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Lesbian by choice: Eleanor Margolis reviews Julie Bindel's Straight Expectations

What Does It Mean to Be Gay Today? asks Julie Bindel in the subtitle of her new book. For me, it means enduring endless dull and pukey nights out on the scene, says Eleanor Margolis.

Straight Expectations 
Julie Bindel
Guardian Books, 218pp, £12.99

What Does It Mean to Be Gay Today? asks Julie Bindel in the subtitle of her new book. For me, it means enduring endless dull and pukey nights out on the scene. But her thesis delves a little deeper. The core argument – that the gay rights movement has traded in its radicalism for conformity – is compelling. While the gay and lesbian community in much of the UK has finally achieved legislative equality with heterosexuals, an undercurrent of anti-gay bigotry remains. Beneath the veneer of gay marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples, something is rotten on Denmark Street.

To paraphrase Bindel, gays and lesbians have swapped the picket line for the picket fence. “In recent years the gay community has gone from being critical of the status quo to begging to be a part of it,” she writes. Lamenting the movement of the gay agenda away from liberation and towards mere acceptance, she draws both on her experiences as a radical feminist activist in the 1980s and on the opinions of interviewees, from the novelist Maureen Duffy to the gay rights kingpin Peter Tatchell. Bindel also conducted a large survey of straight and LGB people, providing a thorough overview of how homosexuality is viewed and experienced today.

Straight Expectations is a history book, too. For readers wanting some idea of how far the gay rights movement has come and why, Bindel traces the evolution of LGB activism, from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) of the 1970s to the more recent fight for legislative equality.

I’ve deliberately left the “T” off the end of LGB here, as Bindel makes no mention of trans issues. Then again, as the book is specifically about being gay, I wasn’t expecting her to enter an area that probably deserves a book of its own.

According to Bindel, the GLF existed to smash patriarchy. This, she argues, is what is missing from today’s gay rights movement. Lesbians, lumped together with men under the LGB umbrella, have lost their feminism. Bindel draws on the battle for same-sex marriage as the prime example. We now have “good gays” and “bad gays”. Good gays are the Torified imitators of heterosexuals. Bad gays are those who continue to question the capitalist and patriarchal structures that are in place and perhaps reject marriage.

I would argue that this shift in gay attitudes from radicalism to conservatism is simply a result of more people being able to come out. When Bindel did so as a teenager in the 1970s, she was an anomaly. Now, those who do are often apolitical types who want nothing more than to be left in peace to have sex with whomever they like. Which seems fair enough.

What’s more, Bindel argues doggedly that homosexuality is a choice. Having come under fire from gay rights activists for promoting a view so often spouted by homophobic religious zealots, she clarifies that she sees gayness as a “positive alternative” to the heterosexual norm – something of which to be immensely proud. I have to admit that I struggled here.

I had my first crush on a girl when I was in nursery school, at the age of three. It was another seven years or so before I even knew what a lesbian was. I accept that some people, for whatever reason, choose to be gay, but this doesn’t reflect my experience or those of millions of others. Bindel refutes various scientific studies in search of the gay gene, some of which admittedly seem ludicrous. For me, the nature v nurture argument is interesting but politically irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why we’re gay; we just bloody well are.

So what should we be focusing on? According to Bindel’s research, anti-gay bully­ing in schools is still endemic, with over half of LGB under-18s having experienced abuse. Homophobic language is rife. (When I was at school, everything from maths homework to salad was “gay”.) Weirdly, gay-friendly legislation doesn’t necessarily reflect wider societal views. Practices such as gay conversion therapy are still common and legal. In one chapter, Bindel bravely goes undercover to try out a Christian “pray the gay away”-type programme in the US. What she reveals is just how insidious and damaging these methods are.

Although I wasn’t convinced by some of her more controversial claims, Bindel’s analysis of how and why the gay rights movement lost its way is incisive and persuasive. Neoliberal gays and those who happen to fancy calling into question all that you hold to be true: please read this book. 

Eleanor Margolis writes the Lez Miserable column at: newstatesman.com

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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