Redefining Deviance: The Skinny at 10

Deviance celebrates The Skinny's double figures by chatting to the section's very first Editor, Nine, about controversy, internet journalism and editing the section in a pre-Twitter universe...

Feature by Kate Pasola | 12 Oct 2015

Ten years ago, Britain was a very different place. Razorlight were cool. Miley Cyrus was knee-high to a cowboy boot, utterly oblivious to the fact that one day, her tie-dyed pubic hair would be the yarn on which a thousand ‘think-pieces’ might be spun. Any notion of a televised drag race was but a twinkle in RuPaul’s eye, and Louis Theroux was too busy witch-hunting Simon Cowell on account of his ambiguous sexuality to even consider producing a groundbreaking documentary about transgender children.

And The Skinny? Well, in 2005, a gang of volunteers spent autumn pulling together the very first issue, from a chilly room in an Edinburghian flat. At that point, the section of The Skinny now dedicated to Deviance was also pretty different. Originally entitled 'LGBT,' it was a part of the mag dedicated to all events and issues affecting those who identify as anything other than cisgender and/or straight.

But three years later, in 2008, in a forward-thinking but eternally contentious move, The Skinny decided to release all of its LGBTQ(IA) coverage into the rest of the magazine – and to redefine the section that remained.

The new section would be called 'Deviance', and was intended as an editorial haven for matters of love, sex, gender and politics. “I totally, fundamentally, believe in the idea that we step away from ghettoising artistic events based on the sexuality of the artist,” explains Editor-in-Chief Rosamund West, who was a fellow section editor when the LGBT changeover took place. But, despite the best of intentions, the move was met with with its fair share of controversy and complaint.

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Of course, the resultant debate was less than surprising. Remember how the LGBTQIA community was presented in the media during the latter half of the millennial decade? Where LGBT artists and issues weren’t excluded, they were sluiced with sensationalism, policing, and the triumph of public curiosity over respect and tolerance. As a person who identifies as LGBT, learning that your chosen independent arts and culture magazine has renamed its LGBT section Deviance might indeed feel like a slap in an already tender face.

The original Deviance editor, Nine, addressed these swollen cheeks in an article called Welcome To Deviance. To this day, that piece has become a useful one to pull out from the archives when, as the new Deviance editor, I’m asked to explain the nature and title of the section.

“I’m all too aware that some of you are going to be less than thrilled about this...” Nine begins, earnestly. “So do we really think you’re a ‘deviant’ if you’re queer or trans or a sex worker, if you’re into bondage or you’re asexual or you have a thing for Tesco checkout assistants? No. Deviance is subjective; no-one’s got the final say on what is ‘normal’”. She finishes by pointing out that “maybe it’s more about redefining ‘normal’ rather than dwelling on ‘deviance’. But Normal would’ve been a crap name.”

I got in touch with Nine to find out more about her experience quelling the controversy and nurturing a section which was to become an inherent part of The Skinny’s anarchic and autonomous character. “I do remember it being pretty draining,” she tells me. “It was frustrating to get that feedback, but probably all the more so because it was somewhat valid!”

When I ask about those who’d missed the point of the changeover, it becomes clear that she’d been drained through empathy, rather than frustration. “I could see where they were coming from, and maybe they didn’t all miss the point as such, but were just concerned that the message would not really filter through to folks who might be coming from a more homophobic/ill-informed perspective.”

She now lives in Malaysia, where she explains that the government actively promotes the idea that LGBT people, along with other groups, are ‘deviants’. This, to Nine, exemplifies volatile power found within words that mean different things to different people at different points in time. “It can make sense to reclaim the word, but it’s still a problematic word depending on the context. And you can’t always control the context.”

In terms of the section’s content, Nine was on board with the move. “It felt like an exciting opportunity to cover all these extra issues that didn’t come under the LGBT remit.” She recalls one of the first columns ever run in the section, written by a Scottish sex worker called Slutty McWhore. “She was funny and interesting and not easily pigeonholed. And while her columns were likely to bring a fresh perspective to readers who were new to the topic, other sex workers were also likely to find them worth reading.”

“Maybe it’s more about redefining ‘normal’ rather than dwelling on ‘deviance’. But Normal would’ve been a crap name” – Nine

On that note, Nine goes on to identify one of the most critical aspects of the Deviance section – maintaining a balance between running articles by marginalised people that will be of interest to members of their own communities, while remaining accessible to the mainstream. “A good outcome would be, for example, another sex worker reading Slutty McWhore and going ‘Yes! I feel the same way but nobody ever talks about this bit!’ and getting some validation out of that.” To Nine, the priority was always to actively include marginalised communities – “and not just bring them in when it was time for them to educate everyone else.”

Though the primary goal of the section remains unchanged, it struck me that a cruder, 2005-style internet might have made for a vastly different experience of Deviance editorship. A decade ago, the internet was mostly used to manufacture MySpace fame and to disrupt marriages via Friends Reunited.

I gush to Nine that I couldn’t imagine editing Deviance without panning the gold of subreddits, Twitter wars, YouTube rants and feminist Facebook groups. “Good point!” she responds. “If I was running the section nowadays I would be getting my ideas in the exact same way as you, but yes, it was different then. For me it mostly came from books and zines I had read… and conversations in real life.”

But her curating wasn’t entirely analogue: “I also used LiveJournal back in those days, knew some pretty cool writers through it, and hung out in some LJ communities that had some really on-point discussions. So the internet definitely helped, even then.”

Prompted by mentions of MySpace and LiveJournal, we indulge one another in a reminiscence of the golden days when ‘good journalism’ wasn’t quite so synonymous with ‘clickable content’, and the word ‘timeliness’ was but a futuristic woe.

It feels ironic to criticise the immediacy of the internet while conducting a digital interview across time zones and international borders. But Nine indulges my nostalgia. “Looking back, I realise that was definitely one type of stress that I was lucky to miss out on. Monthly deadlines for The Skinny are one thing, but everything these days seems to be in such a rush. You have to react instantly and bring some fresh perspective; there doesn’t seem to be much room for 'this thing happened earlier this year and here are my thoughts on it.'”

Though we’ve come quite the distance since 2005, it seems like Nine’s still sucking the sweet of what on earth the section should be called. Originally, everything was considered from ‘Gender and Sexuality’, (ultimately considered too Biology 101), to ‘Sex’, of which Nine disapproved “because it’s about so much more than only sex.”

Then there was the idea of a colour wheel logo: “It sounded appealing, but I didn’t want to have to give a clunky explanation every time I tried to describe my section.”

And her suggestion, nearly ten years later? ‘Intersections.’ “That’s definitely one we didn’t think of back in the day. I think it’s about getting the notion through to people that gender and sexuality aren’t just issues for those from the margins. It’s an interesting balance to strike, because one of the main goals should be to amplify marginalised voices. But at the same time, people whose identities carry more privilege are also affected by gender and sexuality issues that aren’t talked about enough. So I think it’s good to have a space where all of that can potentially be tackled.”

It strikes me that it’s Deviance’s appetite for change, and the politically awakened nature of its readers, that has led to the unending naming debate. And it’s a good debate. It’s difficult to define this section – and that definition will most definitely shift again in ten years, when the society has changed unrecognisably and Razorlight are cool again. 

Perhaps a Deviance by any other name would smell as sweet. Sweeter, even, But the point is that often our language hasn’t quite caught up with the progressive ideas and unities of people it is supposed to reflect. And sometimes there just aren’t the perfect words to hand. But don’t worry, we’ll keep trying to find them.

Find Nine on Twitter @supernowoczesna