21 years ago, Glasgay! opened Susan Calman’s eyes to a world of bold brash and sexy queer culture. These days though, she feels LGBT festivals aren’t ticking the lesbian box. And she doesn’t mean that in a filthy way.
2014 marks the 21st year of Glasgay!, an LGBT arts festival based in Glasgow. I know this may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m old enough to remember it when it began. It arrived in my home city like a thunderbolt and I was utterly dumbstruck by what I saw: it was bold, it was brash and it was sexy. Really sexy. Not only was I utterly impressed by the play on words of the name (I was young remember), but it also showcased a completely different side to gay culture than I’d ever seen before.
Back in the day the Glasgow gay scene that I knew seemed to revolve around the three Ds: drinking, dancing and drugs. The idea that there could be a cultural aspect to sexuality was an alien one; that art, literature and theatre could speak to me, a young gay woman, was pretty astounding. I remember attending a club night at the Arches in Glasgow, loosely themed around 1930’s Berlin. After spending one too many nights dancing to Gina G while the smell of poppers wafted around me, the change was decadent and classy and utterly brilliant.
Glasgay! is, according to their website, “Scotland’s annual celebration of LGBT” culture, and it is. But no LGBT or Queer festival can completely cover all of the bases of sexuality and art, partly because it’s quite difficult to define what LGBT culture is. It’s kind of like talking about “female comedians” as if we are all one homogenous jar of period jokes and man-hating venom. The LGBT community is as diverse as the heterosexual community, so there’s always the chance that some may feel left out.
It’s not just festivals in Scotland that can fall foul of generic descriptions. Many gay arts festivals face difficulty appropriating funding and negotiating sexual politics, which can lead them to make difficult choices about programming. And that’s where my problem lies: I want to be excited by these festivals in the same way that the first one I attended was like a punch to the stomach. I want to see drag kings and burlesque. I want to see spoken word performances, and theatre and art with fabulous, sexy, dirty, strange, intelligent people. I want to see mainstream culture as well as the bold and odd. But most importantly I want to see more lesbians. And I don’t mean that in a filthy way.
Many think that gay women are adequately represented at gay arts festivals because you’ll find lots of female comics listed in the brochures. Yet the women booked are, more often than not, straight. To many bookers it’s the same difference, because according to mythology, all lady comics must be lesbians. The logic is baffling, and the premise untrue, but it is more commonly expressed than you might think. As a result you may find a number of gay men booked to perform their hit shows from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but few (if any) lesbians. It’s easy to book any woman and think that the “lesbian” box has been ticked. Again, I don’t mean that in a filthy way.
Though I dislike being pigeonholed because of my sexuality – mainly due to the stereotypes that it conjures up – the fact is I am gay and many of my shows are concerned with who I sleep with. For example my 2012 Fringe show This Lady’s Not For Turning Either was an hour-long plea to be allowed to marry my better half rather than simply enter into a civil partnership with her.
The fact is I’m rarely asked to perform at these festivals, and I don’t quite know why. Maybe I’m not experimental or dangerous enough (although I’d argue that standing on stage at some of the venues I’ve played, talking about my crush on Gillian Anderson) is pretty brave. Fundamentally I’d like to be part of something bigger: an artistic movement that tries to represent who I am, or even who I might want to be. I’d like the LGBT community to see more women who are actually part of their community rather than simply have the same gender as them. It’s a way of sidestepping any obligation to make sure that queer culture includes the stone butch, the femme, the manga, the pillow queens, the kiki, the futch, the power dykes, the baby dykes, drag kings and everything in-between.
Maybe I need to be more edgy to be considered for an arts festival. I could leave cat-based whimsy behind and strip naked, painting myself with quotes from Jodie Foster films – although that might take some time; she’s a very prolific actor. There’s only one way to find out. Ask your local gay arts festival to book me and we can see what happens. I’ve got the paint if you’ve got the time.
Susan is a comedian and writer who sometimes appears on things like the News Quiz and QI.