Feeling Forward

The Queer Past and Queer Futurity by Ben Walters

Performance events engaging with the queer past often reanimate conditions, feelings and affects of marginalisation, alienation and victimisation. There is power and value in this. In Feeling Backward (2007), Heather Love argues for the importance of attending to “the dark side” of the queer past and resisting the misplaced optimism of a world view that assumes liberal reforms around legal rights and protections will suffice as means to rectify historic and ongoing structural oppression. Such over-optimism “makes it harder to see the persistence of the past in the present”, Love notes, including the endurance of “pre-Stonewall feelings” of “shame, secrecy and self-hatred”.

Attention to the “dark side” is vital in accounting for the realities of lived experience and the ongoing imbalances of privilege and power that negatively affect queer lives. The academic researcher Stephen Farrier notes examples of this attention in the context of intergenerational LGBT performance projects, arguing in the article ‘Playing with Time’ that moments focused on “what is shared between generations” tend to illuminate “a primary victimhood and are drawn in a particular way” so as to construct queer subjects as victims. Farrier further suggests that the LGBT community as a whole is constructed as a victim by the implication in such works that “there is an exacerbated generational gap that serves as an index of the community’s communicative dysfunction”. In Contemporary British Queer Performance (2012), the academic researcher Stephen Greer also gives examples of such productions, including 7:48 (Scotland)’s seXshunned (2004), about the mental health of people in Scotland since the 1920s. Revisiting the “dark side” can have outcomes other than despair. Greer notes that, while seXshunned reanimates negative experiences of the past, its conclusion “draws the threads of historical change together to argue for continuing, future action”.

Feeling backward in this way can fortify conviction in the desirability and efficacy of action to improve structural conditions. It can thereby serve queer futurity – the utopian insistence on imagining, hoping for and working towards a richer, more queerly rewarding future. The academic researcher Fintan Walsh also argues (in Queer Performance and Contemporary Ireland, 2015) that dramatic encounters with the past that focus on “exiled, vulnerable and invisible queer bodies and histories” can be reparative, can encourage activism and resistance to erasure, and can affirm the past as a source of commonality and strength as well as trauma and isolation. These outcomes too serve futurity.

Just as there are queer ways of feeling backward, there are queer ways of feeling forward. Feeling forward feels bad if it involves the intimation that things might get worse. In the case of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, this might mean the closure of the pub. Baz Comics’ series Tales of the Tavern includes an episode in which an autobiographical character awakes distressed from a dream in which the RVT is boarded up and derelict. Yet such feelings are negative outcomes of a utopic urge: to be distressed at the possible frustration of an anticipated future is to be heavily invested in that anticipated future, which is to say that feeling forward, positively or negatively, is a function of futurity.

This is an edited excerpt from Ben’s ongoing doctoral research into Duckie’s work generating better futures through queer fun. You can call him Dr Duckie.