Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Glasgay’s 20th anniversary

Jackie Kay on Glasgay!'s brochure

Jackie Kay on Glasgay!'s brochure

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TOMORROW Kitchens of Distinction release their first album in 19 years.

If the name means nothing to you, that’s understandable; KOD are one of pop music’s great might-have-been stories, a band who combined the widescreen guitars of My Bloody Valentine with the pin-sharp lyricism of Morrissey or Elvis Costello, yet fell far short of emulating the careers of any of these people, despite passionate championing by a few music critics.

I’ve heard it suggested, a few times, that one reason KOD didn’t achieve more mainstream success was that their singer, Patrick Fitzgerald, was gay and wrote openly and explicitly about it, but the band played what was considered “straight” music – guitar rock.

I’m inclined to think there’s something in this, even if many more mundane factors were also at play. As a straight man whose favourite musicians are mostly gay (Fitzgerald, Mark Eitzel, Rufus Wainwright, the Pet Shop Boys), I’ve long been fascinated by people’s inability to see past stereotypes. Back in 2006, I interviewed Steven Thomson, director of the Glasgay! festival, who told me about a box office disaster he’d had at Tramway with a show he described as “a piece of performance art, wonderfully staged, and only about 50 people came to see it because we had Glasgay! stamped all over the poster”. He believed this was prejudice – that the venue’s audience were expecting “drag queens and cabaret”. The next year he played down Glasgay!’s involvement in one of its own commissions to ensure a “mainstream” (ie heterosexual) audience would come to see it.

I thought this was a curious strategy at the time, but he must have been doing something right: Glasgay! celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, with Thomson still in charge and his mission to make the festival a bigger, more mainstream event largely accomplished. This year, for the first time, Glasgow City Council will host a civic reception for the festival’s opening. Glasgay! is now officially part of the establishment.

This is, in many obvious ways, a healthy thing, and reflects the “mainstreaming” of British gay life in general – soon, hopefully, to culminate in a law that will allow gay Scots to get married. I argued in this column a couple of years ago that reality TV can probably take as much credit for this maturing of attitudes as more conscious campaigning. Purely by being the most obviously normal, well-balanced people in the room, Anna Nolan and Brian Dowling on Big Brother, Alex Parks on Fame Academy and Will Young on Pop Idol all helped skewer prejudices about gay “lifestyle”. It’s striking that the cover star for Glasgay!’s 20th anniversary brochure is a very ordinary-looking middle-aged woman in glasses and a tank top (Jackie Kay, also on the bill of the first Glasgay! back in 1993).

The question is, where does Glasgay! go from here? There’s an argument to be made that, in “mainstreaming” anything – from a band to a festival – the thing in question loses its edge, its radicalism, perhaps the thing that makes it art. Thomson used to describe Glasgay! as a celebration of “queer culture” – a culture, as I understood it at least, of outsiders battling to find a place in the world. Now, more prosaically, it’s just a “celebration of LGBT culture”.

As a straight man, I’m cautious about trying to develop this argument further. I have no personal stake in whether Glasgay! is “mainstream” or anything else. So I’ll leave it to the organisers of a Glasgay! event on 16 October called What’s Next For Queer Performance? The only other comment I’ll make about Glasgay!’s anniversary programme is to say I’m particularly looking forward to Cured, a new play by Roadkill writer Stef Smith about a 40-year-old woman booking herself into a clinic that claims it can cure her “homosexual tendencies” – a reminder of how far outside the mainstream many gay people still find themselves.

As for Kitchens of Distinction, I wonder – but of course will never know – whether they would have 
been more successful if they formed now. Neil Tennant kept quiet about 
his sexuality for years, concerned that the Pet Shop Boys would be pigeonholed as a “gay band”. That was canny of him, but it’s sad that he felt he needed to.

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