You can’t argue with that.
No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:
This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:
Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.
Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.
Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect
The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!”
Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.
The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).
Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.
This is Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, commenting on the UKIP at Pride debacle which has unfolded over the past few days. You will search in vain for an actual position on this from the UK’s foremost LGBT charity, though it’s not difficult to gauge what Hunt’s own position is:
With a few exceptions (Peter Tatchell supports UKIP’s removal; the editor of Pink News opposes it and dug up Brian Paddick to support this view) you will similarly struggle to find many of the LGBT community’s prominent organisations, media outlets and figures taking a position on this. There seems to be a widespread terror of being seen to be ‘political’ and offending anyone, as if ‘politics’ is some strange thing which exists over there and isn’t inherent in absolutely everything we say and do. Hunt’s tweets at the top have been typical of this approach, which presents the matter as merely a ‘disagreement’ within the LGBT community rather than a case of political choices being made over which voices and whose interests to prioritise.
It was a grim irony that the UKIP story broke only days after I wrote about Barclays again sponsoring Pride and the ubiquity of ‘pinkwashing’. There I wrote:
Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.
This could easily be applied to the UKIP situation, where many seem to believe that LGBT people supporting the party means that it is changing, more welcoming and thus should be allowed to march at Pride. The Chair of the UKIP LGBT* group was given a platform on Pink News to argue that case. Another Pink News column argues “we must remember that one of the core principles of Pride is that of inclusion of all LGBT people”. Twitter has been awash with (overwhelmingly white male) assertions that Pride is about ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance’ and so ‘different opinions’ should be welcomed. It’s notable that even Pride in London’s statement retracting UKIP’s invitation to march went to pains to endorse this line of thinking, stating that “we aim to unite our community, not divide it” and making the bizarre claim that the decision “has not been made on a political basis”.
This line of thinking presents those opposing UKIP as intolerant and divisive – a perverse framing of anti-racism which was seized on by the UKIP LGBT* Chair, who presented its members as a ‘brave’ victimised minority:
Oh the humanity! Won’t somebody think of the ‘kippers?! While many advancing this reasoning are at pains to stress that they don’t support UKIP, they commonly hold the view that UKIP are a legitimate political party, that its views are held by many people and that it deserves to be at Pride if LGBT people support it (this is usually alongside the deeply weird claim that UKIP’s LGBT* group, comprised of UKIP members and candidates and proposing to march under the UKIP name, aren’t actually UKIP).
I’m sure some brains will seize up here but this argument smacks of the (overwhelmingly white male) privilege which has dominated the LGBT movement for so long. These people think they are being coldly rational, defending a ‘right’ rather than any particular viewpoint. Yet in doing so they are choosing whose voices and interests matter to them. They are choosing to ignore the many people of colour, immigrants, HIV+ people, anti-racists and more who have spoken of their disgust, dismay and even fear at UKIP’s proposed presence on the march. “Your concerns don’t matter, we must be inclusive!” is the utterly self-defeating cry.
Yet invariably the people taking this line have been outspoken in their support for the banning of anti-gay bus adverts. They have been outraged by the refusal of a Christian baker to make a wedding gay for a gay couple. They have applauded the legal win against guesthouse owners who turned away a gay couple. They aren’t riding to battle for the ‘rights’ of the EDL and BNP to march in Pride, despite them being banned:
Let’s remember that the Pride march is not an open, public event for organisations – you have to apply, pay a fee and Pride in London reserve the right to refuse you. It is clear, then, that the issue is less that all these people defending UKIP’s ‘rights’ are hardcore free speech absolutists but that they are comfortable with the kind of speech UKIP represents.
It is no coincidence that, by and large, it is a rhetoric which poses no threat to a white, HIV-negative gay man, despite UKIP’s repeated and continued homophobia. By dropping its opposition to same-sex marriage, UKIP were tacitly embracing the totemic human-rights issue for many in the LGBT community and thus removing the major road block to LGBT support. They’re fine with gay people getting married: the end. Any consideration of how LGBT identity interacts with immigration, with HIV, with racism, with misogyny falls by the wayside: in dropping opposition to marriage, UKIP ceases to be a problematic ‘political’ case for many and just becomes another group which deserves to be heard, even if you personally don’t support it.
This is a political choice which clearly elevates some interests above others. It’s also a prime example of ‘white fragility’ where racism is viewed as an individual moral issue rather than a systemic ideology:
This is evident in many discussions of UKIP, where you will inevitably hear claims that ‘it’s not racist to oppose immigration’ and ‘you can’t label millions of people as racist’. ‘Racism’ is this terrible thing which you must never accuse someone of, an attitude which is endemic in the UK and beyond. To do so is to be divisive and worse, to be angry. You are ruining it for all of the lovely, rational, nice people!
Here’s the rub: UKIP is racist. It’s not racist in the sense that it has a few ‘bad apples’ or a few wacky policies, it is a fundamentally racist organisation. The founder of the party abandoned it stating (tw: racist language):
…the party ‘are racist and have been infected by the far right’, and that its leader Nigel Farage told him ‘we will never win the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.’
Its policies and support-base have had significant overlap with the far-right; it has been backed by the BNP, Britain First and EDL, with Tommy Robinson stating “they are saying exactly what we say in a different way”; its has countless links with the far-right and Farage has been photographed with prominent members of the National Front/BNP who viewed UKIP as allies; they have sat with fascists in the European Parliament and fought to retain funding for parties like the BNP; its tactics and appeal are a direct continuation of the far-right in the UK; it is opposed by every anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation you could mention.
The far-right thrive on attempting to divide communities and pose as the ‘common sense’ voice – this is why communities turn out in the streets to show united opposition to far-right marches. It’s also why unity of opposition to UKIP at Pride should have been a no-brainer: not only because we stand with the non-white, non-British members of the LGBT community but because we oppose all bigotry and all opportunistic attempts to use our community. Yet rather than engaging with critical, informed voices (I asked Pride in London if they’d spoken to a single anti-racist group about inviting UKIP and received no reply) we have people attempting to assert their dominance once again, telling themselves that they are being ‘liberal’ and ‘rational’ with (ironically) zero thought as to the choices and power imbalances which have brought them to this position.
It’s utterly shameful.
It’s interesting that there has been another, smaller storm around Pride this week as its plans to have Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners lead the parade fell apart when LGSM were informed they couldn’t march with their trade union comrades. This led me to discover that the TUC had suggested ‘Solidarity’ as the parade theme this year but the Pride Community Advisory Board chose ‘Heroes’ because:
…Pride is different things to different people and that the parade theme of ‘Heroes’ would provide a broad range of interpretations to allow all groups and people to find a way to engage with it. On a vote Solidarity received 1 vote and Heroes 7 votes with 1 abstention.
The irony here really is too much: solidarity rejected because it would involve actually leading and shaping what Pride is, rather than allowing every individual, including the racists, to ‘interpret’ however they want. With such cowardice it’s easy to understand how we got to the UKIP scandal. There is a glimmer of hope, however: the debacle has led to critical scrutiny of Pride which has only existed on the margins in recent years, with a burgeoning movement to ‘Reclaim Pride’. Even those defending UKIP have taken to highlighting the problem with a group like Barclays marching, or the racist immigration policies of the other parties (they do so thinking it’s a ‘gotcha’ moment rather than…a good point).
Pride is still held on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Despite historically illiterate attempts to portray these riots as being about ‘demanding a voice for everyone’, they were a revolt by people of colour, trans people, queers and the working-class against a racist, homophobic power structure. Radical, liberatory politics of social justice were absolutely central to the movement, which did not exist in a vacuum removed from Black Power or radical feminism. Inspirations like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did not fight so that racists could march with Pride – they stood firmly with the marginalised against the oppressors. This is what changes society, not racist LGBT people marching for racist organisations. We honour them by continuing that fight and opposing UKIP with every fibre of our beings.
Last month Barclays was handed the ‘largest ever’ bank fine in UK history over its role in rigging foreign exchange (forex) markets and ripping-off customers. This is, of course, only the latest scandal to be exposed at Barclays and comes after its fines for attempting to rig Libor rates and attempting to rig the gold market. Nothing sums up the rotten culture at the core of Barclays (a culture which, it must be said, is clearly not isolated to a single bank) than the forex chat logs which revealed one trader stating “if you aint cheating, you aint trying”. Charming stuff.
Given these continuing scandals and Barclays’ involvement in the arms trade, food price speculation, money laundering and propping up dictatorships (to name a few things we know about), it was somewhat amusing to see their involvement in a project aiming to provide retraining to sex workers. It seems to me that providing retraining opportunities to employees of the socially destructive Barclays would have a far more positive impact on the world. Finance workers deserve basic human dignity too!
Still, no matter what Barclays does it can be sure of some good press this month as it again sponsors London Pride. This is, apparently:
…just one of the ways in which we show our commitment to the LGBT community. At Barclays we want our colleagues, customers and clients to feel free to express who they are at all times.
Far be it from me to suggest that profiting from lying, defrauding, stealing, exploiting, firing, starving, suppressing and killing people isn’t much of a ‘commitment’ to humanity at all. That would of course be churlish when Barclays will undoubtedly once again roll out their ‘gay cash machines’ and have their LGBT network tweet a lot of Hallmark sentiments. Inspirational stuff.
In the few years since Sarah Schulman applied the term to Israel , the practice of ‘pinkwashing‘ has ramped up to become a ubiquitous element in the marketing of corporations and countries. As we see with Barclays, being seen to be ‘LGBT-friendly’ attracts a progressive sheen which is viewed as separate from the social activities your corporation or government may engage in; indeed, it can serve to largely obscure these for certain audiences. Witness how Russia has become the bogeyman of Eurovision for its government’s totemic attacks on LGBT rights, while countries with terrible human rights records such as Azerbaijan or Israel pass largely without comment (and in fact the Swedish winner made some absurd homophobic statements only last year – consider whether forgiveness would have been so swift had he not been an attractive white man from a ‘civilised‘ country).
It was not surprising in the least, then, to see that a group of businesses in Australia placed an advert in support of ‘marriage equality’ in the wake of the Irish referendum result. It’s worth quoting at length:
Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome said the corporations approached the organisation send the message that Australia’s business community was behind marriage equality.
“It was about corporate saying it’s not just about us individually supporting this, we want to do it collectively and send the strongest possible message,” Mr Croome said.
He said corporations understood the importance of respect for diversity in the workplace and equality for staff and customers.
“They’re also very sensitive of course to Australia’s international reputation … that is at risk of suffering if we don’t catch up to countries that are most like us — New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada and now, Ireland,” he said.
The businesses initiated the ad because they believe in ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ and are worried about lagging behind ‘countries that are most like us’. Mr Croome can be assured that his words won’t be parsed closely but they are quite illuminating if we consider them. I’ve written previously about how the ‘equality’ promoted by many ‘equal marriage’ proponents is only equality for some, a fact Emma Goldman could grasp back in 1911 (and that’s without even getting into the spousal veto). This is not in itself a reason to oppose the extension of marriage rights, of course, but it is an indication that we should be wary of uncritically accepting much of the rhetoric around a cause which is easily framed as a conservative one. These companies know that their ‘support’ will ensure that they are viewed as ‘progressive’.
There is a more insidious aspect of Mr Croome’s rhetoric – the notion that gay marriage in itself is a marker of countries ‘like us’, listing off a series of ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ countries. He even includes the US despite it not having nationwide same-sex marriage. It was, I’m sure, a statement with little thought or intent behind it but given the use of LGBT rights as a marker of ‘civilisation’, it offers us a glimpse of a weaponised ‘equal marriage’ movement. The implications of this are clear when we consider its application to e.g. the Commonwealth (it’s not often noted that South Africa legalised same-sex marriage in 2006) but it also serves to obscure other human rights struggles within the countries presented as ‘civilised’. The academic Alana Lentin has, for example, noted how Labor in Australia have introduced an ‘equal marriage’ bill just as they support proposals to make it possible to strip Australians of their citizenship – proposals which are clearly aimed at Muslims. In the UK, Stonewall chose to tweet about the Tory-led coalition’s ‘impressive record’ the day after the Tories won the election on a platform of massive welfare cuts, repealing the Human Rights Act, implementing the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and further demonising immigrants:
After the referendum in Ireland, meanwhile, we have seen a flurry of commentary on how the country has ‘joined the 21st century’ and was a ‘changed country’. While it’s undoubtedly significant that a country so dominated by the Catholic Church for so long made such a decision, it’s notable that much of the ‘movement’ behind marriage has quickly moved onto securing it in Northern Ireland while the fact that, for example. Ireland retains some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world was largely an afterthought. Feminist Katha Pollitt noted a similar situation in the USA, observing that ‘equal marriage’ “won’t fundamentally alter our social and economic arrangements” while full reproductive rights would be transformative.
Yet such commentary not only remains marginal, it seems to be becoming increasingly marginalised as pinkwashing spreads. Even from the sidelines it was clear that much of the troubling rhetoric the UK saw deployed in favour of ‘equal marriage’, such as bashing single-parent families or polyamorous relationships, was ramped up to 10 in the Irish referendum; the response to companies which make nods towards LGBT ‘support’, meanwhile, is almost entirely uncritical. Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.
“The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”
It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic – one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link – it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.
The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.
You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (although doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.
As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar.
This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.
Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.
There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:
There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died.
But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.
The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.
You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it – there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.
There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses. Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.
So what, some people will say – most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV – a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful to those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.
That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story – it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble men or men obtaining concessions from those in power as a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it.
Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these portrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).
The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism. It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.
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.
I’ve written previously about a perceived ‘descent into infantile triviality’ where a seemingly pathological aversion to being viewed as ‘too serious’ manifests itself in particular as a ‘facetious fixation on popular culture (which) flows neatly into consumerism’. Nothing better sums up this trend than the explosion in the past 12 months of sites like Buzzfeed, built almost entirely around lists and gifs which offer jolts of recognition to personalities overwhelmingly built around particular aspects of culture. Interestingly, the particular identity which much of this seems to revolve around is that of the ‘geek’. This perhaps isn’t surprising, as this is not only an identity overwhelmingly based on consumption but also one which relies heavily on gif-able culture for its existence.
While this is a general trend, I wrote last year about how this particular identity was becoming the dominant subculture in what we know as ‘gay culture’. This makes sense when you think about the ways in which this serves capital and how they neatly complement the increasing positioning of the LGBT community as both a market and a marketing tool. It’s been no surprise, then, that even since I wrote the ‘Gay Geeks’ blog I’ve noticed a dramatic upsurge in the prevalence of what I described. It also increasingly converges: this morning one of the first things I saw on my Facebook was a link to ‘Disney Princesses as Game of Thrones Characters’ while Push The Button, a gay night devoted to semi-ironic love for c-grade 90s pop, is soon having an evening devoted to The Little Mermaid. The Disneyfication of the geek identity has been fascinating to watch (and is clearly something Buzzfeed has picked up on) but it has ominous undercurrents with regards to a geek culture which is often accused of misogyny (it almost entirely seems to revolve around Disney Princesses). When you take the Gay Geek there are further levels of disquiet, with the issues levelled at the geek identity potentially being compounded by the accusations that misogyny is prevalent amongst gay males. If we look at the markers of the Gay Geek, aside from Disney Princesses, comics, video games, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and the rest you commonly see a love for Ru Paul’s Drag Race present. It’s impossible not to notice that all of these things have problems with their representations of women who, in pretty much all of them, are sexy and sassy while ultimately being in thrall to the brilliant men around them. This is most explicit in Drag Race, where a group of men act out this sassy fantasy and find it reproduced by viewers around the world (with added racial issues as white men unthinkingly do impressions of black female stereotypes).
I thought of this when reading the Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny which has caused a minor storm in some circles. Guha notes that, in certain gay subcultures, women are:
…essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men.
The fit between this and the Gay Geek identity is startling and finds its perfect expression in HBO’s new ‘gay drama’ Looking. The main character is a self-identified geek who designs video games. When he’s not talking about sex with his friends, they exchange self-consciously sassy references to popular culture. His date purchases him trading cards based on 80s movie The Goonies to impress him. While this is going on, women are almost entirely absent from the lives of the central characters. They appear to have a single female friend who is a gay man’s fantasy of a fag hag, always on hand to go drinking and always willing to sit quietly in the lounge while you bring over your Grindr shag. The only other females who have even had lines have been a snooty artist who sacks one of the guys and a chef who refuses to help kick-start the restaurant dream of another. This treatment (absence, largely) of women has been one of the most egregious aspects of the show yet I’ve not seen a single mention of it in any review.
It’s interesting that the attacks on Guha’s piece seem to come from a place of ‘but women shouldn’t even be in gay places and they touch us and treat us like accessories too!’ Aside from the absurd pre-school nature of ‘they started it!’, I find this deeply disingenuous. There is certainly a damaging instrumentalisation of gay people as ‘liberal accessories’ but it’s one in which the entire gay media and community is very complicit. We fall over ourselves to adore straight ‘allies’ who praise gay people (Attitude giving Caitlin Moran an ‘Honorary Gay Award’), even when it’s done in the most patronising and offensive ways. Our gay magazines feature an endless parade of attractive straight men in their pants (I wonder if the writer of the linked Huffington Post piece would take issue with an attractive straight ‘gay ally’ like Ben Cohen being present in ‘his’ gay clubs) and we barely bat an eyelid at Lady Gaga’s adoption of ‘the gays’ as her ‘cause’ or Britney Spears referring to her gay fans as ‘somewhat girls’. No, this defence smacks of people being called out on their behaviour and being outraged (even if we accepted the defences offered, they depict nothing so much as deeply dysfunctional relationships which apparently are fine unless someone actually dares to point out how fucked up they are.)
Misogyny is clearly real and there’s no reason that gay men would be excluded from that. What makes this particularly worthy of commentary is that we seem to think of gay men and women as natural allies and so think we couldn’t possibly be misogynist. Yet I think it’s very present – and with the rise of the Gay Geek it’s being expressed in over more subtly damaging ways. Facing this problem is but one way in which we can educate ourselves, avoid the ‘infantile triviality’ and progress to a position where we can start to challenge these issues.