This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when members of the LGBTQI+ community demonstrated against the police following raids of New York's Greenwich Village neighbourhood in 1969. While progress has undoubtedly been made since the uprising, there's much to be done to make the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex folk safer and fairer, with many questioning who has benefited from representation and who remains marginalised.
London's Hayward Gallery is seeking to examine and celebrate the fluidity of gender with a new group exhibition, Kiss My Genders. Spanning the past half century, the show unites 100 artworks from artists around the world who use a plethora of media and methods to articulate and engage with gender fluidity, non-binary, trans and intersex identities.
A series of events and panel talks will take place alongside the exhibition, exploring everything from queerness and survival to love, policies and power. With hate crimes against transgender people up 81% according to police records, homophobic attacks on public transport, countrywide protests against the teaching of sex and relationship equality in schools, and new research showing that 35% of LGBTQI+ people have heard or experienced homophobic comments at work, it's clear that there is more work to be done to ensure the safety of the community.
We spoke to writer, performer and filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi, photographer Holly Falconer and pioneering artist Del LaGrace Volcano (who was involved in the formation of London's first lesbian sex and performance club in the 1980s) – whose works feature in the exhibition – about the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQI+ community in 2019, and how we can all fight for the rights of those who need it most.
What is the most pressing issue facing the LGBTQI+ community right now?
Amrou Al-Kadhi: I think what worries me most is the separatism that is taking place. I'm thinking particularly of the co-option of predominately white gay men against Muslim people (one third of married gay men in Paris voted for Marine Le Pen because she persuaded them that Islam was a threat to civic liberties). Similarly, the radicalisation of some cisgender lesbians against transgender women is so deeply upsetting. It's devastating to me that patriarchal pressures are causing rifts between different oppressed groups, and is pushing people against each other. At a time of such horrifying politics, what we need more than ever is to find the intersectionality of our shared oppressions and come together in the fight against the patriarchy.
Holly Falconer: There are many, but the level of transphobia in the UK at the moment is particularly appalling. It’s an often unchecked presence across social media channels, in mainstream media – even at Pride events. It is horrifying to think of the effect that this is having on the everyday lives of this country’s trans, gender nonconforming and intersex population, especially for young people who are trying to face their futures confidently. This is why exhibitions like Kiss My Genders are so important – we need more major institutions like the Hayward making moves that will take things forward rather than backwards.
Del LaGrace Volcano: Every letter of the LGBTQI+ anagram comes with our own pressing concerns. The most urgent issues for trans, non-binary and intersex people have historically been ignored by mainstream gays and lesbians. However, the practice of 'pink washing' is rampant this year, the 50th anniversary of the legendary Stonewall riots. Multinational corporations, governments and publicly sponsored cultural institutions are keen to appear progressive and 'gay friendly', provided it comes with a minimum of economic investment or effort. An insidious form of tokenism is involved when institutions around the world issue proclamations about the dignity of LGBTQI+ people but fail to stop the harmful practices perpetrated on intersex children or take measures to stop the abuse and murder of trans people of colour.
How can we fight for the rights of LGBTQI+ folk in 2019?
Amrou: It definitely doesn't come from having a rainbow filter on your brand logo and thinking you've solved queer oppression. As recent news has shown, the LGBTQ+ community is under great threat of constant violence. What we need is meaningful representation – characters on screen that are human in every sense of the word. Being given cultural and social spaces where we can have a meaningful, far-reaching voice, not just a tokenistic gesture of diversity. It would be easy to assume from the number of rainbow flags around Oxford Street that things were all equal now – but it's far from the case. Most LGBTQ+ people are too scared to hold their partner's hand in public. We have to combat this by meaningful representation of LGBTQ+ folk, from teaching about us in schools and showing us in TV/film/theatre, to having us in prominent governmental and social positions.
Holly: Just turning up to Pride isn’t enough, change happens through long-term campaigning and protesting. For example, in 2018 thousands took part in a government consultation to push for reform of the outdated Gender Recognition Act. There was supposed to be an official response in the spring, but it still hasn’t materialised. This summer, to keep up momentum people can write to their local MP to remind them why changes to the act are so important.
Ensuring that all members of the queer community are always being taken into account is key. A huge number of LGBTQIA+ venues in the UK are still not fully accessible to disabled people, for example. If this applies to your favourite haunt, you could ask them if they plan to make changes to this. Even small steps can create change. If they feel able to, queer people and allies challenging individuals they come across who are transphobic or homophobic can have a huge cumulative effect over time. As a photographer, I hope that capturing the queer community helps in a small way towards giving visibility to our struggles and achievements. Using the skills you have to help further LGBTQIA+ people’s rights is also a great way to get involved.
Del: Visibility tropes and strategies only go so far. One of the most important actions we can all take is to inform ourselves about the different issues and needs of those of us at the tail end of LGBTQI+. We need to protect the most vulnerable among us, those who do not and cannot conform to the media representations of the happy white lesbian or gay couple. Gender is the first system of regulation we are all subjected to and to be truly queer is to question all norms, including queer ones. Gay marriage and LGBT in the military are not the most pressing issues. The murders of trans women of colour need to be stopped.
What do you want audiences to take away from this exhibition?
Amrou: I want them to take something away from the intersectional nature of the show – the fact that so many different kinds of people of different genders, races, faiths, ages, abilities and cultures approach gender in their own specific way. It's not a singular, hegemonic experience. Shows like RuPaul's Drag Race offer a very limited scope on gender subversion (mostly practised by white cis men), and I hope this exhibition reveals the multiplicity of experiences and destabilises what people think they know about the subject.
Holly: It’s fantastic that so many queer artists have been given such a prominent platform via this show and others like it. I hope this continues over the decades to come. Honestly, when I was a child growing up during Section 28 I wouldn’t have believed that such an exhibition could exist in this country. I hope people feel moved by it – inspired to think further about gender and motivated to fight even harder for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Del: I would like for the audience to understand that the queer body performs abjection with the kind of power only those of us who are despised can acquire. It shows us how to love all that we are taught to hate. Through this act of repudiation, this act of affirmation, the queer body screams, "Look at me and love me...if you dare".