The LGBTQIA+ communities who inspired The Beat of Our Hearts

by Dr Richard Vytniorgu (Research Associate) and Dr Charlotte Jones (Academic Lead)

The Beat of Our Hearts is the culmination of an engagement project that has been a long time in the making. In her research over the last 10 years, the project’s Academic Lead, Dr Charlotte Jones, has reflected on the isolation and marginalisation faced by many LGBTQIA+ people. This is experienced in various ways and has a range of causes, from prejudice and exclusion at home, in healthcare, or in the street, to a lack of recognition in social circles, physical environments, and in law. Today’s experiences are also shaped by the lasting impact of community memories and past traumas. Since joining the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter in 2019, Charlotte has worked with historian Dr Fred Cooper, alongside Professor Mark Jackson and Professor Manuela Barreto, to explore how loneliness is experienced and understood in Southwest England specifically, its interplay with our everyday environments, and its long historical significance. The Beat of Our Hearts sought to respond to both these research streams, foregrounding local, intergenerational LGBTQIA+ communities and their experiences of loneliness and belonging.

In conversation with the research by Charlotte and Fred, this arts collaboration was first developed between the Wellcome Centre and Exeter Northcott Theatre. At its outset in 2019, we put out a public call for three performance artists or theatre makers to work with us by responding to our loneliness research and exploring the synergies between research and arts practice. This call was deliberately flexible in format; the performance work could exist as a live event or a call on digital technologies, it might have involved a written text or have been communicated visually or physically. We received a range of impressive applications and selected three artists to work with us in developing a proposal over the following six months. As part of this, they spent time with academics at the Wellcome Centre, particularly Fred, who was providing updates from our ongoing research.

The three artists we worked with developed diverse ideas and creative formats, but we chose Natalie McGrath’s important work to take forwards. Natalie brought with her many new conceptual and creative ideas around the project’s themes, helping us to explore and express our ideas about loneliness in a new way. Her first sketches of what might later be a script or performance felt urgent and exciting. Here she focused on LGBTQIA+ loneliness, describing the significant loss of physical community and queer meeting spaces, the importance of shared knowledges, histories and heritages, and the relationship between loneliness and survival. Her work was politically energised and it resonated with us personally, as well as with our research. We were eager to see what might come next.

In 2021, we were awarded funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s innovative new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Fellowship scheme to continue developing Natalie’s ideas together and to stage a production of her play at the Exeter Northcott Theatre. As part of this 12-month project, we were joined by Dr Richard Vytniorgu – a literary scholar – as a Research Associate, who would work with Natalie on a series of creative writing and discussion workshops held with local LGBTQIA+ people during the summer and autumn of 2021. Natalie and Richard were supported by one of our partners on the project, LGBT+ charity the Intercom Trust, who do incredible work with local communities. Because we wanted to listen to a range of LGBTQIA+ experiences, we formed two groups, with participants aged between 16 and 25 in the first cohort, and those aged 26 and above in the second. The insight and stories from the creative engagement workshops, and the previous research, inspired Natalie’s writing on The Beat of Our Hearts playscript.

Conversations during the workshops ranged widely, from experiences of Section 28 and trans healthcare, to LGBT+ support groups in places of education and the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. But there were some key activities that really helped shape our understanding of LGBTQIA+ loneliness and belonging.

The first was inspired by Dean Atta’s poem, I Come From, which we showed performed by Atta on YouTube to both groups of participants. Atta is a gay black poet from London whose seemingly simple but profound poem, I Come From, is a meditation on all the things that make Dean Atta Dean Atta.

In our workshops we used this poem as a template to encourage personal responses from participants. There were some really thought-provoking and powerful contributions, such as ‘I come from boy’s shirts and pretty skirts’ or ‘I come from total freedom and a medically controlled mind’.

I come from punk and the heart of the forest
I come from a feral family and well spoken words
I come from rainbow and black and white
I come from total freedom and a medically controlled mind
I come from soft piano compositions and loud guitar screeches
I come from boy’s shirts and pretty skirts
I come from neglect and care
I come from Instagram captions and polaroids being fashionable
I come from boredom and an anxiously racing mind
I come from an empty bedroom and big crowds.

Young People’s (16-25) group, The Beat of Our Hearts, University of Exeter, 2021 (PI: Dr Charlotte Jones)

For each group, we brought responses together to create a collaborative poem, which spoke volumes about the things that matter in terms of feeling a sense of belonging as an LGBTQIA+ person.

I come from seagulls and seashells and music and love
I come from Scotland, then a life of segments, compartments, boxes
I come from another world
I come from the calling of crickets and air beating off fenceposts
I come from the womb of a woman who loved her newborn
I come from the love of two people who were the best they could be
I come from a family, from the love they gave me
I come from good grades and vodka bottles
I come from duty and desire
I come from the oppressor and the oppressed
I come from the belly of the earth and the end of the Victoria Line
I come from amoebae and supernovae
I come from sharks teeth and milk teeth
I come from wild oats and oat milk in tetrapaks
I come from silkworms and nettle cordage
I come from puffer fish and puffs of smoke
I come from golden jackal scat and golden syrup
I come from tapioca cooked properly so it’s neither slimy nor sticky
I come from mermaids and magic, hairdressers and the zoo
I come from stone circles and pasties, sunsets and nightmares
I come from beauty, I come from shame
I come from being trusted, from being told honesty is better than a lie told in regret
I come from fishing with holes in a net
I come from dancing with a hairbrush to Carly Simons “coming around again”
I come from being a child in the eighties,
from Bros and Boy George pinned to my wall
I come from being in before dark,
and being asked the daft questions
I didn’t yet have the answers to.

Adults’ (26+) group, The Beat of Our Hearts, University of Exeter, 2021 (PI: Dr Charlotte Jones)

Another important activity we did together was creating a manifesto for tackling LGBTQIA+ loneliness in the Southwest. We wanted to move outside individual experiences for a moment, to consider some of the institutional or structural changes that could happen that might contribute to LGBTQIA+ belonging.
Suggestions for changes included: compensation for Section 28 damage, no more rainbow capitalism, a queer café or bar in every town, easier access in schools to support groups for LGBTQIA+ people, and an end to the separation of school uniforms by gender. But these are just the beginning. We encourage you to contribute your own suggestion for change on the manifesto board in the Northcott foyer.

  • Healthcare

    • Make trans healthcare more accessible.
    • Plan an overhaul of the mental health system because so many LGBTQIA+ people are lonely due to mental health reasons or PTSD, or because of past experiences of violence, ignorance and hatred.
    • Invest more in mental health services.

    Education

    • Provide more education about the LGBTQIA+ community and experiences from earlier on to motivate people to take action.
    • Offer better support for transgender people in schools, as well as training for all staff on how to approach issues surrounding gender and sexuality.
    • Make it easier to access support groups for LGBTQIA+ people in schools.
    • Provide guidelines on bullying for trans individuals.
    • Disband the idea of separate uniforms for male / female students.
    • Make it mandatory for places of education to have an LGBTQIA+ group.

    Community

    • Put more in place for young people, like activities and meeting places for different groups (LGBTQIA+, disability groups and just regular youth groups like walking groups, art groups etc).
    • Provide better queer advice and crisis helplines.
    Authors

    Jade Varley (she/her); Riley Batty (he/him); Grey (he/him); Mitchy (he/him); Elliott Ramsey (he/they); Alfie Horrill (he/him); Maddie (she/her); Perrin Hooper (they/them); Jord (they/them); Holly (she/her)

    Background: this manifesto was created by the young people in response to questions from the workshop facilitators about what the young people would like to see change in terms of encouraging LGBTQIA+ belonging in the South West.

  • As with the young people’s workshop, the mixed-age adults were also asked to suggest some interventions they would like to see to improve the lives of LGBTQIA+ people in the South West, and to tackle loneliness.

    These are their ideas:

    • The right to specify an LGBTQIA Counsellor within NHS mental health
    • Queer café / bar / meeting place in every town
    • Representation of queer life and stories in the arts, theatre and media
    • Rainbow pedestrian crossing
    • Understand that we are multiple and intersectional
    • No more rainbow capitalism!
    • Compensation for Section 28 damage
    • Spaces for queer introverts
    • LGBTQIA-themed cat café
    • Petting zoo
    • Making sure that queer events etc are as accessible as possible – we can’t leave behind our disabled/neurodivergent siblings! All these ideas appeal to me so much more as an autistic than going to a nightclub/bar etc
    • More inclusive parenting spaces
    • Longer-term projects like this one
    Authors:

    Emily Faulkner (she/her), Claire (she/her), Michelle Miller (she/her), Ruby (they/them), Monica (she/her), M (she/her), Sheena Sen (she/her).

    Background: this manifesto was created in the 26+ workshops after reflecting on the young people’s manifesto. We asked the adult participants to come up with some interventions or changes they would like to see that might help tackle LGBTQIA+ loneliness in the South West.

It would not be an overstatement to say that the workshops are the beating heart of the play. As facilitators, Natalie and Richard were continually impressed and honoured with the honesty and thoughtfulness of all our participants. Talking about loneliness isn’t easy, but we found that coming together as a group created a space in which this became easier – an environment of mutual trust, understanding, and empathy.

It was this that really inspired Natalie in the writing of the play. During her writing process, she reflected on the challenges of absorbing the complexity of these feelings:

My challenge now is that everyone’s experiences are all so different, with different experiences of loneliness and what that means. So it is this I am trying to capture, but also the wonderful spirit of the people who took part and shared their stories.

Natalie McGrath, writer of The Beat of Our Hearts

Natalie was awarded funding from the Arts Council England’s National Lottery project grants for a script development phase with Director Scott Hurran after the workshops had ended. We feel fortunate that this process could take place in close collaboration with the Exeter Northcott Theatre, a key driving force behind this collaboration and one of the partners on the project. It was wonderful to be able to visualise the staging space from the start of our work together, and for Natalie as she developed her script.

We would like to take this opportunity to say thank you again to everyone who attended our creative workshops, and to the Intercom Trust for working with us on this project, and for making our workshops such a warm and attentive space. It’s been a joy to work closely with Natalie over the last couple of years, to explore the synergies across our work, and to support (and admire!) her writing process. This collaboration has been unusual in its focus on the South West, bringing together different organisations and individuals with diverse perspectives on the local region, and we’re proud to finally celebrate it with you at this incredible production.

We hope you love it.