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Author Lydia Conklin on Being Queer in the 90s and Writing Characters in Transitional Moments

Feature image of Lydia Conklin by Emily Ray Reese

The authentic queer self, as Lydia Conklin reveals in their debut collection Rainbow Rainbow, is not a divided self but many conflicting ones. We are eager, ridiculous, tragic, blundering, wicked, hopeless, selfish, adventurous, loving, doting, brave. The stories gathered here define queerness as freedom at the cost of approval, connection, even love. We learn about breaking rules, especially when those rules were never written with us in mind.

People gather unwittingly in groups and en masse beneath Conklin’s sharp eye, in settings so deftly curated they occasionally feel like sets — a pioneer pageant, a raucous street fair full of drunk college kids, the 90s, a convention where trans Youtubers debate “crucial Gen Z issues such as pansexuality, passing privilege, cisnormativity, he/him lesbians, PGPs, chasers, and demiromanticism.” Exchanges of dialogue cut sharply while relaying vulnerability. (“Of course I care. You’re my best friend.”/ “You’re not my best friend.” / Heidi frowned. “Well, who is?” / “My pussy.”)

Yet it is Conklin’s commitment to the depth and emotional scope of the queer experience that give life to the work. A lesbian decides to have a child with her girlfriend for the wrong reasons. A woman accidentally kills her quasi-girlfriend’s dog. An aunt devotes themselves to their trans nibling but mourns how she was born too late to have received the injections that would have meant “my body would have never bloomed into these curves, (141). Given the choice between being a matriarch and an ox in a simulation of the Oregon Trail (“what she wanted to be was a boy”), a young person chooses ox. Sometimes it’s strangers who know us best, as we see in “Pink Knives” when a nonbinary speaker soon to get top surgery begins an open-relationship affair during quarantine. With this comes one of the collection’s most striking passages and revelations: “And since you’ve used my right pronoun, which my girlfriend can’t always quite get, which I can’t always quite get, which confuses and upsets my friends, to what extent they think about me or it at all, which my family won’t know until they read this story, whatever final form it takes, I assume what you are doing is right.”

Conklin allows our readerly gaze to fall on the outlier, the lonely misfit who would choose singularity over false belonging. No choice is easy, certainly there are regrets, yet everyone makes their way. “She was a true pioneer,” Conklin writes, “one ocean behind her and another—one she’d never seen and might never reach—ahead.”


Annie: There is an impulse in media and pop culture to reduce queerness to a single or flat expression, an effort to universalize and contain. You buck against this in Rainbow Rainbow and get at sublimated vulnerabilities, desires, and darkness. How does this collection conceive of queerness as freedom?

Lydia: There is obviously hardship in being queer, whether during the Trump administration, right now when rights are under siege, or back in the 90s when I was growing up. But there’s also a kind of freedom in not having the expectation of “normalcy” and being able to find out for yourself who you are. I always had this feeling that I wasn’t normal and that things that were being said didn’t apply to me. That feeling had a lot of sadness and scariness around it but also, yes, a certain freedom that I could just be the weird one, whoever I was.

It’s also interesting, what you say about flattening of the narrative, because I was definitely trying to write against this Hollywood idea of queerness. Whenever queerness is allowed to appear, those stories are being told from the cis-het perspective, and there are only certain stories that are allowed to be told or that cis-het people want to hear. I remember all the queer movies I watched as a kid; the majority of them ended in suicide, which is obviously an issue that queer people have to face and deal with — but it just became the same narrative over and over. I find those kinds of patterns to be suspect.

Is this why, for many of your characters, there is a fear of being left behind or out-of-sync? Do you envision this particularly as a queer experience or reclamation?

I can’t speak for all queer people, obviously, but a big part of it for me was that, if you’re cis person, you have your gender figured out at an early age for the most part — that’s something you don’t have to wrestle with. I’m having to struggle with an issue later in life that most people take for granted from the moment of birth. They don’t have to question it at any point during their lives. So there is a feeling of panic attached to that — like, why am I still here trying to figure out this most basic fact that most people don’t have to look at, at all?

You alluded to growing up in the 90s, and I want to say that I really appreciate what you’re doing with the timeline across these stories. There’s a lot of forgetting that’s happening culturally, sometimes for really good reasons, as Generation Z is more empowered to claim queerness and trans identities. The 90s, of course, were not hospitable to queer lives. What are you telling us about who we are now by looking back at the decade of grunge, goth, and glitter?

I was in middle school when AOL came out. I remember searching profiles for Ani Difranco to see who on here is gay, because no one else in the 90s would have liked her (laughs). In the time when I grew up — I’m sure you had the same experience — there was one out person in my high school of 2,000 people. It was not okay to be queer. Everyone was screaming gay slurs, pushing people. You attracted violence by being outside the gender norms; you attracted derision.

Then I was teaching in my 20s at a high school program, and all the kids, it seemed, were queer in some way and were using identity markers that I hadn’t known existed even as an adult. It’s thrilling, obviously, because these kids get to be who they are, and that’s so wonderful. But you start to feel like this dinosaur, which is in some ways frustrating. It’s like, why did I have to go through all that pain and misery when change was just around the corner? And another feeling, which is like, oh, so now nobody is gonna spit on me, so that means I’m fine?

Lots of queer people our age are carrying around so much trauma from that time. People who are outside of the narrative can look at it now and think, oh, so now it’s all fine, we don’t even have to worry about this issue anymore. At the same time, even kids now are struggling massively at school or in dealing with their parents. There’s a little bit of an illusion around acceptance right now because of how fast things shifted. Even if kids can be out more safely than you or I, it’s still an act of bravery anywhere in the world, some places more than others.

You’re absolutely right about the illusion, and books like this allow us to pause and reckon with past and current realities. That makes me think of Lillia, one of my favorite characters in the collection, who brings their nibling Sunny to a conference for trans YouTubers. She envies Sunny’s world, how Sunny is “wonderful with the weak” and how he has already adopted casual boy gestures like running a hand through his hair. “I should be grateful,” Lillia tells us, “that the world changed in time for Sunny. If I were his mother, my feeling would be pure. But as it is, I wish the shift hadn’t happened too late for me to ever be beautiful in my right body but too soon for me to die in the peace of never having known another way.” Can you talk about the liminal space Lillia exists in, how it brings joy and pain?

That story was based on my experience transitioning later in life. Realizing things about my gender later in life and having the strange and uncanny experience of seeking guidance from people who are significantly younger than me, both in my family and on YouTube. Just seeing these 19 and 20-year-old people talking about gender theory and transition and offering practical advice. That’s a rare moment in history where you’re looking to people younger than you to show you how to live. It’s a humbling experience and also interesting to see these kids figuring things out, creating the discourse. It’s a discourse that hasn’t been allowed to happen, and they’re the ones creating the terminology and the moors and the infighting. I wanted to dramatize that in a story and show how the older queer generation is feeling and relating to the younger one because of this incredible chasm of difference in experience. And even though Sunny is not the main character, I wanted him to be in the book as a counterpoint to Hazel and Heidi and Coco, kids and teenagers around his age in the collection who were growing up in the 90s.

You write young people with such joy and nuance. I’m thinking about Heidi in “Ooh, the Suburbs” pushing her friend to meet up with an older woman because she has her own complicated desires, even though we as readers are a bit unnerved. In your story about a fifth-grade roleplay of the Oregon Trail, Coco becomes a pioneer. It seems all the queer characters in Rainbow Rainbow are pioneers. How is the experience of breaking out on one’s own both a gift and a curse?

Part of why I was motivated to write this book was because I wanted to write a book that didn’t exist when I was a child. I really relied on books as a child to show me the way, because there were no other role models for queerness in my life. Dorothy Allison and Carson McCullers and Harper Lee were some of my favorites. But even in their work, in those representations of queerness, you find these children who you can tell are queer but they never carry queerness into adulthood. That was the way those authors could get away with writing queerness, to portray a stage of queerness before it became defined by sexuality. But that left me with this feeling that, after childhood, the queer character — Scout, or whoever — just drops off a cliff. There’s no queer future for any of them. Because of the lack of role models in literature or in real life, you have to break out on your own. There’s that moment at the end of “Pioneer” where Coco is the only living classmate left in the in the pageant. Coco realizes they’re on their own with whatever is coming next. People can sublimate their true selves for varying amounts of time and suffer for varying amounts of time, but at some point there’s gonna be a moment where you have to reckon with what’s going on. And that is often a moment of loneliness.

So how does dialogue get at those kinds of untold stories or moments?

Dialogue can be really useful when there’s a character who’s not the point-of-view character and doesn’t get to have an interiority in the story. Lisa Persons, who you referenced before, is an adult behaving super amorally. I wanted to find her humanity, even as I didn’t like her and didn’t like how she was behaving. Since we don’t get to see what’s in her mind, we see through her dialogue and actions how she’s also struggling. She isn’t a blithely evil person, but she’s someone who’s probably had a horrible struggle with her own sexuality.

Adults in Rainbow Rainbow are often misguided, even when they try (“’I am the spirit of Personal Dissonance,” Ms. Harper said from under her wave of crispy silver hair.”’) There is, among these characters, “the instinct to bury a mess with another mess.” Where does that come from, and what new messes are made?

There are lots of examples of characters making a mess with another mess. People are trying to resolve their needs in these disorganized ways at critical moments in the stories. They’re in this crisis point or transitional moment. It might be a gender transition, or a transition to sobriety, or they’re post-break up. I am really interested in those moments of chaos when characters are still trying to figure out how to handle their desires.

Sometimes your characters, as in “Laramie Time” and “Counselor of My Heart” enact betrayal in an effort towards self-preservation. Other times, as with “Sunny Talks,” they rise to become their best selves for those they love, despite their own heartache. Whatever they do, they often do it in silence. How does the hidden and unseen, drive your fiction?

Somebody told me that pretty much everyone who grew up queer, especially in our generation, is a secretive person or has an ability for secrecy. You had to hide your desires and your feelings from your family and the people at school. I’d never thought about it before, but it’s very much true for me. I’m good at protecting my inner thoughts and asking questions of other people and hiding my feelings. The dramatic action in “Laramie Time” is a silent, secret one that we get to know about as the readers, but the other two crucial characters don’t know about it in the moment. Weaponizing that secrecy, or seeing how it can be made actionable in a dramatic moment of a story — that comes from a root of queerness for me.

What kinds of secrets does Rainbow Rainbow keep? From you or us?

Sometimes people realize things about the work that I haven’t. The thing you said about how all of the characters are pioneers — actually the original manuscript title was Pioneer, but I still hadn’t really thought about it that way. Readers bring something illuminating to the book, something I can’t.

If Rainbow Rainbow were a bar — knowing that in your motif it’s been a band and a drink and a number of other things — what would the vibe be?

I think the vibe would be funny and a little unhinged and fun. People dressed in strange bright outfits, kind of joking and laughing. But then in the corner someone would be silently crying (laughs).

(Laughs) I had a feeling somebody was going to be in the corner! I can totally see it! You’re a comic artist, too, and your series “Lesbian Cattle Dogs” is beloved. Which of the stories in Rainbow Rainbow would you draw?

It would probably be “Pioneer.” It’s not that it’s cartoony, but it goes to a weird place. There’s a moment when the pageant becomes reality and suddenly the children are this deranged version of a cluster of families on the Oregon Trail. It would be cool to show the characters shift, and to maybe depict Coco as changing into an actual ox instead of a kid wearing head gear and pieces of felt. The characters morph and the pageant becomes real.


Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin is out now.


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Annie Liontas

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