Juggling as revolutionary praxis: a symbol of Spain's divided left.
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Send in the clowns: Podemos' former comrades are a class act

Perhaps clowns aren't the most obvious warriors for social justice, but the canivalesque has always been part of public folk culture.

I wasn’t going to turn down the invitation to a conference in Seville called “Caring for the City: Reclaiming the Commons”. It promised to combine so many of my interests: reclaiming public space, the successful anti-eviction group “PAH” and arguments advanced by David Harvey and Anna Minton on late capitalism’s assault on civic democracy. Also, tapas.

It was only when I touched down in Andalusia that the itinerary was made clear: this would not be a conventional conference but a participatory “hack-camp” – like a corporate retreat for activists. We would be put into groups, play getting-to-know-you games, enjoy “networking time” and, over three long days, create a “guerrilla campaign” to help save a local “cultural space... with particular emphasis on the circus, performing and visual arts”. My jaw dropped. I came all this way to set up a flash mob for clowns.

But what would this mean in practice? Would we have to fit the entire Spanish trade union movement into a comically small car? The night before the camp began, reclaiming the commons by drinking beer in the streets of Seville, some friends and I tried to understand our problem with clowns. For one thing, from Pagliacci to John Wayne Gacy and Sideshow Bob, clowns do not have a great record as warriors for social justice. Yet the carnivalesque has always been part of public folk culture and so, loath as I am to admit it, an injury to Koko is indeed an injury to us all.

In Spain the image of 2011’s indignados movement crystallised around a pejorative bit of slang: in long-established anti-capitalist circles, clown-friendly anarcho-squatter types are dismissed as perroflautas – literally “dog-flutes”, after their two most recognisable accessories. As anyone who has seen the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s ponytail can confirm, some leading perroflautas have taken the plunge in the past 16 months and – with varying levels of optimism – swapped a spinning bow tie for a proper one.

The tension between those who have stayed put in squatted social centres and the avowedly modern electoral “project” Podemos was striking in Seville. Comrades’ eyebrows were raised when one activist darted off from our table of felt tips and scissors to take a call on her mobile. The previous day, she had been voted top of a candidate list for local elections in May. She could be the next mayor, if Participa Sevilla, a Podemos-backed project, wins. She didn’t make it back for days two and three.

The divide has created personal rifts. Telling me about a former indignados comrade, now a paid-up Podemos operative, one local anarchist said to me: “I still like him but he is in Madrid now.” This friend had been physically visiting the capital, allegedly bringing back orders to “dismantle” local indignados work. Spiritually he was deemed lost to the Podemos machine and its centralising hierarchy.

The counterargument from the electoralistas is, well, are you really going to refuse this historic opportunity? I am told one of Podemos’s top speechwriters has sharp words for his former comrades: “They will be happy just as long as they can have ‘I was pure’ written on their graves.” One 2011 indignados slogan ran “Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes”. This tension looms ever larger in 2015, especially as Podemos, having led briefly, has stalled in the polls.

In the end our “guerrilla action” was terrific fun and certainly not pointless. We used helium balloons to hoist a giant banner demanding a new home for La Carpa (the circus space) in one of Seville’s abandoned public buildings. The locals loved it, we spread the word about a good cause and I even climbed down off my high horse and wore a red nose – for ten minutes, sheepishly. The commons were temporarily reclaimed by the perroflauta side of the Spanish left – and as this remarkable year wears on, we’ll see if the electoralistas can get any closer to achieving the same.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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