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The representation of the LGBTQ+ community in arts and culture has no doubt come a long way. With the very expression of sexuality and gender identity being an absolute taboo until the latter half of the twentieth century, there have been significant improvements in the possibilities of creative expression. However, while there have been significant steps towards positivity and inclusion, even within the liberal arts scene, LGBTQ+ representation remains problematic.
LGBTQ+ arts and culture pre-dating the de-criminalisation of homosexuality was built upon subtlety and literary conceits. Such an explicit confession of one’s sexuality in these difficult times would have resulted in severe punishment, mental and physical torture and social alienation. Hence, many of the LGBTQ+ creatives of this repressed age can only be assumed to be exploring gender and sexuality in their work. Take the Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti as an example of this; she rejected three potential male suitors and was found, by her brother, to have been writing love letters to a woman. This contextual information has led to interesting analyses of her work, an example being the grotesque portrayal of male sexuality in ‘Goblin Market’. Yet, this is only one interpretation. Such ambiguity in the arts of this period captures the difficult foundations LGBTQ+ writing has been built upon.
Regarding theatre, now considered one of the most supportive industries of the LGBTQ+ community, it was equally entrenched in homophobia and transphobia. Thankfully, with ground-breaking play writers and performers, such secrecy shadowing LGBTQ+ expression has gradually been lifted. Tennessee Williams is one of these great innovators; while homosexuality was not explicit in his work, in the classic play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, the character of Stanley unashamedly embodies toxic masculine heterosexuality. It is this subtlety that has laid the framework upon which modern theatre can expand. Theatre shows such as Kinky Boots, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rent and Angels in America only exist today due to the work of LGBTQ+ pioneers. However, as a result of the historical secrecy shadowing LGBTQ+ expression, it would be naïve to assume that LGBTQ+ representation in arts and culture today is equal in depth to heterosexual and cisgender representation.
Yes, LGBTQ+ people are now allowed to exist in western arts. However, such existence is highly controlled by heteronormative values that continue to perpetuate heterosexuality as right and any differing sexuality as an ‘other’. The same can be said for cisgender people being the norm; anyone who identifies as transgender, gender fluid or gender queer faces immediate stigmatisation and marginalisation. As demonstrated through the categorisation of arts, LGBTQ+ explorations tend to be placed in their own separate genre. The novel ‘Call Me by Your Name’ by André Aciman, is a coming-of-age romance, but it is explicitly labelled as an LGBTQ+ coming-of-age romance. How can LGBTQ+ arts ever break into the mainstream if it is continually being ‘othered’ and relegated to the margins of our culture? Thankfully, occasionally there are breakthroughs as demonstrated through the film ‘Moonlight’ winning the Academy Award for best picture in 2016. However, a breakthrough like this remains rare. Hollywood is still nervous about LGBTQ+ expression and representation. For every breakthrough, there are dozens of independently produced LGBTQ+ films, theatre productions and independently published novels that are being held back by the heteronormative, cisgender arts and cultural gatekeepers.
Such problematic restriction of LGBTQ+ expression culminates in the portrayal of gender identity. With an increase in transgender visibility in recent years, there has been an increase in the exploration of the transgender experience through different art mediums. One of the most problematic issues that have arisen is cisgender actors playing transgender characters in film, television and theatre. This debate was raised surrounding Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in ‘The Danish Girl’ and Jared Leto’s portrayal of a transgender woman living with HIV in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’. It is the very nature of acting to play a person who is different to yourself, but many transgender activists have voiced their concerns about this issue. They fear that cisgender actors playing transgender people embed the transphobic sentiment that being transgender is merely dressing in drag. If transgender and gender non-conformist creatives had more opportunities to belong to the arts, there would be far less problematic LGBTQ+ representation. The exploration of gender is still painfully marginalised in the mainstream arts industry, resulting in offensive stereotypes and misrepresentation of the transgender experience.
In an attempt to end this piece on a more positive note, I would be ignorant to disregard the genuine, progressive steps taken within arts and culture. For some, ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is just a bit of fun, but for many, it symbolises a movement that is celebrating people being themselves. It is a socially transformative show, reducing the stigma attached to the art of drag. LGBTQ+ children’s literature is increasingly being taught in schools. While the protests held by parents against the reading of these books is painfully disheartening, it at least shows that there is an active effort within many schools to teach children about diverse relationships and gender identities. It is through continuous, unrelenting artistic expression by which the prejudices held by many will be challenged. It is essential to support indie LGBTQ+ artists; through celebrating their work, we can celebrate LGBTQ+ arts and culture all year round rather than just for one month of the year.
The work of Christina Rossetti, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin provided a bedrock upon which LGBTQ+ arts and culture has been built upon. With open LGTBQ+ expression being a recent development, LGBTQ+ artists are still highly restricted. Let us hope the 2020s will be the decade of LGBTQ+ arts. With an increasingly conservative political climate, a strong LGBTQ+ counter-culture has been formed, and it is powerfully expressing itself through the possibilities of art. Through film, television, theatre, music, photography and art, gender and sexuality norms are being questioned. With more exposure to this expression, the LGBTQ+ community will become less marginalised. However, for now, LGBTQ+ art is still being ‘othered’. The gatekeepers to mainstream culture have a firm grip. This grip needs to be acknowledged, it needs to be questioned, and it needs to be destroyed. I believe that through powerful artistic expression, this can be achieved.