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.

The Joiners’ Arms and Gentrification

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In areas like Shoreditch and its peers around the globe, the cosmetic renewal of a portion of the crumbling urban core coincides with continued – or intensified – infrastructural decline. The reactivation of dormant (or low profit sweatshop-occupied) industrial properties first as artist’s spaces and later as bars, boutiques, apartments etc has made many landlords even richer, but the area’s large tracts of public housing, services and transport facilities remain in a deteriorating condition and/or are sold off to the private sector. Gentrification takes from the poor and gives to the rich. Anything residually ‘public’ will either be reclaimed for the middle class or left to rot. Each wave of colonisers plays out the contradictions of their particular claim to space, taking sides against the next phase of gentrification in which they nevertheless conspire…The creation and rapid extinction of cultural ‘incubators’ – clubs, art spaces, etc. – by more lucrative investments in areas like Shoreditch at the same time intensifies bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’ which is the USP of the area’s marketing.

The piece this quote was taken from (“Shoreditch and the creative destruction of the inner city“) was written over a decade ago yet remains the most insightful commentary on what’s happening in the East End of London (and beyond) that I’ve seen. I’ve referred to it in the past, not least when Dazed & Confused insultingly posed the question of whether East London was ‘dead’ because the ‘creatives’ were finding it a bit expensive. The writers at D&C were completely useless on gentrification, presenting it both as a new phenomenon and as something somehow removed from magazines like their own and its endless articles presenting the East End as a hub of cool, edgy creativity. Both were and are a nonsense. No brand better sums up the “bohemian settler’s efforts to maintain that crucial ‘edginess’” than Vice which, like Dazed & Confused, launched in the early 90s and bought Shoreditch’s Old Blue Last pub in the same year Benedict Seymour’s essay was written. It’s become a shorthand signifier for an edginess that is “one part actual intelligent, progressive, boundary-pushing journalism to nine parts nihilistic misogynist awfulness” and it’s not irrelevant here that one of its co-founders is a reactionary dickhead. Vice was and is aimed at a young, self-consciously ‘creative’ reader for whom it offers a titillating taste of transgression. Today Vice has posted an article on the impending closure of The Joiners Arms, a Hackney gay bar which it’s fair to say has been an institution in London’s LGBT scene. Entitled “The Joiners’ Arms is Closing and It’s a Travesty’, the piece is fascinating in its inadvertent revelation that these people still really, really don’t understand what’s happening in London. As with the previous D&S piece, gentrification is presented as some nebulous external force that is encroaching on ‘proper Hackney’ and “pushing out those that can no longer afford to stay”. Yet the article itself documents some of the logic and processes behind gentrification, even though it clearly doesn’t realise it. Seymour’s piece explains how the wave of ‘creative gentrification’ which saw Shoreditch “celebrated as the heart of London’s creative and artistic scene in the ’90s” led to it becoming “the apple of urban policy makers’ eyes in the late ’90s”. As he puts it:

Shoreditch was held up as an example of how the ‘inner core’ of the city, allegedly abandoned after the flight of working class inhabitants to the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s, could ‘come back to life’ if the area’s ‘residual’ population of deadbeats were supplemented (that is, supplanted) by a lively group of dynamic and entrepreneurial cultural professionals. From the beginning this notion of new ‘life’ served to obfuscate whose life was being discussed – not that of the area’s economically challenged majority, it would seem.

This is a narrative which Vice follows precisely. The Joiners’, we’re told, opened in “proper Hackney territory” which apparently means it was “surrounded by empty shop fronts and council estates”. Notice that ‘council estates’ are clearly implied to be a bad thing here. It goes further – The Joiners’ was “a haven from a traditionally homophobic part of town” and it “flew the rainbow flag proud” despite aforementioned council estates. In the space of a few sentences we’re implicitly but clearly given the notion that Hackney was a declining working-class area and this is linked to homophobia. Was Hackney ‘traditionally’ viewed as homophobic, more so than any other area of London? Even this brief ‘gay history’ of the East End suggests otherwise, with this section concerning a pub literally minutes from The Joiners’:

Another vital meeting place for the East End gay community was the Royal Oak in Columbia Road, Hackney. While researching local history, Columbia Road resident Linda Wilkinson learned about Lil and Maisie, a transvestite couple, who lived in Hackney throughout World War II and performed at the Royal Oak while the bombs were falling. What’s remarkable about Lil and Maisie is that they were accepted by their neighbours. No stories have come to light of a similar working class gay couple anywhere else in London at this time. Lil and Maisie were still performing in drag at the Royal Oak in the 1960s.

No-one could possibly deny the certain existence of homophobia in Hackney when The Joiners’ opened, just as no-one could deny it now, but to suggest that it was a refuge from the homophobic working-class hordes around it is insulting. It is, however, an easy assertion because it appeals to familiar prejudices while claiming for The Joiners’ and its denizens that all-important edginess. Indeed, the article goes to pains to document The Joiners as “battling the encroaching diktat of political correctness” and offering “raucous mischief.” Yet rather than offering a radical disruption of the surrounding area it’s more likely that The Joiners’ opened as part of, and then furthered, the gentrification which was already occurring in Shoreditch. Although we must take note of the complexities and avoid generalising, research suggests a link between gentrification and a significant influx of LGBT people – in the Vice article we’re told of a writer who moved to Hackney in 2009 and “chose my flat partly because it was across the road [from The Joiners’]”. The flats directly opposite The Joiners’ were only build in the late 00s and most certainly weren’t social housing. To again return to the Seymour piece:

While Shoreditch’s magic circle was in the media spotlight the most massive and significant changes in the borough of Hackney, and indeed the city as a whole, were scarcely discussed. The social cleansing of working class communities across large swaths of London’s inner core, vicious cuts, privatisation, and Eastern European levels of poverty coincided with the highest number of housing privatisation ballots in the country. The latter, advanced in the name of ‘regeneration’ served to hasten the theft of the city from its true ‘creative class’, re-engineering former industrial areas as a playground for young middle-class consumers of surplus value. Although it is notoriously difficult to get precise figures, I would guess that as much as 40% of Hackney’s working class population have been pushed out of the area through the combined effect of rising rents, evictions, demolition and transfer of council housing into the hands of housing associations.

This is perhaps one of the central issues with gentrification – we never think that we are part of it until we feel victimised by it. For example, the Johann Hari-led attacks on Muslims in East London a few years ago owed much to the lazy prejudice which the Vice piece appeals to and owed much to gentrification. There’s no doubt that neither the owner of The Joiners’ nor most of the people who went there (including me) harboured any Machiavellian scheme to ‘claim’ the area but the process has been clear and ongoing for anyone who deigned to look. It was gentrification rather than ‘evolution’ which led to The Joiners’ becoming “basically…East London’s hottest new late night gay club”. It must be said that the article is utterly disingenuous in its failure to note that The Joiners’ did its best to capitalise on this – the notorious door charge is glossed over but it and drastically increased drink prices made the venue one of the most expensive in the area within a quite short period of time. This was combined with a door staff who were quite renowned for their aggressiveness – speak to anyone who went there with any regularity and they’ll at least know of a story. I found it amusing, then, that Vice repeats the familiar tropes about The Joiners’ (and the East End) presenting a:

…raucous, welcoming (unlike many Soho haunts, there had rarely been a “you’re not gay, you ain’t coming in” door policy), messy and character-rich up-yours to the stuff going on a few miles down the road in W1

Soho has long been the bete noire of East End LGBT venues, the great bogey man which they seek to define themselves against. Yet the complaints offered – that it’s too exclusive, too expensive, too homogenous – are ones which are repeated simply because they’re trite rather than because they are true. As the East End has continued its gentrification the venues and nights which have sprung up, such as East Bloc and Sink The Pink, have been as expensive and homogenous as any West End venue you could mention (if not more so). East Bloc on Saturday costs £7-10 while the next Sink The Pink costs £22. G-A-Y, in contrast, is typically free or up to £5 if you can’t be bothered picking up one of the many flyers. Yet the LGBT scene in the East End clings evermore to that ‘crucial edginess’ – despite its price Sink The Pink presents itself as a response to “recession with a Conservative government at the helm”. More disturbingly, these evenings delight in an aesthetic which is frequently racist and/or misogynistic – witness the gruesome yellowface at the top of this post – a trend which itself owes much to the colonial logic of gentrification. The Joiners’ Arms, then, finds itself victim of a rapacious gentrification which it once benefited from and which the East End LGBT scene has been/is complicit in. Yet we continues to ignore it beyond the most superficial level: Vice tritely complains of “an area that has been flat white-d and artisan burger-ed within an inch of its life” with zero comprehension of the processes and history behind it. The Benedict Seymour piece is an essential place to start in beginning to understand the ‘creative destruction’ at work here. When Pauline Pearce complained about the damage gentrification was doing to Hackney, pushing out the poor, driving up prices and eroding the area’s diversity, it was met with a furious response. Yet the closure of The Joiners’ is just the latest example of how this logic has no boundaries and, if left unchecked, the vast majority will suffer as the poorest in society are right now.