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‘How many communities are we?’

‘How many communities are we?’

Now in it’s 24th year, Melbourne’s Midsumma festival is drawing to a close this weekend with the Victoria Pride March on Sunday. Gay Star News talk to CEO Adam Lowe about that outspoken tennis player, what he has planned for the 25th anniversary next year and the ‘initialism’ of the LGBTQI community.

What's been your favourite moment of this year‘s Midsumma festival?

I think Carnival and T dance has to be high on the list of favourites because it's the opening event. It's the single largest gathering of queer community in Melbourne. It happens at Birrarung Marr which is the purpose-built event site that's right next door to the Australian Open. This year they're estimating about 120,000 people attended the event throughout the course of the day. That has to be the highlight, it went superbly well.

In the visual arts the stand out event for me this year is Ross Watson’s Cycles&Sequences. He's an international artist with clients such as Elton John and he has painted people such as [Scissor Sister] Jake Shears and [diver] Matthew Mitcham. This year his exhibition features a painting of Lance Corporal James Wharton who came out as a gay man in the UK and still today works in the Queens Guard and is a role model for young people in the UK and I think now also here in Australia. That was a stand out exhibition with a lovely social responsibility resonance.

How is Midsumma different from other Pride events?

I'm very keen to see Midsumma stay as a celebration of queer arts and culture. We're definitely not a kind of parade and party event – yes those things are very much a part of our culture and certainly take place during festival – but the significant contribution of performers, writers, painters, sculptors, photographers to society generally and to Midsumma is huge. We've got over 160 events in the festival this year.

How long has Midsumma been going for?

The very first Midsumma was in 1988, and at that time it was really a carnival – a gathering of like-minded people in a park to enjoy some free entertainment and a visual arts exhibition. It was never really a parade or pride march. It was a celebratory picnic in a park and was accompanied by a visual arts exhibition and it's grown.

Pride March Victoria is a separate organisation. Their 17th annual march will take place on Sunday, as a closing event for Midsumma if you like.

Can you tell us about the academic part of the festival?

Last night was the opening key note speech and panel discussion for After ‘Homosexual’:The Legacies of Gay Liberation. It’s a conference that centres around a book called Homosexual Oppression and Liberation that was released in 1972 by Dennis Altman, who today is a professor of political science at La Trobe University here in Melbourne. The book was quite a significant turning point in the gay rights movement and this year is the 40th anniversary of its publication.

Alice Eccles from the United States, a leading lesbian feminist of the period and Jeffery Weeks from the UK, an important sociologist, and of course Dennis Altman himself are amongst the speakers. They're even looking at the idea of anti-equality where equality is not the answer. Looking at these things from all angles, which I think is the only truly diverse way to work forward and something which is certainly a strong point of difference at Midsumma. The diversity of arts and cultural practice is fantastic.

How has the festival changed since you became CEO in 2009?

When I took on the job the festival had had three or four bad years and had lost its financial reserve. So my goal was to set a three to five year plan to rebuild that reserve, which we certainly succeeded in doing.

We've done that by taking a very consolidatory and stabilisation approach. We've not extended what we as a festival produce. We've focused on maintaining a good website, keeping our costs low and being accessible to anybody who has something to say as an event producer. And over the four or five years that that's been the operational plan, we've seen the festival grow to the largest number of events. In the history of my time we've gone from around about 100 events to 160. So there's a 60% increase in participation.

The artistic quality of the festival has become of a higher standard. We have Ross Watson, an internationally successful artist with paintings that sell for upwards of 100,000 dollars [Australian dollars, $106,000, €81,000] a unit. We have Dean Bryant who is the resident director of Priscila Queen of the Dessert worldwide and a stand-alone composer in his own right. He has two shows in the festival this year and he had two shows in the festival last year.

How is the festival funded? Do you have any corporate sponsorship?

The festival is funded through a number of government funding streams, at state government level and at local council level.

We have two corporate sponsors of significance, IBM and Telstra. Those two organisations contribute in excess of 10,000 dollars annually [Australian dollars, $10,600, €8,100], through their internal diversity programmes.

IBM's money goes towards the volunteer programme and we have been increasing the education outcomes of the volunteer programme. Often a lot of the volunteers are GLBTIQ employees of IBM, because the driving force for them being the sponsor is to be seen as an employer of choice and to celebrate their belief that diversity increases productivity.

The arrangement with Telstra started as an in-kind contribution from us and that led to a cash contribution from Telstra this year. In the first year Telstra's queer community of staff members were provided with a mobile hand-held device by Telstra and were given free tickets to the shows in the festival and they blogged about their experiences. They are the Telstra Citizen Reporters, and we’ve continued it this year.

What's been the stickiest moment of the festival this year?

The sticky moment on everyone's lips is the Margaret Court scenario at the tennis which is happening coincidently over the same time frame as our festival.

I know personally, having met myself with people from Tennis Australia in the last 12 to 18 months, that they are very keen to support the queer community. Margaret Court is an individual and individuals are entitled to their opinions, and sometimes they should keep them to themselves.

I don't think though that that's marred Midsumma's celebration. If anything it's added to the festival's relevance and made it very clear to a more mainstream audience that these bigoted people still exist. And it's therefore still very important for us a community to stand together, stand proudly and to contribute our great value to mainstream society. And to continue the fight for rights that are yet equalised.

Do you agree with calls for Tennis Australia to sign-up to the Fair Go, Sport! campaign against homophobia in sport?

Yes I think every major sporting organisation in Australia should be a signatory to Fair Go, Sport!

I think Tennis Australia could host a charity tennis match in the 25th anniversary of Midsumma festival. And people like Martina Navratilova and other queer tennis players could play. I'm perfectly willing to put some muscle behind the event if they can organise the talent. I haven't spoken to them about that but I have been in touch with them previously about being involved in Midsumma and they were very receptive to it so I don't see Margaret Court being an obstacle to that interest at all.

I respect the fact that Tennis Australia have made a statement denouncing Margaret Court's comments as her own, celebrating her achievements in tennis and separating themselves from her comments. I also respect the fact that they are right in the middle of delivering the Australian Open. I know when people grab me during the Midsumma festival and try to de-brief me about how things should be and shouldn't be, it isn't necessarily as useful as it would be if they were patient enough to wait until we were through with the delivery of the festival. I'm sure the Australian Open feel that need to focus on delivering their event. And I would hope that once that's done they will be happily available at the conversation table.

What's the biggest challenge Midsumma faces in the future?

I think the largest challenge is the struggle to understand whether art and cultural practice should be celebrated because it's queer, and what defines queer. And whether straight is a sexual orientation too.

The fact that there is no one word that satisfies the description of a community, and we have to have an initialism – GLBTIQ – and people use this initialism rather than the words. If we can't use the words ourselves: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer – how can we expect somebody else to say those words. How many communities are we? Are we one community? Are we six communities? Are we 10 communities? And is Midsumma reflective of all of those communities? One or two of them? Or a mean of them?

Moving out of the idea that Dennis Altman discusses in his book, are we assimilated? Is assimilation appropriate? Is assimilation actually undermining the difference? All those things contribute to the single largest challenge which I can only encapsulate in, what defines diversity? And how do you celebrate diversity?

What have you got planned for Midsumma next year?

It's the 25th anniversary so I would like to engage with as many of our mainstream contemporaries as I can – Melbourne Theatre Company, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Victorian Arts Center and the Melbourne Fringe Festival – to find out how they can contribute to what is truly an arts festival in a queer context. That would be a wonderful achievement for me, having come from the mainstream arts practice as a professional into the privilege of overseeing the Midsumma festival.