The challenge of generosity

Terminology is getting plethoric in questions of gender and sexual identity, perhaps excessively so, given that a significant proportion of the diverse theoretical thinking on such topics sees the taxonomic categories those terms refer to as matters of social construction, rather than ‘things’ that are ‘out there in the world’. LGB begat LGBT, LGBT begat LGBTI, LGBTIQ, LGBTIQ+ and ultimately such monstrosities as LGBTTQQIAAP or LGBTTIQQ2SA. At the same time there are those in the broad community thus labelled who argue that more or less everyone diverges from the notional and fundamentally fictional ‘norm’ in some way or another, and many of those people have also noted that the word ‘queer’ is a fuck of a lot easier to say.

‘Queer’ is not without its problems of course. It has historically been claimed as an identity by a politically radical minority within the larger non-heterosexual-and/or-cisgendered community, which some of its members might be uncomfortable with (members of the royal household for example?); and many older members of the community are unhappy owning a typonym which they came to know as a term of abuse. Spouse, who has known she is non-cisgendered since long before that term was in common use (she calls herself a ‘mutoid’), but who has never identified with any community around her gender or sexual identity, is as uncomfortable hearing ‘queer’ in use as she is the n-word. Conversely, as someone who didn’t learn until adulthood to comfortably perform the identities ‘male’ and ‘heterosexual’, I am not at all attached to either set of behaviours, and I am attracted to ‘queer’ as a descriptor precisely because it does not reify any particular classification, and seems to insist on the fluidity of all such taxons. Ultimately there are probably as many relations to this controversial term as there are relations to sexual and gender classes, which is to say roughly as many as there are people in the world.

Catherine Bohart, who spends much of her Fringe show Lemon discussing her attempts to live as a ‘good queer feminist’, is typical of younger generations in owning the term ‘queer’ comfortably, but it is also worth noting that her stand-up show would have doubled in length if she had consistently said LGBTTIQQ2SA instead. This is not to say that she just repeats the word ‘queer’ over and over, but this year’s show is inspired by an incident which happened in relation to last year’s, in which an audience member was later overhead referring to Bohart as ‘disgusting’, simply because she had mentioned in passing that she identifies as bisexual. As such she addresses the piece in part to any audience member whose attitudes might be similar; Lemon is a direct challenge to any prudery or bigotry which might come into the room with the audience.

Bohart is not afraid to digress into serious discussion, and does so repeatedly throughout the show, with an extended example positioned strategically towards the close. For the most part, however, her piece consists of rapid-fire observational humour around lesbian relationships, the position of sex within feminism, her relationship as a queer person with her loving and supportive Catholic mother, and other matters closely related to her own life experience. It was interesting to see a solo stand-up riffing observationally on their own experience in exactly the same space as we had seen another one doing the same thing immediately beforehand (Lucy Beaumont with her show Space Mam). Within the broad compass of ‘ways a lone individual can amuse a small venue just by talking’ both shows look pretty similar, but within the specific conventions of stand-up the contrasts were more striking than the similarities.

The most obvious difference was in Bohart’s pace (frenetic) and audience interaction (continual), but more fundamental was the contrast in the extent to which each comedian’s stage persona appeared to have been fictionalised. In distinction to Beaumont’s overtly contrived character, Bohart presents a public subject who appears to be identical to Catherine Bohart the private individual, and most of the speech she deploys in the show trades on its perceived authenticity to produce its humorous impact. While I have no doubt that the content of her performance is sincere, largely derived from her direct experience, and frequently heartfelt, I think it’s important to bear in mind the artificiality of any performance.

Both shows presented a surface apprehensible to the audience, neither more contrived than the other, and this difference in apparent directness should be seen instead as a variance in comedic technique. The ‘real’ Catherine Bohart remains offstage, and the more intimate details she chooses to share (there were quite a number), the more I feel inclined to respect her privacy. This is in fact the armour that permits her to parade her schtick, which involves a lot of playful mock-invasions of audience privacy, direct queries about their sex lives and so forth. That she (presumably) puts certain embarrassing details of her own life in play should be seen not as a shock tactic, nor as a negotiation with the audience for the ground on which she can elicit their own indiscretions, but as an act of creative generosity. Because Lemon is as funny as fuck.

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