Archives for posts with tag: queer in brighton

Words are powerful. They change meanings, connotations as language evolves. The goddess Trivia was clearly demoted. If you remember saying ‘straights’ to mean cigarettes (rather than joints) you are probably over 60. If you ever said sick to mean good, well below. I remember correcting students who said ‘coloured’ instead of Black. They thought Black was rude, didn’t want to offend.

When I was growing up ‘queer’ was an insult word for gay men. Women (and some men) I know still balk at using it. Most younger people I know prefer it to saying gay or lesbian. My friend, poet John McCullough wrote a wonderful essay for Queer in Brighton‘s anthology exploring and celebrating the word queer for its inclusivity and subversive quirkiness. The lengthening list of letters to describe the LGBTIQ community has amused and irritated people both on the outside and inside of the community. But when you are in a minority or seen as ‘other’, language and being able to name your experience in your own way (rather than being told what you are by someone else) is especially important. You have to fight to be recognised and you’re seldom in a position to take your identity for granted.

I recently went to see the exhibition about the life and work of 20th century artist Gluck at Brighton Museum. One of the things that struck me is how different groups and communities have claimed Gluck.  As someone who wore tailored ‘masculine’ clothes, with cropped hair and who had (quite a few!) relationships with other women she became a lesbian icon. More recently “a trailblazer of gender fluidity” for the Trans community. I couldn’t help wondering what she herself would have made of these legacies.

I love how many younger people (though not exclusively, think American writer Eileen Myles,) are rejecting or questioning gender stereotypes by appearance or pronouns to describe themselves. At the same time I think it’s crucial not to gloss over the misogyny (from the Greek, hatred – no less – of women) in society. It’s not a level playing field from which we choose equal options. As an older feminist I’m heartened seeing young women (men, everyone) take up campaigns about sexual harassment, male violence, economic inequality.  I’m also gutted that we still need to.

So maybe that is something to do with my relationship to the word lesbian.

I love the inclusivity (now) of queer and at the same time I mistrust general words. It’s too easy for women to get lost – be made invisible in them (since men are – still – the default, women the other). Also I have a soft spot for the word lesbian. Maybe it’s what was current when you first come out – like the affection you have for music you grew up with – which makes you embrace a particular word. It’s got limitations as a Western/Eurocentric word –  ancient Lesbos being the birthplace of Sappho, but it makes me happy that she was a poet as well as a woman loving women.  It also suggests an exclusivity (of only relating sexually to women) which actually doesn’t apply to lots of lesbians’ experience. But there’s something uncompromising about a word that is so much about being a woman. I can still remember how arresting it was to hear it and start using it myself. And all the times I heard any woman standing up for herself get ‘accused’ of being a lesbian, her opinion dismissed. I asked a friend who is around 20 years younger than me how she referred to herself, what she felt about the word lesbian. She said she calls herself queer or gay and – to my surprise, since I expected her to think its power had long worn off  – she said the word lesbian packed a punch, so she would reserve it for confrontations rather than casual conversation.

Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Basket the dog

Poets seek to name the impossible, the just-out-of-reach. Those from minority/disadvantaged groups look for words to name that which is sidelined, excluded.  Words do and don’t matter. Lesbian – not a word to hide in.

Gertrude Stein wrote her famous rose sentence in 1913, in her poem Sacred Emily

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Poland followed me to Barcelona.

(I decided not to blog over the summer and to experience instead. But now it’s autumn it feels like time to be back and there is the never-ending task of catching up.)

I visited Barcelona’s MACBA gallery without knowing what exhibitions would be on but confident that there is always something amazing there. I wasn’t disappointed but was surprised to

IMG_5214find an exhibition showing Polish architect and educator Oskar Hansen’s work called Open Form. This also included a film ‘Them’ by Artur Żmijewski which records a social experiment performed by the artist. Żmijewski organised a workshop to which he invited four groups representing divergent ideological points of view. The groups included members of the nationalist Młodzież Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth), the Scouts, the Catholic Church, Young Socialists, young Polish Jews and leftist activists such as members of the Repressed Workers organisation. The participants were given the task of negotiating the shape of their common space without words, creating images that represented their view of Poland and responding to one another’s work. Each group produced a map of Poland on large posters and the ‘debate’ began. Sadly – predtictably? – it didn’t go well. The church door painted on the map by one group was painted to look open by another and this seemed to satisfy everyone for a while but beyond that there was no common ground. Letters spelling ‘Poland’ in Hebrew along with rainbow flags were painted over, whited out of existence by the opposing group. Tension and antagonism escalated till in the end the artists were forced to flee a literally smouldering, smoke filled space. Perhaps the rifts run too deep and destruction was the only outcome possible at this point in time.

All summer the media have reported news of killings in the Middle East and also in the Ukraine which have grown more and more grim and shocking.

I came back from Spain just in time for Brighton Pride. Apart from the wonderful Literature Tent run by the libraries in its second year this summer, tea, cakes and fantastic performances that included individual authors and Queer in Brighton and Queer Writing South…I really loved going to the Mods & Rockers night at Duckies that evening. Not only did everyone get to chose an identity – outfit, hairdo etc – for the night and you could have your picture taken on motorbike or scooter, with hair-styling & fashion advice, not only did they have stunning performers such as David McAlmont, Lorraine Bowen and the Two Wrongies – for once powerful and hilarious naked women, who were clearly having fun rather than being exploited – not only was there the best music and dancing but also a choreographed mods v rockers fight took place with no one getting hurt and everyone showing off and having a good laugh. Perhaps it’s only from the distance of time that such rifts can be handled with humour and gentleness.

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Everyone tells you – you’ve got to post regularly. But what do you do about February? If like me you live in the Northern hemisphere you will have weathered gales, relentless rain, dark low skies and probably be on your second cold.

‘I thought the month of February would never end. No stars no clarity. Just wind pushing the clouds and trees and fences. All month I dreamt of my father. ‘

That’s from the title prose poem of my collection I’ll Be Back Before You Know It  published in 2009 by Pighog Press. It gives you an idea of what I think of February. In my most recent collection At The Library of Memories from Waterloo Press  I’ve also written about the February festival of Candlemas associated in Poland with Our Lady of the Wolves and for me with leaving Warsaw as a child. You’d think that was enough and I could now skip writing about February altogether. But then this year something utterly amazing has taken place.

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Something happens when people come together to share stories.

February 2014 saw the launch at Jubilee Library in Brighton of the Queer in Brighton anthology co-edited by myself with artist Anthony Luvera. It is the culmination of 18 months intensive work by many, many people. It contains creative writing, oral history extracts, academic essays, collaborative photography, collected photographs and ephemera from over 150 people who grew up in Brighton and Hove, moved to live here or visited. Published by New Writing South, Photoworks and Pink Fringe.

Both for the LGBT* communities and for the city as a whole it’s a vibrant, complex, gorgeous, vitally important book. From the minute it arrived from the printers I just haven’t let it out my hands.

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The launch was fun with wonderful readings, speeches, flowers, badge-making from Boogaloo Stu and music by Qukulele. But it was more than that. People have been contacting us since. This is a book which makes people cry – and that’s a good thing – recognising, remembering hard times as well as laughing at other memories. I love how inter-generational it is. You get stories by people in their eighties nestling alongside stories by teenagers. Western society is  so segregated it’s wonderful when different generations talk to each other and share experiences. The cultural heritage project Queer in Brighton has also produced a film Are You Happy? Are You Free? in collaboration with Allsorts Youth Project and a citywide exhibition not going shopping.  So there was a lot to celebrate this February.

And there were snowdrops.

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