Bums On The Heath With George Michael

What to do of a sunny Saturday afternoon in London? Well, yesterday, I jumped on a bus and zoomed north to Hampstead Heath. I had been told to find Jack Straw’s Castle, an old pub, from which friendly guides and red ribbons would lead me to my destination. I very much did not find the Castle and instead I ended up amongst the bushes and brambles of the wood passing the odd dog walker, jogger and family. Just when I was starting to despair that I’d never find my destination I heard something in the distance, the lyrics of a song were echoing between the branches guiding me to where I needed to go. The song was Outside and the event was the first global celebration of George Michael Wants You co-organised by the great Queer Tours of London and Camden LGBT Forum.

In essence, it was a big, queer party in honour of the legend that is George Michael. In 1998 Michael was arrested by an under cover police officer for having sex in a public lavatory in a Beverly Hills park. Naturally, the press went for it and tried to tear the man to pieces. They smeared his sexuality over the headlines and boggled as to how a man such as George Michael could do something so ‘lewd’. They marvelled at how ‘depraved’ the gay male community could be without stopping to think that perhaps their relentless prejudice and bullying might exacerbate the many woes the LGBT community so often faces. Never one to admit defeat, Michael responded with the song Outside, a few lines of which read, “Let’s go outside in the sunshine, I know you want to, but you can’t say yes. Let’s go outside in the moonshine, take me to the places that I love best.” I don’t think you need to read between the lines to get what he was doing there, namely, reclaiming something wonderful and natural from the bigoted claws of the regularly abysmal media and turning oppression into a smash hit.

So tens of people gathered in Hampstead Heath’s most famous cruising area to get dancing, singing, laughing and making merry (and possibly making another kind of merry in the bushes, if you know what I mean). And it was just flipping awesome. There were families, friends, dogs and even the odd tourist walking by suddenly caught in the speakers’ music and the smiling faces. One of my favourites was two women and two young boys in sports kit (perhaps two Mums with their sons) who walked quickly by only to spot the guy dressed in nothing but a jock strap. The two women’s faces split into big grins and the two boys started laughing. They tried to carry on walking but kept stopping to take another look at the revelry. I think their behaviour is very familiar: that curiosity, intrigue and, perhaps, a little titillation of being caught on the edge of something that looks a little unfamiliar but also quite fun. And that’s why the event yesterday was an open invite, all really were welcome. I also heard so many different languages, including many from around Europe, and I think if anything can act as a metaphor for the sort of fierce joy and emboldened merriment that we’ll need as we continue through dark times it was yesterday’s first ever global celebration of George Michael Wants You. So head outside folks, whether it’s outside of your comfort zone, outside of your usual social group or outside onto the Heath for a spot of dogging (or dog walking).

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The Cocoa Butter Club: Not Proud To Be White

There are many things about my identity of which I am proud but being white has never been one of them. I have never felt my body thrill with the pride of having pale skin nor stood arm in arm with others as we’ve identified around the activity levels of our melanin. I’m proud of other things and, for me, my skin colour has never been an issue. However, whilst that might sound like a good thing – that I’m not a racist – there’s still something else going on here. Namely, white privilege, and last night the epic Cocoa Butter Club reminded me that I’ve got it in spades.

The Cocoa Butter Club celebrates performers of colour within cabaret. In their words: “as Creatives, when faced with the issues of cultural appropriation, lack of representation and even black-facing in cabaret, we had no choice but to create!- create something beautiful in response. So, we set up the alternative option for those who don’t want to see trivializing, appropriating or clowning of our cultures, but perhaps experience how fabulous our histories and  cultures are, as told by us.” And at the Hospital Club last night there was a whole Supershow of epic performances. Some highlights for me include: the outstanding Miss Knock Out Noire who, for her first act, revealed a great deal whilst dressed in a banana themed costume and for the show’s final act performed an electrifying burlesque to a mix of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit. Meanwhile, Symoné twirled at least ten hula hoops at once (I can barely manage one), Loraine James did some ace dj-ing and Carlos Maurizio sung some moving tunes. There were many others and if you want to watch them, which I highly recommend, go find the Cocoa Butter Club wherever they are next (and give them your money!).

But back to white privilege. During the show speaker and activist Kayza Rose asked if there were any allies in the audience. Me and my white friends released a tentative whoop, I was a bit scared that I was about to get told off for being an ally when I should be an accomplice – y’know, trash the system and make a better one rather than just talk/blog about these issues. She then asked again and we cheered a bit louder this time. And this is the thing, fellow whites, people of colour don’t need our hesitancy, guilt or white tears let alone our disregard and indifference they just want us to do something. To challenge that racist joke our friend just made, to educate other whites, to join protests and to co-create safe spaces that people of all colours can enjoy. Sure, it’s tough(ish) to have to realise that we whites benefit from centuries of the oppression of people of colour and, yeah, it’s not as if we’re as bad as our slave-owning ancestors but the white person’s identity crisis is not something with which people of colour need to be bombarded – they have enough issues to deal with, namely, having to deal with institutionalised racism which exists in many places including the cabaret scene. We can have our crises at home with our fellow whites and then, when we’re feeling empowered, clued up and ready to get hula-hooping we can take the fight to the government, workplace, street or wherever oppression is playing itself out. Don’t get me wrong, I am not pretending I’m doing enough to sort this problem out, I also cheered when Rose asked if any of the allies in the room felt they should do more. But I do think the quicker us whites can acknowledge our white privilege the more active we can get in trying to make society more equal. Plus, as Miss Knock Out Noire’s performance proves the struggle for equality can also be a lot of fun.

The Trouble With Trans People, Is Cis People

The BBC’s recent documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? makes one thing abundantly clear – that the BBC does not know best when it comes to how trans kids should live their lives. Before I go on I want you to pause and reflect on how much you know about the experience of being transgender. Nope. Don’t read on, take a moment. I’ll put a paragraph break here to facilitate that process…

Ok, before you get irritated with me for being patronising that exercise was intended more for the people who know very little. Because I’ve had far too many conversations with people who are largely ignorant of trans experiences yet often attempt to speak for and over them. I believe the BBC’s documentary adds to this problem, which is why I want to challenge it. Yup, in essence, it’s another post in which I call bullshit.

“Here’s one of the things that’s lovely about being transgender, we mess with everyone’s theories of gender,” says Hershall Russell, a psychotherapist and activist, with a huge smile on his face. And it’s true. It was only in 2014 that I realised I was cisgendered: that I had always identified with the gender I was assigned at birth. I had never spent particularly long exploring my gender for myself and had always accepted that because a doctor assigned me male at birth, because they saw a penis between my legs, then I must be male. It’s 2017 now and I no longer consider myself cisgender and without going into the details the point I am making is that I have now taken the time to explore my gender for myself. This is something many of us will not do as we remain cisgendered and unquestioningly slot into the readymade binary of masculine and feminine that mainstream society offers us. Of course, as Russell says, everything gets messed with as soon as we realise it’s far less simple than the binary would have us believe and no one makes this more abundantly clear than transgender folk.

So, it’s tough to watch a BBC documentary in which much air time is given to Ken Zucker who, yes, was allegedly the world expert on gender dysphoria as the voiceover keeps reminding us but also an advocate of gender-reparative therapy, which encourages gender non-conforming kids to stop behaving in non-conforming manners. To put it bluntly (and somewhat crudely) this might involve stopping a boy from playing with Barbies or a girl wearing camo (and, once upon a time, may have involved electroshock therapy). There are a few problems here. Firstly, these are issues of gender expression and not gender identity, which the majority of trans activists would acknowledge are different, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the experience of being transgender. Secondly, this is clearly a value-laden process that encourages/forces kids to conform so they can ‘fit-in’ because Zucker and the like think that will make them happier. However, the documentary gets even lighter on nuance at this point and given the lack of trans education available to the general public, can anyone really be expected to form a balanced opinion when the documentary isn’t even focussing on what’s in the title?

We need better documentaries than this and one reason for that is because I am bored of having the same conversations with ignorant cis folk. We have access to google, Ecosia and wikipedia – please use them. Everyone’s experience of gender is different including every transgender person – it is not up to anyone to make crass, reductive statements on behalf of anyone else. If you just can’t imagine what it might be like to be a different gender to the one you were assigned at birth, or if the thought of sex reassignment therapy ‘weirds’ you out, or if you do think we should all conform to the genders we were assigned at birth, then you’ve got lots of work to do. But I am afraid watching the latest BBC documentary isn’t going to be much help. The best place to start would be seeking out the lived experiences of trans folk by watching interviews or reading blogs. Begin to figure out how to empathise with lives that might be very different to your own and when it comes to gender, why not explore your own rather than dictating to others how they should explore and experience theirs. You could also watch the ace TV series Transparent.

The Trouble With A Gay Dumbledore

A few months ago I was getting excited for Star Trek Beyond, especially because (spoilers!) I’d heard there was an LGBT plotline in store. The character of Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) was being written as gay and whilst George Takei (the first actor to play Hikaru Sulu and gay activist) was rightly not that impressed it was still a change from the usual warpspeed sequences and other Trekky things I clearly know little about. Of course, what I really wanted was a gay Captain Kirk but I was told that would never happen because a Blockbuster movie with a gay protagonist just wouldn’t do well financially. However, unlike movie producers I am not in this for the money and I think it’s high time that LGBT folk of all ages had some good role models to look up to. Unfortunately, as one would predict, Hollywood is doing a terrible job.

Not only was Star Trek Beyond a very average film, the gay plotline lasted about five seconds. We saw Hikaru Sulu give another man, presumably his husband, a hug and then say hello to the young girl that is presumably their daughter. The scene was so bland and vague that the other guy could have been his brother and the little girl his niece. Apparently an actual man-on-man kiss was edited out because in the future there can be people who are entirely green and giant cities floating in space but same-sex PDAs are a big no-no. Meanwhile, numerous fans were up in arms about the “controversy” of the gay plotline and I think that just goes to show how far we still have to go. For now I’ll make do with a gayish hug.

Another example of a missed opportunity is, of course, Dumbledore. Not only did J.K. Rowling make him gay after the event – i.e. after the books had been written and films produced in which there was no hint of his sexuality – but it’s a shame that the only gay member of the Potterverse was a lonely old man who ends up dead. Fantastic Beasts could have made up for this but instead Dumbledore’s crush, Grindelwald, is too busy acting inappropriately around teenage boys and plotting the downfall of muggles. Yup, the other LGBT character is also a smörgåsbord of queer clichés and stereotypes. As for the four protagonists of the movie – all cishets (cisgendered heterosexuals, for more on this, click here). But, I hear you say, surely one of them could have been bisexual. Perhaps but just like with Dumbledore if a character’s sexuality is not made explicit then it just comes across as the ‘norm’, i.e. straight. But, I hear you say again, why should a character’s sexuality have to define them, surely they can be quiet about it? Of course they can and I agree with both points but the problem is you’re probably straight and you probably don’t see your sexuality as a definitive feature of you because you haven’t been routinely discriminated against for having a sexuality other than straight. You’re not regularly made to feel self-conscious or ashamed of your sexuality and if you are it is not because you are of the LGBTQIA community (it is for another equally grim reason that I will blog about in another post). And nor do you have to endure the crass plotlines of a relentlessly straight Hollywood as you search for inspiring role models. So, as far as I’m concerned Captain Kirk can wear a pink dress, have a limp wrist and sing show tunes whilst Dumbledore can have rainbow eyelashes, leather trousers and a biker boyfriend and still neither can be reduced to or defined by their sexuality. It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to. In the meantime it’s left to the fans to make some pretty creative stories of their own about their favourite queer characters.

The Unhappy Tomato

She was just your average tomato: red, rosy and often in good cheer. She loved living in the vegetable aisle. She had lots of friends – the carrots, who liked having a laugh; the outspoken aubergines, who always stood up for each other; the kind courgettes and even the cabbages. She didn’t get on well with the leeks, who were often the bullies of the aisle, but other than that she felt at home. It was a great supermarket as well because vegetables were the top priority and there weren’t that many fruits at all because the store manager didn’t like them. But that didn’t bother tomato and she was happy as she was, until the day she discovered something very important – that she was different – she wasn’t a vegetable after all, she was actually a fruit.

All along she’d been in the wrong aisle and now she was worried about telling her friends. Fruits were always the butt of the vegetables’ jokes and many veggies actively hated fruits, sometimes the potatoes would go round the fruit aisle and beat up a bunch of grapes. She told some of her closest friends and whilst one got all upset the others were supportive of her. But that still wasn’t enough so, one night, she snuck away and went to find the fruits. She didn’t regret it – she met strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes, and had an absolutely great time as well as making a bunch of new friends. However, as time went by she realised that not all was well in the fruit aisle. Underneath the smiles and the peels she discovered that many of the fruits were damaged and bruised, it turned out being a fruit in a vegetable’s supermarket wasn’t so great after all. She even discovered that many fruits had given themselves up to become juice because they couldn’t take it any more. And so the happy tomato became decidedly unhappy.

Then a new store manager arrived who hated fruits even more than the last and it got quite dangerous for the tomato and her new friends. Nevertheless, they bandied together and prepared themselves for tough times ahead. But the thing that really broke the tomato’s heart was that when she went to visit the vegetable aisle, to see her old friends, they just weren’t that interested. They were so caught up living their veggie lives that they’d never really stopped to consider what it must be like to be a fruit. She tried hanging out with them but the carrots kept cracking jokes about bananas and the auberinges kept going on about how much they hated grapefruits. The friendly parsnip didn’t mind but didn’t really get it either, he even called her his BFF – Best-Fruit-Friend, which pissed her off no end.  And so it dawned on her that whilst she’d been on a long journey from the vegetable to the fruit aisle and made so many new friends, learnt so many new things and had a whole punnet of ace experiences, there were many that hadn’t been on the journey. Something had changed for the tomato and whilst she still had time for her veggie friends she no longer felt quite at home in a vegetable’s world.

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These Are The Christmas Adverts!?

It’s that time of year again, still pretty far away from Christmas but our economy’s on the rocks and we need to get people shopping pronto. The lights are up in the streets, Paris is ordering another giant, green butt-plug and Black Friday is looming. To fuel this pre-Christmas consumption extravaganza the propaganda machines, I mean televisions, are doing their best to spew out an array of emotive adverts to get us racing further into debt. Here are some of the highlights (well, lowlights).

Sainsbury’s and the 4th Industrial Revolution: this Xmas ad is a simple one, an overworked Dad who works in a toy store (as if we have those in Britain anymore) gets worried he won’t be able to spend enough time with his family at home. As stresses mount and this unforgivably long advert unfolds the Dad’s solution is to automate himself, yup, riding the trend of replacing humans with robots he gets a drone to do his shopping, machines to run the factory production lines and a nodding dog to do his ‘yes-manning’. This radical transformation of our society is being heralded by the World Economic Forum (self-important 21st century Adam Smith types) as the 4th Industrial Revolution but to those of us who aren’t super rich and who don’t work in think tanks it heralds loss of jobs and increased social atomisation. Thus, rather than an uplifting advert this is actually a bleak prophecy of things to come, worthy of a Black Mirror episode, but Sainsbury’s do give a great nod to diversity in British society as people of colour and different faiths appear in this advert, of course, the protagonist is still a white guy proving that the supermarket will go some of the way but not all of it.

Lidl/Aldi: Nostalgia and the Dangers of Anthropomorphising Vegetables: at least these ones are short. Lidl’s is called Homecoming (yup, it has a title) and is about a family redecorating their Grandad’s old cottage out in the countryside in time for Christmas day. This is a blatant play on British nostalgia for the countryside and ‘family values’, which today are, of course, being trashed by urbanisation and rural poverty, which are both exacerbated by supermarkets taking jobs away from farmers and forcing them to engage in unsustainable farming methods. This advert is effectively a nostaligc lie about what our past once was but probably actually wasn’t. Meanwhile, Aldi’s advert (Aldi is another German superchain and Lidl’s top competitor) shows a carrot running across a Christmas table laden with food – he runs past the corpses of other carrots, the mashed remains of dead potatoes and even gets the skin of his back grated off – all so he can reach the plate by the fireplace with a mince-pie for Father Christmas on it. The carrot gets its wish and, unlike all his dead and eaten friends, ends up caught in the antlers of a reindeer at the front of Santa’s sled, perhaps a subtle nod to the idea of the carrot and the stick, and this time the carrot is incentivising us all to eat loads and buy even more. Whilst funny this advert does highlight the dangers of anthrompomorphising vegetables because, ultimately, we kill, cook and eat them.

M&S Does Sexism: I would mention the Waitrose and John Lewis adverts but their over-reliance on creepy CGI animals and their unrealistic plots really let them down this year (a normal robin would not survive that journey and besides the fact animals don’t use trampolines they also don’t get on that well: the badger would attack the foxes, the foxes would eat the squirrel and the second the hedgehog landed on its back the foxes would be eating that too). Although, this US election result take on the JL advert is inspired and depressing! Instead, it’s M&S, which shows Santa Claus heading off to do the rounds leaving Mrs Claus at home. Not only does she lie to him when he asks if any “last requests” have arrived in the post and she says “no, just bills” – actually, there was a letter addressed to her and unless her bank uses crayons it’s pretty clear it’s not a bill. It turns out a young boy threw his sister’s trainers at a dog and she cried a lot (typical girl, amirite) so could Mrs C sort this out. Sort it out she does: changing into a highly impractical dress given the weather, getting on a jet-ski, into a helicopter and flying half way round the world to add a final present to the pile her husband will have just put under the tree. She even has a cheeky bite of mince pie but not a big one because women have to be dainty in their eating behaviour, amirite! Naturally, the sister is overjoyed because all girls care about is clothes and shoes, amirite! So, not only does Mrs C do the dirty work of a young boy too lazy to buy his sister a present but just before Mr C gets home from his worldwide trip she hides all the evidence: her secret HQ (think bat cave meets festive cheer), her cool dress and even the letters she receives from kids all vanish behind the wall. She even pretends to have fallen asleep whilst reading a book called ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ (because women only care about sex with sociopaths, amirite) and when Mr C asks how her night was she says, “oh, you know, quiet.” Um, not true! So why is she lying? She tells her husband it “wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets” whilst giving the audience a knowing look and she’s basically asking us to collude in patriarchy, where men’s egos are so fragile the thought that a woman can contribute to the working world is just too much. Mrs C would rather weave an incredibly elaborate web of lies and deceit rather than have her husband know quite how resourceful and independent she can be. Talk about #masculinitysofragile. Either that or she’s just very bored of her marriage.

The Trouble With The Gilmore Girls

Only a couple more weeks until the Gilmore Girls return in four brand new episodes on Netflix. But who are the Gilmore Girls, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a popular American dramedy (drama-comedy, yup, that’s a thing) that ran from 2000 to 2007 and now they’re coming back. The ‘girls’ themselves are Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. Lorelai is a single Mum who was shunned by her rich parents when she became pregnant. Rory is her daughter. They live in the kooky town of Stars Hollow where all manner of daily adventures take place. It sounds like a recipe for success – not one but two female protagonists and a supporting cast of likeable, if kooky, characters. Indeed, it was a success, a huge success, and people all over the world enjoyed watching Lorelai and Rory talk at an incredibly fast pace and remain in great health despite diets of takeaway food.

However, scratch beneath the surface and the kookiness takes on a darker hue. For starters, the supporting cast is one of stereotypes – there’s Manuel (correction, his name is Michel, I was mistaking him for the stereotyped waiter in Fawlty Towers and compounding the stereotype – sorry), the one black and homosexual character who is a smörgåsbord of tokenisms; there’s Sookie, Lorelai’s co-worker and the token ‘larger’ character whilst nearly all other characters are slim and conventionally good-looking (she’s also played by the epic Melissa McCarthy who was tragically underused). There’s Kirk the ‘oddball’ character who is frequently mocked for finding it difficult to socialise. There’s Lane, Rory’s nice Asian friend, but never going to be the star of the show. And there’s Lane’s Mum who is all sorts of offensive cultural generalisations. And don’t forget Paris, the ambitious and intelligent one who regularly gets mocked for being ambitious and intelligent, unlike Rory whose achievements come naturally and without fuss. Meanwhile, if you wish to find other diverse characters, e.g. bisexual, lesbian, transgender, ethnicities besides black and asian, non-Christian, this is not the show for you. But this isn’t new, shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother also fall foul of these tropes.

However, I think the biggest problem is that the Gilmore Girls are presented as normal – Rory and Lorelai are presented as the great bastions of normality around whom all other characters are presented as weird offshoots. Yet these ‘girls’ are not normal. For one Lorelai gets to have her cake and eat it with regards her wealthy background – she simultaneously accepts handouts from her parents whilst decrying said privilege. She hands these views down to Rory who we witness in one episode paying a guy $20 so she can sit under the tree he’s sitting by. There are other trees! Rory also never learns how to do her own laundry, a useful plot device to see her relentlessly driving from Harvard to Stars Hollow to hang out and talk fast with her Mom. The ‘girls’ also enjoy mocking their fellow townspeople, making offhand jokes about genocide and ebola, and generally belittling the lives of others. Yet these ‘girls’ are the moral core of the programme and I think that’s a little problematic.

Other problems include the replacement of plot with endless talking – Rory talks to her current boyfriend, Rory talks to Lorelai about talking to her current boyfriend, Lorelai talks to Sookie about talking with Rory about her talking with her current boyfriend. Of course, what would be interesting if Sookie then talked to the current boyfriend and we discovered they were having an affair together – but that would constitute plot rather than talking. Then there’s the soundtrack, composed of a singer chanting monosyllables like ‘la’ and ‘da’ over and over again as the scenes change. However, the saving grace of the Gilmore Girls is Emily, Lorelai’s mother. She is a rich, snobbish, conservative bigot and regularly complains about other people, who she treats largely  as means to satisfying her various ends. But she is consistent in her views. At least we know where we stand with Emily (ideally, far away), she’ll be rude to her staff and she’ll complain vociferously at restaurants whereas Lorelai and Rory are too busy trying to present as ‘women of the people’ when really they’re more like Emily than they care to acknowledge (I guess Emily would unashamedly vote Trump whilst Rory and Lorelia would vote for Hillary but not necessarily campaign against the structural injustices of neoliberal capitalism).

Now, I realise I might as well stop blogging given that I’ve just criticised one of America’s national treasures but there is something I must admit to – I kinda love the show. I have watched an awful lot of episodes (although not all, which is my disclaimer for this post containing any factual inaccuracise) and seen Rory and Lorelai eat far too many pancakes at Luke’s cafe, go to lots of kooky town events and bicker with various partners. Like erosion, their incessant waves of chatter have gradually worn away at my coastal defenses and for some unknown reason I actually find myself caring about the people of Stars Hollow. So, yeah, I will definitely watch the new episodes and shudder every time a character is tokenised but also cheer when Rory and Lorelai achieve great things. I love those Gilmore Girls…or should that be Gilmore Women?