Queer is a slippery word. It's a word that hurts. Both verbally when it's spoken and physically, when it's being shouted during violent attacks. But it's also a word that has come to feel sexy and solid and proud; a word that helps people find a place and make a home with others who long after so-called gay liberation were still left in what felt like an invisible middle space. Queer is a word that is very very hard to define.
So how do you explain to people who think queer is only a bad word, why some people choose to call themselves queer. And beyond that, how do you communicate what is so awesome about those people's lives?
The answer, if you are author, musician, and filmmaker Vivek Shraya, is to invite 34 queer people into your kitchen and ask them what they love about being queer. The result is a funny, thought provoking, moving, and sometimes sexy short film called What I LOVE About Being QUEER. I first got to see the film in a church in Toronto's east end. It seemed like it would be a jarring juxtaposition, but it wasn't. I bought a copy and have watched it a few times since, both for fun and also because I know it will make a great teaching and discussion tool. I wanted to know more about what went into making the film, so I asked Shraya if he could answer a few questions for About.com readers.
Where did the idea for the short film come from?
VS: Queer representation is often shown through a lens of tragedy or suffering. This is, of course, a real and accurate component of what it means to be queer. We are shunned, disowned, fired, shamed, imprisoned and beaten for who we are. Consequently, it's incredibly important for these stories to be shown and told.
But I was concerned that these seem to be the majority of the stories being told about us or that we were telling. The result is that there is often a kind of pity or even tolerance that is evoked for queers; we are tolerated because we are "born that way" or because we have endured so much. But to say "this is what I LOVE about being queer" challenges that tolerance, because it explicitly positions being queer as something that we also celebrate, not just struggle with, which is precisely what I hoped to do with this film.
Did you feel like you had to define queer, or in some way decide who would be in the film?
VS: One of the many things I love about being queer is that it's undefinable, so I didn't even consider defining it for the participants. That said, recognizing that queer communities are vast, I tried to invite queers from a spectrum of ages, racial backgrounds and gender identities. Even with 34 people in the film, there was no way to account for everyone's voice which was the inspiration for the web extension of the film, where any queer, anywhere can add what they love about being queer.
It seems like a really intimate question to ask, and I'm wondering if it was hard to get people talking?
VS: It was a very intimate process as it was all shot in my very small kitchen (which is also my living room). Also some of the participants I had never met prior to the filming, so there was immediately a vulnerability outside of being filmed.
Usually we would have a general conversation about the intentions behind the project to start, or about people's weekends. Another common topic was how hard it was for people to find my place.
I tried to provide a lot of support and reassurance between takes, recognizing that for some, tackling this question, let alone on camera in a stranger's home, was a very challenging, if not foreign experience.
I imagine that you've thought a lot about what it means to be queer. After doing these interviews was there anything about being queer that people shared that surprised you? Anything that you had never thought was part of being queer but was something many people spoke about or even one person spoke about but in a way that stayed with you?
VS: One participant, Farrah, talked about how what she loves about being queer is that it opened up an unexpected, honest dialogue with her family about her desires and the way she loved. This has been my experience too, where I have had very challenging conversations with my mom around my sexuality and gender, but this has ultimately led to us having a more honest relationship. I recognize that I am extremely lucky to have a mother who chooses to engage and this isn't the case for many queers. But what I liked about Farrah's answer was that it challenged this idea or stereotype, especially for queer people of colour or queers with immigrant parents, that being queer ultimately results in being disconnected from our families.
Speaking of busting stereotypes, I'm wondering what you make of how sex was, and wasn't talked about during the interviews. I think the place of sex in the film and in people's ideas of being queer might surprise a lot of viewers (whether they are queer or not).
VS: The most common informal responses to people being asked to participate in the film were related to sex (i.e "what I love about being queer is boobs"). But as soon as the camera went on, the same people's answers shifted. I think this is because for some, being in front of a camera is a vulnerable act, let alone talking about sex on camera. But I also think it is because many queers have a deep shame connected to our desires, primarily as a result of being taught that our desires are wrong. So even in dialogue/workshops/activism about queerness, we can talk about how we love differently, have chosen families and even use the word "sexuality" but anything else tends to result in discomfort/resistance or the perpetuation of the common assumption that queers are primarily defined by the sex we have. Because of this shame that so often leads to silence, it felt incredibly important for the film to include explicit expressions of love for queer sex.
I was interested in how people didn't just use the word queer to describe themselves. Some used words like gay, and others used queer but put it in air quotes. Did any of the participants directly address that in their interview?
VS: When I began the project, some of the people I approached asked me if they could answer the question but not using the queer label (i.e. what I love about being gay/lesbian). While I understand the challenges with the word queer, especially given the history of it being used as a pejorative, queer was deliberately chosen, instead of other labels, for numerous reasons, including for its inability to be defined and for the way it can be used as an umbrella term. The biggest reason was personal: I identify as queer so posing (and building a film around) any other question didn't feel right. Unfortunately, this choice did result in some people choosing not to participate, which I do respect.
Some people did use the word "gay" in their responses and I think this is partially because the increasingly common usage of queer in certain social, political and educational settings is relatively new. Many queers have primarily identified as gay for big chunks of our lives, so making the shift to queer is still an adjustment.
I think the air quote moment speaks to the ways that the queer community is actually made up of many communities, reiterating how queer is undefinable and expansive.
Do you have plans for the film and the project going forward? If folks want to get in touch with you to arrange a screening or get a copy of the film, what's the best way for people to do that?
VS: In exciting news, the project is being turned into a photo book (in partnership with the Diversity, Equity & Human Rights Services office at George Brown College - where I work). The book will feature answers from online, the screenings and the film itself, and will be launched at a corresponding exhibit in March 2013 at Videofag (Toronto). To arrange a screening or get a copy of the film, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more information about the film and my other work, please visit: vivekshraya.com.
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