May 10, 2010

IconGay pride, queer pride: the battle for gay culture

How queer is Gay Pride? With its corporate sponsors and expensive after-parties, Prides across the UK seem happy to forgo politics for pop – and stepping into the gap are proudly queer alternative festivals. But do either sides truly represent LGBT culture? Siobhan McGuirk investigates…

Manchester’s Queer Up North International Arts Festival celebrates its eighteenth birthday this month, running a range of events 18th – 31st May. The festival line up reads like the track list on a ‘Best Of… Queer Arts’ album, including the obligatory handful of new tunes in the form of debuting acts.

International icons from Justin Bond to Amy Lamé are set to take centre stage. There’ll be cabarets, performances, exhibitions, club nights and parties, celebrating “genre-defying artists who make work that resists easy categorisation”. So says the brochure, strangely ducking the obvious implication that “queer” might well be understood as both category and genre.

A lot of people I know are brimming with excitement. They are ready to stretch their purse strings for tickets. Many are self-defining queers who feel “the scene” does not cater to their needs or outlooks and see Queer Up North as an annual highlight. Paradoxically, another chunk of friends have no idea the festival even exists. Despite the broad popularity of long-running alternative club nights Brenda and Bollox, both hosting specials for Queer Up North, the majority of events will pass by largely unnoticed.

Pride, too, splits opinion. Overly commercial and frustratingly apolitical for many, it is the high point of the year for some. There are overlaps between the two camps, of course, but there is still a discernable divide between the “gay” and “queer” scenes, and the gulf between them seems to be widening.

Peter Andre or Peggy Shaw?

18 years is quite a landmark for Queer Up North, yet 1992 is a very recent start date for first queer arts festival in Europe. The first Pride event in Manchester took place only two years earlier. It shows how much the visibility and public acceptance of LGBTQ has grown, and how quickly, that Manchester Pride and Queer Up North are each as popular as they are now – as their ability to attract corporate and council funding also attests.

Of course, there was a gay scene in Manchester long before then, with bars and cafes situated between drag shows, fetish clubs, alternative nights and cabarets – the type of event now more likely termed queer than synonymous with ‘gay culture’. These still attract audiences year-round, but have shifted further out of the spotlight. They have become niche. The scene, it seems, has been sanitised.

I recently heard that organisers of Manchester Pride asked outspoken poet Gerry Potter (Chloe Poems) to perform at the event, requesting omission of the word “fuck”, because it was not “family friendly”. Two years ago, youth activists were instructed to remove political slogans from their parade placards, because, said the poster police, “we do not want that kind of thing here”.

The attitude isn’t localised. It follows a common trend in which liberation rallies commemorating the Stonewall Riots have become Pride parades with organisers able to erect fences and charge entry fees. Queer movements have emerged to bite back, with radical politics and declarations of inclusivity. For its part, Queer Up North proudly proclaims that only 50% of its audience define as lesbian or gay. It is a celebration of diversity.

Former Artistic Director of Queer Up North, Jonathan Best, hints at what has gone missing from the scene when he describes the festival: “Queer Up North celebrates and supports artists who create work on their own terms, in their own way… here they can make the work they’re burning to make. They can risk and they can play.”

Limits of diversity

The festival has its critics, though, who say that events are overpriced and marketed to the middle-class. This is countered somewhat by the commissioning and community-based work of Queer Up North, which includes co-commissioning the FIT and the BLAZE series of collaborative projects working with a wide range of people in Greater Manchester. This year BLAZE is running projects with lesbian refugees and asylum seekers, medical students and queer communities. There is also the issue that the arts in general are terminally underfunded, making economic accessibility a difficult aim. After all, it’s easier to sell drinks than theatre tickets.

Of course, queer movements in general have faced backlash: some see the term queer as offensive rather than reclaimed. Others assert that their sexuality should not be presumed to dictate their politics.

Yet queer arts festivals such as Queer Up North, Liverpool’s Homotopia and Scotland’s Glasgay among others, at the very least, make space for important questions to be raised. They also offer a platform to unpopular or extraordinary responses. They demonstrate that to be L,G,B, T and/or Q is still seen subversive, even if you don’t want it to be. No matter how “pink” mainstream political parties have become, or acceptable civil partnerships are, society still insists on its norms.

The arts can explore the boundaries of equality debates and reveal the tension within them, highlighting the prejudices that persist, both on and off “the scene”: sexism, transphobia, body fascism, ageism, and racism only scratch the surface. When a polyamorous, asexual, mixed race, genderqueer artist announces that they will vote Tory because they, too, believe in “family values”, the audience laughs, recognising that the joke is on us.

A highlight of Queer Up North 2009 was the “La Gayola Spiegeltent”, a wooden, art-deco mobile dancehall which hosted a range of events, from stand-up to concerts to burlesque. This year the Spiegeltent programme is part-funded by Manchester Pride and will be erected in the Village, rather than in the city centre, as before.

Queer Up North will also throw down the queer identity gauntlet themselves, as three experimental theatre makers have been challenged to create short pieces capturing their own take on “queer”. It will be interesting to see the results, and by the close of the festival, how far the gay / queer divide has been addressed and whether new ideas will emerge over what it is to be L, G, B, T, I, Q in 2010.

Queer Up North: 18 – 31 May 2010
Manchester Pride: 27 – 30 August 2010

1 Response to Gay pride, queer pride: the battle for gay culture

  1. paul walsh says:

    is there a entrance fee for liverpool gay pride