On ‘structural’ oppression


Phrases often take on lives of their own. I noticed this when reading a social media conversation where a queer friend said to a straight person “you do not experience structural homophobia, so…” It got me thinking about what that ‘structural’ is doing in that sentence. The ‘structural’ has migrated there from other discussions: people use it to prefix conversation about various types of oppression, usually to claim something about the way society works. It most often comes into play when not talking about directly violent elements of oppression, but those that are less perceptible outside its dynamic: e.g., implicit social threats of violence, rights to employment, covert and unconscious examples of homophobia, or sexism, or racism. I think it is meant to underline the actual reality of these experiences of oppression, and its permeation through the social fabric.

But, yes, these phrases go wandering, take on lives of their own, grow other implications. Why is the ‘structural’ prefix so popular? It is presumably part of a claim that phenomena such as differentiated employment or access to healthcare are not simply neutral features of the world ‘as it is’, but are politically distributed. But this ‘structural’ dimension of social experience is only intelligible to us comparatively, and collectively. Therefore, while it is strictly accurate for my friend to say to his straight interlocutor “you do not experience structural homophobia”, it is equally true for me to say: neither do you. You experience homophobia: its ‘structural’ element arrives in collective appreciation of its common logic with other experiences. That is to say, there is no dividing line between the structural and the incidental: all homophobia, and all oppression, is structural in that it is patterned by a particular social logic.

The reason I think this is important, and that it is important to insist on the collective dimension of social experience, is that the prefix ‘structural’ can be used to exculpate and disempower. It can give rise to the kind of argument that states there are no ‘winners’ from oppressive social structures. This, it seems to me, is an error in reasoning. What it suggests is that patriarchy, or heteronormativity, actually traumatises all human beings (this argument is rarely deployed for white supremacy, the historical reason being hopefully obvious.) This may in fact be true: but it is certainly easier to deal with a traumatised subject-position in one’s slippers, in the armchair, as one’s wife sweats over a hot stove in her 15th consecutive hour of work. It is rather like saying capitalists are also losers from capitalism, as they have to degrade and destroy life to make a profit. There patently are winners from oppressive social structures. That is why they exist.

Why does this argument come about? It is an individual argument: it comes from looking at the individual consequences of social dynamics rather than the way they affect groups, or classes, of people. Doesn’t an insistence on the social, or structural, dimension of oppression in fact suggest that there must be winners and losers? Further: it is equally important to conceive of an anti-oppressive politics as extendable beyond the individual: that is, it is a political rather than personal project. I mean by this that it is legitimate to try to challenge and eliminate personal prejudices in oneself, but that a political project has to go beyond this, to identify the social logic that imparts these prejudices in the first place, and articulate a politics that seeks to destroy them. Again, it seems to me this requires thinking beyond our immediate experience, about why our social order might need to create interior externalities, or classes of people becoming ‘surplus populations’, or rely on unpaid work in the form of social reproduction. As such, ‘structures’ are constructed (but materially real) social norms that appear to take on a seemingly immutable presence outside of the subject: but they are nonetheless constituted by and dependent on human action, and can therefore be changed.

A (very) quick note for the UKUncut crowd

I had been hoping that UK Uncut would use today’s apology by the Met police commissioner to talk about the wider implications of police violence and access to justice. Obviously I’m glad that people have managed to take the Met to court and wrung both money and an apology out of them, but I dread the inevitable framing of this as the police being ‘called to account’, or the facts of the case being used to bolster the argument that the police just need better training with their weapons, or a reminder of their putative ‘public role’. UKUncut have a kind of access to platforms of public speech most people affected by police violence don’t, and it strikes me as simply *wrong* not to use those platforms to draw out the links between forms of police violence.

It might even be good to consider that while these activists have got their apology, many, many justice campaigns find it difficult even to win acknowledgement, let alone an apology, from *either* the police or the laughable IPCC. It would also be good to think about the differing distribution of justice and access to lawyers that obtains in these case, that this has to do with race, class, and what gets recognised as ‘protest’ or ‘political speech’ – and why the Met might be *willing* to apologise (to whom, for what, and in what framework.)

Obviously, I don’t like being the rain on your parade: I celebrate all actions against the police. But it seems increasingly obvious that to consider policing of protest exclusive of other kinds of policing obscures the actual operation of policing in practice. This is not advanced stuff, I think, it does not require extensive study. But I think it would be good, for instance, if UK Uncut people were also tweeting, sharing and turning up for things like this: http://londonagainstpoliceviolence.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/support-d-tsg/

James Baldwin: Occupied Territory

I’ve just spent a few days away. Throughout, the collected essays of James Baldwin have sat in my bag like a rock. While I was travelling out, this essay – ‘A Report From Occupied Territory’, first published in The Nation in 1966 – was on my mind, as the brutality in Ferguson was unfolding. It is an essay that begins with police violence, the kind of violence free from restraint or fear of punishment that characterises police executions of young black men today, the confidence in institutional protection, and the untroubled laziness of the standard police fit-up job. It has not ceased to be on my mind since:

Finally, someone would say—we would probably have arrived at the salad—“say, Jim, what’s going to happen this summer?”

This question, translated, meant: Do you think that any of those unemployed, unemployable Negroes who are going to be on the streets all summer will cause us any trouble? What do you think we should do about it? But, later on, I concluded that I had got the second part of the question wrong, they really meant, what was I going to do about it?

Then I would find myself trying patiently to explain that the Negro in America can scarcely yet be considered—for example—as a part of the labor unions—and he is certainly not so considered by the majority of these unions—and that, therefore, he lacks that protection and that incentive. The jobs that Negroes have always held, the lowest jobs, the most menial jobs, are now being destroyed by automation. No remote provision has yet been made to absorb this labor surplus. Furthermore, the Negro’s education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education, which is but another way of saying that he is taught the habits of inferiority every hour of every day that he lives. He will find it very difficult to overcome these habits. Furthermore, every attempt he makes to overcome them will be painfully complicated by the fact that the ways of being, the ways of life of the despised and rejected, nevertheless, contain an incontestable vitality and authority. This is far more than can be said of the middle class which, in any case, and whether it be black or white, does not dare to cease despising him. He may prefer to remain where he is, given such unattractive choices, which means that he either remains in limbo, or finds a way to use the system in order to beat the system. Thus, even when opportunities—my use of this word is here limited to the industrialized, competitive, contemporary North American sense—hitherto closed to Negroes begin, very grudgingly, to open up, few can be found to qualify for them for the reasons sketched above, and also because it demands a very rare person of any color to risk madness and heartbreak in an attempt to achieve the impossible. (I know Negroes who have gone literally mad because they wished to become commercial air-line pilots.) Nor is this the worst.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

They thanked me. They didn’t believe me, as I conclude, since nothing was ever done. The summer was always violent. And, in the spring, the phone began to ring again.

Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

The full essay is available at The Nation. I urge you to read it.

Gillian Rose in the death camps


I have been thinking a lot of two of Gillian Rose’s essays lately, the two that open her last collection of essays, Mourning Becomes the Law. Both deal in different ways with the holocaust, mourning and political community, and they arose from Rose’s work on a Polish committee to determine the future of Auschwitz. The essays (‘Athens and Jerusalem: a tale of three cities’ and ‘Beginnings of the day: fascism and representation’) are both attempts to tackle what Rose names as ‘holocaust piety’, the treatment of the holocaust as an unrepresentable, unthinkable phenomenon of evil outside of history.

I’ve been thinking of Rose because of Elie Wiesel’s revolting advert accepted and printed by the extraordinarily craven editorial team at the Guardian. Wiesel, whose work is foundational to holocaust literature, is probably the greatest proponent of the uniqueness of the holocaust, and actively resists the idea any but a narrowly-circumscribed set of lessons may be drawn from it. Understand that in tackling this notion, Rose is neither denying the holocaust, nor diminishing its horror, but arguing that – however terribly – the holocaust may and perhaps must be comprehensible, that the work of mourning it can be completed.

To argue for silence, prayer, the banishment equally of poetry and knowledge, in short, the witness of ‘ineffability’, that is, non-representability, is to mystify something we dare not understand, because we fear that it may be all too understandable, all too continuous with what we are – human, all too human.”

(‘Beginnings of the day: fascism and representation’ in Mourning Becomes the Law, p.43)

In both essays, Rose takes aim at something that seems unthinkable for the partisans of ineffability: in the first essay, that Auschwitz may have been intended as the foundation of a great city, as well as a death camp; in the second, that representation (or, as it develops, the critique of the critique of representation) may be an integral part of understanding and mourning the holocaust. In both these essays, written toward the end of her life, Rose is more a radical Hegelian liberal than a marxist, and wants to defend theoretical reflection and critique against stasis and effacement; it is important, however, to note that Rose is attentive to the formal impact of representation, about the secret predatory core of sentimentality. In many ways, what she starts from is an insistence on the difficulty of it, a challenge unmet by either sacralisation or sentimentality.

But what is most striking is the way in which Rose’s thought anticipates a generalisation of historical incommensurability as an article of faith across right and left. Rose detects in this fear to ‘relativise’ a deeper fear ‘that we would then be part of that relativity without there being any overarching law determining our participation.’ (p.35) That is, as Rose remarks later, our implication in history forbids easy sentimentality (the revolting sentimentality of Schindler’s List is hauled within the long range of her contempt), because no clear boundary can be drawn between modernity and the death-camp. ‘Instead of emerging with sentimental tears, which leave us emotionally and politically intact, we emerge with the dry eyes of a deep grief, which belongs to the recognition of our deep grounding in the emotional and political culture represented’. (p. 54)

This logic of incommensurability, the defence of the particular over any universal, extends these days well beyond the holocaust, although it is clearest here. It extends to a kind of general logic of trauma, which admits of no comparison and of no completion to mourning, instead proffering an eternal reinscription of the horror. Rose resists the kind of psychologistic, anthropomorphising explanation that attaches itself in particular to commentary on the Middle East, but she does suggest that closing off the shoah from history and reason is itself a block to full, political mourning, of the kind that leaves us no simple catharsis.

It is possible, according to Rose, to think wrongly about the holocaust, even for those who survived it directly. She might suggest that the refusal to think the holocaust fully, to close it off from critical rationality, representation, finitude, is a strategy to survive surviving. Nonetheless, it is precisely because it may admit of no parallel, that the tacit participation of an entire society is unthinkable except as a unique moral evil outside of history, that the possibility of its emergence again remains with us. Its evil is very much historical in that sense. Rose confronts ‘holocaust piety’ with what she calls ‘holocaust ethnography’, that is, a call for a mourning against silence and ineffability. There have rarely been better times to raise one’s voice.

Will recent events force OJ to rejig the central thesis of his next book?

Will recent events force OJ to rejig the central thesis of his next book?

Possible Futures

On Thursday, we interviewed David Harvey for Novara. We were discussing his new book – 17 Contradictions and the End of Capitalism – and you can listen to the conversation on the link above. I wanted to take up some of the ideas that were left in my head after reading the book. These aren’t quibbles about Harvey’s presentation of Marx – though there is ample room for such discussion, and I don’t think that’s merely scholasticism – but ideas arising from the end of the book. This is probably the most explicitly political book Harvey has written for some time, and it is its final chapters that interest me. He writes of three ‘dangerous’ contradictions – endless compounding growth, ecological disaster, universal alienation – which might spell ruin not just for capitalism, but for human beings, the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’ of the Communist Manifesto. In opposition to this he offers a defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ and a reflection on violence drawing from Franz Fanon, as well as seventeen points to frame political practice drawn from the contradictions he outlines.

Many of these points will be familiar to communists of any kind: production for human need, power over production vested in local assemblies, dissolution of class society. Some will be couched in unfamiliar language: a zero-growth society, diversification of ways of living. Some might require more elucidation: demonetisation but assurance of circulation of use-values. But they are an explicit call for urgent political action, when there are few of Harvey’s prominence willing to commit to explicit calls for revolutionary political action – which is what these polite and sensible points would require.

Some of this commitment comes from the qualified defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ Harvey articulates at the end of the book. It is a partial rejection of the Althusserian anti-humanism that has dominated much contemporary Marxist thought, while also rejecting appeals to a transcendent human essence, or a sentimental humanism on which cross-class and pacifist strategies rely. Harvey’s sensitive use of Fanon to reflect on the political uses of violence – but also its consequences for those who deploy violence – are especially timely when sporadic calls for terrorism emerge as a response to the seemingly immovable behemoth of austerity laying waste to social life. Political violence of the oppressed against oppressor may be necessary, or justified, but eagerness to embrace it can occlude the ways in which violence can degrade and destroy those who employ it, even justly.

Throughout the text there are signposts to a way of thinking about capitalism that admits the centrality of the capital-labour relation, but which understands its embededness in other forms of distinction (gender, race, social rank) intrinsic to capitalism as a social system. Alongside this, there is a warranted skepticism toward pedlars of revolutionary nostalgia, for whom the formations of particular historical moments – most often 1917 – provide the unalterable blueprint for social change. A call to attentiveness to the real conditions of the here-and-now that goes beyond mere lip-service is welcome, as is the basic optimism of the final chapter: that changing the world, as well as changing the fundamental experience of human life is possible.

There is naturally a hesitancy among communists to get lost in making blueprints for a new world – even if we did, we would consign them to the fire in the very act of making it – but I think Harvey is right that we shouldn’t hesitate to say, even specifically, things could be run better than this. In doing so, we can also go beyond the apophatic not-this that is so frequently the seed for political action. ‘Utopianism’ has a bad name, and sometimes for good reason, but for all of Marx’s justified excoriation of the disparate social theorists grouped under that heading, the impulse to think a better world has long nourished the working-class movement. Perhaps the answer here is not a consolatory dream of a better world (an ‘abstract’ utopia) but the demand and action to make it concrete.

Harvey and I likely differ in political methods: I know he has defended the party method in theory at times. I think there is likely a congruence between method of making change, and the kind of world that results, and the kind of human beings that come to populate it. That kind of argument can seem like the worst kind of abstraction in a moment in which the forces of social change seem at their weakest, but if anything, reading Harvey’s book renews for me the conviction that it is vital to put into practice these beliefs: it is no use being right after the disaster.

Throughout the book Harvey draws from multiple theorists within and without the Marxist canon. He often returns to Lefebvre, whom I have been rereading, who is probably the most acute theorist of alienation, even of alienation within political ‘radicals’ themselves, which may take the form of an all-encompassing cynicism, a perverse conviction that barbarism and the destruction of all social life is now utterly inevitable, or a bloodless fear of standing behind things they claim to believe. (And in Lefebvre, this was never an argument for abandoning thought or pretending it’s trivial.)

Basic fears about futurity aside – its tendency to suborn current suffering for a future perfection never to arrive, its quasi-religious role as consolation for the secular – I don’t think we should leave the future completely void. The answer is not in feeble rearrangement of cutlery on the bloodied dinner table, but to stake a claim to a far greater, unalienated life than can exist under capitalism. As far as I’m concerned, staking that claim cannot be made purely in the realms of theory, but through action – and it is through the two together that the possibility of surmounting alienation can be glimpsed. 

I do not want to say exactly that this is a hopeful book, because we seem currently so very far away from instituting anything like its demands. But it is an urgent one: I hope it can impart some of that urgency to its audience. Since reading the book, I’ve had this line from Lefebvre in my head. It’s one with which Harvey would doubtless agree:

It is no coincidence that Marxists repeat the word ‘concrete’ so frequently. Adversaries of Marxism refer ironically to the exaggerated and excessive use of the word (Malraux, for example, apropos of the Communist Pradas in Days of Hope); but talk of the ‘concrete’ is only truly ridiculous when it becomes an abstraction itself, an automatism. (Which in fact is what happens when people who believe they are acting and thinking dialectically stop looking at everyday life, stop learning from it, stop searching for its deeper significance. This is treachery, self-betrayal: in their mouths the dialectic reverts to being just so much metaphysical waffle; they become congealed in their own mystical speechifying about movement and history; they talk about the ‘concrete’, but they end up being more abstract than anyone!)

Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life vol.1 (Verso, 2008), p.183

I wrote this short response to Owen Jones’ article on police abolition in the Guardian. Do give it a read. It is probably slightly longer than most of the Novara Wire articles, but still short. I didn’t go in to the concept of ‘discretion’ applied to police officers, though I think this is essential in understanding the immediate experience of police on the streets. The list of scandals in the penultimate paragraph could be multiplied several times over without much effort; following the major scandals there is often talk of reform, even wholesale reform. What follows from that talk is, however, usually cosmetic.

(Source: novaramedia)

Tags: ACAB


This is one of the few books that has made me – along with everyone I know who has read it – weep. I think it’s tremendously important, and I think more people should read it. The above passage is pp.46-8, in Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)

Not survival only


Earlier this week I spoke at an event organised by South London Antifascists for LGBT History Month, on a panel that included LGBT asylum seekers from Uganda and Nigeria, and people organising among sex workers. I returned home to find Stonewall celebrating the ‘final piece of the legislative jigsaw’ and thanking parliamentarians for deigning to give LGB people access to equal marriage. Below is what I said at the event, which offers a somewhat different perspective to the position of Stonewall and other rights organisations.

Good evening.

I want to start this evening by offering a message of solidarity to LGBTQ persons in Uganda. This morning, President Museveni signed into law the anti-homosexuality bill, which sentences those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” to fourteen years in jail. There are complex reasons for this, not the least of which is as a statement against western impositions, or of colonialist tropes reheated by western gay rights organisations with little contact in the country itself. Verbal expressions of solidarity seem powerless in the face of this, like a futile gesture. Words are not enough, certainly; words alone do not break prison bars, or save lives. But our words can be a beginning. That is what I hope we do here tonight.

It’s LGBT history month. Again. And I’ve been thinking about our history – histories, plural – what gets left out, and left in. Whose names get remembered, and whose don’t. I’ve been thinking about official and unofficial histories. I’ve been thinking as well about where my political roots are, which come out of LGBT activism, and how those experiences shaped my perspective: the countless small acts of defiance, countless ingressions against a housing injustice, an injustice of asylum, finding somewhere for people who can no longer see their families to live –– these are small acts that do not make the history books, but nonetheless form the mainstay of that kind of activism. They will sometimes get looked down on by people who claim to be big-picture thinkers, who sneer and say, well, you can’t change the world that way.

As far as it goes, that is true. Merely surviving is not enough to change the world, and we must change the world – change it so far that mere survival no longer has to be the sole criterion, the sole priority of our activism. And this brings me to our history again. It would, I’m sure, be an argument of many in this room that the formal recognition of a minority, the guarantees offered by the state for our protection, are not only insufficient but are unequally distributed: that is to say that laws against homophobic crime do not offer equal protection, but protection to only those kinds of queer people whom the law deems it worth protecting. Most often those people look like me. And because the law deems it worth protecting people who look like me, the history of the LGBT movement has been transformed – transformed in what I would call an act of historical violence – into a story about people who look like me, about the sloughing off of so-called “ridiculous” or “unrealistic” demands, the quietening of slogans that demanded not just toleration but complete social overhaul, the silencing and disappearance of anyone too different or inconvenient. But the story of the LGBT movement, which is a story made up of those countless small acts as well as the birth of a collective struggle, is a story of people who do not look like me – and it is a story that is not yet over.

It is a story that is unfinished, that is a half-completed step, partly because of the way that history has been rewritten. The history of a movement that came from the margins has been made into a history of people who were, in the eyes of government, *people who were just like us all along*. We are told not to be ungrateful. We are told that, to enjoy an equal footing when it comes to property rights, to rights of visitation in hospital, to rights of protection against violence in public places or simply against murder in the streets that we must pack away our dreams of anything more than that, we must look away from the detention centres and violence at our borders, we must dissociate ourselves from sex workers, or our trans friends, we must be happily ornamental, provide sufficient human rights cover for politicians or large corporations. We have been taught, in other words, to modify our demands so they can be easily met and close our eyes to the violence that guarantees those rights.

I want to tell a brief story tonight. These are not special stories, and they are not unusual stories. They are, in fact, so typical that I’m sure many people in the room will have similar ones. They make up the background noise of homophobia to which we have become so acclimatised they do not, perhaps, seem even slightly out of the ordinary.

In 2007 I was leaving a club in a smallish city with a friend. It was a club that hosted the only gay night in town, and was across a car park on a back road, badly lit. When we were crossing the carpark – as we had done before – some young men jumped out of the bushes near the club and assaulted us. As is often the way with these things, I do not remember the exact sequence of the violence, whether the kick to my ribs came before my face hit the gravel of the car park. I lost it. I know I lost it. I know they ran off eventually. I remember being angry all night, after cleaning the blood off my face. I remember walking around my kitchen at 4am thinking whether it was my fault. I remember my friends – who are progressive, sweet and clueless – urging me to report it to the police. I made that decision when we were told the next morning that someone else had been jumped, and that they weren’t able to go to the police because of the kind of work they were doing at that time. Now I don’t trust the police. I didn’t at the time. But they said, at least get it recorded as a homophobic crime.

I went to the police and they took photos of my injuries. They gave me a gay policeman. They offered me a cup of tea. Then they asked me if I’d shown off, or sworn at my attackers. If I had done anything to provoke them. They told me they couldn’t use the CCTV, because at night the cameras zoomed in on the parking payment machines. Then they told me the crime wasn’t homophobic because no homophobic words were used. That it was not homophobic – not sufficiently homophobic – to lay in wait outside an isolated gay club. I remember feeling like the room was spinning around me. I wanted to be sick. I only half remember what happened after that because of the rhythm of the blood pumping in my ears.

The next time I was assaulted I didn’t call the police.

What I am saying here is not a plea for police reform. It isn’t a sad story of good cops wanting to meet targets, resulting in bad policing. It isn’t about lack of communication. It is about the fact that the protections that are given to us are given grudgingly. They are contingent. They are never complete. Where they act, they act only partially. What I’m saying is this: that with all the privileges I have – I am white, I am well educated – I was treated under the logic of suspicion that somehow I must have deserved it. This kind of treatment will not be a surprise for many in this room: it is how the police operate in the vast majority of their operations. All I want to say is we cannot and should not displace our responsibility for our community on to the organs of the state, especially when they protect so very few of us and regularly harass, beat, arrest and deport others.


Why choose that story? I have others: I could tell you about organising in a gay-run business in which sexual harassment was rife, and the defeat of the bosses by people who worked there. I could tell you about asylum cases we have won or lost. I could tell you about the drag artists who saved my life. I could tell you about the horror and disconsolation of trying to do HIV awareness work with gay youth. I think we should share these stories more, not least because our history is not written down. But I chose a story of violence – and the sad truth here is it is one of several I could have chosen – because our history is a history of violence, as well as pride found despite that violence, and resistance to it – and because that history is one that continues. It is a violence that is unequally distributed, as homophobic, transphobic, queerphobic, that exists at the hands of border guards and police, and that exists in subtle forms in the medical establishment and among our employers.

I want to say: look at how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go. I want to argue against a conception of politics that sees its mainstay as gladhanding MPs who are happy to vote for gay marriage but fall silent when it comes to asylum claims by LGBT persons; that says politics is a narrow matter of formal recognition in law. That is not the end, but the first step of our politics. Hunger is political. The defunding of HIV research and the gutting of safe sex initiatives is political. The distribution of funds to campaigns for gay-friendly boardrooms and not to organisations dealing in queer homelessness is political. Adverts for pride parades with a smiling cop and a narrow range of professional equalitarians are political. The internal policing that brokers hesitation when I reach my hand out to my partner’s hand in public is political. A press that will cover homophobia abroad but cannot recognise it on its own doorstep is political. Sex which comes hand in hand with violence and fear is political. A culture which deems gay rights a western innovation and deplores all other countries as barbaric, which avoids its own involvement and complicity in the establishment of regimes of torture and murder in the first place is deeply political. Our demands were never historically for toleration, for merely a formal recognition of homophobia, but the very abolition of the conditions that made homophobia thinkable in the first place.

That SLAF is doing this tonight is a good first step – because it is important to recognise that fascist movements in the UK and Europe are often openly homophobic, eliminationist, but that in the UK they often deploy this notion that one must be racist, one must join their culture of fear, to protect the western “innovation” of gay rights. I think we must refuse this. We must refuse this partly because it is a lie, but also partly because, under the veneer of toleration, these are the same homophobes who vary from the genteel supporters of section 28 to the violent eliminationists who want us dead. That refusal must be the first step. But we must also reconstitute a history that looks not just at Stonewall Lobbying but at STAR, not at only Harvey Milk but at Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera as part of our history that has been silenced, and help to rebuild that political project of which we have only taken the first half-step.

I want to end with a thought that has been playing round my head for days now. It is a thought that comes and go over the years, but which has been in my head because I have been thinking about the huge rent in LGBT culture that was left by the AIDS epidemic, which we still hesitate to name as a political crisis exacerbated by homophobia, refuse to name as a crisis that should always have been laid at the door of the government. It is this: which lives are grievable, and how? Which lives get to count, and which don’t. What I mean by this is we should start to realise that the way in which some segments of society get their oppression, their deprivation, their harassment and even their deaths treated as merely unfortunate but natural phenomena (which cannot be avoided) is politically charged, and can be changed. I mean by this – if the point is not clear by now – that after the nominal end of the AIDS crisis (which didn’t, in fact, end) we have been subject to an overwhelming and coordinated political and cultural assault that tells us that the lives of people with AIDS, as the lives of other segments of queer populations whose existence repels the people who run our society – who are black, who are migrants, who are sex workers, who are non-normative in other ways  – are not grievable in the same way as other lives. They do not get monuments; their deaths do not get entered in the annals of our history as political obscenities. This logic, which attempts to privatise and naturalise what is a political and collectively-lived experience, is everywhere. It is the same logic that says of every gay man who is murdered by homophobes – well, did he try to cruise them? It is the same logic that teaches suspicion and difference, and which threatens potential relegation to excluded status should you speak out against it. Which says that you are here under sufferance. Against this, I want to say the hands that do violence against any LGBT person, which imprison them, which turn them away at borders, which harass them or beat them, which break windows or bones – they are not meant for them alone, but every LGBT person in this room and beyond. When we accept that, when that truth becomes clear, so too does the need to build that power which is not simply a politics of survival alone, but a politics of survival which does away with the very conditions that made our injured survival necessary in the first place. I hope we are taking a step in that direction today.


Every so often, I link to this text, which was produced and distributed anonymously at NYC Pride in 1990. I do it because I think it’s valuable for us to know our history, but also because there is a lot in it that still remains important, unfulfilled, and challenging to LGBTQ organisations (remember: focus on the G, the other letters can fall in behind.) 

I’ve been thinking about it a lot around the outbreak of rainbow razmatazz, homonationalism and foot-in-mouth gestures around the Winter Olympics. The history of LGBTQ struggle, heavily whitewashed and wrapped in a rainbow boa, has certainly feathered a few caps. Suitably progressive, and, after all, they’re so good at antiquing – and terribly musical, too. I look forward to our corporate Lords and Masters – and Stonewall’s crack team of boardroom infiltrators – devoting similar energies to dismantling the repulsive treatment of LGBTQ asylum seekers. Or is that a little close to home?

That story (here, if you’ve not seen) is galling. It is galling not because of the obscene treatment of asylum seekers, but because we’ve been here before. Every few years, people who work with LGBTQ asylum seekers manage to place such a story in the papers. Cries of horror, protestations of well-placed ignorance, resolutions that something must be done follow. Decent people burnish their decent reputation with decent outrage. Hand-wringing occurs in the Lords and the Commons. The issue – as these inconvenient issues do, and the inconvenient people at the bottom of it – fades gradually from view. Three years pass, and nothing changes. But we have all been terribly decent, and, well, it plays well in the metropolis.


They've taught us that good queers don't get mad.
They've taught us so well that we not only hide our anger
from them, we hide it from each other.  WE EVEN HIDE IT FROM
OURSELVES. We hide it with substance abuse and suicide and
overarhcieving in the hope of proving our worth.  They bash
us and stab us and shoot us and bomb us in ever increasing
numbers and still we freak out when angry queers carry
banners or signs that say BASH BACK.  For the last decade
they let us die in droves and still we thank President Bush
for planting a fucking tree, applaud him for likening PWAs
to car accident victims who refuse to wear seatbelts.  LET
YOURSELF BE ANGRY.  Let yourself be angry that the price of
our visibility is the constant threat of violence, anti-
queer violence to which practically every segment of this
society contributes.  Let yourself feel angry that THERE IS
we are not targeted for hatred and attack, the self-hatred,
the suicide --- of the closet.  The next time some straight
person comes down on you for being angry, tell them that
until things change, you don't need any more evidence that
the world turns at your expense.  You don't need to see only
hetero couple grocery shopping on your TV ...  You don't
want any more baby pictures shoved in your face until you
can have or keep your own.  No more weddings, showers,
anniversaries, please, unless they are our own brothers and
sisters celebrating. And tell them not to dismiss you by
saying "You have rights," "You have privileges," "You're
overreacting," or "You have a victim's mentality."  Tell
them "GO AWAY FROM ME, until YOU can change."  Go away and
try on a world without the brave, strong queers that are its
backbone, that are its guts and brains and souls.  Go tell
them go away until they have spent a month walking hand in
hand in public with someone of the same sex.  After they
survive that, then you'll hear what they have to say about
queer anger.
   Otherwise, tell them to shut up and listen.

Full text here