Every three months, among takeaway flyers, NHS letters, those brown HM Revenue & Customs envelopes, and circulars from estate agents enthusing that there’s no shortage of people eager to buy my rented flat from my landlord, a grey envelope with a neon yellow address sticker slides through my letterbox.
Inside is a pale pink, text-only newsletter: Modern Queers. It’s filled with an array of personal ads, stories, recommendations, replies to previous articles, skill swaps, reviews, recipes, ISOs and HMUs (In Search Ofs and Hit Me Ups – each issue opens with an abbreviation key that reads like a love child language of print personal ads of the past and rapid digital communications of the present). Everything you read is gathered through (free to submit) open calls and invitation.
Modern Queers was born in the depths of Covid lockdowns, when its founders – Hannah Aspinall, Jacob Cain, Rachael Clerke, Jen Conway and Danny Prosser – were living together in Bristol.
“One night we were talking about how much we love newsletters,” Hannah tells me, “and earlier that evening Rachael had called us all ‘modern queers’, which made us laugh, and then think: that’s a really good name!”
It sounds like Modern Queers arrived almost fully formed as an idea, in a magical moment round the kitchen table. Can it have been that easy?
“It kind of was!” says Hannah, still seeming surprised. “That conversation about the name coincided with us thinking about the newsletters circulated by the LGBTQIA+ community from the 1960s to 1990s, such as Lesbian Connection. We said, wouldn’t it be great if there was a newsletter like that now? We could call it Modern Queers.”
Rachael, an artist who has created previous postal projects in their own practice, adds: “Everyone round that table is good at getting things done and we had the skills between us to make it happen: Jen’s a designer and has access to cheap printing facilities, Hannah and Jacob do lots of community organising, Danny worked as an arts producer. We also had plenty of time.”
The decision to create a print newsletter came from a desire to make something tangible and offline at a time of physical alienation, Zoom call exhaustion and the digital overwhelm of an internet that has “got too big”. In contrast, Rachael cites the noughties internet as a place where “you could find your people, your community and learn about anything, which is especially important for people who are marginalised for whatever reason. The idea of the internet as a utopian space is something that a newsletter served before that – you could be part of a club, receiving and sharing information. Modern Queers is a desire to have a community that arrives, that you can hold, that is a different way of communicating.”
And people love post. By the time the first issue was ready to send out in January 2021, Modern Queers had 173 subscribers; by issue 10 in May 2023 there were 619, mostly gained through word of mouth. Another 500 copies are sent to queer community spaces, hairdressers and bookshops: places where people go who may not have come across it before or who might not be able to afford a subscription (£8 per year UK, ~£12 per year international; available as A4, A3/large print and audio).
Every aspect of Modern Queers is considered and thoughtful, from its design and collaborative making, to its understanding of queer histories. “We approached it like making an artwork,” says Rachael, “but I’m not sure if it is an artwork. It’s more like activism and about providing a community service. And it’s fun.”
Regular sections include the inimitable Mystic Leg, whose cheeky column includes spells and witchcraft (‘guarantees all your wishes come true’), a ritual for cleaning your sex toys and solid advice like ‘share food… litter pick… join a union.’ Meanwhile Ancient Queers is “a niche history corner for queer people whose histories have often been erased or not recorded or heard,” Hannah explains. Amongst the illuminating profiles are civil rights activist Ernestine Eckstein, community archive Black & Gay, Back in the Day, the Women’s Car Repair Collective and Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man who kept diaries for 30 years.
This focus seems particularly important now, “with the current media frenzy around trans people, gender, sexuality, and the backlash around wokeism,” Rachael notes. “As a queer person you can feel like you’re just being invented, or that you’re a ‘pioneer’, which is exhausting. Because those histories have been underwritten, it’s so affirming when you find someone from a time before you were born that you identify with. That’s really important in terms of feeling that what you are isn’t new or wrong or a fad. There have always been people like us, living in different ways.”
Each issue uses a different title font, made by a queer designer (*see call at end of interview). Issue 10 features Marsha, a typeface inspired by the sign that once hung outside New York’s Stonewall Inn, and named after transgender activist Marsha P Johnson. Most fonts are named after queer people or events; several issues have used fonts from Nat Pyper’s A Queer Year of Love Letters, while in Issue 6, thin abstracted letters drifted across the pages: a specially made type created by Jen from pubic hair samples provided by each Modern Queers member.
This playful, subversive and collaborative approach runs through the project. As the newsletter readership has grown, the DIY ethos remains. Aside from the project admin, each issue of Modern Queers is made in two days. Rachael explains: “It’s very lo-fi. We print all the submissions, cut them up into individual strips of paper, pile them in the middle of the table then go round, picking one at a time and reading it to the group.”
Hannah adds: “Our selection is about tone more than quality because we want the newsletter to be varied, interesting, funny; to have a bit of everything.”
After Jen completes the design and layout, there’s proof reading, printing, stapling, folding and stuffing envelopes. Even posting is a collaborative activity: “We go to the postbox together and fill it to the top,” Hannah smiles.
2022 saw the first Modern Queers event in Bristol. Conceived as “a live newsletter” it featured a “queer nail bar, haircuts, an obscure quiz and reggaeton cèilidh,” Hannah and Rachael tell me. “It was a way to round up our favourite people and put on a night. It was great. People even came who we didn’t know.”
This sense of modesty is part of the success of the project and perhaps its future. The newsletter will continue, with the aim of becoming more international, but the group hope to pass it on in future to “another group of queers, maybe somewhere else [outside Bristol]”. They are currently thinking about how to set that up sustainably, such as by raising money to buy a printer so they can hand over the whole project, including its means of production.
In the meantime, they want you to keep sending in submissions. “The open call submissions make the newsletter what is it and we love reading them,” Hannah says. “The old newsletters would include people writing in with whatever they wanted to say. Many people make Modern Queers by contributing to it – that makes us proud of and in love with the newsletter. If you’re queer, submit. Anything that’s in your head. We want to hear it all”.
Find out more about how to read and submit to Modern Queers
The deadline to submit to Modern Queers #11 is: 9 August 2023
If you’re a queer type designer or have a suggestion for a queer-designed font for use in a future issue of Modern Queers, get in touch @modern_queers