My experience of being queer is relatively mundane as far as these things go. Sure, I had the isolation of being one of the only queer people in my small Midwestern town growing up, and sure the parents would hit me with the occasional wish that I wasn’t gay or statement that “they’ve never gone through this before” to justify something that upset me—but I’ve had a pretty straightforward experience aside from that. Three relationships, several hook-ups—nothing too complicated, and the only long term partnership is the one I’m still in. I’ve been without mutual understanding, but I’ve never been without friends. I didn’t really go through much more trauma or ennui than one expects as a queer teen. When a very sweet friend of mine took me to a queer teen support group, in fact, I felt like I didn’t belong. Like I was invading a space, butting in on those who really needed it.
This all goes to say that no experience of being queer is the same, and that often because of how mundane and mainstream acceptable my queerness has manifested and felt, I find myself not fully appreciating the queerness of others. With those who have had a more difficult time being accepted, who have had a more complex journey into feeling comfortable with their own feelings, in their own body, in how and why they share that body with others.
Which brings me to Joseph Osmundson’s Inside/Out. Listening to the podcast Food 4 Thot, of which Osmundson is a co-host, I feel the most connected to his views and opinions: A cis white guy who seems like he can “pass” as straight when needed and who appreciates David Foster Wallace kind of despite himself. But much diverges from this foundation. In reading Inside/Out I was taken into a rumination on queerness that I haven’t personally had to go through. This book humbles me and causes me to reconsider a lot about what I take for granted in my everyday understanding of relationships, self-worth, self-image, and life in general as a queer cis white man.
It also, incidentally, has the single-most heartbreaking butternut squash recipe I’ve ever read.
Osmundson brings us into a reflection on a past relationship of his with no clear victims or victimizers—one in which sexuality is beautiful and destructive, in which repulsion and desire are intermingled. The way Osmundson writes about his body shifts his insecurities into strength, or at least bravery, finding power through candor, as he lays his insides out, exploring his whiteness, submissiveness, the need and attraction to people and experiences that may be painful but that seem impossible to pull away from. That romanticizing pain and toxicity is sometimes the way we best learn to cope with it.
This is not something I’m particularly familiar with, as I’ve had relatively uncomplicated romantic and sexual relationships in my life, and what little messiness I have had I managed to circumnavigate with the questionably masculine traits of emotional unavailability and misguided ego. (Which I’m working on, another story for another day.) I mean, I achieved something like sexual liberation in college, at a small liberal arts school where all the queer boys inevitably fucked in an increasingly complicated web of one-offs and relationships. I never experienced Grindr culture nor rural queer life nor urban queer life. I haven’t been with anyone with whom it was consistently unclear whether or not we should stay together, whether or not we uplift each other or bring each other down, and this is exactly the type of relationship Osmundson explores in his work.
The structure of Inside/Out reminds me of alt-lit, but Osmundson graciously knows how to avoid the inelegant, lazy, stream-of-consciousness rambling of alt-lit and instead makes something actually good. Simple, short paragraphs that each get one key idea across, with few chapters longer than a page. He incorporates feelings that stem from song lyrics and social media posts, the kinds of syrupy or petty or destructive emotions that we ordinarily try to suppress, too embarrassed to admit out loud. The writing feels spontaneous yet exacting. One touch I enjoyed, a sort of literary equivalent of sampling—whenever someone has captured something Osmundson need to communicate, he doesn’t recreate it with his own words, but incorporates quotes as from Kiese Laymon or the eponymous Diana Ross song. Osmundson knows when he does and does not have the authority to communicate something to the reader, and when necessary he defers to a different source. And taken into context they combine into such a powerful whole.
Inside/Out is both light and heavy. It is a slim volume that never dwells on one facet of its subject for too long, for that it’s an easy read. Yet it’s also brutal, laying out truths and observations that I’m still dwelling on, returning in my mind, feeling Osmundson’s prose viscerally. I can only imagine the difficulty of actually writing it, much less getting it published.
As I see Inside/Out take its place on my queer studies bookshelf, I see something that can’t really be demonstrated in the shelf’s more dense, academic, impersonal work. Those books have their place, certainly, but Osmundson has translated something urgent and important about queer experience that I sort of knew logically but never considered as much as I should have emotionally. Even the more lengthy autobiographical books don’t offer the same impact, don’t communicate with the same gutpunch. Understanding Osmundson through this work, insofar as an outsider can, has realigned me in some way, reminding me and revealing to me of the myriad ways we explore queerness in ourselves and with others. And for that I am extremely grateful.