‘Gay Geeks’

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A lot’s been written on the commodification of the ‘geek’ identity – I’ve briefly touched on it myself – and a lot has been written about the commodification of the gay identity. Given the things they have in common (an attachment to ‘minority’ status, a foundation in excessive consumption, a strong sense of belonging to a larger group) it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s a big overlap between the two. In fact, it seems to me that the ‘gay geek’ is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) the dominant ‘identity’ amongst gay men. Just as it became unacceptable in polite company to be a banker, the stereotypical muscle-bound, preened, clubbing gay man is largely the object of derision and seen as hopelessly self-destructive. Instead, the gay scene is increasingly populated by ‘geeks’, with things like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, comics, Apple , games and ironic appreciation of 90s pop and/or reality tv being touchstones. Perhaps I’ve been in East London too long but the gay club nights which reflect this identity, relying on a deliberately lo-fi & retrograde aesthetic which harks back to London and New York in the 70s/80s, have certainly been spreading further afield.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the sexualisation of the geek aesthetic. If the airbrushed vanity of a club like Room Service is considered rather naff, that’s no reason not to hit the gym hard. Instead the exhibitionism is given a reason to be beyond self-love, whether that be a veneer of art, performance or the ironic detachment which saturates a million images of guys with embarrassed expressions wearing patterned H&M pants and sporting a toothbrush in their mouths. Indeed, it’s no surprise (and no mistake) that much modern ‘gay art’ concerns itself with this aesthetic and this identity.

Of course it’s not to be taken as a given that this is all a bad thing. The issue is less with the enjoyment of ‘geek’ pursuits than with the cementing of (yet another) identity based in purchase power and “the slow creep of media consumption as a mode of living”. These are things to be considered rather than dismissed. What caused me to put these brief thoughts down was this column in the Evening Standard today, one that seems to cement the status of the ‘gay geek’ as a new norm and, crucially, as one useful to capital. It repeats the oft-heard assertions that gay people are more educated and more affluent, referring to a study from The Williams Institute at UCLA. Yet read the link and you’ll see that the study is far more complex than the trite presentation in the column suggests. Investigate further and you’ll find that the same institution presented research suggesting that LGBT people were more likely to be poor than heterosexuals. The research is patchy to say the least but certainly seems to suggest that LGBT people are no better off than heterosexuals in the UK. Certainly a moment of consideration of the column’s assertions makes them seem odd given that we are constantly told that LGBT people are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, which have most definitely been linked to poverty.

What seems to be happening here, then, is that the ‘gay geek’ identity is conflated with the educated, professional (and overwhelmingly white, mostly male) demographic who seem to so dominate modern LGBT political narratives. It’s not surprising that the already privileged are more visible. The removal of ‘problematic’ LGBT people who experience poverty, aren’t ‘professionals’ and for whom a “a corporate commitment to gay rights” means absolutely nothing is not only evident, it’s insidious. Some anonymous executive is quotes as saying:

It is a cliché but the average professional gay person tends to be clever, probably not yet in a civil partnership and certainly not yet a parent. This means they can dedicate more of their time to their career and ultimately to our bottom line, at least for now.

The quote makes it absolutely clear that this ‘commitment to gay rights’ is only for some: if you have or plan to have children, if you aren’t university educated, if you have commitments and a life outside of work, the strong implication is that you’re of no interest. It’s a profoundly troubling quote, not least suggesting that a certain class of gay man is advancing over the backs of women who have the audacity to become pregnant. Yet it’s not parsed in any way whatsoever and is just presented as ‘proof’ that life for the ‘gay geek’ is dandy. We also have the strong whiff of homonationalism with the ‘revelation’ that the world’s third-biggest arms dealer BAE Systems is going to be “champion(ing) diversity aggressively among its workforce over the next year, starting with a co-sponsorship of the inaugural PinkNews awards in October.” Of course LGBT organisations lending their ‘gay is good’ cachet to dubious organisations is nothing new but this is still breathtaking. BAE Systems has a history of corruption and an enduring relationship with the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia (as well as other authoritarian regimes, including Egypt). It’s fair to say that LGBT rights in Saudia Arabia are not in a good place, just as human rights in general are not. It’s absolutely staggering that an arms dealer explicitly profiting in the oppression, injuring and murdering of people will be ‘aggressively’ championing ‘diversity’ at an event hosted by a British LGBT organisation.

What is the ‘gay geek’ here, then, if not a convenient reinforcement of the Western neoliberal social order? They are the ‘right’ kind of gay and, as such, fully deserve to be able to participate in and profit from the brutalising of those pesky brown people while ignoring the uppity queers who ruin it for everyone else with their poverty, their radicalism or their general awkwardness.

It’s a quite fascinating use of an ostensibly harmless identity. Of course there is a leap from the ‘gay geeks’ I describe at the start to the Evening Standard column and many who identify with the former will rightly find the latter abhorrent. Nonetheless, it does illustrate some of the potential pitfalls of tying our self-identity too closely to a larger group based on consumption and/or even on sexuality. Most importantly, it emphatically illustrates the axiom that the personal is political.

Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.