Category Archives: Elsewhere

[Elsewhere] LGBT+ History Month: Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

During the 2014 Winter Olympics (the ones that Russia hosted right after implementing Section 28′s bigger, meaner evil twin), I played something called the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game. It went a bit like this:

  • Non-Russians use music by gay Russian composer: take a drink.
  • Russians use music by gay Russian composer who is also a national treasure: take two drinks.
  • Entire Russian national team walks into stadium to the sound of t.A.T.u: down the bottle.

Read more over at Rainbow Teaching.


My research blog finally looks like it might be up and running. It’s mainly a place for me to think out loud about stuff I’ve read, publish chunks of writing that may or may not make into papers or a thesis, attempt some rudimentary outreach, and hopefully further down the line engage in a dialogue with the fandom community.

Current posts include reviews of the two big fandom ethnographies from the 1990s (Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women and Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers), and some quite raw musings on consent and empathy [TW rape/sexual assault].

[Elsewhere] Ladies’ Things

With Marvel having made six movies with lead actors called Chris, the calls for a woman-led movie have been getting louder. And while we’re going to have to wait until 2018 to see Captain Marvel, and a Black Widow movie is still not on the cards, our appetites have been more than whetted with the latest superhero show to hit our screens; Agent Carter.

The series premièred last week in the US with a two-hour long double episode, and while the tight plot and great action are noteworthy, there was one element of the show that really stood out for a lot of women viewers, and it’s a topic that TV is usually happy to brush over.

From very early on in the first episode it becomes clear that sexism, harassment and discrimination are a part of Peggy Carter’s daily life. While formally an SSR agent, informally her male colleagues patronise her, diminish her, ask her to perform menial administrative tasks like filing, answering phones or making coffee. Carter has to fight to be allowed to do her job and be recognised for her skills, potential and contributions – and she’s not the only one. Carter’s roommate Colleen finds her female colleagues out of a job, as soldiers – entirely unqualified for the work – return from the front to take them, while Waitress Angie deals with constant harassment from her male customers. It’s everywhere, and it’s unrelenting.

The debate about ‘strong female characters’ still rages on in modern feminist media critique. Such characters, more often than not, are either devoid of any femininity, or allowed to be feminine in only a very narrow set of ways. SFCs are simplistic, and often devoid of context.

They tend to move through a world as experienced by their generally white male writers: a world where they don’t have to consider the personal safety implications of being a woman in public; a world where being good at their job is a sufficient condition for success; a world where they can reasonably expect to be taken seriously by their peers instead of being told to “cover the phones”.

This is not the world that women – and other marginalised groups – live in. What many writers (especially those giving trite advice like “write them like they’re human beings”) don’t realise is that different people experience reality differently, and for marginalised people there are a whole set of social structures in place that make their experiences considerably bleaker. This is as true for women as it is for other marginalised groups – people of colour, LGBTQ people and disabled people. And of course, if you’re a member of more than one of these groups, the shit you have to deal with multiplies.

Marvel’s Agent Carter does a good job of showing the difficulties a white, cis, (probably) straight woman would have faced in 1940s America: being demoted or losing your job to returning soldiers, or being expected to only work until you get married. It also shows the kind of system-beating coping strategies that marginalised people often develop. You’re only good for making coffee? Make the coffee and listen in on the briefing. People see your pretty face and forget that there’s a person with thoughts and feelings and agency behind it? Lull them into a false sense of security. Men find women’s bodies largely repulsive unless it’s for their benefit? Use ‘women’s troubles’ to get a day off for world-saving.

This being a comic book adaptation, some of the ways in which Carter deals with her reality are basically power fantasies. There are times I wish I had comebacks as good as Peggy, or that I could press a fork to a man’s rib-cage and explain to him the consequences of his actions. Also true to the genre, Peggy acquires a sidekick in the form of Howard Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis. He’s there to patch up her wounds, check the paperwork for disarming explosives, and drive the getaway car. These are exactly the kind of power fantasies we see male characters enact without batting an eyelid. A simple role reversal of the male hero and female sidekick would be tired and insincere, but the fact that Carter is shown in the context of pervasive sexism and discrimination around her gives the situation depth and nuance.

The show centres Carter’s experience and takes us into her reality. Where it could improve is in its representation of characters from marginalised groups other than white, cis, (probably) straight women. We have a disabled character working in the SSR, a fair few women – and that’s it. So far, men of colour have appeared either as shady criminals or jazz musicians, and women of colour apparently weren’t invented yet. Now that the writers have shown what they can do, there’s no excuse not to have a more diverse cast treated with the same kind of nuance as the lead.

And lest we forget, Peggy Carter’s reality is not one we left behind in the 1940s. Those of us who experience it on a daily basis know that sexism, discrimination and harassment are still with us.

Those who have the privilege not to have to deal with this sort of thing, however, should not congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come in a few decades: Agent Carter’s “cover the phones” is today’s “make me a sandwich”.

[This post was originally published at The Geek Agenda.]

[Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros

There were two things I absolutely loved about the Hunger Games books. The way they just kept getting bleaker with no light at the end of the tunnel was the first. The second was that Katniss Everdeen was a kickass female character who didn’t have a romantic bone in her body. Or… that’s how I read her. Imagine my surprise when Anita Sarkeesian of the Feminist Frequency (for whom I have all the respect in the world) complained about the romance content and love triangle, especially in the second and third books. Of course different people see different things in works of art and popular culture, so let’s look at how an aro-ace reading of Katniss can be constructed from the text.

When we first meet Katniss, she is sixteen years old. She has a network of acquaintances in the District that she occasionally does business with to ensure the survival of her family, but she only has a handful of truly close relationships: her sister, her friend Gale, her mother, and Madge (the mayor’s daughter) are the important people in her life, probably in that order. We see very little of her friendship with Madge, though it’s worth noting that there have been some readings of a more sexual or romantic relationship there. Personally, I feel there isn’t quite enough there in the text, especially compared to the evidence for aro-ace Katniss.

Because the books are narrated by Katniss in the first person, we get a very in-depth view of how she sees the world, though not necessarily a fair reflection of how the other characters may see it. From Katniss’s point of view, her relationship with Gale at the start of the trilogy looks like a very solid and very much platonic friendship. There are some clues in Gale’s actions and words that he harbours more romantic feelings towards Katniss, but it’s pretty clear in the first book that they have no sexual or romantic history together.

I think it’s fair to say that many 16-year-olds would consider the exploration of their sexuality a fairly central part of their life. And yes, you could argue that ensuring the survival of her family is Katniss’s main priority to the exclusion of all else, but most of the characters around her are shown or at least implied to be sexual or have romantic feelings in some way. Gale with his crush on Katniss, especially in the later books; Peeta who falls for her hopelessly even in the middle of the horrors of the arena; Finnick using his sexuality to keep himself and Annie safe; Johanna Mason’s provocative strip in the elevator. Additionally, Katniss is extremely frank about many things, including graphic violence and her own mental state – there is no reason to believe she wouldn’t be just as frank about sexuality if that was something that was important to her.

Let’s have a closer look at how Katniss thinks about three key elements of romantic feelings and sexuality: kissing, desire, and romance itself.

This is Katniss and Peeta’s first kiss:

“No Peeta, I don’t even want to discuss it,” I say, placing my fingers on his lips to quiet him.

“But I – ” he insists.

Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words.

For context, Katniss has just treated his wounds in the cave and he is trying to talk about what happens if he doesn’t make it. They’re at this point playing up the love story for the audience in order to get more food and medicine from sponsors.

She kisses him to shut him up.

For the rest of their time in the cave, Katniss uses kissing as a tool to get Peeta to do things and to get the audience on their side.

“Getting the broth into Peeta takes about an hour of coaxing, begging, and yes, kissing…”

These do not sound like kisses that Katniss is particularly into. We get very little description of what they feel like for her. In fact, in Katniss’s mind they are simply tools. What we have to remember is that Katniss’s main strength as a character is using any and all available tools to ensure her own survival and that of the people she cares about.

Sister has been called up to be ritually sacrificed? Pretty much the only tool Katniss has is herself – so she volunteers. She has to kill Peeta or be killed? Have some poison berries to blackmail the system with. Need to convince the pampered audience in the Capitol to send her food and medicine? Play up the love story. Yes, Haymitch had to talk her into that one but only because she didn’t understand how the Capitol worked at first. Once she saw the tools, she used them. So if she needs Peeta to drink his broth she will kiss him if that’s what it takes.

Here are a couple more notable kisses. This is the kiss, in front of a live TV audience, that Katniss and Peeta share the first time they see each other after leaving the arena:

He’s kissing me and all the time I’m thinking, Do you know? Do you know how much danger we’re in? After about ten minutes of this, Caesar Flickerman taps on his shoulder to continue the show, and Peeta just pushes him aside without even glancing at him. The audience goes berserk. Whether he knows or not, Peeta is, as usual, playing the crowd exactly right.

Katniss is not focused on the actual kiss in the slightest. Unlike Peeta, who seems immersed in the kiss, Katniss is fully aware of her surroundings and the political situation they are in.

And here is Katniss being kissed by Gale in the second book. As descriptions of kisses go, it is neither full of romance nor desire.

Despite the fact that the sun was setting and my family would be worried, I sat by a tree next to the fence. I tried to decide how I felt about the kiss, if I had liked it or resented it, but all I really remembered was the pressure of Gale’s lips and the scent of the oranges that still lingered on his skin.

Katniss’s thoughts on desire are few and far between. This is maybe the only passage in the trilogy that deals with the subject in any sort of detail:

“I do,” I say. “I need you.” He looks upset, takes a deep breath as if to begin a long argument, and that’s no good, no good at all, because he’ll start going on about Prim and my mother and everything and I’ll just get confused. So before he can talk, I stop his lips with a kiss.

I feel that thing again. The thing I only felt once before. In the cave last year, when I was trying to get Haymitch to send us food. I kissed Peeta about a thousand times during those Games and after. But there was only one kiss that made me feel something stir deep inside. Only one that made me want more. But my head wound started bleeding and he made me lie down.

This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.

Note how Katniss is telling us that this is the second time ever that she’s experienced desire. Based on this, it is possible to construct a demisexual reading of Katniss – maybe it has simply taken her this long to develop romantic feelings for Peeta, and that now leads to desire and sexual attraction. Yet, this is also pretty much the last time Katniss talks about desire. As for romance, Katniss never uses the language of love in reference to either Gale or Peeta. Both in the passage above, and when she talks about making a choice between the two of then, the word she uses is “need”:

Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

Katniss is a survivor, and she will use all tools at her disposal. What she needs to survive is Peeta. She never even tells Peeta she loves him – she simply lets him put words in her mouth.

So what about that love triangle then? I genuinely believe Katniss cares deeply about certain people in her life. Prim and Gale are probably at the top of that list, Peeta makes it quite close to the top. Her mother (to an extent), Cinna, Haymitch. Rue, obviously. And the way Katniss cares is that she’s fiercely protective – you don’t volunteer as tribute if you don’t care or are not protective of someone. I think at some point she realises that both Gale and Peeta are smitten with her. And she knows she can’t really return those feelings in the same way, and that that will hurt them. So I think a lot of the “love triangle” is her coming to terms with hurting them in this way when all she wants to do is protect them, as well as figuring out what she needs for survival and how to get that.

I think given the themes of violence and PTSD that run through the trilogy, one of the best features of Katniss’s portrayal as aro-ace is that it is consistent throughout the books, and set against a backdrop of clearly sexual and romantic characters. It is impossible to argue that sexuality and romance are not important in the world the author has created, as we have seen clear examples of both. At the same time, Katniss doesn’t lose her capacity for romance or her sexuality through the trauma of the Hunger Games – this is simply who she is, both before and after the trauma she suffers.

[This post was originally published at Rainbow Teaching.]

[Elsewhere] Rainbow Teaching launches today

Over the last few months I’ve had the privilege to be involved with an excellent initiative to provide LGBT+ inclusive teaching materials and help create safe learning environments for all students. Rainbow Teaching, which launches today, is a volunteer-led project which provides teachers with ready-made, easy to use LGBT+ inclusive resources across the school curriculum. To celebrate the launch, I wrote a blog post for their website:


I learned to pick up signals on whether it was safe to be out before I knew I was queer. I am as startled by this realisation as anyone, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I remember the first time I heard the word “homosexual”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but it sounded like a dirty secret. I remember my father disapproving of a particular music video because it had women kissing in it. I don’t remember anything from biology class except this: our teacher explaining (incorrectly) how anal sex between men led to HIV transmission. All this between the ages of 7 and 12. Later, there was the teacher who was sacked for being gay, and being taught “Where Angels Fear to Tread” without reference to Forster’s sexuality.
Read more at Rainbow Teaching

[Elsewhere] Immigration is a feminist issue

I left the country of my birth at the age of 10. For six years I was only tolerated in my new home because my father had a work visa. My mother, too, was in Austria on a family visa with no right to work. It is telling what I remember from those years. My father’s present to my mother for our first Christmas in Austria was a bank card allowing her to access his account. My parents didn’t often go through really rough patches in their marriage but the one time they did, when they didn’t speak to each other for two months and it looked like they would be getting divorced, my mother asked me if I wanted to stay in Austria with my father or return to Bulgaria with her. I was 11, maybe 12. I knew even then that if she wanted to leave my father she had no other choice – and that I would not go with her. I remember my mother struggling to learn German with very little social contact, and then struggling again to get a work permit. I know what she bought with her first own paycheque in Austria: a dishwasher. My mother, a research chemist originally, is now on her fourth career as a result of our migration; and while her current work is reasonably skilled and highly-paid, it is nothing like her first career.
Read more at The F Word.
ETA: You now also read this article in Polish on Codziennik Feministyczny. Many thanks to translator Robert Kielawski.

[Elsewhere] Expecting More

Last week saw the publication of Julie Bindel’s new book, “Straight Expectations”, partly based on a survey which deliberately and specifically excluded bisexual people. Ruth Hunt, Acting Chief Exec of Stonewall, tweeted on Monday morning,

Read more at The F Word.

[Elsewhere] Rape and Reputation

I am guest blogging on The F-Word this month. My first piece was on our society’s obsession with the reputation of alleged sex offenders. Trigger warnings apply for the piece and most of the links in it for discussion of sexual violence.
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for sexual assault and the law. Last week Radio 4 ran an edition of the Moral Maze titled “Should the accused as well as the victim be given anonymity in the trial of sex crimes?” Panellists fell over themselves to explain how the legal system was tilted in favour of alleged victims of sexual assault, how the accused’s reputation was in tatters forever even if they were acquitted. (As I have written elsewhere, there are good statistical reasons for that.) This week has of course seen the conviction and sentencing of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of indecent assault. And there it is again, that phrase, “Your reputation lies in ruins”, this time uttered by the judge himself.
Read more.

[Elsewhere] Adding Insult to Injury: The Media Coverage of the Bisexual Asylum Seeker Case

This article also appears on Huffington Post.
Last month, immigration law blog Free Movement published a set of questions which had been asked of a bisexual asylum seeker during an interview by the UKBA. The questions are degrading, intrusive and deeply queerphobic. Yet the reporting of this incident in some mainstream media outlets is similarly concerning. On Saturday, the Guardian ran a story based on the Free Movemement post, titled “Gay asylum seekers face ‘humiliation'”. The article talks repeatedly of “gay” or “gay and lesbian” asylum seekers; among quotes from immigration lawyers and LGB rights charities, the word “bisexual” appears only once in the entire piece, when describing the individual asylum seeker at the heart of the report.
This kind of bi erasure is almost routine for bisexual people – and we find it comes from our lesbian and gay friends just as often as from straight people. It is hurtful, but particularly in areas such as asylum and immigration, bi erasure, biphobia and stereotyping are downright dangerous. As bisexual immigrants go, I am extremely privileged: the country which issues my passport has not declared my existence illegal; I am white; I am an EU citizen, and therefore my right to stay in this country and my very life do not depend on my ability to navigate this maze, the love child of Orwell and Kafka, and give whatever the UKBA deems to be the “right” answers to questions such as “In [country] how many relationships have you had with women?” Others are not so lucky.
The popular myths of the non-existent bisexual, the “too scared to come out as gay” bisexual, the “doing it for the attention bisexual” all stack the odds heavily against us when it comes to “proving” our sexuality. The UKBA questions illustrate this clearly. Asking about the number of partners of different genders someone has had implies there is a “right” answer here – some optimal number of men, women and genderqueer people one is to have to slept with before one can be truly recognised as bisexual. (And beware of aiming too high with those numbers, lest you are declared the greedy, possibly disease-ridden kind of bisexual who should not be allowed into the country according to some MPs.)
One wonders, too, what the “right” answer is to questions like “When x was penetrating you did you have an erection?” The trouble with this is that there are as many answers to this question as there are occasions upon which the particular sex act being asked about has been performed in human history. But regardless of your experience, only one of those will get you the magic ticket that allows you to stay in a country that might not execute you for who you are.
Questions like “How do you show your sexuality when you are in the UK?” and “How does that display you are bisexual?” almost naturally lead to “Why have you got to behave as a bisexual in [country]?” and “That was with x only and he initiated the contact you claim. Why can’t you return and live a full life there?” The box one needs to fit in to “deserve” support and asylum is so tiny as to be almost non-existent for bisexual people.
This is why media coverage of this case and the way it persistently talks of “gay and lesbian” asylum seekers when the individual at the centre of it is actually bisexual, and the lines of questioning are very specifically and deliberately, biphobic is dangerous. It is another stitch in the giant invisibility cloak society has thrown over bisexual people. It makes it easier to perpetuate myths and stereotypes, to question whether bisexuals really exist; and that in turn makes it possible to set impossible standards for “proving” bisexuality and to deny people persecuted for who they are shelter when their story doesn’t quite match those expectations.
It is vital for bisexual people’s stories to be heard; for biphobia and bi erasure to be called out for what they are. Bisexuality doesn’t fit neatly in a gay/straight narrative. That doesn’t make biphobia any less hurtful or harmful, sometimes, as in this case, in a “life and death” sort of way.