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.

Don’t be a Dickhead: fisking Nick Cohen’s defence of Richard Dawkins

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post called ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist‘. Currently, it’s the most-read thing I’ve ever published.

The post argues Dawkins uses racialising, xenophobic language (‘alien rubbish’, ‘Islamic barbarians’ etc.) to mount a clash-of-civilisations critique of Islam(ism) – a misguided one which empowers the neocon right and the racist far-right; that we have to read this language in the context of his praise for figures like Geert Wilders and Pat Condell; that he homogenises ‘Muslims’ as a whole into a single hyperdevout, hyperconservative mass; that he singles out Islam in specific contexts where there’s no good reason to; that there are better ways we can discuss it, including critically.

It does not argue, at any point, that Dawkins is at heart ‘a racist'; it does not argue Islam is a race, or all criticism of it racist; it does not judge anyone ‘guilty by association’. (What it says, on the last count, is that if people like the EDL retweet you – if what you say can be so easily co-opted by such people – you should rethink your rhetoric.) I know for a fact that he read it shortly after it went up, then, making all the above complaints, returned to tweeting the same kind of material with added fervour.

That’s when things got busy.

Tom Chivers, at the Daily Telegraph, cited my post in an article called ‘Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan‘.

Nesrine Malik, at Comment is free, wrote that ‘Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric‘.

Nelson Jones, at New Statesman, asked ‘Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

Martin Robbins, also at NS, said ‘Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind‘.

Owen Jones, at the Independent, asserted ‘Dawkins dresses up bigotry as non-belief – he cannot be left to represent atheists‘.

Then, finally – after these and probably a good few other salvos I managed to miss – Dawkins published a piece called ‘Calm reflections after a storm in a teacup‘, which near-epitomised the idea of doubling down. (It also persistently attacked the claim Islam is a race – a straw argument none of his critics here made, which most of us explicitly disavowed.)

Throughout all this, I heard regularly from the Dickheads – an army of online devotees who will never, ever hear anything critical of Dawkins said, no matter how nuanced or moderate. They accused me of hating freedom, being morally relativist, being left wing and long-winded (fair enough), dividing the atheist movement, knowing nothing about Islam, being racist, being PC, being ‘young and naïve’, being an ‘offensive little shit’, being in league with Mehdi Hasan. (Mehdi Hasan and I have no association whatsoever. We do not know each other. We have exchanged perhaps four or five tweets in the last year, such is the depth of our alliance.)

It’s as dehumanising to deify someone as to demonise them, and it’s one thing to like Dawkins while not thinking he’s perfect, but another to reject or try to silence anything negative said in relation to him. Secularity is not strengthened by being uncritical or unscrutinising of its press-appointed leaders, and the foremost of those deserve more scrutiny, not less. This is why Nick Cohen’s recent Spectator column, ‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim bigots, not just Christian ones. If only his enemies were as brave‘, which I’ve seen shared enthusiastically all over the place, grated on me – to the extent I thought it deserved a fisk.

It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’

Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth. With the predictability of the speaking clock, Owen Jones, the Peter Hitchens of the left, thinks the same as Craig Brown, Private Eye’s high Tory satirist. Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, says the same as Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates.

It’s certainly true much critique of Dawkins has been lazy and irrelevant – the charges, for example, that his views on religion must be invalid since he couldn’t recite to order the full, almost-never-used title of The Origin of Species (analogous, apparently, to Christians not knowing which book opens the New Testament), or because his ancestors at one time owned slaves. This does not, however, mean any critique of his rhetoric is worthless, and it seems extraordinarily self-defeating for atheists and secularists to dismiss it from the off. (See also Tom Chivers’ own response to Cohen.)

Sharp operators could sell the same piece a dozen times without changing a word. Read the papers, and you will suspect that is exactly what sharp operators have done.

Yes. I’ve read it. It’s a boring, neither-here-or-there piece. But the arguments against Dawkins’ tweets on Islam aren’t about how he’s shrillstridentaggressive or any of the usual things. They’re about his language being counterproductive and enabling racists’ agendas. Most of the people who’ve rebutted it most strongly – Chivers, Martin Robbins, Alom Shaha – are out-and-out movement atheists with vested interests in taking religion, including Islam, to task. They just want to do it better.

Cultural conservatives have always hated Dawkins for challenging traditional Christian beliefs. The liberal-left is fine with knocking Christianity, but it hates Dawkins for being intellectually consistent and tweeting — yes, that’s right, tweeting — against Islam too. Many of the charges against his inappropriate tweets are extraordinary. Jones denounces Dawkins for tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate’. If Jones can’t see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him.

Certainly, many parts of the British left (not usually the liberal parts) fail to acknowledge the Islamist far-right or counter it. This is a problem – but it doesn’t mean that when opposing things like segregated debatesanything goes. Owen Jones isn’t defending separate seating for men and women, he’s objecting to the phrase ‘these Muslims’ with its ring of xenophobia, as in ‘all these Muslims, taking our jobs’. Object to Islamism; object to Hamza Tzortzis; object to his so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy. But call them that, referring specifically to them, rather than conflating them with ‘Muslims’ as a whole. (Cohen, in fact, seems next to acknowledge this issue…)

But let me try to be fair. Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims — not just sexist god-botherers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism. It is all very well atheists saying that religion is not the same as race, because you are free to decide what god if any you believe in, but cannot choose your ethnicity. But try telling that to the persecuted Christians, Shia and Sunni of the Middle East. Their religious persecution is no different from racial persecution. I would go further and concede that Dawkins’s critics had other arguments that weren’t wholly asinine, were it not for a telling detail. They never stick their necks out and defend real liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who are being persecuted in Britain right now.

Yes we do. I do, Alom does, Owen Jones does – in fact, most of the people I know who’ve criticised Dawkins’ comments more than anyone else and shared my post with particular enthusiasm are ex-Muslims.

They stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them. Dawkins has never hurt a fly, so he’s all right. Looked at in a certain light, however, the enemies of Nahla Mahmoud might not be.

I signed the petition to protect Nahla Mahmoud. [Edit: I signed it, in fact, three and a half weeks before Nick Cohen did (the same day he responded to this post).] So should you, if you haven’t heard about her being threatened. This does not mean I have to shut up and marvel at everything Dawkins says – especially on Twitter.

I have picked on her, not because her case is unusual, but because it is so typical. She is a Sudanese refugee who became a leading figure in the British Council of ex-Muslims. Earlier this year Channel 4 gave her one minute and 39 seconds precisely to talk about the evils of Britain’s Sharia courts in Britain. In these institutions, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and women who remarry lose custody of their children. One minute and 39 seconds may not sound long enough to list their vices. But it is one minute and 39 seconds longer than the BBC has ever given her.

Nahla described how she grew up under Sharia. She was ‘always dealt with as a second-class citizen, always bought up to believe that I am an incomplete human being [who] needed a man as a guard.’

She was shocked to find the same system here in her land of refuge. ‘Muslims have been living in Britain for hundreds of years and never needed sharia courts,’ she concluded. ‘Everyone should have equal rights and live under one secular law.’

She and her family have suffered for her simple moral clarity. Salah Al Bander, a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats, went for her. (I was going to write, ‘who, surprisingly, is a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ — but given the Liberal Democrats’ awful attitudes towards women and Jews, nothing they do surprises me anymore.)

Al Bander posted an article in Arabic on the Sudanese Online website (one of the most widely read sites in Sudan and throughout the Sudanese diaspora). He called her a ‘Kafira’ (unbeliever) who was sowing discord. These are words with consequences — particularly when Al Bander added, ‘I will not forgive anyone who wants to start a battle against Islam and the beliefs of the people…’ After mosques and Sudanese newspapers took up the campaign against her, religious thugs attacked her brother and terrified her mother. Nahla told me she is now ‘very careful when I go out’.

I understand that the Cambridge Liberal Democrats have had an inquiry and decided that Al Bander’s words were misinterpreted. My point is that women like Nahla are being terrified and abused every day in Britain. I have seen Richard Dawkins speak up for them as a matter of honour and a matter of course many times, but have never heard a peep of protest from his opponents.

Well then, listen more closely. Clearly this is a terrible, stupid turn of events that needs addressing – but attention to problematic things is not a non-renewable resource, which can only go toward one thing or the other. It’s possible to fight the Al Banders of the world while also pursuing better discourse around them on our own sight; useful, in fact, I’d say. (Also, Dawkins doesn’t help matters for moderate Muslims, especially moderate Muslim women, by erasing them – referring to all who practice their religion in blanket terms as violent, fundamentalist, abusive theocrats.)

One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’

Not so – but I care less about ‘one day’ than the here and now, and here and now my feeling, to paraphrase Phil Plait, that no one in this movement is beyond critique or above reproach. Don’t be a Dickhead.

Dear BBC News: please adjust your coverage of Chelsea Manning

Dear BBC:

I enjoy having you around. You make things like Sherlock and Doctor Who and In the Flesh, and I don’t even have to put up with ads. That licence fee’s a good idea. Most of the time, you make me happy.

That’s why the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s recent announcement by BBC News disappointed me.

000

When someone comes out as transgender, they aren’t saying what gender they want to be, they’re saying what gender they are. This should have been clear to you, I would have thought, from her statement (quoted in your report), ‘I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female’. Not ‘I want to be a female’, but ‘I am’. It is completely inappropriate to state ‘Bradley Manning… has announced he wants to become a woman’. Chelsea Manning – known previously as Bradley to the public – has announced she is one, and your use of her prior name and pronouns implies otherwise, as if being a woman demanded more than self-identifying as such. It doesn’t.

Regarding, specifically, the pronouns you use (‘He wants’, ‘He said he had felt’, ‘He has’, ‘He could’), Manning’s public statement – the very one you are reporting – included the words, ‘I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility)’. That would be ‘she’, then, wouldn’t it? Misgendering the person whose coming out as trans* you are reporting, within that report, when they’ve specifically and plainly asked you not to? Not good, BBC, not good – especially since it appears you’ve gone out of your way to start as many sentences with ‘He’ as possible.

If you want to see coverage similar to yours, which gets these very basic things right on the whole, look up MSNBC’s report. Either way, please amend the name, pronouns and phrasing used in your own news piece to reflect the reality of Chelsea Manning’s gender: if you’re stuck, remember that you’re writing about a woman. (For further help, see Trans Media Watch’s style guide for the press.)

I look forward to seeing changes made.

@AlexGabriel

P.S. The rest of you can make complaints to BBC News online here.

“If you think rape is a problem, talk about it right.”

[Content warning: discussions of harassment, sexual violence, domestic abuse and victim blaming, both here and in the OP.]

Jonathan Lindsell of the Haywire Thought blog has a post about rape, and how we discuss it. If you’ve heard the phrase “rape culture” and been mystified by it, this post is for you.

It says a variety of essential things, like…

We don’t hear about perpetrators. Headlines always read “Woman raped in Hartlepool”. “Government statistics show 24% students victims of abuse”. Unless the perpetrator is famous or politically sensitive then reporting is passive – such and such a molestation was committed. Such and such a sexual assault was reported. Potential victims are at risk of abuse – no men are at risk of raping.

This gives the impression rape is something that ‘just happens’. It comes out of the sky and ruins lives like a fair-weather thunderbolt. It’s a freak event. Abuse occurs in the same random nature as tyre punctures. It sneaks up on you like cancer – the unlucky woman ‘suffers rape’. You look through history – whole races and cities find themselves in this unenviable but actor-absent situation: The Rape of the Sabine Women, The Rape of Nanking. Nobody in day-to-day life ‘does’ rape. Rape just happens.

And…

Most rapes (up to 90%) are committed by people the victim knows – family, neighbours, friends, colleagues.  Reporting doesn’t acknowledge this, let alone address it. We ignore that men and [people of other genders] are sexually assaulted. The media have a narrative, a nice easy story. You, the reader, already know the framework. It’s a fable in a way – a morality tale: Young attractive woman goes partying, drinks too much and walks home alone in the dark and is attacked by a stranger. Or in the club by the man she’d just met, with whom she flirted outrageously. Or in the park where she was out running in her tight sports-shorts and push-up bra.

… We know that’s a myth. A realistic narrative might read: Irritable husband comes back from work and shouts at his children then when they are in bed rapes his wife. Or: At a family celebration the elder cousin touches the younger cousin and forces them not to tell. There is no easy-to-follow fable. In reality, sex crime doesn’t fit neat patterns.

And…

We don’t consider whether or how much we ourselves contribute to a rape-friendly culture. Only a tiny percentage – as low as 6.8% of recorded rapes and 1.1% of the estimated total end in conviction. Whether the way we (and I’m addressing all sexes, genders and persuasions) discuss bodies, actions and preferences contributes.

… The only times we hear a lot about the criminals are when they are in minorities. They are comfortably far away, They are explicitly ‘not us’ when ‘us’ is the white middle class largely male cadre that dominates Fleet Street, Westminster and the law. So it’s fine to talk about celebrities like Jimmy Saville or Garry Glitter – you might have harboured misgivings about them even before Operation Yewtree. They form the opposite case – all we hear from victims are titillating/grizzly details that prove the celebrity’s monstrosity and unique Other-ness. … These vile men lived lives so glitzy and removed from our own that we need not see their actions as a reflection on our own lifestyle. It’s fine to talk about Catholic Priests and public school masters. … Crucially, they are monsters totally unlike me and my friends. … It’s fine to talk about the Rotherham child abuse ring. “They’re immigrants, aren’t they? … It’s equally fine to talk about India then – India is comfortably far away.

We need to understand that rapists are not unspeakable monsters. They are like you and me. If we can only imagine rapists being unhinged psychopaths, then in court all that the defence barrister needs to do is show what a nice, normal human being the accused is, and the jury accepts that the accused cannot be guilty.

And…

When we read a passive verb, we’re linguistically programmed to look for a reason. … We’re desperate for clues: Was she a virgin or a slut? (There’s no middle ground.) Did she kiss him? Has she ever kissed anyone? Is she married? Is she an atheist? Was she sexually active? Was she partying? Had she taken all necessary precautions not to be raped, including but not limited to: telling a friend she was leaving, asking a Man to chaperone her, calling home, calling the police, carrying a whistle, carrying pepper spray, practicing Taekwondo, wearing an electrified girdle, carrying an automatic machine gun?

OR. Was she basically up for it? Was she like the Steubenville girl? Did she have condoms in her purse? The pill? Perfume? Why was she in the club/field/festival in the first place if she didn’t want it?

And…

Statistics exist. You almost certainly know a rapist, unless you are a recluse. Several, actually. That’s a nice thought. Cycle through the mental facebook of your friends, family, colleagues and neighbours, then people you interact with in tiny ways, commuters, supermarket customers – consider how many of them might have sexually assaulted. I hope you don’t know any molesters, but you probably do.

And…

If you think that gender violence is a problem, talk about it right. Demand equal focus on the criminal. I don’t mean we should ignore the victim, but that we need to keep the whole situation in mind. Not just to aid convictions and support victims to understand that their ordeal was not their fault, but so we learn to ignore the enablers of rape culture and construct a society where the current brutality is unacceptable.

Read the whole thing. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Secular synthesis and why we need it – or, Hello Freethought Blogs

You already know that I’m a #FTBully. Of all the letters after my name (admittedly, there aren’t very many), those are the ones I’m proudest of. My feeling is, that tells you all you need know about me. Keep reading though.

I’m 22, secular, British, poly, queer, tall, ex-Christian, “left wing and long-winded”, a nerd, a graduate and a keyboard warrior. What that actually means is fallacious discourses piss me off, and so do faulty ideas they transmit. I’m skeptical, you might say, in that sense.

The backdrop to my joining this network is an organised skepticism more divided than ever, teetering toward civil war. I have no problems with that division. If our blogosphere and the community around it become the dogfight expected right now, things will get worse before they get better – but they will, I think, get better. There are problems in our movement – racism, misogyny, transphobia, harassment, wage theft, corruption – that we need to fix, and any chance we take by addressing them is a chance for self-improvement. Should skepticism implode in the coming weeks or months, there’s no point letting it implode again a year or several down the line: the time for staring down internal conflicts, all of them, is now.

Because of that, there won’t just be posts here on UK atheism – that is, on why our image as a godless paradise is unwarranted, our secular community underdeveloped and our strains of fundamentalism growing. There won’t just be posts on leaving extreme religion – how Hallowe’en once terrified me, how my niece was an evangelical at four years old and how I thought aged eight that Satan had possessed me. There won’t just be posts about mainstream and LGBT culture’s myths of sexuality, about sex and relationships, about the nerdsphere or about far-right religion’s fast-forming grip on UK campuses. There will be all of those, sooner or later, but not just those.

I named this blog Godlessness in Theory because I think we need new secular dialectics. I first encountered things like feminism and social justice largely through the atheist scene – I came of age reading Skepchick, Butterflies and Wheels and Greta Christina’s Blog – and I think it’s valuable, vital in fact, to view our movement through those kinds of frameworks. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s enough to switch between discourses as I’ve found myself doing; to blog on atheism some days and queerness others. The most exciting thoughts I’ve had in skepticism have been listening to Pragna Patel, Sikivu Hutchinson or Natalie Reed, in whose work secularity and social justice collide and complete, coherent modes of thinking germinate which speak to both. I love these writers’ work, because this is more than intersectional action; it’s an innovative, synthetic analysis. Pursuing secular synthesis as they have – bringing godlessness into theory, and vice versa – is my long-term stated aim. That’s what I’m here for, and what I think can repair our movement – even, perhaps, make it stronger than ever.

Wish me luck.

For the moment, an overview: if you haven’t read anything by me before, or you’ve read a post or two and you want to read more, the following ten posts are a good place to start.

I’m looking at archiving the rest of my past writing here; to stay updated in the mean time, go and Like this blog on Facebook. If you feel like you still want more, browse through my writing in the areas linked or see my blogroll here for the people I like reading. You can also drop me a line via email or Twitter, and believe me, I’ll be reading the comments.

Hello if we don’t know each other. Hello again if we already do. And hello Freethought Blogs – you’re the greatest network of them all. I’m thrilled to be here.

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist

[Disclaimer 1: this post isn’t intended as a character assassination – I’m not sure it’s helpful to talk about people (as opposed to actions or statements) as being innately racist, and what I say here refers to the latter.]

[Disclaimer 2: I’m writing from the point of view of a white atheist who isn’t and never was a Muslim; I accept I could be missing something important, and I’m open to being told so.]

Pat Condell is not a pleasant man. If you haven’t seen his YouTube channel, don’t bother looking it up – suffice to say that if someone’s Twitter page claims they ‘make videos criticising religion and political correctness’ (as if the one necessitates the other), I’m not likely to admire them.

In particular, Condell thought the building of Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque, should have been prevented in 2010 – because Muslims as a whole held collective responsibility for 9/11, and simply being a Muslim, to him, means endorsing Al Qaeda. He supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, who feel the need to describe themselves officially as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’ and who wish to scrap the Human Rights Act, one major piece of legislation secularists have on their side, alongside Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in science and sex education at British schools. (They also promote home schooling, ever the fundamentalist parenting choice, deny the realities of climate change and describe gay marriage as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance’.)

Condell says this of the nationalist, Christian theocratic, anti-immigrant English Defence League: ‘I went to their website and read it quite carefully, looking for racism and fascism of course, because the media keep telling me that they are far right, but, well, I’m a little puzzled because I can find is a healthy regard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Not a whiff of racism or fascism and not a whiff of far right politics of any kind.’ He describes Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who supports the government banning of the Qur’an, the deportation of Muslims and the taxing of women who wear hijabs without a €1000 licence, as a hero. (Wilders is fine, of course, with identical headscarves worn by Christian women.)

These strike me all in all as the statements of a thoroughly despicable man, unpleasant and unadmirable not least from the secularist point of view. Richard Dawkins does admire him, however.

When YouTube pulled a video named ‘Welcome to Saudi Britain’, in which Condell refers to Muslims as corner-shop owners and to Saudi Arabia’s whole population as ‘mentally ill’ and ‘barking mad’, then subsequently republished it, here’s what he said:

‘I congratulate YouTube on an excellent decision. Pat Condell is hard-hitting, but always quietly reasonable in tone. That some people say they are “offended” by something is never a good reason for censoring it. Incitement to violence is. Pat Condell never incites violence against anybody. He always signs off with “Peace” and he means it.’

Previously, his foundation’s website compiled and sold a collection of Condell’s videos on DVD, announced with the following comments.

‘RichardDawkins.net has now compiled the first 35 of Pat Condell’s videos onto this DVD collection, with an exclusive introduction by Pat. Enjoy this newly remastered collection, totalling 3 hours of video.
“Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side.” ~ Richard Dawkins’

Mehdi Hasan tweeted this morning that Condell’s what he claims is an EDL supporter’s ‘hatchet job’ on him was retweeted both by Dawkins and Steven Yaxley Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson), the EDL’s leader. Dawkins himself had previously written,

Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.

(Fitna, if you’re unaware of it, was a film in which Wilders asserted that since parts of the Qur’an – like just about any ancient religious text – say violent things, all Muslims are by definition supporters of religious violence and deserve the pariah status prescribed by Wilders’ policies.)

A state which halts immigration from so-called Muslim countries, which deports and criminalises citizens specifically for being Muslims, which imposes exceptional limitations on the exercise of Islam, alone among other religions, and assigns all Muslims collective guilt for Islamists’ religious atrocities is not one any secularist should wish to establish. (We want neutrality, not persecution rivaling that of Europe’s anti-Semitic, theocratic past.) And yes, Richard, it’s racist.

Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.

KebabI’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.

But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things.

There’s nothing racist about critiquing misogyny in popular music, including in hip-hop, a prominent genre. But if you’re singling hip-hop out as the sexist genre, or talking disproportionately about rap lyrics rather than songs outside traditionally black genres by the Beatles, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift or One Direction – particularly if you’re also essentialising hip-hop as misogynous by definition, ignoring all female and feminist hip-hop – you need to examine your motivations and consider where that bias is coming from.

If you’re singling out Islamic theocracies as countries with repressive laws about sex, you likewise need to think about why. In the civically secular, socially Christian U.S., it was only ten years ago that sodomy laws (used against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay sex) were struck down in Texas, and it was only in 2005 that the state of Virginia legalised premarital sex. In civically Christian, socially secular Britain, HIV-positive and transgender people are criminalised for having sex; in mainly Christian Uganda, gay sex is illegal. All over the Western world and the planet generally, sex workers face state violence, harassment and imprisonment. What sorts of countries have terrible, oppressive, violent laws about sex? All sorts. Of course we can attack Islamic theocracies, but if you’re not attacking them within a broader context – if you’re not discussing other nations with oppressive laws, and not talking about non-Islamic religious law’s use in policing consensual sexuality – you need to ask yourself why you’re driven to attack the religion especially and disproportionately whose image is most strongly racialised.

‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim schools for stuffing children’s minds with “alien rubbish”‘

Likewise, why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions? Which choose Islam in particular as the exemplum of a very much broader problem? The British Humanist Association and other groups campaigned successfully against all (and not religiously specific) creationist teaching last year, such is the level of generalised malpractice in science education at British schools; a physics teacher at my wholly typical, religiously softcore and atheist-dominated comprehensive told my Year 10 class after explaining the formation of the Earth that if anyone had ‘any deeply held religious beliefs, this is just a theory’. In particular, a solitary network of 40 Christian fundamentalist schools (compared with 126 Islamic schools in total) exists in Britain where only a tenth of pupils deem Darwinism true – Jonny Scaramanga, who writes here, attended one and will tell you all you need to know – and according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll only 48 percent of Britain believes in evolution at all. Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective.

If the word ‘alien’ is one you’d use for creationism in Muslim schools, would you use it when discussing schools like Jonny’s – creationist, white-dominated and Christian? Would you, do you think, use a word meaning ‘foreign’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘not from round here’ to describe white-British creationists outside a recent of context of immigration? Likewise, whether or not you consider all Muslims ‘Islamic barbarians’, is a historically imperialist term for foreign people to be ‘civilised’ through conquest one you’d have been as likely to apply if white Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. torched the Library of Congress? As much as describing Nigeria’s Christian fundamentalists as savages or calling opposition to Islamism a crusade, using such a racially inflected word in reference to Islam – whose members in Europe face racism from the assembled far-right forces of figures like Wilders, Condell, Lennon’s EDL, Anders Behring Breivik and Stop Islamisation of Europe – is spectacularly tone-deaf, regardless of intent.

It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal. Hamza Tzortzis, theocrat, Islamic fundamentalist and the organiser of UCL’s notorious gender-segregated debate earlier this year, is on record claiming ‘We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom’; it seems conceivable he doesn’t speak for all of Earth’s 1.8 billion Muslims, nor all those who’ve existed throughout history, but reactions to the debacle from camp Dawkins suggested the same.

Tzortzis is an individual. He runs one particular organization, and espouses one particular politicised form of Islam. He has a name. Referring to him in lieu of it as just ‘a Muslim’ or ‘some Muslim or other’ suggests he’s as generic a representative of those 1.8 billion people as he claims he is – and referring, moreover, to ‘these Muslims’ (not ‘these Muslim fundamentalists’, ‘these Islamists’ or ‘this organisation’) as juxtaposed with UCL suggests not only that Tzortzis’ group, the IERA, are ambassadors for Muslims everywhere but that Muslims as a homogenous, theocratic and foreign mass are being capitulated to; that ‘they’ are an external threat to ‘us’, and that no one could be both part of UCL’s establishment and a Muslim. We’ve seen this homogenisation again since then, in the statement that no happily Muslim women could possibly exist – that every Muslim woman everywhere is beaten by her husband and whipped for being raped, and by implication that the experiences of Muslim women in Sharia theocracies are representative of others’ elsewhere who practice non-violent, non-fundamentalist Islam. Again, I’m certainly not of the view that just because someone’s religious views aren’t murderous, violent or theocratic, there can be nothing wrong with them – but to erase all Muslims except merciless Salafists hands not only them, but racists, fascists and far-right imperialists the validation they crave.

My argument isn’t necessarily that you have to mean this consciously as and when you make the statements above, but these are your rhetoric’s implications and connotations. Rhetoric matters, and when your job as a writer – especially a globally recognised, influential writer – is saying things clearly, it’s one of your responsibilities to take into account how what you say could reasonably be (mis)interpreted. An analogy might in theory be possible which compares the Qur’an to Mein Kampf without implying Muslims are Nazi-like by definition, but when far-right figures like Condell and the EDL insist with characteristic lack of irony that Muslims have no place next to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it’s absurd not to anticipate that reading; it might in theory be reasonable to say someone with a journalist’s critical nous is inconsistent if they believe in literal winged horses, but when Muslims are at heightened risk of falling victim to unemployment, a tweet which could be construed as endorsing discriminatory practice – with Muslims turned away from jobs just the way the EDL’s members would like – almost certainly will be so construed.

Two paragraphs back I mentioned merciless Salafists. Originally, the adjective would have been ‘savage’ or ‘bloodthirsty’, but it struck me that a comparison of Muslims with aggressive, predatory wild animals or reference to them with words traditionally justifying conquests of dark-skinned nations had unhelpful connotations – and connotations matter. If what you’re about to say has the potential to uphold racist or imperialist impulses – if it’s something fascists might end up quoting in their support – say something else or find a better way of saying it. When the leader of the EDL’s retweeting you, it’s time to rethink your rhetoric.

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

There are better ways we can discuss Islam.

There are better ways we can critique Islam.

Please, Richard Dawkins.

Stop.

Appropriation, erasure and historical revisionism: gay marriage’s hyperconservative origins, and why DOMA’s repeal mustn’t be framed as a secular(ist) victory

Since Wednesday, I’ve watched friends and allies either side of the Atlantic celebrating the Defense of Marriage Act’s partial repeal. On reflection, perhaps tellingly, the ones who’ve celebrated most have been my colleagues in the atheist community, or at least the part of it which keeps an eye on social issues: in the chorus of online cheering I saw Dan Fincke, Greta Christina, Adam Lee, Melody Hensley, Laci Green, Chana Messinger, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan and Ashley Miller, among various others. (These last three, I think of fondly as Miri, Kate and Ashley. Let’s make that a thing.)

There is no one listed here I don’t respect and admire enormously – and for that reason, I’m scared to publish this post: scared what I’m about to write will be misread, or provoke a fiery, personal, heat-of-the-moment reaction; scared that it won’t be taken how I intend, as a constructive contribution rather than a joyless sneer or an attack on the elation friends are currently feeling; scared, ultimately, that it’ll alienate me from people whose opinions I care about, whom I regard tremendously highly.

I’m more scared of their responses and other readers’, actually, than I was of upsetting the friends whose wedding I recounted a week ago. This post is almost as much to do with marriage as that one, because the way DOMA’s semi-dismantling has been framed bothers me; more specifically, it troubles me as a queer atheist how much of the skeptical community (though far from unaccompanied in this) has framed the broader gay marriage narrative primarily as one of (pro-)LGBTQ secularism versus religious conservatism.

Some examples. (Again, these are all people I look up to, whose work and writing I support and will continue to support – I’m exemplifying here for clarity, but I don’t mean anyone to feel personally targeted. I’m resolutely not throwing anyone under the bus, nor hoping to be thrown under myself.)

DOMA was a stupid, reactionary, medieval law. I’m glad the U.S. is rid of it. But the reason we (or rather, Americans) are rid of it is not that it was theocratic. Yes, the ideals encoded about queer relationships’ inferiority and the nature of marriage have been transmitted by religions extensively, and religion’s cultural footprints enabled DOMA as much as actual religious structures and beliefs; but DOMA, despite the extent of its religious support, was never a religious law as such, or in any rigid sense a breach of church-state separation.

Much more importantly, the rhetoric its opposition employed beyond the skeptical community was never primarily secularist: the language of gay marriage campaigns in the last decade is characterised much more by references to love, equality, progress, rights than by outright rejection of God in the public sphere. My region of queer politics, as will be central to this post, is generally averse to any marriages’ state recognition, and some arguments for this have hinged on separating church and state, among them Betsy Brown’s in ‘A Radical Dyke Experiment for the Next Century’. While I don’t wholly subscribe to her argument, I do maintain there’s slippage between secularism and support for contemporary gay marriage campaigns; the twain need not meet, and haven’t in most gay marriage advocacy.

The discourse we build around this issue matters greatly, just as it has for every other queer or trans* issue. Our sexes and genders, our sexual identities, the closets in which we’re placed by parents and teachers, our legal rights and our standing as equal beings or perverted sinners are products of language we use and narratives we spin: the history of queerness is one of representations, and the way we represent recent moves around gay marriage will shape future realities of queer activism, as representations of Stonewall shape today’s. I think the discourse being built here around DOMA and gay marriage risks appropriation, erasure and historical amnesia – actually, while I empathise with all forms of hostility to America’s religious right, I worry it already demonstrates them.

Framing DOMA’s neutering as a secular(ist) triumph invites us to view the prior conflict principally as a secular-religious one, where homophobic religious conviction fuelled U.S. law reform to forbid gay marriage, and LGBT populations pressed for gay marriage as an anti-theocratic project; it suggests religious belief to be the first cause in this progress of events, and gay marriage advocacy to have spawned in reaction. This runs counter mainstream gay marriage rhetoric employed in recent years, as detailed above, and I’d argue moreover that it inverts the historical truth. DOMA was not directly produced by religious belief or tradition in 1996, as religion tends directly to spawn, say, ideas of XX and XY bodies’ superior sexual complementarity. Rather, it was itself a reaction – after the fact – to contemporary shifts in queer politics toward the ideal of gay marriage, which owed little to secularism and much to AIDS.

To narrate the gay marriage project’s history before all else as a tale of secular(ist) LGBT folk battling religious rightists misrepresents the dialectic which gave birth to it, and had precious little to do with religion. Internal queer tensions in the years before DOMA, not theocratic heterosexism, were what first pushed marriage onto the gay agenda. If we want consider ensuing developments in the next two decades clearly, and avoid homogenising LGBTQ communities when we discuss gay marriage, I don’t think we can lose sight of those tensions.

Religious bodies at large prior to the late eighties only passively opposed gay marriage, because gay marriage had yet to become a solidified concept. What currency the idea gained during the nineties can be traced back to Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative who in 1989, two years prior to becoming its editor, authored a column for The New Republic entitled ‘Here Comes the Groom’. His central argument, still instructive reading, proceeds as follows:

DOMAsullivan

Let’s take a moment, in case its sheer vomit-inducing nerve eludes you, to parse this genesis of contemporary gay marriage efforts.

Legalizing gay marriage would offer homosexuals the same deal society now offers heterosexuals: general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extract- yourself-from commitment to another human being.

‘Including queer people in state marriage would give them everything straight people have – and why would anyone want anything else (or, God forbid, anything more)? – as long as they didn’t do anything socially unacceptable, of course, and earned the right to things like medicine and financial aid by giving up sexual autonomy for the rest of their lives.’

Like straight marriage, it would foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence.

‘Like straight marriage, it would make abusive domestic situations harder to escape and help keep poor people in their place – actually, it’s a really great excuse not to have a functional welfare system.’

Since there’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents, it could also help nurture children.

‘There’s no reason gays should not be allowed to adopt or be foster parents – only the married ones, though, obviously.’

And its introduction would not be some sort of radical break with social custom.

‘Far be it from beleaguered minorities to challenge mainstream customs – it’s not like anyone needs wide-ranging social change, is it?’

As it has become more acceptable for gay people to acknowledge their loves publicly, more and more have committed themselves to one another for life in full view of their families and their friends.

‘…what do you mean, “provide the data”? Look, everyone knows more people pledging lifelong monogamy to one another is a good thing – it must be, that’s what straight people have always done (and hey, it always works out for them). Let’s make sure only those people get basic citizenship rights and social support, and throw in some unfair privileges. People who don’t want to “commit” just deserve less.’

A law institutionalizing gay marriage would merely reinforce a healthy social trend.

‘A law institutionalising gay marriage would merely reinforce what I’m claiming is a social trend. Which, again, must be a good thing.’

It would also, in the wake of AIDS, qualify as a genuine public health measure.

‘Well, no one ever gets HIV from a monogamous partner! And married people, naturally, are always totally monogamous.’

Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.

‘It’s one thing being gay, isn’t it – I should know – but actually having more gay sex than strictly necessary or normal?! That’s the secret to solving all this AIDS malarkey, you know. Forget sex education, provision of condoms and clean needles or funding research for new treatments, we just need good, old fashioned sexual morality to stop people fornicating; same kind the Catholics go in for, and it’s never caused them any trouble!’

‘Since AIDS’, Sullivan wrote, ‘to be gay and to be responsible has become a necessity.’ Gay people needed marriage, in his view, as a mass form of prophylaxis: mere use of condoms and clear dialogue, of course, wasn’t an option – and in any case, was much less responsible than lifelong monogamy. These are the hyperconservative roots of queer liberalism’s cause célèbre, and to a great extent the secular community’s. Yes, right wing Puritanism birthed today’s gay marriage movement, but not the theocratic kind; portraying that movement as a secularist one, defending queer citizens from religious homophobia’s fiery breath like St. George and his dragon-afflicted maiden, ignores the fact the bigotry which prompted it began within the queer populace, elite, class-privileged media figures selling sex workers, polyamorous lovers and HIV positive people down the river; it conceals the uncomfortable truth that in this story, damsel and dragon were one and the same.

No doubt Sullivan’s willingness to sell out his own ostensible community earned him the stature he used to that end – at the height of the AIDS crisis, it seems hard to imagine any out journalist but a reactionary one becoming editor of TNR. As it turned out, he cared neither for monogamy nor for condom use; as Richard Goldstein described the debacle twelve years ago in The Village Voice,

Using the screen name RawMuscleGlutes, Sullivan posted on a site for bare backers (the heroic term for gay men who have sex without condoms). He was seeking partners for unsafe anal and oral intercourse. Sullivan revealed that he was HIV-positive and stated his preference for men who are “poz,” but he also indicated an interest in “bi scenes,” groups, parties, orgies, and “gang bangs.” This hardly fit the gay ideal Sullivan had created in his book Virtually Normal. In fact, RawMuscleGlutes is just the sort of “pathological” creature who raises Sullivan’s wrath. Hypocrisy has always been a rationale for outing, and it’s the justification for a group of gay journalists who teamed up with the tabs to expose him.

Some would call this character assassination, though one can’t help feeling it seems more an assisted suicide.

That Sullivan’s case for gay marriage (that is, the original case) was as regressive as it was needn’t mean, of course, that no valid case exists. But the fact the gay marriage project started out so divisively and oppressively has consequences: given its weaponisation so early on against the queer population’s most vulnerable members, it’s impossible to claim it unambiguously for that populace as a whole. Treating pursuit of gay marriage as the central or quintessential queer struggle homogenises us; it suggests it to be an aim equally representative of or accessible to everyone outside the cishet mainstream, when its history has alienated those from day one who lie furthest from it. To gloss the partial repeal of DOMA as a ubiquitous one-size-fits-all gay rights victory ignores that the campaign for it, whatever view we take of the end goal, always fit some of us better than others.

To claim it as a victory by (mostly straight) secularists on behalf of the queer population, to use support for gay marriage as a metric of queer-friendliness, to locate it as the pinnacle or culmination of all past queer activism – risks erasing everybody alienated from or othered by the project’s history, and obscures the sheer sectionality of the last twenty years’ campaigns. It means using figures like Sullivan and those not driven away from gay marriage politics by their influence as a barometer of the queer population’s priorities and desires, and not their victims, or the many marginalised queer people for whom poverty, the closet or the fear of violence will make marriage a pipe dream even post-legalisation.

One cannot legitimately claim the erosion of DOMA, or any ultimate achievement of complete marriage reform, as an equal victory for both these sides. Framing them as secularist, (pro-)LGBTQ victories against religious homophobia, beyond being out of touch with mainstream gay marriage rhetoric past and present, whitewashes over the cracks, painting the queer population as a singular, happy whole and not the fractured hierarchical wreck it really is. Presenting that whole populace as equally happy and liberated means presenting it in the image of the most privileged; the greatest conflict around gay marriage rages not between queer and religious populations, but within the former, as it always has.

DOMAnotsoequal

None of thus in itself means gay marriage is a bad idea, or that no one should pursue it. But while we’re told scrapping DOMA marks the fulfilment of historical queer activism, with figures like Harvey Milk and events like Stonewall hauled out to suggest a long, hard fight for justice led by ordinary queer people, the truth is that grassroots struggle never occurred – and it shows. What victories are achieved won’t now be equal victories for us all – not for Sullivan’s HIV positive pariahs, not for trans* people told by the HRC to take down their pride flag or LGBTQs made to hide their immigration status; not for polyamorous people deemed ‘irresponsible’ from the very beginning, othered when activists and politicians insist gay marriage won’t lead to polygamy, so there’s no need to worry; likewise not for people interested in their relatives, who we’re  assured won’t gain marriage rights themselves, the disgusting incestuous perverts; not for kink communities expelled from queer spaces and events through bans on nudity; not for those of us unconvinced of the military’s heroism. For thousands of people, the gay marriage project’s ultimate achievements, whatever they are, can now only be mitigated triumphs – celebrated, at best, despite the cost at which they came.

Brendan O’Neill is a homophobe with homophobic intent – one quotes him at one’s peril – but a contrarian stopped clock is right twice a day, and when he says gay marriage campaigns are nothing like the Civil Rights Movement, he has a point (as any such indiscriminate hurler of reactionary silage occasionally will, if only be accident):

In order for gay marriage to become one of the most celebrated issues of our time, embraced by everyone from David Cameron to The Times to Goldman Sachs, nobody had to fight on the streets; nobody had to organise long and bitter boycotts of public institutions; nobody was water-cannoned by the authorities, attacked by police dogs, burnt out of their homes.

When bricks were thrown at Stonewall and San Francisco burned on White Night, gay marriage was not on the agenda; until the nineties, the concept barely registered on anyone’s agenda. Its passage into popular awareness and LGBT political centrality was triggered in the early noughties not by marches, riots, sit-ins or public meetings but by the celebrity lawyer Evan Wolfson’s establishment of Freedom to Marry, an elite lobby group powered by a multimillion dollar endowment. If Sullivan was the architect of contemporary gay marriage politics, Wolfson oversaw its construction; both are now heralded, instructively, as ‘fathers’ of the current gay agenda, and their role in setting it – alongside politicians, NGOs and the liberal media – illustrates perfectly that this has been a top-down project for the most part, fostered and promoted by elite, comparatively privileged LGBT ‘leaders’ and their straight allies, trickling down into everyday queer consciousness and subjectivity as the fortunes of the untaxed rich are claimed to trickle, much more than it was ever advocated from the ground up.

DOMAsolutionNone of this, once again, means it’s a bad idea by definition. But there are those of who think, incidentally, that it is; that inclusion in a legal structure like marriage is regressive and misguided, that assimilation is not liberation, that the state is not the solution – that serious reform and social change are needed, not just a reconfigured status quo. I’m not going to argue for that here and now; my point is, the argument has never really been had. Presenting DOMA’s half-haulage as a development welcomed universally by the queer population – or, moreover, as a secular(ist) LGBT coup against the religious right – obscures and erases the history of gay marriage. There has never, in fact, been a sufficiently serious, grassroots internal dialogue about its value as a goal.

Last year in the secular community, it came to light that numerous prominent women had been harassed at conferences. They shared and compared experiences, considering the available responses and reported what had happened to their readers and our broader community; eventually, this led to a coordinated effort for codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies at skeptical events, and for the most part it was successful: a plurality of well known conferences established clear, considered policies and took other measures to prevent harassment. This is exactly how social movements progress at their best – initiated and steered by the people most strongly affected, self-reflective and thoughtful about which course of action should be taken; it used shared discourse and collaborative dialogue to identify the problems, examine them and reach practical conclusions, which afterward were implemented.

And this is precisely not how gay marriage was popularised, dreamt up by those atop the social food chain and handed down via lobbying efforts, politicians (often straight ones) and the liberal media. There was never an internal consultation period, when queer communities at large reflected on the idea, assessed its pros and cons and declared it, in conclusion, worthy of treatment as the flagship LGBT initiative. If you think there was, when was it?

Yes, DOMA was a response to a smattering of queer attempts at legal marriage in the early nineties – in Hawaii, principally – and to Denmark’s introduction of basic civil unions a few years before; but it was just as much a Republican fortification against the ‘normalising’ rhetoric of high-up figures like Sullivan. Those first civil unions, too, were far more a pragmatic response to the threat of partner death and destitution in the height of the AIDS crisis than a political expression, and certainly not one of secularism. Certainly, after Freedom to Love’s emergence in the early noughties, gay marriage’s grip on queer media narratives slid unencumbered into place, a meme spread with the marketing guile of progressive think tanks, the commentariat and the gay elite – such that supporting it became a presumption. As an adolescent, back when I still identified as gay, I grew up presumptively supporting marriage reform; not because I’d weighed the costs and benefits to reach a prognosis – I hadn’t – but because gay people wanted that, and if I was gay, I must want it too.

I believe today that most straight ‘allies’ support gay marriage because it seems the obvious expression of queer-friendly solidarity they wish to display, and not because they’ve examined the queer arguments for and against it on its own terms. It’s an attempt at allyship, ironically, which erases thousands of queer people, including me, who are skeptical of assimilation and of propping up state marriage, along with significant parts of our history and politics which criticise the gay marriage project from the queer left. It’s by no means absurd to imagine Harvey Milk, if abstracted to the present day, might be more on our side than Sullivan’s and Wolfson’s.

Like most queer people with earnest reservations about it, I think the debate amongst ourselves we never had about gay marriage is one we desperately need to have, and should have had before large-scale legal changes were underway. Again, this post isn’t the time place to stage that debate, but there are those of us who see as empowering conservative agendas on healthcare, welfare and immigration among others (I see this above, in Andrew Sullivan’s original proposal; I see it around me in David Cameron’s marriage rhetoric). There are those of us who find state marriage discriminatory, oppressive and unjust whoever has access to it, and those of us who think the state has no more right to rule on whose relationships (or families) are valid than does religion. Even if we accept government to be legitimately democratic, why ought our relationship choices be up for debate?

You don’t have to agree with any of this, at least straight away. It took me a long period of careful thinking to arrive at the position I now hold, thanks largely to the culture of crappy discourse, mentioned above, in which I grew up. In media and political narratives, queer critiques of structures like marriage to which LGBT activism now aspires are marginalised, ignored and left out of discussion.

We contribute to this whenever we use support for gay marriage as a litmus test for queer-friendliness; when we presuppose all critics of it to be right wing bigots, or especially to be religious; when we devote whole reams of coverage to the same familiar, reactionary right wing arguments against marriage reform but only the scantest reportage (or none at all) to the dissenting queer left’s; most of all, when we allow the marriage debate to be straight-led and straight–dominated.

Again and again, I’ve watched whole public rallies for gay marriage where straight politicians and mostly-straight crowds cheered for progress, love, acceptance, equality – seen current affairs programmes where all-straight panels debated the merits of ‘equal marriage’, read pages and pages of straight journalists’ applause for ‘gay rights’ measures I and many others, as queer people, find deeply worrying. Much of the time the secular community, though far from unique in this, feels the same way. It’s enough to lend new credence to the phrase ‘to the exclusion of all others’ – particularly when the conflict over marriage is framed discreetly and sans nuance as a pitched battle between The Gays and Evil Christian Bigots. Yes, they’re often pretty evil; yes, their bigotry is often religiously fuelled – but why they getting more airtime and acknowledgement than folk like me are?

The queer agenda, on marriage or anything else, needs to be set by us – not by our well-meaning straight ‘allies’, and certainly not by homophobic theocrats – and I believe this culture of erasure is inhibiting that. It’s harming our ability, as a social movement, to be self-critical, to evaluate our goals more carefully, and also to be self-theorising – not just to pursue automatically and reactively whatever it is homophobes want to deny us, letting their bigotry dictate our actions, but to generate ideas, ideals and ideologies of our own for queer liberation, on our own terms, for ourselves and for a better society.

If you’re a gay marriage supporter, then, active in secular or atheist circles or a straight ally, think carefully about the discourse you promote.

You don’t have to be on my side in this issue. Many people aren’t, queer and straight alike, and I appreciate a multitude of voices even though I think they’re wrong. But please, let voices like mine and those I’ll link to beneath this post join in that multitude; in the argument over marriage reform and LGBTQ people’s future, please give us a seat at the table. Our arguments aren’t for everyone, but nor are they trivial. They deserve to be acknowledged and properly considered, and to be part of the mainstream (secular) discourse from which they’re so often excluded.

If you define the current gay marriage wars uncomplicatedly as conflicts between heroic, secular(ist) LGBT couples seeking marriage and villainous religious conservatives, you are homogenising a whole population, and in doing so erasing a great many of its members and much of its political thought from a discourse which badly needs their contributions. You are contributing to a mass culture of that homogenising erasure.

If you represent gay marriage’s critics as by definition religious, including by saying or implying no secular criticisms exist (they do – see below!), you are doing the same – and by representing the conflict as predominantly secularist-theocratic, you are expunging from the record all the oppressive, repressive, regressive actions taken historically by gay marriage advocates against other queer and trans* people, motivated far less by secularism than by deeply puritanical, reactionary conservatism.

DOMAmattachinesIf you’re a straight ally, and you treat support for gay marriage as a component of ally-ship to be taken for granted, you might well similarly be erasing and ignoring thousands of members of the population whose rights you claim to advocate – and you’re in danger of upholding a status quo where the primary movers for and representatives of LGBTQ people are often straight people; where LGBT activism’s goals and queer activism’s context are dictated more by straight people than LGBTQ people. However much you oppose our stances, we’re still part of this, and shouldn’t be expunged from queer history – no more than anarchist feminists like Emma Goldman who opposed women’s votes, or the homophile Mattachine Society, whose members covered the battered Stonewall Inn with pamphlets demanding the riots ceased.

So here’s where I ask you to do something positive.

  • If you haven’t encountered the strands of queer politics and argument I’m discussing here before, especially around marriage reform, read at least a few of the pieces I’m linking below, if not all of them. Whatever your conclusion, think carefully about the arguments raised; use them to inform your broader thinking on LGBTQ issues; be willing to re-examine positions you hold, and relinquish some of your assumptions, before you reach a stance you feel you can solidly justify. (In short, be a good skeptic.)
  • If you find them hard to follow, or you don’t have the time or energy to put into reading them, feel free to talk to me or others about the relevant discussions. (This being said, these topics matter, so particularly if you’re someone with an influential voice – a prominent writer or speaker, a straight ally or activist, or someone who discusses gay marriage a lot – be prepared to invest time and energy in raising your awareness where it needs raising.
  • If you’re a gay marriage supporter, including after considering the queer critiques on offer, stop presenting that support as being a de facto part of (pro-)LGBTQ existence, and acknowledge the internal critiques of gay marriage when you talk about. Criticise the criticisms as much as you like, but remember to make them part of the discussion. This goes doubly if you’re writing a one of the familiar ‘Worst arguments against gay marriage’ articles – instead of just hauling out the typical right wing homophobia, think more critically about the arguments made for gay marriage, plenty of which are just as terrible and equally offensive.
  • And if you see people making bad arguments for it, conflating being (pro-)LGBTQ necessarily with gay marriage support, conflating criticism of it with bigoted religious conservatism or rewriting history, tell them to stop. Or, better still, link them to this.

My name’s Gabriel, and I want to recruit you.

* * *

Queer critiques of gay marriage politics: a reading list (in no particular order)

Bibliographies for further reading:

Without the circus of SU elections, how much worse off would you and I really be?

Dashing up my staircase last autumn term, mid-essay crisis, a boy and girl cornered me half way to my room. I knew her casually from college; though her friend and I weren’t acquainted, the coloured pamphlets spilling from their hands all bore his face. Elections, I realised, were on the way again at Oxford’s student union, and this was a candidate for President.

Despite his twinkish smile and lime green jumper, I excused myself after a brief, polite exchange. Deadline-bound, of course, I needed to press on with in The Taming of the Shrew – but truthfully, a part of me experienced in doorstep combat with evangelists and salespeople had been cringing inwardly. The flyer I was given, I’m afraid to say, went largely undissected once I’d scanned it fleetingly, noting all the campaign cycle’s perennial issues (funding, library times, rent etc.) to be redeployed there. That I never properly digested it was nothing personal, yet I couldn’t bring myself just to dispose of it, and weeks after polling day, it festered unexamined on the staircase pinboard – while I’d long since been uninterested in union elections, on some level, I clearly still felt bad about this. Back in my days of Blairite liberalism, I tried to tell myself I cared, but the truth is that suspicion of elected bodies ranks atop the things I’ve learned in four years as a student.

Continue reading.