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 …
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Does The Quest For Queer Happiness Have A Destination?

Only two days now until the premiere of The Quest, a play I’ve written that parts mythic, part modern and follows the stories of Zemuel and Fred, both yearning to find home in an oft hostile world. It’s being put on as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Creative Disruption festival, which celebrates its many community theatre groups, including the Queer Collective, of which I am a part. Since January an ace group of queers have been tirelessly bringing the script to life with movement, voice, body and even sticks. The result is already beautiful and I can’t wait to see it on stage. You can too, get your tickets here!

Inspired originally by Matthew Todd’s great book, Straight Jacket, which outlines a number of problems the gay, male community is suffering from and how to face them. Whilst I was reading it I went off for an adventurous week in a rewilding Welsh valley. It was all very Legend of Zelda and whilst the people there with me were fabulous there was not much space for queerness. So the Queer Warrior character came to life to challenge this as well as the repetitive plot of the Zelda games – a young dude going off to rescue a Princess from a big monster, yawn. I wanted to be able to imagine an inherently queer fantastical world, one in which all LGBT+ folks can experience wholesome rites of passage as they step deeper into their identities. However, while I think it’s very important to be able to imagine these things I also know that I don’t live in such a world. All the problems outlined in Straight Jacket continue to exist, which is why The Quest is also set in London where shit happens and the characters have to deal with it.

So does the quest for queer happiness have a destination? I think so. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a place. I think it’s a state of mind and being that is hugely dependent on the places in which one finds oneself. For me it’s about cultivating self-love, pride and resilience in the face of self-loathing, shame and prejudice. It’s tough and all over the world LGBT+ folk are being persecuted simply for wanting to be themselves. Queertopia remains a distant dream but I still think it’s worth imagining these brilliant places where queer folk are happy and well nurtured whilst recognising the challenges we face in getting there. I do hope you’ll join us on The Quest.

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.

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.