Homophobia In Twelfth Night At The National Theatre

Twelfth Night, it’s a Shakespeare rom-com classic: twins, ribaldry, much confusion and a bunch of marriages. The National Theatre very kindly shared their brilliant live version online, which I watched again last night. For the second time I was blown away by Tamsin Grieg’s show stopping performance as not Malvolio – the uptight steward – but Malvolia, the female version, who is tricked via a forged letter into believing that her mistress, Countess Olivia, loves her. Malvolia is over the moon, she even starts dancing in a fountain. “I thank my stars,” she shouts grimly, trying to smile, “I am happy.” She’s quick to don yellow, cross-gartered stockings (all things the Countess hates) and it’s not long before Olivia has her locked away only to be further bullied by her tormentors. Thus, thanks to the NT’s gender switch it transpires that the fate of a woman who loves another woman is…torture. Damn.

As Tamsin Grieg said in a recent interview, “I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.” And it’s true. For all Malvolia’s arrogance and her nastiness towards some of the other characters, her fate is one of torture at the hands of a bunch of sadistic homophobes. Grieg also said that, “Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope.” So we’re also seeing violence towards someone with a mental health condition. It’s no surprise that the play ends with a distraught Malvolia crying bitter tears in the rain swearing revenge on those who have bullied her, while most of the other characters are busily getting married. Damn.

As for the marriages, they need some explaining. Remember the twins – Viola and Sebastian. They were separated in a shipwreck, both thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario and starts working for Duke Orsino who gets her to woe the love of his life Countess Olivia. Trouble is Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola while Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino, who keeps finding himself oddly attracted to Cesario/Viola. And then Sebastian turns up at the end and all manner of confusion/hilarity ensues. Olivia quickly marries Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario while Duke Orsino is over the moon to discover that Cesario is actually a woman, Viola, who he promptly marries. Even Sir Toby Belch and Maria get married (two of the characters instrumental in Malvolia’s torture). As for Antonio the friendly pirate who rescued and fell in love with Sebastian (they even share an early onstage kiss)…he’s left to watch Sebastian get married to Olivia. So it’s happy ends all round for the heterosexuals (who didn’t turn out to be queer after all, phew), while the people who openly love people of the same gender end up bullied and alone. Damn.

So I was left wondering if this was an appropriative queering of a classic by a group of well-meaning (but perhaps slightly ignorant) creative types or if it was a searing indictment of the ridiculousness that is heteronormativity and its associated rituals – I mean, Sebastian marries Olivia within five minutes of meeting her, which is incredibly problematic given she can’t consent to marry Sebastian because she thinks she’s marrying Cesario; Orsino is so utterly repressed he can’t let himself fall in love with a man, inappropriately persuing Olivia instead who has already made her disinterest clear. And there’s the brief scene at The Elephant, a queer-ish bar, with a drag performer who ends up getting punched by Sebastian, along with a number of the other patrons (a needless bit of queer bashing methinks). Not forgetting the queerphobic abuse that poor Malvolia suffers and it’s almost as if the moral of this production is that it’s shit being queer.

File:Johann Heinrich Ramberg - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene iv - Google Art Project.jpg
Check out those yellow, cross-gartered stockings! By Johann Heinrich Ramberg

Another Badly Drawn Gay: Love, Simon

I hate to be that blogger who comes for the friendly, gay-guy-next-door protagonist of cutesy Hollywood coming out film Love, Simon…but, fuck it, I’m gonna be that blogger. Not because the actor Nick Robinson doesn’t act his socks off as the lead role, Simon Spier, but because so much of the story and his characterisation is problematic. To catch you up on the plot, in case you missed it, Simon is gay but hasn’t told anyone, he starts up an anonymous online conversation with another gay guy called “Blue” and spends most of the film wondering who this other guy could be. En route to the reveal he dates his female best friend and really upsets her, behaves pretty questionably towards his other friends, chats with his parents a bit and, come the finale, discovers who Blue really is (then makes out with him on a Ferris wheel, cute right). In essence, it’s your classic coming out coming of age story as Simon is very worried about telling the world who he really is. He imagines it in all sorts of way, like in this fantasy, dance sequence…

What a lovely scene, right? Well, no. Because listen again to that penultimate line: “yeah, maybe not that gay.” Not that gay. What on earth is that supposed to mean? That there is spectrum of gayness and if you wear a grey t-shirt, dance quite badly and quietly have sex with your boyfriend off-screen then that’s fine. Whereas if you wear tight-fitting pink jeans, fly a rainbow flag and flounce with a limp wrist then that’s too much. Nope. There isn’t actually a spectrum of gayness but there is homophobia, lots of it, and it regularly gets internalised by gay men who grow up shamed, bullied and depressed. Simon will have experienced this homophobia and a drastic lack of support in claiming his identity and even if he never encounters verbalised or physicalised homophobia simply living in a heteronormative society will have crushed a part of his soul (I speak from experience). Hence, Simon worries about being that gay, when really I dream for him to be as flipping gay as he wants, but that’s too much for a mainstream Hollywood movie. This point is compounded when secondary character, Ethan, who is visibly queer, out, has dark skin, wears flamboyant clothing and is camp as Christmas gets bullied at school. Simon looks over and, rather than run to Ethan’s defence, instead turns to his friend and says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so easy for them.” Oh, Simon, you have a lifetime of self-loathing to unravel and it ain’t going to get solved by kissing some guy at a funfair. In this instance, internalised homophobia is being turned on another gay man even though their shared sexuality could be a reason to bond and support one another. For more on Ethan and why he is the REAL hero of the film read this epic article by Naveen Kumar.

It concerns me that Love, Simon did so well as a movie. It won all sorts of prizes and accolades (and even got described as “groundbreaking”) even though its presentation of male homosexuality is so problematic. Which makes me wonder if the film is really for gay, white, cis men or actually just for straight people with less awareness and lower expectations. I mean, it got called the “queer Cinderella story of our time” but given my definition of queerness involves intersectionality and challenging heteronormativity, then Love, Simon is just kinda straight. And it’s a coming out story. Just that. We’ve had a gazillion coming out stories and they’re getting quite dull – I want to know how to live beyond coming out, when the people you’ve come out to have forgotten, or you have to come out again to new people, or how to make a long-term relationship work, or how to deal with having your identity regularly invalidated and/or threatened, and that moment when you realise heteronormativity and systemic homophobia is grinding your soul and community into dust (I speak from experience). I basically want to know what happens to Simon when all that internalised homophobia finally catches up with him (I bloody hope his straight friends are around to support him through that) and how he finds a happily ever after beyond.

Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostracised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.

Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).

The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.

It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.

 

I Think It Is Called Belonging

The Quest, think Queer As Folk meets Lord of the Rings, just ran for a week at the Arcola Theatre in East London. For six nights I got to watch a fabulous, queer troupe bring a range of characters and worlds to life. There was Fred, the bisexual teenager on his first Tinder date, whose past catches up with him, and Zemuel, of the mythic Valley of Embers, sent on a quest to banish the monster that haunts them. There were other characters too such as adoptive mothers, gossiping friends, a village Elder, a sarky waiter, a loving dad, teachers, a LOTR-disliking intersectional feminist, a best friend and a waterfall lover. The directing was fantastic and it was amazing to see my words brought to life on stage. And the audiences loved it. There was laughter, tears and many words of congratulations. Many people felt deeply moved by the stories of Fred and Zemuel, and they hit home for a lot of the team as well, as growing up queer in an oft hostile world means we are all faced with monsters. So, really, this was so much more than a play, it was its own quest, one for belonging.

Because that’s what I crave as a member of the queer community. I want to feel like I belong among people who care for me and care for our wider community. People who are spiritually, emotionally and physically nourished, and given a chance to heal the wounds of their past so they can live lives of greater freedom and face the difficulties of today. I want us also to be able to enjoy the many joys of our lives – such as making an ace piece of theatre. There is so much unbelonging in the world, for so many of us, and the queer community is hit by this unbelonging at a number of intersections. As the King of Brunei imposes the death penalty for gay people, so the fight for survival is still very much real. In Britain there will continue to be high rates of LGBT+ suicide, especially among young people, there will be LGBT+ homelessness, and a range of mental health problems exacerbated by societal prejudice and indifference. It’s a tough world to live in and the quest for Queertopia continues. A quest that straight and cisgendered folks need to join, so they can offer their power and allyship to their queer companions who will stand by them in return (and make ace pieces of theatre to boot).

So, thank you to the wondrous cast and crew of The Quest who helped prove that Queertopia can exist here on earth. While the play might be over I know we have all come away with pride and, hopefully, a little more of our soul – a sense that even though many of us might still struggle with belonging in this world, we can at least belong to ourselves more deeply and, hopefully, one another. Now in an act of unforgivable arrogance I will leave the last word to Zemuel, after they have vanquished their monster and returned to the villagers in the Valley of Embers, their new home…

“They are all there. A feeling wells inside of me, one I can barely name, but I think it is called belonging.”

The Valley of Embers – photo courtesy of …

Does Watching Gilmore Girls Make U Homo?

This website is a WordPress one and as the administrator I get to check out the back end. There, I can look at how many people have (or haven’t) read my latest post, I can edit my draft posts and I can even discover what search terms people have used to find this site. I’m not quite sure how this works but I guess it has something to do with Google. Search terms that have been used include: “anal sex is disgusting”, “anal sex is for the selfish and self absorbed”, “princess fierce faggot”, “hufflepuff rebranding”, “tomato images”, “liam fox utter twat”, “you tube smack me on the bottom with a woman’s weekly” and the title of this post: does watching Gilmore Girls Make U Homo?

It’s an interesting question, not least because of the proposed correlation between sexuality and Gilmore Girls but the idea that watching something can make someone homosexual. For example, at what point would a heterosexual person (and I’m assuming a male or maybe a concerned partner, parent, Priest etc) become homosexual? Would watching one episode be enough or would it have to be a whole season or every single episode ever, including those awful new ones? And how would the process work? Would said heterosexual man suddenly find himself exclusively attracted to men or would it take a bit longer as he gradually starts to find his male mates hotter than his female ones? As you can see, there’s a lot going on in one simple question.

Clearly homophobia is something going on here as the implication is that being homo is bad (unless this straight person yearns to be gay and is trying to figure out a way of changing). There’s shame and repression going on here as men’s sexuality tends to be marked as rigid – straight or gay, with bisexual men either being confused or greedy – and a deviation from that rigidity, rather than being something exciting, is seen as shameful and negative, and regularly violently repressed. There’s misogyny going on here as the assumption is that for a man to watch a show with two female protagonists is so emasculating that it alters his sexuality, which is nearly as bad as being a woman. There’s the assumption that it’s easy to label sexuality, as if one can point at an occurrence, e.g. two men holding hands, and say “gay”. Or two lads drinking beer together and chatting about birds, “straight”. Or a guy watching Gilmore Girls, “homo”. Yet I think these acts of labelling tell us more about the finger pointer and the culture they live in than anyone’s sexuality and I think it’s worth exploring that culture and its labelling further. Now, here’s the closest I could find to a coming out story on Gilmore Girls.

No Homo

“I’m gonna take my shirt off, no homo…I’m gonna take my pants off too, no homo…I’m gonna give you a hand job, no homo.” It’s a little phrase, no homo, that does a lot of work. It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card in Monopoly – it means you can do the arrestable deed but not get imprisoned for it. It means a straight guy can do a gay thing and still be straight. The list of these things are many and varied, from nudity around other straight men, masturabation, kissing, intercourse and aboslutely loads of things that gay men love doing together. Except the straight men doing it aren’t gay, right?

I’m currently reading the fascinating book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by Jane Ward, which shines a queer theorist’s light on the bizzare world of heteronormative, racially motivated not-gay gay intimacy and sex. From hazing rituals in Frat Houses to initiation “ceremonies” in the military, all sorts of excuses are given as to why men do these things together – to become part of a fraternity (the gayer the dare, the tougher the bond), because there aren’t any women around, because the women who are around don’t have the sort of sex these guys want, because of childhood trauma, inverted Oedipal complexes, an adolescent phase that will be grown out of, by accident. There are all sorts of reasons but one that never comes up is that these men are gay. Heaven forefend that one of these straight guys might be gay – that’d be awful right, almost as bad as being a woman.

What Ward’s book makes clear is the amount of effort these men, and the people around them, put into maintaining the infrastructure of heteronormativity – that there are two genders (male and female), heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation and sex/marriage should be between people of opposite sex. Biological sex, sexuality, gender identitiy and gender roles are all mixed together to create the doctrine of the heteronorm. So, if you slip from that doctrine, and kiss your mate, you have to justify it somehow – “no homo” is a start or saying it was a dare or you were really drunk. As long as you can justify it within the rules there’s some wiggle room. But come out and say you prefer men to women, then you’re gay, and out you go. The heteronorm is a heavily bifurcated place built on rigid beliefs about the human. Some of these beliefs might stem from the Bible – that God created Eve from Adam’s rib, or biology – that penis = man and vagina = woman. When it comes to sexuality, well, Leviticus said a man should not lie with a man and some scientists say sexuality is in our DNA, so as long as I don’t have the gay gene I’m fine (I can even shag my mates, within reason!). Regardless of the veracity of either of these belief systems what’s clear is that there’s little space for fluidity – of desire, expression, identity and romance. Instead the heteronorm establishes its rigid, violent and patriarchal boundaries, and polices them with force, often by denigrating and abusing the “other” – e.g. gay, female and/or black. Thus, from the queer angle that Ward offers we can see no homo a little differently – instead of an expression of a man’s inherent straightness, he is actually expressing his desire to hold onto the idea that he’s inherently straight. But is he?

What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.

F*cking Men And Passengers

One a play at the Vaults Theatre in London about the lives of ten gay men, the other a Hollywood romance about a decidedly straight couple falling in love as they zoom through outer space. The former is a great piece of writing accompanied by some wonderful acting and the latter is actually surprisingly good given that it’s a romance at zero gravity. However, as I watched these productions I felt I had seen them before albeit in different locations: men f*cking in Manchester for example and straight couples falling in love, well, pretty much everywhere. And it was the way the scripts unfolded that disturbed me the most (spoilers).

F*king Men introduced us to a world of brief encounters between men in dark parks, closeted professionals worried their careers would collapse if they out themselves, put upon sex workers and porn stars, HIV stigma and homophobia. It was also a world full of laughter, love and heart as different individuals and couples tried to make it work in a world where guys just seem to want to f*ck all the time. Meanwhile, in Passengers there’s only room for two straight people as Chris Pratt and J-Law discover they’ve woken up ninety years before the spaceship has reached its destination. As it turns out Pratt woke up first, then, a year later, woke up J-Law. Obviously, when she finds out she’s pretty mad but she ends up forgiving him and (straight) love conquers all, it even fixes a hole in the spaceship caused by a tiny asteroid.

And it’s funny isn’t it that the scripts of gay men’s stories don’t always end quite so happily as those of straight lovers. Now, I know I’m comparing an Off-West End show with a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s hardly like with like, but I’m concerned that so many of the shows I see about gay men are bittersweet or sometimes just bitter. It’s like each time we have to go through all the homophobia, shame, prejudice and self-loathing before we can get to asking what might happen next. Whereas there are so many scripts for straight folk that they can do as they please and often get happy endings to boot. Passengers ends in engagement after all (which, I appreciate, doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness) whereas F*cking Men ends with a young sex worker being given extra pay with which he might just be able to afford the mortgage on a flat with a kitchen – but, unlike the hole in the ship, the shame, stigma and self-loathing haven’t gone away. So, dear LGBTQIA+ allies, it’s another call for help – please help us queer folk get happier endings (and not just of the orgasm variety), please help edit the societal scripts that force us into hiding and get us hurt, and please listen to and share our stories. Next year I want to see two lesbians stuck in outer space, or two trans men, or two intersex folk, and I don’t want that plea to sound like a joke because I’m not being funny. And if you’re not going to write the script then I will and in the meantime I’ll carry on enjoying F*cking Men – seriously, it’s great – get your tickets here. Trailer below most definitely NSFW.

The Friday Night Kindness Kabaret

You know that gay stereotype, the ‘bitchy queen’ one, when the queer in question gives you a lot of sass and destroys your sense of fashion (or lack thereof) in two biting sentences. Then they down a double gin and tonic before offering a witty critique of each person in the room and why they’re all so damn ugly. In fact, I don’t just think you know this stereotype, I think you help promote it. Every time you laugh at those sorts of punch lines, every time you reduce your LGBT friend to a series of tropes and every time you call something ‘gay’, you are overtly/tacitly promoting the culture of queerphobia that still runs so strong in 21st century society. But wait a sec, aren’t I being a little too mean in a post about kindness?

Sure, I’ll be kind, but if you find yourself reading this post and you’re one of those friendly-but-kinda-ignorant straight people then you probably weren’t at the Kindness Kabaret last night in Soho. I was and it was fuming brilliant. There was burlesque from the epic Rubyyy Jones, some ace tunes from internationally ignored superstar Vanity Von Glow, jokes galore from Shon Faye, words of wisdom from writer Matthew Todd and witty banter from hosts Pat Cash and David Robson. But why was it called the Kindness Kabaret? Because Pat and David both feel that there isn’t enough kindness on the London gay scene. And from my own experience I know they’re right – there’s often aloofness, judgement, prejudice, cynicism and a whole host of other unkindnesses. And that’s not because queer folk are all relentlessly nasty but it’s because we have been relentlessly alienated, shamed and abused for being who we are and it’s no surprise that we internalise this Pandora’s box of prejudice and spit it back at one another. So, yeah, I will be kind but first it’s important that you realise the bittersweet fact of the Kindness Kabaret, i.e. that there needs to be one.

And what was even more fantastic about last night was that even though I went by myself I actually met some fantastic people. I got chatting with two friendly guys (and, no, before you jump to that conclusion I did not engage in a threesome and even if I had that does not make me fit your narrow, prejudiced stereotypes) and learnt lots about Sweden’s gay scene, the oldest coffee shop in Soho (I had my first cappuccino and unfortunately I liked it) and British colonialism’s abysmal homophobic legacy that is still present in far too many former colonies’ legal systems. So, in a scene that is often ravaged by unkindness, I thought it was pretty epic I found the opposite and had a bunch of tequila shots as well. As for you straight folks, I know you have your struggles too and one day I’ll post about them but in the mean time I’m asking you to listen to mine. And yes, I’m angry, of course I’m fucking angry, remember that LGBT sexual health and lifestyle education was banned from 1988 until the early noughties in the UK (aka, my entire childhood) and our education system still hasn’t caught up. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Remember this also, that under the frosty, hostile exteriors of those ‘bitchy queens’ there are vulnerable and fragile interiors scarred by a world so often full of hostility, indifference and prejudice. But you can be part of helping heal those wounds. So, yeah, I’ll be nice but you have to be too.

The HIV Monologues

On 24th May 1988 the authorities decreed that any local authority in the UK “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homsexuality…or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This was Section 28 of the Local Government Act and so a generation of children, myself included, were subjected to yet more homophobia and a complete lack of education in how to live a happy, flourishing and safe LGBTQIA life. On 21st June 2000 Scotland repealed this abysmal amendment and the rest of the UK caught up by 18th November 2003. But we haven’t really caught up because there is still so far to go and that’s where The HIV Monologues come in (a few spoilers ahead).

This was never going to be an easy play to watch and it wasn’t but not because it was terribly acted, far from it, but because it’s about HIV. It’s a seemingly simple story about Alex and Nick who are out on a Tinder date. It’s going really well until Nick says that he is HIV positive. Moments later and Alex gets stuck in a window trying to escape and Nick is pretty pissed off. Denholm Spurr makes a great Alex – insecure, selfish but irritatingly cute. He’s one of those likable unlikable characters, a bit like Fleabag from the hit BBC show, and as the story unfolds we do come to care about him. Meanwhile, Sean Hart portrays Nick’s despair, resolve and power brilliantly as he comes to terms with the new normal of his life. The monologues do occasionally become dialogues and when Spurr and Hart are on stage together the chemistry works (more on that in the next paragraph). I also absolutely loved Irene the Irish nurse played by Charly Flyte, who was treating AIDS in the 1980s. A presumably straight woman, she befriends one of her gay, male patients and takes up the cause. A scene in which she tells a bunch of salivating journalists what shame really is was just fantastic and I felt it a shame her character was only met once as she clearly had a life and story of her own that I wanted to know more about. Then there was Barney played by Jonathan Blake who had me crying before he’d even said anything. Blake (not Barney) was one of the first people to be diagnosed with HIV in the UK (and he was played by Dominic West in Pride) and his depiction of Barney was spot on as the partner to one of Irene’s patients. Warm, funny and quietly powerful Barney/Blake is someone I’d like to go for a drink with.

For me the most powerful scene was when Nick aPicturend Alex are on stage together, hiding in the toilets of G-A-Y about to have sex. Alex has just finished performing in an important play about HIV funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation (hint, hint, come on Elton, get your wallet out). But neither of them have any condoms. Instead, Alex says he’s got a pill and Nick’s confused because he’s already taken his anti-HIV pill (of which there are many different types that reduce the viral load of HIV and allow the immune system to repair itself, start here to find out more) but Alex is taking PrEP: Pre-exposure prophylaxis, which prevents HIV infection. I’ll repeat that, it prevents HIV infection. And what ensues is a beautifully described moment in which Alex and Nick enjoy having sex together for the first time. Of course, in the world of the play and the real world PrEP is still not accessible on the NHS and people who don’t have access to the medication nor the appropriate education are still needlessly contracting the virus. As I said, even with the repeal of Section 28 we still haven’t caught up.
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The HIV Monologues are on this Thursday & Friday, get your tickets here. Asides being brilliantly acted the monologues are well crafted and poignant pieces of writing by Patrick Cash and director Luke Davies evokes a whole rainbow of emotions from his cast. The stage and lights are also fab. So, no excuse, go, go, go. Be entertained, get educated and then go do what you can: help ACT UP in the fight to get PrEP mainstreamed, support your friends who might be at risk of getting HIV or who have it and educate everyone else, straight or gay, who has missed out on years of vital education. And then one day we’ll all meet at that epic G-A-Y after party funded by Elton John!