April 13, 2012 6 Comments
So, there are some adverts on the sides of buses, and there were going to be some responses but Boris Johnson has stopped them, and then there was some reaction. There are a few salient things to learn from this.
Firstly, we can always count on politicians to exploit some controversy to make themselves look good, especially less than a month before and election (when did Boris last speak out, let alone act, over homophobic, transphobic etc adverts?). Secondly, the level of understanding around queer identities demonstrated by the mainstream media and their bloggers is woefully inadequate. Thirdly, we have learned that there is no point being moderate in an attempt to avoid being divisive.
I sincerely cannot think of a slogan that is more benign and inoffensive to sum up the current state of gay acceptance than ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’. Perhaps ‘Some people are queer’, so as not to ignore people who are not part of the heterosexual hegemony but do not identify as ‘gay’ (this issue is an essential criticism of much of Stonewall’s politics). One could argue that the exhortation to ‘Get over it!’ is somewhat confrontational (if, that is, one had a particularly sheltered impression of political confrontation) but really it just provides a basic solution to the issue of homophobia; no change of attitudes, no education, no pressure not to be homophobic – simply to get over the fact that some people are gay. On some level, while a poster campaign lends prominence to the debate, the actual message seeks to take the fundamental questions of homophobia and queer identities off the table. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; a simple, concise message which provides a practical political solution of social tolerance and making homosexuality an unremarkable personality trait has some value; rather than saying ‘your attitudes to homosexuality are wrong’ the campaign suggests the more pragmatic ‘homosexuality need not be an issue’ (leaving aside debates over who the target audience is).
In spite of this seemingly deliberately inoffensive simplicity, when the (inevitable) homophobic response appeared there were those who acted as though Stonewall had invited it by picking the wrong message. This, too, was inevitable. There will always be those who, purporting to be sympathetic to the struggle of oppressed groups, will criticise them for being too aggressive in their methods and rhetoric. What we can usefully learn from this obnoxious response is that there is little point in trying to be moderate, inoffensive and concessionary. There is always an urge when presenting political campaigns against bigotry to be appear nice and relatable and non-aggressive. People are often timid about seeming too militant, for fear of ‘losing the PR war’. This needs to be seriously questioned. I have no interest in meeting bigots half way. If reactionary conservatives and condescending liberals are going to condemn a campaign approach no matter how many steps one takes to mitigate any offense caused, campaigners need stop being so accommodating.
I quote Graham Linehan’s tweet at the top of this article not because I agree with it but because it demonstrates a fundamental aspect of this kind of political dispute. Stonewall’s pro-acceptance posters are treated as part of a broader dialogue and, because the involvement of the homophobes has made it all rather unsavoury, it is one that many people would simply like to go away. Things would be much simpler, it is implied, if Stonewall hadn’t been so provocative with their adverts; the homophobes would never have responded and the whole thing could have been avoided. I’m not suggesting that Linehan is homophobic or seriously wants pro-acceptance bus adverts to be banned (and I beg you not to get in touch with me about this), but that this illustrates a common response; the idea that victims of persecution should try to avoid inviting further abuse. Needless to say, this is the wrong approach. These adverts did little more than assert, visibly and prominently, the existence of gay people. If this invites criticism for being divisive, if this invites criticism for provoking a homophobic backlash, then it has been demonstrated to us (again) that there is no point pursuing this capitulatory liberal agenda of inoffensive moderacy. Be bold, radical, militant, aggressive. If assertiveness offends, be offensive.