The power of storytelling

Professor Martin Milton watches Queers – One voice: Monologues, a performance at the Old Vic curated by Mark Gatiss and in partnership with the BBC.

This production of eight monologues was wonderful, and it was powerful. On the day my husband and I attended, Kadiff Kirwan detailed life as a black gay man in London during the blitz; Sara Crowe offered insight into life as the wife of a gay man who had no chance to come out; Fionn Whitehead played a 17-year-old outside parliament when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 resulted in that cowardly decision of 18 as the unequal age of consent; and Russell Tovey played an actor shedding light on the way in which some stories are deemed permissible for telling, when others are not. The powers that be dictating what we could say, rather than helping us tell our stories as our lives are actually lived. Tovey’s line ‘and the fucking hugging we get up to … it’s scandalous’ brings home the sanitisation that we are subject to.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, the law that reframed gay men’s lives, but as these monologues remind us, only a bit. The Act marked the point that two men could finally have a relationship – albeit in private – without facing criminal sanction. But it wasn’t equality. Public expression was still risky and some forms of sexual behaviour were still the preoccupation of lawmakers. Prosecutions increased. These monologues were produced as part of the artistic and cultural commemoration of this Act, a celebration of the (partial) decriminalising of same-sex sexuality.

The title itself provoked thought, being a term that many are not comfortable with, one re-appropriated by academics and some of the LGBT community, yet used against us by playground bullies, homophobes and fascists alike.

The structure was interesting too – just an hour long, squeezed in that gap between matinee and evening performance, with no scenery whatsoever. Just a chair and a single actor, telling a story of no more than 15 minutes. Four stories in total that night. The short story format perfectly mirrored the way in which we had – and still need – to be mindful of our context, taking advantage of the smallest of spaces to speak safely, capitalise on those precious moments when we can be seen, heard and known. The constraints on the performance are the restrictions that affect our daily lives.

Exquisite writing was accompanied by compelling acting, poignancy and absurdity delivered with a realism familiar to any LGBT person who has lived through these past 50 years. People laughed, people shed a tear, sometimes simultaneously.

Dustin Lance Black, the writer behind the Oscar winning film Milk, reminds us that regardless of the science, facts and evidence available to us, professionals often struggle to make an impact – and it is because we forget the power of storytelling. As important as it is to highlight the rates of violence, bullying and psychological distress still experienced by LGBT people, meaning is gained once information is located within a formulation, a case study or personal testimony. Storytelling grabs hearts and minds.

Psychology must bear this in mind if we are to effectively maintain our move towards more attuned and socially just ways of working with LGBT people rather than succumbing to the various attacks on LGBT rights that are occurring across the globe. Thank you Mark Gatiss for a timely reminder to learn from history and to relish it as we do.

- Professor Martin Milton, Regents University London. Read more of his views on the 50th anniversary.   

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