The gay pride that's taking on prejudice - and winning
Same-sex marriage has been legalised in the UK, but homophobia is still rife in other countries. So it's a good time to revive my play, The Pride, exploring gay identity over the past few decades, says Alexi Kaye Campbell
Wednesday 07 August 2013
When Jamie Lloyd called me last month to tell me that he'd decided to direct a revival of The Pride as the third play in his season at the Trafalgar Studios, I couldn't have been happier. It has been five years since the two of us worked together on the original production at the Royal Court Theatre and during those five years, I have had the good fortune of watching that play travel across the world in many different incarnations – from New York to Tokyo and from Stockholm to Sydney. And now, the play is returning home. With the recent turn of events on the gay marriage front, it seems like the perfect time for that to be happening.
Who would have thought a few years ago that gay marriage would even be a possibility? That two people of the same sex who love each other would be able to have their relationship recognised in the eyes of the law and society as being completely and entirely equal to a heterosexual union? And I realised that a significant battle had been won – a battle whose victory announced that gay peoples' relationships with each other were just as important, valid, and as sacrosanct as those enjoyed by their straight friends. It is a landmark moment and its significance can not be underestimated. A revolution of sorts and one that sets the mark for the rest of the world.
But alas, many other countries are not that keen to follow the lead. Just as these developments were occurring over here, in other countries darker forces were at work: in Russia, Vladimir Putin's government recently passed a law which makes it illegal to "promote" any sort of sexual relationships other than so-called traditional ones – in other words, it will be against the law to portray any gay relationship in the arts or media in any sort of positive light.
In Cameroon, a gay rights activist by the name of Eric Ohena Lembembe was brutally tortured and murdered for defending his beliefs. In Tbilisi, Georgia, a few brave souls who had attempted to attend the city's first Gay Pride had to be driven away in a convoy of vans as they were surrounded by thousands of enraged men.
And in many Muslim countries across the world, homosexuality is condemned, reviled and punished in the most appalling ways. All this reminded me that a battle may indeed have been won by what has happened in this country recently but that the war against homophobia is far from over. And with these thoughts, I remembered what drove me to write The Pride in the first place .
And that had something to do with what a challenge it is to believe in yourself when a lot of the world is telling you that what you are and the way you love is wrong. As I look now at footage of those raging crowds surrounding the vans in Tbilisi, I ask myself again what the roots of homophobia are and why they run so deep. There are probably a whole lot of answers – perhaps, many of those men are threatened by their own hidden homosexual proclivities, or they are frightened of their tribe being weakened by those they regard as more feminine, or they loathe what they do not understand. Or a combination of these.
But whatever the reasons the world has always been riddled with homophobia, one can only stop and think of the effect that this has had on gay people themselves – on their sense of self, on their identities and confidence. This is what I wanted mostly to explore in my play – the yoke that one must throw off if one is to grow and ultimately to know oneself; the struggle generations of gay men and women have fought to feel a genuine sense of pride in themselves.
Because when I look back on my life, what I remember most is a sense of being told who I was by voices who knew nothing about me. I also learnt to cover up my true identity. At school in Greece in the Eighties, I was quick to learn that to be gay meant to be mocked and ridiculed. Later, in my teens, when I became obsessed with the cinema, I watched an endless parade of negative gay stereotypes who either ended up dead or doomed to a miserable existence (a history, beautifully chronicled in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet). When, with a frightened, beating heart I came across the first gay sexual encounter I had found in a novel – it was a horror book that someone had left lying around in a rented holiday house – two men make love in guilt and shame, and are devoured by rats. As a 13-year-old, trying to come to terms with my emotions and my sexuality, the signs were clear: what you are is bad and you will, at best, live an unhappy, loveless life.
It was when I started thinking about these cultural influences and the effect they'd had on gay identity over the years that I came up with the form and structure of the play: three people who exist in two different time periods (the 1950s and the present) and are shaped indelibly by the societal forces at work in each era . By creating this central metaphor, I wanted to compare and contrast what it meant to be gay in two time periods, on each side of the sexual revolution. At the same time, I wanted to allude to a connectedness between these periods and intimate that one of the characters in the later period is directly shaped by what he has been in the earlier; that the way he behaves in the present is often a reaction to the way in which he has been treated in the past. By giving the play this particular form, I felt I was allowing myself scope to explore how the personal and the historical are connected within the context of gay identity over the generations, and also to mine the territory of an individual's relationship to the society he or she has emerged from and what he has inherited from the ones that went before. And it allowed me to do so in a way that was poetic and suggestive, less literal.
And so as I sit in rehearsal watching Jamie Lloyd working with the four extraordinary actors who are part of this revival – Hayley Atwell, Harry Hadden-Paton, Mathew Horne and Al Weaver – I return to what made me write the play in the first place – the seed of it all. All I can think of is this: I am not much of a hero and never have been. I have done a few things that have taken courage – coming out to my family at the age of 20 one was one of them – and day by day I have tried to understand something more of who I am and of the forces that drive me. But I am not one of those people who has that fearlessness that makes them stand up against the tide and fight the haters – I am not an Eric Ohena Lembembe. And maybe it is exactly that knowledge of my own lack of courage that has inspired me to write a play that I think is a dedication to people like him, whichever country they are in and whatever generation they belong to.
There is a line in the play when one of the characters discusses Gay Pride. "Remind me," he says. "is it a demonstration, a celebration or a fashion show?" My answer to that is that it is still a demonstration – and that until the whole world accepts that gay people are equal in every way to straight ones it will continue to be so. But maybe now, and just for a short while, we can also allow it to be a temporary "celebration" as well – that at least in this particular part of the world, at this particular point in history, a significant step towards progress has been made. And ultimately, a step towards love.
'The Pride', Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0845 505 8500; trafalgar-studios.co.uk) tomorrow to 9 November
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