UK: Not that they’re required to be, but it’s rare that festivals are concerned with anything beyond purveying good vibes and raking in inordinate amounts of dollar. Environmentalist initiatives are becoming increasingly common, but a lot of these remain behind-the-scenes rather than being an obvious focal point. Similarly, the plethora of themed festivals tend to keep the concept purely decorative, rather than as an exploration of a substantial idea. Again: Serious socio-political preoccupations aren’t a prerequisite for a respectable event. However, it’s refreshing to see a festival with a clear, positive social agenda and academic sensibilities.
Festival Insights spoke with Niranjan Kamatkar, the Artistic Director of both multimedia charity Wise Thoughts and GFest, London’s LGBTQI cross-art festival. For those unfamiliar with the latter couple of letters on that acronym, they stand for ‘Queer’ and ‘Intersex’. This year’s multi-venue, multi-disciplinary art festival – taking place from November 10 – 22 – will explore the theme of Myths & Mythology through queer art, film, dance, cabaret, theatre, and discussion.
Festival Insights: What was the impetus for staging GFest?
Niranjan Kamatkar: We used to have Gaywise cross-art workshop residencies starting in 2003 for ten week periods, which were followed by artist showcases. We saw a number of practitioners who were engaging with the initiative and saw the need for a cross-art LGBT event. We started GFest in 2007 across several London venues and it was immediately very well received, which is no surprise considering the cosmopolitan nature of the city. It came along at the right time and in the right place.
FI: So do you think the appeal of the event is purely insular to the LGBTQI community? Or is there a sizeable – for lack of a better word – heterosexual contingent that you’re aware of within your audience?
NK: Yes, a third of participants describe themselves in our feedback forms as heterosexual. So straight communities engage with the festival’s offerings and ostensibly enjoy the expressions of LGBTQI artists just as much.
FI: I guess that demonstrates that people are appreciating the art on its own merits, rather than simply because it’s directly relevant to their own personal struggles.
NK: Well many are connected to these communities through family members or friends who identify as queer or transgender. There’s an entry point into empathising with these issues there. Although I’m sure many have a more tenuous or even nonexistent connection to these communities, but simply appreciate the art.
FI: Within the last ten years things have accelerated in terms of LGBT acceptance. How much of this increase in dialogue and progress do you attribute to the Internet? It seems that the exponential acceleration of technology has tied into the development of social issues and communication between heterogeneous groups.
NK: Yes that’s a big part of it as it exposes people to the stories of others, but also there’s been a lot of new litigation that protects LGBT individuals, including hate crime laws, employment rights, and gay marriage. There are also numerous community organisations and voluntary bodies that tackle these issues every day on a grassroots level.
FI: Speaking of these issues, what do you consider to be the biggest hurdle facing LGBTQI people in the UK today? And how far do we have to go before we achieve true ‘social equality’?
NK: In my opinion it’s going to be some years until we achieve true social equality, for want of a better term. Young people still face a lot of bullying and casual homophobia in schools. There have been reports that 34% of LGBT individuals are not out in the workplace because they don’t feel comfortable. There are still social barriers in education, employment, and wider society. It’s rare that a week goes by without hearing about a transgender person being the victim of unprovoked physical violence, for example.
Coming out is always going to be a process. It may become easier but anyone who is trying to come to terms with his or her sexual orientation knows that it isn’t easy on a personal level, regardless of the attitudes of others. But festivals like GFest are doing their part to help in facilitating the process as much as possible.
FI: The latter two letters in the LGBTQI acronym aren’t ones that I’d encountered before. I do find it interesting that these specific labels seem to be proliferating, especially with the rise of social media sites – Tumblr being the main culprit. Some would say a few of these designations, such as ‘Demisexual’ unnecessarily apply a title to something which is sort of a given for most people anyway. Ones like that contribute to the prevailing notion that they amount to nothing more than ‘special snowflake’ status symbols in some desperate need for attention. Do you think there is a legitimate need for these labels, or do you think they contribute to the misguided idea that gender and sexuality are binary? A rather verbose and loaded question, I admit, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts.
NK: I hope at some point in our lives these labels will become irrelevant or obsolete, as we will accept the full spectrum of identities. However as it stands these labels serve a function in that they create a sense of belonging in a society that to some extent is opposed to or unaware the concept of sexuality as spectrum rather than a binary choice. I heard someone say that there are as many identities as there are people, and I think that’s very true.
When we originally announced our plans to stage an LGBT cross-art festival we received a message on Facebook calling out our lack of explicit support for intersex people. So really our use of these labels is to ensure that we’re as inclusive as possible.
The full listings for GFest can be viewed here.