Archive for Sexuality

On Milo Yiannopoulos, and the difficulty of activism.

I was trying not to write anything about Milo Yiannopoulos this morning, because I have a great deal to do, but I think that his case deserves more analysis than my initial series of tweets. For those of you who do not know, Yiannopoulos is a writer and public speaker who has risen to prominence for championing the far-right, or the “alt-right”, as that fleet of particularly vicious online trolls has tried to rebrand itself. During the presidential campaign, his articles mocking those with progressive values made him hugely popular; during that campaign, he was also banned from Twitter following years of using its platform to orchestrate the harassment of anyone he didn’t like.

 

There is little more to say about such toxic behaviour. The only interesting thing about Yiannopoulos’ career is the degree to which he has so far been indulged. He is currently facing his most sustained backlash to date; no sooner had he been confirmed as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, than tape emerged of him  apparently endorsing sexual intercourse and relationships between adults and under-age children. Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are calling for CPAC to remove Yiannopoulos’ invitation. Yet the key question is why Yiannopoulos’s career was allowed to get this far, and the answer is two-fold: first, because not enough people cared about his reprehensible behaviour until it began to affect them personally, and secondly, because too many people loved him merely because he hated liberals.

 

I wonder whether part of the current revulsion at Yiannopoulos is due to the fact that, as a gay man apparently approving of sex with underage children, he has reawakened in some minds the barely-hidden conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Yiannopoulos often used his sexuality as a shield; he could be as homophobic as he liked, falling back on the defence that he could not be prejudiced since he himself was a gay man. Ironically enough, he may find that – in the bitterest of ironies – his unique brand of identity politics may be used against him.  

 

This is one of the reasons why I take little pleasure in the setback that he is experiencing today. Because let us be clear: Yiannopoulos has served his purpose, and he has already done irreversible damage. He was as instrumental as the Pepe the Frog meme in giving far-right sentiment just enough cuteness for its advocates to be comfortable with it. Yiannopoulos championed the alt-right as a provocative movement that mocked the excesses of political correctness; with his garish attire and cruel tongue, he scandalised the Left. Bigots have long sought charismatic figures who can seduce them. That is one reason why Nick Griffin failed, and why Nigel Farage succeeded; it was not so much the content of the message that repelled people, but the packaging.

 

That is what Yiannopoulos has been, for so many of his followers now scrambling over each other for the exit: he has been the acceptable face of hatred. He allowed them to mock gay people by setting up a series of speaking engagements called “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”. He threw LGBT people to the lions, but somewhere along the way he forgot that he was still in the den. Judging by his latest and impassioned Facebook post, he knows that for many he is now beyond the pale; and that, finally, this is a storm that he cannot ignore.

 

I would not like to say too much more about Yiannopoulos, because he has already taken up too much of everyone’s time. I would only like to remind people how difficult it is to fight for social progress, because people like the above have supporters who frequently put activists in fear of physical harm and even of their lives. Last night I had dinner with an activist who has been targeted for months because her work, critical of the far-right, has been posted on neo-Nazi websites. She has seen threats to her friends and her family, all because people like Yiannopoulos organise the intimidation of brave people like her. I cannot describe how proud I am to know her, and how disgusted I am at those who sit behind their keyboards and toss out complacent tweets about how those with progressive values merely need to suck up their hurt feelings. People like my friend are taking very real risks in order to expose extremism, and people like Yiannopoulos willingly enable acid to be thrown in their direction. I applaud the former for confronting the latter, and they inspire me to go about my own efforts with ever greater vigour.

My response to Matt Haig on identity politics.

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This evening I came home from a discussion about race and identity in Europe to see that the above post by the author Matt Haig was being discussed vigorously on Twitter. Since I was in a reflective mood, and because I was struck by how many people were grateful that he had expressed these views, I thought that I would write a response. There’s a lot to unpack here, so it may be longer than I intended.

“1. Identity politics. It’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? Judging people on what they signify rather than their character.”

Like Mr. Haig, I don’t think that anyone who is the object of discrimination is particularly comfortable in being judged on what they signify rather than their character. In an ideal world, we would all just be people, celebrating our differences and ultimately cherishing our common humanity. In that world, Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Of course, and sadly, we don’t live in that world. Mr. Haig – and this may just be the imprecision of his language – refers to identity politics, such as he defines them, as if they are something that certain groups created from thin air. Instead, they arose from very distinct and sustained forms of oppression, and I think that it is important to acknowledge that.

The examples which Mr. Haig names are interesting, and I think that a main flaw in his argument here is that he deals in absolutes. It’s possible both to acknowledge Caitlin Jenner’s bravery in relation to her gender and to critique her politics – and many people do. It’s possible both to acknowledge Sadiq Khan’s qualities as a politician and the symbolic importance of his victory in this current climate – and many people do. The same was true of President Barack Obama when he first took office. If anything, in my view, it made President Obama’s triumph doubly compelling, and doubly remarkable. He was both the outstanding presidential candidate and he was the first black president in a country which only a hundred years before saw black men being lynched and fed their own genitals. In this context, to acknowledge his identity did not diminish his achievement: instead, it amplified it.

2. “Twitter is full of identity politics. Statements about how you will never understand what it is to be Mexican/black/a woman/depressed unless you have lived experience.”

I think those statements are fine in themselves – I mean, I think they are basically just true. You can’t truly understand how depression feels if you haven’t felt it. In Mr. Haig’s own words, “it’s hard to explain depression to people who haven’t suffered from it…[it’s] like experiencing life on earth to an alien.” I can’t truly understand what it feels like to be Mexican because, well, I’m not. I sense that this is Mr. Haig’s main frustration – that we are rigidly ascribing characteristics to ourselves of a particular minority group, that we should break free of these straitjackets. To some extent he’s right – not all Muslims have exactly the same experience of being Muslim, or Christians exactly the same experience of being Christian. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there are, broadly speaking, similar issues that people from particular groups will face in certain situations. That’s not so much identity politics as day-to-day life. What Mr. Haig also fails to acknowledge – or seems to – is the extent to which that lived experience is being ignored, and the terrible effects that this has in our society. If more politicians paid attention to the lived experience of women, then we wouldn’t have such oppressive abortion laws; if people were more attentive to the lived experience of those with depression, then there wouldn’t be such stigma about mental health. When Mr. Haig writes “I hate all this stuff”, he can also usefully consider how much people who suffer due to our society’s prejudice hate the fact that their suffering goes unacknowledged.

3. “The use of ‘old white man’ as an insult that automatically disqualifies someone from a debate.”

Looking at it from Mr. Haig’s point of view, I see his frustration – if you’re having a discussion about an issue, it can be disconcerting to be told that you’re wrong simply because of who you are. In intellectual terms, it’s also not much of an argument. Yet this is where Twitter can be pretty much the worst possible format for such debates, which can descend into slanging matches. In a debate, you get several minutes of speaking time to make your arguments. On Twitter, you get a split second; what’s more, you’re publishing your thoughts on a platform where many people who have never had the chance to speak their own minds with such freedom are fed up from hearing from and presumably being talked down to by the archetypal ‘old white man’. Therefore, whenever an ‘old white man’ tweets a supposedly patronising opinion, he may have a sensation similar to that of a lamb opening its front door to a wolf. The ‘old white man’ is unlikely to feel enriched by such an experience, but he can usefully reflect, in time, upon where the anger comes from.

4. “We are all the same, when you place us next to sea-horses, but identity politics wants to chip away at our sameness and reduce us to differences that don’t actually reflect who we are.”

I don’t think that identity politics, as Mr. Haig defines them, sow the seeds of division in our society: I think that they are the fruit of that division. I happen to agree with him that there is a real danger in assuming that everyone from a particular marginalised group thinks the same. They don’t: that’s the kind of intellectual laziness that allows “community leaders” to go on television and position themselves as the exclusive voice of Muslims and the white working class, skewing the public discourse in ways that can be dangerous. That being said, it is useful – no, necessary – to reflect on the similar ways in which people from a particular group may be oppressed by a certain set of laws or traditional practices.

5. “We are becoming a world where we are all judging the shell, and not the soul.”

If true, I would argue that this isn’t the fault of marginalised groups, but the fault of public figures and policymakers who should and do know better. There are countless people fighting daily to be seen as just as human as their fellow citizens – just look at refugees, or the Black Lives Matter movement. If those drowning refugees were judged by their souls and not their shells, they’d still be alive.

The most striking thing about this post is that it discusses the apparent defensiveness of marginalised groups – their retreat into “identity politics” – without providing any context for why those groups might have become defensive. It therefore gives the impression that these marginalised groups merely tumbled into despair and even self pity and victim-hood without so much as a nudge from racism, misogyny, homophobia, and/or transphobia. Mr. Haig criticises identity politics as the cause of society’s ills as opposed to its symptom: and, to that extent, I think that his analysis is intellectually incomplete.

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ADDITION:

After I had subsequently tweeted that an excessive focus upon identity politics could be used to further repressive agendas, I was sent the following private message on Twitter by someone whose views I respect very much. I think it is a useful addition to the conversation, so I have asked permission to reproduce it below.

“I think my essential problem is alluded to in your piece, about how it broadens out and flattens individualism and the worst end of it responds by a misuse of intersectionality, forming a hierarchy of suffering and indulging in the narcissism of petty differences. I tend to broadly agree with your piece but do worry about this aspect as well as the tendency to see every identity only through the lens of suffering rather than experience or culture. If that makes sense.”

 


“Magic realism is just freakin’ fun” – my conversation with novelist Leone Ross

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Leone Ross, the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, editor and lecturer in fiction, has a very busy few months ahead of her. She has just had two short stories published – The Woman Who Lived in A Restaurant, by Nightjar Press, and The Mullerian Eminence, in Closure: Black British Contemporary Writing. She has also contributed an essay, How To Write Weird Shit/Magic Realism, to The Art of the Novel (Salt Publishing), and has just completed her third novel, One Sky Day, following the success of All The Blood Is Red (1997, nominated for the Orange Prize) and Orange Laughter (1999).

I spoke with Leone about her new story for Nightjar Press, where she beautifully brings together magic realism and erotic fiction. It’s the tale of an unusual love triangle, where a woman falls for a man so deeply that she vows never to leave the restaurant where he works; and, where over time, the restaurant falls for both of them too. It’s a superb story of passion, magic and food, the execution of which is beyond most writers. Below is an edited version of our conversation, where we discussed prose style, politics, Leone’s career to date and her plans for the future.

When I first got this story, I read it as a piece of erotic fiction; but what’s very interesting with this work is that it’s very restrained.

In this case, yes.

Looking at the technique of writing erotic fiction, what are the challenges in this artform?

Well, I suppose I can start off with a little anecdote. What occurs to me is that there is a small story around this story. I was asked to write just a small piece of erotica for a collection – this is years ago now. So I wrote this. And I was told by the editor at the time that it wasn’t explicit enough. So he wanted more sex in it, and he wanted more explicit sex. And the problem is that stories do tell you what kind of stories they need to be. And it occurred to me that putting one more ounce of sexuality into this story would have been exactly the wrong thing for it. So I then had to hurry and write another story. Essentially, the editor was saying, “just have two people fuck and put it on a piece of paper, please”. In his defence, we understood each other, and I had written for him before. He certainly wasn’t suggesting that that’s the way you write erotica. So for a while I thought “this is not a piece of erotica at all”, and I just thought of it as essentially a very painful love story.

What’s interesting to me is that of the women who have read this, every single one thinks that it is absolutely sexy and totally horny. Then I was like, “oh, so this is erotica”. And I was reminded again that erotica does not need to be explicit. And, of course, what is erotic and what we find sexy and will respond to viscerally in that way is entirely subjective.

What I loved about it was that there was so much build.  There was so much narrative and so much context, so when you had a sex scene it was the culmination – it didn’t feel bolted on. It didn’t come a moment too early in this story, and the characters were so fully realised by the time the sex happened that the sex wasn’t a way to explain the characters. Sometimes you get these stories where the sex is the part of the exposition. But I don’t feel that in this story.

I suppose I tend to do that. I realised this recently as well. Erotica, as you know, is not primarily what I do; but I suppose, when I do do it, I feel like it’s a slow build. Often the sexuality – be it a kiss, or full-blown sex – happens structurally towards the end of the story. That may just be because I’m a limited kind of writer, I’ve no idea; but therefore you do have that sense of building up to it, because sex is just part of the rest of it rather than the point of the story. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely. It’s almost limiting to call it an erotic story, because it’s a story about how human character is expressed through eroticism. That just happens to be the prism through which they express it.

Yes. Or, in this particular story, I am trying to express humanity through sex and other things.

Yes, there’s so much else going on.

We pay attention to sex because it’s sex. But actually I’m trying to say something about humanity through emotion, through food, through architecture. So we pay attention to the sex because it’s sex, do you see what I mean? I don’t start out saying “I’m going to write a story about this”. At some point in the creation and the drafting, I will decide what it’s about. But ultimately – and much more with short stories, I’m particularly self-conscious with novels – but with short stories, I often let them become what they are.

I won’t be coy – this is, in some ways, based on a real experience. And if I was aware of anything at all, I was aware of wanting to explore sacrifice – the erotic nature of sacrifice, and the ways [in which] people, particularly women, can do this. We can make these oddly intricate decisions about our emotional lives and not have very much fun in the process, and yet there’s a multitude of experiences even in painful things. So this woman loves this man. And also, I think she’s become used to this life, of living in this restaurant, of absence – because they don’t ever actually have sex, that’s the point, they only kiss each other, they’re not allowed to have sex. They’re not having sex in that moment in the kitchen, they’re just kissing. And they’re checking very carefully in the restaurant around them if they’ve done the right thing – because the restaurant is jealous, and won’t let them, but allows a certain amount of intimacy, because [the woman] lives there.

Right.

So they are being controlled by the restaurant. And the suggestion is also that they are being controlled by his ambitions, because he is very much in charge; but at the same time she is also in charge. Other people come and beg him to let her free, but ultimately he says “she won’t go! So what do you want me to do?”

That’s what amazes me about this story – she really gives herself over to this dynamic, and embraces it by the end. And, actually, maybe there’s something comforting in that.

There may be elements of BDSM in here as well, in that she has given over the control. Essentially a version of this happened to me – I won’t go into it, but a lot of people around me wanted to characterise me as the victim in this dynamic. But there were periods of time in which my patience for the dynamic felt empowering.

I want to talk more about you, actually. Because the story’s great, but you’ve written a lot of other work too. One thing you do is that you blend magic realism and erotic fiction –

Increasingly, yes.

And those to me are two distinct disciplines, with their own sets of rules. They require two sets of expertise. How easy, or how difficult, have you found it to blend the two?

I don’t know that I have found it easy. I think that this feels like evolution.

Right.

So it feels like an intellectual and creative evolution. My first novel was extremely realistic: it was was about three women living in London, and one of them gets raped, and the fallout of that. It was an answer to Mike Tyson, who had raped Desiree Washington. And my second novel, Orange Laughter, had elements of oddness because apart from anything else, although it talked about the Civil Rights movement, it talks about memory and it involves a ghost. So I was getting there.

Not having published a novel for many, many years now – for complicated reasons – in the meantime I was publishing relatively consistent amounts of short fiction. So that’s where I began the journey. I began to ask myself serious questions about what pleased me on the page the most. I began to feel less like I was doing my political duty.

That’s interesting. I think it was Junot Diaz who said, in an interview that I read quite recently, about writers of colour feeling deep down that they would have to be the voice of a community.

Totally.

As a football writer, I think I’ve been lucky. Because I write about football, I never had that challenge of being “the black football writer”. It was just down to writing about the analytics of football. It was almost like football was a bit of a meritocracy in that sense. So I escaped having to fly the flag for black people, if you will.

I know what you mean, and I know what Diaz means. Because at twenty-odd years old – what age was I when I published my first novel, twenty-four or twenty-five – I felt like I should, like I had to, and I also wanted to [write about political issues]. I thought, “this is a tremendous responsibility, and also a kind of power. My family is politicised, my community is politicised, and it needs me”. And I was also working at The Voice newspaper; so there were all these ideas around what I should do. But I also wanted to, and I still want to. I’m not saying that I’m not a political animal. But I’ll tell you something. You write about politics a thousand times better than I ever did, even as a journalist. And I make this point importantly, not just to praise you. It is in watching a younger generation speak of politics, and find impassioned, beautiful language for politics, that has made me in the last ten years realise: “that’s not my inclination. I don’t do that very well”. I become so enraged that I can’t express myself effectively in that way. So actually, increasingly, I want to look at the human condition – and social justice, of course, because the patriarchy is always going to pop up.

Yes, of course.

But I realise that what I’m good at, what I’m getting better at, is combining this sense of oddness, which is magic realism, with – and I think this is still political, even [now] – for a woman writer to write of sex.

When you talk about politics, I find that interesting, because – to me – the human condition is inherently political.

Quite, I agree.

And in my non-fiction I love writing about politics, but in my fiction I think I reject politics explicitly, because I think that those novels are too didactic. So, for example, I was working on a novel a year and a half ago, and I got thirteen thousand words into it, and I stopped writing it; and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

Why?

Because it was a novel about immigration.

But I would love a novel by you about immigration.

But here’s the problem I had with it. It was not a novel that I consciously felt I had to write, but subconsciously I felt I had to write it – I didn’t realise that at the time. I realised that because I went away for a month, and when I came back here’s the thing – the characters had not been talking to each other in my absence.

Yes.

That realisation to me was so powerful. And when I read your work – The Mullerian Eminence, or anything else – the characters are so alive. What I think is so powerful about your writing is that the author is completely absent.

Really?

Yes. You combine these two ethereal forms – magic realism and erotic fiction – and, as a result, whenever I read your work I find it completely immersive. There are many strengths to your work, but to me this is the abiding one – that it transports the reader.

Well, I’ll take that! And yet it is still political. I suppose I can’t get away from a sense of what is to be addressed and spoken of in the world; what is to be uncovered and explored in the world. And it still remains ironic that [even now], many young women are called upon to be more sexual than they ever have been, and yet are not free.

I still have never done a reading of erotic fiction that has not involved some fool man – and they are young, admittedly – coming to me at the end of the reading and saying “Hi! How are you doing?” And I’m thinking, yeah, you know I didn’t write erotica for you to come and chat me up afterwards?

I’m writing magic realism for a simple reason. It’s this: it’s fun. I was the kid who loved Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, who always loved weird crap, and so it took time for me to give myself permission to write weird crap. It took [reading] Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at university for me to think, ‘oh my God, the adult version of weird crap, that’s so cool!’.

Magic realism is just freakin’ fun.  I feel like me when I am writing magic realism. The idea that I should walk into a room, and make a cup of coffee, and the cat should just conversationally turn itself inside out – it amuses me. It appeals to my sense of mischief, and I love that, and I feel like a kid when I do it. The reason I write erotica is because I live in a world where people still have a problem when a woman uses the word “fuck”.

You’ve just finished writing a new novel, One Sky Day – I’m intrigued by that. Can you give us a taste of what it’s about, and what inspired it?

There is a very particular story that goes with this novel. The first thing to say is that I have no publisher for it. I have a couple of people sniffing around, but I have no publisher. So it’s probably important to say that, because I want a publisher, please! So, it’s been a long time coming – and yes, you’re right, it’s a culmination of trying to work out what my style is. But also, it’s the culmination of many years of being blocked. So I’ve probably been writing it for the best part of ten years. I couldn’t write for a long time. I couldn’t write because I thought, in the way that young writers do who know nothing, I thought that Orange Laughter – which was published at the very end of 1999 – was going to make me rich and famous. And of course I did, because I was still in my late twenties, and had that kind of ignorance.

But you also had a track record. You were in the ascendancy.

Well, yes, and I hoped this would be the one that hit. And don’t get me wrong, Orange Laughter did very well. Things all looked good. At one stage, it was even in Oprah Winfrey’s hands. And I think I felt like I had worked very hard – and I worry that this sounds very entitled –

No, it doesn’t. Being a writer, being an artist, is often all about momentum.

Right. I felt I had momentum. But it certainly didn’t give me any kind of great financial remuneration, and things began to die off a little bit; and, in one way, I became frightened, that maybe I was not very good. And Orange Laughter took up a lot of emotional space – it remains a very intense novel – and I became immersed in it myself. And one of its characters kept talking to me. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. In the end, Xavier, the protagonist of my latest novel, came from me asking myself how he differed from this [particular] character in Orange Laughter.

Before you go, please tell me some more about One Sky Day, and about Xavier.

Xavier is a thirty-nine year old masterchef, living on an island called Popisho. “Poppy Show” is a Jamaican expression – it means “to be foolish”. So if I’m making a poppy show out of you, I’m making a fool of you. So that’s a kind of in-joke for the Jamaicans. Xavier’s wife wife died a year ago, and he is still depressed about her death; and he has basically been forced by the governor of the island to do a very particular thing. The governor’s daughter is about to be married, and he’s running for election again, and he’s decided to have this day of feasting and rejoicing during his daughter’s nuptials. And he wants Xavier to help him and join in with this poppy show, with this foolishness. It’s almost like when the royals got married recently, and there was a holiday; what made me laugh about that is that it is the spirit of my novel, that idea of distracting the masses while Rome burns. So that’s what’s happening; this governor has called my main character to help him and to distract people from the fact that they don’t have running water, and that there’s a huge amount of money being siphoned off from the country. Basically, he’s corrupt.

And Xavier hates that he’s corrupt, and he’s pretty pissed to have been pressed into this thing, but he’s busy being depressed in his house, and being addicted to moths. In this society, moths are like heroin.

What’s he doing with the moths?

He’s eating them. So the book covers one day in his life, in which he has been forced to leave the safety of his home – he’s become practically agoraphobic in his grief – and cross the country, looking for items for the wedding feast. He’s been asked by the governor to cook the most romantic meal in the world for these nuptials, so he’s forced to be part of this farce. But really it’s also a day’s journey in which he wakes up, he realises what’s important, he fights the moth addiction. He has a moth in his pocket for the entire day – someone’s given him a quality moth and he’s trying not to eat it for the whole day.

Sounds terrific. This sounds like something Guillermo Del Toro would direct.

Hahaha!

It sounds so visual.

I suppose our generation of writers writes in a very visual way. And he’s living in an island where strange things happen; where everybody has magical powers. They’re almost bored with this crap. You’re born with very long legs, or the speed of a cheetah, or whatever. And people get irritated with it – it can cause all kinds of problems in your life. And what you do for your profession is associated with your magic as well. So, when you’re born, the midwives look for the magic; if you’ve got speed, then you’ll end up as a messenger boy. And his magical power is that he can season things with his hands. So he doesn’t need pepper and he doesn’t need salt or spices, he can just touch the meat and it’s done.

The only other element to it is that it is a love story. You know that principle of “the one that got away”?

Haha, we all know that.

There is a woman who he loved a long time ago, who was engaged to be married when they met, so she was unavailable. And she is also crossing this same island at the same time as him. So it really is the story of two people crossing the island, who both love each other still.

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If you would like to buy Leone’s short story, “The Woman Who Lived In a Restaurant”, you can do so here. If you would like to know more about her work and her upcoming readings, you can visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Another excellent short story of hers, “The Mullerian Eminence”, has recently been published in this anthology.

Well played, Ireland. Well played.

So it looks as though Ireland has said Yes to equal marriage by a wide margin. What a day. As John Amaechi recently wrote on Twitter, it really is “restoring faith in humanity” to see that so many Irish people travelled home to vote on this referendum. The reported margin of victory represents a fantastic validation for LGBT people from the society around them – a validation that for far too long they have to draw only from themselves. How remarkable that, in a Catholic country, LGBT people will be able to walk the streets and think “the majority of my nation is on my side”.

Of course homophobia won’t disappear in Ireland overnight. Of course the abuse and the attacks won’t all magically disappear. But that cynicism can take a ticket and wait its turn.  Because this is the type of change that was resisted for years with terrifying aggression, and which was brought about through endless courage, compassion and love.

Every LGBT person remembers the day they came out. For so many, it felt not so much like stepping out of the closet as stepping into flame. For so many, the fear of living life as they truly are will have subsided sharply, to a degree that can never be measured by any public vote. And this outcome will hopefully resonate far beyond Ireland, in deeply religious countries where homosexuality is still illegal, if not punishable by death. LGBT people in those places can look at this referendum and think, “look, the world is learning to care”.

The poet Jessica Horn has spoken of “love as a revolutionary force”, and that is what the Yes vote in Ireland represents today. Well played, Ireland: well played.

 

 

“Love Against Homophobia”: for Russia, Uganda and the USA.

Given the spate of anti-gay laws either mooted or passed in Russia, Uganda and the USA, I thought I would repost this poem of mine, “Love Against Homophobia”; please share it with anyone who you think might appreciate it.

“Love Against Homophobia”

To some people

My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion –
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
God-damning him,
Toe-tagging him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it –
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! –
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin –
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings –
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
Because my love comes through anything;

My love comes through anything.

 

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Uganda, the gays, and President Museveni’s two types of hate.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has just approved a bill which allows those convicted of homosexuality to be imprisoned for life. Commenting on the new law, he stated that “No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That’s why I have agreed to sign the bill…Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country. I advise friends from the west not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose. If the west does not want to work with us because of homosexuals, then we have enough space to ourselves here.”

There is no question that Museveni, at the very least, hates gay people and holds them in the lowest and most violent possible contempt, and so there is no need or reason to appeal to any last vestiges of his compassion. If anything, it is probably sensible to anticipate an escalation of his anti-gay rhetoric, given that the next presidential election is in 2016. It would not be too cynical to see this new law as the opening gambit in his campaign.

Why does Museveni hate gay people? Well, it’s hard to know for sure. They may well fill him with revulsion. But there are plenty of people under his rule whom he probably finds similarly revolting, yet whom he has not found it politically useful to isolate and vilify. For example, he is not particularly fond of the Acholi, the tribal group to which I belong and which his party has described as no more than “biological substances”, to be eradicated like germs. Following Museveni’s rise to power in 1986, he orchestrated a persecution of the Acholi so comprehensive in its cruelty that he destroyed a generation. His soldiers hounded one and a half million people into camps in the North. They embarked upon orgies of rape and torture, spreading HIV/AIDS as they went, and skilfully allowed Joseph Kony to take the rap.  Their work was so thorough, so methodical, that, to quote from an Acholi Times article of June 2011, “Northern Uganda is the worst place on Earth to be a child today…According to Oxfam, the rate of violent death in northern Uganda is three times worse than Iraq’s.” The article, “Genocide in Uganda: The African Nightmare Christopher Hitchens Missed”, is excellent and can be read in full here.

What does all this mean? And how has this suffering been so effectively concealed from the world’s media? Well, for that we can thank President Museveni’s masterful control of public relations; for, rest assured, whatever most people are thinking about him right now is precisely what he wants them to. Back in the Eighties, when he had come to power and was seeking Western legitimacy and countless millions of investment, it served him well to present himself as the progressive face of East Africa, a man the West could do business with.  Now he has taken a careful look at his country’s accounts, and no doubt his own, and realised that he no longer needs the colonial shilling of which he was once so conspicuously fond. Now he is styling himself as the brave liberator, the African Che freeing his continent from the gays. And, as he does so, he can congratulate himself on almost thirty years in power during which his despotism and vast accumulation of wealth attracted remarkably little negative comment. He is settling now into the role of the jovial old dictator, most strikingly depicted by The Economist in their October 2013 profile of “the Gentleman Farmer”. As this newspaper then wrote,

“Comparisons between Mr Museveni and Idi Amin, the Ugandan “president for life” who butchered tens of thousands of his people in the 1970s, have become more common. Mr Museveni is a lot less brutal but shares the same love of power.”

The assessment that President has been “a lot less brutal” is, with reference to his treatment of Acholi, an increasingly generous one. He is unquestionably far more efficient in the disposal of his enemies than Amin, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia, ever was. Most major Western government who are horrified at Museveni’s latest manifestation of his hatred cannot say that they or their predecessors did not see it coming: for, after all, he has terrifying form in this respect. From President Museveni’s contrasting approach to gay people and to the Acholis, we can conclude that he has two types of hate.  If he merely despises you, he will tell the world; but, if he thinks you’re truly dangerous, he won’t tell a soul.

 

Thomas Hitzlsperger, set to storm the gay dating market.

Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Germany international, has revealed that he is gay, stating that “it is only in the last few years I have realised I would rather live with a man”. The midfielder, who played for Bayern Munich, Aston Villa, VFB Stuttgart and Lazio, is arguably the highest-profile player to make such an announcement. Many have drawn attention to the timing of his statement, noting that no male footballer – Hitzlsperger has just retired at 31 years of age – has come out while playing. The only man to have done so is Robbie Rogers, who left the game for a time and is now plying his trade in the Major Soccer League.

One of Hitzlsperger’s comments will resonate strongly with anyone who has walked the often hauntingly lonely path that is coming out. He referred to it as “a long and difficult process”; the knowledge that you are not like most others, the terror that your life may be incalculably harder than theirs, the fear of rejection by others which initially leads you to reject yourself. The internal voices of condemnation are frequently deafening and seemingly endless: he would have had to outlast them all, whilst building self-esteem that at times may have had all the fragility of a sandcastle.

It makes perfect sense that he would choose to say this now: many gay people choose a fresh environment in which to live as truly as they can to themselves, be that moving city, moving country, or, in Hitzlsperger’s case, leaving a profession. There is, of course, a further and obvious pragmatism to what he has done. “The sporting worst case is a possibility”, he told the German publication Die Zeit. “An openly gay footballer would have to be prepared for that. He should not let himself be guided by what other people think and say about him. On the other hand he could also become a great role model for gay sports stars”, he says. Of course, in taking such a step today, he has become a role model himself.

Hitzlsperger, judging from the largely positive reaction thus far, should be just fine. And, on a lighter note, there should be no shortage of takers for a recently-retired multimillionaire with a social conscience and an athlete’s physique. Indeed, if there is any immediate cause for profound sympathy, then it should probably go first to his competition in the gay dating market. Going up against those credentials, they’re going to need it.

Bad gays deserve equal rights too, Mr. Massow

This weekend, I read Ivan Massow’s opinion piece in the Evening Standard, “This new gay hedonism is not what I fought for”, with a mixture of interest and concern.  The article, published in somewhat bubble-bursting fashion on the eve of London Pride,  bemoaned the fact – to quote the sub-heading – that an “obsession with drugs and sex is blighting the cause” for the equal rights of gay people.  There are a few reasons why I took issue with this article, and I will deal with them in turn.

The first is that, though the article is accompanied by a photograph which includes pictures of gay black people and lesbians, the argument presented by Mr. Massow takes absolutely no account of the diversity of gay people in the UK.  Time and again, we are reminded that he is writing exclusively from the perspective of gay white men.  When he writes about gay people, this is the “we” to which he refers.  For example:

“We accepted that some blacks, Jews and Christians alike had the right to hate us as part of their “culture.”  A gay black person might contest that sweeping view.  Elsewhere, when describing the hedonism of a certain section of the gay scene – which he is at curious pains to argue is representative of gay people as a whole – it is clear that, with his exclusive focus upon risky penetrative sex, he is referring to men and not women.  Lesbians don’t get a look in.  Of course, there’s no problem with writing about your own particular experiences as a gay white man.  The problem arises when you try to paint those experiences as representative of an entire group of people with whom you have nothing in common but your sexual orientation.

Take this couple of sentences, where Mr. Massow writes “Don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy apps like Grindr (gay dating apps that supply you with a photo and precise distance of your nearest shag) as much as the next man. I admit to recreational drugs use in my distant past.”  There are two untrue assumptions here: that every gay man indulges the ready availability of sex, and that every gay man has indulged in the use of recreational drugs, as if that were a habit to which gay men were uniquely predisposed.   Again, many gay people would contest such a view.

“We, the gay community,” continues Mr. Massow, “are becoming a group of people who suddenly have everything and nothing, all at once.” (This concept of “community”, given his apparent blindness to the plight of anyone other than gay men, rings hollow.)  He laments the lax approach that many gay men take to their sexual health, which is of course a concern that many people , gay or straight, will share with him.  However, what I believe is dangerous – and not merely “provocative”, as the sub-editor has described this article – is his conclusion.  Mr. Massow states that:

“we have been given a place at society’s table and we owe it to ourselves to behave like responsible members of that society. To be accountable, to contribute and, in our distinctive way, to be moral. If not, as has happened countless times in our history, there will be a backlash — and that place will be taken away.”  [My italics.]

So there it is: if gay people don’t ‘behave themselves’, if they don’t conform to the sexual standards that heterosexual people apparently demand of them, then their rights will be taken away.  The equal rights of gay people are apparently conditional on them being ‘good gays’  – or, rather, ‘examplary gays’  – who are “contemplating children and playing vital or heroically suburban roles in society.”  Never mind that, with the insidious suburban homophobia that still persists in many places, it is more of a challenge for the average gay person to be a parent and/or community leader than it is for the average straight person.  Why should gay people be held to a higher standard than straight people just so they can have continued access to these hard-won and fundamental freedoms?

There is another crucial flaw in Mr. Massow’s argument, which is that, throughout history, groups of both ethnic and sexual minorities have been oppressed no matter how compliant they were with the wishes of those who oppressed them.  Plenty of law-abiding Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust.  Plenty of monogamous women are harassed by men.  Plenty of God-fearing black people are the victims of racism.

For what it’s worth,  I share Mr. Massow’s concern about the self-destructive behaviour of a certain proportion of gay men – which is itself due in part to the prejudice many of them still face in our society, a chain of causation that (in my view) he does not sufficiently acknowledge.  I just don’t see what it has to do with the right of gay people to be treated with equal protection under the law.

Uganda’s proposed anti-gay law: not so much a Bill as a troll

A few weeks ago, on behalf of one of the publications that I write for, I was invited to a conference promoting investment in Uganda.  It was an occasion whose leisurely pace belied the very serious intentions of those who attended: there is a great deal of money to be made in Uganda, and a large proportion of which – given the country’s recent find of an abundance of oil – will be made very quickly indeed.

Happy times for capitalist types, then.  But a fellow attendee of the conference was somewhat disgruntled. Actually, no: worse than that: this European executive, who now lived in the nation of my heritage and had taken it to his heart, was exasperated.  Uganda had so much going for it, he opined.  Wonderful place.  It was a shame, then, that all so many if not most of the headlines about the place were dominated by one “weird” issue.  He referred to it as “the gay thing”.

Ah, yes, the gay thing.  He was talking about that pesky Anti-Homosexuality Bill that David Bahati, an MP, had touted back in 2009. This Bill, at one point, had called for the death of certain people who engaged in same-sex intercourse.  It attracted the furore of many people the world over, and was shelved for a time.  It has now re-emerged.  One wonders what purpose is served by its return.  It is tempting to regard this piece of prospective legislation not as a Bill, but as a troll.  The content of this Bill has been carefully drafted with as much cruelty as possible.  It is certainly thorough in its unpleasantness.  Here are some sample clauses.  One reads that “any person alleged to be homosexual would be at risk of life imprisonment or in some cases the death penalty”.  Another states that “any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities would face fines of $2,650 or three years in prison”.

This is the type of decree that you might have expected from the Gauleiter in Thirties Germany, but there’s more.  “Any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the authorities within 24 hours would face the same penalties”, it drones on.  “Any landlord or landlady who happens to give housing to a suspected homosexual would risk 7 years of imprisonment”.  What’s more, it could well pass before Christmas.

It’s hard to be calm about stuff like this.  Life imprisonment, the death penalty, witch-hunts and eviction.  A proposed law which, even before it has been passed – which may well happen this month – has so poisoned the atmosphere that many LGBT people in Uganda are taking their own lives or having those same lives beaten out of them.  And for what?  So that the Ugandan Government can display its proud African sovereignty by – quite literally – hammering gay Ugandans as the symbol of Western decadence?  Who, including President Museveni himself, truly knows?

All that’s really clear is that, when standing in a lobby on your best behaviour and making small talk about Uganda, it’s hard to maintain much decorum when someone’s upset about all the bad press their adopted country is getting.  I felt some sympathy for this man, in truth.  The Uganda in the media was not that which he understood – a land, in his experience, of kind, warm people.  But, as a happily married heterosexual man, he wasn’t L, G, B, or T, or knowingly close to anyone who was, and so it wasn’t really his problem.

Except it was his problem, and mine, and that of Frank Mugisha, the courageous leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda.  We would all rather hear talk of a better Uganda.  The Uganda, as noted by the Financial Times’ Barbara Njau in her excellent presentation that day, which had “achieved one of the most impressive rates of growth in sub-Saharan Africa in the 2000s”.    A Uganda which saw its foreign direct investment rise from less than $5million in 1985 to $180million in 2000.  A land with potential for economic growth, job creation and an improved standard of living for millions of people.  It would be fantastic if that was the story that more of us could hear about Uganda.  But, sadly, it is a tale of which too many of those in power would obscure the telling.

 

The New Humanist: an interview of John Amaechi

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of The New Humanist.  The link is here: http://newhumanist.org.uk/2829/still-reaching-new-humanist-interviews-john-amaechi

——

John Amaechi is many things. First of all, he’s vast. As I walk into the lobby of the central London hotel for our morning interview, I see him in the corner of the lounge, waiting patiently with a coffee; as he rises gently to his feet, it is a wonder that the chair was capable of containing him. A former professional basketball player – over a 12-year career he played for several European clubs and in the American NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic – Amaechi is not far shy of seven feet tall. Though his physique is more imposing than most, many of his life’s challenges have required strength of the mental kind. He was born in Boston, where he lived until his English mother, having been left by his Nigerian father, brought him to Stockport; there he grew up with his two sisters. He returned to America aged 17 as a high-school student. He went on to become the first athlete in any of America’s major league sports to admit openly that he was gay. After retirement in 2007 he returned to the UK to study and promote sport to disadvantaged youth. He began a PhD in clinical psychology and, in 2011, received an OBE for his services to sport and the voluntary sector. In between all that, he found time to start a business and a charitable foundation.

It’s been difficult for many people to keep track of everything that he does; whoever wrote his Wikipedia biography tried their best, describing him as a “a psychologist, educator and political activist”. What does he think of that? “I’m not a political activist,” he replies. “I think that’s just a cop-out for people who’d want to be able to say, ‘Ohhh, he’s one of those people. He’s an agitator.’ Which is what that really means. And I am not. I am controversial, but not because I want to be. Most of the debates I’m involved in I’m not even remotely interested in being involved in.” He gives a somewhat surprising example.

“I don’t care about gay people in sports [coming out],” he says. “I care about people in sports who are gay. But even this issue is so small [compared] with the issue of young people killing each other, and underachieving in schools, because of persecution and the perception of a hostile environment. It’s embarrassing to me that people spend time talking about how a man who makes £35,000 a week is feeling about being in the closet.”

He has equally little time for the terminology that often accompanies advocacy for gay rights. “I don’t recognise the idea of ‘gay marriage’,” he tells me. “I think it’s a ridiculous term. I recognise marriage equity. I don’t know what that is.” He is irritated by the label ‘gay’, particularly since it is often used with negative connotations to describe anything ineffectual. “I don’t understand how the bonding of two people who love each other to give them legal protections and political and public recognition – which is what marriage is – becomes gay; in the same way that I don’t understand how a computer that stops working becomes gay. I don’t understand how a pencil when it breaks becomes gay. People say that about all those things, but it doesn’t make it true.”

Amaechi’s body language is one of the most interesting things about him; it’s calm and self-contained, his gentle manner belying the passion of his words. Even when at his most forthright, he rarely raises his voice. He accepts how he may he perceived with equanimity. “I’m difficult,” he says, “and I make no bones about that. I’m very polarising – some people like me, some people hate me. I don’t care, it’s not relevant. But people who have needed me to be a certain way have experienced that. So there will be children and young people and adults who have had harsh interactions with me that were necessary, at least in my estimation.”

Consistent with his empirical outlook on the world, Amaechi is an atheist, and as such rejects the idea of an afterlife. “It’s just so crazy. The delusion is just ridiculous,” he says, although this is not the language he would use of someone suffering bereavement. “I think it’s cruel to tell a six-year old, ‘Your mother’s gone, she’s never coming back, and there’s nothing of her left.’” He prefers a different approach: “Tell her that her body’s gone, but she lives in your memories, and every time you talk about her, you are stoking those memories – keeping those alive in you, taking nourishment, sustenance from those memories. That’s what I do. But telling them that in 60 years, when you die, you’ll be able to meet your Mum again? How is that even useful, telling someone that they’re in a better place? If they’re in a better place, why don’t you all just go now? This place is far from ideal, but this is the best we’ve got. So it’s about how we deal with this now, rather than, in the back of our minds, thinking the world is temporary.”

He gives the example of his mother, who passed away several years ago. “I love [her], and if you asked me who I would spend a day with if I could it would be her, but the idea that my life is meaningful because one day I’ll be reunited with her? I mean, she would be so pissed off. She would be furious at me even endorsing such a ridiculous view.”

I ask whether Amaechi, when coming out as a gay man, had experienced a period of mourning that he would not be leaving his genes behind. “Oh God, no. No, no, no. [As for] people who think that the genetic part of having children is the most important bit, that’s a bit of an anathema to me. I don’t disparage it, I just don’t understand why that would be important.” But isn’t his legacy important to him?

“Legacy is important to everybody,” he contends. “It is part of the reason why people have children – it’s one of the enduring ways that you can leave your genetics, which is a form of legacy. But for me, crafting a legacy is the only way I leave any enduring mark. My essence – to use a pseudo-scientific word – will be the only way I linger in this world, in the minds of other people.”

Key to Amaechi’s legacy will be his openness about his sexuality, which caused a stir when he announced it in his 2007 book Man in the Middle and which many thought might open the floodgates for other athletes to come out. So far, though, there has been no such deluge. The Wales rugby union player Gareth Thomas recently revealed that he was gay, but his example is a rare one. Which of the major leagues in the UK and US, I wonder, would be most receptive to an openly gay player?

“Probably the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League,” he replies. “They’re the only leagues where the bosses – the actual commissioners and many of the owners – have said, ‘Look, this should not be an issue.’ But people don’t seem to realise that they don’t operate in a vacuum. They operate in a context – in America, for example – where it’s still legal to be fired in 30 states for being gay. So there’s no point in pretending, when there’s active discrimination going on right now, that they would be safe. What happens when they drive home? What happens when they get married, or want to get married to their partner? What happens when they want to have children? What happens?”

He is now focused on his work for Amaechi Performance Systems, his consultancy that helps individuals and organisations to improve their effectiveness. He works with independent and public schools in the US, where it appears that his legacy partly consists in building a new generation of leaders. “We work with independent schools because these people are going to be the most powerful people in the country. Take Taft, for example, an independent school on the East Coast of America, 30 per cent of the current US Senate come from Taft.” What of schools in the UK? “It’s a hard market to penetrate,” he admits, “because they don’t want to change.”

Given his concern for young people, I ask him about the challenges that they face in the UK. “The reality is that the experience of young people nowadays, through school, through hard life, is to make them emotionally illiterate, to make them socially stunted. It just creates people who are unprepared for the world.”

He points out that government policies, most recently the Coalition’s austerity measures and raising of tuition fees, have aggravated the problem. “And there’s the other element,” he continues, “which is the question ‘What is the point?’ I talked to a teacher the other day and I said, ‘Look, there’s no point you talking to me about how you want young people to work hard to get their GCSEs, because the real question is: can you answer the question “what is the point?” And you can’t answer that question at the moment, because I can tell you by postcode how much a [two-year-old] kid in London will make when they are 30.’”

“One of the big problems with going to university,” he adds, “is that it doesn’t take into account privilege. It doesn’t take into account that if you come from a certain type of area, the idea of taking on debt, while daunting, makes sense for the delay of gratification. But if you come from another type of area where, say, your younger brother is getting sucked into a world that maybe you’ve been smart enough to pull yourself out of, and this could be your escape, are you really going to take on that debt? Knowing that if you don’t take on that debt, maybe your brother can come and live with you in a different area? These factors are just not taken into account.”

These, he says, are issues that politicians would really rather avoid. He doesn’t seem like the type to dodge a difficult subject, though. Perhaps he should consider a career in politics? “The only way I’d go into it – and it sounds pompous – would be in the House of Lords,” he says. “I would absolutely do that in a heartbeat. I was very much dismissive of it, but then my friend Tanni Grey-Thompson became a Baroness, and I saw what she did, single-handedly galvanising the Lords against the reform of benefits. And I thought, wow. It’s one thing to barter from the sidelines … There’s also the title of Lord – I mean, I’m surprised by how much legitimacy my words have now that I’m an OBE.”

Lord Amaechi has a ring to it, I suggest. “Yes, it does,” he says, mulling over the idea with some amusement. “Quite terrifying, too: you think I’m going to come in with my shield and spear,” he says with a smile. Medieval costumes aside, it is an honour that he would welcome. “I would very much enjoy [being a Lord]”, he says, unembarrassed. “I enjoy being big. I enjoy that it gives me presence and power. I enjoy every additional thing that gets loaded on, like the OBE, and the degrees, and whatever else gives me more power. But I use them wisely, because I remember what it was like to be powerless.”