Sunday, 31 January 2016

Queer Contact 2016

Gender isn’t a exactly new frontier for queer people, it’s always been a frontier. The law that got to be too damn much at Stonewall – as we should know by now but as Laverne reminds us – was that all patrons must wear three items of clothing ‘appropriate to their gender’ otherwise the police would crack skulls.

Gender and its multiple expressions are deep in the heart of queer history and art. It wasn’t long ago that homosexuality / drag / transgenderism were talked about as a continuum of expression. You encounter it in contemporary accounts of the Stonewall era, right up to Paris is Burning. The scare queens, butches and femme queens of yesteryear might not necessarily connote cis or trans precisely the way we think of those terms today. Our connections to one another as queer people of all genders are deep and abiding and vital.

Timely as ever, this year’s Queer Contact Festival puts together a broad and exciting programme where gender is frequently at the artistic frontier. Transparent has been one of the most radically queer mainstream shows ever created, winning dozens of awards as it interrogates ideas about sexuality, history and identity. It’s something of a coup that one of the writers and series advisors, Our Lady J, is appearing at Queer Contact 2016. Her original musical show ‘For the Love of Gospel’ will help demonstrate why she has worked with everyone from Sia to Debbie Harry, via Antony Hegarty, Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper and Scissor Sisters.

Next, from high-femme to bold and butch, Eilidh Macaskill’s ‘STUD’ puts a queer woman’s perspective on the traditional gender binary as she performs a series of hyper-masculine tropes, exercising her ‘penis envy’ with full comedy intact.

For a more local perspective on the performance of gender, Jez Dolan and Chris Hoyle’s ‘Life’s A Drag’ is the beginning of a year-long project that celebrates Manchester’s drag culture and its deep roots with performance, oral history and maybe even some participation, so get your foundation right.

If the Pet Shop Boys are ‘The Smiths you can dance to’, Erasure are the Pet Shop Boys you can really camp it up to. Singer Andy Bell’s Contact show will take him on a somewhat different route as he explores the vexed polysexual character of ‘Saint Torsten’ through a song-cycle written especially for him and lately performed at Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a chance to see and hear a legendary gay pop voice as never before.

Another Queer Contact highlight is the return of Debs Gatenby, star of the much-loved Hi, Anxiety, whose new solo show looks at those journeys, inside and out, in search of ‘A Place Called Happiness’.

A dose of raw comedy can be had in the Comedy Playground where seven stand-ups battle it out for your love and lolz, including Bethany Black of Cucumber/Banana fame, Suzi Ruffell from telly and a familiar flamboyant host...

As for me, I’ll be throwing a Queer Contact launch party in the shape of A Queer Revue! at Band on the Wall, featuring international and local trans, gay, lesbian and queer talent, including contemporary dance, singing drag queens, Kate Bush and Bowie tributes, poetry, pop videos, comedy and a big old party afterwards.

As for the rest of the programme, you can tuck into the full listings here, or use my handy taster guide below…!

Stonewall, and Stonewall by Roland Emmerich

To be honest I could barely get to the end of the trailer for Stonewall by Roland Emmerich. Instead, I’d encourage everyone to watch the Marsha P. Johnson documentary, ‘Pay It No Mind’, and Sylvia Rivera’s 1973 speech at Washington Square before you see Stonewall (or instead of). The Stonewall rebellion was so much by and about queer and gender non-conforming people of colour that to fictionalise a white male lead in a film about it seems like it can only possibly have been done at their expense. Why? Presumably to make the story more ‘palatable’ – and by palatable we mean suitable for Hollywood, and quite possibly the Oscars. Well, screw being palatable. Stonewall has been co-opted and whitewashed enough. Example: the Stonewall charity was founded in 1989 and only this year officially put trans rights on its agenda. Enough.

As a secondary point, it’s interesting (as a long-time Stonewall student) reading the think-pieces that have accompanied the kickback against the film. Various critics attempt to present as hard fact what cannot actually be proven about the Stonewall uprising, thus offering their own kind of historical re-write with a well-intentioned agenda. Sylvia Rivera moves to the forefront of the newest Stonewall narrative while the film itself apparently chooses to focus on Raymond Castro with a cameo possibly from a Marsha P. Johnson-esque character, while names like Marilyn Fowler, Jackie Hormona, Zazu Nova, Wolfgang Podoloski, Stormé Delarverie and Tammy Novak begin to fade away from the narrative – and as for the butch dyke (or possibly trans man) who was the first to escape arrest, she’s in the film, but people still wonder if she existed at all. This is the nature of Stonewall.

Most Stonewall historians have at some point had to disavow to some degree their principal sources of evidence. Everybody wants to have been there, thrown the first bottle or punch, and who wouldn’t? People fought hard, but not necessarily in the order we might think. I feel strongly in my heart that of all people, Marsha P. Johnson never spoke a dishonest word about anyone and that nobody had reason to speak one about her. Marsha was at Stonewall the first night (though if it was for her birthday she was celebrating early; she was born August not June), but how grieved might everyone be if it were more widely known that Marsha had described how, on the first night of fighting, she had frantically searched for her friend Sylvia Rivera, knowing that Sylvia would want to be involved, and had apparently found her asleep in Bryant Park, possibly homeless and perhaps using heroin. Sylvia couldn’t have thrown the first bottle from there, of course. Sylvia was with Marsha the second night of the fighting, with courage blazing, and subsequently devoted her life, her energy, her health to a movement for equality, or ‘power’ as she always called it, often living homeless and struggling with drink, always helping others, much the same as Marsha who would famously give you her last dollar – and it really would be her last. How are saints like this not fit for lead roles?