Belfast was a somewhat different place in 2008 when the first Queer at Queen’s took place. The region’s LGBTQI+ community had been dealt a blow by, firstly, a number of serious homophobic attacks that had occurred in the preceding years and, secondly, by the public and political response to those attacks, including the now infamous Iris Robinson comments made that year. That NI was hostile place for queers was not in doubt; that it could be better was an idea that spurred on the actions of a number of dedicated artists, activists and scholars. Ruth McCarthy set up Outburst Queer Arts Festival in 2007. Dr Alyson Campbell, then a lecturer in Drama at QUB, created Queer at Queen’s as an academic space for the festival, and a queer space within the university. From its creation, Q@Q has been responsive to the needs of a festival operating on a shoestring budget and those of a community whose political leaders’ tolerance for, if not public expressions of, homophobia forms a continued violent backdrop to their lives. It was one of the first conferences on the island dedicated to queer performance and these events were, as Campbell remarks, catalytic for the creation of both Outburst itself and Queer at Queen’s.
The demand for a different Northern Ireland that these events represent was revisited last year with Conor Mitchell’s Abomination (reviewed in The Guardian here). This opera, which premiered in Belfast in late 2019 as part of the Festival, takes the homophobic utterances of NI politicians and weaves them into a thing of angry beauty; the piece was a reminder of those years of homophobic violence of word and deed, litanies of ignorant and cruel statements – to repeat here would only replicate that violence – and it was a reminder of that time period when to say such things was publicly tolerated. It perhaps still is, times and attitudes do not change so quickly, but such a groundswell of collective rage and relief underpinned the 2019 production of Abomination that inklings of a different Northern Ireland might be glimpsed. That is a Northern Ireland that Outburst attempts to fashion and envision ever year and for that reason remains a bright queer jewel in the murk of November here, even in the midst of the pandemic as well. Alongside the festival therefore, Q@Q has operated to create a space within the university for queer ideas to be expressed, for modes of resistant performances and pedagogies to be practiced, and for queer and atypical lives to be welcomed.
Myself and Kurt Taroff took over the running of Q@Q in 2015 and have usually partnered with an individual or organisation to create a tailored event in response to a particular need or question. For instance, we partnered with UCD lecturer Cormac O’Brien in 2015-6 to run events, workshops and talks on HIV-AIDS. That year we, along with Outburst were lucky enough to welcome Sarah Schulman to speak on the legacy of the AIDS crisis and her ongoing activism. Subsequent years have given us a chance to bring in people who amount to lesbian theatre royalty: in 2017, performance artist Holly Hughes joined us and performed her recent work, Dog and Pony Show; in 2018, we welcomed Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw of Split Britches fame with their performance-conversation Situation Room.
Although not exclusively, Q@Q events have tended toward the theatrical or performance-focused. It was founded by and continues to be run by theatre people so the connection is an obvious one. But there is also the fact that we see queer culture (and theory) as being fundamentally related to performance, to performative acts and to live events. The liveness and presencing of non-normative bodies and identities in a place like Belfast is all the more urgent for us, given the context outlined above. In the main, we took over this event as a practice of allyship, as people well-placed within the institution to facilitate meeting, networks, and safe spaces for conversation. Last year we established a steering (& queering!) committee to help build and maintain connections across geographic and academic lines. The committee includes founder Alyson Campbell, now at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Steve Farrier (Central School of Speech and Drama), Sarah Mullan (University of Northampton), Jamie J. Hagen (QUB Centre for Gender in Politics, Prism network), Hilary McCollum (QUB Postgraduate) and Sara Greavu (Outburst Arts).
Q@Q is not research-led and the lack of academic agenda on our part means that this is not a queer studies conference but rather, as Steve Farrier has suggested, the generation of civic spaces within a university. This year presented unique challenges for live events, yet we were able to welcome artists virtually to discuss their work and showcase some of the new gender research being done in NI. Our new research panel included QUB doctoral candidates Ciara McAllister and Hilary McCollum and Belfast-based doctoral researcher Sophie Anders (University of Salford). We also facilitated a conversation and show of work with playwright Mojisola Adebayo, artistic researcher Manola Gayatri and practice-research scholar Nando Messias, along with writer and PhD candidate at QUB, Hilary McCollum.
Part of the work of running this event, as we see it, is to maintain openness and responsiveness to pressures, tensions, dialogues and events happening around us, to the ways in which the university might be instrumentalised to serve communities and include the voices of those who have been historically marginalised from or by our various cultural institutions.
If you would like to get involved or to propose work for Q@Q, please email Trish McTighe, email@example.com. We welcome proposals for events to be held in November during Outburst, or at any time of the year.
Q@Q is grateful for the support of the Athena / Swan initiative at the School of Arts, English and Languages.
Trish McTighe is Lecturer in Drama at Queen’s University Belfast. Previously, she lectured at the University of Birmingham and was an AHRC post-doctoral researcher on the Staging Beckett Project at the University of Reading (2012-2015). Her book, The Haptic Aesthetic in Samuel Beckett’s Drama, was published with Palgrave in 2013, and she co-edited (with David Tucker) the double volume Staging Beckett in Ireland and Northern Ireland and Staging Beckett in Great Britain (Bloomsbury-Methuen, 2016). She has published in the journals Modern Drama, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, and the Irish University Review. She is theatre reviews editor for the Journal of Beckett Studies.