The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
stpjan_000

Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

Edward Carpenter

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Despite their near-50 year relationship providing the inspiration for E.M. Forster’s famous Maurice, it’s only in recent days that Edward Carpenter and George Merrill have registered with me. Carpenter in particular is the kind of figure every LGBT figure in the UK should know, the kind I feel ashamed to have been ignorant of.  A socialist, he is identified as being one of the pioneers of the gay liberation movement while being an instrumental figure in the labour movement (he helped found the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party). He seems to have led a relatively open, if careful, life as a gay man and it’s profoundly affecting to see photos of him with his partner(s) or read his declarations of love:

Dear Ted,
. . . I shall be glad to see thy dear face again as I have such longings to kiss those sweet lips of thine. I will wait till I hear from you, first. So I must close dear heart as I am feeling a little low and lonesome. I’m always with thee every night in spirit,
fondest love from your dear Boy G XXX.”

This was, after all, the age of the Oscar Wilde trials. This book review-cum-life summary by the magnificent Colm Tóibín is essential reading, with this paragraph describing Carpenter’s first encounters with Merrill being particularly touching:

In 1891 Carpenter met the love of his life, George Merrill. He spotted Merrill on a train, where they ‘exchanged a few words and a look of recognition’. Merrill got off at the same station as Carpenter and shadowed him and his companions as they walked in the countryside – Carpenter was a great walker. Carpenter moved away from his friends to speak to Merrill, and secured his address. Merrill was 22 years younger than Carpenter and from a working-class background. He had had a number of homosexual relationships with older, wealthier men before he met Carpenter. He knew what he was looking for. Merrill, Carpenter saw, was ‘at ease and quite himself in any society, aristocratic or vagabond’. He delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’ and loved the fact that his new companion appeared not to know too much about Christianity. (On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night at Gethsemane, Merrill asked: ‘Who with?’) The relationship between the two, which lasted almost four decades, is one of the best-charted versions of homosexual life in this period, rivalling in its documentary value the lives of Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement, and differing from them in its calm, domestic bliss and lack of a tragic ending.

As LGBT people I think we generally know too little of our history – particularly when it is not easily framed to be made more palatable for our tastes. There’s an issue in that versions of it are often pushed into modern contexts, made to serve our current obsessions and identifies. So, for example. The Normal Heart presented modern LGBT history as a teleological journey towards marriage and a movement dominated by affluent white men. I’m sure Carpenter and Merrill could be presented in a similar way, not least as it was Carpenter’s position and means which made it much easier for him to push boundaries. His politics would be secondary to the romantic love and individual ‘bravery’ he showed in attempting to live an ‘authentic’ life (said authenticity is always dictated by an apolitical sexual identity in these things).  Indeed, while the presentation for mass audiences of the solidarity shown between gay people and miners in 1984 is something we’d have found unimaginable not long ago, by all accounts the violent class war at the heart of the miners’ strike is buried beneath a ‘heartwarming’ tale of overcoming difference in Pride. This negation allowed our insipid gay media to joyously embrace the film – I’m not sure if it’s hilarious or depressing that Attitude awarded it ‘Best Film’ at an award ceremony sponsored by, and heavily promoting, Virgin Holidays. Lest we forget Richard Branson’s own relationship with ‘solidarity’:

…Branson talks about looking after his workers and no doubt being a part of the Virgin empire has its perks. But he has a deep antipathy towards unions and does everything in his power to dissuade his employees from joining them. In 2009, when his airline was losing money, Branson cut its workforce by 15 per cent. The working conditions for those who remained were not good, despite Branson’s repeated protestations that the test of any business is the way it treats its employees. In 2011, Virgin America’s flight attendants attempted to join the Transport Workers Union. The union’s director complained of Virgin Atlantic’s employment practices, saying that ‘promises regarding rest, vacation and benefits are often broken, and discipline for minor violations can be unnecessarily harsh and inconsistently applied.’ Branson was appalled, not by the accusations, but by the thought of the union muscling in on his territory. He resorted to his traditional strategy of accusing the TWU of being an outmoded and inefficient monopoly. He told his staff that joining would take their ‘independent spirit and uniqueness away’. ‘Say “no” to the old way of flying,’ he told them, ‘and say “no” to the TWU.’ He won a tight ballot and his business remained non-unionised.

It’s precisely because of this tendency to strip our history of any radicalism which threatens to explode our current identities, both sexual and political (of course the two are not separate, despite current mainstream LGBT culture depending on the notion that they are) that it’s extremely important we make the effort to educate ourselves. This isn’t some finger-wagging exercise in ‘respecting what came before’ but rather an essential foundation for understanding who we are and what our movement means both ideologically and socially. This is necessary across the board – the Scottish independence referendum exposed a woeful grasp of even relatively recent history, an ignorance which many are still exploiting (brilliantly tackled by the pro-independence Gerry Hassan here). Yet as any regular reader will know, I have a particular frustration with the utterly dire state of LGBT politics and its inability to approach modern identity and its relationship to/use by power with any critical thought could be argued to have many of its roots in its ahistoricism.

So look at Edward Carpenter and George Merrill; at what they stood for and what they still represent. Those links between radicalism, sexuality and love may be weakened and obscured but they are still there. In discovering them we find ourselves anew; we understand our power both as people and as a community. As Carpenter wrote in Towards Democracy:

Stronger than all combinations of Capital, wiser than all the Committees representative of Labor, the simple need and hunger of the human heart.
Nothing more is needed.

Farewell, then, Ben Summerskill. We barely knew you. Can it be a coincidence that his departure came only a week after I blogged about the “self-serving and ultimately pointless” Stonewall Workplace Equality Index? Who can say? What I can say is that he name searches and as a result tweeted me to accuse me of ‘bullying’ as a result of my repeated criticisms of the organisation, which is a bit silly.

Some of my other blogs about Stonewall and its brand of politics:

Whatever good it may once have done I think Stonewall has become a largely useless organisation (I mean, its latest campaign needs no comment from me) which lends its services to the murky practice of pinkwashing dubious companies and organisations. There is much worth reading out there about its terrible record on transgender equality, while some have already noted its terrible boldness in claiming marriage equality as its own given that it was a very late convert to the cause.

This great piece touches on many of the current problems with ‘gay politics’. Ostensibly a look at a book which claims to ‘de-mythologise’ Matthew Shepard, it manages to be wide-ranging in its critique. The lede (“Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases”) is a succinct skewering of the banal clicktivism which passes for much current gay politics, with its endless e-petitions and inaccurate memes. Its questioning of why so many need Matthew Shepard to have been an ‘innocent’ in every possible sense (rather than a rounded human being who was the victim of an awful crime) is also highly relevant. I think this mentality in part feeds into why gay politics is so terrible when it comes to, for example, issues of immigration or why there is tunnel vision on Russia’s treatment of its LGBT citizens and not other marginalised groups.’Gay identity’ must be essentialised and presented as ‘pre-politics’ so that any perceived attack on it can be portrayed as an attack on ‘innocents’. Issues of immigration, sex work, drug use or even foundational questions of social justice are seen as post-politics: they are messy, complicated and open to debate because the ‘victims’ are not innocent but rather viewed as partly complicit. This also offers much to our understanding of why groups like Stonewall have had almost nothing to say about Chelsea Manning, who is seen to be targeted for her actions in leaking information rather than for being LGBT and so unworthy of attention. This piece interestingly presents this as a pathology of the wider left:

However well intentioned, the urge to treat Matthew Shepard as a blameless angel demonstrates so many of the pathologies in contemporary social liberalism. First is the left’s attraction to heroes and martyrs — a drive to personalize and individualize every issue, in a way that seems to directly cut against the theoretical commitment to identifying structural causes for social problems…

This seems very compelling to me and I’d extend it to include an attraction to villains and victims. Witness the endless Daily Mail-bating and the trend in current feminism to take endless photos of sexist products on supermarket shelves. These are big, complex structural issues reduced to us and them, and the ‘goodies’ tend to be the victims. Rather than argue for systemic change or a social justice which encompasses everyone we increasingly seem to focus on the ways in which we as good, deserving individuals are targeted by the bad guys – a mentality which surely ultimately leads to a cul de sac?

I’m not so lacking in self-awareness that I ignore the piece’s references to a :

proud, self-aggrandizing radicalism…the superior virtue of a radicalism that…had little personal investment, little risk. 

It is of course always important to acknowledge the value of incremental, practical gains. It’s also important to recognise, acknowledge and interrogate your own privilege, one which in my case allows me the luxury of exploring these issues in a blog without facing persecution or violence for it. In terms of LGBT politics this is particularly the case in the US, which clearly lags behind much of Europe in terms of LGBT rights. For all my issues with Macklemore and Same Love (and indeed with the gay marriage movement) for example, I can still acknowledge that it was quite a major deal for an American staple like the Grammys to prominently feature same-sex marriage. Crucially, however, this does not mean that any of this should be beyond critique. Many of the criticisms of Stonewall and wider gay politics could be met with ‘but they’re doing something good!’, an assertion which has the ring of a truism about it yet contains multitudes in terms of unchallenged ideologies and assumptions. We cannot allow critical thought to (further) be eroded by the oppressively banal ‘cult of positivity’ which, in guises such as twee/cupcake fascism, seeks to drain the politics (the conflict) from daily life and replace it with a reactionary detachment and ‘niceness’.

This takes me back to Stonewall and how criticism of its work is framed as ‘bullying’. This riposte hinges on the ‘fact’ that it’s doing ‘nice things’ and so should be beyond reproach (an argument which was also made to me re: Ben Cohen). But this presents politics as a zero sum game where people and actions can only ever be ‘good’ or bad’ and where the politics of the ‘goodies’ is all that can be seen to exist. This is not the case. Interrogating these assumptions can help us understand the ideology behind them; they can help us understand our world in a deeper, more critical sense. In this way we can begin to see that our activism is not inherently good and we are not heroes for engaging in it. Indeed, sometimes our well-intentioned activism can be harmful and sometimes it can rest on mistaken assumptions about people which come from the blindness of our own privileges. Rather than seeking to further mystify this by presenting critics as ‘baddies’ who need to be shut up, we should be open to it and the insights it can offer. We should celebrate it, even. Critique is not the enemy of action:  our politics can encompass both and it’s necessary that they complement each other.

Ben Summerskill steps down as Stonewall boss

This touches on similar themes raised in the book discussed here regarding ‘emotional labour’ and the contemporary emphasis on a banal, uncritical persona in the workplace. The article doesn’t go far enough in that the consensus on ‘positivity’ and the idea that critical, intelligent thought = ‘negativity’ has spread far beyond the workplace. It’s been easy to observe in the response to the Jubilee and Olympics, though I didn’t appreciate just how disinterested or plainly contemptuous many people were regarding the Olympics. The disconnect between popular culture, the political elite and ordinary people has been quite staggering, though the chorus of voices labelling the cynicism as ‘typical’ British ‘negativity’ has never been far away.

More than this, however, the fetishising of insipid ‘positivity’ stretches across culture and even into how we conduct our friendships. Sure, the ironic distance which stretches ever more widely around individuals creates the appearance of a cynical, sarcastic disengagement with everything and everyone; this, however, is a passive, empty gesture. Serious criticism and discussion which is less than enthusiastic is seen as tiresome at best, beyond the pale at worst. This is particularly the case with gestures which are ostensibly ‘good things’, such as pop stars and politicians saying nice things about gay people or companies donating 2p from their products to charity. Indeed, both have been combined by former rugby player Ben Cohen in his ‘Ben Cohen Foundation’ which advertises itself as “the world’s first foundation dedicated to anti-bullying”. Aside from the odd blog post which expresses dismay at links with organisations such as Nike with poor labour records and confusion at what the Foundation actually does, the response to this has been overwhelmingly positive. Ben has appeared on the cover of both the main gay magazines in the UK, lauded as a hero. When he first appeared on the cover of Attitude, I had a few questions. For example, did all of the profits from the StandUp brand go back into the Foundation to fund charitable work? Did Ben Cohen make any personal financial gain from the brand and/or the personal appearances he makes which are even tenuously connected to it (which range from speaking engagements to signing underwear in Prowler)? Had the Foundation engaged with existing anti-bullying charities from the moment of its inception in order to figure out how it could best help? Suffice to say, the response I received was almost entirely dismissive and accused me of being ‘negative’. Yet it seems completely reasonable to me that a celebrity launching himself into an area he has little previous connection with other than profiting from the ‘target market’ should be questioned and not instantly celebrated. The same is found with any questioning of, say, Lady Gaga’s ‘pro-gay’ utterings. Even more perversely, it was a fairly common reaction to my blog pointing out that the recent ‘hanged gay men’ photo from Iran was actually not what it was being presented as at all. For pointing out that a lie had spread across the globe within 24 hours and been unquestioningly repeated by many high-profile outlets and individuals, I was called an apologist for the Iranian regime. The idea that those in power may have an interest in such lies was not one worth the slightest of consideration, just as the idea that the Jubilee and Olympics may have purposes beyond joyful celebration has been frequently dismissed.

In short, critical thinking is increasingly seen as ‘being negative’ and the questioning of dominant narratives, particularly ostentatiously ‘liberal’ ones, is sneered at. I realise that the examples above make it sound like I am presenting myself as some wonderful seeker of truth – I don’t wish them to. I merely think that we should all do more to question the world around us, from our workplace to our media to the way we conduct our relationships. Dismissing someone as ‘negative’ is incredibly easy and, increasingly, incredibly trite.

Coercion and Comic Sans: How “Positive Thinking” Became Capital’s Latest Weapon

My attention was drawn to this by Dorian Lynskey’s column today. I’ve never seen it before and it’s quite remarkable. Not least because I am frequently accused of ‘negativity’ and it sums up the response to that very succinctly. It’s full of lines I’ve found myself saying to @wotyougot in recent months during one of our frequent conversations where we try to shape out our personal manifestos.

I particularly drawn your attention to this quote:

Of course, these days it’s more fashionable to be positive. I hate positivity. The problem with positivity is that it’s an attitude that’s decidedly about lying back, getting screwed, and accepting it. Happily. It’s totally apolitical. It’s very, very personal and one-on-one. It’s not about changing society, it’s about caring about yourself. In fact, it’s totally about ignoring one’s economic role in society, and so it works in favor of the system.

You quite frequently come into contact with people, especially in London, who hold up ‘positivity’ as a personal mantra. They frequently work in PR and marketing. Almost without fail, their ‘positivity’ takes the form of refusing to engage in any ‘contentious’ issue and instead only engaging in banal chat about rubbish. On the rare occasions when they do express an opinion about something more substantial than ‘TOWIE’, they are utterly apologetic about it. They convey the impression of being shadows rather than human beings.

Of course, an empty, kneejerk nihilism can be just as pointless. As this piece makes clear, a valuable ‘negativity’ comes from thinking critically about the world around you and trying to deconstruct its dogmas. From feminism to neo-liberalism, from civil rights to the Olympics, from pop music to privatisation – no subject should be seen as ‘off-limits’ to questioning. That is surely how we, both as individuals and a society, learn and refine?

Hatred can be “positive”

For 20 years they have remained a vital link to a pre-Thatcherite culture of working- class pride, bringing values of self-education and critical thinking to those born in its wake.

This review may be inconsequential (and incorrect – it’s not a ‘farewell collection’) but that final paragraph just about sums it up perfectly. Given how much I bang on about self-education and critical thinking, it’s no wonder I adore them.

http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/111672

‘Reasonable’

I read this comment earlier in a discussion about Johann Hari, but it could (sadly) be applied to countless ‘liberal’ writers. ‘Reasonable’ is the thing to be. This means framing the debate in centre-right terms, smearing anyone an inch to the left of you as a lunatic ‘Trot’ and being seen as eager to ‘compromise’ with those to the right. The editorials in The Guardian/The Observer are particularly adept at this.

“He’s a thin end of a thick wedge that attempts to discredit any thought outside a thin veneer of acceptable public and political life by smearing it in whatever way he thinks necessary. I’m not ever gonna defend someone who negates innovative thinking like that, or radical questioning politics. This stuff creates far more intellectual zombies than a month of Suns, precisely because people assume it’s critical.”