Something Rotten: Mugabe’s Son, Tom Daley and Gay Identity

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We’ve seen before how quickly and widely misinformation can spread if it fits the right narrative. This is undoubtedly true in broad terms but I’ve tended to write about it with a particular, personal regard for LGBT issues. Because, truly, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It seems increasingly unavoidable to me that the mainstream LGBT (for which read: overwhelmingly white gay male) ‘community’ is underpinned by a collective delusion based on a peculiar mix of victimhood and self-regard. Critical thought is notable by its absence. The Maria Miller and ‘hanged gay men in Iran’ memes went unchecked and were widely shared because they reflected these ‘values’. They assured us that we were oppressed. It’s noticeable that much of this comes from  gay people who are privileged in many other ways – intersectionality requires us to be aware not only of the many different ways in which people can be oppressed but, crucially, the ways in which we may oppress others. Where is the cachet in this? There is none and so it’s largely absent and, if raised, derided. Instead we face a seemingly endless parade of stories detailing how awful things are for us, with the truth being largely irrelevant. A story about a ‘teenage gay couple’ kicked out of McDonalds while ‘celebrating their anniversary’ went viral – it turned out they weren’t a couple, weren’t gay and weren’t even kicked out. Evidence of the awful homophobia faced by a waitress in America travelled around the world in hours – it now appears that it was a cruel hoax perpetrated by the waitress herself. The corrections to these stories are, of course, never shared with remotely the same zeal. Where’s the fun in truth if it doesn’t victimise us? Indeed, given that those of us living in the ‘democratic’ West face less and less problems due to our sexuality, there’s been a marked upswing in stories about how awful things are for gay people in other countries. Aside from serving the narrative these stories have the added bonus of being difficult to check. So there is little to no engagement with the people who actually live in these countries, little to no efforts made to listen to them and be led by them. Instead their oppressions become ours and we do with them what we like.

We saw this on Thursday when a ‘story’ about Robert Mugabe’s son being gay quickly spread across the internet. Despite originating on a website no-one had ever heard of, relying on suspiciously vague sources and being about a son who doesn’t actually exist, the report got as far as being reported on one of the main LGBT news sites in the UK (now altered to try and save their embarrassment.) People began to realize that the story was a hoax within the hour…yet even today I can still see it being shared. At a glance you can understand the appeal of the story – notorious homophobe has gay child. Karma! If you think about it, though, it’s actually a pretty twisted one. If it had turned out to be true you would imagine that life for the son would have been pretty difficult and there’s something rather perverse in celebrating homosexuality as a ‘punishment’. Yet this was irrelevant to the ‘lol gotcha!’ angle from which people were reporting it. Now, of course, the story has nothing to offer us and so the treatment of gay people in Zimbabwe will be forgotten until the next e-petition. As for discussion of wider issues in Zimbabwe – a non-starter.

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The concern with our own sexual identity rather than with the truth can also be seen today in the response to Tom Daley’s rather low-key assertion that he’s in a relationship with another man. Daley explained that he was motivated to speak out to correct misconceptions, stated that it shouldn’t be a big deal and went to pains to point out that he was still attracted to girls. This rather measured approach was almost immediately lost in a frenzy of ‘Tom Daley is gay!’, ‘Tom Daley is one of us!’  and ‘Tom Daley is so brave!’ hysteria. There was almost instant recourse to that favoured trope, the tormented gay kid, to emphasis the earth-shattering importance of the ‘announcement’. Daley’s concern with misrepresentation and his avoidance of labelling himself became irrelevant; indeed, while some have stated that he’s ‘come out’ as ‘bisexual’, others have dismissed this and claimed him as ‘gay’ (Pink News did and have since altered the headline). The crucial thing is that he’s no longer ‘Tom Daley, diver’ but rather ‘Tom Daley, LIKES MEN, IS BRAVE’. The need to align this calm announcement with the victim narrative is unsurprising but is instructive of the patronising and simplistic way in which we handle these matters. We can’t even grant teenagers the right to identify themselves (or, indeed, to not identify as anything). We can only deal in absolutes and, regardless of Daley’s wishes, he’s now a gay role model who can save other gays. His sexuality isn’t his any more – somebody think of the children!

What the hell is going on? We trample over facts with complete disregard and dehumanise anyone who ventures a sexual interest of any kind in their own sex, all to maintain the particular notions of sexuality which our identities rely on. How can this possibly be viewed as a good thing? Who exactly is it supposed to be helping? If we’re in the business of imagining kids who need saviours, it’s perfectly conceivable that someone struggling with their sexuality will be repelled by the strict, delineated identities which we deal in. You will be gay, it will be the core of your being and you will be a victim. This is what the transgressive defiance of Stonewall has transmuted into and it’s ugly. Rather than spending all of our time looking for homophobic bogeymen we should take the time to think about our own attitudes and the assumptions about sexuality which underpin them. As I’ve written before, the kind of world we speak of wanting seems to be one in which people can be whomever they want in terms of sexuality; our rhetoric and actions, however, completely contradict this and demands clear (and oppositional) identities. We can do better than this. We can be better than this. More and more it seems that the approach of Western gay politics is in many ways a barrier to ‘equality’.

EDIT – 12/12/13 An edit to include a particularly egregious illustration of the above from noted gay neocon Andrew Sullivan. Apparently Sullivan knows Tom Daley’s sexuality better than Tom himself does. Quite some feat! You can hardly get a better example of the dehumanizing that I wrote about than Sullivan’s hideous bet that “Daley will never have a sexual relationship with a woman again.” Placing bets on the future sexual activity of teenagers – doesn’t it make you proud?

Sullivan knows that Daley can’t possibly be attracted to women because saying so is a “a classic bridging mechanism” – one that he deployed too. Yes, Sullivan said he fancied women and men but didn’t really, so everyone else who says so is clearly lying. As arguments go that’s up there with the attacks on trans people which go ‘well I liked playing with dolls but I didn’t have to change my gender to do it!” It’s not just unsophisticated, it’s downright stupid.

Sullivan also wheels out that hoary old argument about how male bisexuality isn’t really a thing “because male sexuality is much cruder, simpler and more binary than female.”  Leaving aside the role of gay men like Sullivan in perpetuating this with their sneering demands that people ‘take sides’, his dire analysis that this state of affairs is “much more nature than nurture” completely neglects the role played by patriarchal society. I wrote a bit about that here but suffice to say, given that science has yet to provide any semblance of a clear ‘explanation’ for sexuality, I don’t have much faith that Sullivan has much of a foundation for his assertions beyond his own prejudices.

 As I wrote above – Daley’s sexuality isn’t his anymore and while Buzzfeed and HuffPo may trawl the internet for the inevitable homophobic responses, any sophisticated analysis has to take account of the unhelpful prejudices found in many gay people.

Victim

Last year I wrote about how Lady Gaga’s ‘real, terrifying genius’ was ‘the commodification and exploitation of victimhood.” This came after noting that ‘Born This Way’ celebrated gay as victim’ and reinforced ‘a central tenet of a commercialised gay culture.’ Indeed, the idea that gay identitity is inextricably tied up in being ‘a victim’ has been a common strand to my writing on LGBT politics and culture. That recent Stonewall survey, for example, went out of its way to present LGB people as a victimised group while the furore around Russia’s ‘anti-gay laws’ has been a good example of how this victimhood can be used to serve powerful agendas and narratives. It’s certainly possible to argue that the reason why issues like ‘Russia’ so quickly catch on with certain gay people while others are ignored or seen as more ‘complicated’ is because it so clearly feeds into widespread notions of persecuted gay people in ways which, say, issues of poverty or arms sales to Bahrain simple don’t. We could see this too in the response to the ‘Muslim homophobia’ hysteria in East London a couple of years ago. At the time I wrote about how there was little to suggest in contemporary reports that the horrific stabbing of Oliver Hemsley had been inspired by his sexuality. Yet it was immediately, widely presented as such on the basis that he was gay and had been stabbed. When violent crime as a whole in the area was discussed, not least stabbings (of young black men) which had occurred in the same area around the same time, I would often by told that they were nothing to do with gay people’. It was an odd, miserably blinkered view which had zero interest in anything that couldn’t be claimed as having been inspired by homophobia.

I was thinking about all of this again last night during a discussion about people who ‘come out’ or ‘experiment’ later in life, after years of (apparently) being ‘heterosexual’. There is a lot to think about and discuss in here, far more than I could do justice to in a Sunday afternoon. Anecdotally it’s more common for women to do this than for men and at least part of this must be tied up in questions of masculinity and sexism. As a culture we’re repeatedly presented with sapphic flirtation as something daring, exciting and arousing – it’s certainly a common trope in pop music and television shows – yet the same is not remotely true for men. A feminist perspective would invoke the ‘male gaze’ and patriarchy here. Whatever the reasons, though, the responses tend to be illuminating. If you’re someone who is perceived to have been living ‘in the closet’ and your ‘coming out’ fits nicely into the victim narrative – see Gareth Thomas or Jason Collins – your declaration is treated as something of a victory. This is the case even when your ‘coming out’ is used to excuse or justify amoral behaviour, as with Lord Browne or David Laws. It’s even the case when you’ve categorically denied being gay but then skilfully tie your announcement to victimhood, as Wentworth Miller recently did.

If, however, you’re perceived to be ‘dabbling’ or just not authentic enough, the reaction is very different. We can see this if we look at common gay responses to ‘straight’ women who acquire girlfriends or to bisexuality in general, with biphobia being a noted phenomenon within gay communities. There are reams written about this but what’s interesting about it for my purposes here is how this ties into the victimhood narrative. A real response which I was told of last night was that the pain and suffering of an ‘authentic’ gay life was invoked against the ‘insult’ of an adult female suddenly ‘deciding’ that she was gay. “I was bullied for being gay…it caused me years of torment…then this person can just overnight declare that they’re gay?!’ It’s fascinating here how suffering is presented as an integral part of being ‘gay’, an experience for which you almost earn points and become a more authentic gay person. The corresponding arguments are easy to imagine: this presents homosexuality as a choice, it’s flirting with someone in order to make oneself seem more interesting, they aren’t invested in their homosexuality like we are and can quickly revert if it gets too scary. If we think about this, though, it’s hard to ultimately see how a world where sexuality is seen as something people feel able to explore at will isn’t the kind of world which gay rights campaigners are fighting for. If ‘straight’ men felt that they could experiment with other male friends without judgement or negative consequence, wouldn’t this be a good thing with regards to homophobia? Does this make a gay person any less gay? I don’t think it does, yet the response suggests that many less want a world in which sexuality is largely an irrelevance than a world in which sexuality is clearly defined, clearly demarcated and where a ‘gay’ identity is forever and inextricably linked to victimhood. A world where you have the ‘right’ kind of gay and the wrong kind – a narrative which has been implicit in the ‘gay marriage’ debate’. I think Gaga recognises this and that’s why so much of her work rests on flattering the victimhood of her listeners – this is, after all, an industry in itself nowadays. In a very real sense, then, our own attitudes as gay people are to be examined with regards to sexuality and the kind of world we wish to live in. At the moment it seems like if we ever reached a promised land where our sexuality was as irrelevant as the colour of our eyes, plenty of gay people would lose all sense of identity overnight. That is a problem.

Gay Art: An Appreciation

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“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun”  – Picasso

‘Gay art’ is at a dead end; perhaps it’s just dead. Killed by overbearing narcissism, preening vanity, lazy repetition and low expectations. We keep being presented with utter shit and on the whole we seem to keep wolfing it down while congratulating ourselves on our appetite. Whether it be photography, film, illustration or painting, modern ‘gay art’ is almost entirely concerned with variations of the following:

Masculinity. Vulnerability. Sex. Sexuality. Grindr. Attractive naked men. Attractive naked men having sex. Attractive naked men masturbating. Men in their underwear. Cruising. Hook-ups. Sex. Naked men. Voyeurism. Body hair. Nudity. Sex. Making connections through sex. Expressing oneself through sex. Gay sexual subcultures. Fetishes. Sex. Men naked. Photos of naked gay friends. Vulnerability. Masculinity. No women.

This stretches all the way from countless Tumblr blogs and websites like Butt to an infinite array of short films and even James Franco’s ohGodthismustbeparodybutit’snot Interior.Leather.Bar. A polished take on it took critics by storm in Weekend – it at least had a narrative of sorts. What does all of this mean? What does it say, what does it illuminate and provoke and challenge? Being generous, it overwhelmingly relies on verisimilitude – gay men watch and recognise themselves as someone who enjoys sex but wants to meet that special someone, as someone who is attracted to ginger men, as someone who uses Grindr – but what’s so great about presenting things as they are, over and over and over again? Being less generous, it relies overwhelmingly on self-love. You’ll search the films, the naked boy club nights, the photos, in vain for unattractive/overweight/underconfident men. They are populated rather by guys whom gay viewers might want to fuck. That’s the hook to all of this and if the guys were replaced by less sexually appealing people the ‘art’ would undoubtedly meet with a less warm response.  It is, of course, an unspoken hook: everything is covered in the fairy dust of ‘creativity’ in order to convince everyone involved, from the participants to the consumers, that a higher purpose is present. This delusion is the real creativity on display. There is certainly nothing to make us question our world or, God forbid, ourselves. There is no sense that there is a soul present, no attempt at Joyce’s “mode of life or of art whereby my spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom”. No transcendent beauty, no unbearable despair, no didactic provocation or reflective urge. It’s all so much ego-stroking shit.

‘Gay art’ (and clearly I’m talking overwhelmingly about gay men here) is of course not alone in this. Narcissism and circle-jerk relationships are widespread in modern Western society. Our popular culture is largely predicated on flattering our sense of self and encouraging triviality in both our interests and our emotions. Social media is neoliberalism-become-chimera, encouraging us at every turn to think of me me me. Forums like Instagram present photography which says absolutely nothing about anything as art. Gay art, however, suffers from that infantile disease of self-ghettoisation and ‘gay is good’. It’s spread at gay film festivals, in gay media, at gay-themed galleries and at gay nights. Indeed, the undoubtedly many artists who are gay and make art which doesn’t fit with the above themes are never labelled (or claimed) as ‘gay art’. As such, their work is subject to far more rigorous criticism as opposed to the free pass which most of this dreck, barely a step up from topless self-pics, receives when it’s presented and shared. To return to my most recent blog, a documentary about Chelsea Manning is unlikely to be playing at Dalston Rio any time soon.

I started by saying that gay art was at a dead end. It’s certainly difficult to know where it can possibly go from here. Progressing beyond this would entail not only stepping beyond narcissism but also leaving behind the ‘one-dimensional man’ who is little more than ‘Gay’. It would involve feeling uncomfortable and finding ways to feel special beyond being a ‘minority’ (which, incidentally, I’m sure isn’t confined to gay identity politics and its art). Difficult challenges, certainly. You can play your small part, however. Next time a ‘photographer’ shows you their photos of their mate in his sports socks or a ‘director’ uploads his film about guys meeting online and shagging – tell them it’s fucking shit. You’ll be doing us all a favour.

Twin Time

Today Gay Times (GT) magazine unveiled their new cover, an airbrushed photo of two almost-naked twin brothers with the headline of ‘TWIN TIME’ and a promise that they tell all about their ‘life in porn’. GT’s twitter account soon after tweeted the non-question “Is it immoral to put gay twin brothers in hardcore porn, or just really, really hot?” If it wasn’t clear from the salacious cover that they had already answered this, the panting article description they linked to made their position clear. HOT HOT HOT!

Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought twice about this if not for the fact that my fiancé has a twin brother who is also gay. He has told me many times about his distaste, repulsion even, for the sexualisation of twins. He and his brother have had plenty of sleazy comments over the years. Imagine, he once said, that someone suggested to you that they have sex with you and your brother. Imagine how that would make you feel.

The thought was horrible to me, of course. The incest taboo is hardwired into us, with its very real associations with familial abuse, violence and genetic abnormalities.  No doubt this strong taboo is what draws some towards it as a sexual fantasy. Yet having this taboo ‘fantasy’ put front and centre in the UK’s most famous gay magazine, found in newsagents alongside FHM, GQ and the like, was a surprise to say the least. Certainly it’s common knowledge that times are hard for magazines, yet breathless prose about how these brothers are ‘breaking boundaries’ with their films such as ‘Brother Fuckers’ is something you may expect to find in obscure magazines sold in Soho basements rather than the leading mainstream ‘gay lifestyle’ title.

What makes it worse is the sheer disingenuousness of it. GT acknowledged questions of morality in their tweet, yet it’s a cursory nod to possible ‘controversy’, attempting to pre-empt criticism.  The blurb on the website follows a similar tactic and it’s clear that there is no serious engagement with the issues surrounding incest (and it’s certainly an area which there has been some recent debate) or the commodification of familial intimacy. Instead they want to titillate, to arouse, to sell, while paying lip service to the notion that there may be something distasteful in their actions.

There are a plethora of issues and questions raised by the cover. Not a day goes by without some piece appearing in the liberal media about misogyny and the commodification of women, yet here we have the hyper-sexualised commodification of twin brothers and implicit appeal of breaking the incest taboo. It’s a magazine created by men, for men, using the sexualisation of one of the most emotionally intimate relationships we can experience to generate profit. At a stroke it underlines how complex issues of objectification and exploitation are against a media which increasingly pursues the line that objectification = men degrading women.

Indeed, if aforementioned GQ or FHM featured two almost-naked sisters on their cover with similar text, making capital of their appearance in films such as ‘Sister Fucker’, I think there would be swift and widespread disgust and condemnation. Just as the current campaign to end Page 3 in The Sun rests heavily on the notion of patriarchy and the objectification of women by men, this would be held up as an example of widespread and fundamental misogyny. Does it become more acceptable if it’s men exploiting men? I would think not – certainly women who have positions of authority in the porn industry aren’t widely excused from complicity in objectification etc. Yet images of semi-naked men are common in the media and don’t arouse a fraction of the ire or comment which equivalent images of women do. Saying ‘it’s because of patriarchy’ is an immensely unsatisfying explanation for this.

This is further complicated by issues of sexuality and its representation. Again, I think it’s fair to say that gay men are indulged far more in their attitudes towards other gay men than straight men are in their treatment of women. In this recent Guardian piece on ‘creepy’ sites which post images of unsuspecting women for men to leer at, sites like Tubecrush (where gay men post photos of unsuspecting men) were completely absent. We tend to respond differently to men tweeting sexual remarks (and even insults based on appearance) about men they’re watching on television than we do to men tweeting about women. I would argue that the idea of gay men as sexually liberated and ‘fun’ is relatively widespread in the media (I still can’t believe that Caitlin Moran once put out a column about gay men being the ‘ultimate accessory’ and it didn’t end her career.) The kneejerk response to gay expressions of sexuality, however base they may be, is to indulge them and paint those who object as at best uptight, at worst a bigot. The collective bogeyman that is homophobia can, in these circumstances, prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.

This can lead to a staggering lack of self-awareness and some curious logical contortions. A recent and common bugbear for many in the gay community was the tendency for some newsagents to place Gay Times and Attitude magazine on their top shelves, alongside the porn magazines. The cry of ‘homophobia’ spread, with advocates pointing to the scantily clad women adorning men’s magazines which were displayed on lower shelves. Yet I have absolutely no doubt that many of those who took up this cause would identify themselves as ‘feminists’. It seems a curious demand for equality, then, to ask that we be accorded the same ‘right’ to sexualise the shelves with heavily airbrushed images. The more difficult question would be to ask why ‘naked’ and ‘sex’ issues are such an increasingly common ploy for these magazines that it’s at the point of self-parody. Indeed, even male celebrities can rarely adorn covers unless they have some flesh on display. It could even be argued that this is seen as a far more respectable thing for male celebrities to do than female ones, which if true raises many other issues.

This cover, then, seems like a logical progression from this atmosphere. I doubt anyone involved in it would expect any serious backlash. Instead many men will salivate over the imagery and the ‘transgression’ and few people will bat an eyelid. In asking why this is and examining our own responses to the questions raised, I think we raise some uncomfortable and demanding questions.