Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Bisexuals: putting the B back in LGBT

Bisexuality is often dismissed or disparaged, so many come out as gay instead. But the UK bi scene is finding its feet

I'm constantly baffled by the exclusion of bisexuals. I blame bad science, or rather bad scientists. Every year it seems there's a new study on "what makes people gay". Oddly, this is expected to be an on-off switch, and the researchers look in the genes, or the brain or the length of fingers for a sign that one set of people will be queer, now and for always, and another proving the rest will remain 100% straight. It takes a special kind of rigidity of outlook to construct a survey on finger length and decide beforehand there's no middle ground. They then say everyone's "straight, gay or lying" but for that to be true there would have to be an awful lot of liars out there. The last Observer poll on sexual attitudes showed that 4% of people – one in 25 – identified as homosexual, and half as many again identified separately as bisexual.

But this sort of thinking fuels the mythical status of bi people. People are quick to tinker with the definition of bisexual until it's not something anyone would willingly pick for themselves. Bisexuals are supposed to be equally attracted to men and women – always androgyny, but never to trans people – and always at the same time. They supposedly need to have identical amounts of sex with both, and don't notice the differences between them (which might get painful in bed, I reckon). We're all told bisexuality is a phase that everyone goes through and grows out of, and no one's a "proper" bisexual, even though "everyone's bisexual really". Bisexuals are depicted as the monsters spreading Aids, and breaking the hearts of partners inevitably cast aside for a different gender. Who'd want to be bi! Read more
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The cloak and dagger Catholics

An extraordinary correspondence has fallen into my hands showing some of the detail of the Anglo-Catholic intrigues about their departure from the Church of England. It shows the Anglican "flying bishop" of Ebbsfleet, Andrew Burnham, conspiring with a sympathetic Roman Catholic bishop in Australia to work behind the back of the Catholic bishops here. He talks about his "cloak and dagger" correspondence with a sympathiser in the Vatican, and suggests that he can write personally to Pope Benedict XVI to smooth things over if his correspondent is caught. This may come as news to the pope.

The Australian bishop, Peter Elliott, is himself an Anglican convert, and is in charge of the pope's outreach to Anglican opponents of women priests in Australia. Most of these are grouped in a body called the Traditional Anglican Communion, which claims to have half a million members world wide: Burnham warns Bishop Elliott against complete confidence in their leader, Archbishop Hepworth ("clearly a charming man … but not everything he says … synchronises fully with what we know from other sources"). Read more
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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Don't brand Brick Lane

London's local councils have never been known for good sense or sagacity, and yet they continuously manage to surprise me with new levels of folly. Illustrating this point, Tower Hamlets council is planning to install two hijab-shaped arches at each end of Brick Lane – at a reported cost of £1.85m.

The proposed structures are planned as part of a cultural trail aimed at celebrating the area's rich cultural history. Also a vehicle for increasing tourism, the arches will be bankrolled by money paid to the council following the development of Bishops Square and Spitalfields market.

The proposal has understandably ruffled a few feathers, not only because of the associated cost, but because of the symbol chosen to represent the area. The hijab, highly symbolic of Islam, will brand the area with a single identity, casting aside the diversity that makes the area what it is. Muslims account for more than 30% of the local population, which is, of course, relatively high, but that is little justification. Would the council think to erect two massive crosses for the area's Christian population or two yarmulkes to represent its links with the Jewish community? Read more
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The virtual mob spreading spite online

n biblical times, Syrian villagers would ritually chase a goat from their midst to atone for their sins. Last week Andrea Charman found out what it is like to be a modern day scapegoat, or in her case perhaps it should be scapesheep.

She was the well-respected head teacher in Romney Marsh, Kent who became subject to a hate campaign. So vicious was the abuse she received – both through her letter box, and particularly onto her computer – that she felt compelled to leave her post.

The cause of the hate was Marcus, a sheep that the school had reared to teach the children about the food chain. The pupils had voted for Marcus to be sent to slaughter and turned into chops and shanks, but a handful of parents complained. In times gone by a fractious parents’ meeting would have been enough for the objectors to air their views.

Now, we have the web. An online campaign was started. The comments on “Remove Andrea Charman from ever teaching again” duly rolled in, not just from parents in Kent, but from Belgium, and France and Los Angeles. A not untypical message was: “i’m gonna spit on her grave (thats gonna be very soon)”. Others threatened to burn the school down.

Last week, despite the overwhelming support of the pupils, teachers and governors, she decided to step down.

She is just one of an increasing number of people who have become caught up in what the internet community call “flame wars” – online petitions, or disagreements between two camps, that can spiral out of control.

The line between vigorous, heartfelt protest and mob rule has become ever thinner thanks to modern technology.

And those caught on the wrong side of the barricades often don’t know what’s hit them, as any hapless Mumsnetter – the term for the 850,000 women who use the online networking site Mumsnet – will tell you if they have posted a comment that other, more ferocious users disagree with. The site, which celebrates its 10th birthday next month, has been likened to a playground, in which bullies circle like sharks. Only last week, one woman was viciously, and very personally, derided when she lamented the crass language that has permeated the website.

Professor Barrie Gunter, head of mass communications at Leicester University, points out that the technology itself is not to blame for such viciousness. “The problem stems from the way people are able to operate anonymously; it is this that can be used as a force for evil. People can behave in a way online that they would never do in the normal, offline world. In the real world, social etiquette restrains people from doing and saying certain things. That restraint does not seem to be apparent on the internet.” Read more
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