Obituary: Diane Torr, artist who challenged notions of gender

Artist and drag king Diane Torr
Artist and drag king Diane Torr
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Diane Marian Torr, artist. Born: Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, 10 November 1948. Died: Clydebank, Scotland, 
31 May 2017, aged 68

Diane Torr was a contemporary artist and self-styled “drag king” whose work covered a variety of media, including dance, film and installation art. Yet it was for her performance pieces that she was most well-known, dressing and acting as male characters to create work which challenged assumptions about gender. She became celebrated for her popular “Man for a Day” drag king workshops, in which she taught women to dress and move like men; not necessarily so they could “become”men, but so they could open their eyes to a new way of living.

Raised in Aberdeen, Torr lived and worked in New York throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and she found European audiences in Berlin and Amsterdam particularly welcoming of her ideas. Always possessed of a real sense of her own Scottishness – her 
women-only Burns Suppers were famed in New York – she relocated to Glasgow in her later years, where she continued to produce art while lecturing at universities and mentoring young Scottish artists.

A feminist who helped set up New York’s celebrated women-only Wow Café in the 1980s, Torr explored themes of gender through characters like the alpha male Danny King – a fusion of her father and a brash American politician – and the leering cabaret performer Mr E. With both drag king culture and the transgender movement emerging strongly in the 1990s, she became a minor celebrity, appearing on Phil Donahue, Montel Williams and Maury Povich’s talk shows (although she refused to work for free, and so turned down Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey).

She met Angie Dight and the late Ian Smith of Mischief La-Bas in 1989, and appeared in their 1997 production Bull! at London’s Albany Theatre and Glasgow’s Tramway. It was a combination of this friendship, increasing opportunities in Europe and a sense of safety in the UK’s social safety net which caused her to move to Glasgow in 2002, where she settled in a flat in Hyndland.

Although she staged work at the city’s CCA and elsewhere, and appeared in Mischief La-Bas’ 2003 show Painful Creatures, Torr remained more well-known outside of her home country. Yet within the Scottish art and performance scene, she was a tireless activist and mentor; a visiting lecturer and workshop host at Glasgow School of Art, the Royal Scottish Conservatoire and Glasgow University; a visiting artist and tenant at Wasps Studios in the Briggait building; a founding committee member of the dance organisation Workroom; a girl’s workshop leader at Platform in Easterhouse; and a champion of Glasgow Women’s Library who offered support to LGBT people, particularly those transitioning. With Stephen Bottoms, whom she met at Glasgow University, Torr co-authored the 2010 book Sex, Drag and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance. She was also a 3rd dan aikido black belt and a shiatsu massage therapist.

Diane Marian Torr was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 1948, although from the age of four she was raised in a housing estate on the edge of Aberdeen; she later reminisced to friends of happy memories playing on bikes in nearby woods with her older brother David and younger brother Donald. A gay man who died from Aids in 1992, Donald was a huge inspiration to Torr, and Donald Does Dusty, her celebrated 2015 Edinburgh Fringe show at Summerhall, was inspired by him. Her mother Jane died when Torr was in her teens and her father Charles, with whom Torr had a troubled relationship, moved the family down to Wickham in London.

Torr ran away from home and ended up in a reform school in Bristol between the ages of 16 and 19, where she insisted on her right to sit O-levels.

“That tells you a bit about her,” said Bottoms. “She didn’t play by anybody’s rules, but she was determined to get what she needed where she could.” On leaving Bristol she returned to London, where she lived in a squat, immersed herself in radical feminism, edited an anarchist newspaper and ran with local Mods (she later created a male character called Jack Sprat, a laddish Mod, through whom she commented upon women’s role in the subculture).

At the age of 25, Torr won a place at Dartington College of Arts in Devon to study dance, and in 1976 she moved to New York to study under the acclaimed modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Initially in the country on a student visa, she remained illegally, and as a result was obliged to accept only cash-in-hand jobs. She created her own dance pieces and helped found the feminist art group Disband, but as a working class Scot whose belief was that “morality has a budget”, also worked as a go-go dancer in New Jersey strip clubs.

Already considering themes of female sexuality in her work, she imported this work into her performances in art venues like Franklin Furnace, the Kitchen, the Mudd Club and Danceteria in Manhattan, to a heated reaction. Although Torr’s intention was to reclaim an appreciation of female sexuality from men at these women-only shows, many feminists were infuriated by the subject matter.

Touring the go-go work to a women’s festival at Amsterdam’s Melkweg in 1982, she inspired such a riotous reaction that she had to be escorted from the stage. It was on this trip that she met Marcel Meijer, whom she married in 1983; the couple had one daughter, Martina, and although they became estranged in the 1990s, they never divorced. Martina lives in New York, but travelled to Scotland to nurse her mother in the final few months of her life at St Margaret of Scotland Hospice in Clydebank, where the brain tumour from which she had been suffering took her life.

“Diane was a hostess extraordinaire, always fun, feisty, and a little bit naughty,” said Angie Dight. “It took time to appreciate her humour, and maybe at times she appeared fierce or bossy, but she was loyal, kind and generous to a fault, and she stuck by you when she believed in you.”

“She was very funny and very energetic, a real mentor and inspiration to a lot of younger people,” says Bottoms, citing the group of artists who currently populate Glasgow’s Buzzcut festival as examples.

“She was stubborn, she stuck to her guns, but was vulnerable in a way that artists who are out on a limb often are. Yet history will say that everything she did was worth it.”