Did you know the first recorded use of the word “queer” was in reference to Oscar Wilde by a Marquess whose son was rumoured to be having an affair with the writer? Or that the first gay pride was a riot (The Stonewall Riots)? Or that Kimberle Crenshaw coined the much-used term intersectionality? Or that some of our most famous thinkers, like Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks and Audre Lorde, were influential in shaping queer theory? Or that an entire generation of gay men were lost to the AIDS epidemic?

In response to the many gaps in our knowledge of the queer movement comes a graphic novel about queer theory and the gay rights movement. We are presented with a deeper, more nuanced view of the theories and the famous figures we are familiar with as they pertain to those outside of the cisgender and heterosexual population. It offers a history lesson on how the ways in which society views gender and sexuality have affected society, and in particular the LGBTQI population. Queer: A Graphic History is the effort of activist and academic Meg-John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele.

Making it accessible

Similar to other books published by Icon Books, which include graphic guides to movements like Modernism and to thinkers like Roland Barthes, Queer is an attempt to bring a complex, often obtusely described subject to the masses in an accessible format.

Take for example one of the early pages where Queer explores Simone de Beauvoir’s theory that some people are freer than others in a series of illustrations that show gradually shrinking boxes – an aristocratic white man is in the largest box, a white middle-class woman is in a smaller box, and a black working-class woman is in a box so small she is on her knees. The varying degrees of privilege different communities occupy within the queer minority is a central concern of the book, which argues that race should be central to queer theory.

Remember the TV show, Masters of Sex? William Masters and Virginia Johnson were researchers who studied intercourse and normalised the idea of sex for procreation. But we learn in Queer that in terms of the queer movement, their research had the effect of establishing heterosexual sex as the norm because that is what they overwhelmingly studied. Alfred Kinsey was another influential researcher who showed how common masturbation and diverse sexual practices are. These developments coincided with the rise of (white) feminism. The book explores how early feminism was not in solidarity with the concerns of women of colour.

The trouble with heterosexuality

We are introduced to the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Adrienne Rich. Rich shifted the spotlight from homosexuality to examining heterosexuality. She pointed out that reinforcement through social norms and images in the media forced women into heterosexuality – making them think it was the positive and the normal choice. She made the crucial point that if heterosexuality was indeed supposed to be the norm it wouldn’t have to work so hard to maintain its hegemony.

From ‘Queer: A Graphic History’

Complementing this theory was Monique Wittig’s book The Straight Mind, which pointed out that heterosexuality is so embedded in society that only non-heterosexual people question their identities. Another provocative theorist we encounter is Gayle S Rubin, who argued that instead of judging “sexual tastes according to an arbitrary line, we should emphasise the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and the quality of the pleasures they provide.”

The focus of queer theory on the concerns of the white minority (a strange expression that reminds us that white people forget they’re a global minority) is critiqued as being dismissive of the realities of hijras in India and of other communities in the global South. Other criticisms of the queer movement in the book include its exclusion of trans-people, its internal hierarchies of power, and normative ideas within gay male culture.

Another fascinating theorist we encounter is Sara Ahmed, who talks about how happiness is more available to some people than others. She points out society needs “unhappy queers”, “feminist killjoys” and “melancholic migrants” to challenge the notion that happiness can only be obtained by living a “normal” life.

Queer is a sprawling book – one I wouldn’t recommend reading in a single sitting. There is a lot of information fitted in, and the black and white illustrations don’t do enough to make the material seem more approachable. But it is an important, balanced history of a movement that has uplifted many people and that has a lot of essential work left to do.

Queer: A Graphic History, Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Icon Books