Updated: Jul 8, 2020
There is an enduring perception of the arts sector as a champion of diversity, inclusivity, and equality. To an outsider, the sector appears to be a Glee-esque space that stands in solidarity with all manner of marginalised minorities and ragtag social misfits. Those that watched Glee, however, know the show’s apparent inclusivity was undermined by one-dimensional representations and problematic narratives, which only reinforced oppressive ideologies. In this way, the arts are plagued by superficial representations that simply seek to stage queerness, rather than bring meaningful changes to the sector’s structural inequalities and exclusions.
Over the last forty-years there has been an explosion in creative work featuring queer characters, identities and stories, such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Angels In America and Fun Home. Such creative works have brought forth a new, global awareness of the lives of LGBTQ+ people and the issues they face.
Although creative work focusing on queerness has increased the world over, there remains a distinct lack of LGBTQ+ voices in the leadership and decision-making seats of Britain’s arts sector. Arts Council England’s 2019 Equality and Diversity report shows that LGBTQ+ people make up less than 14% of CEOs, Artistic Directors, Chairs and Board Members. A statistic which sits unsurprisingly alongside the fact these leading roles are held by a white, straight, able-bodied, male majority.
It perhaps goes without saying that representation in all its forms is an important thing for minority groups. “You cannot be what you cannot see”, the famous sentiment goes. But at this point, without proper leadership, the act of simply staging queerness is not enough to challenge the inequalities embedded in the sector’s hierarchical structure.
Representations of queerness positioned within paradigms that continue to be institutionally hetero- and cis-normative force queerness to exist under certain, confining conditions. These conditions dictate what narratives of queerness can be told and by whom, rather than enabling for authentic and autonomous storytelling.
These staged ‘representations’ of queerness are fundamentally a perfunctory form of diversity management. It aims to showcase that the LGBTQ+ community is included within the sector, through a performative presentation of visibility. Even though, in fact, the current structure of arts leadership systematically excludes queer people from the very top, decision-making roles. As a result, there is a power imbalance occurring simultaneous to the sector proclaiming inclusivity. Effectively silencing the voices of queer people and removing them from the narrative when telling their own stories.
In many ways, the issue comes down to how we talk about ‘diversity’ as both a worldview and quick-fix solution. The concept of diversity, and those considered diverse, is a construct produced and controlled by society’s dominant social group. It defines and reinforces what is normal by actively defining and reinforcing what is not-normal. To ‘be’ diverse is to be different from the norm; it is to not be white, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied.
Thus, diversity is overwhelmingly about being seen to include those who are defined as different. Staged representations of queerness are superficial as they enable the sector to construct an outwardly egalitarian image whilst not remedying the systems that caused exclusions in the first place. It is a structure that only further tokenises those who are already underrepresented and oppressed in society.
Although speaking in terms of race, activist and academic Angela Davis has stated that she has a “hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice”. This is relevant to superficial representations of queerness, as diversity is a strategy “designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before”.
Real and meaningful change can only be inaugurated in the sector from the top-down. Of course, entry-level positive action schemes are important for breaking down barriers. But, these purposeful undoings of systems of exclusion must be sustained to the very top leadership roles. Only this will dismantle the frameworks which allow ongoing exclusions to continue. By redesigning the arts sector from the top-down, the voices, needs and lived experiences of queer people will naturally come to the forefront of decisions. Rather, that is, than be a tokenised second thought used as a way to ‘look’ progressive.
Sophie Perry is a writer and editor who specialises in arts and culture, with a particular interest in queer and feminist perspectives. She is a graduate of King’s College London and has been published in DIVA Magazine, Curve Magazine, The Gallyry and The F-word. Her full list of published work can be viewed on her website: https://sophieperryportfolio.com/. When she is not putting figurative pen to paper, you can find her in your local charity shop and on Twitter: @itssophieomfg