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):

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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). 

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.

 

The Problems With Marriage Equality…But Why We Should Still Fight for it

Currently, my girlfriend and I cannot get married. Not that we’re planning our Pinterest pages or anything, but the point is: same-sex marriage is illegal in Australia. Recently a friend shared this video, an ad in support of the “Yes” vote for the upcoming Irish referendum on same-sex marriage:

What struck me most was the emphasis on “family” made in the video created by BeLong To youth services, underscored by the tagline “Bring Your Family With You.” I was torn by this message. While the idea of parents and extended family coming out in support of their lesbian, gay and bisexual relatives is moving (albeit unrealistic for many), it also reinforces the idea that this fight is centrally about maintaining the primacy of the blood-related family in society, which only extends itself via legal marriage.

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From Paris is Burning

This idea of family is far from the reality in many queer communities, where kinship ties are made with many non-blood relatives, especially for those who are thrown out of home when they come out. This different conception of “family” in the queer community is illustrated most clearly in the 1989 documentary ‘Paris is Burning.’ Created by Jeannie Livingstone, the film reveals an underground world in New York of “drag balls” where young (often homeless) African American and Hispanic youth find belonging, joining different ball “families” who compete and perform. Ask anyone who has found belonging in LGBTIQ spaces, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that family often means much more than who your genetic relatives are or who you are legally bound to.

Some people have used unique ways such as combining handfasting with traditional marriage, to represent polyamorous union

Some people have used unique ways such as combining handfasting with traditional marriage, to represent polyamorous union

It is also important to note that within queer communities sexual and emotional partnerships are not always so clearly between two people. Campaigns for marriage equality generally seek to change the legal definition of marriage from that between “a man and a woman” to “same-sex” marriage but still for a partnership of two. This does not reflect the reality of many queer people’s lives, who may be in polyamorous relationships or who might enjoy other partnership dynamics not reflected by a dualistic definition. Add to this the fact that many transgender and intersex people are often left out of proposed “same-sex” marriage bills, and you can see that the fight for marriage equality sometimes refers to a very narrow idea of partnership and family that is in conflict with many queer people’s experiences.

1509307_675883508915_2761431560733048872_nI raise all of these points to highlight the very important fact that “marriage equality” often does not reflect the kind of relations that currently occur in queer communities, nor the central needs of these communities, and to that end is not the “final” frontier of LGBTIQ rights. However, this does not mean that marriage equality is not worth fighting for.

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Some in the queer community argue that marriage is assimilation

Every time my girlfriend and I go to a wedding we are reminded that we do not enjoy the same legal rights as our heterosexual friends because of our sexuality. Here the ban on same-sex marriage acts as a symbol of difference and exclusion. Some in the queer community argue that difference is good, and should be celebrated: assimilation is not the way. Although it’s all well and good to embrace difference, it’s quite another story when you have the law labelling you as different. Some have also suggested that gay marriage creates a situation where there are “good” (married) gays and “bad” (unmarried) ones. However, we can already see that unmarried versus married straight people are sometimes treated differently in society, which highlights that the problem here is how we value marriage altogether, not whether some people should be allowed to marry. Often I forget that I’m in a “same-sex” relationship until I get reminded by society; discrimination on the basis of having a loving relationship with someone seems utterly ridiculous.

marriage-equality-supporters-washingtonThe fact that you are legally obliged to read out the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman” at weddings in Australia also causes our sympathetic straight friends much guilt, consternation and dismay. Often celebrants read out the law, and then at the bride and groom’s request make commentary on their rejection of the definition. While some do this quickly and quietly, the best way I have seen this dealt with is to labour on the point. When straight couples get up at weddings and say “this law is outrageous!” I think this makes the point better than “abstaining” from marriage altogether.

1_123125_122946_2081208_2087895_030903_wedding.gif.CROP.original-originalMany feminists in the West have fought against the insular and restrictive aspects of the institution of marriage since the 1960s. The gains of this have been changes to social understandings of marriage, where women are no longer seen as the property of their husbands, and where divorce is a legitimate option for those in unhappy or dangerous partnerships. While the institution of marriage is not perfect, and indeed is an institution where the law comes into the intimate sphere of a relationship, it is arguably not what it used to be. Except that is still between “a man and a woman” (in Australia at least).

20081117_lovedontdiscrim_560x375Of the weddings I have been to, what I have seen is a celebration of people in love, making a public declaration in front of their friends and family (however that is defined). Sure, queer people can still have parties that mimic this, but while discriminatory laws are in place there is ever the reminder that inequality between heterosexual and homosexual people is legally sanctioned in this country.

10809965_494942430647416_1137332444_nThe fight for marriage equality is not the end of the road for LGBTIQ rights, not by a long shot. But it is an important stone in the path to justice, and winning equal marriage in Australia would remove one roadblock that we keep getting stuck on. So let’s fight to open up this path, not stopping at marriage, and along the way take everyone with us in the fight against entrenched discrimination.

Scourge of the Girl Crush: 7 Nearly-Gay Movies

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

I have this habit of erasing straightness from movies and TV shows, to the extent that I often remember things as explicitly gay, when really there’s heteroromance as a main focus. For example, in this year’s series of The Bachelor on Australian television, I was convinced that the main man Blake was gay, and that his top two women left at the end – Sam and Lisa – were in love (I still stalk their Instagram accounts and hold to this theory). When it all went to crap, I couldn’t help thinking it was probably because everyone was gay, and the new girl Blake picked was just the only one willing to be his beard.

It's like this see

It’s like this see

I was recently asked by a friend why I was so insistent on seeing queerness in straight romances, like, isn’t this some kind of reverse homophobia?! I answered that there are is so little queerness represented in the mainstream that by default I see queer storylines in some kind of attempt to open up space. As Jill Mackey writes about seeing the gay in the straight:

Despite [the] dearth of honest representations of ourselves and our lives, lesbians continue to see mainstream films, and we make up for the lack of representation of ourselves by “reading against the grain” for representations of women that we might appropriate and interpret as signs of lesbian love and desire

I'll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

But I’ll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

Of course I don’t see every romance this way and there are some “straight” partnerships I definitely love – Buttercup and Wesley, Elizabeth and Darcy and all of Love Actually, for example. But in many movies, I just can’t help seeing epic romances between the female characters, which leaves me in a state of perpetual disappointment and/or simply mis-remembering the endings (always tricking myself that the fanfic in my head actually happened). Adding to my angst is the fact that many films try and pass off any possible queer vibes as simple non-threatening “girl crushes” instead. This makes me pretty mad, because it suggests that there is a “safe” way for women to be nearly-queer, while still asserting an explicitly “no-homo” sentiment (many “bromances” also promote the message of safely-not-gay).

So, entertaining a mix of both delight and disappointment, here’s a rundown of my top seven nearly-gay-girl-couples (spoilers ahead):

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“We got played by the same guy… do you want vodka or tequila?”

7. Carly and Kate, The Other Woman
The Other Woman
has an interesting premise – when Carly finds out that she’s actually the mistress of the man she’s been dating, she becomes unlikely friends with his wife Kate (and they team up to do awful things to him). The movie explores their burgeoning friendship and (if you ask me) there is a great deal of homoeroticism in their unintended ménage à trois, particularly when they discuss their desire to still have sex with the cheating guy, yet “withhold” for each other. All I’m saying is that there is a lot of sexual tension, drunken rollicking and under-wedding-skirt action. But really for me the unacknowledged love between the two women is cemented when Carly “falls” for Kate’s handsome yet fairly two-dimensional brother. It’s like seeing her choose to take the second prize in a raffle. The bro don’t cut it.

"You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine"

“You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine”

6. Rita and Becca, Bridesmaids
This one’s not quite as painful, because really the lesbian themes are pretty overt, so it’s not so much about reading into things as celebrating a minor storyline. These guys have a serious crush on each other, and the femme-on-femme action couldn’t be better. In fact I love them so much I can’t even remember how this storyline ends, despite seeing the film several times. I think they go back to their husbands, but in my head they get shacked up in Vegas. My only wish is that there was a lot more of the film dedicated to them and I’m still hoping for a gay wedding spin-off.

"A woman's touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom

“A woman’s touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom”

5. Katie and Calamity, Calamity Jane
What can I say about these two? They move to a hut in the wilderness and dance around singing a song called “A Woman’s Touch”. About how good the touch of a woman is. Yeah. At the end the Hollywood producers stick a weird double wedding scene in there where Katie and Calam marry some forgettable guys, but it’s pretty hard to believe. Did I mention that Calamity also sings at length about her “Secret Love“? Mmm. 

"It's time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!"

“It’s time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!”

4. Anna and Elsa, Frozen
Okay, stay with me on this one. I *get* that Elsa and Anna are sisters, but the queer themes here are out of control. I mean it’s really nice to see sisterly love represented as “true love” instead of romantic love, but it’s hard to overlook the intensely gay themes of the film. Funnily enough, when Frozen came out and was lambasted by a bunch of right-wing religious nut jobs, I agreed with their readings of the film as super gay (but obviously disagreed with the conclusion that this was a bad thing). The way I see it, there was some serious Freudian taboo stuff represented at the beginning when Anna gets “touched” by Elsa (representative of the sexual exploration that children do), but then Elsa is forced to hide her queer touch. When she runs away to the mountains and sings “Let it Go” it definitely smacks of coming out of the closet (plus she femmes up like a super high femme of excellence). Olaf the camp snowman is like a concrete manifestation of her queer desire, and not surprisingly turns up at the beginning, but doesn’t come to life until Elsa “comes out”.

"I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you"

“I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you”

3. Paige and Sasha, Life Partners
This movie is painful because it follows the story of Sasha, an openly lesbian woman (representation – tick), who is best friends with a straight woman Paige. When Paige gets a really straight boyfriend and stops hanging out with Sasha, everyone has a bad time, particularly anyone in the audience hoping the women would get together. Apparently this film was trying to push boundaries by representing this kind of relationship (and is based on a true story/ directed by the real-life Paige). But what you end up with is wondering why Paige stays with her super clean cut man, when Sasha is about a zillion times more interesting and dashing in every way. It’s like the film is an ad for homosexuality through painting a picture of a monotonous and droll heterosexual world. It’s very confusing.

"That's my jam. It's my lady jam."

“That’s my jam. It’s my lady jam.”

2. Beca and Chloe, Pitch Perfect
Oh Beca and Chloe! Or, as Tumblr kids refer to them, “Bechloe“. Pitch Perfect is one of my favourite movies (I would watch it as frequently as I watch Mean Girls, but I can’t deal with all the vomiting), but the non-eventuating Bechloe storyline is a killer. They have so much chemistry, they are pretty much literally on fire for each other. The shower scene! The party scene! The finals scene! OMG it’s a Bechloe love-fest! Except that it’s not, and when I re-watch I am continually reminded that there is some dude that Beca gets with at the end. I’m sorry but getting sentimental over Breakfast Club? Whatever. I’m sure Bechloe will live on in Pitch Perfect 2. And in my heart.

"I'm with Muriel"

“I’m with Muriel”

1. Muriel and Rhonda, Muriel’s Wedding
I re-watched Muriel’s Wedding on TV the other night, and was delighted to see the glaringly obvious gay themes in there that I’d never noticed as a kid. Not only does the film indulge in an uber-kitsch camp aesthetic, but it seriously challenges the institution of heterosexual marriage by mocking it at every turn. Rhonda sweeps in and transforms Muriel’s life, and the two are miserable when they part. There is also the scene where Rhonda discovers Muriel’s book of fake wedding pictures and is utterly distraught, and when Muriel finally does get (sham) married, Rhonda sits like an outcast at the back. But your heart skips a beat when they look at each other leaving Porpoise Spit at the end – practically on the verge of kissing at every moment.

There it is, my depressing/delusionally heartening list that would make for a super marathon of film watching. If you have any other films with similar not-yet-queer themes, let me know in the comments below!

Feeling Femme: Observations from Femme Hive 2014

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

This October I was lucky enough to be supported by the YWCA Canberra and the ANU, to attend the Femme Hive conference in Berlin. With my PhD work focusing in large part on femme identity, the conference provided a rare opportunity for me to meet femmes outside of an Australian context.

If you’re currently wondering “what even is femme and why is there a conference on it?”, check out this great explanation of femme identity from Queer Fat Femme Bevin Branlandingham. Many people have not come across the term femme before, and even some people I spoke to at the conference were unsure of what the term meant. While the conference was organised around feeling empowered about being queer and feminine identifying, some people were there because other people had labeled them as femme (e.g. lesbian couples are often confronted with the question “so who’s the woman and who’s the man in the relationship?” as if every time there must be a butch/femme pairing). A lot of people at the conference just wanted to find a space where they could feel comfortable being accepted as queer, where their feminine appearance was not simply dismissed as heteronormative.

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Contemplating femme at Femme Hive 2014

Unfortunately when I first received the grant from the YWCA, a local gossip magazine here in Canberra ran an article on me titled Queer Femme Is? which challenged the legitimacy of femme identity and biphobically mocked me as “a gal who likes hanging around with lesbians but prefers the closer company of a boyfriend”. This hostility was the first reminder of exactly why femme is an important topic for discussion – because so many people can end up feeling marginalised both within LGBT scenes and in the broader community, just because they are more “feminine” and therefore don’t fit within a neat set of assumptions about “deviating” from the norm.

Blush performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

B.L.U.S.H. performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

While the conference program was full of wonderful workshops, the best part for me was just listening to people’s own experiences of being femme within a queer community. Apparently in Berlin femme identity doesn’t carry much cache in the queer scene, and it was interesting that the conference organisers talked about “cultivating a culture of desiring femme” as one of their main goals. Significantly, the opening night of the conference involved a burlesque/drag/musical show, with a very diverse range of acts from across Europe exploring the theme of femme. The venue, Schwuz (a club that had a long queue, entry requirements of an airport and sold grapefruit beer), was packed, with more people sporting undercuts than I had ever seen gathered in one room. The acts revealed the complexity of femme, with each one so different from the last that it was impossible to settle on a concrete idea of femme identity’s common denominator.

The flyer for the Femme Party

The flyer for the Femme Party

One particularly interesting piece focused on fat femme identity. Presented by the burlesque group B.L.U.S.H., one of the performers came out wearing a dressing gown, reading a women’s magazine. After showing disappointment that her larger body did not match the bodies shown in the magazine, she tore it up and stripped down entirely. Her body was round and tattooed. She slowly put on knee-high stockings, high heels and lingerie. To a huge cheer from the audience she took out a chocolate brownie from a box and smooshed it into her face, broke off several pieces and threw them into the audience. Openly didactic, this performance was interesting in terms of exploring the body politics of femininity (what is an acceptable “size” for feminine bodies). Indeed the question of “normal” bodies and the marginalisation of fat queer feminine bodies was a key topic of discussion in the conference overall. The performance was also interesting because it alluded to the “putting on” involved in femininity, without marking this as a negative thing (as femininity is so often accused of being a “masquerade” in feminist and other writing).

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Of course it wasn’t all burlesque and glitter. A weekend of workshops followed and I was lucky enough to present my research work on the last day. My presentation was called “Feeling Queer Femme: Assemblages and the Body” and in it I explored the troubles of representing (trying to “pin down”) femme, as well as the corporeal and sensory aspects of embodying femme (a theme that emerged in my interviews with queer femmes in Australia). Though it was a bit strange presenting my version of femme to a room full of femme people, it was amazing to hear that attendees found the session so helpful for clarifying their own experiences and ideas on the topic, even though this was something they were living out day to day in their own lives.

Overall the experience was amazing and my ideas on the topic of femme have both been affirmed and expanded through attending Femme Hive. Now to finish writing that thesis of mine…