Chelsea Manning and the Appalling Silence of Gay, Inc.

Marking Chelsea Manning’s 1000th day of imprisonment, this is a powerful expansion of the critique of LGBT politics and its response to Manning’s plight which I first wrote about here. This piece is so accurate that I want to send it to the offices of every major LGBT organisation, publication, writer etc but there is something for most of us who identity as LGBT to consider from it. This paragraph:

Any number of fading stars and starlets, and non-entities on the make, from Lady Gaga to Chaz Bono to Ricky Martin, have mined the LGBT community to support their careers. Our community’s eager rush to embrace just about any celebrity who deigns to notice our existence is emblematic of our lack of self-esteem, our internalized homophobia.

is so apposite that I almost punched the air when I read it. Our hysterical gratitude whenever a straight celebrity says something nice about LGBT people or, indeed, when a celebrity comes out, is utterly counter-productive and cements the notion that we are some meek, simpering minority who need assistance in being ushered into the ‘mainstream’. So we end up with the quite absurd elevation of someone like Ben Cohen and have palpitations whenever some nobody from ‘Hollyoaks’ or a sportsman looking to make a name for themselves says that, hey, they quite like the gays actually. Sod that. People don’t get to use being a decent human being as a career choice and no-one should encourage them to do so. As the paragraph states, the swift rapture which greets these utterings doesn’t suggest a community which has a strong sense of self or the certainty that we are indeed as ‘good as you’. It’s embarrassing. It seems to me that any decent human being would both sympathise with Chelsea Manning and be outraged by her treatment. Again, this piece is completely on-point here, particularly with the observation that Gay Inc would be up in arms “If a homophobe had so much as broken Chaz Bono’s finger nail” yet remains largely silent regarding Manning. Despite being in the UK I think the points made regarding the flat-out refusal of dominant LGBT voices to expose/oppose Obama apply here; they can obviously be extended to our own political context and the timid reluctance of groups like Stonewall to seriously challenge power or societal norms. What’s most dominant in the seeming inability of Gay Inc to “take on “difficult” political subjects” is, however, not really touched on in the piece: it’s the preening, narcissistic and neoliberal reduction of LGBT politics to the individual, the deployment of homophobia as part of someone’s identity. “In what way does this issue enable me to appear oppressed?” The hysteria over equal marriage illustrated this perfectly, allowing an overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class constituency to work themselves into a frenzy regarding their own perceived victimisation. This ties in neatly with current writings on social media and its importance in both shaping our personalities and expressing hierarchies. It’s deeply unfashionable to be seen as powerful, as privileged; instead we race to fixate on the ways in which we can perceive ourselves to be oppressed and, most importantly, be seen to be so. The Manning case, then, offers almost nothing in this regard. You’ll see that in this piece the author even tries to articulate a narrow, explicitly LGBT angle which Gay Inc could latch onto:

Besides the Honduran angle – 89 LGBTs murdered over three and a half years in a country of less than 8 million, including leading activists like Walter Trochez and Erick Martinez Avila – there are other LGBT angles that NGLTF and HRC could have highlighted.  The sexually humiliating torture that Manning received, stripped naked in a cell for days on end, ordered by no less than a two-star general – was tinged in homophobia, and yet where were the protests from the gay human rights groups? Not even a token press release.

As undeniably important as these issues are, they would be weak entry-points to Manning’s cause as it’s clearly about so much more than LGBT identity. Any attempts to make it about this would, I suspect, only highlight the narcissism which underlies much of Gay Inc. No, the Manning case requires a focus on common humanity and, crucially, on the nature and use of power. In this respect it is exactly the same as the Israeli ‘Pinkwashing’ or the abhorrent militarism of Western governments: they are ‘difficult’ issues because they cannot be easily reduced to ‘look at how we as LGBT people are being oppressed!’. They do not flatter our victimisation, the same identity which is so well-served by celebrities flattering our ‘cause’ with obsequious words. And so Manning, an undeniably brave individual and possibly as perfect an example of an LGBT ‘hero’ as you are likely to have in the developed world, is left to rot by people and organisations who instead prefer to knock-off the 4000th column or press release about equal marriage or access to the military. It’s a shameful commentary on modern LGBT politics, a movement which is popularly seen to have began with a riot and now finds us actively trying to victimise ourselves rather than challenge power as engaged, informed and compassionate human beings. The Chelsea Manning Support Network can be found here. Chelsea Manning and the Appalling Silence of Gay, Inc.

Note – this was written pre-transition and amended afterwards.

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