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Virtual LGBTQ+ spaces will be just as important when lockdown’s over

Organisers reveal how going online is making events reach wider audiences than ever

By Paula Akpan

To say that the pandemic has been tough on LGBTQ+ young people would be putting it lightly. The past few months have seen rises in job losses and unstable employment - and of course, we’ve all been locked down in our homes. This has been bad for everyone. But has especially exacerbated issues that members of the community are already vulnerable to, such as homelessness.

During lockdown, Switchboard, the north London-based LGBTQ+ helpline, reported a spike of 20% more calls, emails and instant messages than they did before the pandemic. including LGBTQ+ people who have come out during isolation and are in danger of being kicked out by unsupportive family members. Natasha Walker, Switchboard’s co-chair, shares that the helpline has a huge influx of calls from trans and gender-nonconforming folks: One thing we’re all very aware of right now is the pausing of gender-treating, gender-affirming surgery, and gender clinics having to shut down or really strip back their services.’

That’s why the cancellation of this year’s Pride events, such as UK Black Pride and Pride In London, has hit hard. These annual gatherings and protests have historically offered LGBTQ+ folks a space to celebrate and affirm our identities – even when there’s not space to do that at home. However, despite unprecedented challenges, queer organisers continue to demonstrate that spaces for our communities can be carved out anywhere. This year, it’s just meant going online.

Photograph: International Transgender Youth Day
Photograph: International Transgender Youth Day

Lockdown has seen a new wave of initiatives providing digital spaces for people to find community, as well as celebrate and learn about LGBTQ+ culture. There’s Instagram-based Far and Pride, where queer activists and artists take over the @farandpride account to offer introductions to ballroom culture and trans history lessons. There’s online film screenings, like Minute Short’s ‘Black Pride’ event with five short films celebrating Black LGBTQ+ communities. Meanwhile community LGBTQ+ heritage projects, that have run for years in real life, are also making the move online. Islington Pride, for example, is making a shift to the virtual space by offering interactive Polari workshops, socials within their ‘Virtual Community Centre’ and digital trips into their archives to discover heritage highlights from the north London borough.

These digital events are filling the gap left by Pride's cancellation, but they’re also going further – creating must-needed change that will remain beyond the end of the pandemic. During lockdown, 18-year-old actor Felix Mufti-Wright has been organising International Transgender Youth Day, an evening-long event packed with online panels and contributions from individuals and organisations within the international trans community including US violinist Tona Brown who was the first trans person to play at Carnegie Hall and Ben Saunders, Stonewall’s 2019 Campaigner of the Year. We created the day to empower trans youth,’ says Felix. And attempt to change the general narrative and opinion of their lives. Taking place on Monday 29 June, the event will be live-streamed across YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, and will feature content that Felix hopes will serve to inspire trans young people: ‘[We] have received an amazing response and this is just some of the content which is planned for the day. The public has been very excited and we have had a hugely positive reaction to our plans.’

For other LGBTQ+ organisations who have been running their events face-to-face for a number of years, going digital has been a huge but necessary shift. North London charity Just Like Us trains queer young people to champion LGBTQ+ equality at school and work, particularly through their annual initiative School Diversity Week which supports students and teachers alike. This year, they took it online. ‘In the absence of schools and the absence of Pride, we wanted to ensure LGBTQ+ young people at home got a really clear signal about the diversity and talent that exists within our community,’ says Dominic Arnall, Just Like Us’ Chief Executive. The charity has just finished hosting a week’s worth of masterclasses from experts in their field, including Ranj and Ben Hunte from the BBC, Lady Phyll from UK Black Pride, Sacha Coward from The British Museum and Dan Vo from the V&A gallery, each delivering an interactive online session around LGBTQ+ history, art, culture and activism.

Despite having successfully run the programme in real life over the four last years, Dominic admits that there was still a worry that it wouldn’t work, considering how oversaturated the online events world has become over the last few months: ‘The worry was that nobody would be interested in any of this. We had no idea if anyone would show up and watch the stuff we were recording. However, with masterclasses like performer Travis Alabanza’s session on how to turn your life story into a piece of theatre and lecturer Cedric Tan’s talk on same-sex behaviour in animals, it’s little wonder that folks tuned in. Though harder to build a ‘team’ vibe while working on the programme, the digital space allowed the Just Like Us team to reach whopping numbers nationally: We just heard that 30,000 people have watched our sessions, which is unbelievable.’

The success of these online events is great news. The events are able to reach much wider audiences than the physical ones before them, particularly as these virtual spaces tend to be more accessible in terms of price point, but also because it offers LGBTQ+ people greater agency around how they engage with these celebrations – especially if they’re still coming into their queerness. It also allows organisers to engage with people beyond their neighbourhood. Felix says that it's important that Transgender Youth Day has global impact: ‘We wanted to make sure that the event includes global experiences so have secured interviews with trans people from America and Brazil – the latter is the most dangerous place for transgender people in the world.’ Dominic agrees, adding that online events have forced event organisers to evaluate the fruitfulness of IRL events: ‘Many queer event producers have had to face the fact running events around specific towns and cities isn’t an effective way to reach all of the UK, especially in education.’

Photograph: Just Like Us
Photograph: Just Like Us

But with wider audiences come greater risks. As we look towards a future where more digital queer events are possible, and in fact, very much in demand, organisers now have to think about what kind of accommodations and changes need to be made to ensure the safety of these digital communities. For the upcoming International Transgender Youth Day, Felix has chosen not to create a social presence for safeguarding purposes: ‘The links will be on my social media platforms on Facebook and Twitter but we have not created social media [accounts] for the day as it usually attracted negative attention [when] talking about trans youth online.’ Even in the midst of Pride month, trans folks in the UK remain under attack with the government reportedly dropping gender self-identifying plans and alt-right transphobes actively attempting to hack LGBTQ+ online events and Pride content; Felix’s steps to protect event participants is a troubling necessity.

Despite the new challenges, what these queer events producers have demonstrated is that even in times of uncertainty and peril, LGBTQ+ organisers are able to adapt, mobilise and invent new ways of coming together that will impact lives long after lockdown is over and real life events return. They’ve shown that we shouldn’t be looking to return to ‘normal’ we should be looking to return to something better.

‘Normal was excluding people and it’s looking like the online space gives us a chance to reach more people and different people,’ says Dominic. ‘Difficult as this time has been, it’s important we learn the lessons, not just from COVID-19, but of where we were going wrong beforehand.’

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