In a pandemic, in a time of unrest, in a world that constantly keeps marginalized people in crisis, how do we imagine an ideal future? How do we look past the obstacles immediately in front of us and consider a happy, queer world? How do we dream?
Editor and cartoonist H-P Lehkonen decided to create the anthology, The Dreams of Queer Utopia, with such questions in mind. In the comic’s introduction, he describes asking queer people on Twitter about the future they wanted to see, and receiving surprisingly simple answers. Those answers became the comics in the anthology, envisioning quiet lives in the countryside with loved ones, living without worry or fear, and even a world that hasn’t been destroyed by climate change. As Lehkonen points out, none of these dreams are expensive or outrageous. They are sustainable, and tend to focus on love and acceptance.
The Dreams of Queer Utopia
H-P Lehkonen (Editor-in-Chief) and Paju Ruotsalainen (Second Editor)
June 20, 2020
I am notoriously bad at thinking about the future. My partner frequently pokes fun at my inability to plan far ahead – to consider what our lives might be in five years, or three, or even what kind of vacation I might want to take in fall while it’s still summer. I don’t think I could have responded to Lehkonen’s tweet at all, because how can we possibly dream something so enormous and limitless? However, 14 comics creators responded to his call and created 13 beautiful works for this anthology. Reading each was inspiring. Many of the dreams felt familiar, all were reasonable, and several gave me hope that we can dream an achievable world.
Some of the comics in the anthology compare the current world to a possible future, but some present simple scenes pulled directly from possible utopias. Rachel Pang’s piece focuses on a child living on what can only be described as a gay commune. Pang’s illustrations are fairly simple, and the panels overwhelmingly have green backgrounds – green fields, green grass, green strips of land where crops are growing. Several of the pieces in The Dreams of Queer Utopia address climate change and sustainability and Pang’s is no exception; the people on the commune seem very focused on nature. The story of the comic, however, focuses on a child struggling to feel like they belong, or like they contribute something specific to society. However, over the course of the story they realize that work and value are not the same concepts. As a child still learning and growing, they have value simply because they exist.
This message about the value of life and anti-capitalism persists throughout the anthology. Lehkonen notes in their introduction that queer people don’t seem to want the huge, expensive weddings and luxury cruises now advertised to us on social media. Pang suggests that we simply want to live in harmony with each other and, through the visuals of the comic, that we want to live in harmony with nature.
Calvin Arium, a disabled, trans artist, echoes this in their work. Almost every panel of the comic involves either a faceless bureaucrat presenting Arium with a barrier – a long list of requirements for a name change, an intensely depressing chart comparing disability benefits, minimum wage and the poverty line, and a two-panel juxtaposition of a huge, complex subway map covered in intersecting lines, compared to a subway map for wheelchair users which consists of a single line on a white square of paper.
Only the panels at the beginning and end of the comic break this pattern of depicting barriers. At the beginning, Arium and his wheelchair are perched on a ledge in front of a clump grass and trees – presumably an urban park. In the second panel, he reveals that he’s showing us his dreaming self – “I’m always thinking ‘what if.’” Considering how heavily nature factors into the rest of the anthology, Arium’s choice of place to dream doesn’t feel accidental. At the end of the comic we see Arium at home, picking a grumpy stuffed bear out of a pile of stuffed animals. Home and nature are places to dream – places to feel safe, and to envision the fight required to achieve the utopia of a world without barriers.
Pang and Arium’s art styles are different – Arium’s comic is done entirely in blues and blacks, which contrast the overpowering green of Pang’s art, and his linework is heavier and more kinetic – but their comics are right next to each other in the anthology. They are part of the same story, and feel as if they could be part of the same world, as do all the other comics. These are compatible dreams, and that basic fact gives the anthology a very smooth flow, even when it addresses tougher topics.
Apila Pepita’s “A box is a box is a box” is one such comic that feels darker, and it hit me hardest. Pepita discusses the worry they feel in our current world – worry about how new people will treat them based on their gender identity and sexuality. This worry causes them to question how much they should hide, and when they can fully be themself. That feeling is so familiar, and often it’s not a person’s rejection or bigotry that is hardest to face – it’s the constant burden of worry itself.
The comic focuses on the image of person carrying a box full of what is likely their truth or self. This figure has no identifying features beyond a thick purple outline and a beautiful swirl of purple and white shading. In contrast, the box they carry is teal, with a little “Do not open” sticker with purple lettering stuck to the side. When Pepita draws the box’s contents, they are complicated – an envelope sealed with a heart, notes or letters, a cell phone, and a Barbie wearing what appears to be a binder, underwear with a question mark on the front, tattoos, facial hair, lipstick and a sparse covering of hair on its head. Scrolling to the following page, the reader immediately sees the text, “How would they react if I told them?” above an image of the purple figure showing the inner box to two blue figures.
The burden of worry, of carrying the box and being afraid to open it, is exhausting and draining. What Pepita asks at the end of the comic is so simple that it’s almost jarring: “maybe one day we could stop assuming each other’s gender or sexual orientation.” Maybe one day we could stop packing people into boxes, stamping labels on them and denying them the right to be different. Maybe one day we could relieve everyone of the burden of worry.
Being released from that burden fits neatly into my own vision of queer utopia – one I had forgotten until I read this anthology. My utopia would be a world where queer people can connect with each other and build community as easily as cis, straight people do. That world exists within the boundaries of The Dreams of Queer Utopia, and it exists alongside many other beautiful, compatible, and achievable dreams. I’m grateful that Lehkonen turned a simple tweet into a collection like this, that can bring hope in a dark time. Snag a copy from the Queerwebcomic.com gumroad.