Brave Man: Rejecting ‘Allyship’.

No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:

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This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:

Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.

Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.

Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect

The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
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“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!

Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no  less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.

The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).

Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.

‘Civilised’

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With the Commonwealth Games starting in Glasgow this week, the usual suspects have been out in force complaining about homophobia in many of the Commonwealth countries. Never one to shy from the limelight, Peter Tatchell actually travelled to Glasgow to call on Alex Salmond and organisers to condemn these nations and even ban them from competing (quite how travelling up to Scotland to tell its First Minister what to do squares with his support for independence, I’m not quite sure.) By far the most prominent example of this trend, on social media at least, was this meme from Stonewall:

10475673_10152519854650399_2571160274686206565_nStonewall went to town with this one, posting it several times and retweeting posts of it by others. Its many retweets means that it will have been seen by many thousands of people and it led to a predictable outpouring of anger and condemnation. Then, in a perfect fuelling of this narrative, the opening ceremony featured that kiss. Or should I say ‘that stunning rebuke’? Take that, savages! Many of those tweeting their outrage regarding homophobia went crazy for this kiss, as if it was single-handedly going to stop bigotry in its tracks. More worryingly, it quickly became proof of our superiority, with comments like this being fairly common:

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‘Civilised’. The use of this word alone should have set alarm bells ringing as to the subtext being pushed beneath this facile outrage.This language and the ideas behind it were absolutely central to colonialism and slavery, with “Africans…thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way.” It’s notable that the same arguments are also used by supporters of Israel. Their deployment against the countries of the Commonwealth, almost entirely made up of countries which were formerly part of the British Empire, is disturbing to say the least. Take that, savages, indeed.

A typical response to this concern from the outraged is ‘oh so we can’t attack homophobia in these countries because they were colonies then?’ The implication is that if you find this racist moralising distateful you must support anti-LGBT laws. This is, of course, utter nonsense. It’s very telling that the outrage is almost entirely aimed at these countries en masse and expressed via organisations such as Stonewall, which explicitly links its own ‘international work’ to the issue in an effort to raise more money. Here we have the White Saviour Industrial Complex which Teju Cole wrote about with regards to Africa blended with homonationalism (note, for example, that there is little outrage about any other human rights issues in these countries, including poverty, or about the LGBT record of ‘civilised’ countries like the USA) There is no consideration that work to change these laws goes on within these countries and there is certainly no appreciation that these must be the way change happens. It cannot and will not be imposed by us. Scott Long wrote a typically good piece on this a few years ago where he noted that LGBT activists from these Commonwealth countries were being shut out by ‘Western’ interests (including Tatchell). As he writes:

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted.

In his piece Teju Cole directly addresses Americans swept up in the Kony fever, telling them how they can ‘help’:

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.

It’s that Biblical parable about removing the log from your own eye before judging, or attempting to ‘help’, others. This is utterly fundamental to this Commonwealth issue. In the minds of the outraged, these countries become demonised others, reduced to nothing more than their laws regarding LGBT people. In condemning them while patting ourselves on the back, the central role played by the United Kingdom (and contrary to what some seem to believe, this absolutely also means Scotland here) in how these countries have developed is completely elided. When there was yet another brief e-petition frenzy over Uganda’s homophobic laws earlier this year, some pointed out that these laws were introduced by colonial powers. This has been pointed out in the past regarding the Commonwealth – this very good piece looks at not only the colonial legacy but the problem of approaching these issues in terms of a ‘LGBTI’ framework in the first place – and researchers state that anti-LGBT laws are “mostly a legacy of British colonialism“. So we are berating these countries for laws which we largely introduced to them!

It’s essential to be aware of and consider our role in this because it blows the racist ideas about the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ wide open. Lest we forget, the British Empire was absolutely brutal. Britain massacred, tortured, starved, ethnically cleansed and had concentration camps well before the Nazis came along. It’s also completely forgotten that the overwhelmingly poor countries which retain these laws aren’t inherently ‘broken’ – their current status is heavily shaped by colonialism’s history of slavery, cultural oppression and the theft of wealth and resources on an unimaginable scale. Let’s be in no doubt here: the UK’s position as a wealthy nation owes much to its horrofic subjugation of these countries people are now wagging their fingers at.

Colonialism isn’t some distant relic as many seem to think -as late as 1997 the UK was still decolonising (Hong Kong) and its sovereignty over places like Gibralter and the Falklands endures to this day. Yet if British rule isn’t the terror it once was, the legacy of this remains strong (and is precisely one of the main reasons why the UK bears some responsibility for the Israel/Palestine conflict). Many of the ‘tinpot dictators’ we love to hate are there largely because of us. We continue to arm these countries even while expressing mock-outrage at their transgressions, with Campaign Against the Arms Trade documenting that the UK sold arms to 46 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries in the past three years, including the maligned Uganda and Nigeria (as Eleanor Harris put it on Twitter, we sold them both arms and attitudes). It’s also argued by some that the modern framework of aid, international development and economic ‘support’ is a form of neocolonialism, wherein the ‘former’ colonial powers retain their paternalism and exercise power in these ostensibly liberated countries.

It should be clear, then, that we are in no position to lecture the rest of the Commonwealth on the matter of how ‘civilised’ they are and we should be wary of indulging in that rhetoric. Yet even taken on its own terms, this behaviour is staggeringly hypocritical. It beggars belief that LGBT laws have become totemic of ‘civilisation’ when the UK is still very much on that journey itself. Homosexual activities were only legalised in Scotland in 1980. Section 28, our very own law banning homosexual ‘propaganda’ in schools, was not fully abolished until 2003 and was aggressively supported by our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even the much vaunted ‘marriage equality’ finally obtained this year was only ‘equality’ for some, with the ‘spousal veto’ discriminating against transexual people. Yet transexual rights are a poor relative of ‘gay rights’ here, as seen in Stonewall’s award of ‘Politician of the Year’ to Baroness Stowell and the owner of Pink News tweeting his congratulations to her on her promotion. Stowell was a staunch defender of the veto.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 report on Discrimination and Positive Action, meanwhile, shows that there is a long way to go in the host country of the Commonwealth Games. In it we find that 55% of respondents would be ‘unhappy/very unhappy’ at the prospect of a family member entering a relationship with a ‘cross-dresser’, and 49% would be unhappy if it was a relationship with a transexual. 30% would be unhappy if a family member married someone of the same sex (though the campaign for marriage since then may have eroded this % somewhat). This is without getting into truly terrifying statistics such as 49% agreeing that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thinking the same about more black and/or Asian people living there.

Remove the log from your own eye. It’s worth repeating. We are not going to change laws in Commonwealth countries by tweeting a meme and indulging in ramped up racist rhetoric online. We’re not even going to do it by protesting, or writing to our MPs. The only way to progress is to listen to the activists who actually live in these countries and amplify their voices whereever possible. Just as they have responsibility for change within their own countries, we must take the same for change within ours. Our countryis not a benevolent force promoting good throughout the world. We can and should oppose the disgusting arms trade; we can and should oppose our government’s support for dictators and massacres like the one currently taking place in Gaza. But more than that, we must educate ourselves about the injustices which persevere in our own country. The scourges of poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, political corruption and more are very much alive in the United Kingdom. Solving them will take a lot more than a staged kiss.