Toronto
3 min

Toronto artist calls BS on censorship in Scotland

Sandra Alland reports on the dangers of government involvement in queer and trans art

On the surface, Scotland seems okay if you’re queer or trans. There are prominent queer organizations, and gays enjoy mainstream rights like civil partnership, adoption and protection from hate crimes.

Sadly, such laws have little effect on daily life, even in supposedly world-class cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’ve been egged twice by guys shouting “faggot,” and my girlfriend was attacked in a supposedly queer-friendly Edinburgh bar.

So I was surprised to score what seemed like a dream job at the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. I was hired as artist-in-residence as part of Sh[OUT], a 10-month program featuring numerous queer exhibitions. There was commitment to trans and intersex artists, and even attempts to address race and ability. What could go wrong?

My dream vanished the day I arrived. Sh[OUT] had been deemed “explicit” by Glasgow City Council. All school tours, including those for teenagers, were cancelled. Sh[OUT] was censored based on the inclusion of a Robert Mapplethorpe photo in one exhibition, of a man peeing into another man’s mouth. Never mind that the work was decades old and its pornography wars had already been won in court; City Council decided to moonlight as both art critic and morality police.

It wasn’t just the offending photo that schools were “protected” from. Students also lost the opportunity to see shows by queer Muslims, youth, and queer artists of colour; TransForming Arts, a group of trans artists; and my newly-formed lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex deaf and disabled collective, b)other.

The ban was not an independent decision by Glasgow City Council but a direct response to articles by rightwing media, specifically Scotland’s nastiest tabloid, the Daily Mail. Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA, which is run by Culture and Sport Glasgow, which in turn answers to City Council) did not remove the Mapplethorpe. But neither did they appeal the Council’s direct interference in their programming — setting a precedent that gave power over queer art to both politicians and rightwing publications.

The next Sh[OUT] show featured work that explored queer issues and religion. A Christian contributor left a copy of the Bible open for gallery visitors who felt excluded to “write themselves back in.” Most people wrote decent things, though naturally there were some angry and humorous entries. The most contentious I found was “I don’t want a fascist God.” But the Daily Mail reported that GoMA was “inviting people to deface the Bible.” Mayhem ensued.

Instead of standing behind the work, GoMA removed the offending pages. They also put the Bible behind glass, with an additional paternalistic sign describing its potential to offend. Fundamentalist Christians saw this as capitulation and demanded the cancellation of funding for queer and trans projects.

Enter Dani Marti, Glasgow-based Spanish artist, with his milestone three-month project working with gay and HIV-positive men in Scotland. Marti produced four films for his Sh[OUT] commission but was told just before his opening that they were too “explicit” to be shown at GoMA. He quit, making allegations of censorship, crushed by the fact that he had convinced participants to be out and proud, when the message was clearly that Glasgow was ashamed.

GoMA refused to release the names of the city councillors who pushed the final decision about Marti’s work. But briefs I read clearly misrepresented the films as gay pornography. GoMA also didn’t defend the work with any rigour because, despite commissioning it, they suddenly felt “it wasn’t the right time” to show it. They also came up with random excuses, such as saying one film “referred to drug use.”

Protesters were ignored when they demanded the reinstatement of Marti’s show. My own letter of complaint was deemed unfounded because Culture and Sport Glasgow insisted it hadn’t censored Marti at all (they had offered to show the films in a much smaller venue across town). Glasgow seemed more interested in pleasing fundamentalist Christians than the people it was supposedly representing with its “social inclusion” program.

Instead of courting positive press to counter the Daily Mail, GoMA played down the remainder of Sh[OUT], to the point of removing the names of prominent artists like Del LaGrace Volcano from their own website. One of my photos was refused for the official invitation to my show, and I was told not to contact the press. Sh[OUT] artists reported a lack of promotion of their work, projects were moved quietly to other locations, and most co-productions with the Glasgay Festival were cancelled.

The cancellation and silencing of queer and trans work had devastating effects on me and my collaborators. No one from GoMA answered my questions about the situation, nor would they provide me with their exact definition of “explicit.” We worked in a culture of fear, with many in my group reluctant to take risks. In the end, GoMA slapped us with an “explicit” sign at our opening because a zine we created contained the words “thank fuck.”

“Fuck” had appeared in several shows prior to ours, and much more prominently. It only became “explicit” when a disabled transsexual lesbian used it in 2009 — the year the Daily Mail and Glasgow City Council firmly established their control over Glasgow’s art.

Sandra Alland is a writer and multimedia artist. Find out more at blissfultimes.ca.