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from the June 2020 issue

The Right to Identity: The Queer Issue

Pride Month and our annual Queer issue arrive at a time of grief and rage. Already ravaged by the pandemic and the resulting financial devastation, the US erupted in fury over the brutal murder of George Floyd by police, protests which were soon duplicated around the world. As these three crises—health, economic, and racial justice—spur communities to take to the streets and demand action, we are reminded that Pride celebrations themselves grew out of the protests spearheaded by transgender people of color who fought back against New York police brutality. The fight for acknowledgment of the Queer experience intersects with race, class, culture, and more; and the characters in the works presented here demand recognition of the full spectrum of Queer experience in often hostile environments.

One such environment informs Nazli Karabiyikoglu’s harrowing portrait of repression and defiance, “Elfiye,” translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell. When the teenage title character brings home her masculine girlfriend, her horrified parents react to her “perverted sensibilities” by dragging her to an exorcist. As the ritual progresses to its violent end, Elfiye remains unmoved, “iron-hard” in the face of those who would deny her the right to her identity.

São Paulo journalist Chico Felitti had for years noticed a singular downtown figure, a street artist with a heavily made-up, grotesquely distorted face. After a bit of sleuthing, Felitti discovered the man, Ricardo, was in fact a well-known multilingual hairdresser and makeup artist who had served the rich and famous but fallen victim to mental illness and his insatiable desire for plastic surgery. Felitti’s 2017 Buzzfeed profile of Ricardo went viral, with over a million readers, and inspired him to research further. In this excerpt from the resulting book, translated from Portuguese by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, Felitti reconstructs the beginning of Ricardo’s affair with the love of his life and his obsession with facial modification. 

In another tale of self-transformation, translated from Cebuano by John Bengan, Filipino writer R. Joseph Dazo sees a young man turn serial heartbreak into body art. When an impulsive tattoo of his paramour’s name is followed by their breakup, Dazo’s narrator vows to inscribe his romantic history on his skin. Returning after each involvement to the one permanent man in his life, his tattoo artist, he covers his body with the names of the lovers he’s lost, queering the expression “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” 

Peru’s Juan Carlos Cortázar makes his English-language debut with another tale of identity and loss in Jennifer Shyue's translation. The narrator nurses his former lover, Germán, through the latter’s final illness, and is willed Germán’s posh apartment as a result. Yet the grieving survivor wants only to fulfill Germán’s other last wish: to be buried in the plot that he purchased, rather than with his disapproving family in theirs. As the narrator jousts with the family’s condescending attorney, the power of the law to deny the rights of Queer chosen families comes into brutal relief.

In another story of distances unbridged, translated from Spanish by Kelley D. Salas, Chilean graphic novelist Gabriel Ebensperger sketches a portrait of an oversized youth with a growing awareness of his own difference. Mistaken for a girl when answering the phone, bullied for singing Cher songs, he remembers his childhood as a series of alienating events that convinced him he would never blend in. But will he remain so othered in adulthood?

Russia’s Natalia Rubanova composes a chamber piece set to Schubert. In this romantic triangle, a concert pianist leaves her sleeping husband to join her female lover. Rubanova is a trained pianist, and her musically rooted prose moves through themes and variations as romantic as any lieder. Although Rubanova’s work has enjoyed wide publication in Russia, LGBTI writing is illegal there, so this story, translated from Russian by Rachael Daum, is appearing in print for the first time in any language.

In this month of uprising and protest, the obstacles facing Rubanova and other queer writers around the world are a stark reminder that equality is often earned through dogged resistance and defiance of injustice. Exposing injustices and celebrating the beauty in the demonized, writers across the world help us to better understand just what is at stake.

© 2020 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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