By Meg-John Barker
Sometimes comedy can accomplish what any amount of serious academic or activist rhetoric just can’t. That’s what struck me watching Mae Martin’s excellent stand up show Us at Soho Theatre earlier this month.
At one point during the evening my friend leant over and whispered to me ‘it’s like somebody turned your work into a stand-up gig’. She had a point. Mae covered many of the things about biphobia and bi invisibility that my colleagues and I included in our worthy document The Bisexuality Report. She also put across the idea of gender being on a spectrum that many of us have been trying so hard to get across in our fight for non-binary recognition. But none of us thought to make that point using the characters from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, complete with singing the Gaston song. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that I now identify with a candlestick.
The title of the show – Us – is apt because what Mae does with her self-deprecating humour and warm childhood anecdotes is to bring the audience alongside with her. She’s not berating them for their biphobia or binary thinking, rather she’s engaging us in her life story: one that is both as unique and as familiar as our own. We connect with her through her descriptions of gawky adolescence, excruciating first crushes, and not being grown-up enough for a serious ‘relaish’. So when she talks about baffling bi invisibility or diverse gender experiences we’re already alongside and laughing with her.
The moment that sticks with me is when she described dating now she’s single again. She’s dating men as well as women, and the response from her lesbian friends is ‘you lied to us’. When Mae points out that she never said she wasn’t attracted to men they say, ‘you lied with your hair’. I often talk about the double discrimination that bisexual people receive from both straight and gay communities, and the link between that and the higher levels of mental health problems experienced by bisexual people compared to both gay and straight people. When I do so, this can be very hard for lesbian and gay people to hear without getting defensive. I didn’t sense any defensiveness in Soho Theatre that night.
Mae isn’t the only one mixing it up when it comes to talking about gender and sexual diversity. I’m thinking of the wonderful Transpose events where artists like CN Lester and Juliet Jacques draw us in with haunting music and spoken word performance, and the awesome Wotever nights when queers of all kinds can take to the stage and be guaranteed a warm welcome.
I notice that many of the main bisexual activists in the UK at the moment are mashing their talks together with a bit of theatre. Bis of Colour’s Jacq Applebee’s powerful spoken-word poetry pull audiences into what experiences of biphobia, racism, and fatphobia feel like from the inside, as well as the delicious eroticism that gender and sexual diversity can involve. The Bisexual Index’s Marcus Morgan uses magic tricks to illuminate bisexuality for unfamiliar audiences. And I’ve been stealing gags off Bi Community News’s Jen Yockney for years to give my talks some lighter moments. That made it all the more wonderful to see ‘Mx Jen Yockney MBE’ included in the honours list this time around. Most recently, for example, I heard Jen speak about the way we impose a gay/straight binary on the spectrum of sexuality as being like the English Channel. You can’t really be somewhere between Dover and Calais without getting wet.
While I’ll never have the comedy stylings or performance potential of Mae, or any of the others mentioned here, I am doing my bit to find more accessible ways to get across these messages. Artist Julia Scheele and I have recently collaborated on a graphic guide to queer where the history of queer activism and theory is explained in comic form, with plenty of puns and visual gags along the way.
At a time when we’re reminded how desperately scary and sad things can still be for our LGBTQ communities, comedy can provide a much-needed moment of relief and lightness, and solidarity in our shared experience. As Mae proves, it can also bring people alongside who might otherwise struggle to hear our words. Please do catch her as soon as you can.