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Clusterfluff: What do you do when the far right come for you?

It was a Saturday morning when James saw the first abusive message. It was from an evangelical Christian, quoting parts of Leviticus at him: what he calls “the typical burn in hell stuff.” He was sitting on a bed in a hotel room drinking a cup of tea and had just opened his iPad. That day he was set to move into a new house, so there was a lot to DO, but he couldn't resist having a look at his company's social media (Quietly Fighting Theatre).

For most fringe theatre and shows with smaller runs, where marketing budgets are limited, the simplest and most cost-effective way to advertise is through micro-targetting on social media, usually Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Adverts like these typically take up to 24 hours to go live. The day before he had put up adverts for his new show Clusterfluff which would be premiering this spring; he wanted to check and see if they were now visible and how they were performing.

Image: Poster for Clusterfluff, showing at Vault Festival, 10-11 March.

Clusterfluff is a celebration of queer joy through immersive theatre and circus. The poster, and online adverts, features a beautiful illustration of a queer adult sitting in a bath, with a rainbow pouring into it. James was proud of the show he was creating and loved this image. As a visibly queer person, who has been out for around 15 years since he was 17 years old, he is used to a certain level of homophobia, online and in the real world. Someone once threw a bible at him while he was on a date, an experience he describes in hindsight as both slightly sad and bleakly comic. So this first comment, while annoying, was neither particularly unexpected or concerning.

Over the next hour, more comments snowballed. Some supportive. But others started attacking him and the show with far right ideology. James likens these trolls to sharks swimming in shallow waters looking around for LGBTQ things to target. He tried to moderate the post, taking down negative comments, but this led to a direct message from a user with a swastika as their profile picture. While James does not want the specifics of this interaction to be published and repeated, they were incredibly graphic and violent and started to make him feel that he could be in real personal danger. What had started out as some spam James thought he would just delete and move on from, had become “much more intense and unpredictable.” As well as feeling physically threatened, he was worried about this becoming a bigger pile-on. Facebook had paused the advert, likely because some of the trolls had reported it. James decided to take it offline.

James is not alone. Last weekend the drag queen Aida H Dee was targetted at a story telling event at the Tate Britain, by anti-trans demonstrators. Supportive counter protestors also attended. Police had to form a corridor for those legitimately trying to enter the venue and one person was arrested on suspicion of making a racially aggravated comment towards a police officer.

Tom Harlow has suffered similar abuse. He is a burlesque and cabaret entertainer as well as a producer and performer based in Glasgow. While some of his work is aimed exclusively at adults, he also produces work for children, including his show Under the ABC. It features himself as Merman Tom who reads empowering and diverse stories to kids with songs. He wears makeup and looks fabulous in peals with a large tail. He makes it clear that “I don’t discuss my specific gender identity with children or anything about myself personally. That’s not the point of the show.” In September 2022, far right groups Us for Them Scotland, The Scottish Family Party and others targeted him for a planned show in Stirling. Us for Them put out a call for action against him to their 13,000 followers. They doxxed him, releasing his address and linking his social media accounts leading to weeks of abuse. “They harassed me online and harassed the venue I was working at as well as local politicians. They encouraged people to email others connected to me like Lottery Funding as well as Scottish year of Stories to stop my shows. If it wasn’t the fact that I was a burlesque performer, it was the fact that I wore makeup, or it was the books I read, or that I was just a gay man, or a visibly queer man.” Trolls created fake posters using images from his other work to make it seem that he was “stripping for kids,” that “he was a danger to children” or that he was “a groomer, a paedophile and a predator.”

As threats intensified the police became involved, but were of little help as this kind of abuse falls into a grey area. There is currently a loop hole around freedom of speech – one Tom hopes will be closed when the hate crime bill comes into full effect in Scotland in 2024. He also reached out to Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) but they “weren't particularly responsive or helpful.”

Tom says: “It’s about refusing to accept that queer and trans people exist.” The experience was very painful, “It hurt so deeply at the time. I was so ashamed and so mortified and so distraught. They were coming for my show that I’d worked really hard on – to make it an inclusive, welcoming show for kids to express themselves and learn about others and just have a nice time. Which is something I never had as a queer child and they tore it apart and made it into something disgusting, which is isn’t. They were so hateful.”

This online pile-on is something many queer producers and performers fear. It is also something venues are worried about, which can lead to censorship. Sadiq Ali is a mixed heritage, queer, circus artist and performance maker. In 2017, he created a show The Chosen Haram – which uses circus to discuss issues around Islamic faith and queer sexuality. When it was first staged, the venue refused to allow the company to record any of the performance because they were so afraid they would be targeted in retaliation. It was a huge blow to the show. He says, “when it comes to online stuff, you have to try and not take any notice. Sometimes you will get shut down. I don’t know how to deal with it except for trying to be safe about which spaces I’m publishing content in.” He's managed to navigate Facebook and Instagram to work for him generally, as feels he has some control over who sees the content he puts up – but says he feels “completely unsafe on Tik Tok and Twitter. The moderating is different; algorithms will basically publish it to anyone. Which for a lot of people – if you’re doing very vanilla, very heteronormative content – is great because you’ll get seen. But if you are doing anything transgressive, anything queer, you’ll become a target.”

Genderfuck cabaret / performance artist and “cunt-of-all-trades”: Smashlyn Monroe believes, “It’s all about censoring. If it’s not something in their picket fence little world, we are accused of forcing it on them.” During lockdown they created a performance piece for Anti-diet Day the cabaret artist Scottie was producing online. Smashlyn was semi-naked and covered in Big Macs. It was a strong portrayal of a fat, queer body and an expression of “loving yourself for who you are.” Without Smashlyn's knowledge or consent, the youtubber Michelle McDaniel used an image of them as a clickbait for her 614,000 subscribers in a video Smashlyn describes as “playground bullying pure and simple. Where she ripped me apart.” McDaniel also linked social media accounts allowing others to comment and send further abuse and refused to engage meaningfully when challenged. For Smashlyn, this all fits into a wider trend where “the goal is to silence people who are different, creating pockets of hate, so that people who don't fit in and don't conform, don't get a voice.”

So how do you respond when this happens?

The Chosen Haram has gone on to tour successfully and is now thriving, with a positive critical response. “There was a lot of fear around it.” Sadiq says wryly, “but now that people have seen it, now they have experienced it. Venues are all clamouring to programme it and are like: oh this will make us so diverse and inclusive and wonderful.” Smashlyn is as provocative as ever. “It’s not stopped me putting stuff out there – a year later I did a fuck you piece and devoured a Big Mac. This is not going to hurt me. I’ve dealt with self hatred. I don’t want to see other people who are queer or fat or chubby get hurt like I was. It costs people their lives.”

Tom is bringing the fight to the far right and championing trans rights in the battle over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. He was out on the streets with Cabaret Against the Hate on 5th February in Glasgow dressed head to toe in bright colours, leading a group in joyful renditions of Abba, Lady Gaga and The Spice Girls. He felt they had to respond to the anti-trans voices like Posie Parker (real name Kellie-Jay Keen) who held a Let Women Speak rally in Newcastle on 15th January where people were openly quoting from Mein Kampf. “These are some of the same arguments and prejudices that were said against black people in the 60’s, immigrants in the 70’s, gay people in the 80’s, 90’s and even up to the 2000’s and now it’s trans people. Obviously, the context and some elements are different, but what is frightening is how a lot of the language and the arguments are exactly the same.” He was doxxed again following the action in Glasgow, physically threatened and has received more death threats online, but remains defiant. “I wanted to show them no matter what you do, no matter what you say, we’re still going to exist and to be here and to be visible. We’re still going to celebrate, and we are still going to party, we’re going to go about our lives, and we’re always going to exist. And that drives them mad.”

James thought about cancelling Clusterfluff, because the abuse had upset him so much. He took a week to let things calm down. But couldn't help feeling that “if I do that – they win.” He decided to tweak the show to double down on some of the themes and ideas and to relaunch with exactly the same marketing image that had attracted so much abuse. Clusterfluff is playing at VAULT Festival, in London Waterloo, on the 10th and 11th March. In James's own words: The Show “is an immersive LGBTQ circus experience. It celebrates the rainbow and the meaning of it and the amazing strides we have made as a community. It celebrates LGBTQ history and queer people. It explores queer joy. There are some incredible acts, beautiful circus performers and amazing cabaret. It’s also going to be a really fun night out. VAULT Festival has always been a very supportive and welcoming festival for innovative and unique shows so it's a really exciting project for us. We think audiences are going to love it. So come see the show and fuck the haters!”

Quietly Fighting Theatre present Clusterfluff at the Vault Festival on 10 and 11 March 2023. More info and tickets:

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