Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

We’re All Straight Now

At any Pride event, however many people are having however great a time, there will always be one person carping on about how it isn’t political enough. Often referring back to the 1970’s as a sort of utopia of ideology and praxis, they will complain that these days, nobody really understands why Pride is important because they’re too busy drinking / dancing / doing drugs.

Well, this year it’s my turn.

Ever since modern gay politics began in the 1970’s (see; I warned you) it has rested on an uneasy alliance between conservative and radical forces. What follows is something of a caricature, but it will suffice for our purposes.

The conservative lobby is basically content with the way society is ordered, but want their turn at the table. They see an individual’s sexuality as a given rather like eye colour and regard orientation discrimination as unjust, if not just downright absurd, in the way discrimination on the basis of eye colour would be. They prefer to work in and alongside existing power structures and see professional activity rather than grass roots activism as the way to accomplish things. The ambition of the conservative lobby is to dismantle the “gay scene” – not because it finds it in any way objectionable, but because it should ultimately become unnecessary as gay men are fully integrated into society. Think Stonewall, Friend, LGF, Telegraph, Daily Express.

The radical lobby takes opposing points of view at each point along the line. They are basically unhappy with the order of society, often coming from a Marxist or proto-anarchist, or at least left-libertarian, background. They see sexuality as performative rather than essential – a doing rather than a being – and thus as, at some level, a choice. Discrimination is unjust not because it is a form of victimisation, but because it is just no business of the state, or society, how people derive their pleasures or use their bodies, so long as basic rules about consent are in play. They seek to disrupt existing power structures, and see grass roots activism as important not only as a means to accomplish changes in power but also as a route to the personal fulfilment and liberation of the activist. The ambition of the radical lobby is to multiply the “gay scene” – to create a diverse ecology of economic activity, formal and informal, that supports the exploration of pleasure, self and relationship. Think Outrage, Switchboard, Body Positive, Guardian, Morning Star.

Historically, it has tended to be the radical lobby who start things, and the conservative lobby who end up running them. The psychology of the personalities involved probably has a lot to do with this, but it is probably much more a factor of the relative popularity of their positions. Consider the question of marriage. For the conservative, the issue here is that gay couples ought to be able to have their relationships recognised by the state in just the same way as straight couples. For the radical it is that the state shouldn’t privilege any one form of relationship over any other. The conservative wants marriage accessible to all while the radical wants to abolish it, or at least, transform it beyond recognition. It is easy to see why the gay man on the Clapham Omnibus is more likely to support the former than the latter.

Manchester Pride is no exception. From its beginnings as an ad-hoc fundraising event that relied on the energy and generosity of a large community of supporters, it has turned into a highly professionalised, ticketed street fair-cum-music festival with a cost base that gets greater year on year and an increasingly nebulous raison d’étre. So we find ourselves in the middle of Manchester’s gay village on the Saturday night of Pride. The street is full of men and women dancing. But most of the women are not lesbians; they are friends of the gay men they are dancing with. And many of the men aren’t gay; they’re there to hit on the straight women. Do we see two men kissing over there? No; we do not. There is no visible prohibition but public displays of affection are, well, a bit gay. In one of the bars, one of the barmen is wearing only briefs and body paint, but his is the only flesh on display. The men conform to no particular type, no particular look. It starts to rain, and some people produce umbrellas and start dancing beneath them, but even this is done without a trace of camp or irony. There is nothing to amuse, let alone provoke or outrage. Apart from the gender balance, we could be standing outside a bar at Creamfields or Reading Festival. There is a very positive vibe, and dancing here feels great, but there is nothing here to make me proud to be gay. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la Pride.

A small digression. Discrimination against women in the workplace can, be analysed into (at least) two strands. First, there is the rejection of a particular set of activities and attitudes – prioritisation of personal relationships and values, preference for co-operative over competitive behaviour, recognition of the importance of work-life balance – and second, the assumption that all women hold such values. Thus we have the reasoning that women shouldn’t hold important positions in case they “go off and get pregnant” (a work-life balance decision).

Those working against gender discrimination are more likely to tackle the latter strand than the former, and there are good reasons for this, not least that the values stated are not particularly associated with women, considered epidemiologically. But what this means is that we now have a position where women have better opportunities in the workplace, so long as they act like men are expected to act. So while women are better off, the workplace is still fundamentally oppressive of a range of values actually held by many women and by many men. This is not the oppression of one particular biological sex, but rather of a range of people who happen to feel one way about life rather than another.

The consequences of the ascendance of the conservative agenda within gay politics are similar: it’s okay to be gay, so long as you act straight, by which I mean making the same sorts of life choices, adopting the same standards of behaviour and espousing the same moral values. Gay men are welcome in society, so long as their lifestyles look heterosexual, in the same way as women are welcome in the workplace, so long as they act like “men”.

Pride, then, becomes a celebration not of difference but of sameness, not of diversity but of homogeneity. We have won the right to be ourselves, so long as we do so within the same parameters as everyone else. Our relationships are recognised just like everyone else’s but they are policed just like everyone else’s too; the council encourages us to move into its flats when it wants to raise the tone of an area, but closes its toilets if we have sex in them.

For many of us, this looks like a winning deal, but we’ve lost something important, something which was at the core of pride: the recognition of diversity as a good. And perhaps more important, we have moved from being the vangaurd in a fight against an oppression affecting everyone – a vanguard because we felt that oppression most keenly – to being complicit in helping normalise, entrench and disguise it. And of course, this “being gay” but “acting straight” is, from one point of view, incoherent nonsense – sexuality is a way of doing, not a way of being, so adopting heterosexual norms in one’s lifestyle and relationships just is being straight. And what then is the point of Gay Pride?

To return to where I began: I have, in fact, absolutely no problem with people drinking, dancing and doing drugs rather than discussing Foucault. In fact I positively encourage it: to quote Ogden Nash, one needs an orgy once in a while. But what passed for Bacchanalia this weekend very definitely bore the stamp of Apollo, with a great deal more method in evidence than madness. Part of the value of Pride is to help people feel happy about their sexuality, and I’ve no doubt this weekend did that, for some at least. But then, so does the Solidarity Service in Huxley’s Brave New World, where drug taking and group sex are turned into a highly regulated, compulsory, ritual.

I started thinking about these issues because I wanted to explore the question of whether straight men and women should be welcomed at Pride, which was once positively a “no straight” space by more or less mutual agreement. What is borne in upon me, however, is that Pride today is not the culmination of a process of liberation (“we’re so confident in ourselves that we can welcome straights at our party”), but evidence of the triumph of an oppression which is equally damaging to everyone, whoever floats their boat. In just the same way as the polarisation of values in the workplace oppresses men as well as women, the compulsion to “act straight” – to Choose Life, one might say – oppresses heterosexuals as much as homosexuals. Should straight men and women be welcomed at Pride? The question is entirely moot. We are all straight now; who we sleep with is mere detail.

At any Pride event, however many people are having however great a time, there will always be one person carping on about how it isn’t political enough. Often referring back to the 1970’s as a sort of utopia of ideology and praxis, they will complain that these days, nobody really understands why Pride is important because they’re too busy drinking / dancing / doing drugs.
Well, this year it’s my turn.
Ever since modern gay politics began in the 1970’s (see; I warned you) it has rested on an uneasy alliance between conservative and radical forces. What follows is something of a caricature, but it will suffice for our purposes.
The conservative lobby is basically content with the way society is ordered, but want their turn at the table. They see an individual’s sexuality as a given rather like eye colour and regard orientation discrimination as unjust, if not just downright absurd, in the way discrimination on the basis of eye colour would be. They prefer to work in and alongside existing power structures and see professional activity rather than grass roots activism as the way to accomplish things. The ambition of the conservative lobby is to dismantle the “gay scene” – not because it finds it in any way objectionable, but because it should ultimately become unnecessary as gay men are fully integrated into society. Think Stonewall, Friend, LGF, Telegraph, Daily Express.
The radical lobby takes opposing points of view at each point along the line. They are basically unhappy with the order of society, often coming from a Marxist or proto-anarchist, or at least left-libertarian, background. They see sexuality as performative rather than essential – a doing rather than a being – and thus as, at some level, a choice. Discrimination is unjust not because it is a form of victimisation, but because it is just no business of the state, or society, how people derive their pleasures or use their bodies, so long as basic rules about consent are in play. They seek to disrupt existing power structures, and see grass roots activism as important not only as a means to accomplish changes in power but also as a route to the personal fulfilment and liberation of the activist. The ambition of the radical lobby is to multiply the “gay scene” – to create a diverse ecology of economic activity, formal and informal, that supports the exploration of pleasure, self and relationship. Think Outrage, Switchboard, Body Positive, Guardian, Morning Star.
Historically, it has tended to be the radical lobby who start things, and the conservative lobby who end up running them. The psychology of the personalities involved probably has a lot to do with this, but it is probably much more a factor of the relative tangibility of their positions. Consider the question of marriage. For the conservative, the issue here is that gay couples ought to be able to have their relationships recognised by the state in just the same way as straight couples. For the radical it is that the state shouldn’t privilege any one form of relationship over any other. The conservative wants marriage accessible to all while the radical wants to abolish it, or at least, transform it beyond recognition. It is easy to see why the gay man on the Clapham Omnibus is more likely to support the former than the latter.
Manchester Pride is no exception. From its beginnings as an ad-hoc fundraising event that relied on the energy and generosity of a large community of supporters, it has turned into a highly professionalised, ticketed street fair-cum-music festival with a cost base that gets greater year on year and an increasingly nebulous raison d’étre.
So we find ourselves in the middle of Manchester’s gay village on the Saturday night of Pride. The street is full of men and women dancing. But most of the women are not lesbians; they are friends of the gay men they are dancing with. And many of the men aren’t gay; they’re there to hit on the straight women. Do we see two men kissing over there? No; we do not. There is no visible prohibition but public displays of affection are, well, a bit gay. In one of the bars, one of the barmen is wearing only briefs and body paint, but his is the only flesh on display. The men conform to no particular type, no particular look. It starts to rain, and some people produce umbrellas and start dancing beneath them, but even this is done without a trace of camp or irony. There is nothing to amuse, let alone provoke or outrage. Apart from the gender balance, we could be standing outside a bar at Creamfields or Reading Festival. There is a very positive vibe, and dancing here feels great, but there is nothing here to make me proud to be gay. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la Pride.
A small digression. Discrimination against women in the workplace can, be analysed into (at least) two strands. First, there is the rejection of a particular set of activities and attitudes – prioritisation of personal relationships and values, preference for co-operative over competitive behaviour, recognition of the importance of work-life balance – and second, the assumption that all women hold such values. Thus we have the reasoning that women shouldn’t hold important positions in case they “go off and get pregnant” (a work-life balance decision).
Those working against gender discrimination are more likely to tackle the latter strand than the former, and there are good reasons for this, not least that the values stated are not particularly associated with women, considered epidemiologically. But what this means is that we now have a position where women have better opportunities in the workplace, so long as they act like men are expected to act. And indeed, a 1995 study of personality based on a large, representative sample of the UK population found that, compared to studies 20 years earlier, women were indeed acting more like stereotypical men than before.
So while women are better off, the workplace is still fundamentally oppressive of a range of values actually held by many women and by many men (another finding of the same study). A proper examination of the discrimination in play shows that a large part of it relates not to an oppression of one particular biological sex, but rather a range of people who happen to feel one way about life rather than another.
The consequences of the ascendance of the conservative agenda within gay politics are similar: it’s okay to be gay, so long as you act straight, by which I mean making the same sorts of life choices, adopting the same standards of behaviour and espousing the same moral values. If we accept the idea that sexuality is a doing and not a being, then we are compelled to go a step further. There is no “being gay but acting straight”; acting straight is, as far as such a thing is possible, being straight. The gender of our partners is irrelevant so long as we Choose Life.
To be honest, I have absolutely no problem with people drinking, dancing and doing drugs rather than discussing Foucault. In fact I positively encourage it: to quote Ogden Nash, one needs an orgy once in a while. But what passed for Bacchanalia this weekend very definitely bore the stamp of Apollo, with a great deal more method in evidence than madness. Part of the value of Pride is to help people feel happy about their sexuality, and I’ve no doubt this weekend did that, for some at least. But then, so do the singing clubs in Huxley’s Brave New World, where drug taking and group sex are turned into a highly regulated, compulsory, ritual.
I started thinking about these issues because I wanted to explore the question of whether straight men and women should be welcomed at Pride, which was once positively a “no straight” space by more or less mutual agreement. What is borne in upon me, however, is that Pride today is not the culmination of a process of liberation (“we’re so confident in ourselves that we can welcome straights at our party”), but the expression of a new and more insidious oppression, equally damaging to everyone, gay or straight. In just the same way as the polarisation of values in the workplace oppresses men as well as women, the compulsion to “act straight” – Choose Life  – oppresses heterosexuals as much as homosexuals. Should straight men and women be welcomed at Pride? The question is entirely moot. We are all straight now; who we sleep with is mere detail.
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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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