For a long time folklorists presumed heroic LGBTQ characters didn’t exist. At a time when they were told solely from generation to generation, being queer was a taboo.
But that all changed three years ago when Pete Jordi Wood, a U.K. Cornish writer and illustrator, published gay fairytale “The Dog And The Sailor”.
The endearing, “unbelievably and fabulously gay” plot follows a sailor’s grand adventure and marriage to a handsome prince.
But when he discovered and published that story, the magic didn’t end. Wood went on to find a whole treasure trove of untold and nearly lost LGBTQ stories.
They almost didn’t make the light of modern day. One of the most important folklore academics, Stith Thompson, put his morals into play when editing what is still one of the most internationally renowned folklore indexes.
Thompson used derogatory terms when writing about LGBTQ identities in these books – or ignored LGBTQ characters and tales altogether.
Folklorists still use these books today as apparatus for academic research. But they are viewed by many as outdated and problematic. Yet, with much modern understanding of folklore being pulled from his index – the queerness was almost lost.
But the beauty of folklore, stories told from generation to generation, is that if you look hard enough – they are still there.
And now published in a book that’s gone straight to its renowned Puffin classic range, Pete Jordi Wood is back with a whole anthology of nearly lost queer fairytale stories.
Tales From Beyond The Rainbow is the queer Aseop’s Fables we all deserved as kids
The collection of ten stories has been adapted by Wood, but they come from all over the world.
Take ‘The Girl In The Market’, a story from Benin West Africa is about Dausi. It follows a black trans woman of colour who becomes queen despite coming from the poor part of town.
Given current events and anti-trans rhetoric it’s pointed that the fraud in the story was not the black trans woman, but those who sought to ‘expose’ her.
It was last collected in 1925, but has centuries-old roots in a ‘shift of sex’ tale type. The modern retelling in Tales From Beyond The Rainbow does not rely on the character eating a cassava root for a spiritual and physical transformation.
Instead, Dausi’s ending sees her and those around her reach a level of happiness they’ve never experienced before in their own body.
The change came after extensive work with authenticity readers. Both local writers in Benin and people from the transgender community.
“Folklore is an extraordinary thing in humanity,” Wood tells me. “There are stories about Cinderella worldwide, with variants, and it’s loved everywhere. That means people shared them with other cultures as they travelled and migrated – that’s how folklore adapted, changed and grew. People can take these and pass them on through generations with their adaptations.
“But we need to do it hand in hand with each other if we’re dealing with stories from a different culture or communities we don’t have lived experience of.”
Wood believes the authenticity readers they worked with add a layer of richness. One that he believes makes any marginalised story not only better but one that moves people.
“If Adele sang about a breakup but hadn’t been through it – you just wouldn’t be moved in the same way. It wouldn’t strike you or affect you in the same way.”
This approach was applied across the book, with people with the lived experience in each story involved in the process. Take the book’s illustrations. An LGBTQ illustrator, and in one case an ally, who shared cultural heritage with the story designed the unique images in the book.
The value of this approach wasn’t lost on the illustrators either. Zat Vornik, one of the illustrators, tells me people’s experience always shines through art:
“The aesthetic, the little details of the image — they all are something we lived through before. It’s a more complex and subtle way to increase the visibility of queer people, in a way.”
While Xin Tang, who also worked with the book, said this has even more value in children’s media. So kids can learn to grow and communicate with a myriad of human experiences.
No one believed in these stories – until one viral article
When Wood was first promoting the Dog and The Sailor, he had little luck. Despite pitching around to LGBTQ media and other outlets he was getting little traction.
Then, after a viral Forbes article – that all changed.
“Because of the article and the reach we got, we moved people all around the world.”
He used the hype around the article, which saw the likes of Ian McKellen comment on the story – to apply for Penguin’s prestigious writer’s scheme for people from marginalised backgrounds. And the rest is – as they say, history.
Due to the hype of The Dog And The Sailor, it is now set to be republished as a full-colour book with Puffin and even get a film adaptation. This too will rely heavily on people with lived experience in the production process.
“Authentic perspective comes from those who have lived the experience—those who understand its nuances and complexities,” says GRAMMY-nominated songwriter and film producer Freddy Wexler who is leading on the adaptation.
Wexler says the “monumental anthology” and the way it was created is a “wonderful” blueprint for the film and television adaptations set to come.
It’s also been a personal journey for Wood. Whilst delving into the deepest riches of queer folklore history – he learned more about his community and LGBTQ identity.
“It helped me come to terms with some things myself, that I hadn’t understood before.”
But he also recognises it comes out at a time when anti-LGBTQ backlash is growing in the U.S. and U.K. where book bans are once again taking hold.
“I’m sure that our book is going to get banned in some countries, and that’s pretty cool because it means it’s badass.
“Trying to edit queerness out of stories hasn’t worked out historically. They’ve always prevailed eventually.
“To the people who want to try and hide these stories – I’ve got news for you, we found them last time you tried and we will again.
Do you want to understand the ever-changing LGBTQIA+ world? You’re not alone. Join 1800+ people who skip the doomscrolling but keep across the latest queer headlines, content and perspectives with my newsletter QueerAF – try it now