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.

Westminster’s sordid history of queer sex scandals

In common with most of humanity, I like sex. So, probably, do you. If you don’t like it, and plenty of people don’t, that’s your prerogative and equally dandy – but personally, I like various kinds of it with various people and with various motivations. I’m not a nymphomaniac: it matters less to me than Doctor Who, say, and more than Stargate SG-1 (at least in later, less happy seasons). Certainly, I know I’d rather give up sex than Doctor Who if forced to choose – if you think this makes me pathetic, I think it makes me cool – but broadly speaking it matters to me, and all else being equal, I enjoy sex for its own sake, with enthusiastic partners and at moderate intervals, while not currently craving wedding rings or joint mortgage payments.
Except perhaps the Doctor Who part, nothing here seems unusual to me. Essentially, it’s quite mundane. Try to imagine an MP saying it though, and there’s a fair chance you’ll hit a wall.Ten years ago, as Iraq rocked the second Blair government and Michael Howard oozed as Tory leader, Chris Bryant – Labour MP for the Rhondda and now Shadow Immigration Minister – faced ministerial and press lambasting when photos of him posed provocatively from Gaydar.com surfaced in the papers. Along with the scantily-clad photos, messages including ‘I’d love a good long fuck’ reached Fleet Street, sourced from exchanges with other users. ‘I’m sorry this has happened’, Bryant’s official statement read, its careful wording drenched in je ne regrette rien – after all, what had he to apologise for?

Conspicuously keen as New Labour was to liberalise LGBT laws, it always observed the culture of intense erotic shame specific to legislators, insisting its gay MPs – their sexuality a particular transgression – perform as highly articulate Ken dolls, respectable and pleasant but incapable of fucking. Yesterday, it came to light that Nick Clegg knew about the claims Lord Rennard harassed women; in government however, all sex is a crime. Had Bryant cheated on a partner, exploited an employee or divulged official secrets via pillow talk? Had he pressured or threatened partners into sex with him, or else been violent or verbally abusive? On the contrary, the act which publicly disgraced him at the time and seemed to threaten his career was his pursuit of casual sex. The same sex you, I or anyone we know might seek out unremarkably on Friday night.

Few countries have Great Britain’s rich-veined tradition of high-up sex scandals, and historically gay sex has been more scandalous than most; Westminster had queer debacles, in fact, before it had straight ones. While minister John Profumo’s dalliance in 1963 with Christine Keeler, a sex worker also linked to Soviet agents, is sometimes thought of as Parliament’s first bedroom fiasco, the scandal which kicked off gay politics in Britain occurred almost a decade previously, when the journalist Peter Wildeblood, the peer Lord Montagu and several others were charged with sex offences during time spent at Montagu’s beach hut. Wildeblood’s outing during the trial may have triggered commissioning of the Wolfenden Report, which later recommended relaxation of British laws against gay sex, but the targeting of Montagu was symptomatic of a sexual McCarthyism desperate for high-profile scalps; a few years later, MP Ian Harvey – like Montagu, a Conservative – faced arrest, found cruising in St. James’s Park.

At the same, gay sex remained taboo in any context, yet the witch-hunt for sodomites in the ruling classes stands in evidence of sex itself as an offence among politicians; its motive was to show that if the rot of homosexuality had set in even at Westminster, whose cleaner-than-clean paragons of fluidless virtue made up Britain’s parliament, it seriously must warrant drastic action. Post-legalisation, puritanism remained: during child-free, unmarried Edward Heath’s time as Prime Minister, rumours of his homosexuality persisted – as if anyone not drawn to the established tableau of the married politician with wife and children must be enveloped in sordid and forbidden desires – and two years after Heath’s defeat at Harold Wilson’s hands, claims of past indiscretions with a stable boy forced Jeremy Thorpe, then Liberal Party leader, to resign. What liberated advances in sexual politics we tell ourselves we’ve made rarely if ever reach the Westminster village: choose anything but lifelong, heteronormative monogamy, and your prospects there are shaky.

In the decade since Chris Bryant was so roundly tarred and feathered, not much except his hairstyle seems to have changed (it has, admittedly, made some degree of progress). A mere three years afterwards  two candidates for Liberal Democrat leader were Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes. Though neither won, each managed to succeed Thorpe in at least one way, as both campaigns were scandal-hit within a few days. Hughes, after details reached the press, was forced to come out as bisexual; Oaten, the News of the World made public, had hired a male sex worker for an extended period. That he was cheating on his wife, even with a man, provoked less outrage than the kink-filled threesomes it was claimed Oaten enjoyed – we may have become used, in the age of Edwina Currie and John Prescott, to adulterous parliamentarians here or there, but God forbid they have the wrong kind of sex.

As recently as 2010, Foreign Secretary William Hague alerted the nation to hitherto unnoticed rumours he was gay by publicly denying them at a specially arranged press conference, opting bizarrely to reveal fertility problems which he and his wife had faced – as if the absence from his life of squealing, blue-and-yellow-wearing Coalition babies were more likely to have fed the relevant rumours than his sharing a hotel room with 25-year-old Christopher Myers. (In their cringe-inducing, much-publicised photo together, Hague certainly looked like he shouldn’t be allowed near children, vulnerable adults or effete Italian nail technicians). Like Edward Heath before him, his failure to procreate publicly  – that is, to be wholly traditionally heterosexual – seemed to mark him out as a potentially sexual deviant, at least in his own eyes.

As last century’s Westminster gossip haunts us, the sex scandals of the past shed all too much light on contemporary ones; tell ourselves as we might that attitudes have changed, those tasked with running our society remain captives of a bygone sexual Zeitgeist  compulsively re-enacting the most straitlaced heteronormativity, shamed by queerness, kink or casual encounters. If a lesson here exists, it’s that our politics must be far-reaching: we might accept the legal reforms which Parliament, under electoral pressure, offers us, but our goal should be its liberation as well as ours from puritanism. People like sex in all its sizes, colours and shapes, and so do politicians – the instinct which stops them saying so is one we’d all be better off without. Quite unlike Doctor Who.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gay marriage politics has its queer critics too

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

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

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

Continue reading.

These police commissioner elections should terrify us all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A secular state is important, but (for me) it’s not enough

Sunday’s post on humanism has gained lots of attention, including the National Secular Society’s, who shared it on their homepage. (Thanks to them for the readers that sent the blog.)

One issue I mentioned half way through that post, and that I’ve brought up a lot elsewhere recently, is that I want to focus my activities on skepticism – and in particular, atheism – not just on separating church and state. I differ in this sense from many humanists, but also from the NSS, which works “exclusively” toward a secular state.

Their president Terry Sanderson, who I’m told liked the humanism post, said two years ago “We will leave humanism for the humanist groups, atheism to the atheist groups and fix our sights uniquely on secularism.” A secular charter, illustrating their campaign aims, was announced at the same time.

Don’t read this post as a criticism of the NSS – I share their aims, support their work and am fine with that being their focus. This post is just about why, personally, mine is different.

The issues strict secularists address legitimately matter. It matters that Anglican Bishops sit as of right in Britain’s parliament, for example; that “broadly Christian worship” is required in our state schools; that parallel court systems exist for minority religions; that oaths to God are taken by our national rulers; that faith groups get exemptions a priori from a host of laws; that they effectively have automatic charity status; that religious bodies run at least a third of maintained schools here; that public money funds chaplaincies in hospitals, the armed forces and education, and that we still have an established church. These are just some of the issues the UK has – elsewhere, things are sometimes far worse – so I’m glad there are people on the case.

But in terms of religion’s impact on the world, and on this country, it’s not just these church-and-state issues that matter to me. In fact, if I had to list all my concerns, they would only constitute a small fraction.

It also matters to me…

  • …that according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, only 48 percent of British people believe in evolution, and that in a 2009 survey by ComRes, 32 percent said it was probably or definitely true “that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”, and that 51 percent said intelligent design was probably or definitely true. It matters that many children are presumably taught this by their parents and not just in school, that entire churches of typically-educated adults believe something so clearly absurd, and that students at well-respected universities boycott lectures on Darwin.
  • …that in churches and living rooms everywhere, people are taught that God created humans as two separate genders, whose function was to “cleave unto” one another, and that this is used to justify misogyny, transphobia and bigotry toward queer people in general. These beliefs manifest themselves as dirty looks in the street, heteronormative language and other entirely legal microaggressions.
  • …that people in enjoyable, consensual relationships put huge amounts of effort into not having the sex each of them wants, because they think it will make baby Jesus cry – because they think creating the universe gives someone else authority over their sex life.
  • …that people give up sometimes-huge quantities of money to their churches or religious organisations, many of which spend that money on egregious or dishonest things, when they could use it to help loved ones, vulnerable people or good causes.
  • …that people die when they stop taking their medicine, because they believe prayer will cure them of serious illness. Advertising regulations will not stop this happening, because these beliefs are often acquired in pews, over coffee with friends or family members, from reading holy books or from prayer itself.
  • …that people with serious mental health issues are taken, or go willingly, to ask pastors, priests and other religious leaders for advice, who it’s presumed on no evidential basis have access to ultimate knowledge but who frequently have no medical or psychiatric training whatsoever. It matters when totally unqualified believers and religious leaders go out of their way – entirely legally, most of the time – to tell people they have depression or other MH issues because they lack humility before God, rather than because they’ve got an illness.
  • …that parents tell their children they’re possessed by demons, and sometimes perform vivid, traumatising rituals to drive them out.
  • …that the same parents and other adults terrify children with vivid, traumatising statements about Hell.
  • …that children are threatened with Hell for not believing, and that adults are too. Not rarely. Not even occasionally. Like, all the fucking time.
  • …that children are indoctrinated with unfair, unbalanced presentations of beliefs as obvious facts.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel a sudden need to “do God” on becoming parents, and lie to their children about what they believe. It matters that children grow up believing sometimes-absurd things because their parents were dishonest.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel they need to have religious weddings, child-naming ceremonies or funerals. Particularly at funerals, this can be enormously alienating for some attendees.
  • …that when some atheists die, believers insist they have religious funerals which don’t represent their lives and which they wouldn’t have wanted. For some attendees, this makes bereavement even more heartbreaking than it is already.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of other religions spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about one another, including when the religions at stake are in many respects highly similar from an outsider’s perspective.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of atheists spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about us – and that educated believers do that who ought to know better.
  • …that when I stood at a secular stand on a busy Oxford street with slogans like “Not religious?” and “Living without religion”, a passer-by with several children shook his head, in slow revulsion, as if witnessing a fascist parade.
  • …that while representing an atheist student group at a freshers’ fair, I had to explain to a fellow student – at Oxford University – what an atheist was, something I learned aged 11.
  • …that some believers, including relatively educated ones with very large audiences, claim that “our laws, customs, traditions, language, music, architecture, diet, everything you care to name, [.] are all based upon Christianity“.
  • …that some believers, including ones I’ve met, say the genocides of the Old Testament were justified explicitly because God (rather than people) ordered them.
  • …that some people, including some atheists, think sinking a sharp knife into the genitals of an eight-day-old baby and cutting them apart without anaesthesia is okay, if done for religious reasons, and should be legal. (I’m not even talking about people doing it. It concerns me simply that some people think it’s okay, which they still would if it were banned – which it should be.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities are failing to enforce the existing laws against female genital mutilation, perhaps in fear of appearing racist or religiously intolerant. (Imagine the results if, instead of Muslim immigrants’ daughters, white girls in Britain had their clitorises cut off.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities refrain from using existing laws against churches and religious bodies which for decades have deliberately, knowingly concealed sexual abuse of children.
  • …that when it’s suggested these churches not be trusted with children, some believers and atheists react as if something indescribably intolerant, bigoted or aggressive has been said.

None of these issues will be addressed just by separating church from state. If no clergy sat in parliament, all state schools were wholly unreligious, no church had undue exemptions from any laws, and so on – anything above could still be happening. Each results from people’s actual beliefs about the universe, and not necessarily from public funds going to religion. In most cases, we can’t and shouldn’t tackle them with changes to the law, infringing on people’s freedom to believe whatever they want; but by fostering a climate of skepticism where people choose their beliefs carefully, subjecting religious claims to appropriate scrutiny, we might.

I’m glad there’s someone taking the “secularism-only” approach – specifically the NSS – and not focusing on criticising superstitious modes of thought. As Maryam Namazie puts it, “Secularism is a precondition for basic rights and freedoms. It’s inclusive unlike religion”; separating church and state can be desirable to believers, and secularist campaigners need as many foot soldiers as they can get, so it makes sense that they don’t religion-bash.

Some of us want to focus on secularism, and some want to help persuade people out of irrational beliefs. It’s entirely up to the individual which to emphasise, and there are very good reasons to keep those efforts separate. Personally, I want to be one of the latter.

Across society and around the world, a conversation is taking place about whether and why religious beliefs hold water or not. I want to be part of that conversation, and there are several reasons I think this is what I should be doing:

  • I’m not a lobbyist. As I said in my “humanism” post, secularist work – not always, but often – involves meeting with politicians or national and local authorities, examining legal frameworks and legislation, preparing long term strategies and choosing pragmatic goals – that isn’t me. I don’t have the patience or diplomacy for that kind of work, and I don’t have access to Westminster.
  • I’m good at responding to evangelism, and I like doing it. I couldn’t put together summaries of Britain’s complex laws or give speeches to the UN about the Vatican’s history of child abuse, as some of the NSS’s people have – but I do feel at home giving point-by-point responses to arguments the Gospels are reliable. That kind of thing is important too.
  • I used to be religious, so I have an understanding of belief – and Christianity in particular – some atheists don’t have. I get what it’s like to belong to a church, and I’m happy to dig into Bible quotes. I understand the differences between different churches. This makes me better informed than some atheists are, and I find specifically that many pure secularists have been raised in atheist households, and don’t always fully appreciate things like deconversion.
  • I’m angry – about the things religious leaders do, the things done to atheists in the name of belief, the things done to believers in the name of other beliefs, and generally the harmful ways religion affects the world. Spreading skepticism and organising explicitly in atheist terms, rather than working for secularism in non-confrontational ways, satisfies me; I want to be confrontational. (That doesn’t mean I want to be rude, unfriendly, aggressive or generally a dick – it means I want to have the argument, as part of a broad social movement if not in person.) If I focused on separating church and state, I wouldn’t feel as fulfilled, and that means I wouldn’t be as good at it as I am at atheism-centric work.

You could offer me a job with the NSS, or a similar group, starting tomorrow, and convince me totally that in five years I’d have made a huge difference – but if it meant I had to shut up about religion and not have the “beliefs” conversation, the cost to me personally would be too high.

I know that, since secularism is important, not everyone can take that stance – and happily, not everyone does. I’m glad there are people most fulfilled by church-and-state activism. (Tessa Kendall, who formerly worked for the NSS and to whom this post is in part a response, is one of them.) Sadly, and as I suggested in Sunday’s post, my happiness to part ways isn’t always returned.

If U.S. atheists are reading this, I know this may seem strange, but I’ve heard it said by pure secularists, and especially by humanists, that the kind of activism I and lots of other atheists pursue – the kind which involves persuading people out of their religions, making them look critically at their beliefs, encouraging atheists to come out in religious communities and talking about harm caused by irrational beliefs – gets in secularism’s way. The implication is that by criticising religion, we put believers off supporting a secular state.

I want to ask: what’s the point in secularism, if it means we all have to be nice about religion? Isn’t that enormously object-defeating? I’m a secularist because I think bashing beliefs should be allowed, and I’m as happy for people to bash mine as I am to bash theirs.

But I’m going to take a moment and say just what else I think is wrong-headed about that, because I think that activism promoting skepticism and combating irrational beliefs is of great use to secularism.

If more people are skeptics and atheists…

  • …it’s very likely more will be secularists. How many people join the NSS due to getting involved in atheism – at least in part, say, because they read The God Delusion or went to a Tim Minchin concert? Quite a lot, I bet. We can talk, legitimately, about why religious people should be secularists, but the fact is that an emphatic atheist is likely to want bishops out of parliament far more than, say, an Anglican – in fact, if you meet someone at their local atheist group, you can be almost certain they want that. Whatever extra members those groups get, the more potential memberships fees, donations or volunteers the NSS might get.
  • …fewer will be in religious groups, for church leaders or theocrats in general to use against secularists. We know that the Catholic church, for example, takes every opportunity to rally its schools and congregation against marriage reform, something the NSS supports, and we’ve seen Evan Harris lose his parliamentary seat, due at least in part to the organised smearing by Christian pro-life groups. Let be clear, cold-blooded and Machiavellian: when it comes to achieving secularist political goals, the fewer people the churches have, the better.
  • …religion’s privileged status, and Christianity’s in particular, will be further questioned. The 2001 census, which misleadingly suggested 71 percent of Britons were Christians, has been waved like a flag by Christian theocrats and evangelicals (also known as The Daily Telegraph). The suggestion is that since Christians are numerous, we ought for example to retain the Lords Spiritual – even on its own terms, that argument is bad, but the more people in our country tick “No religion”, the more absurdly unrepresentative bishops’ seats will look. Bigotry shown toward emphatic nonbelievers, like the man’s our “Not religious?” slogan disgusted, will presumably be rarer too, since more people’s friends and relatives will be atheists.
  • …more people will see religions just as ideas, like political philosophies or economic schools of thought, which have to earn their keep in the marketplace of ideas. They’ll stop thinking of them as inherent parts of people’s identities, like where their parents come from or their gender identity, and understand that it’s entirely fair – and helpful – to criticise them, just like any other ideas. That helps create an environment where no one’s beliefs get a free ride or an unfair advantage over anyone else’s. Isn’t that what secularism’s about?
  • …fewer theists will be theocrats, and some theocrats will become atheists. One inherent problem with selling secularism to believers is that some feel they know without doubt that their religion is the right one – as far as they’re concerned, it’s simply a fact that Christianity is the truth, and so of course no other worldview should get seats in parliament. To them, treating other religions the same is like treating flat earth-ers and astronomers the same. Atheist activism, if it deconverts these people, can make them secularists; and if it doesn’t, it might at least help them understand that their beliefs aren’t watertight facts.

This can and does work. It’s often said that you can’t reason someone out of religious beliefs – but very clearly, that’s untrue. I was reasoned out of mine. A significant number of people at any atheist gathering you care to attend, I’m willing to bet, have been reasoned out of theirs. Across society and around the world, more and more people are generally leaving religion; and in relatively unreligious societies like Britain, my experience is that fewer and fewer atheists are apathetic.

Atheist-specific activism is a valid option. It works. It isn’t pointless.

P.E. lessons ruined how I felt about myself

Recently, John Prescott and I disagreed.

The Olympics were nearing a close, and a tweet from Gaby Hinsliff about compulsory PE in schools set us off. His stance was that “we need competitive sport” since “learning how to lose gracefully is just as important as winning”. I was unconvinced, as I was four days previously, when David Cameron demanded, “a revival of competitive sport in primary schools”, saying “we need to end the “all must have prizes” culture”.

I told John Prescott that my experience of competitive sport in P.E. lessons was more about humiliation – gracefully, mind – but I want to say more here than I can on Twitter. I came out aged twelve in the summer of Year 8, and particularly after that, P.E. lessons slowly ruined how I felt about myself.

Like the so called War on Christmas and laws against cross-wearing, Cameron’s “all must have prizes” culture seems little more than an invention of the British right wing press. Certainly, I never encountered it. At primary school I dreaded sports day: uncoordinated, hay fever-afflicted and unable to breathe through my nose, I was universally incompetent. Because participation was mandatory, I usually opted for the hundred-metre sprint – my rationale for this, aged seven or eight, was that it would be over quickly. While this was true, choosing the shortest race also meant unmitigated defeat by the quickest runners, before the entire school and their parents.

It might seem absurd today, but that hurt. I ended up in tears twice, and later faked illness to avoid it – presumably teachers knew I was lying, but took pity on me. Where I excelled at art projects and English, the kids who struggled at that weren’t made to enter contests where large crowds cheered for me and they finished last. I enjoy watching certain competitions now, even ruthlessly dog-eat-dog ones – RuPaul’s Drag Race springs to mind – but I know everyone involved is present by choice. Making anyone, particularly children, compete publicly and against their will in something for which they’ve no skill or enthusiasm seems deeply cruel. (Yes, I have issues, but when I tweeted about this it struck a chord, so perhaps many do.)

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but with its maroon and bottle green uniform, ridiculous Latin motto and expansive playing fields, it would never have admitted it. I got to know and hate those playing fields over several years, each of which involved a games curriculum of traditional team sports doubtless approved of by David Cameron: rugby in the autumn term, football in the spring and either tennis or cricket in the summer. (These were the boys’ sports. Activities were split by gender, with girls getting a mostly different and equally traditional schedule – hockey, rounders and so on.)

During lessons, especially once out, I faced just about all the unpleasantness you could imagine: coming last or next to last, depending on the group, I got called a colourful range of names including literally dozens – I once made a list – of homophobic slurs, from “freak” to “faggot”. In the winter, when rain had muddied the ground, I got pelted with dirt, and it wasn’t unusual for people to spit on me. I still remember how that felt. Then the physical bullying: kickings, in particular, or being hit with sporting implements; the hard edge of a tennis racquet once gave me a black eye. This was a rare occasion when teachers intervened.

I’m not sure if they otherwise didn’t know what was happening, or if fear of acknowledgingthe gay thing meant they didn’t step in. It certainly stopped me from saying anything. Not all my P.E. teachers were conventionally nasty, but some made things more difficult than they already were. My twelve-year-old self once lost control of his breathing and fell to ground, unable to stop panting, after being made to run 1.5km. The teacher who set the task responded to expressions of concern with, “Oh, Alex is just being silly.” She later said, “More effort, next time”.

Though I couldn’t then articulate it, P.E. lessons made me feel that my body belonged to someone else. From mandatory activities I was bad at and which hurt, to the physical punishments some teachers used – forgetting shin pads meant lapping both football fields five times – to having to undress in front of people who hated me, exposing a body I’d started to hate. Then, of course, the fascistic “bleep test”. I wondered, and still do, why authorities needed to know how long I could sprint for before being exhausted. After one test, a boy in the class said I should kill myself. Several times, I tried it.

P.E. apologists often echo the severe Mr. Hume, who once told us, “There are too many unfit kids today.” But who put him in charge of my body, and what gave government the right to deem it inadequate? If P.E. really created fitter kids, wouldn’t decades of increasingly strict requirements have evolved children into Adonises by now? Between my first and last P.E. lessons, no-one’s fitness level seemed to change.

I don’t believe this is really the motivation. If it were, why object, as Cameron does, to “Indian dance, or whatever”? Students who excel at sport should clearly have facilities at school, and primary schools need P.E. to identify them. But why not stress dance, Pilates, or martial arts as much as the public school sports he grew up around? I don’t know how common my experience of P.E. lessons is, but the syllabus did make it harder for me as a gay-identifying teenager: to fail at things so traditionally masculine as playing rugby or throwing heavy objects, especially in single gender classes, is often to encounter explicit homophobia.

For many, including me, this subject is emotive, and those who defend compulsory P.E. – especially post-primary school, and in the shape of traditional competitive sports – often do it powerfully. But to me it never seems to do much good, and can sometimes do unspeakable harm.