Raising funds for my genderqueer film and thoughts on entry into the LGBTQIA community with a passing nod to DRESS by PATRIARCHY and DIE by it
these notes are thoughts taken from a conversation between artist Angel Ito and myself, filmmaker, writer and theatre journalist verity healey. They discuss my film BURN, about a genderqueer dual heritage woman struggling with their father and their relationship with a bi man and the film’s impending funding crisis but inevitably, the conversation morphs into questions about identity, racism and problems with language. I should say that this is a record of my thoughts since the meeting, as it is almost impossible to remember what myself and Angel actually said to each other. Next time, like he says, we have to film it.
On Saturday I met fellow artist Angel Ito have a crisis meeting about BURN’s failing Kickstarter campaign and to receive a little bit of much needed moral and psychological support.
For the record, Angel Ito, who hails from New England (New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania) and is part of the LGBTQIA community, does not want to be thought of as a “gay artist” but just as an artist, and more importantly, a human being (this is relevant because later we talk about labels). He studied dance and anthropology in New York and has his own magazine “Cock №7” and is probably the most prolific, self-motivated and driven artist I know. His interest in pleasing others and need of an audience is almost nil, something I have to admit I am almost entirely jealous of. We met through our part-time day jobs at the bfi Odeon IMAX in Waterloo, London, which is home to a rather eclectic bunch of artists, actors, filmmakers, photographers and academics and has a long legacy of being so.
I arrived at Angel’s flat in Streatham Hill, South London, on a freezing winter’s night. For 10 or 15 minutes I could not raise him either via phone or by ringing the front door bell and was almost on the verge of packing it in.
I was glad I didn’t. Although we talked for two hours non stop about art, identity, human rights, impending middle age and the porousness of language, we could easily have talked for another two. As I sat surrounded by scorpions, a tarantula and a corn snake all locked securely in their tanks and cared for by Angel’s husband, with Angel’s prolific art adorning the walls and piercing my skull, one thing struck me. EVEN if BURN fails to get any funding whatsoever and I find myself, at the beginning of 2017, back to square one with my film-making, my artistic life, any sense of a future and me, I have already gained a lot out of the campaign already. Much of what I have gained is a feeling of solidarity both online and from some unexpected quarters and from people who believe the film is trying to do something important. I was so nervous about making this film it has been a surprise to me that several people have either directly or indirectly, expressed the opinion that they think it has to get made.
Whilst I don’t doubt my film-making talents (i.e I know my strengths and weaknesses, this is not me being arrogant, just realistic) I do doubt the integrity of the film. This is because it is quite personal. But I never set out to make a film that was trying to do something important. Therefore it is feels great to me that from the film’s synopsis and from the trailer, people have gleaned this and have latched onto what everyone is calling my and my team’s “passion.”
Before we get into the evening’s conversation, I should mention that I recently came out as genderqueer as little as a year and a bit ago. As I am in my late 30s this was a bit of a shock, but also a relief. But I know very little about the LGBTQIA community and I am only just beginning to feel my way.
My first question to Angel re my project was: is my character stereotypical in some way of the LGBTQIA community?
Angel’s answer was, in his opinion, no. He asked for further clarification about why I am making the film. I have written an article for The London Economic , but I have in no way gone into enough depth in that piece. I will attempt to here, as, as he pointed out to me and as is true, this information cannot be gleaned so well from the Kickstarter funding page.
First of all, Shanice’s character, a genderqueer dual heritage woman who is struggling with their Trinidadian father, is inspired by She called Me Mother by Michelle Innis, a play I was sent to review a year and a bit ago at Stratford Circus, London. That play is about a couple who came over to the UK during the 1950s from the West Indies and charts the family’s subsequent break down and break up. Shanice is the next generation along, dual heritage, part of the LGTBQIA community and has slipped through the net, socially speaking. They just do not fit in anywhere. Furthermore, their gender identity is rejected by their conservative and abusive father.
Shanice fits in even less because they are genderqueer BUT not gay. Is this a problem I ask Angel? It struck me, having received a rather cryptic questionnaire from the political group Momentum, that being genderqueer automatically assumes that one is gay first as this is how it has always been historically (Momentum have yet to answer my queries about their questionnaire). To complicate things more, Shanice is not interested in heterosexual men (and they are not in them) but bi and gay men. But Angel is nonplussed and interjects: “Labels, what do they matter? he says. “I am attracted to someone if I am attracted to them, no matter what they have between their legs”(I paraphrase). But if heterosexual genderqueer people are less embraced by some in the LGBTQIA community (and whoever you ask, you will always get a different answer) where does Shanice go in order to socialise (if they should go somewhere specific at all) and who are they “able” to date? I had been reading around some women who go on Grindr and advertise the fact they are looking for bi men. These women do get some abuse and harassment for doing this. It seemed to me this was the answer: Shanice, looking for bi men, would go on Grindr. (note on labels: bi does not mean a man or a woman might be exclusively bi and finitely for insistence, all terms should be used loosely)
Is this a problem? Is it slightly contentious? May it offend some people in LGBTQIA community?
BURN is also inspired by a short film called Dániel by Dean Loxton. It charts the life of a male escort and his social circle (if you read the film review it will say he is an escort to both men and women, however, in the final film, interestingly, we only ever see him with men and his connection with women is, at best, confused). Watching it I was pleased to see a different portrayal of the LGBTQIA community, one which ventured away from a “scene” and focused on humans and humanity. But. There is a but, and the but is self-indulgent and selfish may be. The but is, what about people like me? I can identify with Dániel and its portrayal of discrimination (I get cat called for how I look for example and not just by men, by women too) and I dig its universal themes (which is, incidentally, why it is so good, the film is transparent and not for a specific audience) but where are there films about people like me? Where is its equivalent?
By this, I mean people who look like, dress like and are like me. I have always had this problem. Here, I say to Angel that I have an issue- perhaps deep within me and one I cannot explain, when we see women celebs or artists coming out as bisexual (such as the recent courageous Lauren Jauregui in an open letter to Donald Trump). It is good that such women are coming out and have the courage to do so and are doing so in the name of liberty and individuality. But so often women are dressed in a way (or at least the media chooses to feed us these kinds of photos that portray this) that surely adheres to patriarchal norms. I get confused with what the message is…isn’t how women are dressing still dominated by patriarchy? Is it that it’s OK for women to be bi as long as they dress in such a way so that men will still find them attractive? Or, perhaps the question I should ask, where are the alternatives in the public arena? Where are the people on the world stage who dress like me? And do not conform to any givens? Where are they on screen? Where are they on stage? Why don’t they have a voice except within niche film festivals or theatrical seasons? Traditionally our “female heroines” are portrayed in a certain way and in a way in which we cannot deny. They are dressed by patriarchy and they die by it. Even in the most recent and wonderful reinterpretation of Yerma at the Young Vic Theatre by Simon Stone and staring Billie Piper, our idea of what a woman has to be — a heterosexual who is willing to at least joke about having anal sex with her husband (I was looking for her to say, “hey, I want to penetrate you too”, but it did not happen) remains the same, dresses the same and breaks down in the same ways that all women are portrayed to break down (although perhaps everyone breaks down in the same way, I am willing to entertain this idea). Hence She (as she is called) who is driven to violence because she cannot have a child, lives and dies by the confused ideas of patriarchy which her husband, who also is breaking down, paradoxically shows to be fracturing. Whilst the husband is all soft and trying to work things out, She is still holding on to a way she should be. I know everyone would say, nah, it’s about the fact she can’t have a child. It is, but it is not. As Yerma is returning to the YV at some point, it is definitely worth a revisit with these ideas in mind.
Another thing is that in BURN Shanice is asexual. Asexual is just being included in the LGBTQIA (hence a) umbrella by some progressives, although it is contentious in some circles.
As women are predominantly still being portrayed as sex objects both onstage and on screen and, however they identify HAVE to be alluring (watch any block buster or fringe theatre show) then is this a problem? Is Shanice going against humanity’s instinct to have sex and lots of it? Are we saying that humanity is, at the end of the day, only interested in sex? Or in oppressing it? (I’d be quite rich if I had a pound for the number of people who say asexuality does not exist and is merely a result of repressed, oppressed desires) Are we then saying humanity is only interested- in culture at least- in satisfying the senses? Not that every storyline is about this, but that a lot of motivation behind a lot of stories is that? For example, some of Chekhov’s one act plays or short stories by Tolstoy or Thomas Mann, all of D H Lawrence etc but not, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith etc? I don’t know, it is more complicated than this).
Is it an issue that Shanice is dual heritage? I refer in particular to Owen Jones’ excellent piece on racism in the LGBTQIA community and Matti Colley’s follow up piece on her own blog. Angel tells me he hates the idea of labels. I also refer to an excellent piece in Broadly Vice where it is pointed out that media representation of non- binary or genderqueer people is heavily biased towards being androgynous and white and there is a lack of diversity. I mention that it may feel like I am ticking boxes by having Shanice as genderqueer and dual heritage, therefore requiring a “BAME” actor (as some would label it, though not me). Angel has not heard of the term BAME and so I tell him and he pulls a face (click on the link if you have not heard of its use). I tell him that there will soon be a conference in London called by RADA actor graduate Abe Popoola on why they think it is time to rethink the language of diversity (BTW anyone can go and it is free). Angel says that for as long as people walk in a room and differentiate between colour in people there will always be a problem. I agree (but see here for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent report on diversity in theatre). I tell him about a production of A Doll’s House directed by Carrie Cracknell a few years back where some critics and members of the public could not see past the actor playing Doctor Rank, who happened to be black and not white. The reason, they said, for their issue, was that historically there may never have been a Doctor in 1879 Norway, who was not white. It never occurred to me that it might be seen that I am cashing in on a trend (I don’t believe in trends btw and I am not saying that the Rank casting was part of a trend but some would) but I have to ask myself: but I have to ask myself: why am I, as a white mostly British person writing about a dual heritage woman who is part Trinidadian and part British? Well, why not? I answer myself. I go back to my original inspiration, I wanted to write and think about the next generation of that family I had seen in the play because something about them and their universal problems that are nevertheless culturally defined, resonated with me..and that is absolutely how it should be.
But I do argue with Angel, that to begin with at least, the whole notion of BAME might have had some success and was for a while accepted by several of my theatre and film colleagues and might have helped progress diversity onstage and on screen a little (see again Lloyd Webber). But, like the argument over the use of the term non-binary in the LGBTQIA world, it has stopped being useful because it encourages division rather than working to eliminate it and still encourages, in the UK at least, people to see others as being a “minority”. As Popoola says, “since when has being black meant being a minority?” Exactly. A minority for whom? For the prevailing ruling classes (who ever they are?) looking outward at the world from their limited perspective of omniscience? This is still the language of colonialism perhaps, although I admit this is a little glib.
Angel tells me that he never wishes to be seen as a black, gay artist. So then we talk about language. It’s useful in that it allows us to define, construct thought, create boundaries that can be broken says Angel. Yet there is a point at which language stops, where it labels and can only hint at ideas language cannot grasp (Aldous Huxley: language is just the tip of the iceberg) by using metaphor or simile or, stopping altogether and using other art forms. Why else do we have dance, music to express that which words cannot? This resonates with Angel’s problem with art criticism, which I am not sure I should go into, as this conversation seemed rather more personal and I have not agreed with Angel before hand what I should or should not write about here with regards to himself. I can only add that part of being an artist is to open oneself out to criticism (an unfortunate term, seems to me that it needs to change). But “critcism” is needed for a healthy art world to thrive, reform and develop. As long as critics themselves do not wield too much power and get to decide who succeeds or does not and even what “success” defines. Critics have a long history of forgetting that if it weren’t for the artists, they would not exist. Or have jobs. And, as the playwright Simon Stephens rightly says, every view, including that of a critic, is subjective. The job of a critic, I have always maintained, is to illuminate, gather ideas and open out a piece of art, seeing things in it that others might not see and which others may or may not agree with as they wish. I should know, I have been one for the past two years. In fact, I would go so far as to say that critics are analysts. This idea was put to me by Nikolai Khalezin, co director of Belarus Free Theatre . Talking about my own criticism I got a piece of rare advice, which I won’t talk about here. But he did say I was an analyst, that I helped illuminate the way forward for creatives and theatres. It did not take me long to know what he meant. That’s the true job of criticism. To know a body of work, to know artists and see what they may yet be capable of, or where they yet may go, is a critic’s biggest job (I know there are so many who will disagree). Criticism is a conversation between critic and artist. The formidable John Lahr thinks this.
But enough of criticism. I am aware that I set out to write about my conversation with Angel, but that it has become merely a record of thoughts that have come out of that conversation about BURN and is very much one sided. Yet, it is impossible to remember everything that we said.
Next time we have to record it, make a film as he suggested. I will only say that I have not talked about his work and his projects that we undoubtedly discussed because they are his to talk about and also, when projects are still unfurling in the brain and the soul, sometimes it is best to keep them away from the world. For now.
But I am indebted to him for the conversation that night.
Regards BURN, the Kickstarter is not looking so good for us now. However, on 12th Dec we learn if we have got through the first stage of Film London and onto a story developing day. Keep yer’ fingers crossed for us. It’s not over yet.
You can find out more about BURN here