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25 February 2011
1 March 2011

Thoughts on ‘Born This Way’

Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I?

After the premiere of the video yesterday led to another outpouring of utter drivel, I wanted to articulate my feelings about the whole ‘Born This Way’ thing. Not least because I know that some people who know me undoubtedly believe that my response to it is largely determined by ‘the Madonna factor’.

First of all, I will admit that I have been dubious about Gaga from the moment I heard ‘The Fame’. To be specific, I loved ‘Just Dance’ when I first heard it (when it was first heard in the U.S.) and downloaded ‘The Fame’ when it first leaked. I was immensely disappointed – most of the album is terrible. It also betrayed that what Gaga swiftly became was somewhat of an accident. You don’t make records like ‘Eh Eh’ if you’re intending to end up at ‘Bad Romance’. But end up there she did, and ‘The Fame Monster’ is undoubtedly a huge improvement on ‘The Fame’ and a great pop record in its own right. ‘Bad Romance’ will forever be iconic and was a perfect example of an artist taking their influences and building something uniquely theirs. It is brilliant.

  Now I could write a book about all of that, but onto ‘Born This Way’. It is a dreadful record. Clunking, patronising, lazy and downright stupid. I’ve heard it said that Lady Gaga has been racing through Madonna’s career – if this is the case then ‘Born This Way’ marks her swift arrival at Madonna’s humourless, worthy and superior persona (without the fun stuff inbetween). Where to begin?

Firstly, taken exclusively on its musical merits, the song is undeniably derivative and largely generic. No great crime, but when you’ve spent almost a year being told that this is going to be the greatest thing to have ever happened to music (by Gaga and by people around her) it’s understandable that this provokes a reaction against it. Now when you factor in the ‘gay element’, this takes on a new meaning. Gaga chooses to celebrate the ‘difference’ of homosexuality by returning to disco, the most stereotypically ‘gay’ music genre and one which every pop star who wants to appeal to a gay audience seems to run to at some point or another. It reminds me of ‘G-A-Y’ by Geri Halliwell, except Geri at least had the good sense to make it a b-side and not build it up as being akin to the Emancipation Proclamation beforehand. Already the difference Gaga is celebrating is a very narrow one.

It’s worth noting here that since the backlash against the song, many of Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ have been backtracking on the gay aspect of the song and arguing that it’s a wider anthem of tolerance. Yes, the lyrics are more general but to deny that Gaga (and her team) have specifically focused on the gay theme is either being completely stupid or completely disingenuous. I could trawl Google to provide countless quotes to illustrate this but I think it’s pretty self-evident. However, taking that wider theme, the song both patronises and fails. It patronises because it lists minorities in a ‘shopping list’ of difference where we are all interchangeable but the same in our ‘difference’. This celebrates nothing other than Gaga’s self-identification with ‘outsiders’ and, so, Gaga herself. I won’t add to the furore over her use of ‘chola’ and ‘orient’ but I have nothing intrinsically in common with ethnic minorities (except on a broader human level and arguably in terms of places in wider power structures, which I will look at in a second). What we see is a privileged (both in her race and her wealth) woman revealing more than she probably cares to about her very banal (and frighteningly deadening) notion of ‘difference’.

It fails because it does not even coherently follow through on this already misguided notion. Perhaps half-aware of the above argument, she adds religion, ‘white’ and ‘evergreen’ to the shopping list. In adding the powerful and privileged (and, not incidentally, those responsible for much of the oppression faced by the ‘different’) she reduces her point to nothing except ‘be happy’. The suggestion that the power structures in society are ‘born’ is actually counter-productive to any message of acceptance and neglects to tackle the reasons behind homophobia, racism etc, instead reducing all of the social, political and economic circumstances to the hilarious implication that bigots are also ‘born this way’ and should just…not be, while also reducing all identity to a one-note caricature based on a presumed biological foundation.

Clearly most listeners won’t delve this deep into the song, so what if it’s just taken on a superficial level? The one argument that I have heard wheeled out repeatedly in support of it is that it will help closeted gay children. This argument is invariably put forward by out and proud metropolitan gay men and as such I think it’s a ‘straw man’ argument that hides the true purpose of the record – that is, to take a specific gay identity and affirm it back at gay people, and thus commodify it. As I noted above, the difference Gaga celebrates is a very narrow one. It is one largely dictated by privileged Western gay men and one which takes its cues from mainstream gay culture. We must not forget that this culture is not the totality of any of us. It’s not even a small part, for many. Yet its success and position depends on the affirmation of gay people’s differences to, and subjugation at the hands of, everyone else. Gaga is celebrating ‘gay as victim’ and in the process reinforcing a central tenet of a commercialised gay culture. Much has been written about the pressure for gay people to conform to this, from ‘the body beautiful’ to the ostentatious display of wealth. Gaga reinforces every one of these points, identifying gay people with muscular dancers in designer clothes and raising product placement/endorsement to almost religious levels (and also largely ignoring lesbianism, save as titillation or as comedy).

Now, tackling directly the argument about gay children – of course I think it’s positive for gay kids to have role models. But why are we so willing to applaud the crumbs from the table of Lady Gaga and ignore everything else? Is a repressed gay child with a bigoted family really going to be helped by a woman who repeatedly identifies homosexuality with ‘freaks’, ‘monsters’ and aliens (the visual accompaniments to ‘Born This Way’ have underlined this point)? Sure, it may help cement a sense of victimhood and a fledgling desire to ‘fight’, but that is ultimately counter-productive. The fact is that in America (which is where we are always talking about) we have a President  who has explicitly reached out to gay children in speeches. So have many of his peers. He has appointed gay people to high-profile jobs in his administration. We have little to say about this. We have had little to say about the gay celebrities who have come out and…lived their lives. We have little to say about it because it is painting gay people as ordinary people who happen to be gay, and not fabulous angelic creatures who are scorned by all around them. Gaga is not an intergalactic social worker fighting homophobia in a vacuum. She is a pop star whose image and success is tied up in the notion of not being part of the power structure she undoubtedly is (which is also why she has gone to such great pains to downplay her wealthy background, and create urban myths around being a starving ‘artist’).

With ‘Bad Romance’, Gaga was winning me over. In stumbling so clumsily and stupidly into the realms of sexuality, identity and difference, she has re-affirmed all of her worst aspects.

And I didn’t even mention ‘Express Yourself’!

3 March 2011

Can we talk about liberal bias now?

The only criticism I have seen of Johann Hari’s recent silly (dangerously so) article about ‘Muslim homophobia’ has been in blogs:

Guardian journo Gary Younge tweeted that he disagreed with it, but went out of his way to also tweet that Johann Hari was an “important voice & ought to be engaged, as some have, not demonised.”

Engaging proved difficult. Johann’s response to people tweeting criticism at him has either been to ignore it completely or to, in one case, label the person responsible as ‘extremely unintelligent’ and it seems he has blocked many of the critics (including at least one of the authors above).

Some of the attacks on Johann since his article have been quite hysterical. But most that I’ve seen have been reasoned and calm. It’s raised an interesting, but quietly disturbing question about ‘liberal writers’. Johann and many other ‘left’ journalists quite regularly write indignant columns about the ignorance and stupidity of people like Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn. Whether this is helpful or productive is another question, but it’s not something that most people are going to be particularly bothered by because, on the whole, they do seem to be ignorant and stupid.

However, I have not seen a single one of these writers tackle Johann’s article. An article which has since been shown to be based on a completely incorrect assertion and which, as I argued here: (I wrote this before seeing the above blogs so obviously the crime figures bit is moot)

is factually selective, logically muddled and presents an at times almost incoherent argument. I have absolutely no doubt that if a right-wing columnist of a similar profile to Johann had written a factually inaccurate, inflammatory colum about Muslims that there would have been at least a couple of high-profile attacks on it. The absence of this suggests that it’s okay for a liberal writer to write provocative tosh about Muslims, because they’re on ‘our side’ and write good columns about causes close to our hearts such as UK Uncut.

We’re supposed to be better than the right-wing bastards. We’re supposed to have higher standards. Johann is a writer I have long followed and he has written some things that I have admired. His refusal to either acknowledge that his article contained inaccuracies and apologise, or to tackle the criticism head on and explain why he’s right, has greatly reduced my respect for him. People share these articles and people assume that what they’re reading is based on accurate information (the issue of people thinking about such articles critically is another one entirely). They calcify opinions and create false oppositions. They are, as I wrote earlier, deeply irresponsible.

16 March 2011
21 April 2011


Apparently there’s ANOTHER ‘kiss-in’ at the John Snow tonight. It seems there are a lot of people willing to be mobilised against ‘homophobia’ without spending even a cursory amount of time investigating the origins of their ‘outrage’ and the actions they’re signing up to. The more I read about it, the more I am convinced that there was no homophobia in what happened (a summary explanation which I posted elsewhere is below.)

The surge in ‘Twitter outrage’ in the past year or so is incredibly bizarre. It only ever seems to reach a superficial level and rests entirely on a very narrow ‘liberal’ identity of self derived from identity politics. The ‘promised land’ seems to be a place where we can all live without offence rather than achieving any real equality (a significant, substantive equality which recognises class structures and economic power as primary, not who we have sex with.) I’m not sure if it’s pushing people to express opinions on things that they think little about or if it’s just giving a platform to people who have never tended to do this. Either way, it’s a bit dumb. I’ve said it before – for all the shouting about ‘equality’ that certain people do, their entire sense of identity would be lost forever if people *really* stopped giving a shit about people being gay.

Re: the ‘incident’ (it was in response to someone demanding further action so I’m tackling their points):

I’m afraid this is a perfect example of what I said when I wrote about people being outraged without actually bothering to check the details of what they’re outraged about! The version of events that has taken hold (a gay couple kissed and were forcibly ejected) bears little relation to what we’ve been told: - The info about the complainant is here:

Firstly, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there WAS a complainant. Previously we’d been led to believe that the landlord just took exception, not that a member of the public made a complaint. The complainant’s description of their behaviour tallies with what my friend told me. She said that most people were indeed rolling their eyes and thinking ‘get a room’, but if someone complains then clearly that places pressure on the pub to do something, right?

Secondly, and crucially, you’ll see that both the complainant *and the guy who tweeted when ejected from the pub* acknowledge that they WERE asked to tone it down, and remained in the pub for at least an hour afterwards. If this was a case of bar staff taking offence to gay people, why on earth would they not just eject them immediately?!

Thirdly, in the original story the guys involved said they ‘refused’ a request to moderate their behaviour. They said they told the person who came over to ‘turn around instead’ and ‘took little notice’ and continued to kiss ‘not in a confrontational way, just on the mouth’. That’s a bit different from the version in this story, where they stopped, stayed for an hour and then were randomly ejected.

Fourthly, again originally they described their behaviour as nothing more than a ‘peck on the lips’. One of the SUPPORTIVE witnesses described it ‘full-on snogging, but not heavy petting’.

Next - no-one ever suggested that the John Snow had contacted police or requested police remove them. The police involvement (which only seems to appear in some versions of the story) was that when they were arguing with the landlady, a man in the pub identified himself as a police officer, showed a badge and said they had to leave if she asked them to.

Some other points - I’ve no doubt similar things have happened in other Sam Smiths pubs - because similar things happen in pubs across the country. The implication that there is some Sam Smith-wide policy on gay kissing is risible and an insult to all of our intelligence. There are several Sam Smiths pubs in Soho, myself and many other gay friends regularly frequent many of them without incident. And I have seen straight people being asked to leave pubs after kissing before (not Sam Smiths ones, but I’ve never witnessed anyone being ejected from one of them that I can recall.)

Yes, I do think the people involved should know best - but a) there are so many inconsistencies that it’s impossible for any of us to know exactly what happened, least of all those now trying to destroy the pub b) I don’t think just because someone believes they’ve been discriminated against, it means they have been. If you were asked to leave a pub for kissing, of COURSE you’d be angry and indignant, whatever sexuality you are. It doesn’t mean you were asked to leave because you were gay (and indeed gay people get ejected from gay pubs.)

Lastly, yes it’s odd that no-one from the pub has made a statement, but I don’t think this can be used as some damning evidence of guilt. Because really, it snowballed so quickly that if the pub stuck to their guns, said they weren’t homophobic and had every right to eject the pair, the people who turned up to the kiss-in (and countless others) would be demanding their blood. Perhaps an apology would have satisfied everyone, perhaps not, but maybe they don’t feel the need to apologise and are being stubborn. As for Sam Smith, I imagine they feel at arms length from the situation given their heavy presence in Soho without incident and the fact that the landlord makes the rules about who comes in and who stays, not them

7 June 2011
30 January 2012
16 May 2012

Believing What You See: Iran’s ‘Gay’ Hangings

Yesterday a report that four gay men in Iran were due to be executed for being gay went viral. I read the report, firstly in Pink News and then beyond, with some suspicion. The reports were vague, relying largely on responses from nameless sources and Western activists. Despite Pink News quoting two sources for the story, the latter source seemed to rely on the first. In fact, every single report of the story relied on ‘reports’ from something called the “Human Rights Activist News Agency”. Given that the vast majority of readers are going to be ignorant of this organisation (I certainly was) you would expect some context as to its reliability, but there was none. There was remarkably little variation in the reporting, suggesting no independent verification. From past experience, I thought it reasonable to assume that many of the writers of these reports had made no effort to verify the story or even ascertain further details. Indeed, it’s not the first time that there has been a horror story about gay executions in Iran - and it wouldn’t be the first time that such a horror story had spread across the world with little evidence behind it.

Today, a photo purporting to show the four men’s execution (EXPLICIT CONTENT) was widely shared on social media. Again, I was suspicious. If such an event had taken place with so many onlookers, surely we would be beyond relying on a single report? Surely we would have further details of the men aside from some names in inverted commas? The fact that people sharing the photo couldn’t even agree on which day it was taken further troubled me. So this evening I did some googling. I found this great article. You must read it but in short it argues that many Western gay activists (notably Peter Tatchell) are so eager for ‘gay victims’ that they completely abandon any attempts at objectivity or rationality. It goes on to examine the reports regarding the four men and finds them wanting, to say the least. Unlike, I imagine, pretty much all of those who disseminated the story, the writer actually attempts to find out further information from HRANA and fails.

I then noticed something else: the image purporting to show the men’s execution had ‘2008’ in its file name (at least on the site I first found it linked to this story). Finding that odd, I put the image into Tinyeye search, which aims to find other instances of any picture you input. And there it was - sites using the image in 2008. Notably, they give next to no details about it, observing only that it shows a public execution in ‘Borazjan 2008’.

That search literally took seconds. The fact that none of the hundreds, thousands of people who have shared it, including some professional journalists, noticed this is worrying to say the least.

However, what does it matter? Maybe there are four men as described and Iran certainly has demonstrable form in human rights abuses and executions, including against gays. It is undoubtedly a brutal regime.

The problem is that it was a brutal regime last week and it will be a brutal regime next week. As the image shows, it was a brutal regime in 2008 when it executed four men who are anonymous to the world, preserved forever in that grim image. Yet the issue was not that it’s a despotic regime, or that it uses capital punishment (something it shares, of course, with America). The issue was that it was killing people merely for being gay. That was what made so many suddenly take notice.

This raises troubling issues. Not least, it raises the issue of how easy it can be to manipulate people into believing a certain narrative about Iran - a narrative which, of course, aids the manipulation itself. Given the drumbeats of war sounding for Iran in many powerful quarters, it’s not difficult to imagine how dangerous this could be. I saw many comments, mostly on American sites, demanding that ‘we’ bomb Iran. Some had a tone of ‘alright, now I’m in’, suggesting that previously they had not been eager to support a war but had been convinced by this barbarity. Given the lies and manipulation which led us into the Iraq war, you would surely expect us to be more wary of these emotional responses and, moreso, of whatever information led us to them? There has been a steady drip of stories about Iran’s barbarity over the past year or so - the fact that they so neatly serve powerful interests should put us on guard. It’s a sinister insight into how the softening of public opinion for an attack on Iran could happen (if it’s not happening already).

The very interesting thing is that many of the stories have concerned totemic liberal values such as gay rights and women’s rights. The ‘everyday’ oppression in Iran rarely inspires much ire - it’s these issues which get people worked up. It’s reminiscent of when we have been encouraged to support war in Iraq and Afghanistan on the grounds that it would improve the lot of women. You don’t have to spend long reading about either conflict to see that these claims are, at best, problematic.

The response also reminded me of the response to the murder of Stuart Walker in Scotland last year. There was another case where liberal-minded and I’m sure well-intentioned people rushed to judgement based on little information. That case also quickly went viral with many expressions of disgust and demands that something be done. Within hours, however, it became clear that the case was far more complex and Stuart’s sexuality might not have played a part in his death. As quickly as the outrage and concern arose, it vanished. I didn’t see a single person correct themselves or even admit that they might have got it wrong. Everyone moved on and I sincerely doubt that even 1% of the people who wrote about it have any idea of, or even interest in, what happened in Stuart Walker’s case since.

As with Stuart, we know absolutely nothing about these four Iranian men (assuming the case is real). They have immediately become ‘four gay men’ and that is the extent of their identity. The problem with that is that it becomes the extent of their usefulness. If it transpires that they were executed for, say, rape, the outrage and concern vanishes, people move on, no-one spends any time thinking about why they were so quick to get it wrong. As the Paper Bird piece argues, they are useful ‘gay victims’ for advancing certain agendas and world views and nothing else matters:

But don’t you see?  Marking them “gay” means they are not “innocent,” not in the Iranian judiciary’s eyes. You know nothing about these four men, nothing at all. But you’re still content to call them names that convict them. What gave you that right?

The truly sad thing is that someone, somewhere, deliberately decided to deceive in finding the 2008 photo and linking it to this story. The fact that this deception has so easily and so quickly spread around the world only serves to obscure the real brutalities of the Iranian regime; it serves to bolster the idea that the West will stop at nothing to discredit Iran and so strengthens the regime. More immediately, of course, it serves to obscure the reality surrounding the four men or, if they do not exist, others like them. Others like, in fact, the men in the 2008 photograph.

9 October 2012

'Gay Shame'

Matthew Todd has written another piece about ‘gay shame’ and the emotional damage which internalised homophobia inflicts on the gay psyche. It’s been a favoured subject for many since the publication of 'The Velvet Rage', the tagline of which - ‘Overcoming the pain of growing up gay in a straight man’s world’ - makes its thesis clear. It’s worth noting, however, that while it claims to ‘draw on contemporary research’, the book is not a peer-reviewed publication with the scientific rigour that entails. It is also written by a commercially-operating psychologist who has, it’s fair to say, a financial interest in his thesis. This review suggests the ‘evidence’ cited in the book consists of five items and that instead the argument rests almost entirely on anecdotes. It’s worth reading the review as it highlights several big criticisms of the book that I won’t go into here.

As I work daily with medical research depositaries, I have previously spent some time looking at the research into the mental health of (mostly) gay men. There isn’t much out there and it’s contradictory, to say the least. Only this week a peer-reviewed study has been published which suggests that gay men are more likely (than straight men) to seek help for psychological issues but are actually less likely to experience distress. This greater tendency to seek help could explain the over-representation of gay men with diagnoses of mental health issues. Now, as the linked blog makes clear, this study is problematic and far from conclusive - but interesting nonetheless. What I found particularly interesting were the responses in the comments: “Ask any Iranian homosexual hanging from a crane”, the author is told. Someone else suggests that “gay men have lower sexual frustration and this may cause increased happiness”. The response, the recourse, tends to be anecdotal and stereotypical rather than factual.

This study suggests that lesbians have “equally strong levels of mental health as their heterosexual sisters and higher self-esteem” and that gay/lesbian youth are only “slightly more likely” than heterosexuals to attempt suicide. This one initially seems to clearly suggest that gay and lesbian people suffer worse mental health. Hidden in the body of the text, however, the authors acknowledge that it could be the case that gay people are simply more likely to seek help. They offer a further possibility - that the lifestyles of gay people make them more susceptible to mental health problems, rather than underlying mental health problems leading them to certain lifestyles. This study again suggests that LGB people are at greater risk of mental health issues but states that the nature of the research makes it nigh impossible to ascertain why that is, resorting to guessing what is ‘likely’.

The full report of Michael King’s UCL study is available online and it makes for interesting reading. The media (particularly the gay media) universally presented it as showing that LGBT people suffered disproportionately from mental health problems. Yet it is full of interesting and contradictory findings. For example:

Violence and bullying in adult life, for whatever reason, were more commonly reported by lesbians than heterosexual women, but there were few differences on these factors between gay and heterosexual men. However, regardless of the prevalence of such events, gay men and lesbians often attributed the harassment or violence to their sexuality. Lesbians were no more likely than bisexual women to have been verbally assaulted but were more likely to attribute such verbal assaults they received to their sexuality.

Firstly, the suggestion that lesbians experience more violence than straight women, yet gay men are no more likely to experience it than straight men, runs contrary to the predominant narrative that gay men are the primary victims. Secondly, the finding that those who identify as gay or lesbian are far more likely (even than bisexuals) to attribute harassment to their sexuality seems that it could be of huge importance. If we take the ‘fact’ that men of whatever sexuality seem as likely as each other to experience violence yet gay men are far more likely to attribute this to their sexuality, questions clearly arise regarding this attribution. What motivates violence against straight men and why does this seemingly not similarly motivate violence against other men, for example? We see a similar possibility here:

Among men, bullying at school was reported no more often by gay than heterosexual men, but those gay men who had been bullied regarded their sexual orientation as the main provocation.

The report also raises interesting questions about bisexuality, given that reports of discrimination almost always fixate on homosexuality. It reads:

Bisexual men also reported more psychological distress than gay men. On all other measures of psychological or social wellbeing, however, there were no differences between gay and bisexual men or between lesbians and bisexual women

It found that bisexual people were less likely to be comfortable with their sexuality and less likely to be open about it. The reasons for this could be many - including the anecdotal distrust and mocking of bisexuality frequently found in the gay community. This puts quite a different spin on things than ‘LGBT people are the victims of homophobic society’.

It seems clear that it’s far from a straightforward issue, yet publications continue to unquestioningly print pieces like Matthew Todd’s. I think it’s easy to understand why - they just feel right. The Guardian may have a column dedicated to pulling apart questionable science but when it comes to identity politics, they’re happy to have their tummies tickled.

There is a further layer of complexity here. If we accept that gay men do indeed suffer disproportionately from mental health problems, it’s still an extra leap to then lay the blame for this entirely at the door of people like Ann Widdecombe or Lord Carey. Perhaps their words impact on young people or those struggling with their sexuality, and they certainly aren’t worth defending. However it seems to me that their increasingly hysterical rants are taken seriously by almost no-one beyond two groups - the minority who agree with them, and the minority who are fixated on the idea that the problems of gay people can largely be blamed on responses to their sexuality. Certainly it would be churlish to deny that most Western countries have improved immensely with regards to homophobia in recent decades - I think the almost-universal condemnation of Lord Carey’s remarks underline this. While it’s still unquestionably important to disagree with these people, it is also increasingly easy to do so. What is more difficult is to look at ourselves. I wrote only last week about the objectification and sexualisation which is commonly accepted in the gay media. It seems common sense to argue that homophobia causes mental health problems. It also seems common sense to suggest that the constant images of naked men found in magazines like GT and Attitude (which Matthew Todd edits), with their bodies airbrushed to absurdity, could cause mental health problems. Furthermore these magazines are heavily consumerist, presenting page after page of expensive clothing, holidays, gadgets, cars etc which are well beyond the reach of most people (whatever their sexuality). We already know as fact that comparisons with perceived peers cause feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. What’s more, these traits of the gay media - objectification, sexualisation, commodification - are more widely found in the gay community (something I looked at here).

It’s easy - far too easy - to believe that our problems stem from our sexuality and what we perceive society’s response to it to be. Even when you have your own magazine and newspaper column to say so. There are undoubtedly some out there who make a living from this reductive approach to their identity. Yet it’s a no-brainer that if you seek out homophobia, you will find it. If you want to believe that you are a besieged minority, you will believe it no matter what. It’s a simple narrative, one which makes sense and one which divests us of all personal responsibility for our lives. What is more difficult is to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves, our peers and to recognise the many aspects in which we are nothing out of the ordinary. As I’ve argued previously, engaging with these issues means getting past the idea that that thing which makes you a ‘minority’ is the defining characteristic of your entire being, everything you do and everything that happens to you, demanding that everyone around you recognise and understand this and then responding with fury if they do it ‘negatively’. This means appreciating that sure, a gay man with mental health problems may have them (entirely or in part) because of issues with his sexuality. However it’s not necessarily the case; it’s also not necessarily the case that if he blames homophobia for them, then it is certainly to blame. These problems are complex. Just like our identities.

30 October 2012

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. 

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh