National Coming Out Day: who is it really for?

First published on The Queerness, October 2017

Before I was ‘out’, I was in the closet. So goes conventional wisdom. Only I wasn’t, not really. I wasn’t telling the whole truth but I was telling the truth. I didn’t lie; not in any real conversations with people who mattered to me. People simply assumed I was heterosexual. And I didn’t correct them. People assumed I was heterosexual but they also used to joke that I was acting like I fancied this girl or that girl. They thought it was an insult. I didn’t. So I didn’t correct those people, either. I didn’t correct anybody. Sometimes because I was too scared. Sometimes, frankly, because I couldn’t be bothered.

There was a time when I felt like that was me being a Bad Queer. Letting the side down. Not doing my bit to demonstrate self-love and fabulousness. Listen. If you’re young, or even if you’re not so young, and you’re nibbling around the edges of coming out, let me whisper you a secret. It’s okay to not feel fabulous. It’s okay to not always feel powerful self-love. There’s nothing wrong with you. The real world is pretty queerphobic, and you live in the real world. If you want to tell a person, or people, or everyone, that you’re one of us, then go forth and be loudly queer, because that’s wonderful. But it isn’t your job to do that.

Let me whisper you another secret. I don’t believe in “coming out.” I mean, I’m not “in the closet,” if that’s what you’re thinking. I haven’t actively lied about or hidden my romantic and sexual desires for people who share my gender since I was about fifteen. If my orientation comes up in conversation, then, hey, I’ll mention it. And the truth is it comes up quite a lot these days because in my old age I’ve got quite sappy and I mention my girlfriend in pretty much every other conversation (look I’m in love, deal with it). But to anyone who has assumed I’m straight because, well, it simply never came up, or because you saw me kiss a boy once, or because I wear pink lip gloss when the mood takes me, I am doing the world’s greatest shoulder shrug right now because, well, I can’t help you.

IF YOU WANT TO TELL A PERSON, OR PEOPLE, OR EVERYONE, THAT YOU’RE ONE OF US, THEN GO FORTH AND BE LOUDLY QUEER, BECAUSE THAT’S WONDERFUL. BUT IT ISN’T YOUR JOB TO DO THAT.

I see a lot of heterosexual, cis people celebrate “Coming Out Day” by lamenting how sad it is that more people don’t come out, and that being visibly LGBT+ is important because it helps end stigma, and it helps others. But “coming out” is exhausting, stressful, scary work. And it’s only necessary in the first place because of cis-sexism and heterosexism. How is it right for LGBT+ people to do the heavy lifting of dismantling something that is not our fault?

Don’t be that person who cheers on LGBT+ people to “come out” from the sidelines, that person who demands to know whether other people are cishet or not, that person who feels hurt when LGBT+ people in your life don’t tell you everything about who we are. Don’t. Be. That. Person. You have no right to know anyone’s orientation. It’s not your business. And if they haven’t told you, maybe there’s a reason.

Lots of LGBT+ people will feel happy to inspire others. But it is unlikely we feel like doing it every day of the week. LGBT+ people aren’t obligated to do anything more than go through the world existing in it, and not harming anyone.

So if cheering people on to come out doesn’t help, what can you do to make it easier for us? It’s actually quite simple. Don’t assume people are heterosexual or cisgender. That’s it.

Well, nearly. You should also make sure you don’t get insulted if everybody doesn’t automatically assume you are heterosexual and cisgender. Be, or work to become, comfortable with the idea that it should not be uncomfortable or insulting for it to be a possibility in other people’s minds that you might be LGB or T. If you don’t like the idea of being read as gay, or as a lesbian, or as bisexual, or as trans, consider why. Be honest with yourself, and sit with it. When others take offence because you didn’t assume they were hetero and cis (and I promise you, people will), don’t apologise. Ask them what they find insulting about you not making assumptions about them. Ask them why they would expect people to know they’re hetero and cis. Make them sit with it too.

And if you do get genuinely anxious at the idea that others may mistake you for an LGBT+ person, know that the anxiety you feel is not unfounded. Then consider what it might be like to actually be LGBT+. What, exactly, are you anxious about? That people may laugh at you? Respect you less? Make assumptions about you? Get weird ideas in their head about your sex life or body parts? Be violent towards you? Kill you? Sexually assault you? That anxiety, that fear, that anger that somebody might read you as LGBT+ is real; hang on to that discomfort, sit with it, and remember it next time you want to pop champagne corks at us because we’re disappointing you by not being out everywhere, all the time, at the tops of our voices.

For people who do genuinely want to “come out”, if a designated day helps them find a way to do that, then cool. That’s wonderful. I’m not knocking it. You do you. But what I’m saying is, if you don’t want to do that, if you don’t feel safe, if you don’t really care whether certain people know that you’re LGBT+ or not, that’s okay too.

IF YOU DO GET GENUINELY ANXIOUS AT THE IDEA THAT OTHERS MAY MISTAKE YOU FOR AN LGBT+ PERSON, KNOW THAT THE ANXIETY YOU FEEL IS NOT UNFOUNDED. THEN CONSIDER WHAT IT MIGHT BE LIKE TO ACTUALLY BE LGBT+.

Besides, a coming out day? That’s like having a “National Put Clothes on to go Outside Day” or “National Go to Work Day.” A single day is hardly enough. “Coming out” isn’t a thing that you do once. It’s a thing you have to do over, and over, and over, and over, and over again for the rest of your life. You have to do it when you meet new people. You have to repeat yourself with people you’ve told many times. It often takes a few conversations, especially with family members. And then there’s the people who simply forget; they forget your partner’s name, they forget your name, they get your pronouns confused. And it’s back to square one; you have to “come out” all over again.

It’s lovely to support people who really do, in their hearts, want to jump up and shout from the rooftops about their queerness. But “coming out,” and allocating a specific calendar date to do it, seems a misguided focus. Making it easier, making it safer for LGBT+ people to visibly exist shouldn’t be a thing for us to do. It should be a thing for cishet people to do. If you’re hetero and/or cis, and you want to do something cool for LGBT+ people on National Coming Out Day, try this. For one whole day, don’t assume anyone is heterosexual, and don’t assume anyone is cis. If you can do it for one day, try it for a week. Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that people in same-sex relationships are gay. Don’t assume people in different-sex relationships are heterosexual. Don’t ask people to put themselves at risk, to trust you, to formalise their otherness by “coming out” to you, giving you the chance to be all lovely and queer-friendly and awesome. Don’t just show up to our hard-earned party and chuck glitter around. If you’re here, you’ve got to help sweep up the mess, too. Do the dishes. Kick in some doors. Do the work. Do the work – and then tell your friends about it.

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When free speech just means bullies yelling over bigots

First published on The Queerness, September 2017

So this is what the free speech utopia we keep hearing about looks like. Piers Morgan, of all people, yelling hysterically over the words of a man who believes you can “cure” LGBT people. To misquote the now infamous meme: is this the future that (classical) liberals want?

Out of all the fascinating guests that ITV could have invited onto Good Morning Britain, somebody decided it would be a good use of everybody’s time to give a space on the show to Dr Michael Davidson. Dr Davidson is a doctor who believes he can “cure” LGBT people, and describes “homosexuality” as a “sin.”

Many justifications have been put forward for airing the interview, but do any of them hold up? The idea that there’s any merit in torturing LGBT people until we’re so traumatised that we change or hide how we express ourselves isn’t a serious point of debate among anyone who pays attention to evidence – or, for that matter, among anyone who holds the most rudimentary understanding of humanity. And it’s hardly a topical reflection of the public mood, given that most people do not support the cruel and unusual treatment of LGBT people that is often described rather generously as “conversion therapy.” It definitely isn’t in the public interest for the public to hear such dishonest, harmful nonsense.

OUT OF ALL THE FASCINATING GUESTS THAT ITV COULD HAVE INVITED ONTO GOOD MORNING BRITAIN, SOMEBODY DECIDED IT WOULD BE A GOOD USE OF EVERYBODY’S TIME TO GIVE A SPACE ON THE SHOW TO DR MICHAEL DAVIDSON.

So we are left with the argument that is perhaps the most oversimplified and misused term of our time: free speech. Good Morning Britain defended the decision to host Dr Davidson on their show on the basis that his views were robustly challenged. And Piers Morgan himself champions free speech, naturally. (Unless it’s an anti-Donald Trump demonstration, or a civil rights-themed Superbowl performance or anything like that, because those things upset him.) There are lots of Piers Morgans about. We all know them: brash hetero white cis men who want us to solve injustice by fighting it out in a debate hall, until only the fittest survive. These people champion free speech in spite of, or, perhaps even because of the fact that it so frequently ends up looking like, well, the pitiful, embarrassing mess that we saw aired earlier on Good Morning Britain.

Why does anyone need to hear this dated, disproved, dangerous rubbish? It serves no benefit to LGBT people or to anyone else. The only person it benefits is Piers Morgan himself, who clearly relishes the chance to puff himself up as if he’s some great defender of LGBT people (which he is not, of course; he is a fountain of anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-non-binary, Trump-apologist attention-seeking, childish, cliched drivel). And he will no doubt expect gratitude from us in exchange for using us in this way; people who leap up as our defenders without invitation, escalating dangerous situations at our expense, to gratify their own egos always do.

And the thing that is most exasperating about the free speech excuse for this sort of journalism is that it is, frankly, a lie. It is a lie to say that we, as a society, must hear and debate all views, even if they make us uncomfortable. Because we, as a society, don’t.

WHY DOES ANYONE NEED TO HEAR THIS DATED, DISPROVED, DANGEROUS RUBBISH? IT SERVES NO BENEFIT TO LGBT PEOPLE OR TO ANYONE ELSE. THE ONLY PERSON IT BENEFITS IS PIERS MORGAN.

Only yesterday, the model Munroe Bergdorf was attacked by a furious Piers Morgan on the very same show for expressing her own right to free speech. Munroe Bergdorf, however, has not been able to make a richly-paid career out of saying “controversial” things, as others have done. Nor is she able to carry on in her profession, as this doctor is presumably doing. And yet, Munroe Bergdorf has done exactly what these tedious, insufferable bigots think they are doing – and the exact opposite of what they are doing in reality.

No, the consequences for Munroe Bergdorf are that she was rather unceremoniously dropped from L’Oreal’s diversity campaign. Her comments on structural racism (which, by the way, you can watch her articulating here), have hurt some sensitive people’s feelings. But it is not even remotely harmful to hear that white people are all part of a racist structure which works to our advantage. (Do you know any white people who have never said or done a racist thing in their lives; have never done anything, big or small, to facilitate someone else’s racism? I don’t.) If it was true that we all defend free speech as a beautiful thing even when it makes us most uncomfortable because that’s how conversations move forward, we would be banging down the doors of L’Oreal’s offices with petitions, protests and pickets for sacking Bergdorf. You know, the way people did when Jeremy Clarkson was sacked for punching a junior member of staff in the face over the temperature of his steak.

IT IS A LIE TO SAY THAT WE, AS A SOCIETY, MUST HEAR AND DEBATE ALL VIEWS, EVEN IF THEY MAKE US UNCOMFORTABLE. BECAUSE WE, AS A SOCIETY, DON’T.

All too often, free speech looks like this. A man like Dr Davidson, given space to articulate dangerous, harmful ideas. A man like Dr Davidson being allowed to play the victim, thanks to the self-interested tactics of a man like Piers Morgan. The viewers who can stand to sit through it all, because it isn’t their existence that is up for debate, celebrate it as a triumph of free speech. Meanwhile, Munroe Bergdorf expresses an evidence-based analysis of racism that is genuinely challenging, provocative, and worthy of discussion – and is not only sacked, from a diversity campaign, of all things, but is met with barrages of racist, misogynistic, transphobic abuse, including outright threats of violence and suicide incitements. Abuse, threats, and incitements which, it seems, all fall within society’s acceptable bounds of free speech, because these streams of hatred are there for anyone to see on social media.

Free speech is important, but let’s be truthful about how it plays out in practice. If a marginalised woman was putting forward a disquieting, left-of-centre opinion that was as irrational, as demonstrably biased, and as poorly articulated as Dr Davidson’s theory about “curing” LGBT people is, would we expect them to get airtime? Would anybody imagine it had anything to do with free speech if they didn’t? Of course not. It would be taken for granted that this hypothetical marginalised woman simply isn’t worth listening to, and that’s why we never hear her voice.

Anybody putting forward any vision of the world that involves asking people to behave better towards each other and fight to make the world less unjust needs six economic tests and a thousand fact checks just to get anybody past the first sentence. There are basic factual truths that we would never ask experts to waste their time debating – that the world is round, that the sun is hot, that today is Wednesday – but the basic truth of marginalised people’s humanity is never quite afforded the respect of being held to that standard. Yet it is a basic truth. And if Dr Davidson had a silly, dangerous theory about something like nuclear physics or gardening or the weather, and he was as laughably incorrect about the subject as he is about LGBT people’s lives, nobody in British broadcasting would expect a TV show to lower their professional standards and put him on, just in the interests of balance or free speech.

FREE SPEECH IS IMPORTANT, BUT LET’S BE TRUTHFUL ABOUT HOW IT PLAYS OUT IN PRACTICE

The danger here isn’t just that we shouldn’t give platforms to people like Dr Davidson because they are harmful – although we shouldn’t, and they are. But there’s a greater, more troubling problem: the fact that the only reason he is given a platform is because he’s offensive. When the media make choices like this they incentivise people to be as unpleasant, as offensive, as bigoted as possible. That way, you can deflect any critique of your poor grasp on your subject as censorship, or people taking offence.

And large media outlets wonder why so many are losing interest in them; why we are turning to or creating alternative news sources, or having our own debates, in our own spaces. It’s not always about it being ‘safer’, or less offensive, or less upsetting for us because we’re such sensitive souls. Sometimes it’s about wanting a higher level of debate. We simply make more progress in our discussions without self-congratulatory careerists as our moderators, and without people who are only there in the first place because they’re so jaw-droppingly incorrect about everything that there’s a chance people might watch out of disgust or amusement. Far from seeking out an echo chamber or a cosy little safe space, it is only once we dump the bigots that we can actually begin to push conversations forward, learn new things, and consider genuinely challenging, necessary, and boundary-pushing points of view. Like, for example, Munroe Bergdorf’s.

Why do we find it so hard to ‘play the dating game’?

First published on The Queerness, July 2017

Oh, the unique horrors of being a man who fancies women and finds it hard to approach them without seeming like a creep. Women don’t understand what it’s like! Women don’t have to worry about this! I try not laugh when heterosexual, cis men complain to me about this, kindly explaining it with such patience, because it will be tough for a woman to relate to this experience. Right? In fact, this problem is so common among those of us who aren’t hetero cis men that it’s kind of a cliche. How do we ever hook up with each other, when no-one ever wants to make the first move? How do I initiate contact without being that creep who ruins her day? How do I let her know I like her without risking my personal safety – or making her worry about hers? How do I let her know I’m super, super into her without putting any pressure on her to be happy about it?

The personal safety question strikes me first and hardest because when straight cis men complain to me about how hard it is to approach someone they’re attracted to, and how they wish women (the right ones, obviously) would hit on them more, personal safety is barely even on their radar. For many of us who aren’t men, we are taught from an extraordinarily young age that our right to feel safe is conditional upon us following the rules to someone else’s game. Don’t talk to strangers. Then, when we get older, don’t be a slut. It’s not just that it’s naughty. It’s dangerous.

Of course, the risk is even greater when coupled with the fear of an anti-queer reaction, as well as a misogynistic one. I certainly feel flashes of that terror myself, even if it’s only for a few seconds, when I out myself or am outed in even the friendliest situations – and as a rule, I’m fairly safe in most spaces. I don’t, for example, have to worry about being met with racist or transmisogynistic responses.

But the fear isn’t only that I could be perceived as predatory or creepy. When I think back on my early memories of formative queer crushes, I associate pretty much all of them on some level with shame, guilt, secrecy, and fear. As much as the ‘labels-don’t-matter’ crowd wants to make us feel that ‘identity’ is separate from queer attraction, for me, my sense of self is inextricably bound up with my early attractions, my early crushes, my early loves. My fear isn’t simply a matter of thinking: ‘my behaviour might be interpreted as creepy.’ Part of me is still scared that maybe I actually amcreepy.

As kids, we are offered painfully few representations of who we are. Most queer characters or celebrities that I saw who were relatable for me from a gender perspective (i.e. they weren’t coded as explicitly male, and they were attracted to other people who weren’t coded as explicitly male) were presented as predatory, sick, creepy, and sometimes even evil.

They were also usually presented as ugly. A lot of us learnt very young that ‘attractive’ means ‘heterosexual.’ I had to fight really, really hard to unlearn the voice in my head that always told me: ‘Oh, they’re super attractive? They’re probably straight.’ What does it mean for my own mental health and self-esteem that I was telling myself on a regular basis that ‘attractive, desirable, good’ are basically all antonyms for ‘queer’? It’s not only heterosexual people who tell us “you don’t look like a lesbian!” like it’s the greatest compliment in the world. I’ve heard it heaps of times on the queer scene as a chat-up line.

AS KIDS, WE ARE OFFERED PAINFULLY FEW REPRESENTATIONS OF WHO WE ARE. MOST QUEER CHARACTERS OR CELEBRITIES THAT I SAW… WERE PRESENTED AS PREDATORY, SICK, CREEPY, AND SOMETIMES EVEN EVIL.

The internalisation of anti-queer misogyny plays out in our lives like a polar opposite of heterosexual cis men whining about the ‘friendzone’ or explaining to the rest of us how unjust it is that they can’t approach women without being seen as creeps. For most cishet men, the first experience they have of seeing their sexual or romantic selves represented will be one in which they are shown as a hero. Even if they personally feel unattractive or awkward, they were still almost certainly taught at a young age that people like them are entitled to ‘win’, ‘score’ or ‘get’ the object of their desire. They can be totally violating another person’s boundaries and still feel that it’s profoundly unfair for them to be seen as creepy, because they’re following the rules of the game they’ve always been taught. Meanwhile, for most queer people, especially queer people who aren’t men, it’s so easy to assume we are the creep, to assume we are undeserving, to feel grateful for any attention we get from the person we desire. The thought of getting angry over the ‘friendzone’ is amazing to me. If I’m attracted to someone and she wants to be my friend, it makes my day. I’m overjoyed that she likes me and wants to be my friend, even if she doesn’t feel exactly the same thing I do. If anything, I tend to assume she’s being polite by offering friendship; she’d probably much rather tell me to leave her alone, but she’s been taught that she mustn’t, because that would be rude.

THE THOUGHT OF GETTING ANGRY OVER THE ‘FRIENDZONE’ IS AMAZING TO ME. IF I’M ATTRACTED TO SOMEONE AND SHE WANTS TO BE MY FRIEND, IT MAKES MY DAY.

From sex to politics, we are obsessed with sports and sales metaphors; it’s all about scoring, winning, getting. I’m happy that in the queer community, we are increasingly making our own rules. I relate to some of what these heterosexual cis men complain about but the difference is that I don’t want to get better at playing by these selfish, competitive ‘dating game rules.’ I want us, all of us, to get better at taking risks, at being honest, at being vulnerable. At being comfortable with the word ‘no’ – both saying it and hearing it. At being comfortable with the word ‘yes.’ At asking, with no agenda or goal, but with curiosity and interest. At listening. Perhaps queer women are not, after all, bad at playing the dating game. Perhaps we’re just changing it.

Being queer isn’t a moral question; how you vote is

First published on The Queerness, June 2017

18-year-old Megan McGowan was recently quoted, in a clickbait style headline from the BBC, as saying that she found it “harder to come out as Tory than as bisexual”. The headline worked; it attracted a fair amount of attention online. It also stirred up a lot of familiar complaints about how people get “judged for their political views” nowadays – especially right-wing people.

Megan is not the first and will not be the last person to conflate the dangers of coming out as queer with the discomfort of hearing people judge your deeply-held opinions. Far older and more experienced queer Tories than Megan are constantly lamenting the apparently ironic double standard that judging someone for who they love or shag is, funnily enough, considered somewhat more unreasonable than judging someone for how they feel other human beings should be treated by the state.

When people conflate sexual orientation with moral choices, it is very revealing. When people joke about not caring if you’re queer, “as long as you’re not a Tory or an axe-murderer,” as Megan’s parents did, it’s clearly meant to be helpful, but it’s still, arguably, rooted in quite problematic reasoning. For a start, the whole joke is still based on the implication that most people would reasonably expect their parents to not be okay with their queerness. Perpetuating the idea that it’s normal for parents to object to the queerness of their own kids is enormously damaging, even if you’re doing it for what feels like a good reason – in this instance, to make it clear that you’re not one of those parents. Secondly, the joke is still placing queerness on an axis of morality. Queerness is morally neutral. Would you compare eating a piece of cucumber to being an axe-murderer? Would you compare breathing or sleeping to voting for the Labour party?

It’s understandable that a lot of people wouldn’t immediately see an issue with this reasoning, or, indeed, agree with my reasons for taking issue with it. We are always allowing the queer rights conversation be dominated by questions like whether or not we can help it, and reassuring straight people that queerness is never a choice. That’s why we end up with strange moral equivalencies being thrown at us. So much for the tolerant left, they yell, if we object to things that actually harm people. We need to start asserting much more loudly that whether or not it is a choice for some is irrelevant, because who you love and shag isn’t a choice with moral connotations.

How you decide other people should be treated by the state, on the other hand, is a choice with moral connotations. The conflation of these two things isn’t just a problem because it paints queerness as a moral choice. It also paints your politics as an amoral choice. But political decisions have consequences, and not wanting to be “judged for your political views” is another way of saying you don’t believe you are morally responsible for your own words, views or actions.

The idea that you’re not morally responsible for your own political choices isn’t an exclusively right-wing thing, but statistically it is a fact that members of and donors to the Tory party are more likely to be insulated from the harsh impact of public policy choices than Labour members and donors. It makes complete sense that these voters would be more inclined to see political choices as abstract ones; comparable to something morally neutral like being queer.

Just listen to senior Tories admitting that they lost their parliamentary majority because there was too much focus on their actual policies, or Theresa May apologising to the Tory MPs who lost their seats and “didn’t deserve to do so.” If people don’t like your policies and choose to vote for somebody else, you deserve to lose your seat. The idea that you’re entitled to a seat in parliament even if people believe your policies will harm their community is exactly the kind of entitlement that comes when you detach political choices from any moral questions – or from any expectation of consequences.

THE CONFLATION OF THESE TWO THINGS ISN’T JUST A PROBLEM BECAUSE IT PAINTS QUEERNESS AS A MORAL CHOICE. IT ALSO PAINTS YOUR POLITICS AS AN AMORAL CHOICE. BUT POLITICAL DECISIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES, AND NOT WANTING TO BE “JUDGED FOR YOUR POLITICAL VIEWS” IS ANOTHER WAY OF SAYING YOU DON’T BELIEVE YOU ARE MORALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN WORDS, VIEWS, OR ACTIONS.

Of course, it’s not only the Tories. We have now seen Tim Farron resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats because he says he can’t reconcile his Christian faith with his position in public life, after being asked repeatedly by journalists whether he thinks “gay sex” is a sin. Farron has been greeted with wave upon wave of sympathy from talking heads who are falling over themselves to argue that your value system and how you shape your morals should have no place in how voters assess your fitness to lead a party or set public policy. Would they say this if he was a Muslim, wonder conservative and liberal journalists alike, who had presumably all been asleep throughout Zac Goldsmith’s constant personal, irrational attacks on Sadiq Khan during the London Mayoral election. That’s what being a liberal is all about, they cry; having a leader you disagree with, who thinks you’re a sinner. We mustn’t censor people. We must allow all views to be expressed. Well, not all views, obviously. But homophobic ones should definitely be allowed.

WE ARE ALWAYS ALLOWING THE QUEER RIGHTS CONVERSATION BE DOMINATED BY QUESTIONS LIKE WHETHER OR NOT WE CAN HELP IT, AND REASSURING STRAIGHT PEOPLE THAT QUEERNESS IS NEVER A CHOICE. THAT’S WHY WE END UP WITH STRANGE MORAL EQUIVALENCIES BEING THROWN AT US. SO MUCH FOR THE TOLERANT LEFT, THEY YELL, IF WE OBJECT TO THINGS THAT ACTUALLY HARM PEOPLE. WE NEED TO START ASSERTING MUCH MORE LOUDLY THAT WHETHER OR NOT IT IS A CHOICE FOR SOME IS IRRELEVANT, BECAUSE WHO YOU LOVE AND SHAG ISN’T A CHOICE WITH MORAL CONNOTATIONS.

This insidious notion that right-wing people are “closeted” and must “come out” as Tory voters, the belief that conservative-minded folk have to censor themselves because of the aggressive pro-queer militia or whatever they think we are now is inseparable from the simplistic ‘shy Tory’ myth. The ‘shy Tory’ myth is used to explain why polling models often overestimate the Labour party’s chances and underestimate the Tories. It is also repeated ad nauseam, especially during elections, and used as basically the equivalent of complaining about “political correctness gone mad!” for people who consider themselves far too well-educated to ever say such a thing.

It’s true that Tories get under-sampled in a lot of polling models, and that media predictions can sometimes end up too weighted towards Labour – although this plainly didn’t happen in the most recent election. In fact, if anything, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a ‘shy Corbynite.’ No-one wants to be labelled a terrorist-sympathising communist. But a lot of people would quite like their public services to be funded a bit better.

And yes, it’s true that some Tory voters lie about their voting inclinations, and yes, some of them are very sensitive people who do take it deeply to heart if a friend or colleague thinks less of them because of how they plan to vote. It is never enjoyable when somebody makes assumptions about you that sit so firmly outside your own idea of who you are. How dare you have a preconceived idea about me as a Tory, they howl. I’m an individual. You don’t know me. I’m not like the others. I’m one of the good ones.

For other people, marginalised people, the frustration of conversations like this is a regular part of life. And marginalised people have to be ‘shy’ about expressing political views too. For every ‘shy Tory’ who worries about getting called a Tory wanker at a dinner party, there are goodness knows how many marginalised people who, I can guarantee, are biting tongues and swallowing anger and forcing back things they would like to say right now, because they fear for their jobs, their welfare rights, their immigration status, or even their personal safety if they express how they feel. While ‘shy Tories’ ponder how sad it is that their political leanings are taken so seriously, there are marginalised people who feel unable to express casual opinions on books, songs, work projects, even the weather, because casual comments can be treated as political – perhaps aggressive, perhaps a threat, perhaps even radical – whether they meant it as such or not. The myth of virtue-signalling and the idea that it’s safe, or that it makes you popular to express left-wing political views is astonishing. It may be true if you are in a comfortable job, and if you are part of the dominant societal demographics. But the more marginalised you are, the more any expression of a desire for social justice gets taken evidence of immaturity, stupidity, mental instability, or aggression. Recently it was reported that some workers have been threatened “as a joke” with redundancy if they voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

HOW DARE YOU HAVE A PRECONCEIVED IDEA ABOUT ME AS A TORY, THEY HOWL. I’M AN INDIVIDUAL. YOU DON’T KNOW ME. I’M NOT WHAT YOU THINK. I’M NOT LIKE THE OTHERS. I’M ONE OF THE GOOD ONES. FOR OTHER PEOPLE, OF COURSE, THE FRUSTRATION OF CONVERSATIONS LIKE THIS IS A REGULAR PART OF LIFE.

And, as my girlfriend pointed out after Donald Trump’s election: they still win anyway. They still have power. So what does it matter? Who cares if you’re unable to ramble on at a party without interruption about why you’re voting Conservative, if you still end up with your taxes cut and low inflation prioritised over reducing unemployment and all the other things you wanted? This is the crux of it in the end. Perhaps, ‘closeted Tories’, perhaps people aren’t only judging you for your political views and the perception that those views are actually harmful; perhaps people are also exasperated with you more broadly, for the casual disregard you show for the consequences your moral choices have on other people’s lives – and for the entitled belief that everyone else ought to view politics in the same shallow, removed, and abstract way that you do.

Why does the far right get away with weaponising LGBT people?

First published on The Queerness, May 2017

UKIP’s General Election manifesto was published this week, and, unlike their previous manifestos it actually includes a mention of queer people. But don’t get excited because, UKIP being UKIP, the party is only using queer people to push their own nasty ends. UKIP has said that anyone who “considers gay people second-class citizens” should be denied entry to the country.

It’s not only UKIP. Far right commentators and politicians across Europe and America, from Douglas Murray to Marine Le Pen, keep weaponising queer people to make white nationalism seem more palatable. It’s obvious what they’re doing, and yet, they keep getting away with it. How?

Paul Nuttall believes he’s found an excellent ‘gotcha!’ to confuse everyone by pitching what he imagines to be two separate groups – migrants and queer people – against each other. He’s not alone. For a long time now there has been a media narrative about the supposed contradiction of supporting queer people while not hating immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Even when the message is ostensibly a reasonable one, it tends to be along the lines of: “Aren’t we, the British, the objective liberal arbitrators of decency, so uniquely wonderful in this country for generously allowing both these two totally separate groups to exist?” This attitude from people who think they’re on our side feeds the same underlying narrative that allows people like Nuttall, Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and the infamous professional troll who I won’t bother naming, to get away with their more overt racist mess.

Even if the party’s motivations weren’t transparent as hell, the hypocrisy alone ought to make most people roll their eyes at UKIP’s new-founded concern for us; all you have to do is look at how they’ve handled their own members with homophobic views. If they’re that bothered, they should probably start by paying back any money they received from donor and Greek tycoon Demetri Marchessin, who, being both foreign and homophobic is presumably exactly the sort of person they believe to be completely incompatible with British values. Right?

FOR A LONG TIME NOW THERE HAS BEEN A MEDIA NARRATIVE ABOUT THE SUPPOSED CONTRADICTION OF SUPPORTING QUEER PEOPLE WHILE NOT HATING IMMIGRANTS IN GENERAL AND MUSLIMS IN PARTICULAR.

And that’s only looking at the outspoken LGBTQ+phobes among us here in Britain. You don’t have to be as unpleasant as Roger Helmer or Godfrey Bloom to quietly hold a view that queer people are ‘second-class citizens’. In fact, it’s pretty common for queer Brits to find ourselves surrounded with perfectly nice people who nevertheless feel in a very intangible way that heterosexuality is simply better and queer people, while not deserving imprisonment or beatings, are definitely less than they are; a sort of pitiable psychological curiosity. It’s wrong to lock people up for being LGBTQ+ because they can’t help it, they say, kindly.

UKIP’s own hypocrisy over queer rights is like a microcosm for our wider hypocrisy as a society. We can see it, clear as day, when it comes from them, because most people are familiar with the idea that UKIP is institutionally bigoted and dishonest. But when, say, LGBTQ+ asylum seekers die because the Home Office doesn’t think they’re queer enough to be in danger, when the Home Office goes on about the superiority of ‘British values’ on a Monday then deports queer people to Albania or Afghanistan or Uganda on a Tuesday, too many people see it as reasonable and consistent.

FOR A LONG TIME NOW THERE HAS BEEN A MEDIA NARRATIVE ABOUT THE SUPPOSED CONTRADICTION OF SUPPORTING QUEER PEOPLE WHILE NOT HATING IMMIGRANTS IN GENERAL AND MUSLIMS IN PARTICULAR.

Misogyny and sexual assault is used this way too. Journalists like Allison Pearson at The Daily Telegraph can be apoplectic with rage on behalf of the victims in the Rochdale child sexual abuse case, yet can happily write articles attacking the woman Ched Evans was convicted of raping, minimising his actions. Former Labour MP Simon Danczuk (now suspended) can be in such a fury over the Rochdale case he can barely see straight before we find out that he himself has been in trouble for harassing underage girls, and, recently, has been accused of rape. And actually, this apparent double standard is sort of consistent within its own logic. If women are objects, or property, then it follows that ‘them’ raping ‘our’ women is much more serious than violence against women by good old traditional white men.

UKIP’S OWN HYPOCRISY OVER QUEER RIGHTS IS LIKE A MICROCOSM FOR OUR WIDER HYPOCRISY AS A SOCIETY.

It may appear hypocritical, contradictory, or even amusing to some at first glance that white supremacy can associate itself so boldly with queer rights, but for several centuries, we have been linking ‘liberal values’ in the social sense to economic ‘liberalism,’ using the fantasy of superior British values as a justification for the way we have treated others. We were celebrating superior British liberalism all the way through the slave trade and the British Empire. In fact it’s one of the oldest tricks in the racism handbook.

David Cameron was not lying when he told the Conservative party conference: “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” As long as we let our movement be taken and owned by centre-right liberalism, we shouldn’t be surprised that it can also be used as a stick to beat migrants with. UKIP has made the nasty underlying logic more explicit than other parties may have done, but this policy is, in fact, a perfectly logical conclusion to the narrative that many in our community have long been toasting with pride.

The mess over Clive Lewis is how we know you see misogyny as a game

If you were a Tory and you wanted to give the impression that you, and your political colleagues, take misogyny very seriously, you might think that taking a stand over an MP’s supposedly misogynistic comments in a public setting is a no-brainer. It will show that you care about misogyny. It will show that the Labour party doesn’t care about it. It will show that left-wing people can be misogynists too, and that misogyny isn’t the sole preserve of the political right. Right? 

Well, I promise you that every single woman who is on the left and cares about misogyny already knows, probably better than you do, that misogyny is rampant among left-wingers as well as Tories. I promise you that nobody believes having a socialist perspective on economics means you can’t be sexist. After all, why would it?

Why bother to have this fight and have it now? It’s an embarrassing time to be a Tory. You can’t smugly go on about the merits of economic soundness because whatever you feel about Brexit, there’s no sensible way to argue that it isn’t an enormous economic gamble – even if you believe it’s a gamble that will pay off. You can’t enjoy your chuckles anymore at the Labour leader’s inexperience or his weak party support, can you? That’s turned a little sour, hasn’t it? And you can’t exactly talk about the last Labour government leaving a mess, since your party has now been in power for about 7 years.

So what can you do? What better way to try and divide people than use what you guys call ‘identity politics’? It’s a classic Tory move, it’s tried and tested, and as long as you’re fairly removed from the reality of what people actually care about and why we care about it, you may feel like it kind of works. You may distract people from your own party’s mess but if you take a step back you’ll see it’s not a good look for you, either. There’s a glaringly obvious glass houses thing going on here; Boris Johnson is your foreign secretary, Philip Davies MP who is essentially an elected representative for the so-called men’s rights movement, sits on the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, your Brexit Secretary David Davis reportedly grabbed Diane Abbott, kissed her without her consent, and then laughed it off in texts declaring that he did not kiss her because he is “not blind.” Jacob Rees-Mogg was touted as the party favourite for leader all summer, and your prime minister herself, when Home Secretary, presided over, knowingly or otherwise, some very brutal treatment of women held in detention centres at Yarl’s Wood, including women who were profoundly traumatised. Your prime minister also chose to make headlines for herself by denouncing ‘safe spaces’ that are free from, among other objectionable things, misogynistic jokes. Your Minister of State for Universities Jo Johnson has only this week made headlines for himself by defending “free speech” with the threat of fines or suspensions for universities that allow safe spaces. Presumably Johnson will find this dangerous, censorious (that’s the kind of melodramatic language we use to defend dodgy comments, right? Shall I throw in “Orwellian” for good measure, too?) attack on Clive Lewis’s “free speech” to be equally objectionable. Although who knows, because it was admittedly a rather confused defence of free speech by Johnson; it somehow ended by expressing strong opposition to the public protest campaign #RhodesMustFall. This protest apparently doesn’t count as free speech for some curious reason.

By the way, it’s not only Tory politicians who are showing their hypocritical arses by condemning Clive Lewis. Jess Phillips, best known for being cheered on by journalists when she told Britain’s first black female MP Diane Abbott to “fuck off”, for replacing Britain’s third black female MP Dawn Butler as Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, and for hanging out socially with Jacob Rees-Mogg who she describes as “a real gent,” has joined in with the condemnation of Clive Lewis. At least the Tory MPs are probably aware that they’re being massive hypocrites and using misogyny as a stick to beat the left with for their own personal gain; people like Jess Phillips seem to really believe that they’re on the side of the angels. 

The reason I’m not falling over myself in a fit about Clive Lewis’s choice of words isn’t because he’s closer to my political perspective than, say David Davis or Boris Johnson. It’s because I actually take the impact of misogyny seriously. It’s not a cosmetic game or a way of deflecting from serious things. Serious things like the universal credit rollout leaving people without food for weeks, for example, or the pathetic spectacle of our prime minister begging EU negotiators to take pity on her and help keep her in power because her own choice of foreign secretary is so appallingly incompetent, dishonest and yet popular with her party membership that, despite everything, she argues, the EU leaders ought to work with her to prevent him nicking her job. (I don’t usually think of Theresa May as a wildly original thinker but I have to admit that emphasising your weakness and desperation as a leader is an extremely novel negotiating tactic.)

Clive Lewis’s joke may have made some women uncomfortable, and if they want to say so, then of course that’s fair enough; they absolutely should be able to speak up about it and we should absolutely listen. Lewis himself has already apologised for what he said; nobody is making out that it warrants no comment or discussion. But if you’re nowhere to be seen until it’s politically expedient to call someone sexist, if you’re using misogyny as a way to distract public attention away from very real policy choices your party has made – choices that actually do have a meaningful impact on women around the country – then you should know that jumping up and down on Clive Lewis’s head does not make you look as if you care about women at all. In fact, it does the opposite. It shows up crystal clear for us all to see that far from giving careful consideration to the impact of your actions or words on women, you see misogyny as a minor, incidental thing; a tool for you to play with whenever it works to your own benefit to do so. And I don’t know, but maybe in the long-term, the perception that you’re disingenuous, opportunistic, shallow hypocrites may actually prove more damaging to your public image than a consistent, professional silence, in this instance, might have been.  

What if ‘identity politics’ really did provoke the rise of the far right? What then?

There are two buzzwords right now that spike my blood pressure every time they’re uttered: “ordinary people,” and “identity politics.” These two buzzwords (or buzz phrases, I suppose, to be accurate) are often thrown around in conjunction with each other. They’re both fuzzy in meaning, yet we also all know exactly what – and who – is meant by both of them.

We know that “ordinary people” is code for “the opposite of identity politics.” People without an “identity.” Or rather, an identity that hasn’t been politicised. “White working class” is definitely an identity, and so, for that matter, is “posh white MP who looks like a third rate Harry Potter stand-in”. But talking about how white people’s fears about immigration must be indulged or taxes are too high for hard-working people isn’t “identity politics.” These are all “ordinary people.” (Seem logical so far? Excellent.)

If you’re one of those self-indulgent moaners who is always doing “identity politics” then – and this might be news to you, because you might not have realised you were this influential – but it turns out you’re to blame for the rise of the far right across the Western world. That’s right – Brexit, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Golden Dawn – it’s a backlash against you. Well, you, and other people like you. People (“ordinary people”, that is, not people like you. “People” never means “people like you”), people are so alienated, provoked, and embarrassed in equal measure by you, your existence, and the fact that you dare to make comments on the way public policy impacts your life from time to time that, apparently, struggle as they do, they simply cannot help but turn their support over to borderline (or, in some cases, not so borderline) fascists.  

How are you alienating them, you might ask? Well, for a start, you’ve probably been picking them up on factual errors, especially factual errors with consequences. You may have heard claims about immigration lowering wages or weakening the economy and challenged them with official figures. You may have seen people make claims about what Muslims believe or wear that don’t chime with your own experience so you joined in the conversation. Who wouldn’t be provoked into voting to leave an entire body of law after that? You’re not supposed to be well-informed. That is proof of your elitism. You need to accept that the people who voted for Brexit are very well-informed, and probably read every single piece of legislation that has ever come out of Brussels to assess the consequences before casting their vote – but you should also remember to be respectful of people, by pretending you agree with everything they say, even if it’s factually incorrect, because they won’t be interested in facts or experts, and to imagine anything else is patronising. 

You also probably use words like “cisgender” or “intersectional”. According to articles I’ve read in down-to-earth, read-it-down-the-pub-while-waiting-for-a-beer publications like the New Statesman, and the Guardian, “intersectional” is such a long word that by the third syllable it literally stops “ordinary people” from being feminists. In fact, it actually forces them to start treating women like objects every single day, in protest at the audacity of a writer having the nerve to imagine they would be able to grasp such a wildly complicated concept. Everyone in Stoke-on-Trent was reading about intersectionality on twitter last time I was there, too, which is why they’re all driven to vote for Paul Nuttall in the by-election. I know, it seems a bit unbelievable, the idea that people are both completely removed from something but also their voted is shaped by it, but this must be true as a piece of analysis. After all, the New Statesman and the Guardian are sure that it’s the fault of words like these, and they’re about as down to earth and in touch as you can get. That’s why they never use any words with more than three syllables, words like “nationalism” or “pornification” or “deindustrialisation” or “neo-Popularist”. Certainly these publications never discuss academic concepts, like Keynesianism, or Neoliberalism, and they only ever reference modern, pop cult classic writers like Sheila Jeffries, Janice Raymond, and Germaine Greer to back up their arguments. So you can see how words like “queer” and “cis” and “#punchnazis2017” really pushed them over the edge.

But wait! You might be more than a little indignant at this. In fact, you’re actually very passionate when you talk about these things, not least because they directly impact your life. If anything, people dismiss you because you’re too emotional, aggressive, and biased. That’s partly why you present yourself as academic and use so much evidence to back up your points in the first place. Yes, well, that’s also true. What do you mean that’s a contradiction? It’s perfectly simple: you’re too aggressive but also too wimpy; too academic but also your arguments are poorly-structured and don’t follow professional debate rules; you’re too introspective and obsessed with your own, personal victimhood, but also, you should be more like Donald Trump because he’s the model of a healthy ego. You’re too detached and irrelevant to people’s lives, but also, you’re not respectably dressed and you haven’t done a full PhD on the subject; you’re too busy following the mob and jumping on bandwagons but you don’t pay attention to the popular mood in the country; you’re too sensitive but also you’re lacking in empathy for other people because you don’t mix with anyone outside your bubble.

That last one, if you’re anything like me, might get you in the gut the hardest. The idea that you could be unintentionally insulating yourself into a segregated bubble of safety bothers you, so you check yourself to see if this is true. But, if you’re honest, it really does feel like you spend quite a lot of time hanging out with different people, from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, with different gender identities, and different states of personal health or physical ability, with different ideas about the world. Yes, you know that you probably do spend a lot of time around people who are similar to you in various ways, you’re not trying to completely deny that, but at the same time, you’re not entirely convinced that the Daily Express newsroom, or the Ukip headquarters, or the average evening with David Davis’ or Liam Fox’s friends would necessarily be more diverse than your little insular bubble. In fact, you have to admit, you reckon there’s a chance it might be even less so. It’s not immediately clear to you how the insular nature of your social or professional bubble might be so much worse that it renders all your comments on the world irrelevant.

I do see why you might be confused. I was confused too, until I learned that “in a bubble” doesn’t mean you mix with people who are all the same. “In a bubble”, you see, actually means the opposite of that. For example, one unanswerable piece of evidence that you spend your life “in a bubble” is if you live in a big city like Manchester. If you’re trying to define “ordinary people”, by the way, Manchester and Liverpool are very confusing places: you may think that they are full of these much-mentioned “ordinary people.” Ukip’s new leader Paul Nuttall is definitely an “ordinary person” in spite of all other evidence to the contrary chiefly because he has a Liverpool accent. However, these cities are both super queer-friendly (super friendly in general), they both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and both insist on voting for the left-wing luvvies in the Labour party. (Which means, of course, that no Conservative or Kipper must criticise Labour in those cities, because the will of the people has spoken. Right?) When you consider that in Liverpool so many people (rather famously) hate the Sun newspaper, it becomes clear that they can’t be “ordinary people” after all.

But even these privileged, elitist, cosmopolitan stuffy Liverpudlians, swanning about in a city where everybody owns at least six yachts and nobody eats anything but prosecco-soaked kale isn’t as much of a bubble as the nation’s capital. That’s right: if you live in the capital city, by virtue of it being one of the most multicultural, diverse cities in the world, you are, in fact, living inside the ultimate “bubble.”

I know what you’re thinking: there are lots of people living in London who do their damned best to still be “ordinary people.” If you look really, really hard, there’s still silenced, beaten down, underground enclaves where you can find “ordinary people”. There’s Finsbury Square in Islington where Nigel Farage used to work as a stockbroker, or Kensington, where Ukip MEP David Coburn’s address was officially registered before he rented property in Scotland while campaigning there to be elected to the European parliament. Both roaring with “ordinary people.” (Don’t get me started on Scotland itself, by the way. Very few “ordinary people” living there. You can tell how resolutely pro-Westminster establishment they are by the huge number of Scottish people who voted for an insurgent third party instead of Labour or the Conservatives in the last election. You can also tell because nearly half the country backs Scottish independence, like the Westminster establishment lackeys they are. The Scottish people would never, ever, even begin to understand the legitimate economic anxieties that Ukip voters in Surrey are facing so don’t even bother telling me it’s significant that they voted to remain in the EU, okay?)

So I guess it’s possible to be a Londoner and be an “ordinary person” after all. But if you happen to have one of those politicised “identities” that we all know about, then, sadly, it’s quite tough for you to ever be an ordinary person. Because the fact is, the people who in the biggest bubble of all are minorities. Everybody knows that. If you live every day in a society where the dominant groups of people are not people like you, and who like to remind you that they’re not like you, whether you try to ‘integrate’ into the dominant community or not, you will always, sadly, be “in a bubble.”  

If this sounds like Alice in Wonderland on stilts, it’s because it is. We all know what “in a bubble” means, just like we all know that “ordinary people” means.

Firstly, here are some things it doesn’t mean. In a bubble doesn’t mean assuming every relationship looks like yours or shrieking about how other people’s love makes you want to throw up. In a bubble doesn’t mean assuming everyone is assigned the right gender at birth because you were. In a bubble doesn’t mean that you expect everyone to look like you and that you have a hissy fit if a film you enjoyed as a child is remade with some lead actors who don’t look like you, while simultaneously claiming, if anyone is happy about the remake, that you do not see why it matters what the actors look like. In a bubble doesn’t mean throwing a tantrum when a bus has to wait for a wheelchair user to get on. In a bubble doesn’t mean smugly telling people to calm down about Trump because you don’t know anyone who has been affected by his rhetoric or his policies. In a bubble doesn’t mean bragging about you’d gladly chuck away your right to privacy, because if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear, because you never grew up with the fear in your gut of being outed and you never got hate speech or violent threats sent to you for being too sexual or not sexual enough or having the wrong opinion, and you’ve never been given any reason to distrust the police.

No. These things are not examples of being “in a bubble.” It is not literal. Just like “Metropolitan elites” and “the establishment” are not literal either. We bang our heads against walls trying to argue down the absurdity of Trump or Farage or Arron Banks or Lord Ashcroft calling themselves anti-establishment, but it isn’t absurd at all once you realise that it is not literal. It is code. Translated, “in a bubble” means this: that you are too insulated from the people who hate you. In a bubble means that you don’t feel scared enough. In a bubble means you don’t feel scared, and you should feel scared. It means: how dare you not feel scared? It makes me sick that you aren’t scared. How dare you go about your life without apologising for yourself, without being eternally grateful to every “ordinary person” who doesn’t beat you up or call you a dyke?

And once we realise this, the logic of saying: you caused the rise of the far right by living in a bubble suddenly becomes clear. It’s not an excuse, or an abdication of responsibility. It’s a threat. They are saying: don’t you know how easily we could remove your humanity? Don’t you remember? You better remember, you better not push us too far, you better not expect too much or get too happy, because if you do, you leave us with no choice but to bring back fascism.

These groups of people (you know who I mean) want to pretend that we are the ones who politicise our own identities, but the reason that us being “in a bubble” makes them so furious is because it shows them that we have the audacity to forget for a bit that our existence is a political issue. We have the audacity to believe, for a bit, that our “identity” – our existence – is not still up for debate. That is what they want. They want it up for debate. They want us up for debate. They want us to not be “people”, but an abstract issue, a question, a problem. A problem that requires a solution.

That’s why it’s so dangerous for us to give ground on the matter of “debate.” It’s not about winning these people round with ideas. The debate itself is what they want. They want us to be up for debate. They have said as much themselves. 

I’m not speaking, now, to the people who make these arguments as threats to us. I’m appealing to the well-intentioned people to whom these arguments have filtered down. People who say they’re on our side while blaming us, while lecturing us about how we are obligated to present evidence in our own defence. As if opening your eyes and looking around the world isn’t “evidence” enough that bigoted beliefs are nonsense.

Asking people to “debate” far right politics is shifting the burden of proof away from the person making the case for extremism, and on to the person who is expected to provide evidence for their own humanity. We don’t shift the burden of proof in this way unless we believe that an argument holds some level of validity. In doing so, we are kind of accepting the premise of the far right argument. We are implying that they are making a reasonable case, that now needs to be disproved. And we’re kind of saying that it’s your fault if you’re not able to make a convincing enough case for your own existence.

People’s humanity should not be left in the hands of their tactical debating abilities. Imagine playing a panel show game, with panel show rules, rules that perhaps you aren’t even familiar with. Rules like “if your voice goes above a certain pitch, you lose the game,” or “if you swear, you lose the game.” Imagine that you’re playing against people who have practiced this game since they were young, because they went to a school were everybody played this game, all the time. Then imagine that if you lose the game, not only does it count as evidence against the case for your own humanity, but it’s also used as evidence against the humanity of everybody who shares your features, or hair texture, or romantic orientation, or faith. Because every time you play this ridiculous game, you are playing it as a representative of all those people. Would you want to play? Would you consider it worth the risk? How would you feel about that game being screened on television or at a university hall, as soft level entertainment? Marine Le Pen having a chat with Andrew Marr while we sip our coffee, wondering how many points she will score this time, wondering who will win this round of the game, this is not normal Sunday morning entertainment. 

I don’t know. Maybe people like me did provoke voters into voting for nationalism and probable economic oblivion. Maybe it really is our own fault. And if that’s true, I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry I shared things on Twitter and blogged about politics and got emotional in public and embarrassed you, the respectable left, so much with what you call “identity politics” and “political correctness,” and what I just call “life” and “stuff that impacts people I care about.” I’m sorry if I did it wrong and fought for things I care about in the wrong way. I’m sorry, most of all, if I have made things worse for people who will be impacted most.

I don’t believe, as it happens, that these things caused the rise of the far right. I don’t believe these people when they make demands about what we must do or give up to placate them. They have been telling us in Britain for ages that they will all calm down if only we can have tougher borders and an immigration points system like America. But America has all this and they still voted for Trump. Nigel Farage and his friends have been telling us that all they want is a system just like America. Now he’s cheering on Trump and saying the American immigration system is too soft. No amount of “toughening the borders,” no amount of associated cost to human life will never be enough for people like him. America has an extraordinarily harsh immigration system, and Barack Obama deported somewhere around 2.4 million undocumented migrants – that’s more than any other President in history. It didn’t stop them. Because they aren’t telling the truth when they say dropping “identity politics” or “political correctness” will make them back off. Of course they aren’t. They aren’t making reasonable, moderate, meet-me-halfway requests. They are making demands. Demands, and threats. 

“You provoked me into harming you, and if you fight back, it will get worse, so don’t fight back” is always a repulsive argument. But even if it is true, for the sake of argument, the question is, what then? Because while I doubt I provoked people into voting for Brexit by sharing one too many jokes about Nigel Farage with a microphone moustache on Facebook, it’s almost certainly the case that we are seeing a strong backlash more generally against social progress. Or “identity politics”, as you might call it. “Political correctness.”  

And this is the point where I do get a little angry. I understand that for people who are primarily in the business of trying to get votes, that means you have to get people to like you. You feel you can’t define their actions as racist or tell them you disagree even if they’re talking rubbish or stand up to them if they’re coming for your friends. However, I am not trying to get people to vote for me. And every time I open my mouth, it’s not my responsibility to do free campaigning for the Labour party, or for “our side”, or anything like it. I will always, always, always, put my friends, my loved ones, their safety, their feelings, what makes them feel safer, what action they ask me to take ahead of what is going to make a bigoted person want to be nicer to me. At least, I hope I will always do this. I may fail at it, because we’re in for difficult times, and I’m not very brave, and this won’t be easy.  

But what’s the alternative? I come back to the question again and again: what do you want us to do? I’m serious here; I’m really asking. What are the options? I’ll speak to homophobia because that’s my experience; if I am dealing with a homophobe, I have essentially three options. I can love myself, and provoke their anger, hate, and discomfort, and live with the knowledge that there are people who think I should be dead, or cured, but hopefully not many, and I don’t have to be around them much. Or, I can be apologetic, talk about how ashamed or tragic I am, talk about how I’ve struggled and how no-one in their right mind would ever choose to be gay, so please have mercy on me, and then praise them, gratefully, every day, for not hitting me, having me institutionalised, or for deigning to tolerate me. Or, finally, I can not exist. That’s really it. And let me tell you, if you think the second one sounds reasonable, that it often goes together, in the end, with the third one. For me, the first option is the only one I am prepared to accept without a fight.

So if the first option provokes fascism, what next? If your argument is that some people’s existence is so inherently challenging for “ordinary people”, so provocative, so hate-inducing, that it takes work, arduous work and study and mollycoddling for them to not want those people exterminated, and that the people they want to exterminate must do that work, as penance for existing in the first place, I have to ask you, whose side are you on? If you are coming from a place where you can only conceive of a world where “ordinary people” can dictate the terms of existence to “extraordinary people,” with the threat of fascism hanging over everyone’s heads should we provoke them again, you are not on my side. There’s no third way solution with people’s humanity. You’re either considered “people” or you’re not. If you’re not with me on that, then go ahead, protect yourself and the people around you however suits you best. Prioritise what you need to prioritise. But for the love of God, please stop pretending to give me advice.   

What George Michael meant to me in 1998

Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for LGBT people. George Michael was having none of it.

I was about 13 years old when it happened. I felt like I was witnessing it in slow motion. A beloved superstar called George Michael was entrapped, outed and hauled to the mucky tabloid stocks for what I can only describe as a minor sexual misdemeanour. A “lewd act” which not only pales in comparison to the things that many straight  icons get up to with little to no judgment, but was also, of course, conflated endlessly with his sexual orientation. His outing and his “lewd act” were treated as one and the same. I was horrified, anxious, angry, as I listened to my friends and classmates snigger endlessly about George Michael and toilets and how he was a fag and ha ha ha isn’t it hilarious and disgusting, let’s all pour over the delicious details and be sickened with delight. For a long time, my stomach churned whenever his name was mentioned. 

Sometimes I would weakly laugh along, occasionally speaking up, usually not speaking up, terrified at the constant, snagging, sickening weight in my gut caused by the knowledge that one day, in the future, maybe not far from now, I would have to have The Conversation with people. That conversation. The one where you Tell People That Thing about yourself, that thing that you work so hard to hide. Not only was I fearful but I felt like such a cowardly little shit because I didn’t say much in his defence at the time. He was such a kind-hearted, generous-spirited person, always thinking about his fans and always concerned about the impact this was all having on young LGBT people. I was so deeply invested in delaying The Conversation Where You Tell People That Thing About Yourself, that I could never quite face it.  

And then. And then. I saw how he handled it. I saw him respond not with shame, not with apologetic respectability, but with a music video for Outside that went so full-scale, off the charts, fantastically gay you couldn’t possibly imagine he was doing anything other than celebrating himself and sticking up two fingers to people who had a problem with the whole thing. I mean, I’m talking about dressing-up-as-a-cop-in-leather-gloves-gay, public-toilets-turning-into-discos-gay; a celebration of queer, sexy joy in all its glory. 

I felt like that song and video made the perfect smack in the face for all those homophobes I’d heard trying to tear him down. And it didn’t matter if they didn’t get it, because actually, it wasn’t for them at all; it was for me. I felt like George Michael was going up to all those kids who were like “ha ha you’re GAY” as if it’s the worst insult in the world, and laughing in their faces: “You think this is gay? MATE. You’ve seen nothing. You haven’t lived. I am not even being gay right now. You’ve seen nothing. Damn right I’m gay. I’m gayer than gay. Oh babe, you think it’s an insult? Look how awesome being gay is!” Which is what I always longed to say but never did. 

I secretly adored this song. Not only the song itself but everything it meant to me. I loved the idea of making a song like that so much it hurt. This song that one of my friends told me I was not allowed to buy when she was with me because it was “so gay.” This song that caused one friend to keep pretending to be sick whenever it came on because “it’s so gay.” (It didn’t escape me that the same people who had mocked George Michael for being in the closet were now mocking him for making a song that was “too gay.”)

But the most beautiful thing for me was the evening I sat in my family living room to watch George Michael’s interview with Michael Parkinson. I saw that this man was still someone my family admired, someone they wanted to watch on TV, a man whose music they still listened to, a man they thought was brave and cool and human – and he was putting into words things I had not being able to spell out very well even to myself; things I had timidly attempted to scribble about in my diary, perhaps, but that was pretty much it. 

And actually, whenever I truly want to explain my sexuality, even to this day, I often still refer back to the way George Michael put it in this brilliant interview. It’s hard to find better words than this for how I feel. I never felt as if I entirely fit any of the labels, the way I’d understood them, the way straight people had defined them to me. George Michael summed up what, for him, made the distinction between being bisexual and gay so neatly, with such clarity, yet without removing the complexities of human experience – or, importantly, without trying to speak for anybody but himself – that even then, with no meaningful romantic experiences to speak of, I stopped dead. I thought my heart might stop with excitement. I forgot all about what other people might call me, and, perhaps for the first time, I began to think about what I might actually want to call myself. Even at 13 this distinction spoke to me so poignantly. This is what he said: 

“No, I wasn’t confused [about my sexuality]. I thought I was bisexual. When I could take it or leave it from either side of the fence, I just thought I was bisexual. The day I knew I was gay was the day I fell in love with a man. I thought it was about who you can get it up for. I realise now that it’s not about you get it up for, but about who you can get it up for – and love. So now I don’t think I’m bisexual; I am gay.”

I am sure this kind of thing has been said by countless others, of course. But I had never heard anything like it before. I had certainly never heard it from anyone who was such an enormous star. I watched the interview again after George Michael died and realised I still love, love, love everything about this. 

I love that he isn’t dismissing or minimising bisexuality. Unlike so many straight or gay people for whom “feeling bisexual” was a transition phase, he’s acknowledging that what he feels is not bisexuality, and so, by logical extension, that bisexuality is real and does exist. Bisexuality is not being “confused.” Come to think of it, this might be the first time I’d heard anyone talk not only about being gay, but about bisexuality with any measure of respect, any measure of acknowledgement that it is, in fact, real. 

I love that he doesn’t say being a lesbian or being gay means you automatically have no desire or curiosity or hot one night stands or enjoyable kisses with people of the opposite sex. Its funny, because if a woman says she enjoys casual fun with women but would only have a relationship with a man, the assumption is that she’s heterosexual, even if she herself says she’s bisexual. Yet if you are gay, people find it much easier to process it if you say you have never, ever so much as looked at someone of the opposite sex. 

Yet it’s well-known that for many people, including straight people, there’s a world of difference between being into someone for Netflix and chill, and actually liking that person in a meaningful way. Far before falling in love comes into it, there are some people where it’s just not about anything deep, and it never will be, and that’s fine as long as you both know it. Casual fun with the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily make you straight – or even bisexual. We are not supposed to say this. But he did. 

And I love the truthfulness and authenticity of his answers to these questions all the more for the fact that at this time, he was trying to rescue his image from a very public trashing. He could have thrown bisexuals, promiscuous people, polyamorous people, and kinky people under the bus to save himself and play the respectability and hypocrisy game that the media loves. He didn’t. 

I love the conviction with which he rejects the familiar old self-flagellating narrative he gets offered up by Parkinson time and time again as a lifeline throughout that interview. Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for a lot of LGBT people in the public eye. It is a tempting rope to grab. George Michael was having none of it. 

I love that he talks about getting it up and falling in love in the same sentence. In 1998, as far as I could see, we were supposed to be either  entirely sexless, or degenerate animals. We could not be whole. Bollocks to that, George Michael seemed to be saying. We have sex and we fall in love and guess what, it’s not always with the same people. But sometimes it is with the same people. Because we are whole. 

Sexuality is so personal. It would be amazing if any of these labels entirely fit any of us. Yet even at 13, George Michael’s definition, as uniquely personal as it was, touched upon some level of truth for me. I had never heard anyone express anything so honest about queerness. Clumsily, chaotically,  I listened to this interview, heart racing, and thought: wow, yes, that’s it, that’s how I feel, that’s how you tell people. Maybe I can have The Conversation. Maybe it will be okay. 

It was largely because of George Michael that I realised there are different ways of loving and having relationships and having sex. You don’t have to pretend that arbitrary boxes fit your reality when it’s obvious to anyone with the most basic understanding of human interactions that the boxes are painfully small for the task. 

George Michael’s coming out was my earliest memory of hearing someone seriously suggest that perhaps it was the boxes that were wrong, not me.

It was like someone was reassuring me: you’re allowed to exist. If your existence is too confusing for people, they need to change their silly, pointless, self-imposed boxes. You don’t need to not exist. The boxes need to not exist. You are not wrong for existing. Your existence is not a problem to be solved. Maybe one day you, and others around you, will even celebrate it. Not tolerate. Celebrate. 

Hearing that George Michael has died, seeing the outpouring of love for him (including the hypocritical tabloid press that hounded him), I’m flashing back to George Michael’s coming out, his Parkinson interview and the fabulous self-acceptance of Outside. I want to celebrate his life and his music. The truth is, I feel slightly sick. Because I am also flashing back, vividly, to how all-consuming the terror was of being 13 years old and thinking that my very existence was an anomaly, an error, a bug in the system. A society that teaches a 13 year old that their existence is a problem to solve is abominably cruel, however unintentionally or subliminally it’s done. If you tell a child repeatedly that they should not, by rights, exist, what do you think they will do? It is not melodramatic to say that hearing these things articulated saves lives. 

I want to feel like that’s all in the past. I want to end my blog by saying how far we have all come, and how wonderful it is. I can’t make myself feel this. We live in a world now where the most powerful person in the world, the American President Elect, does indeed view entire groups of people as a problem to be solved, and is not shy about saying so. That is scary. That is how true horrors happen. 

The people who minimise the importance of things like famous people coming out and nullifying some of that terror are usually people who have not grown up believing their own existence is seen by others (perhaps even by their own loved ones) as a problem to be corrected. They have never sat in a room where respected people debate their right to exist, or debate what conditions should be attached to their right to exist. They do not know the fear that never quite dies; the fear that the people who think you are a problem to solve will one day hold serious power over your life. 

I used to be in awe of the cognitive dissonance these people were capable of. You know who I mean. The people can moan on Monday about political correctness and cheer on “locker room talk” from the President Elect, but by Tuesday they are attacking a musician for being a poor role model or for having too much sex. People who smear and humiliate anyone queer who is open about their sexuality, but also criticise people for staying “in the closet”. They attack LGBT people for “flaunting” their love in public or wanting to get married but also for being dirty disgusting queers who use public toilets or night time parks or pay sex workers in secret. 

These are also, amusingly, often the same people who pounce on any deviation from our boxes as evidence of dishonesty (“You said you were a lesbian but you kissed this man!”) then have sneering tantrums when we make bigger boxes (“Why are there so many letters in LGBTQIA, why can’t it just be gay and lesbian, yawn”). 

I used to be in awe of their cognitive dissonance but I’m not anymore. If 2016 has convinced me of one thing, it’s that these people don’t even believe that they believe any of this. They couldn’t possibly mean it all. The contradictions are too great, too ridiculous. And many of the people spewing it all out are too well-informed, too clever with logic, too self-aware to believe such directly contradictory things. What they are is homophobic, and what they want is for people like me to go away. 

In 1998, I sat in my bedroom, wondering if I would ever be able to be happy, if I would ever get to have a romantic relationship with a woman, and if so, if I could do it without everybody finding out. I wondered what was the worst thing that could happen if I just never told anybody, ever. And I wondered if I would dare to buy Outside on cassette. What would the salesperson in the shop think of me? Would I hide it when my friend came round, or would I show her it, defiantly? Perhaps, even if I didn’t buy it, I would just admit, quietly, that I liked the song. Perhaps I would admit to myself why it made my heart leap every time it came on the radio. (I never did buy it. I picked it up in the shop and turned it over several times in my hands. I put it back. I pretended I didn’t like the song.) 

As I go into 2017, decades later, I am living with my wonderful girlfriend who makes my heart sing every day, who my family  members welcome into their lives with open arms. And I feel so much gratitude to people like George Michael, whose battle with the media vultures helped me, and thousands of others like me, know that we are allowed to exist, that we are not an anomaly, that we are not a problem that needs correcting. I never write to celebrities – they get so many letters, what would mine matter? – but I have often thought of writing to George Michael. I never did. Just like I never bought the Outside cassette. In 1998 I wanted to blast that damn song from the rooftops. Maybe this weekend I will. Let’s go outside. In the sunshine. I would like to be playing it as a victory anthem. But for now, a celebration will do. 

‘Taking control’ means taking responsibility, too

Okay, first of all, no more petitions to re-run the referendum. Please. It confirms everything that the Brexit campaign has said about people who wanted to stay in the EU. People voted. It’s done. The anger at over-turning it or demanding a do-over would be so enormous that Brexit would probably not only win again but would win again with an even higher margin. And the level of rage we would see in response could honestly be so great as to be dangerous.

That’s not to say that down the line there is not room for the debate to be continued. Given that people voted for Brexit for a myriad of different reasons, with different goals and different visions of post-Brexit Britain, it seems reasonable to say that once a specific deal has been reached, that it could be put to the public, to give people a chance to have their say again. And, of course, going into a general election, parties can campaign on whatever platform they like. But right now, the vote was to leave the EU. Everyone must respect and, to use an irksome political phrase, be seen to respect it.

Okay, now I’m done with all that. Please also stop with the accusations that we, the people who supported Remain, are labelling everyone who voted for Brexit and thick or racist or both and are terrible mean bigoted people, when we raise our concerns about the severity of the impact of Brexit, or the strengthening of the far right. This simplistic and dismissive response to people’s very real concerns about the impact of Brexit, the way the campaign was fought, and the way decisions of this importance can be sensibly made is getting extremely tedious. Democracy doesn’t mean that the minority has to shut up and respecting people’s right to have an opinion doesn’t mean you have to pretend to agree with it.

First, the racism bit. I am extremely bored with the inane statements about how not all leave voters are racist. No-one is saying this. There could are lots of sensible arguments on both sides of the EU debate (I have written about some of them myself). But that isn’t the campaign that the Leave strategists chose to run. What I have heard expressed is: ‘The Brexit campaign won because of racism.’ That is a very different statement from ‘every Brexit voter is racist.’ And it’s true. Of course it’s true. We know from polling, interviews, and conversations with people in real life, that huge numbers of people voted for Brexit because they basically dislike foreigners. I know people who did so. It is a senseless, patronising waste of everyone’s time to pretend that this isn’t the case, and to pretend the campaign we saw was not fuelled by racism and xenophobia. By the end, they might as well have sent out leaflets saying: “If you want a Turk for a neighbour, vote Remain.” It is not helpful to pretend not to see it. It wasn’t only Nigel Farage’s poster. There was a banner from Leave.EU which claimed we were in danger of an Orlando-style shooting if we voted to Remain. There was that map sent out claiming Turkey will join the EU, with the only countries labelled on the map being Syria and Iraq (let me know if you can think of any non-racist reason for that. I am stumped). And who can forget that Nigel Farage genuinely warned of middle-eastern men coming to assault European women. Let’s not pretend that comments like that are accidental. We know they are very old, tried and tested techniques to stir up racism and xenophobia without taking responsibility for it, for political ends.

So calm down and have a beer, because no-one is calling you, personally, a racist. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. But so what? I am sure when the Conservatives ran their infamous ‘if you want a [slur] for a neighbour, vote Labour’ campaign, there were people who voted Conservative for other reasons. Perhaps they disliked the Labour candidate. Perhaps they didn’t agree with Labour’s economic policies. Perhaps some just thought Peter Griffiths would do a good job as MP for Smethwick. Do you see the flaw in this reasoning now?

Ultimately it doesn’t much matter if your motivation for putting those people into power was racist or not. No-one cares about what is going on inside your heart. No-one cares if you like them or want to hang out with them or want to have sex with them. People care if your actions impact their lives, their rights, their safety. Once the far right is out of their box it matters very little who opened the box, or why they did it. All the Brexit voters are not racist but what does that matter; the point is that huge numbers of Brexit voters are comfortable with racism, and prioritised something else over keeping racism out of politics; huge numbers of Brexit voters were happy to vote in such a way as to give a mandate to racists, and to reward a racist campaign, thereby encouraging more of the same. That, I’m afraid, is a factual reality of what you voted for. You can be offended by it as a lovely non-racist Brexit voter but that’s tough. If you get into bed with Nigel Farage don’t be surprised if people look at you funny when you’re doing the walk of shame in the morning without your knickers on.

It is at this point that I expect to hear the familiar cries of either ‘but unity!’, or, ‘I’m bored of this now; get over it.’ With regard to the first, well, you might want unity but that’s just tough for the time being. I’m afraid you can’t run or support that kind of campaign and expect everyone to be the same towards you in the immediate aftermath. Actions have consequences. Telling everyone else to shut up and stop boring you by discussing the consequences of your actions is not cuddly and warm; it’s actually quite unpleasant. And make no mistake, you can tell people to shut up in whatever polite, superior language you want – don’t be divisive, calm down, let’s not be hysterical, let’s have a bit of positivity – but that’s still what you’re doing.

But the second cry, the cry to ‘move on, get over it, stop discussing it’ is perhaps the most troubling. Look. I absolutely believe that most voters knew what they were voting for, looked at all the facts, and voted carefully for what they believed was best. I am also aware that many voters feel lied to, ill-equipped to make the choice, or exploited, and am happy to accept that this is not their fault. What I am struggling to be patient about, however, is the huge groups of people who insist with furious indignation that they analysed all the information, and are absolutely qualified to make this decision, but are now puzzled to find that people are still discussing it, and think it’s hilarious that so many people are so angry, scared, and upset by what they’ve done. There is no nice way to say this: if you think we should all just forget about it now, like a football match that our side lost and your side won, then guess what – you did not understand the ramifications of your vote. If you didn’t realise there would be consequences for the pound, the wider economy could be plunged into recession, we would end up with – and this is just off the top of my head – effectively no Prime Minister, potentially the breakup of the United Kingdom and the end of the peace process in Northern Ireland, then I’m afraid however intelligent you are and however carefully you considered the information available to you, it’s really, really, not unreasonable for people to question whether we, any of us, are qualified to make such a momentous decision by the means of a referendum.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like I think I’m any better informed or smarter than you. I’m not. None of us has time to read all the legislation that comes out of the European Parliament and analyse the impact on domestic and foreign policy; none of us has time to speak to world leaders and diplomats and economists around the world to pull together detailed insights into what impact Brexit would have on world markets and borders and the likelihood of peace; none of us has time to read up on the full-scale impact of Brexit for workers rights or human rights, women’s equality or trans equality (I mention trans equality in particular because the Trans Equality Legal Initiative has produced a briefing on it, which you can access here); none of us has time to calculate by how much food prices will go up and what impact that will have on child poverty and malnutrition; none of us has time to consider all the different Brexit models, establish how all of the above and many, many more things would be impacted by each one. That’s not because we are ignorant or thick, it’s because we have day jobs, families, partners, friends, and we are not subject experts. I know, those pesky experts again. But you see, just because experts sometimes get things wrong, it doesn’t mean that the whole concept of knowledge or expertise is null and void. I get that it isn’t our fault we were asked the question. But it’s not as if no-one told us that the consequences of Brexit would be disastrous – it’s not even as if only David Cameron and politicians told us so. Everyone told us so. World leaders. Economists. Business leaders. Scientists. Academics. Doctors. And contrary to the line we keep hearing, it’s not about class. Plenty of homeowners in leafy suburbs voted for Brexit; plenty of people in low or no income voted to Remain. Immigrant-free seaside towns or leafy suburbia can be just as much of a ‘bubble’ as London, you know. This is nothing to do with ordinary people who voted Remain thinking we know best. You are the ones, the Brexiters, who thought you knew best. You knew there was no plan, no answer to any of the above – how could there be, when all the people campaigning for Brexit can’t even agree on what model they want instead – and you still thought you knew best.

That is why people are pissed off. That is why people are struggling to be polite through your sneering and mocking people’s concerns. That is why people are still talking about Brexit. I’m not pissed off at people who can see the impact on the markets already and see that they may have made a mistake. I’m not pissed off at the people who were confused about why we were asked the question in the first place – the people who have spent the last several months asking, pleading, begging, for the facts and the information they needed. It’s the having the cake and eating it attitude that pisses me off. That attitude comes from the politicians who are supposed to be steering the ship and have no plan, but, yes, also, I’m afraid, from those voters who thought they knew better than the experts, and now find the inevitable chaos that has ensured boring, funny, or someone else’s problem. The Brexit camp wanted to take control – but when it’s time to take responsibility, none of them can be found.

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