In February this year my local arts space, Focal Point Gallery asked me whether I'd like to mark LGBTQIA* history month with them. We held one of my dinner debates and from this we learnt that many queer and trans* folk in our town felt they lacked a sense of community, of visibility. They felt they wanted to be represented on the high street, to be able to hold hands with their partner and to feel safe doing it - you can read what happened at the dinner here.
After the success of the dinner and hearing the local community wanted action Focal Point Gallery commissioned me to create a public piece of work to mark the 50th years since the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales with a public art commission.
I set about interviewing local people, asking them about their experiences. I went for early morning coffee with Transpire, got the ink out with 15 locals one Saturday over cake, asked people questions on Facebook messenger, WhatsApp'd and tweeted those who wanted to be involved but couldn't meet me or were afraid to.
These interviews created You Are Not Alone - a temporary public artwork commissioned specifically for Southend High Street’s railway bridge. Installed on either side of the suspended metal bridge, the commission is visible for a half mile along the town’s main thoroughfare.
The work is unavoidable - you must pass under it to reach the sea or town, because it is language you've acknowledged it before you can ignore it. The phrases plastered across the bridge come from two interviews with LGBTQIA* people in Southend. They hint to what life is like for queers and trans* folk outside of the queer capital in 2017.
The reaction to the work has been brilliant - I've overheard people convinced its about their oppression. I wanted to create something that was universal - that allowed you to buy-in to its message, that was perhaps a sharing of oppressions. When installing the work someone told the team they were convinced it was about race, I've overheard conversations between women thinking it was about Jo Cox, another group thought it was about the NHS, some think its about war, others think its about bullying.
In addition to the bridge piece I created 50 ink drawings made of quotes from the 50 participants I met. They are currently being shown daily on Big Screen Southend and reveal the fears and hopes of LGBTQIA* Southenders
With any good piece of work there has to be a decent knees up to celebrate its launch! Last Saturday, whilst the capital was celebrating Pride I managed to gather some of my favourite queer performers from across the UK for one night of brilliance. Nando Messias, Lucy McCormick, Shit Theatre, T*Bitch, Russella, Joshua Ruthless, Katie Greenal and Liam Cullen gave as good as they got. Some people left with 3 inches less hair, some people left with a handful of Nescafé Gold Blend, others left a bit wobbly...
So, why is a project like this needed in 2017? As someone whose lived in Southend for under a year I have a very brief but prolific history with homophobia in the town. This year I asked the local theme park Adventure Island to remove homophobic slurs from their building - they asked me to help wash it off! You can read about that in the Guardian.
Two weeks ago whilst reporting a homophobic incident to the police in which three men abused me from their van another group of men started on me ...whilst I was on hold. This followed two young men harassing my husband and I the very next day.
I've also been very vocal about my local MP Sir David Amess. His voting history on LGBTQIA* rights can be seen here and a video of me calling him out on it can be seen here.
This project has got me access to those less visible in the community - people who can't leave the house because of the trauma they've gone through, I've met people who worry what lives beyond their own front door because of the violence directed towards them. I've met teenagers who self police, who get bullied but who have somehow managed to find their own gang. I've met LGBTQIA* folk who are still processing the years of abuse, trauma and aggression directed towards them in later life.
The negotiation queer and trans* folk, the self policing, the trying to go unseen and unheard, the violence, sadness, metal wellbeing and recorded and non-recorded rates of self harm, suicide, homelessness that the LGBTQIA* community is still experiencing tells me life isn't one giant Starbucks sponsored rainbow parade - life outside of the queer capitals isn't one big Ru Paul's Drag Race marathon.
A public art commission isn't going to solve the issues of those I interviewed, my only hope for it is that we begin to recognise the problem and don't get caught up in the apparent "celebration" of 50 years of decriminalisation - theres works to be done.
I want to give a massive props to Focal Point Gallery for listening - for hearing what their community members had to say and for responding rapidly, giving space to those in the town who don't feel heard, safe or cared for. Focal Point Gallery has put itself on the map as a place that not only welcomes the LGBTQIA* community, but is invested its future too.
You Are Not Alone runs until 15th October - find it here and on the Big Screen here
Southend is 49 minutes from London by train. Whilst in town you should see Focal Point Gallery's Maximum Overdrive Show and hit me up on twitter or Facebook if you want some suggestions of queer and trans* welcoming hangouts!
You Are Not Alone is commissioned by Focal Point Gallery, supporting by Arts Council England and Southend's 125th Anniversary Fund.
Commission images and ink drawing film by James Ravinet, Launch film and dinner image by Holly Revell, launch images by Niki Cornish.