According to some people, over the weekend Ruth Davidson was the victim of an outrageous homophobic attack which puts a lie to the claim that the independence movement is tolerant and civic. She was cruelly subjected to being referred to as Dykey-D, a word so evil and horrible that you’re not allowed to say it even if you are in fact a D-word yourself. This will come as news to my lesbian friends and acquaintances, all of whom use the word all the time. They also have been known to refer to me as a queen, a big baldy poof, or a queer, and I’ve been distinctly uninsulted when they did so.
I’d put money on the likelihood that Ruth has used the D-word to describe herself or her friends too, because that’s the kind of thing that us gay folk do. In the exact same way I will cheerfully refer to myself or to other gay men by words which if they came out of the mouths of straight people might be interpreted as vicious attacks. But generally I’ll restrict my use of those words to when I’m in LGBTI company. When around other gay people, the meaning and import of my words is clear. In other contexts, things can be more problematic.
Language is contextual. Meaning depends upon the context in which a word is used and an inescapable part of the context of a word is the person who utters it, what their intention is at the time, and what they’re doing while they do so. A word used by a gay man to refer to another gay man in a friendly conversation can very easily be an insult when used by a straight person under otherwise similar circumstances. And it’s certainly going to be interpreted as an insult when the straight person in question is wielding a bottle as a weapon at the time. Context is everything. When you yourself can potentially be victimised by a particular word, the power play involved in uttering it is very different than if you are not potentially victimised by it. That’s why a gay man can call other gay men queens, but straight men don’t have the same right to do so.
Over the weekend Ruth Davidson figured in a comedic rap performed by a group of women during a show for the Scottish Independence Convention. The rap was written by a lesbian, and at least some of its performers were lesbians. If a group of African American rappers had performed a rap during which they referred to Barrack Obama by the N-word, would that be racist? As a white man, I don’t think it’s for me to say. It’s certainly not a word that I have the right to use myself, and it’s not for me to judge people who are themselves potentially victimised by that word but who choose to use it. Equally I don’t think it’s for straight right wing journalists to tell me that what a lesbian rapper said was homophobic. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much.
I came out as gay in the 1980s, when the AIDS crisis was killing gay men in our thousands. I’ve been gaybashed twice, been subjected to more homophobic verbal attacks than I can possibly remember, been subject to sexual harrassment at work, and have been campaigning for LGBTI rights for decades. I know what homophobia really is, I’ve been on the receiving end of it. And I will not be lectured on gay rights by people who write for homophobic rags like the Daily Mail. So if you’re a right wing heterosexual journalist who thinks they can tell me what is or is not homophobic, I’ll be telling you to fuck off you cynical opportunist. Your concern here is not for the equal rights of the LGBTI community, you’re just seeking any excuse you can find in order to launch an attack on the Scottish independence movement, and your transparent opportunism is sickening. People who give a platform to bigots who oppose equal marriage have no moral ground to stand on when it comes to berating anyone about supposed homophobia, least of all a lesbian performer.
My own feeling is that the use of the word wasn’t homophobic because of who was using it. It was being used by a lesbian performer. Lesbians have the right to use the D-word without being judged for it by straight people. Effectively what the straight Unionist media is telling us is that as LGBTI people we have no right to use the words which are used to attack us and to reclaim them for ourselves. Because it’s only by reclaiming these words that we can divest them of their power to hurt us.
I interpreted the performance as a way of pointing out that the sexuality of the Conservative leader is being used to mask her reactionary politics. It’s as though we fought the campaign for LGBTI rights just so that some of our number could be as reactionary as those we once campaigned against. Ruth once famously said that she couldn’t remember the Thatcher era, and we should get over it. But I remember it. I remember how Thatcher and her allies demonised the LGBTI community in the exact same way that the modern Conservatives seek to demonise supporters of Scottish independence. And I remember the sacrifices that LGBTI people had to make so that Ruth can enjoy the power and privilege that she enjoys today. Ruth’s sexuality is used by the modern Conservative party as a tool to help it maintain power and privilege for a few at the expense of the many. It masks the party’s reactionary nature with a veneer of progressiveness.
Unfortunately the use of the word in the context in which it was used left it easily open to misinterpretation. If the same rap had been performed at an LGBTI event in front of an LGBTI audience, there would have been no accusations of homophobia, however it was used before a predominantly heterosexual audience who are unfamiliar with the nuances of Queer Theory, or indeed gay humour. Moreover it was an audience containing a number of hostile journalists who were on the lookout for things to be offended by. It was easy for them to portray its use as a justification of homophobic name calling. And if they can possibly show the indy movement in a negative light, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
The use of the word in the context of a performance at an event about Scottish independence was misjudged because we’re now discussing the use of that one word instead of all the other thousands of words in support of Scottish independence that were uttered at the same event. As supporters of Scottish independence we must, sadly, always be conscious that anything we say or do will be leapt upon by the Unionists if there is any possibility of twisting it into an attack against us.
We can see that in how the story has morphed. A lesbian SNP MP who was in the audience said on social media that she was not offended by another lesbian using the word to refer to a third lesbian. Now the story is that the SNP MP has to apologise for the use of a word that she herself didn’t say, yet the headlines are worded to imply that she did. It seems that the arbiters of what lesbians and gay men must find offensive are heterosexual journalists. I find that pretty offensive.
LGBTI rights, anti-racism, and opposition to misogyny and discrimination against disabled people are integral and vital parts of the Scottish indy movement, and always will be, because those struggles inform the modern independence movement about how to build a fair and just Scotland. The truth that the Unionist establishment can’t accept is that the struggles for LGBTI rights and for Scottish national rights are both grassroots movements which strive to empower ordinary people, and to teach them their own strengths. That’s why right wing Unionists demonise the independence movement now just like they demonised lesbian and gay people back in the 80s. We challenge their power. We scare them. And we’re going to defeat them.
Audio version of this blog article, courtesy of Sarah Mackie @lumi_1984 https://soundcloud.com/occamshaver/a-storm-in-a-d-quip-wee-ginger-dug-19th-september-2016
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