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 forefront, along with some incredibly affirmative stories.
The panel's composition was diverse, including performance artist and poet Travis Alabanza, and the editor of She Called Me Woman, Chitra Nagarajan. Travis's was every inch the expression of their craft, they spoke directly and with passionate eloquence about issues of visibility and invisibility. All politics is local, goes the saying, and Travis gave a recent personal example of someone abusing them in the street, while a hundred passers-by did nothing. The issue, as Travis said, goes to the problematic heart of trans representation: the media venerates only certain types of trans, creating a binary of good trans (invisible, passing) and bad (non-binary, genderqueer). The visibility of transgender communities, in turn, enjoys a 'precarious freedom,' one with debilitating conditions imposed, if your self-expression doesn't conform to the binary-friendly, acceptable trans, the one who passes as unambiguously male or female. 'We're fighting for sameness, while leaving others behind,' concluded Travis. Chitra also addressed this narrative, reading excerpts from her book before discussing how trans and queer visibility prompted in 2014 a law in Nigeria imprisoning same-sex relations with 14-year sentences. Yet this high-watermark of hatred appears to be ebbing away; Chitra recounted how the President of Nigeria has recently expressed reservation about the law, and how he was responding to what seemed like social pressure. In the short term, trans visibility has attracted often terrible hostility, but maybe, in the longer term, it will lead to greater tolerance and understanding.
On the issue of public and political tensions, the panel's focus turned to the work of playwright Jo Clifford and its production, first in the UK with director Susan Worsfold and then in Brazil with director Natalia Mallo. Jo discussed her play Jesus, Queen of Heaven, and the protests it's provoked first in the UK, and now in South America. The setting up of the play and its run at several venues throughout Brazil would make a fantastic play (or film) in itself: Natalia displayed images of the police presence at various theatres, as conservative groups threatened to close it down with any means possible. At one recent performance, Stormtrooper-like police officers interrupted the production, attempting to drag away those participating and then the seating and props. Other images showed huge queues snaking to get in to watch and support the play, audiences forming human shields to ensure that conservatives couldn't disrupt it. The play keeps selling out, to the chagrin of conservative politicians who threaten to close it down.
What each of these narratives reveals is the diversity of trans expression. Chitra spoke of gender fluid identities in different parts of Nigeria before the advent of the transgender movement that emerged in the early 1990s. Natalia spoke of the travesti identity in Brazil, as its own distinct thing within trans communities, trans in arguably its most stigmatized form, connected to drugs, prostitution and poverty - an identity celebrated in the play by the travesti actor Renata Carvalho. What each of these narratives highlights is the ambiguity and variance of trans identities, outside of mainstream Western conceptions. This has implications for representation, in the media, academia, the arts, and in policy-making. As Travis said, we fight for one particular concept of trans, and the others are left behind. This is the panel's ultimate message for anyone claiming to represent trans identity: what we see in the mainstream is the tip of an inspiring iceberg.Image taken by AR Crow - https://twitter.com/IAmACr0w