Nearly a decade ago, Hugh Ryan needed to make a career choice between artist or writer. Wisely he chose writing. Since then he’s become one of the most published LGBT (or ’queer,’ as he prefers) writers in print and the web. EDGE spoke to Ryan about his passion for writing (and being queer).
Back in 2004, while leisurely wandering the streets of Berlin, Hugh Ryan realized that he had a decision to make. He had been in the German capital three months, and had yet to settle on his next career move. Ryan refused to entertain the notion of a career that didn’t allow him to travel or work in his pyjamas - a resolve that permitted two, rather bohemian options: artist or writer. Fast forward nearly ten years, and with numerous writing and editing credits to his name, it is clear that Ryan made the right decision. After all, he is, by his own admission, "a terrible artist."
Indeed, Ryan’s resume boasts experience in a number of genres: from travel reporting, to entertainment journalism, to ghost writing children’s books - he is a versatile, concise and engaging writer. At the heart of his work, however, is a dedication to the issue of social justice for queer subjects. Edge caught up with Ryan to discuss his blossoming career, LGBT issues and writing for the New York Times.
EDGE: So let’s start with some background - how did you get started? I know you completed a stint here at EDGE early in your career!
Hugh Ryan: Yeah, it feels kind of nice to be on the other side of an EDGE interview! (laughs) And well I’d always loved writing, but I never thought it would be a viable career option! Even as a kid I was very practical. I went to school originally for human development, and then I switched majors about 19 times and ended up as a feminist studies major. And it was only after a couple of years spent working as a youth worker and social worker that I decided that type of work wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though I thought it was very important work. So I took some time away from everything - I quit my job and moved to Berlin, Germany with my friend for four months. I spent all of my days walking around the city doing nothing, and by the third month I realized that I had to start doing something! (laughs) And I realized I wanted a job that enabled me to work in my pyjamas and explore the world, and that only really left two options: artist or writer. Of course I am a terrible artist, so the choice became easy - I settled on writer!
EDGE: You are an openly gay writer, and as with any "gay writer," there is the risk of becoming pigeonholed and restricted by that label. Is the term "gay writer" something you embrace, or do you find it limiting and frustrating?
Hugh Ryan: I embrace it 100 percent. I think there is the assumption that the mainstream media’s effort to ghettoize you or pigeonhole you is always necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t agree with that. I found very early on in my writing career that a lot of my stuff was very focused on the personal side of my life, and that necessitated being a ’gay’ writer (That said, I don’t love the label ’gay’. It isn’t a bad term, but I prefer to be known as a ’queer writer’) And then from there I always knew I had an interest in queer history and queer communities, and all of that led to me writing more and more about queer issues - issues which I felt I had a wealth of personal expertise and a wealth of personal knowledge that I had gained over the years.
EDGE: What are, arguably, the common themes in your work? I notice a focus on queer social justice, and social justice in general?
Hugh Ryan: Oh definitely- I think queer social justice is definitely at the heart of it, because that is the place where I know the most, and I have the most connections. I think it is a place where I can give the most back to the conversation. That said, I don’t write exclusively about queer issues. I am also a travel writer, restaurant critic and ghost writer etc. I have also written about social justice issues concerning other minorities. For example, I wrote recently about racism on reality television, but that is more from the perspective of a viewer. With queer social justice, well that is a topic I know intimately, so the criticism comes from a more personal place.
EDGE: You mentioned earlier that you write in other mediums - you are a travel writer and a copy editor for example. Is there a medium that you prefer working in? Or is there an equal balance?
Hugh Ryan: That is a tough call! I love the personal essays, and creative non-fiction. I love issues concerning poetics and the mechanisms of language, and I think the creative pieces are the areas where I really shine. I also really love writing kids’ books! I have worked as a ghost writer on a number of children’s books.
EDGE: Are you allowed to name those books?
Hugh Ryan: (laughs) No I am not unfortunately!! But I can tell you that they are well known and cherished books! I will admit that I wasn’t the originator of that series - I was extending someone else’s vision. That said, it was certainly exciting and rewarding.
A queer context
EDGE: You recently penned an incisive critique for the New York Times about the "AIDS in New York: The First Five Years" exhibit that recently closed at the New-York Historical Society. And I certainly agreed with you when you posited that "bad history has consequences." Indeed, it is often the case that historical narratives work to uphold the values of the dominant culture, and are therefore less inclusive of marginalized voices. So I want to ask you, if you were given license to overhaul the exhibit, what changes would you implement to make it more balanced and inclusive?
Hugh Ryan: That’s a great question! I would start by working with people who know a lot about the subject. Because, for example, so much of my writing has been inspired, influenced and enriched by talking to lots of different people. So with queer issues, it is important to start by talking to the queer community, because there is so much knowledge there concerning our collective history. It has been kept and recorded by queer people, and I think that is something we shouldn’t forget in our rush to record and present our history for a mainstream audience. It is incredibly important that we do record and make note of our history, and that it features in mainstream venues, but I think it needs to start from a queer place.
For me, also, I think there was maybe too much of a focus on the medical response to AIDS in the exhibit, and less of a focus on the personal side of the epidemic. I would also critically revise the curatorial pose: the director said they were aiming for ’neutrality’, and ultimately I think ’neutrality’ is non-existent, and I think the idea that something can be ’neutral’ is dangerous and destructive. I think we need to acknowledge and embrace the fact that AIDS is situated within a queer context.
EDGE: You are fascinated with queer history, but what are your thoughts on the current state of the global LGBT rights movement? This past summer has witnessed some monumental gains and crippling setbacks - for example the attainment of marriage equality in the UK and France was overshadowed by the enactment of anti-LGBT legislation in Russia.
Hugh Ryan: I think that the longer queer issues are in the public realm, and are talked about, the more complicated they become. I am interested in the way that "queerness," as a lived identity, has changed over time in this world, for different types of people. I think progress is measured differently for certain groups within the LGBT community. So for example, take the issue of gay marriage, I support it 100 percent and I think it is important that people have access to that institution.
However, I certainly don’t think it is the most important or pressing issue, because there are transgendered people, for example, who face violence and work place discrimination on a daily basis just for being themselves. And there is still very little, if any, legal protection for them. So I certainly think there are more significant issues that I want to see the queer community as a whole rallying around. I do think worldwide the picture varies between different countries, and I wish I had more knowledge about that. In this country, though, I would argue that the general picture is improving, despite the fact that we still have a long way to go.
EDGE: And have you encountered any struggle or discrimination in your career due to your sexual orientation?
Hugh Ryan: I may have. I have definitely had moments where I pitched articles about LGBT issues, and I have had publishers refuse because their respective publications have never dealt with queer concerns. But I like writing for publications in this niche community, because we have our own stories. To offer an example, when the Chelsea Manning story came out, and it was revealed that she was in the process of transitioning, I had people in the mainstream media ask me "wow did you know?" And I was like "of course I knew", because it was a queer story, and I had already heard about it - it was a story pertinent to our community. So I guess in other words, being in a niche community can certainly help you in this business!