Do We Still Need Gay Awards Ceremonies in 2015?
I went to this year's Attitude Pride Awards to find out if these kinds of events are segregationist, or if they still highlight the kind of LGBT role models society needs.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I can't speak for everyone, but each time Pride season rolls around; each time a high-profile celebrity comes out as gay, bi, or trans; and each time I read the Rainbow List or hear about the Stonewall Awards, I wonder whether we still need these affirmations and celebrations of gayness. In the halcyon era of equal marriage, is Pride still relevant? Do we really care if an entertainer, writer, or sportsperson is LGBT? And is it truly necessary to hand out accolades for someone's sexuality or gender identity?
It's obvious from the horror stories and statistics of reported homophobic violence that—though the UK is edging toward total legal parity for LGBT people—socially, we're still found wanting. Particularly with regards to the transgender community. Despite this, there are those both queer and straight who feel visibility is no longer a necessity and that it's time we moved beyond the labels entirely. People who feel that now we have marriage, the battle is essentially won. That Pride's political relevance is redundant; LGBT-specific award ceremonies are segregationist; and sexuality and gender don't matter.
In other words, people who feel that we're "post-gay."
What better place to consider this than a champagne-heavy party attended by the likes of Barbara Windsor and Duncan from Blue? Following Pride in London, Attitude magazine recently hosted its inaugural Pride Awards ceremony, and I managed to score myself a ticket.
Rather than celebrating the usual mix of out celebrities, charity CEOs, and benevolent corporations (because where would the LGBT movement be without Asda?), the "ordinary extraordinary" were honored—those making a difference to the LGBT community at a grassroots level.
The whole thing was a spectacularly camp rejection of the idea that we're on the verge of becoming a "post-gay" society. I mean, it was hosted by Alan Cumming. Taking place at Park Lane's Grosvenor House, the event managed to avoid descending into the insincere celebrity ego massaging and corporate back-patting session that saw the British LGBT Awards so badly derided. Rather than the usual PR nonsense, the acceptance speeches at the Attitude Pride Awards had real substance, the night a candid and genuine tribute to the deserving.
Matthew Naz Mahmood-Ogston—celebrated for setting up the Naz and Matt Foundation, which helps LGBT individuals to work through issues, particularly where religion is involved—talked openly about his partner's suicide, leaving the room half-filled with crying guests. Brighton Pride ambassador George Montague has, at 92, seen the total criminalization of homosexuality through to equal marriage and, as such, used his speech to demand the government apologize on behalf of its predecessors for making the lives of gay men hell for most of the 20th century.
Asifa Lahore, the UK's most prominent Muslim drag queen, was also one of the night's dozen award winners. Lahore uses drag to challenge religious views of sexuality and inspire the Asian LGBT community, particularly those whose faith has caused them to suppress their identity. For her efforts she's received hate mail and death threats, but even these have failed to curb her "loud and proud" mentality. I asked her whether she thought the kind of awards we were at still have a place in the modern landscape.
"We've become quite lax at celebrating our identity," said Lahore. "I've had lots of conversations about Pride and whether it's relevant. For me, it's more relevant now than ever. As much as we've been given rights, those rights can be taken away. If we look to India and to Russia, suddenly out of nowhere they reintroduced laws that are taking the LGBT debate backward. Us being out and proud impacts the entire world, and we mustn't forget to always keep that voice alive."
Outside on the red carpet, I managed to grab a moment with Moud Goba, who arrived in the UK from Zimbabwe, a country where homosexuality is illegal and out LGBT people face institutional persecution. After successfully claiming asylum in the UK—a traumatic experience for many LGBT asylum seekers—she now works at the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group, helping others to secure their refugee status. Though taken aback upon receiving her own award, saying she was happy just working in the background, Moud believes it's more important than ever to celebrate LGBT heroes.
"I definitely still think it is important to celebrate people in the community, because it's not such a long time ago that it was illegal to be gay," she told me. "Just because it's legal and there's gay marriage doesn't mean some people won't struggle. We still have homophobia, we still have religion, we still have a lot of other cultural factors for people to deal with. Although children nowadays have role models, there's no harm in having more, because there might be someone who is inspired by knowing out and proud LGBTI people."
Even in the UK, LGBT people need relatable role models. The younger generation especially benefits from the way publicly out figures are now "normalized" and idolized. Such "normalization" has been deemed so successful, there are those who feel the time has come to eliminate the "gay" adjective— for many, Tom Daley isn't a gay diver, he's simply a diver. But these prefixes are potent tools for eradicating stigma and raising awareness, particularly around misunderstood and underrepresented groups.
"We're everywhere, and people need to see we're everywhere," says Jonathan Blake, the night's final award winner and a member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, whose story was told in last year's movie Pride. "Not only do we need more out celebrities, what we actually need are people who are out and HIV positive. And it's beginning to happen. That's the wonderful thing about [the movie] Pride: the character Jonathan is not a victim, and that is something that really has to be celebrated."
HIV positive role models, like 20-year-old activist Luke Alexander, are crucial to eliminating the stigma and stereotypes associated with HIV. The trans community too is benefitting from high profile figures who talk publicly about their experiences, whether it's Caitlyn Jenner, the first trans woman on the front cover of Vanity Fair, or Ayla Holdom, an RAF helicopter pilot and proud ambassador of the trans community (not to mention another of the night's winners at the Attitude Awards).
"It would be lovely to live in a post label world, but it's not the world that we live in," says VICE columnist and equality activist, Paris Lees, who presented Holdom with her Attitude Pride award. "The fact is we don't have a trans newsreader, so when we do that will be a big deal. Laverne Cox being on the cover of Time magazine is the first time that a trans person's done that, so it is notable and it is important at the moment to say, 'Look, this is the amazing stuff that trans people are doing.'
"We say we don't want labels, that labels are for tins of soup, but we all have one. There's nothing wrong with taking a pragmatic approach in celebrating labels that don't get celebrated very often. To tell people who've been told that they're not valuable and to make a special case of saying that they are valuable is necessary—at least at the moment."
From everyone I spoke to, the consensus on labels and prefixes was that they shouldn't be reductive and that the successes of LGBT people should be as much a part of mainstream culture as queer culture. Integration works both ways. "I'm really happy for my books to be in the gay section of the book shop," says journalist and author, Damian Barr, "but I also want them to be in the memoirs section. I want there to be an LGBT section in every book shop, but I also want those writers to be integrated into the rest of the book shop." In other words, Damian doesn't want to be ghettoized.
The move away from ghettoization has helped to bolster the out and proud population in the UK. Legal protections, fewer repercussions, more role models, and shifting social attitudes have contributed to an "easier" coming-out process. Many of those who could successfully pass as straight, who may have once chosen integration, are now choosing to come out rather than assimilate. Is this a new era of resistance?
"There was one school of thought in terms of how to get your rights, which was to look and act like everybody else," says Matthew Breen, editor of Advocate magazine. "The idea that we're neighbors and family and that we could be anybody—that was very useful. But the downside of that is that not anybody looks like everybody; there's variety in any culture, any pocket of society. The part of our culture that's flamboyant and fringe—that's avant-garde and revolutionary—my hope is that that doesn't go away."
Living an openly gay lifestyle is now much easier for the "straight acting": for those who pass, or, in other words, blend in as cisgender or heterosexual. But passing is still a monumental factor for determining quality of life, especially for the trans community. Freedom of expression doesn't guarantee freedom from abuse; a significant segment of the UK's queer population can attest to this firsthand. The alleged "post-gay society," where sexuality and gender are irrelevant, is really only applicable to a privileged few.
"A lot of people think that you only come out once, but it happens daily," says Breen. "Passing is still really oppressive for people who just can't do it very well. They're the ones who get it worse than anybody else. It's buying into the idea that if you act and behave a certain way. You should be all right." That, surely, is not equality.
As well as the much-deserved wins at the Attitude Pride Awards, there have been plenty of big wins for the LGBT community this year: America and Ireland legalized same-sex marriage, and issues involving trans rights finally felt like they were entering the mainstream, after decades of trans people being sidelined from a rights movement they pioneered.
However, freedom of expression doesn't have to be a permanent fixture, and a step back is as easy as a step forward. While Pride is a big pissed-up parade in the UK and US, elsewhere it's a protest met with rubber bullets and tear gas. While we celebrate our out and our proud, elsewhere they're thrown from the roofs of buildings. And still, in both the UK and US, homophobia is rife. The fight is far from over. To those who believe there's no longer a need to honor our LGBT heroes or take pride in our identity, your beliefs are misplaced, your celebrations premature. As I left the award ceremony, it was Matthew Breen's words that resonated: "Post-gay," he said, "is bullshit."
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