Monday 6 October 2014

Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean To Be Gay Today? by Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel puts abusive men in prison. Widely known as a rigorous writer and broadcaster in the mainstream media, Bindel’s journalistic career actually grew out of her work as a lifelong campaigner against male violence, work which includes co-founding the law reform organisation Justice For Women. She has written and spoken on a vast range of issues including sex trafficking, the grooming of vulnerable girls, the sex exploitation industry, the duping and usage of women environmental activists by undercover UK police officers, low rape conviction rates, sexual exploitation in Syrian refugee camps, the treatment of women victims in the criminal justice system and lenient sentencing for men found guilty of abusing women. Most recently she has written about new legislation regarding the impact of emotional abuse within UK domestic violence law.

While Bindel often critiques institutions’ responses to (or, more often, collusion in and protection of) male mistreatment and exploitation of women, her writing is also a corollary of direct, on-the-ground research into perpetrators’ activities which she sometimes conducts in collaboration with international law enforcement authorities, NGOs, governments, lawyers and other bodies working to collect enough evidence to bring perpetrators to justice. She is not just opining on gender from the cosiness of her study; she has seen the whites of abusers’ eyes, heard their lies and self-justifications, listened to the testimonies of their victims and withstood the threats that come whenever she, or any other woman, writes about such issues. Her work is all the more vital at a time when the Yewtree investigations into ‘historic’ sexual abuse by lifelong perpetrators is gaining convictions (of Dave Lee Travis, Stuart Hall and Max Clifford) but laughably lenient sentences, reassuring abusive men everywhere that the longer you abuse for, the more male power, fame and connections you are given by other men and the more victims there are, the less you will punished even if you are convicted.

Appearing well into her career, Bindel’s first book, Straight Expectations: WhatDoes It Mean To Be Gay Today?, returns to the heart of her personal and political roots: the lesbian and gay liberation movement, feminism, lesbian politics, anti-gay bigotry and women’s and men’s emancipation from patriarchal machismo. In the mainstream media it has been billed, and predictably caused controversy, as a report revealing that sexuality can be chosen and a polemic about how people should all decide to go gay.

Straight Expectations is neither of those things. It does not urge readers to act one way or another, nor is every line of inquiry set up to prove or disprove a point. Rather, it’s a delicate, nuanced, well researched and multi-layered reconsideration of the history of various social justice movements, a survey of certain commercial and sociological developments related to contemporary life as a lesbian or a gay man and an open-ended analysis of the possible goals of a revived gay politics.

The book represents a new approach to these issues and reveals a new dimension to the author. Readers expecting the vigour, zeal and urgent momentum of Bindel’s newspaper articles will be surprised by the tone of Straight Expectations, which is thoughtful, equivocal and accepting of the diverse viewpoints of Bindel’s interviewees and research respondents. While underscored by the heat which make her journalism so essential a measured, subtle voice works well in this book.

Straight Expectations covers a lot of ground. Despite its understatement it mounts wholly new critiques of numerous developments, from gay marriage to corporations’ recognition of the ‘pink pound’ (perceived significant disposable income held by lesbians and gay men), which have been touted as signs of increasing emancipation and social acceptability but might actually be manifestations of corporate exploitation, mercenary capitalist encroachment and even conservative political complacency on the part of lesbians and gay men. It is refreshing when such developments, which have so often been glossed with unquestioning indulgence by liberal writers, are examined through a truly red lens.

The first and easiest assumption to topple is that being a lesbian or a gay man has become socially acceptable. Bindel’s research, conducted via two surveys which constitute the largest study of their kind, turns up countless personal examples of girls, women, boys and men who have been bullied at school and work, encountered physical violence and extreme verbal assault by strangers and experienced extreme hostility or ostracism from their families as a result of their orientation. While Bindel and her study respondents acknowledge that at the level of political rhetoric, anti-discrimination legislation and media representation (taken in the shallowest terms: lesbian and gay presenters, characters in sitcoms) there has been some progress, she provides plenty of examples of obvious anti-gay bigotry in politics, the media and everyday life to counter the assumption that growing up gay today is no different from growing up straight and presents no particular obstacles.

Bindel is careful to acknowledge that if one takes a global view, the treatment of homosexuals is even more dire and expressed not only through punitive laws, prevention from parenting, non-recognition of long term relationships, extreme stigma, discrimination and ostracism but also through horrific human rights violations like torture, attack and ‘corrective rape’. Indeed, one of the ongoing themes of Straight Expectations is that no self-identified freedom movement can operate solely within the bounds of a nation-state – particularly one with a history of supremacist colonial exploitation of other nations. To use one of her examples, gay couples who are campaigning for the right to have children via surrogacy are hardly on the side of dignity and equality if they have no qualms about renting and using the womb of a much poorer, developing world woman, when the UK is full of children needing adoption. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in the UK and numerous other Western European countries because it is considered unethical and beneath a woman’s dignity and humanity to be rented, used, paid off and discarded. But it is not considered inhumane for a woman from the developing world to be used like that by foreigners, gay and straight. She quotes appalling racist, sexist and ignorant opinions from the gay male parents she interviews, who bill themselves as freedom fighters (and commercial for-profit service providers) on behalf of gay families who want children.

Bindel’s nose for hypocrisy and self-righteous selfishness – sold as defiant self-determinism or gay rights  – is what enables the book to go so deep despite being a quick, clear read. She demonstrates that simply being gay does not mean that you are not misogynistic, racist, colonially arrogant and classist; that you do not exploit others; that you like and respect women; that you reject gender stereotypes; that you are not patriarchal, conservative and in all other ways corroborative of the status quo, despite your orientation. She also resists the idea that lesbians and gay men should always be lumped in together as if forming a single group with shared personal and political interests, quoting several interviewees who say, depressingly, that some of the gay men they know loathe women just as much as straight men do.

In the book’s deeper central layers Bindel shows that, when seen from a politicised, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-macho position, many of the advancements of this apparently more enlightened era are actually deeply retrogressive and problematic. She looks into gay marriage, gay conversion therapy, historic gay liberation movements, scientific studies into a possible gay gene, lesbian visibility and the intersection of misogyny, ageism and anti-lesbian bigotry, the commercial exploitation of gay identity and much more.

I won’t rehash every line and argument, except to say that Bindel yearns for a return to a politicised movement in which feminism and anti-patriarchal, anti-gendered challenges to the status quo are completely fused and women are equal agitators rather than a tolerated minority. Bindel charts the permutations of various gay liberation movements, showing how effective politicisation, unity and mobilisation have been – most obviously when it came to raising awareness and urging for funding and research into AIDS. She deconstructs the nebulous notion of ‘gay pride’, a lifestyle concept which has been leached of its political content and can easily be taken advantage of – or sponsored – by companies and brands wanting to show (or claim) that they are diverse and egalitarian when their own staff demographics and workplace practices demonstrate otherwise.

Bindel is cynical – and often very funny – when it comes to the latest step forward for gay rights, gay marriage. She does not understand why anyone, gay or straight, would want to get married. The feminist argument is that marriage is oppressive in itself because it delimits and demeans women; reinforces rigid and stereotyped gender roles; exploits and erases female cleaning, cooking, household management and childcare labour while simultaneously fetishising it; gives primacy to unions which are somehow approved by an all-powerful state; prizes the appearance of stability over a reality of inequality; recommends monogamous coupledom as the only route to lasting happiness; presents itself as the only safe space for the raising of children despite this being untrue; and places the nuclear family structure above all other types of kin group. There is also the inconvenient general fact that the married nuclear family experiment has not worked for straight people because marriage does not work.

Bindel traces several paradoxes when it comes to gay marriage, such as its support by Cameron’s ultra-conservative government, and her explanations are subtle and illuminating. Gay marriage has provided an opportunity for a ravenously capitalistic but socially conservative society to make more money while pacifying the renegade elements of its populace. The wedding industry has expanded to include gay weddings and now makes money selling floral concepts, feminine dresses, masculine suits, tacky accessories, salmon-or-beef catering packages, getaways to country houses for the ceremony and other options which are just as cheesy as those chosen for straight people’s weddings. All of this has (Bindel’s argument goes) shrunk down the indefinable and radical difference of homosexuality into something tame and easily placed, as though lesbian and gay men are exactly like straight people, want to mimic and follow them and be husbands and wives settled in families, just like them, where there is one feminine partner and one masculine partner – so that gendered differences are preserved, regardless of sex, and enshrined in an ancient and deeply conservative social institution. As Bindel writes towards the end of Straight Expectations, “In mainstream gay couples, the [traditional] gender roles are emulated, not rejected. In mainstream straight couples, the gender roles are still treated as the status quo. Gay culture used to challenge this.”

There are plenty of people who disagree with Bindel – the writers Paul Burston and Stella Duffy included – and she gives them fair space in the book. She does not undermine their views by hinting that she is secretly correct and they are misguided. This style enables readers to come to their own conclusions, while leaving no doubt about where Bindel’s heart really lies. One of the driving forces of Straight Expectations, despite its even-handed approach, is actually something rather romantic: a yearning for gayness to be truly free and truly other, proudly going against the mainstream, liberated from stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, politically risky and sociologically dangerous, exempt from the limiting focus on home and hearth, a radical challenge to tradition and limitation and a positive, heartfelt, happy embrace of rebellious difference with no shame, no constraints and no excuses.

It is through this line of argument that Bindel interrogates the idea of there being a gay gene. So far, there is no scientific proof that a gay gene exists, just as there is no brain scan or blood test that can demonstrate the existence of any “complex trait”, to quote interviewee Adam Rutherford, who says the nonexistence of a gay gene is “unequivocal”. On this issue, seemingly the crux of the book but actually its least interesting point, Bindel has fine reasoning skills. What she says is hardly controversial:
It is persuasive to think that gay people are ‘born that way’, appealing to basic principles of tolerance, while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives…. It reassures people more won’t choose to jump ship from traditional society. It is also about believing that gay people cannot help the way we are and therefore should not be on the receiving end of prejudice. 
The positive side of the nature, or essentialist, argument… can mean that heterosexuals having difficulty coming to terms with a loved one or colleague who is gay can rest assured that it is not catching; and for those who make the laws, policies and rules, thinking that ‘gayness’ is an inherent condition means that any sanctions against it are pointless… 
The nature line also gives the impression to bigots and sceptics that no one would actually choose such a lifestyle, and that everyone who is gay just can’t help it, otherwise they would be straight. 
Obviously, the argument that being lesbian or gay is a choice gives the bigots an opportunity to argue that we should be made to live a straight life. After all, goes the logic, if one can choose to be gay, then one can choose to be heterosexual.

Bindel takes a different, playful view: “the possibility that being gay is such a positive alternative to heterosexuality that it is good enough for some of us to choose it.” She points out that all of the antecedents of the current scientific search for a gay gene originated from those, like the Nazis, who wanted to identify the gene in order to eradicate gay people, not to prove that homosexuality is natural and real and therefore to be respected, accepted and taken seriously. Bindel is extremely serious when tackling the fraudulent practises of “conversion therapists” who promise troubled gay men and lesbians that they can somehow unlearn, throw over, pray away or teach themselves to reject their sexuality in order to be in socially acceptable alignment with their faith, family or society. She goes undercover to find out about their methods. Her investigations uncover countless faux therapists who are at best “troubled souls” with massive sexual identity problems of their own, and at worst bigots and bullies trying to cleanse their ‘patients’ of qualities they regard as dirty, sinful or unnatural.

Elsewhere, she uncovers some cringe-makingly bad science, usually hidebound by gender stereotypes, such as the professor who believes homosexuality can be predicted in children by looking at “sissy” boys and “tomboy” girls and the PhD student developing facial recognition methodologies to explain “gaydar”. These sorties leave Bindel wondering what a truly feminist gay movement would be like, one freed from stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, in which gay men reject womanhatred and boys’ club behaviour and unite with women in fighting the “double whammy of sexism and homophobia” which lesbians face. Her gay politics would be global and just as interested in what is happening in Putin’s Russia or in Sierra Leone, India or the Gulf states as the UK marriage market.

She has mixed feelings about campaigns for greater acceptability for homosexuals in notoriously macho, misogynist hierarchies like the police and the army, in which the abuse of and discrimination against women is endemic, both for employees within these institutions and victims of endemic male violence who are going to them for help. She would rather these institutions were exposed and reformed from the ground up than that they simply accepted gay men and lesbians who would themselves conform to fit an overall abusive culture.

Straight Expectation shows that patriarchy undercuts everything including homosexuality with its misogyny, its financial greed, its arrogant celebration of machismo, its abuse and exploitation of women, its blindness to or overt relish of this abuse and its rigid gender roles. It is not just a sensitive history and a call for ethical integrity and revived rebellion, it’s also a survey of things as they stand now and a dismayed account of sociological changes that have seen lesbians and gay men move from radicalism to narcissism, from resistance to consumerism, challenge to assimilation, the pain of political struggle to the cosiness of a quiet existence, firebrand feminist politics to a generalised and corporate-branded gay pride in which lesbian women are marginalised or mocked.

There is a final point to be made about Bindel as a writer and it’s a question of style, not content. She is hilarious, with an earthy, blunt, universal humour that makes me think of Sue Townsend, Jo Brand, Victoria Wood or dare I say it Pam Ayres, as when railing at “lesbians and gay men who believe they can be ‘just like [straight people]’ by getting married, having kids and having a weekly row in Ikea.” At the heart of Bindel’s writing – and providing the key to her warmth – is the stroppy, passionate teenager she used to be, who was and still is appalled not just by the limitations of heterosexual life for women in a patriarchy or men’s compulsive and ubiquitous abuse of women but also by smug marrieds generally, boring suburban straights (or, worse, straight-acting gays whose sexual identity reaches its apotheosis in the joint purchase of a peddle-dashed semi in Stoke), provincial discos, cosy and coy country living and generally anything that isn’t bolshie, challenging, defiant and possibly leading to patriarchy-smashing argy-bargy. Straight Expectations occasionally gives glimpses of Bindel’s formative years and they are beautifully written, sensitive, vivid, funny and soulful – quite different from any of her other writing.

I hope Julie Bindel will not think I’m privileging the solipsistic over the political, the personalised over the collective, when I suggest that in addition to her campaigning and journalistic work one future book of hers could be a brilliant, hilarious memoir. In the meantime, Straight Expectations is an essential read.