Chelsey Johnson’s ‘Stray City’ Challenges Lesbian Identity

Chelsey Johnson didn’t intend to write a book about a lesbian who gets pregnant by a dudeit just happened that way.

That would also be a reductive way of looking at her debut novel, Stray City, which takes place in 1998 in Portland, Oreg. Like many Portlandians, protagonist Andrea Morales is a transplant. She left her ultra-conservative family behind to create a new chosen family and community with the queers and punks of the Pacific Northwest. It’s when she ends up vibing with Ryan, a cis straight guy who is also the drummer of a local ban. Their relationship is heightened by its secrecy, as Andrea can’t and won’t divulge details to any of her friends in the Lesbian Mafia.

A baby, thoughthat’s hard to hide.

But back to how this story began―as a short one about Ryan, but who lived in rural, freezing, Northern Minnesota.

“I think at the time I was homesick from northern Minnesota where I was from, so I created this character who would just ditch everything and go there and when he was there, I thought, ‘What did he leave behind?” Johnson tells INTO. “And I thought ‘Oh, how can I kind of raise the stakes for the character? So I had him ditch a girlfriend, but then I made her a pregnant girlfriend.

“But then I was so bored because I was writing a straight story about like this white guy doing something wrong, and I didn’t care,” she continued, “so I thought ‘What if the girlfriend is a lesbian?’ And then the story got interesting to me.”

Johnson operates under the idea of scary as exciting; fueled by a kind of third-rail storytelling, she had to ignore the impending opposition early on. Because despite the discussions and wider acceptance of sexual fluidity in 2018, queer women (especially those that are strongly lesbian-identified) have been tired of stories that have lesbians going back to men (The Kids Are All Right as an infamous example). In Andrea’s case, she’s peraps even more offensive in that she’s already lesbian-identified but now giving a man a try, as some well-meaning mothers and fathers might suggest.

Most mainstream literature and post-Hayes Code Hollywood depictions of lesbians have come with punishing implications for women who love and stay with other womendeath, prison, or ending up with a man. And in the early aughts, a new kind of acceptable lesbian emerged, especially on mainstream television: the pregnant lesbian. (Or, in some case’s, the post-pregnancy gay mom.) This desexualization of lesbians was a bizarre epidemic that culminated with One Big Happy, NBC’s one and only sitcom with a lesbian lead whose storyline was that she was pregnant by her straight guy friend.

All this to say that despite these well-trodden tropes, Johnson manages to do something different in Stray City, and that is to explore what happens when a self-identified lesbian engages in a surprising, self-torturing relationship with a man; the internal and external conflict and judgements of ones own identity and the impact it can have on others. It is a plot-driven character study, an insider’s view of a community fused by a common shared quality but divided on the qualifications for membership.

“I used to be,” Johnson says when I ask if she is concerned about the reaction from those who might hate the book on principle. “I’ve kind of gotten over it. But when I first was writing this book, I had this invisible army of like queer theorists and, you know, lesbian accountability police on my shoulder chastising me for like some kind of weird sellout narrative.”

She decided that her “feeling a little contrary about it” meant it was something worthy of exploration. As a queer-identified woman herself, Johnson isn’t attempting to prove the lesbian identity invalid―instead, she solidifies that self-exploration is integral to identity, despite outsiders’ weighing in or challenging it altogether.

“I realized if it was something that was making me anxious, it was probably worth it to pursue it and not just follow like a really safe classic queer narrative of the coming out story or a coming of age story,” she says. Johnson says she found those “well-trodden,” and was inspired to try something more challenging, which Stray City certainly is.

Johnson recently moved to LA for new gig writing on Hulu’s Search & Destroy, a series based on Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Despite having moved out of Portland several years ago (originally to teach at her alma mater, Oberlin), Johnson wanted her set her story there among a fictionalized group of people she knew well. And like the origins of the book, in depicting Ryan’s eventual relocation to Minnesota, Johnson wanted to live inside Portland from afar.

“I think it’s because it’s where I lived and it’s what I loved and it was the queer community that I knew the best,” she says. “Writing about it allowed me to be there.”

Still, Stray City is “one of the least autobiographical things I’ve written,” Johnson says.

“In terms of things that happen in Andrea’s story is not my own at all, but there’s all kinds of elements in her story that are similar to things that happened to me or to friends of mine,” she says. “So the first story is not mine but the world is definitely mine, and the voice is more my own.”

Because Johnson is drawing from her experiences inside Portland’s lesbian and queer community (more specifically, a sub-subculture of sorts that are the poor, punk, activist lesbians who were more likely to put on subversive DIY art shows than play a game of softball), that means touching some of the less flattering things that can happen; the communal dirty laundry that isn’t often explored publicly because there’s already enough outsider oppositionwhy offer anything for further ridicule or disdain? Queer women who read Stray City will recognize some of this insider baseball―the incestuous facets and catty conclusions we can make about one another in such an insular community, especially one that exists in a relatively small city like Portland. Andrea’s disillusionment with her exes dating one another, feeling like she’s already explored all her options for love, and drunk boredom coincide with her spark of attraction to the Ryan, one that she is loathe to explore at first, but eventually decides is worth the consequences.

“It was excruciating,” Johnson says. “It was excruciating for the first couple years especially. And I would write a chapter and then I would share it―my partner and I would trade writing and she would read it and she would be like, ‘This is bad. You’re being too nice to people.’ It was gutless, you know? It was like advocacy writing, and that’s so boring.

“I was scared,” she continues. “I felt very protective of the community. I was always worried―this is also maybe a very ’90s fear―that I was like selling out. Like, ‘Who’s this for? Who’s going to read this? What are they going to see about us? What are they going to think about us?’ both the queer community and then the mainstream straights. Either way I felt like I was doomed.”

She’s not wrong to feel that way. I know in writing about this book in any way other that condemning it that, simply based on the premise alone, there will be a contingent of vilifiers who won’t even read Stray City, but decide it’s a betrayal. Yet, we’ve also come to a time when there are other stories being told about us, by us, for us that perhaps Stray City is not just timely, but imperative. As some lesbians worry that the identity is fading away in favor of others or challenged by the expansion and nuance of gender, that fear can too often manifest into dangerous ideals that become transphobic, biphobic, and of a Second Wave separatist mindset that a more progressive set is adamantly against. (See: The end of MichFest.)

The discussions already being had about sexual and gender identities and subsequent intersections on the internet, at dinner tables, in caucuses or within organizations or political spheres are all endless. But the truth of the matter is there is no one way to be a lesbian. There are no rules or qualifications, other than, by definition, being a woman who loves women. This is generally believed to mean loving women exclusively, but, like most things in life, there are exceptions to the rule in such a grey area, especially when it comes to something so inherently personal (and, therefore, political).

Despite all of the policing and proverbial pitchforks, there’s no judge with a gavel coming down to decide if a woman’s relationship (before or after claimed lesbianism) with a cis man (boyfriend, husband, random stranger in a bar one night) makes you less of a dyke. Being a gold star doesn’t make you more of one. Ultimately, identifying as a lesbian and then meeting a man who makes her question everything she ever though to be true about herself doesn’t make Andrea less of a lesbian, unless she decides that for herself. But as we don’t exist in a vacuum, and Andrea’s life is populated by a group of staunch and steadfast lesbians with a capital L, her self-examination comes accompanied with a fear of being disowned by yet another family for who she chooses to sleep with.

Stray City is about that relationship to self and community. It’s about self-discovery; the internal research done to ask “What am I? Who am I? Who gets to decide?”

Still, this idea that a self-identified lesbian would ever question her own lesbianism might enrage some who see it as a fixed identity; those who are threatened by how other women live their own lives and perform their own identities, especially if it’s a shared one. Others simply might believe lesbians who engage in sexual or romantic relationships with men should identify differently, as bisexual or queer, perhaps. (See: Tina on Seasons 3 and 4 of The L Word.)

The bisexual identity isn’t one that Andrea seems to consider much in Stray City. Her friends and the people around her are quite biphobic (which some lesbians surely can be), but Johnson hopes readers will see those are thoughts of the characters and not her own. She welcomes the idea of the novel being referred to “a bisexual novel” or “queer novel” despite lesbian being used heavily throughout.

“I guess as long as people read it, I don’t care what they call it,” she says.

It’s not difficult to understand why some lesbians would feel threatened by a story that, from a bird’s eye view, is about a lesbian who has her lesbianism challenged by a relationship with a man; one that ends with a baby. Without spoiling anything too much, suffice to say Stray City is not only that story. In fact, the “lesbian reader” Johnson had in mind while writing the book will likely find Andrea’s journey one with more juicy complexities than previously offered in punishing pulp novels, prison shows, or other stories of pregnant lesbians. Instead, she exposes the continued relevant conversations and arguments, and the very real relationships had within the lesbian community today.

“I realized that if I was going to write about it honestly, and in a way that was entertaining to like queer readers honestly, I had to also not be afraid to poke fun or critique or point out the flaws,” Johnson says. “I mean what do lesbians love to do more than anything than like point out each other’s flaws? Police each other’s behavior and discuss what people are doing wrong? So I decided to put that in there.”

Stray City is available now from Harper Collins..


Trish Bendix

Trish Bendix is the Managing Editor of INTO.

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