by Al Head
Community is a word we use a lot at Queer Spirit. Queer community, lgbtq community or, more properly perhaps, the lgbtq communities. Community is something we hope for, that we long for, that we seek, that we strive to create? But what do we mean by community? And is community what we are trying to create at Queer Spirit Festival?
I have been saying for years that it is not money or property or jobs that provide us with security. We can lose our jobs. Benefits can be taken away by new governments, as we have seen so much of in the last few years. Houses can be taken away by the bank. What gives us true security, true wealth, is the strength of our connection to the land, and the community we have around us, the people who have our backs. This may seem utopian, but I believe it to be the real, practical truth. In the last few months I have experienced this truth directly.
I have experienced it in the dying of a close friend, one of the people in what I call my inner circle. Some time before, when we talked about the fact that a recurrence of her cancer was possible at some point in the next ten years or so, I committed to being around for her when she was dying, if I was still around myself. I didn't know what this would mean, what the practicalities of it would be, but I said I would do it. In the event everything happened much quicker than any of us thought. At the beginning of March I phoned her up to have a chat and asked her how she was. Her reply was 'dying'. The cancer had gone to her brain and she only had weeks to live. After the shock had sunk in a bit and we had cried together about not having more time, I asked when she wanted me to come.
Community gathered around her – family, close friends, local contacts. People came to stay, took on physical care when the NHS couldn't provide it, sat with her through the night when Marie Curie didn't have enough staff to come. We held the one hand that she could still feel, sang to her, fed her, did her laundry. The community that built around her at this time was made up largely of people who had never met each other before. We worked together for her sake. We communicated with each other, worked out who could visit when and shared the latest updates. We held each other while we cried and listened to each other's fears. We bonded over the work we were doing together and the love we shared for our friend. Even when we annoyed each other or wouldn't normally have got on, we worked together, because we had a common cause. We passed the baton to each other and did what we could, accepting that everyone was offering what was possible for them. When she died, about 2 months later, I wasn't physically present, but I felt so connected in to her and to those who were with her that it didn't matter.
This is community in action, a community that my friend had built around herself, that worked together for a short while, that may not work together again, but that learned and grew together and remain connected on some level.
At the same time as all this was happening in my life I had received notice to leave my rented house. With the short amount of time at my disposal when I was not with my friend, I gave up trying to find somewhere else to live, packed everything up and put it in storage. And here was another experience of community, this time the one which I have built around myself. The people who offered me their spare rooms, who gave up their living rooms for me to stay in, who fed me and supported me and listened to how it all was for me. I felt myself held in the warmth of them, they truly did have my back. And the 3 months I've been homeless have felt all too short to be with all the people who opened their hearts and their homes to me.
This is community to me: networks of people supporting and holding and loving, being there when needed, seeing what needs to be done.
Some of the gatherings, events and workshops I am involved with feel like they are experiments in community. How do we hold a group of people together with a structure loose enough to allow for personal choice and freedom but tight enough so that basic needs for food, shelter and connection get met, as well as people's more individual needs for access support, emotional release and care? How do we work with the inevitable disagreements and fallings out in these gatherings? How do we support those who come for healing and may need more than others are able to give?
Are these gatherings only communities for their duration or are they part of building a wider, more long-lasting community? I know some of us would like to think so, but the reality is not always as we would like it to be. To be an ongoing community members have to be able to ask for help, and to get it, not only at gatherings but in the rest of their lives. They have to have an ongoing sense of belonging, of their importance to others, of being held within a web. This is what many people would have had, and some still do have, in tribes and villages before Capitalism separated people off into small, easily moved nuclear units. Since then we have been struggling to return to that place of belonging: by creating virtual communities on the internet, networks, gatherings and local groups. I think the test of whether these are true communities has to be whether the members have each others backs in a day to day, practical way; whether there will be people there when needed.
(There is also the question of what you have to do or to give up to be in these communities. This is another essay!)
Many of us build our own communities, that may overlap with one or several of these deliberately created communities, but are not identical to them. We find the people we feel most comfortable with. The contracts we make with these people may be explicit or unspoken but the underlying question is: who will be there when I call? Is there need?
In the sense that I am using the term here Queer Spirit Festival is not in itself a community. The original aim of the festival was to bring different lgbtqi+ spiritual communities and groups together. To some extent this has happened, although some of the groups I originally imagined here have not made it, or only individuals from them have come. Some people have found community at the festival, have met up with people who saw life in the same way and connected into new groupings and support networks. Some of the people who have worked together have formed communities that have persisted beyond the festival. But in itself it is a structure that brings groups and individuals together for mutual sustenance and growth but not essentially a community.
We say on our website that: Queer Spirit is not just a festival'. Some local groups have formed that are building ongoing community and mutual support. But we cannot expect this building to happen in 5 days in a field of 500 people. The support structures we have made for the festival rely on volunteers doing shifts. Care is organised and access is a policy. For a large event like this, doing it this way is right and essential. We cannot expect 500 people, many of whom have not met before, to be able to spontaneously perceive and answer to each other's needs. And yet the sense of coming together to do a piece of work, that is here. The sense of working together towards a common goal is here. The sense of putting energy into something for love and not for profit, because we believe that connection, that love, is ultimately what is important, that is here.
Within the festival we have set up some 'community spaces'. Some of these are communities of people who already know each other, like the Radical Faeries. Some of them, like the women's space and the trans space, are communities in the moment and for the duration, held by people who believe this is important. They are places for different identity groups of people to come to feel safe and understood. They will hopefully provide home bases for people to make connections and to get support, so that they can move out into the larger festival with a sense of security and of having people at their backs. And they will hopefully be a place that people can return to if things have got a little tight, if people haven't understood them or given them the respect they needed in the larger sphere.
Lets not expect too much – that someone will always notice when we are upset, that the perfect encounter will happen when we need it, that everyone will understand our lifestyle choices and our lives. But lets not expect too little either. The people that are on rota to support us in the welfare space may not know us personally, may not have chosen to be with us at this particular time, but they have chosen to support the festival and its people, to be available for what is needed at a specific time, so that at other times they can get their own needs met. The organisers have done our best to think about everybody, and if we haven't thought about your specific need in advance, please let us know how we can do better in the future. The festival itself may not be an ongoing community, but there are many communities within it and here you may find groups to join, or people to add to your own unique growing community. Some of us may be too busy to do much actual connecting at the festival: but this is because we are busy making it a space for others to connect. And we will have our turn!