Harry Josephine Giles
Dear Lyceum Theatre,
In the year leading up the coronavirus pandemic I was part of three different support teams for neighbours recovering from vaginoplasty. (I know that theatres don’t have genital surgery, but stick with me, I’m going come back to you at the end.) This surgery has a three month recovery period, with very little mobility for the first month, which means that my friends needed support with cooking, cleaning, cat litter, dog walks, laundry, shopping — all the daily work of staying safe and alive. Flats had to be kept hygienic to prevent infection, store cupboards had to be kept full of easy and nutritious meals. Recovering from surgery can leave you feeling isolated and depressed, and the pressure of relating to your trans body makes things harder still, so emotional support and good friendship are also part of care.
But transfems are usually poor, often distanced from family, frequently living with disabilities and mental distress, and always face discrimination from state care institutions. So when we need care, we have to rely on our neighbours, on our trans and queer community. For each of my three friends this meant online spreadsheets, WhatsApp groups, endless planning and organisation, and a lot of chat about how “good friendship” and “care responsibility” can fit together without breaking people apart. In having to care for each other outside of state and society, we made something beautiful, hard, sometimes boring, and maybe liberatory.
When the truth of the coronavirus pandemic hit, in the middle of the recovery period for my third friend, after a year of spending a few hours each week running errands, wiping surfaces and managing calendars with my trans neighbours, a year with a lot less time spent in theatres as a result, my first thought was “It’s OK. I know how to do this.” The Facebook chat that organised care for one person started to deliver support to a whole community; the spreadsheet template I copied from one care team to organise the other became the model for a city-wide mutual aid project.
And suddenly everyone else was also talking about mutual aid. The kind of work I had been doing for the past year, just as a regular part of being a trans person in trans community, was now in everyone else’s daily lives. In the same way, the kind of issues faced by disabled people before the pandemic — being cut off from state support, organising autonomous care teams, adjusting work to health needs, thinking through bodily safety in every aspect of daily life — became everyone else’s concern as well. Suddenly, trans and disabled people had all the skills and experiences that everyone else needed.
People keep talking about “when it all goes back to normal” and “after the pandemic”. But trans health was already in crisis before the pandemic, and disabled people were already being pushed out of community by the austerity state. People keep talking about “when the lockdown lifts”, but my community is full of immunocompromised and other vulnerable people who are expecting to stay in some form of isolation for the rest of 2020. There is no going back to normal for me and my friends — or, rather, the pandemic just intensified our normal crisis conditions, and “after the pandemic” will probably mean a further intensification as the government initiates a new round of austerity. I’m expecting to spend a lot more time doing care work “after the pandemic”, and I don’t know how much time I’ll have for theatre. I already miss you.
My hope is that the wider experience of the necessity of mutual aid during the pandemic has taught more people what it means to have to rely on each other. My hope is that, now, more people will demand better for those who have least. My hope is that having to seek community care has taught more people that it is good and right and necessary to seek and provide community care, and so that it should be funded, by all of us, in a way that centres collectivity and autonomy. I think of the man who posted daily to the neighbourhood Facebook mutual aid group asking for help: his wife was in hospital, and one day he needed a phone, and the next day he needed help doing a load of laundry,
and the next day he needed help with the shopping. That help was given by other men. I hope that he learned something about the labour of housework that week, and who does it, and what we deserve. I hope that no one goes back to normal.
So what about you, theatre? I’m thinking about you sitting empty and with few people to look after you and have fun with you, isolated and lonely. And I’m thinking about the structures that supported you before the pandemic: wage labour, austerity-structured arts funding, patriarchy. I’m wondering what you could learn from my trans community, and how we could be part of looking after you. I don’t think you really want to go back to normal either. It’s harder for big ships to change course, but you’ve got time now to chart a new direction for when your great engines are turned back on.
How can a theatre look after a community, and a community look after a theatre? How could we make it so that everyone in you and around you has enough, and you do too? What hierarchies would have to fall, and what messy spreadsheets of care would we need to make? How can those of us who spend much of our lives doing unpaid care work — mostly women, mostly marginalised in other ways — be supported to be part of making art, and make care part of art? Who will clean you up after the pandemic, and will she get to make art too? How can “care” and “work” and “art” be remade, together, in liberatory ways?
When I think about you before the pandemic, dear theatre, I think about a place my life was growing more distant from, that I was losing in transition. The pandemic is forcing some time apart for us both, but I’m thinking about you all the time. When we come back together, I hope, and I hope you hope, that we’ll leave the old normality behind and care about making something new together.
Harry Josephine Giles is a writer and performer from Orkney who lives in Leith; their new book is The Games (Out-Spoken Press, 2018). www.harryjosephine.com