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.

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The ‘Respectable’ Queer

One of the things which previously inspired me to write on why I thought ‘gay art’ was at a dead end was seeing a ‘film’ by someone called Antonio Da Silva.  This consisted of 14 minutes of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. The thoughts I articulated in that blog struck me again today when an article about Da Silva’s latest popped up on my Facebook. I must confess I haven’t watched the full 13 minutes but it seems to consist of naked men speaking about themselves and wanking. This may have passed me by without further comment but something caused me to pause:

“All my films have been self-funded, your donation will help me to continue producing films that aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit. People who donate will be contacted to watch unreleased footage once it is ready. I am grateful for your contribution.”

This quote from Da Silva appears above a plea for donations and a series of gifs depicting the men in the film masturbating. The ‘appeal’ is pretty obvious (and it’s not the art) but the assertion that his films ‘aim to be artistic as well as sexually explicit’ reminded me of a series of adverts I’ve seen for this increasingly popular night in East London which describes itself as “a literary salon featuring unclothed men”. I was also reminded of the ‘Red Hot’ photography series which has been a perennial feature in the press, both queer and beyond, since it debuted. The statement on the Red Hot website that the series has raised thousands for anti-bullying charities then reminded me of the Warwick Rowers and Ben Cohen, both of whom have also monetised ‘classy’ sexual images with an added charity sheen.

There is clearly big money to be made in facilitating respectable wanks. I remain of the opinion that that vast majority of this stuff is terrible (and deeply cynical) yet with the very recent arrival of gay marriage in Scotland and today’s images of gay marriages in Florida, I started thinking about a wider context for this ‘art’ which I hadn’t previously considered. Gay marriage is the culmination of the rise and subsequent dominance of ‘respectability politics’ in the queer community, something I’ve written about many times before – it’s easy, then, to draw clear links between this and the rise of LGBT art as ‘porn-with-meaning’. I don’t use the word ‘porn’ pejoratively here but rather to muse that many of the above examples are risible attempts to intellectualise the very basic and very human urge to be aroused and to get laid, comparable to how respectability politics tries to downplay the ‘deviant’ aspects of queer identity (both sexual and political) and make it more ‘acceptable’ to a wider audience. In this way the decline of radicalism which has characterised queer politics over the past 30 years can be seen to have fed into our mainstream LGBT media, obsessed with facile bullshit and castrated schoolboy giggling over celebrity nudity, and aforementioned queer art. I wrote in my blog on newsworthy microaggressions that they “flatter the self-expression of those who control or have easy access to the media” – something which I think is of key importance here. The desire is not only to appear a certain way to others but to have that reflected back and so feel that way too – the drive to respectability is about self-love as much as anything else. Of course as a basic principle this is fine but when projected through the prism of an LGBT world which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of those of a certain class and certain colour (and certain gender to an extent) it becomes detached from any reflective political power and ends up as a brutal narcissism. As James Baldwin described the ‘gay world’ in the quote which ended that piece: “It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

We can see this even in some self-conscious attempts to remember and/or reclaim the radicalism of the past. Depictions of the struggle against HIV are enormously whitewashed and even much modern activism fails to reflect or even acknowledge that worldwide incidences of the disease are overwhelmingly and disproportionately found in Sub-Saharan Africa (almost 70% of cases vs less than 7% in Western Europe/North America). Even the film Pride, which movingly depicts the solidarity displayed between LGSM and the striking miners in 1984/5, contains pretty much zero people of colour and while it depicts gay men in fetish gear (for example) it manages to completely desexualise them.

The depiction of class in Pride is also interesting. The miners’ strike is only ostensibly the heart of the film – really it’s a liberal message of tolerance and mutual respect. The collapse of the strike may have destroyed communities for decades to come but the film’s emotional climax is the arrival and support of the miners at Gay Pride in London. The closing captions tell us that the National Union of Miners were then instrumental in making the Labour Party adopt a gay rights platform – the film concludes with the working-class defeated but having helped to bestow respectability upon the queers.

It’s easy, then, to see how the current LGBT media, as brain-dead as it is, could applaud the film and bypass any issues it raises about critical thinking and wider solidarity: in the end it can be a film about the path to respectability and, read that way, it pushes the same buttons as the dominant LGBT politics and art. Indeed, I saw the film praised by quite a few gay viewers whom I’d not long before witnessed viciously slating the RMT for their latest tube strike. Irony is not dead.

In this sense the film offers an unthreatening flirtation with radical politics, just as the examples of ‘art’ I mentioned at the beginning offer an unthreatening flirtation with the aggressive potential lurking in sexual ‘deviance’. We can draw further links from this, with the furores around the threatened closures of Madame JoJos and the Joiners Arms speaking to a contained and commodified radicalism which is about little beyond its own reflection. The rise of club nights which offer ‘crucial edginess’ as mentioned in the Joiners piece also clearly fit into this: they offer caricatures of rebellion which can be left behind at the door as you return to respectability. The latest advert for Sink the Pink is a pretty perfect illustration of this:
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Classist, condescending and sexist, this betrays the reactionary vacuum which lies behind the respectability politics so dominant in the LGBT world. It is from this vacuum that racist and orientalist ideas about the world beyond white Western Europe/North America flow and it is into it that true solidarity vanishes.

While I obviously had issues with Pride I don’t wish to condemn it out of hand: it was far better than I could ever have expected it to be and it had small but important touches which disrupted the dominant narrative as described above. One of these came to fruition at the emotional climax I wrote about. Prior to the mining community arriving in their droves, we are shown a Gay Pride organiser telling the members of LGSM that they can’t join the main parade with their ‘political’ banners because people just want a ‘celebration’. It’s only the force of numbers of the miners and LGSM that forces the organiser, due to sheer practical concerns, to back down. To me, that organiser can represent the current LGBT movement, apolitical and obsessed with respectability, and the film’s most truly radical message of solidarity for a current LGBT audience is not to say that we should seek to ape the politics of 1984 or ‘all get along’ but to remind us that even now we can join with others in a common cause and effect change not only out there but in our own reactionary and ‘respectable’ community.

Soft Power, CSR, Pride and Global Sports Events

This podcast from Kit (@KitCaless) and Sam (@AngrySamPoet) is on a series of related subjects close to my heart. It takes Barclays’ sponsorship of London Pride as its launch point (and begins with an excerpt from my blog, which was very weird to listen to) before widening the discussion to include corporate social responsibility programmes (which I previously wrote about here) and the way corporations are increasingly using charity and sponsorship of ‘apolitical’ events to manage their image. Nice to hear these things discussed in a very accessible way and worth a listen if you’re interested in any of this.

On a related note, my previous post covered the pinkwashing use of Pride by both the MET Police and the military. There’s a very good blog from activist Scott Long on this here. It was unsurprising, but still depressing, to see this on Stonewall’s Twitter feed during Pride weekend:

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That this was explicitly part of Black Pride makes it even more offensive given the racism both of our foreign policy and of the institution itself. Then there was this:

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How lovely. Stonewall will, of course, have absolutely nothing to say about House of Brag, a ‘Queer Social Centre’ which has set up in a disused shop in Brixton. Yesterday activists on Twitter alerted people to the harassment of HoB by the police, who showed up and apparently tried to prevent them from entering the building. HoB have put out a statement about it today:

Hi everyone. So as you may have heard, today we have been subjected to several hours of ridiculous overreaction and unlawful harassment by the police. There are still cops posted in a van outside our building despite assurances earlier that the operation was being called off. We’re planning to write a proper statement about this tomorrow after a few hours kip but for now we’d just like to say THANK YOU to everyone who came down and showed us support, brought us food, and gave us legal advice. And THE SOCIAL CENTRE WILL BE OPEN TOMORROW, probably not at 2pm as planned but definitely in time for an extremely timely squatting laws workshop (lol) at 7pm, followed by dinner and cake and movies. WHATEVER THEY SAY, SQUATTING WILL STAY ❤ ❤ HoB

There is no better illustration of how LGBT issues don’t exist in a vacuum but are rather interlinked with wider social justice. Pride, and Stonewall, aren’t interested in queers who squat in buildings: they’d rather be seen with the ‘acceptable’ ones who join the army and police force. Best of luck to House of Brag, who are having their own ‘Monstrous Pride’ event on 12th July. Details to come on their website.