If You’re Not Gay It Does Make A Difference

“The worst mass shooting in modern American history was also a hate crime against the gay community. It’s not the first time LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people have been the targets of violence.” BBC News.

For more information on the recent hate crime in Orlando that claimed 50 lives please read this article and then search for more. For this blog, however, I want to focus on the guardian journalist Owen Jones’ appearance on Sky News to discuss the atrocity.

It does not take long for an argument to arise between Jones and Mark Longhurst and Julia Hartley-Brewer. Jones works hard to ensure that all present acknowledge that this is a homophobic hate crime and act of terror. He describes it as “one of the worst atrocities committed against LGBT people in the western world for generations.” This is a statement of fact yet Longhurst and Hartley-Brewer don’t get it. Longhurst tries to ignore the LGBT angle by saying it was a crime carried out against “human beings” and whilst this is, of course, true, the point is that Jones is trying to focus on the homophobia inherent in the crime. Jones repeats his statement but Longhurst nullifies it again by refusing to recognise the anti-LGBT nature of the crime and talks instead of “the freedom of all people to enjoy themselves.” At which point Jones comes out with the zinger, “You don’t understand this because you’re not gay.” Longhurst disagrees vehemently and Hartley-Brewer tells Jones that he does not have “ownership of horror of this crime because [he’s] gay.” These minutes of ignorance and miscommunication are vital in derailing the rest of the press preview as the three continue to argue before Jones becomes largely silent and the conversation moves away from the LGBT community to gun control and the perpetrator, even after Jones said there has been a distinct lack of press coverage on the homophobic nature of the violence.

I hope you, whatever your sexual orientation, can see the problem here. Jones offers the scenario that this attack might have taken place at a Synagogue and if it had done then it would be clear that anti-Semitism was one of the overriding motives for the attack. If then, a Jewish person was discussing how distraught they felt at the attack it would not be for anyone else to tell them that the attack isn’t about Jewish people, it’s about people. This would totally devalue what the other person is saying and, crucially, what they are feeling – that a community they are part of has suffered a dreadful attack. We are all very different people and members of very different communities and the simple point is that whilst we can speak for ourselves and our own experiences of the world we cannot speak for others. It is not for me as someone who is not Jewish to speak on behalf of Jewish people, nor as someone white to speak on behalf of black people, nor as a man to speak for women. Instead, I can try to understand the different trials facing other groups and offer my support.

That is what I attempt to do with some of my posts and whilst I try hard not to speak on behalf of others I realise I might fail but I am always happy to learn how to do it better. Neither Longhurst nor Hartley-Brewer appear to show much sympathy for the LGBT community, they spend more time talking about the perpetrator and gun control, it is only Jones who talks about it. And even though the others both identify as ‘not-gay’ during the preview neither sympathise with what Jones is saying and instead attack and criticise him. They both had an opportunity as presumably straight people to speak and act in solidarity with the LGBT community and they both missed it. And this is a shame for so many reasons not least because the LGBT community needs a lot of solidarity right now.

So yes, it does make a difference if you’re not gay – it means you might never have a same-sex relationship, it means you might never be discriminated against for your sexual preferences, it means the attack in Orlando was not an attack aimed at a community you are part of. But it doesn’t mean you can’t support us. The full acronym I use is LGBTQIA – Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual. However, I think there needs to be another A, an A for Ally.

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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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.ziff.or.tz/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Pride-Film-Poster-638x424.jpg

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.

Queers On Sunset Boulevard

I’ve been to the theatre twice in the last few days – once to the King’s Head in London to see Queers, six monologues about LGBT life, and also to the Oxford Playhouse to see Sunset Boulevard, a perhaps better known show all about an ageing film star who goes off the rails. Both were brilliant productions but for completely different reasons.

With Queers, young playwright Pat Cash has created six memorable LGBT characters who offer us brief and poignant glimpses into their lives. With Larry the Laydeez’ Lothario we witness how lad culture can suppress people’s sexualities out of fear and prejudice. In Queen Marsha F Star Star King Fabulous of Dalston we witness the fight for trans people to exist when she’s very bluntly told that she is not a woman. Each monologue was around ten minutes yet they all managed to pack a tear-jerking emotional punch. The most moving for me was the story of Old Tom who is sat at a gay bar in Soho recounting his younger days of activism to a bored, young bartender. Matthew Hodson’s portrayal of Tom is poetic and understated and he also puts on a great voice for the barman. Tom’s life is a lonely one as so many of his friends have died but as his story concludes the bartender, no longer checking his phone, puts his hand on Tom’s and calls him a friend. This simple idea that loneliness does not have to last forever is extremely touching. At £12 Queers is a bargain, on until 22nd November.

Queers

Now over to Sunset Boulevard – an exciting and exceptionally professional production from the self-professed “amateur” Oxford Operatic Society. A giant cast made for hectic and well-choreographed chorus moments and two strong leads meant the story of Norma and Joe played out with suitably dramatic highs and lows – Norma is a fascinating character as her addiction to her faded fame and external validation renders her a vulnerable and exceptionally fragile person whilst Joe’s desire to succeed often turns him into a selfish bully who, for some reason, women keep falling for. The show captures the fickle nature of showbiz and cast rivalries very astutely which couldn’t help but make me question the nature of the relationships of the actual cast members! Add to this a great spiral staircase, Norma’s epic wardrobe and a full-sized orchestra blasting out their melodies from the pit and you’re in for a good time. Two shows left today, go, go, go!

Sunset Boulevard

Yet as I watched Sunset Boulevard something jarred – something about the joke about not taking black friends to restaurants (apparently that’s a big no-no in 1950s screenplays) sung by a predominantly white cast, something about the token camp character (who we were encouraged to assume was homosexual) who was played for laughs, something also about the desperately stereotypical roles the leads took – past-it, fifty year old woman who goes mad and driven, sometimes selfish, young guy who ultimately gets shot in the back. I know that musicals don’t have to be informed by feminism or be diverse but I think it’s fun when they are. One could certainly interpret Sunset Boulevard through a feminist-Marxist lens and appreciate that the highly competitive and capitalistic world of film-making basically treats people very badly (apart from maybe the directors and producers) and makes us all into monsters but to do this one might also have to clutch at a few straws. It’s also somewhat of a bitter pill that whilst older, female actors are still being discriminated against in the various acting industries one of the major lead roles for an older woman in a musical is that of a faded, mad ex-actor!

This is where Queers has the edge because it’s unapologetically diverse and not necessarily because it’s trying to make a point about diversity but simply because it couldn’t but be. To meet the characters of Queers is to meet a brilliant panoply of different people whilst treading the boards of Sunset Boulevard seems to be a somewhat white and stereotyped experience. Normalising diversity in films, theatre, TV and musicals isn’t just a question of casting diverse people it also means writing inherently diverse scripts. So, I reckon that Sunset Boulevard (whilst a brilliant production) is a bit like Norma Desmond, stuck in the past, whilst Queers is ushering in a very different sort of sunrise.

Quentin Letts And The Right To Bigotry

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” said Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a nice summary of the principle of freedom of speech – i.e. we’re all free to say what we like and anything that curbs that freedom is a form of censorship and an abuse of our rights.

Well, I disapprove of what Quentin Letts had to say about the latest series of The Great British Bake Off, and whilst I’m probably not going to risk my life so he can repeat it I do wish to explain exactly why I disapprove in the hope that he’ll be less likely to say it again. To clarify, I am most certainly not advocating censorship, far from it, I think it better that the views of Letts are aired precisely so we can challenge them and in doing so maybe even inspire him to be a little less of a bigot.

He begins by describing the different contestants that have been chosen for the sixth series of Bake Off. He notes that one of them is Muslim and wears a headscarf, one is a house husband, another is a female vegan bodybuilder from Lithuania, one of the men has tattoos and wears a hat, one of them is Afro-Caribbean, there’s one on a gap year, at least one of the contestants lives in the north of England, there’s a British-Asian male and another man originally from the Philippines.

This might sound like an exciting and interesting group of people who we can look forward to getting to know as the series progresses but not for Letts. What he takes umbrage with is the very diversity that the contestants represent. He considers this part of a grand political conspiracy as perpetrated by the BBC, in his own (far too easily parodied) words: “a leaning to modernity, to fashion, to ‘the alternative’, the ‘different’, sometimes for reasons of group-think, sometimes out of a desire to jack up the ratings in the manner of a commercial TV station. It is in keeping with the creed of egalitarianism. It is deeply unconservative.” No doubt it’s political correctness gone mad, something he writes about in his book Bog Standard Britain as crushing “the individualism from our nation of once indignant eccentrics.”

Of course, Letts’ version of individualism (and conservatism) is of a particular hue: namely white. He makes it pretty clear that in his world it’s not Muslims or Lithuanians that bake but homosexual men or older, white, middle-aged women (“mum-next-doorish” types as he describes). As a white, middle class male Letts has the privilege of being one of the most represented groups in mainstream culture (and history in general), so it’s no surprise that he gets a bit uppity when suddenly there are fewer people like him appearing on his favourite television shows. He wants to see more “humdrum, plain-as-white-flour, Middle-English bumblers” (nice to see him appealing to the casual bigotry of equally insecure Middle-Englanders, that infamous squeezed middle beset upon by socialist loons, crafty immigrants and vicious feminists). His privilege is being undermined and whilst this is a good thing because it represents power being more equally distributed and an increase in equality all Letts wants to do is get angry. He expresses his anger (and deep set insecurity) by cracking racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic jokes in his article, no doubt scoffing into his favourite suitably middle class and white supremacist breakfast cereal as he does so. For all his life Letts will have found positive discrimination working in his favour but because it’s so ingrained and commonplace he never will have questioned it, let alone give it a second thought. But now’s it not working in his favour he’s going to kick up a fuss.

“I just wish I didn’t feel, as I looked at the contestants yesterday, that I was being preached at – that the BBC’s social engineers were up to their transparently political tricks again.” Some unintentional comedy gold from Letts here who has just spent a whole article preaching bigotry and narrow-mindedness at us. He accuses the Beeb of having a political agenda whilst clearly forgetting that white, heteronormative, androcentric patriarchy fired at us on a daily basis is itself just drenched in politics. But it doesn’t suit Letts to acknowledge this so instead he’ll deride the “sinister” politics of the BBC, one that favours equality, diversity and representation – you know, those really sinister values. He’s scared these values depart so far from the mainstream “that they often fail to represent adequately that very mainstream” – but Letts doesn’t really care about these people, his article has shown such a lack of compassion that it’s hard to think he cares about anyone, no, he cares about himself and wants more men just like him on TV (he wont’ be happy until Mary Berry’s been replaced by Jeremy Clarkson and Sue Perkins has been ousted for someone overtly heterosexual, such as Katie Hopkins).

So no I don’t approve of what Letts has to say and whilst I won’t risk my life in defence of him saying it I still won’t call for its censorship. His argument is as floppy as a failed souffle and has the soggiest of soggy bottoms. Whilst the BBC’s sinister world of equality and diversity is just brimming with creamy Victoria sponges and rolling Swiss Rolls. He’ll figure it out one day – that a more equal and fair society works out better for everyone, even people like him, but in the meantime we’ll just have to tolerate the bitter aftertaste of his bigotry.

Quentin Letts with spaghetti (interestingly not a baked good)
Quentin Letts with spaghetti (interestingly not a baked good)

Cameron Calls For National Day of Heterophobia

In a surprising act of radicalism David Cameron has called for a National Day of Heterophobia (NDH) in the UK. “For too long the citizens of the UK have been oppressed by a heteronormative, homophobic patriarchy, and I want to be part of the movement that changes that,” said Cameron yesterday on his YouTube channel ‘Camz4Change’.

A Whitehall source claimed that after discussing the recent budget Cameron proposed the idea of the NDH to the Cabinet. The planned date will be 24th September to coincide with the release of Karma Chameleon back in 1983 (“That album was a big part of my youth,” explained Cameron). Reactions were overwhelmingly positive. “I’d put it on a par with invading Iraq,” said Home Secretary Theresa May. Meanwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne also gave it his support, “I was once teased at boarding school for kissing a boy, so I think it’s time those nasty straights had a taste of their own medicine.”

Planned activities for the day include:

  • Shouting at straight couples in the street who are holding hands and/or expressing any act of affection.
  • Trolling known heterosexual celebrities and leaving comments on their websites and blogs that attack them for their sexual behaviour.
  • Prefixing all references to known heterosexual people with the word ‘straight’ – e.g. “this is my friend straight Alex”, “they’re a straight couple I know”. Using the term SBF – ‘Straight Best Friend’.
  • Using the term straight as a pejorative adjective – e.g. “that’s so straight.”
  • Using the term “straights” as a collective noun for heterosexual people.
  • Going to straight clubs and shouting heterophobic abuse at the clientele.
  • Regularly reminding heterosexual people that they are defined by their sexuality. “Oh, it’s because you’re straight.”
  • Generally making heterosexual people feel like an oppressed minority.
  • Forcing closeted straights out of the cupboard and shaming them.

Cameron’s suggestion has not gone entirely without criticism. “This is a democracy,” explained Harriet Harman, acting leader of the Labour Party, “An event like this needs to be voted on.” Cameron is yet to comment on whether or not a vote will be held at the Houses of Parliament but our Whitehall source implied that whatever the result of any vote Cameron would go ahead with what he wanted to do anyway.

David Cameron: an unlikely champion of equality.
David Cameron: an unlikely champion of equality.