Last week an acquaintance of mine – a deputy editor at a prominent gay magazine – attended the anti-Trump demonstrations against the ‘Muslim Ban’ at Downing Street. Like many attendees, he had made a sign and uploaded a picture of himself with it to Twitter – it read ‘Gays and Lesbians Support the Muslims’. This was inspired, perhaps, by the 80s solidarity movement ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ and its more recent variation in the organisation ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants’. Not long after he tweeted the sign he received a reply: “you do not speak for all gays!” The person replying went on, “guess it’s left wing to ally yourself with people who want you in prison or dead! Saying gays and lesbians support Muslims is like turkeys and chickens supporting Christmas!”
Anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia are currently emboldened across Europe and North America, suffusing political discourse and public life. To those who are not gay, it may come as some surprise that these prejudices are just as likely to be found in LGBT communities as they are outside of them. In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National has galvanised a significant part of the LGBT community, most notably married gay men – i.e. those whose lifestyles have been given ratification by the State. In the US, 14% of LGBT people voted for Trump, despite the fact that his Vice Presidential running mate, Mike Pence, believes in gay conversion therapy. A so-say ideologue of the ‘alt-right’ movement is gay – the British blogger Milo Yiannopoulos.
At the beginning of February, protests broke out at UC Berkeley after it emerged Yiannopoulos, who is currently on a speaking tour of US campuses, was due to release the names of undocumented migrants on stage. The existence of prominent gay fascists is hardly new, in fact they are as old as fascism itself – Hitler’s rival and head of the SA, Ernst Rohm, being the most notorious example. One could even argue many popular gay and fascist aesthetics have an overlap, given that they both promote a cult of the healthy white male body. However, in the past Nazi gays at least had to give an indication of discretion. Yiannopoulos represents a shift insofar that his gay identity is not to be hidden but plays an active role in his public image creation (the campus tour is called ‘Dangerous Faggot’, which perhaps intends to lend its ignominy a sense of Wildean caustic wit).
That LGBT identity and profoundly racist politics are not mutually exclusive is evident. Last year the Roundhouse Theatre in London showed a play directed by queer performance artist Scottee called ‘Putting Words in Your Mouth’. In developing the show, Scottee travelled around the UK, interviewing many white gay men outside of the capital. What unites many of the interviewees is that they voted for Brexit – not based on our membership of the single market or the intrusion of European jurisprudence but because they’re angered by immigration, or afraid of it, or both.
It is unhelpful to those who are both queer and invested in antiracist politics that politicians also seek to capitalise on this impulse. Last October the Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies, called for child refugees admitted to Britain to be submitted to dental examination to verify their age. One of the reasons he casually offered was not wanting “more homophobic bigots in the UK”. Davies’ conflation of refugees with homophobia jarred given his own stance on gay marriage which he referred to as “barking mad”. However, as Jaspir Puar has argued, the history of this racialisation of the Muslim and/or refugee as the barbarous homophobe does not arise merely out of the new cynicism of the Right in appealing to racist fears but out of the liberal gay rights movement itself.
In ‘Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times’, Puar examines historical examples including Peter Tatchell’s flagship 90s activist group OutRage! which pronounced a “queer fatwa” on radical Islamic preachers. Puar argues the appropriation of the Islamic word “fatwa”, which simply means ‘a legal opinion’, is indicative and symptomatic of the construction of the non-Western Islamic world as a monolithic Other. In the UK media, this became particularly visible in much of the platformed LGBT politics after 9/11. The prominent journalist Johan Hari, who uniquely spanned both the gay and mainstream media in the 00s, asked “Can We Finally Talk About Muslim Homophobia in Britain?” Gay and lesbian media figures signed an open letter about an alleged ‘rise’ in gay hate crimes in East London, despite shoddy statistical evidence, which was uncritically attributed solely to Islamic preachers and covered by the (vaguely conservative) news outlet Pink News.
The silence and erasure of those who are both gay and Muslim or experience Islamophobia because of how they are racially perceived is a vacuum into which fascist cynicism has poured. But it was not created by fascists. That the same liberation discourse that advanced the visibility of and respect for white gay people in British life was, in the same moment, laying the foundations for an oppositional relationship between ‘gay’ and ‘Muslim’ (and by extension ‘gay and black/brown’) which can now be exploited by the Right is a troubling idea. But it is important in understanding why so many gay people now feel the rights of refugees are an infringement on their own. Unconsciously, ‘gay’ was being constructed as white, documented and secular by default, which requires the suppression of attention on those who simultaneously experience queer and raced identities.
The result, of course, harms all involved: those gay people who are co-opted by fascism without realising fascism is fundamentally homophobic at its core and will soon turn on them; the people of colour and refugees scapegoated and reviled as homophobes by heterosexual politicians; and, above all, those who are both queer and a refugee, fleeing persecution in their own country for their sexuality or gender, and victim to racist detention, surveillance and calumny as they attempt to claim asylum in ours. In this alarming political era of flourishing fascism, the task of queer liberation cannot be merely sexual or gendered, but it must also be sharply critical of its alignment with whiteness as a system of persecution. To be white and queer has been portrayed as the neutral state with LGBT people of colour as refractions or variants of the core agenda. Returning radicalism to our politics must turn this on its head and refuse to countenance that the work of queer liberation, the ending of borders and antiracism can be separated.
Shon Faye is a writer and lawyer based in London.