For his latest book Dear Queer Self: An Experience to Remember, author and queer teacher Jonathan Alexander took a trip down memory lane, imagining he was in conversation with his younger self. The approach, he says, gave him a better understanding of who he is today. Alexander, based in Southern California, spoke with fellow queer author, Alex Espinoza, who wrote Cruising: an intimate story of a radical pastimeon how he wrote Dear queer me and why he thinks maybe it’s not really going to “get better”.
Alexander Espinosa: What was the initial idea to write Dear queer me? What made you want to address these letters to your younger self?
Jonathan Alexander: Over the past few years, I had written two memoirs, Creep: a life, a theory, excuses and a kind of sequel, Intimidated: the story of an abusewhich dealt with my experience of intense homophobia growing up in the Deep South in the 70s and 80s. After spending that time writing about my younger self, I wanted to write him a letter – not to tell him that the things necessarily get better but that I was proud of him for surviving so much, for teaching me to be a graceful, proud and even daring queer person.
The book focuses on three years in the life of your younger self – 1989, 1993 and 1996. Why did you choose to focus on these specific years?
These were all years that were important for my personal growth and also coincided with significant political changes – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Bill Clinton and the cancellation by the United States Supreme Court of Colorado Supreme Court Amendment 2, which banned lesbians and gays. people to be able to complain of discrimination. I observe how my own personal development has been sparked in many ways by larger cultural and political conversations and shifts about opening up new ways of living, of being free.
I love the songs and artists you use at the start of each chapter in the book. It’s a wide and eclectic range – from Roxette to Dishwalla to Madonna. How do you see the music shaping this narrative? Did you re-listen to all those songs while you were writing the book?
Oh, my God, yes. I created YouTube playlists for the three years covered by the book, with the top pop songs from each year becoming the chapter titles. Pop music is a powerful way that our culture teaches us – I mean indoctrinates us! — about love, intimacy, how to be human. Sometimes it is positive and affirmative. Just as often, it creates unrealizable expectations. I would like to think that my life as a youth was in conversation not only with the politics of the time but also with pop music which was itself grappling with what we want, how to be in the world, how to love. When Dishwalla sings “Tell Me All Your Thoughts About God,” I was having intense conversations with people at the same time about religion, sexuality, tolerance, and civil rights. And when Madonna was singing in “Cherish” about cherishing the one you love, I was trying to find a way to do that in a homophobic culture, thinking about how to love safely in a time and a place that might be quite unfriendly to people. like me.
How did he write Dear queer me different from, say, your previous works? Here I am thinking specifically of your other memory, Stroke Book: Diary of a blind spot.
Like I said, I’m thinking of Dear queer me as complementing the work of Creep and Intimidated, ending a trilogy of thoughts and feelings about how my youth shaped the person I have become. It’s also a bit bold stylistically, written entirely in second person, straight to my younger self. stroke book (and thanks for mentioning it!) deals with a health crisis I had in 2019, a minor stroke that I attribute to the experience of living long-term in a homophobic society. The pressure of trying to survive a culture that always wants you dead takes its toll. It’s funny – I consider myself a pretty positive person regardless, but my written work is very close to the survivor story mode.
Thinking about this mode, what do you expect Dear queer me contribute to the body of LGBTQ+ literature?
On a personal level, I write just to make sense of my experiences but also to challenge myself and my thoughts on what I have been through. In the LGBT community, young people are often told that “it’s better”. And I guess in some way our situation as queer people has improved. But it’s precarious, isn’t it? Watch all the upcoming anti-trans and anti-women laws and court rulings. We still have so much to do, even though we have so much to be proud of. So when asked if Dear queer me is about how “it gets better”, I’m tempted to say “fuck that”. For queer people, it doesn’t necessarily “get better”, but seen through our experiences, it becomes more interesting, richer – but only if we are vigilant. I hope that’s enough of a contribution! And let me conclude by thanking you, Alex! These are great questions and I love your work!
Alexander and poet Pamela Sneed will present “Writing Our Own Queer Histories” at the BGSQD (Bureau of General Services—Queer Division) in New York tonight at 7 p.m. The event is both in person and online.
For more information and to buy Dear queer me, go to www.bgsqd.com.