Fringe Benefits

Edinburgh in August continues to be an exciting – yet safe –  place for LGBT people, as Paul F Cockburn – born and bred in the Scottish capital – explains.
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Dandy Darkly isn’t a man who’s ignored. New York City’s finest raconteur specialises in lurid tales of sex and death, and dresses appropriately, adorned with frills, flowers, a frock coat and fingerless lace gloves. But in Edinburgh…

“I can say without a doubt that Edinburgh is the most accepting and welcoming city I’ve ever had the delight to perform in,” he says. “I sashay down the Royal Mile and people wave from buses and cafe tables. Little old ladies laugh and children rush up to pose with me for photos. Sometimes venturing out in costume can be a hassle – but Edinburgh is truly a magical city. It is why I love returning to the Fringe – and why I hold Edinburgh so dear in my heart.”

And that’s just the thousands of shows making up the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, long declared the world’s largest arts event. From the seemingly innocuous Book Festival in a marquee-filled Charlotte Square Gardens to the internationally acclaimed opera of the “proper” Edinburgh International Festival, this most compact of cities more than doubles its population. Indeed, it almost bursts at the seems with original and – if only for attention-seeking purposes – “controversial” shows in venues ranging from long-forgotten sub-sub-basements in Edinburgh’s Old Town to a giant purple tent shaped like an upside down cow.

Admittedly, Scotland hasn’t always led the way (as it does now, according to international human rights organisation ILGA-Europe) when it comes to LGBTI legal equality. Consensual homosexual acts were only decriminalised “North of the Border” in 1980, after all. Yet, arguably, there there’s long been a safe place within the confines of “the Festival” for non-heterosexual people to express themselves. Back in 1962, for instance, cult  Scottish author and “registered heroin addict” Alex Trocchi openly declared that all his writing was inspired by sodomy.

Nowadays, of course, the massive Fringe programme goes as far as to highlight shows as being LGBT, but performers still relish its potential. “For the most part, Edinburgh’s totally fine,” says the writer and stand-up Andrew Doyle. “I’ve had a few anti-gay heckles from time to time, and one drunken guy threatened to beat me up. He also threw up into his pint glass, so I don’t think he was in any fit state for hand-to-hand combat. But Edinburgh is one of my favourite comedy festivals. The city is beautiful, and the audiences are usually great. And because I’ve got an English accent the locals don’t trust me, which I find endearing.”

Meantime, for self-described “stand-up, actor, aerialist, living stereotype” Aaron Twitchen, 2015 will be his seventh Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a row – although just his fifth as a performer. “I always overdo Edinburgh,” he admits. “In February, when you’re planning it, August seems so far away and the days seem really long – so I’ll book myself into three shows every day, and then pick up additional ‘spots’. I love it, though; there’s nothing like it.”

New solo show Deadlines and Diets, not withstanding, one thing he’s determined to do this year is climb Arthur’s Seat, the tallest peak among a group of hills just a mile from the city centre. “I’ve synchronised it with two of the girls in my improv group. They’ve got big birthdays this year, so we’re going to do it properly. I will probably cry, because it’ll be midway during the festival. I always have a mid-festival cry; I actually look forward to being so emotionally drained that I cry at the drop of a hat. That’s Edinburgh to me.”

So, why should any Pride Life reader “do Edinburgh” this year or in the future. “For performers, I think it’s a good opportunity to develop and hone material,” says Andrew. “Performing for an hour every night for a month means you leave the festival a more accomplished performer than when you arrived.  It’s also a good incentive to write a new hour every year.

“As for audiences, there isn’t anything else like it. Running from one venue to another, fighting off flyerers, staying out till dawn, committing indecent acts in public. It’s manic, but lots of fun.”
“I think it’s a great memory moment builder,” says Aaron, “because there are so many crazy, wacky things that go on. It’s one of those weeks or weekends that you’ll never forget. I think it’s a great place to go with a group of friends; you’ll will always have that ‘Remember when we went to Edinburgh, guys?’ And when you bump into other people that have been to Edinburgh, you can talk about it. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with strangers just because I’ve been in Edinburgh during the Festival. It’s just so easy to find common ground talking about the city.”

Yes, from the latest spectacular cabaret by The Lady Boys of Bangkok to award-winning one-man shows such as Thief, focuses on the life of a rent boy, Edinburgh in August knows how to give LGBT people an exciting time!

First article published in Pride Life #19 (Summer 2015).

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