Gaze – A Modern Review

In its infinite wisdom The Guardian decided to run a (very) thinly-veiled advert for a new gay magazine at the weekend. This advert took the form of an opinion piece on the gay scene and it starts well, with something straight from the mind of your archetypal Daily Mail reader:

If I say the words “gay culture”’, what do you think of? Pride parades with muscle boys in leather hot pants? Kylie Minogue? Antiquated drag queens miming to Shirley Bassey? “Lip Service”?

To most people I would suggest that this idea of “gay culture” would mean only that you don’t get out very much. Here, however, it leads the umpteenth attack on the sex-and-drugs which we’re led to believe make up gay life.  We have the sneering reference to Grindr and “sexual hook-ups”, the pitying appeal to people for whom “gay culture begins and ends with the gay scene”, GHB and complaints about how gay men are portrayed on television (‘Queer As Folk’ did it wrongly, apparently, despite its sex-and-drugs mirroring exactly what Paul Burston describes here). It’s like a very boring game of bingo in terms of its tired references to familiar complaints about gay life. You can’t help but wonder where Burston thinks his books (not exactly renowned for their complex or challenging take on gay life) fit into this

But but but! Don’t fret, for Burston and Julie Bindel are here to save you from all that with a proper grown-up magazine for gays! You know that it’s grown-up because its title contains “A Modern Review”. It wants to “tackle issues one doesn’t generally read about in the lesbian and gay press”. Issues like David Bowie! Given the pedigree of its creators, who got firmly behind the “East London is under siege from Muslims” drivel a couple of years back and directly contributed to circumstances which led to the English Defence League attempting to use Pride to stoke up anti-Muslim feeling, the decision to lead with a feature on Islam (and corresponding stereotypical image) is worrying to say the least.

What I find most remarkable about the whole thing, however, is the idea that the problem which needs to be addressed is the need for “a broader view of gay politics, and (to) redefine what we mean by gay culture.”  As I wrote previously, this culture (which is infinitely more varied than Burston’s awful caricature would have you believe) grew out of adversity. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that, as Burston argues, this adversity is in terminal decline (not least ignoring the continuing stigma faced by those who identify as transexual.) Why would the logical response to that be to offer an ostensibly ‘superior’ way to be gay? Why not just…be? Certainly there are criticisms to be made of the gay media but I think much of them come from their increasing irrelevance. They cannot possibly hope to represent even a significant fraction of those who identify as LGBT and without adversity to push against (and the corresponding political purpose) they basically have to follow the money. That money lies largely in pictures of semi-naked attractive people and celebrities – things which are common to most lifestyle magazines, whichever ‘culture’ they are seen to represent. Indeed, one person who works on these magazines told me not too long ago that they had tried to move away from this template but every time they tried, sales went down. I imagine this would be true for FHM, Heat or GQ just as it would be for Attitude. They all have their audiences – but only the ‘gay’ publications are faced with the unrealistic expectation that they will represent everyone who identifies as a certain sexuality. A point Burston inadvertently makes himself – if it’s ridiculous that Grindr is seen to represent “gay culture” and there is no corresponding claims made for “straight culture”, why then think that GT or Attitude should be seen differently from any of these other magazines?

In ridiculing the idea that all gay people might like Kylie Minogue or Pride parades, we have the core of the problem – there is no over-arching culture or identity which all gay people share solely because of their sexuality (certainly not the scene). A new magazine set up in opposition to a particular (stereotypical) version of ‘gay culture’, then, is merely chasing the money of a different market from other gay magazines – here it is clearly gay people who see themselves as better than all that naff, horrid stuff Burston mentions. Far from destroying the perceived problem of a “ghetto, with a narrow view of the world beyond”, Gaze offers only a different way of walking through it. If I want to reclaim “all of culture”, I don’t need the prism of condescending gay people to do so. I can read London Review of Books, Adbusters and Private Eye without feeling the need for them to assure me that they know I’m gay. Even more shockingly, I can read these magazines and still go to Soho and dance to Kylie Minogue or look at Grindr. The issue isn’t that we need people to argue for more than one way to be gay, it’s that ‘gay’ is not an absolute identity in the first place and we shouldn’t try to make it one. That is the real freedom afforded by the advances made in the past 50 years. So by all means read your ‘Modern Review’ – just don’t labour under the illusion that it makes you any better than people who get pissed in G-A-Y (and certainly don’t think so when you’ve already been there and done that yourselves).

(H/T to @Fagburn for bringing this to my attention)

Madonna at GLAAD

No one would doubt Madonna’s commitment to gay rights but more importantly, few would doubt that she’s an archetypal American liberal. This is underlined in this speech to GLAAD, the American body which is widely seen (outwith American liberal circles, anyway) as the hobby horse of privileged white men. The American version of Stonewall, if you will, and as such hugely averse to radicalism and any meaningful discussion of inequality and the use of power. Madonna’s speech pushes all the right buttons in this regard: the American enemies of the great and the good gathered in the room are religious bigots who fixate on sexuality; some truth to this, of course, but neatly feeding the sense of victimisation which many of these people thrive on while obscuring wider and more complex inequalities.

If Madonna had restricted her comments to the Boy Scouts and religious bigotry in America, however, there would have been little wrong with this speech. Where it becomes worthy of criticism is when she moves onto the wider world with some banal but damaging observations on inequality and oppression. Israeli apartheid becomes a question of two mothers sitting down to speak to each other, the pervasive and pernicious fiction that the conflict is one of two equal ‘sides’ rather than one of oppressor and oppressed. Worse, there is a throwaway reference to “an Iranian gay man being hanged for falling in love with a man.” This is a favoured trope of liberals, even in situations where there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and it is unforgivable as it serves to increase the drumbeat for ‘intervention’ in Iran while completely ignoring America’s own complicity in and hypocrisy regarding the Iranian regime (and indeed support of regimes seen to be even more oppressive).

The reference to Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban at first seems straightforwardly ‘good’ – who could have an issue with this, after all? Yet it undeniably further serves American fantasies of promoting equality and justice in the world against dangerous, dark, barbaric enemies. It’s easy to be horrified when the Taliban attempt to kill a child – it’s braver to use your platform to draw attention to your own government murdering hundreds (at least) of children with its drone strikes and sanctions.

Indeed, the sense that you should hold your own government to account before deigning to wag your finger at others looms large in one inexcusable omission from Madonna’s speech. She speaks of Putin and Pussy Riot – again, a worthy cause but one which flatters Western notions of superiority. It is ‘insane’, she says, that Pussy Riot have been locked up ‘because they criticised the government’. Further, she notes that she doesn’t ‘know many brave people’ and draws attention to the line in ‘Nobody Knows Me’ which observes that “it’s so hard to find someone to admire”. You have to wonder, then, if Madonna (and indeed GLAAD) is aware of Chelsea Manning, a truly brave American who has spent over 1000 days in prison and faced torture precisely because she wanted to draw attention to her government’s horrendous abuses of its power. I’ve written before about the silence of ‘Gay Inc’ on Manning and it is truly inexcusable for this room to loudly whoop and applaud their sense of righteousness over Pussy Riot while they continue to turn a blind eye to their own government’s persecution of someone who courageously spoke up. It’s possible to go further still, as Glenn Greenwald does here in a piece on Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen who was subject to extrajudicial assassination (ie murder) by the CIA. Greenwald argues that:

What prompted my opposition from the start to the attempted killing of Awlaki was that it was very clear he was being targeted because of his anti-American sermons that were resonating among English-speaking Muslim youth (sermons which, whatever you think of them, are protected by the First Amendment), and not because he was a Terrorist operative. In other words, the US government was trying to murder one of its own citizens as punishment for his political and religious views that were critical of the government’s policies, and not because of any actual crimes or warfare. (my emphasis)

You may have to read that a few times to fully take in its shocking message – one which completely demolishes liberal fantasies of a superior, secular America which can afford to cast its eye over the abuses of other governments and find them wanting.

Predictably, Madonna’s speech is proving popular with many; it’s being described as ‘courting controversy’ and ‘brave’. Yet what was difficult or shocking about it? It flattered the egos of everyone present, assuring them that they were on the side of ‘right’ and ‘good’ while still facing oppression from wicked religious people. The man the speech honoured is a mainstream journalist who waited until he was firmly embedded at the top of his profession before choosing to come out and there seems to be little that is truly ‘brave’ about his overwhelmingly conventional views. What would have been truly brave, truly shocking, truly controversial, would be if Madonna had challenged the smug complacency of GLAAD and, indeed, of the wider American liberalism and exceptionalism which she so perfectly embodies.

EDIT – A response to this blog I’ve had several times now is for people to state that the differences between Pussy Riot and Manning are obvious; that the former case is clear-cut and indefensible while the second is ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’. The first point to be made here is that within Russia, the Pussy Riot case isn’t remotely clear-cut. It is in fact as ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’ as these people present the Manning case as being. A cursory Google of Russian public opinion on the case will reveal this. Following on from that, the second point is that the reasons these cases are so disputed in their countries of origin are worth focusing on in themselves. As this piece puts it:

There are some U.S. citizens who see Manning as a hero (I am one of them), and some who see her as a traitor. Manning’s target population was and still is all of the rest. Yet the sad truth is most of this remainder doesn’t care much about Manning’s fate and will, in the end, accept the government’s verdict on her. This is how I reasoned out the situation back in 2010, and I think my conclusion is still sound.  On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that this vast majority are unconcerned about the Manning case because it seems not to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that Manning is a traitor. (my emphasis)

Indeed, the fact that the one line repeatedly wheeled out to me is that Manning ‘put American lives at risk’ would tend to confirm the notion that people are blindly parroting what the authorities have told them.

The third and most crucial point is that support for freedom of expression, for freedom of conscience, for opposition to government and for bravery in opposing and exposing its abuses means nothing if it must be uncontroversial and widely accepted. This is precisely why I write above that Madonna’s speech served the dominant narratives of power – it is both fed by and feeds ideas and causes which are acceptable to the American liberal ‘elite’. The idea that raising the cause of Manning would have been too ‘controversial’ is to argue that no-one should ever make a meaningful stand for justice. There is never a ‘time and a place’ for that – that’s kind of the point in calling such actions ‘brave’.

Marking Chelsea Manning’s 1000th day of imprisonment, this is a powerful expansion of the critique of LGBT politics and its response to Manning’s plight which I first wrote about here. This piece is so accurate that I want to send it to the offices of every major LGBT organisation, publication, writer etc but there is something for most of us who identity as LGBT to consider from it. This paragraph:

Any number of fading stars and starlets, and non-entities on the make, from Lady Gaga to Chaz Bono to Ricky Martin, have mined the LGBT community to support their careers. Our community’s eager rush to embrace just about any celebrity who deigns to notice our existence is emblematic of our lack of self-esteem, our internalized homophobia.

is so apposite that I almost punched the air when I read it. Our hysterical gratitude whenever a straight celebrity says something nice about LGBT people or, indeed, when a celebrity comes out, is utterly counter-productive and cements the notion that we are some meek, simpering minority who need assistance in being ushered into the ‘mainstream’. So we end up with the quite absurd elevation of someone like Ben Cohen and have palpitations whenever some nobody from ‘Hollyoaks’ or a sportsman looking to make a name for themselves says that, hey, they quite like the gays actually. Sod that. People don’t get to use being a decent human being as a career choice and no-one should encourage them to do so. As the paragraph states, the swift rapture which greets these utterings doesn’t suggest a community which has a strong sense of self or the certainty that we are indeed as ‘good as you’. It’s embarrassing. It seems to me that any decent human being would both sympathise with Chelsea Manning and be outraged by her treatment. Again, this piece is completely on-point here, particularly with the observation that Gay Inc would be up in arms “If a homophobe had so much as broken Chaz Bono’s finger nail” yet remains largely silent regarding Manning. Despite being in the UK I think the points made regarding the flat-out refusal of dominant LGBT voices to expose/oppose Obama apply here; they can obviously be extended to our own political context and the timid reluctance of groups like Stonewall to seriously challenge power or societal norms. What’s most dominant in the seeming inability of Gay Inc to “take on “difficult” political subjects” is, however, not really touched on in the piece: it’s the preening, narcissistic and neoliberal reduction of LGBT politics to the individual, the deployment of homophobia as part of someone’s identity. “In what way does this issue enable me to appear oppressed?” The hysteria over equal marriage illustrated this perfectly, allowing an overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class constituency to work themselves into a frenzy regarding their own perceived victimisation. This ties in neatly with current writings on social media and its importance in both shaping our personalities and expressing hierarchies. It’s deeply unfashionable to be seen as powerful, as privileged; instead we race to fixate on the ways in which we can perceive ourselves to be oppressed and, most importantly, be seen to be so. The Manning case, then, offers almost nothing in this regard. You’ll see that in this piece the author even tries to articulate a narrow, explicitly LGBT angle which Gay Inc could latch onto:

Besides the Honduran angle – 89 LGBTs murdered over three and a half years in a country of less than 8 million, including leading activists like Walter Trochez and Erick Martinez Avila – there are other LGBT angles that NGLTF and HRC could have highlighted.  The sexually humiliating torture that Manning received, stripped naked in a cell for days on end, ordered by no less than a two-star general – was tinged in homophobia, and yet where were the protests from the gay human rights groups? Not even a token press release.

As undeniably important as these issues are, they would be weak entry-points to Manning’s cause as it’s clearly about so much more than LGBT identity. Any attempts to make it about this would, I suspect, only highlight the narcissism which underlies much of Gay Inc. No, the Manning case requires a focus on common humanity and, crucially, on the nature and use of power. In this respect it is exactly the same as the Israeli ‘Pinkwashing’ or the abhorrent militarism of Western governments: they are ‘difficult’ issues because they cannot be easily reduced to ‘look at how we as LGBT people are being oppressed!’. They do not flatter our victimisation, the same identity which is so well-served by celebrities flattering our ‘cause’ with obsequious words. And so Manning, an undeniably brave individual and possibly as perfect an example of an LGBT ‘hero’ as you are likely to have in the developed world, is left to rot by people and organisations who instead prefer to knock-off the 4000th column or press release about equal marriage or access to the military. It’s a shameful commentary on modern LGBT politics, a movement which is popularly seen to have began with a riot and now finds us actively trying to victimise ourselves rather than challenge power as engaged, informed and compassionate human beings. The Chelsea Manning Support Network can be found here. Chelsea Manning and the Appalling Silence of Gay, Inc.

Note – this was written pre-transition and amended afterwards.