Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out

One irony of Jodie Foster’s speech at last month’s Golden Globes has been its lauding – despite her statement, ‘There won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight’ – as a closet-leaving moment.

‘It has been been widely known in Hollywood circles for years’, the Guardian’s story read, ‘that Foster … is gay’; the actor, according to the Indian Express, ‘confirmed long-running speculation that she is gay’. What Foster did, in fact, was refer in passing to a female ex-partner and state, uninterested in giving further details, that she came out decades previously while ‘a fragile young girl’. (At no point did she specify that she came out as gay, or identified as such, but we all know everyone with a same-gender partner does.)

Given the recent trend of celebrity self-outings, it’s difficult to blame the press for wanting another. ‘Living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it’, Zachary Quinto wrote in 2011, ‘is simply not enough’; the following year, Anderson Cooper told Andrew Sullivan and his readers, ‘The unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle.’

We’ve all known people hesitant to come out, and the privacy defence is a common one. ‘It’s my business,’ they’ve told us. ‘Why does anybody else need to know?’ Coming out, the usual answer goes, is political: creating visibility erodes established stigmas, and the more people are openly queer, the less extraordinary it will seem not to be straight, making others feel less marginalised, alienated and alone. If some of us are able to be out, Cooper’s and Quinto’s statements argued, we ought to be.

Foster’s speech was notable for its departure from this loud-‘n’-proud narrative, informing us her coming out took place ‘a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age’ as a gradual, private process, before the average star was made to share ‘the details of their private life’. ‘Privacy,’ she said. ‘Some day in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.’

The politics of erotic privacy have always been contentious, and while each of us deserves the time to go public (or not) when we feel we can, it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment that all those who can come out should, in whose face Foster’s emphasis on privacy flies. As long as our society punishes non-straight identities, after all, they aren’t a purely personal area, and if the closet means anything, surely it means the public presumption of heterosexuality?

Insistence on queer desire as private, too, has often worked to shame it. Arthur Gore, the Conservative whip who co-sponsored the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, asked that those aided by it act ‘quietly and with dignity’, without ‘any form of public flaunting’ – in other words, that they deviate as much from sexual norms in private as they wished, but never think of acting out (that is, acting ‘queer’) in public, instilling in the straight populace a troublingly more-than-academic awareness of their lives. (The Act itself legalised gay sex in private, but public displays of even the mildest affection stayed subject for decades to police harassment).

It’s worth considering on the other hand that in practical terms, Jodie Foster was already out before the Golden Globes – not just to the ‘trusted friends and family’ her speech made mention of, but to her industry and the world beyond. As Robyn Harper has pointed out in the Huffington Post, her relationship with Cydney Bernard was publicly acknowledged in a similar speech from 2007 while still ongoing, and their split the following year was covered in the press. Anyone who’d wanted to find out if Jodie Foster was a straight woman could easily have done so, and no doubt many did. Vilifying her refusal, then, to come out explicitly as gay, lesbian or anything else ignores that she already served as a queer public figure, and was never required to utilise received identifiers. (Some of us, myself included, aren’t willing to define ourselves except as non-straight).

The retroactive pressure exerted on Foster by her critics demands not just that she be out, but that she come out, with all the PR bells and whistles we’ve grown used to in the last few years. As with Jaymi Hensley’s coming out on The X-Factor last autumn, the subtext is that famous people are straight until they announce otherwise. The closet, in this sense, is recuperative: the more loudly and dramatically one exits it, particularly as a public figure, the more surprising the disclosure is made to seem, thus reinforcing straight identity as the presumptive default. If anyone is anything but heterosexual, then like contraband at an airport, this is something to declare; straight people are in danger, otherwise, of being forced to acknowledge those around them as potentially queer.

It isn’t just celebrities, of course, whose revelations can cause a stir – hence we’ve found ourselves historically trapped, wedged captive between erasure in the closet and the othering co-optation of theatrical comings-out. What Jodie Foster models is a radical third option, a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.

Reasons to be fearful: politics and why queer minorities should care

In the gay scene, ideology is less than chic. Where ‘gaybourhoods’ exist – Canal Street in Manchester, Soho in London, etc. – pulsating bass lines and flashing neon lights, not arguments about government, dominate them. For every politician on magazine front covers, there are twenty chiselled torsos in designer swimwear. In LGBT groups at universities, activism is routinely swapped for rainbow-coloured vodka shots.

The media informs us, too, that not being straight is ‘who we are,’ as harmlessly innocuous as our favourite colour and wholly detached from all social structures. Whatever our reaction to the rise of the gay Tories, it illustrates the de-politicisation of the homosexual figure: if deviating from the sexual norm has no set political impact or consequence, why shouldn’t there be gay supporters of each party? Beyond the realm of marriage reform – widely proclaimed the final step to equality – we’re encouraged not to feel that our sexuality demands policymaking, or politics in general, matter to us.

Nothing could be further from the truth, or more acutely terrifying. In 2013, it’s painfully clear that the top-down supervision of non-straight, non-cis people remains fully functional. Far from nearing total liberation, the lives of corporate, Cameroon Britain’s queer population are managed and directed in every field of political culture. All politics, in other words, is queer politics, and with so many reasons to be fearful, it’s time we cared about it.

Applaud ourselves as we might for heightened LGBT media presence, bisexuality is comprehensively erased. ‘I’m a massive supporter of marriage,’ our Prime Minister insists, ‘and I don’t want gay people to be excluded’ – because, of course, all people in same-gender pairings identify as gay. In Last Tango in Halifax, a ratings hit on BBC One last year, Sarah Lancashire’s despondent housewife was dubbed a lesbian the instant she was linked to another woman, despite voicing both love and lust for her husband. God forbid she self-identify as bi- or pansexual, queer, questioning or anything else.

As raging bêtes noires like Patrick Moore and Ann Widdecombe are dubbed national treasures, it seems that nothing but ‘L’ or ‘G’ is recognised in media culture, and newspapers trusted hitherto to self-regulate misgender and demonise anyone trans*. With obsessive penile fixation, they hypersexualise the transition process, snubbing gender-neutral pronouns as if human dignity were somehow ungrammatical. (Need I even mention Julie Burchill?) The Leveson Report’s suggestions for trans-friendly regulation, despite all this, were brushed aside by David Cameron.

A media culture like this has consequences. In state schools where language, toilets and changing rooms are gender-split, trans* teenagers face the same endemic bullying, self-harm and suicide as their gay classmates, at even greater risk. Last year, harassment reported by over half of gay pupils went ignored by staff two-thirds of the time. Responses provided by teachers have included ‘Act less gay’, and where queer and trans* pupils retreat from school attendance, they face blame and punishment. When HIV first raised its ugly head, Thatcher’s government warned us, ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ – but where was sex education for queer youth, and where is it now?

When teachers’ sole focus is the sex straight people have, then British schools are our political concern. When closeted students on £9000-a-year degrees fear coming out to homophobic parents who pay their fees, universities are our concern. When queer youth are deprived of qualifications, bullied out of completing school, and unemployed trans* people lose out on jobs only for government to name them ‘scroungers’, then these too are our concerns.

While therapists still operate in our National Health Service who wish to ‘cure’ us of same-gender desire, LGBT sexual health projects are cut. If you’re a guy who has sex with other men, it’s still impossible to give blood; if you’re a queer woman who wants children, the NHS may not be on your side. Transitioning teenagers go without access to hormone therapy, dysphoria clinics and surgery – often, those who do obtain these have to take on thousands in debt; and those led to self-harm face mental healthcare’s steady defunding.

In law enforcement, queer-phobic violence and calls for gay men to be murdered go ignored by police, as does bigotry in their ranks: even in the last few years, crackdowns on cruising grounds have continued, and complaints of homophobia in the police force have persisted. (Last year, an officer I met responded with uncomfortable laughter to an absent person’s ambiguous gender, guffawing ‘It’s not a… it’s not a…’ – the sentence went unfinished.)

In the religious sphere, our politicians bow to a Pope who calls queer desire’s expression ‘an intrinsic moral evil’ and ‘transsexuals and homosexuals’ a ‘destruction of God’s work’; they commit to ‘doing God’, building ‘faith’ schools in ever higher numbers despite Stonewall repeatedly finding them the most homophobic; they strip public funds from LGBT charities, awarding it instead to actively-discriminating groups, among them the Catholic Children’s Society and Salvation Army. The Charity Commission, meanwhile, deems ‘advancement of religion’ an automatically charitable aim, allowing bodies like Christian Voice tax exemptions for their activities – among them, calling for our execution. Is this the government’s faith-positive, third sector-focused Big Society?

To depoliticise not being straight – to insist Pride be apolitical, to use LGBT student groups as social clubs or say sexual identity compels no political commitment – is to ignore the myriad ways we’re punished for it. When in every corner of public life our queer bodies, minds and relationships are policed, it’s a nonsense to paint them as something private, and a dangerous one. Ignoring the harsh reality of this policing may seem comforting, but forgetting about it contributes to its persistence: we have to care about politics, and about solving these problems, because if we don’t, we’re part of them.

Not all of us love Christmas, and that’s perfectly all right

At Christmastime, it’s fashionable for secularists to say that actually, yes, they do love Christmas. A recent article by Jim Al-Khalili, ‘Why this atheist celebrates Christmas’, exemplifies the trend, as do the many online memes and comments arguing there’s nothing religious about gift-giving or decorated trees. “You don’t need to believe in Mithras to enjoy the tradition of celebrating the sun’s rebirth”, one of them reads, “and you don’t need to believe in Jesus Christ to enjoy the tradition of renaming this ancient holiday”.

With Eric Pickles and the right-wing press united in insistence that “militant secularisation” will “allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity”, it’s an understandable line of response to stress that godless people, too, love the festive season. Yet not all of us do. For some of us, Christmas is hard to enjoy – and yes, religion and the privilege it enjoys play a role in this.

Continue reading.

More sexist religion from my family’s bookshelves

Remember Leadership is Male, the book I posted about at the start of June? As Christmas Eve approaches, another gem has revealed itself on my relatives’ bookshelf.

What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible is a similar volume by John Piper, and like Leadership is Male has a foreword by Elisabeth Elliot. (Because, of course, nothing endorsed by a woman is misogynous.) Once again, I read the book cover to cover – and, so that you don’t have to, thought I’d share some highlights.

‘When my father came home he was clearly the head of the house. He led in pray at the table. He called the family together for devotions. He got us to Sunday School and worship. He drove the car. He guided the family to where we would sit. He made the decision to go to Howard Johnson’s for lunch. He led us to the table. He called for the waitress. He paid the check. He was the one we knew we would reckon with if we broke a family rule or were disrespectful to Mother. These were the happiest times for Mother. Oh, how she rejoiced to have Daddy home! She loved his leadership. Later I learned that the Bible calls this “submission”.

‘The tendency today is to stress the equality of men and women by minimizing the unique significance of our maleness or femaleness. But this depreciation of male and female personhood is a great loss. It is taking a tremendous toll on generations of young men and women who do not know what it means to be a man or a woman. Confusion over the meaning of sexual personhood today is epidemic. The consequence of this confusion is not a free and happy harmony among gender-free persons relating on the basis of abstract competencies. The consequence [.] is more divorce, more homosexuality, more sexual abuse, more promiscuity, more social awkwardness, and more emotional distress and suicide that come with the loss of God-given identity.’

‘When the Bible teaches that men and women fulfil different roles in relation to each other, charging man with a unique leadership role, it bases this differentiation not on temporary cultural norms but on permanent facts of creation. This is seen in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (especially vv. 8-9, 14); Ephesians 5:21-33 (especially vv. 31-32); and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (especially vv. 13-14). In the Bible, differentiated roles for men and woman are never traced back to the fall of man and woman into sin. Rather, the foundation of this differentiation is traced back to the way things were in Eden before sin warped our relationships.’

‘AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AN PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.

AT THE HEART OF MATURE FEMININITY IS A FREEING DISPOSITION TO AFFIRM, RECEIVE AND NURTURE STRENGTH AND LEADERSHIP FROM WORTHY MEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A WOMAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.’

‘A man might say, “I am a man and I do not feel this sense of responsibility that you say makes me masculine.” He may feel strong and sexually competent and forceful and rational. But we would say to him that if he does not feel this sense of benevolent responsibility toward women to lead, provide and protect, his masculinity is immature. It is incomplete and perhaps distorted.’

‘…a man may not be physically able to provide for or protect his family and yet be mature in his masculinity. He may be paralyzed. He may have a disabling disease. His wife may be the main breadwinner in such a circumstance. And she may be the one who must get up at night to investigate a frightening noise in the house. This is not easy for the man. But if he still has a sense of his own benevolent responsibility under God he will not lose his masculinity.’

‘Someone might ask: So is a woman masculine if she is a single parent and provides these same things for her children? Are these only for men to do? I would answer: A woman is not unduly masculine in performing these things for her children if she has the sense that this would be properly done by her husband if she had one, and she performs them with a uniquely feminine demeanour. However, if a woman undertakes to give this kind of leadership toward her husband she would not be acting in a properly feminine way’.

‘…the leadership pattern would be less than Biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed for worship on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities, and talk over some neighborhood ministry possibilities, etc. A wife may initiate the discussion and planning of any one of these, but if she becomes the one who senses the general responsibility for this pattern of initiative while her husband is passive, something contrary to Biblical masculinity and femininity is in the offing.’

‘…both husband and wife should agree on the principle that the husband’s decision should rightly hold sway if it does not involve sin … in a well-ordered Biblical marriage both husband and wife acknowledge in principle that, if necessary in some disagreement, the husband will accept the burden of making the final choice.’

‘Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit. … It is the mingling of tenderness with strength that makes the unique masculine quality of leadership in sexual relations. There is an aura of masculine leadership which rises from the mingling of power and tenderness, forcefulness and affection, potency and sensitivity, virility and delicateness. It finds expression in the firmness of his grasp, the strength of taking her in his arms, the sustaining of verbal adoration, etc. And there are a hundred nuances of masculine pursuit that distinguish it from feminine pursuit.

The wife may initiate an interesting in romance and may keep on initiating different steps along the way. But there is a difference. A feminine initiation is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense then you could say that in those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to do lead in a way that only a man can, so that she can respond to him. It will not do to say that, since the woman can rightly initiate, therefore there is no special leadership that the man should fulfil. When a wife wants sexual relations with her husband she wants him to seek her and take her and bring her into his arms and up to the pleasures that his initiatives give her.

Consider what is lost when women attempt to assume a more masculine role by appearing physically muscular and aggressive. It is true that there is something sexually stimulating about a muscular, scantily clad young woman pumping iron in a health club. But no woman should be encouraged by this fact. For it probably means the sexual encounter that such an image would lead to is something very hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying. The image of a masculine musculature begets arousal in a man, but it does not beget several hours of moonlight walking with significant, caring conversation. The more women can arouse men by doing typically masculine things, the less they can count on receiving from men a sensitivity to typically feminine needs.’

No woman should have to take the initiative to set a disobedient child right while her husband sits obliviously by, as though nothing were at stake.

‘Mature masculinity is sensitive to cultural expressions of masculinity and adapts to them (where no sin is involved) in order to communicate to a woman that a man would like to relate not in any aggressive or perverted way, but with maturity and dignity as a man. This would mean dressing in ways that are neither effeminate nor harsh and aggressive. It would mean learning manners and customs. Who speaks for the couple at the restaurant? Who seats the other? Who drives the car? Who opens the door? Who walks in front down the concert hall aisle? Who stands and who sits, and when? Who extends the hand at a greeting? Who walks on the street side? How do you handle a woman’s purse? Etc. Etc.’

‘…when there is no bread on the table it is the man who should feel the main pressure to do something to get it there. It does not mean his wife can’t help – side by side in a family enterprise or working in a different job. In fact, it is possible to imagine cases she may have to do it all – say, if he is sick or injured. But a man will feel his personhood compromised if he, through sloth or folly or lack of discipline, becomes dependent over the long haul … on his wife’s income.’

‘Suppose a man and a woman (it may be his wife or sister or friend or a total stranger) are walking along the street when an assailant threatens the two of them with a lead pipe. Mature masculinity senses a natural, God-given responsibility to step forward and put himself between the assailant and the woman.

…every wife knows that something is amiss in a man’s manhood if he suggests that she get out of bed 50% of the time to see what the strange noise is downstairs. It belongs to masculinity to accept danger to protect women. It may be that in any given instance of danger the woman will have the strength to strike the saving blow. It may be too that she will have the presence of mind to think of the best way of escape. It may be that she will fight with tooth and claw to save a crippled man and lay down her life for him if necessary. But this does not at all diminish the unique call of manhood when he and his female companion are confronted by a danger together. The dynamics of mature masculinity and femininity begin the drama with him in front and her at his back protected – however they may together overcome the foe or suffer courageously together in persecution. A mature man senses instinctively that as a man he is called to take the lead in guarding the woman he is with.’

‘If, in the course of the day, a woman in the law firm calls a meeting of the attorneys, and thus takes that kind of initiative, there are still ways that a man, coming to that meeting, can express his manhood through culturally appropriate courtesies shown to the women in the firm. He may open the door; he may offer his chair; he may speak in a voice that is gentler.’

‘…the Biblical reality of a wife’s submission would take different forms depending on the quality of a husband’s leadership. This can be seen best if we define submission not in terms of specific behaviors, but as a disposition to yield to the husband’s authority and an inclination to follow his leadership. This is important to do because no submission of one human being to another is absolute. The husband does not replace Christ as the woman’s supreme authority. She must never follow her husband’s leadership into sin. She will not steal with him or get drunk with him or savor pornography with him or develop deceptive schemes with him.’

‘Many today say, for example, that true freedom for a lesbian would be the liberty to act according to her sexual preference. But I would say that true freedom cannot ignore God’s judgment on homosexual activity and God’s will for men and women to be heterosexual in their sexual relations. Therefore true freedom is not giving in to our every impulse. It is the sometimes painful and exhilarating discovery of God’s power to fight free from the bondage of our sinful selves.’

‘…mature femininity feels natural and glad to accept the strength and leadership of worthy men. A mature woman is glad when a respectful, caring, upright man offers sensitive strength and provides a pattern of appropriate initiatives for their relationship. She does not want to reverse these roles. She is glad then he is not passive. She feels herself enhanced and honored and freed by his caring strength and servant-leadership … She is to be his partner and assistant. She joins in the act of strength and shares in the process of leadership. She is, as Genesis 2:18 says, ‘a helper suitable for him.’

Prime Minister and her counsellors and advisors[;] principal and the teachers in her school[;] college teacher and her students[;] bus driver and her passengers[;] bookstore manager and her clerks and stock help[;] staff doctor and her interns[;] lawyer and her aides[;] judge and the court personnel[;] police officer and citizens in her precinct[;] legislator and her assistants[;] T.V. newscaster and her editors[;] counsellor and her clients[:] one or more of these roles might stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point.’

‘There are ways for a woman to interact even with a male subordinate that signal to him and others her endorsement of his mature manhood in relationship to her as a woman. I do not have in mind anything like sexual suggestiveness or innuendo. Rather, I have in mind culturally appropriate expressions of respect for his kind of strength, and glad acceptable of his gentlemanly courtesies. Her demeanor – the tone and style and disposition and discourse of her ranking position – can signal clearly her affirmation of the unique role that men should play in relationship to women owing to their sense of responsibility to protect and lead … But as I said earlier, there are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive and healthy for the overall structure of home and society. Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill the role.’

To the degree that a woman’s influence over man is personal and directive it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order. A woman may design the traffic pattern of a city’s streets and thus exert a kind of influence over all male drivers. But this influence will be non-personal and therefore not necessarily an offense against God’s order. Similarly, the drawings and specifications of a woman architect may guide the behavior of contractors and laborers, but it may be so non-personal that the feminine-masculine dynamic of the relationship is negligible. On the other hand, the relationship between husband and wife is very personal. All acts of influence lie on the continuum between personal and non-personal. The closer they get to the personal side, the more inappropriate it becomes for women to exert directive influence. But the second continuum may qualify the first. Some influence is very directive, some is non-directive. For example, a drill sergeant would epitomize directive influence. It would be hard to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant over men without violating their sense of masculinity and her sense of femininity.’

‘The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior. … Some of the more obvious [examples] would be in military combat settings if women were positioned so as to deploy and command men; or in professional baseball if a woman is made the umpire to call balls and strikes and frequently to settle heated disputes among men. And I would stress that this is not necessarily owing to male egotism, but to a natural and good penchant given by God.’

‘…in the workplace it may not be nonsense in any given circumstance for a woman to provide a certain kind of direction for a man, but to do it in such a way that she signals her endorsement of his unique duty as a man to feel a responsibility of strength and protection and leadership toward her as a woman and toward women in general.’

‘If I were to put my finger on one devastating sin today, it would not be the so-called women’s movement, but the lack of spiritual leadership by men at home and in the church. Satan has achieved an amazing tactical victory by disseminating the notion that the summons for male leadership is born of pride and fallenness, when in fact pride is precisely what prevents spiritual leadership. The spiritual aimlessness and weakness and lethargy and loss of nerve among men is the major issue, not the upsurge of interesting in women’s ministries.’

‘When the Lord visits us from on high and creates a mighty army of deeply spiritual men committed to the Word of God and global mission, the vast majority of women will rejoice over the leadership of these men and enter into a joyful partnership that upholds and honors the beautiful Biblical pattern of mature manhood and mature womanhood.’

Gay marriage politics has its queer critics too

“Look,” said David Cameron last week, in a voice much like Tony Blair’s when grilled on Newsnight. “I’m in favour of gay marriage, because I’m a massive supporter of marriage, and I don’t want gay people to be excluded from a great institution.”

The comments were met with gushing praise from self-described progressives, and no doubt too with fountains of gay cash. In the 90 minutes following Barack Obama’s statement, “I think same sex couples should be able to get married”, a million pink dollars poured straight into his campaign for re-election. Cameron, ever the businessman, has clearly found a rhetoric which sells.

That’s not to say, of course, that his stance here is purely mercenary. “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative,” he told us in his conference speech last year, “I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” If any sincere, well-meant critique of the project has been drowned out, it belongs to those of us on the queer left who see the idea as deeply engrained in regressive Cameroon politics.

Continue reading.

What Jaymi Hensley’s coming out reveals about the closet and fame

Among the queer politics crowd, reality TV is frequently bashed; moving more in those circles than between the cocktail-serving clubs of Soho and Shoreditch, and being unabashedly a regular viewer, this is an awkward fact for me. The ‘bread and circuses’ argument – that light entertainment culture on Saturday nights acts as a political narcotic – has its merits, but I’d argue that if you want to find out how societies work, their circuses are the best place to look.

Like freak shows from the early 20th century, reality competitions are so often the home of the marginalised, helping for better or worse to form their role in public consciousness. It’s the X Factor stage specifically, with its annual quota of mincing queens and sensitive closet-dwellers, on which queer people’s social role in Britain is most publicly played out, and as with pop culture in general, tuning in can tell us much about the things that really matter. The widely reported coming out of Union J member Jaymi Hensley, who yesterday thanked his bandmembers and mentor Louis Walsh for ‘supporting his decision’, is a case in point.

The programme has a history of queer contestants, many of whom had noted comings out during or after their time on it, including Rylan Clark, Jade Ellis, Lucy Spraggan and MK1’s Charlie Rundle in this year’s series. At this point in the run, the usual onscreen comments that each act has ‘grown as a person’ are being made, and coverage of Hensley’s statement fits the X Factor-as-therapy mould. Attention has been paid to his account of a teenage fan’s tweet prompting his disclosure, and to Walsh’s encouragement; as in the cases of Marcus Collins and Joe McElderry before now, whose success there led to public self-outings, it paints the programme as a positive force for queer liberation, which embraces and values non-straight identity.

I’m sceptical, of course. It’s first of all a troubling idea that anyone should require fame and financial opportunity for coming out to be an option – and, of course, I’m still not sure why Robbie Williams appeared alongside Collins’ parents last year to express love and support, but his boyfriend was conspicuously absent. Most troubling here though is all the evidence suggesting Hensley was out when X Factor began.

Reports quote him as keeping his current partner’s identity under wraps, which is, of course, his choice, but the party in question is on searchable record supporting Union J via social networks throughout the competition, including making public declarations of the relationship; there was Hensley’s now-deleted Myspace page, which listed him as gay, and there remains the YouTube video from two years ago (now with over twenty thousand hits) of him performing at a Pride concert. Is this the public profile of a closet case? Probably not. In which case, why only make the announcement now?

From their very first appearances, both Union J and erstwhile competitors District 3 – next year, I’m hoping for an act named Jurisdiction π – were marketed explicitly in heterosexual terms. There was their first audition, where a guest judge commented, ‘I think the girls will love you’. There were scantily clad, gyrating female dancers in their numbers. There were stories in the press of girls ‘mobbing’ the band members and invading their hotel room. There were interviews about ‘how a girl can impress them’ – and in the latter one, Jaymi Hensley played along, as he seemed to when he stated in the press, ‘I’m in a relationship and have been for three years… she wears the trousers‘.

I don’t know if X Factor producers knew all along that Hensley preferred guys. Given how public that apparently was, it wouldn’t surprise me. But I am struck that by not acknowledging that – and, in fact, by airbrushing it out of all publicity – they necessitated a coming-out: if his orientation had been shown matter-of-factly from the start, as Lucy Spraggan’s was, there would have been no need for a headline-winning revelation. Straightwashing Union J like this seems effectively to have put one of their members back inthe closet for three months. It suggests that on X Factor, gay men are only allowed to be comedy acts or victims who need support: if they’re neither straight nor bothered by that, there might not be room.

It also shows that heteronormativity still operates at the highest levels. In workplaces and universities, we might have started to chip away at the assumption that any given person is straight; among the great and good (or at least ITV), this isn’t yet the case. A presumption still exists, evident right from the beginning of this year’s series, that conventionally handsome boybanders must be as interested in girls as girls are in them; that while lots of young men like other men, lots are indifferent to gender and lots aren’t interested in anyone, none of that could possibly apply to the budding rich and famous.

In common use, the phrase implies something into which people are born: before we came out, we were always in the closet. The truth is, closets come in flatpacks, and straight authorities – our parents, teachers, television producers – build them around us by stigmatising queer expression. Jaymi Hensley never made his relationship a secret, but X Factor turned it into one, like a homophobic teacher in whose classroom certain crushes discussed at break time must be hushed up. However ‘out’ we are, spaces of necessary nondisclosure remain: the living rooms of bigoted relatives, for example, or train seats next to aggressive groups of drunken straight men. When we’re told in infancy that we’ll grow up, marry ‘members of the opposite sex’ and procreate, advised about what boys and girls do differently and generally labelled as straight, that nondisclosure is made similarly hard to avoid.

I’m glad Jaymi Hensley’s found his way out of the closet X Factor constructed around him, but I’m angry that he had to – and that his sex life could only be discussed on the producers’ terms.

So many of our parents, after all, have raised us to believe we’re straight and made it hard to say otherwise, only to proffer words like ‘I support you’ once we have. The way to support us, straight people everywhere, is not to make us invisible.

These police commissioner elections should terrify us all

Of the few encouraging signs about today’s PCC elections, one is the total unenthusiasm on display: I know only one person planning to vote, and friends are organising collective ballot-spoils. This couldn’t contrast more with Barack Obama’s reelection, the run-up to which included all the usual choruses of You must vote! and Don’t forget!

By most of the self-declared progressives I know, the choice to abstain was treated almost as a kind of treason; one acquaintance in Australia wishes voting were compulsory around the world, as it is there, and I’ve heard the same suggested closer to home.

Assuming that when our new police commissioners are chosen, turnout is as miserable as now seems likely, the case for staying at home on national election days is worth contemplating. Traditionally, one argument is that they’re not just how people choose specific governments, but how they choose in general to be governed. The most politically important part of voting is entering the ballot box; to step into it is to legitimise the electoral process, granting the eventual winner our consent to govern us, even if it’s not them we support. Both in America last week and in 2010, when David Cameron came more-or-less to power, a great deal of coverage went to people unable to vote, left standing in their queues for hours – trumpeting the notion that, whatever government resulted, its right to rule was popularly acknowledged. (In fact, four people out of ten chose abstention in both cases.)

The vote, paradoxically, is always a minister’s first port of call when something unpopular needs justifying. Invading Iraq might face widespread opposition, but Tony Blair’s party were elected to take tough stances; austerity might be viewed as needless and cruel, but people chose a government to make tough decisions. More than anywhere, and most implicitly, it’s with the police that government’s entitlement is presumed. Think back to the riots in August last year, with the demands on social networks and in print that lethal force be authorised, or the military contacted. The smashing of shop windows and burning of cars was mindless violence; the potential widespread shooting of citizens by police was a means by which to restore order. Why is the violence of the state the only kind acceptable? Because government directs its forces, and we elected the government.

Our leaders, we tell ourselves, only hold power over us because we say they can. Except sometimes we don’t, and they still do.

One side might always regret a lost election, but inconclusive ones spell trouble for whole political establishments. That Cameron came so visibly to office by Nick Clegg’s direct choice and not the U.K. population’s is more than just a point against their government; it exposes the superficiality of Britain’s electoral regime, just as it caused skittishness across the pond when George W. Bush entered the White House with fewer people’s votes than opponent Al Gore. There are other inadequacies, too. We’re encouraged to vote based on politicians’ promises, but none of these are binding and most are broken once in office; we’re faced typically with a forced choice between two or three realistic candidates, of predictable backgrounds and broadly similar political leanings; what power we’re granted, we only hold on one day every four or five years; we’ve no ability to change our minds, or update the scoreboards as opinions shift – the Labour Party, for example, retains around as many seats as it won in 2010 with 29 percent of the vote, despite polling in the low to mid-forties today; we make our voices heard as much as possible, but see major parties’ financial backers drown them out.

Still we go to the polls, encouraged by news broadcasts about democracy and freedom, convincing ourselves that whatever future legislators do, we chose – that, as with all the most effective placebos, we have an investment in it, and no right to complain. However you vote, an English teacher told me once, you always end up with the government, and a socialist truncheon looks much the same as a Thatcherite one. In the past decade, governments of all colours have chipped away at our civil liberties with surveillance and shadowy arrests, no-protest zones and kettled schoolchildren. Far from solving these problems, the electoral cycle seems to me to validate them. Ticking boxes on ballot slips less often demonstrates what freedom we have than makes us feel more complicit in its erosion.

What happens when the police themselves make vaunted, tenuous claims of public appointment? It’s from them that government derives its power, after all, and not the other way around.

So far, major police decisions (on whether to fire water cannon at demonstrators, for example) have usually been checked in practice by a need for the approval of elected politicians like Theresa May. If publicly appointed commissioners allow them more autonomy, as seems to be the aim and matches the Cameroon ideal of ‘liberated’ schools and hospitals, no such external validation will be needed. The shiny if inauthentic seal of electoral support will, on its own, become a means of validating police actions, just as it’s used to validate the most despised government policies. The overt parliamentary costuming of candidates, drawn along party political lines and including the likes of John Prescott, adds to the effect.

Political parties, on the other hand, are privately bankrolled. However ‘modernising’ Conservatives might be, their party’s funding depends largely on City of London financiers‘ approval; however centrified a Labour leader might want to become, trade unions’ ire must never be raised. Their ambitions may be extreme, at whichever end of the political spectrum, but the vested interests of relied-upon donors limits their actions for good or ill. Our publicly funded police force, on the other hand, can count on its continued income; should its actions become draconian or its reputation tarred, the threat of financial starvation will never hem it in.

Begin electing police leaders, then, and we give them all of government’s entitlements, with none of the drawbacks.

These PCC elections should terrify us all, because they aim to give constables the false legitimacy ministers wield: it’s the police force’s freedom, not ours, they’ve been devised to increase, so let’s hope for the lowest possible of turnouts, because when police are given more freedom, we almost always lose some of ours.

On the pathologising of queer desire

“Not gay!”, the adverts said, “Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”

The people behind them, Anglican Mainstream, planned this April to drive them through London on the sides of buses. Boris Johnson, acting as chair of Transport for London, vetoed the plans (the mayoral election, after all, was only weeks away). What the banners advertised was conversion therapy, described by the group as ‘supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change’ – the same ostensible counselling techniques investigated in Patrick Strudwick’s exposé “The ex-gay files“.

There’s nothing new in using psychiatric structures to queerphobic ends: let’s not forget that it was only in 1990, the year before my birth, when the World Health Organisation stopped calling homosexuality a mental health disorder. The word itself was coined inPsychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Victorian volume on so called perversions, in which cross-dressing and BDSM are similarly pathologised. What’s interesting about Anglican Mainstream’s work, apart from their misuse of “post-gay” and expectation Oxford Street would be a hotbed of homoerotic repression, is their insistence that “there is [no] indisputable scientific evidence that people are “born gay”, and…have no choice but to affirm their homosexual feelings”.

As “The ex-gay files” shows, the current conversion movement strongly resists the notion of the homosexual person. It never refers to being gay, but always to experiencing same sex attraction; never to a mode of inherent being but always to a chosen lifestyle. This sets it apart from historical homophobes like Krafft-Ebing – who saw queer desire as a chronic medical condition and whose book reads “homosexuals…recognise one another by their gait, natural shyness and by signs just the same as normal persons of opposite sexes do” – and also from much of the LGBT community now, where the strongest opposition to Anglican Mainstream’s adverts was the “Born This Way” argument. Chris Bryant, for example, said: “Homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.”

The ads’ creators and the ex-gay industry are, of course, monstrous, but isn’t it striking how Krafft-Ebing’s rhetoric, to which that of twentieth century bigotry can often be traced back, has taken over the groups it attacked? When I look at LGBT dialogue today, I see queer bodies pathologised again: homoerotic desire ascribed to an elusive ‘gay gene’, sexuality “explained” by prenatal hormones and correlations of finger-length and gender preferencebrandished as proof that, as one of Stonewall’s people put it, “being gay is [pre]determined rather than being a so-called lifestyle choice”.

That humans exist who aren’t straight is deemed a biological phenomenon, biologically resolved. We’re invited to believe that the brains and bodies of (for example) gay and straight men are, by definition, categorically different. Don’t doubt my support of science for one moment, but in British skepticism, we’re fond of one motto above all others. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Genetics might account for sexual preferences in many cases, as it influences all kind of predispositions, but it’s far from the alpha and omega of the sexual self. Of all the world’s fiftysomething men married to women, who were raised in exclusively straight environments and have never consciously experienced queer desire, surely some will possess whatever ‘gay gene’ does exist? Likewise, is a destitute m4m sex worker without it somehow straight, and unaware of that?

Ask me if I’m gay and I’ll say no – although I do gay quite a lot. Our orientation has at least as much to do with social order as bodily nature and it can’t be reduced to something we innately are. There is no state of homosexuality: we shouldn’t view it as a mental health condition, because it’s not a condition at all. There are no homosexual people, just people who like doing homosexual things.

The problem with conversion therapists is that they teach people, as churches have done for millennia, that harmless and enjoyable impulses (whatever their provenance) are a source for guilt. So what if this is a lifestyle choice? So is vegetarianism. And if you prefer a meat free diet, that’s perfectly fine.

What are the implications of the ‘queer bodies’ narrative? If we accept that gay brains and straight brains exist – not to mention those the rest of us have – aren’t we handing people ammunition who want us to be cured? Most of us, after all, would love it in the not-too-distant future if genetic engineering eliminated cancer; once queerness is accepted as genetic, though, what’s to stop it being targeted the very same way?

Leave the idea of sexuality as a physical state unchallenged and we only risk more medically cloaked attempts to eliminate anything that isn’t heterosexuality. That those attempts would be fruitless is beside the point – they would still make queer people back into sufferers of illness, the medically defective carriers of sociosexual plague. I don’t want that to happen: they wish to cure us, as Magneto says, but I say we’re the cure.

How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’

Kaftans and camp eunuchs – pop culture’s neutering of visibly queer men

“This”, Stanley Tucci says of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada, “is a shining beacon of hope for oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class.”

A cursory lunchtime viewing of Project Runway will more than confirm it’s an industry of gay men – and more than that, the natural home of unreconstructed queens. On the catwalk, if not currently on Grindr, extravagance is a virtue, and it’s no doubt helped the careers of many designers that their mannerisms are as vibrantly theatrical as their work. This is a field where camp is not a problem.

Perhaps because of this, many influential gay men in popular fiction have been fashionistas. Tucci’s aforementioned character, Nigel, Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Marc St. James and Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty, mincing Alexander from the British Queer as Folk – no series now seems complete without such a figure. Alexander, in particular, owns one of TV’s best ever throwaway lines: “So, I’m stood in Battersea Power Station in nothing but me Tommy Hilfiger pants, when he comes back in…” Unlike some, I’ve nothing against camp men being visible, but I do want to point something out.

Where they appear, these characters are often shown as objects and not subjects, reactive and not proactive, done-to and not doers. They’re depicted as victims, or as lacking sexual agency – especially compared with their “straight-acting” peers.

Justin doesn’t kiss straight-acting Austin, but is kissed by him…

Just as Kurt doesn’t kiss the “manlier” Blaine, but is kissed by him…

…and when Kurt is bullied, Blaine is the one who comes to his aid.

Alexander, similarly, is passive when his family disown him; Stuart, mistaken for straight at times, confronts his mother and destroys her car.

In The Devil Wears Prada, it’s Nigel who is ultimately victimised; in United States of Tara, pouting Lionel dies a violent offscreen death, outlived by his less flouncy boyfriend, Marshall; in Torchwood, sensitive Ianto’s relatives confront him over who he dates, before he dies in lantern-jawed Jack Harkness’ arms. Justin, unlike self-assured Austin, agonises over coming out.

The trope is inescapable. So how should we interpret it?

When gay male characters who are camp always seem to suffer more, it’s tempting to cry overt bigotry. Queeny, gender-atypical fashionistas are often those most accused of “flaunting it”: as long as Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper don’t get flirty or make penis jokes, homophobes don’t have to acknowledge they’re gay, whereas in Chris Colfer’s presence or Louie Spence’s, there’s no dodging the issue. Camp men in fiction are most visibly queer, so it makes sense their storylines would be hardest hit by prejudice – then again, many of those mentioned were created by gay writers.

The alternative is still more troubling. Are we to conclude from these characters’ misfortunes that a harder life is to be expected if we don’t perform our gender conventionally? That Justin, Kurt et al. might have avoided pain by simply “butching up”? If so, queer liberation’s still a distant goal.

Certainly, their desexualisation speaks volumes. On Glee, the closest Kurt gets to making a romantic pass is a tribute in song to a dead canary; it’s Blaine who initiates their first kiss, who first instigates sex and who is led astray by the similarly “straight-acting” Sebastian; he, Nigel and the gay men of Ugly Betty are shown centrally as eunuch-esque GBFs, whose main role is to entertain and to make things – especially women – pretty, not to be players. Their sexual identity is worn proudly, a must-have accessory, but rarely played out.

Think what this says about gender roles. Sex, the constant subtext tells us, is the domain of manly men and womanly women: if you’re not the former, you don’t get to be a sexual being, and you’ll have to wait patiently until one chooses you.

It’s enormously disempowering, because camp male sexuality is radical. The mere sight of Julian Clary makes straight men in my family squirm, or sometimes change channels – the notion of being subject to a man’s sexual advances, as women are to theirs, genuinely disturbs them. Clary’s famous single-entendre about Norman Lamont was powerful and shocking, I’d suggest, largely because of his effete demeanour: the audience had no doubt he was really capable of penetrating the then-Tory chancellor. At Stonewall, too, it’s said the first bricks were thrown at police by drag queens.

Camp gay men are an essential part of our community, and fears of stereotype threat are misguided – if pop culture doesn’t show the full queer spectrum of gender expression, why infiltrate it? But these characters can be more than passive victims. Let’s give them the power their transgressive, real-world counterparts wield so well.