Dear Anna – A Response to a Concerned (homophobic) Reader

Conchita-Wurst

I apologise for the personal nature of this post, but I hope my regular readers who are uninterested in such matters will forgive this indulgence and come back soon for a nice juicy film review!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post for the blog about Eurovision, and the possible importance of Conchita Wurst winning the competition.  Today I received the following comment on that post (I have left spelling/grammar etc as is):

There is a huge cognitive dissonance at play. The media as well as the “gay community” have completely lost their touch to reality. Aks anyone on the street about the whole “Wurst” thing and you get at the very least 80% negative comments about it. Ppl are fed up by this endless promtion of gays etc., there are only 1-3% of the pop. who are not hetero sexual, yet that at best 3% is trying t indoctrinate the 97%!
my advice is to take it a whole lot slower, because if you gay activists keep pushing just a little more, ppl will have enough of that nonsense and they will be openly opposed to the whole gay thing and to call ppl who dont want to call a gay lifestyle good as mentaly ill (homophobe= irrational fear, ergo a mental illness) is not helping at all.
As far as I am concerned, pls go ahead with what you are doing, you are digging your own grave.

*

Dear Anna

It’s sometimes difficult to know where to start when one receives such comments (which is, thankfully, rarely).  However, you clearly think your voice is not being heard, so let’s give you some time in the sun and take your comments seriously.  After all, you have been spending your valuable time standing in the street asking people what they think of the “Wurst thing” and getting 80% negative comments about it.

This seems odd considering Eurovision is a  contest partly decided by public vote and Ms Wurst won.  Add to that the fact that statistics that appeared after the show tell us that the public vote was hugely in favour of Wurst.  The vote on the occasion was split in most countries between a televote and a jury decision.  In over twenty of the countries that voted, Austria was in the top 3 by the public vote.  In only four countries was Austria voted outside of the top 5.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder just where you have been conducting her poll.  Your email address is German, and yet recent polls from Germany show that 70% of the population support same-sex marriage.  Bearing that in mind, would the same people really care about a “bearded lady” winning Eurovision?  I doubt it.

Now, let’s get down to the whole indoctrination thing.  All the 3% want, Anna (and I hope you don’t mind me calling you Anna), is to be treated as equals. We’re not trying to convert you – heaven help us, looking at your comments most of the LGBT population are no doubt quite glad you’re straight.   What’s interesting though, is you don’t want us to “indoctrinate” you, but you are happy to give us the advice of taking it a “whole lot slower.”   My dear girl, it’s taken 2000 years to get where we are now, how slowly do you want us to take it?

Your definition of homophobia as a mental illness is indeed that – yours, not mine.  Either way, you clearly don’t spend much time reading my posts if you think that I view having a mental illness as somehow demeaning or offensive.  Homophobia is an irrational fear simply because it IS a fear.  What are you scared of?  So what if we finally persuade all of the Annas of the world that we simply want equality?  Are you scared of thatEquality?  I doubt that.

Your final sentence shows exactly where you’re really coming from – sheer vindictiveness.   After all, you do tell us to “pls go ahead with what you are doing, you are digging your own grave.”  You want us to dig our own graves?  This is nothing about you wanting us to take things slower – you simply don’t want us to exist.  Well, my dear concerned reader, I would like to confirm that I do not feel the same way about you.   Every time somebody like yourself writes a comment like yours, more people get outraged and realise that you’re in the wrong here – or, at the very least, irrational.  I’d like to assume that your issue here is simply a lack of education – but considering the nature of your comments and your choice of language, that simply isn’t the case.

Do I get angry with people like you?  Not really.  I feel sorry for you, Anna.  Sorry that you can’t live your life without being outraged by someone singing a song – and even more sorry that, four weeks on, you were still on the internet looking for articles on the singer you were outraged by and feeling the urge to write a comment.  Really and truly, have you nothing better to do? You call me a “gay activist,” something I would say is really not true.   I may well use my blog and twitter for political purposes from time to time and to put the LGBT viewpoint across, but that hardly makes me an activist.   You, on the other hand, seem far more “active” putting your point across than I am.

Now, I’m off to live my life, and I sincerely hope that you manage to find a way to live yours without worrying about the shocking behaviour of  1-3% of the population.

Best wishes

Shane x

Ebay’s “inappropriate” behaviour

ebaylogo

 

Update:  After 90 minutes of live chat, three emails and five phone calls, eBay have changed their rules on the use of “gay” and “lesbian” in shop categories, which is a positive move.  That it took a month’s worth of effort to get the result is less positive.  Live chat was embarrassingly poor, emails received were often cut and pasted from standard paragraphs, and four times on the phone I was promised a response via email within 24 hours which didn’t happen.  This surely isn’t good enough customer service for a company that has just increased some of its fees by 250%.

The original blog post appears below:

 

It appears to me that Ebay has a problematic relationship with the gay community. At the end of last year, stories appeared in the media and social media of certain products being withdrawn from sale after being labelled as being of “gay interest” – this included a T-shirt of a reindeer wearing a rainbow flag, no less. While Ebay did apologise and admitted its mistake once the story went public, one has to wonder whether there is something more sinister at work here than an automated system going a little haywire. After all, why are the words “gay interest” in the system at all as possibly being related to possibly offensive or banned items?

I have come across a similar issue this week. With Ebay raising their insertion fees by 250% on some items, opening a “shop” seemed the cheapest way forward (although the amount of inclusive listings in hiring a shop has been halved too). When entering the categories I wanted for my shop, I worked through innocuous names with no problems.

DVD: World Cinema

DVD: Silent Cinema

However, when I tried to enter that highly offensive term “DVD: Gay Cinema,” I got a notice flash up on the screen telling me that the word “gay” was “inappropriate.” Needless to say, the system doesn’t like “lesbian cinema” either – but “straight cinema” is just fine. “Gay interest cinema” is also a no-go, although “gay-themed cinema” is fine, but presumably only because the hyphen means the word “gay” doesn’t get detected.

My issue here was not that I had to use a hyphen, but the labelling of the term “gay” as “inappropriate.” Inappropriate to who? And why? Was Ebay somehow linking the word “gay” with sex and pornography? That would be wrong, of course, but it would at least give an explanation. But that couldn’t be right either because, as I tried out different category titles, I found out that “adult DVDs” caused no problems for Ebay at all, and wasn’t deemed inappropriate.

And so it was that, on Sunday afternoon, I headed to Ebay live chat to find out what was going on. In my ninety minute chat, I spoke to four representatives. None of them could help me. Three of them suggested ways around the problem, but none seemed to understand that getting around the issue wasn’t the problem – my problem was that the word “gay” was tagged as “inappropriate.” One of the reps told me that the system had problems with “that kind of word,” although I’m not quite sure what kind of word that might be. The final lady I spoke to apologised for her “incontinence” (no joke), and I told her I was glad it wasn’t a face to face conversation. After I left the conversation, I received a long message from this lady telling me why pornographic items were not allowed on Ebay (which had nothing to do with our conversation).

I then decided that the way forward would be to send Ebay an email.   This also caused problems. They have no public email address. I went back to live chat, and they told me I would have to send my complaint by post to Dublin. I told them that an online business really shouldn’t be forcing its customers to send complaints by snail mail to another country. No, I was assured, there was no email address. Bearing this in mind, I then told them that I would, instead, write an open letter of complaint on my blog and tweet it to all my followers. I asked if Ebay had an email address now. Yes, they did, as it happens. Funny that.

So, I sent my email to Ebay and, in less than 24 hours, I got my response. However, it was rather problematic. Part of it reads as follows:

“I understand this matter is frustrating for you as you have being restricted for using the word ‘gay’ in your shop category title. Please understand this word is not inappropriate to use, however we have to factor in the whole eBay community. eBay’s community is a diverse, international group of users with varied backgrounds and beliefs, and it’s easy to image how home items listed on eBay might be offensive to at least some of our users somewhere in the world. …The word gay in not considered inappropriate as mentioned above this may not be offensive in your eyes or mine; however, we need to consider eBay as a whole.”

No matter how much Ebay tries to sweeten this, the facts remain the same – there is discrimination going on here, and the company are clearly worried that, for some reason, some people might have trouble with the word “gay.” That Ebay are seemingly intent on bowing to the whims of the homophobic only makes the matter ten times worse than it already is. When the gay/LGBT DVD genre was deleted from Ebay UK last year, I assumed it was simply part of their reorganisation. However, I’m now beginning to wonder if there wasn’t a darker reason behind that too.

When I started this little investigation 48 hours ago, I honestly thought that Ebay had deemed the word “gay” as inappropriate for shop categories fifteen years ago when attitudes were, by and large, less tolerant, and never put it right due to an oversight. However, my reply from the company via email states quite clearly that it is “inappropriate” because some people, somewhere in the world, might find it offensive.

Bearing that in mind, I say to Ebay that the LGBT community is likely to find that offensive in itself. If the system hadn’t been updated as times changed, then I would say “fine,” but put it right now you are aware. That clearly isn’t what happened here, and there is a clear statement from the company that they are keen to deem a word describing a lifestyle as “inappropriate” in order to not lose the custom of the homophobic few.

 

Breaking Point and Breaking Down

 

bullying

The sudden spate of publicity about “Breaking Point” over the last week or so has made me revisit the idea of a follow-up book.  The following is a personal piece about the writing of the novel and the motivations behind it.  It was useful to write to put my own thoughts in order but, also, I thought it might be useful to read for those who might be encouraged to read the book in the coming weeks thanks to the recent publicity on Twitter.  If this little essay comes over as a vanity project, it’s not the intention.  It’s more like a private journal entry being made public, a stream-of-consciousness in which I attempt to put some thoughts and ideas in order. 

*

Life has a strange way of surprising us when we least expect it.  I published Breaking Point as an e-book back in 2011, and sold around six copies over the space of eighteen months.  This wasn’t devastating, but instead totally expected.  After all, Breaking Point is a novel that centres on the subject of homophobic bullying in schools.  It’s hardly bestseller material.  What’s more, it sits in a kind of no-man’s–land between a young adult book and an adult book.  Sure,  for the most part it revolves around a group of sixteen year olds, but they act and speak in a way us adults try to forget they are capable of.

In order to have a bit of a break from writing my PhD thesis, I revised Breaking Point in late 2012 and reissued it in February 2013.  I found that the world was very different in 2013 than in 2011.  Twitter had suddenly become a great marketing tool, a way to reach out and tell people about the book.  In the space of eleven months, seven thousand copies of Breaking Point have now been downloaded.  I’ll admit, many of these were during free promotions etc, but nobody writes a first novel for it to make money, but in the hope that it will be read.  By someone.

A few weeks back, I was able to self-publish Breaking Point in paperback.  I knew then that very few copies would shift – most people who wanted to read it had already done so through the e-book.  But at least the paperback allows the book to reach school libraries, for example – and I hope that is what happens.   Around the same time, things took an unexpected turn when I was contacted by Amanda Taylor from the University of Central Lancashire who wanted to talk to me about the book in relation to the Social Work Book Club – this, too, has resulted in publicity of the book through Twitter and elsewhere.

The comments about the book, and the reviews on Amazon, have often been touching and moving.  I have received private messages on Twitter from people who have read the book, and received emails too.   I’m still partly in shock about this, despite the fact that the book is only doing what it set out to do in the first place.

What is that, exactly?

Well, I guess the aims were twofold.  Firstly I wanted to write a gay-themed work that didn’t resort to long passages of sex to try and get the reader to part with their cash or their time.  As a gay man, I find it really quite offensive that filmmakers and many authors think we only want to read gay-themed stories if they contain an abundance of nudity and sex – that these directors and writers are mostly gay men themselves only compounds the problem, making it appear that the LGBTs of this world are interested in one thing only.  I don’t believe that’s true.   I have been into Waterstone’s book shop and asked where the LGBT fiction can be found, and been told “it’s under ‘erotica’”.   What the bloody hell is it doing under “erotica?”  Well, part of the reason, I guess, is that most of the gay fiction out there today does have a substantial erotic element.   Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t raise eyebrows amongst LGBTs, such subject matter is par for the course for gay fiction.  Even today, the act of sex seems to define who and what a gay man (or woman) is.  I find that scary and sad in equal measure.

I think most of us would be just as happy finding mirrors of ourselves on the silver screen.  And I don’t mean mirrors of who society thinks we are, but mirrors of who we really are.  There is no place for a stereotype in 2013.  We are, after all, individuals.  For all the talk of the “LGBT community”, we are still not clones of each other, or definitely going to like and admire each other just because we are sexually attracted to a particular gender.  It’s lunacy.  We wouldn’t expect all heterosexuals to be the same and like the same things and people just because they are all attracted to the opposite sex.

So, I wanted to write a book that didn’t rely on cheap thrills to get an audience. And I wanted to write a book where the gay characters didn’t live in a separate world to straight characters – again, this seems to be something that only happens in the world of gay-themed independent (American) filmmaking.   But the second major thing I wanted to do was to give a certain group of people a voice.

I wrote earlier about how we perceive fifteen and sixteen year olds, and how they really act and talk.  The bullying in Breaking Point centre on a type that is not talked about in the press or on TV, and concentrates very much on embarrassment and humiliation.  The reason we don’t hear about this as much is because the victims don’t want to talk about it.  While the incidents within the book didn’t happen to me, they are nearly all inspired by personal stories people have written on the web or from the very few newspaper articles that mention this type of behaviour.  The victims don’t want to talk about it – and understandably so, and so Breaking Point was intended to give those victims a voice, and to bring these issues out into the open.  I never intended to provide answers or resolutions to the problems.  That’s not my job, and neither am I qualified to do such a thing.  I don’t think there are solutions, certainly not blanket ones that work in every case.  If there were, we wouldn’t still be having this problem.

The reason for me writing this blog post is because I am trying to get my thoughts in order as to where to go next.  For me, the answer is an obvious one.  In order to finish what I have started, the rest of the story has to be told.  Bullying doesn’t end with the last day of school – either for the victims or the bullies.  The repercussions are there for a long time, in some cases throughout the person’s life.   The victim doesn’t walk out of the school gates on that last day, start smiling, and float through the next few years unaffected by what has happened.  I was diagnosed with depression two years after leaving school, and with bipolar ten years after that – which I still have, albeit nicely under control.  These kind of after effects are what I want to use as the backbone for “Breaking Down”, the tentative title of the follow-up to Breaking Point. 

I wrote a blogpost earlier in the year about cinematic depictions of mental health issues, and I face the same quandary as the films I discuss there:  how do you make the depiction of depression realistic and sympathetic, but also make it entertaining?  A novel has to be entertaining, after all.  Well, unless it’s written by Henry James, but let’s not go there.  And this is where I am falling down at the moment.  I know how the plot needs to unfold, I know how I want to depict the issues it raises, but I still need to find a way to do that in an entertaining way that makes people want to read the next page.   And that’s not going to be easy.

Will Breaking Down ever get finished?  I hope so, not least because I like the few chapters that have already been written.  But for it to be successful in any way, it has to concentrate on the individual experience, and not resort to the stereotypes that have plagued gay and lesbian film and books, and depictions of mental illness, for so many years.

For those that have read Breaking Point, or helped to spread the word, I shout out a huge “thank you” – the idea of seven thousand people owning  a copy of my book would have been laughable just a year ago.  So, thank you for making 2013 a memorable and very special year.