Oxford’s Vigil For Orlando

Oxford, England. Thunder boomed, lightning flashed and the rain came tumbling down. The English summer is never one for predictably and climate change just makes that all worse. A brief cycle home and I was drenched, my second shower for the day. It was five o’ clock in the afternoon and there was going to be a vigil in Radcliffe Square for the victims of the homophobic terrorist attack in Orlando. More thunder, more lightning, more rain. The Orlando attack was deeply distressing. It is sad to see people robbed of their lives by atrocious acts of violence and it is sad to see the queer community targeted simply because people want to be free to love whoever they wish. However, I’d seen photos of the vigil in Soho, London, and there had been thousands of people standing in silence, in tears and in solidarity, and this gave me hope.

A few hours later I put my waterproof jacket on, jumped back on my bike and head into town. But the jacket was unnecessary because the clouds were breaking and beyond, even at half past seven, the sun was shining. The view of the changing sky was staggering punctured by the sandstone spires of Oxford University. I arrived at Radcliffe Square where hundreds of people had gathered outside the Radcliffe Camera (the only building in Oxford’s skyline that looks more like a booby than a penis). So many people. Like any community, the queer one can be both brilliant and difficult. Great friendships can be forged but so can cliques. Certain groups come to identify themselves apart from others and ‘politics’ can arise. However, that evening we were gathered for something so much greater than ourselves, we were gathered in solidarity for the victims of Orlando and for queer people all over the world.

Vigil for OrlandoA quote from the facebook event reads as this: “LGBTQ people have long been and continue to be the victims of violence and hatred in the places where we try to seek safety. The fact that this attack happened on Latinx night, and that so many of the victims were Latinx reminds us that queer people of colour are disproportionately at risk of violent hate crimes. On Wednesday evening we will come together outside the Radcliffe Camera to remember the lives of the victims of this attack; we will mourn the violence that seeks to destroy our communities. There is no space at this vigil for Islamophobia or racism. We will not be silent in the face of hatred, we will stand together and support one another as we have always done in times of crisis.”

People gave speeches, the names of the victims were read out and a two-minute silence was held. Someone in front of me began to cry and someone next to them gave them a hug – I don’t think they knew each other. There were families there too and heterosexual people, distressed at the attack and supporting their queer friends. Then a beautifully voiced choir sang Seasons of Love from the musical Rent and Somewhere Over The Rainbow. What ace songs. It’s such a shame that it sometimes takes tragedy to bring us together but those moments of unity are exceptionally powerful, and even though I went by myself to the vigil I did not feel alone. Humans have always lived in difficult times and this remains true today. My hope is that the sentiment of belonging to something so much bigger than ourselves – a community of fighters, lovers, queers and allies that runs back throughout history and will run always into the future – will continue to bring us closer together in a time when division is not an option.

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Queer People Need You!

Do you have to be Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex or Asexual to care about LGBTQIA issues?

Answer: No!

Now here’s a blog on how to be a queer ally, however straight you are.

But first the word ‘queer’. Why am I using it? Many might know it as a term of offense used to denigrate LGBTQIA people and this is certainly true. As a word it simply means ‘strange, peculiar or eccentric’ from the Old High German twerh ‘oblique’ itself coming from the Proto-Indo-European root *terkw ‘to turn, twist, wind’. By the late 19th century it was being used to describe homosexual people in a pejorative fashion. Fortunately, by the 1980s the word was being reclaimed by queer activists and scholars. And now queer is used as an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as heterosexual and are not cisgender (i.e. do not identify with the sex they were designated at birth). Interestingly, if I tell you I’m queer I’m not actually telling you that I fancy people of the same gender, or of both genders, or identify as the opposite sex. No, those exceptionally personal issues (what I do in my bedroom and how I relate to my own body is my business, not yours!) are not revealed instead I am saying I challenge the binary nature of gender (i.e. male or female) and any essentialisation of people for their sexuality. Of course, the queer community is a large and diverse one and even though I use the term to refer to the LGBTQIA community in general many might not. Many will prefer LGBTQIA and many will use queer to mean something else. However, for the sake of this blog I am using it as the umbrella term described above.

Anyways, in case you missed it, that was lesson one on being a queer ally – understanding the lingo, very important. Lesson two is about using it and this will vary from person to person. I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve often had people try to define my sexuality for me – people would label me with terms I never used to describe myself sometimes because they wanted to understand me, pigeonhole me and/or bully me. When it comes to politics I consider myself queer – I challenge gender and sexuality norms and I advocate for the equality and rights of the LGBTQIA community  – but when it comes to my personal life, am I gay, bi-sexual, queer or something else? None of your business! So please don’t assume you know what my sexuality is because you don’t and don’t ask me either unless you feel it’s appropriate to. If you’re straight the likelihood is you won’t be asked to defend your sexual preferences on a regular basis or even reveal them so please stop asking me what I like to do with my sexual organs! Just be happy with the knowledge that I am Robert and I’m a queer activist. However, I’m just one example, and many people are bisexual, transgender, gay etc and want to be recognised as such – it’s your job to find out what that means to them and to use the appropriate terminology.

Lesson three is about stereotypes. We’ve all got a bunch of them in our heads be they the mincing queen, the butch lesbian, the greedy bisexual, the weird old gay guy etc, and without even thinking about it we project them at other people. One I often get is when I ask to be introduced to other queer men and people immediately assume it’s for sex, I must be one of those “promiscuous gays.” Unfortunately, much of the time I’m just wanting to meet more people from a community I consider myself part of, yet people are still quick to pigeonhole me. Even worse is that if I do ask to be introduced to a man because I’m attracted to him I then conform to the “promiscuous gay” stereotype and just confirm everyone’s prejudices. So I’m screwed either way (although, ironically, maybe not screwed in the way I might want to be!). So those stereotypes you’ve got, whatever they are, just drop them. Even if you think you see someone conforming to a stereotype, they really aren’t because they’re a human and they come with a rich and varied story of their own. It won’t help you or them if you reduce them to a few tokenistic gestures and even if they do like to gesture in that way that doesn’t make them the stereotype. And remember, the more we stereotype minority groups the easier it is to pigeonhole them, to margininalise them, to dehumanise them, to ignore them and to hurt them. So it’s hashtag time, #humansnotstereotypes.

There are so many more lessons to be learned, for all of us, but for now I’ll sign off this post with an ace song from gay twins Tegan and Sara because, surely, even if it’s for sex or just friendship we all would benefit from getting a little closer. And just in case you find the concept of learning lessons about queer people a little patronising then please just see this as a chance to learn more about an awesome bunch of people who can make awesome friends and allies, and who throw pretty epic house parties (oh, and one other thing, never use ‘gay’ as a pejorative adjective. Nope. Don’t want to hear it. Just never. Thanks).

The European Dream

The United States of America has one, a dream, “the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.” It’s basically the Cinderella fairy tale made available to all Americans. By ‘all’ Americans I mean white, straight men born into wealth but sometimes a woman slips through the net and occasionally a person of colour does as well. That the dream is founded on huge levels of debt, totally unsustainable levels of consumption and dog-eat-dog capitalist politics is by-the-by, the point is America has a dream, a big one, and apparently it’s for everyone. But what does Europe have?

Europe also has huge levels of debt, totally unsustainable levels of consumption and dog-eat-dog capitalist politics but I’m not so sure Europe can simply adopt the American dream. For starters, Europe didn’t begin as one country (or at least one colonialist attempt to make a country), it started as many, often belligerent nation states vying for power with each other. A history of Europe is often a history of war until the end of WW2 when people had had enough. Successive generations of the same families had gone to war twice in the 20th century and people knew this couldn’t last. So, as I described in a previous blog, the beginnings of the European Union were formed to ensure Europe did not go to war again.

However, European societies are going through yet more social, political and economic upheaval following the 2008 financial crisis and ongoing policies of austerity. Similarly to after the Great Depression of 1929 countries are becoming increasingly isolationist and extremist parties are on the rise. Now, more than ever, does Europe need a dream because it’s clear we cannot leave things in the hands of Brussels based bureaucrats and technocrats. Sure, they get to swan around the corridors of the European Commission and Parliament looking all self-important but how many of them have tried to run a sheep farm, worked in a hair salon or held any number of ‘real’ jobs that people across Europe may have?

For those of us who care about Europe who, despite how disappointed they may be at the EU itself, believe it’s important to get on well with one’s neighbours and to form transnational organisations to combat transnational issues such as climate change, terrorism and corporatism, and to champion transnational solutions such as human and environmental rights, coming up with the European Dream is our responsibility. It will be different for all of us (and maybe that’s part of its strength) but, boy, do we need to start articulating positive and exciting messages about what it means to be European. So, I’ll take a stab but I reckon you should too.

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The European Dream: a continent where people are happy to make fun of one another’s accents and national cuisines knowing that underneath the banter there’s grim accord that the world is a dark place but if we work together we can make it lighter. We might often do things differently (e.g. how we do or don’t worship; how we eat our steak; how we do or don’t protest) and whilst we will talk about these things (eventually) we also know there’s nothing worse than tyranny, oppression and war. Europe has to be a family – a queer, straight, Muslim, of colour, trans, white, polyamorous, Atheist, monamorous, hippy, business family – and even if the siblings don’t always get on we’ll still stick it out for the sake of our brood. Perhaps, at its simplest the European Dream is to ensure a stable and prosperous continent upon which the inhabitants can freely and peacefully eat different dishes and make fun of each other for doing so. I mean, snails, gross.

Now, what’s your European Dream? You can write it in the comments below but because not that many people read this blog why not share it on your facebook, blog or twitter – get it out to your networks and see what else people come up with. Especially useful for us cynical Brits who talk of ‘continental Europe’ as if tiny island Britain is still its own Great Kingdom (c’mon, we can British and European at the same time!)

Britain Is Not A Fart

Better In than Out I say. And there are many reasons for it. Human rights, for example, we like those don’t we? And we get a lot more of them when we’re in the EU. Easy holidays abroad. We love them too and we’ll get lots more if we stay in. Greater security from, for example, terrorist attacks as we share intel with other European countries. Greater diversity, more interesting people coming to Britain more of the time to make our lives more interesting (of course, this one might not convince you if you’re a xenophobe). More stability in the West, something that Obama (leader of the Free World) really wants whilst the likes of Putin and ISIS leaders don’t. More jobs, stronger economy, reduced risk of armed conflict…but we know all these things already (and if you don’t check out the Stronger In website), so I’ve got another reason we should stay in the EU: my grandparents would have wanted it.

All my grandparents fought in the Second World War. One grandfather stormed the beaches at Normandy, the other was based at the caves of Malta, one grandmother drove lorries and fire engines around Britain (imagine that, a woman driving a truck, that was a big deal back in the day), whilst the other helped crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park (but no, she wasn’t mentioned in that film with Benedict Cumberbatch, hmmm). They all contributed to the war effort for the sake of peace – they believed the Nazi threat had to be challenged, and so they did what they thought was right and put their lives on the line.

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Now, I’m not using this blog to condone war, indeed nothing’s black and white (save zebras and old photographs) and much history has shed complicating lights on the geopolitics of WW2. Secret plots, subterfuge and much anti-Semitism within British politics. So I’m still a big ‘no’ to war but I do think that my grandparents believed they were doing the right thing and I have an awful lot to thank them for. After the war ended the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 was the first step in the federation of Europe, an effort to curb the rise of extreme nationalism on the continent that had led to fighting. Unsurprisingly, my grandparents and many others never wanted to see Europe go to war again. The EU was created to maintain peace.

Of course, there were other motives at play. The Coal and Steel Community is hardly the Culture and Peace Community, it was about business, specifically capitalist business. Opening markets and freeing trade were seen as key ways of ensuring countries stayed on amicable terms. There’s much logic in the idea but when making money takes precedence over making lasting friendships it’s easy to forget why some random village in the south of England is twinned with an equally random village in the north of Germany. Furthermore, when recessions hit and economies get rocky countries all too quickly revert to nationalistic policies (may I refer you to what happened in Europe before WW2 and what’s happening right now).

In many ways the EU has failed us – the bullying tactics that the likes of Germany and France impose on countries like Greece and Spain; the fact that it’s predicated on capitalist growth-based consumer economics (see many previous posts on why that’s a disaster); the undemocratic nature of the Council and Commission; the giant gravy train that is EU bureaucracy (I once met an EU bureaucrat…but that’s another story); the relative ease with which individuals (especially extremist ones) can get into the Parliament solely with an aim to disrupt negotiations, remember Nigel Farage’s shenanigans. The list goes on. But these are not reasons to leave. At a time of huge global problems – looming world war 3, climate change, nuclear threats, terrorism, recession – we need huge global solutions and political transnational bodies like the UN and EU are part of that. They might not be fit enough for purpose but it’s our job to make them better and in doing so make the larger system better rather than blame the likes of the EU for the failings of said system. And it’s what my grandparents risked their lives for and who am I to trash their legacy?

Now, perhaps for the only time, I will give the last word to Margaret Thatcher (full Evening Standard article here): “To come out [of Europe] now, with nowhere else to go, would jeopardise our own and our children’s future … In politics we always have to consider ‘What is the alternative?’ The European Community or what? If we came out now we should be…cold-shouldering our friends…The reasons for staying in…are concerned with the ideal and vision of what we could do together…and with the consequences that would arise for Britain if instead of solving our problems as part of a partnership we withdrew into the unknown…At a time of uncertainty in world affairs, Europe gives us a far better chance of peace and security, and if we want our children to continue to enjoy the benefits of peace our best course of action is to stay in Europe.”

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You Can’t Stop The Beat Of Equality

Fascists painting swastikas in blood on the sides of buses during an anti-refugee march in Dover. Rich Oxford University alumni threatening to write Oriel College out of their wills if the college removes a statue of the racist Cecil Rhodes. Mega-corporations getting away with avoiding paying billions of pounds worth of tax during a time of austerity and increasing inequality. Sometimes, maybe always, it seems like the world is going to pot and that the bad guys really will win. And whilst I don’t think equality and justice are guarantors but are contracts in need of endless renewal, in the same way the social fabric is a patchwork in need of constant darning, I do know that despite all the hatred out there it is so much easier being nice. Plus, nice people get a better soundtrack.

Bigotry is hard work. As the Red Queen boasts to Alice that she can believe six impossible things before breakfast so too must bigots juggle all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes in order to justify their narrow-mindedness. For example, one of the fascists who marched in Dover yesterday has to believe that certain groups of people are inferior whilst demanding that they themselves, and the people they care about, are superior. It tends to be one rule for them and one rule for me (and my family). A fascist also has to believe that our economic problems can be blamed on migrants and refugees, meaning they get to scapegoat the vulnerable whilst not bothering to question the economic and political realities that keeps a constant stream of wealth and power flowing to the elite minority at the expense of the majority (a majority that they are part of!). On the other hand, it’s much easier for a nice person who realises that nothing makes anyone inherently better or worse than anyone else and so doesn’t need to expend lots of energy discriminating against certain groups. They can also google around the issues of inequality rather than just accept what the newspapers tell them. At the end of the day (and at the start of it) love is a much more sustainable energy source than hate.

And nice people get a much better soundtrack. Take You Can’t Stop The Beat that ends the ace musical Hairspray (big spoilers by the way, equality wins). All the characters, even the baddies, shake their booty to a song that relishes the striving for so many forms of equality – between people of different races, skin colours and body shapes. “You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreaming of,” they sing, and of course (as Taylor Swift also told us) haterz gonna hate, because that’s what haters do. But “you can’t stop today as it comes speeding down the track,” sings Queen Latifah, “Child, yesterday is history and it’s never coming back.” And she’s right, today is zooming straight at us like a highspeed train and we get to choose whether it’s a train that runs people over or if it’s some awesome party train to which all are invited (rehabilitated fascists included). Because when it comes down to it hate and love are choices, and as difficult as we might find it to choose the latter, there’s still time to learn (trust me, it’ll be fun). And so concludes my blog about being nice – perhaps just an excuse to post this awesome song which does what this blog does anyway but too a far catchier tune (Spanish subtitles included).

A New(ish) Story: The Heroic Community

Stories are often constrained by the medium through which they are told. Shakespeare’s five act play structure lent itself well to the amount of time people could sit/stand through a play at the Globe. Dickens’ instalment-stories leant themselves well to regular publications in periodicals. And for the past few decades Blockbuster movies have slavishly followed the Hero’s Quest style narrative with great, multi-billion dollar success. And we have the original Star Wars trilogy to thank for this, or should that be blame? Effects-heavy, stereotype-rich and plot-lite is the typical approach for your average Blockbuster – there are basically only 90 minutes to tell the story of one main character (usually a man) doing a series of heroic (usually violent) things culminating in an explosive climax. Meanwhile, in-depth characterisation and moral ambiguities are ignored. Endless films keep using this formula backed up by a growing library of how-to books based on questionable psychology and claims that the Hero’s Quest is the best structure for a good story. Really!?

But that was then and this is now, and there’s a new hero in town, namely the television series. Attracting mammoth budgets, very special effects, stellar casts and nuanced plots – each 45 minute episode is now a bit like an instalment of a Dickens classic. These stories can involve multiple characters and multiple plot strands as well as having the time to explore bigger questions beyond the best way of blowing something up. We finally have an antidote to Hero Quest-itis, we’re no longer just watching the story of one man desperately trying to invest in staving off a midlife crisis. This is no longer the story of the lone hero getting by with a little, token help from his friends, it’s when the friends get to become actual characters with depth, backstory and plot. It’s not just Leia, R2D2, Chewie et al being plot devices in Luke’s success, it’s about opening up heroism (in all its forms) to the whole group. It’s basically the movie Pride.

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Based on a true story this tells the tale of the group Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners who raised money for striking Welsh miners in the 1980s. One of the pioneers of the group was Mark Ashton, a young, London based activist, and Pride could have been The Story of Mark – how he went from living your average life in London to being a hero of the Civil Resistance to the 1970s/80s Conservative Government, how he had to face obstacles (discrimination, violence etc) but triumphed over them to glory. But no, this film wasn’t just about Mark, it was about tens of people – a mix of gays, lesbians, miners, protestors, parents, friends, families, women, men, homophobes, naysayers, and bigots. The film portrayed the lives of many people, not just one, and gave depth and personality to a range of characters – quite a feat given that they didn’t have at least 20 episodes to do it in. Multiple protagonist stories abound (Calendar Girls, August: Osage County, Shakespeare’s canon) and they are a good antidote to the idealised, hero story. Pride tells a very different story – that of the Heroic Community perhaps.

The simple point is that we don’t have to look far to see beyond the structural limitations of the Hero’s Quest – for too long this go-to plot has been gone to by movie makers because it lends itself brilliantly to 90-minute, Blockbuster, cash-making extravaganzas. But the bit that really bugs me is the huge amount of literature, science and philosophy that is used to justify the endless use of the Hero’s Quest (ahem, Joseph Campbell). Fortunatley, we can retaliate by populating our stories with diverse characters and not being afraid to diverge from the predictable path of the hero. TV, comics, books, plays and video games are already streaming ahead (and have been for a long time) and now mainstream cinema needs to catch up.

The Play: It’s Complete Anarchy

It’s show time for Universally Speaking! Opening night is tomorrow at the Bread & Roses Theatre, Clapham, and it runs each night until Saturday (7.30 – 9pm). The actors have learnt their lines, the final props have been bought (including a 6 pack of ready salted and three mini primroses) and the tickets are selling. I’ve been doing my bit as producer and I can safely say that the process has been utter chaos. Yup, complete anarchy of the best variety…here’s why.

Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), a famous activist, philosopher and geographer defined anarchism as “a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional…for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being” (and if you’re interested in etymology it’s roots stem from the Greek anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler’).

No boss, a lack of hierarchy and lots of good will: yup, that sums up the production process for Universally Speaking. Whilst we’ve taken on different roles: Simon Jay directing, me co-producing, the actors acting, technicians teching, the writers writing and so on, there hasn’t been a ‘top dog’ telling us all what to do. We’ve taken responsibility for our own roles and brought our expertise to the table. We’ve formed an “interwoven network” and worked together to bring a piece of theatre to life. Kropotkin likens anarchistic organisations to organic life, “harmony would result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences”. And so the show has organically developed, often taking on quite a surprising life of its own (you’ll have to see for yourself).

Now, in an ideal anarchistic state (little ‘s’) there would be no money but sadly we haven’t managed to be that savvy. Instead, over 50 people donated to our indiegogo fundraising campaign and we raised £920. This is testimony to how great and generous people are. Kropotkin talks of mutual aid – “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit” – and its a nice counterbalance to Darwin’s relentlessly selfish natural selection predicated on greed and constant competition (not that Darwin really described it like that). And the level of support we’ve had putting together the play has been heartblowing. Alongside the financial aid we’ve had people offer to promote the play and help with the lighting and sound. Meanwhile, the cast and director have given so much of their time just so they can make new theatre and the writers have waived their fees from their pieces.  However, because we don’t yet live in Anartopia of the £920 raised £100 will go to each actor and to the technician (the rest will cover marketing costs and props) as an exceptionally small thank you for their hard work. We’re splitting tickets sales 50/50 with the theatre and any profits we make will go to charity – the UNHCR and Mind, the mental health charity. As for The Bread & Roses, they’ve been great and it’s fantastic to have theatres so supportive of new writing.

Another important guiding principle of anarchy is love. And that’s why we’ve all been working so hard to ensure Universally Speaking is a great night out. We all love the arts and the different elements of theatre – acting, directing, producing, writing, teching, staging – and are under no illusions that we’ll be quitting our day jobs any time soon. As for the final piece of the jigsaw, it’s you – the culture hungry audience members who have already bought a load of tickets! It’s only £10 for an incredibly fun night (cheaper if you book online). So I do hope you’ll come along to enjoy this theatrical slice of anarchy and unlike in a competitive, hierarchical capitalist system this really can be a win-win for all. Prince Kropotkin might just be proud. See you there!