Pride is Political: Jennicet Gutiérrez and UKIP

I said yesterday that had Jennicet Gutiérrez‘s protest at President Obama’s Pride Month address been a work of fiction, it would have been widely viewed as being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. Jennicet, a trans latina woman who turned out to also be an undocumented immigrant, chose the moment Obama started to celebrate his achievements on LGBT civil rights to speak out, asking the President to end deportations of and violence against, LGBTQ immigrants. As the press release from campaign group Not One More Deportation described:

Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted the President during the White House pride celebration shouting “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” As a transgender woman who is undocumented,  Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate while some 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse in ICE custody at this very moment.

“The White House gets to make the decision whether it keeps us safe, “explains Gutiérrez  “There is no pride in how LGBTQ and transgender immigrants are treated in this country. If the President wants to celebrate with us, he should release the LGBTQ immigrants locked up in detention centers immediately.”

The response was astonishing: the room, seemingly almost entirely made up of men (the vast majority being white) started shushing her; they then started booing her, one voice shouting “this isn’t for you!” Quite an assertion at an event marking Pride Month, 46 years on from the Stonewall riots where trans women of colour played an integral role in standing up to the authorities which oppressed the LGBTQ community. It begs the question as to how this ‘community’ is now framed that someone (a trans woman of colour, at that) highlighting the injustices which continue to fall upon marginalised LGBTQ people is viewed as an unwelcome interloper. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules in favour of ‘equal marriage’ today, Jennicet will be quickly forgotten as those who control the narrative rush to celebrate.  As Jennicet’s own statement put it:

As I reflect on what just happened at the White House, I am outraged at the lack of leadership that Obama demonstrated. He had no concern for the way that LGBTQ detainees are suffering. As a transwoman, the misgendering and the physical and sexual abuse – these are serious crimes that we face in detention centres. How can that be ignored? It’s heartbreaking to see the LGBTQ community I am part of turning their back on me, and the LGBTQ people in detention centres: how can they tolerate that kind of abuse?

Jennicet is an inspiration with a bravery far beyond that which I possess and she succeeded in putting LGBTQ deportations on the agenda – her interview on Fox News Latino is essential viewing. Yet with sad inevitability, the lack of solidarity Jennicet speaks of was reflected in much of the wider media, not least here in the UK where the focus has been on Obama’s sassy ‘shutting down’ of a ‘heckler’:

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‘Owned’. ‘Shamed’. ‘Shut down’. Much of the media seems stuck in the mindset that LGBTQ life is one long episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s beyond embarrassing. This identification with the oppressors over the oppressed is, sadly, typical of modern LGBTQ politics as our own horrendous ‘debate’ over UKIP at Pride has made clear. Since I wrote my piece on it 3 weeks ago there has been a steady stream of men lining up to defend UKIP and take exactly the line I described here:
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The pieces written by these men were grim in being almost entirely interchangeable – they typically presented the issue as one of whether UKIP were homophobic or not, completely ignorant to the fact that it was UKIP’s racism and far-right links which had roused the most anger (and indeed fear) as these rare pieces by non-white writers assert. This failure to even begin to contemplate that the LGBTQ community includes people of colour and other vulnerable groups for whom UKIP’s rhetoric and policies are violence led Twitter user @TheBuddhaSmiled to begin the hashtag #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ. This documented how people of colour found themselves ignored, spoken over, patronised (indeed, many of these writers would engage with me while blocking non-white critics). It documented how the modern LGBTQ movement has largely become a quest for ‘equal access’ to white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, with its leaders happy to throw anyone or any group standing in the way of this under the bus. It sometimes revealed itself in darkly comical ways. The ever terrible Patrick Strudwick, who has previously tweeted of his refusal to go to the Notting Hill Carnival due to feeling unwelcome:
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wrote an awful piece defending UKIP’s ‘right’ to be at Pride which didn’t mention racism a single time and then responded to people of colour raising it like this:

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Benjamin Butterworth, meanwhile, wrote a similarly terrible and ignorant piece and then presented himself as a victim of ‘abuse’ rather than engage with the many people raising UKIP’s racism with him:

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which in turn led to this flat-out expression of #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ:

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Rational and calm ‘debate’ vs outrage, abuse, anger – sound familiar?

This debacle has underlined how far UKIP has been normalised by the wider media, with assertions that UKIP weren’t ‘racist’ or ‘extremist’ being common but never further defended:
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This has been a perfect example of those whose voices dominate the LGBTQ movement thinking they are leading a ‘calm’ and ‘rational’ debate while those seeking to highlight the continued side-lining of minority voices and interests are awful, abusive, angry troublemakers. A low-point was reached yesterday, when Jeremy Vine debated the issue on his Radio 2 show and invited three white men to discuss it with him. As it happened, the segment came immediately after a discussion of the desperate plight of the ‘migrants’ (always ‘migrants’, never ‘people’) at Calais which featured Vine merrily chatting away to callers who were using the language of the far-right. I heard three callers in succession and each took broadly the same line, speaking of the UK as the ‘land of milk and honey’,  of ‘forcing the migrants to live in their own countries’, of how the UK ‘couldn’t take any more’. Vine challenged none of this, not even when a Scottish woman living in France asserted that the UK was a ‘soft touch’. It was terrifying listening.

It was in this context that the discussion moved onto UKIP at Pride, with the sole mention of racism by the four white men being an unchallenged assertion by the UKIP representative that the party ‘has no racist policies’. This absurdity meant that Michael Salter, the Chairman of Pride in London who is a Tory former advisor to David Cameron, felt able to claim that the problem wasn’t UKIP but rather those who opposed UKIP. With a hearty lack of self-awareness, Salter claimed that Pride was a celebration of ‘tolerance and diversity’ and said he wished to include UKIP because it was an ‘inclusive event’. Yet poor Pride had been forced into action by a brutish element:

 What we saw during the general election campaign, unfortunately, was people being very aggressive towards UKIP representatives, throwing eggs, and when UKIP applied to be part of the parade there was quite a lot of antagonism expressed on social media and there were lots of new people commenting and making threats, whether it’s sit-ins, throwing things or even things more unpleasant than that towards UKIP representatives

Vine asked, ‘why don’t you ban the thugs who want to bully them?’ with Salter replying ‘if we could find out who they were, certainly!’ He then, incredibly, invoked Pride’s history as ‘a protest movement’ in defence of UKIP being able to march.

Coming the day after Jennicet Gutiérrez’s actions, this was a perfect storm illustrating the contempt in which ‘radical’ and/or ‘minority’ voices are held by those who lead the LGBTQ movement. The victims here weren’t those affected by UKIP’s disgraceful rhetoric and policies but rather UKIP itself! Once again, we have the calm, rational leaders debating while the irrational. angry outsiders threaten and provoke. We should also note Salter’s careful choice of words – he states that the anger erupted when UKIP applied to be on the march – yet the first anyone beyond the Pride board heard of it was when they were already approved. This is important because in one stroke Salter elides the opposition from within Pride in London itself – Jacq Applebee, the board’s BAME representative, resigned in protest at UKIP’s involvement:

“When I joined London LGBT Pride’s Community Advisory Board, I felt overjoyed that I could make a positive difference to such an important event. However, I felt very isolated on the CAB, with my viewpoints often dismissed by an almost all-white group of representatives.”

She says that no-one on the CAB was shown the list of participants before it went public and that she first heard about UKIP’s involvement through what she calls a “chance tweet”. She also says the role of the board has been “totally ignored with such an incendiary case”. 

It has been, in short, a contemptible shambles which has showed that Pride as it currently stands is unfit for purpose (there is an R.I.P. Pride protest planned tomorrow). Together with the bravery of Jennicet Gutiérrez, it has also revealed the fault-lines of the LGBTQ movement, which mirror those of wider white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. It’s clear many neglect the fact that a legion of LGBTQ siblings before us have had to fight loudly, angrily, for the day when a President invites LGBTQ people to the White House or racist parties and amoral corporations seek to use our community to gain respectability. If we truly wish to honour this struggle, we continue it and we leave no-one behind. We remember that Pride is political or it is nothing and we fight against our own movement ignoring and oppressing LGBTQ people. We can still reclaim it.

Solidarity Betrayed: UKIP and Pride

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This is Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, commenting on the UKIP at Pride debacle which has unfolded over the past few days. You will search in vain for an actual position on this from the UK’s foremost LGBT charity, though it’s not difficult to gauge what Hunt’s own position is:

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With a few exceptions (Peter Tatchell supports UKIP’s removal; the editor of Pink News opposes it and dug up Brian Paddick to support this view) you will similarly struggle to find many of the LGBT community’s prominent organisations, media outlets and figures taking a position on this. There seems to be a widespread terror of being seen to be political’ and offending anyone, as if ‘politics’ is some strange thing which exists over there and isn’t inherent in absolutely everything we say and do. Hunt’s tweets at the top have been typical of this approach, which presents the matter as merely a ‘disagreement’ within the LGBT community rather than a case of political choices being made over which voices and whose interests to prioritise.

It was a grim irony that the UKIP story broke only days after I wrote about Barclays again sponsoring Pride and the ubiquity of ‘pinkwashing’. There I wrote:

Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.

This could easily be applied to the UKIP situation, where many seem to believe that LGBT people supporting the party means that it is changing, more welcoming and thus should be allowed to march at Pride. The Chair of the UKIP LGBT* group was given a platform on Pink News to argue that case. Another Pink News column argues “we must remember that one of the core principles of Pride is that of inclusion of all LGBT people”. Twitter has been awash with (overwhelmingly white male) assertions that Pride is about ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance’ and so ‘different opinions’ should be welcomed. It’s notable that even Pride in London’s statement retracting UKIP’s invitation to march went to pains to endorse this line of thinking, stating that “we aim to unite our community, not divide it” and making the bizarre claim that the decision “has not been made on a political basis”.

This line of thinking presents those opposing UKIP as intolerant and divisive – a perverse framing of anti-racism which was seized on by the UKIP LGBT* Chair, who presented its members as a ‘brave’ victimised minority:

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Oh the humanity! Won’t somebody think of the ‘kippers?! While many advancing this reasoning are at pains to stress that they don’t support UKIP, they commonly hold the view that UKIP are a legitimate political party, that its views are held by many people and that it deserves to be at Pride if LGBT people support it (this is usually alongside the deeply weird claim that UKIP’s LGBT* group, comprised of UKIP members and candidates and proposing to march under the UKIP name, aren’t actually UKIP).

I’m sure some brains will seize up here but this argument smacks of the (overwhelmingly white male) privilege which has dominated the LGBT movement for so long. These people think they are being coldly rational, defending a ‘right’ rather than any particular viewpoint. Yet in doing so they are choosing whose voices and interests matter to them. They are choosing to ignore the many people of colour, immigrants, HIV+ people, anti-racists and more who have spoken of their disgust, dismay and even fear at UKIP’s proposed presence on the march. “Your concerns don’t matter, we must be inclusive!” is the utterly self-defeating cry.

Yet invariably the people taking this line have been outspoken in their support for the banning of anti-gay bus adverts. They have been outraged by the refusal of a Christian baker to make a wedding gay for a gay couple. They have applauded the legal win against guesthouse owners who turned away a gay couple. They aren’t riding to battle for the ‘rights’ of the EDL and BNP to march in Pride, despite them being banned:

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Let’s remember that the Pride march is not an open, public event for organisations – you have to apply, pay a fee and Pride in London reserve the right to refuse you. It is clear, then, that the issue is less that all these people defending UKIP’s ‘rights’ are hardcore free speech absolutists but that they are comfortable with the kind of speech UKIP represents.

It is no coincidence that, by and large, it is a rhetoric which poses no threat to a white, HIV-negative gay man, despite UKIP’s repeated and continued homophobia. By dropping its opposition to same-sex marriage, UKIP were tacitly embracing the totemic human-rights issue for many in the LGBT community and thus removing the major road block to LGBT support. They’re fine with gay people getting married: the end. Any consideration of how LGBT identity interacts with immigration, with HIV, with racism, with misogyny falls by the wayside: in dropping opposition to marriage, UKIP ceases to be a problematic ‘political’ case for many and just becomes another group which deserves to be heard, even if you personally don’t support it.

This is a political choice which clearly elevates some interests above others. It’s also a prime example of ‘white fragility’ where racism is viewed as an individual moral issue rather than a systemic ideology:

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This is evident in many discussions of UKIP, where you will inevitably hear claims that ‘it’s not racist to oppose immigration’ and ‘you can’t label millions of people as racist’. ‘Racism’ is this terrible thing which you must never accuse someone of, an attitude which is endemic in the UK and beyond. To do so is to be divisive and worse, to be angry. You are ruining it for all of the lovely, rational, nice people!

Here’s the rub: UKIP is racist. It’s not racist in the sense that it has a few ‘bad apples’ or a few wacky policies, it is a fundamentally racist organisation. The founder of the party abandoned it stating (tw: racist language):

…the party ‘are racist and have been infected by the far right’, and that its leader Nigel Farage told him ‘we will never win the nigger vote.  The nig-nogs will never vote for us.’

Its policies and support-base have had significant overlap with the far-right; it has been backed by the BNP, Britain First and EDL, with Tommy Robinson stating “they are saying exactly what we say in a different way”; its has countless links with the far-right and Farage has been photographed with prominent members of the National Front/BNP who viewed UKIP as allies; they have sat with fascists in the European Parliament and fought to retain funding for parties like the BNP; its tactics and appeal are a direct continuation of the far-right in the UK; it is opposed by every anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation you could mention.

The far-right thrive on attempting to divide communities and pose as the ‘common sense’ voice – this is why communities turn out in the streets to show united opposition to far-right marches. It’s also why unity of opposition to UKIP at Pride should have been a no-brainer: not only because we stand with the non-white, non-British members of the LGBT community but because we oppose all bigotry and all opportunistic attempts to use our community. Yet rather than engaging with critical, informed voices (I asked Pride in London if they’d spoken to a single anti-racist group about inviting UKIP and received no reply) we have people attempting to assert their dominance once again, telling themselves that they are being ‘liberal’ and ‘rational’ with (ironically) zero thought as to the choices and power imbalances which have brought them to this position.

It’s utterly shameful.

It’s interesting that there has been another, smaller storm around Pride this week as its plans to have Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners lead the parade fell apart when LGSM were informed they couldn’t march with their trade union comrades. This led me to discover that the TUC had suggested ‘Solidarity’ as the parade theme this year but the Pride Community Advisory Board chose ‘Heroes’ because:

…Pride is different things to different people and that the parade theme of ‘Heroes’ would provide a broad range of interpretations to allow all groups and people to find a way to engage with it. On a vote Solidarity received 1 vote and Heroes 7 votes with 1 abstention.

The irony here really is too much: solidarity rejected because it would involve actually leading and shaping what Pride is, rather than allowing every individual, including the racists, to ‘interpret’ however they want. With such cowardice it’s easy to understand how we got to the UKIP scandal. There is a glimmer of hope, however: the debacle has led to critical scrutiny of Pride which has only existed on the margins in recent years, with a burgeoning movement to ‘Reclaim Pride’. Even those defending UKIP have taken to highlighting the problem with a group like Barclays marching, or the racist immigration policies of the other parties (they do so thinking it’s a ‘gotcha’ moment rather than…a good point).

Pride is still held on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Despite historically illiterate attempts to portray these riots as being about ‘demanding a voice for everyone’, they were a revolt by people of colour, trans people, queers and the working-class against a racist, homophobic power structure. Radical, liberatory politics of social justice were absolutely central to the movement, which did not exist in a vacuum removed from Black Power or radical feminism. Inspirations like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did not fight so that racists could march with Pride – they stood firmly with the marginalised against the oppressors. This is what changes society, not racist LGBT people marching for racist organisations. We honour them by continuing that fight and opposing UKIP with every fibre of our beings.

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Jesus vs Judas: Why We Care About Alan Turing more than Chelsea Manning

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The subject of Chelsea Manning is something I’ve returned to many times. Her selfless bravery is something we should all aspire to, even if we shamefully understand that we could never endure the treatment she has received as a result of her actions. Yet Chelsea hasn’t been broken and even from her cell she speaks out against the evil in our midst. She is a living example of moral courage and strong character; she is also testament to a brutal system which continues to persecute those though oppose it using whatever means possible.

If you’ve read any of my previous writing on Chelsea you’ll probably know that I’ve found it fascinating, and not a little disgusting, that much of the mainstream LGBT community and media have largely ignored her. Groups like Queer+ Friends of Chelsea Manning are very much in the minority, with none of the big LGBT charities, organisations or magazines seeking to highlight her cause in any major way. Indeed, they’ve been more likely to actively support her erasure, as with the San Fran Pride furore which only resulted in the eventual honouring of Chelsea due to the campaigning of queers who would be labelled ‘radical’.

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This response to Chelsea is particularly striking to me when contrasted with that afforded to Alan Turing, the brilliant gay mathematician and scientist who is widely credited as playing a pivotal role in World War 2 by breaking the German Enigma codes. Turing has recently been played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Hollywood film, was given a ‘Posthumour Icon Award’ by Attitude Magazine (above) and is the totemic figurehead of a campaign to have the historical convictions of gay men for indecency quashed.

While few would deny that Turing was a remarkable individual, and a wronged one, I can’t help wondering why he is such an attractively ubiquitous prospect against the currently existing oppression faced by Manning. I think there are a combination of factors at play but there are two I’d surmise are crucial: Turing ‘fought the Nazis’ and Turing is dead.

The Nazis remain the ultimate reference for evil in our society, as evidenced by the many recent comparisons of ISIS to them. They’ve become less a historical reality than a grotesque caricature of villainy, a comparison point against which we can all feel morally superior. I’ve argued before that this is a facile, dangerous approach but it is nonetheless one which dominates. In being viewed as centrally important to the defeat of the Nazis, then, Turing is viewed not only as heroic but almost as saintly. Just look at that Attitude headline above: ‘The Gay Man Who Saved The World’. It is befitting a Saint that he is seen to have been persecuted not for anything he did but for ‘who he was’ – he is a Jesus-figure, an innocent betrayed by those he saved.

It’s not difficult to see where his death fits into this tragic narrative: Turing is more appealing symbol than flesh and blood person. It’s no coincidence that the recent Cumberbatch film largely elided the reality of his sexuality and instead used it to further frame him as tragic– we can’t have Jesus sullied by lust, desire and the distinctly unsaintly mix of bodily fluids which are so associated with gay sex. Turing is and must remain an innocent untainted by sex or even agency – an idealised victim who died for our sins.

If the successful campaign to have Turing pardoned has the air of asking Pontious Pilate to admit he got it a bit wrong, its extension to encompass deceased gay men convicted of indecent behaviour seeks to symbolically cleanse all of our sins. This government introduced legislation in 2012 allowing living gay men people to have their convictions quashed; the fact that extending this to the deceased has only become a cause célèbre post-Cumberbatch raises fascinating questions as to its motives and messages. It’s an uncontroversial, easy take on ‘social justice’. Fewof the victims are around to make things awkward; some of them might say that they don’t want or need a pardon from the homophobic authorities which persecuted them; some may point out that a ‘pardon’ suggests they did something worth pardoning in the first place. Most importantly, the crimes are seen to be in the past – there is literally zero discomfort for us alive today, who can basque in our moral superiority without having to consider, for example, how authority or indeed wider society treat LGBT people now. Only last week, for example, the Albert Kennedy Trust released a report suggesting that around a quarter of homeless youth are LGBT.

And so to Chelsea Manning. There can be no denying that Chelsea’s sexuality and gender status has been used against her. It of course shouldn’t be the case that we as LGBT people need only concern ourselves with injustices concerning others ‘like ourselves’ but as this is largely how the modern movement works, we must ask why Manning’s case is ignored. Well, for a start Manning didn’t fight an evil as obvious as the Nazis. No, instead Manning raised her voice to oppose evils perpetrated by our own governments, today. Manning highlighted our own hypocrisies and she challenged our own authorities. This is not behaviour which lends itself to a society and LGBT movement obsessed with pointing the finger at ‘acceptable’ evils (Russia, Uganda, ISIS) while believing ourselves to be morally superior. Manning’s actions are disruptive to the idea that we are the goodies in a great battle between light and dark and thus get in the way of our ability to feed good about ourselves.

Worse, even when locked up Manning won’t go away. She keeps holding a mirror up to our society, forcing us to wallow in our own vomit. Who’s responsible? We fucking are. Our response to Manning’s revelations and to our treatment of Manning offers us no comfort, no opportunities for smug righteousness. It’s no surprise, then, that we would rather eagerly pursue a campaign to pardon the innocent dead than one to free the persecuted living. Even in 2015 you have to be the right kind of victim and that is one which serves the notion that we as a society are the best we have ever been and, indeed, the best the world has ever seen. However right it may be, the pardoning of historic indecency offences is allowed to become a dominant demand because it threatens nothing and no-one. Rather it allows the system which still today oppresses queer people of colour, poor queer people, non-binary queer people, sex worker queer people, queer victims of imperialism and, indeed, Chelsea Manning, to claim that it is now accommodating and tolerant. All this once again demonstrates is that much modern LGBT politics is about securing a place at the table for comfortable white people, no matter how rotten the table may be. Even in 2015 you have to be the right kind of victim and that is one which serves the notion that we as a society are the best we have ever been and, indeed, the best the world has ever seen.

Stonewall: Only 25 Years Late

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Stonewall announced today that it will add ‘trans equality’ to its mission statement, finally adding the ‘T’ to the ‘LGB’. It’s since spent the day engaging in self-congratulation by retweeting praise for this step:

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Even the most casual reader of this blog will be aware that I’m highly critical of Stonewall (as many others are and have been, not least the trans activists who have pushed them to this place.) so it won’t be too shocking to discover that I don’t think it should be patting itself on the back over this. 25 years ago it chose to name itself after the now-iconic riots which are widely viewed as having initiated the modern LGBT rights movement; it also chose to disregard that some of the most marginalised LGBT people were absolutely instrumental to those riots. It should be impossible to discuss Stonewall without discussing the role played by trans people, homeless LGBT youtheffeminate men, working-class black and Latino queers, drug dealers and/or users and ‘prostitutes’. Yet for all the credit it deserves in, for example, fighting Clause 28 or campaigning for an equal age of consent, Stonewall has by and large completely neglected ‘marginal’ voices and ‘radical’ causes in favour of the pursuit of a narrow, legalistic ‘equality’ which overwhelmingly benefits middle-class white gay people. Its fondness for bodies like the military, the police and companies with absolutely terrible social justice records has marked it out as an organisation with absolutely no conception of the social justice which was so integral to the riots and, in fact, as often being harmful to that cause. It seems absurd to me, then, that it should be applauded for finally welcoming in some of the people responsible for its existence, 25 years late.

It’s a welcome step, of course, but I think anyone who’s paid any attention to Stonewall in the past decade couldn’t help but be cynical. As late as September 2010 it still wasn’t supporting gay marriage, jumping on board well after even the Tories had made accommodating noises towards it. Despite this it has pushed hard on gay marriage as one of its achievements and a fundraising issue though, hilariously, this is the page on their website which greets you when you click ‘learn about the campaign which made it happen’:
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Post-marriage it has seemed like an aimless organisation. Rather than campaigning loudly on, say, the impact of austerity on LGBT people, cuts to HIV services, LGBT poverty or the particular issues faced by LGBT people of colour, it has instead fixated on pushing its schools and employment programmes (both of which provide income to the charity) and banal campaigns such as ‘Rainbow Laces‘. I’m sure some of this is perfectly worthy but it’s desperately weak stuff, especially when it involves Stonewall actively promoting organisations such as the Home Office and military which actively oppress LGBT people both here and abroad.

‘Trans equality’, then, could be seen to open up whole new avenues for fundraising. If (as I suspect) this commitment largely takes the form of ‘trans considerations’ being included in Stonewall’s schools and employment programmes together with some tokenistic nods to legalistic ‘equality’, that will be an opportunity squandered. I think even today’s report gives cause for concern – note this, for example, from Ruth Hunt’s foreward:

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It’s staggeringly disingenuous, arguing that trans people have been ignored by ‘gay’ campaigners because of their ‘different and complex’ issues. This is nonsense – even a rudimentary knowledge of LGBT history tells us that many activists, of all persuasions and identities, have been campaigning side by side and linking their struggle to wider social justice. Stonewall chose to do things differently, a choice which Hunt still defends in the breathtaking assertion that ditching trans rights ‘meant greater social progress was achieved for all of us.’ This doesn’t sound like recognising your ‘mistakes’; in fact in stating that Stonewall can now campaign for trans equality because ‘society has moved on’ (how did this happen, exactly?) it sounds much like the same old song where minorities within the ‘LGBT’ umbrella prove to be an afterthought for the white cis people who so dominate the movement. Indeed, at one point Stonewall even seem to acknowledge that even lesbians and bisexuals have been a side issue, mentioning only ‘gay men’:

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We see more of this attitude in a section on ‘learning from our mistakes’. The abhorrent Paddy Power, which still uses offensive advertising, receives a typical Stonewall pinkwashing:
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There was an uproar around Paddy Power’s transphobic advert at the time. Stonewall chose to ignore it, just as they now choose to ignore the company’s continuing offensive advertising. Equally, Stonewall chose to ignore the campaign around the ‘spousal veto’ with regards to gay marriage and instead nominate its defender, Baroness Stowell, for ‘Politician of the Year’ while giving thanks both to the government and to the Queen(!):

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Were trans issues still so ‘different and complex’ in late 2013 that Stonewall couldn’t grasp why this wasn’t okay? Were they really so blinded by the lack of any trans person on their board? The Scottish Parliament seemed to grasp it. Yet the spousal veto isn’t specifically named as one of Stonewall’s ‘mistakes’ in this section.

It is mentioned in a section summarising what trans people told Stonewall during its consultation with them and this is where any hope lies. It is here that we find mention of ‘supporting trans people seeking asylum’, supporting the mental health of trans people and the intersection between many trans people and sex work. This excerpt from the consultation, for example, touches on a great many practical but radical issues:

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If Stonewall were to take this seriously and begin to listen to and campaign with sex workers, victims of police violence, people of colour, victims of the immigration system etc then it would perhaps begin to be an organisation worthy of its name. Opening itself to issues of wider social justice, necessitating an understanding of ‘equality’ which recognised structural oppressions and power imbalances, would be an admirable step change. It would also, however, frighten off Barclays, PWC, the Home Office, the Met Police etc which is a large part of why I remain dubious. Nonetheless, I know that a great many vocal and inspiring trans activists (and many others) intend to hold Stonewall to account on its newfound ‘support’ and I hope against hope that they can help affect the change it so desperately needs. Stonewall predicts it will take a year for it to become ‘fully trans-inclusive’. We’ll see where we are in 2016.

Edit: A few hours after writing the above I’ve read this interview with Ruth Hunt. I think, sadly, it bears out much of what I’ve written and makes me even more cynical. Hunt states that gay marriage “signalled the end of the legislative battle” and Stonewall is now onto “changing hearts and minds”, as if there are no other issues with the system. She still refuses to oppose the spousal veto. She uses a really very straightforward example re: smear tests to try and demonstrate why LGB & T had to be separate. Most predictably, she mentions Stonewall’s work with schools and its Workplace Equality Index several times as examples of the work it can do for trans people.

Cars For All The Gays!

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I’ve written a lot in the past few years on how gay identity has been commodified as it has concomitantly become ‘respectable’ and divorced from the wider social justice movement which was once integral to it. As I wrote here:

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’.

I’ve also written about how  “flattering the victimhood” of the “right kind” of queer (the white, cisgender, middle-class kind) has become its own industry. All of these strands come together in the quite staggering case of Ellen Degeneres and a company called ‘Shutterfly’ gifting $10,000 to two ‘Youtube star’ model twin brothers because they filmed a coming out video ‘for their dad’.

There is no aspect of this that doesn’t cause me to shake my head in disbelief despite myself. These two professional models apparently moved to LA to ‘try and make it’, which in itself already suggests they’re not exactly on the poverty line. Prior to their appearance on Ellen they had Instagram and Youtube accounts which were already very popular (by the usual standards of these things), no doubt due to their almost exclusive focus on the pretty faces of these two men rather than their profound thoughts. I find it difficult, then, to find their ‘coming out’ video as anything other than them attempting to commodify their sexuality in order to boost their profile. This isn’t particularly ‘out there’ for two guys who are already commodities in a myriad of ways but it speaks to that peculiarly 21st century blend of marketing, liberalism and ‘othering’ which typifies ‘The Gay Angle’. In this instance we have another element – confessional social media. It wasn’t enough for these men to tell their dad that they were gay – it had to be filmed, shared with millions of people and it had to be presented as an inspirational story. The packaging is so clichéd that I find it impossible to believe that the twins (or at least their management) weren’t aware of the increasing tendency for ‘coming out’ Youtube videos to go viral, just as any celebrity or public figure who comes out instantly becomes a heroic figure (as long as they’re easy to patronise and don’t make anyone uncomfortable). They’re the ‘right kind’ of queer making the right noises: these handsome professional models, living in LA and by their own account out to almost everyone in their lives are still victims. It’s tragic! Oh society, won’t someone think of the models in LA?!

Of course I can’t particularly berate these guys for doing what they can to get attention, especially when they clearly understand the cynical, dynamic power of ‘coming out’ (if packaged in the right way) far more than most of the media does. It was predictable that there would be a rush to congratulate them, to reward them, to confer ‘bravery’ upon them. It was somewhat less predictable that they’d be catapulted to The Ellen Show where they’d have money thrown at them by a stationery company. It’s almost a perfect storm of ‘gay as commodity’. The twins market themselves as appealing, brave gay victims. People rush to pat them on the head. Then talk shows and companies want in on the action, to be associated with this ‘model gay’ (pun intended).

On Twitter the user @PayItForward87 pointed out the absurdity of ‘helping’ the twins, contrasting their position with the rates of homeless LGBT youth and disproportionate rates of violence faced by queer people of colour and transgender people.

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It’s true, of course – that $10,000 could have made a real difference. Yet this neglects the fact that the Youtube video would never have gone viral, and the twins would never have ended up on Ellen, if it had included issues of race, poverty, homelessness and violence against transgender people. These issues are viewed as political. They’re viewed as messy, not least because they break down the neat distinctions between the ‘nice brave gay’ and the ‘nice tolerant liberal’ and instead implicate all of us. The twins feed into a homogenous conception of ‘gay identity’ which is stripped of all political content or context – indeed, they’re viewed in essentialist terms as being pre-political identities, almost new born babies in terms of their place in the world. We can be certain that if even these articulate middle-class white models had built their Youtube following by speaking about ‘radical’ politics, their coming out would not have reached far.

It’s incumbent on all of us, then, who do not wish to be packaged, patronised and apolitical to recognise this shit for what it is and to reject it. A vision of Oprah Winfrey shouting ‘You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! You’re gay, YOU GET A CAR! CARS FOR ALL THE GAYS!’ doesn’t seem particularly outlandish right now. And while it might be nice to get a free car, that is a profound degradation of our humanity and a deeply counter-productive attitude which cements us, as queers, as people to be tolerated as long as we behave ourselves, allow ourselves to be patronised and act grateful for it. We are not marketing opportunities.

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.

Edward Carpenter

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Despite their near-50 year relationship providing the inspiration for E.M. Forster’s famous Maurice, it’s only in recent days that Edward Carpenter and George Merrill have registered with me. Carpenter in particular is the kind of figure every LGBT figure in the UK should know, the kind I feel ashamed to have been ignorant of.  A socialist, he is identified as being one of the pioneers of the gay liberation movement while being an instrumental figure in the labour movement (he helped found the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party). He seems to have led a relatively open, if careful, life as a gay man and it’s profoundly affecting to see photos of him with his partner(s) or read his declarations of love:

Dear Ted,
. . . I shall be glad to see thy dear face again as I have such longings to kiss those sweet lips of thine. I will wait till I hear from you, first. So I must close dear heart as I am feeling a little low and lonesome. I’m always with thee every night in spirit,
fondest love from your dear Boy G XXX.”

This was, after all, the age of the Oscar Wilde trials. This book review-cum-life summary by the magnificent Colm Tóibín is essential reading, with this paragraph describing Carpenter’s first encounters with Merrill being particularly touching:

In 1891 Carpenter met the love of his life, George Merrill. He spotted Merrill on a train, where they ‘exchanged a few words and a look of recognition’. Merrill got off at the same station as Carpenter and shadowed him and his companions as they walked in the countryside – Carpenter was a great walker. Carpenter moved away from his friends to speak to Merrill, and secured his address. Merrill was 22 years younger than Carpenter and from a working-class background. He had had a number of homosexual relationships with older, wealthier men before he met Carpenter. He knew what he was looking for. Merrill, Carpenter saw, was ‘at ease and quite himself in any society, aristocratic or vagabond’. He delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’ and loved the fact that his new companion appeared not to know too much about Christianity. (On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night at Gethsemane, Merrill asked: ‘Who with?’) The relationship between the two, which lasted almost four decades, is one of the best-charted versions of homosexual life in this period, rivalling in its documentary value the lives of Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement, and differing from them in its calm, domestic bliss and lack of a tragic ending.

As LGBT people I think we generally know too little of our history – particularly when it is not easily framed to be made more palatable for our tastes. There’s an issue in that versions of it are often pushed into modern contexts, made to serve our current obsessions and identifies. So, for example. The Normal Heart presented modern LGBT history as a teleological journey towards marriage and a movement dominated by affluent white men. I’m sure Carpenter and Merrill could be presented in a similar way, not least as it was Carpenter’s position and means which made it much easier for him to push boundaries. His politics would be secondary to the romantic love and individual ‘bravery’ he showed in attempting to live an ‘authentic’ life (said authenticity is always dictated by an apolitical sexual identity in these things).  Indeed, while the presentation for mass audiences of the solidarity shown between gay people and miners in 1984 is something we’d have found unimaginable not long ago, by all accounts the violent class war at the heart of the miners’ strike is buried beneath a ‘heartwarming’ tale of overcoming difference in Pride. This negation allowed our insipid gay media to joyously embrace the film – I’m not sure if it’s hilarious or depressing that Attitude awarded it ‘Best Film’ at an award ceremony sponsored by, and heavily promoting, Virgin Holidays. Lest we forget Richard Branson’s own relationship with ‘solidarity’:

…Branson talks about looking after his workers and no doubt being a part of the Virgin empire has its perks. But he has a deep antipathy towards unions and does everything in his power to dissuade his employees from joining them. In 2009, when his airline was losing money, Branson cut its workforce by 15 per cent. The working conditions for those who remained were not good, despite Branson’s repeated protestations that the test of any business is the way it treats its employees. In 2011, Virgin America’s flight attendants attempted to join the Transport Workers Union. The union’s director complained of Virgin Atlantic’s employment practices, saying that ‘promises regarding rest, vacation and benefits are often broken, and discipline for minor violations can be unnecessarily harsh and inconsistently applied.’ Branson was appalled, not by the accusations, but by the thought of the union muscling in on his territory. He resorted to his traditional strategy of accusing the TWU of being an outmoded and inefficient monopoly. He told his staff that joining would take their ‘independent spirit and uniqueness away’. ‘Say “no” to the old way of flying,’ he told them, ‘and say “no” to the TWU.’ He won a tight ballot and his business remained non-unionised.

It’s precisely because of this tendency to strip our history of any radicalism which threatens to explode our current identities, both sexual and political (of course the two are not separate, despite current mainstream LGBT culture depending on the notion that they are) that it’s extremely important we make the effort to educate ourselves. This isn’t some finger-wagging exercise in ‘respecting what came before’ but rather an essential foundation for understanding who we are and what our movement means both ideologically and socially. This is necessary across the board – the Scottish independence referendum exposed a woeful grasp of even relatively recent history, an ignorance which many are still exploiting (brilliantly tackled by the pro-independence Gerry Hassan here). Yet as any regular reader will know, I have a particular frustration with the utterly dire state of LGBT politics and its inability to approach modern identity and its relationship to/use by power with any critical thought could be argued to have many of its roots in its ahistoricism.

So look at Edward Carpenter and George Merrill; at what they stood for and what they still represent. Those links between radicalism, sexuality and love may be weakened and obscured but they are still there. In discovering them we find ourselves anew; we understand our power both as people and as a community. As Carpenter wrote in Towards Democracy:

Stronger than all combinations of Capital, wiser than all the Committees representative of Labor, the simple need and hunger of the human heart.
Nothing more is needed.

‘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.

The Next Four

 “The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”

It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic – one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link – it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.

The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.

You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (although doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.

As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar.

This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.

Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.

There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:

There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died.

But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.

The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.

You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it – there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.

There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses. Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.

So what, some people will say – most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV – a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful to those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.

That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story – it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble men or men obtaining concessions from those in power as a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it.

Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these portrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).

The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism.  It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.

The Real Cynicism Behind E-Petitions

I’ve already made my feelings about e-petitions clear and don’t wish to repeat my complaints but, dear God, I feel like I’m drowning in the fucking things. Increasingly it seems like the first response to any perceived injustice in the world is to rush to the computer and create an e-petition. The sad thing is that I haven’t always been so averse to them – no-one would have to convince me that they could play a part in engaged activism. Yet I think the way they are deployed is often counter-productive, even harmful. At the core of this harm is a profound and lazy arrogance. It’s completely absurd that any of us could sit at our computers and dot around the world, from e-petition to e-petition, and feel that we are ‘making a difference’. It’s even more ridiculous that we would feel that we had a right to do this. It would be charitable to say that the way e-petitions are wheeled out against non-Western countries carries an implicit message that they are barbaric and inhumane – because it often seems that this is the explicit intent. Those countries are bad; they do bad things; we enlightened Westerners need to save the poor people of those countries. Sign the petition! Read the paragraph of explanatory text and share, share, share! Don’t make the slightest effort to actually learn and think about what’s happening. Don’t engage with anyone within the countries we’re petitioning. Don’t consider for a second the West’s brutal and bloody history in almost all of these countries. Don’t dwell on the fact that our countries have been and continue to be built on the backs of the ‘developing world’ or that ‘aid’ could be more accurately called ‘reparations’ if it didn’t come with so many strings attached. Don’t get angry about the fact that our own governments and businesses continue to support and arm brutal regimes provided they are amenable to ‘our’ interests. And don’t for a second display the slightest self-awareness and focus on the shit our own governments do in our own countries. Instead, let’s tell ourselves we live in a comic book world of clear good and clear evil, where the good guys can fix things by entering their e-mail addresses.

Whenever I complain about e-petitions the response is predictable: “well what do you do about it?” As if signing a fucking e-petition is an unquestionable good and thinking that maybe we should shut the hell up, listen and learn is enabling tyranny. No, the truly fucked up position is one where we don’t hold our own governments, corporations and NGOs to account but instead unthinkingly buy into the notion that we are the saviours of a world that is otherwise populated by savages who don’t speak our language and more often than not don’t share our skin colour. The real arrogance is not in questioning the efficacy of a petition against the government of Uganda or Russia but in believing that these countries are so slack-jawed that they would be dictated to by 200,000 Westerners who’ve read a couple of articles in-between posting pop videos and memes.

There is a deep sense here that the people of these countries are lesser and beholden to superior Westerners, not only in terms of their politics but also with regards to their activism. The words of Ugandan activists like Sexual Minorities Uganda, led by Frank Mugisha, aren’t ringing around the world and there isn’t a clamour to support them. Instead everyone is sharing the umpteenth petition from AllOut.org, an American organisation which has already demonstrated that it has a shaky understanding of what’s happening at best while turning the situation into a fundraising opportunity. As you’ll see from that link, it’s not exactly the most transparent organisation when it comes to how it spends its money, much of which comes from donations. AllOut’s own website notes that:

All Out is a combined effort of two organizations – Purpose Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization focused on changing policy, and Purpose Foundation, a related 501(c)(3) charitable organization focused on education and changing culture.

Purpose Action had revenue of $1.78 million in 2012 and spent $334,657 campaigning for gay marriage in America and on engaging ‘more than 1,000,000 people globally on LGBT equality issues’. The latter presumably means…e-petitions. There is nothing about grants to organisations within countries like Uganda, Russia or Cameroon which give AllOut its most high-profile campaigns. It spent over $200,000 on ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ costs, and over $120,000 on the salary of its President.

Then there is Purpose Foundation which had revenue of over $1,000,000 and spent $1.2 million. Over $500,000 of this was on salaries and, again, ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ claim over $300,000.

Where things get really interesting is with the existence of a third organisation – Purpose Campaigns LLC. This is a consultancy firm which is FOR-PROFIT. It claims credit for AllOut, as well as Avaaz, on its website, where it also lists clear links with the World Economic Forum renowned for its Davos meetings of the world elite. Fascinatingly, both Purpose Action and Purpose Foundation employed Purpose Campaigns for ‘contracted services’ of over $120,000 (that I can see). All three organisations may share board members but don’t fret – apparently these people ‘did not participate’ in the decisions to hire themselves. Phew!

Even more fascinatingly, Purpose Campaigns were paid almost $400,000 by American billionaire conservative Pete Peterson to scaremonger about the American deficit and fuel his interests in dismantling Medicaid and other ‘safety net’ programmes. As that last link surmises, they appear to have been hired precisely because their progressive image made them a Trojan horse for the message – and that public image relies overwhelmingly on sites like Avaaz and AllOut.

It’s clear, then, that the people behind these sites not only have a massive material interest in pushing them but do almost nothing substantial in order to support the activists around the world whom they raise funds on the back of. If the neo-imperialistic overtones of these e-petitions weren’t clear before, they certainly are now. It should also be clear that e-petitions aren’t necessarily ‘doing something’. They aren’t necessarily useful. They aren’t necessarily informative or educational. They can be the cynical tools of clever people who get rich from them. Next time you read about something in some far-off country which shocks you, don’t click on the inevitable e-petition link. Go do some reading of your own and, if you truly want to help, devote time to educating yourself about the situation and what helping really means.