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!
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Fantastic Activists & Where To Find Them

I’m a writer. There’s nothing I find more satisfying than weaving a narrative together with the aim of taking an audience on a well-plotted adventure. I like sharing these skills in workshops and inspiring people’s creativity. In essence, I like using my imagination and encouraging others to do so as well. The fifteen activists recently convicted of “intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome” are also asking us to use our imagination. As their peaceful act of protest has been twisted, by the Crown Prosecution Service, into a would-be act of terror, so the Stanstead 15 call on us to imagine a world without deportation flights, detention centres and borders.

End Deportations is a campaign working to stop the Home Office’s “racist, violent [and] calculatedly cruel” practice of “rounding people up by their perceived nationality, detaining them, and using violent force to transport them to another country in secrecy.” Mass deportations are inhumane and immoral, and that was one of the reasons why the Stanstead 15 put their lives on the line to stop a deportation flight. The phrase “illegal immigrant” is often used by the press to incite all sorts of stereotypes and fears, especially during a time when rising nationalism is used to justify oppression and violence. But the world we are being asked to imagine is one where no human is illegal. A world where everyone is welcome everywhere. A world without borders.

It’s a big ask for our imagination – to picture a world so different to our own. One where nation states don’t go head to head in endless resource and military wars but where peoples of all countries can work together to ensure we all thrive within the ecosystems of earth. Whether we can imagine such a world depends on our imagination. Because it’s highly likely that our mind, like the world, is a heavily bordered realm full of beliefs and prejudices we might never have thought to question. We might hold certain views about groups of people, aka stereotypes, and we might hold certain limiting beliefs of ourselves. A bordered imagination can only yield bordered imaginings. In their act of defiance in the face of an inhumane system of deportation the Stanstead 15 are showing us a different world, one where all are welcome. In turn, we can learn from their actions and apply these lessons to our own lives. We can begin the work of removing the borders of our minds, so our imaginative energy can be given what so many of us crave: freedom.

End Deportations

Every Gay Needs An SBF – Straight Best Friend

You’re walking down the street and someone calls you a faggot. You’re hanging out with friends and someone says how butch all lesbians are. You’ve just been misgendered again. You really want to say something, to challenge this rubbish, but you’re exhausted from doing this on a day-to-day basis. So you decide to stay quiet and let it slide. You expect an awkward silence but much to your surprise someone else speaks up. They yell “homophobe” at the person that just called you a faggot. They tell your friends that lesbian women are not reducible to their appearance and can look however the hell they want to. They correct the misgendering. You’re smiling now because what you might have said has been said by someone else. And who is this mysterious super hero? Why, they’re your SBF – Straight Best Friend.

I have an SBF and they’re just fab. While they do have quite an average dress sense and aren’t particularly funny (typical SBF, right!?) I know they’ve got my back. I know they’ll listen to me on my off days (and my on days) and make space for my unique lived experience as a gay man (and queer genderqueer). They’ll listen to my joy or pain and acknowledge them, so I know I’ve been heard. They celebrate my successes and hug me when I cry. Sure, their favourite colour is beige and they eat too much bread but around them I feel safe, supported and understood. But my SBF is even better than this because they’ve realised that all these things are basically just what friends do for one another, whoever they are, and they know I’ll do all these things for them too. Instead, my SBF has done even more.

My SBF has googled how to be a Straight Ally and gone to the Stonewall website to read up on how to Come Out For LGBT. They’ve even downloaded and printed the Amnesty International Ally Toolkit and shared it with their colleagues at work (they used the work printer for this). They’ve done their research and recognise that things aren’t “fine” just because gay people can get married and there are gay characters in Hollyoaks. They can see the queer community is being overburdened with the task of having to look after itself – providing ad-hoc therapy, social support and care for those who have suffered from austerity, the cuts to vital support services and continuing prejudice. They know that nine-year-old Jamel Myles from Colorado recently took his own life four days after having come out as gay at school and being bullied for it. They know that Jamel was one of the heroes of the LGBT+ community who was never allowed to live his whole life. So they sign All Out petitions, promote inclusion for LGBT+ folks and make visible their allyship. If there’s something they’re confused about they ask me questions and they give me space to answer or not because they know it’s not just the task of queer people to educate on queer issues. Furthermore, my SBF knows that when I do talk about queer issues I don’t do it to exclude other issues because I know, as does my SBF, that the future is intersectional. They liked my previous post on my experiences of loneliness as a gay man and shared it with other gay men they know. Except they didn’t leave it at that, they checked in with those gay friends and offered some emotional support. They even invited them round for dinner and are now planning a lunch with a bunch of other queer and out ally friends. Because my SBF is a bit of a community builder and knows that the just, equal future of our dreams requires straights and the LGBT+ community coming together.

Now, I can’t lie, my SBF and I have had a fair few rows and bust ups. And sometimes it’s because they got it wrong and said or did something that was just really stupid. Other times it was me, expecting too much from them and getting angry as a result. But we’ve worked through these times, sharing our vulnerabilities, exploring our stories and rising strong (yup, we’ve read a lot of Brené Brown). We have learned how to support one another and our friendship is so much the stronger for it. We know it can be hard but we know it’s worth it. Because in a world of such prejudice it’s not easy being out – as a queer person or as an ally – but we’ve decided to do it to ensure it’s not just the loud and violent voices that get heard and in the hope that kids like Jamel Myles will be able to live full and happy lives. Together, my SBF and I have proved that just as men have a vital role to play in feminism so straight people are crucial to LGBTQIA+ empowerment. I don’t expect the world of my SBF and I don’t want them to burn out. I just want them to be themselves brilliantly and I know that’s what they want for me too. And when it comes down to it I’m so proud of my SBF, just so overwhelmingly proud.

I Got Sorted Into Gryffindor…Ugh

I had mixed feelings when I finished the Pottermore Sorting Hat test because it put me in Gryffindor. I’d always associated the house of the lion with arrogant upstarts like prefect Percy Weasley who takes far too much pride in his factionalism and being better than others. And, yeah, bravery and daring are great but not when they go hand in hand with a giant ego and even greater arrogance to boot. As for chivalry, I thought that was dead or at least extremtly unfashionable.  But the funny thing is, after a Slytheriny experience at boarding school and much Ravenclawing at university, I ended up getting involved in a bit of campaigning and activism. Sure, I was trying to make a difference but boy does the life of a “Social Justice Warrior” come with all the Gryffindor traits and not just the good ones.

As an SJW I cast myself as exceptionally brave and daring, taking on a corrupt and immoral system that gobbles most of us up. I talked about the environment a lot, went vegan for a while and met lots of ace people. Together we laughed in the face of the right-wing media as it labelled us ‘lefty loons’ and ‘deranged socialists’, whilst the Alt-Right and fans of Milo Yiannopoulos had even worse things to say. In response, we prided ourselves on being better than those greedy right-wing Slytherins, they were just a basket of deplorables after all who’d trade their grandma for a promotion. But the irony was that as us SWJs got a little too comfortable on our high horses so we inspired our opponents to do exactly the same. It was a war of attrition as each side tried to out-meme and insult the other. As for some sort of dialogue in the middle, nah, we were Gryffindor, the best, and of course our movement/campaign/action/protest/saving-the-planet-thingy was the most important one of all.

But I’ve never been much of a fan of cliques, recognising they’re just a tool to quell collective insecurities and blunt nuanced thinking. Cliqueiness sucks, whichever side of the political divide it falls on. And I think that’s part of the problem too,  just as the Sorting Hat ensures nice children become nasty factionalists, so splitting ourselves into simplistic political boxes such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ means we too easily ignore the things that we might have in common with others. Yet it is precisely these commonalities, be it a love of nature, a thirst for adventure, a passion for teaching, that transcend the political divide, reminding us that we are humans before we are SJWs, Alt-Righters, Gryffindors or Slytherins. The Harry Potter novels prove that the housing system is inherently flawed (why let a fricking hat decide childrens’ fates after all!?) and while we are still living through divided and hateful times I think it worth taking a moment to imagine a future without factions, houses and Sorting Hats (so many spoilers in the video below).

Why Is The Cure For Cancer So Expensive?

I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Donna
Donna, in all her bright pink glory!

The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.

Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.

Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.

pharma-greed
Pharma Greed Kills

But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.

Chalk
Innovative use of some pink chalk

Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.

Still Waiting at the VAULT

Beneath Waterloo station lie the vaults. They are long, cavernous rooms made of brick and stone. They are dank and smell a little of damp. They are also the site of Great Gatsby themed parties, plays about starships, masked balls and for only two more days – Still Waiting. As the blurb promised this is an event “about the hundred handshakes you experience in the Calais Refugee Camp, volountourism and packets of pasta, and our relationship with Europe’s refugee crisis.” And as the trains rumbled overhead so I was transported into a very different world. Actually, no, I wasn’t transported because Still Waiting is about this world and the problems it is facing. Perhaps, instead, rather than being taken away on an escapist adventure I was more deeply immersed in the real world. I was made to feel.

Still Waiting - at the VAULT theatre, 1st - 5th February
Still Waiting – at the VAULT theatre, 1st – 5th February

Three cast members/musicians took us through the refugee crisis via songs, statistics, jokes, laments and thoughtful interludes. The title comes from the name of a report released by Refugee Rights Data Project on the situation in Calais. It is the “largest research effort around refugees and displaced people in the region to-date” and it is called Still Waiting because so many people are doing just that, waiting and waiting for a chance to find a new home, to be reunited with family and friends, to escape the persecution of their homelands and/or for better education opportunities. And these are people who are waiting, not just photographs in a newspaper, or numbers on a spreadsheet, or stereotyped ‘masses’. They are people like us.

And that is what Still Waiting achieved – it turned the numbers into stories and the stories made me feel. Whether it was listening to the recording of Ramia’s story, a young woman who escaped Aleppo in Syria and is now living in Goumenissa in Greece. Or hearing the cast discuss their own experiences of going to (or not going to) Calais to help the refugees and the charities supporting them (they also sang a song about it called Humblebrag and it’s worth going to the show just for that!). The show costs £9 and in going you help fund Crew for Calais, one of the charities doing vital work to support refugees. Go also to be moved and to be drawn into a humanitarian crisis in a way that no broadsheet or head of government seems capable of doing. Go because this matters, it really does matter, and we are running out of excuses not to. Because the world won’t get better by itself, the world needs the cast of Still Waiting, it needs Crew for Calais and it needs the resilience and fortitude of the endless refugees forced to leave their homes.

The world needs us too and it’s events like this that remind me of that.

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)