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Tea With The Gays / Queer Narratives

January 10, 2016

Yesterday I went to Devoted and Disgruntled in Birmingham. It's a huge Open Space event facilitated by Improbable Theatre company with the title "What are we going to do about theatre?" (http://www.devotedanddisgruntled.com). It was a great experience as it was my first one. I initially found it a little difficult because I feel like the voices of students are sometimes relegated to a naive place when we actually have valid things to say. Except that it was a pretty exciting day.

In the third session I went to "Tea With The Gays" which was such a fun session. We began by talking about experiences of queer theatre, talking about definitions in the acronym but then moved onto looking at queer narratives and how we construct them and international queer activism. I thought I would capture some of the thinking we did there, specifically about queer narratives as it's something I'm especially interested in. 

 

Also throughout the article I am often using LGBTQ+ and Queer in order to talk about community interchangabley. Not sure what I think about this so I'm trying it out. Thoughts welcome. 

-Queer Narrative

The first thing we talked about was our experience of things branded as queer / gay / LGBT narratives. There was a general agreement that narratives of happiness, or narratives where the central plot point is not the misery of the protagonist (which is caused by their gender / sexual identity) were lacking. However a great point was made about how these narratives are told but they are not re-told. They tend to remain on the fringes of the theatrical world. In a world where our cultural institutions are generally governed by people who do not have experience of the queer perception of life / are bound by responsibility to / answerable to these people we tend to find that mainstream narratives in theatre are about "coming out" or in the case of gay men, they tend to be about HIV / AIDS. These narratives are made for what is perceived to be a majority straight audience where the relatable moment in a queer person's life is their devastating coming out and their death due to a tragic disease. For a lot of us, especially when growing up and when our sexual identities were pretty vulnerable we hadn't found these narratives useful after basically seeing the same story for years, it is a small relatable part of our collective queer lives but it's also not the only experience.

So many people think that theatre is about "conflict" (credit to Stella Duffy for beautifully orchestrating this point) but actually drama exists in the resolution of conflict. It is the moment of resolution that tends to drive our emotional response therefore instead of looking for conflict in the lives of queer identities, maybe we should look at resolving those conflicts and telling a wider range of stories. I think the resolution of narrative is the point where a lot of the narrative effort is put.

-Queer vs Human

This eventually lead on to a discussion about the structure of queer narratives and how queer identities are placed in them. It is true that we are now seeing a rise in less common LGBTQ+ identities, however there is a definite structure to this. Those characters who identify as non-heteronormative are often only able to speak about how they differ, about how they are "other". Whereas in a general sense heteronormative characters are able to speak on behalf of humanity, about what it means to be human. Even if you look at more mainstream example like Orange is the New Black on Netflix, Laverne Cox's character's plot points are generally about the trans* experience. It is very rare that a sexual / gender minority is allowed to speak about the human experience outside of their "otherness". However there is nothing really stopping us from rewriting Hamlet with Hamlet as gay, but still able to speak about humanity. For hundreds of years cis-het people have spoken about the human experience on behalf of the queer community, isn't it about time to allow queer identities to speak on behalf of humanity AND the cis-het community. In these situations maybe we will begin to find a larger appeal for queer theatre outside of token characters, coming out stories, death and making camp performance the butt of every joke.

This is not to say that narratives aimed for queer audiences aren't valid, but it's another option. I also think a big part of this is intersectionality which I will get back to later on.

-Responsibilities inside the LGBTQ community

I have so far spoken about the queer community as if they are a happy and cnited community and in a general sense we all share a group experience of systematic oppression but this community is nowhere near perfect. The majority of narratives claiming to be queer narratives are dominated by white middle-class gay men, look at the most platformed things from the last year like Banana / Tofu / Cucumber and the experience of the last 40 years since we began to see a United queer movement in the west.

While these identities still exist as the only acceptable poster for our community, we are denying validity to a huge bunch of identities. Under the guise of gay-rights we are claiming that great advancements are being made in narratives for the whole queer community when often this is not the case. We have a responsibility to diversify the narratives we tell and the narratives we platform. One example would be the Miss Nightingale musical (which i haven't seen so I will keep my comments brief) which in the Stonewall LGBT history months is called a "LGBT musical" even though it has no L/B/T representation or specific connection. In cases like this I think it's absolutely right to champion these stories as they're platforming gay identities in a genre which is very dominated by heterosexual characters however I also think there's a responsibility to consider the branding and the phrasing. If you want to use that acronym, then you should use all the acronym.

The LGBTQ+ community demonstrates racism, ableism, classism, misogyny etc. on such a similar scale to the rest of society and this is something that needs to be understood. Achieving more equality for gay cis-men at the expense of other identities in our community is not OK.

-Intersectionality in LGBTQ+ narratives

Intersoctionality is a word that is often thrown around a lot and scared most people in positions of authority. Narratives about queer identities usually have to be specifically about that, a queer identity. It is very rare to see a working class / differently-abled / non-White / non-male / non-masculine combination in queer narratives. This is heavily linked to the desire to make sexuality / gender identity a plot point instead of part of the character, we live in a diverse community and we often don't represent how diverse it is. Intersectionalty is also one thing where queer narratives can begin to relate to a larger audience, in creating interesting and multi-layered characters we are achieveing in writing what has been achieved in writing for thousands of years for more commonly represented identities. 

A broad lack of intersectionality in queer narratives is not simply bad activism, I actually think it's a bad use of writing craft.

-Devolving privilege

There are some situations where it is difficult to tell the story of an identity that experiences oppression in a way you can't perceive. For example as a male writer I feel that (the intention of my work is usually authenticity and storytelling - this is different to realism) I will never understand to a full extent the systematic oppression that women face because I never experience it. Therefore if a narrative needs to be told about the female experience then I feel like I am not the person who should be platformed for this, I should devolve my privilege and platform a female writer to do this. Obviously this gets more complicated with intersectionality. However as a male there's literally no point in me just writing make characters therefore the stories I can tell through female protagonists authentically are those that speak about humanity that I mentioned earlier, as opposed to those that speak specifically about the female experience in the world.

The place where this ideas begins to break down at the moment is with collaboration. In collaboration (something which I heavily rely on as a musical theatre writer who doesn't compose traditionally) I feel like you're bringing a shared set of experiences to the creation of narrative.

This is one thing that's worth talking about when thinking of any kind of under-represented identity in narrative. There's a lot of mileage I feel in the discussion here so it might be a good opportunity to encourage some feedback.

 

In terms of relating more to queer narratives we often see highly platformed queer narratives which push its LGBTQ+ respresentation to the forefront of its narrative but it's written by cis-het people. If the queer experience is predominantly told by heteronormative storytellers then it leads to situations like we see where there is an under representation of queer writers on major platforms. 

-History and learning craft

I also think it's valid in a world where we're discovering new identities all the time, for example the recent rise in the number of names available to trans* identities to consider that certain identities have never before been situated in narrative. Therefore as we begin to understand these identities the craft of the storytelling may not be initially successful as the writers don't have 100s of years of a predominantly white cis-het patriarchal canon to learn from. Sometimes breathing space is needed and especially breathing space within the queer community, for a group of people who have been subjected to systematic oppression we are quick people to scapegoat and pigeon hole sometimes. I fully understand the frustrating when you see a piece of storytelling that attempts to represent your dientity which is rubbish, but often that storyteller has not had the same support as other writers or doesn't have an extensive history to learn from. I think it is often more useful to look at broader systems of platforming and development as opposed to reactionary accusations against isolated narratives (though these narratives should still be questioned).

-Masculinity and family

Two things that really interest me in my work are described below so if anyone is also interested and has something to offer on these topics in terms of a collaborative relationship then get in touch. 

1. we are still telling children that sex is for making babies.


In western society we have a Broadly anglo-Christian history of teaching and academia, this has led (not solely this) to an understanding of society where the family unit is the base unit. Form this tradition we have also developed a tendency that when children ask "What is sex?" We tell them it's something adults do to make babies. The truth is that sex is also for pleasure. If we continue to push the myth that sex is just for procreation then those relationships that do not / are perceived to not fulfill this function will be seen as invalid. This includes same-sex relationships, asexual relationship that don't include sexual practices, relationships between trans* identities where the general public is not always clear of the logistics of the sexual practice of the participants and also relationships where cis-het people are unable to procreate for biological or psychological reasons. When someone asks you next time what sex is for, you can tell them it's for procreation but it's also for pleasure and sometimes serves no procreative function at all. It may seem radical but de-stablising the dominance of procreative family units without damaging family as a concept is an important institution is really important in my work.

2. Masculinity is the mode of behaviours that benefits from the most power.


We as a society idolise masculinity, even when our perceived aesthetic of that masculinity changes. Femininity is attached to the weak, masculinity is attached to the strong defenders. Men who do not present as masculine are mocked and persecuted and told to "be a real man" etc. (There's a great huffpost women video on this subject). Also because women have been traditionally associated with a feminine gender presentation I think this has played a big part in the development of patriarchal structures. Now, those women who do not present as feminine are labelled with slurs such as "butch" and their validity is questioned as they don't fulfill a feminine function. There's also a lot of this within the gay male community specifically, terms like "straight acting" have evolved from gay dating apps and a fear of camp men because of their femininity has developed within a lot of mainstream gay narratives. This has led to internalised homophobia in large sections of the community. The effects of masculinity are expansive and there are many books you can read on the topic.

 

-Intersections


When you look at the intersection of idolising family and masculinity you see the origin of a lot of the problems of queer representation. Those who participates in relationships where procreation is not the aim are unable to speak on behalf of those who might "naturally" procreate children. There is a desire to protect children from exposure to same-sex narratives because those relationships do not naturally bear children and expose the truth that sex can also be about pleasure. The idolisation of masculinity has lead to a gender imbalance in queer narratives where we have seen things like the recent Stonewall film where Drag Queens of colour were erased in favour of straight acting white gay cis-men.

These are obviously not sole causes but aspects I personally am keen to look at deconstructing right now so if anyone has any interest, particularly music-makers and composers who have an interest in masculinity then get in touch!

 

-Ending thoughts

 

These are just things that stuck out in the discussion, I'm probably going to continue discussing queer narratives more openly through BoyAndPen. I think the important thing though if you've read this far is that this is a good thinking space, but we also need to bring these ideas into the work space as well. 

As always, I love being proved wrong (in non-aggressive and accessible ways) so please discuss. 
 

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