Tim Farron, bigotry, and Grenfell

Straight, white, cisgendered, non-disabled Christian man in officially Christian country resigns from public office citing persecution/suspicion* while poor people literally burn to death in tower block.

*“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”

This has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with homophobia. Few people mind your Jesus (well, I mind your Jesus, but not Jesus per se, I’m a Christian after all). A lot of people mind your evasive reptilian bigotry.

Again: straight white Christian man resigns on grounds of persecution while poor people literally burn to death in tower block, and yet the failure of one homophobe to achieve his desired public office (Theresa May & the DUP indicate that other frothing bigots manage, Tim, maybe the problem is you?) is what should really be shaming our society.

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Nadhim Zahawi, Tory landlords, Grenfell Tower

Because I want to make this point in as many places and ways as I can: here is the list of landlord Conservative MPs who voted against making homes habitable under the Homes and Planning Bill. On the list is Nadhim Zahawi, the millionaire Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who during the expenses scandal was revealed to have spent the most on energy bills of any sitting MP, including heating his horses’ stables. Evidently, he was far more concerned about those animals than he was the human beings living in places like Grenfell Tower.

I am singling out Zahawi because I am ashamed that he is MP for my beloved hometown, and because the contrast between a man who lavished money on animals but wouldn’t vote to save people is so disgusting. Of course, today he’s busily retweeting all the condolences and the fundraising links. But I think everyone should know the part he – along with the rest of the landlords, Boris Johnson, and everyone who ignored the Grenfell Tower residents’ campaign – played in the tragedy.

Teachers from Kensington Aldridge Academy (one of them known to me), the school closest to Grenfell, have begun this fundraising page for victims. Please donate there.

[REVIEW] Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre

On Wednesday, I saw Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre; a one-hour, one-woman play written and performed by Charlotte Josephine. Having seen Josephine in Julius Caesar earlier this year, I was excited to see her own work – and, to be honest, I’m a bit in love with the Soho Theatre and their apparent directorial policy of ‘stage work that Sophie wants to see, and don’t charge her more than a tenner for doing so’. For me, Bitch Boxer was an incredibly inspiring, salutary and encouraging piece of theatre. Alongside my fascination with the play’s story and characters, I was delighted to see such a young writer and performer performing with such skill and immediacy – and being so warmly received.

Bitch Boxer is the story of Chloe, a young working-class boxer from Leytonstone, East London, who is gearing up for her final qualifying fight before the London Olympics; the first Olympics in which women could box. I am a bespectacled, myopic, borderline-dyspraxic, undersized and severely uncoordinated scrap of laziness, and I came out of Bitch Boxer wanting to box. The play’s exposition of the sport’s technical side is unexpectedly fascinating. I also found Bitch Boxer a more complex and nuanced exploration of boxing than On It, Tony Pitts’s recent Afternoon Play about the late Liam Jones, a young drug addict who attempted to conquer his addictions via boxing. Both plays tell powerful stories of pain and loss, but Bitch Boxer gets far further beyond the predictable narrative of boxing-as-emotional-salvation. Not only does Chloe use boxing to express and control her adolescent anger, but training and fighting give her an identity that reorders and reorients the rest of her life. Bitch Boxer‘s most emotionally articulate scene is Chloe’s recognition that her opponent in the ring is as determined, excited, frightened and committed as herself. This gives the boxer a compassion and respect for the process of fighting that makes the final confrontation moving, but not mawkish.

I said that Josephine was warmly received by her audience, and the vast majority of the reviews have also been excellent. However, one critic has objected in misogynist – and also misspelt – terms that Charlotte Josephine’s body is not plausibly that of a boxer, and that this physical dissonance damages the integrity and believability of the piece. That is an extremely polite paraphrase of what this lone lunatic actually came out with, and I’m not going to link to the review, because, well, don’t feed the trolls.

Firstly, Charlotte Josephine’s body is very plausibly that of a boxer. Secondly, and not to position myself as the tiny Cassandra of critical misogyny, but after watching Bitch Boxer, I was expecting to find that this kind of play would draw this kind of criticism. Women cannot put their bodies out in public looking like Charlotte Josephine looks, without attractive derisive male comment. Josephine looks fit and strong, in a way that’s toned but which connotes substance, strength and stamina, rather than the ultra-tiny LA yoga bod that’s the  mainstream default and pinnacle of the sporty female body. She looks admirably powerful. It’s not really surprising that a woman daring to be visibly sporty, healthy and herself causes controversy: for God’s sake, look at what happened to Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis.

I sat there watching Josephine and I thought how brave she was not to be in Sweaty Betty pinkified sports gear, but instead to look like a boxer, in Lonsdale shorts, black ankle socks and an ordinary vest; all of them sweat-soaked, as the intensely physical piece progressed. And then I wondered what the hell had happened to society, and to my brain, that I found it brave for a young woman to dress as her character without concessions to sexiness, and that I couldn’t ever remember seeing an actress visibly sweat. In order to bring out the troll in one theatrical critic, all Charlotte Josephine had to do was be visible as a professional and as an artist. Quite often, that is all we have to do, as women, to infuriate misogynists: just show up. I encourage you to show up at Bitch Boxer, as soon as you can.

A Snuff Box Theatre production, Bitch Boxer runs at about 65 minutes, includes Eminem karaoke, bereavement, a confrontation with a savage dog, and a controversial pair of Nikes. With Julius Caesar only last month, I’m suddenly incredibly hopeful about the future of feminist theatre.

 

Elementary: the stroppy genius and the devoted helpmeet

Hello! I hope you’re well.  I’ve been to Grimsby. And Sheffield. I know how to live. I break my silence to deal with the five million or so posts that have been brewing over the summer. Naturally, the first is a rant about telly.
NOTE: given the spike in traffic, I think I should point out that this was written before seeing the preview, i.e. about my concerns re: the casting, rather than as a review of Elementary. I hope that clears things up!

I welcome adaptations of books that take the canon as a point of departure, rather than a blueprint. I may disagree that Elizabeth Bennett would ever have neglected her fringe, or played with pigs, but I will duly defend to the rights of writers and film-makers to jazz up, bastardise, queer, chop, and mess about with well-known literary works. This is probably why I enjoy studying Shakespeare in performance.

My views on adaptation particularly apply to radical re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes: after all, if you don’t enjoy one version, there’ll be another along in a minute. There are three Sherlock franchises current in live media: BBC Sherbatch, the US Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. films. The original works by Conan Doyle are readily available, as are the ITV Granada adaptations with Jeremy Brett (the nearest thing to the books-in-motion).

Image shows Lucy Liu as Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes.Of these five incarnations of Holmes and Watson, the most recent, CBS’s Elementary has caused the greatest ructions by making the Watson of their New York-based adaptation a woman. Specifically, the Watson we’ll meet on 27 September is played by the Asian American actor Lucy Liu.

I am very happy for Watson to be a woman; it’s part of my broader policy of thinking we’re a good thing. Woman-as-sidekick is not exactly new or progressive (hat-tip to a British show where the profession of doctor-as-in-Doctor remains exclusively male), but, nevertheless, as a proud proponent of the feminist agenda, I’m excited by the story that could be told here. Conan Doyle’s John Watson is invalided out of the war in Afghanistan as a hero. Lucy Liu’s Watson is then, surely, the following: a woman of colour serving her country as an army doctor, thus succeeding at the apex of two historically racist and sexist institutions. Subsequently, she’s a veteran (presumably with physical and/or emotional challenges) adjusting to civilian life. A slightly less familiar trope than deerstalkers and seven per cent solutions.

Except Liu’s Watson isn’t going to be a hero. She’s been struck off. So instead of the Asian, female professional and military hero returning to metropolitan, post-injury life, we’ve got a woman of colour who failed at her own profession (most probably via malpractice, gross misconduct, or a  bigoted conspiracy) who – don’t despair! – finds new meaning as the helpmeet, conscience, caregiver and chronicler of a stroppy, white male genius without emotional IQ or social graces, but who does have a privileged background and an addictive personality. Great.

Byronic. Phwoar. But also, no.

I don’t need another incarnation of the female helpmeet who’s privileged to chronicle and mediate the unacceptable behaviours of a difficult male, and whose own achievements get forgotten as a result. Watson should be Holmes’s Boswell, not his Henrietta Bowdler, Dorothy Wordsworth, or Mary Shelley.

I’ll end by saying that I would be completely delighted to be proved wrong, and would rejoice in a new series that queers sex and race while triumphantly evading the depression of having Liu fall victim to the dynamic of male genius vs. female acolyte. Jonny Lee Miller played an absolutely splendid Byron – let’s hope Watson isn’t lost in the myth of the Byronic male.

We Are In Drought.

"Drought".

I am sick of this weather. We are not in a drought. That is not an explanation for this farce of an April. Here are some better reasons for what’s been happening:

1) Apocalypse.

2) God having too much fun with the Titanic’s 100th anniversary and wishing to create re-enactment using Oxford as test place (poss with Rad Cam as iceberg, since with the stacks 7/8 probably are underground);

3) Official statement by Mother Nature on the stupidity of the Olympics;

4) Evidence of curse on all representatives of water boards/councils enforcing hosepipe bans, who must now be subject to hate speech and violence whenever they appear in the media.

For the past two weeks, I seem to have been permanently damp and cold. To be precise, I’ve been in the degree of damp and cold which usually comes from standing in a mediocre British themepark and straying too close to the log flume. Occasional variations have included the bone-chilled misery last felt on a school trip to North Wales, or the recognisable sogginess commonly derived from harbour walls in October half term.

"Hosepipe ban".

Goodness knows how international students (from anywhere other than… I don’t know, Iceland ) are coping. The malaise everyone’s feeling is now beyond Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s the legitimate rage of being permanently bent double, bedraggled and (more often than not) struggling with an umbrella that’s warped itself into the shape of a disabled vampire bat.

I am not asking for the Camus-like heat of summer, in which the tarmac starts sweating and there’s a simmering feeling that people might start eyeing each other with reference to knives. I don’t even like summer that much; as one of life’s consummate sunburners, I find the season heavy on Factor 50 and short on bikinis. But I would like some Spring. I’m not even asking to go straight into ballet pumps and bare legs. I’d just like my boots to dry out between outings.

Which E. F. Benson Character Are You - possibly the least likely internet quiz ever.

I can’t believe I’ve just found this much to say about the weather. Oh dear.

This has been the most British of blogposts, grumbled out between marking essays and crossly sipping my tea. Thank you for your patience. I hope if it really does flood, I can float out to sea on a table like Mapp and Lucia; but only if I can live in an E. F. Benson novel when I get back…

Petition to allow Anglican clergy to bless civil partnerships in church

David and Jonathan

Cheery and not even slightly suggestive image of Jonathan with David, the latter sporting gorgeous must-have-this-season dead!Goliath accessory. Found in St. Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh, photo by Lawrence OP.

Provided in the comments to my previous post, “Born This Way” and the Sanctity of (all) Marriage was a link to the following petition:

Petition to allow Anglican clergy to bless civil partnerships in church.

In December 2011, it became legally possible for civil partnerships to be blessed in houses of worship. Currently, Anglican clergy are not allowed to do this, but a growing number seek to do so openly and without threat to their careers. A letter to this effect was printed in The Times, and signed by over 120 clergy from across the Diocese of London.

For me, this is only an interim step – I want to see gay marriage within the Church of England, during my lifetime. That is, gay couples being married to each other using a recognisably Christian marriage service, inside Anglican churches, by current Anglican priests, then signing marriage certificates and having the option to use marital titles (e.g. husband/wife) if they so choose, with the same religious, social and legal standing as heterosexual couples, without

a) it making the blindest bit of difference whether either or both parties are ordained ministers, priests, or Rowan Williams himself,

b) anyone feeling entitled or obliged to question whether the couple are in a sexual relationship, because it is neither a problem nor anyone else‘s business, or

c) the celebrant, assistant, or clergy in the congregation having to worry about the ramifications for their present and future careers.

This is a long way from what the Diocese of London is asking today. However, I truly believe that the success of this petition would be the first step to achieving everything I’ve described. So, if you sympathise, please sign here.

“Born This Way” and the Sanctity of (all) Marriage

It doesn’t matter if you love him
or capital H – I – M
[…]
‘Cause you were born this way, baby

There’s nothing wrong with loving who are
she said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe

(this is a longer post than usual, and rather more discursive. Please bear with me, and/or flick straight to the end if you want some soundtrack)

Part 1: Born This Way

Some people who are LGBT (and, I presume, some allies) find the “born this way” argument is offensive because it excuses, rather than validates a queer identity. For them,”born this way” implies that gayness/queerness should be accepted because it’s inescapable, unavoidable, and something that person can’t “help”.

At best, the person “born this way” should be accepted by wider society, because that person’s sexuality is natural “for them”. At worst, someone “born this way” deserves tolerance because their queerness is not their “fault”.

Further dread of the “born this way” argument arises from the possibility of research into genetic causation/correlation with homosexuality. If there is a gay gene, they argue, what good can come from knowing about it?

Discovering a gene won’t accelerate real equality: tolerance on the basis of chromosomal inevitability isn’t the same as truly accepting diverse sexualities. Secondly, a “gay gene” is something for which parents could potentially “screen”, leading to the abortion of some fetuses with the gay gene.

Thirdly, in a world where queers really were “born this way”, what would happen to people who lack the queer gene but identify as queer?

I can follow all of the above, but personally – and with some shame, because questioning others’ sexual identity is, as one friend put it “very NO” – I find the anti-Gaga brigade unsettling.

This is not just because of how the aforementioned Gaga looks in the underwear, sorry, prison sequences of the Telephone vid. Many (even most) of us do experience our sexuality – gay, straight, bi, pan, asexual, queer, whatever – as innate, natural and something we were born with. For us, part of coming to terms with our own sexuality and desire is accepting that we were “born this way”; it’s natural for us, it’s “part of who we are”.

To many gays born before homosexuality was legalised and/or achieved a degree of acceptance, the idea that you’re not born gay is understandably offensive — the whole reason they persisted with difficult self-acceptance and coming-out was because they WERE born this way. They had no other choice. They fought for their rights; their sexual identity is hard-won, and to see younger queers saying otherwise – either that, like Cynthia Nixon, they “choose” to be a specific sexuality, or (more broadly) that they believe sexuality is fluid, playful, fun, a matter of jouissance – both denigrates that struggle and infers that those who “choose” to be gay could equally “choose” to be straight. An idea that many LGBTQ people know to be false, and at the root of problematic constructions of (e.g.) homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” – LGBTQ Nation claimed that Nixon’s words would be “used as a brutal club against LGBT youth in Red State America”.

I do experience my sexual orientation as innate. For a bit I definitely identified as bisexual. I’m not. I don’t think I was being dishonest when I thought that, but I don’t think it was accurate either (nor do I think it’s helpful of Nixon to claim to have “chosen to be gay” because “nobody likes the bisexuals“). It upsets me when discussions in queer circles (especially radical queer circles) invalidate the “born this way” position (along with other positions/wishes such as the desire for equal marriage rights).

But then I tend to focalise how I see LGBTQ issues through an historical awareness – I have problems with straight people claiming the label “queer”. “Queer” was a slur against lesbians and gays: accordingly I’m uncomfortable with anyone using it in a reclamatory sense outside the group originally persecuted. In fact, I have problems with the label “queer” as an umbrella identity (i.e., when people use “queer” to mean “LGBTQ”/sexual identities other than straight) because I know that a lot of older gay, lesbian and bisexual people register the term as a slur and can’t feel part of it. I’d rather find new words and stay in a continuum with our history. This discomfort with vocabulary does make me twitchy in radical-queer-discussion-situations, but on the flipside I’ve always been lucky enough to know older lesbians and gays, and it’s an excellent payoff.

I understand that other LGBTQ people don’t experience their sexuality as something innate, and as a choice, and that it goes against every tenet of equal rights to want them to shut up and prop up my arguments and identities, rather than embracing theirs. From experience, observation and my limited understand of genetics, I still think that most people do not experience their sexuality as a “choice” – coming-out, (hopefully) yes; behaviour, yes; orientation, no. But some do, and that’s okay (but baby, I was born this way. &c).

Part 2: The Sanctity of Marriage

Re-examining the “born this way” argument (which probably also appeals to me because of my Christianity – but that’s another post) has also got me thinking about some of the other pro-equality arguments I see floating through dialogue & also cyberspace. These include the following graphics:



NOW! Cousin-marriage is PROBABLY NOT THE GREATEST, given the potential for pre-existing abuse and future-existing webbed feet, hairy backs, genetic issues (&c – although we don’t veto other couples whose genetic combinations are problematic, do we?) to the power of however many times the pattern is repeated. Chinlessness may have made Britain great, but a quick glance around Oxford tells me we now have enough of it. ON THE OTHER HAND, the potential silliness, rashness and corn-chewing inadvisibility of pro-cousin marriage has NOTHING to do with the desirability of gay marriage.

I understand the the impulse behind all of these graphics. I am a lover of satire and a believer in laughing stupidity into change. Neither do I mean to bite the hand that feeds me and/or my eventual right to marry. But I have a problem with the message that it’s wrong to say that gay marriage will threaten the “sanctity of marriage” because marriage has no sanctity left to threaten. Equally, I reject the idea that Newt Gringrich’s pronouncements on “respecting the sanctity of marriage” are misguided or shouldn’t be heeded because of his track record.

If every marriage since the dawn of time had been “sacred” – made in covenant with a deity, subject to vows which both partners believed and upheld at the point of undertaken, and utterly faithful and happy since – then that wouldn’t make gay marriage less desirable. Gay marriage isn’t “more OK” because the institution of heterosexual marriage is in a parlous state. The existence of 55-hour marriages, multiple divorces, bigamy, forced marriage, acrimonious custody battles, Las Vegas and the Kardashians does not create a precedent for gay marriage, not a matrimonial space in which gay marriage has the “right” to come and become joint-worst of a thoroughly bad bunch.

Gay marriage is OK because people of all genders deserve the right to form loving unions of equal legal, social and religious validity, regardless of their individual physical or genetic make-up. Newt Gingrich’s shameful personal behaviour (while she was recovering from CANCER, people) makes his statements against the freedom to marry hypocritical as well as offensive – but he’d have no greater credibility even if he’d always been faithful.

This post has been brought to you by Lady Gaga, Cynthia Nixon and discussions at the Oxford Queer Studies Circle earlier this year; not a bad combination. Popular movements such as breast cancer awareness are happily starting to reappraise the media used to send their message (go here for more on why all the pink games aren’t helpful, and a viral graphic that’s actually useful in raising awareness). Obviously, gay marriage needs all the affirmation it can get. I still think it’s time to look more closely at some of the arguments that supposedly “support” our cause.

And to end on a musical note — Maria Aragon, aged 10, sings Gaga (and then ends up on stage with her…):