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Pinkwashed: Are young gays selling out to capitalism?

Doritos are gay, young Conservatives are twerking in the streets and Pride is sponsored by a bank – where did all the politics go?

A recent YouGov poll indicated that half of all young people in the UK now identify as not being entirely straight. It’s no wonder why – being a bit gay has never been more fashionable. Oscar Wilde spoke of “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”: were he resurrected in 2015, he’d be astonished to find that now, that same love shrieks its tits off absolutely everywhere. Facebook profile pictures are gayDoritos are gay, the UKIP London mayoral candidate is gay – truly, a joyous time to be alive.

Every political party wants our vote, global corporations have decided we’re assets for their business and we have the hard-won right to ride into our same-sex weddings on jet-ski unicorns. Those of us who have come of age in the past decade could never have realised, the first time we taught ourselves how to disable the browsing cookies on our parents’ computers, that from such grubby, secretive beginnings we could flower into such hot political property in our 20s.

But much like covering up a teenage wank at some fumbling twinks on PornHub, politics is a shameful business, necessitating the concealment of unhappy truths and disguising realities. ‘LGBT’, the general term now applied to queer people, is, like all labels, a clumsy and insufficient political expedience. Like all labels, it can conceal just as much as it signifies – amplifying, in particular, an overlap in gender and sexual identities whilst minimising the disparities that make up the broader experience of its members – class, race, religion etc

Given this dual nature of political labels, we can’t ignore the fact that, having now reached the mainstream political consciousness in an unprecedented way, discussion of ‘LGBT rights’ or ‘equality’, has as much potential for deception as it does for visibility and awareness. When used for political advancement, the term sometimes used for this is Pinkwashing (a useful blend of ‘pink’, which someone – possibly Hitler – decided should be the gay colour, and “whitewashing”).

As a queer person who is also white and frequently read as male, I’ll be bold and say that white, affluent, Western gay men have the most to gain from collusion in pinkwashing. In 1987, the African American essayist and social critic James Baldwin was asked for his perspective on solidarity between black and white gay men in America. He said: “I think white gay people feel cheated. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to be in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in white society. There is an element…of bewilderment and complaint. The gay world…is a very hermetically sealed world with very many unattractive features, including racism.”

Baldwin’s was a harsh criticism but, 30 years on, it’s truer than ever – and not just of race, but of gender, social class and religion. For LGBT people as much as straight people, economic power still reigns as the chief factor which distinguishes which political ‘equalities’ and voices are valuable from those that can be more easily ignored – namely, those of the poor and disadvantaged.

Looking for examples of LGBT rights being used as a smokescreen to further right-wing and corporate agendas in the UK is not a difficult task. The Conservative party, as the government of the day, is clearly the most pernicious and powerful political entity using LGBT equality to rehabilitate its public image. The party’s LGBT wing, LGBTory, still proudly announces it was the Conservatives who ‘delivered’ gay marriage. This achievement was again trumpeted by the leading charity Stonewall on the day of this year’s general election result. Marriage, however, is a panacea, which in reality costs the state nothing and imposes “respectable” romantic and sexual structures on queerness.

Most dispiriting is the fact that this self-congratulatory attitude infuses the youth of the party’s (mostly gay, white male) LGBT members. For me, this was perhaps most perfectly encapsulated a few weeks ago by the image of gay Tories twerking at Manchester Pride. The image is a repugnant one on many levels – its cheeky, campy appropriation of black culture aside – it belies the fact that its subjects are members of a party whose austerity programme and cuts to housing benefit will disproportionately hit poor LGBT people and those from ethnic minorities. 

LGBT people represent 24 per cent of all youth homelessness in the UK, according to a recent survey by the Albert Kennedy Trust, an LGBT youth homelessness charity. The Tories’ proposed cut of housing benefit for anyone under 21 will put such a strain on the organisation's resources, the trust is desperately appealing to a deaf government. Chief Executive, Tim Sigsworth, explains that this is less about humanity and more about making a cold, economic case:

"We're currently part of a lobbying partnership which includes Crisis and Shelter to ensure ‘vulnerable’ young people are exempted from the cut to housing benefit for 18-21 year olds," he says. "The DWP are considering the exemption under vulnerability, the challenge we face is proving a young person is vulnerable. Also we intend to create an economic argument around housing benefit cuts leading to homelessness and leading to health impacts resulting in economic pressure on the public purse.”

Alongside this, the government’s increasingly merciless immigration controls and asylum policy has lead to countless incidences of degrading treatment of LGBT people by both the UK Border Agency and the Home Office. That young LGBT people in the UK, kicked out by disapproving families, or LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution abroad, can’t achieve anything resembling political liberation without the basics of shelter or money should be so obvious it shouldn’t need to be stated. Yet, there are new young Conservatives signing up to LGBTory every year – either these fledglings do not understand this, or (more likely) they simply do not care.

“That ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ is a kind of meme for Labour’s young gay members is perhaps an indictment of the movement’s largely anodyne political ambitions”

In the interests of journalistic balance, I’d argue there are also indications of the same political myopia within the Labour Party. At this year’s party conference, LGBT Labour marked its 40th anniversary with a party full of young members sporting stickers with the organisation’s trademark slogan: “Never Kissed A Tory”. One attendee was lauded by fellow members on Twitter for wearing a vest bearing the slogan ‘Power Bottoms For Trident.” That ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ is a kind of meme for Labour’s young gay members is perhaps an indictment of the movement’s largely anodyne political ambitions. From the outside, it looks as trivial as it is tribal, focusing on apolitical partisan digs. Indeed, do these members have anything to say about moves to perhaps improve working conditions for British sex workers, many of them gay or transgender, for whom “kissing Tories” is the means by which they live? Instead, smutty jokes about a nuclear weapon programme used to silently threaten smaller nations with annihilation becomes the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ party piece in this cohort of privileged ‘activists’.

‘Power Bottoms for Trident’ could perhaps be more easily defended on the grounds of edgy irony if gay rights had not become so beloved of institutions and organisations committed to violence. We have just finished another summer of UK Pride festivals. The biggest, Pride in London, is now sponsored by Barclays Bank, an institution which has been complicit in driving up food prices for the global poor and which, through its stockbroker service (which profits directly from the associated commission fees and currency conversion charges) holds a 4.25 per cent shareholding in arms dealer BAE Systems. BAE Systems LGBTI alliance group itself marched in Pride this year. To date, the explicitly homophobic and transphobic regimes to which BAE Systems has supplied arms include Algeria, Brunei, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad & Tobago and the United Arab Emirates. There does not seem much to be proud about here.

“The Conservative party, as the government of the day, is clearly the most pernicious and powerful political entity using LGBT equality to rehabilitate its public image. The party’s LGBT wing, LGBTory, still proudly announces it was the Conservatives who ‘delivered’ gay marriage”

Pride, once a radical protest, is a means for international organisations profiting from violence against LGBT people overseas to cloak themselves with the vestments of equality. In planning meeting notes for Pride 2015, for example, LGBT trade unions’ suggestion that the theme should be ‘Solidarity’ was overruled in favour of ‘Heroes’. There is a huge conceptual chasm between the two. ‘Solidarity’ means standing alongside other oppressed people – not just British, or LGBT - but all who are oppressed. ‘Heroes’, conversely, are in the eyes of the beholder – focussing on individual success stories, heroes are a kind of ideological vaccum, into which anyone may step.

One institution always happy to portray itself as heroic would be the police, now a fixture at Pride. This past summer, gay police officers flanked Pride marches in rainbow coloured cars and, at Brighton Pride, gay members of Sussex Police even set up a fun booth in which attendees could “join the line up” or make their very own thumbprint to demonstrate that they were ‘unique’. Again, this may at first seem harmless – but when I wrote about hate crime against LGBT people it was clear that queer people of colour experience an ongoing fear of police brutality and violence, to the extent that many will simply not report homophobic hate crimes. For gay police officers to repurpose line-ups and thumbprints, symbolic of their own power, as a gimmick or diversion is once again separating LGBT identity from class and race, the entertained gay audience here is assumed to be white and middle class – for whom the mechanics of arrest and charge carry none of these very real connotations of racialised state violence.

There are some positive signs of resistance to this trend. The TUC’s LGBT Committee recently hosted an open meeting and panel discussion, ‘Whose Pride Is It?’ as plans begin for next year’s celebration.  Rob Lugg, Chair of BECTU LGBT Committee points out that “the room was packed and there does seem to be a real desire to push for change among younger people. In particular, there were some really good points made about the need to include people of colour, trans people and disabled people. I raised the point that if we organised it as a political protest then we wouldn’t need to pay the police a commercial rate for security and barricades and bollocks like that.”

Rob remains hopeful that Pride 2016 can expand the gestures of solidarity shown at Pride this year. “The Trade Union contingent was huge and included lots of other groups – African LGBT people, DPAC, students, pro-migrant groups - and the general consensus was that we need to build on that," he says.

It’s clear to me that this is desperately needed. Pinkwashing is a public relations strategy with no internal logic beyond disguise. It can be moulded to serve any political end. Just as arms dealers can use it to distract from their involvement with arming repressive regimes, it can also be deployed to create enemies and incite prejudice –most obviously, Islamophobic sentiment. In fact, the earliest and most well established use of the term “pinkwashing” is in specific reference to Israel’s marketing of itself as the sole refuge for LGBT rights and freedoms in the Middle East.

In the UK, even the EDL (an organisation I can’t believe has many adherents who are truly comfortable with gay or trans people) has an LGBT Division – their Facebook page is littered with images calling for resistance to the “rise of homophobic Sharia law”. UKIP too also have an LGBT group, who continue to insist upon their right to march at Pride, despite the very real concerns of LGBT people of colour.

As ISIS films its despicable executions of gay men in Iraq and Syria, the scope for incitement to Islamophobia grows and the risk of these arguments influencing even centrist political opinion in UK LGBT circles intensifies. “I’ve had people on the gay scene up front tell me they think Islam is a hateful religion that should be expunged. When I’ve tried to talk about how my own family express their faith they’re either dismissed or seen as an aberration” explains Benali Hamadace, 27, who is gay and an equalities spokesperson for the Green Party.

He recalls one incident in particular. “I remember meeting a Muslim drag queen out in Birmingham. They wore a hijab combined with a short skirt. My friend and I had a great time talking to them about their life and what they get up to but it was incredibly clear what the rest of the venue’s response to them was like: avoidance, snickering and unpleasantness. A group of people could have been friendly and embraced someone being very brave that night, but instead they were unpleasant and mocking.”

When I ask Benali what he believes the sources of this unpleasantness is, he suggests that “Islam is very much othered. Atrocities against LGBT people in Muslim countries are seen as a fundamental indictment of a "barbaric faith". The rise of political Islamism is, as a blanket rule, deemed unconscionable while analysis is divorced from any thought as to who is responsible for these regimes staying in power.” I ask for an example. “Well, the West has celebrated and supported Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's rule in Egypt at the same time as he has led some of the most severe repression against LGBT people seen in years.”

I’ll confess that the depth of critical analysis required for this kind of political engagement, on a global scale, is challenging. Like most LGBT people, my politics grew organically - from anger at my own experiences of discrimination and prejudice, then out of friendships with others.

“As they drink Absolut poured from a rainbow coloured bottle, they start to think LGBT people are no longer a political class”

What can anger me most about gay people conspiring in pinkwashing is also the way they can often empower straight people to be other kinds of bigot. When David Cameron refused to pay reparations to Jamaica for the slave trade on his recent visit, I saw many conservative commentators – who had never even shown any interest LGBT rights here in the UK before – raise Jamaican law’s ten year prison sentence for male homosexuality as a justification. In fact, reparations would, if anything, help a burgeoning movement there that saw the first Jamaican Pride take place this year. These people have no idea of this. In truth, they couldn’t give a fuck.

Even when it’s not as tenuous and outrageous as this, I worry generally that straight people of my age may just see the social media brand campaigns, the #LoveWins facebook filters, the heartwarming Buzzfeed listicles. And, as they drink Absolut poured from a rainbow coloured bottle, they start to think LGBT people are no longer a “political” class – the not-so-subtle message they receive is that they are supporting and celebrating us. Even politically engaged straight people I know rarely have a grasp of the urgent political issues for young LGBT people – they are glad some of us can get married, sure, but do they know that 1 in 7 men who have sex with men in London have HIV? That many of these men do not know they are positive – meaning that they are not being treated themselves and may transmit the virus to others? Are they aware that cuts to sexual health services are being cut as this rise continues? Or that there is now a preventative drug, PrEP, which almost eliminates the chance of acquiring HIV, but the government will not make it available on the NHS? 

I suspect not – and why would they – if the voice of the privileged, “respectable” few in the community drowns out the noise of these demands. It does so with an insistence that equality has been achieved. They mean merely that it has been achieved for them and, turned bully themselves, drive others back into closets and hiding places having achieved their goal – they’re the popular girls now, capitalism’s sassy best friends.