The New Story Of Our Times (I’ve Got It!)

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? No, silly, it’s The New Story. From the mossy groves of land-based communities, the chthonic myths of oral storytellers, and the fiery determination of eco-activists, it is a story being pieced together sentence by sentence. Add to it the translated wisdom of many an indigenous community, throw in James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and thank God that Earth (with a capital ‘e’) is a woman, and the sentences become paragraphs. Take the darkness and light of our souls, some lentils and the pleas for a less-populated world (with multiple options on how we de-populate our world), and the chapters gather until The New Story is at our fingertips. A story in which humanity lives sustainably and peacefully on Planet Earth.

Wow, this sounds like a great story and it’s one I’ve been keen to be a part of. I’ve done personal development courses in sustainable(ish) communities, I’ve fasted in a Welsh valley, I’ve signed online petitions to save the planet, and I’ve written many a poem about our deep connection to nature. For a long time I believed in this story, I saw Ecotopia on the horizon and I ran towards it (barefoot, naturally). I wanted to be part of the story, admiring of its prophets, and desiring of a world of so much more than this. Until a young gay man I briefly knew who also loved these stories took his own life. Until I realised that within the discussions of the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine there was no space for other genders – transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, questioning and beyond. Until I found the relentless sexism despite these discussions of “divine” masculinity and femininity. Until it became achingly clear how white these spaces were. Until I realised that it’s one thing to talk about (and laud) diversity of animal and plant species and quite something else to talk about diversities of gender, race, ability, class and sexuality. Yes, I was naive but I did my best to question the systems I was part of (just as the purveyors of the New Story told me to question the systems of the Old Story). It started to seem that the so-called New Story actually contained a lot of the Old Story – y’know, that one of patriarchy, power, oppression and abuse.

So I’ve come to be sceptical of anyone peddling The New Story because just as monocultures deplete earth of nutrients so monostories deplete people of their diversities. I don’t think a single story can save us (and maybe I’m being unfair to suggest that anyone is actually suggesting this) but I do think the more we gather as people with our many, many stories to hand, the more likely we’ll be able to face the monsters that really are coming over the hill. Of course I want a more sustainable and loving world and, of course, stories will inspire this change but we also need more than narratives with convenient beginnings, middles and ends, because life is so much more than a story.

Books, Pages, Story, Stories, Notes, Reminder, Remember

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Not Canaries In The Coal Mine But Cats

Trump is still President. Johnson is Prime Minister. The UK’s in another “record-breaking” heat wave. Mussels are being cooked in their shells on the beaches of northern California (and not by chefs). Brexit is Brexit (apparently). And now the trailer for the Cats film has been released and it’s awful. I’m no Cats fan and the musical didn’t do much for my youth but I respect my friends for whom it revolutionised their lives. They deserve better than human faces badly copied and pasted onto the bodies of real people (I mean, why not just cast good singer-dancers to play the roles, y’know, like in the musical?) set in some oddly dystopic and weirdly proportioned doll house. But the odd thing is that the rise of the demagogues and the rise of global temperatures are inextricably linked to this awful film. It would seem the canaries in the coal mine have been eaten by the cats.

For decades now Hollywood has been churning out countless remakes, reboots and cookie-cutter blockbusters for the sake of making a quick buck. The MCU Universe is now almost as big as the actual universe, the Bond franchise staggers predictably onwards and Ridley Scott foolishly decided to spray the Alien series with acid blood. It was only a matter of time before the corporate-consumer capitalism machine chewed up those alley cats and spat them back out via some grim production line. Screw originality when you can make money. Meanwhile, mainstream politics and economics offer more of the same and worse. Patriarchy’s abhorrent behaviour is lauded and venerated as proud racists and sexists take over positions of extreme power as that age-old and highly unoriginal story of greed and oppression continues to play itself out towards its dystopic conclusions. The mainstream is categorically failing to offer us anything original. Instead we get Cats.

Another Badly Drawn Gay: Love, Simon

I hate to be that blogger who comes for the friendly, gay-guy-next-door protagonist of cutesy Hollywood coming out film Love, Simon…but, fuck it, I’m gonna be that blogger. Not because the actor Nick Robinson doesn’t act his socks off as the lead role, Simon Spier, but because so much of the story and his characterisation is problematic. To catch you up on the plot, in case you missed it, Simon is gay but hasn’t told anyone, he starts up an anonymous online conversation with another gay guy called “Blue” and spends most of the film wondering who this other guy could be. En route to the reveal he dates his female best friend and really upsets her, behaves pretty questionably towards his other friends, chats with his parents a bit and, come the finale, discovers who Blue really is (then makes out with him on a Ferris wheel, cute right). In essence, it’s your classic coming out coming of age story as Simon is very worried about telling the world who he really is. He imagines it in all sorts of way, like in this fantasy, dance sequence…

What a lovely scene, right? Well, no. Because listen again to that penultimate line: “yeah, maybe not that gay.” Not that gay. What on earth is that supposed to mean? That there is spectrum of gayness and if you wear a grey t-shirt, dance quite badly and quietly have sex with your boyfriend off-screen then that’s fine. Whereas if you wear tight-fitting pink jeans, fly a rainbow flag and flounce with a limp wrist then that’s too much. Nope. There isn’t actually a spectrum of gayness but there is homophobia, lots of it, and it regularly gets internalised by gay men who grow up shamed, bullied and depressed. Simon will have experienced this homophobia and a drastic lack of support in claiming his identity and even if he never encounters verbalised or physicalised homophobia simply living in a heteronormative society will have crushed a part of his soul (I speak from experience). Hence, Simon worries about being that gay, when really I dream for him to be as flipping gay as he wants, but that’s too much for a mainstream Hollywood movie. This point is compounded when secondary character, Ethan, who is visibly queer, out, has dark skin, wears flamboyant clothing and is camp as Christmas gets bullied at school. Simon looks over and, rather than run to Ethan’s defence, instead turns to his friend and says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so easy for them.” Oh, Simon, you have a lifetime of self-loathing to unravel and it ain’t going to get solved by kissing some guy at a funfair. In this instance, internalised homophobia is being turned on another gay man even though their shared sexuality could be a reason to bond and support one another. For more on Ethan and why he is the REAL hero of the film read this epic article by Naveen Kumar.

It concerns me that Love, Simon did so well as a movie. It won all sorts of prizes and accolades (and even got described as “groundbreaking”) even though its presentation of male homosexuality is so problematic. Which makes me wonder if the film is really for gay, white, cis men or actually just for straight people with less awareness and lower expectations. I mean, it got called the “queer Cinderella story of our time” but given my definition of queerness involves intersectionality and challenging heteronormativity, then Love, Simon is just kinda straight. And it’s a coming out story. Just that. We’ve had a gazillion coming out stories and they’re getting quite dull – I want to know how to live beyond coming out, when the people you’ve come out to have forgotten, or you have to come out again to new people, or how to make a long-term relationship work, or how to deal with having your identity regularly invalidated and/or threatened, and that moment when you realise heteronormativity and systemic homophobia is grinding your soul and community into dust (I speak from experience). I basically want to know what happens to Simon when all that internalised homophobia finally catches up with him (I bloody hope his straight friends are around to support him through that) and how he finds a happily ever after beyond.

If Your Climate Movement Ain’t Queer, I Ain’t Coming

As I am increasingly becoming aware sexuality and gender are often treated as adjuncts to the rest of life. They are acknowledged (sometimes) but often left to happen in their own private spheres away from other issues and concerns. This means LGBTQ+ folks have to deal with their stuff on their own, if they’re fortunate to be able to deal with it at all. Having done this (or constantly being in the process of doing this) they can then join the latest climate movement campaigning to save the planet. They’ll bring their glitter and their brilliance, their fierceness and their compassion, and their years of resilience in the face of hostility and indifference, and make that climate movement even more fantastic. Sadly, what is much more rare is that the climate movement is already inherently queer and welcoming of queerness. More often than not straight and cis folks just don’t know how to invite queer people into a space beyond the “it would be so lovely to have some gay people here” diversity box ticking sort of approach. Or they spend a lot of time talking about biodiversity but don’t really know how to talk about or represent diversity. And I want to see this change because climate change is queer.

Climate change is queer because many of the marginalised groups who are facing and will face the brunt of climate change are queer. Take the disproportionate number of homeless people who are LGBTQ+, in the US this counts for 40% of homeless youth even though they represent only 7% of the overall population. So many LGBTQ+ people are thrown out of their homes and forced into poverty and extremes of climate will only make their experiences worse. Climate change is queer because if we’re talking about extinction it’s important to remember that LBGTQ+ people have faced extinction before: the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the AIDS plague of the 1980s, and in every law around the world that marginalises, criminalises and/or sentences them to death. Climate change is queer because some of the movements that fought back against these extinctions, including ACT UP, tried brilliantly (but not always successfully) to build beautiful, resilient, rebellious and loving communities who could face the injustices of the world and live well together. Climate change is queer because queers know how to organise!

Climate change is queer because queer is intersectional and climate change affects the world intersectionally. For example, “race is the biggest indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste.” Furthermore, it might be valiant to be arrested in protest against government inertia in the face of climate change but privilege, especially of race and class, will affect how one might experience a prison system. That’s not to say don’t get arrested for your cause but it is to say there is a pressing need to discuss privilege and intersectionality (sorry Extinction Rebellion but prison ain’t a yoga retreat). Climate change is queer because queer recognises history. The ecocidal oil & gas companies of today have their bloody roots in the rampant globalisation of neoliberal capitalism, itself made possible by the mass production birthed in the factories of the industrial revolution, itself a product of the genocidal slave trade and mass colonisation of the world by European countries, especially the UK, themselves inspired by the countries that attacked and enslaved them many centuries before. Climate change is queer because these problems have further roots in patriarchy. How a system of toxic masculinity and violent bifurcation has bred such a destructive array of gender norms: ones that see the trans community routinely attacked and ridiculed, ones that see the glorification and protection of rape culture, ones that see so many people live in fear of their own lives simply for who they fall in love with. Climate change is queer because I think the ways we’re destroying the earth are reflected in the many ways in which we’re destroying ourselves and this goes right to the heart of our very identities. We’ll need to do some serious soul searching beyond the binaries, norms and conditionings, to find the souls so many of us have lost.

Climate change is queer because I shouldn’t have to write a flipping blog post ‘justifying’ why climate change is queer just to get you to think about something that is already well documented: that queers exist and matter. In essence, climate change is queer but I’m not sure how many people acknowledge this (or even care). Don’t get me wrong, I do want to join your climate movement and I think much of it is fab. Like you, I care passionately about this planet but I want you to care passionately about queerness and intersectionality otherwise I won’t feel welcome. And if the movement isn’t welcoming of me and my queerness then what’s the fucking point?

This is me in a rainbow by a waterfall, pretty queer, huh!

Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostracised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.

Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).

The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.

It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.

 

Is There A Cure For The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness?

There are a lot of bleak articles out there about the state of gay men in society. One that’s a particulary tough read is Michael Hobbes’ article titled The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness in HuffPost, March 2017. It is incredibly well researched and lays out bare what is often not discussed: why so many gay men are unhappy, alone and depressed. Rather than blaming gay men, as so many are want to do, it looks at external societal factors that cause huge harm such as prejudice, violence and shaming, as well as how these factors can become internalised as, for example, low self-esteem, shame and self-loathing. It explores the ways gay men respond to these factors such as becoming lost in addictions, living in denial and, most sadly of all, taking their own lives. It talks of the closet and how we’re not free of it even when we’re out and the effects of minority stress. For me, I find it both useful and overwhelming to be able to locate some of my own experiences in this bleak analysis and, as well as being better equipped to talk about the problem, I do desperately want to find solutions.

Often the solution can lie in the problem itself. Thus, an epidemic of loneliness might call for an abudance of connection. Furthermore, loneliness has various definitions including “sadness because one has no friends or company” and, when describing a place, “the quality of being unfrequented and remote; isolation.” So it seems if we are to ‘cure’ loneliness we need to connect with one another and do it regularly enough. Of course, how we connect is very important and while meeting on the dancefloor or via Grindr are important ways of connecting so there are many others. One place I love to connect is above Cafe Babka opposite the British Museum in London once a week on Sunday morning. There, a circle of gay men meet and, led by a facilitator, we meditate, we explore different aspects of our personalities and we grow skills for surviving and thriving in the world. This is the Remarkable Men Soulful Sundays Meetup event that is part of the larger organisation called The Quest, “an exceptional resource for gay men to explore and better understand the complexities, joys, challenges, frustrations, thinking and emotions involved with being a gay man in today’s world.”

This is just one of many ways to connect with other gay men. A quick google will reveal all sorts of other groups such as ones who like to go bouldering, row, play boardgames, have brunch and/or go to the movies. Of course, even getting to a group can be hard enough for so many different reasons – mental & physical health, dis/ability, nervousness, shame and a host of other factors. And these things need to be catered for and will be so long as we keep trying to connect. Grassroots community is a vital thread in the fabric of the LGBT+ community, especially as cuts and austerity imposed by successive Conservative governments have undermined the safety of civil society. So, yes, there is a cure for the epidemic of gay loneliness but it’s certainly no magic pill. It will take time, work and much effort, but it will be worth it.

Eradicating Ecocide With Polly Higgins

It was the autumn of 2010 and I was on a bus from London to Oxford for the Oxford Climate Forum. In my hand was a short article I’d cut out of the New Internationalist about barrister-turned-eco-warrior, Polly Higgins, who wanted to have the large-scale destruction of the environment – termed ecocide – recognised as the fifth crime against peace in the UN. In essence, she wanted to make it illegal to trash the planet. I thought it was an interesting idea but perhaps a little ambitious. Anyway, the bus got to Oxford and I got myself to the Oxford Union debating chamber and listened to quite a large array of older white men drone on about different aspects of climate change. Then in walks a woman with wondrous salt and pepper hair and a beautiful Scottish accent. I sat up straighter and listened to her describe a world without ecocide and how we can make it happen – it’s actually quite simple. Suffice to say by the end of Polly’s talk my curious scepticism had given way to excitable hope. After the talks I went up to her and thanked her for speaking and I said how great it was to have a woman talk at the event and she smiled and said thank you.

That was the first time I met Polly and it wouldn’t be the last. Later that year I’d head to the South Bank Centre to hear her talk again and I’d ask her to sign the copy of her book I’d bought. She wrote, “here’s to making it happen”, and I told her I’d like to help, so she wrote her email address in the book as well. This is a long story, too long for a post, but one thing led to another and I became her Campaign Director for half a year and, thanks to Polly, I was whisked away on a number of adventures. One highlight was being asked to attend a talk given by Vanessa Redgrave, which Polly couldn’t make. What I hadn’t been told was that after her talk I’d be asked to go up on stage and share a panel with her. My face paled, my armpits began to sweat, and for the next thirty minutes I had to pretend I was meant to be there.

There are so many stories I could share about Polly – about how lost I felt when I stopped working for her, about how our friendship would last through the years, about the time she leant me her dress at her Delightfully Decadent birthday party, about her endless kindness and enthusiasm. I loved Polly dearly and it broke my heart when she passed away on Easter Sunday this year from cancer. She was a legend in life and she will be one in death. But as I finish this post what I really want to share is how all those years ago when I was a 22 year-old fresh out of uni without much of a clue what was going to happen next, Polly gave me direction. She also gave me permission – permission to dream as big as possible and to change the world. And today, as I write scripts, stories and run workshops I still dream big and I still want to the change world. Because life is incredibly short and whilst I do understand there’s so much more to changing the world than dreams, I also know that for those of us with the privilege and the power to make a difference it’s a very good idea to dream as big as we can. I still want ecocide to be recognised as an international crime and thanks to Polly’s work and the ongoing work of her team we are that bit closer. So please sign up to become an Earth Protector and please keep dreaming big.

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