I used to be so convinced I was straight. I still don’t know if I can call myself queer

What does being queer really mean? I’ve asked people who have studied queer theory, who know all the right definitions. But I still can’t describe what it is to be a queer person: how you know when you are one.

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Some years ago when I still thought I was straight, I asked a man I was seeing what he meant when he called himself “queer”. He had referred to it in conversation sometimes, in relation to himself and to his art practice, but I knew that he only dated and slept with cis-gendered women.

I asked him in innocence, not out of a desire to challenge him or police his assumed queerness. I wouldn’t have known how to do such a thing, so green was I. I knew what being gay was, obviously, and bisexual too, but I didn’t know what people meant when they said “queer”.

We had a conversation which eventually became an argument, this artist and I, on a bus journey. I came away from it substantially more confused than I was to begin with.

What was queerness? I used to be so convinced that I was straight. So convinced that when I found women attractive on the street, I persuaded myself I was only checking them out on behalf of my boyfriends: appraising them to see if they were competition.

So convinced that, even after I had slept with a woman three times as a teenager, I regarded our encounters as drunken antics rather than sexual experiences. I behaved so resolutely like a straight person, even when I fancied women, that I still don’t know if I can call myself queer. I’m really no closer to knowing what it means than when I asked the artist on the bus all those years ago.

Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl, which came out in the US in 2017, and is being published in the UK this April by Picador, is a riotous story of sexual and gender chaos set across Iowa City, Michigan, Provincetown and San Francisco in the 1990s. It’s a book for confused and seasoned queers alike.

Our hero Paul is a beautiful, deliciously self-regarding and lovable mess. Getting ready to go out one night he admires himself:

“How could he look so pretty? [...] Who was he? He was Ginsberg and Streisand and Kim Gordon rolled into one. He was the girl he wanted to fuck.”

Paul isn’t just androgynous but a shapeshifter of sorts. He moves through genders at will, depending on what he desires, and what the people he desires desire. He grows breasts in the club toilet stall, wills his penis into a vagina, softens his face into girlhood. And then he changes again, to something else, and again, and again, and again.

Though Paul’s body and experiences are fantastical (Lawlor told me that they wrote what would become the opening section of the book as a version of the Greek Tiresias myth), it’s impossible not to relate the book to the experience of transgender people in the real world.

As a young kid coming out today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that being trans or gender-fluid or queer involves nothing but negativity, stress and trauma. You wake up to debates on morning telly about whether transgender people – you, that is – really exist. In the newspapers, false rumours of Britain’s most hated prisoner being transgender are spread, furthering the idea that trans women are evil predators. Even the well-meaning folk on your side point out the heightened risk of physical attack you face for being trans, reminding you of how desperate everything is all the time.

That’s why a book like Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl is such a timely and necessary joy. Lawlor writes Paul’s delightfully mutable body with fascinated awe. I realised, reading it, how rarely we experience real celebration of trans bodies, how rarely we reckon with the radical possibilities of taking charge of one’s own physical form.

Paul doesn’t live a life magically free of hatred; we see him homophobically abused on a bus, and misogynistically degraded by a sexual partner in an alley. But his body, no matter how strange, how freakish, is a source of pleasure. He is kind to it. He loves it for all its bizarre possibilities. The body is a site of infinite capacity, not cruelty.

His sex life, too, is gleefully gluttonous. “Tight”, “Deep”, “Hot”, “Smut”, run the blurbs on the book’s front cover, and while they’re excerpts of more thoughtful reviews by the likes of Maggie Nelson, they aren’t wrong either.

When you’re beautiful and young, and you go to the really good queer parties, the overwhelming androgynous beauty of all the hot young people everywhere can make the idea of being either straight or gay seem crazy. Why not have them all, one of each, no person being at all like another, no matter what their genitalia or what it says on their birth certificate? Paul perfectly captures this ecstatic curiosity.

The stereotype is that someone who is attracted to all genders is actually just greedy, and using their sexuality as a shield against charges of promiscuity. We’re supposed to be upset at this accusation. Of course, I concede there are totally boring and essentially conservative bisexuals out there, and they may want society at large to recognise that they exist and are available for marriage and kids and a vanilla monogamous sex life. But sometimes I want to point out that being a hedonistic promiscuous person is what allowed me to realise that I wasn’t straight in the first place, and that we shouldn’t have to suppress the fact of our sexual greed to be legitimate.

I want to speak in defence of sexual greed. What’s that joke I heard at a queer night once? “Everyone thinks bisexuals are mentally ill sluts! Which would be so offensive if it weren’t true!” For Paul, greed is a way of life, a wilful choice, and nothing to apologise for. It’s a point of pride that he has no “type”.

I still don’t know what being queer means. I’ve asked people I know often enough, people who have studied queer theory, who know all the right the words for such things. These are people I trust not to talk down to me, people I’m friends with or have slept with or loved. They’ve tried to explain things to me. Sometimes it’s helped. But I’ve never come away really knowing how to describe what it is to be a queer person, how you know when you are one.

Maybe that’s partly what’s magic about queerness: that there isn’t an easy way to explain what it is, that it might mean something different for everyone who experiences it. That, like a body, it doesn’t need nailing down or naming to be real. Like a body, it doesn’t need public consensus on its existence: it simply is.

If someone was to ask now what I think queerness is, I’d tell them I still don’t know the words to describe it, and may never know. But there are a lot worse places to start looking for answers than in Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. You may not find theory here, may not learn definitions or names, but I think you’ll feel it in each page, like I did, as clear as a bell.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.