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Joining her on the Journey: A Review of Amelia Abraham’s ‘Queer Intentions’

Book Cover Image of Queer Intentions by Amelia Abraham.

“On the one hand, we have a desire to live differently, to say ‘fuck you’ to tradition, to mainstream visibility, to the institutions that have rejected us for so long; and on the other, we long to feel accepted, to find legitimacy in the mainstream, even if just for our own safety or happiness.”

– Amelia Abraham, Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey through LGBTQ+ Culture (2019, Picador UK)

A pronounced ambivalence is observed among people of the LGBTQ+ community in the West today. Having ostensibly greater choices and rights available than ever before while also grappling with increasing transphobia as indicated by the brutal violence against trans people (particularly trans people of colour) reported regularly, queer people are presented with the choice between supposedly radical queerer ways of living and conformist heteronormativity resulting from increased acceptance and assimilation into the mainstream. Queer Intentions sets out with author Amelia Abraham, a young white cisgender lesbian from the UK, wrestling with the same ambivalence and conflicting ideas as she finds herself wanting to get married and ‘settle down’ while simultaneously viewing marriage as a sexist, heteronormative institution.

This leads her to ask several questions: What would happen to queer culture if people in the LGBTQ+ community decided to ‘live like straight people’? What do queer people fight for: the right to be the same as everyone else, or the right to be different? Do other queer people struggle with the homonormativity that is often guised as acceptance like she does? Abraham sets out on a journey across the US and Europe, and briefly to the Middle East, to talk to people from the LGBTQ+ community, in search of answers to these questions, and more broadly, to explore contemporary queer culture and what it means to be queer today.

As we join Abraham on her insightful journey – from marching at Pride parades across Europe to dancing in the clubs of Istanbul’s underground LGBTQ+ scene, and everything in between – she tells us about queer history, politics and culture. She goes back to the Stonewall Uprisings and the beginnings of Pride. She reminds us that drag and almost all forms of cultural production that are popular now owe it to trans women of colour, whose struggles are often erased from history as queer culture gets appropriated by the mainstream. She talks politics when she discusses state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia in different parts of the world – starting from Trump-led USA, to a gentrified London where a large number of gay bars are being closed down, all the way to Turkey following a coup and the rise of a conservative government. Her account of different pride events manages to capture the political atmosphere of each city. She brings into light the political differences within the community in Berlin and the resultant disagreement over how Pride should look like in the city, and the corporatisation of Pride and pink-washing by big businesses in London. She allows us to join her on the ‘Pride boats’ on Amsterdam’s canal, at the “biggest and best” Pride event in Europe which witnesses participation of the kink community as well as sex workers. She tells us about the intersections of Pride and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in Toronto, where in 2016 the BLM protestors created a blockade to demonstrate against police presence at Pride events. Through it all, she presents a riveting account of queer culture – the shifts that have taken place through assimilation and gentrification and how that changes the way queer people take up space and navigate their identities while negotiating with their shifting culture in a capitalist world, and highlights the need for intersectionality and cross-movement solidarity.

Queer Intentions manages to capture the vast nuances of the queer experience, as Abraham creates space for LGBTQ+ people of a whole spectrum of identities and diverse walks of life to tell their stories, while sprinkling in intimate accounts of her own life as a queer woman. She looks at specific aspects and subcultures of queer life with thought-provoking discussions on same-sex marriage, drag, gay bars, Pride, visibility and representation, hate crimes, and non-conventional family practices, among others.

Reflecting on the extent of her own privilege and repeatedly emphasizing the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality, Abraham explores queer experience and oppression. She takes a backseat in certain discussions to let the voices of people with lived experience or active involvement in the LGBTQIA+ culture of their city be heard. That is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the book: it is not a cisgender heterosexual person’s academic recounting of queer lives, nor is it an attempt by a queer person to subsume all queer experience into one dominant narrative. It represents and respects diverse identities within the LGBTQ+ community, and the varied (and sometimes conflicting) opinions they advance.

As she presents several points of view about each issue, the author pushes the reader to think and constantly ask questions to form their own opinions. For instance, in today’s day and age when it is fashionable to include queer people in mainstream media but where only a particular sub-section finds representation, how happy should we be about visibility? Even with those who are represented, how do we know they are not tokenized? Throughout the book, Abraham wrestles with such questions herself, and as she attempts to take a position her ambivalence remains sharply pronounced. She does not embrace an issue without question or reject it all together as the complexities of queer experience make it difficult to look at anything as black and white, and grey areas abound – a useful lesson for looking at life in general, perhaps. For example, Abraham says that one can be critical of the sensationalisation of trans people in popular culture, while also acknowledging that having a trans woman on the cover of Vogue could make thousands of other trans people feel seen. Another example: while feeling aggrieved about queer people being limited historically to only certain public spaces such as bars, she also recognises that gay bars have always been spaces where queer culture came alive, where LGBTQ+ people could come together and dissipate the shame they were taught to carry. As she puts it, “Without them, where else would we learn to be proud?”

Notwithstanding the fact that the experiences of queer people cannot be generalized on the basis of where they come from, since the book, with certain exceptions, mostly deals with parts of the world that fare better than others when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance legally and culturally, it is impossible to not point out that the concern about surface-level acceptance – while being unquestionably valid – comes from a place of privilege. So, when the author critiques the West’s “performative progressiveness” in supporting gay rights in theory but showing discomfort over public displays of affection, which indicates that being gay is okay for them but doing gay is not, as an Indian reader it is hard to not point out that being gay itself was illegal here until a few years ago, and it still is in several other countries, and that our Supreme Court recently refused to legalise same-sex marriage, even in 2023.

However, this realisation is not lost on the author and she claims that the lack of advanced rights for LGBTQ+ people in other regions is all the more reason for people to not become complacent after they think equality has been achieved in their region. While Abraham worries about queer culture being homogenized as a result of increasing acceptance, she also acknowledges that acceptance and equality have not been gained until they are gained for everyone.

This sensitivity with which the subject is approached saves the book from becoming a white western scholar’s eurocentric narrative of the entire queer experience, but the absence of more perspectives from regions outside the US and Europe is still felt. Accounts from Turkey and Syria only form one chapter so we do not get to see much of queer people who might have had alternative histories and cultures that diverge strikingly from the western experience. However, Abraham does not claim to capture the entirety of queer experience. Her work manages to reflect the reality of a number of queer lives, and it is done with the empathy and sensibility a discussion like this requires. She succeeds in finding compelling answers to the questions she posed and the conclusion she arrives at is that queer people do not fight for the right to be same or the right to be different, but both. The fight has always been about the ability to choose. Abraham does not offer any answers to what being queer looks like today, and that is the entire point – it is whatever one wants it to be.

All in all, Queer Intentions skilfully weaves narrative, analysis, research and personal testimony to create a balanced mix of facts, opinions and feelings. In between presenting statistics and recollecting discussions from her interviews, she provides snippets that do not seem important to the narrative but make the reader feel connected to her and add to the book’s conversational style. The candid way in which the book is written makes one laugh with Abraham, and at times, good-naturedly, at her, as she tells stories of her life with a self-deprecating humour; in the same way, it makes one cry with her and for her. My most important takeaway from the book is that we ought to deconstruct the binaries that frame our lives. This goes beyond gender or sex. We ought to dismantle the binary understanding of existence as a whole, including the way we perceive the world as well as the way we live in it. We need not make a choice between ‘either/or’ – we can be a bit of both, and everything else beyond. There is enough space for ideas that do not fit in the confines of the binary, just as how there is enough space for every queer person to be queer in their unique way – by queering all institutions and bending all conventions to fit the life they want. The fight for acceptance is the fight for that freedom.

Cover Image: Goodreads