S. Bear Bergman by Meg-John Barker
Illustration by Elena Durey
Meg-John Barker is a queer writer and activist. They’ve written a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History (with Julia Scheele), How To Understand Your Gender (with Alex Iantaffi), Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To) (with Justin Hancock), Rewriting the Rules and The Psychology of Sex. They’ve also written many books and other resources for scholars, therapists, and other practitioners on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice. They regularly blog, zine and podcast on all kinds of things on rewriting-the-rules.com and megjohnandjustin.com.
On a grey London day in March 2014 I took my seat in a small theatre above a pub to see S. Bear Bergman talk. I wasn’t familiar with Bear’s work: a partner had invited me along. I was accepting every social invitation I received at the time because I’d just relocated to London and knew that I had to start the long, slow work of building up some kind of friendship network. I was coming out of several years of self-imposed isolation following a tough experience of media shaming and the collapse of relationships and community that followed. I’d just gone through yet another painful break-up. Things with my family were strained. I didn’t have many close people at all.
Bear was reading from his new essay collection. Like all of his books this includes stories which are funny, thought-provoking, poignant, and frequently all three together. This time, following the birth of his son Stanley, the focus was on relationships with family of all kinds - biological and logical - including people - as he puts it - who share bonds of blood, of marriage, of wine, and of glitter.
Bear defines family relationships as the ones where he is ‘seen as the person I am, and loved for it… valued for what I’ve done in the world as the person I am.’ The book includes stories of how Bear has cultivated such relationships with members of his original family - some of whom initially struggled to embrace his queerness and transness, with members of his queer and Jewish communities, with the extended family of spunkles, sparkles, pups, fairy godmothers, etc. which were required to bring Stanley into the world, and with his glitter family (‘shiny, unruly and hard to get rid of’) of:
lovers, exes, people met at conference, friends-and-friends that we let stay in our homes or drive to the airport on someone else’s say-so and discover that we really enjoy.
I confess that I shed a good few tears listening to Bear speak. Looking at the signed copy of Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter that I bought at that event I see that he wrote in it ‘love your family wherever you find them’. When I was asked to write about Bear for Queer Bible I assumed that I’d focus on how he’s inspired me as a genderqueer trans-masculine person, as a writer, and as an advice-giver - probably the three key aspects of our lives that we share. But I actually think that the biggest thing Bear gave me was that hope that I would be able to find my own family - out of the tatters of existing relationships and out of more careful and considered attempts to cultivate new ones. That definition of a family relationship as one where you’re truly seen and valued - rather than as ones born out of a sense of obligation or shame - has been a touchstone for me, as has the recognition that diverse kinds of relationships can be equally precious and meaningful.
In my own writing I’ve extended this diversity to include the relationship between writer and reader, pointing out that through this relationship we can evoke tears, fond feelings, orgasms, and more in people we’ve never met, who live on the other side of the world, or who’ve even been dead for years. Some of my most profound relationships are with people who don’t even know of my existence. In Bear’s case I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of projects with him - we collaborated on a chapter for Christina Richards’s book Genderqueer and Non-Binary Genders, and he kindly wrote the forward to Alex Iantaffi and my book How to Understand Your Gender. I can trace connections between my glitter family and Bear’s because I’m lucky enough to include some of the beloveds of Stanley’s Fairy Godsmother’s partner in my own ‘constellation of intimates’! But Bear and I don’t know each other well. Queer Bible told me that they particularly liked essays from people who had personal relationships with the person they were writing about. I like the fact that what I’m writing here expands that idea of a personal relationship in a similar way to the way Bear expands the idea of family.
But let’s talk about gender too. Checking out Bear’s wikipedia page I discover that he’s actually younger than me by three months: we were both 1974 babies. It’s that fun thing that trans does to time. When I met Bear back in 2014 I was early in my own trans journey, as evidenced by the fact that he signed his book to my old name. Bear had already written three memoirs about his own shifts in gender identity and expression (the other two are Butch is a Noun and The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You). And this is what I really get from Bear’s writing on gender: the sense that is absolutely okay for gender to be an ongoing unfolding journey. There’s so much pressure on trans people to declare that they are one thing and have always been that thing, as well as on cis people to never deviate from the thing they were defined as when the doc pronounced on them. It’s supremely helpful to have people writing openly about the complexities of navigating gender and the ways it intersects with all the other aspects of who we are (race, class, faith, sexuality, body type, etc. etc. etc.). Bear’s strong, solid, steady descriptions of his experiences of gender remind me that wherever I’m at with it today, and yesterday, and tomorrow, it’s all okay.
There is plenty of room for everyone’s gender in the New Gendered Order. Mine, which is as messy as chocolate-chip cookies made by a pack of eight-year-olds, and yours, which may be a perfect souffle.
Bear is also an ongoing inspiration to my writing. My journey of becoming a writer has been just as slow and messy and complicated as my journey of becoming my gender. In fact it’s only in the last year that I’ve felt able to say, first and foremost, ‘I’m a writer’ without feeling the need to caveat it by explaining that I haven’t always identified in that way, or that I’m not a ‘proper writer’, or that it’s not what actually pays the bills (yet). It was a struggle to allow myself to write the kind of thing that I always longed to write (self-help), and it’s been an even greater struggle to let myself diversify from that into the kind of comics, memoir essays, and fic/non-fic mash-ups that now call me.
In addition to his memoirs, Bear publishes two other main kinds of writing: his deeply kind and gentle advice column ‘ask Bear’, and his awesome feminist, racially diverse, LGBTQ-positive books for kids, which he publishes through his own micro-press Flamingo Rampant. He refuses to be constricted or defined by genre or pigeon-holing and that helps me to do the same.
Which leads me to my final point of inspiration. When you write about sex, as both Bear and I do, it’s easy to keep it safe by only writing about it in a distanced way. This can be particularly tempting for queers who are well used to being undermined, or having rights denied us, on the basis of any hint of actual sex. But Bear’s books have always included his erotic stories woven in with all the other ones. Give the intro dialogue to Gender Outlaws between him and Kate Bornstein a read if you want hot! As Bear himself puts it:
If you find it jarring to read sexually explicit work in this and other books of mine right alongside tender, meditative paeans to making or parenting my small son, I would encourage you to ask yourself: why?
He goes on to emphasise the dangers of silencing sexual desires and of the history we have of erasing important parts of ourselves in order to be accepted. Perhaps I will have the nerve to publish that erotic fic/memoir/self-help mash-up book after all…
Meanwhile I will thank Bear once more for his continued wit, warmth, and wisdom which have inspired me and supported me in countless ways. As he says, ‘individual homages seem like a pleasant way to spend some time and word count’. I entirely agree. And I’d be happy to drive him to the airport anytime.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.