Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A talk

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraq, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraqi, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

On June 16, I gave a Human Rights Lecture as part of the program of Toronto Pride, on the 2014 bathhouse raid in Cairo and the ongoing crackdown on suspected trans and gay people in Egypt. Several people asked for the text, and I’m publishing it here. I owe much gratitude to Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, who introduced the lecture and placed it in a regional context. Many thanks are also due to Mathieu Chantelois of Pride Toronto; the hardworking staff of both Pride Toronto and The 519; and Brenda Cossman, Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, who together sponsored and organized the talk. I am also very much indebted to John Greyson and Stephen Andrews, artists and activists, who helped make the whole thing possible. 

For any who perversely want not to read but to watch me dissect this sort of thing, here’s a talk — on similar but not identical themes — I gave at Princeton University this spring:

And here is the Toronto lecture:

I feel overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed to see so many of you here. But I am also overwhelmed as so many of us feel overwhelmed right now: there is too much to talk about, and too little one can actually say.

I was asked here to describe the campaign against LGBT people, especially trans women and gay men, ongoing for three years in Egypt: particularly the now-infamous police raid on a bathhouse in Cairo in December 2014. I was asked partly in the context of the 35th anniversary of the bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 — “Operation Soap.”

The question was: how much consistency across time and space shapes the persecution and oppression that queer people face?

And here we are, in this moment, on this day, in this juncture: and I know that everyone in this room is thinking about Orlando.

In the US, now, you can witness a political contest over what that event means over what frame we’re going to use to understand it. This battle is also over whether it’s a local event or a global one, how much it crosses those boundaries of time and space:

  • the right wing – and Donald Trump – insisting this is “about” terrorism, about porous borders, about alien violence invading our spaces;
  • the left insisting this is about our, American, indigenous violence, our own fundamentalism, our guns, our propensity to see difference as a question of firepower.

These either-ors imply that Orlando was easily understandable, and can be not just comprehended but owned. Yet this kind of debate also indicates how deeply an instability of space — this troubled relationship between here and there, the local and the remote — has become integral to our thinking, and to our selves, in this increasingly elastic world.

It’s a world in which images circulate rapidly and globally; in which certain events become global, resonate far beyond their origins, are part of how people understand themselves , so that in South Africa or the Philippines, Orlando morphs into a reference point. It’s right that it be a reference point. The enormity and the suddenness of the violence mean it instantly touches innumerable queer people’s deepest fears. Yet some other events don’t circulate at all.

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate's love's victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate’s love’s victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

I’ll cite a friend of mine, a feminist in Egypt, writing about Orlando. She also speaks of how images spread globally – in this case, the celebratory images of gay triumphs. The killing, my friend writes, is “an ugly reality check to the fakeness of celebrating love wins” — by which she means that ubiquitous social media jubilation after same-sex marriage was legalized in a single, powerful country, the US.

When love wins happened, the Egyptian authorities were having raids arresting gay men and trans here. We couldn’t unsee the relation between the escalation of risk for being queer here and the media discourse which was commenting on love wins and which was [making Egyptians] realize that there are people who are actually homosexuals.

And she adds: “I am afraid that contrast can escalate badly. Anywhere.”

So: connections, and contrast. I’ll start with a short video.  It shows someone who was swept up in the crackdown that’s going on in Egypt: a trans woman, a leader in her community, named Malouka. Police arrested her in December 2014. The press vilified her as “the most dangerous homosexual in Egypt.” (Egyptian media recognize no meaningful distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity as comprehended in the West, just a collective and only vaguely differentiated category of “perversion”.) The video was obviously filmed in a police station. A website based in the UAE, one with close ties with Egyptian police, published it. It’s disturbing; I wouldn’t show it except that I want to disturb you. It shows Malouka traumatized, probably beaten, though it’s not clear what they have done to her. She keeps repeating, over and over: “My father never loved me.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t replay such images without permission of the person they show. Malouka, though, simply disappeared into the vast Egyptian gulag. A court sentenced her to six years. With her blood family rejecting her – legally recognized relations are almost the only people with even intermittent access to prisoners in Egypt – only the barest information emerged about what happened to her. A rumor six months ago said she had committed suicide in detention. I believe it was untrue; but we were not even able to confirm that.

Let me describe what has been happening in Egypt for the last five years.

In 2011 — you know this — there was a revolution and Mubarak was overthrown. The military took power, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2011-2012, it held first parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were multiparty, competitive, and generally free.  And both were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For a year, then, from mid-2012 till July 2013, Egypt had a conservative government, but a democratically elected one: the only democratically elected government in Egypt’s history. In fact, the one year of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency was probably, in certain senses, the freest in Egypt’s modern history. The relative freedoms to speak, to criticize, to demonstrate and to agitate came not because the government was liberal – it wasn’t – but because it was weak. Still, those freedoms were tangible.

Egyptian queers were also enjoying a degree of freedom, an ability to occupy social spaces from which they were previously debarred. Back in the three years from  2001 to 2004, there had been a massive crackdown on men having sex with men, by the Mubarak government. Probably thousands were arrested and given sentences of up to 5 years. The circus of raids and show trials served up a convenient distraction from political and economic problems. But in 2004 it stopped, and for the next nine years there were very few arrests under Egypt’s laws against homosexual conduct. Indeed, from 2008, police in Egypt focused more on repressing political dissent in the increasingly volatile public sphere, and less on day-to-day policing, including patrolling the frontiers of acceptable morality. And after the revolution, the police virtually disappeared from urban streets. They had been the most hated symbol of the old regime, and in the new conditions they were virtually were afraid to show their faces.

With their retreat, LGBT people became increasingly visible in the downtown scene in Cairo. They occupied the decrepit city center’s cheap cafes and bars; they used the Internet to make new kinds of virtual community.

In July 2013, a carefully plotted military coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new junta, under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly showed itself repressive in an unprecedented degree. The military’s ruling principle was that the old Mubarak regime had failed, was overthrown, because it was too weak. It had allowed bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and other perverts too long a leash. The new state wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In August 2013, Sisi massacred over a thousand demonstrators supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. It was a message written in blood that the old rules didn’t apply, that the leash was now a chokehold. The military took over all the interstices of daily life: the country was kept under rigid curfew for months. And the police returned. Egypt saw a concerted attempt to resuscitate intensive social control.

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

In October 2013, a few months after the military coup, came the first arrests of LGBT people. First police in a very working-class district of eastern Cairo shut down a local gym allegedly patronized by men seeking sex with other men. They arrested and tortured 14 people. Next came a raid on a private party in a Cairo suburb. Police loaded ten victims into their wagons. The cops leaked both these cases to the press; favorable headlines acclaimed the constabulary for cleansing the capital of its immoral unwanted.  Someone in the Ministry of Interior decided that arresting “perverts” made good publicity for the police.

The arrests continued, applauded by an increasingly docile media. There were raids on homes, on private parties; people who looked differently or dressed differently could be seized on the street. Hundreds were arrested. Two incidents were particularly central in the storm of publicity.

We do; they don't. Still from 2013'a viral "same-sex wedding" video

We do; they don’t. Still from 2014’s viral “same-sex wedding” video

First: at the very end of August 2014, a video leaked on YouTube and immediately went viral. Filmed by a cameraphone, it seemed to show two men staging a mock wedding on a boat on the Nile. The footage — I learned from men who were there — came from a floating party months before; no one knew how it had reached YouTube. There was speculation the police had somehow got their hands on it and leaked it themselves. Hundreds of thousands saw it on the web, even more when it reached TV. Police rounded up everyone they could find from the boat, and they got two years in prison. Meanwhile, though, the banned and exiled Muslim Brotherhood joined the universal indignation, tweeting from some of its accounts that Sisi’s regime was now bringing gay marriage to Egypt.

Those attacks made queers a political, not just a police, issue. The dictator, after violently overthrowing a religious government, fears criticism from his right and from the Brotherhood more than any other kind.  The matter of homosexuality became both opportunity and an obligation for Sisi; he needed to prove his aptitude as moral defender of the nation.

Mona Iraq, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

Mona Iraqi, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

On December 7, 2014, police raided an historic bathhouse in central Cairo, allegedly a meeting place for men having sex with men. They arrested 26 men, stripped them, marched them naked in the cold night; at least one was raped by other prisoners in the Azbekeya jail that night, with the guards’ collusion.  A TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, presided over the raid; she filmed it and publicized it. This was Sisi’s answer – meant to be a huge public show trial, proving the state’s will to suppress “perversion.”

It backfired. The government probably blackmailed Mona Iraqi into her repellent role in the raid: but for many Egyptians, including fellow reporters, she became a symbol of the “informer journalist,” selling her independence and soul to support the state’s agenda. (Since the trial ended, she has tried bizarrely to recuperate her reputation as a friend of queers, who emphatically don’t want her friendship. The “Love Wins” tweet I showed earlier was hers.) I was privileged to work with a few activists who fought to mobilize intellectual opinion, and the Egyptian media, against the raid. The outrage actually induced the government to back down. In an almost unheard-of event in Generalissimo Sisi’s Egypt, the men were acquitted. But their lives were ruined. One later tried to commit suicide by burning himself to death. And the arrests still go on.

Police use the Internet to entrap people: undercover agents infest apps like Grindr, pretending to be gay; or the cops enlist gay people as informers, blackmailed to help. Increasingly they target foreigners as well as Egyptians — sometimes Europeans, sometimes already-persecuted refugees: jailing them or deporting them.

At least 250-people in Egypt are now serving prison sentences of between 2 and 10 years for homosexual conduct; probably many more. Egypt now imprisons more people for their gender identity and sexual orientation than any other country in the world. 

What happens to queers in Egypt can’t be separated from the general draconian repression. Journalists are carted to prison; so are activists, students, or people who simply happen to be living in the wrong neighborhood.  People just disappear: into concentration camps, or — if they are abducted by the death squads that haunt the cities — their bodies turn up in ditches. Protests are punishable by three years in prison: or you can just be shot. NGOs face harassment and closure, including the very few that provide legal help to arrested LGBT people. And those downtown cafes I talked about? In late 2014 the government started harassing gathering spots in central Cairo, forcing them to shutter, because “undesirable people” – revolutionaries, atheists, perverts – gathered there. The spaces where ordinary solidarity can flourish are being strangled to death.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers to commemorate the martyrs of the Revolution, and its fourth anniversary.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers in commemoration of the Revolution’s martyrs, on the Revolution’s fourth anniversary.

So let me ask: Why don’t you know more about this?

The general situation in Egypt, and the horrifying situation of LGBT people, are consigned to the back pages of the papers, the fag end of the news, unclicked and untold.  Every queer schoolboy knows what’s gone on in Uganda or Russia in recent years. But Cairo or Alexandria? No.

One reason the LGBT arrests have gotten less attention? In a word: gender. 

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 -- mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists -- from a video published on the website of Youm7

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 — mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists — from a video published on the website of Youm7

The primary targets of these arrests haven’t been securely cis men who have sex with cis men. They’ve been trans women – or men who build their identities around not conforming to norms of masculinity. Egyptian society has no strong public recognition of gender identity as a category. There are, though, growing communities of people who identify as trans, and they’ve been more and visible — particularly in downtown Cairo. Indeed, “downtown,” wust el-balad, has turned into a term encompassing all kinds of deviance, from hash-smokers to atheists to revolutionary youth with long hair (government stooges regularly accuse former revolutionaries of gender and sexual perversion). Most of these fears focus on masculinity: “downtown” means men who aren’t men, and trans people symbolize the extremity of decadence. One word bandied about to summarize what the regime opposes is mokhanatheen: sissies. The need to enforce gendered norms, and in particular to make sure that men behave as men should, obey the behavioral rules for their assigned gender, is hard-wired into the military regime.

Yet this doesn’t interest international LGB activists the way arrests of gay men do. Which two cases in Egypt have had the most international attention? The wedding video arrests: where photos showed two bearded men, solid in their evident cisness. And the bathhouse raid: where images focused on photos of naked bodies in the cold December air – bodies that looked unequivocally male.

Most of the hundreds imprisoned in Egypt haven’t been like that. We claim to be having a “trans moment” in Europe and North America. Maybe. Has it gone from pop culture to politics — our politics, the politics of LGB-and-only-occasionally-T movements? No. It’s still painfully clear which bodies we prefer, even as passive victims. Masculinity infects our activism, as it pervades our media, our cultures, and our dreams.

There’s another reason for the silence: respectability. 

The law that criminalizes homosexual conduct in Egypt is, in origin, a law against prostitution. It was passed in a moment of nationalist fervor in1951. The British occupying army had for decades maintained brothels for its soldiers, staffed by Egyptian women, and this was seen across the political spectrum as an enormous national shame. Parliament passed a law that criminalized sex work by women, and then in a sort of throw-the-kitchen-sink fit of moralistic enthusiasm they tossed in parallel punishments for something called fugur or “debauchery” — which wasn’t defined. The term, though, was gradually interpreted by courts to mean non-commercial sex between consenting adult men

In Egypt, then, you don’t need to prove that two men are exchanging money to arrest them for having sex. But a link between homosexual conduct and prostitution is — again — hard-wired into Egyptian law and attitudes. In this crackdown, the military has been at some pains to stress the connection. When Mona Iraqi was criticized for raiding the bathhouse, she defended herself by claiming it was a den of “human trafficking,” because she knew this was an appealing line: a useful excuse locally — and internationally.

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

The US government, which now positions itself as the world’s foremost defender of LGBT people’s rights, is also the world’s most powerful opponent of sex workers’ rights. It promotes ridiculous and regressive myths that all prostitution is “trafficking”; it demands that foreign groups receiving its (ever so queer-friendly) funding pledge never to discuss decriminalizing sex work, or sex workers’ persecution by laws and police.  Hillary Clinton and the whole Obama administration have clung to the Bush administration’s failed moralism where suppressing commercial sex — and sex workers — is concerned.

Cover of a 1910 book on "white slavery" by Ernest Bell

Cover of a 1910 book on “white slavery” by Ernest Bell

And with US funding underpinning LGBT politics, many LGBT organizations have been happy to ditch sex workers’ rights and issues in pursuit of a respectable picture of LGBT communities. That’s less true of grassroots groups than of those operating in the international sphere: those that command media spaces like the New York Times, and set the agenda, and create images of what LGBT rights are.

Around the world, more LGBT people are arrested every day under laws targeting sex work than are arrested under so-called “sodomy laws” in a year. They aren’t just arrested because they may be doing sex work — but because those are the laws police use against cruising, soliciting, public displays of affection, walking while trans or butch.

Yet our international movement writes those people off. And that’s a disgrace. We congratulate ourselves when sodomy laws are repealed, as though that means full decriminalization of queer lives and bodies. We don’t notice laws that have even harsher impact on those lives.

Remember: The Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 took place under a 19th-century law on “bawdy houses.” Respectable gay sex in bedrooms had been formally decriminalized in Canada. But if they hate you, they can still find laws to use against you. And anti-prostitution laws are always a ready tool.

In Egypt, too, the idea that the arrested people are not respectable, are not like us, has inhibited sympathy, stifled response. And not just within the country’s borders. What images roused the first international outcry against the Cairo crackdown? Those two cis men pursuing the most respectable of American-style gay activities: getting married.

But trans sex workers? Who cares?

Egyptian protesters point to the "Made in USA" tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

Egyptian protesters point to the “Made in USA” tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

A final reason for the silence: security.

The Egyptian military and its conceptions of manhood are paid for by the United States. The US gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year (along with a small, steadily diminishing amount of development aid, currently less than $250 million). Each year, Egypt receives the world’s second or third largest sum of US military aid, after Israel.

The aid has stayed at the same level since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in the early 1980s. In effect, we pay Egypt not to use its military on its neighbors: with the implicit proviso that it will use its military on its own people, when needed.

We — and I mean Americans like me, and our allies — pay for the abuses the military engages in. 40,000 political prisoners held, mostly without trial? We pay for the concentration camps that hold them. Tear gas used on demonstrators?  We pay for it, it comes from US firms, it’s bought with money the US gives the government. We pay the generals’ salaries. We pay for the soldiers’ guns. We pay for the civilians the army slaughters in Sinai, or at least for their mass graves.  The surveillance equipment Egypt’s government is buying up, to monitor the whole Internet – and they’ve specifically said LGBT people are a priority target— is bought from US firms, with no objection from the US government.

(Canada, so far as I know, has a limited direct relationship with the Egyptian military –except for its peacekeepers in Sinai, who protect an ever-more-imaginary peace, one devastated both by an armed insurgency and by Egypt’s brutal, Israeli-supported campaign to exterminate it. But Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia indirectly aid Egypt, by channeling resources to one of Sisi’s main backers. Saudi Arabia is the root of evil in the region; you’re handing wands to Voldemort, you’re hawking rings to Sauron. And the Saudis  know they can use Canada’s equipment to prop up repressive regimes wherever they like.)

Egyptian activists — human rights activists, and LGBT activists among them — want the US and its allies to cut or stop military aid to Sisi. They want us to stop propping up the murder regime. This, the US and NATO refuse to do.

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and gives him $572 million in military aid, days after pro-democracy activists including feminist Yara Sallam were arrested and abused

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and hands him $572 million in military aid, days after police arrested and abused pro-democracy activists, including feminist Yara Sallam, for the heinous crime of marching down a street

John Kerry comes to Cairo once or twice a year, in his capacity as head imperialist tourist. I happen to know that dutiful State Department officers give him solid talking points for his meetings with Sisi; they say, “mention human rights violations” — sometimes even “mention the gays” (never the trans or the sex workers, of course.) But Kerry has a powerful mancrush on Sisi. He looks deep into those dark brown bloody eyes and throws his talking points out the window. He won’t mention the killings; he won’t mention the trans and gay arrests — I doubt he’s raised the issue once, even in a subordinate clause. Sisi is our ally. He safeguards security. The rest is silence.

In fact, none of Sisi’s measures increase security — not even the savage war against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and certainly not the torture of queers. They destroy security. Last summer, while I lived in Cairo, rebel bombings happened almost every week: they blew up consulates, subway stations, even the Prosecutor General.  ISIS kidnapped foreign workers on the streets of Cairo suburbs where I did my shopping.

But the life or death of locals matters less to the Obama administration than the big picture, the preservation of American power. The US mancrush on military dictators in Egypt long precedes the war on terror. It is a product of the way that US imperialism has approached the region for decades, a technique of power quite consciously set in opposition to the strategies of the British and French colonialisms it superseded. Aspiring to regional dominance, the US since the 1950s has attempted indirect rule. We don’t want to control territory or govern populations; we want access to resources, and the ability to keep others away from them. American ambitions have been exercised through anchor states, core allies whose job is to police the region and ensure stability for us.

The US pays for militaries strong enough to keep societies in subjection. We also pay to see the values of those militaries – the reliance on violence, the suppression of difference, the repressive cult of masculinity, the patriarchal faith in state power – spread throughout those societies and distort their workings, destroy their solidarities, suppress their dissenters. We’ve created militarized states throughout the Middle East, and we’ve also created militarized masculinities. So the lives of queers in Egypt are necessarily tangled up with the war on terror.

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in "advancing LGBTI-inclusive development"

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in “advancing LGBTI-inclusive development”

Today, the US exercises enormous hegemony over the international LGBT movement. Most of the largest organizations doing international LGBT work in the US get funding for acting as instruments of US foreign policy.  The Human Rights Campaign gets money from the US State Department; Outright Action International, which I used to work for, gets money from the US State Department. Many influential groups elsewhere in the global North are beneficiaries of American money. And even groups that don’t get funding rely on the US government for information, for access, for all the privileges that flow from proximity to power.

Increasingly, those groups are willing to play along with the US government and its priorities. You will hear no public criticism of US inaction on Egypt from these NGOs. You’ll hear very little criticism even of the Egyptian government for its crackdown. International LGBT politics comes to mirror US foreign policy, and exempts US allies from harsh scrutiny.

I fear we are creating a comprador LGBT movement, incapable of criticizing the misdeeds of governments that support it.  This movement enjoys what it believes is power — though often that merely means taking cheerful selfies with the politicians who really possess it. But that movement is content to sacrifice its own, in the name of preserving its own access to power: to rest in silence, complicity and compliance.

Canada has a new government, after nine years of Harper, and is moving in a new direction. Your leadership is increasing its commitment to LGBT rights worldwide. It’s doing what the Obama administration and other Western states have done, putting LGBT rights firmly on its foreign policy agenda. And like those other governments it has two motives.

  • Unquestionably some policymakers are sincerely committed to the ideal of universal human rights.
  • But they also know there’s an active constituency at home who can be pleased – appeased — and persuaded to vote by these commitments. Political self-interest amplifies idealism, and in some cases dominates it.

In the spirit of United States citizens who like to tell other people what to do, I want to offer some unwanted advice.  Because when the Trudeau government talks about LGBT rights abroad they’re not aiming at trans or gay Egyptians; they’re aiming at you, as citizens and voters.  And how you conceive these issues and frame them, the strength and reach of your imagination, will determine how successful the initiatives are.

First: LGBT rights can’t be conceived in separation from other human rights issues and violations, or from the overall human rights situation in a country. They’re not a lonely silo on a prairie, standing on its own. Moreover: what your government does to defend them can’t be evaluated without a grasp, and a critique, of your government’s overall foreign policy priorities in a country or a region.

Think of how the United States has dealt with human rights in Uganda. Defending LGBT rights in Uganda — fighting the “Kill the gays” bill — has been an American priority ever since Hillary Clinton launched her gay-rights initiative in 2011.  It hasn’t been entirely successful — the bill hasn’t passed, but it hasn’t gone away either. There is no question, though, that US efforts have bettered and bolstered Ugandan civil society, immensely strengthening its capacity to oppose the bill.

An American queer public outraged by Ugandan homophobia helped drive these initiatives. Yet it’s also convenient for the US government to confront Museveni’s dictatorship on this issue, rather than on its fraudulent elections or its ruthless repression of opposition — which aren’t, after all, abuses most American voters notice. The freedoms of LGBT people are vital, but don’t threaten the ultimate stability of the dictatorial regime. The Obama administration can keep its supporters happy and say it is addressing human rights in Uganda, while emitting only anodyne criticisms as Museveni quashes democracy. The US needs Museveni; he’s an ally in the little war-on-terror sideshow the US keeps going in East Africa. More importantly, he’s a useful stooge in the cold war the US wages with China for control of African natural resources, including the oil and gas that form a burgeoning part of Uganda’s own economy.

As in the Middle East, the US exerts its power in Africa through regional proxies. The Ugandan regime is one, and an exclusionary absorption with LGBT issues allows the US government to evade real condemnation of other Ugandan rights abuses. An American LGBT politics which lets Obama get away with this is partial, truncated, and blind.  Queers need a critical stance on their countries’ foreign policies in general.

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Changeat a Kampala protest against Museveni's 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change at a Kampala protest against interminable President Museveni’s 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Second: Break out of the focus on monolithic identities that confine our understanding of sexuality and gender — as well as the conceptions of who “real” or “respectable” LGBT people are. Linkages and intersections constitute queer lives, not monosyllabic words with easy dictionary definitions.

The example of sex work I’ve cited before is essential.  We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about the legal and social regimes that regulate how sex and gender appear in the public sphere. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about how states police people’s bodies and behaviors; how they govern the sex-money nexus; and how they repress and brutalize sex workers.

Another example, quite different, is the Canadian government’s decision to admit Syrian refugees who identify as gay men — but deny protection to single men who don’t identify as gay.

I agree that LGBT refugee claimants should get accelerated recognition if — as many are —- they’re trapped in second countries where they are unsafe. A Syrian gay refugee in Egypt risks arrest and torture. He needs to get out of there fast. I do not agree that LGBT claimants should get recognition to the exclusion of others. That willfully discounts the complexities of identity in a culturally hybrid context. It wilfully ignores the dangers people face, in refugee camps and refugee communities, in taking on a despised identity publicly. It wilfully neglects the rivalries it will create among refugees, which may put LGBT people in further danger from fellow claimants whose support and help they need. And it wilfully overlooks the commonalities of disadvantage between expressly identified LGBT people, and others who live outside normative family structures.

We need to think broadly about the relationship between the body and its freedoms on the one hand, and society and the state on the other. We need to look critically at the identity constructs that confine our thinking, and blind us to wider realities.

Many LGBT activists across the Middle East have chosen to advocate not in terms of “LGBT rights” — a construct with little local meaning or cultural resonance — but in terms of universal rights to autonomy and personal liberty and to privacy and freedom from state interference.  This is powerful language in the region, because it draws on experiences of state surveillance and control that LGBT people have in common with most of their fellow citizens.

Lisa Hajjar has argued that one powerful thread running through all the Arab Spring rebellions was resistance to torture. As a brute reality, torture threatened everybody. It also became a symbol of the broad power states claimed to watch, invade, and control individual bodies.  Resisting it was a key symbolic way of negating the state’s politics and pretensions. Resisting torture asserted the body’s power — the latent strength in those individuals and in their sheer material presence, saying “no” to the vast machinery of repression.

Perhaps this way of thinking about bodies and power is something we all need to learn.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

I want to close by quoting something a friend of a friend said recently: a feminist in Yemen. She lives in the murderous midst of a Western-sponsored proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the sky, day and night, seen and unseen, are US drones and Saudi warplanes. Through streets trundle combat vehicles that say “Made in Canada” on their underbellies.

She wrote about Orlando: “I’m not sure why I feel it, but it is surprisingly easy to grieve for the grieveable even though I know most would not grieve for me.”

Nearly all my friends in the Middle East share a belief that’s widespread across the region: that their lives don’t matter here. That their lives don’t matter to you. That the murders, the torture, the massacres carried out with our weapons, practiced by our proxies, and continuing in consequence of our wars, are invisible on our TV screens, unmourned and unnoticed and unknown.

Certain images circulate. Others don’t.

Certain deaths are mentionable. Others aren’t.

Given that strong belief, I continue to be surprised, and moved, by the solidarity my friends and colleagues in Cairo, or Amman, or Basra feel for the catastrophes they see elsewhere; the sympathy they summon for our sorrows over Orlando, their willingness to take on this grieving — even while we, in New York or San Francisco or Toronto, glide swiftly past what we dismiss as just another bombing in Baghdad, another drone attack on an anonymous crowd in Yemen, another mutilated corpse in Cairo.

Grief is by definition an emotion that lies beyond the economy of reciprocation. Its objects are those who cannot return our sorrows, acknowledge them or feel them; we grieve precisely because those we grieve are unable to respond.

But we will move beyond grieving. Our sorrow will necessarily give way to choices. We must decide how we respond to living others, how we acknowledge their sorrows, how we answer their demands, how we act.

We will not be judged by the number of our tears or the intensity of our sorrow, but by what we do, by the reach and the consequences of our sympathies, by whether they encompass those who are unlike us, who do not share our identities or our beliefs, whom we cannot fully know. Will we turn our grief into solidarities? Will we look across boundaries?

The choice is ours.

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

Julie Bindel sells her mind (not body)

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks by a white slaver

Julie Bindel is a British journalist, a fierce opponent of trans people’s human rights (they’re imitation women), and an abolitionist who wants to see sex work eradicated from the earth. Bindel is now raising money for a book she’s writing, to expose the “global ‘sex workers’ rights’ movement.” She “will outline the emergence of a powerful lobby — the sex workers’ rights movement — that works in favour of a total decriminalisation of the sex industry.” She is “planning to visit around thirty countries in order to conduct my research, taking me to the UK, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, Germany, South Africa, East Africa, North America, South America, France, New Zealand and Australia, South Korea, Turkey and India”: an itinerary curiously resembling that of the mythical white slavers of old. To fund this self-trafficking, she’s crowdfunding the project, and she’s already raised £6,773.00. She’d only asked for £6,500. All systems are go.

Bindel’s project is predictable: part of anti-sex-work eradicationists’ ongoing drive to paint all sex workers speaking out for their rights as pimps and punters in disguise. (A reporter who attended one of Bindel’s talks at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that her “presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry’” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.”) Or, as Bindel herself exclaims — an old ally of my old friend Peter Tatchell, she shares his oracular way of dealing with opponents: Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM Bindel has the same strategy as rich and puissant abolitionist groups like Equality Now, who have urged “investigating” the paltry funding of sex worker advocacy with the zeal of prurient Mississippi congressmen ogling the Comintern. Those girls only seem to be ragtag sex dissidents; in fact they’re Stalin’s seed, a dark coven of subversives, “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man”! This myth of a monied, mighty plot by “sex workers” who are really pimps in drag is central to how the abolitionists think. They preen themselves on the heroic deeds of tiny Davids slinging at a sinister Goliath. All Bindel’s research and rhetoric, her travel and “tabloid-style personal attacks” and trolling, will be convenient tools to hide the basic fact: that sex workers’ rights groups are the least powerful part of the human rights movement, persecuted everywhere, unrecognized and underfunded, dissed and mistreated by governments and NGOs alike, even by LGBT activists who should share their goals of bodily liberty but sell their easy principles for the ignis fatuus of respectability. I don’t know a single sex worker’s rights movement in the global South that could easily muster the £6,773 Bindel ginned up in a few weeks. “Powerful lobby,” my white ass.

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

But here’s my question. Bindel offers benefits to people who give her money. Or as she puts it, “Those who pay will also have access to special rewards such as signed books, invites to a Q&A, and extra material.”

For £5 you get to “Access activity feed” (here’s my webcam); plus “early access to articles and” — lascivious, the ring of this — “extra content.” For £15 you get “right to ask questions individually.” (Talk dirty.) For £250 and more you get “All the below, plus coffee/lunch and a chat with Julie in London. You may also bring a friend.” Does Nick Kristof need to raid the premises and batter down the door, to rescue Julie from indentured slavery and a repulsive threesome? Should he bring Somaly Mam?

No, of course not. Back off, Nick. This enticement is fine, in Bindel’s book. She’s not selling sexual services, just mental ones. It’s only her mind that’s on the auction block.

You’ve got to get the value system straight. It’s not OK for women to sell sex, because sex is immensely precious, the essence of a woman, the cold gemstone set in her golden loins that establishes her value as a human being. (No wonder Bindel hates trans women; they lack the sex parts that make real women worthwhile.) It is OK when a woman sells her intellectual labors, as Julie Bindel does: because that’s just cheap, mass-market stuff you can find in any flea market in Brixton.

I’m glad I understand Bindel’s peculiar feminism now. Kapish. Let’s move along.

Flash-mob demo on International Women's Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Flash-mob demo on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Icons

Madonna and fanboy, I

Madonna and fanboy, I

My friend Mauro Cabral, the great trans activist from Argentina, wrote this week on Facebook:

An American journalist wants to chat with me about Bruce Jenner’s story. She wants to know if I expect this new global leadership to help trans people in my country.

I told her that, to be honest, I am not following the story.

She asks me if I have good access to Internet.

Bruce Jenner has worn the two greenest laurels American life bestows, as sports hero and reality TV star. When he comes out as transgender, in an interview seen by one-twentieth of the country’s population, surely the world must be watching. The only holdouts are in the Stone Age caves of Buenos Aires, where people communicate by smoke signals.

For Mauro, this is the old American imperialism, sure that whatever happens in the 50 states shakes the planet. But it’s not just about foisting a new “global leader” on us. For me, an American, it also reveals a naïve confidence that the way we do politics is universal. Americans have given the globe a new kind of social transformation: change without action, progress without movements, transformation in the passive voice.

It used to be that when you dreamed of transforming society, you dreamed of deeds. Revolution was a name for that kind of action. Revolutions were compendia of great acts: manning barricades or withstanding massacres, the journées of bravery and danger, the assault on the Winter Palace, the confrontations with kings. Paintings or photographs preserve the figures of that age, in static and stylized tableaus; but even under those stiff cemented poses you can feel the taut muscles still pulsing, bursting through the flatness into our time and dimensions, like the withers of great horses straining to break free. They made oaths, which mortgaged their lives to future action; they pledged their fortunes and their sacred honor, or plighted an immortal solidarity on a disused tennis court. Of course, there was a lot of talking. They spoke and spoke. But when Patrick Henry cried out “Liberty or death,” or Trotsky shouted to the sweaty soviets about the dustbin of history, the words themselves became as hard as deeds. “The words fell like hammerstrokes,” people said. They meant that in the tension of transformation everything became an act. Each syllable forged a weapon. History was not what happened, but what you made: the energy of a common workman suddenly pounded time itself into shape as if it were molten steel.

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Everybody knows revolutions are over. Their time is past. Now we have Social Change. Social Change is committed by NGOs, furtively, like masturbation. Progressive donors who fund progressive NGOs working on Social Change often have something called a Theory of Change, to help decide whose change is theoretical enough to get the money. If you talk to such a donor, they may ask what your Theory of Change is. Usually they don’t expect you to have taken time off to think of one. They want to know you’ve read their website, and come with something enough like their own Theory to pass. A plausible Theory of Change might go like this. People need empowerment. This doesn’t mean appropriating anybody else’s power (or money; donors can be sensitive on this point). It means making them feel better about themselves; which means talking about rights and giving them role models. The role models are vital; power flows from their fingertips. A few celebrities can charge the world with change like electric current purring through great powerlines. They stand alone like latticed steel towers, strung together by their own strength. They do the public work, while the NGOs wank in private. Change happens so seamlessly that it never even slipped into the active voice. You can imagine trying to sell something like this to the Parisian sans culottes, or the Communards. But they lived in an age of darkness, with resources infinitely inferior to our own. Our lives touch the stars; we have satellite TV. The Theory of Change is a theory of the celebrity interview.

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Bruce Jenner is a decent person, who wants his life to mean something; but his image, now as before, is out of his hands. “We’re going to change the world,” he told the cameras (in all the discussion of his use of pronouns, no one asked if the “we” was royal or collective). And everybody agreed. He’ll change the world by being himself, and doing it in public. The word for such a sedentary world-changer is “icon.” An icon is, of course, a religious image; it’s necessarily inert. It answers prayers through the power of our faith in it, without lifting a painted finger.

Madonna and fanboy, II

Madonna and fanboy, II

And now he’s a transgender icon, an “icon of change.” “I couldn’t think of a stronger icon,” said one trans activist in Canada. “I’m team Bruce all the way.” In a New Zealand concert, Demi Lovato “dedicated her track Warrior to transgender icon Bruce Jenner,” “an American hero.” (“This whole fame thing starts taking over and people know your name and then all of a sudden – boom – you’re in rehab,” she warned him, apparently forgetting he went through that crucifixion before she was born.) There are no iconoclasts. Even people who don’t like him don’t dispute the icons’ power. “Trans people need an icon,” one op-ed read. “But Bruce Jenner is the worst possible choice.”

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, III

These aren’t metaphors. They’re manifestoes. They offer a strategy as clear as anything in Rules for Radicals or What Is To Be Done?  The panoply of ideas that icon-worship brings has become our essential jargon: the “teachable moment,” the “national conversation,” the importance of “awareness.” These goods are the intangible benefits celebrities can give us, just as healing radiates from the icon’s frame. The politics are magical and royalist. The “awareness” is entirely about the celebrities themselves, not of material facts that lie beyond their lives. Jenner took pains to emphasize in his interview, “I am not a spokesman for the community.” And he went on to list a lot of issues the community confronts: discrimination, health care, murder. But what sticks in the memory are the “simple goals” the cameras coaxed out of him: “To have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”

Under the nail polish, here are some figures about other transgender lives.

  • A 2011 survey of almost 6500 trans people in the US found they were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 than the general population.
  • One-fifth said they had been homeless at some point. Those are roughly the same figures that a 1997 city investigation found in liberal, protective San Francisco.
  • Only one-fifth had been able to update all their IDs to match their lived gender, and one-third had no matching ID at all.
  • One-fifth had no health insurance (as opposed to roughly 16% for the general population at the time). 18% had been verbally harassed in a medical setting, and 19% had been denied care because of their gender identity or expression.
  • Trans people reported four times the national average for HIV infection — trans women, eight times. Trans African-Americans were ten times more likely to be HIV-positive than other African Americans.
  • 16% of trans people overall – 21% of trans women – reported they had been incarcerated; among African-American trans people, that crested to 47%. In 2014, the US government estimated that 40% of trans people in prison have suffered sexual assault or abuse. That’s ten times the numbers among other prisoners. In California, studies of state prisons found that 59% of transgender women held in men’s units had been sexually assaulted by other inmates. 14% had been sexually assaulted by staff.
  • Of the 6500 trans people surveyed, 41% said they had attempted suicide: almost thirty times the figures for the US population overall.

Bruce Jenner can put a face on some transgender lives. But after that? A comforting face can easily hide comfortless facts. What you’re left with is a trickle-down theory of consciousness: that fame rubs off; that visibility is contagious; that Jenner has the strength to change the “national conversation” because his image was on a Wheaties box once. What is this redemptive power of breakfast? In the South, where I grew up, generations of white folks started their day eating pancakes blessed by a happy black woman smiling generously from the label: Aunt Jemima, an icon of love. It didn’t stop them from getting up from the table and going off to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

The politics of icons strikes me as one of the great gifts the gay movement proffered to America as a whole: so it’s natural that trans folk too should be expected to embrace it. (Remember, “transgender people need an icon,” even more than they do IDs.) “Gay Icon” actually has a Wikipedia entry; so do “Madonna As a Gay Icon” and “Cher As a Gay Icon.” Resilience, suffering, “triumph over adversity” nearly always figure in the definitions: “It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned [Judy, you idiot] Garland her status as a Gay Icon.” Drug addict! Fat girl! Multiple divorcée! Or as RuPaul says:

People always ask, ‘What makes a gay icon?’ People who have been ostracized or pushed outside of society relate to other people who have their exact same qualities and personality traits. The spiritual being having to dumb down to fit in.

I disagree, though. There’s a historical confusion here. When I was a kid back in the Middle Ages, learning to read by the light of burning witches, we had “divas,” not icons. Those indeed were famous women who had suffered and survived: Judy, Joan Crawford, Callas, Billie Holiday. Gay men identified with them because they offered a pushed-to-extremity version of what pop culture (or certain corners of high culture) promised to do: provide figures so immense, so superhuman, so intense in experience and emotion that they could contain all of us, like Whitman’s pan-American ego, and redeem our subjection to our grinding daily injustices by making it grandiose, gorgeous, unforgettable. Their sufferings were infinitely direr and more stylish. There was a tragic side, but this wasn’t catharsis: it was transfiguration.

Very few of these stars ever said anything in public about gay people. If they did, it was far from sure to be supportive. (Bette Midler was one of the only players before the 1980s who openly embraced a gay audience — and gay causes. That helped keep her more a cult figure than a major star. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, last of the disco divas, supposedly told a gay crowd that “AIDS is your sin … God loves you. But not the way you are now.”) But that was fine, because their usefulness wasn’t political but personal. They were tools to forge imaginary selves, means to endure the everyday by sublating it, the dialectic as redecorated by Douglas Sirk.

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, IV

The first top-rank, A-list star I remember who publicly exulted in her gay audience was Madonna. It’s hard to recapture how, as they say, transformational it was. She was the first real gay icon: somebody who promised not just inner triumph but the hope of everyone accepting you, loving you. There was no tragedy to her: neither in persona nor in person did she suggest suffering, being “pushed outside of society.” She did her own pushing. And she evoked not identification but adoration. Loving Madonna was an affair with the unattainable; fame was intrinsic to her being, and because she was famous she was radically different from you. There could be no question of her encompassing your problems. She was beyond all that.

Madonna-In-Bed-With-Madon-401853When I was in graduate school at Harvard, there was a young gay undergrad named Alek Keshishian, dying to be famous. I didn’t know him personally; his name showed up once on the student list for a section I was teaching, but he never appeared, and later he dropped the class. For student theater, he memorably staged a rock opera version of Wuthering Heights: Cathy and Heathcliff were rock stars, trying to deal with the pressures of fame. (Alek sent invites to reviewers from all the Boston papers, and got some favorable notices. This unheard-of self-advertising roused indignation in the dining halls: student theater was supposed to be for students.) Some of the songs he used in the opera were by Kate Bush and some were by Madonna, and when he contacted Madonna’s people to get the rights he managed, through sheer pushfulness, to speak to her. She took him on as fanboy and protégé, and after that he was in Fame Heaven. Straight out of college he started filming her tours and the backstage drama, and in 1991 he directed Truth or Dare  also known as In Bed With Madonna – which became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Its fame was transoceanic. I was living in Budapest by then, and if I mumbled half-mendaciously to somebody in the city’s one gay club that “Madonna’s director was my student,” my chance of getting laid increased twelvefold. Fame does rub off, in a long-distance frottage.

Alek never really did anything outside Madonnaworld. The rest of his career comprised music videos and the like; most recently he co-wrote a film with her, about another couple dealing with the pressures of fame, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If you Google him, he turns up on a page called “Today in Madonna History.” His story seems to me a parable of the period: not Wuthering Heights, but Great Expectations.                      

Madonna and fanboy, IV

Madonna and fanboy, V

You cathect to icons, but in a different way from divas. Divas once summed up your life; icons are imperial beings vastly above it, who bless it just by being there. Sorrow doesn’t touch them – Kylie MInogue said that divas “usually have some tragedy in their lives, but I’ve only had tragic haircuts and outfits.” The icons aren’t the drug addicts or the fat girls made good. They’re the rich kids who picked on the drug addicts and the fat girls. They’re emblems for an era where failure is the unforgivable sin. (B. J. Whiting, the great medievalist, used to ask his Harvard students at the beginning of every year to name the Seven Deadly Sins. A few always listed poverty, sickness, and unemployment.)

The fascination with celebrity is ingrained deep in Western gay life. Partly, I think, it comes from the debilitating experience of the closet, which despite the premature triumphalism of outness still shapes our lives. The wounds of self-concealment breed a fetish for completely public selves, all crevices open to the klieg lights.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

These days, we justify this star-fucking by saying that young queer kids need role models. They do; but role models they can’t speak to and can never hope to be? No lonely trans or gay youth seriously thinks he’s going to become famous as Tom Cruise or rich as Tim Cook. Children dream, but they’re not delusional like adults. They know the destinies of the stars lie beyond their grasp. Most of the hyper-successful win through inheriting looks or money, or through pure random luck in the Babylon lottery we inhabit. Their triumphs aren’t imitable. Some have real prowess, as Jenner had. (There’s an argument that Americans indulge the immense salaries of sports heroes because it’s almost the only field of American life where you can’t fake success. You either make the touchdown or you don’t – unlike corporate CEOs, who can cook the books more ways than Julia Child.) But that prowess came as much from genes as from the gym; it isn’t readily replicable, any more than you can get Oum Kulthoum’s vocal range by practicing your scales. We all bought Wheaties with Jenner’s picture when I was a kid, but we didn’t buy the line that we’d become him. Icons don’t reveal possibility. They embody inequality. It’s no coincidence that celebrity politics flowered in the Reagan era, which didn’t just cement inequality but celebrated it as US society’s vital principle.

tony

I’m not gay, but if George W. asked me, how could I refuse?

But the icon appeals in a different way to the insecure and unwanted: it makes them feel accepted by the big guys, the in crowd, the Mean Girls or Heathers or the playground bullies. Icons are about how the powerless love power. (In the UK, Gay Times named Tony Blair, the warrior god, “top gay icon” of the last 30 years. No one would dare call you a fag if you could destroy a country.) My old friend Lisa Power, a distinguished British queer campaigner, is researching how activists identify their role models. The celebrity fixation, she wrote me, is “about approval and validation, proving that popular people want to hang with us.”

She added: “One of the longstanding activists that I interviewed said, ‘Icons? In my day we didn’t have icons, we had each other.’” And that rings true. The need for icons also suggests some terrifying loneliness that all this liberation we’ve undergone has yet to repair, has perhaps made worse. We hung together more when we knew we needed each other. Now, so full of borrowed hope, we’re hopelessly alone.

Madonna and Fanboy, V

Madonna and fanboy, VI

If the gays, adoring their celebrities, played a critical part in creating celebrity politics, it has spread beyond them. Oh, how it’s spread! True, no other social movement has succumbed quite so completely to the idea that celebrities in themselves can get you justice. Most movements simply use the famous for what they can extract. But the model’s seductive, corrupting. Women’s rights campaigns in America look increasingly like red-carpet photo ops: think of all those stars reading the Vagina Monologues. The more riddled with implausibilities the cause, the more likely it is to enlist celebrities for their power to blot out doubt. Nick Kristof’s neo-feminist “Half the Sky” brand  – a book, a film, and a PR package that calls itself a “movement” — relies on Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, and Eva Mendes to help him raid brothels, humiliate sex workers, and buy women “freedom.” The paradigm of this is Kristof’s protégé, the anti-trafficking icon and master brothel-raider Somaly Mam, whose vanity foundation collected stars’ endorsements like Pokémon cards: Susan Sarandon, the inevitable Oprah, Ashley Judd and Ashlee Simpson, Katie Couric and Bill Maher. Mam was a money pit  for “celebrity philanthropy.” Even after she was caught “publicizing her efforts with fabricated, lurid stories about herself and the girls in her shelters, which sex trafficking experts say dangerously misconstrued the problem at hand,” Marie Claire, the beauty magazine, took up the cudgel to defend her. Diane von Furstenburg stands by her. Image is all.

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I played a refugee once: Jolie at the UN

For all its US foundations, moreover, celebrity politics more and more goes global. The United Nations, since the 1950s, has called on “Goodwill Ambassadors,” famous people brought in to publicize its agencies’ work. But now the truculent stars insist on being more than spokesmen; they want credit for the work itself. The moon’s pale fire eclipses what used to be the sun. Angelia Jolie has graduated from “Goodwill Ambassador” to full-fledged “Special Envoy” on refugees; she speaks at UN meetings with a Method-acting look of expertise. Alain de Botton, a celebrity philosopher, defends the primacy of celebrity activism like hers: “Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions.” Jolie, he says, is one of these directions (along with Alain de Botton). She goes to Congo or Rwanda “to help people who are in great need. But more than anything, what she does is make Africa ‘sexy.'”

In 2012, on Human RIghts Day, the UN held a panel discussion on LGBT people’s human rights, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself attending. Three activists travelled to New York to speak: Olena Shevchenko, a feminist and queer rights defender in Ukraine, Blas Radi from Argentina who had helped draft the groundbreaking bill on gender identity there, and Gift Trapence, who had bravely defended imprisoned trans and gay people in Malawi. But the main speakers were two queer-friendly performers: Latino corazón-throb Ricky Martin, and the South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, both somewhat superannuated to say the least. (One nice thing about becoming a gay icon is that your healing power can bring your dead career back to life.) The officials there spent their time fawning over the stars. Ban praised Chaka Chaka as “the Queen of Equality.” The Dutch diplomat moderating the event called Ricky Martin “the King of Equality.” (Royalty and equality, of course, are not usually linked.) The people who had actually worked for human freedom were treated as second-class opening acts, their comments cut short and their accomplishments slighted in favor of a chanteuse and a former member of Menudo. The activists felt useless. The show said nothing substantial. The UN, stealing a bit of lunar light from the stellar celebrities, got the publicity it wanted. Everyone who mattered was happy.

Madonna and Fanboy, VI

Madonna and fanboy, VII

Puzzle as you like over why celebrities dabble in humanitarianism – principles or PR? It can’t be grasped on the level of personalities. A Marxist could tell you what “celebrity activism” is, how the whole game works. It’s not a way of transforming society. It’s a way of transforming needs felt at the base into the abstract language of the superstructure: of turning anger and desperation into safe and culturally acceptable representations. The concrete, material needs that people and communities experience – for health care, jobs, access to medicines, protection from violence – are surrendered for immaterial gains on the level of “culture”: for “awareness,” publicity, “public consciousness,” “teachable moments,” “conversations.” The scraps of those needs that survive the translation are there for celebrities to turn into entertainment; your rage becomes a show, your hunger a commodity for somebody else to consume. The gains for the poor are purely ghostly, a few flickers of light. Those who get something tangible out of the game aren’t the communities, it’s the celebrities – and, overridingly, the corporate system within which they work, the machinery of capital that makes them. Profits flow up and only representations trickle down. And the nature of the system is that we are all trained to feel good about this; even the activists and malcontents among us.

This is simply how things are in the late-capitalist United States; everything material evaporates into its own signification. Or as Nancy Fraser would say, people who want redistribution of resources quickly learn to settle for symbolic “recognition,” for genuflections and formal respect, for the small satisfaction of seeing themselves in a movie — because it’s all they’ll get. There’s a limit to how much any activist can fight back against this system of images and fictions. We’re all convinced now that the only way to get any material needs met at all is to play the “cultural” game, to translate them into symbolic terms. You act nice, you tamp down your anger and your desires, and you recruit celebrities to “raise some awareness.” But we have never calculated, and may in fact be structurally unable to calculate, what we lose for a pottage of allegorical and evanescent gains: how many demands are abandoned, how many needs left unrecognized and unmet, in the distortions of this mistranslation.

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Sometimes the fabric of these fictions ruptures. Of course revolutions don’t happen any more; except they do. I drive each day in Cairo through Midan Tahrir. It’s a mound of earth. The military government is digging up the central traffic island for some unexplained project, like a bomb shelter; they’ve already planted a gratuitously gigantic flagpole there, plinthed on a grotesque sarcophagal stele. It’s all to keep it off-limits, keep you from gathering, fence the people away because they fear the people; the leaders live in the lightning-fringed apocalyptic dread that opens Pilgrim’s Progress; they fear the wrath to come. The people still want bread. What happened once can happen again. And then there’s Baltimore. In Baltimore the cops kill someone, and you know your own life has a use. In Baltimore they no longer wait or want to be spoken for, they don’t believe that change comes stacked in theories like eggs in cartons, they don’t believe that justice trickles down from absconded gods in the airwaves or the clouds. They know reality isn’t raw material for reality TV. Hunger and anger won’t submit to being translated. The pain that’s actual and unseen has more power than all the images some satellite, lost in the smear of stars, can absorb.

But the rest of us survive differently. Gay politics always talked of honesty, authenticity; but what’s left? To be queer now is to be caught trying to assert your own reality in a world that is more and more unreal. You are driving down a long straight highway in a desert, through bright sun flecked with strange-angled shadows, past painted yellow mesas flat as stage sets. A wind from the obverse of the sky blows over you, and hardens the beads of sweat on your face to diamonds. The towering props that mimic stone tremble in the air like aspens. You think, I could live like this: and the wind uncombs your hair.

Madonna and fanboy, IX

Madonna and fanboy, IX

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Note: at the time this piece was published, Caitlyn Jenner still asked to be called Bruce and to be described with masculine pronouns.

Injustice at Columbia: Power and public health

Not any more

Not any more

Update: There are now several petitions you can sign to support Hopper and Vance. If you have an academic affiliation, go here — there are petitions on behalf of both scholars. If you are an activist or advocate, you can sign a petition for Vance here

Columbia University is rich. This was brought home to me many years ago, the first time that — a kid from the countryside — I visited Rockefeller Center. As I walked through the marmoreal plazas of that temple of capitalism, someone, I forget who, pointed out that the Rockefellers didn’t actually own the land the skyscrapers were built on. Columbia University did, and rented it to Nelson, David, et.al. This astonished me. I thought of universities as assemblies of disinterested, impecunious intellectuals; it was like hearing that Keats personally built the British Museum, or that Van Gogh paid for his life of luxury by hiring out the Louvre. In fact, Columbia, a canny cross between Scrooge and Thomas Sutpen, has made a fortune by speculating in land. It moved its quarters uptown in 1896, building a formidable campus at what was then virtually the northern edge of settlement; its colonial relations with impoverished neighbors, a sorry record of exploitation and expropriation, led its own students to riot in 1968. But it clung to its midtown holdings, raked in the rent, and finally sold them to Rockefeller Center in 1985 for a tidy $400 million. It’s still growing like a sci-fi movie fungus, planning a whole vast new campus on 17 acres that used to be part of Harlem. Among US universities, its endowment of $8.1 billion puts it behind only Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and (get this) Texas A&M and the University of Texas; but that’s greater than the GDPs of, among others, the Bahamas, Haiti, Malawi, Moldova, Montenegro, and Tajikistan. American universities are unprecedented entities in the world: huge concentrations of power and money, economies in themselves, ostensibly devoted to free thought but despotically run as any petrostate, and virtually immune to protest since the scruffy ’68 generation moved on to practice corporate law.

Someday, son, all this will be yours, plus most of the surrounding neighborhoods: Aerial view of Columbia's main campus

Someday, son, all this will be yours, plus most of the surrounding neighborhoods: Aerial view of Columbia’s main campus

It’s worth remembering this while reflecting on the fact that Columbia just fired two of the most important public intellectuals working in the fields of health and human rights. Carole Vance and Kim Hopper had been professors at the Mailman School of Public Health for decades — 27 and 26 years, respectively. Vance, The Nation rightly says, has done “pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights”; Hopper “is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness.” They were fired not because of any shortcomings in their research or teaching, but because they hadn’t raised enough money.

In an excellent article, The Nation expands on the Darwinian economics behind this move, and I can’t do better than quote them:

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent …. Meanwhile, the [US government’s] National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.

Vance told the Columbia Spectator that “requiring faculty members to fund 80% of their salaries through external grants is unbelievable at an educational institution.” As The Nation points out, “Legally, professors who are 80 percent grant-supported have to spend 80 percent of their total workweek on grant-related research.” This means, says Vance, “that only 20% of faculty time is available for teaching, mentoring, and advising.” It’s even worse, in fact; you have to deduct the time spent hustling to corral the funds, because those grants don’t raise themselves.

Students of the Mailman School at a meeting to protest the firings: Ayelet Pearl, Senior Staff Photographer, Columbia Spectator

Students of the Mailman School at a meeting to protest the firings: Photo by Ayelet Pearl for Columbia Spectator

Students at the School of Public Health have protested vigorously; they donned T-shirts reading “Un-Occupy Mailman,” because funders have taken over the school’s priorities. A representative of the Dean responded in bureaucratese: “Public health depends on soliciting feedback from all stakeholders.” (References to multiple “stakeholders” always mean: You to whom I am speaking will get screwed.) “That is why Dean Fried invited doctoral students to share their concerns — concerns we all have — about the importance of maintaining the high quality of a Mailman education in the face of reduced federal support.” And further blather.

Carole Vance is a friend of mine. I’m well aware that when bad things happen to people, their friends often respond with public praise that is entirely merited but doesn’t really change things. The victims may end up with the sense that they are reading their own obituaries in advance, which may be pleasing but is hardly encouraging. There is nothing retrospective about Carole, and I will try to avoid this note of plangency.

51SE6423GcL._SL500_AA300_Still, you can’t fail to note that Vance has been a major force in US and international feminism at least since the 1980s, when she co-organized the famous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, and compiled many of the resultant papers into the landmark anthology Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. These days, when people talk about the Sex Wars they may think either of Uganda or of something to do with Sandra Fluke; then, though, it meant an impassioned contest over how feminism would cope with the unregulatable reality of multifarious sexual desires. Carole’s groundbreaking work for thirty years has carried forward the message that both feminism and human rights practice have to integrate sexuality as a central human concern.

I first got to know Carole about fifteen years ago, when, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, she organized a program to bring both activists and academics working on sexuality and rights to Columbia as fellows. The goal was to give activists space to reflect on the theoretical implications of their work, and theorists a chance to consider practical effects. I was never a fellow in the program, but I went to many of its workshops and meetings, so I can say with perfect objectivity that it not only brought together uniquely gifted groups of people, but gave a great many of them a second lease on their thinking and working lives. The Nation quotes Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor of women’s studies at Barnard and a onetime student of Vance’s: “Truly there is nobody else that mentors with the intensity that Carole does … She’s being actively punished for being an extraordinary mentor—that’s the direction the corporate university is moving in.” Very true, but one thing the article doesn’t capture is how Vance’s extraordinary mentorship reaches beyond the borders of both the US and academia. She has fostered the dangerous mating of theory and practice among campaigners in places like India and Turkey, where she co-developed and co-directs an annual workshop for sexual rights activists from around the world.  Like the best of teachers, she makes spaces where people realize things for themselves. “Dr. Vance is remarkable,” an Indian activist commented in an e-mail I saw this week. “She has changed the way we think.”

carole-beck_blog

Vance (L) and Rebecca Jordan-Young

It’s here that Columbia’s decision is particularly menacing. Internationally, two groups in particular have benefited from Vance’s powerful thinking and teaching: LGBT activists, through her work on sexuality, and — through her cliché-breaking work on trafficking — activists defending sex workers’ rights. Anybody who’s even dabbled in these fields knows that LGBT rights remain underresourced, and sex work issues — unless you want to eradicate it, of course — face a pathetic dearth of funding.

Columbia has a pretty panoply of anti-discrimination policies that claim to protect LGBT people (sex workers, as always, are left unprotected); but its decision here, along with the implications of its funding policies, constitutes active discrimination. Research aimed at amplifying rights protections for these two groups is not, under current conditions, going to be a magnet for funds. (As Columbia well knows, the US government, the public health school’s major funder, has spent years trying to shut down or censor research and advocacy on sex workers’ rights.) The Mailman School’s policies, and the precedent it’s set, mean nobody specializing in that work is likely to be on staff in the foreseeable future. That’s discrimination. It’s also a disgrace to an institution of alleged learning. The university is abdicating its duty to be an impartial arbiter of knowledge and surrendering it to funders, who get to dictate its research directions and thus their conclusions — and who are in no sense impartial. That $8 billion endowment is useless unless it exists to prevent this.

When research in these areas is so underfunded, a policy like Columbia’s also forces scholars into a competition for scarce resources with the very communities they’re trying to serve. This is especially immoral. Traditionally, universities saw a duty to the broader world: to use their resources in disseminating knowledge where it is most needed. Columbia has abdicated that too. Instead, the university sits preening like a Roman emperor in the Coliseum, watching its own professors forced to battle it out with a few barbarian activists for the scraps they need to live.  Unlike the Roman gladiatorial combats, there aren’t even any spectators – the fights aren’t exciting enough to draw in the distraction-hungry masses. The only people entertained are the university administrators, who must have a sick and solitary sense of fun.

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme(1859)

Dean of a public health school, upper right, conducting routine classroom observation

Public health is and has always been an ambivalent profession. On the one hand there are the ethical and genuinely selfless practitioners who care about the public and the sundered individuals who make it up: their mythic stories fill a film like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, where the heroes fight disease with everything they’ve got and get carried out in body bags. On the other hand, the field has a long history of loving power, and serving the ambitions of those who have it. Surveillance, contact tracing, quarantines, sterilization, the fantasies of eugenics, the hygienic justifications for police control: all these are also part of its past, and sometimes of its present. Governmentality, in the Foucauldian sense, has been well served by public health, indeed was bound up with it from the outset.

Knights in white satin: How public health sees itself

Knights in white satin: How public health sees itself

Nietzsche wrote: “The ‘freedom’ that the state bestows on certain men for the sake of philosophy is, properly speaking, no freedom at all, but an office that maintains its holder.” Education is not offered by office-holders but by thinkers. The Mailman School’s funding policies cater to the worst in public health, and bring back the most disreputable impulses in its history. They force professors to kowtow to power: either government power or the power of capital. They imperil the ethical advances that have tried to reshape the field. They silence critical questions. They discourage conversations about rights. They ignore students while misusing the money they’ve paid for their educations. They ensure that unpopular and marginal groups will go unrepresented in the work of the institution. They discredit a distinguished — and wealthy — university.

Petitions to support Vance and Hopper can be found here. Please sign. There’s a Tumblr (this is 2014: there’s always a Tumblr) set up by students to fight the firings: it’s here. It includes various letters of protest, which you may take as models should you want to write the Dean directly (lpfried@columbia.edu). The critical thinking you save may ultimately become your own.

I'm sorry, it protects who?

I’m sorry, it protects who?