Little queer ideograms: talking with pictures before they were words

The title for this blog, and part of my understanding of the symbiosis between queerness and media itself (in a past where I didn’t comprehend it; in a present where I’m starting to contribute to it), comes from a conversation with the musician and writer CN Lester on Twitter last winter, prompted by a photograph they’d just shared of Grace Jones:

CN is the author of a long-running blog on trans politics, literature and music, essays about working out what growing up as a genderqueer trans person means, and a forthcoming book on trans rights and identities today. They’re one of many non-binary and genderqueer people whose experiences of confusion and identification, as they describe them, resonate with mine, even though I don’t feel so intense a disaffiliation from the gender on my birth certificate that I need it to be recognised as something else.

‘I was talking with pictures of people before I even knew that they were words,’ I replied. ‘Like little queer ideograms.’

I was 12 or 13, not 11, but that was the same time I started to see images that made me recognise something I couldn’t put into words and start to ask, without even knowing what I was reaching towards: if I was more like that, would whatever it is be clearer about me too?

I stepped back, probably more than CN, from identifying with anyone too challenging in terms of sexuality or in terms of how their gender related to mine. 1995-6, the years I start to come from, were never about kd lang but (in silent substitution, I realised years later) Céline Dion; Justine from Elastica but never Brett Anderson or Jarvis Cocker or Alex from Blur; never even the tension between Justine and Donna Matthews that, twenty years later, I’m equipped to perceive in every picture of the two of them even though it wouldn’t have been there.

All that and what came to mind as the materiality of a little queer ideogram is a photograph torn out of newsprint, two or three inches square, of the tennis player Sam Smith, who in one of those shock runs of form that British tennis sometimes pulls out of nowhere made the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1998. Roughly the same size as a full-size Twitter avatar, I can say now, it went up with four blobs of blu-tack on the side of a brown cabinet which (in a bedroom which did double service as the family living-room) essentially stood in for a bedroom wall. I’d made the grudging acceptance that stood in for coming out seven or eight months before. Its edges were ragged pulp fibre, like the rest, with the rupture into one border that you used to get because newsprint tore more quickly along one grain than the other.

Smith was one of the very few I still don’t even have a word for it – someone who looked like they might be the same thing as me – to have appeared, then or now, in the notoriously homogenising world of women’s tennis. Somewhere between Ellen MacArthur and Winona Ryder, she used to wear a white paisley headband on court that indexed more rock gods and action stars than I would have known about. In twenty years of following Wimbledon, with less and less interest, I still can’t think of anyone else on the women’s side like that.

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Rough-edged; acquired by chance, on the whim of a picture editor who filled space with Smith’s photo rather than someone else’s; an image I wouldn’t think about again for years, even though she works as a commentator these days on a tournament I’ve almost stopped watching; I forget now, when I can tap almost any name into a global library, how scarce even pictures themselves used to be.

(You were supposed to collect them, at our school, and laminate them over the padded back and front of your school diary; where everyone else would have collaged Damon Albarn and Keanu and Alex and Jarvis and Brett.)

That was a little queer ideogram, which as part of a tiny constellation ought to have said: I’m something like that, without ever having to explain what it was.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t, or I thought I shouldn’t, though it was both those things as well; it was also that there literally didn’t seem to be a word for what I wanted to express. If I couldn’t name it, how could I tell anyone, let alone connect to anyone else who was the same?

(And it was at best incomprehensible, at worst disastrous, when I did try.)

An ideogram is a symbol that stands for an idea. On its own, without knowledge of the code, it’s nothing but what its surface seems to denote. Understand the symbolic system that infuses it, and a few lines can convey an universe.

I train students never to search the internet for dictionary definitions to bolster the introduction of a piece, but rolling the ideas of ideograms around the roof of my mind that’s exactly what I do, and there from Oxford is one that in a text like this actually does resonate: ‘A character symbolizing the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it.’

Collect enough pictures, I thought, and I’d never have to say the sounds at all.

I was pointing at an illustrated brochure, and nothing more; but pictures, and words, were both a kind of scarcity.

Reflecting, on Twitter again, about what gives us a sense of ourselves as a generation, everyone in their thirties I saw responding to this tweet must have answered with a memory about technology – most of it to do with media, most of it to do with discovery:

You only saw most music videos once. Most celebrities only existed in the same few photographs. A cassette tape broke and you never heard a song again. I learned to press record pre-emptively, at the start of every performance on Top of the Pops, then wind back ninety times out of a hundred because there was nothing there I wanted to remember after all, so that I wouldn’t miss the ones I would. Pictures frayed when you paused them. Singles took years to cross the Channel. Icons could be rare. The video machine said clunk. It said fizz bizz. It said whirr.

The queer musical heritage a generation up from me had seen first hand – everything mind-bending about Grace Jones and Annie Lennox and Freddie Mercury, everything that leaves queers a few years older than me mourning Prince (originator of one of the queerest ideograms of all) and Bowie and Pete Burns and George Michael all at once – was dribbled out through the nineties in documentary and late-night TV, whereas today it is a heritage, an archive, an inheritance.

I found never as many images as I wanted, still too many to make sense of; but didn’t have any words for them to signify.

Lesbian described nothing about why I still wasn’t attracted to most women, or why attraction would start and could only start by recognising some flash of that’s like me; why I could feel a desire to look at a woman and a desire to look like that at one and the same time (or the recognition that I already did); why there was something about Richard Ashcroft in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or Antonio Banderas in Evita that I was still responding to, even though they were men.

I never questioned what my gender was, but then I and everyone else around me still only thought that there were two, and by the time I knew that there were more I understood that as long as you get my name right and don’t expect me to dress in a feminine way a pronoun, for me, doesn’t actually make a difference.

While there are other people who know in their flesh and in their bones that they do need to be they, or do need to be he, or that they do need to change much more about their body than I do; and yet their stories of finding out how they wanted to express their gender will sound quite like mine.

On a Venn diagram of gender expression – as if even a quantum physicist could conceive of the number of dimensions that would take – I fit somewhere, although it doesn’t have a name, with people who describe their gender identities in very different terms. But I do fit somewhere. Which is more than I used to.

More than I used to, when twenty or fifteen or ten years ago I didn’t even know that sexuality or gender identity or gender expression could be described as separate things, far less that the degree of sexual or romantic attraction, or the intensity of attachment to a gender, varied between people to the extent that it turns out they do.

What I wanted to say – what I would have wanted others to understand if I could have perceived it myself – was so far outside the categories available to me, or anyone else I knew, that I could only try and communicate it through analogy and approximation.

Not everything has a word; but at least there are more intelligible relationships between more words.

Twenty years ago, I did everything I could to avoid even having to say the sounds; now, I’m at least able to understand that we’re still trying to find more sounds to say.