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.

Sexy Domestic Abuser Loves The Gays and Hates Russia!

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I’ve written previously about how “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants, how “we’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’”  and how “the collective bogeyman that is homophobia can…prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.” Well, examples of all these things come no greater than the new issue of Gay Times, featuring straight rugby player Stuart Reardon on the cover. The intro to the accompanying feature would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic:

He loves the gays, hates Russia’s treatment of us and works with underprivileged kids. Rugby ace Stuart Reardon is like the Mother Theresa (sic) of Warrington – only with thighs that could crack a coconut under his wimple.

Yes, apparently ‘loving the gays’ and thinking it’s jolly bad for a country to persecute minorities makes you a candidate for sainthood. Rather than, you know, a patronising git in the first instance and just your average person who isn’t a total dick in the second. So far, so insipid and predictable. Where it gets quite incredible is in the fact that this saintly figure has a criminal conviction for assaulting his wife. That picture up there is him leaving court. The details of this conviction are quite something:

Stuart Reardon, 27, pleaded guilty at Bradford Magistrates’ Court to assaulting his estranged wife, Kay, after finding out she was seeing another man, while Leon Pryce, also 27, admitted assaulting her new partner.

The court heard the defendants had both been drinking before going to the flat of Reardon’s new boyfriend, Damon O’Brien, and forcing their way in, leaving the couple “terrified”.

How did they force themselves in? Well:

When neither Mrs Reardon nor Mr O’Brien opened the door to the second-floor flat, Reardon sent a text message to his wife’s new boyfriend claiming their young son was in hospital.

That’s right – when he couldn’t gain access to attack his wife, he lied and said that their son had been taken to hospital. He sounds positively delightful, doesn’t he? But hey, he apparently loves the gays and he’s fit! What are we gays for if not to provide handy PR opportunities for straight sportsmen whose professional careers are over? It has, after all, worked so well for Ben Cohen. It makes you so proud:

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It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the teams behind these magazines: the print market in general is clearly in decline and ‘gay lifestyle’ publications seem increasingly irrelevant. You have the sense that they’re trapped in the realm of soft porn and undemanding content. Even so, surely there have to be some standards?! This is just tragic.

An added irony – one of the main cover splashes is “Meet the gay men who are fighting eating disorders.” Appearing alongside the heavily-airbrushed photo of a semi-naked model. Indeed, GT is kinda renowned for its airbrushed covers. It is, of course, hardly alone in that but I’d be curious to see if the article acknowledges the potential role that the endlessly manipulated imagery and strident consumerism of such media could play in these illnesses.

Gaze – A Modern Review

In its infinite wisdom The Guardian decided to run a (very) thinly-veiled advert for a new gay magazine at the weekend. This advert took the form of an opinion piece on the gay scene and it starts well, with something straight from the mind of your archetypal Daily Mail reader:

If I say the words “gay culture”’, what do you think of? Pride parades with muscle boys in leather hot pants? Kylie Minogue? Antiquated drag queens miming to Shirley Bassey? “Lip Service”?

To most people I would suggest that this idea of “gay culture” would mean only that you don’t get out very much. Here, however, it leads the umpteenth attack on the sex-and-drugs which we’re led to believe make up gay life.  We have the sneering reference to Grindr and “sexual hook-ups”, the pitying appeal to people for whom “gay culture begins and ends with the gay scene”, GHB and complaints about how gay men are portrayed on television (‘Queer As Folk’ did it wrongly, apparently, despite its sex-and-drugs mirroring exactly what Paul Burston describes here). It’s like a very boring game of bingo in terms of its tired references to familiar complaints about gay life. You can’t help but wonder where Burston thinks his books (not exactly renowned for their complex or challenging take on gay life) fit into this

But but but! Don’t fret, for Burston and Julie Bindel are here to save you from all that with a proper grown-up magazine for gays! You know that it’s grown-up because its title contains “A Modern Review”. It wants to “tackle issues one doesn’t generally read about in the lesbian and gay press”. Issues like David Bowie! Given the pedigree of its creators, who got firmly behind the “East London is under siege from Muslims” drivel a couple of years back and directly contributed to circumstances which led to the English Defence League attempting to use Pride to stoke up anti-Muslim feeling, the decision to lead with a feature on Islam (and corresponding stereotypical image) is worrying to say the least.

What I find most remarkable about the whole thing, however, is the idea that the problem which needs to be addressed is the need for “a broader view of gay politics, and (to) redefine what we mean by gay culture.”  As I wrote previously, this culture (which is infinitely more varied than Burston’s awful caricature would have you believe) grew out of adversity. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that, as Burston argues, this adversity is in terminal decline (not least ignoring the continuing stigma faced by those who identify as transexual.) Why would the logical response to that be to offer an ostensibly ‘superior’ way to be gay? Why not just…be? Certainly there are criticisms to be made of the gay media but I think much of them come from their increasing irrelevance. They cannot possibly hope to represent even a significant fraction of those who identify as LGBT and without adversity to push against (and the corresponding political purpose) they basically have to follow the money. That money lies largely in pictures of semi-naked attractive people and celebrities – things which are common to most lifestyle magazines, whichever ‘culture’ they are seen to represent. Indeed, one person who works on these magazines told me not too long ago that they had tried to move away from this template but every time they tried, sales went down. I imagine this would be true for FHM, Heat or GQ just as it would be for Attitude. They all have their audiences – but only the ‘gay’ publications are faced with the unrealistic expectation that they will represent everyone who identifies as a certain sexuality. A point Burston inadvertently makes himself – if it’s ridiculous that Grindr is seen to represent “gay culture” and there is no corresponding claims made for “straight culture”, why then think that GT or Attitude should be seen differently from any of these other magazines?

In ridiculing the idea that all gay people might like Kylie Minogue or Pride parades, we have the core of the problem – there is no over-arching culture or identity which all gay people share solely because of their sexuality (certainly not the scene). A new magazine set up in opposition to a particular (stereotypical) version of ‘gay culture’, then, is merely chasing the money of a different market from other gay magazines – here it is clearly gay people who see themselves as better than all that naff, horrid stuff Burston mentions. Far from destroying the perceived problem of a “ghetto, with a narrow view of the world beyond”, Gaze offers only a different way of walking through it. If I want to reclaim “all of culture”, I don’t need the prism of condescending gay people to do so. I can read London Review of Books, Adbusters and Private Eye without feeling the need for them to assure me that they know I’m gay. Even more shockingly, I can read these magazines and still go to Soho and dance to Kylie Minogue or look at Grindr. The issue isn’t that we need people to argue for more than one way to be gay, it’s that ‘gay’ is not an absolute identity in the first place and we shouldn’t try to make it one. That is the real freedom afforded by the advances made in the past 50 years. So by all means read your ‘Modern Review’ – just don’t labour under the illusion that it makes you any better than people who get pissed in G-A-Y (and certainly don’t think so when you’ve already been there and done that yourselves).

(H/T to @Fagburn for bringing this to my attention)

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So Attitude magazine has put David Cameron on the cover. Not in itself a bad thing – there is an argument to be made that an interview with the potential next Prime Minister is a coup and that his record on gay rights should be tackled. What makes it a bad thing is the context and the ridiculous way that the magazine has went about it.

First, the context. Over the past 3 months the magazine has interviewed the leaders of the three main parties – Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and now Cameron. The latter is the only one who has been given the cover. I’ve no doubt that the magazine would argue that this is because he is the most likely to be the next Prime Minister – the truth is that the former two leaders giving an interview to a gay magazine is not particularly noteworthy because their/their parties support for gay rights is well-established. Attitude know that Cameron being on the cover will garner attention from the ‘mainstream’ press because of the Tories’ appalling history on gay issues.

Now, again this could be excused with the arguments in the first paragraph. Indeed, the magazine trumpets the fact that Cameron is interviewed by ‘one of his most vocal critics’ and has a feature preceding the interview examining the history of the Tory party on gay issues. The interviewer does manage to make Cameron squirm on a couple of occasions, but more often he is allowed to be evasive and vague. A critical reader will take this as damning behaviour, but those looking to believe in Cameron’s conversion to the cause of gay rights will be able to read far more positive interpretations into the vacuum.

The final thing which renders Attitude’s decision to put Cameron on the cover utterly indefensible is their bizarre, patronising decision to have an ‘alternate’ cover consisting of…a model in his underwear. Featuring the tagline, ‘Think politicians are pants? Then here’s a man in some!’. The magazine knows full well that many of its readers will be appalled by its decision. Rather than have the courage of its convictions, it pretends that many gay people are so idiotic that they will be turned off not by the fact that a Tory is on the cover but by the fact that it’s a politician. Because we’re gay, and we like fit men, see? At once Attitude is saying ‘This is important! We tackle Cameron on gay rights’ and on the other saying, ‘You might find this a bit boring cos it’s politics lol’. It’s breathtaking.

Make no mistake, the fact that Cameron is on the cover when Brown and Clegg weren’t (not even on ‘alternate’ covers) will be seized upon by many Cameron supporters as further evidence of his and the Tories’ conversion to the gay cause. Completely irrespective of the contents of the interview. It’s symbolic and will be taken as an endorsement.

I honestly believe that no gay person could seriously believe that Cameron thinks that they are equal to heterosexuals (not deep down – I do believe that some gay people have convinced themselves that Cameron is onside, because supporting a political party is frequently like supporting a football team). He was still supporting Section 28 in 2003. His converstion to the cause happened when he wanted to be the party leader. Such a swift turnaround tells me not that he deeply realised the error of his ways, but instead that he realised the British public had long since moved on in their attitudes and he had to follow to have any hope of winning power. For that reason he cannot possibly be trusted, and Attitude are being completely irresponsible in playing coy with him..