The Tory attack on queer youth. A call to arms.

Britain’s queer youth are under attack.

The Tories would have us believe that we are in a new age of freedom and safety, and that the fight is over.  Same-sex marriage has been held up as the holy grail of LGB equality. But the truth is, they are deliberately and knowingly forcing queer young people into destitution, homelessness, and in too many cases, to self harm and suicide.

On Wednesday, the government confirmed their plan to cut housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Centrepoint youth homelessness charity estimates around 20,000 young people will be affected. These are young people who are already being hit hard by low wages, high rents and, thanks to another Tory scheme, will soon lose their access to Jobseekers Allowance (to be replaced by a workfare programme which will force young people to work for £1.91 per hour).

These young people will join the existing 80,000 who find themselves homeless each year, of which around one-quarter are LGBT.

The government justify their policy by claiming it is giving young people the push they need to make a good start in life. Cameron says this is what is needed to “abolish long-term youth unemployment“.

So, you’re 20. You’re working 30 hours per week on the £5.13 minimum wage in Brighton, earning £666.90 per month. You pay the average rent for a room in a three bedroom house, £512.30. You get the bus to work, but can’t afford to fork out for a monthly pass so pay the day saver rate of £4.20 per day.  That leaves £70.57 per month for EVERYTHING ELSE. That’s £2.27 per day, to cover all bills, food, toiletries, clothing, haircuts… Not much chance of socialising, as it would blow nearly two day’s budget to buy just one pint.

It’s pretty clear that, without a living wage and living rent, or adequate state support, work is not working as a way for young people to get going in life.

At the moment though, our Brighton 20-year-old is having her income topped up by a paltry £3.42 per day in housing benefit. Hardly enough, and clearly she is still in absolute poverty, unable to turn the heating on, and relying on a food bank. But, if she were to lose her job, or have her hours reduced, the housing benefit would go up a bit, and maybe, just maybe, she’d manage to cover a few week’s rent while she found more work. It is this safety net (albeit very weak and full of holes) that Cameron now plans to withdraw.

The Tories are making it completely impossible for young people to survive independently of their parents. They are carrying on as if they believe that all 18-21s have large, warm homes with loving welcoming parents to return to if times are tough. The thing is, they know that isn’t true.

Centrepoint have pointed out that there are all sorts of reasons why young people can’t return to their family home. One of those reasons is that they are queer, and no longer welcome with their parents.

A study by the Albert Kennedy Trust found that 69% of homeless LGBT young people have experienced abuse within their family. 77% say that being LGBT was the reason for their rejection from their parental home.

Our Brighton 20-year-old is gay. She has no family safety net. And the government is about to withdraw her housing benefit. The chance of her managing to keep paying her rent have just gone from low to zero. She’ll be homeless by the end of the year.

Homelessness and isolation are already killing young queer people.

52% of young LGBT people report self-harm either now or in the past, and 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide.  For trans young people, the situation is even worse. Nearly half of trans young people have actually made a suicide attempt.The Royal College of Nursing guidelines for LGB suicide prevention and trans suicide prevention highlight homelessness and lack of social support as key factors increasing the likelihood of suicide attempts.

So, queer young people are dying. And homelessness is one of the things that is killing them. And the government knows this. And far from trying to help, it is doing everything it can to make the situation worse.

This is really happening. This is how life is for many young LGBT people right now. Journalist and campaigner Sarah Schulman calls on queer adults to act in loco-parentus for queer young people. They are under brutal attack. If we don’t fight for them, who will?

Schulman, S (1994) “I was a lesbian child” in My American History: Lesbian and gay life during the Reagan / Bush years New York, Routledge

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Speaking and being listened to

I just listened to a lecture by Mary Beard – “The Public Voice of Women”. She gives many historical examples of ways in which women have been silenced from speaking in public, from  Odyssey to Twitter. It’s fascinating and important – really worth a listen.

The message I took is about the way in which gender and patriarchy are created and recreated, every day, just by the way we speak (or don’t speak) and listen (or don’t listen) to each other.

Beard explains how, over 2000 years of history, women’s voices have been constructed, through politics, literature and everyday life, to be heard by the listener as holding less authority than men’s voices. This isn’t to say that each individual listener believes that what women have to say is less important. Instead, it means that the traits we associate with authoritative speaking are traits we associate with masculinity. One of those traits is having a deep voice. Another, I think, is just being a cis man. Just by being a cis man, you can command more authority when you speak. And men commanding authority through speech is one of the ways in which masculinity is created and recreated as being authoritative. And so it goes on. To be authoritative you must be masculine. To be masculine, you must be authoritative.

The only way to change this is to change what we understand authoritative speaking to be. We need to start to hear authority in women’s voices – not expect women to speak like men.

I think this poses a conundrum for political organising. We face an onslaught of austerity measures, attacks on democracy and scapegoating, not to mention climate catastrophe. There is urgency – we need to organise NOW.

But we have a problem. We have all been taught, every single day of our lives, that men’s voices hold more authority than women’s voices. We’ve also been taught that the voices of white people are more important than those of people of colour, and that the voices of those of us with middle class accents have something more valuable to say than those with working class accents.

We on the left are using the charismatic authority held by middle class white men (e.g. Russell Brand, Jolyon Rubenstein, Owen Jones) to help us get a platform in public. It’s useful. People listen to them.

We ourselves have an embedded understanding, learnt and relearnt every day, that people like this are worth listening to. We are listening to them, and hundreds of others like them in our communities, and encouraging them to speak up louder, so more people can hear.

We want to use whatever tools we have to get our point across, and this means using masculine authoritative public speaking. For example – in a campaign group, if you are offered a TV interview, you probably choose the person most likely to command the audience and be authoritative. If this isn’t a white middle class man, it is probably someone who is able to act like one. Speak slowly in a deep voice. Speak unapologetically. Speak in “proper” middle class English. There are exceptions of course. But in my experience these are the people who are pushed to the front.

In so doing we are continuing on with the learned, subconscious silencing of everyone else.

Mary Beard says that the way to stop the silencing of women is to listen to women, as they are. This requires a fundamental shift in our very understanding of authority.

It means a change in the way we hold meetings, especially large ones – away from relying on a strong, authoritative chair and charismatic speech making, towards a culture in which we all listen to each other, no matter how we speak.

It means a change in the way we engage with the media – away from trying to be as charismatic and glossy as the rest of it, towards creating opportunities to hear those who are being silenced.

It requires a change in our own, learned, understanding of whose voices are valid, who we should allow to speak, and who we should listen to.

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Why we won’t be posting no makeup selfies for cancer awareness

This week hundreds of thousands of women have posted pictures of themselves with no makeup on the internet, to raise awareness of  cancer and raise money for cancer charities. So far over £2million has been donated to Cancer Research UK from people taking part in the campaign. Women have been nominating each other publicly on social media, inviting one another to show they care by taking part, and by nominating other women.

We have read some critiques of the campaign,which claim that women are mindlessly following a trend1, that the campaign is pointless unless women donate to charity2, , and that the late addition of making donations was an “empty gesture”3. But lots of our friends and family have taken part, and we know that, for many women, its been about addressing something which is very real and very painful. Because that’s what cancer is.

We are not writing this to criticise those who have posted selfies. On the contrary. Instead, we want to ask how we could all harness these feelings to do something that actually, really, might help.

Nevertheless, we won’t be posting no makeup selfies to support the cause of cancer. And we want to explain why.

1) To make up or not to make up.

In the first place, as has been pointed by Sali Hughes in the Guardian,4 there is something pretty wrong with assuming that we should all be wearing make up as a matter of course, and that the we are vulnerable/naked/brave for appearing in public without it! Most of our existing FB photos are “no make up”, so the whole thing becomes a bit meaningless.

Meanwhile, lots of women actually don’t want to be seen in public without make up on. And why should they? All any of us can do, in this jungle of patriarchal media, where women face constant assaults on our self esteem, is find the way to be that makes us  feel the most okay. And if that is wearing make up, or if it is not wearing make up, then PLEASE let us make that decision for ourselves! It is our face after all. We have seen comments on women’s selflies, challenging them that they ARE  wearing eyeliner, and are cheating! FFS. Seriously? The girl police are out again.

Women’s choice about how to look, or about whether they want their face posted on the internet, is absolutely nothing to do with whether they care about cancer. And this campaign is yet another pressure on women to do something, or not do something, to our bodies, just to be accepted as normal.

2) Is cancer a women’s issue?

As well as putting pressure on women to change how we look, the campaign also makes cancer, especially breast cancer, a women’s problem. Cancer happens in private, in the home, in care settings, and as such, it is our job, as women, to sort it out. If we would only stop worrying about silly trivial things like make up, and focus on the important women’s work of saving the human race through the power of our compassion alone, cancer would be gone already. If we can just show we care enough about our sisters, mothers, children, parents, partners, brothers, then surely we can overcome this? (Guess what – we can’t. It’s gonna take a lot more than showing how much we care to tackle this one.)

The selfie surge has really shown how much we are gendering different types of cancer too, and it is a bit scary. The trend started with a focus on breast cancer, with the hash tag #breastcancerawareness. It was a “women’s campaign”, about a “women’s cancer”. Despite the issues we are raising here, is great to see that so many people want to do something to highlight the breast cancer epidemic.

However, we are saddened by the response from Prostate Cancer UK, encouraging men to #manupandmakeup to fight prostate cancer. Not only is this kind of offensive, as it takes the piss out of women, but wouldn’t it have been great if men could publicly care about breast cancer too? The split between men and women supporting different cancers forges a weird battle over whose cancer is more important. Do men or women deserve more research funding? Do men or women deserve more investment in treatments? Whose lives matter most – men’s or women’s? In a world where masculinity rules supreme, this is really not a road we want to go down.

3) We don’t need any more awareness!

Hashtags have shifted now from #breastcancerawareness to just #cancerawareness. Either way, is all this awareness raising something we really need? In the UK more than one in three of us will develop cancer during our lives, and more than one in four will die of it. As women, our risk of developing cancer has increased 43% since the 1970s. (Men’s has increased by 23%, though men are still more likely to develop cancer than women). According to Cancer Research UK, “Cancer is the number one fear for the British public, feared ahead of debt, knife crime, Alzheimer’s disease and losing a job”5. We are aware of cancer. We don’t need social media campaigns, how ever well meaning, to remind us of it.

The origins of breast cancer “awareness raising” campaigns lie in pushing a message that early detection saves lives. But the reliability of early detection as a means of protection against breast cancer is highly contested, and there are many types of cancer, including metastatic breast cancer, from which no amount of awareness can protect you.

3) Is it all about the money?

The selfie campaign has been enormously successful in generating donations to cancer charities, particularly Cancer Research UK. Yet the biggest criticism it seems to be that  some women have taken part without making a donation to charity. In a disappointingly narrow and patronising piece in Wednesday’s Independent, Yomi Adegoke argued that women should just make a donation to a cancer charity, rather than post a picture. We think this really misses the point for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, where does all the money go? We haven’t (yet!) done a lot of research into the way Cancer Research UK spends its money, so we can’t comment specifically on its usefulness. However, we do have questions about the cancer industry overall, and its effectiveness at protecting us from cancer. Despite the hundreds of millions of pounds raised each year the UK alone, cancer rates are still on the increase. Beyond individual lifestyle factors, we still don’t understand much about what causes different cancers. For example, 50-70% women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors (excluding age and gender). Meanwhile, as Rachel Cheetham Moro explained in her blog Cancer Culture Chronicles, “metastatic disease accounts for 90% of breast cancer mortality, but receives less than 5% of global cancer research funds”.

Secondly, is it really all we can come up with, as feminists, to pass judgement over one another according to whether we have donated ‘enough’ to charity?! Do we really think that having something to say about cancer is only acceptable if you have disposable income? We are living through a breast cancer epidemic. We are going to need to have much more imagination than this if we are going to tackle it.

We are very good, internationally, at raising money for cancer charities. We are not so good at preventing cancer, or treating aggressive cancers. Certainly in breast cancer’s case (but we suspect many other cancers too), we need to do a whole lot more than just keep donating if we want to stop it from killing us.

4) So if we are not going to post a selfie, what shall we do instead?

The #nomakeupselfie campaign has been so successful because cancer is a universal issue, and one that people really care about. We want to learn a lot more about it, and can’t write here everything we think needs to be done to address it. We will write more blog posts with more ideas and information.

For now though, these are some initial ideas of things to do if you want to “beat cancer”.

1) Fight fracking. Fracking contaminates water with carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, exposure to which cause cancer. Read Breast Cancer Action’s briefing on Breast Cancer and Fracking. Then find your local anti-fracking group and get involved.

2) Defend the NHS. We all need to be able to rely on high quality health care, funded through taxation, so that we can receive the treatment we need if and when we need it.

3) Fight cuts to welfare and benefits. People with cancer need to take care of themselves, eat well, and not be in poverty. People with cancer should not be forced back into work when they are not well enough to be there, or face benefit cuts if there is no work available that is suitable.

4) Resist “pinkwashing”. This is companies profiteering by selling pink ribbon products, without doing anything effective to tackle cancer. It is also selling products which claim to help fight cancer, but actually contain carcinogens and/or endocrine disruptors.

5) If you want to donate to a cancer charity, do your research. Where does the money go? Does it go into finding out what causes cancer, and how to prevent it? Does it go into researching treatments for aggressive cancers that we are a long way from finding a cure for? Does it go into supporting people who have cancer and their families? Or is it used to fund drug research that is profitable for drug companies but doesn’t go far to change things for people with cancer? Or to “raise awareness” of cancer without actually taking steps to stop it? If you are unsure about which charity to donate to, consider a grassroots local organisation that provides services for people with cancer, such as a hospice or support group.

1. Adegoke, Y. (2014) “The ‘no makeup selfie’ craze seems like narcissism masked as charity. Why not donate instead?” in The Independent, 19th March 2014
2. Moir, S. (2014) “The #nomakeupselfie campaign: Are people missing the point?” in Yahoo Lifestyle 20th March 2014
3. Hughes, S. (2014) “No-makeup selfies on Facebook won’t beat cancer alone” in The Guardian21st March 2014
4. Hughes, S. (2014) “No-makeup selfies on Facebook won’t beat cancer alone” in The Guardian21st March 2014
5.All from Cancer Research UK Key Facts,accessed on 23rd March 2014

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