A version of this provocation was presented at Winchester Hat Fair 2019, this version has been revised and expanded as a provocation to the UK Outdoor Arts Sector and specifically to the Without Walls network.
“TO BE VISIBLY QUEER IS TO CHOOSE YOUR HAPPINESS OVER YOUR SAFETY” – DASHAUN HARRISON, 2019.
I want to start this with some acknowledgements:
- Firstly that the history of queer people is a history of invisibility, and the history of queer politics is a history of making ourselves visible – the work of many great people, and particularly transgender women of colour, has afforded me the privileged position I can write this from today.
- Secondly, the word ‘queer’ has its own complex politics and whilst it has been historically used a slur against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) peoples it has been widely reclaimed. It is now used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ identifying people. For me, it is also about challenging the boundaries of normatively, troubling binary ways of viewing the world, and actively dismantling structures of oppression. Whilst I use it freely in this provocation, as indeed in life, I also acknowledge its use may not be suitable for all organisations and audiences and some people are unhappy at its usage. The choice for heterosexual-cisgender people to use it in organisational, and particularly in marketing, contexts may best be done in consultation with their local LGBTQ+ communities.
- Finally, I have a vested interest in writing this. I stand to benefit from the changes I propose as an artist, as a producer, as an audience member, and as a human being – so do many others.
I think it’s important to start with some context as to who I am, and what experience I have to write this. Over the past two years, I have been creating queer performance work, alongside a team of incredible queer artists, which is specifically built for public spaces. Most notably, I am the director/creator of FANTABULOSA! A public-space drag show for kids, which has been generously supported by the Without Walls network as well as a host of other organisations, and has been touring the UK in its various iterations since June 2018. I am also the producer and programmer for the UK’s largest festival of Queer Art, and one of three LGBTQ+ focused Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations – SHOUT Festival of Queer Art and Culture, Birmingham (a project of Birmingham LGBT). I have managed a number of LGBTQ+ focused community projects, provide consultancy for art and cultural organisations on queer inclusion, and was a founding committee member of SEEDS (Supporting Education of Equality and Diversity in Schools).
In making this show and in my work as a producer it has become increasingly apparent to me how pronounced the lack of queer work in Outdoor Arts programming is, and how few visible examples of LGBTQ+ stories and artists there are in public spaces. Pride Festivals are some of the UK’s largest outdoor cultural events, but our communities exist in public spaces more than just one day a year, and we deserve to be represented.
Why is this such an issue? Well, visibility is integral to queer identity. Being LGBTQ+ is not something that is immediately apparent, queerness is often entirely invisible. We are surrounded by cisgender heterosexuality everywhere we go: in the films we watch, in the stories that are read to us as children, in the adverts we see on the bus, in the clothes we buy, in the music we listen to, in the lessons we are taught at school. We are invisible, and this invisibility leads to isolation and exclusion. If you can’t see yourself or people like you, you can’t learn about yourself. If other people can’t see you, you don’t exist.
I grew up whilst Section 28 was still in force, this conservative legislation banned schools and local authorities for even mentioning homosexuality (let alone gender identity). I grew up in a small village where the only public transport was an hourly bus that stopped at 6 pm and didn’t run at weekends. I’d never met a queer person (that I knew of), I’d never really seen one on TV (except as someone to be laughed at or who died from AIDS), I thought that queer people only lived in London, I grew up hating myself, hating what was different about me, feeling like I didn’t belong; like I was wrong, and that I was going to be alone forever. These experiences were formative in shaping my early understanding of self.
As I see it, one of the biggest issues affecting queer communities right now is what I’m terming the ‘post-liberation mindset’ – this is the idea that we are in a post-liberation society, that equality for queer communities has been achieved and that queer oppression and the experiences I had as a child are things of the past. After all, we’ve got gay marriage now so what else do we need?
It’s this collective belief that queer oppression is a thing of the past and exists only in black and white photos that allows society at large to ignore what is happening to our communities right now. To believe that because they have gay friends, they ‘get it’. Whilst things have changed dramatically for LGBTQ+ people in recent years, the belief that we have achieved equality allows people to ignore the fact that:
- Almost half (48 per cent) of trans people in Britain have attempted suicide at least once; 84 per cent have thought about it.
- That incidents of homophobic and transphobic hate crime doubled in the UK in 2019.
- that 2/3 of LGBTQ+ people are afraid to hold hands with their partners in public.
- that not a single day goes by when men in cars do not drive past us and shout faggot out the window.
- that in 2019 for the first time ever LGBTQ+ Muslims lead a UK pride march but there are still countless others who cannot come out, who live every day in hiding, who are forced into arranged straight marriages, who are rejected by their families.
- the average life expectancy for a trans woman of colour in America is 35, primarily as a result of violence.
- that hundreds of people will stand outside schools for months on end and scream that we are paedophiles and that it is not appropriate for children to know we exist.
- that as LGBTQ+ seniors go into care, they go back into the closet because they are terrified they will be discriminated against by a health system that has consistently mistreated them.
- That gentrification is erasing queer spaces all over the country, making it harder for our communities to find spaces that they feel safe and are welcomed.
I myself am regularly heckled from cars or by people in the street for my visibly queer appearance, I have been attacked, and in 2019 I received death threats for posting a photo of myself and an 8-year-old child marching at Birmingham Pride (with parental consent). This reality often makes navigating the world difficult for queer people, and I acknowledge here that I am an able-bodied white man and these experience are often significantly more difficult for queer people of colour, transgender people, and queer people with dis/abilities.
Our fight for equality is far from over – nobody is too young to learn that being different is OK, and we should celebrate the things that make us different.
Outdoor arts is political, the idea of taking work out of the theatres and galleries and putting it onto the streets to that everyone and anyone can access it is inherently political – it should be disruptive, it should be radical. Outdoor arts has the power to challenge perspectives, to build bridges, to celebrate and to do this by reaching huge numbers of people – we all have a huge role to play in platforming queer work and changing the discourse on LGBTQ+ identities.
The response we have had to FANTABULOSA! from audiences has been overwhelming – at our first performance of 2019 a woman brought her grandchild to see the show, she came up to us after the performance in tears and said that she wished that we had been around 50 years ago so that some of her friends would still be alive, a lesbian couple returned to see all four of our shows over the weekend with their daughter bringing new friends each time and have since made repeat visits to us in different cities, a Romanian family told us how it spoke to their feelings of being different as immigrants in the UK and that it had changed their opinions on talking to their children about same-sex relationships. That is the power of platforming queer work and making us visible in spaces that we are not usually seen, and these are only a handful of examples of the countless moments we share with our audiences.
But in every festival that continues to not include queer work queer audiences will remain invisible, we will not exist. As a sector we have to be proactive about this – if you are not actively working to support marginalised communities, you are working against them. In making this show I have had to overcome barriers I did not realise had been placed upon me, I had to give myself permission that as a queer person I was even allowed to make work for young audiences or for outdoor contexts – until this project it had never occurred to me that these were options for me as an artist and producer. Whether these barriers have existed in reality or not (although I would argue they have) they have stopped me and many of my peers from even considering making outdoor work and as such the sector has developed without us.
Proper, meaningful inclusion is going to take time, it is going to take effort, and it is going to take active change. It will mean bringing new art forms into the outdoor arena, queer work in these spaces will look different, it should look different – we work in different forms, in different aesthetics – queer art comes from DIY cultures, it has its own mechanics, these are integral to its success.
For queer outdoor work to really sing and achieve its affective potential, the sector has to re-assess its own notions of what quality looks like. We must question on what basis these were value judgements are made, who we inherited these rules from, and what hierarchies lead to those values being chosen. At times this year, we have been offered (mostly unsolicited) feedback that our show needs to smooth out some of its rough edges or that we have heard that some organisations don’t want us because we are ‘too DIY’ without ever considering that these are intentional aesthetic choices meant to represent the culture from which our performance comes. We have heard potential programmers (who have not seen our show) say they were concerned that our artists, although fine for the bars and nightclubs, may not ‘meet the standards’ of international outdoor festivals. We know what these phrases mean, they are thin euphemisms that have long been used to keep queer artists and their work at the margins. Our audience responses speak for themselves: the thousands of children who sing, dance, dress-up, and celebrate with us speak for our quality, the adults who cry in our arms and tell us about the ways we could have made a difference to their lives if only we had been there speaking for our impact.
We may not be the European circus or physical theatre performance that dominates much of the UK’s outdoor arts programme, but we offer different references and performance styles, different aesthetics, and different means of engagement – these are just as valid, and just as important.
So please, commission more queer work, actively support queer artists to develop this work, to learn the skills, to acquire the specific knowledge of the sector, to adapt their practices. We need you to do this, you need you to do this. Give yourselves the permission represent all communities – if you don’t know how to do this, then ask us.
If you celebrate us, we will be able to celebrate ourselves.