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:

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.

#FreedomTo Say No To Barclays at #PrideinLondon

If it wasn’t already basic Marketing 101, I could swear that Barclays had a strategy document hidden away somewhere with a title like ‘Pinkwashing: It’s Piss Easy’. I’ve written a few times previously about their involvement with Stonewall, who seem happy to get into bed with any company which bats an eyelash at them even if its commitment is somewhat half-hearted. This week saw Barclays’ use of the LGBT community to bolster its image reach new depths with the launch of an advertising campaign built around its sponsorship of London Pride. Its Spectrum group, dedicated to ‘diversity and inclusion’, has been encouraging the use of #FreedomTo on social media and merrily tweeting images like these:

I find it interesting that any explicit reference to or portrayal of LGBT people on these adverts is muted – in fact, it would be easy enough to entirely miss that this was an LGBT-focused campaign rather than some generic, asinine message. This is particularly noticeable in their risible ‘GAYTMs’:

What are these?! I fail to see how sub-Hallmark sentiments written on some terrible patterns which have escaped from adorning bus seats suggest ‘LGBT Pride’ in any way whatsoever. And yet they’ve inspired adoring responses:

It doesn’t stop there. If looking at insipid messages, terrible graphic design and portrayals of LGBT life which wouldn’t scare the most virulent homophobe don’t make you proud enough you can actually adorn yourself in some marketing:

As space hijackers tweeted, what was once a riot is now a “contactless adventure”! Branding yourself in this way even seems to get you access to a ‘private’ area of Pride in Golden Square, something listed on both the Pride and‘bpay’ sites but with no further information provided. Possibly because an area reserved for people who prostrate themselves before a corporate sponsor isn’t exactly in keeping with the radical origins of Pride.

Not that Barclays, or Pride, would know it. The exchange beneath this tweet is illuminating. When someone complains that this branding is ‘not in the spirit of Pride’, Barclays responds that the event couldn’t even happen ‘without the financial support of Corporates”. The Pride account then chips in, saying that “only corporate sponsorship” allows the event to have “a unique meaning for everyone who comes along”. To complete the unholy triumvirate, an employee of Stonewall pops up to insist that “corporate support is vital to pride” and enquire as to how else it would be funded. The message is clear – the ungrateful oink who deigned to question the corporate branding of Pride should shut up. Barclays are doing the queers a favour! The fact that Pride events happened without such sponsorship for many years, and continue to happen today, is presumably irrelevant. The notion that Pride could have an ethical sponsorship policy is ludicrous because…reasons. Even more absurd is the idea that Pride probably doesn’t really need a series of stages (costing in excess of £200,000) featuring a bunch of terrible acts no-one has heard of. Lest we forget, Pride is held around the anniversary of the Stonewall riots (bang on the day this year, in fact). It rather sticks in the craw that this event, commonly held to be the beginning of the modern radical LGBT liberation movement, is now an excuse for a company as mired in scandal, sleaze and immorality as Barclays to apply an easy gloss to its image. Any doubt that this is the main purpose behind their sponsorship should be put to rest by this odious interview in the Evening Standard, which glosses over “slashing jobs or preserving sky-high pay” to provide a Pride-based platform for the Barclays CEO to trumpet the company’s “ethical dimension” and its ‘diversity’. That’s quite handy just weeks after you’ve announced the sacking of almost 20,000 people. It’s handy when your bank has been the single largest supporter of the arms trade in the UK sector, profiting from the support and sale of arms to not-exactly-LGBT-friendly regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Uganda and supporting the manufacture of drones. It helps in avoiding unfortunate questions about your bank’s seemingly endless scandals, from Libor to money-laundering/sanction-busting to unwarranted bonuses to helping cause and profiting from the hunger and malnutrition of millions. Barclays is no friend of the LGBT community. It’s no friend of most of humanity. We owe it no gratitude and we certainly owe no loyalty to Pride in assisting with its pinkwashing. Instead, let’s in a small but meaningful way show them that we value the roots of Pride. We value liberation for everyone and will not allow our dignity to be commodified in the name of an abhorrent bank. The #freedomto say ‘not in our name’ is where real pride lies.

‘Coming Out’ and being gay

I told my brother I was gay when I bumped into him in a nightclub one random Friday evening. I was very, very drunk and the next day I only had a vague recollection of the previous night. When I finally got out of bed and went downstairs my brother was sitting at the family computer. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Did I see you last night?

Brother: Yes

Me: Did I say anything?

Brother: You said you were gay.

Me: Oh

Brother: Are you?

Me: Yes

Brother: Do you remember me telling you I split up with my girlfriend?


It’s always stuck with me because of all the initial reactions, it was the most matter-of-fact. My brother wasn’t appalled, he wasn’t upset, he wasn’t thrilled – he simply didn’t care. I was rather taken aback by this – not least because I had built it into such a HUGE THING in my head that I felt it demanded some massive acknowledgement. Yet of all the reactions I could have had, it was the most helpful. In one fell swoop it deflated the bubble I had created around my sexuality, letting out all of the anxiety and worry but also the self-importance and ego. One of the only people I had told before this was a school friend and when I think back now, I feel so sorry for him. I bored him to death about it, banging on and on about being gay and revelling in the difference. Of course I can’t beat myself (or anyone else) up about that – it’s perfectly understandable behaviour and my friend certainly never complained – but I quickly started to realise that we can make an issue of our sexuality just as much as others can, and if I wanted to be treated like everybody else then I would have to approach my sexuality as I would wish it to be approached.

It’s for this reason that I can’t get excited when a celebrity or politician says something ‘nice’ about gay people. Why should I be thrilled that someone has acknowledged my existence? Why should I feel grateful that someone is not a twat? The urge to gratitude is quite revealing of our own approach towards our sexuality, I feel, and it is an urge that countless clever politicians and celebrities have capitalised on. I’m not going to celebrate being seen as a token of someone’s liberalism and I’m not going to be grateful for being a target market which crap pop singers can tap into for some sales. Being gay says absolutely nothing about my politics, my beliefs, my tastes. If anyone thinks I should ‘naturally’ support a certain political party, go easy on a certain politician, buy a certain product because of their stance on ‘gay rights’, they need to have a long hard look at their own approach to the subject.

This is also why I have so little time for those who seek to use their sexuality as a get-out clause for their misdeeds. I’ve gotten into arguments before because I was so unsympathetic to David Laws and Lord Browne, two powerful individuals who were caught up in lies and misdeeds relating to their sexuality. It was expected that I should at least partly excuse them – because society is homophobic, their generation was homophobic, their work environments were homophobic, whatever. My attitude? Big bloody deal. How insulting to the countless people, gay or otherwise, who face hardships, trauma and obstacles and still somehow manage not to swindle the taxpayer or lie under oath to ask that I extend a get-out clause to two people who have had privilege handed to them on a plate. Sexuality does not begin to absolve us of personal responsibility – if anything, we should forcefully refuse to play the victim. Whatever issues they had, Laws and Browne were two adults in positions of power, enjoying all of the benefits that come with those positions. I had no sympathy. This urge to create images of gay victimhood is something I’ve written about before with reference to more extreme cases. It does us all an injustice.

The reason why all of this has occurred to me has been the reaction today to Frank Ocean’s blog about his ‘first love’. It should be noted that Ocean doesn’t actually ‘come out’ in this blog – if saying that your first love was male makes you gay/bisexual, then a hefty % of gay men must be straight/bisexual as many dated women and enjoyed it before coming out.  Indeed, this rush to push Ocean into a box, whether ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’, is part of the problem. It’s putting words in his mouth, making him into something which he doesn’t necessarily wish to be – not only in terms of his sexuality but in terms of being a ‘brave’ man. Maybe he just wanted to let us know about a lovely time in his life which has inspired his new album. Nothing more, nothing less. The rush to congratulate him, however well-intentioned, is enormously patronising and makes as much an issue of his sexuality as any homophobe would. Indeed, I did a twitter search for reactions to his blog and the vast, vast majority were supportive. Nonetheless, many of these were supportive while noting that he was ‘brave’ and would face problems from the hip-hop world. I didn’t see any that noted any actual negative response – instead it was an imaginary future persecution which has the added bonus of making the supporter seem extra-liberal. I previously noted the same reaction to the film ‘Weekend’, where I saw countless reviewers/viewers noting that it would make homophobes uncomfortable without ever taking a second to notice that homophobes were never going to watch ‘Weekend’ in the first place. Of course we can and should acknowledge context and recognise that homophobia is a real thing. We should not, however, begin from an automatic assumption of homophobia. If we want a world where being gay, straight, bisexual or whatever is truly no big deal then we should all act like it – and that means smiling at Frank Ocean’s nice story and letting him be whatever he wants to be without instantly trying to bend it to our own ends.