EDIT (18/02/2016): In this piece I identified Kaleidoscope as the only trans-themed show at Mardi Gras 2016. I am very glad to say that I was wrong, and that BenT’s Looking4Dick, a stand-up comedy show about being trans, will also play at Mardi Gras this year. This wasn’t apparent to me in my research as I had been looking specifically for theatrical/narrative-based work–that was not made clear, and I nonetheless should have found and mentioned this work as it is extremely relevant to this article and the value of trans stories told by trans people. My apologies to anyone who was offended by this omission, as well as my recommendation that everyone see Looking4Dick.
This weekend I walked out of a show for the first time in my life.
I am, by and large, a generous consumer. I don’t like to hate things, nor do I get anything out of it. In my mind, entering into a theatre is entering into a contract with the creators and performers: they are promising to entertain, move, or educate me, and I am promising to wait until they are done before judging what they have shown me. The idea of walking out of something, ever, whether I’m noticed or not, is terrifying to me.
But on Friday night, a friend and I left Darlinghurst Theatre’s The Pride at interval, without hiding and with hardly any deliberation.
The Pride is a British play by Alexi Kaye Campbell written in 2008, and is this year’s Mardi Gras show at Eternity Playhouse. It tells two stories, one set in the 1950s, the other in the present day, both about characters by the names of Phillip, Oliver, and Sylvia. In the 1950s, Phillip and Sylvia are married, and Phillip finds himself attracted to Oliver, the writer Sylvia works for. In the present day, Phillip and Oliver have just broken up after Oliver has cheated on Phillip once again.
In the former timeline, Oliver thinks that being a homosexual is okay, and that it is possible to love someone of the same gender and that one day people will accept difference and we’re on the right track, baby, we were born this way, while Phillip tortures himself and his lover with claims that their urges are “deviant” and “disgusting”. We only see them kiss after Phillip has hit Oliver–for violence must always precede homoeroticism, as any Tarantino film will tell us–and then must watch Phillip rape Oliver on the floor of his house. In the latter, Oliver has a Nazi fetish, saying he’d be turned on by blowing a racist, and Phillip has no personality. For both Sylvias, all they really want is a baby. Act One concludes with an horrific rape scene engineered to generate sympathy not for the victim but a perpetrator. The stage lights go down, followed by a hollow silence. When the house lights fade up, the audience (in which I could see numerous openly queer couples) is startled into obligatory and palpably forced applause, before quickly exiting to the bar. At this point my friend and I see fit to have a wine and call it a night.
Before seeing this, the last queer play I saw was Nick Enright’s Good Works, a far better written and constructed text that nonetheless said very similar things about masculinity and homophobia. Before that it was Sport for Jove’s pseudo-Shakesqueerian Edward II, in which two palpably heterosexual men attempted to convey homoerotic desire by clapping each other on the back a lot. Before that, a student show in Brisbane about how sad it is that all trans people are dead. Before all those, several shows in which queer characters were punchlines. I haven’t really had a great run of it.
So when I walked out on The Pride, I wasn’t so much walking out on the play, as I was walking out on the crushingly low standards we have for queer theatre.
I want to be clear that I am not writing an angry screed about this play, though it certainly made me furious. It is hardly the first time such a play, or film, has been made and given our attention. This is hardly about the play, which is but an example and was by far not the worst queer theatre I have seen. This is not the sole fault of Darlinghurst Theatre, nor is it even the sole fault of Alexi Kaye Campbell. We’ve all had a hand in creating this problem.
As it has widely been acknowledged recently, Hollywood and the awards circuit love a good film about a sad queer, preferably one who dies. They also love it when these roles are played by people who aren’t queer. Redmayne, Leto, Huffman, Hoffman, Kidman, Portman, Swank, Hanks, Hurt, Penn–they’ve all done it, and gotten the trophy for it. And, of the ten I just listed, only two (Huffman and Hoffman, for Transamerica and Capote respectively) did not die at the end of the film!
“Eddie! why are you crying?” “It’s the gender, oh god, it’s everywhere. It’s all over me get it off!”
Meanwhile, as Ian McKellan recently pointed out, an openly gay person has won an Academy Award all of twice (Angelina Jolie, who had mentioned her bisexuality in interview before her win in 2000, and Linda Hunt). Whilst Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs) and Joel Grey (Cabaret) have come out since, and Kevin Spacey has remained deliciously elusive about his sexuality, the Oscars are demonstrably reluctant to reward queerness. That is, of course, unless it’s being played by someone who is not queer.
What’s more, of the above award-winners, 6 of 10 play characters based on true stories or historical queer figures, all of whom had died by the film’s release anyway (including Hoffman’s Capote, leaving us with Felicity Huffman as our only living queer character). Once again, audiences are led to hunger for queer texts which focus on history, because they focus on a past where queerphobia was more rampant and legally validated–which makes for more tragedy. What that means, is that creatives get to get their “forbidden love, doomed to secrecy” vibe on. Each of these films features an LGBTQI person with a markedly unhappy life, whether due to internalised issues or outright discrimination and violence–once again, with the exception of Huffman in Transamerica, whose character Bree does end up getting what she wants at the end of the film. So, approximately 10% of Oscar-winning queer films involve a happy ending. Nice.
Audiences go nuts for Tragic Queer Narratives which inevitably end in death, judging panels go nuts for “based on a true story” historical queer figures who are dead anyway rather than contemporary queer stories, Hollywood goes nuts for anything but LGBT actors, and then creatives go nuts and fill the archetype with a bunch of stereotypes and poor research. Then, when queer communities attempt to speak out about this trend, they are told to be grateful they even got the film in the first place, like the frenzied rush for box office billions and Oscar-bait was some magnanimous gift to the disenfranchised.
You see what I mean about our low expectations?
Theatre, of course, has no Oscars equivalent, and the aforementioned trend is harder to track through the Helpmanns or Oliviers or Tonys. I posit, however, that that is part of the reason that queer theatre is such a small and niche genre, particularly in Australia.
A quick scroll through Mardi Gras 2016’s theatre listings tells us that, out of 21 events, at least 5 concern tragedy, violence, and death (all where it applies to gay men), while another five play into a certain a different kind of archetypal portrayal of gay men as flamboyant, hypersexual diva-ites chanting “Barbra, Liza, Judy, Bette! These are names we shan’t forget!”
Because those are the two things most people associated with gays, right? AIDS and showtunes. Getting beat up or beat off, right?
Another 3 shows don’t utilise these stereotypes yet still focus on gay men, which puts us at 13 out of 21 Mardi Gras works that focus on gay men, with 3 shows with a lesbian focus (one a double bill), one show about a trans character (guess who!), and 3 about LGBTQI+ people more broadly. That’s seven queer shows which are not exclusively about gay men, some of which play into their own tragedising archetypes. (The final of the 21 shows is by a queer man but has no direct queer focus.)
At least four of these plays were written years ago, with several also coming from the UK or the US. More still are newly written, but focus on the 80s or 90s and that archetypal gay scene.
Aren’t numbers fun?
Contemporary theatre lags even further behind film and television in terms of its representation of LGBTQI identities–particularly with regard to trans identities. I can think of maybe two shows I’ve seen which have engaged with a trans character, one of which was about how dead we all are. I can remember a handful more plays I’ve seen about queer sexuality which haven’t focused on tragedy of Australian masculinity or homophobia or sad dead gays (Small and Tired, Blue Wizard, Persona). It’s just too, too few.
Belvoir’s Blue Wizard, as part of Mardi Gras 2015, in which a gay blue alien wizard from space who sang to Cher, drank Windex, and metaphorically murdered heteronormativity in order to save his space boyfriend. That’s the kind of queer represention I like to see.
Mardi Gras, as a celebratory occasion, has always been about political statement in the form of unbridled, unashamed joy. The idea of a parade, a party, as a way to declare our existence, is delightfully subversive. This focus on tragedy, especially when it focuses on homophobic violence as a punishment for sexual transgression, whilst an important political reminder, feels inappropriate and more conducive to a straight audience than a queer audience already familiar with these ideas. Again, this is not the fault of Mardi Gras, who can only program the work they receive. There is a fundamental problem with the kind of work that is getting made and getting funded. People are just not creating the kind of queer work that reflects the steps we’ve taken as a society, as well as the steps we are yet to take, because there’s supposedly no market for it. And the reason there’s no market for it is because no one is making it. And on we go, in this sad cycle that continues to produce more and more dated work about gender and sexuality.
Let’s return to Campbell’s The Pride.
Consider all I’ve told you about this show (and keeping in mind that, unfortunately, I never saw Act II, though I hear there’s a bit of a galavant with aversion therapy in it!). The sexual violence, the baby-focused women, the Nazi fetishism, the weak, platitudinous writing. Now imagine the same play, but focusing on a straight couple.
It would be absolutely panned. Audiences and reviewers alike would be howling over it. It wouldn’t have been picked up by a notable company in Sydney at all. But The Pride won a Laurence Olivier Award after its premiere in 2008.
So why do we apply one standard of quality to cisgender, heterosexual work, and another entirely to work about non-normative identities?
Why do we expect so much less, and require so much less to dub a work a “masterpiece” when it concerns the death of gay or trans people?
I am far from suggesting that it is redundant to engage in queer history, or embrace flamboyant stereotypes and reclaim them, or that being gay and liking Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand or Madonna is less legitimate (being a Barbra man myself I really couldn’t talk). But those shows have been done. They’ve been done so many times, and they cannot begin to encapsulate the diversity that exists in queer communities. The sense of remembrance of past losses and violence committed infused into Mardi Gras’ celebrations is also incredibly important, as is the memory of those who paved the way before. But there are so many new stories to be told, and it seems that Mardi Gras still lags behind in that respect. Mardi Gras is about more than just its history, but it seems that in the wake of certain political and social achievements (including marriage equality in the US), we feel there’s not much else to do but reminisce.
There are some incredible queer plays, queer creatives, and queer actors out there, doing wonderful and fascinating work, even in Australia. 2015’s Buyer and Cellar at MTC was a touching celebration of queer subcultures and a delightful bit of fun. Melbourne’s Sisters Grimm continue to do amazing and challenging work, with their recent show La Traviata making powerful statements about funding to the arts whilst relentless queering opera. Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie was another exceptionally done piece of queer history. But, again, you’ll notice there are no stories about queer women here, or queer people of colour, and that several of these texts are not new works.
The sad thing about it is that there is such a rich history of queer representation in theatre. Having been far less restricted since film all the way through the twentieth century, theatre paved the way for groundbreaking and daring portrayal of LGBTQI characters which demanded interrogation of heteronormative values, queering the family, queering romance, queering masculinity–even as far back as Shakespeare theatre was playing with gender and norms.
But we’re going nowhere new, and the things that were revelations back then are no longer groundbreaking today. They’re a rehashing of what we already know (AIDS is bad, masculinity is bad, being gay is hard, being gay involves glitter), a chance for us to reassure ourselves we’re good people for disagreeing with a dates standard of compulsory heterosexuality like that of The Pride.
We do Menagerie again. We do The History Boys again. We do Angels in America again, or RENT. Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man has been adapted into a play by Tommy Murphy, a subsequent film by Murphy and Neil Armfield, and a documentary showing at this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart was adapted into a two part HBO miniseries by Ryan Murphy in 2014, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch is back on Broadway, having been played this time around by three different cis male actors (Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Darren Criss). We don’t see throwbacks to revolutionary theatre about queer women such as The Colour Purple or The Captive, but then, when do we see theatre about queer women anyway?
None of that is enough any more.
And I know what you’re thinking! “Charlie, is this just a ploy to rag on all the other Mardi Gras plays so everyone will come to see your play which doesn’t perpetuate any of these damaging archetypes?”
And yeah, sure, I want people to come to my show (again, the only queer trans play you’ll see at Mardi Gras) (maybe this year) (maybe ever) (just kidding I’m writing some more, even if no one else is). Of course I want to expose people to a new and different perspective on what it means to be queer, or gay, or part of an LGBTQI community.
But honestly, people can see what they want. People should see whatever they want. What I’m asking for is that we do not settle for less than what we expect in straight narratives when we approach queer ones.
We are too eager to forgive the sins of problematic queer works. In the case of straight or cisgender audiences, this is usually due to a lack of understanding of queer people or issues, and a desire to see those experiences as homogenously doomed and tragic. In the case of queer audiences, it’s because there’s literally nowhere else to go.
It’s time we collectively turn a more critical eye to these works, rather than leaving it to all the “angry queers” we decide should just be grateful for what they get.
Let us not also forget that this phenomenon affects our television, too. Whilst cable TV does a markedly better job at portraying diverse and nuanced gay and lesbian characters, it’s representation of trans people still lags frustratingly behind. Amazon’s Transparent focuses more on Moira’s family dealing with her identity than it does on her, Orange is the New Black’s Sophia Burset has no storyline or interaction that doesn’t have to do with her being trans, and other shows include trans characters merely as background, often only for an episode or two.
This double standard is everywhere, seeping through our screens and from our stages and into our lives. Into our gratitude when society itself even acknowledge who and what we are. Slowly, and slowly, we expect less and less, until we ask for nothing–until we’re silenced.
As I’m sure there will a number of complaints about this, let me acknowledge the following now: I am aware of the privilege required to be able to say all this. I am aware that I am lucky to be able to write this article when other queer people live in places where even being who they are is illegal. I am aware that there are many more immediately life-threatening problems everywhere in the world, all the time. Before you talk to me about “First World Problems”, I assure you I’ve heard similar things every single time I’ve spoken about trans representation and everyday discrimination.
Rather than explain to you why that response is a really great way to completely silence an issue, as well as being kind of irrelevant, let me explain why these at best subpar, at worst actively harmful representations directly relate to the way queer people are and have been treated by society.
To put it bluntly: the Oscars, Hollywood, theatre audiences, cishet people generally* all love a dead queer. So our media gives them dead queers, and people make money off of it.
What’s more, film, literature, and theatre, have all contributed throughout history to our social Othering of queer identity.
The stereotypical ‘gay voice’ is, in part, the result of a long running trend of feminised and queered villains in film. Since the 1930s (one notable example you’ll recognise is Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon). Since then it has proliferated Bond films (Javier Bardem in Skyfall, among many), Disney films (think Scar lilting “I shall practise my curtsy”, or batting his eyelashes), and other cartoon shows, meaning that from a young age we’re brought up to associate poshness, flamboyance, and femininity in men, with evil. It was through representation that we created a homophobic stereotype.
So, too, has media contributed to the idea of trans people as somehow deceptive. In the 1992 film The Crying Game, in which a straight white male falls for a trans woman of colour–gasp–without knowing she’s A Trans!–and begins to pursue her. When they begin to have sex for the first time, the trans woman, Dil, takes off her robe, the camera panning down to reveal–shocking plost twist!!!–that she has a penis. The protagonist throws up, and then consistently tries to tell Dil she’s not a girl throughout the film. He cuts her hair “to protect her”, masculinises her “for her own good”, and still comes out the hero.
What is that if not a codifying of transphobic violence into our cultural vocabulary?
The more we indulge these texts about AIDS, about violent masculinity, about homophobic attacks, about the suicide of queer and trans youth, the more “gay” becomes synonymous with “dead” in our minds. We’re not remembering simply remembering a more difficult time (and patting ourselves on the back for being past it), we’re paving the way for future violence by accepting it as inevitable. As we continue to represent non-normative identity as a transgression, the more we depict death as the natural balancing of the scales, the more the idea that queerness is deviant becomes entrenched. Queer people slowly begin to expect less and less from their lives.
The more texts I see which end in dead queer or trans characters, the harder it becomes for me to visualise my future. The more I equate myself with this inevitable punishment for my transgression.
I see enough people like me dying in the news. I don’t need any help from fictional worlds to feel like death is always around the corner.
So, as I said, we’ve created this problem together.
Fixing it, however, is something different entirely.
Fixing this problem cannot conceivably come from the top end. Asking producers, artistic directors, arts funding organisations, to change the way they value work, when the system works in their favour, is impossible. This is a process of change which must be instigated by audiences.
Roland Emmerich’s literal steaming pile of trash Stonewall, which erased the work of trans women of colour in instigating the Stonewall riots and placed all heroism in the hands of a pretty young cis white gay boy, absolutely tanked at the box office, and all because audiences and queer communities complained loudly and relentlessly enough that mainstream media picked up on it, as did wider audiences. That happened, and it can happen again, if we just stop settling for “good enough”.
No more accepting queer films or plays and television shows where actors in leading queer roles are cishet. No more trying to be grateful that, even though a character is killed or kills themself or is brutally beaten or is left completely alone, at least someone made something with someone like us. No more allowing ourselves to be satisfied with mere passing mentions, with fetishisation, with tragedy porn or with inspirational circlejerks about queer characters teaching cishet heros tolerance. No more settling for stories that, if they were about straight, cisgender people, would be torn apart.
No more will we be satisfied with stories that treat us like something less than human.
*I’m not going to say “not all cishets”, and if your angry at this comment because you’re “not one of those cishets” then you’ve missed the point of this piece, and you’re demonstrating more care for you not seeming queerphobic than you are for the legitimate concerns I’ve outlined. So, ya know, #yesallcishets.