Boycotts and Kiss-Ins: On LGBT Microaggressions

The media absolutely loves stories of microaggressions (and sometimes just plain aggressions) faced by LGBT people in the service industry. Whether it’s being asked to stop kissing in Sainsbury’s, being shouted at on a bus or being told to stop being affectionate in Canteen, these stories have become more and more frequent ever since (at least) the John Snow kiss-in gained national media coverage in 2011. It surely must be a good thing that the media is now so willing to run stories of everyday homophobia but I think it raises some interesting issues – not least our willingness to buy into these narratives above others.

It seems a good place to start to note that the outrage these stories generate quickly becomes divorced from the actual events. They are removed of all context and nuance, presented instead as clear-cut instances of wrongdoing. The emotive rhetoric is ramped up to the point where even considering context gets painted as ‘victim-blaming’ and making excuses for bigotry. The John Snow incident, for example, was a lot more ambiguous than the ‘gay couple ejected from pub’ version which became settled fact allows.

As a community we of course have form in not checking or reflecting on stories which chime with our view of the world but we equally shouldn’t leap to accusations of deceit when victims come forward with these stories. There must be, however, a space between disbelief and self-righteous outrage which demands boycotts and kiss-ins. It is in this space we can deal with instances like Richard Kennedy lying about being assaulted or the ‘gay couple removed from McDonald’s’ who turned out to not be gay and not have been removed. In this space it’s important to remain critical, in the broadest sense of the word, and to be wary of the difference between amplification and projecting our own agenda onto stories. I am always suspect, for example, of campaigns demanding boycotts which haven’t originated with the victims themselves.

Victims who are, it must be said, perfectly capable of making such demands. These media reports always rely on the words of the victims themselves. What’s interesting is how swiftly some of these stories have appeared in the media – sometimes, it seems, before any complaint has even been raised against the persons or venues responsible. While anyone who has faced such microaggressions will understand that it can be difficult to deal with at the time, with the urge to remove yourself from the situation being strong, it’s nonetheless fair to consider the media’s involvement. It seems to testify, for example, to a particular power which the victims have – they would not have such speedy access to the media if they weren’t the right kind of victim (white, overwhelmingly middle-class) telling the right kind of story (a wrong which can be said to be based solely on their sexuality and almost always involving couples showing ‘affection’). This speaks to our ‘equal marriage’ times, where our focus is supposed to be on formal equality rather than any questions of broader social justice. So the evictions faced by LGBT groups like House of Brag, the state violence and harassment faced by many queer people (not least sex workers), the disproportionate aggressions faced by transgender people, the poverty faced by those with HIV, to name but a few specific issues, are not those which are so readily rushed into the media.

This focus on individual slights rather than systemic issues does not even particularly extend to people of colour and/or transgender people and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our movement is overwhelmingly dominated by white cisgender people. With this in mind it’s no surprise that the focus is on cases which flatter our own (white, cisgender) sense of lacking privilege – it’s better to fixate on the ways in which those already at the table are slighted than to dwell on the oppression of those we are as guilty of ignoring as wider society. @SukiBapswent on Twitter drew an analogy with the Claridge’s breastfeeding ‘furore’, again a case which swiftly made it to the media because it fits. There are countless people who face comparable microaggressions on a daily basis but who could never command any media attention. This isn’t to excuse the issues faced by any of the people who have ended up in the media but rather to underline the complex ways in which privilege and oppression can interact and ultimately serve our own worldview.

A particularly powerful example of this is this story about Dionte Greene, a black gay man who was killed by someone believed to be struggling with their sexuality. There are relatively straightforward lessons to be taken from this, about the destructive power of patriarchy and internalised homophobia. There are issues of police homophobia and racism, both of which are ever present but the latter particularly on people’s minds now with Ferguson.  Yet there are other, more uncomfortable questions raised for an LGBT community which largely refuses to engage in race as an issue and increasingly attempts to frame ‘deviant’ sexuality as respectable and unthreatening. It’s obvious that Dionte’s murder would have been handled, and responded to, differently had he been white and/or straight. As a black man he was faced with a brutal, systemic racism. As a gay man he faced an oppressive heteropatriarchy. Yet even within the LGBT community the former tends to trump the latter, to put it bluntly. As a black man, and a black man who was engaged in a sexual hook-up, Dionte’s story does not fit the narrative we increasingly buy into. It does not flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media. As the piece notes:

To be black and gay and transgender and poor, for example, is to be a more colorful rainbow, for sure. But each of those definitions of self multiplies the systemic violence attached to each of them – every extra sliver of the rainbow widens that gap between safety and danger.

Our LGBT community is one which finds it incredibly difficult to deal with the intersection of these identities and the voices of black people, transgender people and poor people face many barriers. Certainly the daily aggressions faced by these groups have little to no chance of being printed in the Evening Standard and widely shared on Twitter. The fixation on taking service industry slights and running with them, demanding boycotts etc, can then be viewed in this context not as merely taking power back in the face of homophobia but also as serving the privilege of those who shape and frame what it is to be ‘LGBT’. It’s crucial to say that this is not to avoid the necessity of combatting all such aggressions but it’s equally necessary to understand that this media trope is not value or morality-free. Rather it avoids the urgent need for self-reflection and self-examination necessary in order to understand the ways in which we ourselves are implicated in oppression and silencing – an understanding which is essential if we are to begin to address these problems.

Edit 05-12-14 A couple of days after I wrote the above, this popped up on my Twitter feed from @piercepenniless. I think the Baldwin quote is a brilliant articulation of some of what I was getting at:

A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live. I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.

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.

Tom Daley, Jessie J and the Certainty of Boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Gay Geeks’

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A lot’s been written on the commodification of the ‘geek’ identity – I’ve briefly touched on it myself – and a lot has been written about the commodification of the gay identity. Given the things they have in common (an attachment to ‘minority’ status, a foundation in excessive consumption, a strong sense of belonging to a larger group) it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s a big overlap between the two. In fact, it seems to me that the ‘gay geek’ is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) the dominant ‘identity’ amongst gay men. Just as it became unacceptable in polite company to be a banker, the stereotypical muscle-bound, preened, clubbing gay man is largely the object of derision and seen as hopelessly self-destructive. Instead, the gay scene is increasingly populated by ‘geeks’, with things like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, comics, Apple , games and ironic appreciation of 90s pop and/or reality tv being touchstones. Perhaps I’ve been in East London too long but the gay club nights which reflect this identity, relying on a deliberately lo-fi & retrograde aesthetic which harks back to London and New York in the 70s/80s, have certainly been spreading further afield.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the sexualisation of the geek aesthetic. If the airbrushed vanity of a club like Room Service is considered rather naff, that’s no reason not to hit the gym hard. Instead the exhibitionism is given a reason to be beyond self-love, whether that be a veneer of art, performance or the ironic detachment which saturates a million images of guys with embarrassed expressions wearing patterned H&M pants and sporting a toothbrush in their mouths. Indeed, it’s no surprise (and no mistake) that much modern ‘gay art’ concerns itself with this aesthetic and this identity.

Of course it’s not to be taken as a given that this is all a bad thing. The issue is less with the enjoyment of ‘geek’ pursuits than with the cementing of (yet another) identity based in purchase power and “the slow creep of media consumption as a mode of living”. These are things to be considered rather than dismissed. What caused me to put these brief thoughts down was this column in the Evening Standard today, one that seems to cement the status of the ‘gay geek’ as a new norm and, crucially, as one useful to capital. It repeats the oft-heard assertions that gay people are more educated and more affluent, referring to a study from The Williams Institute at UCLA. Yet read the link and you’ll see that the study is far more complex than the trite presentation in the column suggests. Investigate further and you’ll find that the same institution presented research suggesting that LGBT people were more likely to be poor than heterosexuals. The research is patchy to say the least but certainly seems to suggest that LGBT people are no better off than heterosexuals in the UK. Certainly a moment of consideration of the column’s assertions makes them seem odd given that we are constantly told that LGBT people are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, which have most definitely been linked to poverty.

What seems to be happening here, then, is that the ‘gay geek’ identity is conflated with the educated, professional (and overwhelmingly white, mostly male) demographic who seem to so dominate modern LGBT political narratives. It’s not surprising that the already privileged are more visible. The removal of ‘problematic’ LGBT people who experience poverty, aren’t ‘professionals’ and for whom a “a corporate commitment to gay rights” means absolutely nothing is not only evident, it’s insidious. Some anonymous executive is quotes as saying:

It is a cliché but the average professional gay person tends to be clever, probably not yet in a civil partnership and certainly not yet a parent. This means they can dedicate more of their time to their career and ultimately to our bottom line, at least for now.

The quote makes it absolutely clear that this ‘commitment to gay rights’ is only for some: if you have or plan to have children, if you aren’t university educated, if you have commitments and a life outside of work, the strong implication is that you’re of no interest. It’s a profoundly troubling quote, not least suggesting that a certain class of gay man is advancing over the backs of women who have the audacity to become pregnant. Yet it’s not parsed in any way whatsoever and is just presented as ‘proof’ that life for the ‘gay geek’ is dandy. We also have the strong whiff of homonationalism with the ‘revelation’ that the world’s third-biggest arms dealer BAE Systems is going to be “champion(ing) diversity aggressively among its workforce over the next year, starting with a co-sponsorship of the inaugural PinkNews awards in October.” Of course LGBT organisations lending their ‘gay is good’ cachet to dubious organisations is nothing new but this is still breathtaking. BAE Systems has a history of corruption and an enduring relationship with the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia (as well as other authoritarian regimes, including Egypt). It’s fair to say that LGBT rights in Saudia Arabia are not in a good place, just as human rights in general are not. It’s absolutely staggering that an arms dealer explicitly profiting in the oppression, injuring and murdering of people will be ‘aggressively’ championing ‘diversity’ at an event hosted by a British LGBT organisation.

What is the ‘gay geek’ here, then, if not a convenient reinforcement of the Western neoliberal social order? They are the ‘right’ kind of gay and, as such, fully deserve to be able to participate in and profit from the brutalising of those pesky brown people while ignoring the uppity queers who ruin it for everyone else with their poverty, their radicalism or their general awkwardness.

It’s a quite fascinating use of an ostensibly harmless identity. Of course there is a leap from the ‘gay geeks’ I describe at the start to the Evening Standard column and many who identify with the former will rightly find the latter abhorrent. Nonetheless, it does illustrate some of the potential pitfalls of tying our self-identity too closely to a larger group based on consumption and/or even on sexuality. Most importantly, it emphatically illustrates the axiom that the personal is political.

Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.

You Are A Target Market

‘The gays’ have been viewed as an exploitable market for at least a few decades now. Artists like Cher, Madonna and Kylie have long been famed for their fiercely loyal gay fanbase, so much so that every female pop star of a certain ilk has tried desperately to get in on the action. Then of course we have the straight-male-celeb-does-the-gays thing which has become an essential part of turning a b-lister into a profitable commodity. As I wrote here, “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants” and oh, it is ever so the case.

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’. It wouldn’t have to be a very long section, of course, as it would just have to lay down the buzzwords to use: homophobia, bullying, gay marriage, it gets better, love, equality etc. You don’t even have to make any attempt at subtlety – Class A, a truly dreadful boy band, released an equally dreadful single called ‘Pride’ and did a tour of British schools ostensibly to promote ‘pride’ and oppose homophobic bullying (in association with the ever-useless Stonewall). This has of course given them quick and extensive access to the market which is most important for any new boy band. It also renders them largely immune from criticism – as love of/support for the gays has become a totemic liberal value there are a multitude of voices who will defend such commercial exploitation of ‘homophobia’, invariably appealing to the mythical ‘young kid growing up and feeling alone’. The gay is always ‘out there’ in this equation, always a voiceless victim needing to be saved. Lady Gaga is obviously the standard-bearer for this conflation of homosexuality with victimhood, portraying herself as some brave freedom fighter bringing a voice to an oppressed minority. Only two weeks ago  the rich white woman with the model boyfriend who attended “one of the most selective and expensive schools in Manhattan” declared that ”It’s time for us to be mainstream”. Gee, thanks for that Gaga.

She is, to be fair, the perfect representative of an LGBT movement which is dominated by the concerns of privileged white men and is all-too-willing to allow itself be used as a mark of superiority by equally privileged liberals who fancy a taste of ‘the other’. That’s why the gay marketing ploy works so well. By buying into this idea that ‘gay rights’ exist in a vacuum, removed from any other political/geographical/human concerns, can completely ignore unpleasant issues of race, of poverty, of wider inequality (you can even ignore any discussion ofwhat ‘equality’ even means.) You don’t have to do anything at all other than say a couple of sentences and point people towards the e-petition.  In essence you’re saying nothing that’s any more controversial than ‘I like cake’ yet your ‘support’ for the gays will be widely seized on by (at least) the gay media and will confer a fabulous sprinkling of radicalism on you. This completely unthreatening ploy sees the cause, and the gays, as instrumental to the real message – buy our product. So you find LGBT people celebrating the commercialisation not only of homophobia but of themselves. They become less than human, useful only for their victimised sexuality and perceived lack of voice. In this way this marketing ploy is as insidious and harmful as any ‘homophobia’ which it ostensibly aims to address (at least until the next single is out). We don’t need the Class A, Matthew Morrison and Saturdays of the world to promote their wares off the back of our ‘oppression’; more than that, we shouldn’t allow it. They can stuff their commercialised, profit-based, neutered and one-dimensional ‘Pride’.

Solidarity with Chelsea Manning

Today marks the beginning of Chelsea Manning’s 4th year in prison and a week of action to mark this grim anniversary. After years without trial – years in which she was subjected to torture – her court martial finally begins next week. Abandoned both by the traditional human rights organisations and by the single-issue morons of Gay Inc, her name is still not widely known and few people are perturbed by her experience. Fewer still will see a link between Manning’s actions and what happened in Woolwich last week yet Manning’s efforts to bring the brutality and illegality of the ‘war on terror’ as experienced on the ground clearly has profound implications as to why so many are so angry at certain parts of the West. Indeed, it’s often argued that Manning’s actions directly led to the US winding down its activities in Iraq far more swiftly than they otherwise would have.

I’ve written about Manning several times so I won’t repeat myself. One point to note however: next week also sees the ‘equal marriage’ Bill reach the House of Lords in the UK and already the usual crowd are whipping up self-victimising melodrama over it. Many of these people don’t even seem to understand what powers the House of Lords have regarding the Bill. Pay attention to the self-flattering hysteria which is whipped up when these debates are happening and compare it to the deafening silence on Manning, a clear example that the rhetoric around perceived slights against LGBT people is increasingly only applied when it doesn’t actually rock the boat or challenge authority too much. Many don’t seem to understand that rights, particularly rights which are bestowed by national governments, mean almost nothing – it’s the lived experience of people that matters. This is why we need to defend the rights of those who break the law in efforts to hold unchecked power to account. This is why we need to understand that notions of ‘equality’ can never, ever be reduced to a legal framework. Solidarity with Chelsea Manning.

Edit – Soon after posting this I saw this piece from the brilliant Ian Cobain on the UK’s appalling human rights record. It follows on exactly from what I wrote above and underlines it perfectly. Compare the sound and fury generated by ‘equal marriage’ rights to the attention given to issues of torture, immigration, justice and so on. This is, of course, not something confined to gay activists but rather widespread amongst those of a ‘liberal’ bent.