Last Saturday I began my year-long residency in Peterborough with arts organisation Metal, looking at radical queerness and the curation of a more forward facing LGBTQIA* community. As with the start of all of my projects I’ve begun with a community conversation - these have become nicknamed the Dinner Debates. I’ve used them to develop projects like Putting Words in Your Mouth, Bravado, You Are Not Alone and the Working Class Dinner Party. The offer is simple - I ask a geographic location a polarising question with the promise of food and beer.
The dinners are based on the principle of Lois Weaver’s Long Table - unlike Lois’ format a takeaway arrives at some point to disrupt the conversation, marking a shift from talking about the problem to discussing action and resolution. I use food because, at present its when I feel we are at our most democratic. We know how to behave when food (or the promise of it) is on the table, unfortunately a table on its own no longer commands table manners. When stepping out of our curated online lives we’re intolerant of encountering opposing views.
I’ve added rules to her etiquette like speaking as I and not we and have a much more heavier hand in agitating the conversation, proudly playing the role of Devil's advocate - repeating phrases, questions and outing the underlying subtext of subtle conversation. I also make it clear that people can talk, listen or leave - there is no obligation to stay. What I love most about this format is the way it disempowers some cis-het men who are used to dominating public conversation.
The question I asked Peterborough was - is your town homophobic? Near to 50 people showed up to the event held in Metal’s garden-car-park. As Perfume Genius and Erasure played in the background a diversity of age and genders sat around waiting for the unknown to unfold. Our youngest was 15 and our oldest was someone I wasn’t going to dare ask their age(but they did reveal they were out before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967).
As we sat around the table some of the elder queers heckled as I laid the rules of our engagement on the table, the younger queers looking nervous sat on the opposite side of the garden.
Asking one question - is Peterborough homophobic? The group quickly veered onto discussing Muslims. After a while I pulled the conversation back and asked the group why they had been speaking about Muslims for 20 minutes. One brave soul came to the table and asked “should we be even talking about Muslims and homophobia if no Muslims or queer Muslims are here to respond?”
Conversation soon turned to schools, bullying and lack of LGBTQIA* sex education. One of the 15 year olds told us how he has been told to kill himself at school by peers because of his perceived sexuality. Other young queers became extremely emotional discussing feeling forced to identify with their birth gender, not being out and a lack of empathy from the LGB community on TQIA* issues. The response was something I wasn’t surprised by and something I’ve seen played out in other Dinner Debates - some of the elder queers thought the younger queers should stick up from themselves and that they (the elders) had it much harder.
As teens cried about oppression and the world being a big, horrible place, those desensitised to years of aggressive oppression had lost sight of what was in front of them - a teenager upset and vulnerable, looking for someone who understood.
I don’t want this to feel like I’m penalising some of the elder queers for their response, as a passionate advocate of Opening Doors, as someone who cut their teeth working with queer elders and who earnt their stripes pulling pints for self-proclaimed “polari poofters” in Black Cap
I understand where their ambivalence is located but I’m always disappointed by it.
Perhaps the elders response is born out of an ignorance of queer histories and the lives and oppressions they’ve lived - I often hear how they don’t see the acknowledgement of their lived oppressions and their fight for equality pre-equality legislation. Many young people I come into contact with are unaware of Section 28, the horrific stigmas that surround HIV/AIDs, let alone who started or what was the Stonewall Riots. However, I don’t think this is reason to discount our younger generation - they’ve been given little, if any queer history but perhaps with Google in their laps there is no excuse for ignorance.
Pulling in the reigns I responded to the elders argument of self-preservation with “...isn’t this what you fought for? Isn’t their equality what was fought for?” The fact it's seemingly easier for this generation to own their sexual and gender identities earlier shouldn’t be a reason to disregard their current experience - but it's also no reason to write our elders off.
Soon after the term “fish” was used - an old polari word to describe women, I didn’t let it slip - it's the sort of oblivious misogyny I’ve heard gay men throw about nightclubs that doesn’t need to be kept alive; a derogatory term but one I made sure was discussed within the context of its origin - a language created out of oppression. This followed some of the elders refusing to use, learn or acknowledge to full acronym - again many of the younger queers found this particularly upsetting as their gender and sexual identities were being written off.
Thankfully the pizza arrived and conversation turned to action - a pride parade for Peterborough was mentioned lots. People wanted a pride parade, an inclusive pride, a youth pride, a pride within the peace march - unfortunately I don’t share this passion for pride, nor do I think it holds the answers to solidarity in Peterborough.
Having sat through misogyny, admissions of abuse and oppression, conflicting attitudes about and towards Muslims, a disregard for the breath of the community and a massive fracture between young and old I think my time in Peterborough will be about some community housekeeping, only then can/ could a pride help us demonstrate our togetherness to the wider community.
If you want to learn more about my work in Peterborough - join the Queer PB mailing list here
Queer Peterborough is supported by Metal Culture Image and video by Holly Revell