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.

It’s not about nationalism…

Scottish-Independence-2Presumably because nationalism has such a regressive reputation (to put it mildly) and the Scottish Yes campaign wants to be viewed as the sole repository of progressive thought in the UK at the moment, one line I keep seeing wheeled out is that independence ‘isn’t about nationalism’. We’re asked to ignore the fact that it only became an issue because the nationalist SNP, a party which lest we forget has one single unifying cause, won a majority in Holyrood (with poll after poll putting support for independence at a third or less of the electorate around that period, no-one could possibly argue that it was a necessary response to a swell of demand). We’re asked to ignore that the independence on offer has been framed almost entirely by the SNP, not least with their White Paper which amounts to an SNP manifesto. We’re asked to ignore that the Scottish NHS only appeared to become ‘under threat’ when the SNP decided it was a few weeks ago (an SNP who don’t oppose TTIP, which is one of the most commonly mentioned ‘threats’). We’re asked to ignore, of course, the ubiquitous presence of the Saltire and its colours (seen most commonly in the ‘Yes’ twibbon which adorns many social media profiles). Most absurdly, we’re asked not to parse the ‘us and them’ rhetoric which has so characterised this debate – a rhetoric which many Yes supporters seem unwilling or unable to accept as a reality but rather just another example of pro-unionist ‘scaremongering’. The ugly language which has greeted Jim Murphy (a politician I am no fan of) and, more to the point, vocal No supporters at his meetings – cries of ‘traitor’, ‘Apartheid Jim’, ‘quisling’ and even “stop acting English” can be heard in videos – can only seem to be condemned in the most half-hearted manner imaginable. Not only are these condemnations invariably followed by a ‘but’, they were also widely-followed both by assertions that Murphy and the No campaign were making capital from the scenes but also even behind some of the aggressive behaviour themselves (what a great phrase to google).

Speaking anecdotally, of course, I have yet to have a debate with a single pro-independence person which doesn’t result in them pushing nationalist myths. The most common, and one I have already written on, is the notion that the people of Scotland are ‘different’. Their social democatic (or socialist depending on who’s making the argument) impulses are frustrated by conservative voters in England. Scotland did not vote for the Bedroom Tax (we must ignore that England didn’t either). Scotland did not vote for the restructuring of the NHS in rUK (neither did rUK). Scotland doesn’t get the government it votes for (as most people don’t – just as most of the UK did not vote Tory or Liberal Democrat at the last election, most of the Scottish electorate did not vote for the SNP at Holyrood. This is the nature of representative democracy.) The left has made much capital from this myth of difference, advancing ideas that an independent Scotland will be a left-wing beacon for the world. When examined, however, we see that these ‘not nationalist’ arguments rely on mischaracterising, lifting of SNP policy and plain fantasy. This Rainbow Paper released by LGBTI Yes campaigners is a perfect illustration of this. I could write much devoted to this single document but suffice to say it’s full of assertions about the ways in which Scotland will be ‘better’ with absolutely no explanation as to why and how this will happen. Its promise of a ‘more humane immigration’ policy, for example, completely ignores the fact that a majority of the Scottish people want immigration rules made tougher and think immigration has been ‘bad for the British economy’. It’s also interesting that the Paper promises that an independent Scotland would “take a more proactive approach to promoting LGBTI equality and human rights around the world than is currently done by Westminster on our behalf.” This is the rhetoric of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and it’s again notable that Scotland is no more against military intervention than rUK.

What we find overwhelmingly in the Yes campaign, then, are people whose views are more left-wing and progressive than the rest of the general public’s believing that these views would be widely shared if it wasn’t for rUK. If this isn’t a nationalist argument, I’m not sure what is. We’re asked to believe that the magical power of independence will destroy neoliberalism and British nationalism (this is fine to criticise because it’s a ‘nasty’ nationalism rather than a ‘civic’ one, apparently) and usher in a new dawn. How this will happen, no one can say. If it’s seen to rest on common solidarity and fighting together, the argument in favour of independence crumbles because such fights are already happening around the UK.

If you make this point in favour of common struggle across the UK – a common struggle which created the NHS, welfare state, trade unions, the minimum wage, formal LGB (I’m leaving out the T due to the spousal veto) equality and more – you’re liable to be met with the response that solidarity doesn’t depend on borders and we can share in struggles around the world whatever our constitutional arrangement. I find this argument rather disingenuous. While we may feel solidarity with people in Gaza, or Ukraine, or Washington, there is not much we can practically do about it. Our solidarity extends to signing some e-petitions, attending some marches, donating some money, petitioning our government and for a minority of people getting involved in specific organisations devoted to a cause. In the UK, however, cross-border solidarity is fostered by our system of government: we truly rise and fall together. This is another argument nationalists don’t like, so we have endless bluster about the wealth of ‘London’ and ‘Westminster’ contrasted with poverty in Scotland. Yet a report released last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation completely undermines this nonsense:

The nations of the UK have seen significant decreases in headline levels of poverty over the past two decades, particularly in the years before the economic downturn. Since 2007, the path of poverty has shifted, from a general picture of falling poverty levels to a more nuanced one. Poverty levels in England have resumed their gradual downward path, while the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, found in Scotland, have levelled off in the last three years. In Wales and Northern Ireland, increases in poverty have been more marked; in the former they appear to have stabilised, in the latter they appear to be falling once again.
There are significant differences between the different nations before and after housing costs. The highest levels of poverty are found in Northern Ireland before housing costs and in Wales after housing costs. Yet the extent of housing cost-induced poverty is most evident in England. The English housing market has typically higher rents and house prices than the other parts of the
UK and England shows a six percentage point difference in poverty levels before and after housing costs.

The report states that “overall poverty trends have much to do with prevailing national and international economic conditions” and explicitly argues that:

The redistributive functions of government require pooling risk across the largest possible area to insure against the uneven impact of economic shocks. And so for many aspects of the social security system – particularly for cyclical and redistributory benefits – the role of central government remains key.

Who could read this and think that poverty is inflicted on Scotland by Westminster, or that Scotland could only tackle poverty if it was independent? Yet a significant aspect of the nationalist rhetoric around independence is the idiotic idea that Scotland should look after ‘its’ poor because ‘Westminster’ doesn’t care about them.

Certainly, we do live in an age of neoliberalism and austerity – one which extends across the world. If we accept the nationalist argument, this neoliberalism in the UK is either because rUK supports it or because UK politicians are evil sociopaths who abandon all pretence of social democracy when given the chance. A structural analysis of this, however, paints a very different story. This excellent blog compellingly makes the case that the issue is global capitalism, not which Parliament has which powers in Scotland. Given that there are zero indications capitalism will be under threat in an independent Scotland (and the SNP’s pro-business, low-tax policies underline this) it reaches the conclusion that:

At best, the majority of the Scottish people will find little difference under Holyrood than under Westminster and it could be worse if a global crisis erupts again. Scotland as a small economy, dependent on multinationals for investment, still dominated by British banks and the City of London and without control of its own currency or interest rates, could face a much bigger hit than elsewhere in terms of incomes and unemployment.

Wandering into independence based on the idea that Scotland is somehow except from the realities of existing capitalism is, again, a nationalist notion. The fundamental importance of an economic analysis such as Michael Roberts’ is obscured by demagogic banalities such as ‘don’t you think Scotland should control its own destiny?’ and ‘why aren’t we better together now?’ The former line is, in a slightly altered form, the exact argument UKIP makes in favour of leaving the EU – something few Yes campaigners are vocal about because anti-EU sentiment is not viewed as ‘progressive’. Under the logic of nationalism pooling wealth and sovereignty makes perfect sense amongst 28 countries but is inexcusable amongst 4. Also, as Roberts argues, the EU has been a major force in pushing austerity policies upon its members but the lack of any analysis other than the nationalist one means this reality is lost. It’s easy to ask ‘why aren’t we better together?’ when the only point of comparison is a mythic place the likes of which currently cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

Nationalism, then, is absolutely central to the independence case. Indeed, it’s telling that the lines about how it’s ‘not about the SNP’ but rather ‘democracy’ and ‘the will of the people’ are completely abandoned when it comes to taking the argument to No supporters. Most of the arguments against the United Kingdom rely on anti-Tory rhetoric, anti-capitalist arguments and liberal use of phrases like ‘illegal war’ (an illegal war which, lest we forget, the apparently democratically-superior Scottish Parliament supported – but in another supreme turn of ‘not nationalism’, this is excused on the basis that it was the ‘unionist parties’ who voted in favour). I have been repeatedly told that I am ‘partnering with the Tories’ and ‘not on the progressive side’ despite the fact that I have been a socialist all of my adult life and was voting for socialist parties when Scotland was still heavily in the grip of Labour. I’m told I’m a ‘British nationalist’ despite the fact that my instinctive anti-nationalism has led me to critique and march against jingoism on many occasions. Yet the arguments remain difficult to argue against, because you’re arguing against thin air. For independence to make sense it must be a case of us and them and so other progressive forces either must be denied or subject to absolutely tortuous arguments about how the magical power of independence will free them. It comes back, again and again,  to the fantasy of Scottish exceptionalism, no matter how often it’s denied.

A few things we know about the royal baby

The End of Poverty

‘The End of Poverty?’ is an essential film which takes an uncomfortable look at the root causes of ‘global poverty’ and points the finger squarely at the wealthy Northern hemisphere. Fundamentally, it describes the problem as man-made – our economic system has relied and continues to rely on the continued exploitation of the world’s poor and at the core of the issue is economic justice. It’s all-too-rare to hear this when poverty, particularly in the ‘Third World’ (a difficult term, certainly) is discussed – we’re encouraged less to think about why these countries continue to suffer extreme poverty and more to see them as fundamentally broken. They’re poor because they are, essentially. Yet as one person observes in the film, in stark contrast to the favoured narrative of the ‘First World’ sending aid to the Third, what we have actually seen (and continue to see) is a massive transfer of wealth in the opposite direction. Our wealth is largely predicated on their poverty. We aren’t going to solve this by signing petitions, buying Fair Trade produce or giving more aid (which isn’t to say these things are pointless) but rather only by challenging the “power and structural violence” which dictates the (abusive) relationship. As the film makes clear, the First World countries have no qualms about interfering when democratically-elected leaders in South threaten their wealth and interests; more, they demonstrate stark hypocrisy in making the right noises about aid and ‘reform’ while institutions like the IMF and World Bank continue to exacerbate the problem behind the scenes. As War on Want noted, Cameron has been trumpeting his actions in tackling poverty which increasing it both at home and abroad, intervening on behalf of multinationals to strengthen their stranglehold over global food production. 

War on Want is one of the only organisations I’ve come across which addresses these issues at their political roots and, as such, I whole-heartedly recommend it. More, one of its central tenets is that it works in partnership with those affected. This is one of the best aspects of the film above – it may be voiced by Martin Sheen but its running time is overwhelmingly taken up by discussion with the residents, workers and leaders of Third World countries. It’s definitely worth your time.

We always want to believe in the ‘quick fix’ and critical thinking is so frayed that anyone being seen to ‘do good’ is invariably taken to be altruistic. This is how we as societies can live with our reliance on brutal exploitation  – as the narration states here, “our economic system is, and always has been, financed by the world’s poor”. Yet economic justice requires uncomfortable changes to our lives and accepting the fallacy of the notion that we can keep consuming as we do while slowly ‘raising’ those in extreme poverty to these levels. It’s similar to the issue of global warming, which continues to be presented to us as solvable by re-using plastic bags when, again, it’s our inhumane economic system which is at the root of the issue. I’m no better than most in these aspects but if we truly want anything to change, we’re going to have to start addressing that at a societal level.

My letter to my local councillors regarding the ‘Hackney Fashion Hub’

I have lived in Clapton for almost 7 years and am writing to object in the strongest possible terms to the proposed ‘Hackney Fashion Hub’ at Hackney Central. It absolutely beggars belief that £2 million has been allocated from the GLA’s ‘riot regeneration fund’ to further hand the area to wealthy private developers who have little connection to or interest in an area beyond the profit they can derive from it and the cachet it can offer their portfolios.

The transformation of large swathes of Central London, from much of the so-called ‘Olympic zone’ to Westfield and the Shard, into private for-profit areas is an immense problem for our city. These developments parachute into areas in order to attract wealthy consumers and offer little but tick-box nods to long-standing residents and businesses. This is especially the case in an area of huge inequality such as Hackney, where the levels of deprivation and poverty make it almost grotesque that anyone could think this was a serious response to the issues raised by the riots. In fact it suggests that the desired aim is to quicken the pace of gentrification and price ‘undesirables’ out of the area rather than invest in far less glossy, but far more meaningful, initiatives to begin to tackle the area’s many complex problems and (most importantly) keep it accessible and relevant to the people who actually live there.

The process of fractured, ill-thought out gentrification which has gathered pace in London does not remotely begin to address poverty – it merely displaces it. This ‘Fashion Hub’ will contribute massively to this while further fuelling the inequality which played such a large part in the riots – indeed, it cynically seeks to capitalise on the area’s ‘edge’ while offering little of practical worth in return. Investment in local business, local start-ups and training/education for young people should not be an after-thought addendum to a mega-development which almost no-one in the area seems to have asked for but is instead the pipe dream of local politicians. They should be the fundamental starting point – particularly for a fund ostensibly aimed at addressing the aftermath of the riots. We are already seeing the squandering of the Olympic ‘legacy’ with broken promises re: affordable housing and the creation of what are little more than gated communities completely removed from the surrounding area. The Olympics saw large swathes of land and public money being handed to private developers and enormous multinational corporations who little needed it – the Fashion Hub shows that this shows no signs of abating. The alienation and frustration which this project has the potential to (further) fuel is potent and a further example of the very processes which contributed to the riots.

I’ve no doubt that many voices opposed to the Hub will be characterised as being against ‘change’ or preferring that the area ‘remains poor’ rather than ‘attract’ big business. These facile arguments rest on the notion that it’s a zero sum option between this absurd project and nothing, which is patently a nonsense. All of us who live in Hackney want to do well by the area – we do not want it to become the plaything of wealthy tourists who come for a few hours to shop, spend their money in businesses which quickly move most of the profits out of the area (and indeed no doubt do their best to avoid paying tax on much of it in some cases) and taunt the local residents who couldn’t dream of affording most of what is for sale. Like many others, I felt real fear and despair during the riots, just as I feel fear and despair at the direction the United Kingdom is travelling under the auspices of ‘austerity’. A Labour council in an area such as Hackney should be using this money to offer real investment, real hope, real change to the residents who need it most – not handing it over to already-wealthy developers and businesses.  If this Hub goes ahead it will be nothing less than a scandal.

This report underlines the fact that many people live in a fantasy world (one that is largely unquestioned by the media) where people earning £40,000 are ‘average earners’, class is dead and London is a place of wealth and aspiration. As I’ve argued before, I sincerely believe that teaching children (and indeed the wider population) about median incomes, poverty levels, homelessness and such would be a huge step towards transforming this country. From Parliament down we are fed a distorted, disconnected view of society so that people in the top 25% of earners are embarrassed over how ‘little’ they earn and the poor are blamed for their own ‘condition’.

London’s poverty profile