married as a gay person – we are quick to call it assimilationist but actually, we don’t always know all the reasons that lead a gay person to want to marry – they may want to do it for bureaucratic reasons, to make a political statement, to please their parents, because they felt rejected from the institution for so long and they crave acceptance – these are all reasons I heard from gay married couples. I am still working out whether same-sex marriage is for me, however…  

Francesco Ferranti: Queerness is, according to Sedgwick, an “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning”: the notion to me is slippery in itself and I will be interested in hearing about your relationship with the term?

Amelia Abraham: I don’t really identify as “queer” often because I align with this idea that it is something to work towards, a headspace or an ideology rather than a label. An adjective or verb rather than a noun, if you will. Sometimes I describe myself as “queer” but usually only if I was grouping myself for instance, “as queer people we…” that is for convenience or to denote a shared likeness. I think that queerness is a practice, and we must continue to practice it. Like yoga – are you ever really a yogi? Maybe if you are closer to what the original meaning referred to – someone in India, Hindu or another religion associated with yoga, and practice it every day. Am I queer? Maybe if I am living an anticapitalist existence, and using a lot more of my time and resources to fight for LGBTQ+ causes. I think you have to keep continuously earning the term, basically… Or else you are appropriating it.

Francesco Ferranti: We have just entered Pride Month and I believe it is central that you decided to explore countries such as Serbia and Turkey, where LGBTQ people are denied the right to organise a Pride March. A Trans Pride has recently been announced in London in September 2019: do you think we are progressing in terms of fighting transphobia?

Amelia Abraham: Obviously it can feel like we’re not, when in the UK the right-wing media continues to publish transphobic bile and in the US, Trump rolls back transgender rights. However I think we are progressing – there are so many amazing trans voices and organisations doing this work (Paris Lees, Shon Faye, NYC Anti-Violence Project just three from the book). Visibility is important – shows like Drag Race and Pose are showing the struggle and humanity of GNC or trans people, but we need to convert their cis het viewers from merely sympathising into doing something real about trans rights. The press around those shows could be a way to do that.

Francesco Ferranti: In chapter two, you talk about your experience at DragCon La. Although I feel that especially for lots of young queer people Ru Paul’s Drag Race is the first window into queer culture, the show is still pursuing the same standards of drag, with little or no room for people who deviate from the pageant circuit. Drag is political and should accommodate everyone who wants to spread a message!  On that note, what did you learn from your friendship with Amrou Al-Kadhi (Glamrou)?

Amelia Abraham: Exactly – that’s kind of why I don’t really watch Drag Race! I actually find it paints gay people as catty and two dimensional, but that’s another story. Glamrou is a dear friend, and everyone should read their book’ Unicorn’ when it’s out in October, about their life as a Muslim nonbinary drag queen. Glamrou taught me about an experience I’m privileged enough not to really have – the experience of feeling caught between two worlds – for them, their Muslim identity and their queer identity. This led to a feeling of dissociation. When they explained it to me, it reminded me to be a lot more cognisant about the experiences of people from cultural or religious backgrounds that are less accepting of queerness. Glamrou also points out racism where I don’t necessarily see it, because I am white, and this has (hopefully!) opened my eyes a lot, in terms of my own behaviour and other people’s.

Finally, talking to Amelia about the project has been a real pleasure: reading the book and attending the book launch at the ICA made me reflect on the commodification of queer culture, especially by looking at how brands during Pride season reach out to LGBTQ+ influencers only for marketing purposes (the infamous phenomenon of pink-washing).

‘Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture’ by Amelia Abraham published by Picador is out now.

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