Queer Questions Straight Talk: An interview with Abby Dees

Attorney, activist, author (and Bitch Media supporter!) Abby Dees is traveling to our fair city of Portland tomorrow to give a reading from her new book Queer Questions Straight Talk at In Other Words Women's Books and Resources. We're excited! We're also lucky, because Abby was kind enough to grant us an interview before her arrival.


Bitch: Why did you write Queer Questions Straight Talk?

Abby Dees: The short answer is that it came up in a brainstorming session, with my mom (who's also my editor), my publisher and my partner, for subjects that would be good for a questions book–I'd just edited another book about questions caregivers can ask their loved ones as part of the healing process. There was sort of a "duh" moment when we said, "What about a book of questions about gay people?"

The longer answer is that ever since I came out in 1984, amidst a very committed community of feminists, I've felt that there is too little attention paid to the process of learning about another person's identity. We focus a lot on the "right answers" to questions about gender, race, class and sexual orientation. But this can make people who are just coming to understand the issues feel self-conscious about asking those first questions, for fear that their "isms" will really stick out. So QQST was very much written with the idea in mind that it's OK to ask a "dumb" question as long as your intent is to learn and understand. Total agreement is not the goal here, but ending awkward or painful silence with our loved ones is.

What has been the most interesting response you've had to QQST?

I think I'm still waiting for it! Mostly, I've been surprised at how people have welcomed it. I was expecting some blow-back because I included questions that, frankly, a lot of us are sick of hearing, like, "Is one of you the man?" or, "What do you do in bed?" But I think people have found that stuff kind of amusing, and validating to see it in print. They get that people do still want to know the answers–and at the same time, QQST is suggesting some questions that perhaps straight loved ones hadn't thought of before, like, "Does it matter if it's a choice?" or, "What's the best thing about being lesbian, gay or bi?" I'm suggesting that it's all part of a larger, honest conversation.

You've been a long-time reader of Bitch. Do you remember where and when you picked up your first issue?

Oh, it was a long time ago…. a friend very excitedly told me about it and so I ran. I believe I went out and bought the very first issue at a local feminist bookstore, back when we had them in every big town. Then I subscribed. Bitch was made for me: a feminist rag that got the natural intersection between feminism, ironic wit, Star Trek and Riot Grrrls. But of course.

How would you describe Bitch to a friend?

Well, now I have to move this one to the present day: Bitch gets the natural intersection between feminism, ironic wit, Facebook, and the question of whether AutoTune is destroying music as we know it. Bitch is also so comfortable in the now, not the past, and that takes some editorial guts. It's not good for people who have lots of sacred cows, unless they're ready to be challenged.

What events in popular culture do you think are moving the conversation about queer identity forward?

It's funny, because I do believe that that conversation is moving forward–I couldn't have even imagined being married and boring as a lesbian 25 years ago–but I also see things that make me wonder if we're stalling out too. Or maybe it's that I've become more aware of the Evangelical movement, for example, and that the rhetoric has gotten so loud from the other side. When I'm in a hopeful mood, I like to think this is because we're on the brink of a huge shift of consciousness. The yelling and fear is a natural reaction to a big cultural shift we are on the brink of. Some folks just can't let go yet.

What's gotten us here is our relentless push towards the future. Time itself doesn't change things; people do. So it's the culmination of information and ideas seeping in from all sides, from Stonewall, to Matthew Sheppard, to Gavin Newsom opening those first doors to marriage, to the L-Word and Ellen, and that brave young woman in Mississippi who refused to back down around bringing her girlfriend to the prom. All of it affects the conversation and changes it, slowly but so dramatically. I think the next generation will blow us away with their level of sophistication in this conversation.

How do you think that media coverage of gay relationships of high-profile individuals known for their anti-gay agendas impacts understanding of queer identity?

If I'm being nice, I'd say it shows how tragic a life in the closet can be. How it destroys people, families. But it's so hard for me to be nice sometimes. I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who attack others to protect themselves. But I'm not sure how these stories are read by the public at large–do they think, "Wow, this is the price of homophobia"? or do they just think these people are kind of one-off freaks? It's too bad that there's such a prurient quality to these stories, but I'm as guilty as anyone else for wanting to stare. I'd like to see some polling on how people perceive these stories! A Bitch project, perhaps?

What projects will you be working on after you finish promoting QQST? Is there another book in the works?

I'm becoming a broken record to my family and friends on this point: I really want to write a user-friendly book on free speech. Something with lots of heart and humor. I'm a former civil rights attorney, so this subject never gets old to me. And I believe that right now, more than any other time I can remember, Americans especially need to get back in touch with what these rights really mean, every day. I've been collecting material and this is the next project in the hopper.

I also want to do a book on the Beatles' early days in Liverpool. I probably know more about the Beatles than I do about the law. It's almost embarrassing. I had a big crush on George when I was a girl, and who doesn't have a soft spot for John?


If you're in the Portland area, join us at Abby Dees' reading tomorrow night at In Other Words Women's Books and Resources at 8 B NE Killingsworth Street at 7:00 pm. If you can't make it tomorrow, check out Queer Questions Straight Talk on Facebook for more information and readings in your area!

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Sounds pretty awesome and

Sounds pretty awesome and interesting! I'm on the other coast, alas.

A question someone might be able to answer. So are the "answers" from Abby? Or are they a collective of answers from surveys she did?

Your question

Most of the questions don't have answers attached at all. A few offer multiple answers from people she interviewed.

Just read it

I had mixed, though mostly positive, feelings. I do think I might use it in the future, if only to try and work on my mother's intense homophobia. I consider myself a mostly articulate person and would be prepared to explain my answers so long as I had time to look the questions over again beforehand. My biggest concern is that I find the subtitle, with the phrase "questions it's OK to ask," utterly problematic. I don't think it's "OK" at all to just jump at an LGBT person you know with these often personal and hurtful questions. Thankfully, I don't think Dees meant it as such -- there are throwaway comments about how you shouldn't use the book if its contents makes you uncomfortable and should feel free to refuse to answer any question -- but it certainly comes across that way with that subtitle. Personally, I think the notion that LGBT people, or members of any minority, can and should be grilled at any time is alive and well.

Dees' comment about some of the questions being ones we're "sick of hearing" is kind of an understatement -- I find many downright offensive. On the one hand, if those thoughts are in people's minds, I suppose it would be better that they voice them and learn why, exactly, they aren't appropriate. On the other, I'm concerned about placing the burden on the person in the minority; it seems to tie into the privileged "I don't know unless you teach me!" excuse. Despite the idea of infinite answers, I think many of the more obnoxious questions could have been answered effectively, and in brief, by Dees in the book itself. (For example, whether homosexuals are just angry at the opposite sex...we can all agree that that's a NO, right?)

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