Those of our readers who have been following the arts headlines this week would have found it hard to miss the furore over Lee Hall’s homophobia row with Opera North. The story has been covered in detail at The Guardian and other press, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down in it here. As a summary, the story broke on Monday that a school in Bridlington had pulled its backing for a production written by Lee Hall and staged by Opera North in conjunction with its pupils. Their reason for doing so, according to the latest reports, was an objection to use of the term “queer” to describe one of its central characters.
I sent a few angry tweets in Opera North’s direction on Monday morning, when the story and my anger were both fresh. I can appreciate, now, that Opera North may have had their hands tied somewhat - the production couldn’t have gone ahead without the support of the school, without which they would lose both finance and performers; however, they couldn’t have been seen not to support their writer. What did get my hackles up, however, was their series of responses.
Their first response included the following:
“we can appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils. This project is part of their formal learning and pupils from the age of 4 are performing, watching and taking part in the entire piece.” (What is it, exactly, about homosexuality that makes it inappropriate for discussion by children? Some of them might even have gay parents.)
Richard Mantle’s closing remark was:
“Opera North feels that the decision by Lee Hall to suggest that the production was cancelled due to a homophobic stance on the part of the company is unacceptable. It is so at odds with the reality of our views on the issue, and so publicly misrepresents the situation in such a demeaning way.” (For why this is a crap response, please see Derailing For Dummies.)
Not So Wunderbar has imagined a more acceptable response.
Let’s take a look at the word the school objected to, by the way.
1.strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular: a queer notion of justice.
of a questionable nature or character; suspicious; shady: Something queer about the language of the prospectus kept investors away.
not feeling physically right or well; giddy, faint, or qualmish: to feel queer.
From here it has come to mean “homosexual” and, more recently, it has come to describe those who identify outside of normative sexuality or gender. Both Jessie and myself identify as queer. Not everyone in the community agrees on the use of the word, but many of us have decided to reclaim it for ourselves. When used as an insult, I suppose I can see why a school might find its use inappropriate (though I might suggest that school is some way behind the times). The context in which Hall used it, however, seems clear to me. Sewerby, the character in question, uses it to describe himself. He self-identifies as queer. Therefore, I would argue, what’s the problem?
As of today, the production is back on track. Hall has substituted “queer” with “gay”, changed a rhyme and, lo and behold, all is scheduled to go ahead. On their blog, Opera North have presented it as a minor artistic difference which has now been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
I remain sceptical, however. Among the whispers surrounding the scandal were that the school had asked for Sewerby to be cut entirely, for all reference to his sexuality to be removed (Hall says in his article: “Word came back from Opera North that, unless I removed the lines "I'm queer" and "I prefer a lad to a lass", the whole project was in jeopardy”), and that East Riding council had hastily retracted a claim that the character was a paedophile. How much of this is true and how much of it is media hearsay, we may never know. The story that broke on Monday - the story I read - was of a school that wanted to erase gay people from its environment and shut down discussion about them, in order to “protect” its children from “unsuitable” subject matter.
Do people really, honestly think that all gay people are paedophiles who hang around school gates and lure children into their lurid, pink, sequined lairs of deviance? Really? Do they also think that Jews eat babies, black people worship Satan and AIDS can be caught from a toilet seat? Because we’re pretty much at that level of ignorance here. Gay people aren’t perverts. They’re not after your children. They’re over there, having a quiet drink and getting on with their lives, just like you.
So now, with my promotional hat on, I say this for our project. Better Strangers is queer-positive. We want to give voice to queer people in opera. We think that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, genderqueer and undecided people - or anyone else I haven’t mentioned who identifies outside of normative sexuality or gender - are people worthy of celebrating, of learning about, and of including, because to erase them would be to erase ourselves in the process. Our mission is to make your - our - voices heard.
Claudia prefers her babies shallow-fried, in case you were curious.