The ABC of Queer: A for Ally

An ally should be someone who has your back. Who understands your history and walks beside you in good times and bad. The relationships between many gay men and lesbians during the early years of HIV/AIDS are good examples of allies in action.

Though it’s not always the case nowadays a queer ally is usually a middle-class (invaribly white) well-educated individual taking it upon themselves to speak for what they see as the silenced, oppressed and vulnerable sections of the queer communities.  The irony that the people they are usually speaking for may not identify as queer nor that they are further silencing them by talking for them is usually lost on them. The further irony that, once again, white middle-class people are taking charge and passing judgement is also lost.

A queer ally should be something that you are named – not a label you give yourself.

If you seek to be a queer ally it should be a set of practices that you aim to follow – not a set of rules you primarily judge others by.

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From Beckham’s g-string to Daley’s speedos: how some gay men support stereotypes of working-class youth

What was obvious about Tom Daley?

I would have said that here was a white boy from a working-class background who has great parents, does well at school despite being bullied, dresses casual-trendy and knows how to win at diving.

In other words, he doesn’t conform to the accepted mainstream stereotypes of the disaffected Rebel or the welfare Chav that youthful working-class masculinity is meant to personify. This causes gender and class panic; you can’t have a working-class boy who isn’t a thug or a slob. At least, you can’t have a working-class boy who is straight not be one of those. The furore surrounding David Beckham potentially wearing his wife’s g-string is the classic example of this kind of interstitial class and gender panic.

Alongside the Rebel  and the Chav there’s a third stereotype with youthful working-class masculinity that now comes into play – the Nice Boy who is Secretly Gay. He’s the model minority – his role is to make his demonized brothers look even worse.

One of the great contradictions at present is that, while so much research shows that as a society Britain (especially the young) is  becoming increasingly tolerant of sexual and gender diversity, there are specific cohort populations (white working-class boys amongst them)  that not only remain demonized for their perceived behaviors but there is an expectation that they should conform to those behaviors.

It’s also now a great irony that some of the most rigid enforcers of those social expectations concerning youthful working-class masculinity can appear to be older gay men.  I’m actually shocked by the online comments, concerning Daley’s YouTube vid, of many gay and queer men (who I know fought in some cases for their own right to identify as such on their own terms) that “of course, it was obvious.”

I would have said what was obvious about their comments is that the Nice Boy, like the Rebel and the Chav, is a projected and objectified object of desire (and sometimes an abjectified object of fear, but that’s a different piece) regarding youthful working-class masculinity.

The boxes that we place young working-class men in don’t just represent our class and gender anxieties  about them. They also enable our sexual commodification of them; a commodification many gay men increasingly endorse as  mainstrean gay culture becomes more and indistinguishable from neo-capitalism. The best example of this for me occurred twice yesterday when two different men online (one identifying as queer, one as gay) said separately that “it was obvious” about Daley because of “the Speedos.”

I have no doubt of the erotic potential of the Thug, the Slob and the Boy next Door (who is ONE of US), but the range of identities these  offer to white working-class boys are extremely limited.  What’s increasing  obvious is that many older gay men, while rightly rejecting the stereotypes their own generation had to contend with, fail to consider their own complicity in projecting and eroticising unto younger men (especially those from vulnerable populations) labels that at Tom Daley’s age they would have been as reticent to accept.

The Boys from the Brum: Establishing a male canon in the reinvention of the Birminham School

The Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies project (to mark to 50th anniversary of the setting up of the original centre) has placed 55 CCCS stencilled occasional papers in their archive.

Given the place that the Birmingham School holds nationally and internationally in Cultural Studies it’s hard not to see this as establishing a canon for what was core in contemporary cultural studies that the Birmingham School was concerned with. It is suggested that other papers will be added, but these are the texts that have been chosen as representative of their time (spanning nearly two decades).

Looked at in terms of discourse and reception (something the Birmingham School was keen to emphasise) what comes across is a male obsession to marry Marxism and French Theory to study male subcultures (which is quite different from race or class). Popular culture is privileged (particularly if it involved new media), but sexuality and gender are peripheral (less than 15% of the chosen papers are by women).

I’m not meaning to be over-critical but work by figures such as Dick Hebdidge simply hasn’t worn well (yet he has four papers; more than half the number of papers accorded to women). It doesn’t place the Birmingham School in a good light; surely there was work by a broader range of researchers, with a broader range of interests and ideologies over nearly two decades, to present as representative?

Otherwise (for an early-career academic who admires the Birmingham School very much; Allon White is a particular influence of mine) it’s hard not to feel a curious whiff of sexism rise up from these stencilled papers.

Issues In LGBT Research In Education: Part Three: Shock Tactics

I remember being on the Paris Metro in the 1980’s.

At the time it was quite usual for buskers to come on to the carriages and busk. They were often very good.

That evening, as me and a friend headed into Paris to go to club I think was called Boy, a girl got on. She clipped a large silk scarf across the opposing seat rods at the end of the carriage, put some music on a ghetto blaster (it was the 1980’s) and started to do a hand puppet show from behind the scarf.  I remember it was really beautiful. People started smiling and taking money out to give to her when she finished.

However a woman and a young girl got on (the young girl was wearing a long coat). They didn’t speak. They walked down the carriage – the woman with her palm outstretched, the girl opening her coat to show that she was naked from the waist up. She was also covered in what looked like acid burns from the waist to her jaw. It was so ‘in your face’ that most people just handed the money that they had meant for the busker to the woman.

And that was the really surreal part. The busker couldn’t see what was going on behind the silk scarf. While all this was happening she was continuing on with her puppetry.  It was only at the end, when she requested a contribution and the people in the carriage looked away,  that she realised something had gone wrong.

Shock tactics work. Worst case scenarios are presented in reports as if they’re typical. Those examples will often be selected to highlight the most emotional language. That they’re successful in LGBT research in education is reflected in the dogma that sexual minority youth are continuously  bullied, brutalised and even threatened regularly with rape in schools (if you read the Stonewall School Report 2012 P5, P12 I think you’ll find it’s implied).  Like the woman and the girl it’s actually very difficult to argue with this kind of emotive barrage. Like the busker, it undermines more positive research that celebrates resilence and joy. That great difficulty is that, like the scarred girl, it’s not false. The expressions of pain and of oppression may be very real. The great tension in LGBT research in education is how not to let them become overwhelming. Otherwise, many LGBT reports on young people have more in common with tabloid talk shows such as Jeremy Kyle’s than peer-reviewed research.

BSA Youth Sexualities Conference: Durham 18/10/2013

This was a well-organised, well run conference as you would expect from the BSA Youth Group.

I’m not sure I totally agree with Jo Phoenix’s opening remarks – that there are no more sexual pioneer researchers. I don’t consider myself one, but I’m not sure that I’d want to close the door to another generation taking our disciplines into completely radical directions.

Matthew Waites’ keynote was a quantitative analysis of Age of Consent debates across the globe (especially in Commonwealth countries). He pointed out quite interesting trends: for example, the centralising moves towards an age of 15/16 in many countries. He also quickly discussed the recent Teddy Bear Clinic judgment in South Africa which decriminalised consensual sexual activity between young  people between the ages of 12 and 16 (where the judgment views young people and their consenting bodies in a very different light from standard recent British juridical-medical discourses).  Given the time restraints, and much of the material being quantitative, there wasn’t much opportunity to offer a cultural context for the data presented though some was offered in relation to India which helped illuminate the figures.

Mark McCormack’s keynote on the social mechanism of decreasing homophobia was full of cultural context. For me – this was one of the best papers of the day; not least because the content was matched by the presentation (is learning to use Prezi that hard for most people).  I thought he raised important issues about how Stonewall report on homophobia. How these may not be a moral panic, but have some of the features (of a sexual panic?) (which would be picked up on by Clarissa Smith on porn discussing Simon Watney’s conception of a sexual panic). He also discussed homohysteria as a concept (the fear of being socially perceived as gay) and outlined a model of homohysteric language. What kind of factors might impact upon this.  I thought that this was a incredibly strong paper; the only thing I would have liked was more clarity on the specific youth populations his work was speaking to.

Clarissa Smith’s paper on porn anxiety and children was, for me, the stand-out paper of the day.  As mentioned before, Smith distinguished between a moral and a sexual panic. Sexual panics involve anxieties that may flare up into moral panics, but mostly they exist all the time in our media and society. They are dominant narratives about sexual fears that exist at a low to medium level at all time in our society which the media both fuel and feed off. Porn and children involve a dominant model of porn, easily understood by adults. It engages with the rhetoric of the child in danger, framing risk, exposure and addiction. The difficulty is that when young people are spoken to about porn, they also frame their public accounts in accordance with this public model available in the media. Smith then offered ethnographic accounts of young people speaking about their porn use (where they’d been offered the opportunity to reflect rather than simply say what they felt was socially acceptable). The accounts were so considered and challenged how we view youth sexuality, youth agency and the use of porn.

Most of the other papers that I saw were postgrads. Although the standard was very high with one glaring exception; I’m not going to comment as I wouldn’t want someone to comment on my work at this stage.

Issues in LGBT Research In Education : Part One

There’s a certain kind of career-minded gay and lesbian teacher I’ve known.

There’s also a certain kind of trajectory to their careers and compromises (which I mostly blame on teaching).

They’re ‘out in the staffroom not in the classroom’. A friend of mine describes one colleague as “stomping down corridors in butch boots and dark business suits trying to look as masculine as possible.” Then “he would hide in his office and play Kylie on headphones so no one would hear.” The tragic part is everyone knew, including the students. The signals he modelled about his sexuality to LGBT students were dreadful as he acquired an office, progressed to Vice Principal, etc..

At this point (and this is often the trajectory), feeling secure, he decided to begin a PhD looking at homophobia and education.  However, and this is when I met him, there was no sense of him reflecting on his own complicity in the institutional heteronormativity of education.  Everything was projected unto the homophobia of straight students and selected prejudiced straight teachers. He found homophobia, but what he didn’t find was his own internalised homophobia. It was also as if all these feelings that he had internalised on the way up the career ladder were now being transferred to sexual minority students without considering that their life experiences might be significantly different. After all, having the same or similar sexual or gender orientations doesn’t make us the same?

This is not to discount the accounts of victimisation, of homophobia in English secondary schools. Many such accounts are clearly accurate and appalling, but it’s important to recognise that LGBT researchers in education often come from precisely this group of teachers. It’s vital we recognise that they bring with them issues (however unconsciously) that impact upon the research they intend to conduct.  It’s also vital because these teachers have usually been successful in their careers so that the research that they conduct is usually awarded a certain weight. However, I would argue that the trajectory of those careers have involved compromises that will impact upon research in significant way unless we learn to reflect meaningfully upon them

Straight by the book? Boxing straight single men in…

I was watching a TV program called The Insider on BBC3 last night.

The basic premise is that five people compete for a coveted job (a bit like The Apprentice) by sharing a house for ten days not knowing that one of their number is actually their future boss observing them. At the end, she revealed herself and decided who had got the job.

Last night the four unsuspecting job applicants were competing for an internship with a fashion company. One of the four was a guy who had changed his career from construction to fashion retail. It wasn’t just that everything about him on the surface signalled that he was straight (and I use that term rather than heterosexual). He was pretty upfront about his sexual identity and seemed comfortable with it in the context of a career in fashion.

However, it became clear throughout the show that other participants read him as closeted gay man because of his interest in fashion.  Although the show’s format isn’t great (you could write endlessly about the levels of manipulation involved) the ending was actually quite moving. He didn’t get the job, but the boss (after she revealed herself) broke down in tears and apologised for the assumptions that she had made about his sexual identity.

For me, it raised all sort of questions about the way that masculinities are policed. The fashion company involved saw themselves as a “family” with a lot of strong women in management as well as gay men. However, it raised questions about the kinds of identities expected of those gay men by those strong women which, to her credit, I think the boss acknowledged. There was also a curious meta-irony to this – that you had a woman passing herself off as something she wasn’t making quite stereotyped assumptions about a man for presenting himself for who he was. The other great irony was that when she had the final discussion with him it was all conducted in euphemisms, the language of the closet, but the open secret was heterosexuality not homosexuality.

Cory Booker is a well-educated, well-dressed, single, black American politician. At present, he is engaged in the run-up to Senate elections having been (for most observers) a successful Mayor of Newark (a deprived city in New Jersey with a large black population). However (just like the guy on The Insider) his competence seems of less interest to many observers than his sexuality.  Put simply, for many observers on the left as well as on the right, a well-educated, single black man past a certain age must be a closeted homosexual.

I don’t know Cory Booker – I cannot give an opinion about his personal sexual identity apart from his personal statements (which position him as a straight man with progressive views of LGBTQQA+ politics). I certainly understand, from gay and bisexual black and mixed-race friends, why a man from one of those backgrounds might still remain circumspect about his sexuality. What interests me (as with The Insider) are, in a period where we are constantly bombarded with discourses of tolerance and change, the persistence of such limited roles for straight men to occupy in social contexts (the family, the workplace, education, politics, etc.). I’m not being naïve; I accept that those roles often privilege men who identify as straight, but it’s a two-edged sword.

If sexual politics has shifted then the closet has also shifted, but the way that it polices masculinities seems to me as powerful as ever. Straight, white, working-class men can’t be interested in fashion (have these people never watched Geordie Shores????); straight, black educated men can’t be single. By implication, this is just as limiting of trans, bisexual and gay men in terms of the social roles we are now allowed to openly occupy without considering issues of race, social mobility and education. The new closet, or closets, creates new insiders and new outsiders.  The positioning of particular, straight, male identities as ambiguous (and disturbing to the point that it can elicit tears from a woman working in an ostensibly LGBT-friendly industry such as fashion) reveals why people should be so concerned to box a politician like Booker in on issues of sexuality rather than politics.