Portraits in Pride

It was with no little irony that, only days after I wrote on Barclays’ use of Pride to pinkwash its image, the bank was accused once again of corruption and fraud. Strangely, Barclays’ Twitter account failed to mention this. They’re probably too busy loving gays:

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They’re pink. Do you see what they did there?

This brilliant piece by @spitzenprodukte succinctly captured how (and why) Pride lost its way. Cleverly inverting the usual claim that the event is no longer political, he wrote that:

…’Pride in London’ will continue to support the values of the police and the establishment; the supremacy of property rights, marriage, the oppression and othering of people of colour, and racist attitudes towards foreign cultures. It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride. 

There is perhaps no greater illustration of Pride serving ‘the dominant ideology’ than the presence of arms dealer BAE Systems on the parade (covered by at least one other blogger this week). The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has good material on BAE where you can learn, for example, how it helped the despots in Bahrain crack down on pro-democracy protestors. This ‘crack down’ (a euphemism if ever there was one) led to over 90 deaths and the widespread use of torture. You can also read about BAE’s close ties to the regime in Saudi Arabia – by all accounts one of the most authoritarian and brutal governments in the world. It should be no surprise that LGBT rights in Saudi Arabia are dire, given that human and LGBT rights should be synonymous. As Pride reveals, however, mainstream LGBT politics is lacking any incisive notion of human rights and is easily swayed towards targets which serve the dominant ideology – as evidenced by the sound and fury over Russia compared to the relative silence on Western ‘allies’ such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (the latter two also being countries where BAE’s bloody prints are to be found).

The response from Pride regarding this (take from Symon Hill’s blog linked above) is extraordinary:

Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves

‘Change can from from within’? What does that even mean?! These people work for an arms dealer. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Pride wasn’t basing that response on any concrete evidence that BAE’s LGBT group have an agenda to make their arms dealer a bit nicer(!) but were rather grasping at straws. They become even more offensive when they speak of not being willing to ‘abandon and disengage’, as if the employees of BAE Systems are oppressed rather than being part of an oppressor. We will not ‘abandon and disengage’ with this arms dealer as they continue to profit from death, torture and destruction – some of them are LGBT! It beggars belief.

Of course, one central staple of the modern LGBT movement in countries like the UK is that most of the real problems are over there. It my be selective in the countries it fixates on, but the finger tends to be pointed firmly away from ourselves. As such there is no real pressure to consider the role of a company like BAE Systems in violating basic human rights. There is certainly no pressure to consider our own foreign policy and the role of our armed forces, who are also marching on the parade. In fact, the Pride site proudly trumpets:

28th June is also Armed Forces Day, and once again we are delighted and honoured to have members of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force marching in the Parade. 

This can easily be seen as part of the continuing militarisation of our civic life where an oppressively infantile attitude towards ‘OUR BRAVE BOYS’ becomes ever more unavoidable – witness Labour’s absolutely abhorrent plans to make ‘abuse’ of the armed forces a ‘hate crime’. This serves to shut down critical discussion of our foreign policy and the role of the military in it, as well as examinations of the military itself (e.g. the systemic reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape). Vron Ware’s entire Up In Arms series looking at these issues is essential reading.

Looking at the pressures to blankly cheer aggressve authority leads neatly to the presence of the MET Police on the Pride march. For a certain kind of Pride attendee, the MET will undoubtedly be the friendly face of ‘law and order’ in London – the nice people who come and help when you’ve been burgled, the attractive officer they send to ‘liaise’ with the LGBT community in Soho bars. Yet, somewhat ironically, if Pride were to have more explicitly political (and anti-establishment) aims you can be certain that the MET would not be marching but rather aggressively policing it as part of their efforts to intimidate and delegitimise protest. These efforts, lest we forget, have seen the police brutalise students and even kill innocent (not that it should matter) bystanders.

An awareness that policing is not some apolitical, neutral institution should be central to Pride which, after all, marks the anniversary of the riots against police which are iconically known as ‘Stonewall’. The radicalism of that event, and the fundamentally key role played in it by people of colour, trans people and sex workers, has been erased over time (look no further than the timid conservatism of the charity named after it). It’s highly relevant that the MET Police remains institutionally racist to the core – the view not of some cranky blogger but of itsown people. It is only a few months since the inquest verdict on the murder of Mark Duggan revealed the racist faultlines of the UK and shone some light on our racist policing. There is also transphobiacontinuing persecution of sex workers and widespread misogyny. The police’s role as an aggressive enforcer and defender of the state is clear, from its spying through its attacks on squatting to its complete lack of accountability for its brutality. In short, unless you’re a comfortable white cis male with no urge to protest or rock the boat in any way, you have no reason to cheer a police force which is unaccountable and out of control.

These are three of the most egregious examples of Pride’s service to the ‘dominant ideology’ but other Pride participants are like a who’s who in fraud, tax avoidance and other unethical behaviour: CitibankPWCMicrosoftDeloitte,VodafoneBPRBSKPMG. The conduct of each could be examined on its own but, as Losing Pride argues, their presence at Pride is testament to its transformation from a radical liberation movement which explicitly linked LGBT rights to wider social justice into one where visibility within injustice is an end in itself. And so:

Once you have reached the bar of being out and proud, any further structural or material concerns are a private matter, and unrelated to your sexual identity or politics.

And you can be certain that this will be the response of many to these concerns: what BAE Systems and co actually do is irrelevant, what matters is that LGBT people can be represented within them. Aside from being anathema to the foundations of Pride, this attitude is both fed by and feeds into the atomisation, individualisation and depoliticising which characterises modern capitalism. Legal ‘equality’ within a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, imperialist system which relies on the immiseration of the majority of humanity is no equality worth marching for. Rather than providing pinkwashing in return for some money, Pride should be a safe space of radical awakening. The links between LGBT liberation and wider social justice should be writ large and we should actively oppose the continued (and hypocritical) use of LGBT bodies and identity by companies which demonstrate time after time after time that their profit comes before human dignity.

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.

‘Gay Geeks’

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A lot’s been written on the commodification of the ‘geek’ identity – I’ve briefly touched on it myself – and a lot has been written about the commodification of the gay identity. Given the things they have in common (an attachment to ‘minority’ status, a foundation in excessive consumption, a strong sense of belonging to a larger group) it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s a big overlap between the two. In fact, it seems to me that the ‘gay geek’ is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) the dominant ‘identity’ amongst gay men. Just as it became unacceptable in polite company to be a banker, the stereotypical muscle-bound, preened, clubbing gay man is largely the object of derision and seen as hopelessly self-destructive. Instead, the gay scene is increasingly populated by ‘geeks’, with things like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, comics, Apple , games and ironic appreciation of 90s pop and/or reality tv being touchstones. Perhaps I’ve been in East London too long but the gay club nights which reflect this identity, relying on a deliberately lo-fi & retrograde aesthetic which harks back to London and New York in the 70s/80s, have certainly been spreading further afield.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the sexualisation of the geek aesthetic. If the airbrushed vanity of a club like Room Service is considered rather naff, that’s no reason not to hit the gym hard. Instead the exhibitionism is given a reason to be beyond self-love, whether that be a veneer of art, performance or the ironic detachment which saturates a million images of guys with embarrassed expressions wearing patterned H&M pants and sporting a toothbrush in their mouths. Indeed, it’s no surprise (and no mistake) that much modern ‘gay art’ concerns itself with this aesthetic and this identity.

Of course it’s not to be taken as a given that this is all a bad thing. The issue is less with the enjoyment of ‘geek’ pursuits than with the cementing of (yet another) identity based in purchase power and “the slow creep of media consumption as a mode of living”. These are things to be considered rather than dismissed. What caused me to put these brief thoughts down was this column in the Evening Standard today, one that seems to cement the status of the ‘gay geek’ as a new norm and, crucially, as one useful to capital. It repeats the oft-heard assertions that gay people are more educated and more affluent, referring to a study from The Williams Institute at UCLA. Yet read the link and you’ll see that the study is far more complex than the trite presentation in the column suggests. Investigate further and you’ll find that the same institution presented research suggesting that LGBT people were more likely to be poor than heterosexuals. The research is patchy to say the least but certainly seems to suggest that LGBT people are no better off than heterosexuals in the UK. Certainly a moment of consideration of the column’s assertions makes them seem odd given that we are constantly told that LGBT people are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, which have most definitely been linked to poverty.

What seems to be happening here, then, is that the ‘gay geek’ identity is conflated with the educated, professional (and overwhelmingly white, mostly male) demographic who seem to so dominate modern LGBT political narratives. It’s not surprising that the already privileged are more visible. The removal of ‘problematic’ LGBT people who experience poverty, aren’t ‘professionals’ and for whom a “a corporate commitment to gay rights” means absolutely nothing is not only evident, it’s insidious. Some anonymous executive is quotes as saying:

It is a cliché but the average professional gay person tends to be clever, probably not yet in a civil partnership and certainly not yet a parent. This means they can dedicate more of their time to their career and ultimately to our bottom line, at least for now.

The quote makes it absolutely clear that this ‘commitment to gay rights’ is only for some: if you have or plan to have children, if you aren’t university educated, if you have commitments and a life outside of work, the strong implication is that you’re of no interest. It’s a profoundly troubling quote, not least suggesting that a certain class of gay man is advancing over the backs of women who have the audacity to become pregnant. Yet it’s not parsed in any way whatsoever and is just presented as ‘proof’ that life for the ‘gay geek’ is dandy. We also have the strong whiff of homonationalism with the ‘revelation’ that the world’s third-biggest arms dealer BAE Systems is going to be “champion(ing) diversity aggressively among its workforce over the next year, starting with a co-sponsorship of the inaugural PinkNews awards in October.” Of course LGBT organisations lending their ‘gay is good’ cachet to dubious organisations is nothing new but this is still breathtaking. BAE Systems has a history of corruption and an enduring relationship with the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia (as well as other authoritarian regimes, including Egypt). It’s fair to say that LGBT rights in Saudia Arabia are not in a good place, just as human rights in general are not. It’s absolutely staggering that an arms dealer explicitly profiting in the oppression, injuring and murdering of people will be ‘aggressively’ championing ‘diversity’ at an event hosted by a British LGBT organisation.

What is the ‘gay geek’ here, then, if not a convenient reinforcement of the Western neoliberal social order? They are the ‘right’ kind of gay and, as such, fully deserve to be able to participate in and profit from the brutalising of those pesky brown people while ignoring the uppity queers who ruin it for everyone else with their poverty, their radicalism or their general awkwardness.

It’s a quite fascinating use of an ostensibly harmless identity. Of course there is a leap from the ‘gay geeks’ I describe at the start to the Evening Standard column and many who identify with the former will rightly find the latter abhorrent. Nonetheless, it does illustrate some of the potential pitfalls of tying our self-identity too closely to a larger group based on consumption and/or even on sexuality. Most importantly, it emphatically illustrates the axiom that the personal is political.