Marriage and Music

So here we are – gay/equal marriage is finally legal in England and Wales. I’ve written a lot over the past couple of years about my issues with the debate. Nonetheless, while I think it’s important to keep critiquing the issue (not only in terms of marriage’s wider role in society but also with regards to very practical concerns like the spousal veto) it would be churlish and hard-hearted to ignore the happiness which this is bringing to a lot of people. Indeed, today I’m attending a marriage between two men, one of whom being someone I’ve known for nigh-on ten years now. He was a livejournal ‘friend’ in America and someone I never thought I’d meet in real life, until circumstances led to us both moving to London at different points. We’ve known each other ‘in real life’ for the past seven years or so and I’ve seen first-hand how his relationship has brought him peace of mind and contentment. I also know that, with him being American and his partner British, marriage bring tangible legal benefits to their lives. They’re good guys and they deserve to be happy. Congratulations Matt and Tom.

Music is such an integral part of my life that I almost process events like this via that medium. So this week I’ve been thinking about songs concerning marriage and weddings. The one which instantly sprang  to mind was The Hidden Cameras’ Ban Marriage (above), an encapsulation of some queer critiques of marriage as an institution presented by a narrator who is about to marry his boyfriend. You quickly know what you’re getting with this song, its opening lines being:

I was late getting to church on the morning of my ceremony. Stayed up too late the night before from fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark.

Quite. It was written in response to the debate around legalizing same-sex marriage in Ontario, over a decade ago. There’s always one isn’t there?

Then there’s this:

In which Elton John struggles to remain silent at a wedding because he used to bang the bride and wants to do so again. As implausible as that particular scenario may sound, it’s impossible for the titular ‘bride’ not to be loaded with subtext given what we know now. And the basic mechanics of the story seem perfect for some gay wedding melodrama.

Which leads nicely onto the arch camp of Kate Bush’s The Wedding List:

Based on 60s film La Mariee Etait En Noir (The Bride Wore Black), the song sees Kate as the wronged bride of a groom murdered on their wedding day. Now she seeks revenge against the men she holds responsible (“You’ve made a wake of our honeymoon and I’m coming for you!”) The list here, then, is obviously not of desired gifts but rather of men the bride intends to kill. The parallels with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill are obvious, even if he claims to have never heard of The Bride Wore Black prior to making his film. The performance above is essential viewing and looks like the most fun you could ever have at a wedding. Though this seems close behind:

In which America’s sweetheart reveals herself to be a bit of a cow. Seriously, it’s bad enough that she shows up to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and disrupts it but does she have to be so brutal about it? “Her snotty little family all dressed in pastel”; “she is…wearing a gown shaped like a pastry”. This wedding may not be murderous but Taylor is just as motivated by revenge. That this is delivered by the supposedly squeaky-clean Taylor and packaged as a stereotypical ‘dream’ wedding makes the high camp all the more potent and pleasurable.

As opposed to the nightmarish camp of:

For all its deceptive simplicity, this must surely rank as one of the most disturbing pop videos ever made? Bowie not only looks deathly but absolutely demented, more likely to bury an axe in your skull than kiss you. The relationship documented in the song sounds suitably unhealthy – the blank disconnect of “sometimes you get so lonely, sometimes you get nowhere” doesn’t sound like a good foundation for a marriage. It’s said that the song is Bowie’s last attempt to save his marriage with Angie – he must be glad he failed. Years later he would document his euphoria at marrying Iman Abdulmajid by putting two versions of The Wedding Song on his Black Tie White Noise album.

It goes without saying that a gay wedding made me think of:

This video probably caused gay marriage.

But I’m told I’m a contrary sort so I’ll end with a video from another difficult old queer:

There’s something quite magnificent (and clearly deliberate) in Moz singing about his eternal bachelorhood while a succession of young men hug and kiss him. Love is a many-splendored thing indeed and sometimes it’s difficult to put a label on it. And why should we care if we can’t? Whatever completes us, in whatever form it may take, can’t be bad if it does no harm to others. So yeah. Best wishes to Matt and Tom, and to everyone else finding or trying to find their own bits of happiness in the world.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged…Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns

Her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.

Even when I disagree with her, bell hooks is an inspiration: a fiercely intelligent thinker and cultural critic who forces you to critically examine aspects of society, and of yourself, which you may not even have consciously thought about before. This piece on Sheryl Sandberg and ‘faux-feminism’ really hit home. brilliantly articulating some inchoate thoughts I’ve had about feminism, yes, but also (and more prominently for me personally) about the ‘gay rights’ movement, which so many of its critiques could be applied to. I’ve been inching my way forward in that regard over the past year or so, much of it inspired by the responses of the ‘gay movement’ to the issues of gay marriage and of Chelsea Manning.

The central theme here has to be the failure of imagination of these movements, the conservatism which sees them as vehicles for people to take their place at the table with ‘successful’ members of the prevailing power structure. The primary role of class in causing and perpetuating inequalities and injustices is almost always elided (and, as hooks notes, race is usually absent too – this is certainly true of gay politics). If these concerns are present, they are hand-wringing liberal concerns where those firmly ensconced at the table fret over how to best improve the opportunities for ‘the disadvantaged’ to join them. The myth of meritocracy underlies everything, the sense that if we can just sort out certain kinds of sexism, racism, homophobia, then the most able will always be able to work their way to the ‘top’. As for questioning the stratifications which even mean there is a ‘top’, or asking what it means for society to do the things involved in being part of it – don’t even go there. Why we fight is not for a truly transformational human emancipation but rather to make it easier for talented, intelligent folk from ‘minorities’ to achieve success. The fact that these folk are overwhelmingly of a particular class – well, it may be unfortunate but it’s never going to be the point.

This failure to, as hooks puts it, dig deep means that as high-profile movements both feminism and gay ‘liberation’ can seem horribly one-dimensional and even harmful. Writing as a gay man I’ve addressed what I see as the horror of thinking that being directly marketed to is in any way liberatory. More widely I’ve seen how the gay movement has been commandeered by people of privileged backgrounds who, being unable or unwilling to address substantive issues of class and social justice, instead fixate on facile notions of inequality which affect the lives only of people like themselves (if that, at times). Seeking out the ways in which being gay might put you at even the slightest disadvantage of reaching the neoliberal top and being blinkered to all other concerns results in a truly counter-productive fixation on ‘gay’ as an all-encompassing, immutable identity; an identity which must, no matter how privileged you may be, be inextricably linked to victimhood. This is something which I’ve noticed with a certain strand of feminism also – a strand which bell hooks tackles here and which unfortunately is enormously popular at the moment. At its most egregious this trend, in both movements, finds men and women in positions of great power and/or wealth actively exploiting their perceived victimhood in order to further their own positions – whether that be writing endlessly about their exploitation without ever venturing beyond the most superficial analysis or actively using their ‘disadvantage’ to conflate legitimate criticism with sexist/homophobic abuse.

On a macro level, meanwhile, hooks notes how feminist rhetoric has been instrumentalised and used by, for example, Western governments to provide cover for their imperialism. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention in the past year will easily see that the same use is being made of gay rights. Indeed, less than 2 weeks ago I wrote about the instrumentalisation of homosexuality as a tool for marketing and for leveraging profit” while the ongoing saga of Russia’s anti-gay laws has revealed the arrogant cultural superiority of many in the gay movement.

hooks ends by observing that the ambition of feminism must be to “change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone”; this must surely be the goal of any emancipatory movement, including those seeking ‘gay liberation’. Such liberation surely can’t mean the ‘freedom’ to enjoy your privilege and even become one of the 1% while deploying your one-dimensional minority status to combat criticism when it suits; it can’t mean ignoring the immiseration of millions in favour of being ‘represented’ at the higher levels of amoral corporations; it can’t mean not only disregarding the myriad barriers which hold countless people back but refusing to understand that their removal does not necessarily challenge the wider oppressive system. Dig deep, then, is an important message far beyond feminism and it’s one we should all heed.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

Sell Arms to Saudi Arabia, Support Gay Equality!

I noted in this piece that Pink News were holding an award ceremony sponsored by an arms dealer – a perfect illustration both of ‘pinkwashing’ and of the conservative, even reactionary agenda of Pink News and its particular brand of ‘politics’. More details about this ceremony are starting to come out, with the first award apparently being “Parliamentary Speech of the Year’. What this actually means is ‘Parliamentary Speech In Favour of Gay Marriage During the Gay Marriage Debate of the Year’ because of course LGBT people couldn’t care about or be affected by anything else which goes on. Why would we care, for example, that Baroness Barker has collaborated with the Tories and her own party leadership to undermine the NHS? It’s not a ‘gay issue’, is it? More egregiously, why would we care that Mike Freer is a true blue Tory who has supported his party in almost everything that they’ve done, from attacking the NHS to attempting to dismantle legal aid or raising tuition fees to £9000 (to name but a few flashpoint issues)? Even by its own narrow criteria the award is a non-starter – Lord Jenkin of Roding, when he bothered to vote on LGBT issues, voted against the repeal of section 28 and supported an amendment effectively specifying that IVF be available only to heterosexual couples (to his credit, he did rebel against his party and vote to allow unmarried couples to adopt.) David Lammy, supporter of the Iraq war and authoritarian government laws to tackle ‘terrorism’, seems to be nominated because he compared gay marriage to the American black civil rights movement – a comparison which offends many and which raises the gay movement’s own troubling treatment (or avoidance) of race.

I’ve no doubt this will seem quibbling to some who will find a gay site giving an award for a speech on a gay issue perfectly natural. Yet it’s completely arbitrary and yet again pushes this facile notion of ‘gay politics’ as something separate from ‘politics’ in general; worse, it pushes it as something which reflects the narrow concerns of an elite who already have a place at the table. That there are LGBT people out there who are being affected by, and will care more about, cuts to welfare or cuts to health or unemployment or homelessness et al is viewed as irrelevant here. That LGB members of parliament will have spoken on these issues is also irrelevant. Screw solidarity and political consciousness, we’re GAY and as such should care about GAY THINGS!

This approach of course underlies the fact that Pink News sees no problem with being sponsored by BAE Systems, a company immersed in human misery (and which happens to have sold arms to brutal regimes with horrific LGBT rights records). It’s also why it sees no issue with being supported by Clifford Chance, a law firm which has been implicated in several tax avoidance and fraud scandals, or the bank BNP Paribas which has overseen tax avoidance and money laundering while assisting brutal dictatorships. This matters because gay rights are inextricable from wider social justice and human rights. As Margot Salomon of LSE put it over at Open Democracy:

The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights  – Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort.

The line that ‘gay rights are human rights’ was tritely repeated again and again during the gay marriage debate but little engaged with – this is precisely what it means. Gay rights no more exist in a vacuum than gay people do and to deny this is to demean our humanity. To engage with amoral (even actively destructive) corporations while encouraging a shallow focus only on our gay identity is worse than useless – it’s harmful. Equality demands more.

It seems to me that the ‘manif pour tous’  was attempting in a confused and deeply reactionary way to address  this deeper set of questions  concerning the relation between biology and social destiny and the destabilising of both family and community values. A  vacuum has been  created by the absence of a progressive engagement with such issues at the level of popular culture and everyday life;  it has been filled by  institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics. Against this background, the dream of a simpler world, a world  of make-believe freed from the ambiguities and confusions of contemporary sexual politics, indeed a world liberated from sexuality altogether in the name of more innocent pleasures becomes ever more attractive.

I’m not sure that this piece entirely gels as a coherent whole but it’s an admirable effort nonetheless. The section I’ve quoted above is absolutely spot-on. I don’t wish to repeat myself at length but the shrillness of the ‘gay marriage debate’ certainly hasn’t been monopolised by the homophobes. The issue raises interesting questions, not least about marriage and about the nature of ‘equality’, which have been almost entirely ignored by the ‘progressive’ supporters of the cause. Instead, as the quote succinctly puts it, we’ve had “institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics”. The automatic (and smugly expressed) assumption that any criticism or opposition = homophobia, something we’re seeing again tonight with the ‘oh now the world will end waaaah!’ crowing online. It’s not exactly been dignified. It seems even less likely tonight that any of these issues will be thought about in any depth – indeed, there’s a Twitterstorm currently brewing over alleged Tory plans to ‘get tough on teenage single mothers’ yet absolutely no-one is drawing any connection between it and the question of ‘marriage equality’. Yet notions of ‘marriage’, particularly the morality behind it and its privileged status in society, are clearly relevant. Indeed, the ‘letting gays get married will mean less single parents’ argument has been wheeled out in favour of ‘equal marriage’. There are implicit judgements there, assumptions about the way a relationship is supposed to work and how a ‘family’ is supposed to be constructed. Once you start thinking about these connections it sheds new light on tweets like this, where we’re supposed to coo at some gays becoming respectable, making their love ‘official’. We’re not supposed to ask questions about why their love wasn’t good enough already or how folk in ‘non-traditional’ relationships which remain beyond the realms of ‘marriage’  fit into all this.

Gay marriage, whatever its merits, is as an issue a big old plaster which we nice liberal folk can slap over ourselves to feel good and superior without having to think about any of the uncomfortable stuff. In recent days we’ve seen the same with the Trayvon Martin verdict, where I’ve seen folk in the UK who only weeks ago were spouting reactionary drivel about the Woolwich attacks, who abandoned all pretence of ‘liberalism’ during the 2010 riots and who rarely have much to say about racism in the UK  wailing loudly about the injustice. Racism in this case is not only on the other side of the world, it’s big and it’s obvious. That’s racism. They’re racist. We’re not racist. Again, there’s no need to think about anything. No need to consider the subtle and insidious ways in which racism manifests itself, no need to consider our own positions, our own privileges, our own attitudes and actions. At the root of both responses lies a conception of ‘equality’ which is woefully trite, naive and shallow. This lack of critical thought, this aversion to seriously looking lest we don’t like what we see, feeds into the vacuum which the author of the above piece mentions. And so we can tweet our support for the further privileging of certain kinds of relationships in society while seconds later complaining with disbelief that a government is yet again taking aim at a stigmatised form of ‘family’. 

Edit – I’m compelled to add this story here as a further illustration of what I’m talking about. The full-on assault on those claiming benefits appeals to many prejudices and ill-founded assumptions but the benefits cap in particular rests on the basis that only those who can ‘afford’ it should a) have children and/or b) live in ‘desirable’ areas. This is exactly the kind of thing people mean when they describe ‘marriage equality’ as equality only for the already privileged, who already have choices and opportunities. Those who don’t due to whatever circumstances find themselves stigmatised and subject to the cruel whims of a baying mob. Look at the bottom of the linked article – it rather incongruously mentions a proposed tax break for married couples. You can safely assume that Osborne is not pitching this to the married couples who will be hit by the benefits cap – no, instead it’s aimed at the wholesome, ‘good’ families who pay their way and don’t rock the boat. They are the chosen ones. Now we gay folk can be the chosen ones too. ‘Equality’.

Living the dream: a letter from Paris | openDemocracy

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’.

The State of LGBT Politics

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Gays, Marriage and the Military’ is a timely piece on the current state of LGBT politics and Pride. The point about support for marriage/access to the military amongst the LGBT community is an interesting one. London Pride this past Saturday was a sea of placards, banners and t-shirts containing slogans regarding gay marriage. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Stonewall, the utterly useless campaigning group which previously couldn’t care less about the issue, was a one-cause organisation such was its blanket obsession. What’s quite remarkable about this is that the cause was barely present at Pride even 12 months ago – its ascendance to become not only the sole goal of LGBT politics but (apparently) one of the greatest civil rights issues of the age has been swift indeed.

Of course, as this article mentions with regards to HRC in America, Stonewall has almost certainly immersed itself in the campaign because that’s where the money is – as I’ve written before, as an organisation they have absolutely no qualms about lending some liberal respectability to rather egregious companies on the absurdly narrow basis that they’re ‘nice to gays’. Their entire existence rests on cosying up to power, pointedly avoiding radicalism but flattering the perverse blend of exceptionalism, victimisation and self-entitlement of a largely-privileged group of (mostly) metropolitan white gay men. ‘Equality’ is stripped of almost all meaning (discussed in more detail here) and any sense of interrogation of society is entirely absent. This is certainly true of Pride as a wider event, with the now-grimly inevitable stories of people having ‘unofficial’ placards mentioning socialism, general strikes and class being told that they could not display them on the march. As a political event it’s so confused that it’s best just to approach the day as an excuse to have a drink. Only the most rabid of homophobes obsess over homosexuality as the defining (interesting, important) quality of a person as much as many of these gay men do.

I’ve written quite a bit about gay marriage but I don’t particularly have a problem with it. In the UK it’s entirely a symbolic gesture but in the USA I can appreciate that it has very real implications for people’s lives. My issue has been with the rhetoric around it, the sense that it’s the Big Issue of the age and the refusal/inability to consider how and why the privileges afforded by marriage are bestowed and upon who. The very nature of marriage means that ‘equal marriage’ itself is an oxymoron when considered in the context of wider society. A fixation on it hides real issues around poverty, immigration, health care and much more. It also actively serves those in power who have very clearly used the issue for their own ends – it was both grotesque and hilarious that the Supreme Court DOMA decision led to much hyperbole about ‘equality before the law’ and much praise for Barack Obama as a human rights champion at the exact same time as his administration is prosecuting Chelsea Manning and pursuing Edward Snowden (and the same week the Supreme Court was making rather dubious decisions about racial equality). At London Pride I saw quite a few American flags; most bizarrely, I saw a go-go dancer dressed only in pink briefs wearing an Obama mask.

This is where the one-dimensional fixation of LGBT politics leads to – all that is important is what reflects well on those LGBT people who already have a place at the table. You need only look at the gay media to see this facile reality in action. Anything else that happens, anything else that politicians do, is rendered invisible and irrelevant. It’s almost worrying how quickly and easily many in the LGBT community have bought into all this – it causes you to wonder what other causes they could be convinced to champion with abandon. Pride may have started as a riot but these days it’s less about solidarity and more a giant celebration of insularity and ignorance.

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.