50 Shades of Gay… and Straight

A brave new queer graphic anthology celebrates everything that is neither gay nor straight. Charles “Zan” Christiensen talks to

Credits: Tara Madison Avery, Colour by Mike Sullivan; below: Anything That Loves inside cover.

Credits: Tara Madison Avery, Colour by Mike Sullivan; below: Anything That Loves inside cover.

“I feel pretty gay”, “but I think that I’ve shut myself off a lot from women and straight culture, just because I suppose I felt that I had to choose and defend myself in a lot of ways. I think if I hadn’t had to do that I would have probably turned out a little different.”

So responds Charles “Zan” Christiensen, publisher of a new queer anthology, Anything That Loves, to my first question. The content of the answer is surprising enough in itself, I have read of many gay people who attempted to “shut themselves off” from their inner feelings. I couldn’t think of a time when I had heard the reverse. However, what I found most striking about Charles’s first word was his choice of language.

His military “defense” of his sexual orientation does go against the fact that far fewer of the straight population are in outright war with the gay community. Nevertheless, what Charles does seem to be referring to is the idea of two camps, a frontline and an inevitable “no man’s land” that is the world of queer.

Cue Anything That Loves which aims to explore the unchartered territory between “gay” and “straight”. “The title is actually a play on that old quip that ‘bisexuals sleep with anything that moves’. “I was trying to twist it around and instead of having it as a slut-shaming pejorative thing, I wanted it to be something celebratory.”

There’s a great one called something like ‘How to Have an Awesome, Mind-Blowing, All-Day Threesome’

Some of the cartoons are about bisexuality. However, it would be wrong to class this as subject of the anthology as a whole. Anything That Loves deals with individuals, couples and situations that fall between the gaps of the standard dichotomy.

“My only criterion for the artists was that the cartoons should show something outside gay and straight. That could include straight people who are finding some same-sex attraction, or gay people who find themselves married to somebody of a different gender. It’s not really about identity, it’s more about human beings and their behaviour.”

It is crucial, for Charles, that the reader views the behaviour portrayed in the comic strips as that of the characters rather than that of the specified community as a whole. That several of the stories do aim to teach readers that bisexuality does not necessarily equal wanton, indiscriminate affection for anybody. But then this is a comic anthology, not a lecture.

“I did have somebody who wrote to me saying that as a polyamorous person they were happy to admit that they enjoyed having sex with multiple partners. There are 30 different contributors in the anthology and I was worried that they might all get a bit similar. I was concerned that you would only have people saying all “bi-sexuality is real” and “stop being so ignorant”. The cartoons are mainly fictional stories describing relationships, romances and little snippets of people’s lives. Some of them are more educational and graphic. We even have some which are instructional. There’ s a great one by Ellen Forney which is called something like “How to Have an Awesome, Mind -Blowing, All-Day Threesome.”

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As Publisher of Northwest Press, a LGBT graphic novel publishing firm, Charles once worked on a comic book which was something of a love letter to the origins of gay culture. Jon Macy’s Teleny and Camille was an adapted version of Oscar Wilde’s Teleny. Camille, a wealthy young Victorian Londoner falls hopelessly in love with the handsome and mesmerizing pianist, Teleny. “It would have been criminal if it had not been published because it is so, so important to see the beginnings of gay culture back in the late 1800s and to get a window into what it was like before there even was such a thing as gay man.”

Although Charles recognises that sexual identity is important to a large proportion of his readership, he also acknowledges that people who choose to identify themselves as queer can often feel like the outsiders of LGBT groups. “There’s a lot of infighting. I get it, I know where it is coming from. It’s hard to see somebody saunter into your community, somebody who looks like – on the surface – that they haven’t had to deal with the type of stuff you have had to deal with, and let them into your club. But I think that we can outgrow that, it can be who wants to be an ally and who wants to be supportive, to be part of the solution and let go of the defensiveness, and not be at war all of the time.”

A lot of the internal disputes within the community, for Charles, stem from jargon which LGBT people use to identify themselves. “When you’re talking about sexualities which aren’t gay or straight, people have so many different ways of describing themselves and I didn’t want to get bogged down over fighting over what correct word to use. You are always worrying about how to be sensitive, how to be correct and how to be kind to people in the language that you use. Basically I want to keep expanding the definition of what being queer is until it encompasses like 51 % of the word. Then we can get things done.”

It is for this reason that Charles thought the best way to combat the jargon was through graphic fiction. Readers see speech, thought and action. There is no request for a narrator to explain what exactly you would call a transgender man who used to consider themselves a lesbian but now sleeps enjoys sleeping with men whilst secretly harbouring a secret passion for his next-door neighbour.

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But if these terms which we use to describe sexualities are abandoned, then what is it that compensates for their loss? It is the very medium of graphic fiction which enables Charles to express the potential fluidity of our sexualities. Inner feelings and often conflicting external actions can be displayed side by side. Even more importantly, comics are fun, just as sexuality should be.

“It is so much easier to depict visually without having to rely on all the vocabulary and jargon. You’re looking at action, someone else living their life, you’re not just hearing somebody else talk about it. If young people aren’t learning about sexualities through comics, then the only other visual form of accessing ideas on sexuality is pornography. That doesn’t serve to educate. It simply allows young people to confirm what they think they already know. ”

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