The Queer Bible’s Jack Guinness on drag queens saving his life, LGBT+ history and being told to ‘man up’

Jack Guinness lounges on a leather chair in a dimly-lit office

Jack Guinness on his new book The Queer Bible, his life-long love affair with drag queens and being told to “man up”.

Moving to New York aged 18, Jack Guinness found a family in a group of drag queens and misfits. They called him “Harry Potter” because he was English.

“Drag queens saved my life,” the multi-hyphenate – GQ contributing editor, fashion gadfly, model, DJ, writer, presenter, actor – told PinkNews.

“I don’t know what became of a lot of them. I have a similar feeling to watching Paris Is Burning. Unfortunately, it’s a tale all too common and that is why we need to protect and love our drag family.”

Guinness is sweating as we talk. It’s 22 degrees; the heat is that stale kind where every breath is a chore and long sleeves would mean certain doom. We talk over video call, Guinness having just come from his first gym class since England’s lockdown loosened. He’s giddy – not from the heat, but because his first book, The Queer Bible, is about to drop.

It’s an adaptation of his website of the same name, which has since 2017 acted as a guidebook for queer youth – one, he said, he would have made life so much easier for him if he had it only years ago.

“I did the website first, always wanting it to be a book,” he explains.

Jack Guinness walks the runway at the Oliver Spencer show during London Fashion Week Men’s January 2018. (Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage)

“In my head, there was something special and magical about having a physical item that has a part of our history in it. Queer stories have long been kept out of the official books.

“They’ve either been deleted or they’ve not been included in ‘official’ histories – that makes [The Queer Bible] feel subversive.”

The Queer Bible very much lives to its emphatic name. It acts like a Yellow Pages of queer history, a who’s who of towering LGBT+ giants whose shoulders we all stand on – and those we may not even realise we do.

It’s a collection of essays penned by dozens of contributors, themselves undoubtedly heroes to others, writing dedications to the idols that inspired them. Each is paired with a vibrant illustration by a young LGBT+ artist.

The list of heroes is spread across a table of contents three pages long: There’s George Michael, David Bowie, Sylvester, Divine, Quentin Crisp, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin and David Robilliard. And, more modern legends: Adam Rippon, Edward Enninful and Pidgeon Pagonis, among so many others.

There are dedications to Black British lesbians, to Paris is Burning, to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert, to Queer Eye and to the people, the peoples, the movements, the films, the songs and everything in-between that, Guinness said, make LGBT+ people feel less alone.

RuPaul (L) and Lady Phyll. (Adam Johannesson/Sam Russell Walker)

And we haven’t even named the book’s 24 iridescent contributors, who range from Freddie McConnell to Elton John, Tan France to Lady Phyll, Russell Tovey to Mae Martin, Paris Lees to Courtney Act, Graham Norton to Gus Kenworthy.

Jack Guinness’ own hero? RuPaul, of course.

“I remember thinking like I only gay kid on the planet,” he said, “and then you try to search out other people like you and find your tribe.

“And the most powerful thing for any like minority or marginalised group is realising that you’re not alone, that there is a community, a new family. To know that you didn’t pop out of anywhere – you’re from somewhere.

“From a line of people, of ancestors, that you aren’t biologically related to, you’re spiritually related to. And those people stretch back to the dawn of time.”

(David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Levi’s)

The son of a vicar and a member of the Guinness dynasty, he was out hitting nightclubs by age 14 – Soho was only a stone’s throw away from his family home – before he started modelling. There, he was often told to “man up”.

He came out to loved ones when he was 15, with The Queer Bible website being one of the first times he publicly stated his sexuality.

Years on, and, whether speaking to us or in the foreword of The Queer Bible, Guinness stresses his level of privilege. He knows it’s time for him – and other white, cis queer men like him – to do what they can to amplify more marginalised voices.

Describing the book as his “gift” to a queer community he worships, Guinness said that the simple power that comes in knowing, remembering and telling queer history is unparalleled.

“Just because we don’t know, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. We’ve all maybe hidden parts of ourselves for very good reasons, so when you start to uncover those histories, it’s empowering.

“It’s such a beautiful experience. It also sometimes makes me so angry that we’re denying that and so many people around the world deny that.

“That’s why when I look to activists and contributors like Lady Phyll who are actively fighting for our LGBT+ community globally, you realise how incredibly privileged we are.

“Around the world, we need to make sure everyone has the same access to LGBT+ history as we do here.”

George Michael (L) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert. (James Davison/Jamie Elder)

Jack Guinness today looks towards RuPaul’s Drag Race UK stars such as Bimini Bon Boulash and Tayce as future queer role models.

“They really make me proud of the London drag scene. I’ve been a regular of dive drag bars my whole life, since I was 16, 17, and to see those queens toiling away who really stand for something get mainstream success? It makes me proud.”

At more than 300 pages, The Queer Bible is a contradiction. It’s a lengthy, layered book packed with dozens of stories, illustrations and maps that stretch the spectrum of the queer community.

It is also small and scattered: a tiny sample of a community so varied it is impossible to summarise.

There are many stories left to be told in The Queer Bible, Guinness admitted. The work is in no way complete. “I see it as a series,” he said, noting he would do more to spotlight queer disabled folk.

“I would love to do another book and represent even more of our community.”

“There are going to be bits that touch you,” Guinness added, “and there’s going to be bits that touch other people because we all come from different places and have our own experiences.

“There’s real power in recognising our difference and celebrating our similarities and intersections.

“I came to this project not as an academic or an activist. I came to this as a reader – to humbly listen to other people’s stories which made me laugh, made me cry and inspired me.

“And I want that for other people.”

The Queer Bible book by Jack Guinness is available to order in the UK from Waterstones and Amazon.