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.

The Best in Us

Any gay person will recognise, on a visceral level, the dynamic around the ‘little things’ which Panti Bliss describes in this video. We will also recognise what she says later about it becoming so commonplace that you almost become inured to it. You almost forget that it happens and how ugly it is.

When the awful Glasgow lorry crash happened one of the big responses to it was a wave of sentiment and self-love over Glasgow and its people. ‘People Make Glasgow’ goes the slogan and it’s something which has more and more become part of the city’s view of its own character, especially over the past year when its status as ‘Yes City’ led many to be convinced that its people simply ‘care more’ about the weakest in society. This made me very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable not in some detached rational sense but in a visceral way. When I thought about why this was, I found myself returning to when I lived in Glasgow and could not go a single day without at least one person shouting homophobic abuse at me. Literally every single morning as I walked to work, the local school children would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. Literally every time I went out wearing colourful headphones or dressed ‘alternatively’ (I used to do a fine Jarvis Cocker impression) people would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. And I did become inured to it. I realised I had become inured to it when I moved to London and, on my first morning there, found myself passing a group of teenagers just hanging around on the street. Instinctively I shrunk within myself, staring at the pavement and focusing just on getting past them. Then what I dreaded happened: one of the kids said ‘Hey mate!’ to get my attention. I knew what came next – the mocking, the slurs and the laughing – so I kept walking in silence. Then he shouted again, more loudly. Ok, I thought, I might as well just get this over with. I looked up at him. He said ‘I love your outfit!’ and that was that. I stood there for a second, stunned. I mumbled ‘thanks’ and then hurried off.

I swear every word of that is true and I will never forget it because it made me realise just how numb I had become to it. I of course know that what I experienced in Glasgow was perpetrated by a minority of people and happens all over the UK (and beyond) – including in London. I of course know that the racist abuse which followed my Korean friend around the streets, including one horribly memorable day when a couple of kids ran alongside us in the park shouting racial slurs and I felt disgustingly impotent, is an example of the racism which is deeply embedded in our society. These issues are not Glasgow’s alone. Yet when I see people in Glasgow congratulating themselves on how special, tolerant and kind they are I can’t help but return to those daily slights which still make me shrink into myself in certain situations and be disgusted at the conceitedness. Because when we view ourselves in the most idealised light possible we not only lose the capacity to recognise, understand and change the worst in ourselves, we also lose the ability to listen to criticism which contradicts us. This is true of Glasgow, which has no particularly monopoly on human kindness and has a panoply of problems. This is true of London, which fancies itself as a cut above ‘the provinces’. And it’s true of Paris and wider ‘Western democracy’, which right now is indulging in delusional and dangerous masturbatory fantasies of our own superior ‘civilisation’ and ‘values’ (go here for the best response to this I’ve seen).

The worse in humanity which we experience and, crucially, which we perpetrate is nothing but endless cruelties if we do not always strive for an honest, brutal self-awareness. The playwright John Steppling here describes fascism as “deposits of cruelty sedimented in the psyche”. This resonated with me because it perfectly captures why the tendency to always think the best of ourselves/our cities/our cultures is so dangerous – it leaves the cruelty festering, unexamined and untouched. That’s why responses to the Paris atrocity which seek to understand, to lend context, are not ‘apologism’ – they are absolutely essential if we truly aspire to be better than we are. My Twitter bio is a quote from Hannah Arendt, an intellectual who experienced her own accusations of ‘apologism’ when she attempted to understand Eichmann and the Nazis. I will end here with it as I think it sums up that, whether it’s applied to homophobia, wider social justice or great questions of ‘civilisation’, the only way we can ‘progress’ is by seeking to recognise and understand ourselves at our worst, however uncomfortable that may be. We must not allow ourselves to be inured:

And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking is even more dangerous.

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.

The Joiners’ Arms and Gentrification

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In areas like Shoreditch and its peers around the globe, the cosmetic renewal of a portion of the crumbling urban core coincides with continued – or intensified – infrastructural decline. The reactivation of dormant (or low profit sweatshop-occupied) industrial properties first as artist’s spaces and later as bars, boutiques, apartments etc has made many landlords even richer, but the area’s large tracts of public housing, services and transport facilities remain in a deteriorating condition and/or are sold off to the private sector. Gentrification takes from the poor and gives to the rich. Anything residually ‘public’ will either be reclaimed for the middle class or left to rot. Each wave of colonisers plays out the contradictions of their particular claim to space, taking sides against the next phase of gentrification in which they nevertheless conspire…The creation and rapid extinction of cultural ‘incubators’ – clubs, art spaces, etc. – by more lucrative investments in areas like Shoreditch at the same time intensifies bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’ which is the USP of the area’s marketing.

The piece this quote was taken from (“Shoreditch and the creative destruction of the inner city“) was written over a decade ago yet remains the most insightful commentary on what’s happening in the East End of London (and beyond) that I’ve seen. I’ve referred to it in the past, not least when Dazed & Confused insultingly posed the question of whether East London was ‘dead’ because the ‘creatives’ were finding it a bit expensive. The writers at D&C were completely useless on gentrification, presenting it both as a new phenomenon and as something somehow removed from magazines like their own and its endless articles presenting the East End as a hub of cool, edgy creativity. Both were and are a nonsense. No brand better sums up the “bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’” than Vice which, like Dazed & Confused, launched in the early 90s and bought Shoreditch’s Old Blue Last pub in the same year Benedict Seymour’s essay was written. It’s become a shorthand signifier for an edginess that is “one part actual intelligent, progressive, boundary-pushing journalism to nine parts nihilistic misogynist awfulness” and it’s not irrelevant here that one of its co-founders is a reactionary dickhead. Vice was and is aimed at a young, self-consciously ‘creative’ reader for whom it offers a titillating taste of transgression. Today Vice has posted an article on the impending closure of The Joiners Arms, a Hackney gay bar which it’s fair to say has been an institution in London’s LGBT scene. Entitled “The Joiners’ Arms is Closing and It’s a Travesty’, the piece is fascinating in its inadvertent revelation that these people still really, really don’t understand what’s happening in London. As with the previous D&S piece, gentrification is presented as some nebulous external force that is encroaching on ‘proper Hackney’ and “pushing out those that can no longer afford to stay”. Yet the article itself documents some of the logic and processes behind gentrification, even though it clearly doesn’t realise it. Seymour’s piece explains how the wave of ‘creative gentrification’ which saw Shoreditch “celebrated as the heart of London’s creative and artistic scene in the ’90s” led to it becoming “the apple of urban policy makers’ eyes in the late ’90s”. As he puts it:

Shoreditch was held up as an example of how the ‘inner core’ of the city, allegedly abandoned after the flight of working class inhabitants to the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s, could ‘come back to life’ if the area’s ‘residual’ population of deadbeats were supplemented (that is, supplanted) by a lively group of dynamic and entrepreneurial cultural professionals. From the beginning this notion of new ‘life’ served to obfuscate whose life was being discussed – not that of the area’s economically challenged majority, it would seem.

This is a narrative which Vice follows precisely. The Joiners’, we’re told, opened in “proper Hackney territory” which apparently means it was “surrounded by empty shop fronts and council estates”. Notice that ‘council estates’ are clearly implied to be a bad thing here. It goes further – The Joiners’ was “a haven from a traditionally homophobic part of town” and it “flew the rainbow flag proud” despite aforementioned council estates. In the space of a few sentences we’re implicitly but clearly given the notion that Hackney was a declining working-class area and this is linked to homophobia. Was Hackney ‘traditionally’ viewed as homophobic, more so than any other area of London? Even this brief ‘gay history’ of the East End suggests otherwise, with this section concerning a pub literally minutes from The Joiners’:

Another vital meeting place for the East End gay community was the Royal Oak in Columbia Road, Hackney. While researching local history, Columbia Road resident Linda Wilkinson learned about Lil and Maisie, a transvestite couple, who lived in Hackney throughout World War II and performed at the Royal Oak while the bombs were falling. What’s remarkable about Lil and Maisie is that they were accepted by their neighbours. No stories have come to light of a similar working class gay couple anywhere else in London at this time. Lil and Maisie were still performing in drag at the Royal Oak in the 1960s.

No-one could possibly deny the certain existence of homophobia in Hackney when The Joiners’ opened, just as no-one could deny it now, but to suggest that it was a refuge from the homophobic working-class hordes around it is insulting. It is, however, an easy assertion because it appeals to familiar prejudices while claiming for The Joiners’ and its denizens that all-important edginess. Indeed, the article goes to pains to document The Joiners as “battling the encroaching diktat of political correctness” and offering “raucous mischief.” Yet rather than offering a radical disruption of the surrounding area it’s more likely that The Joiners’ opened as part of, and then furthered, the gentrification which was already occurring in Shoreditch. Although we must take note of the complexities and avoid generalising, research suggests a link between gentrification and a significant influx of LGBT people – in the Vice article we’re told of a writer who moved to Hackney in 2009 and “chose my flat partly because it was across the road [from The Joiners’]”. The flats directly opposite The Joiners’ were only build in the late 00s and most certainly weren’t social housing. To again return to the Seymour piece:

While Shoreditch’s magic circle was in the media spotlight the most massive and significant changes in the borough of Hackney, and indeed the city as a whole, were scarcely discussed. The social cleansing of working class communities across large swaths of London’s inner core, vicious cuts, privatisation, and Eastern European levels of poverty coincided with the highest number of housing privatisation ballots in the country. The latter, advanced in the name of ‘regeneration’ served to hasten the theft of the city from its true ‘creative class’, re-engineering former industrial areas as a playground for young middle-class consumers of surplus value. Although it is notoriously difficult to get precise figures, I would guess that as much as 40% of Hackney’s working class population have been pushed out of the area through the combined effect of rising rents, evictions, demolition and transfer of council housing into the hands of housing associations.

This is perhaps one of the central issues with gentrification – we never think that we are part of it until we feel victimised by it. For example, the Johann Hari-led attacks on Muslims in East London a few years ago owed much to the lazy prejudice which the Vice piece appeals to and owed much to gentrification. There’s no doubt that neither the owner of The Joiners’ nor most of the people who went there (including me) harboured any Machiavellian scheme to ‘claim’ the area but the process has been clear and ongoing for anyone who deigned to look. It was gentrification rather than ‘evolution’ which led to The Joiners’ becoming “basically…East London’s hottest new late night gay club”. It must be said that the article is utterly disingenuous in its failure to note that The Joiners’ did its best to capitalise on this – the notorious door charge is glossed over but it and drastically increased drink prices made the venue one of the most expensive in the area within a quite short period of time. This was combined with a door staff who were quite renowned for their aggressiveness – speak to anyone who went there with any regularity and they’ll at least know of a story. I found it amusing, then, that Vice repeats the familiar tropes about The Joiners’ (and the East End) presenting a:

…raucous, welcoming (unlike many Soho haunts, there had rarely been a “you’re not gay, you ain’t coming in” door policy), messy and character-rich up-yours to the stuff going on a few miles down the road in W1

Soho has long been the bete noire of East End LGBT venues, the great bogey man which they seek to define themselves against. Yet the complaints offered – that it’s too exclusive, too expensive, too homogenous – are ones which are repeated simply because they’re trite rather than because they are true. As the East End has continued its gentrification the venues and nights which have sprung up, such as East Bloc and Sink The Pink, have been as expensive and homogenous as any West End venue you could mention (if not more so). East Bloc on Saturday costs £7-10 while the next Sink The Pink costs £22. G-A-Y, in contrast, is typically free or up to £5 if you can’t be bothered picking up one of the many flyers. Yet the LGBT scene in the East End clings evermore to that ‘crucial edginess’ – despite its price Sink The Pink presents itself as a response to “recession with a Conservative government at the helm”. More disturbingly, these evenings delight in an aesthetic which is frequently racist and/or misogynistic – witness the gruesome yellowface at the top of this post – a trend which itself owes much to the colonial logic of gentrification. The Joiners’ Arms, then, finds itself victim of a rapacious gentrification which it once benefited from and which the East End LGBT scene has been/is complicit in. Yet we continues to ignore it beyond the most superficial level: Vice tritely complains of “an area that has been flat white-d and artisan burger-ed within an inch of its life” with zero comprehension of the processes and history behind it. The Benedict Seymour piece is an essential place to start in beginning to understand the ‘creative destruction’ at work here. When Pauline Pearce complained about the damage gentrification was doing to Hackney, pushing out the poor, driving up prices and eroding the area’s diversity, it was met with a furious response. Yet the closure of The Joiners’ is just the latest example of how this logic has no boundaries and, if left unchecked, the vast majority will suffer as the poorest in society are right now.

‘Civilised’

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With the Commonwealth Games starting in Glasgow this week, the usual suspects have been out in force complaining about homophobia in many of the Commonwealth countries. Never one to shy from the limelight, Peter Tatchell actually travelled to Glasgow to call on Alex Salmond and organisers to condemn these nations and even ban them from competing (quite how travelling up to Scotland to tell its First Minister what to do squares with his support for independence, I’m not quite sure.) By far the most prominent example of this trend, on social media at least, was this meme from Stonewall:

10475673_10152519854650399_2571160274686206565_nStonewall went to town with this one, posting it several times and retweeting posts of it by others. Its many retweets means that it will have been seen by many thousands of people and it led to a predictable outpouring of anger and condemnation. Then, in a perfect fuelling of this narrative, the opening ceremony featured that kiss. Or should I say ‘that stunning rebuke’? Take that, savages! Many of those tweeting their outrage regarding homophobia went crazy for this kiss, as if it was single-handedly going to stop bigotry in its tracks. More worryingly, it quickly became proof of our superiority, with comments like this being fairly common:

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‘Civilised’. The use of this word alone should have set alarm bells ringing as to the subtext being pushed beneath this facile outrage.This language and the ideas behind it were absolutely central to colonialism and slavery, with “Africans…thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way.” It’s notable that the same arguments are also used by supporters of Israel. Their deployment against the countries of the Commonwealth, almost entirely made up of countries which were formerly part of the British Empire, is disturbing to say the least. Take that, savages, indeed.

A typical response to this concern from the outraged is ‘oh so we can’t attack homophobia in these countries because they were colonies then?’ The implication is that if you find this racist moralising distateful you must support anti-LGBT laws. This is, of course, utter nonsense. It’s very telling that the outrage is almost entirely aimed at these countries en masse and expressed via organisations such as Stonewall, which explicitly links its own ‘international work’ to the issue in an effort to raise more money. Here we have the White Saviour Industrial Complex which Teju Cole wrote about with regards to Africa blended with homonationalism (note, for example, that there is little outrage about any other human rights issues in these countries, including poverty, or about the LGBT record of ‘civilised’ countries like the USA) There is no consideration that work to change these laws goes on within these countries and there is certainly no appreciation that these must be the way change happens. It cannot and will not be imposed by us. Scott Long wrote a typically good piece on this a few years ago where he noted that LGBT activists from these Commonwealth countries were being shut out by ‘Western’ interests (including Tatchell). As he writes:

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted.

In his piece Teju Cole directly addresses Americans swept up in the Kony fever, telling them how they can ‘help’:

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.

It’s that Biblical parable about removing the log from your own eye before judging, or attempting to ‘help’, others. This is utterly fundamental to this Commonwealth issue. In the minds of the outraged, these countries become demonised others, reduced to nothing more than their laws regarding LGBT people. In condemning them while patting ourselves on the back, the central role played by the United Kingdom (and contrary to what some seem to believe, this absolutely also means Scotland here) in how these countries have developed is completely elided. When there was yet another brief e-petition frenzy over Uganda’s homophobic laws earlier this year, some pointed out that these laws were introduced by colonial powers. This has been pointed out in the past regarding the Commonwealth – this very good piece looks at not only the colonial legacy but the problem of approaching these issues in terms of a ‘LGBTI’ framework in the first place – and researchers state that anti-LGBT laws are “mostly a legacy of British colonialism“. So we are berating these countries for laws which we largely introduced to them!

It’s essential to be aware of and consider our role in this because it blows the racist ideas about the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ wide open. Lest we forget, the British Empire was absolutely brutal. Britain massacred, tortured, starved, ethnically cleansed and had concentration camps well before the Nazis came along. It’s also completely forgotten that the overwhelmingly poor countries which retain these laws aren’t inherently ‘broken’ – their current status is heavily shaped by colonialism’s history of slavery, cultural oppression and the theft of wealth and resources on an unimaginable scale. Let’s be in no doubt here: the UK’s position as a wealthy nation owes much to its horrofic subjugation of these countries people are now wagging their fingers at.

Colonialism isn’t some distant relic as many seem to think -as late as 1997 the UK was still decolonising (Hong Kong) and its sovereignty over places like Gibralter and the Falklands endures to this day. Yet if British rule isn’t the terror it once was, the legacy of this remains strong (and is precisely one of the main reasons why the UK bears some responsibility for the Israel/Palestine conflict). Many of the ‘tinpot dictators’ we love to hate are there largely because of us. We continue to arm these countries even while expressing mock-outrage at their transgressions, with Campaign Against the Arms Trade documenting that the UK sold arms to 46 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries in the past three years, including the maligned Uganda and Nigeria (as Eleanor Harris put it on Twitter, we sold them both arms and attitudes). It’s also argued by some that the modern framework of aid, international development and economic ‘support’ is a form of neocolonialism, wherein the ‘former’ colonial powers retain their paternalism and exercise power in these ostensibly liberated countries.

It should be clear, then, that we are in no position to lecture the rest of the Commonwealth on the matter of how ‘civilised’ they are and we should be wary of indulging in that rhetoric. Yet even taken on its own terms, this behaviour is staggeringly hypocritical. It beggars belief that LGBT laws have become totemic of ‘civilisation’ when the UK is still very much on that journey itself. Homosexual activities were only legalised in Scotland in 1980. Section 28, our very own law banning homosexual ‘propaganda’ in schools, was not fully abolished until 2003 and was aggressively supported by our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even the much vaunted ‘marriage equality’ finally obtained this year was only ‘equality’ for some, with the ‘spousal veto’ discriminating against transexual people. Yet transexual rights are a poor relative of ‘gay rights’ here, as seen in Stonewall’s award of ‘Politician of the Year’ to Baroness Stowell and the owner of Pink News tweeting his congratulations to her on her promotion. Stowell was a staunch defender of the veto.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 report on Discrimination and Positive Action, meanwhile, shows that there is a long way to go in the host country of the Commonwealth Games. In it we find that 55% of respondents would be ‘unhappy/very unhappy’ at the prospect of a family member entering a relationship with a ‘cross-dresser’, and 49% would be unhappy if it was a relationship with a transexual. 30% would be unhappy if a family member married someone of the same sex (though the campaign for marriage since then may have eroded this % somewhat). This is without getting into truly terrifying statistics such as 49% agreeing that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thinking the same about more black and/or Asian people living there.

Remove the log from your own eye. It’s worth repeating. We are not going to change laws in Commonwealth countries by tweeting a meme and indulging in ramped up racist rhetoric online. We’re not even going to do it by protesting, or writing to our MPs. The only way to progress is to listen to the activists who actually live in these countries and amplify their voices whereever possible. Just as they have responsibility for change within their own countries, we must take the same for change within ours. Our countryis not a benevolent force promoting good throughout the world. We can and should oppose the disgusting arms trade; we can and should oppose our government’s support for dictators and massacres like the one currently taking place in Gaza. But more than that, we must educate ourselves about the injustices which persevere in our own country. The scourges of poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, political corruption and more are very much alive in the United Kingdom. Solving them will take a lot more than a staged kiss.

Lord Browne – Drowning in Shit

The point at which you despairingly wonder “how much longer are we going to put up with this drivel?” came, went and died a lonely death years ago. Hardly anyone seems to have bat an eyelid at Lord Browne’s latest charm offensive promoting, without a hint of irony, a book about why coming out is ‘good for business’. Browne being, of course, a fellow who took out injunctions to prevent his former partner from speaking to the press to make allegations including misuse of BP funds and tax-dodging. He perjured himself in court regarding the relationship and was criticised by the judge for his “willingness casually to ‘trash’ the reputation of Mr Chevalier (the partner) and to discredit him in the eyes of the court”. Why he sounds just perfect to tell us about how great coming-out is!

He gets away with this nonsense almost entirely unchallenged because he’s played the ‘victim’ narrative like a pro and this has absolved him of all his sins. He periodically pops up to speak of how homophobic business is and how he was a poor victim of this. His conversion to the moral goodness of living an ‘openly gay life’ is music to the ears of a community and media which still treats LGBT people like cute little puppies to be cooed over and scratched on their bellies.

Lest we forget, this poor unfortunate graduated from the University of Cambridge and became, as Chief Executive of BP, one of the highest-paid people in the world. He was also a Director at that great vampire squid Goldman Sachs, as well as being knighted and made a Lord. Some of the information he attempted to prevent his former partner revealing concerned his regular meetings with senior members of government, including both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, someone who was an outsider. Yet the idea of the tortured homosexual ‘living a lie’ while enjoying unfettered access to the gilded halls of power rubs those proverbial tummies.

And so it continues. It’s no accident that Browne’s latest promotional round pushes the exact same lines as before. Witness the headline of his interview with The Guardian: “I Thought Being Gay Was Basically Wrong”. The opening is quite ridiculous:

When Lord Browne was in charge of BP, had anyone told him he would one day invite a journalist into his home to discuss his sexuality, he would have said they were insane. Homosexuality was the last thing he expected to talk about in public; after all, he never spoke of it even in private.

He didn’t? But his partner spoke of being present at dinners with the Prime Minister. He spoke of visiting Peter Mandelson’s home and Mandelson’s partner being there. These are hardly generic ‘social events’ as the article breezily puts it. Are we expected to believe that Browne was just dragging this guy around with him without telling any of these people who he was? It defies all reason – but it challenges the narrative and so any pretence of journalism is abandoned. Indeed, while Browne might think that homosexuality ‘was the last thing’ he’d be interviewed about, these days he’s far less likely to be challenged on his professional life. It’s a complete puff-piece which presents him as some kind of gay hero. There are brief mentions of ‘accusations’ that his savage cuts at BP were linked to a string of disasters and deaths including the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Surely this is something Browne should be challenged on every single time he is interviewed? (As a slight aside, it’s interesting to note that one of the journalists who most pursued Browne over BP’s safety record stated that his time as Chief Exec was characterised by ”a corporate court filled with sycophants and…an unhealthy glorification of a boss.”  Again, completely at odds with Browne’s own take on things.)

Similarly his key role in the introduction of tuition fees is completely glossed over – he’s not even asked about it. I don’t care what this privileged guy thinks of being gay. I care that he had, and still has, real power and access to government and is identified as responsible for a series of reprehensible outcomes. Even on the terms of his book it’s very easy to link these issues: tuition fees, student debt in general and the culture of austerity which Browne so buys into are viewed by many on the left as instrumental in the creation of aprecariat class of obediant and ‘flexible’ worker. This makes it all the more fascinating (and troubling) that the main thrust of Browne’s argument is ‘openly gay employees are good employees’. This may be so but why is it okay to instrumentalise my sexuality in this way and not other aspects of my being? Browne is essentially arguing that companies should get on board with gay employees cos they’re good for the bottom line. Great. What about employee conditions, including safety? What about jobs themselves?! On top of aforementioned cuts Browne also slashed thousands of jobs at BP. I’m sure some of those people were gay, maybe even openly so at work. Where is the regard for their wellbeing from this poor, tortured soul?

Browne’s use of homosexuality is not only self-serving, it’s blatant pinkwashing. The real ‘bottom line’ here is that if companies are seen to be ‘nice’ to their gay employees, they can get use this when the shit hits the fan regarding their business activities. Witness the utter absurdity of this man saying that companies should ‘send gay employees to Russia’ to educate the backwards barbarians. This is a quite literal reduction of ‘gay employees’ to a public relations vanguard for companies which are typically up to their eyeballs in human rights violations. The idea that a company like BP could be viewed in any way as concerned with human rights is laughable, and egregious drivel such as this from Browne acts merely to provide cover for business decisions which havealready demonstrated no such concern.

A serious media would put these arguments to Browne. To do so, however, would require them to move beyond their juvenile, patronising take on sexuality and engage in some real critical thinking. So instead we drown in this shit. I want to end with a quote I read yesterday in a typically superlative blog from the activist Scott Long, which is ostensibly about the Brunei hotel boycott but which here succintly skewers the entire media/LGBT rights industry:

In Europe and North America international LGBT rights are big news. There are big constituencies, too, of activists and tweeters who avidly absorb the stories of foreign abuse, and demand Action! Now! And there are more and more domestic LGBT organizations feeding on those audiences, and turning their eyes to foreign affairs, and pressing their governments for Action! Now! Neither the constituencies nor the organizations, though, know that much about the rest of the world, or human rights, or have patience for long-term efforts, or get the complexities of political action across borders. They just want Action! Now!, and the less they have to worry about subaltern voices muddying up the message, the better.The problem is that a lot of the new constituencies are idiots. I don’t mean they can’t tie their shoes or screwed up their SATs. They’re idiots in the root Greek sense, which is a lament rather than an insult:  ἰδιώτης, a too-private person, a consumer of politics rather than a participant in it. incapable of understanding the lives of others except as versions of himself.

The Sun, UKIP and Racism

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The Sun’s ‘attack’ on UKIP homophobia was today shared approvingly in some quarters (‘Nice one, Sun’). This is utterly absurd. The Sun should never, ever be applauded for ‘opposing’ homophobia – it has been one of our society’s main proponents of it for a long, long time. As recently as 2010 it ran the poll ‘should gay people be cabinet ministers?’ while in 2012 it called for a referendum on gay marriage  while bemoaning the emphasis placed on it by David Cameron. This, of course, came after decades of utterly vile and aggressive homophobia, the most famous example probably being the 1988 editorial on Brighton labelling it a ‘nasty town of drugs, gays, AIDS and drunks’. It has freely and liberally used homophobic slurs (a fairly recent example being their coverage of Derren Brown’s coming out) and still pushes a firmly heterosexist agenda. Let’s not be in any doubt here – The Sun’s contribution to fuelling homophobia and a climate where queers ‘get beaten to death’ is practically second to none. The only response to it claiming the moral high ground here is to laugh hysterically, dump the rag in the nearest bin and waste no time holding your breath for the day it issues a grovelling apology for all of the misery it has caused.

Usually I would just ignore The Sun’s mendacity – it’s what you expect, after all. This, however, interested me because it ties in exactly with my previous thoughts on The Sun’s treatment of Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out. There, I suggested that The Sun was using an apparently liberal attitude towards homosexuality to mask and push its insidious racism, writing that:

It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic.

I think this is exactly what we see again here. The Sun’s racism is evident and it continues to write about immigration in the language of ‘floods’ and “tidal waves of immigrants threatning to swamp Britain”. It has been courting UKIP for a while now, with proprietor Rupert Murdoch openly courting Farage. This is hardly a surprise – UKIP’s extreme anti-labour, pro-1% stance tallies perfectly with Murdoch’s interests. You will not, then, find The Sun seriously taking UKIP to task and certainly not for its attempts to stir division via racism. Hence today’s editorial. Here The Sun can be seen to be ‘taking a stand’ in opposing the ‘extremist’ elements of UKIP, effectively positioning their racism (and extreme right-wing policies) as mainstream and ‘reasonable’. Its opposition to homophobia is entirely instrumental here – it can’t remain silent when the media has been dominated by UKIP extremism for much of the past week but it won’t oppose the racist ideology which is absolutely central to its purpose. Once again, its ‘liberal’ take on homosexuality is a diversion tactic. Nice one, Sun.

Helmer provides the convenient ‘extremism’ here, being used to obscure the fundamentally violent bigotry at UKIP’s core. The effect of such positioning, where UKIP’s racism is viewed as ‘reasonable’ and ‘common sense’, can be seen all around us. I wrote in that previous piece that:

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them.

This denial is clearly seen in the increasingly frequent pleas that we don’t call UKIP ‘racist’ – here’s one from The Guardian today. These calls come from an understanding that calling someone ‘racist’ is a terrible, terrible thing – perhaps one of the worst of things. People don’t like it. They deny it. They shut you down and go on the attack. Best not, then, to use ‘racist’ as a pejorative. Better to quietly drop it and focus on something else. In its own way this line endorses UKIP’s racism (and racism more generally) just as damagingly as The Sun does, pushing the pervasive idea that few people are actually racist and the people saying so are the ones who should be taking a step back.

It’s interesting that Harris suggests a focus on UKIP’s ‘ridiculousness’ instead, because this betrays a lack of understanding of where many of the attacks come from. A lot of people are happy to call UKIP ‘racist’ precisely because they are seen to be ridiculous. This racism is viewed as glaring, funny and toothless and ostentatiously condemning it is as an easy way to assert your own credentials. I think this is fairly common in discussions of racism, where it is seen to exist as something obvious and external. Racism is the BNP, the killing of Stephen Lawrence (a cause even the Daily Mail could get behind) and now UKIP. It is not an inescapable system of oppression with produces and cements the superiority of white people. So, then, if UKIP voters react badly to being labelled ‘racist’, many of their accusers are ultimately equally as close-minded. This refers in obvious ways to the racism found in all of the main parties in some form (not least their immigration and asylum policies and discussions) but also (and far more importantly) to the racism found in our own everyday lives and within ourselves. If you’re like me, this racism is rarely explosive and rarely easily identified. Rather it’s an unconscious assumption you make about someone or joke you pretend to laugh at or a little voice inside saying ‘do we have to talk about race again?! Aren’t we done with this?!’ Personally, I think it’s simply impossible as a white person to be raised in this society and not have racism deeply-embedded within. Yet on both left and right we have become so enamoured with the idea that a ‘racist’ is a grotesque ogre that we instinctively rush to deny that we could ever be that. We do this to the extent that any person of colour speaking about racism and/or, God forbid, identifying it, is demonised and shut down. And we do it even when an obviously racist rag like The Sun pats our bellies and parades its liberalness in order to further push racism. The only way to even begin to break out of this is to acknowledge that racism isn’t pathologised in ‘bad people’ but rather something which we cannot hope to avoid. Racism does not continue in our society simply because the ogres keep being racist. We are all affected by it and speaking as a white person, I believe we are all warped by it. Only by accepting this uncomfortable reality can we ever begin to move forward.