Brave Man: Rejecting ‘Allyship’.

No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:

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This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:

Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.

Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.

Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect

The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
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“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!

Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no  less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.

The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).

Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.

Sexy Domestic Abuser Loves The Gays and Hates Russia!

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I’ve written previously about how “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants, how “we’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’”  and how “the collective bogeyman that is homophobia can…prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.” Well, examples of all these things come no greater than the new issue of Gay Times, featuring straight rugby player Stuart Reardon on the cover. The intro to the accompanying feature would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic:

He loves the gays, hates Russia’s treatment of us and works with underprivileged kids. Rugby ace Stuart Reardon is like the Mother Theresa (sic) of Warrington – only with thighs that could crack a coconut under his wimple.

Yes, apparently ‘loving the gays’ and thinking it’s jolly bad for a country to persecute minorities makes you a candidate for sainthood. Rather than, you know, a patronising git in the first instance and just your average person who isn’t a total dick in the second. So far, so insipid and predictable. Where it gets quite incredible is in the fact that this saintly figure has a criminal conviction for assaulting his wife. That picture up there is him leaving court. The details of this conviction are quite something:

Stuart Reardon, 27, pleaded guilty at Bradford Magistrates’ Court to assaulting his estranged wife, Kay, after finding out she was seeing another man, while Leon Pryce, also 27, admitted assaulting her new partner.

The court heard the defendants had both been drinking before going to the flat of Reardon’s new boyfriend, Damon O’Brien, and forcing their way in, leaving the couple “terrified”.

How did they force themselves in? Well:

When neither Mrs Reardon nor Mr O’Brien opened the door to the second-floor flat, Reardon sent a text message to his wife’s new boyfriend claiming their young son was in hospital.

That’s right – when he couldn’t gain access to attack his wife, he lied and said that their son had been taken to hospital. He sounds positively delightful, doesn’t he? But hey, he apparently loves the gays and he’s fit! What are we gays for if not to provide handy PR opportunities for straight sportsmen whose professional careers are over? It has, after all, worked so well for Ben Cohen. It makes you so proud:

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It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the teams behind these magazines: the print market in general is clearly in decline and ‘gay lifestyle’ publications seem increasingly irrelevant. You have the sense that they’re trapped in the realm of soft porn and undemanding content. Even so, surely there have to be some standards?! This is just tragic.

An added irony – one of the main cover splashes is “Meet the gay men who are fighting eating disorders.” Appearing alongside the heavily-airbrushed photo of a semi-naked model. Indeed, GT is kinda renowned for its airbrushed covers. It is, of course, hardly alone in that but I’d be curious to see if the article acknowledges the potential role that the endlessly manipulated imagery and strident consumerism of such media could play in these illnesses.

Twin Time

Today Gay Times (GT) magazine unveiled their new cover, an airbrushed photo of two almost-naked twin brothers with the headline of ‘TWIN TIME’ and a promise that they tell all about their ‘life in porn’. GT’s twitter account soon after tweeted the non-question “Is it immoral to put gay twin brothers in hardcore porn, or just really, really hot?” If it wasn’t clear from the salacious cover that they had already answered this, the panting article description they linked to made their position clear. HOT HOT HOT!

Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought twice about this if not for the fact that my fiancé has a twin brother who is also gay. He has told me many times about his distaste, repulsion even, for the sexualisation of twins. He and his brother have had plenty of sleazy comments over the years. Imagine, he once said, that someone suggested to you that they have sex with you and your brother. Imagine how that would make you feel.

The thought was horrible to me, of course. The incest taboo is hardwired into us, with its very real associations with familial abuse, violence and genetic abnormalities.  No doubt this strong taboo is what draws some towards it as a sexual fantasy. Yet having this taboo ‘fantasy’ put front and centre in the UK’s most famous gay magazine, found in newsagents alongside FHM, GQ and the like, was a surprise to say the least. Certainly it’s common knowledge that times are hard for magazines, yet breathless prose about how these brothers are ‘breaking boundaries’ with their films such as ‘Brother Fuckers’ is something you may expect to find in obscure magazines sold in Soho basements rather than the leading mainstream ‘gay lifestyle’ title.

What makes it worse is the sheer disingenuousness of it. GT acknowledged questions of morality in their tweet, yet it’s a cursory nod to possible ‘controversy’, attempting to pre-empt criticism.  The blurb on the website follows a similar tactic and it’s clear that there is no serious engagement with the issues surrounding incest (and it’s certainly an area which there has been some recent debate) or the commodification of familial intimacy. Instead they want to titillate, to arouse, to sell, while paying lip service to the notion that there may be something distasteful in their actions.

There are a plethora of issues and questions raised by the cover. Not a day goes by without some piece appearing in the liberal media about misogyny and the commodification of women, yet here we have the hyper-sexualised commodification of twin brothers and implicit appeal of breaking the incest taboo. It’s a magazine created by men, for men, using the sexualisation of one of the most emotionally intimate relationships we can experience to generate profit. At a stroke it underlines how complex issues of objectification and exploitation are against a media which increasingly pursues the line that objectification = men degrading women.

Indeed, if aforementioned GQ or FHM featured two almost-naked sisters on their cover with similar text, making capital of their appearance in films such as ‘Sister Fucker’, I think there would be swift and widespread disgust and condemnation. Just as the current campaign to end Page 3 in The Sun rests heavily on the notion of patriarchy and the objectification of women by men, this would be held up as an example of widespread and fundamental misogyny. Does it become more acceptable if it’s men exploiting men? I would think not – certainly women who have positions of authority in the porn industry aren’t widely excused from complicity in objectification etc. Yet images of semi-naked men are common in the media and don’t arouse a fraction of the ire or comment which equivalent images of women do. Saying ‘it’s because of patriarchy’ is an immensely unsatisfying explanation for this.

This is further complicated by issues of sexuality and its representation. Again, I think it’s fair to say that gay men are indulged far more in their attitudes towards other gay men than straight men are in their treatment of women. In this recent Guardian piece on ‘creepy’ sites which post images of unsuspecting women for men to leer at, sites like Tubecrush (where gay men post photos of unsuspecting men) were completely absent. We tend to respond differently to men tweeting sexual remarks (and even insults based on appearance) about men they’re watching on television than we do to men tweeting about women. I would argue that the idea of gay men as sexually liberated and ‘fun’ is relatively widespread in the media (I still can’t believe that Caitlin Moran once put out a column about gay men being the ‘ultimate accessory’ and it didn’t end her career.) The kneejerk response to gay expressions of sexuality, however base they may be, is to indulge them and paint those who object as at best uptight, at worst a bigot. The collective bogeyman that is homophobia can, in these circumstances, prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.

This can lead to a staggering lack of self-awareness and some curious logical contortions. A recent and common bugbear for many in the gay community was the tendency for some newsagents to place Gay Times and Attitude magazine on their top shelves, alongside the porn magazines. The cry of ‘homophobia’ spread, with advocates pointing to the scantily clad women adorning men’s magazines which were displayed on lower shelves. Yet I have absolutely no doubt that many of those who took up this cause would identify themselves as ‘feminists’. It seems a curious demand for equality, then, to ask that we be accorded the same ‘right’ to sexualise the shelves with heavily airbrushed images. The more difficult question would be to ask why ‘naked’ and ‘sex’ issues are such an increasingly common ploy for these magazines that it’s at the point of self-parody. Indeed, even male celebrities can rarely adorn covers unless they have some flesh on display. It could even be argued that this is seen as a far more respectable thing for male celebrities to do than female ones, which if true raises many other issues.

This cover, then, seems like a logical progression from this atmosphere. I doubt anyone involved in it would expect any serious backlash. Instead many men will salivate over the imagery and the ‘transgression’ and few people will bat an eyelid. In asking why this is and examining our own responses to the questions raised, I think we raise some uncomfortable and demanding questions.