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).

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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.

The Unhappy Tomato

She was just your average tomato: red, rosy and often in good cheer. She loved living in the vegetable aisle. She had lots of friends – the carrots, who liked having a laugh; the outspoken aubergines, who always stood up for each other; the kind courgettes and even the cabbages. She didn’t get on well with the leeks, who were often the bullies of the aisle, but other than that she felt at home. It was a great supermarket as well because vegetables were the top priority and there weren’t that many fruits at all because the store manager didn’t like them. But that didn’t bother tomato and she was happy as she was, until the day she discovered something very important – that she was different – she wasn’t a vegetable after all, she was actually a fruit.

All along she’d been in the wrong aisle and now she was worried about telling her friends. Fruits were always the butt of the vegetables’ jokes and many veggies actively hated fruits, sometimes the potatoes would go round the fruit aisle and beat up a bunch of grapes. She told some of her closest friends and whilst one got all upset the others were supportive of her. But that still wasn’t enough so, one night, she snuck away and went to find the fruits. She didn’t regret it – she met strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes, and had an absolutely great time as well as making a bunch of new friends. However, as time went by she realised that not all was well in the fruit aisle. Underneath the smiles and the peels she discovered that many of the fruits were damaged and bruised, it turned out being a fruit in a vegetable’s supermarket wasn’t so great after all. She even discovered that many fruits had given themselves up to become juice because they couldn’t take it any more. And so the happy tomato became decidedly unhappy.

Then a new store manager arrived who hated fruits even more than the last and it got quite dangerous for the tomato and her new friends. Nevertheless, they bandied together and prepared themselves for tough times ahead. But the thing that really broke the tomato’s heart was that when she went to visit the vegetable aisle, to see her old friends, they just weren’t that interested. They were so caught up living their veggie lives that they’d never really stopped to consider what it must be like to be a fruit. She tried hanging out with them but the carrots kept cracking jokes about bananas and the auberinges kept going on about how much they hated grapefruits. The friendly parsnip didn’t mind but didn’t really get it either, he even called her his BFF – Best-Fruit-Friend, which pissed her off no end.  And so it dawned on her that whilst she’d been on a long journey from the vegetable to the fruit aisle and made so many new friends, learnt so many new things and had a whole punnet of ace experiences, there were many that hadn’t been on the journey. Something had changed for the tomato and whilst she still had time for her veggie friends she no longer felt quite at home in a vegetable’s world.

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Wear A Red Ribbon Folks, It’s World AIDS Day

What!? I hear you say, why do we need yet another day about something? Didn’t Trump just get elected to power on International Day Against Fascism and Antisemitism. Well, let me put this to you starkly: since the discovery of the virus in 1984 over 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS. As the World AIDS Day website says, it is “one of the most destructive pandemics is history.” It is a plague that has killed many, is killing many and will kill many. With it comes another plague too, one of apathy and stigma, and this you can help fight by educating yourself and those around you.

I could carry on like this, relaying to you facts you can read on Wikipedia or one of a number of websites. I could tell you all about the inspiring film “How To Survive A Plague” which tells the stories of numerous passionate activists and expert scientists working together to develop cures and treatments for HIV and AIDS (on tonight from 6pm at The Cinema Museum in south-east London, go, go, go). I could also tell you about the greed of pharmaceutical companies and their indifference to the suffering of millions. I could tell you of the stigma and hate burning in the hearts of so many people, be they pedestrians on the pavements, preachers in the pulpits or presidents in the White House. I could tell you how ongoing ignorance condemns so many to needless misery and death. Yes, I could tell you these things but I think you can find them out for yourself.

What I will tell you is that I love someone who is HIV positive. And the fact they’re HIV positive makes no difference to me. Instead perhaps that I admire them a little more for the courage with which they meet the world – a world whose track record on this cause is deeply shameful, save for those activists, scientists and all their supporters. And there’s still so much ignorance and prejudice out there, which means those who are HIV positive are not treated positively. So this World AIDS Day, have a heart and wear a red ribbon for those who have HIV and to commemorate those who are no longer with us. Go educate yourself too, it’s all here (and watch the movie tonight) and share this post, please. And remember this, that the HIV and AIDS pandemic is more than just a plague it is also a war, for when cruel hostility, bigotry and indifference result in the unnecessary deaths of so many then I’d say that’s mass murder. I wish that it didn’t have to be like this, that people were not forced to pick sides in this fight, but until my wish is granted the battle rages on. Please pick the right side.

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 Chemsex Monologues

Chemsex kinda does what it says on the tin, mixes chemicals and sex. The drugs used can include mephedrone, crystal meth, cocaine and ketamine. Naturally, a whole load of stereotypes get flung at the people and groups who engage in these activities which is why The Chemsex Monologues are so important because they reveal the all too human side behind the prejudiced slurs and sensationalised stories. But before you read my review go book your tickets, it’s on tonight until Saturday at 9.45pm at the King’s Head Theatre in London.

Directed by Luke Davies, written by Patrick Cash and designed by Richard Desmond this was an intense hour-and-a-bit. Through a series of monologues we were introduced to various characters: the narrator, played by Richard Watkins, who falls for that hot boy on the scene with the great abs and the endless energy. Then Denholm Spurr brings that boy to life as Nameless, who gets to live his dream and meet a porn star. Meanwhile, Charly Flyte plays Cath, the ever faithful fag hag who’s getting a little fed up of her so-called fag. And Daniel, the wonderfully upbeat sexual health worker who loves handing out condoms and lube at saunas and brings red wine to a chemsex party rather than chems. All the cast were fantastic, they found the nuances of character and the expressive range to ensure each monologue was delivered as the multi-layered story it was written as. It wasn’t just someone stood up and talking for fifteen minutes instead we were drawn into worlds of sweaty bodies, M&S ready meals and chemically fuelled orgies. That all the monologues wove together to tell a larger, interlinked story and showed the same characters from different angles proved very satisfying but I shan’t spoil anything (but what I will say is that I’m very glad how things turned out with Swallows).

What also worked so well in this production as in Queers (also produced by Dragonflies Theatre), was that thread of emotion that meant the stories told were more than just anecdotes but had real heart. That Cath was so much more than a fag hag but also a loyal friend, a hardworking single mum and an amazing source of positivity. That Nameless was more than the boy in short shorts (and nothing else) but had so much love to give and poetry to share. That both the narrator and Daniel could see the cracks in the facade of this seemingly glamorous world and still be there to offer a hand. I’d also like to add that I sincerely hope Matthew Hodson is as nice in person as the characters he plays are – Daniel was a legend as was the character Hodson played in Queers (no pressure Matthew). However, the niceness of these characters just exacerbates the tragedy that runs throughout the play. There’s a moment when Daniel’s wondering to himself why so many people do mix chems and sex. He thinks back to a GCSE classics class and remembers that the word ecstasy comes from the Greek extasis: a displacement or removal from the proper place. “Why do so many gay men want to be outside themselves?” he wonders and I thought that was a very good question. Is it just for fun or is it that this so-called real world can be so endlessly hostile and unwelcoming, so shaming of minorities yet so quick to tokenise and ridicule them whilst remaining indifferent to their suffering. If this is one of the messages woven into The Chemsex Monologues then it’s a wake up call for so many of us to stop being so indifferent and unfriendly because people like Nameless, Daniel, Cath and whatever-the-narrator’s-actually-called are priceless and should be made to feel at home. Anyways, enough of that, go book your ticket.

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Denholm Spurr as Nameless in The Chemsex Monologues

 

I Call Bullshit: Bored Of Being Polite To Bigots

“I call bullshit!” It’s my favourite post-referendum phrase at the moment and basically it’s a catch-all for whenever I hear someone chatting a whole load of bollocks. Whether it’s Theresa May promising greater equality in Britain, or Borish Johnson saying you can contextualise away his many racist and sexist slurs, or anyone saying Britain can be great again without even the semblance of a back-up plan. I call bullshit to all that. But there’s something I call even greater bullshit to and that’s intolerance.

I was brought up to be polite. Very polite. In many ways that’s a good thing, I always got on well with my friends’ parents and I tended not to go around brazenly offending people. On the other hand it did mean I avoided conflict and internalised the majority of slights I suffered only to let them fester and reappear as passive aggressive comments or sudden outbursts of anger, neither of which were particularly helpful. So, I think there’s a balance to be struck between being polite enough – i.e. not being a total wanker to people – and being blunt – i.e. being honest to call out bullshit when you see it. A bit of conflict is healthy after all.

So, this is one for all the casually bigoted people I know – the sort of people who profess to not being racist but crack the odd joke about people of colour; the sort of people who profess to being tolerant but don’t really like Muslims; the sort of people who profess to not being homophobic but call bad stuff ‘gay’; the sort of men who profess to not being sexist but tell women to get back in the kitchen; the sort of Tory voter who genuinely thinks a party wedded to the banks and neoliberal capitalism can get us out of this mess; the sort of Brexiteer who doesn’t like the democratic deficit in the EU but is blind to the democratic deficit in the UK and the sort of privileged cynic who criticises society and the people in it whilst selling out to be a banker. Basically, I call bullshit to any of the crap that undermines equality and diversity in this country.

I believe in a plurality of values: I am happy for people to practice different faiths, I am happy for people to vote for different parties (e.g. between Labour and Green), I am happy for people to have differences of opinion but I am not happy if any of this promotes hostility and hate. For the sake of Britain being great again we must be intolerant of intolerance. It is not true that anything goes and I will fight tooth and nail to combat prejudice. So, yes, I will throw off the shackles of over-politeness and call bullshit to bigotry. Bigots beware (and while you’re at it, just piss off and get a life)!

Keep Calm