By Susannah Layton
My creativity is an essential part of my identity; it’s also a powerful tool to help me explore, express and understand who I am and how I fit into the world around me. As a multidisciplinary artist, producer, and director, I present personal stories through a variety of media including video, collage, and performance.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with queer arts and culture. I am grateful to have experienced this through living in a few of the world’s most queer-friendly cities, including London, Sydney, San Francisco, and currently Boston. In my teenage years during the ’80s, I loved watching British TV programs such as the Kenny Everett Video Show, fabulously campy sketch comedy; and Dame Edna Experience, a talk show hosted by the outrageous drag persona of satirist Barry Humphries. In the ’90s I became more interested in music and found a new creative outlet,going out dancing in London’s nightclubs. When I moved to Sydney in the mid-’90s, I discovered dance music on a bigger scale. One of my most memorable experiences was attending Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade (their version of Pride)—an incredible evening shared with thousands of LGBTQI people from around the globe. That night I felt for the first time a sense of queer community and wanted to be a part of it, but I wasn’t yet out as bisexual.
Coming out as bisexual was a gradual process for me. Until my mid-twenties, I only dated men and identified as straight.I started noticing my attractions to other women in my early twenties, although it took me a few years to develop the courage to admit that to anyone. I remember the first time I kissed another woman. I was living in London when a friend invited me to a party with some sexually adventurous creative types. That playful evening opened up my heart and mind to the potential of finding a romantic relationship with a woman.
It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in my late twenties that I found the confidence to come out as bisexual. I met my first girlfriend on the dance floor of Club Q, San Francisco’s legendary lesbian dance party. Falling in love with her made me realize it was time to quit my Internet start-up day job and redirect my career path by going to graduate school to study Expressive Arts Therapy. As part of my training, I had the opportunity to tell my personal story through many different art forms, including writing, drama, dance, movement, painting, and music. For my final visual arts presentation, I chose to exhibit two mixed media, hand-made collage books which publicly displayed my coming out story, finding love with another woman for the first time.
During graduate school, I was fortunate to connect with other visual and performing artists who also identified as bi.Surprisingly, finding bi community in San Francisco outside of grad school was a challenge. I lived in the heart of the Castro district, one of the world’s best-known LGBTQI neighborhoods, which was thriving with gay/lesbian culture and a growing trans community, but I was disappointed to find a lack of resources and community for bi people. That inspired me to co-create a local bi social and support group.We met regularly for potluck meals to share our stories and we all became close friends.
After forming our group, we marched in San Francisco’s LGBTQI Pride parade and we carried our homemade neon signs with bi-positive slogans. I’ll never forget when a man from Brazil walked up to us and asked, “Where can I find your group? I didn’t realize there were other people in the world like me!” It was a life-changing moment, and it triggered within me a deep desire to build a greater bi community and find ways to increase bi visibility within both the queer and straight worlds. Shortly after that, I went to an information session organized by the Queer Cultural Center to learn more about a Creating Queer Community artist commission opportunity.
When I discovered the lack of any bisexual events in San Francisco’s National Queer Arts Festival, I decided to apply for the commission with my “Bilicious” project idea—a bi-themed multidisciplinary performance and panel that would bring together artists and performers to showcase bisexual comedy, music, film, poetry,and dance. Immediately following the performance, the performers and local bi activists would be brought on stage for an interactive conversation with the audience. Playfully mixing serious issues with entertainment, Bilicious would help to demystify stereotypes and increase awareness about the bisexual community.
As fate would have it, I was awarded the Creating Queer Community commission and Bilicious became the only bi-themed event in the annual National Queer Arts Festival from 2008-2010. During that time, I was also working on a variety of film making projects with my cinematographer boyfriend, who helped me develop a series of videos for Bilicious. I really enjoyed getting to know the performers through spending an hour filming a personal video interview with each of them. It was an honor to be trusted with stories of how they came out, what inspired their creativity,and how their sexuality influenced their work. The editing challenge for me was to present their stories in a concise five-minute format to capture the audience’s attention as a video introduction to each performer. It was a thrill for me to experience the screening of my videos onstage to bi-friendly audiences.
When I moved to Boston in 2010, I brought Bilicious with me, knowing that I had a strong template to recreate the show, and I was excited to make videos with a new cast of performers. Without the support of a national festival, I was challenged to develop new connections to help with fundraising, marketing, and community outreach. I was fortunate to partner with the Bisexual Resource Center during their 25th anniversary year to premier the Bilicious Boston show for a special Celebrate Bisexuality Day event. Bilicious found success with Boston audiences and grew from a one-night only to a two-night annual event at LGBTQI hotspot Club Café. However; after a few years, the extra administrative and financial responsibilities to produce the show became increasingly time-consuming and stressful.This started to deplete my creative passion and energy. Even with the support of a few volunteers to help with fundraising and marketing, I ultimately decided to stop the production in 2014.
Bilicious was a seven-year project from conception in San Francisco to completion in Boston, and I have so many wonderful memories. After the first San Francisco performance,during the panel,a male audience member delivered a comment to singer/songwriter Kalil Sullivan: “I came here with my girlfriend tonight and, until I saw you perform, I thought I was straight!” Converting audience members to bisexuality was never my intention, but I did want to help open hearts and minds through experiencing personal stories about bisexuality and to facilitate meaningful discussions about sexuality and identity. The final San Francisco show celebrated the theme of “Bisexual History,” opening with the screening of a video interview I shot in Boston with bisexual activist Robyn Ochs and ending with a panel discussion which included Maggi Rubenstein, who started the bisexual movement in San Francisco in 1972. Maggie was responsible, along with others, for putting the “B” into “LGBT”!
Being the producer/director of Bilicious gave me a creative purpose, identity, and community for many years. Although I felt a sense of relief letting go of the show, it took me sometime to work through my feelings of loss, guilt, loneliness, and grief. It helped me to reflect on the incredible creative growth I had experienced. In the role of producer, I selected performers that either had existing bi-themed material, or I commissioned them to create new material. As director, I learned that every performer has a different creative process.I found myself in the role of collaborator, mentor, editor,performance coach, and technical consultant, depending on the needs of each person. I am thankful to have worked with so many talented and passionate people who helped to make Bilicious possible, and to have made some close friendships that remain in my life today.
Currently, my creative spirit is feeling more energized after some much needed rest. I have shifted my focus to reinvent myself as an artist, which includes letting myself be more experimental and taking time to enjoy the creative process. I’m continuing to explore the themes of desire, sexual identity, and gender expression through a few new personal video projects. My creative identity is still a work-in-progress. I am learning to trust that if I follow my artistic curiosity, it will lead me towards a more joyful connection to creativity.
Susannah Layton is a British-born, Boston-based multidisciplinary artist, producer, and director. She is the recipient of a Creating Queer Community commission from the Queer Cultural Center and an Unsung Hero award from the Bisexual Resource Center, for her outstanding behind-the-scenes work within and for the bisexual community.