What making a documentary about Cardiff’s LGBTQIA+ community taught me about myself, and where I fit into that community.
When the Sherman Theatre asked for pitches for their Heart of Cardiff series, a set of audio dramas to take the place of their usual autumn season, I took a gamble and pitched a documentary. The last play I saw in Cardiff this year was at the Sherman, and it was a ‘gay play’; Tylwyth, a brilliantly funny bilingual drama by Daf James on the lives of gay men in the city. So I pitched this documentary, asking ‘but what other stories does the LGBTQIA+ community have in Cardiff that we could give a ‘stage’ to as well?’ I wasn’t quite prepared for how personal a story I would end up sharing, and how much of myself I’d have to look at to curate other people’s stories.
The project came in part admittedly out of the frustration that we often see such narrow representations of the LGBTQIA+ community in stories, even in theatre that has more representation than most other mediums. We’re all well aware that we see more of the G than any other letter, and along with a lack of diversity in every other sense, many of the other letters in the community acronym get forgotten; a feeling if you do the G or occasionally an L you’ve ticked off the whole list. I didn’t manage to represent everyone in this documentary, but I hope in asking people to bring me their words, their stories, there’s a feeling of a bit more balance.
The other motivation was a more personal one; a sense of not feeling part of this community. Not just from being one of the ‘letters’ that’s often overlooked or misunderstood, but also through wondering in general, how and where I fit into that community in the ‘real world’. As much as I’m out (and loud) social media, as much as I have found communities connected to work or hobbies online, I never felt like I had a community in Cardiff, the city I’m from. In the documentary I compare it to being a Welsh person who doesn’t like Rugby; in reality there’s no link between nationality and a sport, but you still get the looks of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ if Rugby isn’t your thing.
I really just wanted to see if there were indeed more stories out there, more that we could share than getting drunk on Churchill Way or Charles Street, and also to see how people who perhaps weren’t from here, felt connected to Cardiff in ways I as a person from here, didn’t. What I slowly realised, through making this documentary is, no, I’ll never be part of that world. I think part of me will always feel sad, and a bit left out that I don’t belong in the ‘scene’ that way; that I somehow missed out.
I started out by interviewing anyone who came forward to offer their story, from people who were good friends (and okay might have been slightly ‘persuaded’ to do it), to total strangers who just saw our social media call out. Slowly and steadily I gathered interviews from a range of LGBTQIA+ people who had in some way made Cardiff their home. The stories ranged from people born here, to people who moved here to study, to people who followed their partner here later in life, to people who seeking asylum in the UK just found themselves here.
I heard great stories about all aspects of life in Cardiff, and how those elements intersected with people’s ideas around gender and sexuality. From reflections on how 2020 had impacted how people saw their Queer identity, how they quite literally decided to wear it, and embrace it further. A story of being younger and dropping your shopping in the supermarket in case that other guy from work saw you there, and people somehow figured out you were gay. Stories about coming out, for the first time, or the one hundredth time. Joyous stories of nights out in the city’s queer bars, from 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and just back earlier this year, back when we could go to bars. I heard stories about finding a family in Cardiff of all kinds; from people telling me stories about their children now growing up here, to people finding their ‘family’ in the broader sense, in finding their chosen family, and feeling at home for the first time. And of course, not all of the stories are easy, and nobody’s life is perfect, but there was a sense of reassurance, that the city I call home feels overall like a place LGBTQIA+ people can call home, and happily so.
Originally, we intended to pull them together, let the voices do the storytelling, to weave a portrait of community through these stories, but somewhere in the mix, Joe Murphy our director (and Artistic Director of the Sherman theatre) asked ‘what if it’s your story that ties them together?’ When a director who is a master of storytelling asks you that, you sort of agree, right? As it turned out, it was the hardest, in every sense, thing I’ve ever written. I’ve never hated the act of writing something quite so much. Mostly, I think because I knew I had to be honest in ways I have never been before.
I kept asking ‘but why does anyone care about my story’, and that was part of my problem in writing it, that sense of both ‘nobody will care’ and also that it feels like a massive act of ego to present my ‘story’. The irony being I’d spent weeks telling people ‘everyone’s story is relevant’, because while things are getting better, have got better, we still don’t see enough of our stories shared.
The one that ended up shaping the whole piece for me, was someone telling me the story about ‘coming out’ and someone telling their Dad for them. In that moment it hit me in a way that it never had before; I’d never come out to my own Dad and that was an important part of my story. On one of our many editing Zoom calls Joe said to me, ‘it’s just so sad Em’, and I’d never thought of it that way before, it’s just my life, it’s just how it is. That perhaps is why we need to keep telling our stories, because in hearing someone else’s, it made me realise and come to terms with some important parts of my story.
Hearing other people’s stories became such a learning experience for me, making me look at how I tell my own, but also ultimately made me consider how I fit into this community. I’d long ago known that I wasn’t a—to borrow an interviewee’s phrase—‘fun party gay’, and I always thought that meant I wasn’t really part of the community. In speaking to so many people, I admit at times, I felt even more that way. It seemed so many stories were about bars and clubs and finding ‘your people’ in those spaces, and it made my heart ache, in a very real way. This pain of feeling ‘what’s wrong with me’ that I didn’t ever do that, want that. A pain that’s so familiar to Queer people, right? The ‘why don’t I fit in with what I’m supposed to do?’ Except this time it was the what I’m supposed to do in my own community.
I learned that no, I’m not like some other LGBTQIA+ people. I don’t share their stories, their experience of the community, but I also learned that it’s okay, there’s no one community either. As much as I might feel like I’m on the outside looking in, actually we all form our own communities. As much as I might think I’m not part of that ‘community’, I have made my own community. It might not look like the stories in plays, or TV like some L Word or Queer as Folk montage, but if 2020 has taught us anything, connection is where we make it right? I also realised, to borrow another brilliant phrase from an interviewee, that I’m ‘better at finding connections via fictional worlds’. All of my Queer connections have come about through shared love of the arts; theatre, TV, film. My nerdy connections have brought me my best friends in the world, a lot of whom happen to be Queer.
What making this documentary showed me was, our connections to who we are, where we’re from, come in many different forms. For me, I had to go away and come back to feel at ‘home’. For lots of us, the traditional ‘Gay Scene’ with bars and clubs is where we find a home, find ourselves, but there are as many ‘communities’ as we want to make as well.
By Dr. Emily Garside