4 min

Celebrating Transgression

Queer Arts Festival’s importance confirmed by public outcry over government cuts

Opera When the Sun Comes Out headlines this year's Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver. Credit: belle ancell

“We are very much, once again, in the pioneering years of who we could be,” proclaims artist Paul Wong, as he prepares to co-curate the Queer Arts Festival’s (QAF) three-week exhibit.

Entitled TransgressionNow, both the exhibit and festival are a chance to rediscover the radical roots of the gay liberation movement and to explore a more subversive future, Wong says.

The festival is preparing to open only two months after the federal government suddenly cut its annual $44,000 grant — only to reinstate three-quarters of the funding after a public outcry.

In a letter to the Pride in Art Society (PiA), which produces QAF, the Department of Canadian Heritage said it rescinded the funding because the festival no longer fit the sponsorship criteria to deliver “measurable and tangible results, to optimize available funds, and to meet the needs of Canadians.”

QAF artistic director Shaira (SD) Holman was skeptical but undaunted.

With the sixth annual event less than a month away and enough of the funding restored to survive, at least for now, Holman calmly unfurls QAF’s newly minted six-foot-tall transit-stop posters advertising transgression.

The sudden funding cut taught her not to rely on the “whims” of government support, she says.

“It just shows how homophobia is still out there. We live in a bit of a false paradise in Canada. We have so many rights and so much freedom here,” she says, “whereas in other countries there’s the death penalty to be a homo.But here we get these cuts that come out of nowhere.”

A happier lesson, Holman notes, is the level of community support QAF obviously inspires: “We saw so much community pressure to the government to reverse its decision.”

This year’s festival will feature more than 20 events, including the exhibit; concerts by Yamantaka/Sonic Titan, Kinnie Starr and Cris Derksen; a cutting-edge dance duet; and the premiere of Canada’s first lesbian opera, specially commissioned for QAF.

Set in the imaginary country of Fundamentalia — somewhat reminiscent of a Middle Eastern state, but evoking religious bigotry wherever it appears — the opera When the Sun Comes Out traces the difficult choices faced by two women in love despite deadly consequences if they get caught. With music composed by Leslie Uyeda and the libretto by poet Rachel Rose, the opera “is about living in a dangerous place,” says director James Fagan Tait, “but a place of faith, a wobbly, destabilizing place.”

“One mustn’t pretend that’s the only place with oppression against same-sex love,” he cautions. “Fundamentalia is a bit Orwellian. Is it Iran? The Southern US? The Bible Belt in BC? In a funny way, it’s a little of all of them. It’s also where oppression is within ourselves — anywhere that can’t bear lines being crossed.”

Ultimately embracing their forbidden love, the opera’s characters “emerge from faithlessness to encounter a trust in the future,” Fagan Tait says.

Also set to perform at this year’s festival is acclaimed Montreal choreographer George Stamos, in his pig-mask-wearing duet Liklik Pik, in which animal costumes enable a playful exploration of humans’ more animal urges and desires.

“Mask work, the way I approach it, is actually a way to bring emphasis to the body,” Stamos tells Xtra. “In a way, even though masking ourselves as pigs, we’re doing so to reveal our human bodies and bodily tendencies. We’re not pretending we are pigs!

“We humans like to make animals seem more human, but we’re actually just wanting to look at ourselves.”

On the heels of publishing her memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, writer Amber Dawn is hosting a festival workshop on “Tough Language & Tender Wisdoms,” in which veterans and first-time writers alike can explore their personal stories and ways to put them on paper.

“I’m trying to contrast tenderness against toughness,” she explains. “To live an out queer life requires both strength, of course, but also fluidity, openness and often solidarity with others.

“All that stuff is not necessarily written, but it’s queer wisdom.”

For her, QAF represents much more than simply a collection of queer artists under one roof. Had Canadian Heritage not partly restored the festival’s funding, Amber Dawn says, the community would have suffered a “really frightening” loss.

“At the Queer Arts Festival, I really look around, look at Vancouver, and see what a great community we are,” she says. “It’s so diverse and dynamic now. Some of the greatest shows I see all year are at the festival.”

Though Canadian Heritage never fully explained its funding cut or its reversal, a spokesperson now tells Xtra there was a “review of the file.”

“All applications are assessed in accordance with the Government of Canada’s ongoing goal to fund projects that identify and deliver measurable, tangible results that contribute to program objectives, provide the best value for money, and meet the needs of Canadians,” Catherine Gagnaire says, reiterating the mandate of the department’s Building Communities Through Arts and Heritage program. “This program provides Canadians with more opportunities to take part in activities that present local arts and culture, and celebrate local history and heritage.”

Gagnaire did not respond to questions about why the queer festival in particular was singled out for cuts, when other events have received boosts in recent years.

Asked to clarify her comment that “homophobia is still out there,” Holman says she hopes the original funding cut was simply an “oversight.” But others do not mince words.

“Do we really need a reenactment of the War of 1812 that costs millions,” Amber Dawn asks, “while cutting-edge, diverse art is struggling?”

“I look at a fest like the Queer Arts Festival — they’re on the forefront of aesthetic and cultural dialogue today. I’m so proud to be part of it.”