S.E. Fleenor, Monika Estrella Negra and Sara Century, the founders of the Denver-based story-a-day anthology Decoded Pride, were tired of toning down their pop-culture critiques to appease corporate sponsors at their previous jobs. At first the three set out to create their own independent critique platform, where they could finally speak freely about queer and trans representation in comics, movies, television and more.
"Sara, Monika and I all used to work for SyFY Wire's feminist vertical Fangrrls, and they shuttered it in November during the pandemic, but even before that we knew that because it was owned by a massive corporation, a lot of our articles and stories and conversations were getting watered down or reconfigured," Fleenor says. "So originally we thought we would start our own critique place, but then we were like, 'What makes us happiest?' And it's fiction, in its many forms."
Fleenor and Century began with a podcast called Bitches on Comics, which Negra has now joined as well. "We wanted to create spaces where queer and trans nerds could feel safe. So we started with the podcast, and we both felt like we didn't have great outlets for talking about comics that weren't geared toward a very cis-het audience," says Fleenor of Bitches on Comics. "We're both creative writers, as is Monika, and we felt like, 'Why are we only doing this, when we also do a ton of writing?' How could we bring our editorial skills and, for Sara, her illustrator skills, to bear on a fiction project?"
A friend suggested to Fleenor that they try some sort of "story-a-day" project, and the idea for Decoded Pride, an annual digital anthology that releases one story or comic each day of Pride month, was born. Decoded Pride only publishes speculative fiction written by queer and trans folks, in hopes of reclaiming Pride for the queer community.
"I think the truth is that we're really frustrated with how Pride has been co-opted by Toyota, and Wells Fargo, and the cops. It feels like everybody is cashing in on something that's actually ours," explains Fleenor. "So we thought, what would it mean to create a space where every day, people got to hear directly from a queer or trans creator about the speculative fiction they want to create, whether it be with comics or stories?"
Last June, the first issue of <i>Decoded Pride</i> was published online, proving that there is an audience for a publication dedicated exclusively to queer speculative fiction. They continued to expand by founding Queer Spec, an online publishing platform for queer creators and readers that offers an alternative to mainstream publishing sites. Now the team is back for Issue #2, with six comics and twenty-four illustrated short stories, all by queer creatives.
The title, Decoded Pride, recognizes that historically, a publication like this has not been possible.
"The history of queer people and queer characters in literature is one of coding. There's this multiplicity to coding, which is, sometimes that's a queer creator doing the best they can in a mainstream situation to bring queer characters to bear. The other side is, from the Victorian era forward, if you were queer explicitly on the page, you had to die. Queer people are punished. That is the point: to make queerness synonymous with being punished," Fleenor says of the significance of the publication's name. "'Decoded' is saying you don't have to pretend, you don't have to hide things, you don't have to couch it, you can have coding and explicit queerness on the page together, and those are some of the best stories."
Decoded Pride's intent is twofold: It's not just about creating a space by and for queer folks. It also aims to dismantle the way queer identity has been pigeonholed into a series of labels.
"It's really rare to have a project where you can say every person is queer or trans. And we pair that with, we don't care if you're out. You don't have to be out, you just have to be comfortable with that being part of how we talk about what we do," clarifies Fleenor. "People may infer if you're publishing with us that you're queer or trans, but I like that we're not like, 'Check this box and tell us what flavor of queer you are.' You bring your queerness, you bring your trans-ness, and we will meet you there."
"As a bisexual person, I just know that that's one of the stigmatizing things when it comes to who is allowed in our community," adds Negra. "Which is a bit oxymoronic, because in essence the queer community has always been a space for people who were outliers of society. Anything that is outside the norm of cis-heteronormative life, you probably have a place in that world. I feel like for the people in our community to perpetrate the same types of biases that are already from the main oppressors, is just like Stockholm syndrome in a weird way, and it's eroding our community."
Building a supportive and safe community for queer nerds, especially last year during the isolation of COVID-19, was an important part of Decoded Pride's mission.
"I feel like projects like this are really good as far as creating community and reaching those people who probably don't have access to these communities like people in big cities do," says Negra. "The wide range of creatives we have...they're from all over, and it's really beautiful to have that type of interconnectedness. Sometimes social media can be good for some things, and that's providing visibility."
By building queer community and increasing visibility for queer artists, Decoded Pride pushes back against a world hellbent on stifling queer stories.
"I keep thinking about the many forms of resistance we have at this time, and I definitely believe in weaponizing our creative power and using it to let people know that we aren't going anywhere. Pride was a riot; it wasn't a parade. We were out there literally fighting for our lives," Negra continues. She posits that being marginalized from society draws queer folks to speculative fiction, which includes science fiction, horror and fantasy: "I feel like that's the main reason why we're so attracted to speculative fiction, is because we can control the narrative, and we can actually envision a future with ourselves in it. Because there are so many novels and stories that just do not include us, so by writing these stories, it's kind of manifesting this future where our existence is validated, and saying that we deserve to have the same opportunities as the people that oppress us. That, in itself, is an important part of resistance."
To avoid their message being edited, censored or diluted, Decoded Pride is independently run and funded. But Negra reminds us that the queer community's biggest game-changers have never relied on corporate support, so queer creatives shouldn't, either.
"Ultimately with filmmaking and literature, the powers-that-be are very stingy with their resources if you don't dance to the beat of their drum," Negra says. "I say this all the time to people: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did not have grants. They did not have nonprofits backing them. They literally had a brick, and the support of their girls, and they were like, 'We are going to take up space as we need to.'
"I feel like with taking that spirit into the media industry and whatnot, I feel like we're kind of doing the same thing in that spirit of being like, 'We are here, we are taking up space, we are creatives, and our work deserves to be seen and heard,'" she adds.
Decoded Pride is not a publication focused on politics, but that doesn't mean it isn't political. To Fleenor, queer liberation is inherently tied to our political system. "Sometimes I think people are surprised that what we have to say is so political, is so anti-capitalist, is so anti-white supremacy, but that's actually what we started with," she says. "We said we want anti-capitalist work."
As an independently funded publication, they do have to sell subscriptions in order to produce Decoded Pride.
"The hard part is, Sara, Monika and I — none of us are trust-fund babies. None of us have deep pockets. None of us are lawyers. We're all creatives. So we have to charge for Decoded," Fleenor explains. "Which I think is hard for some people, and we do find lots of ways to make it very affordable after the point. For instance, we do eBooks, which we make available to libraries, so you can check out the eBook for free. We do sales leading up to it. We do flash sales. We'll probably do one at the end of Pride month, on the last day, where you can get the whole issue for a very small amount."
One of the main reasons they do charge for Decoded Pride is that they want to make sure they're able to pay contributors a fair wage. Decoded Pride's relationship with its creators is informed by Fleenor, Negra and Century's own experiences as queer creative writers.
"There are lots of publications out there that will publish you and pay you nothing or very little," Fleenor says. "We pay pro or semi-pro rates. We actually pay more for our cover art than many professional comics studios. Because we are all creatives, and we want people to feel like they're being valued. We don't want to give queer and trans people scraps."
In addition to better pay, having a creative space run by editors who are creatives themselves makes for a more open and transparent editorial process. Fleenor elaborates: "It's a collaborative editorial process, and what I'm hearing from creators is that that's very different. It's our job to fix it together. It's our job to figure out what to say together. If you disagree with an edit, tell us why. Having been edited many times, that is not the approach that I've received, which is part of why we choose to be different."
Decoded Pride wants to publish all different kinds of queer stories, not just the queer narratives perpetuated in mainstream media. "I love how tropey our work can be. I love how original our work can be. I love that truly, our uniting theme is that these are the stories queer and trans people want to tell," Fleenor says of Decoded Pride's wide variety of stories. "We have angry pieces, happy pieces, all the things in between, because we don't want to be part of replicating the systems of power that say you have to be punished or you have to be perfect. I see that dichotomy a lot: Eiher bad, bad things have to happen to queer people, or they have to be exemplary and never make a mistake. And that's not what's in these pages. It's messy. It's heartfelt. It's real."
While they never reject a story for not fitting a certain idea of queerness, Decoded Pride does unfortunately have to reject the majority of submissions due to the sheer number it receives. For the 2021 issue, the team received 160 submissions for only thirty spots.
"Our first level of culling is: 'Is the story brought to bear in a way that's respectful and with good storytelling?' Depending on the year, we've dropped probably 25 percent of stories that don't quite meet that banner," says Fleenor. "We're open to homophobia, transphobia, explorations of all that pain, explorations of racism, which we see in many of the pieces, but it's a discussion of it. It's not someone being racist on the page with no comment. The reason we turn that down is, one, it's offensive. But it's also bad writing."
Negra agrees, and does a sensitivity reading of every potential story to make sure it upholds Decoded Pride's principles. "I also did sensitivity readings, just to make sure everything is in order, because S.E. and Sara are both white, so it would make sense that I know things that they probably did not catch. So I look and say, 'Let's revise this,' to make sure nothing is inappropriate. Because we firmly believe that characters should be messy, but instead of reinforcing the ideology behind it, we're actually dissecting it and proving that that character is actually in the wrong, and we're seeing the process of transformation."
She continues: "I think that that's what makes a good story, is to dissect the things in our life and process it and come to a general conclusion as to how we can do things better, or how we can look at our own lives and figure out what areas we need to grow in. Our community is very small, relatively, and it's always changing. There are always new things to talk about, and I feel like art helps process those experiences."
Fleenor, Negra and Century have lots of ideas on how to continue their efforts to create inclusive spaces for queer and trans creatives. They already have plans for Decoded Pride Issue #3, plus a possible accompanying series of longer pieces. Fleenor hopes that they can also gather funds to create a special October issue, which would feature dark fantasy and horror stories related to queer history, since October is LGBTQ History Month and culminates in Halloween.
This fall, they will debut a narrative podcast called Tales of the Sapphire Bay Hotel, with episodes written by Fleenor, Negra and Century, as well as Decoded Pride's submissions manager, Alex Wright.
For Fleenor, one thing that's certain is that Decoded Pride's founders will continue to forge ahead with the same passion they began with: "We all do this with the whole love of our hearts and souls, and a deep belief in what we're doing."
Decoded Pride Issue #2 is available now with a $14.99 subscription, and Issue #1 can be purchased or found at libraries carrying eBooks. You can also check out the Bitches on Comics podcast and Queer Spec for more information.
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