Cars For All The Gays!

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I’ve written a lot in the past few years on how gay identity has been commodified as it has concomitantly become ‘respectable’ and divorced from the wider social justice movement which was once integral to it. As I wrote here:

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’.

I’ve also written about how  “flattering the victimhood” of the “right kind” of queer (the white, cisgender, middle-class kind) has become its own industry. All of these strands come together in the quite staggering case of Ellen Degeneres and a company called ‘Shutterfly’ gifting $10,000 to two ‘Youtube star’ model twin brothers because they filmed a coming out video ‘for their dad’.

There is no aspect of this that doesn’t cause me to shake my head in disbelief despite myself. These two professional models apparently moved to LA to ‘try and make it’, which in itself already suggests they’re not exactly on the poverty line. Prior to their appearance on Ellen they had Instagram and Youtube accounts which were already very popular (by the usual standards of these things), no doubt due to their almost exclusive focus on the pretty faces of these two men rather than their profound thoughts. I find it difficult, then, to find their ‘coming out’ video as anything other than them attempting to commodify their sexuality in order to boost their profile. This isn’t particularly ‘out there’ for two guys who are already commodities in a myriad of ways but it speaks to that peculiarly 21st century blend of marketing, liberalism and ‘othering’ which typifies ‘The Gay Angle’. In this instance we have another element – confessional social media. It wasn’t enough for these men to tell their dad that they were gay – it had to be filmed, shared with millions of people and it had to be presented as an inspirational story. The packaging is so clichéd that I find it impossible to believe that the twins (or at least their management) weren’t aware of the increasing tendency for ‘coming out’ Youtube videos to go viral, just as any celebrity or public figure who comes out instantly becomes a heroic figure (as long as they’re easy to patronise and don’t make anyone uncomfortable). They’re the ‘right kind’ of queer making the right noises: these handsome professional models, living in LA and by their own account out to almost everyone in their lives are still victims. It’s tragic! Oh society, won’t someone think of the models in LA?!

Of course I can’t particularly berate these guys for doing what they can to get attention, especially when they clearly understand the cynical, dynamic power of ‘coming out’ (if packaged in the right way) far more than most of the media does. It was predictable that there would be a rush to congratulate them, to reward them, to confer ‘bravery’ upon them. It was somewhat less predictable that they’d be catapulted to The Ellen Show where they’d have money thrown at them by a stationery company. It’s almost a perfect storm of ‘gay as commodity’. The twins market themselves as appealing, brave gay victims. People rush to pat them on the head. Then talk shows and companies want in on the action, to be associated with this ‘model gay’ (pun intended).

On Twitter the user @PayItForward87 pointed out the absurdity of ‘helping’ the twins, contrasting their position with the rates of homeless LGBT youth and disproportionate rates of violence faced by queer people of colour and transgender people.

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It’s true, of course – that $10,000 could have made a real difference. Yet this neglects the fact that the Youtube video would never have gone viral, and the twins would never have ended up on Ellen, if it had included issues of race, poverty, homelessness and violence against transgender people. These issues are viewed as political. They’re viewed as messy, not least because they break down the neat distinctions between the ‘nice brave gay’ and the ‘nice tolerant liberal’ and instead implicate all of us. The twins feed into a homogenous conception of ‘gay identity’ which is stripped of all political content or context – indeed, they’re viewed in essentialist terms as being pre-political identities, almost new born babies in terms of their place in the world. We can be certain that if even these articulate middle-class white models had built their Youtube following by speaking about ‘radical’ politics, their coming out would not have reached far.

It’s incumbent on all of us, then, who do not wish to be packaged, patronised and apolitical to recognise this shit for what it is and to reject it. A vision of Oprah Winfrey shouting ‘You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! CARS FOR ALL THE GAYS!’ doesn’t seem particularly outlandish right now. And while it might be nice to get a free car, that is a profound degradation of our humanity and a deeply counter-productive attitude which cements us, as queers, as people to be tolerated as long as we behave ourselves, allow ourselves to be patronised and act grateful for it. We are not marketing opportunities.

Something Rotten: Mugabe’s Son, Tom Daley and Gay Identity

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We’ve seen before how quickly and widely misinformation can spread if it fits the right narrative. This is undoubtedly true in broad terms but I’ve tended to write about it with a particular, personal regard for LGBT issues. Because, truly, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It seems increasingly unavoidable to me that the mainstream LGBT (for which read: overwhelmingly white gay male) ‘community’ is underpinned by a collective delusion based on a peculiar mix of victimhood and self-regard. Critical thought is notable by its absence. The Maria Miller and ‘hanged gay men in Iran’ memes went unchecked and were widely shared because they reflected these ‘values’. They assured us that we were oppressed. It’s noticeable that much of this comes from  gay people who are privileged in many other ways – intersectionality requires us to be aware not only of the many different ways in which people can be oppressed but, crucially, the ways in which we may oppress others. Where is the cachet in this? There is none and so it’s largely absent and, if raised, derided. Instead we face a seemingly endless parade of stories detailing how awful things are for us, with the truth being largely irrelevant. A story about a ‘teenage gay couple’ kicked out of McDonalds while ‘celebrating their anniversary’ went viral – it turned out they weren’t a couple, weren’t gay and weren’t even kicked out. Evidence of the awful homophobia faced by a waitress in America travelled around the world in hours – it now appears that it was a cruel hoax perpetrated by the waitress herself. The corrections to these stories are, of course, never shared with remotely the same zeal. Where’s the fun in truth if it doesn’t victimise us? Indeed, given that those of us living in the ‘democratic’ West face less and less problems due to our sexuality, there’s been a marked upswing in stories about how awful things are for gay people in other countries. Aside from serving the narrative these stories have the added bonus of being difficult to check. So there is little to no engagement with the people who actually live in these countries, little to no efforts made to listen to them and be led by them. Instead their oppressions become ours and we do with them what we like.

We saw this on Thursday when a ‘story’ about Robert Mugabe’s son being gay quickly spread across the internet. Despite originating on a website no-one had ever heard of, relying on suspiciously vague sources and being about a son who doesn’t actually exist, the report got as far as being reported on one of the main LGBT news sites in the UK (now altered to try and save their embarrassment.) People began to realize that the story was a hoax within the hour…yet even today I can still see it being shared. At a glance you can understand the appeal of the story – notorious homophobe has gay child. Karma! If you think about it, though, it’s actually a pretty twisted one. If it had turned out to be true you would imagine that life for the son would have been pretty difficult and there’s something rather perverse in celebrating homosexuality as a ‘punishment’. Yet this was irrelevant to the ‘lol gotcha!’ angle from which people were reporting it. Now, of course, the story has nothing to offer us and so the treatment of gay people in Zimbabwe will be forgotten until the next e-petition. As for discussion of wider issues in Zimbabwe – a non-starter.

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The concern with our own sexual identity rather than with the truth can also be seen today in the response to Tom Daley’s rather low-key assertion that he’s in a relationship with another man. Daley explained that he was motivated to speak out to correct misconceptions, stated that it shouldn’t be a big deal and went to pains to point out that he was still attracted to girls. This rather measured approach was almost immediately lost in a frenzy of ‘Tom Daley is gay!’, ‘Tom Daley is one of us!’  and ‘Tom Daley is so brave!’ hysteria. There was almost instant recourse to that favoured trope, the tormented gay kid, to emphasis the earth-shattering importance of the ‘announcement’. Daley’s concern with misrepresentation and his avoidance of labelling himself became irrelevant; indeed, while some have stated that he’s ‘come out’ as ‘bisexual’, others have dismissed this and claimed him as ‘gay’ (Pink News did and have since altered the headline). The crucial thing is that he’s no longer ‘Tom Daley, diver’ but rather ‘Tom Daley, LIKES MEN, IS BRAVE’. The need to align this calm announcement with the victim narrative is unsurprising but is instructive of the patronising and simplistic way in which we handle these matters. We can’t even grant teenagers the right to identify themselves (or, indeed, to not identify as anything). We can only deal in absolutes and, regardless of Daley’s wishes, he’s now a gay role model who can save other gays. His sexuality isn’t his any more – somebody think of the children!

What the hell is going on? We trample over facts with complete disregard and dehumanise anyone who ventures a sexual interest of any kind in their own sex, all to maintain the particular notions of sexuality which our identities rely on. How can this possibly be viewed as a good thing? Who exactly is it supposed to be helping? If we’re in the business of imagining kids who need saviours, it’s perfectly conceivable that someone struggling with their sexuality will be repelled by the strict, delineated identities which we deal in. You will be gay, it will be the core of your being and you will be a victim. This is what the transgressive defiance of Stonewall has transmuted into and it’s ugly. Rather than spending all of our time looking for homophobic bogeymen we should take the time to think about our own attitudes and the assumptions about sexuality which underpin them. As I’ve written before, the kind of world we speak of wanting seems to be one in which people can be whomever they want in terms of sexuality; our rhetoric and actions, however, completely contradict this and demands clear (and oppositional) identities. We can do better than this. We can be better than this. More and more it seems that the approach of Western gay politics is in many ways a barrier to ‘equality’.

EDIT – 12/12/13 An edit to include a particularly egregious illustration of the above from noted gay neocon Andrew Sullivan. Apparently Sullivan knows Tom Daley’s sexuality better than Tom himself does. Quite some feat! You can hardly get a better example of the dehumanizing that I wrote about than Sullivan’s hideous bet that “Daley will never have a sexual relationship with a woman again.” Placing bets on the future sexual activity of teenagers – doesn’t it make you proud?

Sullivan knows that Daley can’t possibly be attracted to women because saying so is a “a classic bridging mechanism” – one that he deployed too. Yes, Sullivan said he fancied women and men but didn’t really, so everyone else who says so is clearly lying. As arguments go that’s up there with the attacks on trans people which go ‘well I liked playing with dolls but I didn’t have to change my gender to do it!” It’s not just unsophisticated, it’s downright stupid.

Sullivan also wheels out that hoary old argument about how male bisexuality isn’t really a thing “because male sexuality is much cruder, simpler and more binary than female.”  Leaving aside the role of gay men like Sullivan in perpetuating this with their sneering demands that people ‘take sides’, his dire analysis that this state of affairs is “much more nature than nurture” completely neglects the role played by patriarchal society. I wrote a bit about that here but suffice to say, given that science has yet to provide any semblance of a clear ‘explanation’ for sexuality, I don’t have much faith that Sullivan has much of a foundation for his assertions beyond his own prejudices.

 As I wrote above – Daley’s sexuality isn’t his anymore and while Buzzfeed and HuffPo may trawl the internet for the inevitable homophobic responses, any sophisticated analysis has to take account of the unhelpful prejudices found in many gay people.

‘Coming Out’ and being gay

I told my brother I was gay when I bumped into him in a nightclub one random Friday evening. I was very, very drunk and the next day I only had a vague recollection of the previous night. When I finally got out of bed and went downstairs my brother was sitting at the family computer. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Did I see you last night?

Brother: Yes

Me: Did I say anything?

Brother: You said you were gay.

Me: Oh

Brother: Are you?

Me: Yes

Brother: Do you remember me telling you I split up with my girlfriend?

Me: UM BACK TO MY ANNOUNCEMENT PLEASE

It’s always stuck with me because of all the initial reactions, it was the most matter-of-fact. My brother wasn’t appalled, he wasn’t upset, he wasn’t thrilled – he simply didn’t care. I was rather taken aback by this – not least because I had built it into such a HUGE THING in my head that I felt it demanded some massive acknowledgement. Yet of all the reactions I could have had, it was the most helpful. In one fell swoop it deflated the bubble I had created around my sexuality, letting out all of the anxiety and worry but also the self-importance and ego. One of the only people I had told before this was a school friend and when I think back now, I feel so sorry for him. I bored him to death about it, banging on and on about being gay and revelling in the difference. Of course I can’t beat myself (or anyone else) up about that – it’s perfectly understandable behaviour and my friend certainly never complained – but I quickly started to realise that we can make an issue of our sexuality just as much as others can, and if I wanted to be treated like everybody else then I would have to approach my sexuality as I would wish it to be approached.

It’s for this reason that I can’t get excited when a celebrity or politician says something ‘nice’ about gay people. Why should I be thrilled that someone has acknowledged my existence? Why should I feel grateful that someone is not a twat? The urge to gratitude is quite revealing of our own approach towards our sexuality, I feel, and it is an urge that countless clever politicians and celebrities have capitalised on. I’m not going to celebrate being seen as a token of someone’s liberalism and I’m not going to be grateful for being a target market which crap pop singers can tap into for some sales. Being gay says absolutely nothing about my politics, my beliefs, my tastes. If anyone thinks I should ‘naturally’ support a certain political party, go easy on a certain politician, buy a certain product because of their stance on ‘gay rights’, they need to have a long hard look at their own approach to the subject.

This is also why I have so little time for those who seek to use their sexuality as a get-out clause for their misdeeds. I’ve gotten into arguments before because I was so unsympathetic to David Laws and Lord Browne, two powerful individuals who were caught up in lies and misdeeds relating to their sexuality. It was expected that I should at least partly excuse them – because society is homophobic, their generation was homophobic, their work environments were homophobic, whatever. My attitude? Big bloody deal. How insulting to the countless people, gay or otherwise, who face hardships, trauma and obstacles and still somehow manage not to swindle the taxpayer or lie under oath to ask that I extend a get-out clause to two people who have had privilege handed to them on a plate. Sexuality does not begin to absolve us of personal responsibility – if anything, we should forcefully refuse to play the victim. Whatever issues they had, Laws and Browne were two adults in positions of power, enjoying all of the benefits that come with those positions. I had no sympathy. This urge to create images of gay victimhood is something I’ve written about before with reference to more extreme cases. It does us all an injustice.

The reason why all of this has occurred to me has been the reaction today to Frank Ocean’s blog about his ‘first love’. It should be noted that Ocean doesn’t actually ‘come out’ in this blog – if saying that your first love was male makes you gay/bisexual, then a hefty % of gay men must be straight/bisexual as many dated women and enjoyed it before coming out.  Indeed, this rush to push Ocean into a box, whether ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’, is part of the problem. It’s putting words in his mouth, making him into something which he doesn’t necessarily wish to be – not only in terms of his sexuality but in terms of being a ‘brave’ man. Maybe he just wanted to let us know about a lovely time in his life which has inspired his new album. Nothing more, nothing less. The rush to congratulate him, however well-intentioned, is enormously patronising and makes as much an issue of his sexuality as any homophobe would. Indeed, I did a twitter search for reactions to his blog and the vast, vast majority were supportive. Nonetheless, many of these were supportive while noting that he was ‘brave’ and would face problems from the hip-hop world. I didn’t see any that noted any actual negative response – instead it was an imaginary future persecution which has the added bonus of making the supporter seem extra-liberal. I previously noted the same reaction to the film ‘Weekend’, where I saw countless reviewers/viewers noting that it would make homophobes uncomfortable without ever taking a second to notice that homophobes were never going to watch ‘Weekend’ in the first place. Of course we can and should acknowledge context and recognise that homophobia is a real thing. We should not, however, begin from an automatic assumption of homophobia. If we want a world where being gay, straight, bisexual or whatever is truly no big deal then we should all act like it – and that means smiling at Frank Ocean’s nice story and letting him be whatever he wants to be without instantly trying to bend it to our own ends.