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Jack Guinness is speaking slowly, deliberately, as he explains why he wrote his new book, The Queer Bible. “A lot of LGBTQ+ people have had to hide who they are, hide a really integral part of themselves, and that can be really traumatising. Queer identity has been straightwashed, deleted from the history books; part of this is about bringing those stories out into the light.”
A model and virtually a professional party attendee, people tend to have preconceptions when they hear the name Guinness — but the 39-year-old, who comes from the “vicar side of the family, not the brewing or the banking” — has in the last few years found purpose beyond the posing with which he launched his career. In 2018, he came out publicly as he launched a website dedicated to LGBTQ+ history, the site that gives the book its name. This book is an extension of some of the things the Cambridge English graduate learned at the helm of it. “Everyone kept asking me who commissioned it, who edited it and pulled it together?” he laughs. “But it’s all me — I’m a control freak!”
The Bible — the vicar’s son knows he’s being slyly subversive — is a collection of 20 essays that are incredibly personal. They explore the multifacets of the queer experience, with contributors including Elton John, who rhapsodises about Divine, the drag queen star of seminal 1972 film Pink Flamingos, Munroe Bergdorf, who lyrically explains how the film Paris is Burning helped her better understand herself, and Paris Lees, paying homage to British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. Each of the essays do what all brilliant essays should: use their subject as a jumping off point from which to uncover something else entirely.
Take Mae Martin on Tim Curry. Martin talks Curry and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it’s really all about the relevance — or the irrelevance — of labels. Martin says they want “the freedom not to be labelled”, a point that Guinness took a moment to process. “Mae’s so brilliant and funny but my first response was: ‘oh no, you’ve just ruined the whole book’ because I think in part it’s about the need for labels, how important it is that we name who we are, for legal protections and so on, but their essay challenges that. It’s such an interesting premise, and a really challenging premise too.” Throughout the editing, he found himself considering new perspectives constantly.
Guinness contributes too, ostensibly to lavishly pour on praise for the omnipresent influence of RuPaul, and in doing so opening up about the anguish and anxiety he felt as a teenager coming to terms with who he was. It was, he says, in part just being a teenager suffering at school — “we all need to find our tribe” — but rooted in other things too. “I suffered with really terrible, debilitating depression and anxiety, I was really badly bullied at school — and I had a lot of internal conflict about being gay, a lot of shame. Being from a religious background only exacerbated that. I went to a very, very, very dark place.”
Therapy followed while he was still a teenager — “it’s really just so important that we de-stigmatise it in British culture, men especially are really bad at talking about their feelings and it’s actually killing them” — as did long talks with his family. “It’s been a process, definitely, but I’m really proud that we’ve got to a place of mutual respect and love. Not everyone gets the rosy, Hollywood thing of the parents who just say: ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine, that’s great’. I’ve seen that in my own life.”
Pride is a celebratory event with roots in an uprising. That sums up the complexity of being queer
There is, Guinness adds, “a huge amount of pain in my own personal experience” but he recoils from any suggestion that he’s had it bad. “I come from a comfortable position as a very privileged, white, cis man,” he says. “I’m not saying ‘woe is me!’ — I couldn’t. I look at some of my contemporaries, especially at members of our trans community, who face an astonishing amount of abuse. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black, trans woman and all the challenges and triumphs that go along with that.
“But,” he adds, “reading Monroe’s story, of all the things that freed her to be who she is, I can understand it somewhat, or at least a little more. I’m a humble reader: I’m here to learn from these heroes.”
His hurting essay refers to coming out as “breaking out”, and he speaks with a flat disappointment about the demands of modelling agencies and their impacts — “I allowed myself to be put in this kind of ‘straight’ jacket, where I performed a very narrow, stereotypical type of masculinity. External forces limiting who you are is really damaging, but when you find yourself doing it to yourself, it’s really confusing”. But he joyfully adds that he landed the biggest campaign of his career, cast as the face of Levi’s, just days after telling the world he was gay.
“I remember I was riding down Oxford Street on the Levi’s float, DJ-ing to tens of thousands of people,” he recounts with a sense of pride and a certain glee. “And I played Vogue by Madonna. I saw straight parents with their queer kids, I saw drag queens and kings, all of London in all its glorious diversity, all Vogue-ing. It was surreal, like a movie scene, and made me so proud to be a Londoner.”
The reasons for the book, then, are contradictory. On the one hand, it is written for 14-year-old Jack Guinness — the boy in all that pain — to offer assurances, lessons, hope. On the other, he’s put it together to broaden queer writing and to shine a spotlight on stories that have been ignored — though he stresses over and again that it’s merely a “snapshot” of queer culture, and that it would be impossible to be exhaustive.
At the heart of it, he says, he shares some motivations and contradictions with the festival itself: “We’re coming up to Pride weekend now and yes, that’s a celebratory event, but it has its roots as a political uprising and I think that sums up the complexity of what it is to be queer. There’s a huge amount of celebration but also a huge amount of pain.”
That complexity which fuels the book and, it seems, Guinness himself is something you sense he has been processing since he was a boy. Guinness believes there must be room for everyone. “The book is really about intersectionality: it’s about celebrating, no matter what your gender, no matter what your sexuality. It’s about celebrating the things that we have in common but also our differences and holding those two things together.”
The Queer Bible is out now, harpercollins.co.uk
Jack Guinness wears pleated large trousers (£465) and long jacket (£740), both Ami; amiparis.com
The Evening Standard’s Stories Festival, in association with Netflix, is taking place in London on 24th - 26th September. Tickets for the festival are on sale now. Head to stories.standard.co.uk to book and find out more about the line-up.