Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion

Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable.

Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself.

My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.

Both men were part of violent movements with track records – ones which, while not representative of all they claimed to speak for (Muslims and men, respectively), exploited widely held beliefs’ potential at their most extreme.

Both saw themselves as political, each his movement’s defining rhetoric.

Both were radicalised by peer groups, both stated their motives explicitly and both fit the archetypal profile for the kinds of killers who did what they did.

Both, crucially, saw their victims as deserving what they got.

If the Santa Barbara shooter had been a jihadist, not much about him would have been that different – but the media’s reaction would have been the polar opposite.

The truth is that Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion.

Read my new column at the Daily Dot.




No, entitled queeriatrics everywhere, this angry young queen won’t pipe down

Yesterday’s post addressed Michael Sam’s getting signed, liberal media’s obsession with individual queer faces and its failure to represent those of us unwilling to cry on cue. (Yes, you should read it.) The following was one reaction when a friend shared it on social media.


I’m not much of a drama blogger, but it’s a painfully familiar topos, especially (for me) in response to critique of the GGGG establishment. Pipe down, lucky young fags with modern perspectives and easy lives, and know your place. Your gay elders, who remember how things were, have lessons for you. Pay close attention.

When I write about queer culture, it’s often in opposition to the status quo. As a young person expected dutifully and gratefully to heed the wisdom of gays over forty, I therefore tend to struggle. If we’ve so much to learn from you, as you and RuPaul’s Drag Race would have it, why did things go to shit before my time? Who am I cleaning up after, if not you?

I’m sure I’ll hear all this again in future, so because it deserves a proper response, here’s one.

I might have benefited from advances you couldn’t count on – sure. But I spent years of my life being physically and sexually assaulted, spat on and harassed in public; I lived under written parental threat of homelessness. I tried to die. (All this is a long story, and I mean to tell it soon.) If you think because I won’t compromise politically that I’ve had an easy ride of it, you know fuck all about me. Likewise, if you doubt my views are heavily informed by activists of older generations – the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Shame, ACT UP, Queer Nation, Harry Hay, Carl Wittman, Michael Warner, Butler, Sontag, Sedgwick through Lisa Duggan, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Kate Bornstein, Yasmin Nair and Against Equality – you don’t know a thing about the way I think.

When I’m criticising contemporary LGBT and liberal media and you’re defending it, I’m not Larry Kramer’s tragic depoliticised gay-of-today. You are. The very reason I’m doing that at all – the reason I identify with a much older politics – is that the narrow range of queer expression neoliberalism accepts doesn’t represent me. Representation is a privilege. Being acceptable enough to have earned it – rather than being too angry, too sexual, too politics, too trans, too bi, too poly – is a privilege. Your generation sold mine out when it made sure of that. If you’re willing to respect the cage of acceptability in return for becoming mainstream, I’m not a traitor to our history. You are – and you’ve no right to finger-wag at me proffering generous life lessons.

I’m sorry (I’m not) if reading that hurts, but that’s the only apology from me you’re going to get.




No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying

It’s important to cry. When like me, you’re into men, that’s one of the first things you learn. Even at twelve, when not being straight first clicked, it never bothered me, but certainly it bothered other people, and the gay films teenage me streamed late at night always had similar endings, weeping heroes gaining acceptance. Versions of the scene are everywhere, from news reports of damp-eyed brideless grooms to awards speeches, soap storylines and prime drama. Liberal media, while still not keen on our other fluids, loves queer tears.

May saw more of these than its fair share. Within days of Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win, the gay American footballer Michael Sam was signed by the St. Louis Rams. Footage of the moment he found out, which quickly spread online, could have been scripted to slow motion piano chords by Glee’s producers. Between Sam’s sobs and centre-stage lip lock with his partner, the clip supplied a perfect progressive moment. Straight athletes do of course cry regularly at good news – then again, their tears aren’t bundled in with social change the way his were or cast as overtures to ‘kiss[es] that made history’. If Sam’s weren’t definitively gay, that’s how they were framed.

If queer people have an image, we’ve been painted in a narrow colour palette, portraits of moist helplessness lining wall after wall; those of us who chose rage instead are nowhere to be seen. This isn’t about whether Sam was wrong to cry, or any individual choice – it’s about politics, power and which stories we tell. Fixating on the personal over the landscape of brutality beyond is part of the problem. The most tedious comments on the video, in fact, asked how the player had helped or set back equality by kissing his boyfriend, ‘flaunting’ their relationship or (God forbid) dating someone shorter than him.

Columnist Mark Joseph Stern argues that what the rights agenda needs is more queer PDA. It’s a clichéd but sound argument for homophobia’s survival that when we kiss in public, if we do, we glance round first. At the same time, same-sex lovers often are less lovey-dovey, and failing to kiss ostentatiously’s not always about fear. Putting partnerships on show – through dramatic proposals, wedding rituals, partner dances, rings – is one part of enforced monogamy whose victims have usually been straight couples, and since friendship tends to be within one’s gender, its boundary in gay relationships with eros can be blurred. I prefer them, as plenty do, partly because they don’t come loaded with coupledom’s affectations, and being told to kiss more visibly feels unwelcome.

But even arguing this is frustrating. Whether or not I ought to kiss my partners publicly is not the discussion we should hold – no more than what Michael Sam was doing by kissing his, or how his tears made history. Thinking on the same lines as Stern, Facebook users made gay kisses their profile photos, a move he called ‘a confrontational, in-your-face exhibition’. There’s nothing confrontational about giving mass media what it wants, in this case by feeding its fetish for what queer faces do. Liberals flinch when homophobes reduce gay men to anal sex or lesbians to vulvae, ignoring the vastness of what being queer means. Is reducing our politics to puckered lips and watery eyes any different?

Bulletins could have talked about the young men funnelled toward sport who aren’t white enough for U.S. classrooms or wealthy enough without sports scholarships for college; the adults whose lifelong security hinges on being hired to play. They could have talked about the culture of machismo policing entry to those sports (football especially) whose homophobia shuts doors for queer youth – how it’s small wonder it took a gay professional like Sam so long to break through it. They could have talked about that homophobia’s reach into school locker rooms around the world, or the violence gym classes direct at male bodies seen to lack butch prowess. Once again they chose portrait over landscape, zooming in on a single gay man’s tears to broadcast them without context.

Those of us who won’t weep on cue know context to be threatening. Reels of queer kissing and crying on TV, Facebook and HuffPost tell progressive straight people their acceptance is the solution – that if they well up like the faces on their screens, they’re doing their bit to rescue us. The bigger picture reveals a less comfortable tale, where media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and the same well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.




Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.

Like Lordi and Dana International, Fr. Wurst will likely be remembered longer than her song. There’s an argument her win is a step backward for the contest: apart from Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki, of whose act I recall nothing, winners since 2009 have reaped the rewards of strong material. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, a sort of Shirley Bassey Bond pastiche, is as subtle as anything you’d expect of a drag queen with a beard; it’s not bad, but nor was it as well devised as Sweden’s song, as well performed as Spain’s or as unexpected as the Netherlands’.

Conchita’s irresistible narrative was what clinched her the win – attacked in native Austria, slandered by Russian ministers yet loved by Eurofans, a stubbly Cinderella in moist-eyed reaction shots. That story only ends one way: when the Danish host congratulated her, asking if she had any words, Conchita instantly replied she did. ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are; we are unity, and we are unstoppable.’ Up in the air the trophy went, as it always had to.

Who was ‘we’, and on whose behalf did Wurst speak? While her enemies described her as a ‘clear hermaphrodite’, alter ego Tom Neuwirth calls himself a male drag artist with no urge to transition. If in-character, he’s made trans women’s next ambassador, anger – not least following recent tensions – will be understandable. On the night, she certainly played to that script, lyrics telling of transformation and a stranger in the mirror, lighting revealing her beard last of all. Even viewing Wurst simply as a gay man, we’ve watched the same scene on reality TV a thousand times, queer contestant humbled by accepting viewers’ generosity. It’s always rung hollow – but one senses Neuwirth, a veteran of such contests, is in on the act.

Eight years ago he rose to prominence on Starmania, Austria’s Idol-on-a-budget institution. In clips which resurfaced this week, his drag act’s crowdpleasing big notes and brassy camp are on show there, making up for his voice’s limitations. Conchita, who debuted on a primetime talent competition in 2011, seems to have been the logical end point of both: playing to Neuwirth’s strengths as well as being a talking point, she’s the persona his career needed. It’s not by chance Wurst first sought to compete at Eurovision mere months after this television breakthrough. If on camera she shows cultivated vulnerability, it’s because Neuwirth is shrewd at what he does.

‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is a grander song by far than what she offered at the time: chances are if she’d won her country’s nomination then, she would have fallen at the semifinals. Moreover though, it casts her more perfectly as an object for sympathy than 2012’s disco anthem to self-love. The hostility – especially in Russia – that led voters to rally behind Conchita has escalated considerably since then. Might not Neuwirth, after giving 2013’s Contest a miss, have smelt an opportunity in it?

Provocation, he tells the newspaper Kurier in an interview, is the ‘whole point’ of his art. ‘The beard more than anything is a way for me to polarise people, to make them pay attention to me. The world reacts to a woman with facial hair. What I hope is that the less-than-ordinary way I look makes people think – about sexual orientation, but just as much about being different in itself. Sometimes you have to tell people plain and simple what’s what.’ Does this square with the helpless victim Europe saw fit to rescue?

Conchita never needed your acceptance: she played on the ego of her would-be saviours, as she played those behind the backlash against her. Their aggression, without which she would now amount to nothing, was part of the plan. How fragile, after all, can someone truly be who sings in heels, frock and facial hair for 120 million people?

Neuwirth’s character, while not possessing the best voice or song, will go down as a Eurovision sweetheart, but it’s the brain that’s won me over: I never could dislike a queen who knows so clearly how the game is played.



Why you won’t catch me mocking ‘think-pieces’

In 1847 the Reverend John MacDonald, missionary of the Free Church of Scotland in Calcutta, succumbed to cholera. A tract in his name nevertheless appeared nine years later, titled ‘The theatre: fourteen reasons why we should not go to it’. MacDonald’s beliefs didn’t outlive him long, but his style survives: were he with us today, I’ve no doubt he’d work in online media. (While I don’t know what his fourteen reasons were, it’s hard not to picture animated gifs.)

The numbered list format is everywhere; you’d struggle to find an author who hasn’t turned to it for traffic. Recently, in an article called ‘How to write a Thomas Piketty think-piece, in easy 10 easy steps’, WashPo‘s Carlos Lozada merged it with another trend, metacommentary, to swipe at conceited reviewers. “Think-piece” has since been called a dirty word at Slate.

Read the rest at the Daily Dot.



Intern full-time at the Sunday Assembly – for £20 a week

In January, I wrote an article at AlterNet advising secular groups on how to be less economically exclusive: how to remain accessible to hard-up nonbelievers, improve outreach and stop godlessness being a movement for the wealthy. The same week, Sanderson Jones – cofounder and newly appointed CEO of the Sunday Assembly – asked me to meet with him and offer the SA advice. I did, although he spoke (somewhat defensively) at least as much as he listened to me.

In the article, I wrote:

Pay your interns – money.

If I could stamp one practice out in atheism, unpaid internships would be it.

[These] positions are prestigious. They help enormously when seeking an activist career. Shutting people out who can’t work for nothing, or who might even lose welfare checks if they do, keeps atheism dominated by the rich. And labour has value. Not paying for it is theft.

You wouldn’t accept pay in “experience,” so don’t expect your interns to. And don’t just pay a stipend to subsist on. Pay the minimum wage where you are; if you possibly can, a living wage. If you can’t at present, fundraise. If you’re on a high-up’s pay, take a cut – that sounds like ethical leadership to me. If you really, really can’t afford paid interns, don’t take on unpaid ones. Better you don’t help anybody up the ladder than that you only help the rich.

You’d think a group that cared about this as much as Jones claimed the SA did would get the message – it was, after all, the message most stressed in the piece that made him contact me.

Today, he posted on the organisation’s site:

We are very pleased to announce the Sunday Assembly Community Building Summer Programme. We are offering 10 volunteer internships for a six week programme, to help people all over the world start their own Assemblies.

In short, we’re after fun and friendly people that want to get experience volunteering for a grassroots community organisation that’s changing the world. In return you’ll get a super fun environment, training in various aspects of the organisation, and the chance make a real difference to the expansion of Sunday Assembly globally.

Now, we can only offer lunch money (and lots of appreciation) for this, because we have very little money ourselves. However, what we do have is some amazing volunteers and, with their help, we are putting together 6 half day training sessions, so that you not only get experience building community but you also learn cutting edge grassroots and leadership skills from amazing people.

Purpose of the Community Organiser

You’ll be acting as guides to organisers of new assemblies that are setting up around the world. Community Organisers will help support new Assemblies to put together a local organising team and get things up and running, as well as being a friendly point of contact to help them troubleshoot problems as they arise.

By the end of your internship you will have helped create new communities across the world.

Projects May Include

  • Making contact with our organising teams and leaders from around the world

  • Being their ‘Guide’ through the process of starting up a new local Sunday Assembly

  • Making sure new Assemblies have all the documents and toolkits they need to get going

  • Responding to queries as and when they arise (during office hours)

  • Finding other potential organisers in the local areas you’re working with to help form a local organising team


6 weeks (ideally full time) from the week commencing Tuesday 28th May (some flexibility on start date if still finishing exams etc).

Hours by agreement between 10-6pm Monday to Friday at our offices in Central London (near to Tottenham Court Road)

Support and Benefits

  • Expenses covered up to £20 a week

  • Weekly half day training workshops on different elements of our organisation from a sparkly array of speakers (see above)

  • The chance to make a real difference to the expansion of an exciting, young, international grassroots organisation

  • A glowing reference upon successful completion of the programme

  • The warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re helping to change the world for the better

What to do next

If you’re interested in coming on board for the summer, drop us a line ASAP and by Wed 21st May at the latest, at info@sundayassembly.com telling us the following (in 250 words or less) :-

  • why you think Sunday Assembly is great

  • why you are great

  • and finally how you think your greatness can make Sunday Assembly even more great

Please pop “I want to make Sunday Assembly even more great” in the subject line of your email so we can find your email quickly. We can’t wait to meet you.

According to Simon Clare, who recently left the Brighton SA over tensions with the London leadership, Jones ‘has already secured £50,000 worth of grants and donations, which will in part pay for his future wages.’ For your reference, six weeks of National Minimum Wage for ten interns working 40 hours a week – unless my Google’s maths is wrong – is £15,144. Even counting expenses payments as remuneration (rather than something extra), £20 weekly is fifty pence per hour.

These sound to me very much like employment-level positions, but in any case, filling them with full-time unpaid workers means no one can do them who can’t afford six weeks with no income in central London. If there’s one surefire way to make certain your organisation remains the preserve of the privileged for years to come, this is it. I’m skeptical of how much the SA really cares about this if they’re ignoring it – especially when it was one of the first things they heard from me.

Sanderson, colour me unimpressed.



John Paul II was a reactionary pope

Reaping the gains of his own time in office, John Paul II – who during his pontificate named more saints than the previous five centuries’ worth of popes – was canonised ten days ago. Recalling him fondly, especially for Catholics, is easy after eight years of Pope Benedict, so personally unpleasant and unpopular that he became the first man since the 1400s to give up the post. (Health fears, his official motivation, had not deterred any pontiff since then, John Paul included.)

Lesser evil though he may have been, we shouldn’t rewrite history to lionise the Polish pope, under whom the regress on so-called sexual morality began which has made the Church a bête noire; there can be little doubt, additionally, that Benedict’s witch-hunt as a cardinal for liberation theologians played out with his approval, since John Paul, well known as an opponent of the movement, packed South America with conservative bishops.

A better candidate for tribute is ex-Catholic writer Barbara Smoker, now in her tenth decade, president from 1971 to 1996 of the National Secular Society. With the publishers’ permission, I’m reprinting here an article of hers from the Freethinker of August 1998. Beyond her indictment of JP2, what’s striking is how wrong her predictions – shared, at the time, by many – turned out to be. A fundamentalist like Benedict wasn’t the expected replacement: without John Paul’s, his papacy could never have been a reality. 

While the Anglican churches were openly debating outmoded sexual restrictions at their international convention in Canterbury in July, and its host archbishop was making a fool of himself on the same subject in the pages of The Times, the Pope must have preened himself on having been able to get in first with his recent ‘apostolic letter’, Ad tuendam fidem (‘In Defence of the Faith’) – without any need for public consultation, agenda papers or proposals put to the vote.

The Guardian front-paged the document on July 2 under the headline ‘Pope turns on liberal Catholics’, and it is certainly designed to gag some of the more progressive theologians on these issues. But whether it will make much practical difference is another matter, since not only does the claim of papal infallibility ring increasingly hollow, but the Church no longer has the power to burn dissidents at the stake, and there can be few who regard excommunication as a fate worse than death.

Not that the document states anything new – quite the contrary.

It is really no more than a technical device to enshrine in canon law the traditional Vatican stand on such issues as artificial contraception, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, the medical and experimental use of foetal tissue and embryos, priestly celibacy, ‘family values’ and women priests – a stand which the Pope had already reiterated less formally in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (‘The Gospel of Life’), published in 1995.

In January 1989, a theological crisis was precipitated by the dissident document known as the Declaration of Cologne, signed by 163 North European (German, Austrian, Dutch and Swiss) theologians and later supported by many more. It demanded, inter alia, a modification of the total ban on contraception, and the 1995 encyclical was partly a put-down of that demand.

Then fifty-thousand women converged on Beijing, for the fourth United Nations Conference on women. As expected, the greatest controversy was on the worldwide campaign for greater access to contraception and for legal abortion, predictably opposed by delegates both from Catholic countries and from a number of conservative Muslim countries – in temporary alliance, as they had been on the same issue at the Earth Summit in Cairo. On abortion, they were also supported by a few fundamentalist Protestants, including two British delegates from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. But they were severely trounced by the liberal camp, spearheaded by Platform for Action and backed by a large majority of the delegates, including those of the European Union, with a more responsible attitude towards the world’s population explosion.

The Vatican itself sent a large delegation to Beijing – surprisingly headed by an American woman law professor, Mary Ann Glendon. She loudly proclaimed equal rights for women, while aiming to deny them rights over their own bodies.

Homosexuals in almost every Christian sect are made to feel guilty about their own nature, and homosexual Catholic priests particularly so. The next pope might well be less intransigent on this issue than the present one. In particular, the use of condoms by gays, included in the Vatican’s blanket ban on condoms – except for the perforated ones used in obtaining semen from husbands for IVF – is obviously crucial in preventing the spread of HIV; but the Pope will not compromise his insistence on total gay celibacy.

How long can the Vatican stand out against the tide of social history? The present pope will never change; but he can live for only a few more years. Younger members of the College of Cardinals, though chosen finally by the pope, are inevitably less reactionary on sexual matters than those too old to have a vote, and are ready for a change of policy; so the next pope is likely to be comparatively permissive.

The 800-year-old rule of clerical celibacy will almost certainly be made voluntary, if only because Catholic bishops are desperate about the multitude of priests leaving the priesthood. In the USA they are said to number 42 percent, of whom 90 per cent blame the celibacy mandate for their leaving. Besides, all the recent publicity given to the widespread sexual malpractices of priests, both with women and with vulnerable boys, points to the advisability of making celibacy voluntary. During the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-78), the requests of priests for laicisation so as to marry were received sympathetically, but the present Pope put a stop to this laxity and made it much more difficult for a priest to leave the priesthood without being excommunicated – apparently failing to predict that this would inevitably mean a rise in incidence of priestly ‘affairs’, not to mention child-abuse.

Acceptance of women to the priesthood will not be far behind a relaxation on celibacy for priests, if not for gays. There are several reasons for this – including the shortage of priests, political correctness on sex equality, and the desire for expansion through rapprochement with the Anglican communion.

The acceptance of artificial contraception – at least by certain methods – is also likely to follow closely on the election of the next pope, but the prohibition on abortion, widely disobeyed though it is, will almost certainly persist.

Sexuality has always loomed large in the problems that beset Mother Church – from the neurotic hang-ups of St. Paul, through the sexual scandals of the medieval papal court and of supposedly celibate clergy and monastics, through the Anglican schism triggered by Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn, to the insidious rebellion of millions of Catholic women against the Vatican’s continued ban on artificial contraception.

Comparatively flexible as the Anglican Communion is, the divergences exposed in the Lambeth Conference last month are making it difficult to hold together the Sea of Faith theologians at the one extreme and some of the fundamentalist African bishops at the other. There was a time when WASPs could afford to ignore African opinion, but now it represents their only strong growth area – as, coincidentally, it also does for the Church of Rome – and most of the African Christian converts, of both denominations, are as reactionary on sexual politics as the Pope himself.