You Should Be Reading More Queer Stories
It is always a pleasure to host artists in the Dear Montecito column. I feel that their stories and reflections help ground us, particularly when the current event landscape feels so urgent and so claustrophobic. As the opening to our 2023 column, I wanted to invite a young writer to use this space to reflect on the closing of 2022 as a year of change. This week we are reading a piece from emerging non-binary writer and recent graduate of UCSB, Julia Barrera (they/them).
The morning of November 20, I woke up and learned there had been a mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, taking the lives of five people. Scrolling through condolence posts and digital outpourings of grief on social media, I felt sorrow one could only feel as an inextricable part of a grieving whole. I felt the echoes of Pulse, the countless Twitter threads of missing and murdered trans women of color, the pictures of the bloody faces of queer women beaten on the subway. This story felt so familiar, and yet cut so deep.
It is easy to feel like LGBTQ+ people are bound by an endless cycle of tragedy and violence. To be queer in America is to be in a state of whiplash, fighting for self-love and community as the world burns around you. However, on the front of our battle against destruction are our stories. The evidence that we have lived. Sometimes the only thing we leave behind that others cannot own.
In this letter, I wanted to reflect on the importance of queer storytelling, not just for the queer community, but for those outside of it. Montecito, I believe you should be reading more queer stories, and I will tell you why.
As a queer, nonbinary writer, my identity has been the central focus of most of my pieces, particularly during my undergraduate education at UCSB. With each flourish of the keyboard, I explored myself in beautiful and limitless ways, crafting my narrative on my own terms with unflinching honesty. I wrote candidly about my coming out experience and my gender identity, channeling thoughts I believed I would never get to say, and building dreams I had only imagined. Recording my narrative became a catharsis, helping me to affirm that my experiences were real, that my identity was real. Being able to have that self-exploration motivated me to seek out community, hoping to find kinship in the act of storytelling.
As a Raab Writing Fellow and Feminist Studies honors student, I embarked on projects cataloging not only my own story but other LGBTQ+ students’ stories, including my senior thesis and a multimedia zine. In many ways, those projects were love letters to future members of the queer community, those who were questioning their identities and needed the reassurance that there were others out there like them.
But queer stories have an added, incredibly important benefit: they are the vessels that introduce queer life to the world, dispel myths, and humanize us. What happened at Club Q was no isolated incident, nor a case of a “lone wolf” or “bad apple.” What happened at Club Q is what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
In a TED Talk in 2009, Adichie recalls an experience where her American college roommate was surprised that she knew how to use a stove or speak English; when Adichie was asked to play her “tribal music,” the roommate was shocked to be presented with a Mariah Carey tape. This was the impact of her roommate’s “single story of Africa”: the expectation of someone completely different from what she had been taught.
Many non-LGBTQ people consume and reproduce an incredibly dangerous “single story” about the queer community, especially about trans and gender non-conforming people. In this narrative, cisgender, heterosexual people are the heroes in a crusade to defeat queer people, the one-dimensional monsters under children’s beds. We are flat caricatures of predators, degenerates, and moral evils.
It is easy to find this story in films like Silence of the Lambs and Dressed to Kill, where transness is associated with violence and perversion, but the past two years have seen a dramatic escalation in its scale and visibility in the real world. 2022 was a record year for anti-trans legislation (155 bills introduced, 136 more than in 2018), which have particularly focused on connecting trans and gender non-conforming identities with child abuse. Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric online has skyrocketed with the use of the words “groomer” and “pedophile” increasing by 406% after the passage of Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law and other legislation.
This story, which characterizes queer and trans people as dangers to society, especially to children, naturally leads to horrific acts of violence – bloody faces on the subway, bodies in a nightclub, and missing person reports – as well as psychological warfare, systematic erasure from public life, and the criminalization of our existence. It is easy to crush someone when their humanity is one-dimensional.
In sharp contrast, as a member of the queer community, I have had the privilege of chronicling a fraction of the multitudes of queer expressions, a beautiful array of colors in every hue imaginable, ever expanding, deepening, evolving. An amalgamation of so many lives lived with honesty, compassion, joy, and love. No two experiences, no two identities, were alike.
You would think the most important readers of these stories would be other queer people, but some of my most impacted readers were those unfamiliar with LGBTQ+ experiences. After reading through an emotional short story of my coming out experience, my mother began using my pronouns more confidently and sought out knowledge about gender non-conforming terminology. A friend of mine ran to me in tears after reading my zine on gender-diverse UCSB students, saying how she had never imagined how beautiful our experiences could be; she hugged me so tight I could feel the imprint of her arms long after.
Storytelling builds empathy; when we read stories, we are taken on a journey through unique individuals’ lives. Who are they? What have they experienced? What are their joys, their struggles, their reasons for living? These are the precise questions that a single story cannot answer. In a stereotype, there is no depth, no detail, only “because.” What I have experienced throughout my journey as a queer writer is that words have the endless potential to transform our feelings about each other. Because when you are truly vulnerable with your story, there is a chance your audience will feel vulnerable too.
I want a future of heightened vulnerability, a future with more storytelling. By writing, I participate in making that future a reality. Wearing my story, my identity, my heart on my sleeve, I hope someone different will show me theirs too.
Although it doesn’t solve every problem with systemic homophobia and transphobia, although it doesn’t bring back those we have lost, I call on non-LGBTQ+ people to uplift, support, and most importantly, read the queer stories that are out there. I welcome those with curiosity, those with apprehension, those with confusion, those with a lack of knowledge, and even those with hate, and I welcome them to actually get to know us.
I aspire to give them more stories to read because I know we are more than the sum of all our tragedies. We are more than a social media post, a shocking headline, or a spectacle. We are more than just a single story.
In memory of stories cut too short in Colorado Springs:
Daniel Aston (he/him)
Kelly Loving (she/her)
Ashley Paugh (she/her)
Derrick Rump (he/him)
Raymond Green Vance (he/him)