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Pop Culture, Queer Culture: An Interview with Roz Kaveney
Extended for the Online Edition
by Jorjet Harper
2008-04-16

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British writer and trans activist Roz Kaveney is best known for her critical works about pop culture. She's the author of Reading The Vampire Slayer: The New, Updated Unofficial Guide To Buffy And Angel; From Alien to the Matrix: Reading Science Fiction Film; and Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from 'Heathers' to Veronica Mars. Her newest book, Superheroes!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films, has just been published.

Kaveney is a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement and the Independent. A founding member of Feminists Against Censorship, she has been active in the gay and trans movement since 1971, and in anti-racist and anti-war politics since 1965. She is also a former deputy chair of Liberty, Great Britain's National Council for Civil Liberties. Now a lesbian, one of Kaveney's most repeated quotes is: 'I was reared Catholic but got over it, was born male but got over it, stopped sleeping with boys about the time I stopped being one and am much happier than I was when I was younger.'

Windy City Times: You've said that being queer is 'bliss.' Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Roz Kaveney: It is partly to do with the way that, when we were young, people warned us that being queer, let alone gender-queer, was a lonely life in which people dumped on you all the time, and terrible things happened. Actually, I have a world full of friends and a life that I pretty much like most of the time, love quite a lot of the time and would not change for anything. I am an overweight, middle-aged, burned-out activist and I still feel fabulous about twenty-two/six. Because we had to make a point of learning the gift of happiness, we got it far more than people who were told to expect it as part of their due reward for being straight.

WCT: In London, we spoke a bit about the 'Lesbian Wars.' I don't know how many young lesbians have any idea what that phrase means, but most LGBTs of our generation understand what 'Lesbian Wars' refers to immediately. You said, 'the right side won.' How do you think 'winning' has manifested itself in the time since the 'Wars' ended?

RK: By the right side winning, I mean that people got over themselves. The few holdouts of the Raymond/Jeffreys position [ anti-trans, anti-SM, ultra-separatist ideas promulgated by Janice Raymond in the US and Sheila Jeffreys in England ] on porn, trans, S&M and so on still have their spaces and can be as disapproving as they need to be—a lot of people who were in that crowd have softened their positions over the years. When we need to, we can work together; winning was never about SM people and trans people ruling, because few or none of us wanted that. We just wanted to be able to feel safe in queer spaces—it was a minimum demand and we got it. Women who want to be my friends or lovers are no longer stigmatized the way they used to be; people who come out as trans no longer get endless lectures from their acquaintances the way I did in the '70s and '80s; people no longer feel entitled to burn trans material or smash up S&M spaces in the name of fighting violence against women.

WCT: What were your impressions of the GLBT community during the time you spent in Chicago 20-odd years ago? What about the trans community at that time?

RK: I never really came across the GLBT community as such. I was living in the small, closed world of transwomen who were either hustlers or entertainers. That was a fairly atomized community as I experienced it—a lot of people in competition with each other and a lot of people who would be casually kind to you and who depended on each other for information and services.

WCT: What differences and commonalities between Britain and the U.S. do you see in the current GLBT movement?

RK: My impression is that trans people are much more valued in the U.S. than here within the councils of the LGBT great and good. On the other hand, we have far more rights in Britain, and got them by negotiation. I have been rude about the concessions made by some, for instance those of Stonewall to New Labour, but we did get much of what we were asking for eventually.

WCT: How do you view the portrayal of LGBT characters in current popular media in Britain and the U.S.?

RK: The U.S. has raving right-wing nutcases, of a kind we don't have as many of, who get away with the most outrageous hatemongering. On the other hand, [ the portrayal of the LGBT community ] in media is far more positive in Britain generally. We have a sweet little transwoman in a soap opera whose trans status is rarely mentioned these days and a nice butchish dyke in a cop show.

WCT: What do you think of the intersection of popular culture and LGBT issues in general, and/or how is it changing over time?

RK: Onwards and upwards. Lesbian Batwoman and Question in DC comics and lots of young queer superheroes in Marvel. The occasional good explicitly queer film and a lot of knowing slashiness. My theory is that there's so much slashiness in teen media because they are heavily censored, so the more free-floating subtext the better.

WCT: You've said, 'In the 50 or so years of trans surgery, we have managed not only to accumulate traditions, but to do so on both sides of the Atlantic.' Can you elaborate?

RK: I was thinking of the way that several people I know were given, shortly before going in for surgery, the elasticated knickers of someone who had already had their surgery. It was a ritual handing over of good luck. I mentioned this to other people in the U.S. and they had come across it too. Same with the households where older trans people watch over younger ones. I ran one of those for a while.

WCT: Your personal take on the trans issue of passing is that you should not be secretive about being trans.

RK: A lot of people want to go stealth for convenience or because their shrink told them they should want to. This means that the community is often deprived of people who would have something to give and who in turn find themselves without community support when and if they need it. It has also to do with the increased availability of early transition which makes stealth easier for people.

There is also the added question of how people deal with acknowledging their pasts and of how ethical it is to censor your history of who you are.

WCT: How do you view trans issues today in relation to the wider queer community?

RK: I see them as overlapping. In the U.S. and here in Britain, we have a lot of the same enemies, for one thing. For another, a lot of trans people either are queer or have loyalties in the queer community. Other bits of the trans community tend to think of themselves as entirely separate and not having to take account of LGB issues. I fear they will learn the hard way, if the churches continue to move towards intolerance while retaining their influence.

WCT: As a critic and observer of popular culture, do you think that there is still a schism between popular culture and 'literary' culture?

RK: I spend my life moving backwards and forwards between the pop cult and literary worlds and there is a vast extent to which both sides are ignorant of and hostile to each other. Particularly the literary culture often tries to ignore popular culture or fails to learn to parse it—I see myself as a bridge figure much of the time.

WCT: What do you think accounts for the huge leap in popularity in science fiction and fantasy in movies and on television today?

RK: I don't know why [ there is ] increased popularity. Partly, it is the wider availability of necessary skills in special-effects makeup and so on, and the similar skills of parsing science-fiction ideas that seem to have spread in the film and TV community as people grew up into positions of authority.

WCT: What are some of your upcoming projects, and what are you working on now?

RK: My book, Superheroe,s has just been published, and next is a book about the TV series Nip/Tuck. I am also working on another book of science-fiction film essays, a memoir and a novel.

Roz Kaveney will be reading and signing books at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark, Wed., April 23 at 7:30 p.m. She will be speaking at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, Thurs., April 24, at 8 p.m.


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