Pinkwashing is no cause for Pride

Pride has become just another chance for corporations to parade their "values"

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, something perfectly ordinary happened: a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the cops. At the time, gay bars were illegal, Mafia-run, and frequently the subject of police violence.

What made this particular night extraordinary was that the patrons fought back. First bottles and beer cans were thrown at the police, then bricks and cobblestones. Burning rubbish was thrown into the Inn and police responded by turning a firehose on the crowd. 13 people were arrested, four police officers were injured, and at least two patrons were severely beaten by the police.

Several days of sporadic and spontaneous protest erupted, including two more nights of rioting, with police struggling to regain control.

The first Pride marches, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, took place on June 28, 1970, in commemoration of the riots.

Today, as queer Londoners take to the streets for the parade which forms the centrepiece of London’s WorldPride festival, Pride is an unrecognisably different affair: a three-week consumer-fest replete with corporate sponsors (including, incongruously, the Trades Union Congress side-by-side with viciously anti-union companies like Coca Cola).

It’s a spectacle indicative of an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) movement that is increasingly being assimilated into the mainstream, but at the cost of our radicalism and transformative potential.

We are becoming just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation behind a veil of positive pink-PR. But hey, at least we can be "Out @ Tesco" while earning a pittance on workfare.

On Thursday, Pride London hosted a £250-a-plate gala dinner, at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was presented with an award in recognition of her saying some nice platitudinous things about us on a global stage, while her administration continues to hide behind mealy-mouthed "State’s rights" excuses for their lack of concrete progress in improving the status of LGBT Americans. This is more or less the same State’s rights discourse that was historically used to stall the progress of Civil Rights for black Americans time and again.

Meanwhile US troops continue to destroy lives in Afghanistan (including those of LGBT Afghans) and Private Manning (who is commonly described as gay, but is actually a trans woman who identifies as Breanna) rots in her government’s prison for revealing details of US atrocities in Iraq.

This phenomenon, whereby LGBT concerns are co-opted by reactionary groups and institutions - big business, establishment politicians, the far-right, militarists, the police - in order to cast their agendas in a progressive light, is known as "pinkwashing". (The term is borrowed from Breast Cancer Action, who used it to criticise companies who use their pink ribbon purely for PR purposes.) It’s a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly prevalent and through our silence we are complicit: unless we speak out, we allow the Right to speak for us, to hijack our struggles and our history for their own purposes.

Often, the target of this process is Muslims, who are vilified as homophobic fanatics – a pre-modern barbarian threat to the status of LBGT people in the enlightened West. This framing of Muslims is then used to justify oppression. Far-right groups like the English Defence League have successfully employed this tactic in order to gain support for their racist politics beyond the traditional football hooligan base of far-right street movements, while the apartheid regime in Israel frequently refers to its relatively progressive position on LGBT rights to justify its continued suppression of Palestinians both within the state of Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

While the Gay Liberation Front – who were forged from the white-heat of the Stonewall Rebellion as the movement of organised queer militancy - actively sought to build links with groups such as the Black Panthers, on the understanding that our emancipation is inextricably bound up with the freedom of other oppressed groups, the contemporary LGBT movement increasingly sees itself as just another special interest group fighting its own corner. We have lost our understanding of solidarity.

To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, if we remain neutral towards injustice, in the hopes that it will lead to incremental progress on our concerns, we have chosen the side of the oppressor.

We should fight for a society that’s inclusive of LGBT people, but we must also fight for a society that’s worth being included in.

The Rainbow flag flies above the cabinet office. But do queer people really want Nick Clegg's support? Photograph: Getty Images

Aidan Rowe is a queer anarchist blogger and activist.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser