Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.

You Are A Target Market

‘The gays’ have been viewed as an exploitable market for at least a few decades now. Artists like Cher, Madonna and Kylie have long been famed for their fiercely loyal gay fanbase, so much so that every female pop star of a certain ilk has tried desperately to get in on the action. Then of course we have the straight-male-celeb-does-the-gays thing which has become an essential part of turning a b-lister into a profitable commodity. As I wrote here, “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants” and oh, it is ever so the case.

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’. It wouldn’t have to be a very long section, of course, as it would just have to lay down the buzzwords to use: homophobia, bullying, gay marriage, it gets better, love, equality etc. You don’t even have to make any attempt at subtlety – Class A, a truly dreadful boy band, released an equally dreadful single called ‘Pride’ and did a tour of British schools ostensibly to promote ‘pride’ and oppose homophobic bullying (in association with the ever-useless Stonewall). This has of course given them quick and extensive access to the market which is most important for any new boy band. It also renders them largely immune from criticism – as love of/support for the gays has become a totemic liberal value there are a multitude of voices who will defend such commercial exploitation of ‘homophobia’, invariably appealing to the mythical ‘young kid growing up and feeling alone’. The gay is always ‘out there’ in this equation, always a voiceless victim needing to be saved. Lady Gaga is obviously the standard-bearer for this conflation of homosexuality with victimhood, portraying herself as some brave freedom fighter bringing a voice to an oppressed minority. Only two weeks ago  the rich white woman with the model boyfriend who attended “one of the most selective and expensive schools in Manhattan” declared that ”It’s time for us to be mainstream”. Gee, thanks for that Gaga.

She is, to be fair, the perfect representative of an LGBT movement which is dominated by the concerns of privileged white men and is all-too-willing to allow itself be used as a mark of superiority by equally privileged liberals who fancy a taste of ‘the other’. That’s why the gay marketing ploy works so well. By buying into this idea that ‘gay rights’ exist in a vacuum, removed from any other political/geographical/human concerns, can completely ignore unpleasant issues of race, of poverty, of wider inequality (you can even ignore any discussion ofwhat ‘equality’ even means.) You don’t have to do anything at all other than say a couple of sentences and point people towards the e-petition.  In essence you’re saying nothing that’s any more controversial than ‘I like cake’ yet your ‘support’ for the gays will be widely seized on by (at least) the gay media and will confer a fabulous sprinkling of radicalism on you. This completely unthreatening ploy sees the cause, and the gays, as instrumental to the real message – buy our product. So you find LGBT people celebrating the commercialisation not only of homophobia but of themselves. They become less than human, useful only for their victimised sexuality and perceived lack of voice. In this way this marketing ploy is as insidious and harmful as any ‘homophobia’ which it ostensibly aims to address (at least until the next single is out). We don’t need the Class A, Matthew Morrison and Saturdays of the world to promote their wares off the back of our ‘oppression’; more than that, we shouldn’t allow it. They can stuff their commercialised, profit-based, neutered and one-dimensional ‘Pride’.

The State of LGBT Politics

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Gays, Marriage and the Military’ is a timely piece on the current state of LGBT politics and Pride. The point about support for marriage/access to the military amongst the LGBT community is an interesting one. London Pride this past Saturday was a sea of placards, banners and t-shirts containing slogans regarding gay marriage. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Stonewall, the utterly useless campaigning group which previously couldn’t care less about the issue, was a one-cause organisation such was its blanket obsession. What’s quite remarkable about this is that the cause was barely present at Pride even 12 months ago – its ascendance to become not only the sole goal of LGBT politics but (apparently) one of the greatest civil rights issues of the age has been swift indeed.

Of course, as this article mentions with regards to HRC in America, Stonewall has almost certainly immersed itself in the campaign because that’s where the money is – as I’ve written before, as an organisation they have absolutely no qualms about lending some liberal respectability to rather egregious companies on the absurdly narrow basis that they’re ‘nice to gays’. Their entire existence rests on cosying up to power, pointedly avoiding radicalism but flattering the perverse blend of exceptionalism, victimisation and self-entitlement of a largely-privileged group of (mostly) metropolitan white gay men. ‘Equality’ is stripped of almost all meaning (discussed in more detail here) and any sense of interrogation of society is entirely absent. This is certainly true of Pride as a wider event, with the now-grimly inevitable stories of people having ‘unofficial’ placards mentioning socialism, general strikes and class being told that they could not display them on the march. As a political event it’s so confused that it’s best just to approach the day as an excuse to have a drink. Only the most rabid of homophobes obsess over homosexuality as the defining (interesting, important) quality of a person as much as many of these gay men do.

I’ve written quite a bit about gay marriage but I don’t particularly have a problem with it. In the UK it’s entirely a symbolic gesture but in the USA I can appreciate that it has very real implications for people’s lives. My issue has been with the rhetoric around it, the sense that it’s the Big Issue of the age and the refusal/inability to consider how and why the privileges afforded by marriage are bestowed and upon who. The very nature of marriage means that ‘equal marriage’ itself is an oxymoron when considered in the context of wider society. A fixation on it hides real issues around poverty, immigration, health care and much more. It also actively serves those in power who have very clearly used the issue for their own ends – it was both grotesque and hilarious that the Supreme Court DOMA decision led to much hyperbole about ‘equality before the law’ and much praise for Barack Obama as a human rights champion at the exact same time as his administration is prosecuting Chelsea Manning and pursuing Edward Snowden (and the same week the Supreme Court was making rather dubious decisions about racial equality). At London Pride I saw quite a few American flags; most bizarrely, I saw a go-go dancer dressed only in pink briefs wearing an Obama mask.

This is where the one-dimensional fixation of LGBT politics leads to – all that is important is what reflects well on those LGBT people who already have a place at the table. You need only look at the gay media to see this facile reality in action. Anything else that happens, anything else that politicians do, is rendered invisible and irrelevant. It’s almost worrying how quickly and easily many in the LGBT community have bought into all this – it causes you to wonder what other causes they could be convinced to champion with abandon. Pride may have started as a riot but these days it’s less about solidarity and more a giant celebration of insularity and ignorance.

An interesting (if not unproblematic) piece on Chelsea Manning and LGBT politics. Despite its clear American context the parallels with the UK are obvious – from an organisation like Stonewall to the aspirational content of our most prominent magazines, our representations of gay life are indeed stitched “ever more tightly against the fabric of late capitalism’s pirate sail.” It’s difficult not to be dismayed by how utterly facile in its expression most mainstream LGBT politics is, concerned solely with individual legal equalities in a neoliberal framework without any interrogation of that context. The use in this article of ‘Gay Inc’ is grotesquely apt, as the dominant ideological viewpoint found in mainstream LGBT politics encourages a tunnel vision which views LGBT individuals as one-dimensional beings affected only by issues of equal access to the privileges afforded to certain heterosexuals. So the politics of companies such as Barclays become solely concerned with their affinity with and treatment of their Western LGBT employees; the human rights records of leaders like Cameron and Obama become overwhelmingly dominated by their actions on LGBT rights. Further, these rights are solely the aforementioned ones regarding legal equalities – economic issues are almost entirely neglected and wider rights seen as unrelated to sexuality are ignored. I’ve previously voiced the question of how the response to the Guantanamo residents would differ had they been white gay men pleading homophobia – it seems to me that this would insert Guantanamo firmly into the tunnel vision of ‘Gay Inc’. Chelsea Manning is of course a perfect example of this, with her treatment (and actions) viewed as unrelated to her gender status and so as irrelevant to LGBT politics, which spent the previous year almost entirely ignoring her and instead fixating on the almost-entirely symbolic (and unthreatening to authority) question of gay marriage.

Of course such tunnel vision isn’t confined to LGBT politics and this is a great danger of the view that ‘all politics is identity politics’. Just as Cameron and Obama’s stances on gay marriage can be said to have obscured more meaningful (and harmful) examples of their use of power, we are seeing with increasing frequency the exploitation of ‘identity politics’ (e.g. LGBT and feminist politics) to obscure and divert in the service of authority. The justification of interventions in the Middle East in the name of ‘women’s liberation’ is an obvious example. Glenn Greenwald wrote this week about the Republicans’ use of homophobia to oppose Chuck Hagel. The abuses exposed by Wikileaks, meanwhile, ceased to exist for many as soon as Assange was accused of rape and became a feminist cause célèbre, despite these accusations having no bearing on the leaks themselves. In the rush to combat inequality and discrimination many are all too eager to reduce themselves to a cosmetic humanity capable only of outrage at slights against their particular identity and uncritical of all else. It is here that I take issue with the article’s talk of “Proletarian drag” and “history’s costume shop”, as positing political identity as a grab-bag of choices easily leads to its co-option and manipulation. Classical Marxism and ‘class vocabulary’ certainly have problems galore, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that they are anathema to LGBT and other issues of ‘identity’ and in fact I would argue that they provide a core critical grounding to political identity which is lacking in the postmodernist ‘all politics is identity politics’ view.  Such a critical grounding is undoubtedly completely lacking in much LGBT politics – as the article suggests, “the gay establishment is paid very well to underscore it every day” with their focus on ‘the gay angle’ and perceived slights overriding any rigorous and wide-reaching attempts at analysis. Indeed, it’s clearly possible to make quite a decent living from being a ‘useful idiot’ for your identity of choice and churning out columns on the homophobia/sexism etc of the day. It’s an approach which is as insulting and damaging as any bigot. We shouldn’t need Chelsea Manning’s status to be relevant before LGBT people take notice – rather anyone who is concerned with abuses of power, justice and human dignity should take heed and always strive to be sceptical of the authority which Manning bravely opposed.

Hegemony and Sodomist Strategy

The Stonewall Awards/Useful Idiots

Now that Timeout magazine has adopted a free distribution model, I’ve been flicking through it absent-mindedly in the mornings for the first time in many years. I’d forgotten all about its LGBT section, which I used to pore over for appealing club nights when I first moved to London. No doubt due to the need to reduce the magazine’s size and increase the amount of advertising in it, the section is now a sad-looking one-pager. The main item in it this week is a preview of the Stonewall Awards, which are apparently on November 1st.

The sub-headline explains that Paul Burston ‘asks the campaigning group’s Ben Summerskill why (the Awards) are still necessary’. You don’t have to read it to predict the response – visibility, homophobia, bullying. The answers that are invariably given for gay-related ventures these days. How could anyone be against something which makes life easier for gay kids, after all?

A more aggressive questioning of the Award’s purpose would perhaps ask how such an insipid and absurd occasion benefits anyone other than Stonewall and assorted celebrities. I think it’s fair to say that few people take any notice of them (Time Out was the first I’d heard of them this year, despite the nominations apparently being previously announced) but if you look at the nominations, it’s difficult not to laugh. Stonewall has a habit of prostrating itself before companies which make some nod, however tokenistic, towards the gays (much in evidence in its almost-meaningless ‘Workplace Equality Index’). So we have companies with (to say the least) dubious social and ethical records like Barclays and PWC sponsoring the event while Ben & Jerry are nominated as ‘Heroes of the Year’ presumably for making a promotional-only ice cream ‘supporting’ gay marriage’. In the latter case, if Ben & Jerry want to use their corporate clout to support gay marriage then they can knock themselves out but I fail to see anything ‘heroic’ about it (see first comment below.) In the former case, it’s just blatant pink-washing. It allows an organisation like Barclays to use the issue of homosexuality to portray itself as liberal and progressive while it profits from arms deals and money laundering. Even more perversely, Barclays has traded with and supported the brutal regimes of Zimbabwe and Iran – hardly renowned for their sterling human rights and particular targets of many gay rights activists over the years. Presumably tackling homophobia is only worth celebrating if it’s done on a superficial, PR-driven level which financially benefits Stonewall and those ethnic folk dying across the sea are an unpleasant diversion from the quaffing of champagne.

Stonewall’s other embarrassing habit (one that is, to be fair, reasonably widespread amongst the ‘gay establishment’) is to fawn at the feet of celebrities who are nice to the gays. So we have the ludicrous inclusion of former rugby player Ben Cohen on the panel of judges deciding the Awards. Cohen is very popular as he set up an ‘anti-bullying foundation’ and strips to his pants a lot.  I’ve written about some of my concerns surrounding his elevation as a ‘hero’ previously and I’ve yet to witness a journalist tackle him about the nuts and bolts of his work in his frequent appearances in the gay media. Instead we’re given asinine puff pieces, over and over again. Indeed, this approach is typical of some of the ‘gay media’ nominated for Stonewall Awards (presumably DC Comics and Tatler are nominated because they did something gay-related, at some point, while the Evening Standard is surely being applauded for its incessant campaigning for ‘former homophobe’ Boris Johnson.)

The absence of critical rigour really is astonishing. Jessie J is presumably awarded because she said she was bisexual. Yet the contortions around that have been many. It’s been claimed that she’s actually gay and was told to say otherwise by her record label. She’s spoken of being ‘irritated’ at the fixation with her sexuality – but given that she’s hardly associated with campaigning against homophobia, her sexuality must be the sole reason she’s here. Britain’s biggest LGBT (I know they have a very dodgy record on the ‘T’, I’m being charitable – see first comment below on this) charity reduce her to her sexuality just as much as The Sun did. Similarly, Frank Ocean is nominated because he said he once loved another man. That’s it. That really is the extent of it.

Such a reductive approach is typical of the Awards. The ‘Journalists of the Year’ are either gay or people who have written nice things about gay marriage. The ‘Broadcast of the Year’ includes ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ because it featured some gay people, because being a show predicated on contrived humiliation is perfectly fine as long as you do it equally.  The ‘Politicians of the Year’ are either gay or nice to gays in a very obvious way, so the Conservative Iain Stewart is included despite being a loyal supporter of the government in privatising eduction, the NHS, reducing benefits, attacking the disabled and preventing House of Lords reform, to name but a few big issues. Hey, who cares if you’re attacking the most vulnerable people in society, YOU’RE A GAY!

It really is the most insipid nonsense and only the most facile of analyses could possibly think these Awards meaningfully combat homophobia. Instead they continue to elevate sexuality as the core raison d’être of any person who isn’t 100% heterosexual; they continue to elevate ‘gay rights’ above basic human rights as an ostentatious liberal identifier; they continue to allow celebrities, companies, politicians and others who want a bit of easy PR to engage superficially with ‘gay issues’ and receive hysterical praise in return. It’s embarrassing. Summerskill is quoted in Time Out as saying that ‘we really hope that one day awards like these will no longer be necessary’. It seems to me that Stonewall itself is the biggest obstacle to that day.