Edinburgh Theatre

The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.

Quines Cast at Summerhall - review

Quines-Cast_Friday-images_1 Images from Quines Cast at Summerhall, clockwise from top left: the all-star line-up; Emma Pollock on guitar; Caitlin Skinner hosting; Angie Strachan slamming

Stellar Quines in Edinburgh: Quines Cast – a review

23.06.23 Summerhall, Edinburgh

 

Edinburgh’s Summerhall on a summer night is often special, with that courtyard offering myriad pathways to the atmospheric pub standing opposite or the burrows of rooms hosting shows. Last Friday I got lucky and caught the latest in a series of events by Stellar Quines (Scottish slang for ‘lass,’ with a pronunciation that rhymes with ‘crime’ as well as ‘rhyme’), the Scotland-based intersectional feminist theatre company. Hosted by theatre director Caitlin Skinner and Edinburgh Makar Hannah Lavery – members of a new wave of artistic talent sweeping Scotland – the show, ‘Quines Cast,’ is performed before a live audience, the recording then feeding into their innovative feminist podcast.

The theme of this show is Education, a welcome reminder after months of right-wing culture war stories about the drag queens corrupting our youth, ‘pupil identifies as cat’ and the government’s new Section 28 for trans pupils that there are other, less paranoid, more uplifting ways to talk about the experience of learning. Balancing the intermittent play of audio recordings of women in discussions on the education system is a super-group line-up of women and non-binary artists, also sharing thoughts on education in different ways, via story-telling and songs, dialogue and slam.

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Queer/trans DIY punk rock: Wormboys and their new EP Smalltime

Wormboys-image
The three songs that form Smalltime (2023), the new EP by Wormboys, reverberate with the darkened sweat-soaked cellar sound that made their pre-release of the song Tree so attention-grabbing back in 2022. Each song on the Smalltime EP also has its distinct identity, underscoring how Wormboys are much more than just a DIY punk ensemble with an attitude. The electrifying opener, Something pretty, with its pacy, jabbing guitar riff dovetailing with Ruth Pearce's driving bass line, even begins to evoke the early 70s-sound of Black Sabbath with a shift in the guitar’s tone a quarter-way through. A key instrument in this song too is Sop Satchwell’s vocals, manipulated around the melody that in its own, more tightly controlled way echoes The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan.

The second song, the unsettlingly dream-like Worm, represents the gentle shift in mood as well as rhythm. On this occasion, I felt transported to a Seattle sound and a fusion of Nirvana and Soundgarden: the ballad seems almost to invite a Kurt Cobain-like drawling vocal (in fact, belonging to the band’s co-vocalist, Harry Tunnicliffe, backed this time by Satchwell) though the surreal lyrics feel more in keeping with Soundgarden and the dark reframing of suburbia as in the Seattle band’s in/famous Black Hole Sun. ‘Here comes the worm again,’ the Wormboys song informs us, and with this threat germinating in the air, the possibilities of an accompanying video for Worm become a disturbing possibility, not unlike that landmark video for Black Hole Sun in the 90s. Contributing to this uneasy parallel – a ‘worm’-hole between two disturbing grungy nightmare visions, perhaps – are the affected scratches in the mix, as if a claw or squelching carcass is caressing the recording machinery as it’s picking up the sound. Again, it’s the small details that grab me with the Wormboys sound. If this is music from the queer/trans punk scene of Leeds, then Worm also captures something of the streets of David Lynch’s Philadelphia.

The EP’s final song is the one that originally drew me to Wormboys on first hearing in 2022: Tree. Like Something pretty, this is a driving, grinding progression of a rock song, Satchwell’s O’Riordan-like vocals returning breathily and plaintively before rising to the crescendo of Tree’s crashing rhythm sections. There is something cinematic in this song’s tone and the lead-guitar riff runs river-like, a fitting closure to a three-part production that sets up the listener with the EP’s opening burst of Sabbath-meets-grunge, before the gently unsettling second act, and the soaring finale. Overall, Smalltime is an EP revealing a surely brilliant live act, but also a studio band rewarding listeners with shades and gentle details.
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Katy Montgomerie at the University of Edinburgh

Katy-Montgomerie_UoE-talk_Bright Katy Montgomerie during her talk (image owned by Beth Douglas)

At one time, gender-critical feminism, like the similarly-sounding, exclusionary concept of John Philippe Rushton’s ‘race realism,’ seemed a marginal term you found online by minority-bashing activists desperate for respectability. Produced from the online backlash against the UK government’s gender-recognition-reform since 2016 (Pearce et al, 2020; Ahmed, 2016), GC-feminism has arguably enjoyed the protection of a conservative media simultaneously invested in maintaining the societal status quo while – through its elitist composition – being ill-equipped to analyse disempowered minorities and their rights, including when they are under attack. As the Leveson inquiry of 2012-2013 exposed, large sections of our media have a record of delegitimizing minorities, including the UK trans community. If this current anti-trans moral panic demonstrates anything, it is that nothing across the traditional UK media has changed for the better since then.

It is partly due to this institutional transphobia of the UK traditional media that our team of organizers at the University of Edinburgh invited the brilliant YouTube star Katy Montgomerie up to the University of Edinburgh to give her talk ‘Combating online hate and the gender-critical movement.’ As someone who has suffered various forms of online and off-line abuse for being trans, Katy's experience and analysis appears to have no place in the media-spun narrative currently portraying a vulnerable trans minority as a societal threat. Thanks to the 'new media' of the internet, voices such as Katy’s and other YouTube stars such as ContraPoints and Abigail Thorn are able to thrive while avoiding the traditional gate-keeping in order to reach the public and present a trans-centred narrative. Given the urgent need to allow trans voices to describe and name their oppression without the imposition of anti-trans framing, we believed when we invited her that giving the floor to Katy was the least we could do to highlight the increasingly frightening climate in which trans people exist in the UK. As events transpired during the evening, we feel not only justified but proud to have hosted her talk.

*

Nearly an hour into Katy’s talk at the University of Edinburgh, a senior gender-critical figure at the university stands up and begins shouting: ‘Is there somebody chairing the debate?’ It represents both the plaintive cry of an anti-trans activist unable to control the narrative in front of her, as well as a Freudian slip. Because this event – in which a trans woman recounts the oppression faced by trans people online – was never promoted or intended as a debate, but as an opportunity for a minority to speak about the oppression they face and the perpetrators of so much of that oppression and abuse. Yet in this anti-trans demonstrator’s world, anything involving trans people is up for contestation. It is the cornerstone of the protestor’s reactionary movement that calls itself gender-critical: an entitlement to interrogate and challenge every aspect of a vulnerable minority’s rights, with a strategy of maintaining permanent suspicion under the cover of ‘concerns.’ Here in the darkly lit auditorium, that apparent obsession has guided anti-trans activists to our trans-centred gathering, to call the all-consuming object of their attention ‘trans-identified people,’ while emphasising how the anti-trans hate movement is not hateful.

Katy has already covered all this in her preceding hour, however. Her talk is typically cool and collected, sassy and informed, built on several years of online engagement with transphobic bigots and the layers of respectability politics that characterizes this particular movement. Over the course of an hour, Katy analyses some of the gender-critical movement’s features: (1) dog-whistle codes that seem inoffensive to the undiscerning, (2) progressive framing – in this case, the appropriation of feminist discourse – and (3) plausible deniability. Katy is not the first to identify or publicize these elements; writers and thinkers such as Sara Ahmed and Alison Phipps have also covered different aspects of the gender-critical-as-hate movement, but as the direct target of the movement's enmity, Katy has – to paraphrase the words of Rutger Hauer’s cyborg in Blade Runner – seen things you cis people wouldn’t believe. Here, Katy combines analysis with experience and the result is something more visceral.

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Happy Meal

Happy-Meal

A smart and sassy play about trans-for-trans love, Happy Meal follows the relationship of Alec (Sam Crerar) and Bette (Allie Daniel) as their online engagements blossom into ILR love while they navigate their separate transitions. There is a lot to like about this funny, uplifting story: the recent cinematic vogue for 1980s and 90s nostalgia is replaced here with a celebration of millennial culture: this is the world of My Space and emo music, a backdrop whose popularity with the audience is underscored by the latter’s cheering of the reciting of names of twenty-first-century bands, while laughter also comes at the constant stream of familiar references to the online forums of the same era. The performances of Crerar and Daniel are also excellent; I particularly connected with Daniel as the figure wrestling with coming out to Alec, juggling desire with a secret. In perhaps the play’s most heart-breaking scene, a planned first IRL meeting at a music festival, the progress of their relationship suddenly hits the wall prompted by Bette’s prior failure to reveal her transness. As Alec’s texting and calls become more desperate downstage as he searches for her, Bette remains in her online booth, watching with increasing sadness, unable to summon the courage to reveal herself, a Cyrano de Bergerac moment.

This beautifully crafted scene underscores the technical accomplishments of the play as a whole. The presence of neon-lit booths from which the two characters primarily correspond with each other is inspired, as are the projected texts and signs of missed calls; this is a technically challenging play made to look simple. Writer Tabby Lamb’s reputation as a new major talent in British theatre can only grow from this production too, as demonstrated by the play’s sophisticated and easily followable pinging back and forth between IRL and online worlds, as well as Lamb’s flair for integrating zeitgeisty cultural references. Finally, there is Daniel’s performance, which compares favourably with anything I’ve seen in this new, exciting era of trans theatre.

Overall, the legacy media’s pattern of four- and five-star reviews reflect accurately the play’s quality while also highlighting the serious quality that exists within trans arts these days. As an aside, the reviews also reveal the weird disconnect between the transphobia that dominates the editorial line of the UK legacy media on the one hand, and its coverage of the arts on the other, which tends to be more sympathetic. Via this uneven division, we see a broken mirror effect in which the larger, more dominant shard reflects back to us irrational suspicions and knee-jerk anti-trans hostility, while a smaller shard reflects back at us a humane celebration of trans existence. The Guardian’s four-star review is a case in point: a newspaper that has been increasingly fuelling hatred and suspicion against trans people since at least 2018 as typified by its pieces from leader writer Sonia Sodha – in which conversion therapy against trans people is argued for and trans women are only ever named with such delegitimizing terms as ‘men who identify as women’ – in contrast to this positive theatre review by Mark Fisher, which in turn reveals a jarring lack of self-awareness towards his own paper. To quote Fisher’s final words:

'Happy Meal is not just a sweet romance. Rooted in truth, it is also a big-hearted plea for tolerance. Archbishop Justin Welby would do well to watch it.'

This centrist-liberal framing by Fisher, with its low-hanging-fruit attack on religion, is almost laughable given the Guardian/Observer’s recent alignment with the right-wing media and the delegitimizing campaigns against Stonewall and trans people’s rights. Replace ‘Archbishop Justin Welby’ with ‘Guardian-Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner’ and Fisher’s nauseating eruption of virtue-signalling might actually have looked more like the product of a credible integrity. Shows like Happy Meal exist and succeed in spite of – rather than due to – media outlets like the Guardian, who have caused far more damage and distress to the trans community than any religious movement in the UK at the moment. With this reality, I salute Tabby Lamb and the production of Happy Meal for the witty and wonderful celebration of trans lives in this time of culture war attacks by Fisher's publication.

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LGBT theatre: AS IS

ASIS_poster_Gina Me on the right, trying out an outfit for my character, Kate.

LGBT Theatre: AS IS

About a month ago, a friend and I responded to a casting call for an LGBTI+ play looking for LGBTI+ actors in an eleven-person cast. We auditioned and got the parts. In a whirlwind of activity, there followed some two weeks of rehearsals (two full rehearsals then a dress rehearsal on the day of the show). Then last night in front of a full house of sixty at the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow, we performed the play. Here are my reflections on the morning after, as I think this is the kind of positive theatre project that needs to be shared, discussed and disseminated, not least in relation to DIY/punk art among marginalized identities.

First of all, we’re not talking fully DIY as I'd earlier intimated: there was a budget involved, as the play was based on the funded research of the production’s organizer Dr Harvey Humphrey of Strathclyde University. This does make a difference for a show dealing with complex and sensitive issues, and through a potentially very technical medium. The funding enabled the recruitment of a director (Mia Slater), an assistant director (Jordy Deelite), and a stage manager (Finlay Dickens), and they brought a professional expertise, as well as confident self-assurance and an unwavering passion, all good things for a production like this. Some of the actors too had acting experience, including in professional roles. In the post-show Q&A, Harvey also alluded to the involvement of experienced LGBT+ writers to help finesse the writing. So clearly, while the acting cast was a mix of the experienced and inexperience, no room for error existed behind the scenes.

Given the short time frame, the biggest challenge for probably most of the actors – and certainly me – was learning the lines. Each of us appeared in two scenes, with policy-related and activist-related dialogue that did not always easily roll off the tongue. In the show itself, I forgot one line – note to self: learning lines isn’t just about memorizing your lines but also, and I know this sounds obvious, the dialogue order and cues of the other person in relation to them – which wasn’t a disaster, but overall, the tension of not knowing if I’d go blank on the night in front of an audience did certainly put me on edge. In this respect, the dress rehearsal we did a few hours in advance really helped, it was tense but it also made the show itself less nerve-wracking. As I paced back and forth in our waiting area before the show, I was more excited than fearful.

Highlights of the show? For me personally, the rapport between my character and those with whom I shared scenes, namely Sandra (Jacqueline Wilde) and Stephen (Len Lukowski). Also, just watching others turning their lines into gold, especially during the dress rehearsal when the thing really became alive. Back-stage, practising 'voice' with Matt and Odhran, sharing moments of post-show joy with Hev and Leni, and spending Saturday afternoon with Hev in McDonalds, surrounded by Orange-Day-Parade Rangers fans, and realizing this fast food experience was going to go very very slowly.

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Grace Lavery at the University of Edinburgh

Grace-Lavery_poster

She’s the enfant terrible of Trans academia, described in her book as “the David Bowie of Californian English professors.” Grace Lavery is at the University of Edinburgh to promote her memoir, Please Miss: a heartbreaking work of staggering penis, and like Bowie, the book constitutes in its diversity of styles and switches of voice a marmite quality you’ll either love or be bewildered by. This is not to question the book’s value; it is in parts beautiful, hilarious, and poignant, as well as sometimes oblique: a mould-breaking series of self-reflections in other words, unlike the other, ‘straighter’ memoirs that largely make up the trans biographical canon. Prepare, then, to disorientate and depart from the linear trans life-story, and so too the cagily respectable one-woman show. Grace, unlike Please Miss with its multiple metaphors, is an open book and a brilliantly responsive improviser to her audience.

            At the UoE talk, shared with the laid-back suaveness of the chair Lindsay of the Lighthouse Books team, the auditorium is full and the carefully be-spaced audience laugh and applaud Grace’s free-flowing sharpness and self-deprecating humour. This includes her fabulously kinaesthetic reading of the ‘Trans-Woman-As-Alien’ homage from her book, and her rapid onset of spinning good yarns. Grace and Lindsay bond quickly over their mutual inability to summarize the book in a few short words, with Grace waving her hand, “My complete failure to describe the book in fact is not a bad descriptor of the book.” Perhaps if there is a guiding theme it is of the memoir as partly a response to the media narrative of trans people hating their bodies. The playfully constructed Please Miss is Grace’s rejoinder, with its focus on the sex and sexiness of the trans body, as a celebration of “trans joy.” Another driver is the desire to create a queer text – and therefore a convention-busting one – that switches font and tone because transition is all about such switches. The body of the text, then, as trans female body, one that captures the ethos of Oscar Wilde, never settling on one thing but expressing itself via complex and contradictory multiplicities, and doing so with Wildean elan.

            As both an organizer and an increasingly seduced audience member, I sit and watch Grace Lavery in awe and with love as the talk continues. Rarely does a 60-minute talk go so quickly, a good and bad thing. Grace’s sincerity, channelled through her hyperactive mind and charismatic conversation, rewards us early with her tale of a robbery of an Edinburgh McDonalds hashbrowns gone wrong, before she gets down to analysis and shares her counter-narrative about the ‘transition’ story: “Everything that’s interesting and worthwhile and worth affirming about transitioning … takes place in the strangeness of transition, not in its capacity to harmonize or normalize or neutralize our feelings of intensity or antagonism.” The strangeness and surrealism include a darkness too, of course. An audience member asks Grace for her survival strategies in the face of online abuse that Grace is well-known for bearing. The online campaigns against her have included sex photos of her and her husband hacked from her account and sent to her boss and to her mother. “I’m sometimes scared,” Grace confides. With this fear, though, is her recognition that what happens online is a distortion of the real world, in which the hate and hostility are generally absent. She came to the UK uncertain what to expect, she says, expecting a Beatlemania of ‘gender-critical’ hatred, but all she has seen so far is a single woman handing her a piece of paper in a Manchester book-signing talk, asking her if ‘woman’ is being erased by the existence of people like Grace. Judging by the number of women in this UoE audience who are loving Grace with every passing minute, the absurdity of the notion is never clearer.

            In the blink of an eye, the talk ends, and concerning Please Miss, there are some parts of the book which shall remain a mystery (the book’s recurring clown scenes, what do they mean? I think I might know, though I’m not even sure if Grace knows, or whether she wants to know). We all leave this warm and electrifying space with its unsolved plethora of mysteries and maybe a single shared sentiment left to offer the wonderful Grace Lavery: Please Miss, give us more.

 

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Transpose 2022

Transpose_poster

Transpose 2022

 

Note: Transpose 2022 was filmed by CN Lester's team and will be made available to the public. I can't overstate how important an act this is, as my review will explore more  generally.

 

At the Barbican in London on Friday evening, I took a friend to watch the poignant, funny and beautiful Transpose – a kind of trans cabaret originally conceived in 2011 by the multi-talented CN Lester and now organized by them on a near annual basis. As I watched and was immersed in each episode of the show, a thought came to me about the transitory nature of this genre of performance art within the space of theatre. With urgency, we have to record these events in as many mediums as possible. Because this feels like a vivid, vital history happening on the margins, the kind that is too often lost while more materially enduring art – the trans memoir and the film – dominate trans history, including artistic expression. This domination is problematic on all kinds of levels, not least because the publishing company and the film studio will only ever invest in projects (and trans people) of acceptability to largely white, cisgender audiences, with queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC) barely mentioned, their experience silenced. The result is that the memoir and film by or about trans people have tended to be particularly compromised visions or exclusionary ones, much more so than the cabaret or reading, or the self-published short story or song. Arguably, these latter forms of art are where trans identity feels most genuinely to belong to the transgender artist, whatever their creed or colour. This makes Transpose 2022 an especially important show for the talents that it features.

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When Renata Carvalho spoke at Edinburgh Transgender Intersectional/International (2019)

Picture-of-Renata-Carvalho
In 2019, I was part of a conference that invited the travesti actress and activist Renata Carvalho - star of Jo Clifford's 'The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven' on its touring production in Brazil - to come over from Brazil as our keynote speaker. We originally uploaded the speech on our conference website, but with that w...
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Resisting Whiteness event 2019

Resisting_Whiteness_2019
Resisting Whiteness one-day event, Edinburgh Returning for the second consecutive year, Resisting Whiteness came yesterday to the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh, providing an intense and inspiring series of panels, as well as a wonderful spoken word section, and a final segment based around the documentary short Invisible by internationally-acclaim...
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Hearty by Emma Frankland

Emma-Frankland
Hearty by Emma Frankland Raw and dripping with punk aesthetic, this one-woman-show's one-woman emerges in ripped tights and a T-shirt that paraphrases loudly the words of anti-trans theorist Germaine Greer: Lop Your Dick Off. My first impression of Emma Frankland is edgily uncertain and in awe, her Lady-Gaga-looks combined with Heath Ledger's mesme...
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Pronoun, Pass, & Amnesty International

Pronoun_Pass_Amnesty_International
Transgender drama: Pronoun To be clear at the outset, this was the production of a youth theatre group, not a highly resourced team of experienced, professional career actors – although some of the performances left a powerful impression, and the show as a whole achieved some remarkable moments. Pronoun, written by Evan Placey, follows the transiti...
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Transgender Dance: Sound Cistem

Soundcistem
Transgender Dance: Sound Cistem It starts with a heartbeat, the dancer-directors Lizzie and Ayden in slow-motion entry, setting the scene of a nightclub featuring two young transgender bodies who are in fact multiple. Sound Cistem is theatrical dance set to a series of pulsing, dance-floor rhythms and the voices of several trans interviewees projec...
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Drone by Harry Josephine Giles

Drone
Drone by Harry Josephine Giles The blurring of human and machine reiterates here in a comedically surreal, startling performance by the performance poet Harry Josephine Giles. Drawing on visual and aural effects, Giles presents the disturbingly evocative middle-class arc of the life of an electronic, military drone. With Giles as both narrator and ...
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Burgerz by Travis Alabanza

Travis-Alabanza-poster-Burgerz
Burgerz by Travis Alabanza Playing currently at the Traverse Theatre is Travis Alabanza's poignant and comic one-person show, a thought-provoking meditation created out of a jarring personal experience. Back in 2016, Alabanza, a non-binary person of colour, was abused in a London street, with a burger thrown at them by a stranger. The show's series...
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The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven

Jesus-Queen-of-Heaven
The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven I entered a dark, candle-lit auditorium, finding a dining table stretching the length of the floor, draped in a pristine white tablecloth, with candles and cutlery. Audience members trickled in, free to sit in the auditorium or at the table as guests of a transgender Jesus. Queer, and just a bit contro...
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Resisting Whiteness

Resisting-Whiteness
Resisting Whiteness (Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh) Organized by a collective of queer and trans people of colour in Edinburgh and Glasgow, yesterday's Resisting Whiteness combined both conference and safe-space for people of colour to discuss generally (but not only) LGBTQIA+ issues seldom if ever discussed in white-majority spaces. A sell-out thre...
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Sod's Law (Edinburgh Festival)

Sodslaw
Sod's Law (Edinburgh Festival) A posh young aristo, singing lectures about fisting and 'man twats,' Sod's Law is a rather wonderful exploration of the history of homosexuality from the time of Henry VIII to the 21st century. From the court of the English Tudor monarch through Molly Houses and Oscar Wilde, we get observations on various legislations...
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Pussy Riot + The Estrons (Edinburgh Festival)

Pussy-Riot-and-The-Estrons-II
Pussy Riot + The Estrons (Edinburgh Festival) You say 'punk,' I think of skinny men with psycho eyes, about to launch themselves at you with Doc Marten feet and broken beer bottles. Punk as frustrated patriarchy, turned in on itself, lashing out at anyone who comes near. I'm so glad, then, that I went to watch the mesmerizing Pussy Riot last n...
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Edinburgh Book Festival: Precarious Freedoms panel

Edinburgh-Book-Festival-panel-image
​Precarious Freedoms: Queer Perspectives From Around The World (Edinburgh Book Festival) Last night I attended a panel event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, its importance too great not to write about. Though much was discussed, the theme of trans visibility and invisibility wound its way around much that brought anger, but also hope to the fo...
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The Lady Boys of Bangkok (Edinburgh Festival)

lady-boys-of-bangkok-III
 The Lady Boys of Bangkok (Edinburgh Festival) Their Big Top tent is located on the waste ground between plush apartments and offices – a no-man's land of genderfuck exotica. You walk along Fountainbridge road to see the gathering throng of taxis and the groups of all ages, their glad-rags on. The people are on their Friday...
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