As part of our Queeroes series in celebration of LGBT History Month, Karen Pollock talks to Meg-John Barker.
The concept of a hero is always a tricky one. Do we mean someone so far removed from us we can only see them in an almost mythological light? Or do we mean someone who inspires us, and so can be unknown except in one act or attitude? Very often our choice of what makes a hero is defined by the outside world, the norms and values it finds acceptable. With all this going through my mind I struggled to chose someone for Queeroes. As I realised my queer heroes are those not removed from me, but a part of making the world we all inhabit a better place.
Meg-John Barker is a writer, academic and activist who specialises in sex and relationships. Their clear, accessible work on subjects such as non monogamies, non binary identities, kink and consent are written from a place of understanding and empathy. I talked to them about this, and more, as part of our Queeroes series.
TQ: I saw certain similarities in our backgrounds, as a working class child growing up in the 70s and 80s in Newcastle, queer was an insult, and gender was very much fixed. Do you think your background affected how you approached gender and sexuality?
Meg-John: Ah, we have quite a similar background it sounds like! I think these intersections between gender and sexuality, and things like class, geographical location, race, religion, disability, etc. are really important to attend to.
I grew up in Bradford in the 70s and 80s. My Dad came from a working class background, and I spent a lot of time with his parents as a child too because they lived nearby. My Mum came from quite an upper class background. Also they all grew up down South so none of the family had a Northern accent.
Interestingly, neither side of my family ever treated me in a very gendered way as a child. I was encouraged to be into whatever I was into. Granddad took me fishing and taught me woodwork, Gran and I used to dance to 45s and go walking together, Dad read my Sherlock Holmes and gave me a chemistry set, Mum got me into cooking and music.
But school was very different. The school I went to at nine had very fixed ideas about gender. I simply wasn’t allowed to hang out with the people there who were into the things I was into because I wasn’t seen as a boy. And there was a kind of enforced heteronormativity: you had to be this kind of girl, and fancy this kind of boy, in order to be accepted. I was bullied for not fitting in with that, and for my accent and clothes being wrong, and for my hearing difficulties which made it difficult to pick up on the ‘right’ way of doing things. Sometimes I was a little more accepted by the Muslim girls and the Evangelical Christian girls who had somewhat different versions of femininity, but there also felt like an invisible barrier to how close somebody could get who didn’t share race or religious background.
Sometimes that fight against the ‘one true way’ seems to define where I stand on anything! Which is probably why when I came across your work, Rewriting the Rules, for the first time since The Ethical Slut something seemed to speak to the reality of the relationships I saw around me.
I’m so glad that you felt that way about it. I was actually planning Rewriting the Rules for over a decade before I sat down and wrote it! At the beginning of that decade I started to get introduced to critical, queer, and feminist theories by colleagues in my psychology lecturing job, I also got involved with bisexual, polyamorous, and kink communities. I was struck how there were all these academics who were thinking things differently, and all these activists doing things differently, in ways that were incredibly important and helpful to me, but I’d never come across any of it before in the rather mainstream world that I’d occupied.
So it sounds like a was an important moment of connection of different strands. What prompted you to write a self help book (a format often derided)?
I’ve always had a soft-spot for self-help books having read plenty of them myself. They did something that academic psychology very rarely did, which was to speak about how we can actually live our lives and deal with our problems. However I recognised that a lot of self-help was deeply problematic – locating people’s problems within themselves and offering ‘expert’ advice to make them better.
Do you feel mainstream thought on relationships has moved on since Rewriting the Rules came out?
I think so. Just over a decade ago the press picked up on some of my work about polyamory and made a massive song and dance about it – sensationalising and ridiculing me and my work (not an easy time!) When Rewriting the Rules came out, all the media coverage took it seriously, and presented open non-monogamy as a potentially sensible way of addressing some of the difficulties in relationships today. My latest book The Secrets of Enduring Love was actually serialised in the Daily Mail! It feels like the message that different ways of doing relationships work for different people may finally be gaining acceptance.
To follow on from that, do you see the goal of same sex marriage, which has dominated so much of LGBTQ+ campaigning, as a reinforcement of the “old rules” the one size fits all model you discuss in RTR?
There’s certainly a danger of that, although it’s also important to remember that folks who get married may still resist ‘the rules’ and negotiate their relationships in all kinds of different ways.
My approach is always to ask ‘what does this open up, and what does it close down?’ because most things inevitably do both. The same sex marriage fight certainly shifted things in positive directions for LG(btq) people. However, there is the very real problem that it focused on the needs of certain elements at the expense of others. I think we need to turn LGBTQ+ activism around now so that it prioritises the needs of the most marginalised, not the least. That includes BTQ people, BME LGBTQ+ people, and those who are bearing the major brunt of austerity due to poverty, disability, and/or immigration status.
Therapist disclosure is such a thorny topic, I have frequently read things in places like Therapy Today which seem to see being openly LGBTQ+ and a therapist as an issue, how have you experienced this?
I’m very lucky to be living in London where there’s a wonderful, strong LGBTQ+ therapy network through Pink Therapy, and through the great LGBTQ+ mental health services, like London Friend where I work as a volunteer therapist. I feel hugely supported by my networks and that enables me to do the work that I do.
Was coming out as non-binary something you ever felt conflicted with your work as a therapist or was there a negative reaction from other professionals?
I – and others – have certainly had experiences where there’s absolutely no provision for non-binary therapists, or where people continue to be referred to by others as a male or female therapist even though they’re openly non-binary. When I’ve trained cisgender therapists I’ve generally been pleasantly surprised by their warmth and keenness to learn, but also shocked by some of the practices which they have been engaging in, such as attempting to stop somebody who ‘cross-dresses’ from doing so, encouraging bisexual clients to ‘pick a side’, or pathologising someone’s consensual sexual practices.
It’s really important that LGBTQ+ clients can continue to access LGBTQ+ specific services, and that we start to embed gender, sexuality and relationship diversity (GSRD) properly in all therapy training, if we’re ever to reach a point where an LGBTQ+ person could risk seeing a non-specialist therapist. We’re definitely not there yet.
Your work on the Bisexuality Report highlighted how marginalised bisexual people are, so far from the hawt bi babe or sexually voracious men of stereotype. Is this being heard?
Ah, this is so important. Bisexuality still gets horribly erased within LGBTQ+ communities, and even recent moves to be more trans inclusive feel like they have hopped over the ‘B’ in LGBTQ+ as if that’s already sorted: it really isn’t. Bi folks still suffer from far higher mental health struggles, self-harm, and suicide than either straight or gay people.
I wonder if some of those mental health issues are related to not fitting into those old, neat boxes? Is there a prejudice against fluidity? What would you like to see being done, within and without the LGBTQ+ community to improve things.
I think that the high rates of mental health problems for bi and trans people (including non-binary people) are very much rooted in what Judith Butler called the ‘heterosexual matrix’. That’s the idea that people are born male or female, that they stay male or female and adopt gender roles that fit the gender they were assigned at birth, and that they’re sexually attracted to either male or female people (making them either gay or straight).
Instead of adding increasing numbers of letters to the LGBTQ+ acronym and fighting for the rights of each individual group, I think that it would be useful to shift to a different model of activism which questions the heterosexual matrix and the damage that it does to everybody.
First of all, if you add together all of the people who are attracted to the same gender, or more than one gender, and all of the people whose gender has shifted from the one they were assigned at birth, and all of the people who don’t really fit into either of the male or female gender boxes, and all of the people who are on the asexual spectrum, and all the ones who are kinky, or non-monogamous, or otherwise gender, sexually, or relationship diverse (GSRD), you’re actually looking at the majority of people, and not the minority. So it’s not about asking the majority to treat the minority better, but rather recognising that we’re all GSRD.
Secondly, those people who try to adhere rigidly to the norms of gender, sexuality and relationships often experience a lot of problems. Think about the issues around masculinity and suicide for example, the prevalence of non-consensual sexual behaviour amongst heterosexual people, or affairs amongst ‘monogamous’ people. This is the reason Christina Richards and I included heterosexuality, cisgender, and monogamy in our book on sexuality and gender for mental health professionals.
A move towards recognising GSRD would be helpful for everybody – enabling those who don’t fit the perceived ‘norm’ to feel okay with that, and enabling those who do to be a bit more flexible with where they’re at.
You have a lot of new projects coming up. Could you outline some of them, and where you would like to focus in the longer term?
Absolutely. This year is a big one for me because I’ve got a number of books coming out which bring me closer to my goal of being primarily a writer (of my kind of anti-self-help books). I love the fact that I mix together writing, therapy, and activist-academia, with all of those things enriching the others, but it would be great to reach a point where the writing and other public engagement was the driving force.
So, following The Secrets of Enduring Love, I’ve got a book on queer coming out for Icon books in Autumn with illustrator Julia Scheele, followed by a sex advice book for them with sex educator Justin Hancock. Then I’ve got another book with Routledge on the psychology of sex, hopefully followed by a second edition of Rewriting the Rules fairly soon.
I’m getting increasingly into comics and zines so I hope to produce a few more zines over the rest of the year, including some of my own comics, and collaborations with other folks. I’d love to do a longer graphic book projects with my own comics in future, perhaps around my ideas on mental health and intersectionality. I’m also keen to write more about social versions of mindfulness, and about kindness and criticism. One long term goal is to write a mash-up between ghost stories and self-help called Everyday Horrors! Basically I’m keen to get more creative and more collaborative. I also want to do a lot more workshops and events brings together activism, creativity, and therapy.
I love the idea of a self help horror book! It sounds like that intersection of personal and political, academic and mainstream is taking you wonderful places, and I can’t wait to see what it produces. All that remains is for me to thank you for taking the time out of what must be a busy schedule to talk to me.
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