Buggery and beggary, and Ferguson

Hijras in Bangalore. Photo by Johanan Ottensooser, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/oatsandsugar/6723701709/

Hijras in Bangalore. Photo by Johanan Ottensooser, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/oatsandsugar/6723701709/

On November 26 and in the days before, police in Bangalore, India, rounded up more than 150 hijras and put them in a concentration camp. (Hijra is a traditional term, across much of South Asia, for people born males who who identify either as women or as a third gender.)  At Orinam, an online resource for LGBT issues in India, human rights lawyer Gowthaman Ranganathan tells the story:

Approximately 167 members of the transgender community have been taken away by the police and kept at the Beggars’ colony. These detentions have been entirely arbitrary … Most detainees were not on the streets begging or doing any act that is prohibited under the Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act, 1975. Most of them were going about their daily chores when they were arbitrarily picked up by police officers and taken away to the Beggar’s colony in Hoysalas. The police even walked into the homes of the hijras and dragged them out. … Clearly the objective of the police was not merely to pick up those who were begging, but in effect all persons who answered to the description of being hijra.

The reason for this mass detention is unknown to us but there is information suggesting that this is retaliation for the misbehaviour of one of the members of the community. Even if this were true … [i]t is unconscionable that the entire transgender women community should be punished for the alleged wrongs of some members of the community.

The Bangalore Mirror reports the crackdown began on November 24th, with “more than 200″ picked up. Transgender activist Akkai Padmashali told the Mirror that when she and her colleagues tried to investigate, “Officials at Beggars Colony did not even let us in and threatened that even we will also be locked inside the rehabilitation centre.”

Thanks to human rights activists’ quick intervention, officials freed the prisoners by the end of the 26th. Padmashali wrote on Facebook:

The day was hectic in fighting for our rights with Minister, Commissioner, Additional Commissioner. After long lobby [the victims] finally got released. Today protest against police brutality in front of town hall. Permission was granted and again cancelled. Finally we were on street claiming our fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution of India and were successful.

Protest in front of Bangalore Town Hall, November 26, from the Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali (speaking, lower L)

Protest in front of Bangalore Town Hall, November 26, from the Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali (speaking, lower L): Photo © Akkai Padmashali

Congratulations to everyone who worked to get the victims free. India’s LGBT rights movement rocks, along with India’s progressive civil society in general. At the same time, the repression leaves questions about whether police perceive any limits on what they can do to people they despise. My friend Mario da Penha tweeted to Bangalore authorities:

Screen shot 2014-11-27 at 6.10.23 PMThe ugly case reveals even more hideous things. When I wrote “concentration camp,” I meant it. Police seized the hijras under the Prevention of Beggary Act, passed by Karnataka state in 1975, which mandates that beggars be sent to a “relief centre” for “rehabilitation” — for up to three years.

The law says a magistrate should decide these sentences; but in practice, as Ambrose Pinto wrote in an eloquent expose in 2011, many victims are held without any hearing.

Most of those who were picked up have not been informed of the reasons for their being placed in the colony. … Migrants, labourers and people who come to the city in search of employment are randomly arrested and detained for indefinite periods. Instead of producing the inmates before the Magistrates, they are charge-sheeted by the administrative staff of the colony. People are treated worse than convicts with no access to any legal assistance.

The law defines a beggar as anyone “having no visible means of subsistence” who is caught “in any public place.” That makes looking poor a criminal act. In 2010, the Deccan Herald recounted “horror stories,” especially of migrants who had come to neoliberal Bangalore for the table scraps of its wealth:

Inmates of the [Bangalore Beggars] Colony were not necessarily beggars. Take the case of 25-year-old Rahman, a native of Davangere. The youth worked as a painter … About twenty days back, on his way to work, he was reportedly picked up by some people, bundled into a van and dumped at the Colony … “I was thrashed and not given an opportunity to contact my family members and inform them about my whereabouts,” he rued….

Another ailing inmate, Muninanjappa, a resident of Avalahalli said he was waiting for a bus near the Karnataka High Court when he was picked up by unknown men, on the pretext that he appeared too weak and required hospitalisation. He was later brought to the Beggars’ Colony.

At least these victims get some care, right? The Karnataka state government’s website describes the “relief centre” like a summer camp: It “extensivly [sic] works on rehabilitation of Beggars. It provides not only shelter and hygenic food but also gives training on various skills and strives for better living of Beggars.” The state also shows you pictures, perhaps less than encouraging:

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Scenes of Bangalore’s poor, detained and “rehabilitated” in the Beggars Colony, from https://www.karnataka.gov.in/prms/

Reality is darker. Over just eight months in 2010, at least 286 Beggars Colony inmates died, many from tainted or inadequate food and substandard medical care. An official report found “heartless conditions,” according to The Hindu: 

Gross violations ranging from financial irregularities, inefficient administration, medical negligence and inhuman attitude of the staff … woeful lack of medical help with no more than one doctor available during day, and the flagrant manner in which all mandatory legal procedures and rules were thrown to the wind every step of the way. … Not only did several deaths occur under unexplained circumstances, but several bodies simply disappeared. … [A]s part of a large racket, vital organs could have been extracted and sold illegally.

One inmate told the Deccan Herald: “Everyday, a few inmates fall ill after having food and are shifted out of the Colony on the pretext of being hospitalised. But they never return. Only later we come to know that they have died. Even the place of their cremation will not be known to us.” A media furor erupted; a state cabinet minister was fired; the government dilly-dallied, then brought token charges against four officials; no one seems to have been convicted. It is not remotely clear that conditions have substantively improved.

Inmate of the Beggars Colony in Bangalore being removed to a hospital for treatment, under media pressure, in August 2010. Photo by K Murali Kumar,  The Hindu, December 28, 2010

Inmate of the Beggars Colony in Bangalore being removed to a hospital for treatment, after media pressure, in August 2010. Photo by K. Murali Kumar, The Hindu, December 28, 2010

This is the fate the 167 hijras mercifully escaped. I am detailing these monstrosities for a reason.

First, the laws underlying this are fascinating. The best-known legal instrument in India for persecuting LGBT people is Section 377 of the Criminal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” It’s a survival of British colonialism, direct descendant of a statute against the“detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery” enacted in England under King Henry VIII (he of the many wives). In 2009 the Delhi High Court overturned the law, to rejoicing across the subcontinent. Then, in late 2013, India’s Supreme Court curtly reinstated it. The fact that it’s back has given an informal go-ahead to renewed repression. And there may be no police in India more eager for a crackdown than Bangalore’s. The Karnataka constabulary have a terrible record with transgender people: a history of harassing and jailing them, torturing them, evicting them from homes.

Yet in this case Bangalore’s finest didn’t use the revived 377 at all. Instead, they turned to a law that has equally venerable colonial roots: a law against not buggery, but beggary.

Where did it come from? Laws against vagrants and beggars date from the beginnings of the modern nation-state and its powers. They gave muscular, growing governments tools to classify as well as dominate their citizens. England imposed them, also around the time of Henry VIII, as a means to manage peasants uprooted by enclosure and privatization of formerly common lands; the laws punished any who refused to transit into wage labor, who couldn’t or wouldn’t become workers in a nascent capitalist economy. In time, they were enforced against migrant laborers, the homeless, travelers, street children. As lawyer and activist Alok Gupta and I noted in 2008, they “criminalized poverty, to keep it and the effects of economic dislocation out of sight.” They took on new purposes, though, when carried to European colonies. “In Europe,” we wrote, “vagrancy laws targeted the poor, but rarely had an explicitly racial side. In the colonies, everything was racial. These laws regulated the movements, and controlled the conduct, of the non-white population.”

Sheriffs whipping a beggar out of town, from 16th-century English woodcut

Sheriffs whipping a beggar out of town, from 16th-century English woodcut

Because they strove to subdue and suppress whole groups, not individuals, these laws worked differently from other criminal provisions. Their aim was, Gupta and I wrote,

to rid the public sphere of people not wanted there: to “alleviate a condition defined by the lawmakers as undesirable,” as one commentator observes. They do not require a “proscribed action or inaction,” another writes, but depend on a “certain personal condition or being a person of a specified character.” They make people criminals for what they are, not what they do.

19th-century photograph of "reputed hermaphrodite," eastern Bengal. Photo © British Library Board; from http://notchesblog.com/2014/01/06/hyperbole-and-horror-hijras-and-the-british-imperial-state-in-india/

19th-century photograph of “reputed hermaphrodite,” Eastern Bengal. Photo © British Library Board; from http://bit.ly/1uPkEyo

In 1763, the French philosophe – and judge — Guillaume Francois Le Trosne declared that when the law looked at a beggar, “his estate is his crime, and a habitual crime that provides the ground for conviction.” A direct line runs from this to what the legal scholar Meena Radhakrishna identifies as the guiding principles of the vagrancy acts India passed after independence. “Following English law,” Indian legislators treated vagrancy as “habitual,” a matter of character, not actions. “Indian vagrancy was being again defined in much the same way as European one,” an expression of “proneness to criminality.” Specific deeds were irrelevant. Examining beggary laws in both Bombay and Karnataka, she observes that “from the time a beggar is apprehended, the terminology treats the beggar as an offender, even before it is proven that the person was indeed begging.” Authorities don’t need evidence; they hardly need a trial. Police can convict and confine anyone from a suspect group on sight. Victims are, as Radhakrishna says, “criminals from birth.” India’s Beggar Colonies are great-grandchildren to the dépôts de mendicité and workhouses where European governments used to lock up their unwanted and unemployed. But — offering “rehabilitation” through indefinite and brutal jailing, with only a risible pretense of due process — they are also the dressed-up, moderately more presentable siblings of Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Guantanamo Bay.

The hijra, it seems, first appeared in modern Indian law through colonial provisions against vagrancy. 19th-century British administrators marked off most nomadic tribes on the subcontinent as “criminal,” largely because they were “vagrants,” refusing to settle down. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 included “eunuchs” as a culpable group (defining them as “all members of the male sex who admit themselves, or upon medical inspection clearly appear, to be impotent”). An 1897 amendment required eunuchs suspected of specified criminal behaviors (including those in Section 377) to register with the state — much like prostitutes. It mandated that any such eunuch “dressed or ornamented like a woman in a public street … be arrested without warrant” and imprisoned for two years. It also held eunuchs incapable of making a gift or a will, acting as a guardian, or adopting a son. This put hijras in a class somewhere between children on the one hand, and beggars and bandits on the other: legally incompetent like minors, yet innately menacing to civilized society.* *

We're off to see the Wizard: Real estate in South Bangalore

We’re off to see the Wizard: Real estate in South Bangalore

Why are these ancient laws still there? Because they’re useful. They put a good-streetkeeping seal of approval on social cleansing. In a place like Bangalore — South Asia’s Silicon Valley, model megalopolis of local neoliberalism — they prod the police to scrub thoroughfares into hygenic shopping malls, purify the sidewalks of the impudent and unclean, punish those who dare to be poor, set up a gated, rich, and renovated environment. Brilliant Bangalore, city and symbol, embodies “India shining” — the slogan coined by the right-wing BJP ten years ago and trumpeted by neoliberal icon Narendra Modi in his triumphant election campaign this year. For the rich and tech-savvy, Bangalore will be paradise and Paris, Manhattan and Mahagonny. For the homeless, sex workers, migrants, hijras, it’s the Beggars Colony. Bertolt Brecht, exiled in Los Angeles in the 1940s, wrote:

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.

In late October, the Karnataka High Court demanded that the government make Bangalore (in a newspaper’s words) a “beggar-free city.”Justice Ram Mohan Reddy thundered: “Every day, I have to pay a beggar on the street. … Remove them from all public places. You should have removed every beggar from the street by now. I am fed up.”

Shining India, to be built in Bangalore: A new development. Apartments here range from 5-10 million rupees (US $80-160K). The average yearly wage in Bangalore is 60K rupees ($1000)

Shining India, to be built in Bangalore: A new development. Apartments here range in price from 5-10 million rupees (US $80-160K). The average yearly wage in Bangalore is 60K rupees ($1000)

There’s a lesson in all this. If society stigmatizes a class of people as comprehensively undesirable, getting rid of just one law won’t solve their situation. If Section 377 is scrapped, the police have other penalties at their disposal. There are plenty of provisions to target “deviant” identities and public conduct; though buggery may be out of style, beggary is forever. (Even a landmark Supreme Court of India ruling this year recognizing transgender people’s constitutional equality — discussed here and here, with a more skeptical view here – hasn’t removed the arrows from the cops’ quiver. Supposedly “neutral” laws outlast a formal ban on discrimination.) Moreover, a legal change that salves abuses against some members of the class may leave many others in the lurch. Gay activists worldwide are right to rejoice at the repeal of sodomy laws; yet does this mean real “decriminalization” for all people in their communities? Not in India. The beggary codes, a stringent law on sex work (or the “Suppression of Immoral Traffic”), and punishments for “public indecency” ensure hijras will be criminals long after 377 is gone — along with lots of poorer gays and lesbians who don’t have safe indoor space to be sexual. Not in the US, either. Lawrence v. Texas was liberating; marriage is coming down the pike; but gay men still endure jail and blackmail under solicitation laws, and anti-prostitution measures make merely walking while trans a crime. Too many naive advocates speak of LGBT “decriminalization” as though the laws still constraining L, and the T, and much of the B and G, didn’t exist — or didn’t matter. That’s not just ignorance. It’s indifference to human lives.

Police power I: Bangalore police command the streets during an India-Pakistan cricket match, 2012

Police power I: Bangalore police command the streets during an India-Pakistan cricket match, 2012

Hundreds of millions of people in supposed democracies live, in practice, under dictatorships. States of emergency follow them wherever they walk. Race, poverty, the way you look or what you do with your body can all deprive you of due process, brand you an outlaw, strip down your citizenship — no less than a military coup can. (It may be no coincidence that Karnataka’s beggary law dates from 1975, the year that Indira Gandhi’s Emergency exposed all Indians to similar arbitrary, repressive rule.) Sex workers know this, and hijras, and many more. I’ll venture one broad comment on the Bangalore story — and I think some Indian activists might agree, based on old conversations I recall. Liberation for Karnataka’s hijras won’t come from changing 377 or the beggary law alone. It would require overthrowing a system of police power that confines some people to permanent criminality. And it would require overturning an economy of patriarchy, hierarchy, and stigma that relegates some people to permanent social exile. What Ambrose Pinto wrote of Bangalore’s beggars is likely true of migrants, and sex workers, and hijras too: “The city hates the beggars and refuses them human treatment. As far as the State is concerned, they are no citizens.”

Those are massive and insuperable tasks, but the world is full of similar ones. “Ferguson,” in recent months, has become a name for a massive, seemingly immovable accumulation of injustice. Two days ago a grand jury refused to indict the cop who gunned down an unarmed black man. Talk of police and citizenship these days inevitably brings the name to mind.

Police power II: Police force protesters off the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Police power II: Police force protesters off the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

As with our old sodomy laws (carried to America with British colonists), India’s beggary laws have cousins in the United States. Harsh laws against vagrancy spread almost immediately after slavery ended. “Nine southern states adopted” them, Michelle Alexander writes, and “made it a criminal offense not to work”– “applied selectively to blacks”:

Prisoners were forced to work for little or no pay. One vagrancy act specifically provided that “all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen” must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found with no lawful employment were deemed vagrants and convicted. Clearly the purpose of the black codes and the vagrancy laws in particular was to establish another system of forced labor.

The Black Codes intended to reincarnate slavery; they were mostly overturned. Vagrancy laws returned in other forms, though. They exist everywhere in the US today. As in colonial societies, they were never meant to punish crimes so much as to control a racially subordinated population. They remain part of a vastly larger legal edifice circumscribing movement, criminalizing solidarity, denying due process to a subject class: they still bolster what Alexander calls the new Jim Crow, as they supported the old one. This is a thread linking Bangalore and Ferguson.

Pollice with armored personnel carriers fire tear gas at protesters, Ferguson, Missouri, August 17, 2014. Photo: Roberto Rodriguez/EPA

Pollice with armored personnel carriers fire tear gas at protesters, Ferguson, Missouri, August 17, 2014. Photo: Roberto Rodriguez/EPA

That edifice is huge. To face the whole of it is to feel your helplessness. Eliminating one detail or another might be emollient in a mild way but seems hardly able to shake the structure. The police power that keeps part of the population powerless is a technological, ideological behemoth; it survives any of the particular laws it claims to carry out. The racism it enforces is the deep fact of American life. Its strength comes from being protean as well as profound, at once obvious to its victims and invisible to the people who act it out. (One poll last week showed that only 37% of white Americans think Ferguson raised important issues about race. 80% of African-Americans thought so.) Those who propose remedies end up talking in the problem’s terms. The American system sustains itself by criminalizing people; built into its version of justice is the belief that you can right any wrong by criminalizing still more people. Prosecuting a killer cop would fix little or nothing. The problem is that not prosecuting him nods affirmingly at the racism, and tells the police to go kill some more.

None of that’s a secret. It’s a form of what radicals have probably felt every century, facing interlocked, impenetrable systems of domination. Any single change looks paltry, palliative, impotent against the totality. Where can anybody start?

Don’t look at me. But I did feel some glimmering hope — improbably — reading an article by left-wing lawyer David Cole about the American carceral state. As most Americans don’t know, the United States has highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Its Gulag is overwhelmingly racial. (The percentage of African-Americans in prison is more than three times the rate of incarceration of the general population in any country worldwide.) What hides behind penitentiary walls is, of course, the other side of that overwhelming police power felt on open streets in Ferguson. The power imprisons those it doesn’t kill.

Graph from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html; by Peter Wagner, 2012.

Graph from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html; by Peter Wagner, 2012.

Where can the work of unlocking the prisons begin? Politicians are lockjawed, parties deadlocked, courts looking “not to lead but to follow.” But Cole concludes:

Mass incarceration is one of the most harmful practices we as a society have ever adopted … If mass incarceration is to end, it won’t be because courts declare it unconstitutional. It will instead require the public to come to understand … that our policies are inefficient, wasteful, and counterproductive. And it will require us to admit … that our approach to criminal law is cruel and inhumane.

Here’s the rub, though. A transvaluation of values like that doesn’t happen by voluntary osmosis. The public doesn’t placidly persuade itself that what it thought was right is profligate or immoral, that what it thought was protection is devastation and sheer waste. In all of history, such a change has only come from a single starting point: when the disposable themselves stood up and said: We are not waste material. It’s only happened because the trash refused to be taken out, when the victims of inhumanity shouted: We are human. Such a consciousness negates the negations that neoliberalism or militarism beget, sweeps away the sterile detritus of all the reigning denials. In breaching existing reality, it is intrinsically violent; in annulling the intolerable, it affirms itself, and life. That is the definition of a revolutionary act. I don’t know whether it is possible anymore. The air is thin these days, and shouts don’t carry; the walls loom close, and scrape the skin. If it is possible, Bangalore and Ferguson are places it could begin.

Hijras at Bangalore Pride march, 2008

Hijras at Bangalore Pride march, 2008

* NOTE: The text on how “eunuchs” appeared in colonial India’s Criminal Tribes Act has been corrected above. The original text read: “In 1897 the colonial rulers amended the Criminal Tribes Act to add “eunuchs” as a group (defining them as ‘all members of the male sex who admit themselves, or upon medical inspection clearly appear, to be impotent’).” I revised the text after Mario da Penha kindly pointed out that eunuchs were already listed in the original law; the revision reflects the research (at the hyperlinks) of Arvind Narrain and Siddharth Narrain.

He’s our bigot. Leave him alone.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

John Aravosis published an article about Nikolai Alekseev’s latest Moscow protest on his blog today. It’s interesting how he excuses doing this. He objects to other media covering Alekseev (“I’ve noticed some top gay ‘news’ sites continuing to go to the anti-Semite Alexeyev for comment”) but not to himself covering Alekseev. He squares the circle by pretending that Alekseev wasn’t behind the demonstration (“it’s unfortunate that the protesters included in their group known anti-Semite, Nikolai Alexeyev“) when of course Alekseev didn’t simply happen along for the ride, he organized the whole thing. It’s all a bit like: I didn’t want to show you Britney Spears’ privates on my blog, people, it’s just that they walked right onto my computer screen. 

The truth is, it’s much more sexy and clickworthy, from an American perspective, to run photos of Alekseev holding an catchy English-language sign (no Google Translate needed!) and getting chased by police, than photos of other Russians holding up Russian slogans about substantive things like the fate of Russia that only Russians care about. It would be nice if Aravosis would admit this — and admit there’s a symbiotic relation between the Alekseev lust for controversy and the Aravosis lust for blog hits. It would spare us all the denials.

Aravosis’ piece contains the following remarkable line:

When it comes down to it, no one would fraternize with a “human rights activist” who calls blacks the n-word, calls Latinos “wetbacks,” or calls gays “fags.”  There’s no excuse for the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.

One reason this is remarkable is that a couple of hours later, Aravosis was Tweeting:

Aravosis FAG copy

I’m not even going to get into the question of whether it’s as OK for gay people to use the F-word (about non-Fs) as for black people to use the N-word. I don’t think the F-word is “like” the N-word, or homophobia is “like” racism, or so on. I just find this a curious coincidence.

Now, what Aravosis said on his blog about Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, was this:

I was at my parents’ house last summer, watching the Republican convention … when I looked up at the TV to see who was speaking, saw some cherubic-faced yet-ageing man, and said to myself, “who’s that queen?” It was clear to me that whoever was at the dais must be gay …

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

That’s all the evidence. My own gaydar is sufficiently bad that I wouldn’t call somebody a “big fag,” in public, on its sole basis. Probably Aravosis’s gaydar is a precision instrument by contrast, capable of picking up distant quasars of queeniness, like the Hubble Telescope. I bet he was born with a super-keen eye for queens, that is, for men who aren’t quite manly. We’ve already seen this with Johnny Weir, whom he pegged instantaneously as one of those unreliable pseudo-guys bending like a fey reed in the wind. You might well ask, though: can this go too far? Should a human rights activist define his relationship to trans* people’s rights by asking what on earth he has “in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”? Should a human rights activist call an effeminate man a “freak of nature“? Well, obviously it’s OK, because nobody says “sorry,” and we keep fraternizing.

But wait a minute. Another question.

What should John do about a “human rights activist” who says things like black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” — “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” What would you say about a “human rights activist” who calls the Koran “today’s Mein Kampf,” a book that “fatuously and ridiculously” claims to be a guide to “a Supreme Nincompoop called Allah”? Any thoughts on a “human rights activist” who claims Muslims “have not contributed to civilization in any way, in any field—political thought, science, music, architecture, nothing for century after century”? How would you respond to a “human rights activist” who alleges that a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York is actually a “monument to Muslim terrorism”? Is it OK for “human rights activists” to incite hate against whole communities? is John down with that? How about a a “human rights activist” who says that Arab immigration is leading to “a Europe where liberal institutions will be replaced with mosques and minarets, the glass of wine with a glass of camel milk, Speedos and miniskirts with jellabas and burkas, music with calls for prayer, and gay parades with public executions”? What would you do about a “human rights activist” who smears a whole people, those of Palestine, by saying their conflict with Israel is a choice

between civilization and barbarism; between freedom and oppression; between democracy and dictatorship; between human rights and violations of human rights; between those who treat gay people with respect and those who murder them, jail them, torture them, and dismember them; between those who treat women like equals and those who treat women like camels.

What would you say about a guy who uses that line about  “a woman is equal to a camel” over, and over, and over, as if part of the fun is that he gets to insult women and Arabs at the same time

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

This fellow, who has a long record of defaming whole groups based on their race or religion or immigrant status or nationhood, is porn intellectual Michael Lucas, of course. And I haven’t heard a word of objection from John Aravosis about him — about the fact that he sets himself up as a leader in the anti-Russia campaigning, and gets to use the Advocate and Newsweek as platforms for his bile, and writes about “freedom” and “equality” as if he knows what the words means,  and marches off to Queer Nation meetings to tell activists what to do. Any complaints that “the protesters included in their group known racist Michael Lucas”? None. Not from Aravosis, or Melanie Nathan, or most of the other people who feel or feign horror at Alekseev’s diatribes. Nathan even recommended Lucas’s opinions (“Michael Lucas wrote a very good article encapsulating the downfall of Nikolai Alekseev”), and Aravosis linked to him, without any hint that there might be a bit of irony about one open racist condemning another.

It’s all so inconsistent. I’m not entirely sure what Aravosis means by “the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.” (Is there anybody relevant, except Peter Tatchell, who’s failed to voice loud anger over Alekseev’s attacks?)  I do know, though, about the tolerance some show when the purveyors of bigotry are rich, and famous, and have influential friends, and draw the hungry attention of the cameras: and when the victims they vilify are powerless, marginal, despised. Alekseev, in his minor way, lived off that syndrome for a long time. I’m waiting for John Aravosis to notice the fact that Michael Lucas keeps doing it.

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell respond: In solidarity, again

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

Tatchell and Alekseev, Moscow Pride, 2007

I believe — I’ve always believed — that everyone should have their say. That includes both Nikolai Alekseev and Peter Tatchell, whom I critiqued in the last post. It’s true that both Tatchell and Alekseev rarely stop talking. But that’s even more reason to ensure they get every opportunity to be heard. So addicted are they to soliloquy that, deprived of the microphone even for a moment, they might go on some awful withdrawal rampage, smashing up the premises like a minor cast member from Reefer Madness or Breaking Bad. 

Cycle of addiction

Cycle of addiction

Doug Ireland posted his long-postponed criticism of Nikolai Alekseev on the Euro-Queer e-mail listserve this weekend. Nikolai wrote in to comment — mainly on me, and my refutation:

Hi friends,

Just a few corrections on Mr. Long’s corrections in Mr. Ireland’s article. :-)

We just counted and tried to make it as accurate as possible. If that is what matters for Mr. Long and Mr. Ireland. I was arrested by police 13 times for civil public protests in Russia since first Moscow Pride in 2006. [I had questioned Ireland’s extravagant claim that Alekseev was arrested 40 times.] This is a rough estimate. But I guess this is very important whether it is 1, 40 or 13.

Mr. Long wrote that political art groups in Russia appeared before Moscow Pride. This is totally wrong. Group Voina, which Mr. Long is quoting officially formed in 2008. This can be checked in Wikipedia here.  I don’t know if those gentlemen know the existence of such an international resource … Moscow Pride first announced in July 2005 and first action took place in May 2006. At this time there was no even a hint on any known political art groups. …

It is true that I never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups. We will co-operate with any politician who supports LGBT rights in Russia, whether in power or in opposition. This is our credo!

As for anti-semitism, I just need to have concrete proof of anything I said in 2007, as Mr. Long is saying. Otherwise it is a libel.

Hope that once again explains who Mr. Long is and who Mr. Ireland became.

All the best to all,
Nikolay Alekseev
GayRussia
Moscow Pride

That makes it all clear, then. I dealt with Nikolai’s actions in 2007 in detail in my earlier post. As for the Russian anarchist arts collective Voina: I mentioned it in my post as the group that gave rise to Pussy Riot, since Doug Ireland had claimed falsely that the real inspiration for Pussy Riot was Alekseev himself. It’s true Voina only “announced itself to the public” in 2008, but as its website notes, its founders Vor and Kozlenok (pseudonyms of Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol) started working together in 2005 — they’d married years before. Vor had been doing street art since 1995, on his own and with others. They have never had anything to do with Alekseev.

This brings us to Peter Tatchell. Tatchell Tweeted defensively about all this last night — defensive, I mean, about the idea that he was perhaps a little lax in ignoring or excusing Nikolai’s anti-Semitism over the years:

Tatchell tweet on Alekseev copy

“10.09am BST 3 Sep!” Sorry one missed that. Maybe a single Tweet is not the firmest way to dissociate yourself from a politically intimate ally of long standing. But let’s consider the “criticism” he made back in 2011. It came in an October 2011 article by Tatchell titled, suggestively, “A Tribute to Nikolai Alekseev.” In the fifth paragraph, Tatchell wrote:

Over the years, Nikolai said and did a few things that were in my opinion mistaken (but haven’t we all made errors?). … . I disapproved of Nikolai’s remarks which appeared to be anti-Semitic (although I personally doubt that he is prejudiced against Jewish people).

If you say that remarks only “appeared” to be anti-Semitic, and actually did not reflect any anti-Semitic feeling, you cannot claim later to have criticized the speaker for anti-Semitism. 

That one paragraph was far outweighed by the rest of Tatchell’s article:

Huge thanks to Nikolai for his amazing, ground-breaking work over many years … Even his harshest critics cannot deny Nikolai’s immense dedication and courage. … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered. But Nikolai did. Not once but dozens of times. [sic]

Then Tatchell turned on Alekseev’s critics, including those who had accused him of anti-Semitism:

Nikolai was sometimes subjected to poisonous smears and sectarian attacks by other LGBT activists, which caused him great hurt, as they were mostly without any truth and delivered with the venom you’d expect from the far right, not from fellow LGBT campaigners. Sadly, too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.

Those of us who champion LGBT human rights surely have a duty treat others in ways that are consistent with human rights values?

Now, let’s say –just hypothetically, I’m not making any comparisons — I write an article called “A Tribute to Joseph Goebbels.” In it, I say that I disapprove of the way the guy stupidly made himself look anti-Semitic, though I don’t really believe he was. I go on to praise his his groundbreaking work, his courage — which you losers can’t deny whatever you may think of him — and to attack those sectarian people who smeared him with malicious accusations of racism and so on. I wonder how it would go if, later, I announced the article proved I’d been an anti-Nazi all along.

Obviously, Alekseev is no Goebbels; it’s an interesting thought experiment, that’s all. The truth is that Tatchell (and Ireland, and quite a few others) didn’t care about Alekseev’s politics one way or the other. All they cared was that cameras followed Alekseev wherever he went. By following him in turn — or playing his PR agency, in Ireland’s case — they could bask in the borrowed light of the paparazzi. Other Russian activists, who believed in democracy and weren’t racists and were doing serious and important work, didn’t offer the automatic promise of getting your name in the papers. The cult of Alekseev revolved around publicity, from beginning to end.

Media at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Cameras at Alekseev speech before Moscow Pride, 2011: © Charles “Chad” Meacham

Tatchell followed up tonight by posting in Euro-Queer himself, in the thread about Doug Ireland’s article. He didn’t criticize Alekseev, naturally. He just criticized me. In full:

Scott Long has made factually inaccurate assertions about me and others. But I will not bother to refute them.

Euro-Queer was not established so that activists can abuse it to attack and smear fellow activists. Sectarian attacks have no place in the LGBT and human rights movement.

We should all concentrate on working together for the common good, whatever our differences. Fight homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – and all human rights abuses – not each other. Solidarity! Peter

Yes, this is clear, too. Peter’s not going to “refute” me, because he can’t. But he also thinks it more important to knock me than to state an opinion of Alekseev’s prejudices or past history. (I think my name can be substituted for “all human rights abuses” in the final sentence.) And once again he sees Nikolai — who claims I “libelled” him — as a victim of “sectarian” attacks. Comrades, the real enemy is among us!

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

The more things change, the more Red Square stays the same

As they resume “working together for the common good, whatever our differences,” I can only wish Peter and Nikolai the best of fortune. My only question is this. Alekseev has now made clear that he “never supported any opposition political protests and never will. LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia.” So you have to wonder: Who’ll be their target, unless other activists? What exactly are Alekseev and Tatchell going to do?

NOTE. Ruslan Porshnev has kindly included the full English text of his thoughtful article on Moscow Pride 2011, in the comments section of my last post. Check it out! It’s from AntiDogma, an important collective online resource on LGBT Russian issues. Queerussia today also carried an article in English on the Alekseev controversies, and his Western advocates’ (at least partial) desertion.

A Russian activist colleague also writes me with an interesting question about the new direction taken by Alekseev’s one-man show, GayRussia. For years Alekseev has insisted that no genuine activist can accept funding — something relatively easy for him to say, since he’s wealthy enough to fund his own activities; it’s been a way to bash the human rights groups in Russia that rely on grants to perform their vital work. This summer, though, he set up a fund in Switzerland to support GayRussia. From back in August:

alekseev fundraising 2 copy
As my friend points out, this fund can’t legally be used to pay fines. Russian law says these must be paid

by Russian citizens using Russian banks and currency. [To pay them from Switzerland] is close to illegal “money laundering” from foreign sources, or – see the next point. …

The most interesting part. Right now Russia has a draconian law against foreign financing of NGOs. Any NGO which is caught using foreign money for “political” activities (whatever that means – nobody understands this), is subject to severe fines. An NGO can escape fines only by registering itself as a “foreign agent.” Right now there is not a single Russian NGO which did this. All human rights activists all over Russia refuse to do this because it puts a shameful label on them being “foreign agents” acting in favor of their western sponsors, who are, obviously, right now enemies number one for Russia’s integrity and safety. I’m sure you are familiar with this rhetoric.

But this suggests an ominous possibility about what Alekseev is planning to do.

My thought is that Alexeyev and his Fund are being prepared to become the first self-registered foreign agent in Russia, since nobody wants to do this voluntarily. Alexeyev never spoke against this law while this is a number one hot issue for all Russian NGOs right now (many of them are under trials or in the process of closing down). Look what GayRussia writes on Facebook: “We are determined to become the ONLY fully transparent LGBT organization in Russia.”

In other words, Alekseev would break with the defiant consensus of real human rights groups in Russia, and become Putin’s first Potemkin NGO under the law — proof, for international consumption, that groups can register as “foreign agents” and do just fine. My friend adds that Alekseev’s proposal to meet with Putin “is in same line with all this”: volunteering to serve as window-dressing, to show the regime is rights-friendly. It seems unlikely Alekseev would go that far. On the other hand, those who have really paid attention to him for the last seven years know there’s no predicting how far he will go.

Doug Ireland and the Nikolai Alekseev circus: Lone Ranger fantasies in the wild, wild West

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

I cover the waterfront: Nikolai Alekseev in full Battleship Potemkin gear, as Grand Marshal of Vancouver Pride, Canada, 2010

I hadn’t planned to say another word about Nikolai Alekseev, Russian activist and anti-Semite. But yesterday Doug Ireland (“International Affairs Editor” for Gay City News) published a piece in which he tries, after seven years of nonstop flattery, to cut his ties to Alekseev. Ireland was perhaps Alekseev’s greatest promoter to non-Russian audiences. This might, then, be a chance to admit that mistakes were made. But no. Doug insists he was right to praise Nikolai so fulsomely all along. It’s just that, in the last few days, the “brilliant and charismatic young lawyer” and “respected gay activist” has “gone over the edge into madness.”  Who’d have predicted it? At GCN, “We were,” he writes, “shocked by Alexeyev’s diatribes in recent weeks” –shocked! Ireland sounds exactly like the neighbor interviewed after the reclusive loner’s rampage. He seemed like such a polite young man. I never thought to ask why he wanted all those missile launchers. We never had a clue.

Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either

Some sample Tweets from early September: We do not laugh here, or there either

Ireland’s innocence is a put-on. He, and Nikolai’s other non-Russian supporters, had all the evidence years ago of the man’s instability and hatred. It’s important to tell the truth. It’s important, because the Alekseev story reveals a lot about the potential pathologies of gay activism: the cult of celebrity, the belief in saviors rather than social movements, the way Westerners project their desires and fantasies onto other countries. Why did Doug and others keep promoting Alekseev, and actively denigrating other Russian activists?  They damaged the whole Russian LGBT movement in the process. They shouldn’t get off the hook. And we need to learn lessons from how they went so wrong.

1. What did they know? and when did they know it?

Let’s go back to 2007. A slew of foreign activists and celebrities descended on Moscow for several days that May, in support of Alekseev’s second annual attempt to organize Moscow Gay Pride. Peter Tatchell was among them. Andy Harley, editor of UK Gay News –  a big fan of Alekseev’s, who makes a regular trip to Pride every year – reported on Day One that “Mr. Tatchell hit out at some Russian human rights activists who refused to include gay and lesbian rights in their campaigns.” Attacking Russian human rights activists for their supposed homophobia was Tatchell’s theme that year. He picked it up in his keynote address at the Pride Conference in Moscow’s Swissotel.

It is sad to see some human rights activists here in Russia distance themselves from the LGBTI human rights campaign — and from this weekend’s bid to stage the Moscow Pride march. When human rights activists pick and choose which freedoms to defend, they undermine and compromise the whole human rights agenda.

Now, I was in the audience (I went to Moscow in 2006 and 2007, to lend support); and I knew, and everybody in the hall knew, that Peter’s accusations were wrong. Mainstream human rights groups in Russia (specifically, the Moscow Helsinki Group, which Nikolai had been viciously, publicly defaming all that week) hadn’t “distanced themselves” from Pride because they were cherrypicking freedoms. They weren’t there solely because another person was there, sitting at the dais. The reason was Aleksei Mitrofanov.

White nights: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

White nights for white people: Mitrofanov clubbing with TV hostess Olga Buzova, 2011

Mitrofanov, a Duma member from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s far-right, neo-fascist, racist party, was infamous for inciting violent hatred against immigrants, Chechens, and Muslims. He was also one of very few prominent politicians whom Alekseev recruited to support Pride that year. He wasn’t doing it for “human rights” reasons. Mitrofanov, who got his start as a music promoter, was in business with the titillatingly lesbian-themed pop group t.A.T.u. He hoped Pride would bring publicity for the band (and a weird movie project about them he was pushing on Hollywood). He also hoped the European politicians who’d flown to Moscow for the festivities would help him wangle visas to Western capitals: the E.U. barred most Zhirinovskyites from entry because of their extremist xenophobia.  A boxcar of a man in an Armani coat who looked the very image of the Russian VIP and vozhd, Mitrofanov loomed over Pride like a mountain over a profitable molehill.  Alekseev, glued to his side, fawned on him as an honored ally. Indeed, Nikolai announced at the conference that he would run for the Duma himself in the fall, as a candidate either of Zhirinovsky’s party or of President Putin’s own. (Mercifully, that never happened.)

Peter Tatchell knew perfectly well why the Moscow Helsinki Group refused to attend the conference. It wasn’t a secret; Lyudmila Alekseeva (no relation to Nikolai), the Group’s revered head, had told the press forthrightly. They refused to sit on the same stage as the racist Mitrofanov.

Alekseev’s indulgence for right-wing racism is nothing new, then. It should come as no surprise to Tatchell, Doug Ireland, or anybody else who’s followed his career closely.  The evidence was right at center stage in 2007. Tatchell defamed the Moscow Helsinki Group without ever talking to them directly. (In fact, the day after Pride, the Helsinki Group held a press conference to condemn the crackdown, as well as to discuss other human rights abuses against Russian LGBT people — proof they weren’t “distancing themselves” from the issue. I was one of the speakers. Tatchell sat in the audience, drawn by the prospect of press attention. He left, however, without saying one word to anybody from the Helsinki Group.)

Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to MEP Marco Cappato in the background.

Outside Tverskoia police station, central Moscow, May 27, 2007. That’s me in the foreground; my expression probably indicates my opinion of Aleksei Mitrofanov (R), talking to European Parliament member Marco Cappato in the background.

Other problems with Nikolai Alekseev were evident in that year’s Pride disaster, for all to see. There was the fixation on media and stardom; there was his indifference to what happened to ordinary Russian LGBT folk. Mitrofanov furnished lawyers for Alekseev and the foreign celebrities who faced arrest. But Alekseev made it clear that no “unauthorized” pride marchers would get legal assistance. 13 young lesbians and gays who showed up to support Pride were arrested and taken to Presesenskaya police station far from Moscow’s center; they were kept in an unventilated, overheated truck outside the jail. Their plight got no mention in press accounts, which focused on the glossy figures of famous Europeans in custody. (I was arrested too, very briefly – a fact I never even tried to make an issue of. The Russians who were arrested risked far worse abuse than any of us foreigners – and talking about ourselves was just a distraction.) I went to Presesenskaya with Alexey Kozlov, a heroic leftist activist and experienced protester, almost the only person who tried to help the arrested men and women. No one from Alekseev’s circle showed any interest in their condition. (HRW and ILGA-Europe’s 2007 report on Moscow Pride gives a detailed account.)

Toward midnight on the day after Pride 2007, a journalist in the US addressed Alekseev on a listserve: “You are a hero, Nikolai, and history will say so.” Exhausted and exasperated in Moscow, I typed out a private answer on my Blackberry. I sent it to the reporter; after thinking a moment, I forwarded it to Doug Ireland too. Here it is, misspellings and all.

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group

I have been here for three days investigating 20 hours a day, and between us and in confidence, I can assure you nikolai is no hero.  He deliberately refused to organize any form of legal assistance (or doctors on hand, or even a rendevous point so that people could determine who needed help or who was missing) in advance, putting in danger everyone who attended.  Dozens of young lesbians and gays who showed up at their first pride were left to fend for themselves callously. Its not as though this is forgetfulness on nikolai’s part.  I approached him about this … others did as well, and his answer was that mitrofanov had promised there would be no trouble, so there would be no trouble.  Mitrofanov is a fascist, racist, and anti-semite.  Nikolai allied himself with him because he thought mitrofanov could manage the skinheads, and apparently because nikolai wants to run for the duma, I guess on the zhirinovskyite ticket.  When asked at the press conference–where he placed this nazi front and center–about mitrofanov’s vocally expressed opinions on chechens, immigrants, and others, nikolai said, “I haven’t heard of any such opinions.” Meaning he’s been in a coma for three years, because everyone in russia had heard of them. Mitrofanov’s only interest in this has been to get respectability by appearing on the dais with serious European politicians, and getting publicity for tatu, which he apparently half-owns.  Three days before pride the moscow helsinki group offered nikolai legal assistance for any arrestees. Furious becaause they had refused to appear at a previous press conference because they”d have to appear with mitrofanov as a fait accompli (and you must realize the moscow helsinki group would under no circimstances appear with a thug like mitrofanov) nikolai told them he would not accept legal aid because they are “extremists.” This is the Moscow Helsinki Group, the spiritual and institutional heirs of sakharov and yelena bonner: and nikolai calls them extremists?  … Last year dima makarov and alexey kozlov of Green Alternative furnished almost the only Russians who came to Pride and stood on the street and braved the skinheads–most gay russians were too scared (legitimately, which is why it’s so sad the gay russians who showed up this year got screwed by the organizers). Dima and alexey are straight but they did it because as genuine activists they believe in human rights, and they wanted to support nikolai.  And how did nikolai show his gratitude this year? When they objected to mitrofanov being at the center of events, nikolai banned them from coming into the swissotel during “his” human rights conference. … This year, alexey kozlov stood for hours outside jails trying to get help to those arrested sunday.  When the partner of volker beck [German MP] called alexey last night at 11 trying to find a lawyer for nikolai [who was in custody], since most human rights lawyers had been personally insulted by nikolai and wouldn’t touch the case, alexey ran off to try.(He found one: his wife was willing to represent nikolai, from what I understood: but by then mitrofanov had found some other nationalist lawyer, and nikolai preferred him). I will also note that since his release some 8 hours ago nikolai has shown no evident interest in the others who were arrested, many through his own incompetence. …

The most obvious hero of the last few days has been alexey kozlov, who has been working constantly and selflessly but whom yoiu won’t read about in the gay press, or any other press, because he is allergic to publicity and spends his time arguing with police captains rather than looking for cnn.  Nikolai alexeev has certain defined pr skills but he is neither the only nor really the bravest advocate of lgbt rights here.

Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride

Aleksei Kozlov, a hero of Moscow Pride

Nor did Ireland need to take my word. As self-described leftists, both he and Tatchell surely read the article about Moscow Pride 2007 by a member of Russia’s Sotsialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye (Socialist Resistance), published in English by Socialist World that June. The Russian author told how Moscow’s progressives urged Alekseev to

build a wider movement with other oppressed peoples facing economic and social discrimination, and to take the issues of discrimination and freedom up within the workplaces and colleges. This approach has been opposed by the organizers of Gay Pride. Unfortunately, they represent a layer of the “gay elite” … who use their sexual orientation for their own benefit and public relations purposes. This was clearly demonstrated in the discussions in the run up to last Sunday’s events. The whole structure of the parade was undemocratic and restricted to those people who agreed with the organizers. The aim of the event was not to attract and involve a wider layer of gay and other activists but to ensure the participation of gay “VIP”s. For example, when the question of legal aid for anyone arrested was raised, it was stated by the organizers that only certain people would be helped ….

It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda

It came from behind: Vladimir Zhirinovsky receiving inoculation against gay cooties and related propaganda

Even worse however, is the blatant political positioning of the organisers with Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s “Liberal Democratic Party” [LDPR]. Zhirinovskii first came to the world’s attention when his party won a considerable number of places in Parliament in the early days of Yeltsin’s reign. Then many commentators described his party as fascist. … It is therefore viewed with disgust by many gay activists that the organizers of Gay pride have promoted an alliance with one of the leading deputies from the LDPR in the forefront of their activities. This individual, Mitrofanov, the best known member of the LDPR after Zhirinovskii, was given pride of place at the pre-march conference. …  As one activist commented “this just proves that the organizers are more interested in public relations for themselves than genuinely campaigning for the rights of ordinary gays. I won’t be surprised to see some of them as LDPR deputies after the election!”

Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov's speech, Pride conference, 2007

Socialist Resistance tries to protest Mitrofanov’s speech, Pride conference, 2007

Discussion on this question was, of course, not allowed. Activists who wanted to raise the issue were not allowed in to the conference. “Socialist Resistance” members who raised a banner of protest saying “Mitrofanov – Non passaran” when he was speaking were quickly ejected from the hall. As a result of the tactics of the organizers, Sunday’s [Pride march] has not been productive. It gave the media the opportunity to demonstrate that gays are extremely isolated within society. In addition, the participation of Mitrofanov will strengthen the impression of many people that this was not a genuine protest against discrimination but a public relations spectacle.

Doug Ireland can’t say he wasn’t warned.

2. Shared fantasies and beautiful friendships

Ireland, Tatchell, and the rest should have done two things. They could have looked objectively at the problems in Alekseev’s politics and person as far back as 2007, and stopped promoting him as the only legitimate Russian gay voice. And they could have talked to other Russian LGBT activists, to get a picture of their work, goals, and strategies. They did neither.

Instead, they heaped unqualified praise on Alekseev, and they actively insulted other Russians’ struggles.  After Moscow Pride 2009, for instance, Tatchell took to the Guardian to declare himself “awestruck by the masterful strategy and tactics of the organisers,” and added a gratuitous swipe at other Russian LGBT groups:

The gay parade organisers realise that the conferences, glossy reports and low key vigils of other Russian gay organisations have little or no impact on the government — or on public consciousness.

In 2010, Tatchell called Alekseev “a real pioneer and hero.”

His actions are supporting, broadening and strengthening the wider democratic and human rights movement in Russia … Alekseev’s campaigns show him to be a man of great bravery and moral principle. He is risking his life for the sake of liberty and freedom.

2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of thing in which Alekseev never took part

2012 pro-democracy protest in Moscow: The kind of action Alekseev never joined

The odd idea that Alekseev had any part in the broad anti-Putin, pro-democracy movement was one that both Tatchell and Ireland regularly spread. It was completely false. As I’ve noted above, in 2007, Alekseev even announced (with Tatchell present) that he proposed to run for Parliament as a Putin supporter. For years he made it clear that his beef was with the Mayor of Moscow, not Russia’s President. He has always refused to support pro-democracy marches or demonstrations, and has insulted democracy activists as “extremists” (a Putin-era code word for terrorists) or worse. (See the endnote below for more on this.)

Doug Ireland kept up the drumbeat. (Gay City News has, strangely, taken down many of Ireland’s articles on Russia. No use hiding evidence, though: many are still online elsewhere.)  Ireland admits he has “has done more reporting on Alexeyev’s activism and interviewed him more frequently than any other [journalist].” In 2010 he called him “Gay Moscow’s Man of Action,” “intrepid, militant,” and “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” (Funniest line: “the dauntless Alexeyev, who rarely talks about himself.”)  Alekseev’s “indomitable courage and perseverance” made him “the principal catalyst for modern Russian gay organizing.”

Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US

Barechested boys feel Slavic Pride: Pan-Slavist poster from the US

There were ample other incidents of Alekseev flirting with right-wing ideologies. When, in 2008, he renamed Moscow Pride “Slavic Pride,” allegedly in solidarity with other former Soviet nations, some Russian gays pointed out the Slavophilic and ethnocentric implications. (Putin had already revived 19th-century ideas of “Slavic unity” as part of his imperial discourse.) Not all citizens of Russia or the rest of the old USSR are “Slavs,” they observed, and the name excluded Asians, Muslims, Jews, and others. Surreally, Peter Tatchell praised the idea of a “broader panSlavic movement for queer liberation.” (This is a bit like praising the homo-friendliness of the Black Hundreds.) Tatchell took it upon himself to reprove Viacheslav Revin, a distinguished Russian activist, who raised doubts:

As this Slavic Gay Pride took place in Moscow the focus was on homophobia in Russia. In future the focus will be on homophobia in Belarus and other Slavic [sic] countries. I do not think it is helpful to criticise a successful protest that has done so much to raise awareness of gay people and gay issues. [Tatchell to Euro-Queer listserve, May 19, 2009]

Then consider how Ireland and friends dealt with earlier evidence of Alekseev’s overt anti-Semitism, when it emerged in 2011. Ireland conveniently omits any mention of that incident in his recent article. He’s forgotten completely.

I played a role in outing Alekseev that time. In early 2011, a Russian colleague alerted me to something Alekseev blogged during the Egyptian Revolution: commenting on Israel’s apparent support for Mubarak, Nikolai went off against “the Jews.”

And who, after this, are the Jews? In fact, I knew already who they are.

Nikolai Jews 2011 copyI posted this on a listserve. Alekseev was about to launch a tour of the US; some of the sponsoring organizations, such as Equality California, indignantly withdrew their support for his gigs.

What hue and cry! John Selig, a blogger and friend of Ireland’s, wrote on the Bilerico Project: “Scott Long is scum in my opinion.” Someone named David Badash published a long defense of Alekseev, arguing that of course Alekseev wasn’t a bigot, because Doug Ireland said I was a bad person. In a fine example of circularity, Doug Ireland then reposted Badash’s article, claiming it disproved the “nasty and absurd accusations against Nikolai.” The anti-Semitic comments were “justified criticism,” Doug said.

Ireland anti-Semitism copy 2Gay City News also intervened in Alekseev’s defense. In an adulatory article on Alekseev’s speech in New York, it dismissed the anti-Jewish slur by “Russia’s foremost LGBT leader” as merely a critique “regarding the State of Israel’s support for Egypt’s dictator.” Gay City News accused Alekseev’s critics of “blacklisting” him:

“Gays have no way to express themselves [in Russia],” [Alekseev] said. “If you are gay, lesbian, homosexual, you are blacklisted.” Blacklisting was something Alexeyev risked being subjected to in his US visit as well, once news of the Israel-Mubarak blog post went viral … “I have respect for everyone,” Alexeyev said. “My comments were misinterpreted.”

The puff piece was headed, “Nikolai Alexeyev tells New Yorkers why he remains an optimist.” Why not be an optimist, when you’ve got friends who’ll excuse anything you do?

In fact, Ireland is still pushing the Alekseev myth: claiming that Nikolai always was the unique and fearless leader, before his descent into “madness” two weeks ago. He now writes,

The courageous young women of the agitprop punk band Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year prison sentence … and the equally brave female Russian Olympic athletes who staged a same-sex kiss in front of the cameras to signify their opposition to Putin’s anti-gay repressions in a photo seen around the world, are both linear descendants of [Alekseev’s] Moscow Pride street activism, which no doubt inspired them.

“Linear descendants”? Ridiculous. The anarchist and punk movements that gave rise to Pussy Riot are exactly the ones Alekseev expelled from “his” Pride in 2007, and vilified after. (Ireland might want to look up Voina, the street-art collective from which Pussy Riot sprang. It’s older than Moscow Pride. And “street activism” in Russia far predates Alekseev, and needed no inspiration.)  Anyone who has seen Pussy Riot’s work, and who’s been to Moscow Pride (Ireland never attended) knows there’s no relation between the former’s po-mo visual shock, and the latter’s traditional march-and-picket style. As for the “same-sex kiss,” Doug obviously is ignorant that the two women athletes have insisted their embrace had nothing to do with protest, gays, or Putin. He might want to check these things before going to print.

Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012

Alekseev could never be so anarchistic: Pussy Riot members protest in Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, February 21, 2012

Then Doug offers up this gem:

Recalling how Alexeyev had been kidnapped and drugged by Putin’s security forces in an attempt to pressure him to drop his lawsuit against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights — while Putin-controlled news media put out a phony story that Alexeyev had sought political asylum in, of all places, the homophobic dictatorship of Ukraine! — we thought it was not entirely impossible that the anti-Semitic garbage being attributed to Alexeyev was the work of hackers from Putin’s sophisticated Internet control operation working to discredit Russian gay activists.

First off, by “Ukraine” Doug means “Belarus”— after all these years writing on “Slavic” lands, Doug still confuses countries. The incident he referred to happened in late 2010. Scheduled to board a flight to Switzerland at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, Alekseev disappeared, and went incommunicado for two days except for cryptic calls and SMSes. (Reports that he was seeking asylum in Minsk came from Belarusan state media, not Putin’s.) Doug and his friends understandably tried to rouse international concern – I even advised some worried people on how to contact UN human rights experts. When he resurfaced in Moscow, Alekseev claimed he’d been arrested, drugged, and pressured to withdraw his lawsuits.

But none of this happened; almost as soon as he surfaced, we knew it was all fake. Russian human rights activists will tell you what really transpired: airport police refused to let Alekseev board and then detained him, after he flew into violent fury when asked to remove his shoes. Having texted his “kidnapping” to a waiting world, though, Alekseev had to follow through on that story. If evidence is needed that the incident was trumped up, it’s that the litigious Alekseev – who sues mayors, cops, and human rights activists almost weekly — never pressed a case against police, airport, or airline for the alleged abduction. Alekseev’s onetime “kidnapping” doesn’t suggest that his present statements are forced. Instead, Ireland might ask whether Alekseev’s present instability isn’t more proof that the kidnapping was a fraud.

In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news

In one ear, out the other: Ireland, played by noted actor J. J. Hunsecker (R), receives news

Doug Ireland is perhaps a uniquely awful case. I’ve dealt with many strange reporters over the decades, but Ireland stands out in his favoritism, his mendacity, his capacity to mishear or misrepresent the simplest of facts. He’s loathed me for years, because for years I’ve been on to him; I figured out how he works – or how he doesn’t work: the facts he never checks and the mistakes he never corrects, the basic laziness with which he treats his stories. It’s a reputation that goes back a long way. Friends at The Nation recount how, before they fired him, he used to bellow with rage when editors insisted on correcting his slothful translations from the French. He’s notorious for never interviewing more than one source for a story – less, if he can get away with it; like the Unitarians, he believes in at most one God. (You’ll notice that for his new piece on Alekseev, he spoke to absolutely no one else, in Russia or beyond.)

Still, it’s not just Ireland. Many journalists inflated Alekseev’s reputation over the years; many ignored the signs of trouble. What won him this persistent fan club?

First: It didn’t hurt that Alekseev was on the rich side, with a wealthy Swiss partner. Alekseev flew Peter Tatchell and US military campaigner Dan Choi to Moscow Pride at his own expense. Some gay journalists, like the UK’s Andy Harley, he invited to sojourn in his chalet in the Vale of Chamonix.  When these people went on to write in Alekseev’s extravagant praise, you might expect them to mention their material debts to him. In the tiny worlds of gay activism and journalism, though, with their omertà and codes of silence, ethical standards often don’t apply.

Second: a connected but more important fact. To many Western eyes Nikolai wasn’t just a Russian. In Joseph Conrad’s phrase: he was one of us.

Alekseev had long lived in France, was fluent in both French and English. (Cold-War educational xenophobia left many Russian rights activists monolingual; it puts them at a serious disadvantage if they want to attract foreign attention.) But Nikolai’s attractiveness went beyond his multilingual charm — and beyond his blond good looks, though the number of times Ireland describes him as “young” is certainly suggestive. For Westerners, he offered reassurance that their ways of working were really better, and would work anywhere.

When I met Nikolai back in 2006, I thought he was an idealistic activist with a lot of potential. I also recognized him immediately as a type I knew from years in Eastern Europe: the exile who returns home full of notions about how things should be done, determined to override the provincial idiots’ inadequate ideas. I saw these people flooding Hungary and Romania in the 1990s, flush with ambitions to Westernize everything. In most cases, they got realism knocked back into them quickly, along with a sense of indigenous possibilities, though not without alienating a lot of the people they wanted to help. However, Nikolai was cushioned from ever discovering Russian reality — by the foreigners who discovered him.

Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at  Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles "Chad" Meacham

Playing to the gallery: Media, mostly Western, at Moscow Pride conference in 2011. © Charles “Chad” Meacham

From the first, in 2006, Moscow Pride played to the foreign gallery. As Moscow authorities announced they’d quash it, foreign activists started signing up to attend in solidarity. By the time I arrived that May, I found it was hardly a Russian event at all. When, at the last minute, Alekseev suggested calling off the march for safety reasons, only about 10 out of more than 100 people in the conference hall were his compatriots; the rest, us tourists. I suggested that the non-Russians leave the room so that only Russians could decide – a move that enraged Nikolai. He’d identified his main audience.

Western adulation meant that Alekseev didn’t have to give a damn about what Russians thought. He confirmed to Westerners that their methods – visibility, marches, rainbow flags – were universally valid; he adjusted his demands to imitate what Westerners wanted, pushing for marriage rights instead of protections from violence. The Prides turned into a repeated drama played for the Western press, detached from Russian reality. Indeed, they fed xenophobia, and helped stigmatize LGBT issues as a foreign intrusion. Evgeny Belyakov, Andrey Demidov, and Igor Yassin have written:

Well-educated, arrogant, wealthy, and flamboyant, Alexeyev presents an elitist and “bourgeois” image of what it means to be gay. Some have even argued that his position is a repetition of the postcolonial discourse depicting Russia as being a “barbarian” country that has much to learn from the “civilized” West.

Sometimes, Westerners just get in the way. Activist Ruslan Porshnev has described perceptively how the 2011 beating of a single, sympathetic Russian — lesbian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko (whom Alekseev never invited to Pride) — affected public opinion far more deeply than years of antics by foreign guests.

Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock

Elena Kostyuchenko, taken into custody at Moscow Pride 2011 after an Orthodox protester struck her with a rock

Third: People relentlessly projected their own fantasies onto Alekseev. In him, disaffected Western activists could see their own dreams of heroism, prestige, and power.

The story of Alekseev that Tatchell and Ireland spun was that of a single, heroic figure changing the world not through politics but through gesture: by sheer force of personality. This wasn’t about Alekseev. It was about themselves. Alekseev vindicated their isolation; they described themselves in him. He embodied the idea that “direct action,” symbolic activism, solo stunts, could move mountains. Media coverage meant more than movement building; as Tatchell wrote,

It is only visible and challenging actions, like the [one-man] gay parades, that put queer issues on the public and political agenda. The same has been true all throughout history. It has been direct action by radical campaigners like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King that has most dramatically and effectively overturned injustice. [emphasis added]

The arrogant pleasure of comparing yourself to King and Gandhi is only one agreeable byproduct. The main joy lies in arguing that your loneliness makes you special. When Tatchell condemns the “conferences” and “low-key vigils” of other Russian LGBT groups, he’s telling us that community organizing and collective effort are secondary. It’s the solitary martyrs, madmen, and gunmen who make history. They’re accountable to nobody and untrammeled by obligations. Gay politics fades into the wild, wild West; the Western, or Westernized, hero rides across its lunar landscape, masked and ready — the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger (cover)

For some of Alekseev’s allies, these self-aggrandizing fantasies were urgent. Doug Ireland’s career as a journalist was pretty much washed up by the time he staggered into the Last Chance Saloon of Gay City News. Hitching himself to Alekseev’s ascending star looked like a smart move. A romantic collusion of matching narcissisms, of insecurities and delusions of grandeur, it was as if Doug’s desperate dreams and Nikolai’s strode off together into the credits: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The people who suffered for it, though, were Russian LGBT folk. Because individuals don’t move politics: movements do. Dozens of LGBT groups in Russia have slowly been creating broad-based social movements. They’ve been building their communities, making spaces for youth, women, the gender-nonconforming. They’ve been connecting to other political movements and human rights groups that can offer not only support but services. They’ve been trying to carve out a place in the historic pro-democracy campaign. They’ve been reaching out through less confrontational means — film festivals, art exhibitions, publications — to a wider public. It’s not just that Ireland’s and Tatchell’s obsessive promotion of Lone Ranger Nikolai marginalized them and made their work invisible. It’s that the Lone Rangerism made LGBT rights in Russia revolve, in media narratives and then in popular paranoia, around a few flawed, foreign-identified figures. Alekseev’s polarizing prominence was a walking cry for backlash. Alekseev’s fans and fantasists have to answer for the damage.

Alekseev may be finished as a figure, but the forces that dreamed him up live on. Already activists in the West who work on Russia are looking for a new Lone Ranger: somebody else to be the “go-to person,” “new and prized leadership, an imperative voice for the plight of LGBTI Russians.” When they find the guy (it’s usually a guy), they’ll forgive almost anything as long as he gives fodder to their fantasies and says what they want to hear. Just consider this. Alekseev is a racist and an anti-Semite. He finally rubbed his supporters’ faces in it so hard they had to let him go. Michael Lucas, porn king and political commentator, is a racist and Islamophobe. He has a column in Out magazine, and white guys hang on his words for wisdom about the Russia situation. The only difference between the two? Lucas, a professional at feeding other people’s fetishes, knows better than to Tweet while drunk.

NOTE: There is no question that Nikolai Alekseev showed genuine bravery in subjecting himself to arrest on a number of occasions. Some realism about these incidents is necessary, though. First, there’s the matter of their numbers. Ireland claims in his recent piece that Alekseev was “arrested some 40 times in civil disobedience to Russian bans on gay demonstrations.” That’s strange, because after Moscow Pride in 2009 Ireland wrote, accurately, “This is the fourth time the young lawyer has been arrested for holding a gay rights protest.” Either Alekseev was arrested four times in his first three years of activism, then 36+ times in the next four, or Ireland is simply making up figures out of whole cloth. Doug Ireland is serially inaccurate; of course he’s inventing the numbers.

The perhaps six or seven times that Alekseev has actually been arrested for exercising his right to free assembly represent a grave violation of human rights.  However, he has never spent more than 24 hours in jail as a result. It is simply wrong for Ireland to compare him to the women of Pussy Riot, now serving a two-year sentence under inhuman conditions. (It’s even more immoral for Ireland to suggest falsely that Alekseev somehow galvanized Pussy Riot to action.) Equally inappropriate is equating the dangers Alekseev faced to those braved by dissenters whom Putin’s regime murdered, including dissident journalists and others.

Peter Tatchell claimed in late 2011 that “Nikolai’s activism put him in great personal danger from bashings – even assassination … Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state, having seen so many human rights defenders beaten, framed on trumped up charges and even murdered.” The fact is, though, that Alekseev has consistently disclaimed any affiliation with human rights defenders or the anti-Putin opposition. He is not a pro-democracy activist. There is no evidence that his life has ever been in danger. It does no credit to the courage he actually showed to place him in company where he does not belong, or to exaggerate the circumstances. And in doing so, Tatchell and Ireland insult the memory of activists who have paid the hardest price for truly supporting democracy.

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist, murdered in Moscow, 2006

Jamie Kirchick loves racist Rod Liddle: The style is the man

Kirchick Liddle copyDiminutive neoconservative Jamie Kirchick has tweeted that the author of this diatribe “is the best writer in the English language,” citing the prose here as evidence. The writer, Roderick E. L. Liddle, known to readers and other victims as “Rod,” is perhaps best remembered for referring to the killers of Lee Rigby a few months ago as “black savages.” He later partly backed off from the term {“If anyone took that wrong way [sic], I’m very sorry”), explaining that he simply used “black” to mean “of Muslim appearance,” and “savages” to mean the same thing.

The piece in question is an all-out attack on the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. It’s worth nothing on its own, but it has a use. You can deduce from it Jamie’s own standards for stylistic merit:

a) Islamophobia and racism (see above);
b) Relentlessly violent invective;
c) Rigorous refusal to cite a source or adduce a single fact;
d) Forced yoking of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate vocabulary for a certain frisson of linguistic shock, e.g. “spurt of fatuity.”

Of these standards, only d) has anything to do with judging literary style. The rest are excellent criteria for judging Jamie.

Probably, like most narcissists, Jamie is secretly judging himself in most of his dislikes and druthers. But this example is a particularly acute, sad revelation.

Trayvon Martin, “privacy,” and privilege

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid who played football and wanted to be a pilot, was shot and killed on February 26 while walking unarmed through a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. Visiting his father’s fiancee there, he’d gone out to buy her son some Skittles. The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, 28, captained a neighborhood watch, a group of denizens devoting spare time to crime prevention.

All this is for non-American readers, since most US residents by now have heard the story. It’s a very American story. Both the gated community and the anti-crime watch are innovations of these shores: the former, privatizing the idea of neighborhood, a product of post-60s middle-class anxieties about cities and danger; the latter, privatizing the idea of protection, a product of equally middle-class fears about a police hamstrung by underresourcing and liberal-slanted laws.

From one perspective, in fact, this very public story, about a horrible killing on a street, is all about privacy. Specifically: it’s about the different ways black and whites experience privacy in a racist country.

The story exploded, of course, because the killer still hasn’t been charged with any crime. The local cops, besieged by indignation (their chief has now “temporarily” stepped down) sent out a Q&A justifying its inaction:

When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.

The law they scream about in capitals is colloquially named the “Stand Your Ground” law; some in Florida call it “Shoot First.” Time usefully explains:

The cops have been balking in large part because, under the stand-your-ground statute, they’re virtually obligated to accept [Zimmerman’s] argument that he was acting in self-defense — even if it was Martin who may have felt more threatened, according to recordings of 911 calls by neighbors that were released over the weekend. The 2005 Florida law permits anyone, anywhere to use deadly force against another person if they believe their safety or life is in danger, and it’s the state’s usually futile task to prove that the act wasn’t justified. Little wonder the St. Petersburg Times found that five years after the law was signed by then Governor Jeb Bush — who called it a “good, commonsense anti-crime” bill — claims of justifiable homicides in Florida more than tripled, from just over 30 to more than 100 in 2010. In that time, the stand-your-ground defense was used in 93 cases involving 65 deaths — and in the majority of those cases, it worked.

Pro-gun advocates like the National Rifle Association [NRA], which pushed hard for stand your ground, say it simply broadens citizens’ capacity for self-defense. But if … Zimmerman do[es] walk, there may be an understandable public backlash against a statute that in reality has made the streets, bars and parks of Florida — and of the at least 16 other states that have enacted similar laws since 2005 — more dangerous spaces.

British and American common law hold to what’s called the “castle doctrine” — you know, an Englishman’s home is his castle. Generally it means that within your dwelling (extended in some cases to such places as a car or workplace) you can attack an illegal intruder without risk of prosecution. There are certain conditions; for instance, in the common-law version of the doctrine, if you can safely retreat, the protection doesn’t apply.

Gun lobbyists tried to dub the Florida legislation a “castle doctrine” law, but in fact it turned the old principle on its head. Instead of limiting lethal self-defense to the home, the law says that, like a turtle, you carry your castle anywhere: you can shoot to kill anyplace anybody menaces you. And the whole point of the new law is that you don’t have to retreat: you should “stand your ground,” armed with righteousness and an NRA-endorsed weapon.

In other words, the domestic privacy the original doctrine was meant to protect now follows you down the street in your personalized penumbra, porcupined with gun barrels.

i see black people outside

Whose privacy? Well, look at George Zimmerman, a would-be cop who had appointed himself guardian of a middle-class gated community. His own ethnic identity has been debated– he seems to have had a white father and Latina mother; but there’s no better way in the US to ratify an uncertain claim to whiteness than by taking the fight to black people, preferably in defense of white people’s property. Indeed, if you look at previous 911 calls Zimmerman had made to police, clearly he was waging what Dave Weigel identifies as a “long, lonely war against black youths doing things.” In the collective psyche as it insinuiated itself into Zimmerman’s brain, white folks are the possessors of privacy; black kids are the invaders. Mother Jones writes:

[E]ven more than cars, he was concerned about black men on foot in the neighborhood. In August 2011, he called to report a black male in a tank top and shorts acting suspicious near the development’s back entrance. …Three days later, he called to report two black teens in the same area, for the same reason.

Coupled with the shoot-first law, this attitude is a road map to murder. Timothy Noah cites a University of North Carolina psychological study six years ago that looked at how race inflects “weapons bias.” Researchers asked subjects

to distinguish between images of harmless hand tools and images of guns, both projected onto a screen. Immediately before each image appeared there flashed a lightening-quick (more or less subliminal) image of a white face or a black face. The subjects were told to ignore the faces and focus on identifying the objects.

The result? In a carbine shell: if a black face flashed first, it made both accurate IDs of guns and false positives more likely. This suggests the Florida law and its clones are “catastrophically bad public policy,” Noah says. “If people are more likely to imagine guns in the hands of black people than white people then the result will be disproportionate deaths for innocent black people.” Invade my privacy, will you?– says the white guy standing in the middle of the public street. Die, invader, die!

But the other side, of course, is how African-Americans experience their bodily existence under view. Is there any comparable umbrella of inviolability there? And the answer, clearly, is that where somebody’s monitored and surveilled constantly for signs of deviance and violence, you watch yourself and police your movements for your own life’s sake. One of the saddest things I read this week was from Janice D’Arcy’s “On Parenting” blog at the Washington Post, about “parents who say that to raise a minority in this country, particularly an African American boy, is to live with the understanding that the child will be arbitrarily mistreated. It is also to live with the burden of explaining this reality.” She found an account by Jonathan Capehart, for instance, of the warnings his mom gave him before his first day at a mostly-white school:

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

Or a blogger who listed “the rules” she’s instilling in her 6-year-old black daughter:

1. Don’t touch anything when you go into stores. …

2. Always ask for a bag for the items you purchased. … My mom didn’t want anyone thinking that we walked out of the store without paying for our merchandise. …

3. Know who you are. You can’t do everything they do. In other words, just because your white friend does something that doesn’t mean you can do the same. Whether it’s hanging at the mall or going to a house party, police, teachers, and other authorities treat white children differently than black children. …

This is grimly awful. These children are learning at home, in what’s supposed to be the safe space of the family, precepts of inculcated inferiority that could save their lives. As Khaled Beydoun and Linda Sarsour write for Al-Jazeera: the après-Obama myth that the US has become a “post-racial” society is way premature.

no blacks in headgear wanted here

Obama himself weighed in about the Martin killing today, saying that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon … I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together.” It’s a moving thing to say; but it also situates the grief and the suffering back behind closed doors, as a “family” issue, when in fact it reaches into most every part of our public life. So, too, I resist his calling this a “tragedy.” Tragedies are the work of Fate, or the hero-victim’s overreaching; in that spirit, exculpating the world around him, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera attributes Trayvon’s death to blind pride in wearing “gangsta” style, the hubris of the hoodie. (For photos of Geraldo wearing a hoodie, see here. Shoot first, criticize fashion later.) But there are no resentful gods exacting retribution here. Just historical legacies and human choices.

The truth is: white people get to be private even in public. And for black people, public facts and figments follow them home even to the private sphere.  These are truths that, given suitable laws and armaments, kill. When we talk about the “right to privacy” — in contraception, in abortion, in Lawrence v. Texas — all of us need to be conscious of the different enjoyments and possibilities it can mean.

Peter Tatchell, Whitney Houston, Malcolm X, and race remixed

I hear dead people (© Max Sparber)

Madcap Briton Peter Tatchell enjoys ventriloquism. It’s a skill he’s probably been practicing since childhood; and anyway, he knows what people should be saying, even if they don’t.  Dead folks are easy marks as dummies, since they’ve got nothing to say for themselves. And Tatchell’s talent at taking on the voices of dead Iranians is notorious.

Tatchell also has a driving concern with black people. Look at his recurrent need to speak about and for Africans, even when Africans are doing a perfectly fine job of speaking for themselves. Or his peculiar way of attaching to himself a few tokenized black folks from time to time in his advocacy– as if he draws deep pleasure from their dependency, but knows they have an authority he wants to pirate somehow. He seems to think, one might say, that black people are less sexually civilized than he, yet need him to enlighten them: a form of self-flattery magnified at continental scale. Plenty of Africans haven’t forgotten, after all, how in his unwanted intervention on Nigeria’s anti-homosexuality bill in 2006 , his key description of the legislation was: “savage.”  (That Tatchell’s political deputy for years was the weirdly obsessed Brett Lock — known for defending what in the US we call the “n-word” as merely an inoffensive derivation from the Latin – further suggests his odd attitudes.)

Brett Lock of OutRage! discusses race and discourse: Hurryupharry.org

Most interesting, though, is his periodic expropriation of the sexualities of dead black icons. Tatchell appoints himself posthumous press agent, and sets up a dynamic where anyone who objects to a white guy doing this is simply proving that black people can’t stand gays.

He did this most famously with Malcolm X: branding Malcolm GAY!, then brandishing the outraged response as evidence of black homophobia. When Manning Marable devoted one page of his brilliant, magisterial, 576-page biography to Malcolm’s sexual relations with white men early in his career in Boston, Tatchell read and responded to that page alone, proclaiming to the world he’d been right all along. Marable himself was dead by then too, making Tatchell’s man-grab easier and more fun. (Fellow grave-robber Doug Ireland did the same; to read these necroerotic  writers’ reviews of Marable, you’d think the biography was the long-lost, mixed-race episode of Will and Grace.)

Marable’s sensitive account makes it clear that the principal relationship  in question had nothing to do with identity, but rather with – mutual — exploitation. Malcolm was hustling: using somebody for money and power, and being used for sex in the process. What Tatchell reads, blindly, as a story of love and identity was in fact an episode in African-Americans’ ways of confronting subjugation. Tatchell can’t grasp that the interaction, however much one of exchange, was founded on the partners’ inequality. Its contribution  to Malcolm’s ideology, if it had one, surely was to deepen his awareness of how intimate both exploitation and resistance were, how they shaped experience at all levels. In taking the relationship as equal affection,  Tatchell erases African-Americans’ historical passage. A white man has no right to do that. But this is one rights issue Tatchell greets with indifference.

No surprise, then, that Tatchell himself hustled to latch on to Whitney Houston. Nothing like milking a dead celebrity for publicity! Within six hours of her death Tatchell was tweeting about her “#lesbian partner in 1980s”! He parlayed this into plenty of press, and a slightly creepy piece in the Daily Mail.  None of his story quite checks out. It’s strange, for one thing, that a deeply closeted celebrity would meet the most famous practioner of outing in the UK, and say to him, “Hello, Mr. Tatchell! This is my lesbian partner!” But hey: it upped the Lexis-Nexis count.

Two, though, can play ventriloquist. The blog Racism Remixed has decided to tell us what Tatchell really meant. Their reconstruction is here – and reblogged below:

Whitney Houston- The Unofficial Inside Story – By PETER TATCHELL

Peter Tatchell grave robber

Tatchell has taken Whitney Houston’s death as an opportunity to ‘out’ another black person. It appears that ‘Whitney’s REAL tragedy was giving up her greatest love of all – her female partner Robyn Crawford’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2103164/Whitney-Houstons-REAL-tragedy-giving-female-partner-Robyn-Crawford.html

NOTE:PETEY LOVES ADDING CREATIVELY TO OTHER PEOPLE’S HISTORIES AND BIOGRAPHIES, SO WE THOUGHT WE MIGHT, TOO.

I met Whitney and her female partner at the Reach Out & Touch HIV vigil in London in 1991.

Whitney spoke movingly in support of people with HIV, at a time when many other stars kept their distance. Her support was much valued.

She advocated the welfare and human rights of people with HIV. It was a commendable stand.

I have, in the past, declined to name Whitney’s female partner EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE A GOOD OUTING, AND HAVE FOR A WHILE BEEN FASCINATED IN THE INTIMATE LIVES OF BLACK PEOPLE MOST OF WHOM YOU KNOW ARE ON THE DL OR MSM, I MEAN WSW (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/oct/20/malcolm-x-bisexual-black-history). SEE I AM NOT AS SEXIST AS PEOPLE SAY I AM, AND I DO CARE ABOUT LESBIANS, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE BLACK. MOST of the media DO TOO, AND have since named her PARTNER as Robyn Crawford, SO HERE GOES. WHITNEY’S FEMALE PARTNER WAS NONE OTHER THAN ROBYN CRAWFORD. 

When I met them, it was obvious they were madly in love. Their intimacy and affection was so sweet and romantic. LESBIANS ARE ADORABLE AND MATE FOR LIFE.

They held hands in the back of the car like teenage sweethearts. Clearly more than just friends, BECAUSE WHEN LESBIANS HOLD HANDS IT BASICALLY MEANS THE SAME AS WHEN WE ARE HAVING SEX, AND WOMEN WHO ARE NOT HAVING SEX WITH EACH OTHER NEVER HOLD HANDS, they were a gorgeous couple, EVEN I COULD SEE THAT AND I’M WHITE, I MEAN, AND I’M GAY, and so happy together. To see their love was infectious and uplifting. BLACK PEOPLE, FINALLY UPLIFTED IN MY EYES, AFTER CENTURIES OF TRYING ON THEIR OWN. I WAS CERTAINLY UPLIFTED. I FELT LIKE I WAS WALKING ON AIR. IT WAS AMAZING. 

Whitney was happiest and at the peak of her career when she was with Robyn. I KNOW THIS BECAUSE WE WERE CLOSE FRIENDS AND TALKED ON THE PHONE EVERY NIGHT ABOUT MATTERS OF THE HEART. AND EVEN IF WE DIDN’T, I KNOW TRUE LOVE BETWEEN BLACK PEOPLE WHEN I SEE IT. Sadly, she suffered BLACK family and BLACK church pressure to end her greatest love of all.

She was fearful of the effects that lesbian rumours might have on her family, reputation and career. SHE TOLD ME THIS ON MYSPACE. AND EVEN IF SHE DIDN’T, I KNEW IT ANYWAY BECAUSE I’M A JOURNALIST. KIND OF. WELL I WRITE FOR THE GUARDIAN A LOT. AND WHEN THE GUARDIAN DOESN’T WANT ME I’M HAPPY TO GO TO THE DAILY MAIL GIVEN THEIR GREAT RECORD ON GAY RIGHTS REPORTING. Eventually she succumbed. The result? A surprise marriage to Bobby Brown.

The marriage was a disaster. Bad boy Bobby was never her true soul mate. I KNOW THIS BECAUSE SHE TOLD ME ON MSN MESSENGER. Giving up Robyn – they’d been inseparable for years – must have been emotionally traumatic.

Whitney’s life started going downhill soon afterwards. Previously wholesome AND AS PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW EXCEPT THAT SHE WAS BLACK and clean-living, she went on drink-and-drug binges – evidence of a troubled personal life and much unhappiness.

I’M NO PSYCHOLOGIST, PERSONAL FRIEND OF WHITNEY’S OR EXPERT ON ADDICTION, BUT it seems likely that the split with Robyn contributed to her substance abuse and decline. There is a known correlation between denial of one’s sexuality and a propensity to self-destructive behaviour. DAN SAVAGE SAYS SO TOO, AND YOU KNOW THERE’S A LOT OF MONEY IN THAT NOW. Homophobia undoubtedly added to the pressures on Whitney and hastened her demise.

Soon after her very sad death, I was quoted as saying that Whitney was happiest when she loved a woman. Some fans accused me of ‘insulting’ and ‘smearing’ her. (SMEARING IS ONE OF MY FAVOURITE WORDS EVER, AS MY FANS AND REGULAR READERS MAY KNOW). BUT ACTUALLY THE MOST INSULTING THING I’VE EVER SAID ABOUT WHITNEY HOUSTON IS THE TITLE OF THIS ARTICLE, IMPLYING THAT HER SUPPOSED BREAK UP FROM HER SUPPOSED SOUL MATE IS MORE TRAGIC THAN HER ACTUAL UNTIMELY DEATH. SORRY FRIENDS AND FAMILY, BUT AN OVERDOSE IS NEVER AS SAD AS WHEN TWO SUPPOSED LESBIANS PART WAYS.

But there is nothing shameful about a woman loving a woman. It’s not dirty or sordid and shouldn’t be kept hidden. FORGET ALL THE JOKES ABOUT FISH SMELL AND CARPET MUNCHING YOU HAVE HEARD GAY MEN SAY.

PEOPLE WHO DO KEEP IT HIDDEN ARE BLACK. I MEAN CLOSETED. OR IS IT HOMOPHOBIC? SELF-HATING? ANYWAY, DON’T KEEP IT HIDDEN FOLKS, BE PROUD AND WEAR A RAINBOW.

I did not out her as lesbian/ bisexual. APART FROM WITH THIS ARTICLE, BUT SHE’S ALREADY DEAD, SO. She semi-outed herself by dedicating her albums to Robyn. NO WOMAN EVER DEDICATES HER ALBUM TO ANOTHER WOMAN UNLESS SHE’S HAVING HAND HOLDING SEX WITH THEM. EXCEPT FOR WHEN SOME FEMALE ARTISTS DEDICATE THEIR ALBUMS TO THEIR MOTHERS. BUT EVEN THEN, YOU GOTTA WONDER, RIGHT?

Years ago, she was outed by Bobby’s sister, Tina, and by her former bodyguard, Kevin Ammons. THEY DID IT FIRST FOLKS! 

Bobby Brown hinted in his autobiography that she married him to dispel lesbian rumours: ‘I believe her agenda was to clean up her image … The media was accusing her of having a bisexual relationship with her assistant, Robin [sic] Crawford … that didn’t go too well with her image. In Whitney’s situation, the only solution was to get married … [to] kill all speculation.’ AND IF ANYONE KNOWS THE TRUTH OF WHITNEY HOUSTON’S HEART, IT’S BOBBY NOT-HOUSTON’S-SOULMATE BROWN. 

Telling the truth does not besmirch Whitney’s memory. It honours the most important relationship she ever had. I KNOW IT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIP SHE EVER HAD BECAUSE SHE TOLD ME ON FACEBOOK. APOLOGIES TO WHITNEY’S FAMILY MEMBERS – YOU GUYS DIDN’T MAKE THE LIST. BUT DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY – LESBIANS ARE OBSESSED WITH ROMANCE AND DENOUNCE ALL OTHER INTERACTIONS AS INSIGNIFICANT AND MEANINGLESS. THE LGBT PSYCHIATRIST WHO’S NOW PART OF MY CAMPAIGN SAYS IT’S CALLED CODEPENDENCE.

What’s wrong is ignoring or denying the one love that made her truly happy, NOT OUTING PEOPLE AND BELITTLING THEIR DEATHS.

Homophobia contributed to Whitney’s fall.

I want to see a more tolerant society where people don’t feel the need to marry – UNLESS IT’S A GAY MARRIAGE – to deflect rumours of homosexuality, and where they are not driven to self-destruction because of their inability to accept and express their love for a person of the same sex AND I ALSO WANT MORE FAMOUS BLACK PEOPLE TO DIE SO I CAN WRITE ABOUT HOW THEY WERE REALLY GAY LIKE I DID WITH MALCOLM X.

Achieving this goal would be a fitting tribute to Whitney Houston AND TO MY SAVINGS ACCOUNT: sort code – 8-5-E 18-R 15-O  account number – 19-S 1-A 22-V 9-15-O 21-U 18-R


Great moments in Islamophobia: Daniel Pipes is not a Scythian

Here’s a little mystery that intruded on my attention today.

Daniel Pipes (L) on the lecture circuit

Daniel Pipes, hater of all things Arab and Muslim, crusader against campus terrorists, expert linguist, and biographer of Barack Obama, posted this on his blog a couple of weeks ago:

The Pipes Rule of Arab Elections

Offered on the occasion of the “first free” elections in Tunisia:

If you know the result ahead of time, you are voting for the real powerbroker. If you don’t know the result in advance, then you are voting for a position that hardly matters.

This gives me several different occasions for perplexity.

  1. What the hell does it mean?
  2. Why is there a button on the post that offers “Translations of this item” into French, Italian, and … Latin, and “Greek (Ancient)?”
  3. Why did the obsessive British blog Harry’s Place, which doubles as Islamophobia Central and as personal trainer for the “muscular liberal” set, today headline this blog post in its Attic Greek translation, without further explanation:  ὁ περὶ τὰς τῶν ᾿Αράβων ἐκλόγας νόμος ὁ τοῦ Δανιέλου Πιπέος, etc.?

I don’t understand these people at all, so I can only speculate that perhaps:

  1. Daniel Pipes is desperate to prove that he is a civilized Athenian, not a barbarian.
  2. The enigmatic original post is a code, reading “Bomb NYU!” or something, that can only be decrypted by translation into a dead language, and now the terrorist chatter in the Harry’s Place comments portends the coming attack.
  3. Harry’s Place has devised a secret plan, involving time travel, to recruit the military genius Alexander the Great to drive the Muslims out of Europe.
It’s good to know that the defenders of civilization against Islamic darkness are making wise use of their time.