Down to a T

I recently read a piece (I can’t remember where so can’t provide a reference) in which it was argued that the T in LGBT I was out of place since gender is a distinct phenomenon from sexual orientation. On one level this is true although we might point out that if a change of gender does not entail a change in sexual orientation this would mean that the act of transitioning the T actually entails the L or G since a straight man transitioning becomes a lesbian.

But there is a deeper problem with this way of thinking. It simply has an excessively narrow view  both of gender and sexuality and  ignores the ways in which they have been intertwined in gay and lesbian subcultures.

I began to think about this whilst at Tate Britain last week,  visiting the exhibition Queer British Art 1861 to 1967, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

For, from the Victorian era, experiments with gender fluidity were part of the artistic expression of gay and lesbian identity. Everywhere where there is androgyny and this was something that was clear to contemporary observers.   Clothes, make up, hair,  the use of beautiful young men as models for female figures from  classical mythology, this even before we get onto pantomime dames and  drag queens. In short, those who identified with alternative and stigmatised sexualities, sought to perform their sexuality in ways that also challenged gender stereotypes. Look, for example, at the photograph of Quentin Crisp in the exhibition or the iconic portrait of Radclyffe Hall.

And maybe the words gay and lesbian are out of place here too. At the start of the period represented by the exhibition medical science had still to invent and define hetero- and homosexuality as concepts. As categories they can be restricting too. Science seeks to define and classify. Art doesn’t.  Art like this serves to undermine the neat order of science’s categories. It points the way to which allow us can live art through our sexuality and through our performance of gender. Queer art is saying that sexuality is elusive, a range of possibilities, a range of pleasures, and gender a stage for our self-representation. Seen through the prism of art, rigid definitions of gender are as constraining as heteronormative binary views of sexuality and, in a sense, underpin them.

There were parts of this exhibition I found deeply erotic. Some of the exhibition was wickedly funny. Take a look at the library book covers doctored by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, an act for which the state exacted vicious revenge with six month prison sentences.  All of it was empowering, much of it beautiful. I left, thinking that sexuality and gender form a space where can express ourselves, a space where we can be free.