Happy Birthday, Madonna

In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at  that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna

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Bowie: One Year Later

My first Bowie memory is of listening to ‘Life on Mars?’ which, as I wrote previously, “exploded from the cheap, tinny speakers in technicolour”. In retrospect it feels like a moment when life itself burst into technicolour, when the narrow confines of my perspective collapsed around me and I found myself alert to exciting, daunting possibilities. Listening to that song, I caught my first glimpses of Oz.

 

As an artist Bowie tore up my notions of what popular music could be. I will remember sitting in that room, being carried somewhere completely alien, for as long as I still have my faculties. I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t just the strange, wonderful music which grabbed me but also the aching alienation which pulses through ‘Life on Mars?’ I’m not sure I yet had a real understanding of sexuality but I knew I was different from most of the other kids. I knew I was lonely and I knew I wanted something more, even if I couldn’t begin to conceive of what that was. “Is there life on Mars?” spoke to that, a plaintive yet hopeful howl that there had to be something, somewhere else out there (…over the rainbow).

As with so many queers my age and older, Bowie spoke to something within me before I necessarily could even articulate what it was. He helped usher me through some very difficult years to a life I could never have imagined. I never dreamt that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be. The Oz I glimpsed in ‘Life on Mars?’ came roaring into view and it was magnificent, even that sense of alienation has never quite gone away; I’m not sure it ever does for people like us. Yet for that, there was always Bowie. Always Bowie.

When I woke on a dark, cold Monday in January to the news that Bowie had died, it felt for a few days as if the world had been plunged back into black and white. In what became a year of dismal shocks, his death remains the thing which most affected me. I cried a lot the day I found out. I cried in Berlin a couple of weeks later as I visited his old haunts.

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I wept at Bowie’s appearance in the Oscars ‘In Memorium’ video; at the Brit Awards tribute where his band was largely made up of the same people I saw him perform with in 2003; at the end of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which I watched repeatedly when I was drunk:

I ended the year welling up at Bowie’s music making an appearance on the soundtrack for the London fireworks. Yet as I find myself in another cold, miserable January, about to enter the anniversary of that bleak Monday, I find my sadness lifted by the knowledge that the world didn’t become black and white again. I made a whole new bunch of Bowie memories: in Berlin he soundtracked a memorable encounter with a Syrian couple; I laughed with a room full of people at a BFI Bug special devoted to him; I went to see Lazarus on a glorious November afternoon; I headed down to the South Bank Centre one Friday after work to see Paul Morley speak about him and hear a choir sing some of his songs; I felt a visceral thrill when he appeared on the screens at a Placebo gig in December.

He’s not gone. He never will be. I don’t think I will ever feel fully at ease in the world and David Bowie will always speak to that. He helped me to accept it, even to celebrate it at times. I will always miss him but as the sadness falls away with time what is left is the sheer joy he has brought me, and which I now know he will always bring me. The world is still technicolour. Oz is still within my grasp. And yes, there is life on Mars.

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The Death of Solidarity

This feels like the nail in the coffin of any notion of ‘solidarity’ across these isles. The surge of competing nationalisms has been clear for years now, and much of the left has been happy to indulge and even feed it rather than fight it, rather than make the case for us standing together, rather than saying that our enemy was not some conveniently identifiable ‘other’ but a neoliberal ideology which by all reason should have died following the global crash. This felt like our last chance to draw a line in the sand, to recognise that we had to step up to the plate with regards to anti-racism, with regards to anti-immigrant sentiment, with regards to populist anti-intellectual movements which brand facts as ‘Project Fear’. We’ve failed.
Scotland and London both voted massively for remain. Having argued against Scottish independence in significant part because I thought it fed nationalism and destroyed solidarity, today I feel sad but resigned to Scotland becoming independent. Who could blame anyone voting for it when faced with this? There are already increasingly loud calls for London to split off from the UK. The economy is tanking and the far-right is celebrating not only here but across Europe. I never thought I would see the day where my reaction to David Cameron resigning was sorrow rather than joy and that is a mark of how dark this day is.
There are, right now, millions of EU migrants in the UK who now have no idea what will happen to them. There are millions of UK citizens in the EU who have no idea what will happen to them. And there are millions of people who, as one friend told me yesterday, look at this and see the familiar politics of a brick in the face just for the colour of your skin. Those of us who are privileged enough for this to be an existential defeat rather than one which is going to destroy our livelihoods or our homes need to stand with these people now. It’s the least we can do. I have cried too many tears over too many defeats. We need to stand against the calls, which are already coming and will only increase in volume, for tighter ‘immigration controls’. We need to stand against the nonsense, unchallenged for far too long, that it’s ‘not racist’ to blame housing policy, employment policy, health policy etc on ‘immigrants’ without having the slightest clue what you’re on about. We need to stand against our country becoming a small, angry and pathetic place, even though it feels much too late for that. We need to join trade unions. We need to support local struggles re: housing, health and austerity. We need to support migrant rights. We need to organise to fight racism on our streets. We need to support Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few politicians who has stood against this hateful tide, from those in his own party who would have us believe that competing with UKIP and the Tories on anti-immigration sentiment is the way for ‘progressive values’ to win.
It’s London Pride tomorrow and people have been fond of using ‘love wins’ in recent weeks. But the sad, scary fact of the matter is that love doesn’t win. Action wins. The kind of action which understands that fighting racism and the far-right means not capitulating to them or aiding their normalisation (hello, “I’m not UKIP but…” people arguing for their inclusion at Pride) At the moment the hard right are a hell of a lot more organised than we are. We need to begin to change that if ‘solidarity’ is to be anything other than a distant memory.

Vote Remain.

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I’ve already made my feelings on this referendum clear: it has been profoundly depressing in pretty much every conceivable way. Revelling in ignorance and prejudice has been reframed as ‘taking control’; facts unfavourable to your cause have been cast as ‘scaremongering’ and ‘Project Fear’. It’s easily been the most hateful, and terrifying, campaign of my lifetime.

Yet I still have hope. The above photos were all taken this morning on a single 100-metre walk in Hackney. Hackney is one of the most diverse boroughs in one of the most diverse cities in the world – over 60% of its population is not White British. Approximately 25% of its population have a main language which isn’t English. It’s one of the most deprived local authority areas in England. It has a higher than average LGBT community. There are powerful forces in this country, as we have seen over the past few months, who seek to turn diversity into division and blame poverty (along with every other problem imaginable) on anyone who is perceived as ‘different’. For all its problems, Hackney says a clear “no” to this. The far-right, whether it be UKIP or any other group, are not a force here. Last year Hackney again returned the black female socialist Diane Abbott as its MP, with a vote share increased by 8%. I am confident that today Hackney will reject the politics of racism and hatred by voting to remain in the European Union.

This matters. The far-right and those who validate it try and suggest that not to be hateful, not to be fearful, not to be racist, is somehow a ‘metropolitan’ value held by an out-of-touch elite. No-one could ever claim this about Hackney, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country. The fact that the places with most immigration tend to be most positive about it (and the converse) seems instructive here: everyone living in Hackney, no matter where they are from, is surrounded by immigration, surrounded by diversity. We know it’s not a problem. We know it’s a good, a great, thing.

Those living in areas with little immigration, on the other hand, are obviously more likely to be taking their views on it from the dominant narratives pushed by the media and our political class. This brilliant article is enormously insightful regarding this, explaining how a manufactured ‘public opinion’ is used to mainstream racism, stigmatise migrants and the working-class (while framing these two identities as mutually exclusive) and “deflect responsibility away from government and capital”. We have seen this in abundance in this campaign, where mendacious politicians who have been cutting and privatising our public services, imposing harsher immigration regimes and building a low-wage, precariat job economy have had the audacity to blame immigrants for their continuing policies.

This has gone on too long and we on the left have been too complacent in fighting it – and fight it we must, from germs of hatred expressed in casual racist remarks in Hackney to EDL marches in Coventry to the far-right killing Jo Cox in Birstall. People usually wheel out Lincoln’s quote about ‘the better angels of our nature’ as a trite Hallmark sentiment about everyone getting along, depoliticising what must be a political fight against hatred and bigotry. Fighting fascists and the far-right is a political act. Fighting Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove is a political act. Fighting racism requires action above platitudes. This is why, whatever the faults of the EU, in the current climate voting Remain is a political blow against these forces. Make no mistake, the fight will, must continue past today but it’s time to draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more’ to the wretched rhetoric and policy that has characterised our politics for too long. Vote Remain. Vote ‘no more’.

It’s up to all of us.

STATEMENT OF SOLIDARITY WITH FRAN COWLING

Full text here, shared here in solidarity.

“We stand in solidarity with NUS LGBT+ Officer Fran Cowling and support their right to choose who they share a platform with according to their own values and beliefs. We believe fundamentally in the right to freedom of speech and association but that both of these carry with them the right to choose to neither speak nor associate with someone and Fran has every right to exercise those rights however they deem fit.

We are appalled at Peter Tatchell’s actions in dragging a dedicated, hard-working and passionate activist through an appalling media circus which has led to them receiving a torrent of vile abuse with no other apparent purpose than to salve his own ego.”

 

Goodbye and thank you, David.

David Bowie

In this age of grand illusion

You walked into my life

Out of my dreams

I have a broken heart today. The last time I woke up to a bunch of messages about David Bowie it was January 2013 and he had just made his surprise return with Where Are We Now? I spent my initial half-awake moments thinking he had died; instead he had been reborn. The Fantastic Voyage had set sail once again and it proved as thrilling as it ever had been.

Now the journey has turned to erosion and, even though he died just after his 69th birthday, David Bowie will never get old. He will forever be a young hippy with curly hair, floating round his tin can; he will always be an ethereal, beautiful alien, casting an arch glance at the freakiest show; he will stand eternally in light, plaintively telling us that we can be heroes. Just for one day.

Just turn on with me and you’re not alone

Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone

Let’s turn on and be not alone

Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful

I have a broken heart today. Social media is full of people telling their own stories of how David Bowie made it okay. And as trite as it sounds, he really did. He made it okay to be different. He made it okay to be queer. He made it okay to be an awkward, bookish kid at a Catholic school in Hamilton, trying to figure out why he liked looking at boys when he’d been told again and again that only freaks and perverts felt like that. I feel sorry for those who can’t comprehend why people would weep for someone they’ve never met because it means they never found anything like the indescribable connection which so many had with Bowie. He not only saved us, he showed us a way to live. As much as I cried this morning for the end of Bowie’s journey, for no more mornings waking up to new music and shaking with excitement, my tears were of course also about that kid I used to be. It was fitting that the first song which came on when I put Bowie on shuffle this morning was As The World Falls Down:

As the pain sweeps through,

Makes no sense for you.

Every thrill is gone.

Wasn’t too much fun at all,

But I’ll be there for you

As the world falls down.

I have a broken heart today. However we found him, so many of us scrambling through the jungle of our teenage wildlife grabbed onto Bowie like he was a ladder out of there and, whatever his missteps, he never let us down. It was Bowie (and Madonna and the Manics, two artists clearly enormously influenced by him) who pulsed through my veins when I wore badly-applied mascara, feather boas and cheap plastic tiaras out to nightclubs in Glasgow (my face was indeed a mess). Even today, as a 35 year old man, I find enormous comfort in, and take strength from, his music. You can easily spot the fellow travellers who found a flattering mirror for their awkwardness in Bowie, just as you can quickly recognise those who only namecheck him because it’s the done thing to do. The latter group may be somewhat bemused by today’s reaction; for the rest of us, things will never be the same again.

I can’t answer why

Just go with me

I’m-a take you home

I have a broken heart today. I cannot imagine my life without David Bowie. I cannot imagine myself. We are the dead. Yet as the starman himself finally disappears, a vanishing deity as foretold in The Next Day, we can think of how fortunate we have been to have had him and how much better he has made this place. We will always have that and David Bowie will live on in millions of hot tramps who owe so, so much to him.

Goodbye and thank you, David. I will always love you, more than anyone could ever know.

Brave Man: Rejecting ‘Allyship’.

No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:

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This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:

Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.

Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.

Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect

The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
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“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!

Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no  less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.

The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).

Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.