On the limits of allyship and inclusion
Wearing the armband was only ever a gesture, at best. Emblazoned with (some of) the colours of the progress flag inside a heart, and using the slogan “One Love”, the armband in question was intended to be worn by the captain of the English football team, Harry Kane, when they played during the World Cup in Qatar this month, in protest at the country’s laws criminalising same-sex activity. The campaign was shared by some other European national teams, including Switzerland, Wales, Germany and the Netherlands, despite it being a breach of FIFA regulations which outlaw political or personal slogans or imagery on players’ kit as “offensive or indecent”. Fearful of controversy over the plan, FIFA ignored the national sporting bodies who proposed the idea, until last weekend, when it launched its own armband proposal for captains, offering equally nebulous statements such as “#FootballUnitesTheWorld”, #BringTheMoves and #NoDiscrimination. Still, the FA said, the armband would stay on, and the FA would pick up any FIFA-imposed fine for the protest.
The English captain’s decision to wear the armband, supported by the FA (the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England), is part of a history of anti-discrimination programmes in English football, attempting to address serious and recurrent problems, most notably with racism in the game both on the pitch and in the stands. These include an official campaign supported by the FA and Premier League, “Let’s Kick Racism out of Football”, which later became a campaigning organisation “Kick it Out”. Another charity, “Give Racism the Red Card”, uses the public profile and popularity of football players amongst young people to help tackle racism more widely in society. The “One Love” campaign followed in these footsteps, although it tread very delicately. The official campaign press release described the reason the captain would wear the armband was “to promote inclusion and send a message against discrimination of any kind”: homophobia and transphobia are never mentioned, and there’s only a passing mention that the FA will be working to assure that “those from LGBTQ+ communities” will be secure in Qatar. As with much of the criticism of Qatar, the emphasis seemed to be on LGBTQ fans, and not on LGBTQ Qataris, who are undeniably at greater risk of persecution from their own government.
Still, it was a gesture. It would no doubt have been welcomed by many LGBTQ fans, while others would have been more wary of the importance or relevance of a purely symbolic gesture that couldn’t describe the problem any more deeply than “inclusion”. Yet even this gesture was too much for FIFA, who announced on Sunday, the day before England were to play their first game against Iran, that players who wore the armband might receive a yellow card. The FA subsequently announced that Harry Kane would not, therefore, wear it. The threat of a yellow card was too serious, too much of a risk to his presence in the tournament.
While many people expressed disappoint that the FA backed down to FIFA’s threats, I think their decision is far more politically meaningful than wearing the armband, with its vague gesture towards “inclusion”, could ever have been. As it was, the armband was an easy win; intolerance towards LGBTQ people is a foreign problem, it suggested. We, as Europeans, are more civilised than that, and so when we play in your country we will make a gesture of solidarity towards our own cherished LGBTQ population. Yet with the decision not to wear it, we get a more realistic portrayal of the nature of tolerance in our own countries. Solidarity extends to the point of a yellow card. We will support LGBTQ people when it allows us to portray other nations as less advanced, but not when it means we might miss the football. When it was announced, I thought to myself “yes, that sounds about right”: the decision chimed with my own experiences of LGBTQ life in Britain. This is where we’re at. Perhaps this is what “allyship” really means.
In recent years I have watched myself become ever more cynical towards the notion of the LGBTQ ally, despite my best intentions. There has been something genuinely cheering about watching the low-level sense of disgust begin to dissipate in England over my lifetime. When I was a gayboy at school, there was a general, everyday level of bullying that was a default; homophobic bullying continues, but when younger queer people describe to me their experiences of coming out at school in the past decade - often tales of support, even newfound popularity - I love it, an unimaginable change in so short a time. Transphobia remains deeply ingrained in English society, however, pushed by major media outlets as part of a “debate”. Yet this increased tolerance has been gobbled up by consumer culture, which had long been missing a summer festival to match Christmas, the New Years sales, or Easter. Pride Month was it; today, allyship means branding opportunities, window displays, and rainbow merchandise. Perhaps it would be churlish to turn my nose up at such “visibility” in culture, or especially at so many opportunities for my queer siblings to finally go get that bag, sis. But when the shit hits the fan, who is really there for you?
The last few years I lived in London, I noticed the amount of homophobia I witnessed around Soho had noticeably increased. I was heartbroken one evening walking down Old Compton St, once the centre of London’s gay village, to hear a straight couple who looked like they were just visiting the city make a series of horrible remarks about a pair of muscle queens walking hand-in-hand down the road in front of them. I interrupted them to tell them they were in a gay area and should shut up. Yet as I walked away, I wondered: how they were to know that? It was midsummer, and the rainbow and progress flags that hung from the street’s gay bars and venues were no different than those that festooned the multinational chains, the high-end electronics stores, bookshops and coffeeshops across the entire city centre. Those flags used to mean something different. Gay bars and gay businesses were never perfect and inclusive places for all LGBTQ people, and have always battled with the racism, homophobia and transphobia that exist within the LGBTQ community. But nonetheless they did still signify something, something approximating “this is ours, this is for us. Perhaps you will find friends and family here, or you will get laid, or you will find a place to drink away your sorrows with miserable company”. Now it feels that they mean something else: that, at best, the management of this corporation don’t like to think of themselves as bad people. Yet enter those big bookstore chains flying their rainbow flags and you’ll still find the shelves packed with the sort of anti-trans literature that passes for public discourse in the UK; solidarity reaches as far as the cash register. Is this allyship?
As Quentin Crisp said, a year before the Stonewall Rebellion, “toleration has come in a form that is slightly insulting. That is to say, one imagined the message, when it came, would read ‘‘Forgive us for having, for so long, allowed our prejudices to blind us to your true worth and cross our unworthy threshold with your broad-minded feet’. Instead, the message now reads ‘oh come in, the place is a mess. You’ll love it.’” Well, I don’t really love it. I don’t love that constant, niggling sense that what is thrilling, horny, wild about queer life is persistently erased so that we don’t scare the allies, or that Pride is now regarded as a general celebration of “inclusion”, rather than a festival of the excluded. I don’t love that our stories are adjuncts to straight stories, to show how open-minded they are. I don’t love that a progress flag in a bar window doesn’t guarantee a queer bar with queer bar staff. I don’t love that when I met a gay friend for a quiet drink at my local gay bar on Friday (one that suffered an arson attack last summer) it’s ruined by a bunch of rough-housing heterosexuals talking too loudly, too dully, for too long, and that they feel perfectly at ease walking in beneath the flag. I’m sorry - I have nothing against heterosexuals, but I just don’t want to see it when I’m trying to drink. While they might regard themselves as allies, I just can’t help but think they’d take the armband off at the first yellow card.
I’m tired of the little gestures. I’m especially tired of the gestures when they’re everywhere for the celebration, but nowhere for the fight. I’m tired of the gestures when newspapers will run their top ten LGBTQ influencers one week, and another anti-trans screed the next. I’m tired of the gestures when queer people in general, and trans people especially, are constantly portrayed as potential predators, as child groomers. I’m tired of the gestures when there’s nothing material to back it up. I’m tired of gestures with no healthcare, of gestures with no justice, of gestures with no fight. I’m tired of the gestures when they keep coming back to our actual queer bars, the ones that keep the flag up all year and stay open on Christmas Day, and shoot them up, on the back of what other straight people have been saying about us. I’m tired of your allyship with our community when it’s your community on the attack.
Allyship is not wearing an armband, if FIFA says it's ok. Allyship is not taking up space at the bar. Allyship is not a hashtag. Allyship is not branding your chainstore window. Allyship is pistolwhipping the gunman until he lapses into unconsciousness and a trans woman can stomp him out.
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s a bit extreme. I love queer people, and I’m a good ally. I don’t want to hurt anyone, I just want a good time. I should be able to go out into a queer bar, to enjoy queer culture, to have fun with my LGBTQ friends, to be an ally, without the expectation that I might have to tackle a gunman, get firebombed at the bar, get my head beaten in with a hammer, or witness a massacre.” Right. And so should we.
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