Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash.

Before theatre became an unapologetic home for radical, subversive and unequivocal queerness, it was hiding in plain sight. In the mid-20th century, queerness appeared like apparitions in the works of playwrights from Tennessee Williams to Noël Coward, cloaked in coded language or heterosexual plotlines, with gay characters simply substituted for straight ones.

Homophobic slurs dressed up as literary criticism were abound, with author Philip Roth condemning the 'ghastly pansy rhetoric' of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice in a 1965 issue of The New York Review. Roth goes on to posit that Albee’s ‘unwillingness or inability to put its real subject’, homosexuality, ‘at the centre of the action’ is the root cause of ‘the disaster of the play’. Here, Roth places Albee in a double bind: his own review foreshadows the hostility any openly gay play would be met with, yet he tacitly characterises Albee as a coward for apparently failing to tackle the subject.

In the UK, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office acted as the arbiter of moral standards, with all plays intended for public performance requiring approval and licensing. While some leniency was dispensed from the late 1950s onwards, content deemed ‘violently pro-homosexual' in secret memorandums would be banned until theatre censorship was finally abolished in 1968.

Silhouette of person on stage

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

The conflict between creative expression and suppression is apparent in the likes of Joe Orton’s Loot – a provocative dark farce challenging the limits of propriety. Following some wrangling, in 1965 the censor’s office ‘reluctantly’ granted a licence on the condition that Orton rewrite approximately 24 passages. References to homosexuality were removed, although Orton managed to retain some subtle allusions to the gay relationship between two characters.

‘Homosexuality is prohibited from the stage in terms of it being overtly mentioned,’ explains Dr Stephen Hornby, a playwright and academic. ‘What that creates is a thing that I term the 'elliptical homosexual' – the dot dot dot: 'You mean, he’s...?'. You can't say the word, just nod. So the inference can be there, but you can't make the term explicit.’

The abolition of theatre censorship offered a watershed moment for queer expression on stage in Britain with the likes of Gay Sweatshop leading the charge. Founded in 1975, the theatre company set out to create work actively exploring the gay and lesbian experience in the UK, touring the country and challenging the hackneyed notions of gay people that existed at the time.

Homosexuality is prohibited from the stage in terms of it being overtly mentioned. What that creates is a thing that I term the 'elliptical homosexual' – the dot dot dot: 'You mean, he’s...?'

Dr Stephen Hornby, playwright and academic

Following in the group’s footsteps came the likes of Homo Promos, a theatre company set up in response to the homophobic Section 28 legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government, and queerupnorth, a Manchester-based festival of queer arts, providing a platform for LGBTQ voices.

Meanwhile, in 1977, against the backdrop of growing queer visibility and an organised gay liberation movement in the US, American author Larry Mitchell wrote The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. A trenchant anti-assimilationist himself, Mitchell collides radical manifesto with the realm of fairy tales, introducing us to Ramrod, a crumbling dystopian empire ruled by the men, while the faggots – along with the queens, the strong women, the women who love women, the queer men and the fairies – plot revolutions.

Despite being out of print for several decades, it attained cult status, circulating in second-hand bookshops and through xeroxed bootleg copies. Both timely and timeless, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions is set to be reimagined as a piece of musical theatre at this year’s Manchester International Festival.

silhouette of man standing near wall on dark area

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

A celebration of queer experience that's vulnerable yet unapologetic, the piece also serves as a reminder of the work still to be done in the fight for queer liberation, with anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric increasingly seeping into the public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.

‘I think art will always fight against oppression and repression wherever it's found,’ says Adam Odsess-Rubin, the Founding Artistic Director of National Queer Theater, a non-profit organisation based in Brooklyn, New York. ‘But in these difficult moments, artists will respond with creativity, beauty and resistance through their work.’

As we sit down to talk over Zoom, Adam closes the doors behind him: ‘I'm hosting a Ukrainian clown in my house. She's a mime but very loud.’ Adam is gearing up for National Queer Theater’s annual Criminal Queerness Festival in partnership with Lincoln Center. Among the shows is War and Play: A Clown Odyssey of Survival – a devised piece following two lesbian clowns as they escape the war in Ukraine, ‘finding hope, joy and laughter in the face of war and destruction.’

Criminal Queerness Festival provides a platform for LGBTQ artists around the world who may face censorship because of their identities or the themes in their play. In its first year alone, the festival hosted works from Egypt, Tanzania, Pakistan and China.

Naturally, what is radically queer in one place or time may be less so in another setting, but Adam was partly inspired to create the festival as a reminder to ‘help Americans think about how fragile LGBT rights are and LGBT expression is here in the US, even a liberal place like New York City.’

I think art will always fight against oppression and repression wherever it's found. But in these difficult moments, artists will respond with creativity, beauty and resistance through their work.

Adam Odsess-Rubin, the Founding Artistic Director of National Queer Theater

It’s a prescient warning that rights are hard fought by oppressed groups, not simply granted by benevolent majorities – but these freedoms can be eroded too. His concern is echoed by Mahatma Khandi, a London-based drag queen and core member of The Bitten Peach, a queer pan-Asian cabaret production company covering art forms including drag, burlesque, dance, comedy and circus: ‘Our trans siblings are getting brutalised… we have to make sure that we're there for each other, that we march together, that we support each other.’

Describing The Bitten Peach as ‘the family I never knew I needed’, she explains that the collective was formed as a rebuttal to the tokenisation of Asian people in the cabaret scene: ‘We showcase pan-Asian queer joy. It's very important that people see that because they can find themselves within us – there's a sense of visibility.’

Khandi speaks of the importance of finding beauty, joy and levity in her work, even in troubling times: ‘In cabaret, what we do is hold a mirror to pop culture and society. We see what the world and society is doing wrong and then we go, 'Hey, wait a minute – let's make fun of it, or let's make light of it, or let's make a joke out of it, or a performance out of it.’’

Her words reflect a subversive reclamation of dominant culture narratives, illuminating the radical streak in queer performance art. Queer people have been ­– and continue to be – othered and perceived as transgressive by society at large, but the arts have provided a platform to showcase queer joy and map out liberation.

‘I think the theatre can create these temporal fleeting spaces, both spiritually and literally, where we can come together as a community and find safety and love and joy and sex and art,’ Adam adds. ‘We need to hold on to them because they're under attack – they're not guaranteed and we need to defend them.’

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