The Euphoria and Dysphoria of Liminal Queer Identities

Lydia Conklin’s short story collection "Rainbow Rainbow" illuminates the multiplicity of queerness and transness in their vast spectrums and vivid colors

Photo of Cecilie Johnsen via Unsplash

Lydia Conklin’s Rainbow Rainbow feels faithful to its namesake. At times the debut story collection pushes its characters through the dreary and damp, the constant pressure of light emotional rain. And just as often, sunshine arrives to reflect off of the puddles, sprinkling the pages with sunshine and delight, illuminating the unique plights of queerness and transness in their vast spectrums and vivid colors. 

Conklin offers us an array of queer hilarity and heartbreak as their characters traipse, often with reluctant obligation, through the banal milestones of getting older and getting out––of the suburbs, of bad relationships, of the closet. The stories are not intended to capture the entirety of transness, but Conklin’s detailed fiction leaves the reader with the impression of universality, regardless of their gender identity. 

I spoke with Conklin in late February about what it’s like to be visibly trans in a world that looks so different from what they saw in their childhood in liberal white New England, and how the evolving landscape of queer representation informs their fiction and their life. 

Jessika Bouvier: How has your writing served as a vehicle of expression and exploration of gender? How would you define the reciprocal relationship between writing about transness and living in it?

Lydia Conklin: There’s a couple parts to your question. The part about living versus writing trans issues: I wrote about it before I ever talked about it in relationships myself. I think sometimes it’s easier to explore things in fiction. I knew I was trans, I knew all about my gender issues, but I wasn’t ready to talk about them with anyone. The story “Pioneer” in the collection was the first trans story I wrote, which I wrote in graduate school—probably 2011, about ten years ago. It was the easiest entry point for me. The dysphoria I felt as a child—it was so long ago and now I could see it clearly. It didn’t feel as exposing of me now, you know?

What does it mean to make art? What would you give up for it? What if it makes you a bad person?

In terms of how my work has evolved since that story, it has evolved alongside that. [Some of the stories] do deal with a theme that I’ve sort of been returning to again and again: What does it mean to make art? What would you give up for it? What if it makes you a bad person? What are the toxic parts of it that infect you, and what are the parts that are worthy and good? It doesn’t come up so much in Rainbow Rainbow actually, but both of the novels I’ve been going back and forth working on deal with those issues. 

JB: Much in the same way “Pioneer” is based on youth, I found a lot of the stories are either based on childhood (“The Black Winter of New England”) or feature characters surrounded by children (“Sunny Talks”). And, you know, despite the fact that many of my own students probably think of me as “old,” I feel personally very lucky to be queer and young in an environment where media and art are trying to portray queer youth with authenticity,  or even glamor. I’m interested in how you feel the stories in Rainbow Rainbow are adding to the conversation about how kids these days are having to reconcile not only with their evolving gender identities, but tackling the confounding nature of getting older in general, which we all do.

LC: I think that the generational divide is really interesting to me, which you can probably see the most in “Sunny Talks.” But also in “The Black Winter of New England,” which you mentioned, and “Ooh, the Suburbs,” too—both of those stories are about sort of proto-queer children. [In the latter] they’re a little more directly facing in it, but it’s this place where they know they’re queer, but they’re not able to fully live in that identity because it’s the ‘90s. I just find it so interesting. Even though I grew up in a liberal town in New England, in high school, there was one “out” kid in a school of almost 2,000 people. People called me names, and my friend who was “out” was pushed down in the quad; if there was anyone who was trans or nonbinary, or was even called that, it would’ve been suicide. But then when I was teaching high school starting in 2013, I taught in this program for young writers, kids were like trans and nonbinary and queer and asexual and all of these different identities that you wouldn’t have ever been able to say aloud even to your best friend when I was in high school. I was just blown away by how fast things had moved. It’s amazing and so heartening, and every summer I would cry tears of joy and relief about it. 

It does come with two caveats. Sometimes it feels like I’m being gaslit by the culture for having suffered in this way about something people would be like, “but this is no big deal!” now. But the other side of it is that it is still a big deal. Kids who were out at fifteen and it would seem [to some] that they’re living this easy life that wasn’t available to me, they actually were [and are] incredibly brave to be out in that identity even now. So they also get gaslit by the culture being like, “oh, well, it’s on TV! It’s cool, it’s sexy now, there’s a whole show!” Really living that identity is still not easy. They dealt with parents who weren’t accepting, barriers to getting treatment, all kinds of things. It’s kind of a weird place that the culture is in. In some ways [being out] is glamorized and okay, and in other ways it’s still deeply messed up. 

JB: Yeah, it does sort of feel like in some ways the “aesthetics” of being trans, or queer in general, are being circulated in media in a way that is certainly great to see representation-wise, but I see what you’re saying. Those practical aspects of being out and young and trans––we’re not quite caught up with what’s going on in Euphoria, obviously.

There is one sort of path to being trans that seems visible for people who are cisgender, and if the character isn’t following that exact path, [the journey] is illegible to the larger culture.

LC: Yeah, exactly. I haven’t actually seen that show, so I can’t speak to it, but I know about it. But I also think there can be a problem, and this is with any non-majority identity, there is a certain story that people want to hear. People who are not part of that identity want to hear ‘that story,’ and if it’s not fitting into the story, then it’s not acceptable. Some people want a certain coming-out narrative and a very clear path. There is one sort of path to being trans that seems visible for people who are cisgender, and if the character isn’t following that exact path, [the journey] is illegible to the larger culture. So, it’s like, “well why isn’t your story doing ‘that’?” I feel like there have to be more complex narratives than the ones that are, so far, being embraced.

JB: And beyond the shows I referenced, it does feel like the literary community, at least in my corners of queer Twitter, are really eager to frame this time in publishing as sort of a trans renaissance. There’s been a lot of mainstream success of trans stories, like Detransition, Baby and The Natural Mother of the Child, and I think as a natural result a lot of conversations about transness are happening at a heightened level. But I wonder if you can speak on whether this perceived representation, especially from the point of view of cis authors—are its trickle down effects even positive? Are they even really felt? I recognize this is like six questions in one. But, what do you think these conversations about being trans and nonbinary are getting right, and what are they still missing? 

LC: Yeah, there’s a lot to say about that. I think one thing that’s a problem in publishing and probably other forms of media, though I’m not as familiar with them: there can be one book that’s like, “this is the book about Black women of this year!” and we aren’t going to entertain any other books. It’s almost like a quota situation. I feel like Detransition, Baby kind of filled that spot, where anyone who is unfamiliar with queer culture is like, “oh, I’ll read this one book and then I’ll know everything.” And it’s an amazing book and I love it, but obviously even Torrey Peters herself wouldn’t say that’s the whole story. But people may read just that book and be like, “I’m done.” It could open up [readers] minds and their interests, which would be ideal but . . . I don’t know. One thing––this is kind of like a pet peeve of mine and I never know how grouchy to be about it––one thing that continues to happen in queer lit: cishet people are still writing queer books, but not really called to task for it. And that’s fine, it’s fiction, you can write whatever you want. If there were rules about what you are allowed to write, we wouldn’t have fantasy, or historical fiction, or science fiction, or anything that is not autobiographical fiction, and that would be horrible. But I feel like there are so many cishet people still writing trans or queer stories that, individually, can be amazing––some of these books are my favorite queer books! But when you look over the broad picture of all of them, sometimes there are disturbing trends that expose what cishet people think a queer narrative is. It’s something I think about. Like, why isn’t this being interrogated? . . . I think it’s because queerness can be less visible in some ways than other identities could be. 

JB: Something that comes to mind was back during the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, there was a book by a white author—I won’t name it because I don’t want to put anyone on blast—people were circulating it as the book that white people needed to read, when so many Black scholars were like, “isn’t it kind of funny how you don’t want to buy any of our books, but you want to buy the white author’s book telling you how to be a better white person?” So I definitely see what you mean, it’s not that [cishet people] are inherently trying to muddy the water, or perpetuate toxic ideas about queer people, but I agree that there’s a lack of visibility in some ways, so it doesn’t come up as often.

Very tangential, but many of the stories have what I would describe as an underlying or unifying theme where most of the nonbinary and trans characters inhabit this Spirit-of-the-Other, if you will. I’ve already mentioned “Pioneer,” where it’s especially pronounced because Coco is forced to cosplay as an ox instead of a boy. There feels like there is this competitive edge, or at least a consciousness of the physical and emotional differences that are separating cis characters and trans characters in the stories. Can you speak to where this sense of “otherness” comes from?

LC: Ooh, yeah. I never drew it out like that. It’s just that feeling when you are living in the wrong body or when you have dysphoria. Especially as a child when you don’t really know what’s going on, something is wrong. And in every moment wrong. It’s not just, oh, I said something wrong in class and now I look like a weirdo, or I can’t make a friend. It’s that moment of physical embodiment, which is all the time, is wrong and messed up and painful and uncomfortable, but you don’t have the tools in any way to understand what it is. Starting from that place—it’s very alienating to people who don’t feel that way. 

I remember when I got top surgery and my cis friend asked how I felt. I said “amazing,” and he was like, “whoa, I wish I could remove a body part and then feel amazing.” And I went, “yeah, but it’s not like I felt good and now I feel amazing; I felt horrible and now I feel normal like you do every day.” I know everyone has some discomfort and bodies are weird. Nobody feels just perfect and wonderful in their body. But it does put you into this very strange “otherness” like you say. It’s very hard to understand for people who haven’t felt it. 

JB: Yeah 100%. I think that’s sort of the disorienting nature of dysphoria, the isolationist nature of it. It’s only really a thing if it’s something you experience. I definitely sense that in a lot of the stories. All of the characters have some sort of perception of it, even if they’ve gotten top surgery or they “pass,” it’s almost ingrained in them how long they’ve lived in that space of separation. I thought that was a really powerful theme throughout.

You were kind of talking about how your friend was mentioning that longing to experience joy with your body—gender euphoria instead of dysphoria. I don’t want to spoil it for people reading, but I do want to talk about one particular moment in “Sunny Talks.” Henry and Emerson are arguing with Wellcamp at the panel, and Henry tells Wellcamp that transness is inherently negative. He says, “You’re born wrong… you want what you’ll never have.” And although the argument is short, Henry says that because Wellcamp discredits gender dysphoria and instead credits their transition to something they’ve done out of joy, they’re discrediting the foundation of the trans community.

I thought this was a really fascinating and also heartbreaking argument. I was wondering: where do you side on this issue? Do you side more with Henry or Wellcamp? Is trans joy the foundation of transness, or is gender dysphoria?

LC: It’s something I think about a lot because when I was kind of figuring out my gender stuff and what I wanted to do, I was watching a lot of trans YouTubers, which was the part of the inspiration for that story. A lot of them were significantly younger than me and are probably now in their early twenties. There is so much in-fighting and tribalism, which of course there is in any small, tight knit community, especially one that is oppressed and has a hard time. Sometimes the fighting turns in on each other.

This was a debate that fascinated me because some people will say, like, “Transness equals gender dysphoria. If you have gender dysphoria, you are trans, whether or not you take action against it.” But there are other people who say, “well what if I just feel better with these interventions, or this transition, but I don’t feel bad about how my body is now?” And I personally think any way you come to it is valid. People are different. I come from more of the dysphoria zone, so at first it was hard for me to understand the euphoria argument. Even though obviously I have felt gender euphoria, it was hard for me to understand at first why you would make these decisions if you didn’t have dysphoria and pain around how your body currently was. Now I’ve met more people who have had that different journey and it makes more sense to me, and I never liked how people were bashing other people for that. Because, like, no one is going to put themselves through surgery, or hormones, or medical treatment, or even a social transition for the hell of it or for a whim. If they want to do it, there’s a reason. Why would you give somebody a hard time for that? But maybe it’s because people are resentful they didn’t have the struggles that they had, I’m not sure.

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