Gaslighting in the Marriage Equality “Debate”

1503573387549Like many in the Australian LGBTIQ community, I am exhausted by the marriage equality “debate” that we are being subjected to.  The nature of this atomised survey is that we’re supposed to stay positive and upbeat, to try and convince everyone that we’re “normal” and have no other agenda than “love”. But being glass-half-full optimistic in this situation takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. That’s why it was so deeply infuriating to see our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull—the person whose cowardice means we even have to endure this survey—on TV suggesting that the ‘yes’ campaign needs to lighten up about homophobia.
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Turnbull appeared on The Project last night, commenting on the “controversy” over whether Macklemore should sing his chart-topping song Same Love at the NRL Grand Final. The religious right leading the ‘no’ campaign have suggested that Macklemore’s “same-sex anthem” has no place in sport. Turnbull defended against censoring the song, in the name of “free speech” and “artistic expression”. But when host Waleed Aly pressed him on the issue, suggesting that it was unavoidably political and an “incendiary intervention” in the current climate of homophobia, Turnbull dismissed him saying “oh no don’t…everyone’s focused on the football”. When Aly continued, Turnbull sighed, “we were just having fun Waleed, why do you have to be such a downer?!” Turnbull dismissed the recent spate of homophobic attacks and abuse being levelled at the LGBTIQ community amid the survey as a “tiny percentage”.

malcolmIt’s important to take a step back here and recognise Turnbull’s comments for what they are: gaslighting. Indeed, the comments coming from the ‘no’ campaign and even many liberal ‘yes’ voters also involve gaslighting. This is not simply a case of homophobes vs. supporters, because there are many “supporters” that are contributing to a discourse that punishes LGBTIQ people and puts the blame back on them for being upset. It’s important to recognise and name this behaviour for what it is, because when you are upset by all the small comments being made it’s hard to understand why it affects you so badly unless you connect it up to the bigger picture.

Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive tactic that undermines the confidence of the person being targeted, where they are made to feel like what they are experiencing isn’t “real”. Here’s the “11 signs of gaslighting” as demonstrated by Turnbull (and similar others) in the marriage equality debate:

  1. They tell blatant lies
    Last night Turnbull defended the survey as “democratic”, referred to it as a “plebiscite”, and suggested any nastiness was just the same as what you would see in a federal election. Not only is this survey disenfranchising many, a complete shambles, not statistically rigorous, and not an actual plebiscite, this is a survey on the legitimacy of recognising same-sex couples as equal, qualitatively different from a federal election in every way.
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof
    Turnbull is now a great defender of the postal survey as democratic, even though he is on the record as previously stating (in the debate around an Australian Republic) such a method “flies in the face of Australian values”.
  3. The use what is near and dear to you as ammunition 
    Because he has to defend the survey, Turnbull has been highlighting things we ought to value (including: democracy, respect, fairness) and using these values against the LGBTIQ community’s critiques of the survey. He has suggested that we “cannot ask for respect from the No case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the No case”. In other words, you have to respect people disrespecting you, otherwise it is *you* that is disrespectful.
  4. They wear you down over time 
    The fact that this survey has been stretched over a timeframe of more than two months says it all—who among us has the energy to stay fighting the whole time. Turnbull is now encouraging us to stop caring about the issue, even as it goes on and on: have “fun”/stop talking about this/don’t be such a “downer”.   
  5. Their actions do not match their words
    Despite not allowing a free vote in Parliament (presumably because it would have threatened his leadership in the Coalition), and subjecting us to the postal survey, Turnbull has come out supporting ‘yes’. Now I guess we’re supposed to be appreciative of his “support”. In a classic gaslighting move his words (tacit support) and actions (creating this mess) do not match up.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you
    One minute Turnbull is suggesting the survey is hard on LGBTIQ people, “This is a time to put your arms around them, to give them your love and support”, and in the same breath he states, “The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage are not homophobic and do not denigrate gay people”. It is clear that the main prerogative of the ‘no’ campaign is precisely to denigrate gay people. Turnbull’s positive “support” means nothing, except for adding to the confusion about how we should feel grateful for this “democratic” opportunity to have our say.
  7. They know confusion weakens people
    Despite nominally supporting the ‘yes’ campaign, Turnbull has defended campaign tactics from ‘no’ in the name of “free speech”. Rather than suggesting that the most important thing is showing support for the LGBTIQ community (which is what I would expect from a ‘yes’ campaigner), he claims that “mutual respect” is the number one priority. It’s confusing to have someone on “your side” defending the opposite side and simultaneously chastising you for getting upset by the debate. Further adding to confusion, Turnbull has said that the will of the people reflected in this survey is only binding if it’s a no, but not if it’s a yes. Wait, which side are you on again Turnbull?
  8. They project
    Turnbull keeps telling the LGBTIQ community to be “proud” and confident, yet, we know that it is Turnbull’s cowardice that has created this drama. It seems like the person who really needs to hear the mantra “believe in yourself” is Turnbull, not us.
  9. They try to align people against you
    Instead of suggesting that we should protect against discrimination of the LGBTIQ community in this survey, Turnbull has commented that “The only way to stop people from saying things that you find hurtful is to shut down free speech”. In other words, *protecting* those who would discriminate in the first place is the number one priority because “free speech”.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy
    While stating again and again that only a “handful” of Australians are homophobic, Turnbull was one of the first to condemn the attack of Tony Abbott by a random anarchist and use it against the ‘yes’ side: “They are not helping their case by engaging in violent conduct. They are not showing respect for others”. In other words, Turnbull suggests we ignore the homophobic attacks happening, but is the first to use a random attack (even though the accused man has stated this had nothing to do with the marriage issue) on a Liberal as a reason to condemn the ‘yes’ side. In sum: the LGBTIQ community is crazy for feeling vilified, but Tony Abbott and co are legitimate in their fears.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar 
    This is what we saw on The Project last night: Turnbull suggesting that being concerned about homophobia in this debate is a media beat up. Apparently the only person we should trust on this is Turnbull, who tells us to forget our troubles and have fun. Gosh what a lot of fun it is.

Rainbow-Malcolm-TurnbullWhat all of this reveals is that whatever the outcome of the survey, Turnbull is firmly not on the side of the LGBTIQ community.

Instead of accepting the abusive logic of the marriage equality survey where we are told to be politely grateful for every ‘yes’, we should remember the liberatory politics of LGBTIQ activism past: we don’t just want equality, we want freedom; we want more than words, we want action; we don’t beg, we demand. And most of all: we are not the problem.

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Hope and Glimpsing the Future in the Marriage Equality Debate

This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017. 

UntitledAs Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143). In the midst of the contemporary nuclear crisis, the never ending debate about marriage equality seems a fitting topic to apply the theoretical questions I’d like to explore today, about whether we can and should – and indeed how we should – hope for a better world.

UntitledSo the story goes: “it gets better”. This is a common refrain of LGBTIQ youth services in Australia. “It gets better” refers to the promise that when you leave school, you won’t have to deal with bullies any longer – you’ll be free to live your life as a happy LGBTIQ person. Now, for many of us, this isn’t totally wrong. Leaving the social intensity of the schoolyard and becoming independent from family units, can mean that we are able to find new communities of acceptance.

UntitledBut how cruel might this hopeful promise be, when bigotry can be canvassed as state-sanctioned “legitimate debate”, as we are seeing now? When homophobic and transphobic ideas are not originating from the schoolyard itself – as we know, people aged 15-24 are the most avid supporters of marriage equality – but are being shown on television during the nightly news? Perhaps the promise to our children of “it gets better” is a cruel one.

UntitledAs Lauren Berlant writes, “When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (2007, 33). For the “yes” campaign, marriage equality has become the object of desire that contains within it a cluster of promises: a hope about what will get better and for whom.

UntitledBut cruel is the optimism of the segments of the “yes” campaign that refuse to confront the homophobia and transphobia emerging in the debate, and instead seek to win hearts and minds on the basis of respectability, normality, and the idea that “love” is indeed “love”. As Berlant argues, it is a cruel optimism that operates where we live with the toxic conditions of the present labouring under the view that the future will “somehow” deliver something better.

UntitledAnd indeed it is cruelly optimistic to imagine what that future will entail if we do not question the social constitution of futurity in the first instance. As Lee Edelman (1998) argues, it is the child that acts as the pervasive cultural “emblem” of the future, the ultimate signifier of the hope of tomorrow. Edelman explains that while the left operates under a liberalism that sees the elasticity of this signifier extend – children can still signify the future despite queer family arrangements – conservatives cling to a more intense vision of social rupture, that must preserve such signifiers at all costs. The child is not only a symbol of a future horizon, but also a concretely heterosexual future, where heterosexuality is to reproduction is to the child is to the future operate in a circular and spectacular logic.

UntitledThis is precisely what we have seen playing out for over a decade, albeit more sharply in recent times, in the marriage equality debate. While the right have repeated the refrain, “think of the children”, the left too have taken up this mantle, constantly leaning on statistics about the welfare of queer youth or children from queer families in order to make a point of the utter sameness of the child under queer circumstances. In this envisioning, the queer child doesn’t queer the future, rather, the queerness of the child is contained in order to suggest that there is very little threat – only a slight extension – to the more conservative vision.

UntitledAs the recent GetUp ad for marriage equality suggests, in the words of the mother in the heterosexual nuclear family unit, “kids learn their values at home, from their parents, that’s why we’ll vote yes in the upcoming marriage equality vote. And if she asks, we’ll tell her it’s about fairness and kindness”. In this ad there is the removal of the threat of queering of the child, who is represented as safe from having to learn about sexuality or gender diversity because she learns her values from “the family” rather than through programs like Safe Schools. We learn in this ad that marriage equality is no challenge to the social logic of heterosexual normativity: this is the vision of transformation under marriage equality – total preservation of the existing social order.

But Edelman suggests a different approach to this logic is possible. As Edelman writes: “fuck the social order and the figural children paraded before us as its terroristic emblem; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Miz; fuck the poor innocent kid on the ‘Net; fuck Laws both with capital ‘L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (1998, 29). Edelman utterly refuses the “sweetness” of hope and investment in a future, and instead endorses a queer negativity soaks in the bitterness of the present.

UntitledWe might wonder about the astringency of Edelman’s anti-social thesis, in light of the fact that attachment to “same-sex marriage” is currently being enacted by many as a mode of survival. Many have thrown themselves into fighting for a yes campaign precisely in order to assist a striving toward a “getting better”. We might also question the limits of Edelman’s radical presentism and anti-futurity, and if a different kind of future envisioning might be possible without a cruel investment in inevitable progress.

As some have pointed out, Edelman reduces ‘a’ version of the future to ‘the’ version of the future – more radical imaginings of opening up spaces of possibility for queer lives are rendered as as problematic as hegemonic dominant visions of how the future “ought” to be conserved (White 2013, 33). Could there then be a glimmer of a different set of possibilities, a transformed social order, and another logic, to be found? Rather than a cruel and unrupturing hope, can a queer hope be possible?

UntitledAs José Esteban Muñoz offers, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1). Here Muñoz suggests that we might adopt a concrete utopian imagining where, “the hopes of the collective” are connected to real, lived struggle in the historical present. In other words, we might have “educated hope” (3). In contrast to Edelman, Muñoz insists on the importance of hope as a critical tool, where “hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia…profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broken-down present” (12).

However as Teresa de Lauretis (2011) also contends, we must read Edelman’s point about negativity not as a call to negativity as the political act, but rather the reflection of a condition of society, the death drive at the heart of it all, where there is always the attempt to overcome and resolve this with positivity and hope. Edelman’s imagining is heterotopic as he reflects this death drive back at us, but argues against its resolution.

UntitledSimilarly Anne Cvetkovich’s (2007) work extends this heterotopic view of society, to get to the “depression” at the heart of things, that is, not the negativity and negation of life, but more specifically the feelings that are part and parcel of occupying this world. As feminists have long argued, “the personal is political”, and we might also extend this to say that we feel politics at the level of the body. Cvetkovich argues that affective states like depression can be political – because while they can be antisocial (in quite a literal way – through withdrawal), there is also the possibility that a new sociality may form through making-public these affective states.

UntitledBut in making the negativity at the heart of things public rather than private, we can also become targeted as the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem. As Sara Ahmed illustrates, the figure of the feminist kill joy who offers critique and anger can be seen as the source of unhappiness: “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (2010, 582). In other words, unveiling already circulating – but hidden – negativity is risky business.

UntitledWhile we focus solely on concepts like fairness and kindness, positivity, good stories, the “good homosexual”, or the “unqueer queer child”, the bad feelings at the heart of the marriage equality debate remain occluded and politically impotent. To fail to recognise and name the homophobia and transphobia that are proliferating under conservative discussions in the marriage equality debate is to inadvertently reiterate a narrative of a heteronormative future where “it gets better”. To engage in a queer hopefulness then, is not to shy away from negativity, but rather, to embrace the possible world that it reveals to us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 5.56.32 PMIt is only in confronting those elements of the present that we would rather deny, from which a truly utopian vision might emerge. In this case, my educated hope is that we will have a marriage equality debate that confronts homophobia and transphobia, that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and that makes space for the LGBTIQ community well beyond the question of marriage.

A Queer Reading of Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do

Last week when Taylor Swift’s new single Look What You Made Me Do hit the airways, I was devastated. While the album name ‘Reputation’ seemed promising, the lyric video seemed to confirm that Tayswi – Queen of the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood – was only interested in making a petty jab at Kanye West via a mostly terrible pop song. My god, I thought. Is Taylor just completely basic? 

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Please never watch the lyric video. Ever.

But when the new video directed by Joseph Khan dropped, all of my doubts perished, because THIS IS WITHOUT A DOUBT THE GAYEST TAYSWI VIDEO OF ALL TIME. (And by gayest of course I mean open to a queer reading i.e. seeing things sideways, and reading LGBTQ themes into things). Unsurprisingly the mainstream media are calling this Tayswi’s “shade” video which is simply about mocking all of her haters. They are entirely skimming over all the gay bits that they can’t make sense of (never mind that queers invented shade).

So bear with me for the incredibly long journey that is a queer reading (or really, just the most obvious and true and direct reading) of LWYMMD…

The opening shots lead us to a graveyard:

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This is surely an obvious story about Taylor’s trashed reputation, no?

Well, we are also immediately reminded of Leo Bersani’s famous paper Is the Rectum a Grave?, written in 1987 at the time when the peak of the AIDs crisis was unfolding in the USA. In Bersani’s paper he tracks the homophobic response to AIDS, but also how misogyny is also implicated in homophobia, where femininity is conflated with the “passive” bottom position in gay male sex. Bersani urges us to embrace the subordinate feminine/homosexual position as a way to contest and shatter hierarchies of power.

Here we see Taylor trying to “bury” her gaping grave that reveals her vulnerability/femininity/homosexuality:

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At the bottom of the grave we see 2014 circa Swift in her Met Ball gown, the same year of the peak rumours that her and Karlie Kloss were in a relationship:

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Much like the imagery of the video for Bad Blood (also directed by Khan) we appear to be transported to an “underground” world. We might recall that in that clip the underground involved an Amazonian-like alternate reality:

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But in this underground, Taylor isn’t fighting, she’s in a bath full of diamonds:

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While diamonds symbolise wealth, she’s not sitting in a pit of money – most clearly here we are called to think of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend:

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Not only was Monroe herself a famously closeted gay icon, the original song has some rather queer lyrics: “Time rolls on/And youth is gone/ And you can’t straighten up when you bend”.

Taylor’s bath is also in the centre of a room full of mirrors, recalling the saying “hall of mirrors” where one is not able to distinguish fact from fiction. But we also need to recall the intertextual reference to her earlier clip for Style, which is all about duality:

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We might also note the rainbows evident in this clip:

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And the tension between the internal masculine/feminine:

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A theme which is also represented in Bad Blood:

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But back to LWYMMD, we are met with our first glimpse of snakes:

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Which are mostly obviously a reference to Kimye’s attack on Taylor after the Famous shenanigan. BUT what about the fact that snakes appear on Taylor’s hands in a lot of her earlier video clips? For example, Style:

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Shake it Off:

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And Blank Space:

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The fact that Taylor wears many of these snakes as rings is also significant in light of her earlier ring choices, notably the fleur-de-lis of Our Song, representing chastity:

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So, Taylor has gone from a symbol of chastity, to snakes, which coincidentally are strongly associated with sexuality due to that whole Adam-and-Eve-snake-incident-thing. In other words, snakes are traditionally understood as representing sexual power. For Freud snakes were a symbol of male sexual drive, but lesbian culture has also embraced the snake namely in reference to the ancient matriarchal Minoan society symbolised by the “Snake Goddess”:

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We then see that Taylor is indeed positioning herself as snake queen:

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But she’s not only queen of snakes i.e. queen of sexual power, she’s drinking tea:

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Which seems kind of random UNTIL we recall that tea is associated with the gay community as Urban Dictionary defines: “Used within the urban gay community, ‘tea’ signifies a piece of sensitive and possibly highly sought-after information or tidbit”. Or, as A.J. Musser has argued: “While I do not want to argue that tea functions as the sign of lesbianism, it does serve as one among a collection of possible signs of female queerness”. So, here the tea drinking is not only about recalling a secret, it is a nod to lesbian stereotypes. In light of this we might see the “et tu Brute” chiselled into the columns as not only referencing Kanye as a backstabber, but perhaps also calling him out of the closet – i.e. “and you, Kanye?”

Next up it’s Taylor in an epic golden car crash, and as everyone has pointed out, she looks just like Katy Perry (but holding the grammy Katy doesn’t have – so shady):

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Up until recently the reason behind Katy and Taylor’s famous feud wasn’t known. Katy has since explained that it was about backing dancers. Are we really to believe that Taylor wrote Bad Blood, which features the lyrics “You know it used to be mad love” just because of a fight about backing dancers?

Maybe Taylor is trying to reference Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholy here – you become what you cannot love…(And, not to mention that Katy came out earlier this year).

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We then see Taylor the caged bird, calling to mind Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores questions of lesbianism among other themes. We might also note that Taylor is in an orange jumpsuit behind bars, a la Orange is the New Black.

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But importantly, Taylor’s “feast” in the cage involves a lobster and a rat:

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While rats are symbolic of new beginnings, and lobsters also represent regeneration, “lobster” is slang for “lesbian”.

We are then taken to scenes of Taylor robbing what appears to be a music streaming company. But this isn’t just about her feud with Apple, she’s also sporting the very pansexual slogan “BLIND FOR LOVE” amongst a bevy of cats/pussies:

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Of course Taylor has been upfront about her obsession with cats for some time (also a lesbian stereotype), as we see in early videos such as 22 (where she just happens to be hugging a woman while making a “V” sign…):

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And lobsters/cats aren’t the only animal symbolism Taylor has used in videos – remember that beaver from We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together who (along with a random woman) beckons Taylor away from her bed/phone call with her boyfriend?

Beaver

Back in LWYMMD, things take a turn for the extra gay, with Taylor referencing Dykes on Bikes (a lesbian pride group which began in San Francisco in the 1970s):

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While some have suggested this is undoubtably a reference to Peter Lindberg’s “Wild at Heart” shoot for Vogue in 1991, there is no doubt that the inspiration for that was this:

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We then see Taylor as the dominatrix leader of a “squad” of plastic women (note the cats also on screen – it’s her “pussy squad”), in reference to her infamous girl gang groupies:

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While the figure of “dominatrix” has its own overt sexual connotations, the imagery (as Every Outfit on SATC has pointed out) is clearly referencing the 2016 horror film Neon Demon:

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WHICH notoriously includes an extended scene involving lesbian necrophilia.

Taylor then bursts in to the metaphorical closet:

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Which also calls to mind the “door” in her clip for Fifteen where she is 800% in love with a girl and is just a completely gay story for real (lyrics include “you might find who you’re supposed to be…take a deep breath and walk through the doors”):

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In the LWYMMD closet she doesn’t meet her teen girl crush, but rather a crew of effeminate men in heels, including the notable and openly gay Todrick Hall. A lot of commentators have pointed to the “I ❤ T.S.” on the men’s shirts as a jab at Taylor’s supposed ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston who wore a similar shirt when they were said to be dating:

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But I think the real takeaway message here is the association between those who declare their love for Taylor, and being gay/closeted. In other words this whole scene is about Taylor’s beards.

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The finale is Taylor standing on a pile of warring alter-egos (and of course the “T” referencing not only “Taylor” but the “tea” earlier in the clip):

T

Up the front we have Taylor in her Swan Lake outfit from Shake it Off, and given that this particular character was chosen out of a cast of many from that particular clip, we might also see this as a reference to the lesbian horror (see a theme here?) film Black Swan:

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With feminine horror also referenced in Taylor’s outfit as she saws the wings off a phallic aeroplane:

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In the final scene Taylor once again meets the many sides of “herself”:

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A theme of self-confrontation we have also seen in earlier clips like Out of the Woods:

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But while Taylor’s previous clips have been about “finding” herself, it is clear in LWYMMD that we the audience have not yet found the “true” Taylor.

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Or, maybe she’s all and none of these characters. Maybe she’s been trying to flag her sexuality for the longest time, with her snake rings, masculine internal duality, tea, rainbows, closet doors, lobsters, beavers and cats. I guess only time, and the rest of Reputation may tell.

(Thanks also to Clare S for helping with this piece, specifically the research on lesbians and tea). 

Film Review: First Girl I Loved

When you are a teenager, having a crush can be truly agonising and all-consuming. It’s equal parts thrill and terror when your feelings are reciprocated, as you innocently try to work out how to turn those feelings into a relationship. But, if you happen to be a heterosexual couple while you’re navigating all this, there are endless guides on how you should act and your partnership is symbolically celebrated every day in songs, TV shows and movies. That’s why a First Girl I Loved is unusual, and so very welcome. Unlike 99.9% of films produced on the topic of love, it is unashamedly gay, even as it works through how shame feels if you are gay.

Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved is a smart, affirming film about teenage love. Dylan Gelula  plays Anne, who has fallen for senior cool-girl/softball star Sasha, played by Brianna Hildebrand. We follow Anne and Sasha as they try and figure out what the unspoken spark between them might mean, and what it could possibly lead to. Anne’s best friend Clifton, played by Mateo Arias, complicates the story with his own feelings for Anne spilling out in dangerous ways.

FirstGirlILoved_Promotional_Still_AN_CL_stairsWhile the closure of the film was a little clunky (and I wondered if they actually had a few different endings in mind), overall First Girl I Loved is utterly engrossing. The opening scenes are framed tightly and closely around the protagonists, and we remain at eye level, almost as if we are right there with them – behind the softball fence, lingering at the doorway to the bedroom, walking down the street sipping $4 wine. We’re next to them all the way, not as a voyeur, but as a friend along for the ride.

26-first-girl-i-loved.w1200.h630Gelula’s performance is very commendable. She strikes a delicate balance between unbearable apathetic teen, and captivating hero that we want to succeed. Through Anne we see just how brilliant and strong teens can be, even if they’re totally clueless. Teens are often denigrated by society writ-large for being naive, but First Girl I Loved shows the pain and beauty of fumbling through, the intelligence involved in not knowing but pushing on nonetheless. The awkward innocence of Anne and Sasha’s interactions is wonderfully executed, and there was something so familiar about their veiled giggling banter that I felt like I was watching my young self up on screen.

1As I sat watching the film unfold, I found myself desperately wanting things to work out for the characters. I wanted it to end happily not only because I was so engrossed in the story, but because happy endings for gay characters are so few and far between. It’s been great to see more films coming out that address romance between women, like Lovesong in 2016 or Carol in 2015, but many remain stories about tortured, impossible love, or a love that’s always on the horizon that we never get to see fully flourish. That’s why Imagine Me & You from 2005 is still one of the greatest lesbian romance films – not only does it relish in the genre of romcom rather than locating gayness in the seriousness of arthouse, but it moves through unspoken desire to love shouted from the rooftops.

First.Girl_.I.Loved-szn1While I can imagine some queer theorists arguing that the lack of traditionally happy endings for gay films is welcome, because who wants to live up to that heteronormative expectation anyway, it’s also pretty shit to constantly have popular culture either ignore your relationship or portray it is an inevitably difficult affair. While there is something to be said for representing the reality of homophobia and the difficulty of queer life, it is a pain that everyone else gets the option of fantasy (because let’s be real it’s not like heterosexual life really ends happily for everyone) except for gays who must remain proper realists.

The-First-Girl-I-LovedFirst Girl I Loved is no romcom, and it is serious. But it does manage to deal with difficult issues and give us a sense of both catharsis and hope, even as it leaves many things unresolved. It doesn’t make the empty promise that so many teens are barraged with that “it gets better”, but it does suggest that queer kin can be found and that inner strength is possible while traversing difficult and unknown terrain. First Girl I Loved gifts its audience a small beam of light for navigating this path, and for that it should be celebrated.

Give Drag a Chance

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Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

Brooke Candy and the Question of Queer Femininity

I think we ought to treat pop stars as philosophers (as constructed as they are), citing them in our papers for their insights on the nature of existence and revealing to us the pulse and contradictions of dominant culture. But we must proceed with caution: like all philosophers, pop stars are often deeply problematic. On this note, I think LA rapper/singer Brooke Candy is worth exploring. She shows how all art is appropriation, but is a reminder that cashing in on subordinate cultures is vastly different from trying to rip open a norm from the inside out. She’s also an interesting case for what she does (and doesn’t) show us about the queer potential of femininity.

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Brooke Candy (left) in Grimes’ (right) video for “Genesis

Candy provides the kind of sexual, aggressive, high-femme, esoteric visuals that follow firmly in the tradition of the mega-pop-queens before her, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. However when she first came onto the scene in 2012 with her clip for “Das Me” she was called out for cultural appropriation, along with others like Miley Cyrus who appeared to be cashing in on black culture.

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Candy in “Das Me”

Candy’s stylisation referencing black culture was focused on at the time, but we might also note Candy’s fetishisation of disability as shown in the frame below, which is also clearly referencing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. As in many cases where cultural appropriation is pointed out, Candy’s would-be fans challenged her to try and speak from her own position instead.

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The woman pushing Candy along here seems to be saying to the director “Really? You don’t see how many levels of wrong this is?”

However, the problem with the demand to “speak only for yourself” is that it’s difficult figuring out what that should (or can) look like. How can we avoid appropriation in art when culture circulates in endlessly reverberating ways in a globalised world? After all, the postmodern turn taught us that truth is multiple, and that meaning ought not be essentialised in bodies or objects or things…right? The solution here might be: why not turn to the “norm” as a focus for your experimentation instead?

We can see this method playing out *some* of Candy’s subsequent work, where she engages with embodiments of “ideal” (white, blonde, pretty, and so on) femininity and amps it up.

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From “Happy Days“: Candy plays on ideas of cuteness and sexual performance

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From “Paper or Plastic“: Candy organises for her sister-wives to shoot their oppressor

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From “Nasty“: Candy blurs the distinction between stripper and Victoria’s Secret Model, with camp sensibilities

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From “A Study in Duality”: Candy thinks through the relationship between sex and death (among other things). Here she is shown wearing her feminine armour, which appears throughout many of her clips

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From “Opulence“: Candy explores issues of greed, death and power. Here Candy appears to be taking the trope “diamonds are a girls best friend” to a new level (though, it could also be argued she is tapping into imagery of Shiva)

Many of her videos contain Candy playing with being grotesque, violent, scary, overwhelming, sad, and hysterical at the same time as “showing” us her objectified body. What we gain from Candy as philosopher is an engagement with the idea of the queer potential of femininity. That is, where femininity can be made “strange”, where the expectations of sexuality and gender cannot be neatly contained. Often this borders into “cultural appropriation”, and Candy fails to cast off the overt symbols and accessories of marginalised cultures (which, really should tell us something about the “norm”).

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Candy has questionable Chola curls going on in her latest clip for “Living Out Loud” but also seems to be channelling Miley Cyrus circa 2013

Candy grew up in a remarkable context—her parents were divorced, and while her mother worked as a nurse, her father worked as the chief financial officer of Hustler magazine. Despite (or perhaps because of) this “duality” of life experiences, it appears that she has been signed to a major label and for all intents and purposes is as corporately-driven as other stars.

Herein lies one of the major problems of Candy: though she’s just like every other pop star trying to make a buck, she’s pretending she’s something “alternative”. As she stated in one interview: “We can watch the news and see what’s happening in the world or we can have our attention caught by some famous asshole in a red dress…Who cares who wore what at the Met Ball, it’s all fake bullshit. It’s a big fucking show”. The comment reveals (another) limit of Candy’s queer femininity: she thinks that somehow “putting it on” makes her more queer than those women at the Met Ball. In reality, the drag and camp culture that Candy revels in has always referenced the divas and the “assholes” in red dresses—in ways that is often about reverence and worship rather than cynicism.

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What really differentiates Candy from her contemporaries on the red carpet?

If anything, Candy’s attempts to amp up aspects of her style to border on the “obscene” is that you don’t have to do amp it up to see the queer possibilities of femininity. Appropriation of the norm shows us how very contingent and unstable the norm already is in the first place. And if we rely on strategies of “turning up the volume”, we might accidentally fix that (Met Ball) femininity as “natural” and “normal” by comparison. Where does gender stop being drag stop being gender stop being drag? Of course this is Judith Butler‘s old point, but also as RuPaul reminds us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. This isn’t to undermine the experience that gender is an essential part of identity. In fact, it is rather to make a case for seeing gender as at once constructed and as something that we can’t fully choose. So the theory goes, questioning gender makes space for the gender yet to come.

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Maybe this doesn’t recover Brooke Candy from her problems (she’s practically the Heidegger of the pop world). But it is a helpful case in thinking through the limits and possibilities of attempting to enact queer femininity. As it turns out, gender was never not-queer all along.

A Tale of Beards and Lavender: Imagining the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood

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My Internet history is a Snow/Kendrick love fest

It’s strange, but true: at least once a week I sit down and Google the celebrities I think might be not-straight. There’s Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow (hoping the Bechloe romance of Pitch Perfect finally comes true), Leighton Meester (sure she married Adam Brody but…), Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone (to name a few). Up until fairly recently Ellen Page, Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart were also on my list. They make up what I like to imagine is the “Secret Lesbian Club” of Hollywood. In my mind, this is basically an underground ring of awesome gays who like to get together fairly frequently to watch Bound, talk about butch/femme aesthetic, read gender studies texts, and figure out ways to insert queer subtext into their work. And who do I imagine is at the centre of it all? Taylor Swift of course.

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Life is more interesting through a rainbow filter

Some might say this is wishful thinking. But the thing is, when you spend most of your days thinking queerly (that is, making the familiar strange, particularly with regard to sexuality and gender), you can’t help but see the world through rainbow glasses. It seems to me that “normal” is entirely a fiction, and everyone is a lot queerer than all that. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people with “opposite-sex” or “heterosexual” desires, but just that: a) what we ordinarily make of pairings along these lines belies the complexity of human experience; and b) a lot of people are probably a lot less distinctly straight (or gay) than assumed. With this in mind I look to Hollywood, which produces so many of the cultural texts we consume that show visions of a perfectly normative heterosexual life. I spend much of my time—as is tradition in queer theory—re-reading texts differently, to uncover the hidden queer subtext in popular culture. So, why not re-read the lives of actors themselves, given that we can be 99% sure that the narratives produced about them by tabloids and other press are also entirely fiction?

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Taylor Swift

For me Taylor Swift is the perfect example of someone we ought to re-read, because she is held up as the epitome of the normal, wholesome heterosexual girl of today. For one thing, she made her debut on the country music scene, which is notoriously unfriendly to the gays—despite producing a bevy of flamboyant stars who epitomise the queer concept of “camp” aesthetic (Dolly Parton, for example). The boy crushes of Swift are heavily interrogated in the media, and her relationships with women are (for the most part) understood as purely platonic. However, if you look a little closer, we can see a queer subtext in Swift’s life and oeuvre that suggests a rather more fluid expression of desire. Here are a few things to note:

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It just doesn’t look fun for anyone

She dated Taylor Lautner and it was really awkward
There is no doubt that it is common practice in Hollywood for studios to pair stars up for promotional purposes. This is referred to as “showmance”. But there is also the well-known though little-discussed practice of “bearding” (typically this refers to setting up gay male actors with female stars) or in extreme cases “lavender marriage” where the charade involves putting a ring on it (Rock Hudson is one well-noted example). We can’t be sure whether is was a bearding scenario when Swift and Lautner got together, but they sure were very showy yet extremely uncomfortable together.

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Having a much better time

She used to have a pretty intense relationship with her violinist
During her country music days, Swift toured with a band which included violinist Caitlin Evanson for eight years. Unlike those Taylor x Taylor pics, Taylor and her violinist had sparks galore. Evanson, who is ten years older than Swift once commented, “Taylor is a 40 year old in a 19 years olds body”, which is just the kind of thing you’d expect an older girlfriend to say about their younger lover.

23C707C900000578-0-image-a-68_1417800412246There was that time she apparently kissed Karlie Kloss
Karlie Kloss is supposed to be the closest of Swift’s girl-clan, and in 2014 they were spotted kissing at a club. The photos are pretty dodgy and might well be fake. But I include this point here because it started a bunch of rumours about Swift’s sexuality, which is important for the next point.

Her song “New Romantics” is probably about being more than straight
taylor-swift_240822_top.jpgSwift’s new single off 1989 includes a number of lyrics that reflect a queer subtext. These include:
1.”We show off our different scarlet letters— Trust me, mine is better”: given that scarlet letters refer to adultery, Swift is basically saying here “I’ve got other partners but they’re not who you expect”.
2. “We team up then switch sides like a record changer”: note here that Swift doesn’t seem to be just referring to switching partners, but switching sides.
3. “The rumors are terrible and cruel/But, honey, most of them are true”: this might be referring to the gay rumours as noted above.
4. “And every day is like a battle/But every night with us is like a dream”: this suggests an outside persona that clashes with what goes on behind closed doors, specifically with a partner.
5. “The best people in life are free”: this might refer to the practice of studios paying for beards. Swift is saying, the best people in life are not the ones you get contractually set up with.

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Swift romancing with Calvin Harris on her Instagram

“I Know Places” is about secret love
One thing you can say about Swift’s hetero romances, is that they are very very public. Instagram pictures posted by Swift, hundreds of photos in gossip magazines, TV interviews, and so on. However this song from 1989 refers to a love that Swift must hide away. The song also starts with “You stand with your hand on my waist line/It’s a scene and we’re out here in plain sight”, which suggests a romance that might not be perceived as one at first. This might be a reference to that phenomenon that people will believe anything before they believe you’re in a gay relationship—i.e. “oh, you’re sisters?” or “you guys are such cute best friends” etc.

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Unfortunately it actually is a big deal because openly queer stars don’t get jobs

Let’s be clear here: I don’t want to essentialise sexuality, like it’s some nugget of “truth” that can simply be unearthed like a buried crystal. But I do think there is some benefit in cracking open what is considered normal, so that we can begin to see how this is really just a fiction that *no one* lives up to. This also isn’t to condemn those who do not “come out” of the proverbial closet, because we ought to realise that attempting to live up to the fiction of normality is often enacted as a mode of survival. The horrible reality is that once stars come out they can’t survive easily in Hollywood. Among others, Ellen Page has talked about how she has struggled to get parts playing straight characters since publicly declaring her sexuality.

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Okay so my analysis sounds a lot like this trashy magazine…but the conclusion is that if we refuse the idea of “normal” then this romance isn’t actually”shocking” at all

In any case, you might be thinking: why care about Taylor Swift’s sexuality anyway—shouldn’t that be none of our business? Fair point. Perhaps when you apply a queer “re-reading” to real people it can all get a little…gossipy. Despite this, I continue to hold onto the fantasy that our icons of culture aren’t all that straight and narrow. I think I care so much because I grew up looking and acting pretty heteronormative, and was treated as such. But while I had mad crushes on boys and aspired to extreme girliness in aesthetic, my desires were not simply straight. I had girl crushes too, I just didn’t know how to make sense of my complex range of feelings. I guess that’s why I hang onto the idea that there’s a Secret Lesbian Club in Hollywood, headed by the girliest boy-mad celebrity of all…because in that alternate universe, sexuality might be hidden but it sure isn’t black and white.