Not just white gay male Pride

4 October 2013 by Jennifer

Some thoughts on diversity at Pride festivals.

Note on chronology

This was actually written between 20 & 25 March 2013 – i.e. a while before I started working on Notts Pride 2013. Other stuff happened and, as with the other recent article, I never got around to posting it at the time.

I’ll note where things in it have been overtaken by events. But I thought it was still worth putting up.

Actually, re-reading it now, I’m quite struck by how much the perspective I’m describing here informed my approach to the Pride 2013 stuff.

OK, so rewind to March 2013…

The question I was pondering

How to make Pride entertainments more reflective of the variety of people in the audience?

It’s not always as simple as “pick from a load of obvious candidates queueing up to perform”. People more disadvantaged/oppressed in the world in general are less likely to have built a career as performers, and less likely to be “out” everywhere.

I suspect the people most likely to be actively approaching Pride committees saying “d’you want us to perform?” are the ones already working the commercial (white male) gay scene: typically boy bands, divas and drag queens, often via their managers and agents.

A kind of demographic pre-filtering also skews the Pride volunteers, including the ones volunteering to organise the ents. See my previous post, on the skewed demographics of LGBT volunteering.

The easy path

These kinds of cultural forces shape the “easy path” to scheduling a Pride stage.

Of course it’s not that anyone can’t book people from a demographic different from theirs. But often, whom we remember seeing play somewhere (including at Pride in previous years) influences the field from which the choices get made.

So, for instance, when I try to think of when I’ve ever seen a Black woman on stage at Pride, I first remember[ed] a singer with a powerful voice, fronting commercial dance music (possibly straight herself) – who could have been applauded for the same performance at a gay nightclub. I doubt that the Committee consciously chose to stick with one particular familiar genre… and I’m very sure she wasn’t the only Black woman who could have been invited to contribute. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were circumstances which made that booking an “easy choice”.

Sam Fox singing at Pride

I remember one year at Nottingham Pride – maybe 1998? anyway up at the Castle – Sam Fox was singing on the main stage. The music was high-energy pop, well within conventional gay-male-scene tradition.

Funnily enough, I gather Sam’s now in a long-term relationship with a woman. But this was before she was out. She wasn’t booked as a famous bi or lesbian singer;1 she was booked as a pop singer, famous originally for her showing-the-breasts modelling career. (She was the top “Page 3” model of her time.)

That made her a controversial choice in terms of feminist politics, and I remember some grumbling – and amazement! – at the organisers’ apparent obliviousness to all that.

The message the Committee seemed to be sending was “blokes picked the ents this year“.

Multiple stages, similar patterns

For bigger, wealthier Prides, it’s common to add in a women’s stage, ensuring there will be some performers identifying as lesbian (and maybe even bi).

That typically means there’s a separate booking process parallel to the booking of the main stage. And in a similar pattern, the drift is towards currently-able-bodied white people, not specially old or specially young, culturally rooted in “the women’s scene”. By default you get a lot of white lesbian singer/songwriters, with a smattering of white lesbian comedians. It’s a different norm from the white male gay scene, but it still drifts towards a norm.

The other tricky thing about solving the problem by adding more stages is that it can come over like “main stage, favourites from the gay scene; other stages for the Less Important Stuff”.

What can be done

But some organisers do put in the work to stretch Pride into more diverse directions than the default would lead to.

Leicester Pride springs to mind: one year on the main stage they had the Dhol Enforcement Agency, “original innovators of live punjabi folk music”. I don’t suppose all of the D-E-A identify as LGB or T; maybe not any of them. But to me it felt really good to see that affirmation of: yes, it’s not only gay white male culture that’s being affirmed here. I especially liked that they were up on the main stage.

Last year’s Nottingham Pride [i.e. 2012] had a trans*2 tent, run by the local trans* group. The Pride Committee supported that enterprise by providing the tent and PA and some money – championed (I think mainly) by Angela who was then the Chair of Pride.

And then the trans* stage itself was extraordinary in its diversity: the most varied lineup I’ve ever seen at a Pride, in terms of race, abledness, age, size, varied genders, and varied types of performance. Not to say it could never be improved upon :-)

Because I was somewhat involved behind the scenes,3 I know that that took a conscious effort of recruitment. The default “drift to whiteness” was countered by actively inviting cool performers from varied ethnic/cultural backgrounds. Likewise, we found we were easily able to list some interested women performers, both trans* & cis, and a few non-binary people sprang instantly to mind too… and so the group made an effort to encourage trans men to come forward and contribute something.

Positive discrimination

Why is that kind of positive discrimination a good thing? (according to me :-) )

In terms of supporting and developing people’s talent, I’ve never forgotten this quote, from Anthony Everitt4 in the Guardian in 1994:

Appoint more women to senior management positions? Present more plays by women writers? Decisions are made on merit, arts managers told me: it can’t be helped if the talent isn’t there.

But of course the talent is there, often an invisible seed unless watered by investment.

… the investment in Pride terms being not necessarily financial, but in giving people a space and a chance and maybe even some gentle encouragement.

Reflections

To my mind, Pride festivals have an even more important criterion in their ents choices than how they can support (potential) performers’ development: it’s about the experience of the people in the audience.

Isn’t Pride partly about presenting and seeing ourselves, historically/culturally stigmatised people, in a positive light? If it is, then we all deserve to see ourselves reflected in the people chosen to be up on stage. Not just the G of LGBT and the entertainers they prefer, and not just the L and the G with a tiny or invisible b or t, and not just the currently-abled thin white people between 20 and “old”.

True, we can’t all be reflected in every single detail of our lives without everyone individually going up on stage – because everyone’s unique. But if anything, the more discriminated-against facets of our lives are more important to affirm and celebrate. In that respect, it doesn’t even make sense to have a stage dominated by the people already given most social acceptance.

Nurturing mutual awareness

In an article about 2012’s Nottingham Pride trans* tent, Kat talks about another aspect of diversity, namely the awareness of each other’s needs and realities:

The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents [in 2011] and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year [2012].

Of course, there’s a lot more to that learning than seeing someone on stage. But who’s on stage is part of the picture. It’s saying: there isn’t one right way to be LGBT. It’s saying: we all count.

Or not as the case may be.

The magic of it

Here’s a longer quote from that same article of Kat’s,5 because it puts into vivid words the whole picture of what I’m talking about:

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies.

When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

That’s what Pride can be, when we put in the work to make it that way.

1. Sam Fox: I don’t know whether she’s ever claimed either “bi” or “lesbian” as a label. Wikipedia quotes her saying in 2003 “People say I’m gay… I don’t know what I am. All I know is that I’m in love with Myra”.

2. Trans*: That’s “asterisk as wild card”, i.e. including transgender, transsexual, and other identities under a broadly trans umbrella.

3. Involved behind the scenes: I’d originally offered [for 2012] to stage-manage on the day, which did happen – i.e. to keep lining people up ready to go on stage & getting them whatever they need. But then that led on to some other discussions in the run-up, about PA systems, staging, access, and the process of inviting/finding performers. Tip of the hat to Jess who was lovely to work with!

4. Anthony Everitt: described then as “former Secretary-General of the Arts Council”. This was in the Guardian on 9 May 1994, and I copied the quote at the time.

5. Quote from Kat’s article: Paragraph break added by me for easier reading.

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