Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Sky Gilbert worries about repressed artists, academics and progressives

Provocative playwright returns to Buddies

Lise (Haley McGee), Jacques (Gavin Crawford) and Yvon (Gil Garrett) in The Situationists. Credit: David Hawe

Sky Gilbert wants lefties to get laid more.

The outspoken gay theatre artist and founding artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre finds progressive politics utterly unsexy these days.

“Go to an NDP fundraiser or a Greenpeace meeting and just see how hot and horny you get,” he says, over a bagel and scrambled eggs. “The Conservative movement is actually far more sexualized. For all their talk of commitment and the family, rightwingers are actually fucking around way more than the lefties.”

According to Gilbert, the absence of sex in progressive politics is by no means a recent development.

“Marx was somewhat homophobic, which you can’t really blame him for considering the time period when he was writing,” Gilbert says.

“He took issue with the occupations in society he saw as ineffectual, including artists in all fields, which are the occupations often held by gays.”

“There’s also a sense on the left that sexuality and class are linked,” he adds. “The idea of two gay men with their male incomes and no kids is considered bourgeois. All people can think about is that they must be using all that extra money shopping for antiques and hiring rentboys.”

Gilbert’s new play, The Situationists, which opens at Buddies April 13, tackles the anti-sex attitude of the progressive movement head-on. Parisian ex-pat professor Jacques (Gavin Crawford, of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame) is intent on enacting political change in the contemporary world. He hopes to achieve this by turning to the principals of the Situationist movement, a group of political agitators who stirred up shit in France through their unique brand of art-based activism from the end of World War II through the famed Paris riots of 1968.

To assist in the endeavour, he’s called upon his former student Lise (Haley McGee), who’s had the hots for him since he was her teacher.

But Lise feels the pair will need some additional help to enact their plan and has invited Yvon (Gil Garrett) to join the project. While Jacques is a somewhat stuffy desexualized intellectual type, Yvon is a lascivious young man, with his own agenda of bringing the sexy back to leftwing politics. The trio drink wine, puff tobacco on their smokeless ventilators and plot their political maneuvres. But as the sexual tension between them grows, their activism takes a backseat to their libidos.

The core of the play has less to do with the original Situationists and their political objectives than it does with the current relationship between sexuality and academia. From his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto through his tenure as a professor in the theatre department of Guelph University, where he currently teaches, Gilbert has noticed a recurring theme among academics. They don’t seem any more concerned with sex than leftwing political types.

“I wanted to explore the relationship between intellectuals and sex,” he says. “I’ve always considered myself to be both a very sexual person and an intellectual, but that’s not a very common combination. I have intellectual friends and I have sexual friends. But it’s hard to find people who are both.”

Gilbert argues that, like the leftwing movement and academia, the gay community has become desexualized as well. Increased sexual conservatism among gays came as a response to the AIDS crisis in the hopes it would reduce infection rates. But Gilbert believes it’s  had the opposite effect.

“People started pushing for monogamous relationships because they thought it would help prevent the spread of disease,” he says. “But it actually makes matters worse because monogamy for most people, whether they’ll admit to it or not, is sporadic at best. The pressure to keep that up leads to unsafe sex and drug use. We need to go back to promoting condom usage as the best way for people to protect themselves.”

Despite his cynical tone, Gilbert is clear that things don’t have to stay this way.

“The backlash against sexual radicalism in gay politics is cyclical,” he says. “Over time people will get frustrated with traditional heteronormative ideas of relationships. I think that one of the great things gay culture has to bring to the mainstream is our alternative models of what a relationship can be.”

“There are so many ways to exist as a sexual being,” he adds. “Open relationships, ménages or choosing to never have a partner. Mainstream society doesn’t know much about these things because no one talks about them.”

Gilbert has been very public about the fact that he and his partner, artist Ian Jarvis, have always had an open relationship. Despite having moved to Hamilton seven years ago when the couple bought a home there together, Gilbert can still be  found regularly at Church St bars and bathhouses when he’s in the city. Though he still frequents old-school gay sex spaces, he’s never taken to using the internet as a hook-up tool.

“My boyfriend won’t let me,” he laughs. “He said that once you’re on the internet you’re on there forever, and he doesn’t want pictures of my cock all over the web. Not that I don’t have a nice cock.”

On a more serious note, Gilbert feels the advent of the online hookup has actually had the effect of de-radicalizing gay culture. While it’s offered those in smaller centres the opportunity to connect virtually with those who share their kinks, it’s also meant that people often explore their sexuality in a more closeted way.

“Before the internet you actually had to go out of the house to meet people,” he says. “Now you can have real-time sex with someone without even touching. It used to be radical to go to a gay bar because people would see you walking in. But the internet is particularly suitable for a culture of closetedness and secrecy. It fosters those things in a way that public cruising didn’t.”

“I’m not completely down on web sex,” he adds. “I just think we need to examine the full implications of it, rather than assuming it’s an instant solution for sexual liberation.”