The public performance of sex and sexuality: celebration and identity

Much of these times has been defined by battles about bodies and rights. In an increasing number of developed countries (not an unproblematic classification, as acknowledged elsewhere), questions of gender, identity, sexuality and bodily rights have progressed slowly beyond binaries. Gender is fluid; identity is changeable; sexualities are multiple; and the control of bodily rights by the owner of the body has been reclaimed from the traditional guardians (church, state, elders, etc.) of the society. None of this is to suggest for a moment that queer or trans people do not consistently have their rights infringed upon, many are discriminated against in multiple ways and frequently subject to bodily threat and attack, something Harris and Holman Jones (2017) describe as ‘Queer terror’. Neither is it to suggest that people around the world are free to have full control of the practice of their own sexuality; clearly it is not the case that all have body autonomy. From female genital mutilation to homophobic violence, sex and sexuality remain a private matter of public contention.

Sex and sexuality are frequently a place of public moral terror. Perhaps more than in any other chapter in this book, they can be characterised as the site of the culture wars of these times, a place of flow beyond the Ideoscapes described by Appadurai (1996). At the heart of conservative-progressive battles and in the cauldron of where the protection of old ways of life meets the development of new and inclusive societies, sex and sexuality are a lens through which we can understand much of our world, and particularly offer windows of insight into culture and education, topics of central concern here.

Spotlight on practice - Sydney Mardi Gras Festival

The massive public popularity of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival is globally recognised and it has become a marker of the modern Australia. Mardi Gras is one of the largest in the world and is an extraordinary performance of sexual identity attended by hundreds of thousands every year. Having started 40 years ago as a protest and assertion of pride, it has morphed into the global, extravagant, much loved celebration that it is today. It is now not just a huge performance and celebration of queer identity, but also of community identity more broadly, with political parties, large corporations, police, army and other community organisations marching for, with, and as proud LCBTIQ+ members of society. Of particular interest to us is its symbolic role in describing the shift from public protest and assertion of gay rights to a public celebration and normalisation of diverse identities - a form of 'homonormativity'. It is also interesting to further speculate upon its societal role in Australia's journey to legislating for same-sex marriage. Sex, performance and drama are deeply intertwined on and off the stage, in the carnival float and at the ballot box.

Drama has often been the ‘showing place’ for many of the changes in these issues. The history of the Sydney Mardi Gras from protest to celebration, as an example of this, tracks such hard fought and fraught change. We spotlight it here because it is one of the most visible public performances of sexual identity in the world, and has had an undoubted impact on the representation (in Fraser’s terms) of queer identities in Australian life.

Such performances can be seen on stages as mainstreaming the stories of previously ‘deviant’ sexual identities (such as La Cages aux Folles or Angels in America), to telling the tales of peoples struggling with nonbinary or trans identities and sexualities (e.g., Scorch by Stacey Gregg), to being a focal point for those opposed to the liberalisation of gender and sexual norms as Mae West’s highly controversial play The Drag was in the 1920s USA. It should be noted that it is not just the representation of queer identities that provokes controversy in drama. Sex on the modern stage, particularly in its performance or in the display of nudity, remains mildly controversial and certainly a matter of discussion (Pullen, 2017). Theatre and sexuality have always been spheres of overlapping influence:

Sexual desire has long been a motivating narrative factor in plays and performance, the force that established or destroys relationships, that stirs jealousy and encourage infidelity, or that binds character or tears them apart, regardless of their sexual orientations. Theatre is also a place of fantasy and longing, of fleeting exchange between spectators and performers. With its liminal status as both real and not, as ephemeral and transformational, theatre has long been a site where misfits and the marginalised have congregated. Sexual minorities have found among theatre people a generous acceptance sometimes not available in dominant culture’s more constrained, conforming ways of life.

(Dolan, 2010, p. 3)

As Dolan suggests, drama and dramatic form generally celebrates diversity and difference (characteristics which make great stories as much as anything else) and it can be generally read as a place where the public performance of sex and diverse sexual identity has been celebrated.

Fraser’s (2007) argument for reframing social justice in a globalising world is premised on the idea of parity of participation. Central to this participation is representation within the political frame - the right to be here. Injustice comes about when political boundaries and/or decisions deny some people the possibility of participating on a par with others. In order to participate, one must be represented, in order to be represented, one must be visible. Visibility, therefore, is key in establishing and maintaining representation. The frequently repeated maxim of, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” holds for drama and it is particularly relevant in helping us understand the importance of performative celebration of diversity in subverting preordained norms of gender identity. This is why the public performance of Mardi Gras is vital not just for the communities directly involved, but also for broader questions of representation in our societies.

Butler’s seminal works considers the active role of visible social ‘norms’ in society and allow us to see how engaging (in the broadest sense) in performance (the widest possible definition) can help disrupt the pseudo-normative performances of gender and sexuality that people, especially young people, assume to be ‘natural’:

The theory of gender performativity presupposes that norms are acting on us before we have a chance to act at all, and that when we do act, we recapitulate the norms that act upon us, perhaps in new or unexpected ways, but still in relation to norms that precede us and exceed us. In other words, norms act on us, work upon us, and this kind of‘being worked on’ makes its way into our own action.

(Butler, 2009, p. xi)

Butler considers individual acts of agency not as the ‘sovereign ground’ of peoples own actions, but ‘a complex convergence of social norms on the somatic psyche and a process of repetition that is structured by a complicated interplay of obligation and desire and a desire that is and is not one’s own’ (ibid). Political acts are always within a set of norms sometimes hidden in plain sight, and which allow for the possibility of individual action at that moment in time. Butler asserts that in relation to both gender and sexuality, ‘none of us has the choice of creating ourselves ex nihilo’ (p. xii). This is especially the case for those in precarity - ‘women, queers, transgender people, the poor, and the stateless’ (p. xiii), about whom she poses three questions regarding performativity that are deeply pertinent here:

How does the unspeakable population speak and makes its claims? What kind of disruption is this within the field of power? And how can such populations lay claim to what they require?

(Butler, 2009, p. xiii)

Linking Butler’s assertion with the earlier insight from Fraser, the key consideration for us is who is allowed representation; who has the right to be represented, how do we ensure socially just and inclusive modes of representation; how does this representation combat economic and sociocultural barriers to participation; and what role can drama can play in this? One of the ways in which Butler’s ‘unspeakable population’ makes it claim for representation is through performance and performative acts, placing a new ‘norm’ in public view. Drama is a place of staging utopia, and offers ‘a place to scrutinise public meanings, but also to embody and, even if through fantasy, enact the affective possibilities of “doings” that gesture towards a transformed world’ (Dolan, 2006, p. 165).

Public performance (dramatic performance, we argue) has been a site of collective and individual possibility in seeking changes in societal norms of sex, sexuality and sexual identity. From the seemingly passive (though not on the part of the ‘performer’) everyday performances of diverse and multiple gender and sexual identities to the active acts of militancy that prompt changes in our societies through activism and protest, the performance of sexual change has inevitably prompted paradigm-shifting societal change.

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