Decentring love

[content notes: discussion of sex and relationships including consensual kink and non-monogamy. Some discussion of homophobia and transphobia. Non-detailed discussion of sex acts]

I was surprised to find myself so annoyed by Pride in London’s 2017 slogan, “Love Happens Here”. I admit that I am an unromantic grouch, but surely this slogan was harmless? The way in which people engaged with this at a museum LGBT Late during Pride month was rather charming – a map of London with rainbow sticky notes on which they’d written memories of their first kiss, where they met their partner and so on. It was a lovely piece of queer remembering and storytelling. But something troubled, and continues to trouble, me about it.

My problem lies with the word “love”. I’ve recently been thinking about Gayle Rubin’s discussion of social values afforded to different kinds of sexual relationships. She identifies types of relationships that are typically viewed as good/natural/desirable, and other kinds of relationships that are typically viewed as bad/unnatural/undesirable. It is important to note that these labels reflect social values and views rather than Rubin herself labelling them as good or bad.

These dynamics are binaries: so for example, relationships can be monogamous (good/natural/desirable) or non-monogamous (bad/unnatural/undesirable), or they can involve human bodies only (good/natural/desirable) or involve manufactured objects (bad/unnatural/undesirable). Rubin described the good/natural/desirable components as within a Charmed Circle, and the bad/unnatural/undesirable components as beyond the limits of socially acceptable sex. So we have

Charmed circle Outer limits
heterosexual homosexual
married unmarried
monogamous non-monogamous
procreative non-procreative
non-monetised monetised
in pairs alone or in groups
in a relationship casual
same-generation cross-generational
in private in public
no pornography with pornography
with bodies only with manufactured objects
vanilla BDSM

Homosexual sex, therefore, is out of this charmed circle simply by virtue of being homosexual. However, there are other things that we might associate with sexual practices among LGBTQ people: the use of manufactured objects in the form of sex toys; non-monogamy in the form of polyamory, open relationships and other forms of ethical non-monogamy; sex in public through cruising and cottaging; casual sex; non-vanilla sex (which also may include manufactured objects); sex and relationships between people with an age gap.

At the same time, these things are not static. Over time, some practices and types of relationships may become more socially acceptable. Rubin argues that there is an area of contest, a grey area of potentially acceptable kinds of “bad” sex: unmarried heterosexual couples, promiscuous heterosexuals, masturbation, and long-term, stable lesbian and gay male couples (note that this excludes bisexual, trans and queer people). Therefore, homosexuality might be acceptable in some cases – if, in other words, it ticks the boxes for the rest of the charmed circle.

In order to be acceptable to wider, heterosexual society, LG(btq) people must become very, very good at mirroring relationships within this established charmed circle. The charmed circle focuses on stability and love. How should non-heterosexual couples make their relationships demonstrate stability and love? Same sex marriage equality, the ability of same sex couples to adopt and issues of reproductive technology have been areas of public debate, fulfilling the charmed circle needs of “marriage” and “procreation”. There are tensions about assimilation, heteronormativity and homonormativity – issues of how much LGBTQ people should want the same things as heterosexual people, how similar LGBTQ lives should look to heterosexual lives, and what becomes “normal” (and what is excluded from this new normality).

Heterosexual people are increasingly happier about accepting LGBTQ relationships as long as our love is visible and intelligible to them. As long as they can see that our relationships are centred around love (and it is a love which they can identify and understand), they don’t have to think about sex.

I’m uncomfortable with this emphasis on LG(btq) love.

Firstly, homosexuality was only decriminalised 50 years ago. Section 28 effectively banned any teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools for fear it would be perceived as promoting homosexuality; it was only repealed in 2003. So many of us grew up scared and alone – scared of arrest, scared that we were going to catch AIDS because we were told that’s what happened to people like us, scared because we didn’t feel the things we were meant to feel and there was a huge, cavernous silence around what we could be. Section 28 is no more but the Stonewall Schools Report shows that LGBT children continue to be bullied in schools, and that trans students are particularly targeted. LGBTQ people from ethnic minorities and religious communities can face huge pressure to act straight, including being forced into heterosexual marriages.

For too many of us, love is a luxury – instead, our relationships are furtive and fleeting, on hook-up apps or with an expiry date of hours, not recognised by our families or communities, dangerous for us to be in. We are not allowed to love, to luxuriate in settled, loving, married partnership. To be told that your desires are unacceptable but might be tolerated only in the context of a long-term, loving partnership that you are not remotely equipped to build is a cruel catch-22.

Secondly, being on the outer limits of acceptability means that LGBTQ people have had contact with other groups at the limits (or, indeed, are part of these other groups) and have had the freedom to reimagine relationships. Not all LGBTQ people are going to be engaging in non-monogamy, sex work, kink, casual sex, public sex or cross-generational relationships, but I think it’s important that we do acknowledge the hard-won wisdom of people who have experienced these kinds of sex and relationships. We may have learnt to talk about communication and to critique the relationship escalator from poly and non-monogamy practitioners, learnt about consent (and being safe and risk aware) and the importance of communicating our desires and our limits from people into BDSM and kink, experienced non-nuclear families of choice, known or experienced child-rearing through being a single parent by choice, part of a poly group, or as donors of gametes, learnt about boundaries and self-care from sex workers, learnt about sexual health from people who practice casual sex. We may have been able to pass on our knowledge and teach other people.

We may be able to use this awareness to reimagine a binary of good and bad relationships that, as M-J Barker does here, places sex and relationships which are not consensual, not informed, and which insist on strict, non-negotiable gendered roles within sex at the outer limits. They place consent, fluidity, diversity and being critically informed within the charmed circle – something that I think is valuable for all sex and relationships, no matter how long-term, monogamous, vanilla or romantic they are.

We may value love – but also be able to recognise that it doesn’t describe all the queer experiences (histories, relationships, desires) out there.

So here’s to munches and dungeons. Here’s to cottaging and cruising. Here’s to fumbles in gay club toilets and fucking by the bins in the alley. Here’s to kissing on the bus. Here’s to caring, tender casual sex. Here’s to safewords and using them. Here’s to that look, the look that says “I’m sorry about my homophobic relatives” and “I’m sorry they’re calling you my friend instead of my girlfriend” and “let’s get out of this place”. Here’s to Grindr and when it crashes due to the sheer density of gay people in a room. Here’s to whipmarks that say “I love you”. Here’s to love without sex that is every bit as important and life-changing and life-shaping. Here’s to fuck buddies and hookups. Here’s to sex without love because you’re all into it and everyone knows that this is casual and meant to be fun.

Here’s to love that doesn’t have to be visible.

Here’s to love that is expressed strangely and queerly.

Here’s to kindness and communication and consent and community, without which love couldn’t exist.

Here’s to decentring love.

Purple, white and green

I recently read this post by Marilyn Roxie on the colour symbolism of the genderqueer and non-binary flag. The colours of the flag – lavender, white and dark green – are similar (but not exactly the same!) as those used by the Women’s Social and Political Union. Marilyn describes their decision to use those particular colours and their meanings as follows:

Lavender (#b57edc): The mixture of blue and pink (traditional colors associated with men and women, present on the transgender pride flag) as lavender is meant to represent androgynes and androgyny. Also represents the “queer” in genderqueer, as lavender is a color that has long been associated with “queerness” , including gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities.

White (#ffffff): Meant to represent agender identity, congruent with the gender neutral white on the transgender pride flag.

Dark chartreuse green (#4A8123): The inverse of lavender; meant to represent those whose identities which are defined outside of and without reference to the binary. Formerly (#498022), the color is now the true inverse of lavender (#b57edc).

The three colors are not meant to indicate that any of these identities are entirely separate or opposites of one another conceptually; they are all interrelated as well as key concepts in their own right, and there are more concepts and variation of gender and sexuality present that tie into genderqueer identities than can be listed here. The purpose of the flag is to help create visibility for the genderqueer community and related identities.

However, Marilyn was recently criticised for the genderqueer/non-binary flag’s perceived similarity to the colours used by the WSPU.

Needless to say when earlier I received the two messages “this is not a creation, but an appropriation ” and “Ya nicked it!” I just started shaking and trying to hold back tears

I’m not sure I’d agree the use of similar colours in the genderqueer/non-binary flag is appropriative; for me, “appropriation” involves a power dynamic that I’m not convinced is present here. However, I think there’s an interesting history of how colours were used by both suffrage organisations and in the LGBTQA movement to identify groups and voice identities.

 Front view of an admission ticket to the Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women's Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908 (from the Museum of London)

Front view of an admission ticket to the Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908 (from the Museum of London)

The WSPU colours were originally red, white and green but had changed to the more familiar purple, white and green by May 1908. The colours are generally held to symbolise purity (white), hope (green) and dignity (purple) (Tickner 1987: 93; Crawford 1999: 137). However, as Lisa Tickner observes, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the WSPU leader who originally wrote about the significance of these colours for the WSPU, was “liable to sentimentalise them in later years” and so allow “a broader and sometimes contradictory symbolism” to become attached to them.

Colours were used extensively by suffrage societies and organisations. Elizabeth Crawford (1999: 137) lists colours for over twenty such groups, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (red, white & green), the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (blue, white & gold), the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (pale blue, white & gold), the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (purple and celestial blue), the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (black & gold), the Tax Resistance League (black, white & grey), the Votes for Women Fellowship (purple, white & red) and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (black, white & gold). I think it’s interesting that some colours are used extensively – white and gold seem particularly prevalent.

Many suffrage organisations took part in marches and demonstrations; the use of colours, particularly in the form of brightly coloured, elaborated banners, created a visual spectacle. You can view some of these banners and designs at The Women’s Library’s collection. Lisa Tickner (1987: 60) discusses the significance of these banners as used in marches and demonstrations:

Banners served both as rallying points for the march and as commentary on it. Women formed up around them in predetermined sequence, so that a procession several miles long could be ordered according to its programme and move off smoothly. At the same time, for the onlookers (and for readers in the next day’s newspapers perusing their half-tone photographs), they acted as a gloss on the procession itself, developing its meanings, identifying and grouping its participants and clarifying its themes. Together with the programme of the march, the banners emphasised the broad base of suffrage support, the diversity of women’s achievements and the benefits the women’s vote would bring to society at large. In this sense they were an essential part not just of the spectacle of suffrage demonstrations but of their argument. They went some way to informing the casual onlooker as to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of women’s presence on the streets.

Meanwhile, badges, scarves, ribbons and buckles in the appropriate colours were also available to buy from suffrage organisations, particularly the WSPU. Their sale was a useful source of income for the organisation and advertised its cause, but also served to declare the wearer’s political beliefs and affiliation.

I absolutely understand Marilyn’s desire to distance the genderqueer flag from a gendered history of specifically women’s political activism; that’s fine, and I’m not trying to force that on them or on this flag. However, this use of flags and colours to articulate identities, emphasise diversity, declare beliefs and provide a rallying point has a long and distinguished history, yet is entirely familiar. It’s something we can relate to and understand. We can still speak a language of symbolism and colours, are still able to fluently interpret it. I’d argue is why the genderqueer flag – and, indeed, many pride flags including transgender, leather, bear, asexual, pansexual etc – exist at all. In that sense, the existence of a genderqueer flag is entirely congruent with an older history of visibility articulated through brightly coloured flags.

References:
Crawford, E. (1999). The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A reference guide 1866-1928. London: Routledge.
Tickner, L. (1987). The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14. London: Chatto and Windus.

National Coming Out Day

Be the trouble you want to see in the world

The t-shirt I’m wearing today

Today marks National Coming Out Day and my facebook and twitter feeds have been full of the wonderful, brave people I know announcing their LGBTQ identities. Somewhat predictably, I have complicated thoughts on the topic.

Stella Duffy writes movingly about the importance of coming, being and staying out while my fellow linguist Anna Marchi writes about the importance of visibility. Neither of them have found it particularly easy but both speak of coming out as a duty; they recognise that their relative privilege allows them to come out in safety, if not without difficulty.

They both note that coming out is also not a single event where you burst from the closet in a shower of rainbows and glitter. Instead it’s a process of coming out to lots of people. I’m inclined to think there’s a difference between coming out to your family and friends and coming out at university, at work, to your GP and, should you get your relationship legally recognised, legally as well as in your social relations. There are no rules on who you should be out to, in what order you should come out to various people – you might tick a box in a university diversity survey before you tell your family, for example – and how long this process should take. It won’t ever end, but it’s your choice whether you tell people immediately, gradually, or at all.

However, coming out is not necessarily easy or straightforward, especially if one must negotiate religious and/or cultural issues. There are lots of people for whom coming out is difficult and dangerous, and I worry that days like these put pressure on people to come out when it’s not safe to do so. There’s a particular kind of sadness when you see people proudly declaring their sexuality and gender identities and knowing that you cannot join them in that.

I’ve been reading Avory’s post on the problem with the LGBT movement’s obsession with coming out and Hasan El Menyawi’s 2006 discussion of coming out in Egypt, the globalisation of a US-centric narrative of coming out and activism from the closet. El Menyawi reconceptualises the closet as a place of safety and community, with flexible, ever-expanding walls. He argues that “activism from the closet occurs by publicly hiding — covering — one’s gay identity outside of the collective closet, but still actively engaging in activism — hidden activism”. Such hidden activism may involve campaigning on privacy rights, questioning the close relationship between religion and the state, or activism on issues such as “economic revitalisation, democracy, rule of law, and human rights more generally”. Avory expands this idea, observing that “there can be a joyous safety in sharing our brilliant ideas and forming unique relationships with our peers without having to first make those ideas and relationships fit for mainstream public consumption”.

So while coming out is brave and important, let us not devalue the closet, and let us not forget those for whom the closet is shelter and protection rather than confinement.

Nottinghamshire Pride

Last year, I wrote about my slightly complicated feelings about Pride. As a result of some rather unpleasant transphobic incidents last year, this year the Pride organising committee offered the trans* group I help run our own tent and a bit of money to start us off. This was tremendously exciting – we’d never had a dedicated trans* area and we were determined to showcase the talented, diverse and creative trans* performers in our community, offer a space to our allies to perform in a friendly place where the complexities of their identities were welcomed, be a visible trans* presence at Pride and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to people and making them feel a little less alone.

Photo of Ruth of Not Right

Ruth of Not Right. Photo by Eriw Erif

There’s an excellent review of the day by Ruth of Not Right and one of our members has a write-up and some photos on the group site.

Single Bass
El Dia (Sisters of Resistance)
Jase Redfield
Elaine O’Neill
Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Dr Carmilla
Roz Kaveney
Sally Outen
George Hadden
Nat Titman
Troxin Cherry
Jessie Holder (of Better Strangers Opera)
Not Right

Every single one of them was fantastic, bringing their words and music and loves and lives to the stage. Whether this was furious-but-fun punk, elegantly coiled poetry about the acronyms one must acquaint oneself with as a trans* person, sweetly tender songs about growth and uncertainty, bawdily defiant poetry, eloquent fierceness about femme identity or subversively genderqueer readings of opera, our performers were both affirming and challenging. It was an honour to be able to thank so many amazing people at the end of the day, from the performers to Jess who organised the majority of the day, our stage manager and our fantastic sound guy.

As an activist, I think about spaces. I think about the spaces that I challenge and create, and as I watched and applauded and ran around trying to locate performers I thought about the space that I’d helped open up in Pride. The spaces I am talking about are both physical – like the tent – but also more abstract. Space is also about what is given voice, what is allowed to flourish, the possibilities that can be articulated. Much of my annoyance at last year’s Pride was that it was a gay man, and possibly a lesbian, space. This is important, and I’m not disputing the significance of a space where people can hold hands with their same-sex partners and not feel that tiny prickle of concern even at the best of times – that anyone, anywhere, could suddenly take it upon themselves to vocally – and perhaps physically – object to that simple, unobtrusive affection. Other queer identities were less or not acknowledged however, and I found that really problematic. The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year.

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar. Photo by Eriw Erif.

Obviously things went wrong (technical hitches, delays, transport issues for some of our performers) and I can only thank our performers for being so patient with us. I learnt a lot about managing an event like this, even though the learning curve was so steep it felt more like a ski slope.

I found it an interesting mixture of some of my academic interests and my activist interests. While as an academic I am interested in silences and space, this was an opportunity to put some of the things I’ve been thinking about into practice. Not just thinking about what trans* positive spaces might look like, but trying to actually create one and working out what needs to be done so it is a safe(r) and welcoming space. Theoretically, I want such a space to acknowledge the different and complex ways people identify, encourage exploration of intersectional identities and recognise that there is No One True Way of being trans*. I want this space to provide information and offer solace, to be able to engage with people. What this meant was looking carefully at who we’d invited to perform, having some basic guidelines for behaviour displayed in the tent, making information from a range of different organisations and about different issues available, and ensuring that the people covered in our trans* history information were from a variety of backgrounds and reflected some of the ambiguities of posthumously assigning a trans* identity to a historical figure.

It wasn’t the most academic way to spend a weekend – I’m pretty sure most academics don’t need to hire drumkits the day before an event – but it had impact. Not just in a research sense, although I do hope to work in areas of language and gender identity, but in the way we saw people come in to say hello or out of curiosity or seeking information, and leave feeling affirmed, moved, comforted. A trans* space was political for all the reasons I’ve discussed, but it wasn’t until the day itself that I realised how very personal it would be too.

Pride is a….something

Yesterday I went to my second Pride. It was better than last year for a couple of reasons – we started marching from Market Square to Forest Fields so got plenty of visibility (as opposed to the extended tour of Nottingham’s back streets of last year) and this time I was at a stall, watched the acoustic stage, had the good sense to leave before I got irritable and wasn’t subjected to the Cheeky Girls. I was marching with Recreation, the local group I help out with, and that made it a good experience. One of the group members remarked that he felt he belonged, and it was good to meet new people who’d been looking for a group like ours. It’s why I call my involvement in this group activism – I might not be on the streets with a loudhailer, but for me, making this space possible, acknowledging the diversity of people’s identities, and offering solace and support is activism. It’s telling people they are not alone and that in itself is a powerful thing.

Marching through the city centre actually felt meaningful – not quite confrontational, but both unexpected enough and big enough to take people by surprise. One of the reasons I march is because visibility is important. It’s a reminder to other people that LGBTQ people exist – that we have families and work and are members of society too.

However, as last year, I had problems with Pride. Bisexual invisibility is a pervasive thing – bifurious is on the bi banner for a reason. This year, one entertainer invited the gays to cheer, the lesbians to cheer and the straights to cheer – completely failing to acknowledge bisexuals, pansexuals and queers, among others. It’s a reminder that often, it’s not so much LGBT as LGBt and that this comes from within the so-called gay community.

There’s also a danger that Pride gets too heavily involved with corporate sponsors. This year’s was sponsored by the owners and operators of Kingsnorth Power Station. At least Nottingham Pride is free – others, like Manchester and Brighton already, or have plans to, charge an entry fee. Pride Is A Protest campaign “against profiteering, exploitation and commercialisation of our Queer and LGBT community events and festivals”. It’s been criticised for being a protest about the lack of protest but at the same time, they warn of where corporate sponsorship can end up.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this whole Pride business. Rather than being unambiguously celebratory, for me it highlights issues that still need to be addressed, particularly problematic discourses within the gay community and the role of corporate sponsorship in community events; however, simultaneously, it offers a form of challenging visibility and the chance to (for lack of a better word) connect with others.