By Charles Fedor
Having a Pride event in June strikes me as a little odd.
It is; and my profound disinterest in exams led me to an in-depth investigation of the End of Semester ‘Pride’ Party hosted by Science Union (SU). For a “precedent-setting” event a number of missteps have contributed to a well-intended event marred with problems. For the first event in UWA with ‘Pride’ as a theme, this event must be analysed. Treat this piece as a cautionary tale on how the purest of intentions and research, are simply not a substitute for genuine and substantive collaboration and lived experiences. I will be stepping through SU’s well-meaning intentions before addressing the missteps around venue selection, practical delivery, and how, ultimately, issues could have been avoided with Pride Department collaboration/consultation
To start, SU is well-intentioned with a spokesperson telling Pelican their intent was to emulate and respect LGBTQI+ culture as much as possible. In this spirit, SU Welfare Vice-President Caitlyn Calderbank noted the union attempted, as much as possible, “to take constructive criticism on board.” Pride Officer Avery Wright notes “Pride values the good intentions of Science Union and the charitable purpose of the event ”. The team has worked extremely hard on ensuring as much as possible that LGBTQI+ interests are represented on an organisational level for the ‘Pride’ event, according to SU. This includes the selection of Minus 18 as a charity.
Choice of Charity
“They were the only charity that had plans to support LGBTQI+ Indigenous Australians and increase their support,” Caitlyn noted.
“We tried to pick a charity that encompasses as much of the community as possible.”
The charity focuses on providing educational workshops to students across the Eastern States but does not have any formal presence in Western Australia.
In response to a question about whether the experiences of WA LGBTQI+ people can be compared to those in other states, Caitlyn noted “they are relatively similar across the board.”
However, this is reductive to LGBTQI+ experiences which in fact differ widely based on state jurisdiction. Queensland and New South Wales require transgender people to undergo sex reassignment surgery before changing their birth certificate. Further, some states still allow gay conversion therapy while South Australia only just abolished the gay panic defence last year.
Perhaps Minus18 will expand into WA. However, that has not yet happened. Thus, the funds being raised – ostensibly for the community – will be disbursed on a national level where its effect may be diffused.
SU have worked extremely hard and been very receptive to feedback from the LGBTQI+ community, attempting to incorporate changes at very short notice including briefing the Drag Queens on the history of Drag to ensure a mitigation of any trivialisation. They should be commended on these initiatives; however, they are piecemeal.
Choice of Venue
On venue choice, let us address the elephant in the room that many LGBTQI+ people would notice on a cursory glance of the venue.
The selection of The Court as a venue for ‘pride’ is remarkably insensitive, given their recent rebrand as an ‘all-inclusive venue’. Many LGBTQI+ people are still feeling the pained sting of betrayal that was The Court’s rebrand. The union’s choice of venue seems to be blind to these concerns and the palpable sense of treachery LGBTQI+ people have felt. In addition, The Court stands accused of appropriating LGBTQI+ culture, making the venue choice questionable. SU President Kate Stewart noted the choice of The Court as a venue came down to number of intersecting factors. Firstly, they had “started looking and booking venues in late February, early March” and thus The Court had been selected as a venue before the rebrand. Further, logistical and economic factors including competitive rates influenced this decision, with SU prioritising the raising of funds for Minus18. In addition, they said “The Court is regarded as one of the safest venues in Perth” with their experience with LGBTQI+ patrons. It is important to note that this is relative to other nightclubs within Perth. The Court has not been free from issues. SU made it clear they do not endorse The Court and its perceived action or lack of action by selecting them as a venue. However, this does send mixed messages to The Court and its former patrons. Economic incentive is incredibly important to force business change and SU have abdicated the responsibility to push for changes at The Court and listening to the very real concerns of LGBTQI+ people, for the interests of raising money for Minus18. By selecting this venue, SU have risked depressing turnout and alienating a significant portion of the LGBTQI+ community for an event that is ostensibly celebrating them.
Choice of Performers
The choice of performers was similarly based on economic factors.
“We did not choose them based on their gender or sexuality; they were chosen based on how many tickets they could bring in,” an SU spokesperson said.
This makes sense for a charity event; tickets need to be moved and money needs to be made. However, there a number of motivational concerns here that SU conceded “was one of our biggest worries we had initially and why we got the Drag Queen onside and asked them to assist with the event”.
That involved SU having professional Drag Queen Liberty Genre facilitating part of the event.
But this is simply not enough.
As the student Drag Queens themselves have declined to comment on this story, it would not be appropriate to speculate on their motives. However, on the Facebook posts announcing Constantinos Toufexis and Callum Lindsay as drag queens, we can see a snippet of public sentiment. This is where it gets extremely disappointing and likely not how organisers would have imagined the public to respond, though it was certainly foreseeable.
Users speculations on reasons for the performance range from the performers’ vanity (“this is the reason reason that ur (sic) doing push-ups?”) to implications that they would do “Anything for clout eh?” These comments were not pushed back on by the performers or any other users. These comments show there could be less benevolent reasons for performing in drag; instead of honouring the community, it may be being co-opted for personal interests outside of the community. Further, the comments under these posts are comedic riffs completely devoid of LGBTQI+ support. Setting aside whether these comments should be taken as signals of motive, what is undoubtedly clear is that the performances are seen as a comedic piece to be mocked and made fun of. SU have distanced themselves from these comments, noting that “(the) crowd innately is going to have jokes about vanity being made because they’re popular.” If they were aware of this potential, then surely it also occurred to them that they are running a significant risk of trivialising Drag in an inherently harmful way. The safety rails on this issue are relatively sparse. They are relying on a professional Drag Queen to attempt to moderate the crowd while simultaneously doing an “Acknowledgement of Country, talking about the charity and why they are doing it, and introducing the performers,” according to SU. That is a lot for a single person to do, and I do not believe these lofty ideals will be upheld. Instead, the event will likely devolve into perpetuating misconceptions of drag. In addition, mocking a BNOC because they are vain is vastly different from mocking a BNOC in drag because of vanity. I believe this will occur not only online but also on the night in question. SU are opening a legitimate and age-old form of self-expression to mocking that runs the risk of normalising this behaviour and discourse. Further, as a public forum, it would be difficult for audience members and LGBTQI+ people to differentiate on the motive for why they are being mocked. The commentors are also not malcontents or strangers but members of the UWA Guild. This, again, could have been handled significantly better and I would argue that these harms are not being effectively mitigated by the organisers.
Setting aside that all of these issues could be avoided with the selection of a different ‘theme’, it is important to note the role of the Pride department. This is where the story gets very interesting.
The Pride department’s purpose is to represent LGBTQI+ students on campus. Through my interviews I have been given duelling perceptions of the involvement the Pride Department has had in this event. SU asserted that Pride was involved in the process on a substantive basis. I was given the impression that Pride had wholeheartedly endorsed the programme and had been acting in an advisory capacity. Pressed on why Pride had not officially collaborated on the event SU asserted that the Guild had prohibited collaboration with Guild departments if the event was serving alcohol. Firstly, the proof of this policy is not forthcoming due to insufficient transparency in the publishing of minutes from SOC-PAC and Education Council meetings wherein this rule has allegedly been implemented. Moreover, the veracity of this policy is suspect because Pride does run events with alcohol, including their annual Pride Party – an observation that caught SU by surprise.
Setting aside the Byzantine-like communication web this reveals, it is still fully permissible for Pride to continue to do its job which is to act as a valuable educational and representation resource for clubs to draw on and ask questions to. Given that, after a review of relevant emails between SU and Pride, this collaborative assertion is comprehensively not true. In fact, the collaboration between the entities was very limited and involved simply sharing the event to boost ticket numbers, a very standard practice. As noted by Pride Officer Avery Wright “we were not involved in nor consulted for the organising of this event. However, SU did reach out to ask us to provide some promotion for the event”.
SU’s response was simply that they “could have tried harder to reach out”.
This gets to the crux of the issue, which is that all this could have been mitigated if Pride was fully consulted on the matter. Both parties had put the onus on the other to reach out in relation to this event. However, it is not the job of Pride to police the club events; it is very much a club’s responsibility to ensure they uphold the standards and ideals they have set for themselves. Clubs should take note that they should be consulting minority communities on a proactive basis, rather than expecting them to be proactive in mitigating their own oppression. In response to the issues highlighted, SU noted “if we had all of this information or realisation with the event prior, we would have gone about it in a different way”. This realisation could have been reached painlessly with early and ongoing collaboration/consultation with Pride.
Will the Show Go On?
Throughout all of this, you might be asking yourself “are these oversights enough to overturn the event?” I would argue yes; the theme is wholly unnecessary. However, I fear that the precedent has been set for UWA clubs to try their hand at running LGBTQI+ ‘themed’ events without proper consultation with the community. There is no guarantee that future clubs will be as receptive to feedback or as well intentioned as the Science Union. For that reason alone, I certainly do not take Pride in the future trajectory of this issue.