A space for our voices

A couple of blog entries posted on the same day earlier this week have been making me think about the power and importance of “trans space”.

CN Lester wrote about Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing. They picked out a passage that beautifully illustrates the sheer emptiness, isolation and alienation that can come with growing up queer:

“The deprivation was not one of laws but of the spirit – a denial of identity. Heterosexual love, desire and marriage were hardly free from problems and anguish, but had all the novels and songs ever written to express them. The homosexual equivalents were relegated – if mentioned at all – to the comic, the criminal, the pathological, or the disgusting. To protect the self from these descriptions was hard enough, when they were embedded in the very words, the only words, that language offered. To keep the self a complete and consistent whole, rather than split into a facade of conformity, and a secret inner truth, was a miracle. To be able to develop the self, to increase its inner connections and to communicate with others – that was next to impossible.”

Like CN, this resonates with me as I reflect upon my own experiences as a trans teen. It was hard to find any representations of trans people, let alone any that weren’t deeply problematic. It was even harder to come by writings, art and stories by trans people, in which trans lives were rendered intelligible, human, possible. I felt like a freak, I felt like I was broken, ill, wrong. And I suffered largely in private. Needless to say, this wasn’t particularly good for my mental health.

This is why I feel that it’s so important to have trans people who are out, and trans people who produce art. It’s why I agree so strongly with Kat Gupta’s post about the trans tent at Nottinghamshire Pride. Kat writes:

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. […] In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

In my previous post I waxed lyrical about how wonderful various acts were, and how much fun I had playing there myself as part of a band. Kat captures the totality of this experience, and the importance of having a space in which we can come together to share our stories and develop the self, avoiding the fate of Alan Turing.

Crowd outside the trans tent at Nottinghamshire Pride. Photo by Eriw Erif

Members of my family occasionally ask why I bother organising or contributing so much to queer or trans spaces. After all, isn’t there a larger audience for events with more of a broad appeal? Plus, since the goal is to achieve equality, surely it doesn’t help to just segregate ourselves?

I think these perspectives completely miss the point. Spaces centred around straight and cis people are everywhere. These spaces are automatically about straight/cis art, straight/cis voices. Queer spaces are relatively rare, and trans spaces rarer still. It means a lot to go to one of these rare, beautiful spaces knowing that your story will be told. This is why I wrote with so much enthusiasm about Poltical: A Gender last year,  and a similar vibe can be found in CN’s post about the Trans* Education and Determination conference (TRED). It would be wonderful if such spaces were less rare.

Moreover, many trans organisers and performers are very aware of the dangers that come with shutting ourselves off from the world. This is why spaces such as the trans tent, Political: A Gender and TRED are very deliberately open to all, and it’s why we are so often open to contributions from cis allies. It’s why trans issues are just one part of the lyrics I write for my band, and it’s why I’m always keen for us to play “straight” venues as often as possible.

So let’s continue to expand the possibilities of trans space and trans art. The trans tent alone featured poetry both epic and personal, acoustic music, hip-hop, opera, burlesque and punk. There’s so much that we can share! It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist or a consumer of art, an organiser or an attendee, trans or cis. Come and join us in celebration. There’s so much we can build together.

Review: the Trans Tent at Notts Pride

Cross-posted from my band’s blog.

I’ve never been to a Pride event quite like the one in Nottingham.

I’m used to large inner-city affairs bounded by concrete, in which ordinary revellers festooned in rainbow clothing rub shoulders with extravagant drag acts, corporate floats, angry activist types, and a whole host of questionable human adverts employed by the big clubs. Vibrant street discos in which almost exclusively male DJs pump out the dance music that’s become synonymous with the scene, lesbian singer-songwriters singing quietly from small tent in a car park, community organisers and charities getting a word in edgeways whenever they can, and that same guy in the flat cap selling whistles on every corner.

I’m also aware that some Pride events are far smaller, less extravagant affairs. Pink picnics in town and city centres, small but powerful marches in areas of tension, and club collaborations between established scene names.

Nottinghamshire Pride was something else entirely. Placed slap-bang in the middle of a massive field, it was more akin to a (largely) family-friendly music festival, albeit one that happened to be really gay. There were many different tents, every kind of act you might imagine, and barely any of the corporate nonsense I’ve come to associate with Pride.

I normally object stridently to the idea of paying for Pride, but at £1 per head the entry cost struck me as entirely reasonable for all. And with an estimated 20,000 visitors, it’s a pretty good way to raise large amounts of money whilst minimising the need for dodgy sponsorship deals.

It was the most chilled-out, friendly and diverse Pride event I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

View from the Trans Tent.

We spent most of the day at the Trans Tent, so the content of my review reflects this. The very idea of a Trans Tent was pretty exciting given how marginalised trans people tend to be within the wider LGBTQetc community. Recreation Nottingham – a local support and social group – successfully won both the tent and a pot of money for performers after approaching the Pride organising committee, and proceeded to book a wide range of acts featuring both trans people and allies.

Things didn’t quite run according to plan on the day due to various delays, technical hitches and the like, but the Trans Tent was ultimately a triumph. Every performer was brilliant in their own way, and impromptu stage manager Jennifer of Single Bass did a great job of keeping everything running.

And so without further ado, and in (broadly) chronological order, a review of the acts I managed to see

Solo singer-songwriter Single Bass performed a number of short sets throughout the day. Her songs were accompanied by fluid, evocative basslines rather than the typical acoustic strumming you might expect from such an act. The material was gentle but fun, soft yet strident.

El Dia performed feminist poetry and hip-hop that explored her identity as a queer woman of colour. Her powerful, punchy words tackled the complexity of femme power, gender politics and race in a world full of both oppression and potential.

Elaine O’ Neillwas on form, delivering a typically warm and witty series of poems that examined the intricately silly ways in which trans people (and the process of transition) are understood by the wider world. As always, her puntastic take on the relationship between doctors, surgeries, surgeons and hospitals was a particular delight.

Lashings of Ginger Beer Timeare always a lot of fun, and their three sets during the afternoon were no exception. Highlights included the cabaret act’s tuneful skewering of of Gok Wan, and the sight of Margaret Thatcher performing the Evil Charleston. Unfortunately the orientation of the stage and less-than-intimate environs of an open tent meant that the group’s performance had considerably less emotional impact than I’ve experienced on previous occasions. Nevertheless, they rose impressively to the challenge.

Dieselpunk singer-songwriter Dr Carmilla forsook her normal electric instrumentation for a compelling set of originals and covers on a very shiny ukulele. The dark, evocative tone of her tunes translated surprisingly well to the bright sound of her instrument. Notable moments of genius included a re-imagining of Radiohead’s Creep (“Because I’m a crip…”) and a thoroughly original Rickroll.

Exciting items on the merch stall.

Our own performance was meant to take place near the start of the afternoon (following Elaine’s poetry) but for various reasons we had to rapidly re-arrange everything, and ended up playing two sets.

The first took place around mid-afternoon. We rapidly set up the stage, performed the world’s fastest line check, prevaricated a little over whether or not to swear in front of a potential all-ages audience during our cover of Repeat, and then blasted out a wave of messy noise.

It went pretty well, with an additional benefit of the increased noise drawing in a larger audience. Some got into it; others others seemed to stare in a state of mild confusion. We couldn’t have asked for much more!

We originally assumed that we’d be taking to the stage again shortly afterwards and effectively play the second half of our set. However, it turned out that a whole bunch of acts had to leave early, so we agreed to stick around for the rest of the afternoon and effectively provide the stage’s closing performance.

Sadly we missed a few acts whilst grabbing a much-needed bite to eat: amongst them was the Sensational Sally Outen, who has always made me laugh hysterically whenever I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her live. I could hear her inhuman dinosaur shrieks emerge from the tent in the distance as I queued for jerk chicken.

We returned in time for an astonishingly powerful poetry reading from Roz Kaveney. She opened with an epic account of the Stonewall Riots, reflecting upon the motivations and actions of those who were there and those who might have been there; expounding upon the context of lives both known and unknown in a more difficult, more brutal world. Roz then read a couple of poems about her cunt (and to think we had a brief moment of concern about swearing…). She explored the feeling of feeling, the very experience of living through radical surgeries before growing into your remoulded skin.

A later, second set from Roz was more relaxed, more comedic, as she performed a number of delightfully dirty poems about sex as seen largely through the prism of age. I was familar with much of the material, having previously read many poems on Roz’s LiveJournal, but it was a delight to see it performed live.

George Hadden played a good acoustic set, tales told with feeling. His music was great for a sunny afternoon, and a relief of sorts from the heavy material on offer from some of the other acts!

Fellow punk band Trioxin Cherry also took to the stage in acoustic format as a stripped-back two-piece. Their material was a lot of fun, and certainly a lot more polished than our own! Of note was their cover of a song by The Creepshow, a band favoured by Snowy.

The final performer prior to our second set was Jessie Holder of queer feminist opera group Better Strangers. Now, opera really isn’t my thing, but I’ll readily admit that this was a very special performance. Singing to a backing track, Jessie explored the inherently queer complexities of classic roles, bringing an appropriately different performance to Pride.

We then dived back on stage for our second set. We decided to treat it as an entirely separate performance, writing a new setlist and bringing back a couple of songs we’d played earlier that day.

We were more relaxed than earlier and I think we benefited from this, with our playing more cohesive and direct. Particular highlights for me included a well-received performance of new song This Revolution, the collection of stereotypically lesbionic ladies who turned up to dance during our cover of Rebel Girl, and the amused reaction of the police officers who wandered over during Tory Scum.

There was also this gem of a comment from a friend:

‘Lady at Nottinghamshire Pride walking away with her 6/7 year old son: “So what have we learnt today darling? Tories are scum.”‘

As we packed away our equipment we got a taste of the variety elsewhere on the festival site, as furious folk-punk fiddling erupted from the nearby (and somewhat inaccurately named) Acoustic Stage. The culprits were the incredible Seamus O’Blivion, who I wish I’d had the time (and energy!) to see properly. I’ll certainly be looking into their music.

Apparently our set was filmed, so I’ll see about linking to that when it appears online!