What do political t-shirts as a form — and their content — say about current attitudes to LGBT issues in parliamentary parties?
Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the Italian fashion house Prada, spent her 1970s as a militant of the Partito Comunista Italiano. Her later career, as iconic visionary of the family firm, continues her political work; bold in vision, continuing a uniquely Italian model and aesthetic tendency, and whip-cruel against deviations from the corpus. Form, darlings and comrades, is all.
From that perspective, a cursory overview of the phenomena of the political t-shirt is bound to disappoint; ill-fitting, gaudy and indiscrete, these are mass-produced items of political ephemera designed as pret-a-porter propaganda. They have a long history, from the classic Che Guevara tee to Katharaine Hamnett’s “58% Don’t Want Pershing” dress, worn to an official function at Thatcher’s Downing St. They’re usually designed as light provocations, encouraging debate and intended to be part of wider campaigns: the fashion version of a bumper sticker or a pin-badge. For that reason, they can be very effective on simple, widely discussed political issues: the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the Miners’ Strike or Section 28, to take examples from the 80s, the golden age of the political t-shirt. They say a lot about what a group sees as their main political demand. Looking at the campaign t-shirts on offer from the LGBT lobby groups in today’s mainstream parliamentary parties in the UK can shed light on exactly what they perceive to be the defining political principles of their organisations — and how the strategy of visibility taken by early Gay Liberation movements has been hollowed out.
I’VE NEVER KISSED A TORY
Despite the increasing conservatism of the gay rights movement, there still remains a residual libidinal disgust at the figure of the Tory. LGBT Labout seeks to capitalise on this lingering sentiment with their new t-shirt, which proudly proclaims the wearer has “never kissed a Tory!”. Similar to the #leftyancestors hashtag that briefly trended on twitter last year, where people tweeted their genealogical roots within the Labour movement, it succeeds in erasing any real political position and replacing it with a whimsical, bragging form of identity one-upmanship. What does it mean?
It’s intended as a sign of just how pure the wearer is, just how deep the red thread of socialism runs. It hints at, perhaps, an unofficial sex strike: sorry Tory boys, no matter how bad you want me, you’re not getting it until you renounce your heartless ways. But what it really demonstrates is how small a role sexuality, bodies, play in informing your politics. For the wearer, sexual politics is simply carrying the alienating spectacle of the party system into the bedroom (and you suspect it is just the bedroom). There is no further demand, no differentiation; the main selling point of Labour is, well, they’re not Tories. Perhaps, without the t-shirt, we wouldn’t be able to tell. Sexual politics is a matter of the limitations and affordances of the representative system; of policy decisions, of budgets and funding, of the temporary sexual licence of Party Conference, of what happens in Blackpool stays in Blackpool. Westminster is a fertile world of sexual tension and exploitation, and a graveyard of human joy.
That itself is hinted at in the slogan. No-one should be judged on how many (or few) people they’ve slept with, on how well (or little) they know their sexual partners. But as a political project, it seems symbolic of a hellhole of repression that we’d know, and act upon, the party political affiliations of all our sex partners. I have literally no idea if I’ve kissed a Tory, although it’s statistically highly probable. Is this the limit of our political-sexual imaginary? Is the watchword of emancipation we want emblazoned upon our chests yet another limitation on desire?
WE’RE QUEER, WE’RE HERE, GET USED TO IT!
Gay liberation didn’t always look so awful. Following the Stonewall Riots and renewed militancy amongst homosexual rights activists, groups like the Gay Liberation Front emerged, taking gay politics from the rights-focused, demure and respectful lobbying of the homophile groups to confrontational, radical consciousness-raising and direct action. They had two key weapons in their arsenal: pride and visibility.
The concept of pride was about removing the psychological barriers of shame and self-disgust that repressed action, encouraged discrimination between gay people and prevented the development of a full and joyful sexual identity. The purpose of visibility, meanwhile, was to create a collective sexual community of gay people; to bring them together in order to build a political project firmly predicated not on winning concessions within society, but on totally destroying the patriarchal model of life, liberating humans from the repressive status quo or rigid and inhumane gender norms. To build a movement, you had to meet each other first; visibility was the tool to do that.
It was a tool though; a way to build a political movement with a clear aim to destroy patriarchy. In the four decades since the insurrection in New York and subsequent political organising, visibility has not just the tool of gay politics, but the aim. To “come out” has become a necessary rite of passage to inhabit a gay identity, and once out, and visible, your political journey is complete. In that shift we’ve lost the mechanism of gay identity as a contestational subject and moved instead to a political agenda built on civil rights. Such a state of affairs means the Conservative Party can co-opt the gay identity within their political project without any contradiction.
KEEP CALM AND MARRY ON
So when David Cameron said “I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative” he’s right: gay marriage is essentially a conservative victory, removing a historic discrimination (against gay people only: trans* people remain victimized by the change in law) by perpetuating an institution that valorises traditional patriarchal family models. Those supposed grotesque vulpine cryptids, gay tories, are celebrating the scraps from the table of Conservative internecine warfare with a new t-shirt for the faithful. Another take on the epidemic meme that has so harassed us for the past decade, it reads Keep Calm and Marry On, with a rebranded Conservative Party logo, on a suitably duck-egg blue.
“Keep Calm and Carry On”, and all its variant forms, represents a very specific brand of contemporary ideology; that of austerity nostalgia. Owen Hatherley has examined this phenomenon, a hungry craving by the English middle-classes to contextualize the punishing austerity regime inflicted on other people as part of a collective struggle. Hatherley writes “The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself, a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticized, hysterical and privatized reality of Britain over the last thirty years. At the same time as it evokes a sense of loss over the decline of this idea of Britain and the British, it is both reassuring and flattering, implying a virtuous (if highly self-aware) stoicism in the displayer of the poster or wearer of the T-shirt.”
A key implication of the injuction to carry on is to continue as normal, not to deviate from the status quo. By invoking the wartime poster, it calls on the viewer to trust the judgment of government, submit to its authority (in your best interest) and continue trying to live a normal home life. As such the t-shirt is a celebration of power by the Conservatives, and the celebration of acceptance into that power by gay Conservatives. Today there is no contradiction between holding a gay politics and being a conservative, because the main principle of gay politics is simply being visible as a gay person in itself. In this context, LGBT Labour’s claim to have never kissed a Tory becomes ever more sectarian in its party politics, ever emptier of political meaning. At least the LGBTory t-shirt claims a political demand, however reactionary.
TYRANNY OF THE TRANSGRESSIVE IMAGE
A political t-shirt is more than just a slogan; it’s an image, where the form holds as much meaning as the content of the words, as demonstrated by the reactionary implications of any reinterpretation of Keep Calm and Carry On, where any message, no matter how radical will be subsumed by the patrician authoritarian tendencies implicit within the design. The t-shirt is a broadcast medium; it tells its audience things. And not just the campaign slogan; more importantly, its role is to confer a political subjecthood upon the wearer that can be read by the viewer. That subjectivity is one of light-hearted transgression, of rebellion. The political t-shirt is a particularly teenaged item of clothing, in its way; it aims to disrupt any given dialogue with a shout, without nuance. It’s here, it’s clear, get used to it. Perhaps public displays of homosexuality still contain that hint of public transgression, a quality that rubs off on these t-shirts. But to what end? These very public assertions have come to perfectly inhabit a politics where visibility alone is victory; their content shouts but the form has become badly executed, ill-fitting, unchallenging.
In the meantime, despite ideological differences, I will remain a firm advocate of the political-aesthetic tendency Miuccisimo; the implicit critique of form will always butcher the vulgarity of explicit content, and content divorced from radical form is impotent, teenaged transgression.