This month’s edition of Scarborough Film Festival focused on Pride, with showings of Holly Summerson’s Acceptable Face, and Ashley Joiner’s Are You Proud?, followed by a fantastic Q&A with Lel Meleyal, Joel Hague & Nathan Wackett.
The selection of Summerson’s and Joiner’s films demonstrate how progress in LGBTQ+ history may be measured and how the ways in which we envision ‘progress’ can open up new paths towards liberation but how these new frontiers can also carry the risk of erasing and speaking over history. Summerson’s Acceptable Face highlights the difficulties with visibility and queerness, the ‘clockability’ of gay and trans people has been a topic of discussion both from within and directed at the LGBTQ+ community for its entire history. The ways many young people today are able to experiment with self expression and appearing as openly queer is possible due only to the previous generations’ struggles for liberation. In its documenting of the history of Pride as a movement, Are You Proud? powerfully engages with how we think about the momentum of queer liberation movements and how each movement and generation is intrinsically linked. Son of a Tutu raises this point very clearly in their discussion of how their generation fought the battles of race which paved the way for the younger generation to focus on the issues of today, such as cultural appropriation.
Intergenerational communication was foregrounded in both Are You Proud? and the Q&A, each of which engaged with different dimensions of this theme. In Are You Proud? I was particularly struck by the section focussing on the HIV epidemic and how the way it was treated by the public wreaked destruction on the community. Michael Cashman’s discussion of how parents of AIDS victims, ‘claimed back their child […] sanitised them, heterosexualised them in their burials and their cremations, took away their history’, was a powerful moment which highlights the importance of archiving in the queer community, especially because the epidemic meant huge swathes of especially older gay men are absent and unable to speak for themselves as queer elders on today’s issues. This point was further engaged in the Q&A. An audience member brought up the fact that archiving queer history doesn’t mean only engaging with people’s personal archives but also publicly available materials - anti-gay propaganda and media such as that which spread false narratives about HIV are important to document and engage with to memorialise the challenges of the past and avoid repeating history. Lel Meleyal raised the question of ‘official’ narratives of history and how traditional educational pathways can tend towards dismissing or ignoring personal and anecdotal history, a particular problem in the history of the LGBTQ+ movement which has always existed on the margins and lacks much of the institutional infrastructure granted to many other movements and events.
The sanitisation and commercialisation of the LGBTQ+ movement and Pride as an event are issues that are brought up in Are You Proud?, the film engages with the difficulties of handling what was and in many ways still is a radical political movement that has become popular and profitable to support. The commercialisation of Pride, i.e. the event being attended and supported by a huge number of major companies, is interesting in the light of the discussion of how we think about queer archives and history that was raised in the Q&A. There is a danger of pinkwashing and sanitising of queer history and issues, as the public is more comfortable with certain parts of the LGBTQ+ community, however in integrating with and educating the straight community it is important not to cut out the parts that may cause discomfort. As the slogan says, ‘Pride is a protest’, and it is critical that the community retains its radical potential. However, the fact that in England today Pride as a movement has the huge platform and mainstream appeal that it has gained is important and allows for freedom for LGBTQ+ folks in many ways. Joel and Nathan reminded us of the importance of queer-defined spaces. In discussing their project The Queer Infoshop, they highlighted the question of queer spaces as claimed by the community versus purpose-made queer spaces, and the lack of the latter in the local Scarborough area. This reflects back the discussion of the place of queer people in the UK prior to the GLF and the Pride movement, early in Are You Proud? the ‘gay world’ is discussed as an ‘underworld, a twilit place’ which the speaker ‘hated’ upon coming out. Joel and Nathan raised the importance of having LGBTQ+ owned and operated spaces which allow for open and honest inter- and cross-generational engagement in the community. They highlighted the limits of ‘unofficial’ queer spaces which the community may claim as their own, but within which we cannot claim full ownership and freedom. The Pride movement has progressed so far since the narrowly defined allowances for gay relationships as outlined in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, we can trace the need and demand for public LGBTQ+ spaces within which to build open and strong communities that have always been central to the Pride movement through to today with projects such as The Queer Infoshop.
At the end of Are You Proud?, the filmmakers draw attention to some of the issues in the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights and freedom, despite its many achievements there is still far to go in the struggle for queer liberation. Early in the Q&A discussion, Lel raised the issue of the North-South divide as a problem in the UK LGBTQ+ community. She acknowledged the Southern-bias displayed in Are You Proud? and recalls how at the time while many of the events depicted in the documentary were taking place in London, the access for northern LGBTQ+ people was limited due to difficulties in finding people willing to transport them to London to participate. She recounted that a member of the community ended up borrowing a coach from the bus company to take a group to Pride in 1982. She acknowledged the fact that the South and London in particular is more densely populated which contributes towards there being more spaces and activity in these areas - however, there were and continue to be extra resources and access available to affluent young, often white and cisgender gay men in London that fail to reach the North of England. By drawing attention to the struggles of the past, Are You Proud? further emphasises how far we still have to go - participants discuss the homophobia present in the Global South, and issues with immigration and queerness, citing that in 2010 almost 99% of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers were denied asylum. It is important to view this film as a piece of media that occupies a place within the queer archives in its own right. As Martha suggested, in archiving it is important to ask ‘who compiled this and what is missing’. Looking back in 2023 using this film as a lens, we may be prompted to look at the way Pride as a political movement and the queer community along with it has changed, evolved, and has even been forced backwards since the 1960s (where Are You Proud? picks up). The increased levels of anti-LGBTQ+ radicalisation in online spaces and the rise of institutionalised transphobia in the US and the UK in particular are alarming developments in the intervening years, and compiling and archiving the struggles and victories of the past holds the power to inspire in the ongoing fight for liberation.