Written by Kyran Smith, June 2021
As a young queer creative living in present day society, and becoming a new member of the MONC team, I have been given the platform and opportunity to celebrate not only some extremely talented visionaries within the LGBTQIA+ community, but also present an open letter signifying the importance of equality, self expression and pride.
Born out of repression and adversity, queer art has always been about stepping outside the comfort zone and searching out other ways of being. Now, its politically charged legacy is being celebrated within this open letter to the world.
The month of June has become a time for us all to reflect on the progress we’ve made towards equality and to acknowledge the fact that we stand on the shoulders of all those who have fought so hard over the years to achieve this. On the other hand, Pride Month also represents a time for us to acknowledge that we still have so much more to do.
LGBTQIA+ people still face unacceptable stigma and discrimination. We also continue to see homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the media and on social media.
The arts provide an incredible opportunity to break down barriers, promote understanding and change perceptions.
Any art that can be considered "queer" refers to the re-appropriation of the term in the 1980s. It was taken back from the homophobes and oppressors to become a powerful, political and celebratory term to describe the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary and intersex people. Adhering to no particular style, for more than a century, Queer Art has used photography, painting, drag, sculpture, spoken word, and fashion to explore the varieties and depths of queer identity.
To celebrate Pride Month, our topic on the June MONCmondays blog celebrates artists, designers and visionaries that are within the LGBTQIA+ community. Image: Lee Wan Xiang, Draping Prepositions
While homosexuality has a long history, the modern sense of the term is relatively new. Since the late 19th century, cultural and legal responses to homosexuality have evolved. However, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that many of the laws criminalising homosexual acts were overturned. It wasn't until the late 20th century that homosexuality was no longer considered a pathology by psychiatrists, and it wasn't until the 21st century that marriage rights were granted to same-sex couples. Throughout all of these circumstances, Queer Art has addressed these issues covertly and overtly, insisting on a voice in the art world that routinely suppressed artists within it.
Because of the early criminalisation of homosexual acts and the social stigma connected to homosexuality, much Queer Art employs coded visual language that would not arouse suspicion among the general public. Instead, it would allow those familiar with the tropes of the subculture to glean the hidden meaning. There are many art worlds, and many cultural contexts - queerness is all about stepping outside of the comfort zone that society confines us in by searching for other ways of looking and being.
Revising art history to include more LGBTQIA+ artists and experiences isn’t easy. It requires more than simply reasserting the presence of artists who were targets of phobic censorship. Art historians must deal with the ever-evolving terminology for queerness, beginning with the solidification of the division between heterosexuality and homosexuality at the turn of the 20th century. Many artists, particularly before Stonewall, would not — or could not — have even identified as LGBTQIA+, even though they represented same-sex desire or gender-nonconforming identities in their art. Likewise, due to the historical policing of queer lives and the need to remain covert, many significant works are more private, hidden away in personal archives and collections rather than major museums.
In the present day however, the acceptance of same-sex desire and gender-nonconforming identities has come a long way in terms of fighting for equality within our society. The acceptance of queer art has also became more apparent as many young queer artists are no longer having to covertly suppress themselves, their art, and their story and instead show us how far we've come in terms of our cry for equality and freedom of expression.
But just because there is a larger and more shared acceptance of my community doesn’t mean there aren't any internalised issues that still linger. How often have you heard someone talk about ‘the heterosexual community’?
The term ‘community’ is frequently used to describe where I apparently belong by policy-makers, service providers, and LGBTQIA+ people themselves.
So what understandings and experiences does that phrase conjure up?
The word ‘community’ can be understood in many different ways. Some people experience it as space (e.g. the scene or particular areas such as East London or Brighton); as virtual (i.e. online); as temporary (e.g. at Pride events), and/or as imagined. All these perspectives are important because it gave me shared fears and negative expectations of society, meaning I wanted the idea of ‘LGBT community’.
However, the term ‘community’ does not capture these differences and complexities, and can wrongly suggest or assume a shared experience.
I find it hard at times to be content with the idea I am within a community for something I have no choice over, when heterosexual people are the ‘norm’ within society and belong to no one. Don’t get me wrong, I love my community. The importance of our expression and perspectives is something that unknowingly most people in society are influenced by. But this term has boiled many questions to the surface within my mind as I’ve grown up and came to terms with the fact that I am gay.
Being told I belong to something before even fully understanding who I was, as a young gay man, suggested to me that this was society's coping mechanism for segregating and suppressing people who don’t fit into the confines of its requirements.
I was to not stray far away from the lines drawn for me. Being told I was apart of this community made me feel as though I should feel part of something, which at times, heighten negative experiences due to the fact that this isn’t really the case.
Language use is important, and using ‘community’ tends to overlook differences and potential tensions between LGBTQIA+ people. Whilst also implying that LGBTQIA+ people somehow automatically belong to a ready-made community. Many participants talked about trying and failing to find such a thing. Others experienced discrimination from LGBTQIA+ people relating to their age, body, ethnicity, faith, perceived social class, and so on.
I hope and pray for a day where I can simply be me, Kyran, and you can be you. No one will be branded by a word that defines them, their characteristics, and the things they have no control over. The importance of simply being seen as a human is important to me, and many others. I am proud of my sexuality, liberated if anything, and I am proud of every person within the LGBTQIA+ community for fighting each day for acceptance. The importance of being seen as a human and not as a sexual preference is something I hope will evolve overtime however. Just like us humans, constantly evolving, I hope people’s hearts, minds and perspectives change to let me live the way they are allowed to.