Bums On The Heath With George Michael

What to do of a sunny Saturday afternoon in London? Well, yesterday, I jumped on a bus and zoomed north to Hampstead Heath. I had been told to find Jack Straw’s Castle, an old pub, from which friendly guides and red ribbons would lead me to my destination. I very much did not find the Castle and instead I ended up amongst the bushes and brambles of the wood passing the odd dog walker, jogger and family. Just when I was starting to despair that I’d never find my destination I heard something in the distance, the lyrics of a song were echoing between the branches guiding me to where I needed to go. The song was Outside and the event was the first global celebration of George Michael Wants You co-organised by the great Queer Tours of London and Camden LGBT Forum.

In essence, it was a big, queer party in honour of the legend that is George Michael. In 1998 Michael was arrested by an under cover police officer for having sex in a public lavatory in a Beverly Hills park. Naturally, the press went for it and tried to tear the man to pieces. They smeared his sexuality over the headlines and boggled as to how a man such as George Michael could do something so ‘lewd’. They marvelled at how ‘depraved’ the gay male community could be without stopping to think that perhaps their relentless prejudice and bullying might exacerbate the many woes the LGBT community so often faces. Never one to admit defeat, Michael responded with the song Outside, a few lines of which read, “Let’s go outside in the sunshine, I know you want to, but you can’t say yes. Let’s go outside in the moonshine, take me to the places that I love best.” I don’t think you need to read between the lines to get what he was doing there, namely, reclaiming something wonderful and natural from the bigoted claws of the regularly abysmal media and turning oppression into a smash hit.

So tens of people gathered in Hampstead Heath’s most famous cruising area to get dancing, singing, laughing and making merry (and possibly making another kind of merry in the bushes, if you know what I mean). And it was just flipping awesome. There were families, friends, dogs and even the odd tourist walking by suddenly caught in the speakers’ music and the smiling faces. One of my favourites was two women and two young boys in sports kit (perhaps two Mums with their sons) who walked quickly by only to spot the guy dressed in nothing but a jock strap. The two women’s faces split into big grins and the two boys started laughing. They tried to carry on walking but kept stopping to take another look at the revelry. I think their behaviour is very familiar: that curiosity, intrigue and, perhaps, a little titillation of being caught on the edge of something that looks a little unfamiliar but also quite fun. And that’s why the event yesterday was an open invite, all really were welcome. I also heard so many different languages, including many from around Europe, and I think if anything can act as a metaphor for the sort of fierce joy and emboldened merriment that we’ll need as we continue through dark times it was yesterday’s first ever global celebration of George Michael Wants You. So head outside folks, whether it’s outside of your comfort zone, outside of your usual social group or outside onto the Heath for a spot of dogging (or dog walking).

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The Cocoa Butter Club: Not Proud To Be White

There are many things about my identity of which I am proud but being white has never been one of them. I have never felt my body thrill with the pride of having pale skin nor stood arm in arm with others as we’ve identified around the activity levels of our melanin. I’m proud of other things and, for me, my skin colour has never been an issue. However, whilst that might sound like a good thing – that I’m not a racist – there’s still something else going on here. Namely, white privilege, and last night the epic Cocoa Butter Club reminded me that I’ve got it in spades.

The Cocoa Butter Club celebrates performers of colour within cabaret. In their words: “as Creatives, when faced with the issues of cultural appropriation, lack of representation and even black-facing in cabaret, we had no choice but to create!- create something beautiful in response. So, we set up the alternative option for those who don’t want to see trivializing, appropriating or clowning of our cultures, but perhaps experience how fabulous our histories and  cultures are, as told by us.” And at the Hospital Club last night there was a whole Supershow of epic performances. Some highlights for me include: the outstanding Miss Knock Out Noire who, for her first act, revealed a great deal whilst dressed in a banana themed costume and for the show’s final act performed an electrifying burlesque to a mix of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit. Meanwhile, Symoné twirled at least ten hula hoops at once (I can barely manage one), Loraine James did some ace dj-ing and Carlos Maurizio sung some moving tunes. There were many others and if you want to watch them, which I highly recommend, go find the Cocoa Butter Club wherever they are next (and give them your money!).

But back to white privilege. During the show speaker and activist Kayza Rose asked if there were any allies in the audience. Me and my white friends released a tentative whoop, I was a bit scared that I was about to get told off for being an ally when I should be an accomplice – y’know, trash the system and make a better one rather than just talk/blog about these issues. She then asked again and we cheered a bit louder this time. And this is the thing, fellow whites, people of colour don’t need our hesitancy, guilt or white tears let alone our disregard and indifference they just want us to do something. To challenge that racist joke our friend just made, to educate other whites, to join protests and to co-create safe spaces that people of all colours can enjoy. Sure, it’s tough(ish) to have to realise that we whites benefit from centuries of the oppression of people of colour and, yeah, it’s not as if we’re as bad as our slave-owning ancestors but the white person’s identity crisis is not something with which people of colour need to be bombarded – they have enough issues to deal with, namely, having to deal with institutionalised racism which exists in many places including the cabaret scene. We can have our crises at home with our fellow whites and then, when we’re feeling empowered, clued up and ready to get hula-hooping we can take the fight to the government, workplace, street or wherever oppression is playing itself out. Don’t get me wrong, I am not pretending I’m doing enough to sort this problem out, I also cheered when Rose asked if any of the allies in the room felt they should do more. But I do think the quicker us whites can acknowledge our white privilege the more active we can get in trying to make society more equal. Plus, as Miss Knock Out Noire’s performance proves the struggle for equality can also be a lot of fun.

Do I Owe You Anything?

“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” This quote from the sci-fi novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin ended one of my previous posts. And now I want to take a closer look – what might it actually mean if we were to free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning?

To explore this I am going to get personal and focus on relationships. One sort of relationship is friendship and it is often governed by notions of deserving and earning. For example, if I give my friend a present for their birthday then I might think that I deserve to get one for my birthday, that I’ve earned it. But if we free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning how then can we describe this scenario? It’s obvious that my friend and I care about one another, which is why we’re friends, so I give them a birthday present predominantly as a means of expressing that care. I don’t have to give them a present but I do choose to. Now, I’ve done a nice thing for them but does that mean they have to do a nice thing for me? Well, if earning/deserving are out the window then the simple answer is no. There is no universal law or cosmological truth or fundamental principle that means every good deed deserves another. However, my friend, uncompelled by abstract principles, might still choose to give me a present because they also want to express their care for me and because they know I like getting presents.

The two situations I’ve described above aren’t hugely different – they’re both about giving and receiving presents. However, in the first we can fall back on ideas of earning/deserving – “I gave you a present, so I deserve one”, as if there are unwritten laws that govern how friendships work. In the latter, we cannot fall back on these invisible laws but instead must take responsibility for our actions and choose what we’ll do accordingly. To go back to the quote we can consider the ideas of earning/deserving from two angles: either, everyone deserves everything, or no one deserves anything. The former suggests that we all deserve birthday presents and that sounds great but as soon as the scenario arises in which some people get lots of presents whilst others get none then the principle is undermined. Likewise if we all deserve nothing then we could use this to justify hoarding presents for ourselves whilst never giving them to other people. However, without the ideas of deserving/earning then the act of giving presents is about choice. We love our friend and might choose to express that via giving a present. And so, freeing our minds of the ideas of deserving/earning changes everything. Rather than being governed by rules or laws or decrees or commandments we are suddenly free to act however we wish – we can give as many or as few presents as we want. We get to choose. To put it another way rather than being forced to sing to another’s song we get to compose our own: we get to make our kind of music.

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.

The Trouble With Trans People, Is Cis People

The BBC’s recent documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? makes one thing abundantly clear – that the BBC does not know best when it comes to how trans kids should live their lives. Before I go on I want you to pause and reflect on how much you know about the experience of being transgender. Nope. Don’t read on, take a moment. I’ll put a paragraph break here to facilitate that process…

Ok, before you get irritated with me for being patronising that exercise was intended more for the people who know very little. Because I’ve had far too many conversations with people who are largely ignorant of trans experiences yet often attempt to speak for and over them. I believe the BBC’s documentary adds to this problem, which is why I want to challenge it. Yup, in essence, it’s another post in which I call bullshit.

“Here’s one of the things that’s lovely about being transgender, we mess with everyone’s theories of gender,” says Hershall Russell, a psychotherapist and activist, with a huge smile on his face. And it’s true. It was only in 2014 that I realised I was cisgendered: that I had always identified with the gender I was assigned at birth. I had never spent particularly long exploring my gender for myself and had always accepted that because a doctor assigned me male at birth, because they saw a penis between my legs, then I must be male. It’s 2017 now and I no longer consider myself cisgender and without going into the details the point I am making is that I have now taken the time to explore my gender for myself. This is something many of us will not do as we remain cisgendered and unquestioningly slot into the readymade binary of masculine and feminine that mainstream society offers us. Of course, as Russell says, everything gets messed with as soon as we realise it’s far less simple than the binary would have us believe and no one makes this more abundantly clear than transgender folk.

So, it’s tough to watch a BBC documentary in which much air time is given to Ken Zucker who, yes, was allegedly the world expert on gender dysphoria as the voiceover keeps reminding us but also an advocate of gender-reparative therapy, which encourages gender non-conforming kids to stop behaving in non-conforming manners. To put it bluntly (and somewhat crudely) this might involve stopping a boy from playing with Barbies or a girl wearing camo (and, once upon a time, may have involved electroshock therapy). There are a few problems here. Firstly, these are issues of gender expression and not gender identity, which the majority of trans activists would acknowledge are different, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the experience of being transgender. Secondly, this is clearly a value-laden process that encourages/forces kids to conform so they can ‘fit-in’ because Zucker and the like think that will make them happier. However, the documentary gets even lighter on nuance at this point and given the lack of trans education available to the general public, can anyone really be expected to form a balanced opinion when the documentary isn’t even focussing on what’s in the title?

We need better documentaries than this and one reason for that is because I am bored of having the same conversations with ignorant cis folk. We have access to google, Ecosia and wikipedia – please use them. Everyone’s experience of gender is different including every transgender person – it is not up to anyone to make crass, reductive statements on behalf of anyone else. If you just can’t imagine what it might be like to be a different gender to the one you were assigned at birth, or if the thought of sex reassignment therapy ‘weirds’ you out, or if you do think we should all conform to the genders we were assigned at birth, then you’ve got lots of work to do. But I am afraid watching the latest BBC documentary isn’t going to be much help. The best place to start would be seeking out the lived experiences of trans folk by watching interviews or reading blogs. Begin to figure out how to empathise with lives that might be very different to your own and when it comes to gender, why not explore your own rather than dictating to others how they should explore and experience theirs. You could also watch the ace TV series Transparent.

This House: Comedy, Tragedy or Farce?

It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.

Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.

I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.