“I’m a straight, white, cis male. What does this exhibition have to offer me?”
The question had been posed to us in the form of a training role play. Supposedly asked by a visitor of the museum staff, the question was also more or less the one that I had asked myself in the weeks running up to the launch of Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in December. I was sure there would be nothing to interest me in the exhibition.
You may be glad to learn that I was completely wrong in this opinion.
As the technicians furiously and heroically worked to get everything ready on time I found myself on tiptoes, trying to peep over the packing crates and workbenches at the assembled displays. Tracey Emin’s When I Think about Sex I Think about Men – Women Dogs, Lions, Group Sex (And I Love you All) was lit up in a provocative statement facing the door, strange yodelling sounds began calling me towards Isaac Julien’s The Long Road to Mazatlan and Grayson Perry’s Claire’s Coming Out Dress stood like a hostess waiting to receive her visitors, anxious that the carefully prepared party will all go smoothly. Finally, the exhibition was ready and my dubious interest had been well and truly piqued.
Grayson Perry, Claire's Coming Out Dress, 2000, © the artist, image by Jerry Hardman-Jones, Nottingham City Museums & Galleries collection.
When the doors were opened properly I went through and found myself gaining into an insight into a way of life that I had clearly not considered as much as I thought I had. Jez Dolan’s A Polari Etymology According to a Diagrammatic by Alfred H. Barr made me think about a world where secret languages were necessitated by laws against unsanctioned sexualities and the double lives and social shame that were an everyday reality for so many for so long. Steve McQueen’s Bear made me think about the differences in how sex is conducted depending on who it’s with as well as how quickly you can get used to the sight of two naked men projected onto an entire wall and Sarah Lucas’s Willy made me smile.
Willy by Sarah Lucas.
Most importantly of all though, at the back of the Gas Hall was a box where I could post any questions I might have been too afraid to ask and wait for them to be answered by someone who was willing to take time out of their day to help me lift the lid off my ignorance and open my mind to the lives of other people around the world.
Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity is at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 2 December 2017 - 15 April 2018. Free entry.