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.