Sell Arms to Saudi Arabia, Support Gay Equality!

I noted in this piece that Pink News were holding an award ceremony sponsored by an arms dealer – a perfect illustration both of ‘pinkwashing’ and of the conservative, even reactionary agenda of Pink News and its particular brand of ‘politics’. More details about this ceremony are starting to come out, with the first award apparently being “Parliamentary Speech of the Year’. What this actually means is ‘Parliamentary Speech In Favour of Gay Marriage During the Gay Marriage Debate of the Year’ because of course LGBT people couldn’t care about or be affected by anything else which goes on. Why would we care, for example, that Baroness Barker has collaborated with the Tories and her own party leadership to undermine the NHS? It’s not a ‘gay issue’, is it? More egregiously, why would we care that Mike Freer is a true blue Tory who has supported his party in almost everything that they’ve done, from attacking the NHS to attempting to dismantle legal aid or raising tuition fees to £9000 (to name but a few flashpoint issues)? Even by its own narrow criteria the award is a non-starter – Lord Jenkin of Roding, when he bothered to vote on LGBT issues, voted against the repeal of section 28 and supported an amendment effectively specifying that IVF be available only to heterosexual couples (to his credit, he did rebel against his party and vote to allow unmarried couples to adopt.) David Lammy, supporter of the Iraq war and authoritarian government laws to tackle ‘terrorism’, seems to be nominated because he compared gay marriage to the American black civil rights movement – a comparison which offends many and which raises the gay movement’s own troubling treatment (or avoidance) of race.

I’ve no doubt this will seem quibbling to some who will find a gay site giving an award for a speech on a gay issue perfectly natural. Yet it’s completely arbitrary and yet again pushes this facile notion of ‘gay politics’ as something separate from ‘politics’ in general; worse, it pushes it as something which reflects the narrow concerns of an elite who already have a place at the table. That there are LGBT people out there who are being affected by, and will care more about, cuts to welfare or cuts to health or unemployment or homelessness et al is viewed as irrelevant here. That LGB members of parliament will have spoken on these issues is also irrelevant. Screw solidarity and political consciousness, we’re GAY and as such should care about GAY THINGS!

This approach of course underlies the fact that Pink News sees no problem with being sponsored by BAE Systems, a company immersed in human misery (and which happens to have sold arms to brutal regimes with horrific LGBT rights records). It’s also why it sees no issue with being supported by Clifford Chance, a law firm which has been implicated in several tax avoidance and fraud scandals, or the bank BNP Paribas which has overseen tax avoidance and money laundering while assisting brutal dictatorships. This matters because gay rights are inextricable from wider social justice and human rights. As Margot Salomon of LSE put it over at Open Democracy:

The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights  – Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort.

The line that ‘gay rights are human rights’ was tritely repeated again and again during the gay marriage debate but little engaged with – this is precisely what it means. Gay rights no more exist in a vacuum than gay people do and to deny this is to demean our humanity. To engage with amoral (even actively destructive) corporations while encouraging a shallow focus only on our gay identity is worse than useless – it’s harmful. Equality demands more.

Chelsea Manning and Jason Collins – a contrast of bravery

There’s a neat synchronicity between the two biggest ‘gay’ stories of the past week – a synchronicity which speaks volumes about liberal attitudes towards sexuality and relationships with power and authority.

The first story was San Francisco Pride’s announcement that whistle-blower Chelsea Manning would be an honorary ‘grand marshal’ for the event, followed by a swift and brutal retraction of this honour. In truth, the retraction was a much bigger story than the conferring of the honour had been and a large part of this was undoubtedly due to the questions it raised regarding the meaning and purpose of Pride – and of ‘gay politics’ in general. There are already several very good pieces on the whole affair which you should read – not least this by Glenn Greenwald and this and this by Scott Long – so I won’t repeat most of what they already eloquently argue. It’s very noticeable, however, that most of the outcry against the decision seems to have come from people who tend to be called ‘radicals’ – people who consistently seek to question and challenge authority, whether that be Long or a far more famous figure like Daniel Ellsberg – and not from the kinds of organisations, publications or celebrities who usually seem to love a chance to demonstrate their right-on credentials when it comes to ‘the gays’. Indeed, as Long demonstrates, some ‘gay voices’ actively argued for the retraction of the honour, even going so far as to label him a ‘traitor’. As I’ve discussed previously, the Gay Inc response to Manning highlights that they have no interest in real bravery, no interest in rocking the boat and every interest in flattering their own victimhood:

Any attempts to make (Manning) entirely about (LGBT identity) 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.

Manning’s actions were brave well beyond his her identity (which, as Long documents, is open to question) and offer us little in terms of a gay narrative – she’s clearly not being victimised primarily because of who she is – and so her exposure of horrific acts perpetrated by the West is of little interest to the one-dimensional beings who populate much of the LGBT media and organisations such as GLAAD and Stonewall.

With rather neat timing, however, someone else did something ‘brave’ this week: a basketball player named Jason Collins (who, I think it’s safe to say, would have been almost entirely unheard of outside America before this) came out as gay. To use the crude barometer of a Google search, Collins’ ‘bravery’ is already well on its way to eclipsing Manning’s and it has inspired a veritable torrent of praise. Barack Obama, former President Clinton, countless celebrities (my favourite being this beyond patronising tweet from Lena Dunham) and thousands upon thousands of people on Twitter have sent whipped themselves into a frenzy of adoration. He’s being called ‘inspirational’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘a role model’. The gay media around the world is going crazy for him while he’s already the main item on Glaad’s website. In the space of barely 24 hours, Jason Collins seems to have gone from being a middling and fairly obscure athlete to a figure comparable to Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.

Is it important that sports people feel able to come out? Certainly it is and as just another step towards no-one caring about this sort of thing then every little helps (and polls suggest that a majority of Americans don’t care). We’re not going to get to that position, however, when we act like coming out instantly confers supernatural qualities of bravery and brilliance on someone.We’re not going to get there when idiots like Lena Dunham (or indeed many gay people who identify as #teamgay) suddenly think that someone is worth their attention merely because they’ve declared their sexuality. You’re not more interesting because you’re gay. You’re not kinder, you’re not more humane, you’re not a ‘better’ person. If anything the ‘bravery’ of being yourself is more impressive when it’s done every day and from a young age, whatever that may entail. It’s great that Collins has finally felt able to say something and while it may have wider implications due to his status, the hyperbole around it is embarrassing and baffling. Coming in the same week as the Manning/San Francisco Pride debacle, it merely serves to highlight the skewed and self-serving priorities of modern LGBT identity politics. There’s no cultural cachet for people like Dunham in speaking about someone like Chelsea Manning – indeed, given that this involves fundamental issues of the abuse of power, the militarisation of life, torture and American imperialism, I suspect they would see his cause as terribly icky and best left alone. Broadcasting that they’re down with someone who is NEWLY OUT AND PROUD though?! Hell yes! What’s not to love? You’re speaking up for a minority! You’re loving a minority! You’re contrasting yourself with the imagined hordes at the gate who want to kill gay babies or something! WHOOOO!

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. The disparate reactions to these two incidents highlight that patronising attitudes towards ‘minority sexualities’ are part of the problem. Gay is not ‘good’ and it’s not ‘bad’, it just is. With that in mind we should think about the bravery of Chelsea Manning as opposed to the bravery of Jason Collins, because our differing responses to them are instructive as to how we think about sexuality, identity and our relationship with the world around us.

EDIT – Obviously, this piece was written prior to Chelsea Manning’s statement re: her identity.

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.