In front of

"Malcolm X was bisexual. Get over it" says the Guardian headline, via Boingboing. The article behind the headline impassionedly argues for greater recognition for LGBT people within the African-American and black British community, and accuses Black History Month of "straight-washing" black history. It's not an uninteresting argument.

In fact, there's only one thing wrong with the article - that it's written by Peter Tatchell. Many fans of Jamaican music will know who Tatchell is, as the man who initiated the campaign against "Boom Bye Bye" - an outspoken and highly radical British gay rights activist. The most neutral thing one can say about Peter Tatchell is that he tends to be rather divisive, forming highly impassioned camps for and against his statements. Right now a minor internet brouhaha is under way about Tatchell suing an academic publication in a rather overbearing manner, and he's previously had tussles with other radical activists over Islam, pop music and (perhaps most relevant to this blog) African gay rights activism. I'm absolutely not sure if the allegations in the last link are true, but in any case his response (as featured in the comments) is clumsy and inflammatory in a very unfortunate manner. He's not Mr. Nice Guy.

But I'm not sure all that matters. What's problematic about the article is that Mr. Tatchell is a cultural middle class white man. And you know what? So am I.

DJ Umb is a recent frequent commenter on this blog, and one of his blog comments back when he was slightly more mad at me stuck me as having a lot of truth to it. "Let the colonized peoples speak for themselves," he said. "They don't need white, middle-class, westerners doing it for them. Cause that happened far too often in the past and actually led to colonization in many instances."

Fuck it if he isn't right. Extrapolating, what bothers me about Tatchell's article is that this is a message that ought to have been delivered by a black LGBT activist, not a white one. I'm retreading fairly obvious ground here, but an article that defends the right to be seen of a particular group of people is a touch hypocritical when it's a person from a more privildged group standing in front of them talking. And yet, here I am doing pretty much the same thing, right?

Being an ally is fucking difficult. I don't think anyone will go around saying there should be no male feminists, straight gay rights advocates and so on, people using their relative position of power and their access to an audience to push forward an agenda that benefits someone else... yet it's a super-precarious path to thread since people like me and Peter de facto don't share the relevant experiences, and need to listen to an enormous extent instead of just following instinct. I'm running for the Stockholm city council next fall as a member of a feminist party (announcement! details forthcoming), and not a day goes by when I don't question my own role in the greater power scheme of things. The price of alliance, just as with freedom, is eternal vigilance.

One example. One thing Peter Tatchell does, which I continuously try my best never to engage in, is criticise other marginal groups. In the piece above he attacks the black community in Britain from outside, and his attacks on Jamaican reggae artists, Muslims and those African gay rights groups all have the effect of decreasing the power of an already marginalised grouping. In a classic intersectional scenario, the gain for gay rights is offset by the clambering over other identities to get there. I think that offers a significant clue as to why he's so reviled in large circles on the left.

Other definite principles I hope to follow is to direct attacks to my own in-group, try to help people discover how to find actual artists, and if at all possible link to actual voices and sources. Please - if you find me breaking any of this shit, call me out on it.


Anonymous said...

Hey Johan,

Cool of you to consider these things and question your own position in connection with the things you stand up/speak out for.

As far as what I said about colonialized people and letting them speak out for themselves, well that's something I've been feeling for the past few years.

I'm not sure if it's right, well I would say there is some truth in it but for me it's also not about being right.

It's how I've been feeling from my own perspective in the light of my own experiences and relationships with people.

It is my view right now, might not be 5 years further down the line...who knows...


Anonymous said...

murky murky waters.

i have a lot fo sympathy for both your sentiments, but it's worrying the amount of blind eyes turned in the name of cultural or religious sensitivity. so much confusion between the respect of rights, and the right to (unconditional?) respect.

ultimatly, is it too optimistic to think that the majority of people are decent, broadly right-thinking and well-meaning? must the majority fold their hands and wait for someone else to speak out/act?

i'd be especially interested to hear your views on something like the ex-muslim councils (www.ex-muslim.org.uk). if we're drawing a line between 'insiders' on issues, and the liberal white middle-classes, where do groups like that fit in?


Birdseed said...

It's a very good question and I really have a hard time giving a straightforward, single answer. I've got a lot of sympathy for, for instance, feminist and pro-democracy campaigners in Iran and their allies here in Europe.

Like you say there are universal values, but just as much there are universal structures. It's extremely important to point out how these things are connected - patriarchy, homophobia, sexism, whatever, it doesn't stop at any border, and our own society is often as problematic as any other, and often acts collusively with right-wing forces in other countries/cultures to increase oppression and marginalisation. A muslim woman in Europe faces at least a double marginalisation, both in her own ethnic group and because the majority society sees her as less worthy and oppressed as a muslim woman, and sexualises her as a woman! Intersectionality, big and important research topic.

This complex web of different oppressions makes individual judgements of what to say and do difficult, to say the least. I would generally start basing any judgement on potential effect, though. Does what Peter Tatchell or the Ex-muslims say have the effect of reforming Jamaica/Islam? Not really, and in fact probably increases antagonistic feelings. Do they increase the level of racism in our European society? Probably. Therefore I'd disagree with them, the way I wouldn't with, say, Jamaican gay rights campaigners or moderate muslim reformists.

Anonymous said...


I don't know that I'm arguing for universal values. I'm also not arguing for necessarily interfering in other countries: perhaps from your part of the world things are different, but on my street (Tottenham, North London), where respect for religion and disregard for homosexuals are two lowest common denominators between very different groups, these things are rather less theoretical.

Often the people concerned with protecting our rights, or enforcing our responsibilities, use conflation of race and religion, and sensitivity/respect for it, as an excuse to turn a blind eye to dificult problems. This kind of attitude can end up with us abandoning vulnerable people who deserve our support and solidarity, AND playing into the hands of the Barking camp.

As regards the ex-muslims, I don't know that the aim is to reform Islam: they seem priarily secularists. Their manifesto is concerned with OUR society, not another, or a subsection of it. It specifically rejects the idea of 'culturally relative rights', hence my bringing it up: if middle class white people shouldn't criticise, what about people of a similar demographic (probably a little more middle-class, to be honest), but of a clearly different group?

I haven't read all the Tatchell stuff, but I'm not a fan. Nonetheless, can we be so pessamistic as to deny our support and solidarity to those who need it, on the grounds that exposing unpleasant truths MIGHT elicit an irrational response in some quarters?

not easy


pd. why can't I paste into this window from word, am I doing somethign wrong? I'd probaly be more considered and concise if I could see what I was writing as a whole.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in this:


Also, I should say that I didn't know (or, I wasn't conscious) that Tatchell was speaking at the ex-muslim and muslim secularist do in the park this saturday.

- ajsp

Birdseed said...

The ex-muslims are secularists, sure, but also, in a profound sense, anti-muslim - they play to the same sentiments that the Eurabia crowd does, picking out one particular religious group to attack, and indeed helping racialise it. I don't think it's a particularly effective strategy, and one which has dangerous potential problems.

I'm super-sorry for the problem with the comment-posting copy-pasting, I've come accross it a few times myself. This feature is obviously buggy, let me see if I can do something about it.

Anonymous said...

I’d be interested to hear what you mean by ‘racialise’, and how they are particularly responsible for it. My understanding of them was as a group set up to do, and making some headway in doing, exactly the opposite.

- ajsp

Ps. Sorry, I didn't mean to criticise, or complain - I thought I was probably just doing something wrong. It’s all good now.

Birdseed said...

Yes it is, a relief - I needed that remark to spur me into action. :)

From my perspective, collectively blaming muslims (rather than, say general tedencies in all religions/in society or particular strands/clerics) tends to unify them in the eyes of people as an ethnic group.

Anonymous said...


I fear we’re talking at cross-purposes, or about different organisations. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (http://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/), as I understand it, exist to reject the misguided representation of people with origins in ‘Muslim Countries’ almost exclusively by religious leaders in public life. I don’t understand them to be collectively blaming Muslims, and tended to imagine seeing people of the same origins and clearly different views would do anything but ‘unify them in the eyes of people’ as an ethnic group.

They begin their manifesto like this: “We, non-believers, atheists, and ex-Muslims, are establishing or joining the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain to insist that no one be pigeonholed as Muslims with culturally relative rights nor deemed to be represented by regressive Islamic organisations and 'Muslim community leaders'.”

I think perhaps I’ve distracted us from more important things by bringing this up, though. My main points were (or were meant to be):

- We should really stick to the principals, rather than ad-homs (“In fact, there's only one thing wrong with the article – that it’s written by Peter Tatchell”).

- These issues, while dealing with people and cultures originating a long way away (as well as closer to home), touch many of us, including my friends and neighbours, and, I suspect, Peter Tatchell’s. If we are to be part of a free society, we must ALL be able to criticise aspects of it, or parts of it.

- Tatchell is a parliamentary candidate for next year (Oxford East, Green Party). While I’d support his right to comment, as a member of our society, his opinions as a potential MP are particularly relevant.

- That unpleasant or complicated truths MIGHT elicit an irrational response in some quarters is not a good reason to ignor them, and their casualties.

Sorry to monopolise your comment section. I’ll go and get some work done now.


Birdseed said...

I do understand your point and perspective - I just reiterate that it's about effect for me, to a very large extent. Whether the ex-muslims are a good organisation in itself barely matters - and they probably are, within their context - because they're playing right into the hands of the right-wing extremist Islamophobe nutters. Cases like Pim Fortuyn's in Holland certainly show that some anti-immigrant fascists don't shy away from appealing to liberal, good-intentioned sentiments...

There are a lot of causes, worthy ones, to pursue in the world. Personally, in order to not invite all these issues, I think it's most sensible to primarily focus on two things:

(a) Attacking those with a lot of power, access, responsibility, when they do wrong and participate in oppression.

(b) Try to relay the voices of those who are marginalised.

I've seen enough misogynist black power activists, homophobic feminists and (indeed) racist gay rights activists to not want to go down that route. Unity against a common enemy is not a bad thing.