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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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!)

G.B.F. And How To Educate Straight Folks The Funny Way

G.B.F. is just a fabulous movie: think Mean Girls meets a less offensive American Pie meets gay. It’s a classic high school tale with an LGBT twist as two gay friends, Tanner and Brent, struggle with coming out the closet. However, when Tanner is inadvertently outed by the exclusively heterosexual GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) he suddenly finds himself the centre of an awful lot of unwanted attention because it turns out everyone is dying to get a G.B.F – Gay Best Friend. Cue an abundance of brutal put-downs that only rival prom queens can dish out and a whole panoply of reactions to Brent’s gayness from the straight community.

These reactions include outright homophobia as the chief jock physically assaults Tanner and calls him a fag. There’s also religiously fuelled homophobia as one of the Mormon characters threatens him with eternal damnation. Then there are more subtle forms of discrimination in which Tanner is simultaneously lauded for his newly revealed homosexuality but objectified for it as well. Like the latest handbag many of the well-meaning but ignorant straight characters want to hang out with Tanner for the kudos it will bring them. However, what’s brilliant about this movie is that it doesn’t buy into obvious stereotypes as pretty much all the characters, even the ‘blond bimbo’ prom queen, are revealed to have multiple sides to their personalities that allow them to revel in the stereotype they are portrayed as whilst transcending it.

Because that’s the thing about stereotypes, they’re a bunch of characteristics that oppressors observe in an oppressed group, which are then turned into the defining features of that group. The oppressed group is then made to feel shame for possessing those features and stigmatised for doing so. So the oppressors get to have their stereotyping cake and eat it: they choose which traits to objectify a group with and then use them to reduce and victimise the oppressed. Not only is the gay guy who likes musicals and skinny jeans reduced to his penchant for those things he is then bullied for liking those things. It’s an endless cycle fuelled by ignorance and prejudice. But G.B.F. calls bullshit and revels in the skinny jeans and pop songs whilst also presenting the gay protagonists as brave, emotional and erratic people, i.e. as humans not just as tokenised extras. Yet it does take an awful long time for some of the straight characters to figure this out which is why this movie is perfect for those of all sexualities. For the straight folks out there who only know closets as the things clothes are put in see this movie as a fabulous and funny education in not objectifying LGBT people and valuing them as people. And for the queer folk out there know that one day the straights will catch up and whilst educating them can be a boring and relentless task it is much funnier when done with this movie.

The Trouble With A Gay Dumbledore

A few months ago I was getting excited for Star Trek Beyond, especially because (spoilers!) I’d heard there was an LGBT plotline in store. The character of Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) was being written as gay and whilst George Takei (the first actor to play Hikaru Sulu and gay activist) was rightly not that impressed it was still a change from the usual warpspeed sequences and other Trekky things I clearly know little about. Of course, what I really wanted was a gay Captain Kirk but I was told that would never happen because a Blockbuster movie with a gay protagonist just wouldn’t do well financially. However, unlike movie producers I am not in this for the money and I think it’s high time that LGBT folk of all ages had some good role models to look up to. Unfortunately, as one would predict, Hollywood is doing a terrible job.

Not only was Star Trek Beyond a very average film, the gay plotline lasted about five seconds. We saw Hikaru Sulu give another man, presumably his husband, a hug and then say hello to the young girl that is presumably their daughter. The scene was so bland and vague that the other guy could have been his brother and the little girl his niece. Apparently an actual man-on-man kiss was edited out because in the future there can be people who are entirely green and giant cities floating in space but same-sex PDAs are a big no-no. Meanwhile, numerous fans were up in arms about the “controversy” of the gay plotline and I think that just goes to show how far we still have to go. For now I’ll make do with a gayish hug.

Another example of a missed opportunity is, of course, Dumbledore. Not only did J.K. Rowling make him gay after the event – i.e. after the books had been written and films produced in which there was no hint of his sexuality – but it’s a shame that the only gay member of the Potterverse was a lonely old man who ends up dead. Fantastic Beasts could have made up for this but instead Dumbledore’s crush, Grindelwald, is too busy acting inappropriately around teenage boys and plotting the downfall of muggles. Yup, the other LGBT character is also a smörgåsbord of queer clichés and stereotypes. As for the four protagonists of the movie – all cishets (cisgendered heterosexuals, for more on this, click here). But, I hear you say, surely one of them could have been bisexual. Perhaps but just like with Dumbledore if a character’s sexuality is not made explicit then it just comes across as the ‘norm’, i.e. straight. But, I hear you say again, why should a character’s sexuality have to define them, surely they can be quiet about it? Of course they can and I agree with both points but the problem is you’re probably straight and you probably don’t see your sexuality as a definitive feature of you because you haven’t been routinely discriminated against for having a sexuality other than straight. You’re not regularly made to feel self-conscious or ashamed of your sexuality and if you are it is not because you are of the LGBTQIA community (it is for another equally grim reason that I will blog about in another post). And nor do you have to endure the crass plotlines of a relentlessly straight Hollywood as you search for inspiring role models. So, as far as I’m concerned Captain Kirk can wear a pink dress, have a limp wrist and sing show tunes whilst Dumbledore can have rainbow eyelashes, leather trousers and a biker boyfriend and still neither can be reduced to or defined by their sexuality. It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to. In the meantime it’s left to the fans to make some pretty creative stories of their own about their favourite queer characters.

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!

The Problem With Couples

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love couples. There are some great couples out there like Paul & Mary, Ben & Jerry, Brad & Angelina…oh. But sometimes couples can be problematic and here’s one of the ways I think that’s true. So, picture this: six nice people sat around a table at a restaurant having lunch. They’re all catching up about their lives, eating lettuce and sipping smoothies, something like that. They each take it in turn to talk about their lives and it turns out the first four are all straight and in relationships. They’re waxing lyrical about their partner, s/he is just fantastic, s/he just swam the Channel, s/he just invented a cure for cancer, etc. Wonderful. Isn’t that nice. However, person number five is straight and single and when it’s their turn things get a little awkward, they’re not in a relationship after all. As for person number six, they’re single and queer, so that awkward silence just got awkwarder. You get the gist right, let’s take a closer look.

Our society is just rammed with narratives that pressure us into believing in and aspiring to certain things. A big one concerns relationships. Rom coms, billboards, novels, magazines etc all encourage us to find that perfect partner. Alongside getting a job, getting enough money and finding meaning, finding ‘the one’ is just another box we need to tick on that all important list of ‘things you need to do to not be a total failure’. And it’s a huge relief when we finally find someone to settle down with (or endure for a year or so). It’s like a big weight is off our shoulders and we’ve just avoided a grim, sex-free future of loneliness and isolation, not to mention no grandkids. Phew. It’s understandable that if we believe in this narrative we will be relieved once we’ve found a partner and we’ll be happy as well, it’s fun having someone to share your life with, do stuff with and alleviate your insecurities. Ideally a best friend we can sleep with. Naturally, we want to tell our friends all about our new lover (finally, something interesting has happened in our lives).

Unfortunately, the flip side of this narrative is that it doesn’t work so well for ‘singletons’. Even the idea of being single implies we’re just a placeholder half-person until we gain meaning as a couple. We’re just biding our time and doing our best to ride out loneliness. Our lives must be grim. Which is why when lunchtime conversation shifts to us it gets awkward: if we’re single and unhappy then we affirm the narrative but also don’t really have a chance to talk about it because everyone else is coupled and happy. We’re often forced to pretend ‘everything’s fine’ even if on the inside we’re screaming. We do this because we want to fit in, because (coupled) people struggle hearing about others’ suffering and because we might believe that narrative too and think we’re failures. Next is the single but happy person, naturally, we’re considered slightly deluded because no one can be happy and unpartnered right, that sounds like far too much of a threat to this precious narrative. Then there’s the single, happy person who has lots of sex, also known as a ‘slut’ who just can’t settle down and hasn’t found the one. And then there’s the queer and single one, it’s highly likely we won’t even be asked about our relationship status because queer people don’t really exist right, we’re just some ‘exotic’ addition to a social group whose way of life is so different and alien to heteronormativity that it’s too hard for straights to get their heads around.

So, people in relationships, it’s time to step up. Yup, it’s great if you’re happy and in a relationship, well done, but please create space for people who aren’t in relationships be they happy or not. And please, if you believe that pressuring, deceitful narrative that life only means something if you’re partnered, please do not project that onto others. Basically, just do not become one of those smug and judgemental couples who will probably break up anyway because no decent long-term relationship can thrive off the mutual avoidance of fear (or maybe it can, I’ve never tried). Why not help out your single friends who want a partner by introducing them to other people (so they can enjoy the happiness of coupled life that you profess to) or offering some emotional support. And single folks, queer and straight, don’t single, be independent, and own it if you have the resources and the resilience. Also, if you need help, ask for it, even if you’re asking help from smug coupled people (they’re not that bad, well, most of them aren’t). Don’t give a toss about what they think because the priority is you getting the support you need and not pretending ‘everything’s fine’ if it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not single, I’m independent and if you find this blog challenges a narrative you hold dear then good. Here’s P!nk.