Bi Bookshelf: Queer Explained and Welsh LGBT Tales

Book: Forbidden Lives: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Stories from Wales by Norena Shopland (Seren, 12.99)

How many times have you seen something labelled as “LGBT” and it turned out to be mostly about gay men? Especially in LGBT History Month where bis seem so often to have been forgotten.
So this one is a blast of pure pleasure: all our strands of life are here including unpicking assumed hetero- and homo- sexuality, and questions around how we read the gendered stories of people long gone. Some of it is predictable ground: Edward II’s lover Hugh Despenser (a classic Wicked Bisexual, variously accused of theft, piracy, torture and being the downfall of his lover Edward) or the Ladies of Llangollen – probably Wales’ most famous female couple to this day.
25 chapters take us through tales of both LGBT people and broader LGBT issues – like why Wales was the tenth country to have a Pride festival, in 1985, yet then took more than a decade to hold another. With the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Act in mind there is a fascinating chapter focused on Cardiff MP Leo Abse, in whose name the bill passed and who stoutly opposed calls for further equality such as the lowering of the age of consent for sex between men. Another Welsh MP had made a bid to change the law as early as 1953 – rebuffed brusquely by the Home Secretary of the time: “I am not going down in history as the man who made homosexuality legal”. David Maxwell-Fyffe is instead known for drafting the European Convention on Human Rights… which has helped make a lot of things related to homosexuality legal.
There’s the wider story of LGBT rights: battles from the veto on the Campaign for Homosexual Equality holding meetings in Llandudno to the Sports Council for Wales’ ban on people with HIV using public swimming pools.
It’s about Wales but you can learn a lot of UK queer history in these fast-turning pages.

Book: Queer: A Graphic History by Meg John Barker and Julia Scheele (Icon books, 11.99)
Queer is a primer on three kinds of queer: activism (questioning assimilationist agendas), theory (are the categories we talk about the world in helpful) and studies (pushing the boundaries of 1990s “gay and lesbian studies” academia).
Its target markets are people who are baffled when they keep coming up against words like performativity, those who are questioning their own identity around gender and sexuality, and people who feel alienated by the notions of sex and sexyness around them.
We start with how we got to the current normal: 1800s and 1900s theorists and – later – people who actually based their ideas about gender and sexuality on observing real people. As a bi reader I naturally paused and read twice over the bits about Alfred Kinsey in the 40s and 50s and his findings. It highlights the misuse of Kinsey’s findings that results from the culture of the time: Kinsey declares that humanity is full of variation and yet this becomes a narrative of “1 in 10 are gay” rather than a rich natural flourishing of of fluidity and variation.
But each stop on this tour is quite short, so though we hear that he found 13% of women and 37% of men reported having had a “same-gender experience to orgasm” we don’t pause to reflect on how those findings might be influenced by the sources used or cultural pressures around them. For that you need to read on elsewhere.
At a page for every idea we get to see many takes on these questions: I’d forgotten how much we made in the 90s of Peggy McIntosh’s “privilege backpack” notion of the things we carry with us most places we go without realising it: the knowledge that you have family you could go and stay with if things go badly, or that people will assume your sexuality right most of the time. A very bi problem the latter!
As a book it feels very now. Though we start over a hundred years in the past, by halfway through we are already on Finding Nemo and recent Bond films’ presentation of masculinity.
Queer feels a bit of an oddity: at first I wondered who would benefit from it. If you know a fair bit about queer stuff it wouldn’t be in depth enough, if you were fresh to notions of LGBT equality and liberation it may be a bit too rapid a rollercoaster ride. Most ideas are covered in a single page of a few sentences and a big cartoon image. So it’s more a set of signposts than a set of answers: best read with a laptop nearby to google some more on the bits that set your mind questioning.
Actually, google’s a bit normative. Try bing.