Pride is Political: Jennicet Gutiérrez and UKIP

I said yesterday that had Jennicet Gutiérrez‘s protest at President Obama’s Pride Month address been a work of fiction, it would have been widely viewed as being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. Jennicet, a trans latina woman who turned out to also be an undocumented immigrant, chose the moment Obama started to celebrate his achievements on LGBT civil rights to speak out, asking the President to end deportations of and violence against, LGBTQ immigrants. As the press release from campaign group Not One More Deportation described:

Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted the President during the White House pride celebration shouting “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” As a transgender woman who is undocumented,  Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate while some 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse in ICE custody at this very moment.

“The White House gets to make the decision whether it keeps us safe, “explains Gutiérrez  “There is no pride in how LGBTQ and transgender immigrants are treated in this country. If the President wants to celebrate with us, he should release the LGBTQ immigrants locked up in detention centers immediately.”

The response was astonishing: the room, seemingly almost entirely made up of men (the vast majority being white) started shushing her; they then started booing her, one voice shouting “this isn’t for you!” Quite an assertion at an event marking Pride Month, 46 years on from the Stonewall riots where trans women of colour played an integral role in standing up to the authorities which oppressed the LGBTQ community. It begs the question as to how this ‘community’ is now framed that someone (a trans woman of colour, at that) highlighting the injustices which continue to fall upon marginalised LGBTQ people is viewed as an unwelcome interloper. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules in favour of ‘equal marriage’ today, Jennicet will be quickly forgotten as those who control the narrative rush to celebrate.  As Jennicet’s own statement put it:

As I reflect on what just happened at the White House, I am outraged at the lack of leadership that Obama demonstrated. He had no concern for the way that LGBTQ detainees are suffering. As a transwoman, the misgendering and the physical and sexual abuse – these are serious crimes that we face in detention centres. How can that be ignored? It’s heartbreaking to see the LGBTQ community I am part of turning their back on me, and the LGBTQ people in detention centres: how can they tolerate that kind of abuse?

Jennicet is an inspiration with a bravery far beyond that which I possess and she succeeded in putting LGBTQ deportations on the agenda – her interview on Fox News Latino is essential viewing. Yet with sad inevitability, the lack of solidarity Jennicet speaks of was reflected in much of the wider media, not least here in the UK where the focus has been on Obama’s sassy ‘shutting down’ of a ‘heckler’:

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‘Owned’. ‘Shamed’. ‘Shut down’. Much of the media seems stuck in the mindset that LGBTQ life is one long episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s beyond embarrassing. This identification with the oppressors over the oppressed is, sadly, typical of modern LGBTQ politics as our own horrendous ‘debate’ over UKIP at Pride has made clear. Since I wrote my piece on it 3 weeks ago there has been a steady stream of men lining up to defend UKIP and take exactly the line I described here:
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The pieces written by these men were grim in being almost entirely interchangeable – they typically presented the issue as one of whether UKIP were homophobic or not, completely ignorant to the fact that it was UKIP’s racism and far-right links which had roused the most anger (and indeed fear) as these rare pieces by non-white writers assert. This failure to even begin to contemplate that the LGBTQ community includes people of colour and other vulnerable groups for whom UKIP’s rhetoric and policies are violence led Twitter user @TheBuddhaSmiled to begin the hashtag #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ. This documented how people of colour found themselves ignored, spoken over, patronised (indeed, many of these writers would engage with me while blocking non-white critics). It documented how the modern LGBTQ movement has largely become a quest for ‘equal access’ to white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, with its leaders happy to throw anyone or any group standing in the way of this under the bus. It sometimes revealed itself in darkly comical ways. The ever terrible Patrick Strudwick, who has previously tweeted of his refusal to go to the Notting Hill Carnival due to feeling unwelcome:
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wrote an awful piece defending UKIP’s ‘right’ to be at Pride which didn’t mention racism a single time and then responded to people of colour raising it like this:

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Benjamin Butterworth, meanwhile, wrote a similarly terrible and ignorant piece and then presented himself as a victim of ‘abuse’ rather than engage with the many people raising UKIP’s racism with him:

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which in turn led to this flat-out expression of #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ:

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Rational and calm ‘debate’ vs outrage, abuse, anger – sound familiar?

This debacle has underlined how far UKIP has been normalised by the wider media, with assertions that UKIP weren’t ‘racist’ or ‘extremist’ being common but never further defended:
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This has been a perfect example of those whose voices dominate the LGBTQ movement thinking they are leading a ‘calm’ and ‘rational’ debate while those seeking to highlight the continued side-lining of minority voices and interests are awful, abusive, angry troublemakers. A low-point was reached yesterday, when Jeremy Vine debated the issue on his Radio 2 show and invited three white men to discuss it with him. As it happened, the segment came immediately after a discussion of the desperate plight of the ‘migrants’ (always ‘migrants’, never ‘people’) at Calais which featured Vine merrily chatting away to callers who were using the language of the far-right. I heard three callers in succession and each took broadly the same line, speaking of the UK as the ‘land of milk and honey’,  of ‘forcing the migrants to live in their own countries’, of how the UK ‘couldn’t take any more’. Vine challenged none of this, not even when a Scottish woman living in France asserted that the UK was a ‘soft touch’. It was terrifying listening.

It was in this context that the discussion moved onto UKIP at Pride, with the sole mention of racism by the four white men being an unchallenged assertion by the UKIP representative that the party ‘has no racist policies’. This absurdity meant that Michael Salter, the Chairman of Pride in London who is a Tory former advisor to David Cameron, felt able to claim that the problem wasn’t UKIP but rather those who opposed UKIP. With a hearty lack of self-awareness, Salter claimed that Pride was a celebration of ‘tolerance and diversity’ and said he wished to include UKIP because it was an ‘inclusive event’. Yet poor Pride had been forced into action by a brutish element:

 What we saw during the general election campaign, unfortunately, was people being very aggressive towards UKIP representatives, throwing eggs, and when UKIP applied to be part of the parade there was quite a lot of antagonism expressed on social media and there were lots of new people commenting and making threats, whether it’s sit-ins, throwing things or even things more unpleasant than that towards UKIP representatives

Vine asked, ‘why don’t you ban the thugs who want to bully them?’ with Salter replying ‘if we could find out who they were, certainly!’ He then, incredibly, invoked Pride’s history as ‘a protest movement’ in defence of UKIP being able to march.

Coming the day after Jennicet Gutiérrez’s actions, this was a perfect storm illustrating the contempt in which ‘radical’ and/or ‘minority’ voices are held by those who lead the LGBTQ movement. The victims here weren’t those affected by UKIP’s disgraceful rhetoric and policies but rather UKIP itself! Once again, we have the calm, rational leaders debating while the irrational. angry outsiders threaten and provoke. We should also note Salter’s careful choice of words – he states that the anger erupted when UKIP applied to be on the march – yet the first anyone beyond the Pride board heard of it was when they were already approved. This is important because in one stroke Salter elides the opposition from within Pride in London itself – Jacq Applebee, the board’s BAME representative, resigned in protest at UKIP’s involvement:

“When I joined London LGBT Pride’s Community Advisory Board, I felt overjoyed that I could make a positive difference to such an important event. However, I felt very isolated on the CAB, with my viewpoints often dismissed by an almost all-white group of representatives.”

She says that no-one on the CAB was shown the list of participants before it went public and that she first heard about UKIP’s involvement through what she calls a “chance tweet”. She also says the role of the board has been “totally ignored with such an incendiary case”. 

It has been, in short, a contemptible shambles which has showed that Pride as it currently stands is unfit for purpose (there is an R.I.P. Pride protest planned tomorrow). Together with the bravery of Jennicet Gutiérrez, it has also revealed the fault-lines of the LGBTQ movement, which mirror those of wider white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. It’s clear many neglect the fact that a legion of LGBTQ siblings before us have had to fight loudly, angrily, for the day when a President invites LGBTQ people to the White House or racist parties and amoral corporations seek to use our community to gain respectability. If we truly wish to honour this struggle, we continue it and we leave no-one behind. We remember that Pride is political or it is nothing and we fight against our own movement ignoring and oppressing LGBTQ people. We can still reclaim it.

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Same-sex Marriage Supporters Can Be Dickheads Too

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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:

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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.

Stonewall: Only 25 Years Late

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Stonewall announced today that it will add ‘trans equality’ to its mission statement, finally adding the ‘T’ to the ‘LGB’. It’s since spent the day engaging in self-congratulation by retweeting praise for this step:

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Even the most casual reader of this blog will be aware that I’m highly critical of Stonewall (as many others are and have been, not least the trans activists who have pushed them to this place.) so it won’t be too shocking to discover that I don’t think it should be patting itself on the back over this. 25 years ago it chose to name itself after the now-iconic riots which are widely viewed as having initiated the modern LGBT rights movement; it also chose to disregard that some of the most marginalised LGBT people were absolutely instrumental to those riots. It should be impossible to discuss Stonewall without discussing the role played by trans people, homeless LGBT youtheffeminate men, working-class black and Latino queers, drug dealers and/or users and ‘prostitutes’. Yet for all the credit it deserves in, for example, fighting Clause 28 or campaigning for an equal age of consent, Stonewall has by and large completely neglected ‘marginal’ voices and ‘radical’ causes in favour of the pursuit of a narrow, legalistic ‘equality’ which overwhelmingly benefits middle-class white gay people. Its fondness for bodies like the military, the police and companies with absolutely terrible social justice records has marked it out as an organisation with absolutely no conception of the social justice which was so integral to the riots and, in fact, as often being harmful to that cause. It seems absurd to me, then, that it should be applauded for finally welcoming in some of the people responsible for its existence, 25 years late.

It’s a welcome step, of course, but I think anyone who’s paid any attention to Stonewall in the past decade couldn’t help but be cynical. As late as September 2010 it still wasn’t supporting gay marriage, jumping on board well after even the Tories had made accommodating noises towards it. Despite this it has pushed hard on gay marriage as one of its achievements and a fundraising issue though, hilariously, this is the page on their website which greets you when you click ‘learn about the campaign which made it happen’:
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Post-marriage it has seemed like an aimless organisation. Rather than campaigning loudly on, say, the impact of austerity on LGBT people, cuts to HIV services, LGBT poverty or the particular issues faced by LGBT people of colour, it has instead fixated on pushing its schools and employment programmes (both of which provide income to the charity) and banal campaigns such as ‘Rainbow Laces‘. I’m sure some of this is perfectly worthy but it’s desperately weak stuff, especially when it involves Stonewall actively promoting organisations such as the Home Office and military which actively oppress LGBT people both here and abroad.

‘Trans equality’, then, could be seen to open up whole new avenues for fundraising. If (as I suspect) this commitment largely takes the form of ‘trans considerations’ being included in Stonewall’s schools and employment programmes together with some tokenistic nods to legalistic ‘equality’, that will be an opportunity squandered. I think even today’s report gives cause for concern – note this, for example, from Ruth Hunt’s foreward:

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It’s staggeringly disingenuous, arguing that trans people have been ignored by ‘gay’ campaigners because of their ‘different and complex’ issues. This is nonsense – even a rudimentary knowledge of LGBT history tells us that many activists, of all persuasions and identities, have been campaigning side by side and linking their struggle to wider social justice. Stonewall chose to do things differently, a choice which Hunt still defends in the breathtaking assertion that ditching trans rights ‘meant greater social progress was achieved for all of us.’ This doesn’t sound like recognising your ‘mistakes’; in fact in stating that Stonewall can now campaign for trans equality because ‘society has moved on’ (how did this happen, exactly?) it sounds much like the same old song where minorities within the ‘LGBT’ umbrella prove to be an afterthought for the white cis people who so dominate the movement. Indeed, at one point Stonewall even seem to acknowledge that even lesbians and bisexuals have been a side issue, mentioning only ‘gay men’:

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We see more of this attitude in a section on ‘learning from our mistakes’. The abhorrent Paddy Power, which still uses offensive advertising, receives a typical Stonewall pinkwashing:
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There was an uproar around Paddy Power’s transphobic advert at the time. Stonewall chose to ignore it, just as they now choose to ignore the company’s continuing offensive advertising. Equally, Stonewall chose to ignore the campaign around the ‘spousal veto’ with regards to gay marriage and instead nominate its defender, Baroness Stowell, for ‘Politician of the Year’ while giving thanks both to the government and to the Queen(!):

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Were trans issues still so ‘different and complex’ in late 2013 that Stonewall couldn’t grasp why this wasn’t okay? Were they really so blinded by the lack of any trans person on their board? The Scottish Parliament seemed to grasp it. Yet the spousal veto isn’t specifically named as one of Stonewall’s ‘mistakes’ in this section.

It is mentioned in a section summarising what trans people told Stonewall during its consultation with them and this is where any hope lies. It is here that we find mention of ‘supporting trans people seeking asylum’, supporting the mental health of trans people and the intersection between many trans people and sex work. This excerpt from the consultation, for example, touches on a great many practical but radical issues:

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If Stonewall were to take this seriously and begin to listen to and campaign with sex workers, victims of police violence, people of colour, victims of the immigration system etc then it would perhaps begin to be an organisation worthy of its name. Opening itself to issues of wider social justice, necessitating an understanding of ‘equality’ which recognised structural oppressions and power imbalances, would be an admirable step change. It would also, however, frighten off Barclays, PWC, the Home Office, the Met Police etc which is a large part of why I remain dubious. Nonetheless, I know that a great many vocal and inspiring trans activists (and many others) intend to hold Stonewall to account on its newfound ‘support’ and I hope against hope that they can help affect the change it so desperately needs. Stonewall predicts it will take a year for it to become ‘fully trans-inclusive’. We’ll see where we are in 2016.

Edit: A few hours after writing the above I’ve read this interview with Ruth Hunt. I think, sadly, it bears out much of what I’ve written and makes me even more cynical. Hunt states that gay marriage “signalled the end of the legislative battle” and Stonewall is now onto “changing hearts and minds”, as if there are no other issues with the system. She still refuses to oppose the spousal veto. She uses a really very straightforward example re: smear tests to try and demonstrate why LGB & T had to be separate. Most predictably, she mentions Stonewall’s work with schools and its Workplace Equality Index several times as examples of the work it can do for trans people.

The ‘Respectable’ Queer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

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

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.