Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Queer: A Graphic History [Book Review]

Hello everyone! Now that I have far too much time on my hands I've wanted to return to the world of writing book reviews. Given that we are also reaching the end of the first week of Pride, I figured I'd share with you one of my new LGBT+ reads.

'Queer: A Graphic History' is an introduction to queer history, theory and LGBTQ+ action through a comic-book presentation, with detailed illustrations and short but concise text.

As a quick disclaimer for anyone wondering if this is an appropriate book to purchase for, or recommend to a younger reader, perhaps in the hope of helping them understand their identity - I would say no. While it is a truly fascinating book, it still largely focuses on the academia of queer theory, and less on the specifics of the different sexualities/gender binary. A younger reader may struggle to comprehend the theories discussed, and there is (unsurprisingly) plenty chapters on sex, with illustrations to accompany. While the illustrations aren't inherently explicit, themes such as BDSM and sexual dysfunctions are present, meaning I do believe this is more suited to a more mature audience, including late teens, I being only 18 myself.

The book wonderfully illustrates the different branches of thoughts and disciplines that are found in queer theory. We are introduced to a multitude of influential thinkers, whose thoughts are paraphrased in speech bubbles, making it easier for a novice reader (like myself) to more easily understand these concepts. Though this means you are not actually reading the exact words of the thinker, once you understand the key concepts within their theory the book provides more information on where you can find their actual pieces of work.

The ease of reading and understandability partly owes itself to the graphic style of this book. Although the concepts are simplified, we are still dealing with complex ideas, and in many chapters of the book the diagrams provide great clarity to what is being discussed. 

Though there is great variation in topics, all ideas discussed by Dr Meg-John Barker generally follow the narrative that encapsulates the entire book: the concept of thinking queerly. As the book explains, the essence of thinking queerly is about breaking down binary thinking, such as man/woman, cis/trans, heterosexual/homosexual, and to challenge the idea of fixed identities based on sexuality or gender. This approach of 'thinking queerly' highlights the need to criticise and subsequently deconstruct hetero-normativity; but equally, not erase what we have always considered "the norm" from gender and sexuality studies entirely. Other norms are discussed, for example "homonormativity", with encouragement from the author to consider whether much will be achieved by removing heteronormativity and replacing it with just a different norm.

The importance of intersectionality 

Slightly different to other introductory queer theory books I have read, I found greater importance placed on understanding the need for intersectionality in queer theory, and the subsequent critical mindset you may have reading older queer theory texts when being mindful about how the queer experience changes drastically based on gender, race and class. 

For those unsure, intersectionality can be defined as "the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender ... creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. The book clearly demonstrates the problems caused by ignoring intersectionality early on; for example: "In 'Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference' (1984), black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde pointed out how unexamined privilege resulted in the category of 'women' being taken to mean 'white women'".

For me this was one of the biggest things I took away from this book. Dr Barker masterfully places constant reminders on the importance of thinking outside of any normative binary you may be approaching the book with, something I definitely had as a white, somewhat middle class, woman.

Erasure of the bisexual and transgender narrative

Dr Barker also rightly suggests, that in previous queer theory and action (and even in some current cases), LG(BT) more accurately represents the queer movement, in that "LGBT rights and agendas are usually driven by gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians". The implications against bisexual, transgender and non-binary people by enforcing a binary understanding of sexuality and gender are discussed. As someone who identifies as bisexual, it was encouraging to see more representation and thought given to bisexuals, transgender people and anyone that doesn't directly fit the gay/straight binary. 

The book also explores the conflicts between queer theory and certain branches of feminism, including the tensions between trans people and TransExclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). A brief summary of the argument put forward by Terfs - which is that trans individuals should challenge rigid gender roles rather than attempting to conform to the current binary. The rest of the discussion focuses on the potential harm this mindset brings about to the entire queer movement, again something which was warmly welcomed when reading.

In this book you can truly tell that Dr Barker is not just looking at definitions and theory in black and white, but rather is mindful of the implications different queer theories would have on people in practice.

A balanced argument

Like any good evaluation, the book is not written entirely in support of support of queer theory, criticisms are widely discussed throughout, helping the reader understand that no queer theory has yet to be upheld as the "one true theory". Queer theory is challenged for being inaccessible, but also simplistic in dismissing the practical realities of those living it. Throughout the book you will find asterisks dotted around the text, providing little acknowledgements if a theory has fallen into a problematic binary for example.

Overall impression

Overall, the book is successful in providing a clear, thoughtful yet wonderfully playful introduction into queer theory. Providing the reader with not only new knowledge, but a new and hopefully less binary influenced way of thinking and approaching queer living.


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