We can understand queerness itself as being filled with the intention to be lost. Queerness is illegible and therefore lost in relation to the straight minds’ mapping of space. Queerness is lost in space or lost in relation to the space of heteronormativity. […] To accept loss is to accept the way in which one’s queerness will always render one lost to a world of heterosexual imperatives, codes, and laws. […]…. Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order.
– José Esteban Muñoz
On November 3rd, 2016, I organized a panel through SDS with four queer performers and theatre creators based in Toronto, Ontario. The event was titled “Standing O: Queer Women Leading Canadian Theatre and Performance.” Moderated by artistic director of Buddies and Bad Times Theatre, Evalyn Parry, the event invited Gein Wong, Donna Michelle St. Bernard, Mel Hague, and Katie Sly to speak about their experiences in the theatre and performance industry.
In planning this panel, I wanted so badly to incite a conversation around gender and queerness on stage: What it means to be a queer woman or non-binary artist in a world where “queer” often equates to gay white cis-man – where indigenous peoples, people of colour, trans women, non-binary peoples and cisgender women are erased or invisible under this great big umbrella term.
For me, one of the most interesting prompts moderator Evalyn Parry presented to the panelist was asking them to provide an instance when they took up space and an instance when they made space. This idea of making space for marginalized queers is so essential in the theatre industry – an art form that necessitates some form of a venue to stage work. Though the multitude of contributions the panelists have made in the theatre and performance community are worthy of celebration, a lack of ongoing space for rehearsal, development, and production of artistic works has a definite impact on the funding, resources, and support available for their creative practices. Parry’s appointment as Buddies Artistic Director is especially noteworthy here, not only because she is the second woman ever to take up this position at Buddies, but also because she is the only current queer woman in a leadership position for a venued theatre company in Toronto.
Queer women and non-binary folks precarious relationship to space, both historically and currently, is not relegated to the arts – queer women’s bars typically close down after several years (folks in Toronto, will remember how devastating the closure of Hen House was to the queer women’s community). As a result, queer women’s events tend to take the form of one-offs or monthlies; in the theatre industry, these performers tend to produce their works at festivals or at cabaret nights, opportunities that lack the control, ownership, funding and resources that more secure ongoing projects can garner. As theatre practitioner Moynan King describes it, “queer women’s work often gets less press, less stage time and less money” (191) than artists of other demographics.
This lack of spatial security can feel, like the quotation from Jose Estaban Muñoz cited at the beginning of this blog, like being lost; a kind of disorientation in a normalized space. Munoz writes that queerness necessitates a kind of instability – being out of order and out of place within the space of ‘heterosexual imperatives.’ With this in mind, we may also turn to feminist queer theorist, Sara Ahmed, who decodes the saying “a path well trodden,” (“Orientations,” 554) and applies it to lived experiences of marginalized bodies. She explains that if we imagine ourselves walking a path we see footprints in front of us, which reveal the road most walked upon, where the way is clear. We follow the path as a guide, as a means of safety, familiarity and mapping. She states:
A paradox of the footprint emerges. Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created. The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition. (“Orientations,” 553)
Both Ahmed’s description of the path, and Muñoz’s notion of getting lost, define queerness as walking on nonlinear and unpaved trails. How aptly this applies to queer women and non-binary folks within the queer world. The trails and maps that queerness leaves behind, no matter how tangled and messy, tend to be marked by the footprints of cisgender white queer men. Even within the queer realm, women and non-binary folks cannot abide by the ‘imperatives, codes, and laws’ of a cis-patriarchal order.
Perhaps this blog is a small attempt to tell a different spatial story, to increase visibility by taking up space and indulging in the moments we, as queer women, are lost in queerness; Rejecting the dominant queer footprints ahead, and discovering the stories and histories off of the ‘well trodden’ path, this panel was an attempt to travel to new spaces together. I invite you to watch the Standing O panel online and listen to the perspectives and experiences of queer artists creating new and challenging works in the city.
Laine Zisman Newman is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies and the collaborative programs in Sexual Diversity Studies and Women and Gender Studies. She is a Jackman Humanities Junior Fellow, chair of Toronto’s Queer Theory Working Group and co-chair of the Sex Salon Lecture Series. In addition to her doctoral research, Zisman Newman is the co-founder of Equity in Theatre, a national organization working to improve equity in Canadian performance industry and one of the founding members of the Alliance of Women in Theatre (AWIT).
To watch the panel please visit our YouTube channel.