Archives for posts with tag: queer

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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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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A New Year! It’s a whole new year and I have been busy launching my new book At The Library of Memories published by Waterloo Press as well as being involved in Queer in Brighton the exciting new heritage project. That’s my excuse for not doing all those things like detox/exercise programs people do in January. Now it’s February, so it’s probably too late to start them anyway…

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But I have been making lots of public appearances, which is how I’ve come to think about what (not) to wear. If you are reading this you too may be wondering what to do about that old blue jumper or even whether artists should concern themselves with fashion…

All these questions will be answered but first I must digress. There is a scene in the Devil Wears Prada where the ingénue intern, hapless Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), makes a throwaway remark to her formidable boss, Miranda Priestly (the wonderful Meryl Streep), suggesting she (Andy) doesn’t really distinguish between fashions. Miranda rounds on her. In scathing, icy tones she explains the history of the fabric, particular type of blue colour, shape and style of the very jumper Andy is wearing – its progress from designer to catwalk to high-street and second-hand shop –  making it clear that there is no free or random choice involved. A Marxist historian couldn’t have done a better job.

So no throwing on any old thing, ahistorically. We are constantly responding (hopefully sometimes creatively) to someone else’s agenda – whether in our checked shirts and DMs, monochrome tunics or frilly shirts and pixie boots…

It all goes back to that internal censor (previous blogs) who is so influential in our obsession with appearance.  Luckily, while we make choices based on a top-down communication things also happen from the bottom up. Governments get toppled, systems change, people’s perceptions change. There’s hope.

So what should you wear (to next the party, reading, event…)? Please excuse the binary nature of this advice, I know full well that gender is not binary, so you will need to self-define (always best) or read between the lines… Let’s just say I go to a lot of poetry events.  From my long observation of such occasions: Guys, do shave/trim and do ditch that baggy (blue or otherwise) jumper. Dolls: wear what the hell catches your eye and do believe you are gorgeous.

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Photo at top of page courtesy of Michaela Ridgway.