Tom Daley, Jessie J and the Certainty of Boxes

We really, really don’t like it when people don’t fit neatly into boxes we understand. Boxes which, for one reason or another, we’ve been led to believe are ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’ and ‘the way things are’. Without wishing to downplay the very deliberate uses of power and historical processes which lie behind so much bigotry, it can be said that any identity deviating from straight, white, masculine, conservative, materially privileged male has to varying degrees suffered in our society’s past (and present). This fact has inspired great liberation movements, most notably centred on gender, race, sexuality and class, which have had made palpable gains and resulted in a UK where almost everyone is seen to be formally ‘equal’.

A lot of my writing, focusing on the LGBT movement, has attempted to parse this formal equality and ask if our liberation has become a barrier to lived equality. Much of the thoughts and ideas I draw upon are taken from feminist and anti-racist circles, where debates about the nature of equality and critique of mainstream movements which are ostensibly ‘on their side’ have a more notable and vocal modern history. The most obvious current example is the concept ofintersectionality which has so vexed many feminist writers with platforms. Despite its rise to prominence in the past year, the term was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and specifically arose from (and was applied to) black feminism. You can read more about it in this Bim Adewunmi piece. It’s interesting and not a little ironic that the current ‘debates’ about intersectionality have served to highlight how apropos the theory is. Oppressions and discriminations are not experienced identically by all members of any minority group and, indeed, can be actively perpetuated within these groups.

While it’s clear that the issues raised by intersectionality show no sign of being resolved any time soon, at least the theory has broken through in feminist discussions. The same cannot be said about the LGBT movement, which remains highly monolithic and stuck in its ways. There is next to no mainstream discussion (including within the mainstream LGBT media) of how our communities may actually perpetuate oppression. It was noticeable how swiftly Lily Allen’s gay fanbase attacked the notion that her ‘Hard Out Here’ video was racist, while consideration of wider racism within the LGBT community is largely confined to whether or not it’s acceptable to specify colour ‘preferences’ on Grindr etc (clue: it isn’t.)  The recent Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny was met with derision and condemnation, even when its assertions were being borne out by high-profile aspects of ‘gay culture’. As a community we don’t seem keen on self-examination, preferring instead to be validated by condescending marketing and anything we can grab hold of which assures us of our victimhood.

That piece on victimhood arose from consideration of biphobia and the supporting columns a sexual identity required in order to be viewed as ‘authentic’. What do people have to have experienced before we accept whichever label they’ve chosen as being truly them? As I noted in that blog, it’s fascinating how differently this plays out with women and men and this week has given us great illustrations of this with Tom Daley and Jessie J.

When Tom Daley made his video announcing that he was in a relationship with a man, I said that his sexuality immediately wasn’t his any more. Despite his care not to label himself and to state that he liked both men and women, he was widely reported as having ‘come out’ as gay. Even though some quarters corrected this, the overwhelming response from within the LGBT community seemed to be a very familiar one (seen in the Andrew Sullivan blog linked at the end of that piece)- that he was really gay and was just saying he liked women to make it a bit easier for himself (and for people around him). It was not only dishearteningly biphobic but seemed determined to shove a teenager into a neat box in order to make him more gratifying. It was with interest, then, that earlier this week I read various headlines announcing that Tom had said he wasactually ‘a gay man’. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the initial response for one second but it was impossible to begrudge the guy the chance to feel comfortable in his own skin.

It took me a few days to actually get around to reading any of the pieces and when I did, I was quite confused. I had previously assumed that Tom had given an interview but it transpired the headlines had come from Celebrity Juice, a supremely dumb show broadcast on ITV2. When I watched clips of the show I was even more dumbfounded: the words ‘I am a gay man now’ don’t actually leave his lips. Instead the very loud and overbearing host tells a clearly nervous Tom ‘you’re a gay man now’, to which he replies ‘I am’. And that’s about it. The word ‘gay’ is mentioned by the host a few more times and Tom seems unphased but he doesn’t make any point of renouncing any previous words. In fact he states again that he made the Youtube video to “be able to say what I wanted to say on my own terms, without anyone twisting anything.” From these spectacularly nebulous seeds came stories asserting that Tom Daley has admitted that he isn’t bisexual at all, declaring ‘I am a gay man now’“Tom Daley isn’t bisexual”Tom Daley has officially come out as gay”“‘I am a gay man now’, Tom Daley admitted” and perhaps best of all “I”m definitely gay not bisexual.”

Notice the use of ‘admitted’ there, from both mainstream and LGBT sites. His statement that he still fancied girls, made only 4 months ago, is treated like some flimsy pretence that everyone knew was just a bunch of lies really. To make it clear, I couldn’t care less what Tom Daley labels himself as – but taking the words ‘I am’ on a comedy panel show premised on the host taking the piss out of the contestants and turning them into the stories above is absolutely absurd. It underlines the urge for neat boxes and a narrative we understand – and ‘gay man says he likes women but actually only likes men’ is one we understand.

Contrast that with the response to Jessie J saying that she now only likes men,labelling her attraction to women as ‘a phase’. The liberal Guardian printed a column calling this ‘a shame’ (and hilariously asserting “I would never deny Jessie J, or anyone else, the right to define themselves, identify with whatever sexuality they want or reject labels altogether” – no, that’s what you’re doing in this column.) Jessie J’s full response was apparently penned after a furious online response to her initial declaration that she only liked men. I saw many responses stating that she had ‘betrayed’ and ‘exploited’ the LGBT community – this gay site says she used sexuality as ‘a fashion accessory’ and like The Guardian says that she’s fed the idea that bisexuality is a phase.

Are we seeing the fault lines here? Because they are really instructive as to how fucked up even ostensibly ‘progressive’ attitudes towards sexuality are and how powerful the grip of the victimhood narrative is on the LGBT identity. If Jessie J had written that liking men had been a phase and she was now gay, we would have accepted it in the blink of an eye. No-one has attacked Tom Daley for ‘undermining’ the bisexual identity, after all. I also suspect that if Tom later said he was straight the response wouldn’t be fury but pity – people would think he was lying to himself, not that he had tried to make himself seem more interesting by pretending to like men. We don’t even have to make that assumption – straight male celebrities do not receive furious backlashes for flirting with bi/homosexuality:

Instead they are fêted by the LGBT media and much of the community, treated as icons and allowed to pump us for all we’re worth.

When people assert that Jessie J has ‘betrayed’ the LGBT community, they should first stop and ask why said community is so quick and eager to elevate anyone and everyone who either lets us think we might be in with a chance of a fuck or simply says they like us…they really like us! They should ask why we’re so celebratory about straight celebrities who make the right noises about being receptive to same-sex advances. They should ask why we’re so tolerant of these ambiguities when we’re so insistent that anyone who ever feels a same-sex attraction CHOOSE THEIR LABEL and stick to it (though if they say they’re bi we’ll probably just ignore that anyway).

There is evident sexism in these differing responses, yes. There is also a modern and unhealthy relationship to celebrity, where we feel better placed to comment on the ‘real’ nature of these people than they do. There is an unappealing, immutable attitude towards sexuality – it’s presented as something we’re working towards, something we discover and come to terms with and then do not alter in any way for the rest of our lives. The ‘Born This Way’ idea. Who cares if we’re not? Are people any less deserving of respect, of happiness, if they ‘decide’ to switch sexuality at age 45 or have sex with a different gender, or people who don’t identify as traditional genders, each week?

That final point isn’t entirely facetious because the fixation on an immutable, clearly defined sexual identity seems interwoven with the dominant concerns of the modern LGBT movement. If we can get married, we can ‘settle down’. You don’t get a much more easily understood box than ‘married couple’ and that ‘respectability’ ties in nicely with the LGBT movement’s adoption not only ofdeeply conservative companies but of a wider anti-radicalism. Groups likeAgainst Equality which stem from at least 50 years of queer radicalism are ever-increasingly viewed as bitter cranks by the movement. And so we buy further into the racist, sexist, capitalist mores of mainstream society while becoming less and less tolerant of any critiques which might make us feel uncomfortable about this.

Yet as the different responses Tom Daley and Jessie J underline, it’s imperative that we ask difficult questions of ourselves and debate what ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ mean. The certainty of boxes might help marketers and make us a bit more palatable for homophobes but it makes us blind to our problems and diminishes us as people.

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.