Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Belfast, 2018

You know it's a good festival when you hardly have time for social media. A day off today, so some time to reflect. Outburst Queer Arts Festival delivers so much in a short time, my head is spinning. (That could also be my labyrinthitis...) It’s my fourth time here, many beautiful friends old and new, I’m feeling very emotional. It's like family here, I feel loved, especially as I'm being looked after by my gorgeous friend Claire Hall, aka DJ goddess Venus Dupree. It's also a family in the broadest sense, which means the good bits and the tough bits. It's challenging, and queer art should be – what am I doing with my privilege? how about you? why am I holding back on work I want to make? why are you? It's supportive, complicated, collaborative, tiring, affirming.

This week I’ve seen four Barbara Hammer films (and not quite done with her yet). I’ve been interviewed in a toilet by the divine artist/comedian/performer Gemma Hutton, been to a riveting book launch about political theatre, bought the book, made new friends, and danced for 7 hours. I cried at poetry about the long-gone beautiful boys of the Castro – so many names – and Mark Doty’s ‘House of Beauty’ –‘Propose a new beauty, perennially unhoused: / neither the lost things nor the fire itself, / but the objects in their dresses of disaster…’ I’ve seen ‘Cake Daddy’, a musical/comedy/theatrical parody about the queerness of the fat body. ‘Cut’ by Dr Richard O’Leary was a hilarious low-key health activist’s tale of adult circumcision (the after-care leaflet didn’t have the words ‘penis’ or ‘foreskin’ on it for God’s sake). ‘Love Song to Lavender Menace’ taught the poignant history of a gay bookshop in Edinburgh that empowered a generation. I have seen previews of three new plays, two of which are the actual lesbian dramas I have been praying for. Plus ‘Outlaws’ by UsFolk is a beautiful illustration exhibition bringing Belfast’s hidden gay stories to the surface where they belong. In ‘Headlines’ I saw Jamaican dancer Neila Ebanks use her body to move us through the pain of homophobia in her country, and the pleasures of resistance and community. 

Best of all is the people. I've met people from 11 countries since Thursday. How different our lives are as LGBTQIA people across the world, it never fails to astound me, but it's what we have in common that is so joyful to discover. That we are butch, femme, camp, skinny, fat, queer, creative, trans, cis, binary and not, HIV+, body+, angry, sad, sexy, failing, winning, trying to be ourselves, finding out what it means. Peruvian singer Merian dedicated a song to a friend who survived a violent street attack and was ignored by police and doctors in case she was HIV+. I wanted to scream at everyone who has ever told queer people to "stop going on about it".

What I also see is people in recovery from various trauma, including homophobia, at the same time as they are experiencing ongoing treatment as second class citizens. Being near them – and reading Simon Garfield’s The End of Innocence: Britain in the time of AIDS at the same time – makes me realise that it’s time to face my own experiences, ones that have changed the kind of person I might otherwise have been. I don’t think I’ve ever been willing to fully face it all, purely from shame, but it’s there every day – in my strange repressed speaking voice, my uncomfortable walk, my bitten fingers, my shyness, drinking, nightmares of rage and frustration, my constant asking: Are you listening? Do you understand me? It’s all from the same place.

When I first detected that unavoidable dreaded thing about myself as a kid (and it really was a feeling of disbelief and dread), the bullying had already commenced and I could barely believe the thing everyone was saying about me was coming true. At that point I began to dread the rest of my life and it is a horrible experience for a child to go through. I have been in such denial about that long experience of pain and isolation. I can’t look at it. I knew I was laughable and disgusting because that’s how gay people are. I witnessed and/or experienced homophobia everywhere I went. I internalised it so efficiently I began to experience gender dysphoria. I was confused, upset, relieved to be attracted to both men and women, then felt betrayed when that also changed. This was all happening to a child and to a teenager, not to a grown up. Nobody has ever asked me what all of this was like. Why haven’t they? 

In my childhood I had a feeling that whatever happened to me, I was one day going to get sick and die, because ‘gay’ stood for ‘Got Aids Yet?’ I didn’t know that ‘Gay’ and ‘AIDS’ were two different things, just as I couldn’t tell from my grandparents’ war films that ‘German’ and ‘Nazi’ were two different things. I just read the phrase ‘Got Aids Yet?’ in Garfield’s book and was unexpectedly triggered. Anxiety and shame. I had made myself forget it. I was 6 when someone first asked me, ‘Are you a lad or a lass?’ and everyone laughed at me. I was 11 when someone shouted ‘Faggot!’ at me across a busy town square. I was with my Mum. I was 17 when someone crossed the road to punch me in the face. I made a promise that year I would never tell anyone about my feelings. I didn’t break my promise until I was broken myself, aged 24. When I was 27 I went on a date with someone and when I kissed him on the street, a car slowed and a man shouted, ‘You fuckin’ poof.’ I never hold hands with my partner and I never will. My feverish attachment to anything / everything queer has given me life and pleasure but I know I am desperately looking for some affirmation to undo all this damage. I think there’s a different work to be done that I assumed would be done by coming out. Queer art and queer artists are turning my head to face the truth and it’s painful but I love them for it.