2016: A few things left to say

Here we are at the end of 2016. From January onwards, there have been an abundance of social media posts about this being the worst year ever. You’ve all seen the gifs and the memes about what a crap year it’s been, and the posts listing the shit that has happened: Bowie, Prince, Brexit, Trump. The last few days it seems to have been another day, another celebrity death.

I don’t have much else to say about Brexit and Trump. They have dominated the news for the entire year. Instead I want to talk about the bits of 2016 that stick out to me as being particularly disappointing, partly because of the way they have been reported in the news and on social media – or rather, the way they haven’t been reported. While the deaths of much loved actors, musicians, and comedians are very sad, and I don’t want to take away from people’s grief, all these people will be remembered. Most of them lived full and interesting lives, and even if some were taken too soon and too suddenly, it is clear that they will live on in their arts and their fans.

None of us have been able to get away from Brexit all year. I am sick and tired of hearing the word and wish to goodness nobody had thought it up. I have largely tuned out of the negotiations or lack thereof, the ridiculous arguments about soft and hard and single markets and other nonsense. The truth is people voted for something they didn’t understand, something that seemed threatening and pointless, and nobody managed to articulate properly why it was something we needed. I’ve read a few articles laying the blame for this at the feet of the UK media, which have been reporting for decades on EU bureaucratic red tape, pointless studies on the shapes of bananas, and other ridiculousness, meaning that for years we have focussed on the negative. This shouldn’t be much of a shock: the media focuses on the negative 9 times out of 10 now. I already disliked following the news much because of that tendency, but this year my belief in our media has failed completely. At the same time as all the endless coverage of Brexit and Trump and the pages and pages of celebrity obituaries, some of the news stories of the year that have shocked me the most have barely caused a blip on the radar.

So far, I haven’t seen a single 2016 round-up article, meme, or social media update that mentions Orlando. This was the worst shooting in US history, and the worst crime against the LGBTQ+ community since the Holocaust. At the time I was bewildered by how little impact it made on my social media, and now I am twice as confused about why it is never mentioned, never alluded to in stories and speeches and thought pieces. Even at the time, the UK media coverage left a lot to be desired: the Daily Mail has been overt in its homophobia this year, and didn’t even put the story on the front page. Most UK newspapers focussed on the gunman’s connection to ISIS, even though it was clear from the start that the affiliation was tenuous at most. Owen Jones walked off a breakfast programme after the hosts refused to acknowledge that this was a homophobic crime. Unfortunately, happening as it did in the run-up to the Brexit vote, this tragedy got swept up and forgotten. I too am sad about the deaths of various famous people this year, and I am deeply disappointed in the outcomes of the referendum and election. But I hate the fact that these people, who died in the worst circumstances of terror and hatred, have been completely forgotten by so many.

Shortly after Orlando, Jo Cox was killed. I still don’t quite understand why her death knocked me so hard, but it did, and it still does. Perhaps because it seemed such a remarkably unlikely thing to happen in the UK: an MP be gunned down in the middle of the street, in broad daylight. It seemed completely unthinkable. Again, the newspapers glossed over the motivations for the crime, focussing instead on the idea that the gunman was mentally ill. I was completely confused, again. Why weren’t more people talking about his affiliation to far right groups? If he’d been connected to ISIS that would have been all anyone had to say. Why, when it was a white man who was committed to xenophobia and racism, was that fact not really talked about? Again, the news story got pushed out of the papers by the result of the EU referendum. Farage had the nerve to say that they had won ‘without a single shot being fired’. When her killer was sentenced, more newspapers covered the motivations behind the attack. Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time, when – potentially – it could have made a difference? Maybe I’m overestimating the effect better coverage of a woman’s violent death could have had. But I do think the media covered it poorly. Of course the Daily Mail was not to be outdone on this story either, as the sentencing of her murderer was moved to page 30. They even painted him as a sympathetic figure who just wanted Jo Cox’s help protecting his house from some sort of swarm of immigrants. What a repulsive rag.

Other devastating news stories from around the world appear to be getting more coverage as the year draws to a close. The pictures and stories coming out of Syria have been horrendous for some time, and there seems to be more being reported at the moment, as Aleppo is bombed out of existence. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to me that we in the UK have been complaining so much about a referendum which, yes, is ludicrous, a marker of social disharmony and is likely to bring about a great deal of change – quite likely negative for many of us, especially if you are a minority – but we are hardly being bombed out of our homes. I don’t want to minimise people’s fears, but it is good to gain some perspective and think of other people who have it worse and need our help.

Similarly, the situation in the Philippines has brought me up short recently. Their President, Rodrigo Duterte, is a complete psychopath. You may remember him being elected earlier in the year, saying he was going to crackdown on drug usage by sentencing users and dealers to death. Well it’s not turned out to be quite as official as that. It’s getting reported more now, but I didn’t hear a whisper about what was happening (and neither had my mum, who reads The Times every day and listens to BBC Radio constantly) until I read this New York Times article a month or so ago. They sent a photojournalist there who documented the deaths of 57 people in 35 days. Reports estimate that 6,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office. And this is not trial and law and order and sitting on death row. People who turned themselves in as drug users are being slaughtered in their own homes. Police turn up, shoot them (sometimes in front of their family and children) and then leave them. Later someone comes to collect the body. Police drive past on motorcycles and gun people down in the street. If you do look at the NYT article, take great care. We may think we’re immunised to pictures of violence these days but these photographs still haunt me.

I realise this is not a cheerful post. Basically I’m just giving some more reasons why 2016 was a bag of crap that aren’t talked about quite so often. Despite the death and the stupidity and the hatred, many good things have happened this year. We don’t hear about them because good news doesn’t sell. Several animals have been taken off the endangered list, which I’d never thought about as being a thing: somewhat pessimistically, I assumed that once an animal went on the endangered list, they were headed the way of the dodo. But giant pandas, humpback whales, and green sea turtles are no longer endangered. The number of tigers in the wild rose for the first time in 100 years. We have an Ebola vaccine. The survival rate of people with pancreatic cancers has risen by 9%. Leonardo di Caprio finally got an Oscar. While in many ways this has been a poor year in terms of progress for LGBTQ+ people, Taiwan is on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

There is good news out there. What this year has shown me more than any other is how much we all live in a bubble. So many people on my social media were out preaching to the choir before the Brexit and Trump votes. Both results were a huge shock to me because I live in a comfy liberal circle of people. We have been fed on bad news for the whole year, and we have kept the circles going, feeding it back to each other in an endless cycle of ‘2016 IS THE WORST’. Some months ago I started feeling like ‘2016’ had become a separate thing, some kind of personality with its own agency that was out to cut us all down. Obviously, this is nonsense, and 2016 is far from the worst year in history. Have half our families been wiped out with the plague? Have all the men we know been sent off to war? Have we lived through a famine? Occasionally I understand why people must get so annoyed with the liberal people wanting the world to march forward on what we see as its inevitable journey towards freedom, democracy and love for all: as someone puts it in The West Wing, we are incredibly smug. I’m not saying we necessarily should change. I don’t really know how, and despite all the calls to action over the last few months, I’m not convinced anybody else does either. But I am frightened of the power that the media and social media have now, and that they are being used for deeply negative ends. From trolling, to negative feedback loops on everyone’s facebook pages, to fake news stories spread by bots and believed by half the people that see them. Perhaps we all need to think a little more about how we are using our influence, and spread a little more happiness. Even if it doesn’t change the world, bring the UK back into the EU and oust Trump (preferably before he even gets into the White House) at least it will make people smile instead of making them think, ugh, yes. This year was the absolute worst.

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The Orlando shootings: let’s spread love not hate, or indifference

I try to avoid the news as much as I can these days. I didn’t check my phone or even see Facebook all day last Sunday so I didn’t hear about the shooting in Orlando until Monday morning. I saw a headline on someone’s paper about a shooting in a gay club, and was gripped by the same awful fear as after the Paris attacks or the Sandy Hook shooting or any of these other horrible, senseless crimes. I was particularly frightened because a friend had her hen do at a gay club in central London that night – but of course in America it’s so much easier to just pick up an assault rifle and massacre innocent people so I wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be in Orlando, USA. As soon as I got to work I went onto Facebook, thinking I would be very behind the news and there would be endless messages of support and that my news feed would be covered in profile pictures with rainbow backgrounds.

I was surprised to find after scrolling through a few dozen statuses and articles that only one friend seemed to have changed to the rainbow flag. I was confused but then remembered the backlash the last time we all changed our flags after the Paris attacks, with people claiming there should also be a flag to support Lebanon, or Syria, or the other places seeing horrendous attacks against innocent people far more frequently than we have them in the West. I also wondered if people are just becoming numb to the shock of another shooting in the US. They are horrifyingly common, after all. And of course there are many ways of expressing support for the victims, their families and the LGBTQ community at large without painting a photograph in pretty colours. But I was surprised in general by the lack of attention the shooting was getting on my news feed. I was, to be fair, a day after the event, but whereas after the Paris attacks I had to limit my facebook exposure for several days because the outpourings of grief were so raw they made me extremely upset, this time it was for the most part business as usual, the standard statuses about this and that event from the weekend. There were also, which I can excuse to some extent, lots of postings about the EU referendum. It seems from these useless polls that the lies and inflammatory bullshit in the media are swaying people towards kicking the chair out from under themselves, and I can’t blame my friends for trying to persuade people to vote remain (although in the context of my friends list at least, I think I’d be preaching to the converted).

And yet. This wasn’t just another US shooting, or another IS attack, or even another attack on LGBTQ people. This was the worst US shooting ever. The man pledged allegiance to IS before shooting and they were gleeful in claiming responsibility but it is unclear as yet how much the man actually followed their beliefs and how much he was just a desperate and sick man who decided to say he was part of IS right at the last second – perhaps he thought what he was going to do would have greater impact if he wasn’t just one man alone. And this certainly wasn’t just another attack on LGBTQ people. This was the worst mass killing of gay people since the Holocaust.

The media coverage of the shooting did not make me any less confused in terms of how it was being reported. Owen Jones’s decision to walk off the Sky News set is already set to become legend, and when you see what he was putting up with, you cannot blame him. There were repeated attempts by both presenters to deflect attention from this being an LGBTQ hate crime. Let’s imagine for a moment that the shooting had been in a Catholic church. Even if it was attributed to IS there would still be full acknowledgement that this was a crime against Christians. People who tried to deflect that fact and say ‘well no, it was an attack against all people trying to practise their religion’ would be scorned. Julia Hartley-Brewer’s comment that the killer would have had similar issues with her as ‘a gobby woman’ were truly astonishing. We know from the fact he used to beat his wife that the man was also deeply misogynistic, but if he wanted to just kill a group of confident women I’m sure he could have found a venue to do so. And not liking women expressing their opinions is not the same as being repulsed and deeply angered by the sight of two men kissing, which Mateen was on a trip with his father. Even this was dismissed by the presenters – ‘that was months ago! I’m sure plenty of things have made him angry since then!’ – missing the point that the anecdote shows a revulsion towards gay people. But even then, why are we looking at that small incident and drawing from it, as if we need any more evidence? The fact he picked a gay club as the spot for his massacre makes it abundantly clear that they were his target, and I genuinely don’t understand why people are shying away from saying that’s what it was. Julia Hartley-Brewer has now written her own article explaining why she thinks the whole furore is ridiculous, and done nothing to calm an inflamed situation or bring the focus back to LGBTQ people by saying Owen Jones ‘may have more in common with IS than he thinks’. Ugh. I’ve watched the clip several times and I do see Owen Jones’s point. I think a lot of points could have been cleared up if they all allowed each other to finish their sentences, as a point Hartley-Brewer has since made that they were trying to explain his homophobia in terms of his religion did not come across to me at all. But it doesn’t alter the fact that several news outlets are not addressing the LGBTQ issue enough. Some papers, like The Daily Mail, didn’t even run the story on their front page on Monday morning, choosing instead to spread lies about immigration which I thought had been leaked last week and already proven wrong. I’m trying to imagine if they would have done the same if a different group had been targeted.

Let’s also imagine for a moment that he hadn’t mentioned IS during his 911 call. He was a Muslim so the link would have inevitably been drawn anyway, but by mentioning IS he has allowed news outlets to make this about the continuing war on terror, a fresh story in their favourite saga of unremittingly awful news. By making it immediately about the whole IS cause, and about the whole IS group, the LGBTQ community have been marginalised and half forgotten. ‘This wasn’t a gay hate crime! It was an IS crime!’ It can be both, and both need to be acknowledged and talked about. While we were all terrified of IS terrorist attacks before, the gay community will now be feeling doubly vulnerable. Attacks against parts of Western culture – going to concerts and sitting in restaurants – are terrifying in their normality, the feeling that they were picked at random simply as places that would have a lot of people gathered in one place. We can’t all always avoid going to places where there are crowds, so there was little choice in continuing about our daily lives. But this attack is different. People out in Soho the following evening were second guessing their decision to go out. Now gay clubs are a target, even more so than they were before. If there is another attack in a gay club, will some people say that the party goers shouldn’t have gone out? That they knew the danger? I hope not but I am afraid that the thought would cross some people’s minds, in the same way people blamed the parents of a Indonesian girl who was gang raped and murdered while walking home. Apparently she shouldn’t have been let out on her own.

This attack highlights the challenges still faced in gaining equality for LGBTQ people around the world, as so many people continue to hate for no reason. In some countries it is still illegal, and I have crossed various places off my list of possible travel destinations because if one of my best friends came with me, he could be arrested at the gate because he is attracted to men more than women. People are still persecuted, people still face ridicule and bullying from their peers, and even in central London where you would think surely “anything goes”, people still struggle to come out to their parents. I don’t pretend to be able to speak for the LGBTQ community, being as I am a woman who has only had relationships with men. But I am a supporter of the cause and believe deeply in the equality of all people, as anyone should who has half a brain. It makes me so sad and so angry when people refuse to let people love. This is the most stupid thing about being homophobic – that the decision of other people about who they love is so far from being anybody else’s business. Love is love. And it is desperately important that this shooting is acknowledged as an LGBTQ hate crime, an attack on this community, and a mark of how far we still have to go. Some particularly sick individuals took to Twitter to say that this attack was a good thing, attacking ‘perverts’ rather than ‘innocent people.’ There are no words, other than fuck off you revolting pieces of shit.

The other thing about the media coverage which made me so angry was the reactions from politicians, mainly in the US and UK. David Cameron tweeted once saying his thoughts were with the victims and their families, and then went back to tweeting about the referendum. I can’t see that he has said anything else. Nothing about supporting the LGBTQ community in Britain, the specific nature of the attack, or another call for the US to sort out their gun laws. Jeremy Corbyn did better at least by going to Old Compton Street last night and showing his support very specifically for the people who will be feeling at their most vulnerable and exposed. Donald Trump of course lost no time in making the attacks about him and his campaign for the US presidency. I’m sure we all have the same feelings about this man by now, or at least I hope we do. He has gone from being a figure of fun to someone who sends such a surge of rage through me whenever I see his face that I am starting to fear for my blood pressure. I’m not laughing anymore, although perhaps I should – perhaps he is like a Boggart and will only be stopped by people laughing at him and exposing him for the pointless shapeless bag of hot air that he is. It was his comments that angered me the most, claiming that his shooting proved him ‘right’ that they need to stop the migration of Muslims into the US. I am so angry and upset that such a hateful crime is being used to spread more hate, more anger, more unfounded persecution of the Muslim population at large. I am terrified by the unthinking racism of his supporters, as I am by the unthinking xenophobia of the people in Britain who are voting to leave the EU. It shows this awful superiority complex, this belief that we in the US or Britain are better than all the others and if we could only somehow be left alone we would all be happy special snowflakes. It is total bollocks and at a time when the world is tearing itself apart in so many ways, I am flabbergasted that people can’t see that being more unified, that having more conversations, more connections to one another, is the best way to survive and prosper.

Amidst all this sadness and horror there are always heartwarming stories. The number of people who went to Old Compton Street to sing and join hands last night. The people who went to the blood banks in Orlando after a call for blood, so many that there were then volunteers supplying the queue with food and water, and so many that in the end some were told to come back later in the week. The man who was at the gay club who told a news reporter that the killer had ‘picked the wrong community to mess with.’

I don’t tend to write political posts, but I felt in this case it was important for me to add my voice to the others around the world. I am full of disbelief, rage, and sadness, but I am also full of love and support for all the LGBTQ people who are now feeling more fearful than ever.  I am in no way suggesting that this was ‘worse’ than the attacks in Paris, or anywhere else, as it doesn’t work that way. Every single crime against innocent people is horrendous. But this attack was different, and everyone needs to acknowledge that this is a dreadful benchmark in our history. I wonder if some people don’t know what to say, either because it’s too awful for words or because they feel that in some way gay people are the ones who own this grief. Julia Hartley-Brewer suggested that was what Owen Jones was trying to do, but he wasn’t. He was saying it was difficult for anyone who wasn’t gay to understand how much this attack is different, because it is a direct attack on LGBTQ people and their ways of life. I see that and I grieve with everyone else. Everyone should be joining together now more than ever to show that, to quote Dumbledore, ‘though we come from different places and speak in different tongues, (and love different people), our hearts beat as one.’ If you don’t feel you know what to say, just say #loveislove. Or link Owen Jones’s article in The Guardian. Or a news piece. Or this blog. I sincerely hope that this horror doesn’t breed more hate, or indifference, or embarrassment about discussing gay politics, but that it shows the world how much we have to fight for, and that the progress some places have made is fragile – and that it is not enough.