The Inheritance

Imagine your friendship group, y’know, those people you care about and love spending time with. The people who know you and help you deal with life’s problems. Now imagine being told that one by one they are dying. They’re dying because of a disease called GRID, gay-related immune deficiency. That’s right, gay men are spreading diseases. GRID is deadly. You can get it through physical contact, sharing food, sharing a drinking fountain and even through sneezes. A phone call, another one of your friends has died. Meanwhile, GRID gets a new name, AIDS. The public is outraged and not because people are dying but because gays are spreading diseases. People are calling for AIDS patients to be quarantined, to be tattooed and to be forced to carry identity cards. Another phone call, another death, it’s your best friend this time – if only he’d said something. You worry you’ve got the disease but you don’t know who to talk to. Your family is homophobic, your local bishop is urging the parishioners to stop drinking from the communion cup and, now, your boyfriend has been diagnosed with the disease.

This was the reality for many gay men living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and was vividly realised onstage by The Inheritance – a new duo of plays that recently finished showing at the Young Vic. The plays explore the trauma and the stigma that typified so much of the crisis and how both impact on the lives of gay men living today. I am a gay man living today and I often think of what I have inherited from the AIDS crisis. As well as the ability to live positively with HIV, something denied to my forebears, I have also inherited a gaping hole in my history. Not just a lack of knowledge and education but also a lack of people. As the script says, people who could be mentors, friends, lovers, teachers and elders but cannot because they have died.

I have often been told how disappointing gay men are – we spread diseases, we’re narcissists, we’re too irresponsible to be allowed to have sex at the same age as heterosexuals, and other such criticisms. But I wonder if the people who criticise me and my community have spent much time actually thinking about my community and its history. I doubt it. This is why plays such as The Inheritance (and Angels In America) are a vital weave in the fabric of the gay and queer community, a stitch in time to save lives and ensure our future can be better than our past. Fortunately, the show will be transferring to the West End to ensure more folks can enjoy such a smörgåsbord of acting, directing, teching, writing and staging talent. And for those of you who don’t want to spend six hours in an auditorium but do want to know more about the AIDS crisis and its legacies why not click here.

Andrew Burnap and Samuel H. Leving in The Inheritance
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Home Is A Verb

“Home, imagined, comes to be.”

The Operating Instructions, Ursula Le Guin

Unsurprisingly, the late Ursula Le Guin has a lot to say about home. She talks of the need to find your people, to build customs and habits together, to live out traditions and to question them too lest they become stagnant and oppressive. She talks of how the written word can connect us to other minds throughout the world and history and, how there, in that text you can find a piece of home as well. She talks of the need for listening and silence as integral acts of community building. And the more she talks of home the more it becomes clear that home is a verb before it is a noun.

Because home is something we have to do for ourselves and for others. Life for the individual is a long process of homecoming as we, hopefully, delve deeper into ourselves through the years, learn more about ourselves and become more of who we are – sloughing off old ways of being that don’t serve us anymore and striving through painful and violent impositions that others, alive and dead, may have enforced upon us. Thus, as we live so we are always coming home. Life for the collective is not a dissimilar process as we learn how to live well together, how to enact our love, set our boundaries and share what we have. Ceremonies, celebrations and rituals are a vital part of this – be it praying together, getting KFC together, or chilling out on the sofa – as they help to keep the social fabric strong as we weave it over and over again. Home is a collective endeavour.

However, for many, home is a painful and difficult process as we are so often cut off from ourselves and others be it due to the swift atomisation of ‘modern’ society, a lack of teaching and knowledge about all the different ways there are to be and live, and/or violence. So home becomes a privilege but, really it shouldn’t be, all should have the right to home but it is clear we do not. Thus, home can be a mindset and a mission for those with the privilege as they can make the space for others be they refugees fleeing other countries or LGBT+ folk cut off from their own gender and sexuality by repressive societal norms and so many other forms of violence or those facing the prejudice of being HIV positive. Home is not something that can be taken for granted, home must be done and it must be done together over and over again. So, yes, I think home is a verb – a state of being, possibility and hoping. And, if we’re lucky, home, imagined, will come to be. So let us never stop imagining.

Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…

 

The Depth Of My Longing

In an age of so-called self-made-men and hyper-individualism it seems we’re destined to go it alone and build ourselves from scratch. This, of course, is just one of many bullshit lies fed to us by an economic-political system that thrives when we’re unhappy and buying more crap. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy but it’s kinda true that miserable folk make for better consumers and what better way to make people miserable than make them feel alone. Certainly, loneliness has long been a friend of mine, and something it has taken me years to change my relationship with. Now, periods of loneliness, while still making me sad, do not necessarily have to dunk me into depression. Yet under the loneliness I’ve recently found something else: longing. The longing to belong and to be part of something, namely, a tribe. And it was during a snowy week in February that I found a place that felt like home – the Arcola’s Queer Collective.

In its own words, “a performance collective exploring queer identity and how to present it theatrically…the group is open to anyone identifying as LGBTQI*.” Theatre and queerness, what’s not to love! However, what surprised me in between rehearsals of my play The Cluedo Club Killings – think a queered Miss Marple meets Skins with farce – was the depth of my longing. As someone who has striven hard to find community, be it in valleys in rural Wales, at Buddhist retreats in Scotland and occasionally on the dance floor (and often found these places to be distinctly unqueer), reaching my longed for destination proved both heartblowing and heartbreaking. Suffice to say, at the after party, a lot of tears were shed.

I think I cried for many reasons: because the weather was so damn awful; because a show we had so much fun making was now over; because I had been able to fully express my queer self through a piece of theatre; because I fell over on the ice (it really hurt, particularly my pride, but that’s another post); and because that journey to find community had been such a long one. From the corridors of boarding school to the Arcola stage, my longing ran deep, and it was only when I found the Queer Collective and the wondrous people who make it, did I begin to grasp those depths. All those tears for all those years of longing. Yet having found a destination I can finally put faces, places and names to my longing. I know what’s possible now, a privilege my 10 year-old self was never allowed. Nevertheless, thanks to the Queer Collective I believe 10 year-old someone elses and queer folks of all ages for that matter have something tangible and inspirational to look to. Long may it continue.

The Cluedo Club! Photo courtesy of Ali Wright

 

How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part II

So, having welcomed all those feelings that my uncertain life was eliciting – the frustration, loneliness, sadness and more – I was in a slightly better position to experience my uncertainty. It didn’t make any of those feelings less pleasant but it did give me a chance to feel them as that is what feelings want – to be felt. Rather than try to deny or suppress them or coat them with endless stories about how much of a loser or failure I was, I just experienced them. In brief, I untethered, a little, my experience of my feelings from my explanation of my feelings (the two are very different). The former is a physical-psychological experience that (hopefully) passes with time as feelings come and go while the latter is an attempt to grab one of those feelings, pin it down and explain it. In welcoming all my feelings my mentor gave me permission to just be sad or lonely or unsure without all the extra baggage (no easy task but I’m glad I started it all those years ago).

Now, I am categorically not saying that we should all just feel like crap, deal with it and move on. There are times when we feel awful for very good reasons – perhaps someone close to us is treating us very badly or we are in a toxic situation at work – and the feelings are indicators that something needs to change. But there are other times when we feel bad in response to a perceived threat – i.e. uncertainty – that might not be as bad as we think. For me, I was feeling bad in response to the uncertainty in my life and was calling on all those other times I had felt bad and compiling them into some grand uber-narrative about how rubbish and awful I was. But in welcoming the feelings and just trying to feel them I managed to undermine the power of the uber-narrative. I genuinely think that while I still went on to feel bad I managed to avoid being pulled down into a prolonged period of depression like I had been before. One big difference was that I had stopped believing the stories I was telling myself. For example, feeling worthless didn’t actually equate to being worthless and I knew the feeling would pass, which made it easier to let go of the oft-repeated story of worthlessness.

In essence, I was trying to make my heart and head work more in harmony – the heart was doing the feeling, the really important stuff, while the brain was trying to make sense of these feelings, i.e. they’re just feelings, not facts (or stories). So I now had more room to observe and experience my uncertain situation rather than get engulfed and overwhelmed by it. This was a big step for me – mindfully and carefully I had approached uncertainty and, discovering it was not as fearful as I had thought, could venture out beyond the edge of my comfort zone. As a caveat, I didn’t just jump into uncertainty with reckless abandon – as I could have become very panicked or distressed – it was a much slower, gentler process than that and if ever I felt it was getting too much I could try and step back. More soon. Now here’s Lady Gaga singing about being on the Edge of Glory because, y’know, edge of comfort zone, edge of glory…perhaps. Anyways, she rocks.

How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part I

In the autumn of 2013 I finished my MSc in Environmental Policy without a clue what to do next. Despite the Masters, I knew I did not want to carry on working in the environmental sector and, despite having rediscovered a love of writing, I knew that writers do not make a lot of money. I went back to live with my parents and slowly waited for that impending sense of doom to catch up with me. Having lived a life of lectures, seminars and essay deadlines I felt myself unravelling with the lack of a rigid timetable. The future weeks and months of my diary stared blankly back at me and it seemed all the things I had achieved in my past didn’t count for much because, now, I wasn’t achieving much at all. As expected, the doom arrived, and it took the form of a big black hole of uncertainty. I fell straight in.

Uncertainty scares a lot of us. It cannot be known, it cannot be controlled and it doesn’t offer any answers as to what to do next. In brief, it freaks us the fuck out. And when we’re freaked out we put up defences – some of us throw ourselves into work or travel itineraries or chocolate or endless Netflix series, all with the aim of staving of that unpleasant feeling of fear as uncertainty approaches. Back in 2013 I didn’t have much work and I certainly didn’t have a Netflix account (was it even a thing then?) and what my uncertain future told me was that I was worthless. All those age-old insecurities of mine like not achieving enough, not having a coherent life plan and not having enough friends came back with vengeance. My defences were down and I wasn’t happy.

As you can imagine things weren’t great for a while but rather than dwell on that (which I’ve done elsewhere) what I want to focus on is how I began to change my relationship with uncertainty. After my Masters I signed up to a course called One Year In Transition, for people who want to do a little good with the work they do but also don’t have a clue where to start. There were six of us doing it and occasionally we’d meet up or Skype, to check in and see how we were coping. I wasn’t always coping very well. As part of the course I was assigned a personal mentor who I would chat with every few weeks and who would give me advice on life stuff. The group was fab and so was my mentor and I will never forget what she said when I started telling her about how awful everything was, about all the loneliness, anger, frustration, insecurity, lack of direction etc. She said one word: welcome. As simple as that, she welcomed all those feelings, and in doing so showed me how to begin to deal with uncertainty. More soon. Not 100% sure this song fits but, hey, some of us get humans as mentors and others get demi-gods.

The Poem In My Pants

Last Thursday evening I was downstairs at Ku Bar in Soho for the last Let’s Talk Gay Sex & Drugs open mic night hosted by Pat Cash. I’ve been a few times and it’s ace (so is Pat). There’s usually a theme and everyone gets five minutes to do whatever they like – read a poem, sing a song, speak from the heart, plug a show, all sorts. I’ve tended to read short stories, something poignant about my experience of queerness and the queer community in 2017. I’ve usually edited and practised the story a lot in advance and love it when I get applauded at the end. The thing is though, I’ve kinda been hiding behind my stories, only revealing myself through the odd metaphor and simile. So last week I thought I would expose myself, which is why I stripped to my pants and read a poem.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0e/Boxer_shorts.svg/600px-Boxer_shorts.svg.png I did this for many reasons. Firstly, for those of you who don’t know Ku Bar, whilst it’s a fab gay bar, it’s also the case that each topless barman is basically a model and all the TV screens project images of hunky men with 8-packs. If you have any hang ups about your body it’s not the easiest of places to be. So bearing my hairy shoulders and my lack of a 6-pack, felt like a political act in itself. For too long I’ve cared about what others think of my body and I’ve projected my insecurities at people I think are hotter than me. I assume the world has only judgemental eyes and is critiquing every hair and mark on my body. But when I was up there reading my poem I stopped caring and just enjoyed my five minutes. If there were people in the audience thinking that I have an awful body or that I’m ugly, then that’s their problem because I imagine they still believe in a conception of beauty that prioritises toned, white, male bodies over all other forms of body. And to that iteration of beauty, I call bullshit.

I am done with the beauty pyramid that ranks us in leagues and fills us all with shame and self-loathing – whether that shame takes us to the gym everyday to work on our abs or that shame means we don’t go clubbing anymore because of the way people have treated for how we look. Instead, I think beauty is for everyone. We are all beautiful and we must give ourselves permission to be. Simultaneously, we must also give others permission to be beautiful no matter how ‘far’ they are from the norm of beauty we’ve been brought up on. Love goes both ways, as does shame, and I’d far rather be able to look myself in the mirror and like the person staring back at me while also letting myself have off days, be unattractive and just to be human. And yes, challenging and changing beauty norms is not easy and there is so much work to do but maybe it starts with shamelessly (and safely) showing ourselves to the world. In essence, I got on that podium for me – to turn all these ideas about beauty into an act, the act of stripping to my pants and reading a poem. Now I’ve done it, I don’t fear it so much, and maybe I’ll do it again.