Last week, Ariana Grande came under fire after it was announced she would be headlining this year’s Manchester Pride. It does, on the surface, seem to be a perfect fit; Grande has had a connection with the city since the tragic night her Manchester concert was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing 22, and from the star-studded charity concert she held afterwards. Beyond her connection with the city, the pop star also has a sizeable LGBTQ+ fanbase, heralded a “gay icon” by many.
Grande follows in the footsteps of the pop divas of old, putting out pop bangers in a moody, post-Lorde era of pop music. These divas and their unabashed expressions of femininity have always been embraced by mainstream gay men’s culture; Jesser St. John, an openly-gay singer-songwriter, said in an online podcast that “these women who express that divine feminity that we are supposed to be ashamed of, that’s why we latch onto it.”
But because it’s 2019 and things like this inevitably happen, it didn’t take long for the backlash to begin.
Grande, a straight woman, was accused of exploiting the gay community for personal gain. This backlash has merit; what message does it send to have the top billing at Pride, an event meant to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, occupied by a cisgender straight woman? We’re in the tail end of the 2010s, and the progress we have made as a society means that there are an abundance of LGBTQ+ artists who could have been given top billing.
Grande follows in the footsteps of the pop divas of old, putting out pop bangers in a moody, post-Lorde era of pop music. These divas and their unabashed expressions of femininity have always been embraced by mainstream gay men’s culture
The issue is made more difficult by Pride’s weekend ticket prices. Last year, a ticket which covered the whole weekend’s events cost £28; this year, they cost £64.90 at minimum, going up to £74.50 at final release, representing a more than doubling of ticket prices. Some have argued that this constitutes an economic exploitation of LGBTQ+ fans on Grande’s part.
Yet it is hard for me to fully lay blame at Grande’s feet. She responded to these criticisms through a note on Twitter, saying that she intended to “celebrate [the LGBTQ+] community, regardless of my identity or how people label me.”
“lgbtq representation is incredibly important, and I’m always proud to share the stage with lgbtq artists!” she added. On the issue of ticket prices, Grande argued that “manchester pride sets those rates, and they’re mostly out of my control.”
Choosing such a big headliner also runs the risk of marginalising LGBTQ+ people at an event meant to celebrate them. As more straight people participate in Pride, the more LGBTQ+ people feel uncomfortable. After all, the most vulnerable among the community still face significant rejection amongst the general cis-hetero population; the 2018 British Attitudes Survey found that only 4 in 10 Britons were fully comfortable with a trans person working as a police officer or school teacher. Manchester Pride’s choice to have Grande headline seems like an attempt not to cater to LGBTQ+ people, but to increase ticket sales across all demographics.
And therein lies the problem: Manchester Pride. Over the past few years, the LGBTQ+ community in the UK has been raising concerns about the corporatisation of LGBTQ+ Pride events across the UK. Manchester Pride is promoted like any other big party, with LGBTQ+ motifs feeling like theming. It has, essentially, become another celebration for straight people to wear rainbow colours to and get drunk at.
Manchester Pride is promoted like any other big party, with LGBTQ+ motifs feeling like theming. It has, essentially, become another celebration for straight people to wear rainbow colours to and get drunk at.
With corporate sponsors rolling in – nearly every Pride event in the UK seems to have the big banks partaking in the parades – Pride events have lost their radical spark. They are safe, sanitised, and do not challenge the cis and heteronormative structures which still govern our society. LGBTQ+ youth are still more likely to experience homelessness than their cis, straight counterparts, whilst trans individuals are more likely to have experienced domestic abuse.
Manchester Pride’s website lists its mission statement as follows: “Manchester Pride campaigns for LGBT+ equality; celebrates LGBT+ life and creates opportunities that engage LGBT+ people so that they can thrive.” Yet their 2019 ticket prices and the choices they have made in running Pride events the past few years has made Pride less about the community and more about the money, pricing the community out of their own events.
This commercialisation of Pride has robbed it of all meaning it had left. It is why I cannot blame Grande here; she means well, and is trying to support her LGBTQ+ fans, though her efforts are myopic. The root of the problem is Pride itself, and is one we would do well to address.
Modern life is horrible. We go to our unsatisfying jobs, day in and day out, maybe go to the pub, meet up with a few friends, wrestle with our immensely traumatised psyches, and then do it all over again, every day until we die. That’s (essentially) the premise of Netflix’s latest series, Russian Doll.
Oh, and there’s also the whole thing about the protagonist Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) being stuck in a time loop à la Groundhog Day.
If we’re comparing, then the show’s creators, Lyonne, Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and Leslye Headland (Sleeping With Other People), actually somehow manage to pull off the time loop conceit better than Groundhog Day, widely considered to be the genre-defining time-loop comedy.
Part of the reason why is that Russian Doll is just quite a bit cleverer than Groundhog Day was, and without as many problematic implications; while the film used the device for Bill Murray’s character to figure out the optimal way to get co-star Andie MacDowell to fall in love with him, trial-and-error style, RussianDoll uses it to bolster its central theme and ideas.
Stuck at her never-ending birthday party, at one point, Nadia decides to just give in and get wasted on drugs and booze instead of trying to get out of the time loop. It’s an apt, if a little on-the-nose, metaphor for the way she deals with her normal life; she turns to unhealthy coping mechanisms and, day after day, finds herself trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour and avoidance, not willing to confront her real issues.
None of this mean anything if it weren’t well-constructed, well-acted or well-produced, but it’s all those things and more. Lyonne is hilarious, her sarcasm and dry wit shining through each episode. The writing is sharp, never failing to point out the situational humour in the absurdities of modern-day life in New York; that’s expected, given Amy Poehler’s contribution to the show. It’s a joy to watch, too, with great use of colour and sets making each scene fun to just look at.
Above all, it’s the charm of the show which makes it more than the sum of its (already excellent) parts. At 25-ish minutes-long per episode, it’s also perfectly binge-able.
Music editor Mikhail Hanafi discusses why the music industry still has a long way to go before the abusive actions of artists like R. Kelly can be silenced once and for all.
In late January 2019, Spotify began rolling out a new “mute” feature which allows users to essentially “block” specific artists from appearing on their Spotify app. This means that users won’t see muted artists in any of Spotify’s curated playlists; to see them again in the app requires users to actively unmute them in their settings. The feature is currently only available to a select number of users on the company’s iOS app.
Though many are applauding the company for the feature—Twitter is already bursting at the seams with jokes about muting unfavourable artists—most don’t realise that Spotify had already considered and rejected the idea before. In an online statement, Spotify had, “after serious consideration”, decided not to implement a blocking feature back in 2017.
The difference, almost a year and a half later, is the growing, #MeToo-fuelled public backlash against sexual predators. Spotify is essentially responding to user concerns about supporting problematic artists with the feature. Don’t like a particular artist? Mute them. It’s a step taken to address the pressures the company has faced in the current socio-political climate.
These allegations, though shocking, aren’t exactly “revelatory”; Kelly’s actions have been widely known for years. In 1994, at 27 years-old, Kelly illegally married then-15-year-old r&b singer Aaliyah. In the 2000s, Kelly faced a slew of child pornography charges, getting off on a technicality in one instance. Yet, despite these allegations, Kelly flourished, collaborating with the biggest names in music including Lady Gaga, who only recently pulled their collaboration ‘Do What U Want’ off online platforms.
His continued success even today, 24 years after he married a 15 year old 12 years his junior, is symptomatic of an industry which continues to enable problematic and abusive artists. Despite countless allegations throughout his decades-spanning career, many of which ended through big, out-of-court settlements, other artists continued to work with him, his label continued to promote him, and people continued to listen to him. Despite a history of abhorrent behaviour, Kelly was enabled and celebrated by the industry.
Artists like Chris Brown and the late XXXTentacion still have massive fanbases today despite the detailed, substantiated allegations of assault made against them. It’s impossible to claim ignorance about Brown’s brutal 2009 assault of Rihanna; the infamous photo of her battered, bloody face was everywhere the few months after. There exist audio clips of XXXTentacion purportedly confessing to physically abusing women. Still, Brown is featured on Spotify’s editorial playlists, and XXXTentacion continues to be splashed across the app’s home page with his posthumous releases.
Over the years, what has become clear is that individuals in every step of the process need to take responsibility for the continued relevance of certain artists. Record labels argue that it’s not their job to police behaviour. Distributors want to appear unbiased. Listeners try to separate the art from the artist. But when no one takes responsibility, then everyone is collectively at fault.
Spotify’s response to problematic artists has been unsatisfactory, to say the least. Their dropping of Kelly from editorial playlists is a step forward, but it’s clear this wasn’t a decision made on moral grounds; Brown and XXXTentacion are still on their playlists, despite Brown facing new rape allegations in January. Action was only taken against Kelly once the public backlash grew too big to ignore. The same thing happened with Kelly’s label, who only dropped him after the airing of the lifetime series.
In reality, the mute feature is Spotify’s way of side-stepping having to answer the difficult question of who does and who doesn’t deserve a platform on their service. It’s the equivalent of enacting environmental policy by shifting responsibility to the individual through banning plastic straws instead of implementing real, system-wide changes and taking corporations to task. In reality, everyone needs to do better. What message do we send when we continue to reward sexual predators and abusers with money and fame?
Where TV series of old tended to stick more rigidly to a procedural format, telling their stories within self-contained episodes, we’ve begun to see more and more shows embrace serialised storytelling. Arts Editor, Mikhail Hanafi, explores the trend.
With shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones weaving complex, elaborate stories across seasons, it’s a development in storytelling that has allowed television to grow as a genre, as showrunners and writers are better able to bring a depth to the medium through sustained storytelling. That just didn’t really exist before to the degree that it does now, aside from in tiresome soaps, and is a major reason why the 2000s onward is called ‘the golden age of television.’ As of late, however, there’s been a bothering rise of shows which seem to interpret ‘serialised television shows’ as meaning ‘really, really long movies’.
Last month saw Netflix release the second season of its immensely popular original show Stranger Things to massive fanfare. An estimated 15.8 million people watched the premiere episode within the first 3 days of its release. By all accounts, the show is a cultural phenomenon. What sets Stranger Things (and much of Netflix’s other original programming) apart from traditional TV is that instead of putting out one episode every week, they drop an entire season in one go. An estimated 360,000 people binge-watched all 9 episodes within 9 hours of release. Jump on Twitter and you’re likely to see a tweet about how Stranger Things 2 took up someone’s entire weekend. Binge watching isn’t just a thing that people do to catch up on a show anymore; it’s become a legitimate way to consume television, and Netflix is using this to their full advantage.
But this distribution strategy hasn’t just changed how people watch these shows, it’s also changed the way these shows are written and made. Netflix shows are often described as being ‘10-hour-long films’ instead of ‘just’ TV shows. Stranger Things feels like a 9-hour-long 80s horror film. Daredevil feels like a 10-hour-long Marvel film. Netflix’s popular dark comedy prison drama Orange Is The New Black fully embraced this idea in its fifth season, which stretched out the events of a single day across its 13 episodes.
One of the main criticisms of Orange Is The New Black’s latest season was that nothing really happened in each episode. The season as a whole had the structure of a story — e.g. a beginning, conflict, rising action, climax and conclusion — but those elements were more difficult to find in each episode, and that’s a major, fundamental storytelling flaw for a television series. Compared to the previous season, which achieved a Metacritic score of 86/100, season five was met with a lukewarm 67/100. It’s a great example of where this model can fall short and highlights how Netflix often fails to understand how to properly execute a serialised tv show.
Before I incite fan backlash, don’t get me wrong: I loved Stranger Things, and I think that it’s a well-written show. But when I look back at the whole show, it’s difficult to pick out individual stand-out episodes (save for a single, very polarising stand-alone episode in season two). Compare that to a show like Breaking Bad, which manages to make compelling episodes which stand on their own merits but still build upon each other to craft a larger story. The best serialised television shows don’t set out to make really long films, they aim to make individual episodes which build upon each other to tell a larger story. And let’s face it: Stranger Things even titles itself like a film. It’s not Stranger Things: Season 1 & 2, it’s Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2.
People often consider film to be more ‘highbrow’ than television, so when a television series is described as being ‘like a film’ it’s considered an achievement. But television is not film; its episodic structure makes it inherently different, and there’s a worrying trend of shows discarding the storytelling conventions of television to mediocre results. Shows can be binge-watched, but they shouldn’t be made to be binged. There’s an art to writing stories which work on both an episodic level and a bigger, season-wide level, and I’m not convinced that Netflix is doing that consistently enough.
Despite the narrative that we are the most progressive era in history, debates about portrayals of race in the arts continue to rage on. The latest controversy is the casting of the white actor Billy Magnussen in Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin.
For those who’ve been lucky enough to be living under a rock, 2017 has marked the year that Donald Trump is President of the United States, the alt-right has become a significant force and white supremacy has seen a resurgence in the political sphere. It’s no real surprise then, that issues around race have been rightfully getting more attention. In the arts, race and its handling has been debated, scrutinised and pored over; with such discussions dominating both social and mass-produced media.
To be fair to the writers of those pieces, there’s a lot to deconstruct; in film, problematic racial stereotypes are everywhere, from the sexually unattractive Asian best friend, the tough black gangster, and the white lead male. That’s true both for the industry 10 years ago and for the industry today.
Recently, the team behind Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin came under fire for casting Billy Magnussen in the film. Though the film has a diverse cast, with newcomer Mena Massoud playing Aladdin, Naomi Scott playing Princess Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari playing the villain Jafar and Will Smith playing Genie, the decision was strange for one main reason: Magnussen’s role, Prince Anders, is a brand new original character not present in the 1992 animated classic.
What immediately comes to mind is how unnecessary the addition is; the original is a classic for a reason, and for once Hollywood managed (at least for a little while), to have a cast exclusively featuring actors of colour. After all, the film is set in a fictional Middle-Eastern location; there’s no need to cast a white actor in it.
But if you look at the situation through a more cynical lens, this is sadly just another thing that Hollywood has been doing for years. Whenever there’s a cast which is mainly comprised of POC, they throw in a token white guy; look at Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, or Matt Damon in The Great Wall. At the end of the day, Hollywood is an industry, and market forces (which apparently include demand for at least one white character in every film) dictate what does and doesn’t get made. Ridley Scott, responding to criticisms about the mostly-white cast of his film Exodus: Gods and Kings, argued that “[he] wouldn’t get financed” if the film had an all-POC cast.
At the very least, the film wasn’t completely whitewashed. Exodus, which was set in the Middle-East, featured a mostly-white cast. Worse still, the few black actors cast were mainly cast as thieves and villains. The case was similar for the recent film Gods of Egypt, in which Gerard Butler played Set, the Egyptian god of darkness, and The Prince of Persia, where Jake Gyllenhaal was puzzlingly cast to play the titular Prince of Persia.
Things do seem to be getting better, though. Slowly, acting roles are being given to a more diverse pool of actors, and more filmmakers of colour and being given the resources they need to make films. Recently, actor Ed Skrein quit the new Hellboy film after backlash to him being cast as Major Ben Daimio, a character who is portrayed as being of East Asian descent in the comics. Skrein stated that he “didn’t realise” the character was meant to be Asian, and I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Ultimately, POC need accurate representation in films — especially in societies which are majority white — yet so many films are painfully tone-deaf in their writing and casting decisions. Still, there’s hope yet for the future; fan backlash worked in the case of the Hellboy casting, and maybe new, internet-fuelled pressure will nudge Hollywood in the right direction.
Sarah Nimmo and Reva Gauntlett have been making music together for well over 11 years. “It’s been like ten years, I guess, since we started,” Sarah says over the phone. “Well, ten years since we’ve been in that band, but we’ve been making music in hilarious formations since we were eleven.” The two met in secondary school, and have dipped their toes into hip-hop, garage and drum and bass—Sarah describes her teenage self as “a massive drum and bass head,”—but once the two picked up guitars and started playing as a band, the decision was instant: “We’re gonna be a band, we’re gonna write songs, we’re not MCs anymore.”
That brings us to where they are today: Nimmo and Gauntlett, along with two other friends from home, Josh Faull (bass) and Hannah Rose (keys), started to play together in secondary school/college. The four added drummer/producer Jack Williams to the line-up when they met him at university in Brighton. Now they’re Nimmo, a fully-realised five-piece electro-pop band.
One of their earliest breaks was when actress/model/director Agyness Deyn offered to direct a video for their song ‘Change’, which they had posted up on their MySpace account. “It was a demo basically, it was all we had, and she played it on the radio and it was literally such poor quality, and we thought ‘what the hell’.” Sarah laughs as she describes the situation. “We tweeted her saying ‘Thank you, we appreciate your support, do you wanna be in our music video?’”
“We spent like an hour composing that tweet, it was ridiculous. We were wondering ‘Is this just what you do?’” The two weren’t expecting a response—Reva explained that the demo was so basic that “you could hear the metronome in the background”—so were surprised when Deyn responded. “She was like, ‘Oh you know, I really love what you guys are doing, and I’m not modelling at the moment, but I’m living in LA and I’ll happily just make you a video’” Sarah recounts.
For many, like Agyness Deyn, it’s hard not to love what they’re doing. Their sound is a cross between The xx, Florence & The Machine and the best of 90s pop. ‘Dancing Makes Us Brave’, one of six original singles they have online, is a powerful, energetic electro-pop dance song about how music and dancing can be emotionally cathartic, making us ‘brave’. It’s sincere and optimistic, without being sickly-sweet and overly-cheerful.
There’s also a sense of non-conformity to Sarah and Reva. The two present more androgynous than most, and on stage they seem fully confident with how they come across. “I’m pretty gay, and I guess I look pretty gay. I’m probably at like one of the furthest ends of the spectrum,” Sarah says. The two join the likes of Olly Alexander of Years & Years, Tegan & Sara Quin, and Frank Ocean as musical figures who wear their LGBT+ identities on their sleeves.
In contrast to today’s musical landscape, Reva describes a lack of LGBT role models to look up to when she and Sarah were growing up. “Most of the artists we listened to were like garage and hip-hop, and actually the problem was the fact that there was no one there to look up to.” Now that they’re slowly becoming those much-needed role models, Reva says that “a lot of fans from the Years & Years tour kind of reached out, and you’re kind of aware that you’re making an impression on people and that you’re responsible to a certain degree.“
It’s clear that the two take this newfound responsibility seriously. Sarah talks about “the people that feel like they’re lacking, in terms of inquiring young people and stuff, people who censor their self-image a bit” and reaffirms just how important it is to normalise LGBT identity. “It’s made us really conscious of the fact that we’re not going to censor ourselves, and we’re not gonna limit our identities.You’ve got to be totally true to who you are, musically, sexually, everything about you. If you can be completely honest then at the end of the day people are gonna get more from that and appreciate that more.”
Reva punctuates Sarah’s thoughts; “It was so obvious when we went on tour with Years & Years, you know, it clicked just how important Olly is for a lot of young people. And actually, that seems like such an incredible thing, so yes, it seems amazing if we’re contributing to that as well.”
The band is confident about their identities, both musical and otherwise, and it shows when they talk about their work. “There’s a lot of pop songs, in a sort of classic sense,” Sarah says about what to expect from their upcoming album. “There’s some 5am vibes, there’s songs about paying the rent, there’s celebration of life songs, like ‘UnYoung’. There’s a good range of pop, basically. It is fundamentally a dance-pop record.”
Recently, the band have been busy; in the past year, they’ve have been on tour with Years & Years and MØ, played festival sets and have a slew of upcoming UK tour dates. Reva, throat still sore from a weekend of partying in Berlin, excitedly mentioned her favourite gig. “The one that we played for Years and Years, we played Wembley, which was just ridiculous. Definitely gonna be one that we’re never gonna forget.”
The band is riding high on their upward trajectory and, if all goes to plan, they’ll have lots more gigs that they’re never going to forget.
Mikhail Hanafi looks at the Ched Evans and Brock Turner cases and why the rhetoric around rape still needs serious change.
On the 20th April 2012, Ched Evans was found guilty of rape. What followed was a media whirlwind, as traditional news outlets ran pieces with competing angles, yet all of them seemed to focus on the footballer himself. The headline chosen by the BBC was “Ched Evans jailed for five years”, whilst Wales Online reported “Wales star Ched Evans denies raping woman in hotel”. The Mirror perpetuated the hateful language directed at the victim from Evans’ friends, the author feeling the need to emphasise Evans’ ‘crying hysterically as he was found guilty’, before any mention of the victim.
The large majority of the coverage was focused on Evans himself and how it would affect his life and career. Meanwhile, the victim was subject to a social media shaming after Evans’ cousin leaked her name despite a legal guarantee of anonymity. The torrent of abuse that ensued was so extreme that the victim had to move across the country and change her name.
This disregard for the victim and the focus on the accused rapist isn’t isolated to the Ched Evans case. In January 2015, Stanford student Brock Turner was found behind a dumpster sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. His actions were, and still are, indefensible yet the judge found a prison sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner, giving him such a light sentence that a juror on the case publicly stated that “justice has not been served”.
Similarly to the Evans case, media outlets emphasised Turner’s reputation, grades and position at a prestigious university. Turner’s father pleaded for a lighter punishment so as to not destroy his “bright future”, downplaying the rape to “20 minutes of action”.
Both Evans and Turner were released early from their sentences, in both instances with problematic justification.
Evans was released after his defence brought up the woman’s previous sexual history in his retrial. It set what 40 Labour MPs called a “dangerous precedent” for future cases; they argued rightly that consent in a previous instance cannot be reused in a rape case as defence.
The victim, after all, was seen falling over in the streets on CCTV footage, and was described by a hotel worker as having walked in “extremely drunk [with] a blank stare”. Yet this evidence was quashed in favour of testimony that she had consented to sex on two separate occasions with two different men within a few weeks of the incident.
Turner, on the other hand, spent only three months in jail. Judge Persky, who presided over his case, justified the decision by bringing up Turner’s youth and the damage a harsh sentence would bring to his once-bright future.
This problem of prioritising the feelings or future of the rapist isn’t limited to just the legal system and the media. Oklahoma State University professor John Foubert argues that the issue is buried deep within our culture; he argues that young people, particularly young people in universities, have a dangerously narrow idea of what constitutes rape.
Leslie Rasmussen, a childhood friend of Turner’s, argued in a letter to Judge Persky that Turner’s case “is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement.”
This false distinction is what Foubert alludes to, suggesting that it’s one shared by an alarming number of university students. University of Arizona professor Mary Koss said that “You can put a college student rapist on a lie detector test and they will pass.” Students who commit rape often don’t legitimise it because they supposedly don’t fit the misconceived ideas of what a rapist is.
According to a survey conducted by Koss, more than 7% of college students had coerced or attempted to coerce a date to have sex with them, yet they did not consider this to be rape or attempted rape. It’s an issue that universities in both the UK and USA are struggling to address. Earlier this year, freshers at the University of York walked out of a sexual consent talk which they considered “patronising”. Around a quarter of the students who attended the talks were said to have walked out in protest. At the University of Warwick, student George Lawlor boycotted a sexual consent talk he was invited to because he didn’t “look like a rapist”.
The truth is, there is no specific “look” to a rapist. According to Rape Crisis England & Wales, over 80% of rapes are committed by a person known to the victim. This debunks the common idea perpetuated by Rasmussen and Lawlor that rapists look like a specific type of person, usually a dangerous stranger. In reality the only quality that defines a rapist is rape. There’s no physical trait or aesthetic that renders someone more or less likely to commit the atrocity.
These attitudes all contributes to rape culture. From social media reactions to the Evans and Turner cases, it’s clear that many are fighting to maintain the old, inadequate ideas of rape, blaming the victims for drinking, and absolving the accused rapists of their actions because they don’t fit a limited and ridiculous rapist ‘mould’. It’s difficult to say what the solution is, but it’s clear that the way rape is reported in the news and handled by the legal system aren’t helping to break down the widely held societal misconceptions around rape.
Big cities are the future. While our numbers grow larger year by year, and we become more and more interconnected, and while the Earth stays exactly the same, we seem to be moving en masse into the cities of the world—the Hong Kongs, the Manilas, the Jakartas, the Bombays. In literature, cities represent our collective optimism about the possibilities out there; the possibilities for work, for self-improvement, and—most importantly—for human connection. Because when you’re in a place with 5000+ people per square kilometre, you’re bound to meet someone you’ll connect with.
Yet the truth is the lived human experiences of people in cities is a far cry from that almost-naively optimistic idea that genuine human connection is right around the corner. We live in blocks of hundreds of people, but how many of them do we really know? Maybe you wish your neighbour—that sweet old lady who lives next door to you—good morning every evening on your way out to work, and maybe you smile at the occasional stranger you accidentally make eye contact with. But with every friendly neighbour and every stranger you smile at, there are 10 other neighbours you haven’t said a word to since you moved in, and there are 100 other strangers you don’t even acknowledge when you stand next to them on the metro. The truth is that your number of human connections pales in comparison to the number of people you don’t, and will never be able, to know.
Maybe that’s why we feel lonely.
There’s a special loneliness that you only ever feel walking the streets of a big city. It’s a longing you feel when you’re walking under the lanterns of London’s Chinatown, or the trees of New York’s Central Park, or the bright neon lights of Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang. When you, alone, walk past a 17 year-old boy and his girlfriend (holding hands, smiles plastered across their face), or a 42 year-old woman and her husband (not touching each other, but just belonging in each others’ presence, like the Earth and the Moon—comfortable), or a 24 year-old woman and her new girlfriend (still adorably, awkwardly shy and nervous around each other, blushing at every brush of the hands, the accidental ones and the not-so).
She’s sullen, and tired, but walks with hope in her eyes that she might just bump into someone new around the corner.
It’s a longing I feel deep in my chest, in the part that I always forget exists until it starts to feel empty; just below my throat, in the little nook next to my heart and my lungs. Maybe you feel it somewhere else—in the pit of your stomach, or at the top of your head, like if you’ve had one drink too many. Wherever your longing for human contact rests, we’ve all felt it. Hell, Hozier’s felt it; his video for his song Someone New, starring Natalie Dormer, captures this feeling perfectly.
In it, Natalie Dormer walks around London, stumbling across people she longs to be with and couples she wants to be a part of. She carries the loneliness on her shoulders perfectly; she’s sullen, and tired, but walks with hope in her eyes that she might just bump into someone new (aha) around the corner.
The video ends with her going to sleep on her mattress, her room lit in shades of pink and blue, romantic and cold respectively, alone.
Incities, there are more people than anyone could ever get to know in their limited lifetimes. The Dunbar Number, that is the maximum number of people one person can have in their social group, is 150. For comparison, the population of Toronto, Canada is over 17,400 times that number. We can’t possibly try to get to know everyone; our brains would probably explode. And since we can’t get to know everyone we bump into on the way to dinner, strangers stay strangers. There are unspoken rules about how we’re supposed to act in public; try to make conversation on the London tube, or god forbid you make eye contact, and you’ll be subject to the glariest of glares.
That’s probably why dating apps—Tinder, Grindr, Her and the like—are so popular now. It’s meeting new people without the risk of being creepy or awkward. On Tinder especially, you swipe on strangers’ faces without risk of unreciprocated interest because you only get matched with people with swiped right—an indication of interest—on you too. It’s less daunting than approaching every person in public that you think looks interesting; in real life, the rejection is real. At least you can’t see the left swipes on Tinder.
try to make conversation on the London tube, or god forbid you make eye contact, and you’ll be subject to the glariest of glares.
That’s probably also why so many profiles on these apps—Tinder, Her, and the predominantly hook-up-centric Grindr—have ‘looking for friends :)’ on them.
But after a while, after a couple hundred Tinder swipes, that longing in your chest (or your stomach, or head, or left ear) comes creeping back. Slowly, as your matches build up and as you start realising you don’t get as many replies as you send out messages. So you swipe more—on the train on the way to your lectures, during your lunch break, during your walk home—and your list of matches grows longer and longer.
None of this satisfies. It’s almost like Pokémon; you’re never satisfied with just the thirteen in your current team. You need to add to your roster. You’ve got to catch them all.
[Side note: this really explains the continued popularity of the Pokémon games. C’mon guys. You’ve already released 16 of those things. Give it a rest for a couple of years.]
So you keep walking around, looking to fill that space in your chest (or stomach, or head, or right pinky), eyes darting from stranger to stranger as you walk a crowded street during your lunchtime. And eventually, you meet a stranger’s gaze. Your stomach flips, and though you feel like your insides might just end up becoming your outsides, you keep your composure. You smile at him. He smiles at you. He walks past and, as though nothing happened, you both move on with your lives, your memories of each other fading as quick as your encounter was short.
You keep walking around, and the space in your chest stays as empty as it was yesterday, but feels heavier than ever.
I remember being pleasantly surprised when I heard Lady Gaga’s Born This Way playing on Malaysian radio back in 2011. After all, Gaga unabashedly sings on her self-acceptance anthem that ‘no matter gay, straight or bi / lesbian, transgender, life’, you are born this way.
I was surprised to hear it being played on Malaysian radio — which censors the words ‘alcohol’ and ‘sex’ — because it’s a message that doesn’t quite click with Malaysia’s social or political atmosphere; in 2013, the Malaysian government backed an anti-LGBT musical which aimed to reach out to the youth, ‘to say that [LGBT+] is bad and not to follow it.’ Alia Ali, in her review of the musical for Kakiseni, called it “an all-out propagandic play” which goes so far to imply that ‘“choosing to be gay” was part of a certain opposition party leader’s plan to topple the country’s morals and unity.’
Not content with making the comical implication that the ‘LGBT+ agenda’ is to literally topple the country, the government continued to further demonstrate their fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be LGBT+ by endorsing a handbook meant to help parents identify homosexual symptoms in their children before it’s too late. Symptoms of male homosexuality listed in the handbook include ‘a preference for tight and bright coloured clothes’, and having a ‘muscular body and a fondness for showing off the body by wearing clothing, such as by wearing V-necks and sleeveless tops.’
This hugely-misinformed state-backed propaganda would be funny if it didn’t seem to be working; in 2011, the general consensus amongst the Malaysian public was that homosexuality is a bad thing. According to the World Values Survey, 89.8% of Malaysians perceive homosexuality negatively, and 58.7% specifically stated that they wouldn’t like to have a homosexual person as a neighbour.
89.8% is a huge number. Put it this way: If you decided to walk up to a person on a street and ask them what they think of gay people, you’re almost 9x more likely to get a negative response than a positive one.
If you decided to walk up to a person on a street and ask them what they think of gay people, you’re almost 9x more likely to get a negative response than a positive one.
Legally, Section 377 of the penal code — the same one introduced by the British during the colonial era — criminalises sodomy, or ‘unnatural intercourse’. Former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is currently serving a 5-year sentence for committing the act of sodomy. Despite the controversy surrounding the case, public discussion centred around whether or not he committed the act and the politically motivated nature of the sentencing. Discussion about the ethics and morality of the criminalisation of homosexuality was virtually non-existent.
It’s understandable, then, why so many LGBT+ Malaysians feel as though it would be unsafe to live openly. Seung, a closeted gay man, has only told his two best friends about his sexuality. ‘I feel scared,’ Seung says, ‘because I know my country discriminate[sic] the LGBTQIA+ community.’ Seung also says he worries that ‘kids or teens may potentially be disowned by their own parents when they come out of the closet.’
Being disowned is a common fear amongst LGBT+ Malaysians. ‘My conservative family would definitely disown me if I come out,’ says Farid, a 22 year-old bisexual man. ‘Once my mother had said something about the LGBTQ and she said hopefully none of the family members will be influenced by them, and that they will be thrown to hell.’ Even in the relatively more progressive United States — same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide in June 2015 — it seems that the number of homeless LGBT+ youth is on the rise.
Religion is brought up a lot in discussions about LGBT+ individuals; the lesson that LGBT+ people will go to Hell repeated time and time again in many a childhood religious class was partly the reason for Farid’s inner-conflict between his sexuality and his religion. ‘I was so desperate that I Googled “how to become straight”.’ In the same vein, Seung says that ‘Hell is easier. People are preaching hate toward the LGBT community, using their religion for their own advantages, not letting us to date in public places or getting[sic] married as it goes against the religious teachings when they allow straight couples to get married a hundred times but not a gay marriage which could “ruin the fundamental of marriage.”’
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad famously said that Malaysia would never have a gay prime minister because “Malaysia is officially an Islamic country”, later threatening to deport any visiting British cabinet members if they brought their same-sex partners with them. It’s clear that religion — or more accurately the mainstream strain of Malaysian Islam — plays a big role in the fuelling of homophobia in Malaysia.
Zulaikha, a Malay-Muslim woman, came out to her parents as lesbian when she was younger. ‘It was a very tough process because they are a conservative Muslim family. My mum regularly disowned me and frequently criticised my “lifestyle” but I put my foot down about it because I’m too old to lead my life based on what my family thinks.’ Zulaikha’s family is still hostile to her, however she believes that this hostility is diminishing. The majority of Malay-Muslim families in Malaysia are socially conservative, which is a major reason why many young LGBT+ youth choose to hide who they are.
As of today the reality of the situation seems bleak, but if a paper written by Peter Tan of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman is accurate then there may still be some hope for young LGBT+ Malaysians. In his paper, he found that 40% of university students have neutral attitudes toward homosexuality. This assertion makes sense; after all, current university students grew up in the information age and have had access to the internet from a young age. The current generation are exposed to and interact with people from vastly different backgrounds every day, including LGBT+ people.
This is why Zulaikha argues that coming out of the closet is extremely important if the LGBT+ community are to make progress in their strive toward societal acceptance; it’s hard to demonise a group when you see that people who are part of that group are just that: people. ‘People need to be confronted that gay people exist,’ says Zulaikha. ‘We are not less than anybody else. Their ignorance about homosexuality has to be debated in the open so that stereotypes can be broken down and gay [people] be people seen as just people.’
When people start to see that LGBT+ people are real people with real stories, it becomes difficult to treat them as less. The slow change in attitudes has already let many LGBT+ individuals come out to loving and supportive friends and family. Alex, a queer 24 year-old trans man says that his immediate family all know about both his sexuality and his gender identity.
‘I didn’t tell them about my sexuality immediately, but I was very obviously smitten with someone of the same gender so they saw it coming a mile away when I came out a few years later. They were slower to come around in regards to my gender, however, and even now they’re still adjusting slowly, but it’s been a long journey and they are as supportive as they can be.’
Although he is surrounded by accepting family and friends, Alex is still painfully aware of the reality of the situation in Malaysia. ‘I fear largely for both my physical safety and my mental health, here, in regards to coming out,’ he says. ‘I may be fortunate enough to live within a fairly tolerable circle, but this country is still largely unaccepting and I do not want to delude myself into a false sense of security.’
As a trans man, Alex also faces problems from the state. ‘Due to the laws here, I am not able to assert my gender fully and live as a man 100%. My legal name gives me away, my gender is still marked as female on my IC and all my legal documents”.
This means that today a trans woman can be arrested at any time for “cross dressing”. Khartini Slamah, a trans* rights advocate who works at the PT Foundation in Kuala Lumpur faced a 2-year legal battle which she lost, but today continues to fight for trans* rights in Malaysia. Khartini says that the ultimate goal is to ‘achieve the recognition of basic rights such as equal job opportunities and access to healthcare’ for trans* individuals.
It’s important to note the inadequacy of the language of the current legal system is in light of our increasingly complex understanding of gender identity. For one, cross-dressers and trans women are not the same. Cross-dressers, according to GLAAD, are ‘heterosexual men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women’ whereas trans women are people ‘who were assigned male at birth but identify and live as a woman’.
Alex says that he ‘cannot request that [his] name be shortened to remove the “binti” clause in it’. ‘I get outed very frequently which causes me mental distress as it almost always results in gossip amongst my university peers — i pass 100% otherwise,’ says Alex.
Alex’s fear is one that all LGBT+ people in Malaysia have to live with. A single mistake — sharing a Facebook post with just too much information, getting caught holding hands with their same-sex partners or even just saying the wrong thing at the wrong time — and they could be outed.
And maybe one day being outed will mean nothing at all; maybe one day finding out that your best friend is gay will mean as much as finding out that he enjoys orange juice more than apple juice, or that his favourite colour is green. Maybe finding out that your best friend has felt like a woman her whole life will be as strange as finding out that she likes to play chess.
It’s a world that’s worth aspiring to, but it’s a world that we aren’t living in yet. Until then, we need to make the voices of the marginalised and the oppressed heard.
When I was listening to Born This Way on Malaysian radio I didn’t hear the part where Lady Gaga sings ‘no matter gay, straight or bi / lesbian, transgender, life / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive’. I assumed I had just missed it. I realised the second time I listened to it that that section had been cut.