Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ + Culture

by Amelia Abraham

Picador, £14.99

Review by Mark Smith

Are gay people accepted in Britain? Perhaps we should ask Melania Geymonat and her partner, Chris. The two women were travelling on a bus in London the other day when a group of young men discovered they were partners and attacked them. You probably saw the pictures that were taken after the attack showing Melania and Chris confused and in distress, with blood running down their faces. So the answer to the question has to be no, doesn’t it?

Except that we know how much progress has been made: gay marriage, the right to adopt, the prominence of gay people in popular culture – all of it would seem to suggest there are unprecedented levels of acceptance, especially among young people. As the writer Amelia Abraham points out in her new book, Queer Intentions, for people born in the UK and many other Western countries in the last 25 years, gay culture is just culture. More young people than ever before are also defining themselves as not entirely straight. You’ve probably heard the slogan “some people are gay, get over it”;perhaps we have got over it.

So, why has Abraham written a book about LGBTQ culture then if so much has improved? Partly, it is because attacks like the one on the women in London still happen. The book also quotes a shocking figure from the transgender community: between 1970 and 2012, some 700 trans people have been murdered around the world. In other words, there is acceptance of LGBTQ people, but it does not extend far enough, while the acceptance that does exist is being overstated. One of the activists Abraham speaks to in her book puts it this way: being gay is okay now, but doing gay still isn’t.

Abraham seeks – quite rightly - to remind people of this important point and says the threat to gay equality and visibility comes not just from oppression in countries that still ban homosexuality, but also complacency in countries that don’t. There is a striking interview in the book with a gay women in Turkey who compares the progress the gay community has made in the world to a staircase with a hundred steps. Some people behave like we’re on the eightieth step of the staircase, she says, but there are still people who are not even aware the staircase exists.

This leads us to another key question posed in Abraham’s book: how important is it to ascend that staircase? Is increased acceptance necessarily a good thing? This might seem like an odd thing to ask of a subsection of society that has been fighting for acceptance and equality for a long time – before, during and after the Stonewall riots. But it is interesting to note that many gay men and women – particularly older people – wrestle with what they see as the price that has to be paid for acceptance.

Part of that price appears to be a decline in the physical infrastructure of gay life – gay bars, drop-in centres and the like, which are closing down at an alarming rate. Obviously, there is partly an economic explanation for that – gay bars aren’t immune to the economic, social and cultural changes that have happened across society in the last 10 years – but some in Abraham’s book argue that the bars are also a casualty of a specific change in the cultural climate for the gay community: why would you need to go to gay bars if your sexuality no longer defines you, or you’re at home looking after a baby?

Abraham wrestles with this issue for much of the book and her conclusion marks Queer Intentions out as a thoughtful and thorough contribution to the debate. Acceptance can feel like a compromise and a diminution of the radicalism that defined the gay community for years. In the end, she says, gay people are fighting for two things: the right to be the same as everyone else, yes, but also the right to be different. It’s up to gay people which they choose. That’s the point.

The book also addresses another important point: acceptance has grown, but it should not be taken for granted. Abraham may worry about the potential downside of equality – and she is not the first member of the gay community to do that – but the bigger issue is that the fight for equality isn’t over. Some, gay and straight, may think the job’s done, but perhaps they should go on a march or two. Perhaps they should read Abraham’s book. Perhaps they should look at that picture of the bloody faces of two young women on the bus in London.