(If you were expecting a theatre review, sorry! Normal service will be resumed shortly.)
Something’s got my goat today, and I have to talk about it.
It’s only slightly theatre related, but this is my only blog, so here we are.
As part of a supposed drive towards diversity, BBC Four recently announced a new series of standalone monologues entitled Queers. The series is intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and to tell some of the stories of our community’s history. In an effort to promote emerging talent from marginalised groups, new writers (or at least writers new to TV drama) have been chosen to represent that history. The monologues will be staged in July at The Old Vic (which is also a co-producer), and aired on TV thereafter. Gay Sherlock writer Mark Gatiss is the famous face attached to give the media campaign a bit more clout, and will also be writing the first part of the series himself.
So far, so good (except for those of us who’ve seen Sherlock recently and have reason to doubt Gatiss’s storytelling skills).
But the chosen group of “up and upcoming LGBT writers” [sic] is cause for concern. It consists of Jackie Clune, Keith Jarrett, Jon Bradfield, Gareth McLean, Matthew Baldwin, Michael Dennis and Brian Fillis.
Even reading the list of names starts alarm bells ringing. Yep, in the year of our lord 2017, this curated list of seven emerging writers only features one woman. One. In seven.
It doesn’t stop there, though. None of the writers appears to be openly transgender or bisexual, judging from my internet research – although googling “Jackie Clune bisexual” brings up these charming results:
Wow. Not so much with the ‘B’ and ‘T’, then.
After a bit more research I was further distressed to find that – as far as I can tell – all but one of the writers is white.
Great. So what’s being passed off as LGBT representation here is actually LGGG representation – or, if we’re being accurate to the proportions involved, LGGGGGGG representation – and nearly everyone is white. Righty-ho then.
This is deeply disappointing. It’s frankly astonishing that the BBC could proudly present this list of writers in their press release as representing the LGBT community. And it’s impossible to feel confident that these writers can tell the story of our whole community, with all its interlocking systems of oppression, cultural differences, and historical nuance. Queers is purporting to represent LGBT history – but whose?
I’m sure the chosen writers are talented and have something to say about the last 100 years of queer history (which is the project’s purview). But I question the BBC’s decision to give this platform to such a homogeneous group of individuals. Our community is so much broader and more diverse than this list attests.
Even if these writers used Queers to tell the story of queer characters who are different from themselves – say, a bisexual black woman in the Civil Rights era, or a trans woman trying to survive in rural Scotland – they’d be doing it from an outsider’s position. They’d be speaking over the voices of people with lived experience. And when white people, cis people, and men are allowed – encouraged – given a spot at The Old Vic and a slot on the BBC – to speak over the experiences of people of colour, trans people, and women? That’s a problem.
There’s more, though. The stories which are described in the press release are all those of men: a WWI soldier with homoerotic longings, a “perfect gentleman” with a secret, and a gay actor in the 1980s. The lack of specific characteristics in the description means we don’t know whether these men are cisgender, white, and gay. But by omitting to mention that these are the stories of trans people, bisexuals, or people of colour, the invisibility of those marginalised populations under the LGBT umbrella is perpetuated.
If they didn’t write the drama, and they don’t appear in a description of the drama (the words “bisexual” and “trans”/”transgender” don’t appear in the Queers press release at all, by the way), then – where are they? And how can Queers claim to tell their story?
Yes, everyone who falls under the LGBT acronym is marginalised and understands the dread and alienation of being in a downtrodden minority. And yes, writing should allow us to explore perspectives other than our own. And – yes! – Queers‘ link to the 50-year anniversary of decriminalising male homosexual acts might explain why gay men’s voices are thought to be important here in particular.
But oppression works in radically different ways for, say, bisexuals as opposed to monosexuals, or racialised queer people as opposed to white ones. And the choice, with Queers, to give the microphone, platform, and “LGBT Culture/History/Community Reps 2017” banner to a very narrow group of lesbian* and gay individuals is short-sighted and harmful.
That’s exactly what BBC Four are doing, however. Just look at this quote from Gatiss about the project:
“I’m thrilled and delighted to have been asked to curate this exciting series from both established LGBT writers and a whole host of new talent fresh to the screen. […] At this challenging and fluid time, it’s a marvellous opportunity to celebrate LGBT life and culture, to see how far we have come and how far we still have to go.”
“How far we still have to go”. He really said that, while throwing the weight of his cultural capital behind this phalanx of allegedly “LGBT” voices: five white gay men; one black gay man; and one white woman whose last LGBT-relevant cultural footprint was, apparently, giving up lesbianism for hetero married life and fervently disavowing the term ‘bisexual’.
OK, so I’ve covered why this story matters and why it got my attention. I felt compelled to write this piece because, as far as I know, nobody else has. While the series’ announcement was covered in Pink News, Attitude, the Radio Times and several other LGBT or specifically gay men’s websites, I could only find one response to the news in the whole wide internet that pointed out these issues. It was today’s comment from Amie Taylor of LGBTQ Arts Review. Here’s an excerpt:
To me, this scheduling looks not only boring, but lazy. [The BBC] have clearly not searched beyond the surface to incorporate diversity in this season.
It is my hope they will realise their error and make amends, though I appreciate unlikely. In which case, I hope the writers they have commissioned will take responsibility and use their narratives to elevate the voices that aren’t there – the intersectional, trans, non-binary and female voices. And no, that is no substitute for true LGBT diversity on our screens, but it seems to be the best we have right now.
It certainly heartened me to read Taylor’s post, although in my opinion, she doesn’t go quite far enough in her critique, which mostly emphasises the majority-male aspect of the list. Critiques of misogyny and the erasure of women are short-sighted unless they foreground the intersecting oppressions and omnipresent erasure faced by women of colour and trans women.
So, given that nobody else had spelled out all the problems with this worrying and dangerous commissioning decision, I just wanted to describe how disappointingly narrow this “representation” of “LGBT” history is set to be. I’ll probably watch it – to see what it’s like, because representation is hard to come by, because I miss when Banana was airing on E4. But, as Taylor says, even if the stories in Queers are as devastatingly beautiful and painful and hopeful as our queer histories can be, they’ll still be told by the select few. And in 2017, that’s just not good enough.
*A note on referring to Jackie Clune as ‘lesbian’ – I honestly don’t know what else to call her, as she’s somehow jumped on the LGBT bandwagon here despite having published articles about giving up lesbianism for the hetero life and how she definitely isn’t bisexual. If Jackie or representatives want to get in touch with me to clarify wtf is going on with her sexual identity then they certainly can.