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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Death By Torchwood, And The Rise Of The Queer Superhero

Few deaths have been more shocking to gay television viewers than that of Ianto Jones in this summer’s Torchwood: Children Of Earth. His death during the fourth night of the BBC miniseries created a huge backlash, none of which surprised me more than claims that Ianto’s demise was an expression of the show’s homophobia.

Created by Russel T Davies, an openly gay writer famous for the complex and empowering Queer As Folk (UK), and starring John Barrowman, who might just be the most boisterously “out” star in the industry, Torchwood has been a bastion of queer pride since its debut in 2006. It evokes a world where homophobia is so non-existent that labels “gay,” “straight,” and “bi” have become irrelevant.

So how does the death of one of TV’s few prominent queer characters involved in a same-sex relationship fit into the show’s socially progressive vision? To my mind, Ianto’s death, rather than being homophobic, serves as a marker on the continuing road to true gay empowerment – a road that has frequently been two steps forward and one step back.

Gay and lesbian characters on screen have gone through a long and difficult journey from invisibility and vilification to understanding and acceptance. This journey is by no means over: queer people all over the world are still fighting for the most basic forms of cultural recognition. But while queer visibility in the media is on the rise in the Europe and North America, the nature of this visibility – and its effects on queer viewers – are not always positive.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

If we stand with Muslims, will Muslims stand with us?

Lately, I've been counting my blessings that I don't live in Europe. From the relative safety and comfort of Canada, it looks like England and France are on the verge of what would probably amount to a civil war - and the rest of Europe is not far behind.

On the one hand, Islam is growing by leaps and bounds, carrying with it the threat of social conservatism. Islam is not exactly supportive of women's equality, gay rights, or freedom from religion; and progressive Muslims willing to fight for these ideals within their communities seem to be few and far between.

On the other hand, white supremacist movements and racist organizations are rising to prominence in ways they hadn't done in Europe in decades. Like its poster-boy BNP, this bunch isn't exactly socially progressive: in fact, while they hate Muslims for their skin color and non-adherence to Christianity, the racists and nationalists hold much the same opinion of women, gays, and freedom of thought as that held by Islam.

Each side strengthens the resolve of the other. The racist and nationalist threat doubtless drives many moderate Muslims to become more radicalized, and further radicalization of the Muslim community whips nationalists into even more of a frenzy. It's a destructive circle jerk of fear and hatred.

And to someone like me - a queer, atheist woman - both sides are equally terrifying.

I also happen to believe that self-criticism is the key to progress (or, in fact, survival). Of Jewish background, I tend to be more critical of Israel than my Muslim-born partner. Raised in the Soviet Union before its collapse, I am more suspicious of communism than many of my Western left-wing friends. And since I'm white, I consider it my responsibility to stand against white supremacists and unequivocally say NOT IN MY NAME.

And yet, I can't ignore the fact that the community currently under attack by the white supremacists and nationalists in Europe is not exactly on my side.

My guess is that many social progressives in Europe are facing the same dilemma. Right now, for those of us whose lives literally depend on feminism, gay rights, and freedom from religion, it's easier to figure out whose side we're NOT on than whose side we support. As both sides whip each other into further heights of frenzy, true social progressives are left standing on the sidelines, more confused than they've been since the early days of the Bolshevik revolution.

There's no question of social progressives supporting racism and nationalism. But what does that mean, in practical terms? What does that mean during clashes between white supremacists and Muslims? What in this batshit crazy world are we supposed to do?

If we stand with the European Muslims in the fight for their survival, will they stand with us in the fight for ours? Will they support progressive ideals? Will they support gay rights - including the rights of their own gay children? Will they support women's equality - including the equality of their own wives? Will they support freedom of religion - including the freedom to have no religion at all?

Is it right to expect them to?