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Pinkwashing Islamophobia in Performance

“Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” a man asks us. One or two audience members say yes. The rest shift awkwardly in their seats, unsure what to do. The unwillingness to give a definitive answer encapsulates the argument behind DV8's show Can We Talk About This?, presented at the National Theatre in 2011 and 2012: Western publics have become afraid to voice opposition to Islamist autocracy and prejudice from within minority communities for fear of offending Muslims and people of color.

Reflecting on the show more than a decade later, I can see the seeds of the “culture war” arguments that now rage daily on social media, on university campuses, and in many western governments. Exploring why an artistically radical theatre company famous for tackling socio-political subjects felt it necessary to align themselves with conservative criticisms of multiculturalism to defend free speech raises difficult but important questions about the changing nature of identity politics in globalized cultures like the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Can We Talk About This? is an example of "pinkwashing:" using gay rights to launder Islamophobia and anti-Black racism into a defense of liberal values. The history of multiculturalism CanWe Talk About This? explores can be grafted onto the parallel history of the British LGBTQI+ community fighting for equal rights. The successes of these campaigns are proven by the legalization of gay marriage, gay couples being allowed to adopt children, and equality laws protecting same-sex couples from discrimination. Such gains have been weaponized over the past decade to perpetuate fear of othered identities threatening a fictional social equilibrium.

 A more extreme version of the pinkwashing tactics present in Can We Talk About This? have also been employed by professional troll and alt-right darling, Milo Yiannopoulos, to justify his use of dehumanizing language. Yiannopoulos was an editor at the far-right publication Breitbart from 2014 until 2017. His mobilization of camp aesthetics in The Dangerous Faggot Tour worked to normalize transphobia and racism. His obsessions with alt-right topics—particularly the “war on men”—highlight the inadequacies of common understandings of queer liberation politics. This is often reduced to a heteronormative caricature of transgression in mainstream culture that focuses on individual appearance and behavior over the serious ideas it possesses. Conservative attacks on genderqueer people are born from the fear of queer liberation being revived as a revolutionary project in distinction from the narrative of inclusion within the existing social system. 

From the Radical to the Mainstream

DV8 was a British theatre company who started making work in the 1980s using their seminal combination of dance and drama to explore male sexual desire, the AIDs crisis, the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, domestic abuse, and homophobia. The company has always been interested in making performances with and about the gay community, which has meant their work is often interpreted through the lens of the identity politics of the late and post-Cold War era.

To put this in context, Margaret Thatcher's government passed Section 28 in 1988 to ban the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and the wider public sphere. The LGBTQI+ community’s fierce opposition to this brutal piece of homophobic legislation led to the formation of groups like Stonewall and OutRage! who campaigned for its abolition. Whilst these groups were united in their condemnation of Section 28, there were divergent views within them about the shape and nature gay liberation should take. Does liberation mean gaining equality within a cisheteronormative society—replete with its myriad forms of oppression—or does it mean dismantling the system itself? 

DV8 has traditionally been associated with progressive leftist ideals in the public imagination. But Can We Talk About This? shows that no concrete definition of such ideals exists.

Their tactics were indicative of these differences. Stonewall pursued a conventional lobbying campaign to persuade Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) to repeal Section 28. In contrast, OutRage! used protests and controversial “outing” tactics of gay MPs and Bishops who supported the exclusion of LGBTQI+ people from public life. The longer-term goals of the campaign were never settled. The eventual repeal of Section 28 by the Labour government in 2003 and increasingly positive cultural attitudes to gay and lesbian people resulted in the radicalism and tensions within queer politics becoming glossed over by liberal-conservative understandings of tolerance in mainstream political discourse. 

As a consequence of this gloss, DV8 has traditionally been associated with progressive leftist ideals in the public imagination. But Can We Talk About This? shows that no concrete definition of such ideals exists. The title is a homage to the dying words of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a jihadist for making Submission, a short film about violence against women in the Muslim community. The politics of the show express a deep hostility to what is now called “woke” before the word entered into popular debate as a pejorative. Can We Talk About This? paints Islam and Muslims as the “other” that cannot be tolerated within the rubric of liberal equality. Multiculturalism is presented as a system that upholds hierarchies of oppression with racism and Islamophobia at the apex, beneath which sexism and homophobia are less important.

Can We Talk About This? was an early warning sign that deep schisms were opening in British culture between those who believed religious intolerance masked racist ideas in the name of free speech and those who were concerned that fear of offending Muslims was leading to the left ignoring homophobia and misogyny in Muslim communities. DV8 takes the audience on a journey through what artistic director Lloyd Newson called key “landmarks” from 1985 up to the present day that led to what the right now claim is a “free speech crisis.”

Nine performers stand side by side on stage and look outward to the audience.

Can We Talk About This? devised by DV8. Directed by Lloyd Newson. Photo by Bladsurb CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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.

A man gives a speech on stage.

Milo Yiannopolous. Photo by Kmeron CC 2.0.Milo Yiannopolous. Photo by Kmeron CC 2.0.

Yiannopoulos loudly denounced Black Lives Matter as a movement defined by its hatred of western civilization, using the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” to explicitly support police brutality. Whilst celebrating the importance of challenging orthodoxies, Yiannopoulos presented conservatives as the oppressed majority in American society. His endless insults to the left, Muslims, and genderqueer people were performed from a position of defiant insurgency against the liberal establishment, telling one audience at UC Irvine that “millennials who support Bernie [Sanders] understand that the battle here isn’t liberal versus conservative, but rather outsiders versus the establishment. The authoritarian and powerful versus the disenfranchised, the neglected, the lied-to, the forgotten.” In other contexts, the camp appropriation of police uniforms could be read as subverting authority through the “queering” of garments associated with the oppressive forces of state authority. But Yiannopoulos’s superficial performance of subversion was in fact employed to turn the concept of queering back on itself.

The camp aesthetic combined with transphobic and racist hate speech worked to “queer” fourth wave feminists and the LGBTQI+, Black, and Muslim communities into the true oppressors. In the same speech, Yiannopoulos cited Muslims as the greatest threat to gay people: “Anti-gay sentiment is not an extremist Muslim’s opinion. It’s just a Muslim’s opinion. There is no radical Islam. It’s just Islam.” Yiannopoulos’s performances of freedom show how equality for gay and lesbian people has been appropriated by American and British conservatives to further their reactionary politics. Clearly, the language is much more extreme and explicitly Islamophobic than anything in Can We Talk About This? But considering DV8 approvingly include defenses of Geert Wilders's Islamophobia from the extreme rightwing commentator Douglas Murray, it is difficult to see what DV8 would object to in Yiannopoulos’s speech or why they would not consider him a legitimate critic of multiculturalism.

The National Theatre hosted a platform event with Lloyd Newson and a panel of political commentators called Has Multiculturalism Eroded Free Speech? Rumy Hassan defended the French government's decision to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab in public on the grounds that the pillar of liberal society must be “expression not oppression,” meaning “women need to be protected from themselves.” We can see that for Rumy and many liberals like him, true freedom cannot be attained by Muslims who wear traditional dress. They must dress like the non-oppressed who cannot look like Muslims for the performance of freedom to be truly authentic. In contrast to their freedom, Yiannopoulos wearing a burqa as a Halloween costume is permissible because to mock Muslims represents an example of free speech tolerable to the liberal-conservative mainstream.

The Dangerous Faggot Tour and Can We Talk About This? use pinkwashing to turn exclusion of Islam from the common ground of public debate into a form of right-wing identity politics inherently assimilationist in character. Freedom in both the traditional liberal conception of the term as expressed by DV8, and the racist deviance of figures like Yiannopoulos, demand a level of conformity from the LGBTQI+ community in order to be accepted as equal. Queer politics are only tolerable if they do not challenge the legitimacy of the liberal-conservative consensus on questions of family, sexual freedom, and gender-based rights.

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You're welcome Gustave. It's one part of the research for the book I'm writing, 'Staging Free Speech: British Culture Wars and the Battle for Representation'. More details here: Staging Free Speech – Monograph – Joseph Dunne-Howrie (josephdunnehowrie.com)

The whole culture war free speech snowflake cancel culture discourse is fascinating and horrifying. I strongly believe we in theatre are well positioned to interrogate why people in power are being perceived as censored subjects. 

Wow! I loved the intricate care filled thought in this piece that reinforces for me the power of theatre and the multiplicity of ways I might enter I to these spaces. Thank you 

You're welcome Gustave. It's one part of the research for the book I'm writing, 'Staging Free Speech: British Culture Wars and the Battle for Representation'. More details here: Staging Free Speech – Monograph – Joseph Dunne-Howrie (josephdunnehowrie.com)

The whole culture war free speech snowflake cancel culture discourse is fascinating and horrifying. I strongly believe we in theatre are well positioned to interrogate why people in power are being perceived as censored subjects.