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. 

No, I will not blame it on the Muslims

A video clip emerged online this week. It shows a Muslim woman, Rose Hadid, wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I come in peace,’ being escorted, not politely, from a Donald Trump rally, after making a peaceful protest against his exclusionary policies.

This image comes to mind again and again today as I browse the news. Why? Because I see, from a mix of media outlets, complaint after complaint after complaint that ‘feminists’ and ‘LGBT campaigners’ have not spoken enough about the horrendous attacks against women in Cologne, Germany, that took place on New Years Eve. In fact, that isn’t quite right. The complaints are more specific. The complaints are, in fact, that we are not talking enough about Islam, race, and border controls in relation to the Cologne attacks. 

As you will almost certainly have seen, since it has been the lead-in to nearly all of the Cologne coverage, some of those involved in the attacks may have been asylum seekers (although at the time of writing, the Guardian had reported that no asylum seekers have been confirmed as involved in any of the sexual assaults; only crimes of vandalism and/or theft.)

The clear implication (and in many cases, the outright assertion) made in these opinion pieces, tweets, interviews, and indeed, in many casual conversations, is that feminists should be more outspoken in denouncing immigration in general and Islam in particular. I am cautious to stride into this complex and long-standing debate with anything remotely approaching a tone of presumed authority, but when I see how much racism and anti-Islamic sentiment is being pushed forward in my name, as an English, feminist, queer woman, it leaves me with such a sour taste that I feel the need to say something. 

First, the lazy claim that ‘feminists’ do not speak about the connections between Islam, race, and feminism is very clearly not true. Feminists around the world speak, march, write about these things every day. Salma Yaqoob, Rania Khan, Shireen Ahmed, Sam Ambreen, Shami Chakrabarti, Maya Goodfellow, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Ava Vidal, Shane Thomas, and Musa Okwonga* spring to mind as people who have written about these subjects now or in the past – and as I haven’t exactly pushed the boat out looking for names to add to that list, and this list is by no means extensive, it doesn’t seem to me as if anyone claiming that ‘feminists do not speak about’ this subject is either well-informed, nor particularly adept at research. 

But, of course,  ‘talking about’ these subjects is not what they mean, and we all know it. What they mean is that these knowledgeable, thoughtful, nuanced voices are not saying what they want them to be saying. Why, they say, angrily, are there no experts on this subject who agree with me? This proves that the experts are all wrong, or brainwashed, or lying, or scared of Musim reprisals. Right? I’m reminded of climate change skeptics who complain that the majority of scientists and climatologists believe that climate change is man-made, as if this is evidence of some outrageous bias against their theories, rather than evidence that perhaps their theories are due for a reboot.  

I suspect most of the people asking this hypothetical question ignore the writers I mention because they are not drawing anti-immigration conclusions from attacks like Cologne. These feminist and/or LGBT campaigners are not concluding that we must water down the painfully weak rights that refugees already have in order to protect Western women from foreign misogyny. This is probably because they are feminists, as opposed to racists pretending to be feminists. It is not surprising that feminists or LGBT activists would focus on violence against women and LGBT people, rather than using those topics as a proxy to talk about something else. 

(Incidentally, even if these people outright admitted their complaint is that the ‘liberal left’ never talks about these things from anti-immigration, anti-Islamic perspective, it would be way off the mark. There is a constant stream of casual anti-Muslim sentiment from supposedly liberal, supposedly feminist, supposedly progressive voices – from Kate Smurthwaite, to Richard Dawkins, to Cathy Newman in the UK; from Bill Maher to Hillary Clinton to Sam Harris in America, there is an endless stream of sneering, faux-concern, dog whistle racism, generalisations and assumptions, about the supposedly inherent sexist and homophobic nature of Islam. Even the BBC, the famous UK cornerstone of Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad recently screened a huge show presented by Reggie Yates that focused for an entire episode on the “homophobia problem in the black and Asian communities.” I use this example not as a criticism of Reggie Yates – it is very far from my place to make any such criticism – but rather to show how ridiculous the assertion is that “no-one is talking about” the subject. The portrayal of Muslims in general as sexist or homophobic or both are rife in the media – and not just the famously anti-immigration right-wing papers like the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun.

It is not new or surprising that racists use feminism or LGBT rights as a proxy for attacking other minorities. There is, of course, a very long history of using the narrative of protecting white women from sexual violence as a justification for enslaving and murdering black and brown-skinned men. But it is embarrassing – worse than embarrassing; it is disgraceful – that so many white, Western feminists and LGBT people, like myself, have sat comfortably for too long while this is done in our name. 

Two things about this framing of the issue alarm me in particular. The first is the erasure of Muslim women, and Muslim LGBT people. Second and first generation immigrants who are LGBT, refugees who are women – many of them escaping the very brutalities of Isis that get laid at the door of all Muslims. It is surely no coincidence that many of the writers I list above get forgotten when a generalisation is made about what ‘feminists’ write or speak about. Despite being tireless campaigners and spokespeople for women’s rights, in the mainstream press, black and Muslim feminists tend to be seen as Muslim first, feminist second. The concerns raised uniquely by Muslim feminists are boxed away as ‘Muslim issues’, or, perhaps, ‘Muslim women’s issues’, while concerns raised by wealthy, white women like women in boardrooms, breastfeeding in parliament, and even the line of succession in the monarchy are reported as ‘women’s issues,’ that should be important to all women, despite these issues affecting only a tiny minority of women. This allows the dangerous myth to foster in some sections of society that violence against women and girls is predominantly perpetrated against white women by black or Asian men, and, as we have seen repeatedly this can have terrible consequences both in terms of victims that do not fit this narrative being silenced or ignored or disbelieved, and in terms of the issue being exploited by the far right to stir up hatred.   

When anti-Muslim hate crime rises (in the past year, in the UK, it went up by 70 per cent), 60 per cent of the victims are women. This goes largely unseen because in this false dichotomy of ‘Muslims’ versus ‘feminists’, Muslim women are invisible; inconvenient to the narrative. 

The second alarming thing about this dichotomy is the way it makes the rights of immigrants or asylum seekers living in the UK conditional. I despise homophobia and misogyny as much as the next person, but my right to be accepted as a UK citizen is not conditional upon my dislike of bigotry, and nor should it ever be. We should not be telling the immigrant population (perhaps even less so those who seek refuge in the country) that they are welcome, but only as long as they adhere to a value system that is not even shared in full the country’s most honoured institutions, let alone by the whole population. When Prince Philip’s position is conditional upon him subscribing to values of equality for women and queer people, when MPs have to swear an oath of intersectional feminism before taking office, when our greatest educational institutions don’t boast proud and celebratory statues dedicated to slaveowners, then perhaps we can demand to know your views on gay marriage at the border controls before we let you in, but as things stand right now, the idea that it is immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims who are keeping the UK away from being a magically progressive utopia is, I promise you, not catching on, not because feminists and LGBT campaigners are cowed by Islam and don’t want to discuss immigration, but because it is frankly ahistorical to the point of total delusion.   

Allowing a disparity in how we measure people’s rights as citizens is profoundly dangerous. Across the Atlantic, we see how conditional rights can look. In the nation that prides itself on being the cradle of freedom, for Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, freedom is not quite the same as other people’s; you are expected to know that don’t have the right to argue with the police, that you don’t, even as a child, have the right to play with a toy gun, that you don’t have the right to walk down the street if everyone knows that some people will find your appearance frightening. You are free but only if you abide by the conditions that have been attached to your humanity. If you break those conditions, then your humanity itself is up for debate.

Muslims living in the UK, whether born here or not, should not be told they have to accept ‘liberal’ values any more forcefully than anybody else is. Immigrants should not have to prove they are twice as patriotic, twice as committed to ‘British values,’ (whatever they are), twice as hard-working as everybody else in order to be welcome. That this is already the case in practice for some first and second generation immigrants is saddening; to demand it be explicitly enforced as government policy is chilling.

And yet these demands that we treat immigrants differently, that we apply different standards to people on the basis of where they were born, is supposed to be feminist, somehow. Open-mouthed people who want to make everything into an argument against immigration stare at women and queer people who do not, and express baffled rants as to our motives. Why do we not care about the women and LGBT victims of Isis, they yell at us. Why do we not show more solidarity with them, by mocking the prophet Mohammed with cartoons, or banning hijabs, or marching against immigration?

Why indeed. Because we do not show support or solidarity with the victims of Islamic terrorism by attacking Muslims, when the people most victimised by Isis are Muslims themselves. We do not show solidarity with gay victims of terror or their families by mocking their religion – we show it by offering them asylum and working to make sure that our LGBT communities are not racist once they are here. We do not show solidarity with women who have been victims of sexual assaults by detaining women and children in centres like Yarls Wood, where rumours persist of sexual assault cover ups – we show it by providing counselling, legal aid, and good quality housing. You do not show solidarity with me, as an LGBT woman, by making the lives of people I know and care about more difficult. You will not turn us against each other, no matter how frustrated you are that not everyone shares your xenophobic interpretation of world events.

So please do not keep asking why feminists aren’t using horrific events like the attacks in Cologne to push an anti-immigration or anti-Islamic agenda. Please do not imagine, not for a moment, that you are protecting me by restricting other people’s rights in my name. It is not in our interests, as women, or as LGBT people, to make our, or anyone else’s humanity conditional. It is so easily done. It is so easily made to feel normal. And what does it look like? To you, I suppose it looks like something foreign, or from the past – a white hood, a pink triangle, a bloodied coat hanger. To me, it looks like something that I see now, that I keep remembering again, and again, and again. It looks like a leading presidential candidate’s henchmen escorting a woman, while she conducts a peaceful protest, from the premises, because of her faith, while the people around her celebrate it as ‘freedom.’

*I am not sure if the latter two identify as ‘feminist’ as such, but Musa Okwonga has written about the Cologne attacks in the New Statesman from the perspective of gender violence and misogyny and both have written about how the two issues intersect, so I’m including them on this list.  

 

Free speech is to journalists and academics what tax cuts are to rich libertarians 

We all have our own understanding of freedom, and it usually begins to evolve, as a starting point, from our own immediate experience. To an artist, perhaps freedom means being able to express yourself through creative means without being told what you are and aren’t allowed to paint. To a political activist, freedom might mean the right to march, chant and strike without being beaten or arrested by police. For a large corporation, freedom may mean the lack of restrictions on your manner of making profits.

And for people whose job is to speak, such as professional opinion writers or academics, freedom, quite understandably, looks at first as if it can be measured purely in the right to speech. Or, more accurately, the right to an audience, because if you’re used to having one, you conflate your right to speak with your right to have people listen.

And if you’re still looking at things from this starting point, then ‘freedom’ is as simple as ‘free speech,’ and so free speech should be more or less absolute. If you’re coming from this starting point, removal from a panel at the request of the event’s attendees becomes censorship; having an article pulled because it is deemed harmful by the people it is written about becomes an attack on your personal freedom.

This is an almost endearingly childlike understanding of what freedom is. You hate paying taxes but you have to pay taxes so your freedom has been curtailed. You wanted to go to the party but they didn’t invite you because you’re a homophobe so your freedom has been curtailed. You want an ice-cream before dinner even though you’re unwell but mummy says you can’t have an ice-cream so your freedom has been curtailed.

And that may all be true as far as it goes but as an adult you usually develop the ability to recognise that the world does not begin and end with getting what you want, and that ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ are a little more complex than the things that directly impact you. As she gets older, the thoughtful libertarian looks in the mirror and realises, for instance, that perhaps she’s been giving a disproportionate amount of attention to the things that directly impact upon her own life. The rich, white, perfectly progressive libertarian perhaps realises that, quite unintentionally, she’s spent, say, half her energy on calling for tax cuts and and half her energy asking why, say, black people (especially women) are so much more likely to be detained when they have a mental health problem than white people (especially men) – as if these examples of curtailing freedoms are all of equal magnitude. It’s not that taxes don’t relate to personal liberty, it’s just that there are all sorts of examples of people’s liberties being trampled upon – and it turns out that some of them depend, unfortunately, upon collecting a bit of tax to rectify. It’s not about saying tax isn’t an issue of personal freedom. It’s about keeping things in proportion when it comes to focus and priority.

The fact is there are invisible freedoms being curtailed all the time. We don’t hear from the people who really are, in practice, being ‘censored’ and ‘silenced’ because, funnily enough, that’s a big part of what real censorship and silencing means. People may disagree about whether it amounts to ‘censorship’ or ‘silencing’ to petition a university to no-platform Germaine Greer on account of her transphobia, but I think we can all agree that those words do not apply to appearing on Question Time and NewsNight and in the papers to talk about how you feel about it. Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, it also does not apply to having your article removed from the Observer website and having it republished by the Daily Telegraph instead, as happened to Julie Burchill not so long ago, and nor does it apply to being sacked for punching someone in the face, or to being criticised for saying the N-word, as happened to Jeremy Clarkson.

Huge sections of our media, however, appear to view these cases as enormous and significant restrictions upon personal freedom. Perhaps so. Here is another example of restrictions upon personal freedom. A choice between dying from getting overworked in brutal conditions and dying from homelessness, starvation, or lack of healthcare.

That is, course, the reality of the ‘freedom’ most people enjoyed before there was government regulations about working conditions and wages, and before a basic welfare state was introduced in the form of unemployment benefit, sick pay, pensions and health care. These things were denounced as anti-freedom when they were new, because the focus was disproportionately on the powerful people having to make compromises instead of the individuals who became freer as a result. Nowadays even critics of welfare tend to accept that these things make most people freer, and give people more control over their own lives. To those defenders of freedom who never quite got past that initial starting point, with the disproportionate focus on that which impacts themselves directly, the minimum wage was the government interfering in business. Anti-discrimination workplace laws were denying employers free choice. Paying for universal healthcare out of taxpayers’ money was a blow against financial liberties. It is only if you are no longer forced to choose between starving or freezing, between unemployment or back-breaking labour that doesn’t pay enough to live on, between bankruptcy or leaving a sick loved one untreated, that you would, irregardless of the theoretical ideological principles that you may hold in abstract, in practice, find yourself to be freer.

What does all this have to do with Germaine Greer getting no-platformed, you might ask. Well, a lot. If you have never feared for your life when walking down the street because you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, if you have never been physically threatened and called an abuser for wanting to use the toilet, if you have never been told that you should not exist, told that you do not exist, by respected academics who are celebrated as experts in their field of study – their ‘field of study’ being your life – it may be natural, as a starting point, that you would feel as if being disinvited from a panel or having an article pulled is the most significant impingement on ‘freedom’ that you can imagine. But it is not.

If there are certain places you cannot go, because you know you’ll be at risk of severe violence, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not able to use the toilet safely, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to transition to your correct gender without the permission of your spouse, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are banned from accessing a women’s refuge or rape support service, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to exist, without your right to exist being put up for academic debate, you better believe that is a violation of personal freedom. Think about that. Not allowed to exist. Paying taxes is annoying and all, but what greater violation of personal freedom can there be than being told that your right to exist is wholly conditional upon the approval of those who seek only to hurt and destroy you?

We mostly accept as a society that ‘freedom’ is not simple and not absolute. I’m not arguing that there is no freedom of speech issue to be discussed when it comes to no-platforming, but rather, that every time we discuss it, by virtue of being the kind of people who enjoy discussing these things, we inevitably have our focus completely out of proportion. The exclamations of outrage we hear from people who take platforms for granted at the suggestion that a democratic, peaceful process like a petition be used to take someone off a panel, on the grounds that their inexpert views are actively harmful, is not unlike the exclamations of outrage you hear from very wealthy people over higher taxes, or corporations over the minimum wage. After all, if freedom means the absolute right to appear on panels even when you have no expertise in the subject at hand then God help us, nearly every single person in the country is oppressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a panel. I’m being censored as we speak, I presume.

Besides, most grown adults understand that words have consequences. If you say a lot of nasty things about people and deliberately drum up controversy, well, of course in a free country you can carry on talking, but guess what – some people might not want you at their events anymore. Only somebody with a job like an opinion-journalist or an academic could possibly imagine that most people have an unfettered, unadulterated right to free speech without consequences. Every other adult in the country surely knows that free speech means the police don’t throw you in prison for your opinions, not that you have a God-given right to be invited to universities to speak. In most jobs, your boss is entitled to dislike your offensive opinions, and they are entitled to sack you or remove you from projects if you show yourself to be inexpert, unqualified, or if enough people complain about you. That’s not censorship, it’s facing the perfectly legal and reasonable consequences of your own actions. Your friends are entitled to stop inviting you to parties if you become offensive (or for any other reason, for that matter). And that is not censorship either. It doesn’t stop there. Your partner is entitled to leave you if they discover you are a terrible person. Customers are entitled to complain about you if you’re rude to them. You are free to use any words you like but words have consequences. It is laughable to see the journalists and academics so used to the idea they are entitled to a platform (and a microphone and a captive audience) no matter what they use it for and no matter whether they are even qualified in the subject of which they speak that they are taking such profound offense at someone being taken off a panel – yet all the while, lecturing others about navel-gazing, living in a bubble, and being too sensitive.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for or against Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Nick Griffin or anyone else who comes out with hate speech to be given platforms. I believe that debate should be had between the people affected by their words – and the likelihood is, there will be different situations where a different approach is best. Sometimes no-platforming works, sometimes debate works. It depends upon the parties involved, the consequences, and, perhaps most of all, on what you are trying to achieve.

But freedom as a fundamental principle means looking at all of its manifestations. It means asking more than: “how does this impact my property and my free speech?” It means asking: “how does this impact people’s lives, all people’s lives, not in theory, but in practice?” The idea that freedom can be entirely measured in terms of what we are allowed to say without consequence is perhaps a positive evolution from measuring it entirely in terms of how much tax we pay, but it is still embarrassingly simplistic. Simple moral absolutes are like a comfort blanket. They make us feel safe. Opening them up for debate is challenging, scary, messy and complicated – especially when those absolutes happen to form the basis of how you make your living. But freedom matters, and the world is complicated, and we are all learning. And I think we can do better than this.

Employers shouldn’t demand employees trust them with private information without asking why so many do not

Employers shouldn’t demand employees trust them with private information without asking why so many do not 

Two seemingly unrelated stories were published this week. In the first, a young woman claims she was denied employment by Emirates Airline because she has a history of depression. In the second, a local council has demanded all staff members notify management of any relationships between themselves, to avoid accusations of favouritism.

These are two different cases, involving very different employers, yet both show a similar culture of entitlement on behalf of employers towards employees. In America, employers in some states already have an entitlement to access private details about prospective employees, particularly if they are also the employee’s source of healthcare. In a world where digital advancements put private information at the fingertips of those who have means to find it, perhaps it’s time to finally take seriously the fact that privacy and liberty aren’t just things we need to protect from the state, but increasingly, something we need to protect from powerful private companies, and our employers, whether public or private.

Telling employees to notify their employer about any intimate relationships might not seem like a very invasive thing to ask, but it is by extension commanding a lot more information than just the name of a partner. It compels employees involved with a colleague to disclose their sexual orientation directly to their employer – something many employees still do not feel comfortable doing. It compels employees in polyamorous or open relationships and marriages outside of work to discuss the details of their relationship set up with their employer. It compels employees sexually involved with more than one colleague to discuss their ‘promiscuity’ with their employer – something which many people, particularly women, still find themselves judged for.

Let’s not pretend that all participants in all types of relationship get viewed and discussed in the same way. We all know how depressingly predictable the double standard still is between women with a sex life and men with a sex life. And let’s not pretend that everybody trusts their boss, either in terms of the conclusions they may draw themselves, or who they may ‘confidentially’ share the information with.

Of course, it’s technically illegal to discriminate against an employee for, say, having a same sex relationship. But it’s not illegal to develop a vague perception of someone as irresponsible or easy (women who have casual sex), or immature and indecisive (bisexuals), or volatile, irrational and weak (people who battle mental illness) and subconsciously factor these assumptions into the overall treatment, including that which directly relates to career development. This is the kind of thing that can be extremely hard to identify or pinpoint, because it is part of a broader tapestry of perception about an employee. So, it’s not surprising that some employees may prefer to not disclose information about their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex life, or mental health.

As the law stands, it may well be deemed entirely legal for a UAE employer like Emirates Airline to discriminate on the basis on mental health. The airline has been enigmatical about their reasoning, which leaves a very hard situation to speak up about or prove.

It is a common scenario: applicants are repeatedly finding themselves turned down for work, which may or may not be a result of anti-mental illness discrimination, so try not disclosing their mental health history, get accepted for a job, and then get in trouble or dismissed because they didn’t correctly disclose the mental illness. The applicant will, of course, be assured that they’re not facing discrimination for mental health or disability, but for failure to disclose. If that’s true, what are we to make of all the rejections where they do disclose? And why demand people disclose a part of their medical history at all?

The double standards around mental health issues like depression are enormous. When accessing state support – benefit or NHS counselling, for example – the slightest suggestion that you might be okay, really, can deem you fit for work and totally fine. So in order to access support – sometimes the very support that makes it possible for you to work at all in the first place – you must emphasise the very worst of your dark episodes. Yet at the same time, in applying for and holding on to jobs – sometimes through the very same Job Centre – you must hide your depression, because you have no guarantee that employers won’t form quiet, even subconscious, judgments about you for it. And if you don’t disclose the depression, and make them aware of it, well, that’s your fault too.

I’m reminded of a friend I had at school, who used to make casually homophobic jokes. When I eventually came out to her, she was insulted that I had kept it secret from her for so long.

If you want people to disclose things, then you need to be someone they can tell. When ‘slut,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘mental’ and ‘schizo’ get thrown around in casual conversations, including in workplaces, don’t be surprised if some employees occasionally call in with headaches rather than telling you they’re experiencing a depressive episode, or feel less than enthusiastic about having to inform their boss about a fling with a colleague. If it’s okay for the ‘World’s Favourite Airline’ to remove an offer of a job because the employee has a history of sporadic, situational depression, then don’t be surprised if your employees aren’t rushing to notify you of the full details of their mental health. You want the right to know about our personal lives? Earn it.

Thoughts on Patrick Strudwick’s Nigel Evans article about rape and harassment in the LGBT community

(Rather belated) thoughts on Patrick Strudwick’s Nigel Evans article about rape and harassment in the LGBT community

Patrick Strudwick is not just one of my favourite journalists; he’s also one of my favourite writers in general. I like the way his articles start off in one place and broaden out into something more philosophical. He makes me think – and then my thoughts run off on a tangent.

So I am writing this post after reading his Independent article – perhaps the first sensible thing I’ve seen in the media response to the Nigel Evans case – to add to his comments, not to quibble. The experiences he describes of many gay men on the ‘scene’ made me think of my own experiences on that ‘scene’, as not only a bisexual woman, but a bisexual woman who usually presents as what I suppose it’s still fashionable to call ‘femme.’

I have also experienced outright harassment, groping and assault from men in spaces that should be safe. And I have been told “but I’m gay, so it’s okay” more times than I can count. But more than that, I’ve been told, by no means infrequently, that I don’t belong in this space at all, by these same men who make it unsafe. I’ve been told that I must be only sleeping with women for a laugh, by men who grope and kiss women for a laugh. I’ve been told I’m too “feminine” to be a lesbian, that I’m “letting the side down,” that I’m “trying to look straight,” and that I’m a “shallow wannabe” by the very same men who celebrate often problematic straight women as queer icons while ignoring or even outright denigrating women in public who actually are queer. Nasty attitudes of entitlement are definitely not just something that men experience in this space.

None of this is to paint gay men as all sexist, or even to suggest gay men are disproportionately sexist – they are no more so than any other men. This isn’t even just men. These tales of abuse and harassment happen in lesbian spaces too. I cannot begin to count the times I’ve been unwillingly grabbed or groped in candy bar. The dynamic feels different because – just as Patrick writes very articulately in his piece – I doubt myself, I doubt my internalised homophobia, I don’t want to throw women, especially queer women, under the bus. But it happens. And it’s tough because I don’t want to in any way minimise the awful experiences of the men Patrick writes about, but there is part of me that can’t help but think: maybe this is something men only experience when they are on the gay scene; it is something many women are taught to accept as a normal part of life, nearly everywhere we go.

Assaults, gropings, unwanted touching – these things aren’t about sexual desire or pleasure so why would we be surprised that they happen across different orientations and genders? A gay man treating me as an accessory or an object is no different from a straight man doing it. Whether they’re trying to sleep with me or not (I would argue that even with straight men, when they harass and grope, they are usually not) is utterly irrelevant. It is an exertion of power, and a violation of boundaries, of personal autonomy.

Just as Patrick explains how this isn’t a problem unique to Westminster, for women, this isn’t a problem unique to the LGBT scene, either. Abusers abuse wherever they can get away with it. If they’re in a community that is scared to speak because it is marginalised and easily shamed, they will abuse. If they’re with people who will be dismissed or denigrated or gaslighted when they speak, they will abuse. If they find people who seem set apart, people who they can discredit, they will abuse. So yes, this does mean that gay men will make easy targets for abusers. But it is important that we keep that focus – that it is about power not sex or sexuality – always in mind. Because pretending it is something to do with sex and desire is very often how they get away with it.

Gay cures, welfare reform and Christianity: Mental illness isn’t just a pejorative term for things you don’t like

When the principles behind the Welfare Reform Bill are so openly based on Iain Duncan-Smith’s Christian sense of morality, how can we be confident that progress made on mental health sits in safe hands?

The recent controversy over ‘gay cure’ posters on London buses, and the placement of interns in Parliament from the organisation Care which promotes these so-called gay ‘cures’, are two of the latest examples of extreme religious groups trying to legitimise the opinion that homosexuality is a mental disorder. They are also excellent examples of how certain strands of the Christian faith dramatically misunderstand not just abstract concepts like love and morality, but also medicine, science, and mental illness.

When an obscure American Christian preacher was found to be handing out booklets informing pupils that homosexuality is a psychiatric disorder, Michael Gove refused to take action against him on the grounds that equality laws do not cover teachings which are not part of the curriculum, suggesting that this was an equalities issue; a matter of discrimination vs free speech, not one of medical misinformation.

It’s damaging enough to have these views handed out to children in schools, without being told that they’re not coming from an authoritative source. But while the government’s policies on issues like gay rights are obviously much less regressive than the Christian extremists, the line they take on illness and welfare is rather unnerving. Those Christian values driving Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reform plans have, in the past, led to catastrophic horrors for mental health sufferers.

Needless to say, many Christians and Christian charities have a brilliant record on all kinds of sickness, including mental health. But it’s pointless to pretend that the religion doesn’t have an awful lot to answer for, as well. Much of the ignorance and fear that exists even today about mental illness has roots in the old ‘Christian’ notion of mental illness as a sort of devilish possession, or a punishment from God. In societies like Victorian Britain, the mentally ill were, quite literally, demonised – and tortured as a “cure” for their illness. Suffering, it was thought, would heal these diabolical inflictions.

Most modern Brits are horrified when we read about, say, dunking a patient in water repeatedly to cure auditory hallucinations, or gagging and binding a person when they experience a traumatic flashback. We are extremely unlikely to go back to stocks and chains. And yet, when an extreme Christian teaches children that homosexuality is a psychiatric disorder, watch how politicians like Gove – himself a strong Christian – treat this as a moral issue, not a medical one. It may seem like a minor semantic distinction, but it is not. What does this tell us about their understanding of what actually constitutes a psychiatric disorder?

It may be news to some, but ‘mentally ill’ is not a pejorative term to be thrown around to denigrate things you don’t like. It doesn’t mean immoral, or sinful. And it doesn’t mean stupid, or dangerous. It means just what it says: illness.

There are over 300 psychiatric disorders in the DSM (Diagnostics and Statistics Manual) IV and every single one of them has a more-or-less agreed definition, with very specific combinations of symptoms resulting in a diagnosis.

Needless to say, the DSM is far from perfect. Being compiled by the American Psychiatric Association, for example, it’s fair to be wary of its tendency to be a little too drug-led and/or insurance-led, created with one eye on the profit-motive. And of course, sometimes the medical knowledge changes, or – as is the case currently with gender dysmorphia, for example – the diagnoses can be disputed by the patients themselves. But even so, they are based on expert medical study, not personal judgments about behaviour. Homosexuality has not been included on the DSM since 1974. In fact, ever since psychiatry established itself as credible a medical field, mental health professionals have disputed the classification of it as such, with some historians even arguing that doctors never wanted it to be classed as a psychiatric disorder in the first place. Pioneers like Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis declared it to be a natural state. Arguably, it was only ever included in the DSM at all because religious voices dominated all discussions about medicine, with particular control over the area of mental health, because it was, and still is, far too often, considered physical health’s poor relative.

This is all history of course, but it’s easy to forget how recent some of it was. After all, according to the BBC, organisations like Mercy Ministries still perform ‘exorcisms’ for illnesses like eating disorders, and churches like Towy Community Church in Wales seem perfectly comfortable declaring themselves ‘in partnership’ with Mercy Ministries. And as David Cameron recently declared at his Easter reception, Christian values are “what this country needs.” Christianity serves as a driving force behind much of government policy – and perhaps nowhere quite so poignantly as in the Welfare Reform Bill.

It’s difficult to draw comparisons without being hideously alarmist, but it’s an historical fact that the ideology which has preached extreme inhumane suffering as a cure for the mentally ill is ultimately the same ideology providing the mentality that says depression can now somehow be cured by the Protestant work ethic.

When the principles behind the Welfare Reform Bill are so openly based on Iain Duncan-Smith’s Christian interpretation of what morality means, how comfortable can we be that the slow but sure progress made on mental health in this country is in safe hands?

Just look at Paul Farmer from charity MIND, who resigned as charity representative on the DWP panel scrutinising the Atos Work Capability Assessments, because, according to Third Sector, “the assessments were damaging the people Mind helps and ministers had failed to address his concerns.”

And Paul Jenkins from Rethink stated in a letter to Chris Grayling that while their direct dealings with the minister left them confident that it wasn’t the government’s intention to force sick people to work, the charity was “concerned however that government communications about these reforms are already causing harm to these very people. On Newsnight last night, in an interview, you repeatedly stated that people on benefits would be expected to work.”

Perhaps most worryingly, Sonia Poulton reported in the Daily Mail – hardly a militantly pro-welfare paper of the biased left – that in an interview on Radio 5 Live, Grayling used anecdotes of individuals with a mental illness who had found being in work helped them as evidence that people with mental illnesses should be expected to work.

These concerns were voiced by Rethink Mental Illness themselves, in their analysis of the Welfare Reform Bill. The charity said there was a likelihood that time-limiting ESA for anyone in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) meant that people with long-term illnesses like schizophrenia could end up forced into utterly unsuitable work – and with the workfare schemes being extended to ESA recipients, they could, in theory, be not only forced to work, but forced to work for no wage.

The severity of an illness and the longevity of an illness are not the same. Sometimes there isn’t even a correlation. Just because someone is functional enough to be placed in the WRAG group by Atos – whose assessments are controversial at best in any case – it doesn’t mean they are going to be better within a year. The government’s aim, then, cannot be to support people until they are better; there would be no time-limit if this was the case. And the aim cannot be just to save money either; the £300m spent on a three-year contract for Atos to carry on performing these assessments, and the money being poured into seeing through the reforms, makes even pure, brutal cost-cutting insufficiently convincing as a motive for the reforms. It really does seem that the ultimate aim is to place people with poorly understood illnesses into work even when the patient and the doctor both say it won’t help. It really does seem as if Iain Duncan-Smith believes in the old-fashioned Christian fantasy that work itself, by its very nature, can cure people.

Not every Atos assessor is a medical expert, and Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling definitely aren’t. They are bad enough, judging by what disability activists like Kaliya Franklin say, at recognising and respecting physical conditions. What hope do those who struggle with mental illnesses, often invisible, often impossible to explain; illnesses afforded so little respect as medical conditions that people who’ve never so much as suffered a night of insomnia will comfortably pontificate at the tops of their voices on why people hear voices, or whether depression is a real illness or not. And when the main driver for the government’s policies is faith in the Protestant work ethic as a cure for all sin and sickness, keeping our eyes open to the slippery slope it could lead down may sound alarmist, but that’s because it really is alarming.

Blind faith, whether in God or the free market, can’t be used as criteria for a medical diagnosis, and neither can it be used as a cure. Mental illness is still shaky in its medical status; we must be quick to dispel any myths, arguments, or policies that risk worsening the understanding of it still further.

We hear a lot about the coalition’s policies sending women’s rights and workers’ rights back to the 1950s. It’s an equally terrifying prospect to imagine that the government’s approach to welfare could take sufferers of mental illness back, not just to the earlier part of this century, but, if we’re not careful, to sadomasochistic cruelty of the previous one.

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