This post was written in response to the Arts Council of England’s 2018-19 Diversity Report and 2020-2030 Strategy, both published in February 2020.
‘Our understanding of the interior lives of those who are not like us is contingent on their ability to articulate themselves in the language we know.’ – Samra Habib, We Have Always Been Here.
I want to start this with some acknowledgements:
- The history of queer* people is a history of invisibility, and the history of queer politics is a history of making ourselves visible – the work of many great queers, and particularly trans women of colour, has afforded me the privileged position I can write this from today.
- I have actively chosen not single out any specific organisations or individuals with examples of problematic practice in the hope that it offers people the chance to make personal and/or organisational change.
- This is a nuanced and complex conversation. In trying to keep concise and spark further action I acknowledge that there will be parts of this that I do not dig deeply enough into, also that this is developmental consultancy work which is of value in itself and should be compensated accordingly.
- Whilst I will draw heavily on my experience as Producer and Programmer for SHOUT Festival of Queer Arts & Culture, I recognise that these opinions are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.
- I will be almost exclusively talking about the experiences of queer artists, audiences, and organisations because that is what I know and the community I am employed to advocate for. However, a great deal of this can and should be applied to the experiences of all marginalised communities in the arts sector.
- I reference a number of statistics in this post. Whilst I am aware of the limitations of data, particularly in the current iteration of Arts Council England’s diversity metrics, I recognise that this is the language of funding bodies and organisations and I use it in the hope that it speaks to them directly.
- Finally, I write this from a place of love and admiration for a sector that I have devoted myself to in the hope that it can change to remove the many barriers it places upon marginalised communities.
On Tuesday 18th Feb 2020, the Arts Council of England (ACE) published a report on the diversity of the arts sector, focusing specifically on it’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) – the organisations it supports with four-year funding agreements. This follows a recent announcement that ACE will not continue to fund organisations who have not met their commitment to ‘diversity’ in the next round of funding.
In principle, I support the idea that organisations who do not reflect the intersections of the community in which we live should no longer be funded with public money – but this comes with a caveat, because as I see it the Arts Council’s current system of assessing the ‘diversity’ of organisations is fundamentally flawed. There are a number of reasons for this, but I want to focus here on the lack of provision or consideration for LGBTQ+ communities both internally (people within organisations) and externally (audiences, members of the public), and in particular how this has manifested in the Midlands.
THE CURRENT STATE OF ACE DATA:
As it stands organisations funded by ACE are required to report on the diversity of their boards, staff, audiences, and the artists they work with – in principle this should give ACE a representative picture of how ‘diverse’ organisations are, which they then assess them on. However there are multiple issues with this:
- ACE currently require do not organisations to monitor the sexuality or gender identity of their audiences. Whilst organisations are required to report on the sexuality of their staff the report says that ‘there are high percentages of unknown data’ for LGBT staff and audiences (for clarity this is not representative of people who have opted not to provide that data) it represents the organisations who simply do not collect it. I acknowledge here that many organisations were only notified that they needed to collect this late in the financial year and as such many did not see fit to collect the additional data because it was not deemed a priority.
- Trans identities are not represented at all, people are asked for their gender identity (male, female, non-binary, other, prefer not to say) this does not provide any data of people who have transitioned at all. Where the report makes several claims towards LGBT representation it actually only covers LGB representation as there were no metrics to identify trans people. ACE have added a metric for trans people in their 2019-20 staff monitoring, but their continued equation of ‘LGBT’ as a sexuality evidences a fundamental misunderstanding of gender and trans identities (currently a transgender person who is heterosexual would not appear in ACE’s LGBT statistics).
- Whilst they do ask organizations to report on non-binary people, Audience Finder (the tool organisations use to report on audience data) does not allow for this option (opting instead for ‘in another way’) and so the data rarely makes it to anywhere it can be analysed.
- Organisations are only assessed on their ‘diversity’ by analysing the profiles of artists the organisation has worked with, that is to say the visible parts of the organisations, what their public facing programme looks like. This is of course an essential part of inclusion, but representation cannot facilitate any kind of meaningful change by itself – it requires inclusion at policy and strategy making level. This means organisations can currently operate a tick box strategy to ‘diversity’ giving them the aesthetic of inclusion (and an excellent ‘diversity’ rating) but absolving them of the responsibilty to make any meaningful change and include marginalised people in their policy making – meaning that the organisations remain, for the most part, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and white.
- This artist data collection does not include options for many queer identities and doesn’t provide an option of entering ‘other’, leaving a number of artists I have worked with to be forced to select ‘prefer not to say’ – in reality they would prefer to say, but there is no option to do this.
- Current data categories can in no-way account for people at the intersections of marginalised characteristics (i.e. there is no reporting on what percentage of disabled people are also LGBTQ+) and this further dilutes the representations of queerness we are offered working on the assumption that queer identites are white, able bodied, and often male.
- Even the construction of the portfolio doesn’t account for diversity, as it stands there are only 3 queer organisations in the portfolio (ACE data would say that 6 are ‘LGBT lead’ which means that their boards have a majority of LGBTQ+ people on them – the figure of 3 I use is to represent the organisations who develop, produce, and support the work of queer artists and communities).
- Finally – and most telling of all – ACE have just released their strategy for 2020-2030. In the 42 pages of the document it does not include the words ‘LGBT’ ‘Queer’, ‘Sexuality’, ‘Lesbian’, ‘Gay’, ‘Bisexual’, or ‘Trans/Transgender’ at any point. It does however reference the ‘persistent lack of diversity across the creative industries’ and references race, class, gender, and dis/ability by name.
What is evident to me is that the approach to ‘diversity’ in this context once again does not meaningfully include LGBTQ+ people. It perpetuates the assumption that everyone is straight and/or cisgender by default, which further necessitates the need for ‘coming out’, and renders our communities invisible in data. Visibility is integral to queer identity. Being LGBTQ+ is not something that is immediately apparent, queerness is often entirely invisible. If we cannot see ourselves or people like us, we can’t learn about ourselves. If organisations can’t see us, we don’t exist. A lack of data creates a lack of awareness, and all but removes our ability to advocate for change in any meaningful way. We need to move beyond data as an administrative task and turn it into something that actually makes our organisations richer.
The lack of meaningful representation for queer people in data communicates, however implicity, that the sector does not consider LGBTQ+ communities a priority in the same way it profess to ‘care’ about race or disabilty for example. I want to be clear that all marginalised communities are priorities, and I outright reject any kind of system that pits people from different marginalised communities against one another. The question remains, if we are only required to report on some protected characteristics a what does that say about the way the sector at large views those it does not report on. Make no mistake, if an organisation fails to monitor for queer communities it is complicit in a systematic act of queer erasure. It is little wonder that when I talk to queer artists and organisers across the country the resounding message is that they have to create their own spaces, the implication being that organisations are happy for us to exist at a distance but do not want really want us inside.
THE ‘POST-LIBERATION MINDSET’ AND DISPARITIES IN THE MIDLANDS.
Nationally, we can attribute this slack attitude around queer data collection to a number of things. At best, it is representative of what I have termed the ‘post-liberation mindset’, namely the idea that queer equality has been achieved, the struggles of our communities for acceptance and legal parity are over, and as a result we are past the point of liberation. But this is a myth, only a little research is needed to mitigate this illusion:
- Almost half (48 per cent) of trans people in Britain have attempted suicide at least once; 84 per cent have thought about it.
- incidents of homophobic and transphobic hate crime doubled in the UK in 2019.
- 2/3 of LGBTQ+ people are afraid to hold hands with their partners in public.
- Throughout 2019 homophobic protests raged outside schools (particularly in the Midlands) argueing against the very idea of telling young people that LGBTQ+ exist, sparking a massive spike in locally reported hatecrime.
- When LGBTQ+ seniors go into care, they often go back into the closet because they are terrified they will be discriminated against by a health system that has consistently mistreated them.
- 25% of homeless people in the UK are LGBTQ+
- gentrification is erasing queer spaces all over the country, making it harder for our communities to find spaces that they feel safe and are welcomed.
- I am hard pressed to find a single LGBTQ+ person who has not experienced some level of discrimination, bullying, hate crime, violence, or mental health issue as a result of being queer. Speaking from my own experience, I have been physically attacked and verbally abused and in 2019 recieved online dealth threats for being a queer artist working around children. Navigating the world as a queer person is at times extremely difficult, and I acknowledge here that I am an able bodied white man and these experience are often significantly more difficult for queer people of colour, transgender people, and queer people with dis/abilities.
Once we have dispelled the post-liberation mindset, we are perhaps mets with an organisational reticence to ‘pry into the personal lives of others’, but this argument fails to hold up under scrutiny; we are happy to ask all manner of other personal questions, but ultimately this thinking works under the assumption that for someone to be mistaken as LGBTQ+ is a bad thing and follows therefore that we view LGBTQ+ identities as inferior. At worst, the indifference I have outlined is an example of how entrenched homophobia and transphobia can be within our arts and cultural institutions.
But if these issues appear at a national level, how do we account for the fact that arts organizations in the midlands have the lowest number of LGBT[Q+] staff at only 4% (the national average for permanent staff is 8%). It is estimated that approximately 7% of the population identify as LGB (although it is likely that the actual figure is much higher due to people not wanting to out themselves on monitoring forms, and there is very little data about trans and non-binary people). The percentage is notable much higher in LGB identifying people aged 16-25. This second statistic is important for the Midlands because Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe, and statistically it follows that there should be a large number of young LGBTQ+ people in the region. If this is true where are all these young queers going?
Why then is it that the midlands is significantly lower than other regions in terms of LGBT[Q+] staff representation? The data leads me to consider a number possible conclusions and questions:
- Is there a tendency in Midlands organisations not to employ LGBTQ+ people, if so why?
- Is it that LGBTQ+ people do not want to apply for jobs in the Midlands arts organisation, if so why is this?
- Are there less LGBTQ+ people in the Midlands than there are in other areas? If so, why would this regional anomaly happen? There is no evidence to suggest that less LGBTQ+ are people born comparative to elsewhere, so we must consider why they do not remain in the Midlands. Perhaps this is due to a lack of queer spaces, or perhaps the midlands is comparatively more hostile to LGBTQ+ people. If so, how do we rectify that?
- Is it instead that LGBTQ+ people in the Midlands are less willing to complete monitoring forms. Of course this is totally their choice, no one has to complete the surveys. But we must consider, if this is the case, what factors have caused this regional attitude towards sexuality and gender identity when this anomaly does not materialise elsewhere in the region’s data for other ‘diversity’ characteristics.
- Could it be that a higher percentage of Midlands organisations simply don’t ask the question and therefore the data is skewed to give us a lower percentage. If that is the case what does it tell us about how these organisations make provision for queer people?
- It could simply be that many just didn’t realise this was an issue. If you fall into this category then you must acknowledge that attitude as a clear example of your privilege and make steps to rectify it.
Whatever the cause, we need to address these barriers to access for staff because, in turn, they create barriers for audiences. To start that process meaningfully, we need data. Finding active allies inside organisations (and the keyword here is active, i.e. someone who will actively work to make change and bat for you when you are not there) can be a minefield. How many times have those of us strive for this change had to hold our tongue to avoid risking the limited access we are granted, how many times have we created spaces for training and development only to struggle to get policy makers in the room to hear us. Queer artists and organisations are consistently stretched to capacity, we all are. But consider that there are only 3 queer NPOs and between them they employ the equivalent of around 4 people full-time (about the size of a larger organisations marketing team).Then consider that these are the most securely funded and resourced of all the UK’s queer organisations and yet their impact for the audiences and artists they reach is enormous.
When discussions around the potential development of queer leadership programme for the arts sector took place, they were met with the response that there was no data to suggest there was a gap or barriers to access. However this did not acknowledge that the lack of evidence was in large part due to the fact no data had ever been collected, and so the cycle continued. Independent research that I conducted evidenced that a number of professionals in the sector felt that their LGBTQ+ identity had been a barrier to their professional development. A number reported that they were not taken as seriously as their straight/cis counterparts by senior management when discussing non-queer work.
There remains a pervasive idea that the arts sector ‘is full of gays’, perhaps it is – but the limited data in ACE’s Diversity report in no way accounts for this, in fact it tells us the opposite (particularly here in the Midlands). Where are the spaces for queer women, for queer people of colour, for bisexual people, for the trans community, for queer people with disabilties? When will we find them? The findings of this report have confirmed many things: they are deeply concerning, angering, and point to a structural inequality that until now has been almost entirely invisible (except to those it impacts).
STARTING TO AFFECT CHANGE
The premise for affecting change is simple, assuming you actually want to do it – listen to communities, and consult with the people leading queer organisations (and compensate them for this development work). It’s also worth noting that queer people within organisations need to do this as well, we are not excempt from perpetuating our own structures of oppression or those of others. Below I’ve included some initial suggestions to start affecting change. These are just brief guidelines, the most successful changes will come from working in true partnership with the communities and organisations around you.
- As we approach the new tax year, implement new monitoring metrics for LGBTQ+ staff and audiences. Do this in consultation with local queer organisations (they do not have to be arts organisations) so that you can make sure these are worded competenty. Better yet, pressure the the Audience Agency to create representative metrics to account for queer communities and insist that ACE mandates reporting on them.
- Evaluate the data you collect on LGBTQ+ audiences and staff, see what you learn from it – assess if you are actually reaching our communities, and work with queer artists and organisations to plan development strategies.
- Reach out for advice and guidance, particularly regarding comms and marketing. It’s OK not to know the answers, and to get things wrong (before they are presented to audiences). Be open to criticism, it is not an attack, it is a request for change.
- Find meaningful ways to work with local queer organisations, invite them in to learn from them, get them to deliver training for your staff (pay them for this work).
- and take ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to XXX’ out of your venue announcements. It’s archaic, patriarchal, and not inclusive – ‘Good Evening everyone’ is just as polite and faster.
- mandate all organisations to monitor accurately for LGBTQ+ people both internally and externally to establish accurate baseline data.
- Work with Midlands organisations to discover the reasons behind this disparity and implement organisational policy that combats it.
- Insist that the Audience Agency create representative metrics to account for queer audiences and that these are created in consultation with queer leaders.
- Work with us to build a stragegy for supporting the development of queer arts, help us to grow and faciliate building our networks. We’re tiny teams, we can’t do it all alone.
Doing nothing is not an option.
* the word ‘queer’ has its own complex politics and whilst it has been historically used a slur against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) peoples it has been widely reclaimed. It is now used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ identifying people. For me it is also about challenging the boundaries of normatively, troubling binary ways of viewing the world, and actively dismantling structures of oppression. Whilst I use it freely in this post, as indeed in life, I also acknowledge its use may not be suitable for all organisations and audiences, and some people are unhappy at its usage. The choice for heterosexual-cisgender people to use it in organisational, and particularly in marketing, contexts may best be done in consultation with their local LGBTQ+ communities.