The Stonewall Awards/Useful Idiots

Now that Timeout magazine has adopted a free distribution model, I’ve been flicking through it absent-mindedly in the mornings for the first time in many years. I’d forgotten all about its LGBT section, which I used to pore over for appealing club nights when I first moved to London. No doubt due to the need to reduce the magazine’s size and increase the amount of advertising in it, the section is now a sad-looking one-pager. The main item in it this week is a preview of the Stonewall Awards, which are apparently on November 1st.

The sub-headline explains that Paul Burston ‘asks the campaigning group’s Ben Summerskill why (the Awards) are still necessary’. You don’t have to read it to predict the response – visibility, homophobia, bullying. The answers that are invariably given for gay-related ventures these days. How could anyone be against something which makes life easier for gay kids, after all?

A more aggressive questioning of the Award’s purpose would perhaps ask how such an insipid and absurd occasion benefits anyone other than Stonewall and assorted celebrities. I think it’s fair to say that few people take any notice of them (Time Out was the first I’d heard of them this year, despite the nominations apparently being previously announced) but if you look at the nominations, it’s difficult not to laugh. Stonewall has a habit of prostrating itself before companies which make some nod, however tokenistic, towards the gays (much in evidence in its almost-meaningless ‘Workplace Equality Index’). So we have companies with (to say the least) dubious social and ethical records like Barclays and PWC sponsoring the event while Ben & Jerry are nominated as ‘Heroes of the Year’ presumably for making a promotional-only ice cream ‘supporting’ gay marriage’. In the latter case, if Ben & Jerry want to use their corporate clout to support gay marriage then they can knock themselves out but I fail to see anything ‘heroic’ about it (see first comment below.) In the former case, it’s just blatant pink-washing. It allows an organisation like Barclays to use the issue of homosexuality to portray itself as liberal and progressive while it profits from arms deals and money laundering. Even more perversely, Barclays has traded with and supported the brutal regimes of Zimbabwe and Iran – hardly renowned for their sterling human rights and particular targets of many gay rights activists over the years. Presumably tackling homophobia is only worth celebrating if it’s done on a superficial, PR-driven level which financially benefits Stonewall and those ethnic folk dying across the sea are an unpleasant diversion from the quaffing of champagne.

Stonewall’s other embarrassing habit (one that is, to be fair, reasonably widespread amongst the ‘gay establishment’) is to fawn at the feet of celebrities who are nice to the gays. So we have the ludicrous inclusion of former rugby player Ben Cohen on the panel of judges deciding the Awards. Cohen is very popular as he set up an ‘anti-bullying foundation’ and strips to his pants a lot.  I’ve written about some of my concerns surrounding his elevation as a ‘hero’ previously and I’ve yet to witness a journalist tackle him about the nuts and bolts of his work in his frequent appearances in the gay media. Instead we’re given asinine puff pieces, over and over again. Indeed, this approach is typical of some of the ‘gay media’ nominated for Stonewall Awards (presumably DC Comics and Tatler are nominated because they did something gay-related, at some point, while the Evening Standard is surely being applauded for its incessant campaigning for ‘former homophobe’ Boris Johnson.)

The absence of critical rigour really is astonishing. Jessie J is presumably awarded because she said she was bisexual. Yet the contortions around that have been many. It’s been claimed that she’s actually gay and was told to say otherwise by her record label. She’s spoken of being ‘irritated’ at the fixation with her sexuality – but given that she’s hardly associated with campaigning against homophobia, her sexuality must be the sole reason she’s here. Britain’s biggest LGBT (I know they have a very dodgy record on the ‘T’, I’m being charitable – see first comment below on this) charity reduce her to her sexuality just as much as The Sun did. Similarly, Frank Ocean is nominated because he said he once loved another man. That’s it. That really is the extent of it.

Such a reductive approach is typical of the Awards. The ‘Journalists of the Year’ are either gay or people who have written nice things about gay marriage. The ‘Broadcast of the Year’ includes ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ because it featured some gay people, because being a show predicated on contrived humiliation is perfectly fine as long as you do it equally.  The ‘Politicians of the Year’ are either gay or nice to gays in a very obvious way, so the Conservative Iain Stewart is included despite being a loyal supporter of the government in privatising eduction, the NHS, reducing benefits, attacking the disabled and preventing House of Lords reform, to name but a few big issues. Hey, who cares if you’re attacking the most vulnerable people in society, YOU’RE A GAY!

It really is the most insipid nonsense and only the most facile of analyses could possibly think these Awards meaningfully combat homophobia. Instead they continue to elevate sexuality as the core raison d’être of any person who isn’t 100% heterosexual; they continue to elevate ‘gay rights’ above basic human rights as an ostentatious liberal identifier; they continue to allow celebrities, companies, politicians and others who want a bit of easy PR to engage superficially with ‘gay issues’ and receive hysterical praise in return. It’s embarrassing. Summerskill is quoted in Time Out as saying that ‘we really hope that one day awards like these will no longer be necessary’. It seems to me that Stonewall itself is the biggest obstacle to that day. 

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