Tom Daley, Jessie J and the Certainty of Boxes

We really, really don’t like it when people don’t fit neatly into boxes we understand. Boxes which, for one reason or another, we’ve been led to believe are ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’ and ‘the way things are’. Without wishing to downplay the very deliberate uses of power and historical processes which lie behind so much bigotry, it can be said that any identity deviating from straight, white, masculine, conservative, materially privileged male has to varying degrees suffered in our society’s past (and present). This fact has inspired great liberation movements, most notably centred on gender, race, sexuality and class, which have had made palpable gains and resulted in a UK where almost everyone is seen to be formally ‘equal’.

A lot of my writing, focusing on the LGBT movement, has attempted to parse this formal equality and ask if our liberation has become a barrier to lived equality. Much of the thoughts and ideas I draw upon are taken from feminist and anti-racist circles, where debates about the nature of equality and critique of mainstream movements which are ostensibly ‘on their side’ have a more notable and vocal modern history. The most obvious current example is the concept ofintersectionality which has so vexed many feminist writers with platforms. Despite its rise to prominence in the past year, the term was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and specifically arose from (and was applied to) black feminism. You can read more about it in this Bim Adewunmi piece. It’s interesting and not a little ironic that the current ‘debates’ about intersectionality have served to highlight how apropos the theory is. Oppressions and discriminations are not experienced identically by all members of any minority group and, indeed, can be actively perpetuated within these groups.

While it’s clear that the issues raised by intersectionality show no sign of being resolved any time soon, at least the theory has broken through in feminist discussions. The same cannot be said about the LGBT movement, which remains highly monolithic and stuck in its ways. There is next to no mainstream discussion (including within the mainstream LGBT media) of how our communities may actually perpetuate oppression. It was noticeable how swiftly Lily Allen’s gay fanbase attacked the notion that her ‘Hard Out Here’ video was racist, while consideration of wider racism within the LGBT community is largely confined to whether or not it’s acceptable to specify colour ‘preferences’ on Grindr etc (clue: it isn’t.)  The recent Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny was met with derision and condemnation, even when its assertions were being borne out by high-profile aspects of ‘gay culture’. As a community we don’t seem keen on self-examination, preferring instead to be validated by condescending marketing and anything we can grab hold of which assures us of our victimhood.

That piece on victimhood arose from consideration of biphobia and the supporting columns a sexual identity required in order to be viewed as ‘authentic’. What do people have to have experienced before we accept whichever label they’ve chosen as being truly them? As I noted in that blog, it’s fascinating how differently this plays out with women and men and this week has given us great illustrations of this with Tom Daley and Jessie J.

When Tom Daley made his video announcing that he was in a relationship with a man, I said that his sexuality immediately wasn’t his any more. Despite his care not to label himself and to state that he liked both men and women, he was widely reported as having ‘come out’ as gay. Even though some quarters corrected this, the overwhelming response from within the LGBT community seemed to be a very familiar one (seen in the Andrew Sullivan blog linked at the end of that piece)- that he was really gay and was just saying he liked women to make it a bit easier for himself (and for people around him). It was not only dishearteningly biphobic but seemed determined to shove a teenager into a neat box in order to make him more gratifying. It was with interest, then, that earlier this week I read various headlines announcing that Tom had said he wasactually ‘a gay man’. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the initial response for one second but it was impossible to begrudge the guy the chance to feel comfortable in his own skin.

It took me a few days to actually get around to reading any of the pieces and when I did, I was quite confused. I had previously assumed that Tom had given an interview but it transpired the headlines had come from Celebrity Juice, a supremely dumb show broadcast on ITV2. When I watched clips of the show I was even more dumbfounded: the words ‘I am a gay man now’ don’t actually leave his lips. Instead the very loud and overbearing host tells a clearly nervous Tom ‘you’re a gay man now’, to which he replies ‘I am’. And that’s about it. The word ‘gay’ is mentioned by the host a few more times and Tom seems unphased but he doesn’t make any point of renouncing any previous words. In fact he states again that he made the Youtube video to “be able to say what I wanted to say on my own terms, without anyone twisting anything.” From these spectacularly nebulous seeds came stories asserting that Tom Daley has admitted that he isn’t bisexual at all, declaring ‘I am a gay man now’“Tom Daley isn’t bisexual”Tom Daley has officially come out as gay”“‘I am a gay man now’, Tom Daley admitted” and perhaps best of all “I”m definitely gay not bisexual.”

Notice the use of ‘admitted’ there, from both mainstream and LGBT sites. His statement that he still fancied girls, made only 4 months ago, is treated like some flimsy pretence that everyone knew was just a bunch of lies really. To make it clear, I couldn’t care less what Tom Daley labels himself as – but taking the words ‘I am’ on a comedy panel show premised on the host taking the piss out of the contestants and turning them into the stories above is absolutely absurd. It underlines the urge for neat boxes and a narrative we understand – and ‘gay man says he likes women but actually only likes men’ is one we understand.

Contrast that with the response to Jessie J saying that she now only likes men,labelling her attraction to women as ‘a phase’. The liberal Guardian printed a column calling this ‘a shame’ (and hilariously asserting “I would never deny Jessie J, or anyone else, the right to define themselves, identify with whatever sexuality they want or reject labels altogether” – no, that’s what you’re doing in this column.) Jessie J’s full response was apparently penned after a furious online response to her initial declaration that she only liked men. I saw many responses stating that she had ‘betrayed’ and ‘exploited’ the LGBT community – this gay site says she used sexuality as ‘a fashion accessory’ and like The Guardian says that she’s fed the idea that bisexuality is a phase.

Are we seeing the fault lines here? Because they are really instructive as to how fucked up even ostensibly ‘progressive’ attitudes towards sexuality are and how powerful the grip of the victimhood narrative is on the LGBT identity. If Jessie J had written that liking men had been a phase and she was now gay, we would have accepted it in the blink of an eye. No-one has attacked Tom Daley for ‘undermining’ the bisexual identity, after all. I also suspect that if Tom later said he was straight the response wouldn’t be fury but pity – people would think he was lying to himself, not that he had tried to make himself seem more interesting by pretending to like men. We don’t even have to make that assumption – straight male celebrities do not receive furious backlashes for flirting with bi/homosexuality:

Instead they are fêted by the LGBT media and much of the community, treated as icons and allowed to pump us for all we’re worth.

When people assert that Jessie J has ‘betrayed’ the LGBT community, they should first stop and ask why said community is so quick and eager to elevate anyone and everyone who either lets us think we might be in with a chance of a fuck or simply says they like us…they really like us! They should ask why we’re so celebratory about straight celebrities who make the right noises about being receptive to same-sex advances. They should ask why we’re so tolerant of these ambiguities when we’re so insistent that anyone who ever feels a same-sex attraction CHOOSE THEIR LABEL and stick to it (though if they say they’re bi we’ll probably just ignore that anyway).

There is evident sexism in these differing responses, yes. There is also a modern and unhealthy relationship to celebrity, where we feel better placed to comment on the ‘real’ nature of these people than they do. There is an unappealing, immutable attitude towards sexuality – it’s presented as something we’re working towards, something we discover and come to terms with and then do not alter in any way for the rest of our lives. The ‘Born This Way’ idea. Who cares if we’re not? Are people any less deserving of respect, of happiness, if they ‘decide’ to switch sexuality at age 45 or have sex with a different gender, or people who don’t identify as traditional genders, each week?

That final point isn’t entirely facetious because the fixation on an immutable, clearly defined sexual identity seems interwoven with the dominant concerns of the modern LGBT movement. If we can get married, we can ‘settle down’. You don’t get a much more easily understood box than ‘married couple’ and that ‘respectability’ ties in nicely with the LGBT movement’s adoption not only ofdeeply conservative companies but of a wider anti-radicalism. Groups likeAgainst Equality which stem from at least 50 years of queer radicalism are ever-increasingly viewed as bitter cranks by the movement. And so we buy further into the racist, sexist, capitalist mores of mainstream society while becoming less and less tolerant of any critiques which might make us feel uncomfortable about this.

Yet as the different responses Tom Daley and Jessie J underline, it’s imperative that we ask difficult questions of ourselves and debate what ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ mean. The certainty of boxes might help marketers and make us a bit more palatable for homophobes but it makes us blind to our problems and diminishes us as people.

Victim

Last year I wrote about how Lady Gaga’s ‘real, terrifying genius’ was ‘the commodification and exploitation of victimhood.” This came after noting that ‘Born This Way’ celebrated gay as victim’ and reinforced ‘a central tenet of a commercialised gay culture.’ Indeed, the idea that gay identitity is inextricably tied up in being ‘a victim’ has been a common strand to my writing on LGBT politics and culture. That recent Stonewall survey, for example, went out of its way to present LGB people as a victimised group while the furore around Russia’s ‘anti-gay laws’ has been a good example of how this victimhood can be used to serve powerful agendas and narratives. It’s certainly possible to argue that the reason why issues like ‘Russia’ so quickly catch on with certain gay people while others are ignored or seen as more ‘complicated’ is because it so clearly feeds into widespread notions of persecuted gay people in ways which, say, issues of poverty or arms sales to Bahrain simple don’t. We could see this too in the response to the ‘Muslim homophobia’ hysteria in East London a couple of years ago. At the time I wrote about how there was little to suggest in contemporary reports that the horrific stabbing of Oliver Hemsley had been inspired by his sexuality. Yet it was immediately, widely presented as such on the basis that he was gay and had been stabbed. When violent crime as a whole in the area was discussed, not least stabbings (of young black men) which had occurred in the same area around the same time, I would often by told that they were nothing to do with gay people’. It was an odd, miserably blinkered view which had zero interest in anything that couldn’t be claimed as having been inspired by homophobia.

I was thinking about all of this again last night during a discussion about people who ‘come out’ or ‘experiment’ later in life, after years of (apparently) being ‘heterosexual’. There is a lot to think about and discuss in here, far more than I could do justice to in a Sunday afternoon. Anecdotally it’s more common for women to do this than for men and at least part of this must be tied up in questions of masculinity and sexism. As a culture we’re repeatedly presented with sapphic flirtation as something daring, exciting and arousing – it’s certainly a common trope in pop music and television shows – yet the same is not remotely true for men. A feminist perspective would invoke the ‘male gaze’ and patriarchy here. Whatever the reasons, though, the responses tend to be illuminating. If you’re someone who is perceived to have been living ‘in the closet’ and your ‘coming out’ fits nicely into the victim narrative – see Gareth Thomas or Jason Collins – your declaration is treated as something of a victory. This is the case even when your ‘coming out’ is used to excuse or justify amoral behaviour, as with Lord Browne or David Laws. It’s even the case when you’ve categorically denied being gay but then skilfully tie your announcement to victimhood, as Wentworth Miller recently did.

If, however, you’re perceived to be ‘dabbling’ or just not authentic enough, the reaction is very different. We can see this if we look at common gay responses to ‘straight’ women who acquire girlfriends or to bisexuality in general, with biphobia being a noted phenomenon within gay communities. There are reams written about this but what’s interesting about it for my purposes here is how this ties into the victimhood narrative. A real response which I was told of last night was that the pain and suffering of an ‘authentic’ gay life was invoked against the ‘insult’ of an adult female suddenly ‘deciding’ that she was gay. “I was bullied for being gay…it caused me years of torment…then this person can just overnight declare that they’re gay?!’ It’s fascinating here how suffering is presented as an integral part of being ‘gay’, an experience for which you almost earn points and become a more authentic gay person. The corresponding arguments are easy to imagine: this presents homosexuality as a choice, it’s flirting with someone in order to make oneself seem more interesting, they aren’t invested in their homosexuality like we are and can quickly revert if it gets too scary. If we think about this, though, it’s hard to ultimately see how a world where sexuality is seen as something people feel able to explore at will isn’t the kind of world which gay rights campaigners are fighting for. If ‘straight’ men felt that they could experiment with other male friends without judgement or negative consequence, wouldn’t this be a good thing with regards to homophobia? Does this make a gay person any less gay? I don’t think it does, yet the response suggests that many less want a world in which sexuality is largely an irrelevance than a world in which sexuality is clearly defined, clearly demarcated and where a ‘gay’ identity is forever and inextricably linked to victimhood. A world where you have the ‘right’ kind of gay and the wrong kind – a narrative which has been implicit in the ‘gay marriage’ debate’. I think Gaga recognises this and that’s why so much of her work rests on flattering the victimhood of her listeners – this is, after all, an industry in itself nowadays. In a very real sense, then, our own attitudes as gay people are to be examined with regards to sexuality and the kind of world we wish to live in. At the moment it seems like if we ever reached a promised land where our sexuality was as irrelevant as the colour of our eyes, plenty of gay people would lose all sense of identity overnight. That is a problem.