With rumours of another UK lockdown in response to the Omicron variant swirling, workers in the queer arts are concerned that they’ll have to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis once more.
Derek Mitchell is a 28-year-old actor, comedian and writer based in London. He had just finished studying and had applied for a visa when the pandemic first hit, almost two years ago. Starry-eyed, youthful and excited for what his career had to bring, Derek was in for a nasty surprise.
“My comedy partner and I were going to [perform at] Edinburgh Fringe in 2020,” he tells PinkNews.
“I was ready to get my career going. And then…[I realised] nothing is happening and nobody can do anything.”
Derek explains: “We’ve now had to postpone that booking two times. We’ve probably had to cancel at least two dozen performances, which means we’ve lost money on deposits.”
Derek’s experience is a microcosm of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the arts. A 2020 report by Oxford Economics projected a £74 billion drop in revenue for the creative industries, as well as the loss of 400,000 jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Much of this has been caused by lowered capacity, the loss of in-person events in lockdown, and simply a public unwillingness to engage with the arts when minds remain occupied with concerns about an uncertain future.
With Omicron cases rising, and talk of a two week circuit breaker after Christmas, the new variant has led to speculation that a new lockdown will be necessary. Given that an estimated one in 45 people in England were infected with COVID-19 last week, this is unsurprising.
Given the Tories’ reluctance to properly support arts workers throughout the pandemic, the prospect has proved daunting to LGBT+ performers. Derek has tried to adapt to the pandemic, including videoing skits and posting them online, but to little avail. As a performer, without spaces in which to perform, he’s at a loss.
“I do a lot of video auditioning…which is just, like, an insane amount of work that’s uncompensated,” he says. “I feel like I’m trying to light a spark in a monsoon, you know?”
Derek also points out that with the arts already strapped for cash pre-pandemic, jobs were already few and far between. In the face of the pandemic, this has only got worse.
“Right now, I know that I’m coded as a queer performer. I get briefs that are like, ‘You’re this goofy, sassy person who death drops all the time!’” He laughs at the image, clearly ridiculous, before pausing and continuing in a sobered tone.
“I just accept that, but I definitely have felt at times that I’m like, grasping at straws and trying to just, like, be happy with what is available. I feel like there’s not much choice, really. [You have to be grateful for] the scraps that are there and just be like, ‘Yeah, this is good enough for me.’”
Antonia Eugenie has worked in the arts for giants of the creative world, including the Barbican. With her breadth of experience, she has witnessed firsthand the difference in how arts organisations have coped with the financial impact of lockdown.
When the first few lockdowns happened, Antonia was left in a precarious space. Transitioning between jobs, she thought she was all set. That was until she received a call from her new boss to say that, with little support from the government and the industry struggling, her recruitment would have to be postponed.
“I’d just missed the furlough from this little job I had, and so it was just a nightmare. I was meant to be starting a masters in October and I was like, ‘S**t, I’m just not going to be able to do it’m because you can’t be on Universal Credit and get that masters loan,” she explains.
Today, she juggles three jobs. This includes working for a community art charity to deliver accessible programmes for people with adult learning disabilities, as well as running her own queer arts events and freelancing. The multidisciplinary business, QWE’RE, is a space based in London, supporting emerging artists, performers, musicians and DJs.
Workers at the Tate protested last year against their galleries’ decision to cut over 300 jobs from their commercial arm, followed by an announcement that a further 120 employees would be made redundant. When even such established institutions have been swept up in the difficulty of navigating the pandemic, the comparative impact on grassroots groups has been disastrous.
Unlike these behemoths of arts organisations – as Antonia points out – small arts charities and spaces catering to marginalised groups don’t have teams of people with years of experience under their belt to write applications for grants. Forced to scramble for the same pot of money, it’s clear that these independent spaces are left at a significant disadvantage.
When asked how another lockdown in response to Omicron would impact her current work with QWE’RE, Antonia is blunt: it would “completely f**k it up”.
Queer creative authenticity
Henry Dell is a musician, currently based in East London. When the pandemic hit, he was able to pour himself into his music, describing this outlet as a “sanctuary”. He accepts that another lockdown may be necessary to save lives, though each one has tended to be a “dark time”. Simultaneously, he raises concerns that it’s led to both artistic and personal repression amongst LGBT+ artists.
“I think that those who live at home with family who maybe don’t allow them to be their authentic self, you know, it’s especially challenging,” he explains. “A few of my friends are in that position, where they maybe can’t be the creatives that they are when they’re not at home. And, obviously, that greatly impacts mental health as well.”
Being home often poses challenges for queer communities. A PinkNews social media poll recently found that eight in 10 readers are forced to hide their true identities at Christmas. When that situation spans months, it’s unsurprising that 69 per cent of LGBT+ respondents to a study run by UCL and the University of Sussex suffered depressive symptoms during lockdown.
“That’s a challenge that, obviously, heterosexual people don’t really have to face,” Henry continues. “And then from an artist’s perspective, a lot of queer spaces – you know, LGBT bars and clubs, community centres and places like Soho, or Pride – obviously, with [all those] being shut down…A lot of people use those to be themselves and be in their own spaces. Whereas, obviously, the world is more built for heterosexual people. For queer artists, [not having] a sense of community is definitely detrimental.”
The need for a government roadmap
On Thursday (23 December), the government announced an additional £30 million in emergency funding through the Culture Recovery Fund, bringing the fund to a total of £60 million. Individual businesses can apply to receive up to £6,000.
With ticket sales collapsing amid a surge of new cases, this response has been labelled “woefully inadequate” by the Music Venue Trust. Sadiq Khan has said the funding “won’t touch the sides” for most businesses – and freelancers continue to be overlooked.
From all three arts workers PinkNews spoke to, there is a palpable sense of frustration as we discuss the road ahead. This much is clear: no matter how hard they have tried to adapt to the pandemic, without the government throwing them a proper lifeline, it amounts to very little in the face of the sheer magnitude of the problem. Derek describes the current situation, with a lack of information and instability being the norm, as “exploitative”.
When asked what she believes needs to be done, Antonia calls on the government to “not only make financial support packages more accessible but to also stop underfunding the arts in the first place and to stop funding things on such a hierarchical level”. It’s a sentiment shared by Derek, who playfully mocks calls for arts workers to abandon their industry for more lucrative careers.
“There should be more support available for community champions who work at a grass roots level to carry out all of the healing worth they already do for the community,” continues Antonia. “So much of what the queer community do for eachother goes unpaid and un-noted, i.e. just the ability to exist in a space with other queers is so essential. Taking those away with more lockdowns will just further seek to marginalise people from the few spaces of love they have.”
“Queerness is expressive and when you take that away and can’t see yourself reflected in your external world that creates such inner turmoil, you know?” says Antonia. “We need to be together, not apart.”