Oxford: Refugees Are Welcome Here!

IMG_3297
This afternoon, about 2,000 people gathered by Oxford University’s Sheldonian building for a peaceful demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees, showing that refugees are welcome in Oxford.

The demonstration was chaired by Mark Lynas. A speaker from Oxfam, Dr Hojjat Ramzy of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, Asylum Welcome, Emmaus Oxford and other charities spoke, as well as current and former asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The head of Oxford City Council confirmed that Oxford would be welcoming refugee families, and called on the government to make funds available to expedite the process.

A speaker from UNISON called attention to the need to force the government to build more houses and abandon the racist policies which all parties espoused in the run-up to the last IMG_3294general election, before publicising the national day of action next Saturday. The author Mark Haddon called on Britain to “be more German”, after crowds in Munich applauded refugees arriving at their railway station.

If you want to help the refugees – including those already in the UK, who are not allowed either to work or claim benefits – the consensus among the charities was that there are three preferred things to donate at this stage:

ACCOMMODATION, either as a host to Syrian refugees or as a foster parent to unaccomIMG_3303panied refugee children. A representative from the charity Homes For Good spoke about how his organisation is enabling people to become foster parents to Syrian refugee children who will shortly arrive in this country. For more information, go here. If you could offer a spare bedroom to an adult refugee or a refugee family, Oxford City of Sanctuary wants to hear from you.

MONEY. Donating goods is excellent but, like all the major charities campaigning for financial aid (MSF | Red Cross | Save The Children | Oxfam etc.), Emmaus Oxford is requesting cash donations so they can bulk-buy goods to take to Calais at the end of this month. Asylum Welcome, who run all kinds of schemes in Oxford from English lessons to youth clubs, are also desperately in need of funds.

SKILLS. If you can teach English or translate, both the Oxford Syrian Refugee Helpline and Oxfordshire’s Asylum Welcome need your help. It seems to me that every other Oxford resident has a TEFL certificate mouldering or sparkling away in their CV – stronger English language skills make negotiating life as a refugee in the UK easier and less daunting, helping families integrate and access the resources they need. Could you give a couple of free lessons a week?

[CALL FOR PAPERS]: Victorians and the Law (deadline 1 April 2013)

Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed online journal devoted to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.

The eighth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Dr Cathrine Frank (University of New England), will take a fresh look at the interfaces between literature and legal cultures in the Victorian period. From the Reform Acts through the growth of colonial law to the establishment of divorce courts, nineteenth-century legislature shaped and responded to the same cultural developments – the rise of the middle class, industrialisation, imperial expansion, and shifting ideas about gender, to name but a few – that were also eagerly debated by literary writers. The politics and aesthetics of many nineteenth-century novelists, poets and playwrights were informed by a sustained engagement with legal debates and practices. Their works often reflected on, and sometimes challenged, the law’s construction of civic, social and gender identities, while also casting a critical (or appraising) eye over the bureaucratic apparatus on which legal practice was built.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words. Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

  • wills, trusts and guardianship accounts: the materiality of the legal archive
  • Victorian trials, sensation and theatricality
  • criminal law, lawlessness, realist epistemologies and the detective plot
  • Victorian law and gender
  • the reaches of the law: imperialism and the legal & literary creation of colonial identities
  • intersections between genres of legal and literary writing
  • “brought up a barrister”: nineteenth-century authors, legal training, professionalization and the bar
  • radical politics, social change and the working class in Victorian literature and the law
  • debates about rights to intellectual and literary property
  • the spaces and cultural venues of legal practice.

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. The deadline for submissions is 1 April 2013.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

[I am, as ever, the Submissions Editor for Victorian Network. I encourage you to send me emails containing your excellent postgraduate and recent postdoctoral work as per our guidelines. If I know you research law, crime, or anything in the above list, you can expect me to start nagging you on Twitter &c in the coming weeks…]

Advent Calendar Day 7: Charity!

The quintessential Christmas charity is probably the Salvation Army. Personally, though, I’m uncomfortable donating to the SA due to their historic (and contemporary) attitudes to LGBT people, and, of their militaristic, evangelical style of Christianity.

Christmas Charity Fun Run, 2011. Awesome (and unrelated to the SA...)
Christmas Charity Fun Run, 2011. Awesome (and unrelated to the SA…)

Enough hate. Today’s window opens on other and perhaps worthier causes (chosen in entirely idiosyncratic and incomplete fashion by me) to which you might like to donate this Christmas!

Of course, not everyone has spare cash for donations at the moment. So, here are places where just a few moments’ clicking or playing allows you to donate to charity without spending any money yourself:

Petition to allow Anglican clergy to bless civil partnerships in church

David and Jonathan
Cheery and not even slightly suggestive image of Jonathan with David, the latter sporting gorgeous must-have-this-season dead!Goliath accessory. Found in St. Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh, photo by Lawrence OP.

Provided in the comments to my previous post, “Born This Way” and the Sanctity of (all) Marriage was a link to the following petition:

Petition to allow Anglican clergy to bless civil partnerships in church.

In December 2011, it became legally possible for civil partnerships to be blessed in houses of worship. Currently, Anglican clergy are not allowed to do this, but a growing number seek to do so openly and without threat to their careers. A letter to this effect was printed in The Times, and signed by over 120 clergy from across the Diocese of London.

For me, this is only an interim step – I want to see gay marriage within the Church of England, during my lifetime. That is, gay couples being married to each other using a recognisably Christian marriage service, inside Anglican churches, by current Anglican priests, then signing marriage certificates and having the option to use marital titles (e.g. husband/wife) if they so choose, with the same religious, social and legal standing as heterosexual couples, without

a) it making the blindest bit of difference whether either or both parties are ordained ministers, priests, or Rowan Williams himself,

b) anyone feeling entitled or obliged to question whether the couple are in a sexual relationship, because it is neither a problem nor anyone else‘s business, or

c) the celebrant, assistant, or clergy in the congregation having to worry about the ramifications for their present and future careers.

This is a long way from what the Diocese of London is asking today. However, I truly believe that the success of this petition would be the first step to achieving everything I’ve described. So, if you sympathise, please sign here.

“Born This Way” and the Sanctity of (all) Marriage

It doesn’t matter if you love him
or capital H – I – M
[…]
‘Cause you were born this way, baby

There’s nothing wrong with loving who are
she said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe

(this is a longer post than usual, and rather more discursive. Please bear with me, and/or flick straight to the end if you want some soundtrack)

Part 1: Born This Way

Some people who are LGBT (and, I presume, some allies) find the “born this way” argument is offensive because it excuses, rather than validates a queer identity. For them,”born this way” implies that gayness/queerness should be accepted because it’s inescapable, unavoidable, and something that person can’t “help”.

At best, the person “born this way” should be accepted by wider society, because that person’s sexuality is natural “for them”. At worst, someone “born this way” deserves tolerance because their queerness is not their “fault”.

Further dread of the “born this way” argument arises from the possibility of research into genetic causation/correlation with homosexuality. If there is a gay gene, they argue, what good can come from knowing about it?

Discovering a gene won’t accelerate real equality: tolerance on the basis of chromosomal inevitability isn’t the same as truly accepting diverse sexualities. Secondly, a “gay gene” is something for which parents could potentially “screen”, leading to the abortion of some fetuses with the gay gene.

Thirdly, in a world where queers really were “born this way”, what would happen to people who lack the queer gene but identify as queer?

I can follow all of the above, but personally – and with some shame, because questioning others’ sexual identity is, as one friend put it “very NO” – I find the anti-Gaga brigade unsettling.

This is not just because of how the aforementioned Gaga looks in the underwear, sorry, prison sequences of the Telephone vid. Many (even most) of us do experience our sexuality – gay, straight, bi, pan, asexual, queer, whatever – as innate, natural and something we were born with. For us, part of coming to terms with our own sexuality and desire is accepting that we were “born this way”; it’s natural for us, it’s “part of who we are”.

To many gays born before homosexuality was legalised and/or achieved a degree of acceptance, the idea that you’re not born gay is understandably offensive — the whole reason they persisted with difficult self-acceptance and coming-out was because they WERE born this way. They had no other choice. They fought for their rights; their sexual identity is hard-won, and to see younger queers saying otherwise – either that, like Cynthia Nixon, they “choose” to be a specific sexuality, or (more broadly) that they believe sexuality is fluid, playful, fun, a matter of jouissance – both denigrates that struggle and infers that those who “choose” to be gay could equally “choose” to be straight. An idea that many LGBTQ people know to be false, and at the root of problematic constructions of (e.g.) homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” – LGBTQ Nation claimed that Nixon’s words would be “used as a brutal club against LGBT youth in Red State America”.

I do experience my sexual orientation as innate. For a bit I definitely identified as bisexual. I’m not. I don’t think I was being dishonest when I thought that, but I don’t think it was accurate either (nor do I think it’s helpful of Nixon to claim to have “chosen to be gay” because “nobody likes the bisexuals“). It upsets me when discussions in queer circles (especially radical queer circles) invalidate the “born this way” position (along with other positions/wishes such as the desire for equal marriage rights).

But then I tend to focalise how I see LGBTQ issues through an historical awareness – I have problems with straight people claiming the label “queer”. “Queer” was a slur against lesbians and gays: accordingly I’m uncomfortable with anyone using it in a reclamatory sense outside the group originally persecuted. In fact, I have problems with the label “queer” as an umbrella identity (i.e., when people use “queer” to mean “LGBTQ”/sexual identities other than straight) because I know that a lot of older gay, lesbian and bisexual people register the term as a slur and can’t feel part of it. I’d rather find new words and stay in a continuum with our history. This discomfort with vocabulary does make me twitchy in radical-queer-discussion-situations, but on the flipside I’ve always been lucky enough to know older lesbians and gays, and it’s an excellent payoff.

I understand that other LGBTQ people don’t experience their sexuality as something innate, and as a choice, and that it goes against every tenet of equal rights to want them to shut up and prop up my arguments and identities, rather than embracing theirs. From experience, observation and my limited understand of genetics, I still think that most people do not experience their sexuality as a “choice” – coming-out, (hopefully) yes; behaviour, yes; orientation, no. But some do, and that’s okay (but baby, I was born this way. &c).

Part 2: The Sanctity of Marriage

Re-examining the “born this way” argument (which probably also appeals to me because of my Christianity – but that’s another post) has also got me thinking about some of the other pro-equality arguments I see floating through dialogue & also cyberspace. These include the following graphics:



NOW! Cousin-marriage is PROBABLY NOT THE GREATEST, given the potential for pre-existing abuse and future-existing webbed feet, hairy backs, genetic issues (&c – although we don’t veto other couples whose genetic combinations are problematic, do we?) to the power of however many times the pattern is repeated. Chinlessness may have made Britain great, but a quick glance around Oxford tells me we now have enough of it. ON THE OTHER HAND, the potential silliness, rashness and corn-chewing inadvisibility of pro-cousin marriage has NOTHING to do with the desirability of gay marriage.

I understand the the impulse behind all of these graphics. I am a lover of satire and a believer in laughing stupidity into change. Neither do I mean to bite the hand that feeds me and/or my eventual right to marry. But I have a problem with the message that it’s wrong to say that gay marriage will threaten the “sanctity of marriage” because marriage has no sanctity left to threaten. Equally, I reject the idea that Newt Gringrich’s pronouncements on “respecting the sanctity of marriage” are misguided or shouldn’t be heeded because of his track record.

If every marriage since the dawn of time had been “sacred” – made in covenant with a deity, subject to vows which both partners believed and upheld at the point of undertaken, and utterly faithful and happy since – then that wouldn’t make gay marriage less desirable. Gay marriage isn’t “more OK” because the institution of heterosexual marriage is in a parlous state. The existence of 55-hour marriages, multiple divorces, bigamy, forced marriage, acrimonious custody battles, Las Vegas and the Kardashians does not create a precedent for gay marriage, not a matrimonial space in which gay marriage has the “right” to come and become joint-worst of a thoroughly bad bunch.

Gay marriage is OK because people of all genders deserve the right to form loving unions of equal legal, social and religious validity, regardless of their individual physical or genetic make-up. Newt Gingrich’s shameful personal behaviour (while she was recovering from CANCER, people) makes his statements against the freedom to marry hypocritical as well as offensive – but he’d have no greater credibility even if he’d always been faithful.

This post has been brought to you by Lady Gaga, Cynthia Nixon and discussions at the Oxford Queer Studies Circle earlier this year; not a bad combination. Popular movements such as breast cancer awareness are happily starting to reappraise the media used to send their message (go here for more on why all the pink games aren’t helpful, and a viral graphic that’s actually useful in raising awareness). Obviously, gay marriage needs all the affirmation it can get. I still think it’s time to look more closely at some of the arguments that supposedly “support” our cause.

And to end on a musical note — Maria Aragon, aged 10, sings Gaga (and then ends up on stage with her…):

Published: Revolting Women @ Bad Reputation

I have promised myself I will NOT BLOG until this chapter plan is finished, but I did just want to share my  – belated – glee at being published with the fabulous feminist website Bad Reputation. I was unable to make their anniversary party in Camden on Oct 7 (having, on Oct 6, hosted a certain amount of wassail myself) but am delighted to call myself a contributor, even on the strength of one article.

I wrote on French LGBT activist Genevieve Pastre for their Revolting Women series (available under this tag).

To read the article, click here, but in any case, I hope you enjoy this picture of the first big French gay rights protest, which might usefully be subtitled “dear god, French gays are so much cooler/more stylish and generally better than the rest of us”. There’s an intensity of leather and cheekbone to which one can only aspire.

Before I head back to Cymbeline and my dead Shakespearean girlfriends, however,  here are three BadRep posts for your consideration:

Happy FRIDAY.

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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