Tag Archives: homophobia

Orlando was a homophobic terrorist attack. Let’s own it.

pray for orlando

Image: heavy.com

 

I am heartbroken, and I am weeping.

This has been one of the hardest days of my life, on par with the day my friend Garic (a proud gay Marine) died, and 9/11. As a gay American, this assault on our freedoms and very right to exist is in many ways too much to bear. The only things that have gotten me through today are the outpouring of support from friends and family, my bae, and my neighbour’s five-year-old son whose innocence and precociousness was a welcome respite from the nonstop coverage of how someone wanted to kill people like me just for being people like me.

That’s what sets this massacre apart from Columbine, or from Virginia Tech, or from even Newtown. Those were indiscriminate killings. This was not. It was targeted, like Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, not randomly, but specifically. Emmanuel was targeted because its congregants were Black. Pulse was targeted because its patrons were queer.

So imagine my horror when, watching Sky Papers, I saw Julia Hartley-Brewer and presenter Mark Longhurst berate out-gay columnist Owen Jones for calling the attack what it is – a homophobic terrorist attack. They talked over him and spoke down to him whenever he tried to raise the homophobic nature of the massacre, insisting it was on par with what happened at Paris’ Bataclan. To Hartley-Brewer and Longhurst, this was just an attack on a Western club. To Jones and the rest of the LGBT community, it’s much, much more.

Straight people, I get it. You’re feeling this loss deeply. You’re appalled by what happened in Orlando. And you should be. Only a truly evil human being wouldn’t be mortified and distraught by this carnage. But, if I may, let me explain to you why LGBT people are feeling this much move viscerally than you ever could.

Gay clubs are our safe spaces. No, not safe spaces in the way they’re employed at universities, but literal safe spaces. They’re places we can go and be unabashedly ourselves without fear of reprisal or straight gazes judging or gawking at us. It was an LGBT bar—the Stonewall—that birthed the modern LGBT rights movement. It has long been a place for us to congregate, find and build community, and mobilise for our civil rights. There’s a reason Boystown was my first stop when I moved to Chicago. I’ve met some of my best friends in the world, my London family, in Soho. Gay clubs aren’t just safe spaces, they’re sacred spaces.

Yes, we know Daesh (aka ISIS) has targeted other venues before. We know they hate our nightlife, our freedoms, and our culture. But this wasn’t a random choice. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio, no friend to the gay community, has acknowledged that we were singled out and specifically attacked because of who we are. This was an attack not just on liberty, not just on democracy, but specifically on LGBT people. Our hard-won rights, our cherished spaces, and our very identities were targeted. And 50 people lost their lives not because they were Americans, but because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or an ally.

This was an attack on who we are. It was calculated. Specific. Intentional. Someone wanted us dead because we’re LGBT. Straight people, I’m sorry, but you can’t understand the immense sadness and vulnerability we are now feeling. No one has ever targeted you because you love the opposite sex. Maybe they’ve targeted you for other reasons, so you can sympathise, but they’ve not targeted you for this. While this is your tragedy because it’s all our tragedy, it is specifically my tragedy. It is specifically LGBT America’s tragedy. And you need to recognise that nuance.

Calling this a homophobic and transphobic terrorist attack does not detract from the tragedy. It enhances it, because it shows just how vile and truly bigoted the shooter was, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society. It doesn’t detract from the tragedy of the Bataclan, it simply acknowledges a difference in target and a possible shift in Daesh strategy. The Pulse represented what’s best about America, so it brought out the worst in Daesh. It’s okay to say that.

Make no mistake, this is about LGBT people. We might not have a monopoly on this grief, but it most certainly belongs to us. This was our community targeted. These were our lives taken. And they weren’t taken because of the red, white, and blue. They were taken because of the rainbow. And I need you to understand that. We’re not saying you can’t be sad, or angry, or feeling this deeply. We’re saying that you can’t possibly feel the innate violation and vulnerability that we feel.

Gay clubs are where we go to escape the judgments and hatred of the broader society. We retreat into the darkness of a club, behind closed doors, to be unabashedly ourselves because we so often can’t in the light of day. For so many of us, the gay club is the one place we felt intrinsically safe. That has been taken from us, and it raises bigger questions. If we’re not safe in Boystown or Soho, where the fuck are we safe?

This was an assault on the most fundamental part of me. These people weren’t just targeted for being Americans. They were targeted because of who they loved. They were targeted because they were viewed as subhuman, worse than animals. They were targeted because of a hateful ideology and straight supremacy. And it’s really, really easy to say “well yeah, Daesh throws gay people off roofs.” Because they do.

Yet on the same day as the massacre at Pulse, a white American was on his way to do harm to LGBT people at the Los Angeles Pride Parade. So don’t you dare use this, as Donald Trump has, to justify persecution of our Muslim brethren. There are LGBT Muslims too, and they are targeted as violently as we were. And let’s not forget that it was a white Christian who targeted lesbian bars in Atlanta in 1996. It was a straight Christian who killed three people at the Admiral Duncan. It wasn’t Daesh who lynched Matthew Shepherd. This is about Daesh, and I won’t pretend it isn’t. There’s got to be time and space to talk about radical Islamic terrorism and homophobia.

But this is also about us.  The outpouring of grief from the likes of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who spent so much time and energy fighting gay marriage in Florida, is frustrating. I respect the fact that Bondi, Governor Rick Scott, and Marco Rubio were probably sincere. But they’re also deeply hypocritical. These people have spent their careers denying LGBT Americans equality. When Pam Bondi said she stood with the LGBT community, all I could wonder is why we have to die to have your solidarity? It would be nice to have it in life, too.

So as LGBT America mourns the loss of our siblings at Pulse, please give us the space to lead the national grieving. Take your cues from us. This is more than just a terrorist attack. It’s a hate crime. It was meant to terrify the LGBT community. And it has, it really has.

But we are strong. We fought for our rights on the streets outside Stonewall, in the Castro, in the prairies of Wyoming. We will keep fighting. LGBT Americans are, after all, Americans. And we never back down when someone threatens our hard-won freedoms. We’ve come too far to be cowed by one attack. LGBT Americans, and America as a country, will rise from these ashes and continue to fight for equality, freedom, and liberty.

I am a proud gay American.

Advertisements

I don’t need “clarification,” Governor Pence. Indiana’s RFRA is state-sanctioned discrimination.

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of   orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

In what the Indianapolis Star calls “the deepest crisis of his political career,” Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor, continues to support his state’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Speaking to the paper on Saturday, Governor Pence said that whilst he will seek legislation “clarifying” the intent of the law, he stands behind it. The massive backlash, he insists, is due to “misunderstanding driven by misinformation.”

This has been a common refrain among supporters of the RFRAs popping up in state houses throughout the country. To date, 19 states have passed laws similar to the federal one which, as conservatives like to use as a trump card, was signed into law by that Democratic darling President Clinton. (You know, the man who also signed the Defence of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?) Indeed, Governor Pence couldn’t help but mention this fact in a statement released after a private signing of the law, while also citing similar laws in neighbouring states Illinois and Kentucky.

Now, as chance may have it, I live in Illinois, which passed an RFRA in 1998, a year after the Supreme Court ruled the federal RFRA did not apply to the states. However, as the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this week, Illinois lawmakers have balanced RFRA with statewide protections for LGBT people. Before moving to Chicago nearly four years ago, though, I lived a decade in Kentucky, the state I still call home.

Kentucky’s law—passed in 2013—was initially vetoed by Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat. It became law when the General Assembly, including the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, overrode the governor’s veto. But some conservative activists said the law would not have any real consequences for LGBT Kentuckians. This law isn’t going to have an effect they think it’s going to have,” Martin Cothran, of the right-wing Family Foundation of Kentucky, told the Associated Press at the time. “All of the case law is going in the other direction. It’s not going in the direction of over-protecting people’s religious freedom. We’d like to see something a lot stronger than this.”

A year later Cothran’s wish was granted. In a landmark—and now infamous—decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that crafting giant Hobby Lobby could not be mandated to provide contraception to its employees, as it violated the company’s First Amendment right to free expression of religion. In this brave new world where corporations are people, states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and now Indiana were emboldened to pass their own RFRA laws, which broadened the scope of protection to include corporations and businesses. These laws were worded so vaguely that even some Republicans, such as the mayor of Indianapolis and, most famously, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out in opposition, the latter vetoing her own state’s RFRA because of fears it could lead to “unintended and negative consequences” and hurt businesses, something that is beginning to happen in Indiana.

But the ability to discriminate against LGBT people is a very intentional consequence of the Indiana bill, despite what Governor Pence says. As Buzzfeed reported, Indiana’s law allows for a RFRA defence even when the government is not party to a lawsuit, which is something the federal RFRA doesn’t do. It also allows this defence to be mounted against any state or local law, which as the potential of invalidating the citywide fairness ordinances a handful of Indiana jurisdictions have passed. This means the potential exists for landlords, hotels, and restaurants to openly discriminate against LGBT people, something which has already begun. A restaurant owner called Ryan phoned an Indiana radio station to say that not only has he already discriminated against gay people, but he intends to do so in the future, as the law allows.

And while Governor Brewer feared “unintended consequences” in Arizona, this was very much the intended consequence in Indiana. Governor Pence invited several right-wing lobbyists who worked to pass the bill to the private signing. One of them was Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana (AFAIN). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the AFA an anti-LGBT hate group, and AFAIN’s website shares many homophobic and transphobic stories. It also includes a quote from then-Congressman Mike Pence, praising the organisation and its Indiana leader. “I have known and worked with Micah Clark for over a decade,” Pence is quoted, “and I can tell you that you’re standing behind a pro-family, pro-life leader…” (“Pro-family” has long been a conservative dog whistle meaning “anti-LGBT”.)

Another of the lobbyists present at the singing was Eric Miller of Advance America, which not only has a history of transphobic and homophobic rhetoric, but actually posted a blog on its website following the bill’s success, which read in part:

[RFRA] will help protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers). Here are just three examples:

  • Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!
  • A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom!

  • A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding! [emphasis is original]

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Governor Pence can repeat himself until he’s blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that Indiana’s RFRA was clearly intended to and will allow discrimination against LGBT Indianans. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being passed now—the next battleground is Arkansas—are not meant, as the federal law and the 1998 Illinois law, to protect religious minorities from burdensome government regulations. They are meant to allow merchants operating in the public marketplace to refuse service to those they don’t like.

This law is nothing more than state sanctioned homophobia and transphobia, and no amount of “clarification” will change that.

Skylar’s Naughty and Nice List 2014

Top row - UKIP in LGBT, Theresa May, Ferguson Police Bottom row - Vicky Beeching, Michael Sam, Laverne Cox

Top row – LGBT in UKIP logo, Theresa May, Ferguson Police
Bottom row – Vicky Beeching, Michael Sam, Laverne Cox

Santa’s going to be coming down (but hopefully not in) a million billion chimneys tonight, and whereas last year I was expecting coal in my stocking, this year I’ve been a fucking saint. Seriously, thanks to the FDA’s reuqirements that gay men only be celibate for a year before they donate, I can now give blood. It’s been that kind of year.

Some have been equally as good this year. Some, though, have been very, very naughty. And with that, I give you my annual naughty and nice list!

naughty

3. LGBT in UKIP

Where the fuck do I even begin? Well, there’s their Aunt Mary MEP who is against equal marriage. Or the time UKIP Leader Nigel Farage referred to him as a “great big screaming poof” when using him as an example of how they’re not homophobic. Oh, and the branch chair who said gay adoption was tantamount to “child abuse.” And the list of homophobic UKIP comments just goes on and on.

That UKIP doesn’t like LGBT people is not news. But the fact that LGBT in UKIP, the LGBT pressure group within the party, exists, is. And the fact that they’ve continued to support the party despite its large opposition to LGBT equality and offensive rhetoric is deeply troublesome. To their credit, they stood up to UKIP HQ when Kerry Smith referred to LGBT people as “poofters,” though he was speaking specifically of LGBT in UKIP at the time, so that may have been more a personal than principled reaction.

UKIP stands a good chance of entering Westminster en masse at the General Election, and it’s entirely possible they could hold the balance of power in a potential hung parliament. That LGBT people are backing an anti-LGBT party which could determine the future of Britain is not only mystifying, it’s infuriating.

2. Theresa May

Theresa May hates me. As a gay foreigner, she’s made that abundantly clear in 2014. Only this month, a lesbian refugee from Uganda was nearly deported, despite fears for her life; she received a last minute reprieve, but the allegations that the Home Office ignored evidence and medical experts is concerning. When considered along the myriad of other cases involving LGBT asylum seekers, it’s evidence of a systemic problem within the Home Office. In October, the Guardian reported that “more than a tenth of Home Office interviews of gay and lesbian asylum seekers include ‘intrusive or or unsatisfactory’ questions about their sex lives.” This came in a report by Chief Inspector John Vine, who found some of the questions so graphic even I blushed.

This comes in a year where May has taken a hardline stance on migrants, refugees, and even students. Most recently, she has backed tightening restrictions on foreign students in the UK, requiring them to leave the country and apply for a work visa, as opposed to the four months foreign graduates currently have to find a job and switch from a student visa to a work visa. You can study at our universities, May is essentially saying, but you can’t contribute to our society.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric towards immigrants coming from the Home Office is concerning, and it seems unlikely to temper as we approach the General Election, which means it’s a shitty time to be a gay person, a foreigner, or a current or future international student. As someone who ticks all three boxes, this is some bullshit.

1. The American Police

Tanesha Anderson. John Crawford. Michelle Cusseaux. Tamir Rice. Yvette Smith. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

These are but a handful of the unarmed Black people to be killed by American police this year. We need to have a national conversation about institutional racism within the ranks of the American police forces, and we need to have it now. We need to talk openly about white privilege and white supremacy, and how Black bodies are inherently viewed as criminal through white eyes. We, as white America, need to look in the mirror and see the ugliness of our own racism.White supremacy and structural racism are problems as old as America itself. Older, even, when you consider the transatlantic slave trade began more than two centuries before slaveowning Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. These are not problems America has solved, because they’re the problems America was built upon. Racism is not just a founding principle of America, but the foundation of American society. It is handed down, generation to generation, an inherent trait in the American bloodstream. This country was stolen from the Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Yet white America denies it, denies it, denies it.

This year was no different, except we were forced to confront it. The institutional racism inherent in police forces—which are, in the end, agents of the state—was finally exposed. White America, and the police in particular, were quick to bury their heads in the sand as they continued blowing the heads off Black men and women. Instead of grappling with the realities of institutional racism (which, by the way, doesn’t mean all cops are racist), cops like New York City’s Patrick J Lynch, who heads that city’s police union, has been quick to cast blame—on Garner, on the mayor, on activists, basically on anyone but the police.

We have to attack institutional racism in this country, and police forces are as fine a place as any to start. Until we do, we will never truly get to an equal society.

Dishonourable mentions: The NFL, Russell Brand, Boris Johnson

nice

3. Michael Sam

Michael Sam shocked the world when, as an All-American football player who was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year, he came out. Sam went on to make history, becoming the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. Things didn’t go so well from there; Sam was cut from the Saint Louis Rams and, later, the Dallas Cowboys. His future in the NFL remains to be seen, and what role homophobia played in slashing his prospects, first in the draft and now in the league, is hotly debated.

All of this matters. But none of it matters as much as Michael Sam matters, simply for existing. By coming out in the macho, misogynistic world of the NFL, Michael Sam provided hope and inspiration to countless young gay boys throughout America, and even abroad, who were struggling to reconcile their masculinity and sexuality. He became a role model over night, and blazed a trail which future openly gay athletes will follow. He also opened up a conversation on institutional homophobia within sport, one of which gay, lesbian, and bisexual athletes will benefit from in the years to come.

2. Vicky Beeching

Like Michael Sam, Vicky Beeching blazed a trail for LGB people this year. Long a public ally of LGBT* people of faith, Beeching sent shockwaves throughout Christian media when she came out in August. In the subsequent weeks, she has shown herself a tireless and effective advocate against the institutional homophobia of the Church, as her Channel 4 debate with the homophobic preacher Scott Lively shows. She has also been pivotal in reframing the conversation about the role of LGBT* people in Christianity, all the while teaching a more inclusive interpretation of the scripture.

In a year where the religious right redoubled its efforts to combat equality, in which LGBT* Christians fought to reclaim our own narratives, Beeching’s brave stand, and her subsequent tenacity, have been invaluable. She has shown what it means to live faithfully as an openly gay person, and she has opened a dialogue between LGBT* Christians and our sisters and brothers in Christ who wrongly condemn us. She is interested not just in advancing the cause of LGBT* people, but building bridges and mending fences, tasks for which she is uniquely qualified. Her importance will only grow in 2015, and I look forward to it, as she continues to offer fellowship to both those margianalised by the Church, and those responsible for it.

1. Laverne Cox

The Transgender Tipping Point.” That’s how Time described it when Laverne Cox, the Emmy-nominated star of Orange is the New Black, made history as the first openly transgender person on that esteemed magazine’s cover. 2014 has been the year of Laverne, culminating most recently when she became the voice of reason—by which I mean, intersectional feminism—in a debate on racism on The View. Laverne has consistently raised the concerns of trans* people of colour to the mainstream in a way that few, if any, others have.

She is, in many ways, a transformative figure, as Time pointed out. But she also seems so remarkably down-to-earth, the woman next door who says hi every day, and maybe pops over for a glass of wine and a Scandal binge. Laverne’s politics are on point, but its her personality—her wit and her warmth—which has endeared her to the American public.

2014 was big for Laverne, and 2015 looks to be even bigger, with a starring role in the film Grandma. As her star continues to rise, I look forward to seeing more of her talent, and hearing more of her succinct, biting cultural analysis.

Honourable mentions: Anitia Sarkeesian, the Ferguson Protestors, Owen Jones

I think we can all agree it’s been a shit year. But through it all, you lot have stuck by my side. For that, I am entirely grateful. I want to take this opportunity to thank a few of you in particular: Sara, Kellee, Vanessa, Michelle, Kayla, Jenna, Elizabeth, Nick, Robyn, Peter, Lily Jayne, Alex, Nathan, Wes, Derrick, Parker, Michelle, Sarah, Kat, Bryan, Kevin, and as always, Mamaw and Papaw. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me. Your friendship and support has been most humbling.

Now Happy Christmas you lot!!!!!

Tom Daley didn’t come out as gay. Stop lying. (Or, On Biphobia)

tom daley medal

Good on Tom Daley. In coming out, he’s shown more courage than some men twice his age. It’s a monumental announcement, with Owen Jones marking how far we’ve come in such a short time, while elsewhere at the Independent, they celebrate the number of professional athletes coming out of the closet. Yes, it’s a very important day for LGBT people in sport in particular, and in society in general.

But let’s make sure we get the facts sorted.

Tom Daley didn’t come out as gay. In fact, no where in his emotionally raw video does he even mention the word “gay.” He says he’s in a relationship with a guy. He says he still fancies women. He says he’s quite happy, that his father would have been supportive but his family has had mixed reactions, and he says he’s tired of the speculation. He wanted to release an unmitigated message in his own words and on his own terms.

So much for that. The vast majority of the news stories I’ve seen have read somewhere between “Tom Daley Comes Out,” which is a misleading truism, or “Tom Daley reveals gay relationship,” which, of course, implies Tom Daley is gay. In fact, it seems aside from Nichi Hodgson, who beat me to the punch by publishing this succinct piece at the Guardian,, the only person not rushing to label Tom as gay is, well, Tom.

For the gay community, at least, it appears we’ll have all or nothing. Tom’s either gay or he isn’t, and since he likes men, he’s clearly on Team GB – Team Gay Blokes, that is. One internet acquaintance of mine posted a Facebook status defending Tom against those who felt his coming out was nothing more than stating the obvious, encouraging everyone to remember how difficult our own comings out as gay men had been. When I pointed out that Tom hasn’t come out as gay, but as being in a same-sex relationship, I was told to sod off with my “lefty no-labels” nonsense. After all, my acquaintance responded, every gay man pretended to be bisexual in his teens.

A gross generalisation, but a relevant point. Even I was on the “bi now, gay later” plan when I first came out. Telling the world you’re bisexual, to many gay teens, is easier than saying you’re gay because it, at least in my 15 year old mind, creates the illusion you could still have a “normal” life-whatever that means.

But Tom’s not a 15 year old boy. He’s a 19 year old man who has spent much of his life in the spotlight, and has in many ways been forced to mature much faster than myself and many others. His voice may have been hesitant, but it was also confident. He knows his own truth, and we shouldn’t be so quick to assign ours to him out of some misplaced desire for a relevant and relatable cultural touchstone.

To be fair, Tom didn’t say he isn’t gay, nor did he say he is bisexual. As Nichi Hodgson points out, we can only infer his sexuality, as he never clearly defined it. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t know it himself yet. Perhaps that’s because he thinks it’s none of our bloody business. Perhaps he didn’t think he had to.

But let’s play on the assumption that Tom is bisexual (or possibly even pansexual). He was pretty clear that he’s attracted to men and to women. And, like many young LGBT folks, and many in the wider society, he probably wasn’t aware of the nasty strain of biphobia that courses through the veins of our community.

Yet here it is, as usual.

I suppose for many of us attracted only to one sex, we can’t comprehend how someone could be attracted to both. As Owen Jones points out, though, it wasn’t so long ago straight people couldn’t understand how I could be attracted to other men. Some still don’t. Then there’s the aforementioned notion that bisexuality is nothing more than a gay bicycle with training wheels, that it’s just a stepping stone to full acceptance of one’s homosexuality. That it isn’t real. That it doesn’t exist. Couple that with the assumption that bisexuals are “greedy,” “promiscuous,” and/or “indecisive,” and suddenly an entire sexual orientation is invalidated.

You needn’t look further than representations of bisexuality in mass media. On the current series of Glee, Santana’s new girlfriend, played by Demi Lovato, tells Santana it’s time she should be with a “real lesbian,” dismissing if not discrediting the bisexuality of her previous girlfriend, Brittany. Lady Gaga, whom I don’t defend very often, has been singled out for using her bisexuality as a marketing gimmick, even being accused of making the whole thing up. And when Duncan James came out a few years ago, he was greeted with an onslaught of biphobic abuse.

Bisexual people are either confused, indecisive, not fully developed sexual beings, not part of the gay and lesbian community, or liars. They’re not real people with real lives and real truths. They’re deceiving both themselves and us. In doing so, the fear I suspect many gay and lesbian people have is that they somehow invalidate our own struggle. It’s as if finally coming out as gay is completing a gruelling marathon, and coming out as bi is stopping ahead of the finish line.

This is all hogwash. While I understand the gay community’s desire to have more, not to mention younger, visible role models our youth can look up to, I don’t think it should come at the expense of whitewashing an entire sexual orientation from the public discourse. I don’t think dismissing bisexuality as a phase or a fib does us, as gay men and women, any good. It does, however, do bisexual people a whole lot of bad.

Besides, why can’t Tom Daley be a gay role model while still being bisexual, pansexual, or whatever he eventually identifies as? His coming out is still brave. Given the biphobia that is often tolerated in all segments of society, it is perhaps braver if he has indeed come out as bisexual. It took a lot of courage and a lot of self-awareness for Tom to speak so candidly and assuredly about something so personal at such a young age. He knows his truth. He wants us to know it, too.

I only hope we can accept it.

Why James Arthur’s apology is bullshit

James Arthur

James Arthur

I can’t believe I have to tell straight people not to say “fag” and “queer.” Seriously y’all? The words themselves send shivers down my spine, taking me back to my years spent in southeastern Kentucky, where they were regularly spewed in my direction, dripping with the vitriol of threats and intimidation. For three years I was terrorised, and I never once went to school in the morning convinced I’d make it out alive in the afternoon. It was a daily crucible of homophobia.

My story is sadly reflective of so many young gay men and women throughout the Western world. And that’s why, when James Arthur dropped his diss against some unknown rapper, my palm and forehead had a kiki. But if his use of “queer” wound me up, his apology really pissed me off.

James Arthur has sought forgiveness without contrition. He “has gay friends,” he says. Rylan Clark is his bestie! I mean for Christ’s sake, the man likes “Little Britain.” He can’t be homophobic! His backhanded apology betrays a nasty bigotry at worst or, as I truly suspect, an unabashed ignorance at best:

What the hell? There’s no “mistaking” the homophobia here. We’re not misconstruing anything. Does he really think that because he called a (presumably) straight rapper a queer that it’s not homophobic? Apparently so:

 

In fairness to James Arthur, it’s an easy mistake to make. “Faggot” and “queer” are dropped in rap battles like IEDs in real battles. Eminem made headlines earlier this month for the homophobic lyrics on his latest LP, taking me back to the my own high school hell by both using homophobic slurs and releasing new material. He was quoted in his recent Rolling Stone interview as saying “it’s more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or an asshole.” Similarly, South Park made a similar argument several years ago, saying that “faggot” isn’t a homophobic word anymore because the definition has changed.

For fuck’s sake. Let me break this down for you. Where do you think these words get their power? Why are they so insulting? If, in the context these men are using them, “fag” is used to question someone’s masculinity or humanity, it’s because the word is rooted in homophobia. To call someone a fag or a queer is to say they are less than a man, the subtext of which is “gay.” These words are so popular in disses because they cut to the bone, and that blade drips with the blood of martyred gay men.

Likewise, let’s entertain that “faggot” has evolved to mean “bitch,” as Eminem and the South Park pricks have both argued. Terrific. You’ve stripped it of its homophobia and instead varnished it with sexism. Suddenly “faggot” means “woman” and not “gay man?” You’re still using the word to emasculate your opponent, and because sexism and homophobia are so intricately connected, you’re essentially saying the same damn thing.

But beyond this, the fact remains that these words are still used to intimidate, bully, and harass gay folks. It happened in Chichester this month , in South Yorkshire just last month, and in the armed forces, too. It’s not just in the villages and towns, though; it’s happening in the cities too, like this case in Edinburgh and even right in the middle of Trafalgar Square. In so many of these attacks, homophobic slurs (like “fag” and “queer”) were used as the victims were ruthlessly and brutally attacked. And it doesn’t seem the were attacked for being “punks” or “assholes.”

Or, to put it blatantly enough for James Arthur and Eminem, they were called faggots and then physically assaulted for being gay.

So don’t tell me that word doesn’t mean what I know it means. Don’t tell me that the guys in high school were threatening my life because I was a dickhead. Don’t tell me that these words mean something they don’t. The meaning is obvious.

And, because I’m nice like this, I’ll make a deal with y’all. As soon as “fag” and “queer” are no longer used to harass and terrorise LGBT people, we’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, kindly shut the fuck up.

EDIT 18 November 2013 at 12:49 GMT: I just read this on the use of LGBT slurs in schools , and it’s relevant and worth a share.

What if Britain had a First Amendment?

There’s been so much talk about the importance of a free press and free speech lately that I feel as though I’m at a salon with Milton and Locke. In light of the Royal Charter regulating the press and furor around the Guardian’s reporting on and release of classified GCHQ intelligence documents , there’s been a lot of talk, including from former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, about the UK’s need for an American-style First Amendment. Indeed, I’ve spoken at length about my passion for the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees, and I realise that I can’t approach British politics through a British lens because my own perceptions are intrinsically coloured by these deeply ingrained principles.

You see, if in the canon of American civil religion the Constitution is our Bible, the First Amendment is most certainly our gospel. In one run-on sentence, the framers articulated the essence of the new nation, the core principles for which so much Yankee blood was shed and which would transform the world:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of greivances.

Now, I refuse to play the part of the arrogant American who feels Britain ought to adopt the First Amendment verbatim. Though our legal system stems from your common law, the two have understandably evolved differently since separation. I’m not even suggesting that our way is the best way. But I think it’s important to understand what the First Amendment means to Americans before discussing whether Britain ought to adopt it as its own.

The problem is, articulating the first amendment in tangible terms is a challenge. Like our taste for cold and flavourless beer and our belief that every household should be armed like South American guerillas, the First Amendment runs in our blood. We don’t really notice it on a daily basis, because it’s not something we often think about. It just is. The First Amendment is like the air around us-it isn’t really palpable; you can’t really feel it until a storm rolls in.

For that reason, it’s easier to explain what the First Amendment isn’t. It isn’t government intelligence agents ransacking a newspaper office and destroying intellectual property in an attempt to curtail publication. It isn’t sending the police to grandma’s house because she doesn’t like gay people. And it isn’t breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting a lawmaker. I’m not saying America always gets it right either. (See: my alma mater’s horrible policy on freedom of speech in e-mail ; the case of the Legal Schnauzer out of Alabama ; or all of the 1960s.) But by and large, it gets the job of protecting our liberties done.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant permission to be like Jeremy Clarkson on steroids, spouting off every inane thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean that you can threaten bodily harm to someone, or falsely report a crime, or the favourite example on this side of the pond, shout fire in a crowded theatre. With great freedom comes great responsibility. I think Spiderman said that, or something close to it.

So what does it all mean? I don’t bloody well know. Asking an American what the first amendment means is like asking a Canadian to define maple syrup. We know it tastes sweet, we know that we love it, and we know that it’s intrinsic to our national identity, but we can’t really tell you why. I suppose it means being able to crassly and tastelessly joke that Prince Harry got a handjob from an Abercrombie manager without fear of the guillotine. It means questioning whether your leaders are who they say they are without penalty or sanity, and it means being able to say the the most vile, repulsive things about me and yet have me defend your right to say it (while laying a verbal smackdown on you, of course).

That’s one of my biggest concerns with the British approach to hate speech. I’m choking on my words right now, but David Starkey articulated it quite well . Britain’s laws against hate speech would never survive under the First Amendment, and thank God for that. As Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in The Atlantic, the freedom to offend minorities is imperative, not only to the cause of liberty, but for the social advancement and acceptance of the minority itself-a similar, if not an exact, argument to that of Starkey. “The best society for minorities,” Rauch writes, “is not

Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

 

the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities.” Indeed, its only by exposing bigotry and ignorance in the public sphere that we can attack it head on and continue to win not only legal but social equality. This applies to gay, Muslim and black Britons today as much as it applied to open disdain for the working class, suffragettes and papists in days gone by. It’s hard to attack an enemy in the shadows, and laws restricting speech push bigots into the night, where they silently seethe with contempt, stifling not only their own hatred but any chance for social growth. Or, to put it another way, you have to counter speech with more speech, not less speech.

Of course, the primary medium for speech has historically been the press. On last week’s Question Time, Paris Lees asked what made newspapers so special that they needn’t be regulated by Parliament. Well, it’s quite simple: for 300 years the British broadsheets have been the conduits of liberty and democracy, as outlined by more than 70 human rights organisations in an open letter to David Cameron. Similarly, Louise Mensch brilliantly makes the point while simultaneously taking the press to task for its own meandering failures. Laws regulate what is or isn’t shown on television, as they also do in the United States, because the First Amendment provides leeway for some censorship of material deemed contrary to public taste and decency, but it’s a fine line and one which is frequently challenged.

But saying that you can’t show nekkid people before the threshold isn’t the same as restricting what can be reported on; nobody dare argues that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC ought to be regulated. Likewise, as an American, the thought of a government agency-even one as loosely affiliated with Westminster as that established by the royal charter-sits very uneasy. As schoolchildren, Americans learn of John Peter Zenger, a German-American writer johnpeterzengerwho successfully defended himself against charges of libel and is widely regarded as the Ron Burgundy of the eighteenth century. The Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press to print the Pentagon Papers, and set the bar very high for plaintiffs to claim libel in New York Times vs Sullivan, birthing the so-called “Sullivan defence” mandating that the plaintiff prove “actual malice” was involved and intentioned, citing and strengthening press freedoms. The UK, on the other hand, has no Sullivan Defence, and it is much easier to prove libel in Britain than America. A First Amendment, though, could feasibly alter British libel law, and in the United States has continually prevented government (and any public figure) from meddling in what our newspapers report. Still, we’re by no means perfect, as evidenced by the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement and the treatment of Michael Hastings prior to his fiery and mysterious death led to an outpouring of shock and grief from journalists around the world, even though his family continues to insist he wasn’t murdered.

It’s for this reason that Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States three spots behind the United Kingdom in this year’s Press Freedom Index, though the US rose fifteen spots from 2012 in large part because of public outrage about the detention of the Occupy journalists. The United Kingdom, is it reasonable to say, should expect its ranking to plummet in light of the current fires of regulation and oversight the Government and Hugh Grant have stoked. David Cameron’s warnings of consequences to publications disclosing the Snowden leaks , as well comments by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ on reforming the license fee, widely interpreted as a threat to cut the BBC funding unless it produced more favourable reporting on the government, are about as helpful as sending Pétroleuses or Mrs. O’Leary to put that fire out.

The debate about a free press and free speech isn’t contained to the broadsheets, though. As important as it is to protect the rights of the good and noble, it’s just as important to protect the rights of the tasteless and crude (here’s looking at you, Jack Whitehall.) In the United States, that means protecting the smut published by Larry Flynt, who recently gave an interview touching on free speech to the BBC’s Newsnight. In the United Kingdom, it’s Page 3. Despite an online petition to ban Page 3 (which, in case you’re gay or American or both, is a page in The Sun with scantily clad women), David Cameron has said he doesn’t support it, despite his admittedly noble but ultimately flawed plan to filter internet porn. That’s a good Tory, because curtailing the freedom of a paper to publish what it will and of consumers to vote with their pocketbooks is decidedly antithetical to small-c conservative principles. Oh yeah, and democracy.

A similar First Amendment argument can be made against the oft-debated banning of the burqa or niqab. This has come up a lot in the last few years, especially following France’s outright ban on full face coverings, and most recently in September, when a judge ruled that a woman could not give evidence in her own trial whilst wearing the veil. Ken Clarke seems to support it, but Baroness Warsi summed it up as un-British. “I think people should have the right to wear what they want in this country,” she said. “Women won the right on what to wear many, many decades ago.” Well, yeah. Baroness Warsi speaks pointedly of the feminist arguments, echoed earlier this fall by Laurie Penny, who drew the conclusion that this isn’t just an issue of sexism, but also of Islamophobia. But if Britain had a First Amendment, would this even be a topic of debate?

Probably not. Take, for example, the case of two Christian women who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to wear crosses on the job. This case would be easily decided in favor of the plaintiffs on this side of the Atlantic, as is evidenced by the prolific case law on religious freedom. Similar is the case of Celestina Mba, a Christian who was sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. She lost her appeal. Accross the pond, though, the Civil Rights Act 1964 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people of faith, as a nod to freedom of worship and the First Amendment.

Now, this isn’t to say Americans aren’t bigots. Duh. We’re the nation that produced Michael Savage and Mel Gibson. Look at the ongoing struggle of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to simply have a mosque, which while being challenged on planning and zoning laws, is rife with religious subtext-and, also, less-subtle nods to Islamophobia, including the plaintiffs citing fears about “sharia law” and “terrorists.” The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to take the case, allowing for an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Then there was the furor of the pastor burning the Koran in Florida and the New York mosque built close to Ground Zero, which had striking parallels to the case of mosque being built on the eastend of London several years back.

Despite the wishes of the good denizens of Murfreesboro, the First Amendment doesn’t give way to a right to discriminate in the public sphere, though-at least not really. Your rights end where mine begin, and in 2009 I made the argument that it was right to sack a Christian registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The same goes for the Christian couple that wanted to ban gay people from their bed and breakfast. If you’re offering a public service or operating in the free market, you must abide by certain rules, and one of those rules is that you gotta play fair. It’s oft said that freedom of religion is freedom from religion, which is why the Supreme Court banned school-led prayer but not prayer in schools. The distinction is fine yet clear-free exercise of religion in a public sphere is acceptable, but the public sphere exercising religion is not. Frankly, it’s always baffled me why the United Kingdom-with an established church-is so antsy about the former. (If I ever meet Owen Jones, I’ll ask him.)

Less convoluted than the muddy waters of religion, though, is the the freedom of assembly. Two years ago I was living with a rather senior member of the Occupy Chicago movement-well, as senior as a horizontal leadership structure can allow-who was arrested for refusing to leave Grant Park after hours. The Occupy folks didn’t have a permit, which led to quite a few of them spending the night in jail. Still, the right to freely assemble is often cited by those staging protests, such as the storied

Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

March on Washington. From what I can tell, Britain’s pretty good on this one too, and the aforementioned fracking protest with Caroline Lucas was busted for reasons similar to the Chicago Police breaking up and arresting the Grant Park occupiers. The difference seems to be that the Balcombe protesters believe the police were ‘heavy handed’, while shockingly, the folks in Grant Park thought CPD did a fair job of things. This isn’t always the case. Birmingham police turned hoses and attack dogs on children in the Civil Rights Movement, and Chicago Police notoriously brutalised protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And none of this has to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with alleged police brutality, though the First Amendment could feasibly be construed to ensure the people have a right to assemble in a public space. In fact, this was pretty much the mantra of the Occupy Chicago protestors, and regardless of what you think of them, the First Amendment allows a compelling argument to be made.

What’s also compelling, if only for both its blatancy and banality, is the right to petition. It’s oft overlooked in American discourse, because really, writing a Congressman isn’t nearly as flashy as giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly less scandalous than posing on Page 3, unless of course you were writing to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. But it’s important to note that the right to petition grievances was one of the primary factors propelling the thirteen colonies to separate from the motherland. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…in every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” and provided just cause for insurrection and independence. That King-in-Parliament wouldn’t hear-or rather, validate-the concerns of the colonists was the driving force behind its inclusion in the US Bill of Rights.

What most Americans don’t realise-and would be loathed to admit-is that this right already existed under the British constitution. It’s included in the Bill of Rights 1689 (called the “English Bill of Rights” over this way). So that’s not exactly a novel American concept.

Really none of it is, as pretty much all of this has its roots in Magna Carta or subsequent acts of Parliament. But don’t tell my compatriots that, because it’ll just hurt their feelings. America likes to think it invented liberty. Of course, it didn’t. But it did codify it in a succinct and explicit way, providing the framework for American case law, in turn allowing for the growth of those freedoms, which developed in a way distinct of their British antecedents.

It’s for this reason that looking at what a First Amendment would really mean for contemporary Britain is so interesting, and frankly, needed. The roots are the same, but the blossoms quite different, and in the more than two centuries since our two countries parted ways, my side of the Atlantic has taken things on a slightly different trajectory, ensuring personal liberties over collective cohesion. This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me the British public prefers it this way. From Question Time/Big Question audience reactions to debates about multiculturalism and secularism to broad support for the HackedOff charter (because really, that’s what it is), and even in conversations with British friends who just don’t understand why we allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket everything from funerals to fun parks, the Brits seem to like things the way they are. And that’s fine. While I personally feel very concerned about press freedom in the UK, overall, it’s still a functioning democracy. Still, it’s an interesting notion, and as the debate over religious freedom, hate speech, and press regulation continues, I imagine one that will resurface from time to time. Best be prepared.

For an interesting, more learned, and British(!) perspective on this issue, see Jonathan Peters’ July 2012 interview with Lord Lester in The Atlantic.