During the conversations about the city’s culture and what value it has I’ve developed an accidental persona of being unsuspecting and largely ignorant of the communities that I meet and their cultures. I know that many talented artists, inventors, creators, writers and poets have identified as gay, lesbian, bi or trans* and I know the horror stories of persecution that pepper our history, but I didn’t know what the modern LGB T* world looks like – do people still face discrimination? How accepted do they feel? Does culture play a part in this world?
The first lesson I’m taught is that LGB T* culture is not a thing. The group were loud and clear that they are a group of individuals with their own distinct and personal cultures – homosexuality does not mean homogeneity. Furthermore the silo of ‘LGB T* culture’ is not helpful. Lesbian, gay, bi, and trans* people are also artists and we don’t refer to a painting created by a heterosexual artist as straight art so why would we call work created by an LGB or T* artist LGB or T* art? I was reminded of Morgan Freeman’s quote on gay marriage or as he likes to call it ‘marriage’.
There is however a paradox. While the majority of the group seemed to strive for an equality they called ‘normalisation of LGB T* culture’ as in it isn’t even a thing art is art, people are people, one person represented a group who was outraged at the suggestion that their vibrant culture should be ‘normalised’ – they don’t want to be someone else’s normal.
Some members of the group talked more about representation. So yes, a person is a person and art is art but if you never see something that you identify with in that art, LGB T* culture is needed. When was the last time you saw a love story on stage where the leads were a same sex couple and the story wasn’t just about that? When was the last time you saw a transgender person in a television series without it being a specific story about the transgender community?
Acceptance is important. The language has moved on people don’t talk about promoting tolerance anymore. Nobody wants to be ‘put up with’ people want to be accepted for who they are in every sense. The LGB T* network has its own vision for 2030 in which respect and acceptance feature strongly, bringing the community together as one. Members of the group shared first hand stories of refusals to accept the sexuality and gender choices of others. Some were more worrying than others and speak of a deep rooted and wilful lack of acceptance – attending a beauty salon, only to be told loudly and publicly that they “don’t serve men here.”
Other anecdotes were more of ignorance than malice – not having gender neutral toilets in cultural venues, a lack of gender neutral changing facilities in leisure centres, people assuming the pronouns to use or only offering a choice of two tick boxes on monitoring and evaluation forms. Even in the group this is easily done. One person clearly outraged at the story of blatant discrimination says “this lad has been discriminated against!” and ever so quietly the woman whose story it is says “I’m not a lad.”
Not only does this help me to feel less of a philistine, it helps to identify one of the major problems facing the LGB T* community – unless you identify with a particular element of that community or indeed any of it, then it can seem insular and closed. Events like Pride are a great way to increase visibility, but it’s their one moment a year.
A member of the group is frustrated by this. “Why can’t we have a rainbow zebra crossing?! Or a massive mural on Lower Briggate!” He talks about the history and heritage of LGB T* Leeds and it’s shocking. He says “We were forced down here! We were illegal!” and not being from that community it’s easy to have forgotten that because I’m never reminded of it. The people who complain about Lower Briggate and ask why the city needs an LGB T* Quarter are the ones who have never experienced what it is to be illegal for something that is part of your person, that you can’t and don’t want to change. This heritage is not visible in Leeds as it is in other parts of the world. He adds that if Leeds wants to be authentic then it needs to represent its entire history and its entire population.
The LGB T* Network sees itself as LGB T* led but open for everyone, they don’t want to feel segregated, to do things with their LGB T* mates and other things with their straight mates. It’s something I hear often: this event for old people, that show for young people, this gig for LGB T* people. The segregation of programming that seems to exist is at odds with a strong desire to be intergenerational, multi-cultural, and equal.
The meeting is poignant and funny in places, shocking and frustrating in others but the group is pretty feisty throughout. Towards the end the conversation becomes more political and talks about LGB T* as an underclass akin to working class communities, black and minority ethnic populations and women – those who have experienced discrimination and have to fight hard for what they have. From this struggle comes radicalism in the form of art, music, poetry and performance, which for some, is then appropriated by those who did not experience it. Vogueing, a collaboration between black and gay artists, is given as an example of something now synonymous with a privileged white woman, and there is a plea to ensure that if we’re telling the story of the history and heritage of the LGB T* scene in the city then it remains their story celebrated by the city, not something to be picked over and supported for a finite period of time.
The group doesn’t talk much of equality, which I found strange. It feels like a brutally honest statement that we aren’t even close. We’ve moved on from tolerance to focusing on acceptance now, we’re about four more stages from equality so no need to mention it yet. It’s pragmatic and heart-breaking in equal measure.
One final comment from the group throws down the challenge for the Culture Strategy: “The culture sector has to learn. It can’t just keep coming back and talking to us it has change what it does.”