A PROJECT IN WHICH I GATHERED 57 LGBTQ+ INDIVIDUALS AT CAMBRIDGE AND TOOK PICTURES OF THEIR BEAUTIFUL FACES AND HANDS
CN: food & alcohol mentions, discussion of structural oppression of LGBT+ people, lesbophobic comments
When I sat down to write this article I didn’t really know where to start.
- Brief excerpt enabling early opt out.
This is not going to be a cocktail laced with Foucault and garnished with a sprig of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. It’s going to be a highly subjective story about me ft. why I think we still need to see pictures of people who (in the eyes of “society”) do something different to what those heterosexual people do. If you don’t like the sound of this then I implore you in high Chaucerian fashion to go and stick your face in something more valuable, like Judith Butler (not literally pls – at least not without her consent).
MY THINKING UP THE IDEA – PART 1
- I see Tillett Wright’s TedTalk and subsequently her ‘Self Evident Truths’ project.
- I send a vague email to Em at Get Real about how it might be quite nice if we did a Cambridge version.
- I sweet talk my mother into letting me steal her big Canon for a few months so no-one questions me.
Luckily my college daughter Ellie is as queer as a cat singing a Tegan and Sara album, and I already decided to be a militant mum from day one anyway, so. The rest was us smiling in an encouraging (translate: probably terrifying) fashion over the tops of whatever literature we were reading that week, mainly at passing snooker players and tourists. Not much to write an article about then.
For me these pictures seem to speak for themselves and so in a way I am reluctant to get words tangled up with them. Every single face or set of hands registers a presence in a completely different way. As anyone who has ever had to choose to label themselves or their sexuality (or choose not to), as well as interact with others who are doing the same will agree, it’s bloody hard and often unsatisfying. I hope these pictures will speak to everyone who looks at them in a different way. In sharing what these pictures mean to me there will be people reading this who have a completely different sense of what being LGBTQ+ is like, as well as people who share moments of recognition, and I suppose that is entirely the point. I am just one white, middle class, state school educated queer woman from the North West. I love football, my Chanel Universel Bronzer, Northern Soul, Neo-Marxist ethnography and peanut butter and share worrying psychological tendencies with male Tudor poets. This in itself points out the absurdity of being able to identify anyone who happens to not be a heterosexual, a point Tillett Wright was trying to make through the range of her photography. I do not especially like cats or Tegan and Sara or glitter. I prefer dogs and Shura and tinsel meself so soz.
If I am labouring a banal point mixed in with what appears to be fragments of a highly dubious dating profile, I’m afraid I must beg your readerly indulgence in typical 18th century fashion. This is not going to be a cocktail laced with Foucault and garnished with a sprig of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (yes, your patience does extend to my weak analogies). It’s going to be a highly subjective story about me ft. why I think we still need to see pictures of people who (in the eyes of “society”) do something different to what those heterosexual people do. If you don’t like the sound of this then I implore you in high Chaucerian fashion to go and stick your face in something more valuable, like Judith Butler (not literally pls – at least not without her consent). I purposely didn’t want to gush about how diverse “we” all are like every colour of the rainbow. Because for me (personally) the constant association of diversity with people-who-(in the eyes of “society”)-do-something-different-to-what-those-heterosexual-people-do carries a kind of negative charge. No single person in the world regardless of sexual orientation is like another. (Did I really just write that sentence? Yes, yes I did). Foregrounding difference is in many ways necessary and empowering. But the rainbow is kind of a bitter-sweet paradox. It signals both difference within the LGBTQ+ community and difference from what falls outside of it. Sometimes it can seem as if all those heterosexual people are not also rainbow people, so obscuring from an outside (and sometimes inside) perspective the same varieties of difference that are taken for granted to exist between heterosexual people, regardless of the multivalence of the rainbow sign. I have always had problems conceptualising this LGBTQ+ community I am supposed to be a part of; for me it has always been something a little like catching air. Like everyone, I didn’t get a badge and a manual, but I found myself having to stick a name on my sexuality. In many ways I wanted to. I wanted to find a name that would concretely tell other girls, hey it’s okay to feel this way, without evading anything. But as I got a little older I sensed there was often a lot of difference between me and other people who also used this label. I find myself modulating between a single largely deficient label on the one hand, and completely anatomising my set of sexual proclivities in one hyper-long potentially heterosexual-frightening breath on the other. It’s exhausting at both ends of the spectrum.
So this is one reason why pictures.
I was one half of the only out gay couple in my sixth form. My girlfriend at the time identified as straight (apart from me) and I didn’t know of any other “out” people in my year. Despite this I had a lovely time I’m afraid. Happily I was known more for my debating skills and what assemblage I would be wearing from the stocks of the local vintage emporium than for being “the only queer in the village”. I was extremely confident in my sexuality having convinced myself that I could be a fit lesbian like Sian off Corrie. Hooray for me. Looking back from a sea of Cixous and the other ones, this seems vaguely pathetic. But it gave me the confidence I needed to live “out” bit by bit, aged 15 to myself and my friends, aged 16 to everyone else. And in real life I was like none of these people off the telly. Yet I scoured images and youtube videos of same sex couples “like me” until I habituated myself to the picture of what otherwise would not be “normal”. I made it into a sexy, confident image in my head and I lived that image until I had done it enough to value myself without it. The picture of my pretending, however, helped someone who needed it. Unbeknownst to me, one of my “straight” best friends was seriously struggling with her sexuality but seeing me do it, she saw that she might be able to do it too. (I should have seen it coming really given the amount of Demi Lovato and Naya Rivera I was submitted to every day after school).
My life in lower school was remarkably easy, mainly because I wasn’t targeted by the lesbian police, even though I played football seriously throughout and wore boys’ shoes up until my hyper feminine Year 9 phase. At this time, our school was visited by an LGBT+ education lady (who funnily enough did wear Doc Martens and have spiky hair), who asked us why it was wrong to call other kids “gay”. I whipped my hand up like a Hermione Granger trying to control her rampant lesbianism and said: “It’s a pejorative term.” She looked away from me in a disgruntled manner, turned to the rest of the room and said: “It’s basically just insulting, isn’t it?” Once I was “out”, I was incredibly fortunate that it wasn’t really that much more difficult. Sure there was the dinner lady who compared me and my girlfriend at the time to Ellen and Portia on a microphone in front of the entire year, (get a sense of humour and a haircut and I’m halfway there), and the guy at a house party who mysteriously addressed me with: “They told me you were a rug muncher”, but it was all pretty innocuous and vaguely amusing for me. But I was privileged. I had something that gave me the confidence to be queer. There were white, feminine presenting lesbians on prime time TV (Skins, Coronation Street) that looked vaguely like me. Not every young person questioning their sexuality had the same. Even now, having lived out for over four years I still go back to these images before I go to sleep, still reaffirming these pictures.
Social media gives us a platform to do something that the mainstream doesn’t. To show faces and bodies usually omitted from the images that surround us. Time and time again this is the omission of intersectional identities: BME, East Asian and South Asian queer people as well as other underrepresented minority ethnic groups, disabled queer people, trans (and queer) people, asexual people, gender neutral people, masculine presenting people, feminine presenting people, and the many differences within and between these intersectional identities. That is why I wanted as many faces and hands in my project as possible, because I want as many people as possible to be able to think “I’m a little bit like them”, even though we are each individually as different as the people-who-(in the eyes of “society”)-do- what-those-heterosexual-people-do. Whether for people applying to Cambridge or studying here already, I hope this project can serve as even a bit of a reference point and I plan to keep adding to it in the next academic year.
To everyone who took part, thank you all so much for recognising the importance of an image.
Becca Hirst, GR. Contributor
If you would like to be a part of this project please email Becca – firstname.lastname@example.org