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 The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen.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.

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Angels In America Is So Gay

Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is an epic play. It’s epic in length: together Parts 1 and 2 come to some eight hours of stage time. It’s epic in theme: it combines the AIDS crisis with Reaganite politics with tales of migration with unrest in heaven. It’s epic in presentation: angels descend from the skies, burning books rise through the floors and ghosts prance about on stage. It’s so epic in fact that I think it counts as a modern-day myth – it hones in so painfully close on the intimate details of the characters’ unhappy lives that we end up passing through their blood cells only to see stars. Not to mention its exploration of the history of the Jewish people in America, the impacts of the religion of neoliberal capitalism a la Reagan and the pain of being homosexual in a straight man’s world. Not forgetting the ghosts, heavenly hosts and valium-induced trips to Antarctica either! That really is epic.

I saw Part 1 at London’s National Theatre last night. It comes in three sections (we had two intervals!) and I’d say the first third is pretty tepid as the odd set of giant Lego-like structures jars with the up-close introduction to the protagonists. The second third gets a little warmer as the actors get into role (and I stopped comparing it with the epic HBO series which had Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, tough to beat), even if they did rely a little too much on shouting at other. It’s the third third that blew me away as the seams of reality start to unravel, the Lego bricks get pushed backstage and the sh*t hits the fan. This is when the epic got epic.

Set in 1985 and written in 1993 Angels In America is, in many ways, a period piece but one that still resonates today. It explores the early years of a politico-economic order that we have inherited and isn’t doing well. As one character tells us towards the end of Part 1, “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.” So we’re living on the other side of Millennium and very much plunging into the crack, and not the sort of crack you might plunge into on a night stroll through Central Park. Whilst some of the characters appear to be cliché, for example, Belize the sassy, black drag queen (who only gets to steal one scene in Part 1 but will come back with a vengeance in Part 2), I think kudos is due to playwright Tony Kushner for inventing these clichés before they were clichés. However, I think both these concerns are reminders that we need more gay fantasias, lots more. Queer ones too and lesbian and trans and asexual and intersex and as multi-coloured as possible. We also need plays to remind us that today many people live with HIV and live very happily. Of course, many do not and the medication is still not widely available and there is just far too much stigma, as Angels aptly demonstrates. And that’s the thing about myths, while they are embedded in a certain time and place, say, Ancient Rome, a galaxy far, far away or 1980s New York, and focus on certain people’s lives they have the ability to transcend all this and echo throughout the ages. They appear universal because they tap deep into the human condition, a condition that might regularly change its clothes but still beats the same, dark blood. We might learn our lessons one day but in the mean time we can dance with those angels in America (bring on Part 2).

Theresa May: Shante, You Stay or Sashay Away?

RuPaul and his panel of bitches have the final say on Theresa May.

Michelle Visage: “Lady, you’ve been strutting it up and down the runway for nearly a year now and we know you can work shoulder pads, angels and chunky earrings but why red? I mean, your colour’s blue and here you are striding out of Number 10 wearing red, that was a faux pas.”

Ross Mathews: “Theresa May! I’m like you gurl, I like my men strong and stable, if you know what I mean.”

Michelle: “We all know what you mean!”

RuPaul: “The shade [giggles].”

Ross: “The Iron Lady throwbacks just rocked my world but I feel that behind all your looks there’s no substance. For the whole season we’ve been asking to see the real Theresa May and she just hasn’t emerged yet. Don’t get me wrong, I would lurve to frolic through a field of wheat being chased by a big hunky farmer but I have bigger aspirations than that.”

Michelle: “Getting banged three ways from Sunday in Hula Bar’s dark room.”

RuPaul: [cackles]

Carson Kressley: “Let me square it with you Theresa, I was gunning for you when Davina Cameron sashayed away. Michelle Gove was a tart, Andrea Gimme-Sum just couldn’t do make up for sh*t, Liam Foxy…who?…and the less we talk about Borissima the better. But your relationship with the runway has been vexed to say the least. The odd U-turn to show off that fab bum of yours worked a treat but you turned one too many times. And your cutting has just ruined those hemlines not to mention all those furs.

Michelle: “We don’t do dead animals anymore, hun.”

Carson: “And when you came out with those hunky police men we wanted tens of the well-hung fellas but we only got three. Also, that dementia themed dress…”

Ross: “…forgettable.”

Michelle: “And when we did the Broadway episode your Human Rights Act was not a class act.”

Theresa: “I just want to say that while I may subsist on a diet of cardboard and vacuities I have always done my best. Corbynina, Sturgoon and Caroline ‘The Queen’ Lucas may have big personalities…well, they may have personalities, but I have stood my ground even if I didn’t always get it right.”

Michelle/Ross/Carson: [stoney, unimpressed silence]

RuPaul: “Silence! I have pretended to listen to the judges for the last five minutes and regardless of everything I didn’t hear them say I have made my decision. But before I reveal it I want to level with you Theresa. Here on RuPaul’s Drag Race everyone is a winner, even the losers. Even the people who preach prejudice, exacerbate inequality and don’t always vote in favour of the gays. Because the Rupaul family knows that everyone, even the most hateful, needs some good loving. And, Theresa, apart from some good hard lovin’ you’re also gonna need to wrap up warm because your blue-faced fanboys are about to throw you some serious shade. They’re gonna smear your make-up, tear your dresses and scapegoat you for all the larger failings of a party that forgets to put 99.9999% of the population on the guest list.

“All of us on this show have faced shit times: we’ve been bullied at school, ostracised by society, isolated to the point of self-harm and for some, suicide. But despite all this we’ve kept our hearts and now it’s your turn, Theresa, to go find your own. Because if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna lead our country into a sustainable, equitable future?

“Now, whether it’s Shante, You Stay or Sashay Away it’s time you got lip-syncing for your life because we all know a good politician just mouths the words to someone else’s tune. Whether it’s the tune of neoliberal, corporate capitalism or the beats of the people. Either way, good luck and…

…DON’T FUCK IT UP.”

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).

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!)

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.

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.