ABSTRACT: There is something queer about living in so-called Australia. There are patterns of potential for ‘the Australian way of life’ encoded in the work of queer performing artists who seem to be engaging in a project of nationhood as creative practice.
In this paper Jeremy Neideck considers the work of three contemporary queer performance makers: Joel Bray, Justin Shoulder and Sarah Stafford and how their creative practices and processes align through their powerful ability to destabilise the cis-straight nation fantasy of Australia.
In Queer(y)ing the Australian Way of Life, Theatre-maker and academic at WAAPA Jeremy Neideck argues that a better arts and culture profile for a queer perspective will benefit every Australian.
For straights there is liberation to be found in queerer ways of being, knowing, understanding and animating the world. Over one in five participants in the 2021 Australian Youth Barometer survey identified as a member of the queer community; and these young queers were more than twice as likely to declare that sharing a similar ethnic or cultural background was not at all important for them to feel like they belong. Last year Tony Abbott wrote that, ‘our school students deserve better than politically correct brain-washing, with every subject taught from an Indigenous, sustainability and Asian perspective’. What would Australia look like if we abandoned cultural homogeneity and searched for the good life in queerer models of radical reciprocity?
I was a twink for about nine months in my twenties, bald by thirty and skipped both the twunk and hunk stages to settle on the flabby side of daddy at nearly forty. I’m sitting in my 70s red brick flat surrounded by vintage earthenware; printouts of this week’s lecture slides and lesson plans strewn across a pile of coffee table books full of artistic nudes. Paintings and prints and ceramic tiles are neatly arranged on the walls around me displaying messages like: ‘REST YOU BEAUTIFUL, BUSY IDIOT’ and ‘HOW TO MEET HORNY MARRIED DADS IN YOUR AREA IN A GOD-HONOURING WAY’. I take a moment to scroll past unread messages from ex-lovers and ex-students on my phone as I once again cancel plans for dinner with one of three friends I have in Perth: the city I moved to twelve months ago to take up my dream job, leaving behind my young family of almost a decade.
Growing up closeted and deeply Pentecostal on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, I had no role models or mentors to point me towards queer patterns for a good life that strayed outside the heteronormative. The closest I got to coming out to my parents was telling my mother that I would never give her grandchildren. In the introduction to Growing Up Queer in Australia, Benjamin Law lists the things he yearned for as an adolescent: nice clothes, clear skin and ‘wavy hair like the local hot white surfer boys’, but three things proved harder to find: queer people, queer stories and depictions of queer sex, and Law ‘craved them with a desperation that bordered on hunger’. The importance of representation for marginalised groups in the media, arts and cultural production is well understood, but what comes after representation?
Representation wasn’t especially helpful to me as a guide to living in the early 2000s. One of my overwhelming memories of being with my first love, Nathan, is that it felt like we had discovered something special and unique. In a time just before we had the entire corpus of human knowledge at our fingertips, we were inventing everything for the first time. Flirting. Sex. Breaking up. Reconnecting. Seeing other people. Seeing the same people. We binged Queer as Folk and I internalised the mortal dread of turning thirty—an age which would render me worthless. Season one featured a soap-operatic parenting narrative about a one-night stand between a gay man and a lesbian that resulted in an unexpected pregnancy and was further complicated by a convoluted and dramatic IVF storyline in season two. And so, I promised my best friend that if we were both still childless by thirty, we would get out the turkey baster and she could keep the kid. In season four, when a gay comic store owner and his academic partner foster a teenaged HIV-positive sex worker, I thought that maybe that would be an option for me. But thirty came and went, as did any prospects of a family life—being, as I was, an independent artist with crippling credit-card debt, share-housing with strangers in a run-down inner-city workers cottage.
The first concrete model of queer family life I had was in my late twenties, getting to know the performance artist Justin Shoulder and hearing him talk about life with his partner and collaborator, Matt Stegh, a prolific designer and costumier. For the last decade and a half Justin has been creating fantastic creatures – fabulous beaststhat – explore his ancestral Filipinx mythologies and speculate on future possibilities for humanity. His esoteric, archetypical and exquisitely sculptural performance personas gestated in Sydney’s subaltern queer nightlife to be birthed onto stages across the country and around the world.
The way that Justin and Matt were able to thrive as co-parents in a non-nuclear living arrangement, and inside a community in Sydney that was constantly organising and reorganising itself to accommodate families in flux, radically expanded my horizons. Justin’s creative family extends from the Glitter Militia – the politicised and avant-garde artist incubator he inaugurated with Matt in 2008 – to Club Até – the collective he formed in 2014 with Bhenji Ra, contemporary dancer and Mother of the Western Sydney vogue house Slé. Club Até’s most recent work is In Muva We Trust, a community-led intergenerational event that poses the question: In the face of an uncertain future, how do we, as queer communities of colour, cultivate hope and create possibility? For Justin, extending his work into forms accessible for children and families is an exciting and important part of his creative practice. Justin’s work shows that it is possible to thrive whilst resisting assimilation into the social and symbolic orders of the cis straight nation fantasy of Australia. He and his family embrace the forces of negativity, irony and disruption to cultivate a vision of hope and possibility that is inspiring and should be celebrated.
By the time my thirties rolled around, my first love and I were romantically independent. In Brisbane we got to know networks of queer and BIPOC families whose adults were arts and cultural workers and whose children benefited from collective caregiving. Two of our best friends, Fi and Thom, found a large home that none of us could ever afford alone and pitched and idea of all moving in together. Nathan and I would have separate floors and there was enough space for us all to work from home and raise children, if and when the time came. It was a milestone I could never have imagined as a child and would certainly never have thought of as a good life, but because of my friendship with Justin, when the opportunity arose, it was an easy proposition to say yes to.
Our family home expanded to accommodate the arrival of Maisie, the departure of uncle Nathan, the adoption of auntie Bec and the occasional uncle Pete, and most recently, the arrival of Flora. Humans have arranged themselves in endlessly creative collectives for millennia, and queers don’t have a monopoly on share housing. However, what queers are good at is refusing the performances of gender and the strictures of social norms that are a hinderance to human flourishing.
We should pay close attention, not only to the outputs of queer artists, but to their diverse and richly textured lives and the hopes and dreams of their communities. Rather than hiding them away, I argue that if we elevate their stories to places visible to young people, we can improve the lives of future generations – queer or not.
This is an edited extract from Jeremy Neideck’s Queer(y)ing the Australian Way of Life, in a double issue of Currency House’s New Platform Paper, Inclusion & Diversity: Building the Good Life –available free on www.currencyhouse.org.au
About Jeremy Neideck:
Jeremy Neideck is a performance maker and academic who has worked in Australia and South Korea for the last two decades. His work models inclusive social realities on stage by interweaving cultures at the intersection of queer identities.
His productions include Underground, co-written with Nathan Stoneham for Motherboard Productions; Deluge, an experimental dance theatre work; and Shimchong: Daughter Overboard, a re-imagining of the traditional Korean tale of Shimchong which combined pansori, poetry, and political satire.
He currently works with Company Bad, an international collective of artists that experiments with transcultural collaboration and friendship as a methodology for facilitating arts and cultural projects.
He has been awarded scholarships by Aphids, the Australia-Korea Foundation, Asialink and Brisbane City Council and residencies at the National Art Studio of Korea, the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, and the Necessary Stage, Singapore.
As an academic he lectures and tutors in the areas of contemporary performance theory, post-dramatic theatre, queer identities in performance, intercultural studies, independent theatre production, event and festival production and directing and performance in digital spaces.
He taught at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) for a decade before taking up his current position as the Course Coordinator of the Bachelor of Performing Arts at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Edith Cowan University (ECU), in Boorloo (Perth).
He is the co-convenor of the Queer Futures Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR). ‘Queer(y)ing the Australian Way of Life’ is part of the research project Fabulous Heroes which has been awarded pilot funding by the ECU Early Mid-Career Researcher Grant Scheme.
Image: Jeremy Neideck (supplied)