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Queer Survival in an Apocalyptic World

Writing by Noushka Summerfield. Illustration by Dafne de Fine Licht.

“Good evening fellow cisgender heterosexuals, and of course, normal people. Let’s give one cheer for the end of the neofascist nightmare we live in today! One cheer for the abandonment of all logical sense! And one cheer for your hostess with the mostest, the skinniest drag queen in Scotland, Mystika Glamooooor ....”

“How are we feeling tonight? How are we coping with the end of the world? With these dark and terrible times?

It’s always the end of the world. Honestly, it feels like I’ve survived about 27 apocalypses at this point.

But, somehow, we’re still here! Look at all your lovely gay little faces. We’re able to be together and laugh and make art as a community. And that is how we’ve always survived things that felt like the end of the world. Queer people, especially, have lived through so many apocalypses, and we’ve always managed to survive through solidarity and community. And that is what we’re doing here tonight. So, laddies and gentlefemmes, please put your gay little hands together!”

Mystika’s blue wig (and her bedazzled boobs) shimmer in the disco lights to cheers from the assorted crowd of people dressed almost as fantastically, a swirl of dyed hair and shaved heads and piercings and thrifted clothes, playing with gender like it’s a colourful pick-and-mix selection.

With the ever-impending doom of the climate crisis, the daily updates on the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, and the million other world crises that seem to multiply every day, her words and the frivolity of the warm community nestled in the basement of The Street nightclub is a welcome relief, a sparkly glittering glimmer in the encroaching darkness.

The drag night is one of many hosted at The Street, the far corner of Edinburgh’s famous ‘Pink Triangle’, whose gay clubs, bars, and cafes are a vibrant centre of much of Edinburgh’s queer scene.The area is not only a hub of the contemporary queer scene but a heartland of queer history.

The first lesbian and gay bookshop, Lavender Menace, was opened on Forth Street in 1982, operating as a creative and educational community space despite frequent seizures of book shipments by HM customs as ‘pornographic’.

Lavender Menace was not the only queer community space in the area to thrive in the face of adversity. In 1974, the Scottish Minorities Group (SMG, Scotland’s first lesbian and gay organisation, named as such to prevent explicitly mentioning homosexuality) transformed its Broughton Street premises into a gay centre, with a cafe, information centre, meeting rooms, and a befriending service.

This construction of community was central to SMG’s activism. They arranged numerous events to bring the queer community together, organising Scotland’s first gay disco, which began as discrete same-sex dancing in Edinburgh University’s Chaplaincy centre in 1971, and then, as it expanded, moved to Tiffany’s nightclub, where they attracted huge crowds before the owners discovered it was being used for gay events. The SMG also staged the world’s first international Gay Rights Conference in Edinburgh University’s Bristo Square in 1974, which also culminated in a night of dancing. Through these community events, SMG had a significant impact on public consciousness, and their activism is often credited for the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality in Scotland in 1980 (13 years after it was decriminalised in England and Wales by the Sexual Offences Act).

Going out to dance and enjoy yourself whilst celebrating queer identities was also central to the monthly meetings of the Edinburgh Transvestite and Transexual Group during the 1980s, which, as well as providing support, gave members an opportunity to freely dress according to their gender preferences before going out together to one of the city’s bars.

These communities did not wait for the world to change around them to express their identities and build their own radical communities, to create space to love, live and dance.

The queer community has always danced through the apocalypse. Even during the bleakest days of the AIDS crisis, dancing was a method of resistance and support, with the Scottish AIDS Monitor hosting a high- profile launch party in Glasgow’s Tunnel nightclub. In the numerous grassroots mutual support groups set up throughout this crisis, the strength of queer communities is also a beacon of hope.

This celebration of community and identity was also a response to the rebuttals of legal pushbacks. After the introduction of Section 28 (or 2A in Scotland) in 1988, which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities, the Scottish Homosexual Action Group (SHAG) organised a ‘Lark in the Park’ event, which, with hundreds of people gathering in Princes’ Street gardens for music, comedy, and protest, was the largest organised gay rights event in Scotland. ‘Lark in the Park’ recurred in 1989 and 1992 and was the precursor to Pride Scotia. In 2000, due largely to queer activism which influenced the newly devolved Scottish Parliament, Section 2A was repealed in Scotland, 3 years before England and Wales. Perhaps Pride itself is also the most visible demonstration of the queer community’s ability to protest and resist through joyful and colourful celebrations of community and identity.

The queer community shows us that we do not have to wait for the world to change around us to live as we want to live, to create radical alternatives in the present through community building, art, dance, and love. Or, as Audre Lorde proclaims, “without community, there is no liberation” and “tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone; who lends the best of ourselves to it, and with joy”.

In the darkness of the daily overlapping apocalypses that seem to engulf us, we could remember the Chinese proverb “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. Or, as the queer community shows us, it is better to light a small but bright fire for our friends to sit around, to build a place of light where we can freely express our identities and live as we want to live, to nurture the fire with love and laughter and dance and community so that we can expand its warmth, and in doing so resist the encroaching darkness.

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