Take Up The Gay Man’s Burden
Insofar as the left seeks to dismantle a network of privileges accrued by certain social groups, the LGBTQ community is usually assumed to be firmly on side. At Oxford, where the radical left can often seem hidden away, LGBTQ spaces can seem to offer tolerance and inclusion, as in the case of the Plush Lounge, Oxford’s only permanent LGBTQ nightclub, where we find gender-neutral toilets and a wide variety of ages and modes of dress. Furthermore, one of the perverse side-effects of oppression in a heterosexist society is that LGBTQ people are freer of demands to fit into the het-cis family template; there’s much less emphasis on having to be married at age x and with kids by age y. However, how limited is our acceptance? Is our love of camp, colourful drag queens a result of genuine respect for the trans community and diverse individual identities, or is it merely a kitsch love of gay male culture with no consideration of how other sexual and gender identities interlink? This article will interrogate a claim sometimes assumed to be self-evident – that the LGBTQ scene is left-wing and attentive to intersectionality.
When we talk about an LGBTQ ‘scene’, what we really see, in some places more than others but consistently across the nation, is a scene dominated by gay men. The demand for spaces like London’s Candy bar, specifically catering to lesbian and bisexual women, is testament to the exclusionary characteristics of a predominantly male gay scene, with Soho nightclubs failing to provide a safe space for women. Even more restrictively, what we see is a scene for attractive gay men based on a very specific conception of male beauty drawn all too often from the same ideals that inform heteronormative conceptions of beauty. Last term’s Oxford University Student Union elections are a case in point. One group of homosexual men supporting a slate of candidates with high LGBTQ representation took it upon themselves to do an ‘abtivism’ photoshoot. The good news of a diverse slate was reduced to compliments about the beach bodies of the five men involved. An LGBTQ scene which puts such a huge emphasis on male beauty cannot possibly be an intersectional and welcoming space.
The celebration of restrictive ideas of beauty is one component of a broader problem. If being a gay man makes the LGBTQ scene a fantastic socialising space, being a lesbian makes it feel exclusive and unwelcoming, and being bisexual makes it feel judgmental and cold. If one is asexual, one receives little empathy from an LGBTQ scene dominated by people actively seeking out sex as their main priority at every event and night out. Of course, there is no problem with having or wanting lots of sex, but the LGBTQ community’s claim to represent diverse sexual and gender identities is severely undermined by the imposition of a sex-norm intrinsically antithetical to parts of the community. The overall picture becomes even more depressing considering the low level of support and encouragement available to trans people. Anyone with diverse sexual desires – kinks of any form – is treated as an ‘other’. The accepted sexual paradigm within the LGBTQ scene, in fact, is almost as close to the heterosexual template as biologically possible. One also only needs to spend a few minutes on the smartphone app Grindr to find out what young gay men have to say about those who are fat, or those who are above a certain age.
The marginalisation of intersectional concerns on the LGBTQ scene is most clear and most shocking, in the treatment of race. This is perhaps unsurprising given the widespread conformity to a magazine view of male beauty, which, as well as being misogynistic and cissexist, is also racist; it becomes most clear how dominated we are by societal views on beauty when we look at the way gay men in particular can talk about people of different races: “I’m not racist, but I would never be with a black/brown/Chinese guy” is a common trope. Given the lack of choice involved in the impulse of attraction, this might not appear to be a racist position. However, the prevalence of such sweeping prejudgments about whom one will be attracted to based solely on the pigment of their skin, reveals the deep-rootedness of our societal obsession with the Western-Caucasian definition of beauty. It seems that whilst the LGBTQ scene recognises some of its own oppression, it can fail to notice how it plays into implicit privileges in other ways.
Of course, in many ways the queer scene is a welcoming and inclusive community: in addition to the considerable acceptance of difference that marks out LGBTQ social spaces, the University of Oxford’s LGBTQ Society committee delineates specific positions for people of colour, trans people and bi/pan people, and there are often other efforts made to be intersectional too. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to avoid reproducing the prejudices of a society that is racist, sexist and heterosexist. The left’s role, especially given the recent shift in emphasis towards understanding the importance of intersectionality, is to point out these imitations of societal prejudice where they occur and to fight for a queer scene that is a safe and welcoming space not just for white, middle-class, able-bodied cis gay men, but for all who wish to get involved in it.