Recommended reading: Rocky Horror, RuPaul, racism, Elliot Rodger and arguing badly

I’ve liked a few things lately. Snorking them all at once seemed like a good idea.

  • ‘Wild and Untamed Things: why a cult classic still resonates after all these years’, by Sam Wall (Scarleteen)
    It’s midnight somewhere. And that means that somewhere there are a bunch of people, dressed in fishnets and garish makeup, sitting inside a movie theater shouting at and singing along with the actors onscreen. Because it’s midnight, and that means it’s time for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are many theories as to why something that is, arguably, a really bad movie has managed to stay so popular and be so well loved. My theory is that it has to [do] with sex. Specifically, the way the movie portrays sexual desire and queer sexuality.
  • ‘“Why can’t Bailey Jay just have her feelings about RuPaul?” On the trans community and differences of opinion’, by Zinnia Jones
    When we’ve expressed our discomfort with hearing these slurs all the time, they’ve called us “nutty”, “fringe”, “fascists”, “trans lesbians” in a derogatory sense (why they think this is derogatory, I have no idea), “newly minted queers”, “stay at home activists”, and accused trans women of having “male privilege”. They’ve attacked our orientations and our genders. This has gone beyond a respectful difference of opinion.
  • ‘My oppression is not a tool to be used to bolster anti-feminism’, by Marwa Berro (Butterflies and Wheels)
    Those who hold such opinions, Dawkins included, can kindly fuck off.
  • ‘The Terrifying Familiarity of Elliot Rodger’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    It isn’t the discussion of Alpha Maledom or punishing women or revenge against humanity. No, it’s the least extreme musings at the start. They’re chilling. Why? Well, because I’ve thought those. Not in Rodger’s exact words, and not in context, but essentially the same. In long periods of singledom, I’ve been lonely and had ‘unfulfilled desires’. Especially when I was younger I’ve felt bitter that guys I had little respect for seemed better with women, I’ve been envious of relationships. I’ve thought that a global karmic fairness probably ought to give me a break.
  • ‘Top 10 Asshole Argument Moves’, by Kaveh Mousavi (On the Margin of Error)
    To change your argument mid-way without acknowledging it. To pretend your fringe version is the dominant version. Using a complex vocabulary to intimidate. Talking in parables. Adding another aspect to the debate. Assuming things about your opponent’s ideology. Pretending you’re above ideology. Arguing against the analogy instead of the concept. Saying ‘We need more nuance’ and then adding no nuance. Definition fetish[ism].

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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.

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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.

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No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV

Not many know gay marriage is a legacy of AIDS. Attempts by same-sex couples at the turn of the nineties to have partnerships legally recognised – in Denmark, New York, Hawaii – were prompted, in the words of the New York Times, by an epidemic that ‘brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to many people’s minds’. The argument gained ground, in fact, that pushing institutions of monogamy would stem the flow of HIV. ‘[I]n the wake of AIDS’, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New Republic, it would ‘qualify as a genuine public health measure. Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.’

On calling gay marriage reactionary and citing this in evidence, I’ve been accused of gravedigging – unearthing arguments now twenty-five years old and foisting them anachronistically on current debates, regardless of historical context. But Sullivan’s logic never went away: it’s led to his acknowledgement in U.S. media as the contemporary gay agenda’s author, and is visible today all over moves for marriage reform.

‘LGBT history will be made’, the Advocate reported only yesterday, ‘on January 1, 2014, when a same-sex wedding takes place atop the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s float during the 125th Rose Parade[.]

‘The wedding between Aubrey Loots and Danny Leclair, both gay men from Los Angeles, will be a first for the Rose Parade. The couple’s display of their love and commitment to one another invokes the parade’s 2014 theme, “Dreams Come True,” as well as the theme of the AHF’s float entry, “Love is the Best Protection,” which aims to celebrate same-sex marriage and the role it can play in helping to reduce new HIV infections among gay men. The Foundation’s float will be designed to resemble a wedding cake, with each couple tying the knot atop the float as living cake-toppers.’

Setting aside this terrifying image, suggesting as it does some hideous gay version of the Hunger Games – ‘the best protection’? Really?

‘Love’ doesn’t equal the promise of monogamy; to say so is in the first place a fool’s errand, and an unkind one at that. But neither protects against transmission anyway. How have Catholic doctrines of sex within marriage worked out in countries with HIV-AIDS epidemics? How did chastity work out for those infected by a loved and trusted partner? How did vilifying ‘promiscuity among some homosexuals’, painting AIDS as the fruit of sexual immorality, work out for Catholic Sullivan himself, found posting Craigslist ads in 2001 for unprotected anal sex with ‘other HIV-positive men’? If he couldn’t practise what he preached, why take for granted lesser mortals will?

That spouses play around, with or without permission, isn’t news. Expecting they won’t amounts to abstinence-based disease prevention, which the AHF need only turn on the news to see in action. If not out of deeply conservative sexual ethics, why expect us all to swear monogamy anyway, when prophylactics infinitely more effective exist? Public health is guarded best by public measures, not the pretence of private virtue – in this case, access to condoms, sex education and healthcare and funds for medical research. And are those who do want to make vows prevented by not having them state-recognised? Does monogamy’s achievability depend somehow on access to a civil register?

In a Telegraph column this May that replicated almost exactly Sullivan’s original case, claiming ‘marriage acts as a “commitment device”, encouraging fidelity and discouraging high-risk behaviour’, David Skelton tacked on perhaps the most bizarre argument yet: that ‘[b]y making clear that gay people are fully equal members of society, equal marriage could also help to reduce the level of alienation felt by some young gay people’ – thus, presumably, quash their pursuit of risky activities as a contrived form of self-harm.

Neil Giuliano of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation claimed much the same in the Huffington Post a month later, writing ‘When we promote and permit intolerance through bans on same-sex marriage, we enable and encourage feelings of marginalization, depression and isolation among gay people – particularly LGBT youth. As a result, things like substance use, alcohol consumption, and sexual risk taking increase. And we cannot ignore the data: these activities lead to more cases of HIV.

‘On the flip side, when we promote tolerance through marriage equality, we bring people in from the margins, we help them to feel more affirmed and connected, and risk taking decreases. When this happens, HIV infection rates also decrease.’

What data does Giuliano cite so ostentatiously? A study from 2009 at Emory University suggesting, in his words and its authors’, that constitutional bans on gay marriage in U.S. states ‘raise the infection rate by four cases per 100,000 people’. Without, admittedly, having viewed the paper in detail, the nationwide infection rate according to Wikipedia is 0.6 percent, meaning the rise in question would push numbers from 600 per 100,000 to – wait for it – 604.

A fringe subculture of deliberate infection does exist, but the impression’s hard to avoid that Skelton and Giuliano are reaching opportunistically for any way to praise gay marriage, no matter how baseless or co-optative. According to government figures from 2010, UK diagnoses more than doubled between 1995 and 2009. This period saw Britain’s age of consent equalised, Section 28 scrapped and civil partnerships introduced, greater media visibility for LGBT people and falls in the prevalence of homophobic attitudes, all uncontroversially steps toward ‘bring[ing] people in from the margins’. If none of them stifled HIV transmission, why would marriage reform today? Persuading oneself it’ll solve a slew of other problems is a nice way of making the workload appear smaller while taking no material action.

We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t. Things that may actually help aren’t just condoms and clean needles, sex ed, med research and so on, vital as those are; they’re housing, healthcare and community support for those who fall into sex work, self-harm, drug use or homelessness, services Britain’s government cuts to the bone while commending itself for legalising gay.

A gay rights lobby that applauds it and others like it is one thing – but claiming cynically while doing so that marriage holds the key to HIV prevention is a fiction adding insult to infection.

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Dawkins has made the wrong apology – admirable, it still suggests he’s missed the point

Remember what I said about the Dawkins molestation controversy? ‘No doubt this too will end in an extensive, hyperdefensive explanatory blog post’? Well… ahem.

In actual fact, Dawkins’ response to critics here isn’t all that extensive or hyperdefensive; it’s certainly better than what he churned out after ‘Dear Muslima‘ and the Islam debacle, and says some good things.

To excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from my intention.

I should have hoped that much was obvious. But I was perhaps presumptuous in the last sentence of the paragraph quoted above. I cannot know for certain that my companions’ experiences with the same teacher were are brief as mine, and theirs may have been recurrent where mine was not. That’s why I said only “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. We discussed it among ourselves on many occasions, especially after his suicide, and there was indeed general agreement that his gassing himself was far more upsetting than his sexual depredations had been. If I am wrong about any particular individual; if any of my companions really was traumatised by the abuse long after it happened; if, perhaps it happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that I endured, I apologise.

That’s a sincere, convincing mea culpa. I was glad to read it.

I’m not in love with his indignation at being, as he would have it, misread at every juncture – as I’ve written before, making himself understood is his job. Nor do I buy the notion, festooned across his Twitter feed, that those objecting to his statements – several anti-abuse organisations, slews of commenters at press outlets that covered this, hundreds of signatories petitioning for his comments’ retraction – must be chasing blog hits, attention-seeking or feel desperate to be offended. All bloggers want traffic, but why shouldn’t we take household names to task who say things we dislike, and what makes that dislike so difficult to find sincere?

This isn’t a notpology, all the same. It’s sensitive, shows tentativeness in an emotional-discursive minefield and takes responsibility: in other words, Greta’s to be precise, it’s the reason we speak out on things like this. I’m glad it was written; I’m glad to have read it; it’s an excellent step.

Still though, I’m not satisfied – because while I think this was a genuine, serious apology, I also think it was the wrong apology.

Saying this will, I realise, piss people off. I don’t wish to flog a dead horse or seem, moreover, like there’s no pleasing me, but as Dawkins’ post acknowledges, these issues matter. In Jason Thibeault’s excellent anatomy of an apology, he holds step one to be ‘Identify the problem’. While very admirably pitched, the passage above and its statement fail to note, as Dawkins tends to when under fire, the thrust of those critiques they’re meant to address.

Three main problems, by my count, were drawn out from his statements on abuse.

1. He said he doesn’t, and we can’t, ‘condemn [molesters] of an earlier era by the standards of ours’.
2. He presumed to know how much harm other victims’ abuse did them, or how harmful any given act of abuse might be.
3. He suggested harm done by abuse correlates directly with how much we should condemn it.

The latter two objections in particular are, for me, the major ones – and charitable as I want to be, I can’t say Dawkins’ statement addresses any of these issues. Parts of it, in fact, make matters worse.

Before the apology I quote, he says (emphasis mine):

Now, given the terrible, persistent and recurrent traumas suffered by other people when abused as children, week after week, year after year, what should I have said about my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s? Should I have lied and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me? Should I have mendaciously sought the sympathy due to a victim who had truly been damaged for the rest of his life? Should I have named the offending teacher and called down posthumous disgrace upon his head?

No, no and no. To have done so would have been to belittle and insult those many people whose lives really were blighted and cursed, perhaps by year-upon-year of abuse by a father or other person who was deeply important in their life. To have done so would have invited the justifiably indignant response: “How dare you make a fuss about the mere half minute of gagging unpleasantness that happened to you only once, and where the perpetrator was not your own father but a teacher who meant nothing special to you in your life. Stop playing the victim. Stop trying to upstage those who really were tragic victims in their own situations. Don’t cry wolf about your own bad experience, because it undermines those whose experience was – and remains – so much worse.”

Consider what he’s actually telling us here: that if someone assaulted just the same way he was did call it the worst thing that had happened to them, if they did name and shame the teacher, they’d have no right to, because this lasted only 30 seconds in the 1950s; that telling them not to ‘fuss’ about it due to that, and because the teacher wasn’t a loved one, would be ‘justifiably indignant’; that telling them to ‘stop playing the victim’, and not to ‘upstage those who really tragic victims’ (in other words, telling them they weren’t really a victim) would be ‘justifiably indignant’; that saying their expression of grievance undermined ‘those whose experience was… much worse’ would be ‘justifiably indignant’.

In other words, that if a given sexual assault is committed against you, there’s only a set amount of harm it might do – only, consequently, a set amount of pain that can permissibly be felt; only a set amount it can be voiced. This is fucked up.

Emotional trauma isn’t like physical trauma, where certain incidents inflict certain amounts. We can’t describe one assault empirically as more injurious in psychological terms than another, the way a traffic collision does more damage than a paper cut. Feelings aren’t facts: not every woman who experiences rape, as The New Inquiry‘s Charlotte Shane writes in a column everyone should read, considers it the worst moment of her life; some people who’ve been groped, by the same token, very much do view it that way – and both these responses to abuse are valid. How I feel about my sexual assault, and I’m afraid I don’t speak hypothetically, has no bearing on how others need feel about theirs, nor should it. A set transgression doesn’t cause, by definition, a fixed amount of emotional harm, nor deserve a fixed amount amount of sympathy.

If any of Dawkins’ classmates ‘really was traumatised by the abuse’, he writes, he apologises – only to then imply this would require it ‘happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that [he] endured’. It wouldn’t – it would only require different people, subject to the same abuse, to feel differently about it. The paragraph in which he chides his parallel self for naming the teacher, ‘making a fuss’, ‘playing the victim’ and ‘crying wolf’, as well as trying to ‘upstage’ other survivors, reminds me strongly of ‘Dear Muslima‘, his note to Rebecca Watson that since women elsewhere were stoned to death or mutilated, she had no right to complain of being followed into a lift and propositioned. It’s not a competition, and that it wouldn’t bother him need not suggest it shouldn’t bother her. Dawkins apologises for presuming to know the details of other people’s abuse – physical acts, their frequency, their duration – but not for presuming to know the harm it caused, because he draws no distinction.

The reason we condemn things like rape, abuse, harassment and assault isn’t that they necessarily traumatise people – they don’t, necessarily – it’s that they cross lines of consent however the victim feels. Not everyone minds being touched by strangers, shouted at in the street or subject to uninvited sexual comments; sometimes people enjoy sex to which they didn’t consent. This doesn’t make it acceptable: it’s still abusive to assume someone’s consent, even if correctly; to treat them as an object sans personhood, to view their body by entitlement as yours rather than theirs. Elevator Guy assumed the right to follow Watson into an enclosed space hard to escape and proposition her, with no reason to think she’d be comfortable with that and reason to think otherwise; Dawkins’ teacher assumed the right to touch his students sexually, with no reason to think they consented and reason to think otherwise. These actions would still cross ethical lines if Dawkins and Watson had been fine with them – what counts is that the perpetrators had no grounds to assume so.

I’m glad Dawkins made this statement. I’m glad that, for once, he took his critics seriously and replied to them in earnest. I’m glad he offered an apology – not something I’d expected, frankly refreshing and a definite positive step. I don’t say for a moment that it’s worth nothing. But nor, while I don’t it want it to seem he can do nothing good in my eyes, was it the right apology: admirable and well intentioned, it still suggests he’s missed the point.

‘Mild paedophilia’: Richard Dawkins’ molestation comments in depth

NB: contains personal reference to molestation/abuse, statements trivialising them.

Camp Dawkins have been after me since this morning, claiming that post misrepresented him, took what he said out of context or misunderstood his point.

I don’t think any of this holds, and I’m conscious too that I’ve heard clarifications from him before. When he told Rebecca Watson to shut up since FGM and stoning exist, people replied that didn’t mean nothing should upset her; he clarified – actually arguing something quite different – that he meant since Elevator Guy didn’t physically assault her, she had no reason to think ‘coffee’ meant ‘sex’. When he tweeted ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though’, the tweet (and his general commentary about Islam) were criticised; he clarified, in a lengthy, wilfully ignorant, defensive screed, what he actually meant.

This isn’t fair play. Dawkins is a professional communicator and globally read writer: his job is to say to things clearly, from the off. For a long time, in fact, he was paid specifically to teach ‘the Public Understanding of Science’: when many in the press, the public and his own community read his comments on sensitive matters (ones far less complex or mysterious than science facts he’s explained with ease) and reach certain conclusions, he and his acolytes don’t get to write them off simply as mass misapprehensions. Being apprehended right the first time round is well within his skill set; the onus should not be on the rest of us correctly to divine his intent.

This being said, I do want to be fair, and it’s true my prior post makes only so much reference to the context of his comments. With that in mind, I’m going to scour through the interview in which he makes them to the Times, published by RDFRS, and give my thoughts precisely on what he says.

The following is the passage from the article which deals with the issues at hand. I’ve cut the introductory paragraphs and extract from his book which follows, since I don’t think they’re relevant, but you can view them at the source.

Let’s begin.

Dawkins is fascinated by the way today’s transgressions might have been viewed differently not long ago. For instance, as a junior academic he went to the University of California at Berkeley for two years in the late Sixties, which gave him a ringside seat at the Summer of Love. He relates one vivid memory in his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder:

“I was walking along Telegraph Avenue, axis of Berkeley’s beads-incense-and-marijuana culture. A young man was walking ahead of me, dressed in the insignia of the flower-power generation. Every time a young woman passed him, walking in the opposite direction, he would reach out and tweak one of her breasts. Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

Which side is Dawkins coming down on here? On the face of it, the one which says deems this unacceptable: ‘impossible to believe’ has a distinct ring of outraged shock, and the next sentence (below) claims – while paraphrased from unknown comments – that he’s glad this wouldn’t now be allowed. (So he presumes, at any rate: five minutes browsing @EverydaySexism‘s feed might stop it seeming such a clear thing of the past.)

On the other hand, isn’t there a subtle romanticism to this account? In the heady days of incense, flower power and marijuana, ‘tweak[ing] one of her breasts’ sounds rather harmless, almost sweet – is that how the women in question would describe it? Instead of ‘tweaking’, as in a consensual sexual setting, might we not refer to ‘groping’, ‘assaulting’, ‘uninvited touching’? Something about ‘crying, “Harassment!”‘, too, feels hyperbolic, conjuring imagery of hysterical, overemotional women exaggerating infractions against them. This could just be my imagination – I’m not totally sure it isn’t – and it’s possible his comments in the past are biasing my reading here – but one could also say ‘informing’. Dawkins is talking here about a teacher’s assaults not being all that bad, notoriously told Rebecca Watson what happened to her wasn’t all that bad, and has a record of pointed innuendo toward anti-harassment rules. This colours my reading, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t.

He says he’s pleased how things have changed on the harassment front in the past 40 years. But on other occasions when that shifting moral zeitgeist rears its head – as boys, including him, are molested or beaten at his various boarding schools, for instance – he fails to be outraged. One master at his public school, Oundle, he writes, “was prone to fall in love with the prettier boys. He never, as far as we knew, went any further than to put an arm around them in class and make suggestive remarks, but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes.”

‘Nowadays’ – here, again, a flavour of reactionary nostalgia which typifies the red top press as much as pitchfork-wielding fears of paedophilia. (British tabloids, for readers overseas, have certain ever-present bogeymen: political correctness, one; standards of health and safety, another; child protection measures, likewise.) Never mind police: intimate touching and sexualised remarks from teachers in positions of trust do constitute harassment and abuse, just as they would among adults. What of it if this teacher ‘never went any further’? Children’s bodies are their own, just like anyone else’s, whether or not further infractions followed. Consequences for the man involved would have been fair and appropriate, not ‘terrible’ – that word describes his conduct, in my view, much more than any repercussions from police.

Is he guilty of rationalising bad stuff just because it’s past? “I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

My earlier comments on this passage stand:

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

One further question, though: if 18th century racism, 1940s child abuse or 1960s street harassment took place each in ‘another era’, what brought those eras to an end? It wasn’t some naturalistic progression of human ethics on its own, it was that people present objected. Slaves who revolted in the 1800s objected to racism; policymakers in the 20th century objected to corporal punishment in schools; women’s liberation objected to assault and harassment. These movements weren’t ahead of their time, they were of their time: clearly we can judge these transgressions by modern standards, since in part we inherit those standards from those who fought them in the past.

The mention of paedophilia inevitably brings us to the recent run of arrests of old white men accused of child sex abuse, starting with Jimmy Savile. Has the moral zeitgeist been shifting at their expense? “I think we should acknowledge it. That’s one point… But the other point is that because the most notorious cases of paedophilia involve rape and even murder, and because we attach the label ‘paedophilia’ to the same things when they’re just mild touching up, we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.”

Let’s not talk, for a start, about paedophiles; let’s talk about molestation. Actions, not desires, have ethical value, and discussion here needs to be about consent (or absence thereof), exploitation and abuse – not sexual feelings stigmatised as sick and evil just because.

It’s certainly true some kinds of molestation and abuse are worse than others. There’s an ethical spectrum, sure – but we can still draw discreet lines to mark out parts of a spectrum; even with infinite shades of grey, we can still mark the range between ’80% grey’ and black. Any sexual contact with anyone lacking consent, and any exploitation of anyone who can’t consent, means assault and abuse. This is the bracket that counts: that some within it are worse than others matters not at all in ruling who abuses and who doesn’t, who deserves our condemnation (however much of it) and who doesn’t.

So is there a risk of a metaphorical lynching of well-known people as soon as they’re accused? “I think there is a risk of that.”

Lynchings were when white people hanged and/or burned black people to death. Let’s not make this a metaphor for talking about sex abuse.

With regard to content, see my most on rape, reputations and reasonable suspicion. Although not written about adults and children, much of its commentary – on our response to accusations, specifically, and the fear of smearing those accused – applies here too. Importantly however, Dawkins’ concern is not based solely on allegations being unproven: even if someone is a molester, he seems to say, we shouldn’t tar them too heavily, since some are far worse than others. That is not the point: the point is that consent and autonomy matter, be their violation benign or sadistic.

What about the child sex abuse scandals that have led to anguished soul-searching and multibillion-dollar payouts in various outposts of Christianity? “Same thing,” he says. “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

There’s little to be said here that I haven’t said above – except one thing. No, Richard: priests who rape, assault and abuse and church bodies that protect them are not victims – of shifting standards or anything else. The only victims here are their victims. But if they were the victims of those standards, they would be your victims – casualties of everyone who holds (like me, most atheists and previously you) that churches’ standards are their truest relics. Be consistent.

In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”. The Oundle incidents don’t seem to have bothered him. The prep school one did, but he still can’t bring himself to condemn it, partly because the kind of comparison his adult mind deploys is with the mass murders carried out by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. “Without condoning what was done, at least try to put on the goggles of the period and see it through those eyes,” he says. “I find it much harder to put on those goggles where we’re talking about the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times. It’s hard to think of that and to forgive using modern standards in the same way as it might be for the schoolmaster who touched me up but didn’t actually do me any physical violence.”

I’ve seen recourse to non-violence like this elsewhere from Dawkins, when he insisted Elevator Guy did nothing wrong because his conduct involved ‘just words’ and not a physical attack. The relevant ‘nocturnal visits’, while we don’t know details, sound for one thing very much like attempted rapes (or else assaults which might easily have led to rape) – that, and in any case the fact they needed ‘fending off’, makes them violent. Regardless, though: boundaries of consent and bodily autonomy exist, and matter, whether or not violence is carried out.

None of this is to say Dawkins must feel traumatised by what was done to him – people can feel how they want about what happens to them, dealing with it how they want, and this is more true of serious transgressions rather than less. But what he’s said isn’t just that.

Calling molestation ‘mild’, proffering only tepid condemnation, asking abusers not be lumped together – as if not raping or killing, and not doing ‘lasting damage’ made some of them excusable – is not a personal statement of feeling, it’s a generalised prescription about how we treat assault. The extent of emotional harm done doesn’t affect whether something, groping specifically, constitutes assault and abuse. Personal feeling doesn’t matter here: standards of consent and autonomy do.

These, through his statements on molestation, are what Dawkins threatens – what, ultimately, he surrenders. Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog, has called on him via petition to retract them. I recommend you sign.

See also: Greta’s round-up of posts on this.

Commenters, please see this request.

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation

NB: contains personal accounts of adult-child molestation, graphic reference to domestic violence and corporal punishment.

Imagine a senior Catholic official – a British archbishop, say, or a cardinal in Rome – spoke to the Times about his childhood church. Imagine he described a village priest who ‘pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts’, claiming this priest molested other boys regularly. Imagine that, while calling this ‘extremely disagreeable’, the Catholic official then said ‘I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.’ Imagine he stressed this happened in the 1940s, arguing ‘you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours’, cautioned ‘we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket’, and suggested according to the newspaper ‘that recent child sex abuse scandals have been overblown’.

How would atheists online react? Not well, I’m sure.

The Catholic official could count, in John Berryman’s words, on being nearly crucified. Twitter’s atheists would pour vitriol on him; blogging atheists would spell out, painstakingly and once again, why That was another time! is a terrible argument, as terrible here as when used to justify biblical atrocities, and some forms of molestation being worse than others (or some victims’ lack of major trauma) no reason to deny its categorical abusiveness and unacceptability; the forums at RDFRS would, collectively, hold a feeding frenzy.

Except it wasn’t a Catholic who said this. It was Richard Dawkins.

The interview itself is paywalled, but the Times story on the ensuing backlash has been shared at Dawkins.net, as has the interview itself. There are several things I want to say.

Dawkins has drawn a lot of criticism recently. I criticised his tweets about Islam this August, then many others did, and he doubled down with a response that overlooked all relevant points and made things worse; more recently, Sarah Moglia criticised him for trying to block Rebecca Watson’s invitation to 2012′s Reason Rally as a speaker. (The year before, he infamously mocked Watson’s discomfort when propositioned in a lift, and was duly criticised for that.)

All this, and still I can’t quite comprehend his comments here. It’s one thing being reckless, unguarded or imprecise, as all of us occasionally are; it’s another thought entirely, and frankly skull-jangling, that someone paid for years as a communicator with the public, since then a bestselling global author and media fixture, could put their foot so absolutely firmly in their mouth. No doubt this too will end in an extensive, hyperdefensive explanatory blog post [Edit 12/09/13: oh look.] – but how could anyone make these remarks and not foresee a PR storm?

One notable defence of Dawkins recently, fisked on this blog, came from Nick Cohen at the Spectator, who called the criticisms at hand pathetic, discreditable and a distraction from combating Islamism – imploring readers in particular to shut up about Dawkins and protect Nahla Mahmoud, a UK ex-Muslim threatened with violence. (He signed the relevant petition the day his article went out, three and a half weeks after I had. Make of this what you will.)

I don’t accept we need choose between critiquing Islamists or Dawkins, but anyway: if now isn’t a good time, Nick, then when? If we can’t take him to task for calling sex abuse ‘mild’, insisting not all child molesters be ‘lumped together’, when can we chastise Richard Dawkins? (Molestation, and not ‘paedophilia’, being the operative term.)

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

We’ve seen these double standards from him before: Dawkins lays gleefully into religious sexism, but shows little interest – or outright contempt – when atheist women cry secular misogyny; he pales at domestic violence (and ‘pales’ is instructive) so long as it’s religiously inspired, bolstering his antitheist case, but won’t fully condemn the caning of 1940s schoolchildren. When girls in Sharia states are beaten till they bleed by parents, as Marwa Berro was, it’s because Islam is planet Earth’s greatest evil; when eight-year-olds in British-run prep schools were hit with wooden sticks till welts and bruises formed, it was just another era. (Note that in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, a culture of systemic abuse is special cause for condemnation; in 1940s British-colonial Rhodesia, it’s an excuse.)

When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. (This meant, apparently, that I was unwilling to criticise religion/soft on Islam/racist/PC/a freedom-hating commie.) If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the ‘earlier era’ argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.

Commenters, please see this request.

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal

My blog on Lady Gaga’s use of burqa (actually niqab) imagery was a discussion of relevant topoi in broad terms – it conceded that never having worn hijab or been made to, I can’t speak to what that’s like any more than Gaga. This is a guest post, as promised, from Marwa Berro of Between a Veil and a Dark Place, who can. Tweet her your thoughts at @Marwa_Berro

NB: refers to personal experience of parental abuse, harassment and intimidation, violence, mental illness, racism and state terrorism.

A lot has been said about Lady Gaga’s new song ‘Aura’, which was leaked several weeks prior to her live performance of it at the London iTunes festival this month.

The argument that this song others, eroticizes, and fetishizes Muslim women in ways they do not want or approve of has been made here and here.

The argument that this song blatantly commits cultural appropriation, is context-blind, and falls into orientalism has been made here.

An argument by a Muslim woman in support of the song, arguing that it allows Muslim women to be viewed as powerful and active sexual beings rather than a forcibly oppressed voiceless mass, has been made here.

Alex Gabriel, kindly hosting me as a guest-blogger, wrote about it a few days ago too, pointing out several layers of irony and paradox in the gap between Gaga’s representation and the reality of the burqa and other forms of Muslim veiling.

Much has already been said. I am here to make it personal.

I’m not here to give yet another spin on the critiques of Gaga’s song as orientalist and fetishizing and appropriating and ignorant. It’s been hashed and re-hashed and some of it is great and some of it is trivial and the arguments and responses to them have been made, and I am not willing to expend the emotion and care it takes to separate what has already been said into smaller and more robust distinctions.

Nor am I here to say something for the sake of saying something about it, because I am an ex-Muslim woman of color who blogs about such things and thus I must blog about this thing.

But I must blog about this thing.

Because after I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.

If you read my blog you’ll know by now that I am one for careful preambles. Talking about this takes great emotion and care. From what I have read on the topic already, even those arguments in passionate defense of the rights of brown women not to be lumped together as one entity, appropriated and consumed, have left me feeling empty. The discourse has been so depersonalizing as to make me feel almost physically ill. And I watch the video again and feel ill again at how the criticism of it has been given in such general terms of what Muslim women want and don’t want, have and don’t have, can and can’t choose – without actually mentioning specific instances of any of that. What is it like to want or not want, have or not have? What it is it like to choose and not choose the hijab, the burqa, the niqab? To be faced with such a choice? How is it presented? What does it mean? Why is it important? Where is the discussion of what it is like to wear the hijab, the niqab, or the burqa in private, in public, by choice, or unwillingly, as identity or as norm?

I understand why this hasn’t really been gone into. This is an issue so broad that subjectivity could be utterly limiting. There is good reason for generality, striving to preserve sound argumentative form by attacking the issue from multiple planes, so as to be all-encompassing and unbiased. But does it work? Because as a result, I read all of this commentary and come away thinking that it has missed, in some dire ways, how nearly entirely removed it is from the details of a woman’s life that give the concepts of appropriation and oppression meaning.

I say this to assert that when it comes to gender and identity politics, there is good reason to ignore the philosophical urge to entirely sidestep personal anecdote as an incoherent form of commentary and critique because of the probability that it is fallaciously unrepresentative. There is moving power in literary-narrative critique that is not to be found in philosophical argumentation, and the field of creative nonfiction (encompassing personal essay and memoir) is testament to how rhetoric that is personal can change minds and hearts, be listened to, gather money, create movements for social change, make real things happen. Not that the more impersonal arguments cannot do all of this also. It is not a binary. They ought to supplement each other, precisely because specific example illustrates in ways that general discussion cannot. So I am here today, as a gentle reminder of the how deeply personal all of this is, how powerfully supplemental personal narrative can be to general argumentation.

Here is a story, and with it a promise.

The story starts like this: a woman wears the hijab from her childhood, for fourteen years from the age of nine to the age of 23. She moves to the West and stops wearing it at that point, angry and resentful of the wasted confusion and coercion of those years, and doesn’t know what exactly to do with that energy. That she knows what she wants and takes what she wants now is true; it is also true that the complexity of the life-long process of coming to that knowledge and ability has left her somewhat bereft and burdened.

When she was nine years old and came of age, her mother asked her if she wanted to wear it. Her mother, who was the warm, smiling, giving woman who fed her and cradled her when she was sick, who comforted her and shielded her from the dark, who taught her to cup her hands like a book she read from, and ask for mercy and grace from above.

I promise you she was asked when she was nine, and that her mother who wore it too not only asked her, but explained to her what it meant, what it was for, how it was protective like a shimmering oyster around a precious pearl, how it kept the special things about a person special for only the closest and most special people to see. I promise you, they asked her. And she was surrounded by it, living on a compound in Saudi Arabia as a Lebanese-American expatriate with family friends of similar backgrounds, surrounded too outside the compound by niqabs and black abayas hiding the special graces of special people she was not special enough to see. And little girl that she was, she wore the abaya by law whenever she left the compound, venturing into the public places of the Kingdom, because so it was dictated by the highest power in the land. I promise you she said yes and she meant it, because it was so clearly right and normal and she wanted to be like her mother. They threw her a hijab party. She cut her cake, her small hand with fingernails newly cleaned from the ornamental polish of childhood.

I promise you that fifteen years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice/My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about a choice they could never fathom having to make.

When she was thirteen, she was tired of being an ugly, awkward, desexualized, bullied girl with raging hormones and a forged parental signature on the permission slip for sex ed in health class. She was a teenager, and had she been the girl with a leg brace or stutter she would have been tired of that too, but it happened that she was the girl who wore a rag on her head (and was told she wore a rag on her head) in this American school full of bare limbs, bare heads in the middle of the Arabian desert. She was tired of being thirteen, hardly with the nubs of breasts, and having her sleeves checked by her mother before she went to school, to see if they covered her wrists all the way. She was tired of her mother measuring all her shirts to make sure they went down over her knees, making sure her jeans were baggy enough, tired of hair plastered back by pins and more pins under her hijab in the desert heat, her notebooks and bag and pockets routinely searched and checked, her phone calls listened to, her roller blades and bike incrementally torn away from her, an absolute ban on makeup or nail polish of any kind – and understanding finally that it was about sex, even though she did not know yet what sex was.

I promise you she was confused and said NO in her head, and once dared to take the hijab off when she was at school, and did not understand the choice she made in taking it off because she only took it off due to being harassed and tired, and she might have torn off a leg brace or her glasses in the same way.

Maybe.

Maybe even then she kind of knew it was not the same, because there was something about how urgent and moral wearing this thing was, how important it was, and how could she think her father would not find out? How could she think she would not be dragged across the floor by her hair and have it cut off with a knife, and be relegated to sleeping and doing homework for weeks in the storage room, because it was her place? Did she not understand what it meant to have a place and a role and a responsibility she had to fill? Because it was expected by others – because others asked her if she wanted to wear it when she turned nine and she didn’t ask herself, and she wore a veil over her head but was always watched and it was never about what she wanted.

I promise you eleven years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about wanting something, as if she could fathom what it is to want ownership of your body in this way, to know who the girl you were behind all of that even was, independent of what she was allowed to be.

When she was fourteen, she repatriated to her homeland, Lebanon. They sent her to an all-girls school at first, an Islamic one with uniforms, and the guilt of looking different and being shamed for it was gone, but gone with it was any space that allowed wanting to look different or be different. Her yellow prayer card was stamped every recess as she joined rows and rows of identically clad girls in the school’s rooftop mosque area. At first she rebelled by rolling up her sleeves and growing her fingernails, but soon she found peace and pleasure in conformity, and she thought of her body as a holy thing of grace, a beauteous thing of wonderment that only she knew and only one person who committed his livelihood and self to her utterly could ever access. She loved her hijab and wore it by choice, violent choice that she’d defend if anybody tried to touch her or it. It was hers.

I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.

But I promise you, it did not last – because even when she was willing and loving of all that was prescribed to her, even though she prayed and fasted and was so clean, none of that was easy, and though she wore and wanted to wear it, the choice she already made was not an easy one to keep implementing, moment after moment, day after day. She had to watch how she walked and spoke, to keep checking her sleeves and hairline and socks, and hardest of all, to watch how she thought as it grew and changed so she could keep it in line and reconcile it with the choice she had made as she learned more about what that choice meant. She learned that the hijab was not just about sex, but about control and power and honor and her entire family, and it was not even about itself, a thing by itself or a symbol, but only one thing among a million other things, a symptom of something much bigger, a set of behaviors that underlie an entire social structure. She learned that though she chose it, the hijab afforded her no privacy of being or thought, and still all she said and did and read and kept was watched and checked. She learned how to hide her books and stash and code her stories and essays successfully, so she could keep more secrets. She learned that the hijab was the most private thing in the world, and that she had no privacy.

Then she was twenty, and I promise you she had gone through every loophole and read through every book trying to understand why things seemed to be so disproportionately controlled for women, why she had to stand in the back during prayer and not speak though she was smarter and livelier and more articulate, why women were constantly compared to inanimate objects like lollipops and pearls in attempts to honor them. She shed blood for asking questions, and tears for not understanding the answers. (That is not a metaphor.) Nobody told her she was allowed to create her own answers, but she understood that maybe she could, and keep them to herself, and never tell anybody what they were because they were not the right ones. None of it was special or hers or new or an uncommon narrative.

I promise you she loved a boy who she would not touch without a marriage rite and read enough to figure out how to perform one herself, but things went wrong and she tried to leave her parents’ home and ran away, and she wasn’t even a heathen yet but she ran away still, and they had a militant Islamist organization track her down, bring her home and keep her quiet while she was first taught lessons of what she was allowed to do with her skin and what was allowed to be done to it, then locked away for months without books or human contact but with drugs and doctors and suppressants. I promise you she understood the one choice to be made was to conform and that was how things would change.

And four years later, I promise you, she listened to Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to touch me, cosmic lover?/Do you want to peek underneath the cover?’, trembling at how easy it was for this person to invite other people who were different and strange to a place even her own self was not allowed; to give a sexual invitation without acknowledging how powerful, dangerous, taboo, wanted, yearned for something close to a sexual identity could be.

Then she was 23: successful, accomplished, educated and an educator who was modest and reserved and kind outwardly, and a robot in every other way. She had a letter of acceptance to graduate school in the United States in one hand, and then the real ticket there in the other: approval and acceptance from her parents. She was 23, and had spent the last ten years thrashing into her pillows from sexual frustration, curling her fists in her pockets, hiding relationships and friendships like dirty secrets, saying godly words though her heart had lost God years before, fasting from food and water though she did not believe it held any merit, praying because others were watching and even mouthing the words in case they read her lips, nullifying her own thoughts and instincts and feelings and humanity, regulating her emotions and responses like a clock.

She flew to the West, convinced it would backfire at any moment, and a lifetime of work and struggle, confusion, pain, punishment, and mistakes flew with her. She flew, waited, gathered courage, and took off her hijab.

And claimed her sexuality. Lost her family. Lost her homeland. Lost her peace of mind to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks.

And claimed her body. Lived – lives – in fear.

A year later, she watched Lady Gaga sing this song, trembling at how easy it is for everybody to say things like ‘A Muslim woman can be a sexual being’ and ‘The burqa and niqab and hijab represent complex choices’ and ‘Women from Muslim cultures can reclaim the burqa as a symbol of their own freedom and identity’, and ‘It eroticizes Muslim women in a way they haven’t consented to’ and so on and so on and so on. It is easy to say these things without thinking of the years of thought and movement and struggle and defiance and confusion and control and suppression that is entailed in having, doing, choosing, wanting these things.

In retrospect, this girl, watching Lady Gaga sing so easily about things so weighty and momentous and dangerous and grave – about life-defining, moving things – she remembers things she never even knew were so integral to the puzzle. She flashbacks to when she was four, before her expatriation, when she called 911 when her parents were not home because she didn’t know what it meant and wanted to see what would happen. Her parents arrived with the police, and explained to them how they had to run out to the leasing office down the street for fifteen minutes, just fifteen minutes to sign some paperwork – and they were afraid, being Muslims in America, of having their children torn from them on pretense of negligence, as afraid as they were when it happened to another Muslim family because of a bathtub accident; as afraid as they were when the FBI visited their home just when she, their daughter, was born, asking why her parents called the Arab-American hub of Dearborn, Michigan so often; as afraid and suspicious as they were of Western backing of the foreign occupation of Lebanon that had caused them to immigrate to begin with.

This is about the hijab too, because it is this fear of invasion, takeovers and control that spurs so much invading, taking-over and control. Her mother was so afraid that she beat the little girl and told her never to do such a thing again. And again, it was fear when she beat the girl at six for touching herself, at ten for running outside without her hijab, forgetful, at thirteen for changing clothes when she got to school, at sixteen for refusing to go to bed at midnight, at nineteen for not answering questions when she was asked them – because security and protection and keeping personal things personal was so powerfully important.

So there is one story, from one woman: me.

Maybe another story from another woman will come along, and another, and another. Because the greatest relevance this discussion has is as commentary on the very personal struggles Muslim women and women in Muslim-majority countries deal with regarding their personal autonomy and sexual identities.

Maybe somebody will be moved by one of these stories in a way that they are not when they are told that somebody’s culture has been appropriated and it hurts, it hurts.

And maybe some of these stories will become normalized, the voices heard in mainstream media, the movements requisite to change things undertaken.

Maybe. Either way, my conscience compelled me to tell this story because none of it is easy, general, impersonal. People live, die, bleed, love, and hate for these choices.

Singing about them is so easy. Making them is everything.

Marwa Berro is a Lebanese American blogger, philosopher, writer, atheist, and apostate from Islam. She engages in critique about Muslim and ex-Muslim issues at her blog, Between A Veil and A Dark Place. She writes fiction and teaches creative writing, composition, and rhetoric at a very lucky school in the midwest. She blogs under a pseudonym.

How not to write about bisexuality

Earlier this year, I appeared in a small segment of English radio presenter Jeremy Vine’s discussion programme. Researchers contacted me after reading my blog; the studio guest was Julie Bindel, beloved bête noire of trans* people and bisexuals, and the topic was something like ‘Do all gay people want gay marriage?’ Most other phone-in guests sidestepped all relevant critique of the gay marriage project with worn-out euphemisms like ‘We have equality!’ and ‘We don’t personally want to get married’ – during prep, I felt my contribution being pushed in that direction, and my sense was guests were being sought who could be used to validate conservative heel-digging on the issue. (The segment no longer seems to be online, but I think I did a good job nonetheless.)

What really pissed me off, and has irked me since, was my introduction. Before going live, I’d given my handler a brief self-description on request, stating I wrote on ‘queer left politics’ and lived in Oxford; since I’m not gay, being interested in men, women and everyone between and beyond, I asked specifically not to be glossed as such. The researcher in question took helpful note of this, double-checking the description I’d provided and that point of emphasis; another producer, before placing me on the line, went through these details one last time to triple-check with me. I appreciated this. You’ll understand my annoyance then when, welcoming me to the programme, Jeremy Vine announced the studio was being joined by Alex Gabriel, a writer on ‘gay left politics’.

Never mind that ‘gay left’ isn’t even a recognised political identity; never mind that Vine’s researchers, paid to compile accurate biographies for guests, had checked three times the text in front of him was correct: I’m queer. That’s my sexual identity, the way somebody else’s might be lesbian or straight. I don’t particularly call myself ‘bisexual’, but I can live with having the word applied to me; I can’t live with being described as gay – on national radio, no less – when I’ve specifically said I’m not. (If you think, by the way, that ‘gay’ is an acceptable umbrella term for everyone in the LGBT+ population – why, actually? Would you use ‘transgender’ or ‘lesbian’ that way?)

This isn’t like someone straight being termed gay accidentally; it isn’t quite like someone gay being termed straight. Calling me gay helps spread the myth everybody’s one or the other - it promotes erasure of everyone whose sexuality’s not binary. That erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all. (In fact, she was.)

It’s the reason magazines like Attitude hire non-bisexual columnists like Iain Dale to write about bisexuality. Often, and Dale is no exception, they do it badly.

‘Inside the mind of every bisexual’ writes Dale, whose radio show I was also on a medium-to-long time ago, ‘is a gay man struggling to get out. At least, that’s the view of many. It’s a widely held view that bisexuals are people who either want the best of both worlds, or, who are still too scared to embrace their inner gayness because they are on hold in some sort of mid-way sexuality transit lounge.’ It’s also a widely held view God created the world in the last 10,000 years; it’s a widely held view humans aren’t causing climate change; it’s a widely held view benefit fraud is soaring, as compared with an actual fraud rate of 0.7 percent. Plenty of widely held views are false, including those Dale voices, his couching them in such terms notwithstanding: the specific idea bisexuals (all seemingly men) are greedy and opportunistic, for instance, or gay and in denial. I’ve no desire at all, personally, for ‘the best of both worlds’: I choose in practice to see men primarily because I dislike having straight partners, prefer the distinct texture of gay relationships and feel drawn to partnering conventions – polyamory, for example – less widespread in straight society; thanks to bisexual invisibility, moreover, I’d already identified for years as gay (sincerely and quite happily, I might add) when I became aware of an interest in women.

It’s mildly ironic, given how many of the above ‘widely held views’ inform their platform and the party’s overtly queerphobic record, that Dale calls UKIP ‘the bisexuals of British politics’ at ConservativeHome. ‘They don’t quite know whether they are Arthur or Martha’, he says. ‘Instinctively they are still Conservatives, but they fancy a walk on the wild side. The question is, once they have satisfied their self-indulgent desires or perversions, will they return to the comforting fleshy folds of the mother party?’ Adultery, at which the final words here hint, would surely be more analogous to Tory voters’ fling with UKIP – but in any case, we are not swing voters. We do not move, as swing voters do, between being gay and straight, nor are we part gay, part straight. Our identities are self-sufficient, self-contained and whole, not just composites of other people’s. Dale’s metaphor fails even on its own terms: rather than oscillating between sides in a two-party system many find dated, UKIP exists outside and beyond it – bisexuality, likewise, exists outside and beyond, rather than within, the gay-straight binary. (Gender, regarding the Arthur/Martha line, is incidentally not binary either.)

The Attitude piece was prompted, it seems, by Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski’s coming out as bisexual this June. ‘To his utter astonishment,’ writes Dale, ‘the thirty people present rose as one and gave him a standing ovation. I wondered at the time whether they would have done that if he had said he was gay.’ The author asserts ‘genuine’ bisexuals are rare, since ‘a true bisexual is someone who… doesn’t have a particular preference on way or the other’ (this applies to almost no one bisexual) and ‘experimentation does not a bisexual make’. ‘Simon Hughes may or may not be one of them,’ he continues, ‘but the Liberal Democrat deputy leader seems to be a politician who can’t quite seem to get out of the transit lounge. Should we blame him for that, should gay men criticise him because he can’t bring himself to admit what most people assume he is – gay?

‘…Daniel Kawczynski will feel a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Yes, he will be the subject of gossip at Westminster, but that goes with the territory. There will be members of his family, long term friends who feel let down by the fact that he hasn’t been honest with them. But in the end they will realise that for people of a certain age, these things are incredibly difficult.’

It’s unclear what ‘he hasn’t been honest with them’ means: is Dale saying Kawczynski lied to his family about being straight, or about being bisexual? The perfect tense (compare: ‘hadn’t been honest’, ‘wasn’t honest’) suggests the latter, especially in view of his comments toward Hughes. ‘Experimentation’ is the byword of non-normative sexualities’ dismissal and erasure, but it’s true no specific sexual act makes a bisexual; all that makes someone bisexual, and all we need consider when taxonomising them, is that they identify that way. There is, as Dale himself concedes, no fixed ratio of interest in men and women which makes that identity permissible; ‘gay’, ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’ are arbitrary, amorphous things we use reflexively however suits us, not objective diagnostics like ‘HIV positive’ or ‘allergic to wasps’. There’s certainly reason to question, therefore, how much people’s identities actually tell us – but not to police or regulate who uses which.

Were I in Kawczynski’s position today, such innuendo wouldn’t please me: the last thing anyone needs on coming out, particularly as bisexual, is conjecture about whether or not they’re really what they say – as if anyone held empirical scales on which to measure this. (Having come out as gay at 12, I saw years of similar invalidation – and the fact my identity’s since changed doesn’t mean that one was incorrect at the time.) In my own position, reading Dale’s piece was uncomfortable. Yes, there’s often overlap between gay and bi men, but that’s perfectly fine: we all get to understand and articulate our orientation how we want.

Iain: you asked people on Twitter what part of what you’d said was wrong. I hope this post answers your question.

Attitude: if you care about bisexuals, this is not the kind of commentary you should publish.

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Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth

When Margaret Thatcher died this April, ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ reached number two on the UK singles chart. Campaigns on social networks all but swept the song to the top spot, but the BBC, citing concerns of propriety, offense and taste, refused to play the song in its official countdown. Instead, a five second clip was shown in a news item. The socialist left and liberal right, of course, bristled at this while conservatives applauded, but the real joke was on Thatcher: her Cold War rhetoric sold us the notion high capitalism enfranchised us – that purchasing power was people power, and property-owning democracy the only kind. Could there be a better rebuttal? To send a message, Britons spent tens of thousands downloading the song, embodying the commerce-as-democracy narrative, but in an instant, Britain’s state media defused their action.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron, recently praised for his Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s signing gay marriage into law, has cultivated an image cuddlier by far than Thatcher’s. On personal approval ratings, he is easily his party’s greatest asset, and marketed himself from his leadership’s outset as ‘a modern, compassionate conservative’, declaring in his first conference speech that marriage means something ‘whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man’. This isn’t the Tory Party of Section 28, the law that banned ‘public promotion of homosexuality‘ – and subsequently, Conservative support among LGBTs rose from 11 percent at the 2010 election to 30 percent at the end of last year. Yet Cameron is at least a Thatcherite. Inflicting spending cuts unrivalled since World War Two, his government makes hers look virtually left wing. His early statement, ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’ was pitched to distance him from her, but reified in fact her central axiom that aiding the poor or homeless lay outside government’s purview. In 2011, he even promised us the ‘new presumption’ all public services would by default be at least part-privatised.

That the Daily Telegraph column in which he wrote this glossed private takeovers as ‘diversity’, liberal byword for LGBT inclusion, says much of Cameron: he’s a man for whom, like Thatcher, all logic returns to that of the market. In the ninety minutes following Barack Obama’s statement, ‘Same-sex couples should be able to get married’, a million dollars went to his re-election campaign, and as a media executive before his time in parliament (who, only two years prior to his leadership, voted to keep Section 28), it’s conceivable the PM’s ‘pro-gay’ stances are more about profit than principle – I believe, though, that deep Thatcherite impulses drive them. His earliest support for civil partnerships came in the context of an argument the nation needed more marriage and less divorce; it’s no surprise he wishes to give married couples tax breaks, because for him, marital and family ‘commitment’ means personal responsibility – an alternative, that is, to public provision. Cameron’s political rhetoric, too, blames ‘family breakdown’ on overindulgent spending, slashing welfare to keep husbands and wives together. Behind the PM’s love of gay marriage, and marriage in general, hangs this bleak backdrop.

When he said he supported gay marriage due to, and not despite, being a Conservative, he wasn’t lying; as it did for Andrew Sullivan before him, gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?

Read the rest at {Young}ist.