How ‘LGBT Awards’ Ceremonies Dehumanise and Devalue

It has been noted that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” A general point, this could nonetheless have been written specifically about much of the LGBT media which drowns in adverts, advertorials and fluff pieces about celebrities. Gay Star News goes that bit further and is increasingly little more than press releases and ‘features’ which are clearly paid for, in lieu of any original content. It shares with Pink News the tendency to report on anything, anywhere which happens to somehow involve a gay person – a trait sent up by Fagburn here – and a lack of critical thought which at times makes it (and PN) seem like satire.

I’ve written previously about the increasing tendency for marketing to use homosexuality (rarely bisexuality, never transexuality until recently) as an effective, easily-ticked box in marketing campaigns. Aside from flattering the liberalness of many, such a move is certain to be grabbed on by the gay media. Where they go, many gay people follow and all analysis falls away in the face of a trite appreciation that a person or organisation has ‘supported’ the community. As we’ve seen, this leads to the horror of gay magazines lauding men who’ve assaulted their wives, gay charities associating themselves with ethically repugnant companies like Barclays and (in the latest and perhaps most egregious example) Pink News associating itself with one of the world’s biggest manufacturers/dealers in weapons of death and destruction. There is no activity, indeed no crime, too horrendous that the gay media won’t eagerly accept your cash (or your flesh) and sprinkle some of their pinkwashing powers over you.

The association of Stonewall and Pink News with Barclays and BAE Systems respectively comes as part of their award ceremonies. It’s no great insight to say that the vast majority of award ceremonies are nothing more than extensions of the PR industry; given the convergence of marketing with ‘gay visibility’ the gay media has been slowly cottoning onto the fact that they’re an easy way to get coverage and, more importantly, cash.  The Stonewall Awards came first in 2006 and though they at least ostensibly serve some purpose (to “celebrate those who have had a positive or negative impact on the lives of British lesbian, gay and bisexual people”) it was quickly obvious that they were a facile and craven embarrassment. This was (and is) not only due to their willingness to endorse supremely dodgy people and organisations but also the fact that all you really need to do in order to stand a good chance of winning is to do or say something ‘nice’ concerning the gays. The ‘Broadcast of the Year’ in its second year was Hollyoaks, for God’s sake.

Attitude Magazine was paying attention and their own award ceremony came in 2008. This sublime piece of nonsense barely even pretends to be little more than marketing – certainly this year their association with various companies (primarily a branch of the tax-dodging, union busting, asset-stripping Virgin) seemed to be the central point (aside from the fact that it helps to flog some magazines). So banal and transparent are these ‘awards’ that their attempt this year to obtain some gravitas on the back of the campaigns around Alan Turing by giving him a special award seemed almost insulting.

This year Pink News has joined the fray, meaning we have three of these absurd spectacles in the space of a few weeks. It takes a lot to make the Stonewall Awards look good but the Pink News Awards somehow managed it. Having no information about how nominations are arrived at, the three awards voted for by readers mixed hilarity (‘Advertising Campaign of the Year’ literally seemed to mean ‘featured some gays’) and idiocy (‘Parliamentary Speech of the Year’ ignored everything any politician had said which wasn’t about gay marriage) with a peculiar, and largely unremarked on, self-interest. Two of the groups nominated for ‘Community Group of the Year’ had seen Ben Cohen (owner of Pink News) involved in their creation and both concerned gay marriage, a particular hobby horse of Cohen and PN in the past year (Nick Clegg, perhaps the most despised politician in the country, received a ‘Special Award’ for his ‘work on gay marriage’). The videos from the nominated ‘Equality Network, Scotland’ on gay marriage had all ‘premiered on Pink News’. Most notably (and curiously), there was an unheralded ‘judged award’ (judged by whom and on what basis, we’re not told) for “Business Network of the Year”. I mean…what? Who even conceives of such an ‘award’? Perhaps someone who sits on the board of the winning ‘network’ Intertech with responsibility for ‘Media and PR’. That’s a pretty massive coincidence, right?! Pink News itself doesn’t make the link.

(27-10 edit – Ben Cohen has drawn attention to the list of judges here and stated that he did draw attention to his link with Intertech, but only in the room and edited out of the video by the director. He also explained that nominations were decided by “the pinknews team and board”. Funnily enough, BAE Systems and Pink News are both listed as ‘supporters’ of Intertech here. But then, as Ben said: “it’s up to us how we do the awards. They’re ours. If you want to do your own you can of course!”)

This perfectly illustrates why I care about this stuff – it’s not just random grumbling. Under the pretext of ‘supporting the LGBT community’ or ‘promoting equality’ or whatever, marketing and self-advantage is advanced with almost zero criticism. People and organisations involved in at best dubious, at worst reprehensible activities are given a sheen of liberal respectability. In short, these absurd awards further the instrumentalisation of homosexuality as a tool for marketing and for leveraging profit. Gay people become one-dimensional beings, of interest only because of their sexuality (and ostensibly only interested in this themselves). Further, it robs ‘equality’ of all meaning – the phrase becomes little more than ‘can already-privileged white gay people advantageously access and exploit existing structures to their own ends’? These awards, birthed from the gloopy neoliberal swamp that is most of our gay media, dehumanise, degrade and in a very real sense devalue equality.

Sell Arms to Saudi Arabia, Support Gay Equality!

I noted in this piece that Pink News were holding an award ceremony sponsored by an arms dealer – a perfect illustration both of ‘pinkwashing’ and of the conservative, even reactionary agenda of Pink News and its particular brand of ‘politics’. More details about this ceremony are starting to come out, with the first award apparently being “Parliamentary Speech of the Year’. What this actually means is ‘Parliamentary Speech In Favour of Gay Marriage During the Gay Marriage Debate of the Year’ because of course LGBT people couldn’t care about or be affected by anything else which goes on. Why would we care, for example, that Baroness Barker has collaborated with the Tories and her own party leadership to undermine the NHS? It’s not a ‘gay issue’, is it? More egregiously, why would we care that Mike Freer is a true blue Tory who has supported his party in almost everything that they’ve done, from attacking the NHS to attempting to dismantle legal aid or raising tuition fees to £9000 (to name but a few flashpoint issues)? Even by its own narrow criteria the award is a non-starter – Lord Jenkin of Roding, when he bothered to vote on LGBT issues, voted against the repeal of section 28 and supported an amendment effectively specifying that IVF be available only to heterosexual couples (to his credit, he did rebel against his party and vote to allow unmarried couples to adopt.) David Lammy, supporter of the Iraq war and authoritarian government laws to tackle ‘terrorism’, seems to be nominated because he compared gay marriage to the American black civil rights movement – a comparison which offends many and which raises the gay movement’s own troubling treatment (or avoidance) of race.

I’ve no doubt this will seem quibbling to some who will find a gay site giving an award for a speech on a gay issue perfectly natural. Yet it’s completely arbitrary and yet again pushes this facile notion of ‘gay politics’ as something separate from ‘politics’ in general; worse, it pushes it as something which reflects the narrow concerns of an elite who already have a place at the table. That there are LGBT people out there who are being affected by, and will care more about, cuts to welfare or cuts to health or unemployment or homelessness et al is viewed as irrelevant here. That LGB members of parliament will have spoken on these issues is also irrelevant. Screw solidarity and political consciousness, we’re GAY and as such should care about GAY THINGS!

This approach of course underlies the fact that Pink News sees no problem with being sponsored by BAE Systems, a company immersed in human misery (and which happens to have sold arms to brutal regimes with horrific LGBT rights records). It’s also why it sees no issue with being supported by Clifford Chance, a law firm which has been implicated in several tax avoidance and fraud scandals, or the bank BNP Paribas which has overseen tax avoidance and money laundering while assisting brutal dictatorships. This matters because gay rights are inextricable from wider social justice and human rights. As Margot Salomon of LSE put it over at Open Democracy:

The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights  – Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort.

The line that ‘gay rights are human rights’ was tritely repeated again and again during the gay marriage debate but little engaged with – this is precisely what it means. Gay rights no more exist in a vacuum than gay people do and to deny this is to demean our humanity. To engage with amoral (even actively destructive) corporations while encouraging a shallow focus only on our gay identity is worse than useless – it’s harmful. Equality demands more.

‘Gay Geeks’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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