Ivan Massow, the 1990s poster boy of gay respectability politics, has raised his head above the parapet once more. Lee Williscroft-Ferris takes issue.
Back in the 1990s, when I was beginning to make sense of being gay, Ivan Massow was something of a poster boy for the nascent ‘gay respectability’ movement. Centuries of castigation and persecution had finally given way to limited legal ‘tolerance’ and by the 1980s, gay men had come to be perceived by many as sexually liberal, promiscuous even. Unbound by the social expectations of monogamous marriage and childbearing that were the domain of our straight brethren at that time, it’s fair to say that gay men were, in some respects, making some progress.
Then came the AIDS panic and the consequent reactionary policies of the Thatcher government. Suddenly, sexually active gay men were irresponsible, decadent, to be feared. In Massow, the gay media found the perfect antidote. Clean-cut and masculine in a socio-normative sense, Massow, a self-made entrepreneur, provided the ideal counter-narrative to the rampant homophobia peddled by the mainstream media. ‘This is the person to emulate to become a respected member of society.’ White, cisgender, ‘masculine’ and materially successful.
Coincidentally, the 1980s also saw successive waves of social unrest in inner-city London, the result of decades of systemic racist oppression of Britain’s black communities at the hands of a stubbornly immobile political establishment and, pertinently, a Metropolitan Police force mired in institutional racism. This week, Tory minister Oliver Letwin, has been forced to apologise for ‘the offence caused’ by comments made in the aftermath of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot. At that time, Letwin, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, blamed the unrest on ‘bad moral attitudes’ in black communities. He also argued that setting up a £10m communities programme to tackle inner-city problems would do little more than ‘subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops’, stating that black ‘entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.’
In Massow, the gay media found the perfect antidote. Clean-cut and masculine in a socio-normative sense, Massow, a self-made entrepreneur, provided the ideal counter-narrative to the rampant homophobia peddled by the mainstream media.
To anyone with an essence of a social conscience, the notion that unrest within black communities is the result of inherent ‘badness’ sends chills down the spine. The innate prejudice at the heart of Lewin’s arguments for resisting calls for community-based resolution is irrefutable.
20+ years later and Massow is now a fully-fledged Tory, having once been a flatmate of Michael Gove and having run to become the Conservative candidate in next year’s London mayoral election. Back in 2013, he used a column in the Evening Standard to decry what he perceives as a betrayal of the original principles of London Pride by a community he describes as ‘obsessed with drugs and sex.’
‘Don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy apps like Grindr (gay dating apps that supply you with a photo and precise distance of your nearest shag) as much as the next man. I admit to recreational drugs use in my distant past.
But am I the only one to notice that the gay scene today seems obsessed with drugs? Obsessed with sex. Unable to take responsibility for its part in the spread of HIV. Inhabiting a soulless and empty world of hedonism.’
Breathtaking generalisations and presumptions aside, once again, Massow – a wealthy white gay man with aspirations to join the political elite – was assuming the role of uninvited respectability ambassador for the LGBTQ+ community (or, more specifically, the ‘G’ community – intersectionality is a concept with which Massow is clearly wholly unacquainted). Fellow gay Tory and ‘famous’ out gay ex-soldier, James Wharton, clearly took his lead from Massow when he too sought to lecture gay men over the risks to their reputations of visiting gay saunas. The subsequent indignation was entirely justified.
Massow, the original champion of homosexual homogenisation, had this to say on the controversy now enveloping Letwin:
Gay men with a more fully rounded view of their own history have, naturally, reacted with disbelief to such a statement. First, Massow’s attempt at belittling the wholly understandable outcry at today’s revelations has echoes of a wider white tendency to dismiss the socio-economic legacy of slavery as ‘self-appointed victimhood’. It also wilfully seeks to detract from the fundamental issue that the author of such comments is still in a position of political power today. What’s more, in insinuating that this kind of transparent racism was ‘the norm’ 30 years ago (‘he just said what everyone else was thinking’), he does the longstanding intersectional battle for equality within his own community a great disservice.
Fellow gay Tory and ‘famous’ out gay ex-soldier, James Wharton, clearly took his lead from Massow when he too sought to lecture gay men over the risks to their reputations of visiting gay saunas.
It is abundantly clear from Massow’s incoherent musings that he is playing an extremely dangerous yet unfathomably transparent game of divide-and-rule. His assertion that racism in the 1980s can be excused by rampant homophobia perpetrated by BME Brits is utterly ludicrous. It presupposes the kind of ‘white gay men were the drivers in gay liberation’ nonsense that only Roland Emmerich could possibly make any sense of. It also props up a skewed hierarchy of ‘white victims’ vs. ‘black aggressors’ that is completely devoid of fact or truth. In addition, it fully overlooks the inconvenient truth that while white gays were fighting for the right to LGBTQ+ equality, their black counterparts were, and still are, embroiled in a battle for recognition of their very humanity and identity.
At the very heart of LGBTQ+ intersectionality is an acceptance that societal privilege favours white gay men more than any other stratum within our community. When it comes to the fight for truly global LGBTQ+ equality, Massow believes black people are latecomers to the party. Those of us with a modicum of intersectional insight know that they are rarely invited and that even when they are, it is often conditional.
Meanwhile, misguided white people, both LGBTQ+ and not, take to their keyboards to pontificate on what black people are entitled to regard as racist. In Massow’s case, he trivialises the scars of the British BME experience with his vacuous misrepresentations of BME and LGBTQ+ history. Instead, we should all continue to call and fight for redress for past injustices while approaching the future with a broader view of what equality really means and our own staging point on that journey.
Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)