Queer Up North

Liverpool’s annual LGBT festival returns with a programme of exhibitions, events and debates under the theme of ‘Art=Life’. So why should you head to Liverpool this November?

“We’ve got some amazing highlights this year,” insists Homotopia’s Development Director Bev Ayre, when asked about this year’s festival at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre and other venues around the city.

“The Zanele Muholi exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery will be very special; ‘Vukani/Rise’ consists of over 200 photographs of black lesbian, gay, and trans lives in South Africa. Muholi’s work focuses on gender, race, sexuality and the political landscape in South Africa; they’re very beautiful and very empowering images. Alongside that we’re organising a big debate on activism, art and resistance, chaired by the poet Jay Bernard and including queer photographer CampbellX. So that should be quite a powerful event.

“Another big highlight will be Alien Sex Club, John Walter’s amazing exhibition and installation which looks at the transmission of HIV and the relationship with architecture and space, particularly the cruise mazes in saunas and gay clubs,” she adds. “That’s been hugely successful in London – it’s just previewed at the Ambika P3 Gallery – and we’re bringing it to Camp and Furnace in Liverpool. With that we’re highlighting the fact – and this is something we didn’t realise when we booked it – that, compared with the rest of the country, Liverpool is eight years behind in terms of providing rapid HIV testing.

“The exhibition has rapid testing as part of it; but it’s also very playful – it’s got tarot card readings, a jester, a gin and tonic bar,” she insists. “It’s an amazing experience visually, as well as intellectually. That’s on for a month and finishes on World Aids Day; we’re going to commemorate World Aids Day at the end of it, with local HIV charity Sahir House.”

Homotopia has long been known for the diversity of its programme, which this year ranges from Irish Drag Queen Panty Bliss to Sarah Walters, the Welsh author of Tipping the Velvet and other Victorian-set novels featuring lesbian protagonists. “Obviously the LGBT community is very diverse, so our programming tends to follow suit,” Bev says. “You can find something for almost everybody.”

In common with previous years, this year’s Homotopia has an over-arching theme: “Art = Life” is a deliberate contrast to the infamous “Silence = Death” slogan at the heart of 1980s’ Aids activism. “It ties in with the big project that we’re developing over the next two years, a large-scale international programme which looks at the 74 – although the number changes almost daily – countries where it’s illegal to be gay, as well as all the other countries where it’s not necessarily illegal but it’s dangerous to be open about your gender or sexuality. This is our sort of trail-blazer year before we start this really big two-year international programme.”

This project builds very much on Homotopia’s history.

“Increasingly, our work is starting to coalesce around the social justice themes that we have,” says Bev. “We’ve always been very strong in terms of looking at art as a force for change and looking at culture and resistance, so a lot of the work that we do has, at its heart, a human rights or social justice agenda. Hopefully we can do that in a way that’s accessible as well, without hitting people over the head, although we’re not afraid to take risks and do things that are ‘out there’ and quite political in that way.”

This year’s festival is the 12th, so how does it build on previous years’ events?

“We’ve just finished two years of an April Ashley exhibition, which attracted 930,000 visitors – which is astonishing,” she says. “We’re taking that to London, to the National Archive at Kew. Increasingly, anything that’s home grown, we’re starting to export; that’s how we’re developing. We’ve just organised the first LGBT exhibition as part of Euro Pride in Riga, Latvia; again, taking work to countries around the world, where it might be challenging, or perhaps there’s a dearth of this kind of work. That’s where we’re heading and that’s how our work’s developing.”

Despite this outward-looking agenda, however, Homotopia nevertheless remains very much rooted in Liverpool. Since the first festival in 2004, the Homotopia team have forged very strong links with the likes of Liverpool John Moores University, Merseyside Police, local health authorities and also housing associations – some of which are hardly the usual suspects when it comes to arts festivals!

“Without wanting to be too big-headed, we’ve been referred to as the ‘Jewel in Liverpool’s cultural crown’. That’s a lovely thing to be called,” she insists. “The fact is that we have some amazing headline events – we’ve brought John Walters over, we’ve brought Terence Davies to the city – but, at the same time, a lot of our work is woven into the fabric of the community. We bring marginalised voices into the mainstream, and I think that’s something we’ve done quite successfully with our heritage work, particularly, and our social justice and hate crime programmes.”

30 October – 1 December 2015


Ecce Homo
(5-7 November, Unity Theatre)
Nick “Naughty Nickers” Phillips returns recounts his life through story and song. “Funny, moving and full of joy!”

Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs
(6 November, Unity Theatre)
An open and non-judgemental forum discussing sex and drug use by gay men.

(12 November, Unity Theatre)
A captivating multi-sensory dance experience, produced by Jean Abreu Dance, and co-commissioned by the Royal Opera House, London.

First published in Pride Life #Autumn 2015.

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