Thursday, 14 January 2010

Why a queer radicalism remains a neccesity

Last month, Johann Hari interviewed Gordon Brown for Attitude. Commenting on the interview in yesterday's Independent, in relation to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's pledges on gay rights, Hari makes the following argument;
Under the current Labour Government, there has been a stunning sweep of progress for gay people – with civil partnerships, an end to Section 28, and openly gay people in the Army and the Government. The culture of Britain has been changed forever, and for the better.

Yet when I interviewed Gordon Brown for Attitude last month, it became clear that – although he is genuinely proud of these advances, and eloquent in their defence – the internal pressure for further improvements has leaked away. He had few ideas for how to carry on beating back irrational prejudice against gay people.
He contrasts this complacency with Clegg's "striking passion" about "the few areas left where gay people are still unequal under the law. He also offers a challenge to Tory leader David Cameron to "support the Liberal Democrats' bold programme to make Britain a genuinely equal country."

Genuine equality is a prerequisite to genuine liberty. A society in which inherent privilege exists, or in which people's worth is determined by identity rather than ability, is one in which freedom cannot be universal. As such, there is little to fault this idea on the surface. However, something doesn't sit right with the idea that - once civil partnership is called marriage, homosexuals can give blood, and schools have anti-homophobia policies - Britain will be "genuinely equal."

The point is best articulated by Jane Kaufman and Katie Miles at the blog Queer Kids of Queer Parents Against Gay Marriage! Though written from an American perspective, it sums up well my own thoughts on the matter here;
It’s hard for us to believe what we’re hearing these days. Thousands are losing their homes, and gays want a day named after Harvey Milk. The U.S. military is continuing its path of destruction, and gays want to be allowed to fight. Cops are still killing unarmed black men and bashing queers, and gays want more policing. More and more Americans are suffering and dying because they can’t get decent health care, and gays want weddings. What happened to us? Where have our communities gone? Did gays really sell out that easily?
Kaufman and Miles "reject the liberal gay agenda that gives top priority to the fight for marriage equality," arguing that "the queer families and communities we are proud to have been raised in are nothing like the ones transformed by marriage equality." This agenda, they claim, "fractures our communities, pits us against natural allies, supports unequal power structures, obscures urgent queer concerns, abandons struggle for mutual sustainability inside queer communities and disregards our awesomely fabulous queer history."

Before I press further, I should point out that the argument I am making does not amount to a rejection of these "gay rights" issues. As far as I'm concerned, people should be free to engage in consensual relationships in any way they see fit. In Kaufman and Miles's words, "we believe in each individual and family’s right to live their queer identity however they find meaningful or necessary, including when that means getting married," though monogamous relationships and marriage should not be seen as "any more inherently valuable or legitimate than the many other family structures."

Likewise, Clegg's proposals on tackling the institutional homophobia of the schoolyard should be met with the utmost urgency. My only gripe here would be that the neccesary education should be enacted immediately through community engagement and activism, for both children and their parents, rather than hanging upon the say-so of the state. Challenging prejudice and bigotry is a duty for us all, and we outsource it to those in power at our peril.

The argument against the ban on queers giving blood is summed up with appropriate passion by Hari here, and by Peter Tatchell here.

However, the argument against "the liberal gay agenda" still needs to be made. Specifically, the argument against using focus on these issues as a way of distracting people - particularly queer people - from broader concerns. Though written from an American perspective, the following examples again translate perfectly to a British backdrop;
The photographs circulated after San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2004 decision to marry gay couples at City Hall show men exchanging rings with young children strapped to their chests and toddlers holding their moms’ hands as city officials lead them through vows.  As Newsom runs for governor these images of children and their newly married gay parents travel with him, supposedly expressing how deeply Newsom cares about families: keeping them together, ensuring their safety, meeting their needs.  These photos, however, obscure very real aspects of his political record that have torn families apart: his disregard for affordable housing, his attacks on welfare, his support for increased policing and incarceration that separate parents from children and his new practice of deporting minors accused – not convicted – of crimes.  As young people with queer parents we are not proud of the “family values” politic put forth by these images and the marriage equality campaign.
Compare, as a case in point, New Labour's supposedly "stunning sweep of progress for gay people" with their appalling record on gay asylum seekers [1, 2, 3, 4]. The number of gay Muslims rendered homeless by family prejudice and the number of gay teenagers rendered homeless through prejudice and domestic violence, speak of societal problems untouched by those concerned only with marriage, adoption, and potentially "offensive" rap lyrics.

To their credit, both Tatchell and Hari recognise this problem and are not afraid to speak out about it. Hari's rejection of camp and the stereotypical TV gay are powerful arguments against accepting "tolerance" over genuine equality, and Tatchell's support of free speech even for the virulently bigotted is a blow against the idea of LGBT being just another cause-celebré for metropolitan liberals. However, as Hari himself notes, they are outnumbered in popular culture;
In a camp world, it doesn't matter what you do so long as you do it with style. This explains the camp man's admiration (and staggering willingness to vote for) Margaret Thatcher. Sure, she introduced the most explicitly homophobic piece of legislation in decades with Section 28, but, darling, did you see her boots?

The moral emptiness of the Queer Eye mentality is summarised in Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windemere's Fan, when a character says, "It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." This way of thinking is a key factor in the current gay scene, drained of solidarity with the gay people who are viciously oppressed across the world. That's all terribly earnest, dear; we'd rather talk about Kylie's latest frock. Irony and narcissism have captured and crippled gay politics.

Beyond Queer Eye, the truth about gay people - as we finally shuffle past the twitching, ball-gowned corpse of camp - must be dull, dull, dull. In reality, we are not gifted stylists and geniuses with eye-liner. We are just as likely to be mediocre - or brilliant - as our straight brothers.

Being welcomed as performing chimps for the straight folks does not mean we've won the battle for cultural acceptance. No, it will come when we are (rightly) seen to be as boring and lacking in style as everybody else.
For activists and radicals, there is further cause for concern with the desire of the liberal LGBT movement to be "accepted" by and "fit-in" with mainstream society. Returning again to Kaufman and Miles;
We’re seeing the marriage equality agenda turn its back on a tradition of queer activism that began with Stonewall and other fierce queer revolts and that continued through the AIDS crisis.  Equality California keeps on sending us videos of big, happy, gay families, and they’re making us sick: gay parents pushing kids on swings, gay parents making their kids’ lunches, the whole gay family safe inside the walls of their own homes. Wait a second, is it true?  It’s as if they’ve found some sort of magical formula: once you have children, your life instantly transforms into a scene of domestic bliss, straight out of a 1950’s movie. The message is clear. Instead of dancing, instead of having casual sex, instead of rioting, all of the “responsible” gays have gone and had children. And now that they’ve had children, they won’t be bothering you at all anymore. There’s an implicit promise that once gays get their rights, they’ll disappear again. Once they can be at home with the kids, there’s no reason for them to be political, after all!

Listening to this promise, we’re a bit stunned. Whoever said domesticity wasn’t political? Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the feminists taught us that the personal is political? That cooking, cleaning, raising children and putting in countless hours of physical, emotional, and intellectual labor should not mean withdrawing from the public sphere or surrendering your political voice? After all, we were raised by queers who created domestic lives that were always politically engaged, who raised kids and raised hell at the same time. What makes Equality California think that an official marriage certificate is going to make us any less loud and queer? Oh wait. We remember. It’s that sneaky thing about late liberal capitalism: its promise of formal rights over real restructuring, of citizenship for those who can participate in the state’s economic plan over economic justice for all. Once you have your formal rights (like a marriage license), you can participate in the market economy and no longer need a political voice. Looking around at the world we live in, we’re unconvinced.
Here in Britain, we should be unconvinced as well. Reforms are, of course, vital to improving the situation that people face in the present, but we should be under no illusions that the problems of this world can be legislated away. As direct-action group the Radical Homosexual Agenda point out, "the queer liberation groups of the 60s and 70s ... were anti-war, they fought for economic rights and agitated for free speech and a greater vision of democracy." By "downsizing" their dreams, "mainstream LGBTQ groups have forgotten these connections" and have allowed themselves to be contained and neutralised under the auspices of tolerance.

It is time that queer people realised this and started agitating once more.