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Pinkwashing Islamophobia in Performance | HowlRound Theatre Commons

by California Digital News


Each landmark is written on the upstage wall as the performance progresses, showing the map liberal society followed as the West moved into a cultural environment where defending sexual freedom means one is a racist. The timeline begins with the case of the headteacher Ray Honeyford who was heavily criticized for publishing an article in the Salisbury Review lambasting Asian families for not integrating into British society, describing his students as “bi-cultural children.”

A performer quotes from the article whilst hopping from foot to foot. Several other performers join the performer and mirror his movements as they channel Honeyford talking about the need for the Pakistani community to get “English jobs” and to learn about what it means to live in a “free society.” The movement evokes the frantic energy of children playing with what DV8 considers a herd mentality common in the left which paralyzes independence of thought. The marriage of the choreography and the verbatim script also embodies what DV8 sees as Honeyford’s attempts to address the complexities of multiculturalism by looking at all the issues in the round.

The “problem” with Muslims not integrating into mainstream British culture is a refrain running throughout the performance, using events such as the Salman Rushdie fatwa and the British government’s refusal to let the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders screen his Islamophobic film Fitna to argue that progressive tolerance is acquiring a distinctly authoritarian character. At no point does the performance ask if “tolerance” of otherness is a sufficient form of liberation.

Nowhere in the performance is there space given for voices who may express legitimate criticisms of the West’s treatment of Muslims (particularly after 9/11) and deeper structures of racism permeating British society. Nowhere does DV8 acknowledge the historical context of phrases such as “western values,” which in many parts of the world does not mean universal suffrage or humanitarianism, but colonial violence and capitalist exploitation. But most importantly, Can We Talk About This? never considers how the marginalization of Muslims may provide some sections of the Islamic community with a perspective that is neither homophobic nor convinced that the liberal-conservative understanding of freedom is as tolerant of Otherness as DV8 claims it is.

DV8 aligns anti-racism with censorship to disavow the effects of multiculturalism on free speech. This is not a new phenomenon. As long ago as 1987, the sociologist Paul Gilroy observed that anti-racism was being redefined as an attack on British identity: “The right to be prejudiced is claimed as the heritage of the freeborn Briton and articulated with the discourses of freedom, patriotism, and democracy while despotic anti-racism is associated with authoritarianism, statism, and censorship.” The brand of tolerance that DV8 espouses is racialized in Can We Talk About This? by situating Muslims as outsiders who threaten mainstream culture. The mainstream culture the performance defends uses the social gains made by gay and lesbian people as a hallmark of western society’s superiority over Islam.

This is not to say that religious belief ever justifies the hatred and persecution of gay and lesbian people or that challenging such bigotry is inherently racist. Indeed, DV8’s earlier performance in 2008, To Be Straight With You, effectively shows the ways politicians and the police cite grounds of religious freedom and cultural expression as an alibi for ignoring homophobia within Christian and Afro-Caribbean communities. Verbatim acts as a powerful form for gay and lesbian people from those communities to share their experiences of institutionalized prejudice masquerading as equality.

Yet Jasbir Puar’s theory of “homonationalism” complicates the narrative of gay rights being immune to absorption into reactionary right-wing politics. Puar makes the vital point that not all LGBTQI+ equality movements believe the nation state can expand to include all marginalized peoples and so exclusion of an other is an inevitable part of neoliberalism. The forms this exclusion takes are not confined to the overt racism one sees on the far right. 

Can We Talk About This? is a good indication that Newson sees the performance of freedom for gay and lesbian people as being analogous to that enjoyed by straight couples. And so it is, but only for as long as those rightwing politicians and cultural actors who set the terms of debate in most western societies deem tolerance of homosexuality to be compatible with their interests in upholding the cisheteronormative status quo. At a more fundamental level, Can We Talk About This? represents the leveraging of gay rights by the right to control how freedom is measured and represented in popular culture.

Weaponizing Camp

“Gender ideology” and “critical race theory” have become trigger words for conservatives, representing the degeneration of western civilization. The all-out assault by Republicans on bodies of work concerning the LGBTQI+ community and artists and thinkers of color in the United States has been targeted at library collections and school and university curriculums. In the United Kingdom, the far-right regularly protest outside Drag Queen Story Time events while right-wing politicians and commentators argue such events are indoctrinating children. Conservatives have turned the so-called right to be offensive into the apotheosis of liberal freedom rather than a means of criticizing the powerful and defending the marginalized. Certain forms of free speech, such as TheDangerous Faggot Tour, are performed to exclude, degrade, and ultimately erase targeted minorities from public discourse. 

Milo Yiannopoulos showed how the performances of “camp” can be mobilized to support oppressive structures. TheDangerous Faggot Tour represents the moment when the online alt-right communities became a political force in the United States. It was billed as a celebration of American greatness and free speech in defiance of the left who, Yiannopoulos claimed, control university campuses, media organizations, and every branch of government.

What makes Yiannopoulos distinct from more contemporary figures of this reactionary ilk such as Jordan Peterson is his gay identity and camp persona. He would often appear in flamboyant and elaborate costumes to reinforce the stereotype of an “outrageous” gay provocateur. Sometimes he would dress as a construction worker or in sequined blazers or in a prep school uniform with a sparkly Make America Great Again cap. At several talks he wore police uniforms, on one occasion going so far as donning a stab vest.

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