After swapping out the word “queer” for the word “gay” Lee Hall’s embattled opera project will now be allowed to go on, but he may still consider legal action against the local council for what he called “defamatory allegations.”
As we reported earlier this week, the making of the opera Beached is a community based project involving residents of the British sea-side town of Bridlington, including around 300 local primary school children (the Guardian puts it at 280 but some reports suggest up to 400) aged between five to eleven, and with the project being overseen by arts group Opera North.
The row began over a scene where a main character is confronted by a local gang of youths who goad him about his sexuality. In the contested script he announces “Of course I’m queer/ That’s why I left here/ So if you infer/ That I prefer/ A lad to a lass/ And I’m working class/ I’d have to concur.”
The scene mentioned above does not involve any children in the production and the project is not in fact aimed directly at children but rather at the entire community.
However, a primary school headmistress from Bay Primary School, who had the full support of the East Riding council local education authority, said the language was unacceptable and that it would introduce children to themes that they were not ready to deal with. She denied this was homophobic, as Mr. Hall claimed, and instead said that she was trying to do what was best for the children and she didn’t think the word “queer” was something they should be hearing.
Hall pointed out that all those involved had been given the scripts throughout the project, that he had in fact already made several revisions to tone down the scene, yet they had chosen now to raise such objections when the opera was just weeks away from being staged. He added that he would not remove references to the character’s sexuality — which he contended the school, backed by the local education authority, was really after.
After what have described as “intense” negotiations, Opera North has said the project can now go ahead. The group at first said it looked as though the project would have to end, but now that Hall has agreed to alter the word “queer” for “gay” so the line now reads “”Of course I’m gay/That’s why I went away,” they appear to have been satisfied that the opera can be staged with the school’s support.
However, Hall is still upset for how he says the council has misrepresented him and his work, saying they even at one point accused him of including a character who was in fact a pedophile.
The decision to stage the production comes after Hall was inundated with messages of support, and after criticism of the school following the show’s cancellation.
Hall told the Guardian that although he was relieved and happy that the opera was now going ahead, he wanted a complete retraction from the council regarding “defamatory allegations” he said were made during the dispute.
The local authority has already retracted a statement that claimed the work featured a paedophile. The earlier statement, made by Mike Furbank, head of improvement and learning for East Riding of Yorkshire Council, said that “of particular concern and offence was a character who groomed and abused children in his early days in Ibiza”.
Hall — the creator of Billy Elliot — protested that the work did “not now and has never contained such a character”. Today he accused the council of questioning his professionalism, and said there had been a “campaign of misinformation” by the council and school, who had tried to hide the fact they had made a bad decision. “They suggested I was defending the indefensible,” he said.
No mention of the pedophile remark on the council’s website, but Mike Furbank, head of improvement and learning at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, did have this to say:
“We are delighted to announce that the revisions which the school requested have now been made and the author has addressed the points raised by the school.
“This has enabled the community opera, Beached to continue. The final libretto is now an age appropriate text which was all the school had requested.
“The play retained the inclusion of a gay character, Professor Sewerby, who remains central to the play’s dramatic message.
“Neither the council, school or Opera North have ever expressed any concern over the inclusion of a gay character, only some of the language and tone around the character’s identity. The writer has now addressed this.
“Homophobia does not exist in any of our organisations and we take great exception to how this has been played out over the last week and we refute all such claims.
“We do not object to a proper and balanced debate being raised around the issue of sexuality but do object to the single-minded attack inflicted on Bay Primary School.
“At its core, Beached is not simply about sexuality, but much more about the life and community of Bridlington, or indeed many other similar towns and communities in the UK.”
The whole affair has now become so convoluted that it is seems unwise to directly comment on any of the details, though there is still a lot of criticism being made over the way Opera North handled the whole affair and how it could have been stopped from escalating had the company have been more firm with both sides.
However, I will just say this: Irish primary teachers held this week a week-long course designed to discuss issues of bullying and particularly homophobia in schools. Teachers highlighted how they feel uncomfortable tackling anti-gay bullying because, they say, they lack the necessary frameworks and support they need. They also brought up that children as young as seven are to be heard, and on a frequent basis, uttering the words “queer” and “gay” as negatives, behavior that younger pupils are also mimicking. You can read more on that here. The UK is not immune to this issue either, as this 2009 teacher-led report from Stonewall shows.
So if this opera debacle really is a fight over the word “queer” as though it is a vicious anachronism no longer used, it seems the slur is still doing the rounds and teachers are struggling to fight against it.
Maybe, then, it’s better school kids do see a man on stage sticking up for himself when the slur is thrown his way?
Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to Adam Scotti.