Diversity, family, and LGBT rights: watching Eurovision across borders

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight on 3 May.

The working seminary building, with bishops’ portraits hanging in the corridors and a six-foot crucifix nailed to the back wall of the conference room, that I visited in April to take part in Maynooth University’s conference on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest in a Changing World: Culture, Geography and Politics’ is one of the less likely venues for giving a talk on the Song Contest – especially one about how the Contest got tied into the international politics of LGBT rights – and yet somehow felt very much in the Eurovision spirit.

To understand what might be so ‘Eurovision’ about using a room surrounded by the iconography of a traditionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic institution to talk about European LGBT activism, Dana International’s impact on trans history, and the symbolic role Conchita Wurst took on in 2014 for people who foresaw a renewed cultural ‘Cold War’ between Europe and Russia involves understanding that Eurovision has always meant, for many of its LGBT fans, a way to rewrite heterosexual community and ritual into something special to them.

To many of the LGBT fans, especially gay men, who have historically been so heavily involved in Eurovision fandom, straight society’s annual rituals of celebration and family reunion have at best assimilated them and at worst been actively oppressive.

The World Cup and the Olympics both assemble fans celebrating national success and (above all at the World Cup) national masculinity; Christmas, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote, is when all the social institutions where homophobia resides ‘are speaking with one voice’ to remind queer people that the idealised family excludes them. Even before Eurovision became an LGBT celebration on stage, with historic performances in 1997–8 by Páll Oskar and Dana International, Eurovision was already giving thousands of queer people an annual focal point for getting together with community and family.

 

Or as one ‘out-of-office’ graphic that’s gone around Facebook in Eurovision week over the last few years, asking forgiveness if fans are taking a long time to keep up with email, frames itself in the language of a religious festival: ‘This is because we are celebrating Eurovision.’

For someone who researches popular culture, nationalism and conflict since the end of the Cold War, the Eurovision Song Contest represents the one moment in the year when the general public in the UK or Ireland is likely to be interested in something as obscure as controversies over what narrative of national cultural identity should be the basis for Croatian popular music – the subject, more or less, of my first book, which I wouldn’t have written if wanting to find out more about Croatia’s 1990s Eurovision entries hadn’t been the very first step towards what became a PhD project on the politics of popular music in Croatia after its separation from Yugoslavia.

(The controversies over Severina’s Eurovision entry in 2006 – in many ways the ‘We Are Slavic’ of its decade – ended up giving me a case study I hadn’t even expected when I’d started the PhD in 2005. A spin-off paper I wrote on the Ruslana/Željko Joksimović mode of ethnopop at Eurovision, which I’d initially just planned as background for explaining Severina’s ‘Moja štikla’, has consistently been my most cited article since it came out in 2008, just as networks were starting to form around what’s now become an academic subfield of Eurovision research.)

 

In fact, talking about the politics of Eurovision from a perspective that starts with the cultural politics of the individual countries that participate is an opportunity to show there are more interesting cultural dynamics than just ‘political voting’ behind why East European countries seem to vote for each other at Eurovision all the time – and maybe to get people to rethink how they mentally divide the continent into ‘east’ and ‘west’.

Today, one of the big ‘symbolic boundaries’ in that imaginary east/west division involves LGBT rights and state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia. This was already emerging in the late 1990s, but really entered public ‘common sense’ in the twenty-first century as LGBT movements won important legislative struggles for LGB and sometimes even trans equality – leading to widespread stereotypes in western European countries that ‘Eastern Europe’ is somewhere ‘more homophobic’ than the West. (The same stereotypes are often, just as simplistically, applied to ‘Africa’ or ‘Islam’.)

Traffic-light maps of LGB rights in different European countries, like the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map, tend to come out looking green in the west and red in the east, giving an instant visual impression of which countries are supposedly further ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’. (The Trans Rights Europe Map, interestingly, is rather less spatially coherent.)

These indexes simplify a lot of legal and social complexities into a yes-or-no checklist of rights, and create an illusion of western European progressiveness and eastern European backwardness that east European queer scholars have taken the lead in pushing back against. Contemporary homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is not just international but transnational, with US pastors inspiring persecution of LGBT people in the Caribbean and Uganda, and French and Polish groups campaigning against LGBT equality exchanging slogans and symbols with each other. Nevertheless, opponents of LGBT equality have been more successful in some countries than others in persuading governments to follow their ideas and rhetoric – notably in Russia, where the federal parliament passed the so-called ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in June 2013.

Eurovision is cherished by many fans as a site of gay, trans and queer celebration and even citizenship – a rare occasion, Peter Rehberg wrote in 2007 shortly before Marija Šerifović’s heavily queer-coded ‘Molitva’ won that year’s contest, for queer people to be able to feel that the nation being celebrated includes them. At the same time, it’s broadcast across (and beyond) a continent where public broadcasters in different countries will have very different ideological positions, and even be in very different legal positions, towards representing sexual diversity and gender non-conformity on screen.

Vitaly Milonov, prime mover of the ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in Russia, has also argued for several years that Russian television should not broadcast Eurovision – precisely so that Russian families would not have to watch the ‘Europe-wide gay parade’ and ‘Sodom show’.

What I wanted to talk about at Maynooth was the problem of ‘transnational spectatorship’, or, taken out of academic language, the fact that audiences – and broadcasters – in different countries watch Eurovision from the perspective of some very distinct national cultural politics, and yet the same contest has to satisfy them all.

Something which is the stuff of everyday Saturday-night entertainment in one country, like the kiss between two men when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede officiated a same-gender ‘wedding’ during her interval act in 2013 (marking gay-friendliness as a Swedish national value), or a direct expression of activism in another, like the kiss between two women with which Krista Siegfrids attached her performance of ‘Marry Me’ that same year to the campaign for an equal marriage referendum in Finland, could now be legally questionable under laws like those currently in place in Russia.

 

Much as Eurovision organisers like to insist that the contest is a non-political event, the social and political struggles in every European country over giving LGB and trans people access to the same rights that their straight and cisgender citizens take for granted show that an event that has become so symbolically associated with LGBT belonging in Europe is not actually outside politics at all.

The language of ‘diversity’ and ‘family’ with which the European Broadcasting Union describes Eurovision is unthreatening and non-specific. During 2016’s ‘flags controversy’, where Eurovision producers’ instructions to security staff at the venue initially stated rainbow (and EU) flags would only be allowed ‘providing they will […] not be used as a tool to intentionally make a political statement during the show’, the EBU eventually said that the rainbow flag ‘technically represents diversity which is a core symbol of the EBU’ (and didn’t give other flags in the Pride family, like the trans flag, the same recognition as the rainbow flag).

This is far from the understanding of the Pride flag as a symbol of political struggle that many activists today would still insist on – but perhaps a necessary fiction, from an organisers’ point of view, to avoid a larger confrontation with broadcasters who might object more strongly to rainbow flags on screen if the EBU itself politicised them.

The language of a ‘family’ show, meanwhile, has resonances to many queer viewers that straight people may not even appreciate – because we know how often describing television as ‘family viewing’ has led to queer lives being erased from what children are able to see. ‘Family’ as a broadcasting standard can alarm queer viewers even while it sounds completely innocuous to most straight and cisgender people – who could disagree with something as everyday and happy as the family is supposed to be?

 

And yet the ideology of family, in homophobic hands or even hands that are just trying to balance homophobia and demands for LGBT rights in a false equivalence, seeps easily into withholding queer representation from children on the grounds that they should be allowed to grow up ‘naturally’ and that LGBT experiences are in and of themselves an ‘adult’ theme. The false assumption that young people are only led towards ‘alternative’ sexualities because media have exposed them to same-gender affection and transgressions of gender norms is ultimately what lies behind legislation that criminalises promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s, the phrasing of the legislation in Russia.

Yet this is not to suggest that conceiving of Eurovision as ‘family entertainment’ necessarily closes down space for it to be a queer celebration, even though the language of family does contain within itself a hinge where that could occur. Eurovision is, and has always been, a show watched by families: so many viewers’ first memories of Eurovision come from watching it as children, on such an out-of-the-ordinary night you were allowed to stay up past your bedtime, hearing languages you’d never heard before.

Most people who remember how better queer representation in media when they were young could have made it more pleasant to grow up in their own families want there to be ‘family entertainment’ – but family entertainment that affirms all kinds of queer identities and experiences, the ones that could have shown us what we were earlier and the ones that could have shown us what a diversity of possibilities for experiencing sexuality and gender – for forming family – was actually around us.

If Eurovision, with its long LGBT history, has the potential to bridge queerness and national belonging, can Eurovision also bridge queerness and family?

‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’. 

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave). 

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline. 

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’. 

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.

Yes, gender is a spectrum and yes, trans women are women full stop: why both these things are true at the same time

The question of where trans women fit into feminism is going round on UK Twitter again – the result, as it so often is, of a controversial article in a Sunday newspaper.

(The article is this piece in The Sunday Times by Jenni Murray, the presenter of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about why she doesn’t think that trans women should call themselves ‘real women’ after living life with society treating them as male – we’ll talk more about that further down.)

A historian colleague, David Andress, was suggesting on Twitter this morning that he and others would find ‘a cogent explanation of why “gender is a spectrum” and “transwomen are women, full stop” are compatible’ useful – so here’s an expanded version of what I said.

Sometimes to people who aren’t trans themselves and know how hard feminists have struggled to undo gender stereotypes and break through gendered expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour, the cases against the male vs female gender binary and the cases for unambiguously recognising trans women as women can look more incompatible than they are. If sexism puts women into a box marked ‘women’, and feminism wants to lift them out of that, does that become harder if we draw fixed lines around the category of ‘women’ so that we can get trans inclusion right?

Not at all – because one of the biggest insights that trans people have gained from understanding their own lives and bodies, but that cis people (people who aren’t trans) don’t get the chance to hear so often, makes both those statements true at the same time.

Gender isn’t determined by genitals: and if that helps trans people who need legal, social and medical recognition of the gender they are in order to lead fulfilling lives, it helps cis people and especially cis women who don’t want to be boxed in by what sexism and patriarchy have told them for centuries that they should do.

Biologically and neurologically there are lots of different ways for chromosomes, sex characteristics like genitals, and the brain to line up. Some people have heard of intersex conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where someone’s body doesn’t process male hormones (androgens) so their chromosomes are XY but externally their body ‘looks female’; this is just one of dozens of ways where most cis people’s common-sense idea that people with XX are automatically female and people with XY are automatically male starts to break down. The animal kingdom shows even more combinations of chromosomes and sex characteristics, which in some species (as biology teacher Grace Pokela wrote earlier this week) can even change partway through life: chromosomes don’t even determine sex completely accurately, let alone the relationships to body and society that humans experience as gender.

Nevertheless, one of the first things doctors in any maternity ward will do is inspect a baby’s genitals and classify the child as male or female – or, for some intersex babies, not be able to decide and make the closest call. (Intersex activists have long campaigned against putting children through surgery in early years to make their bodies correspond to the medical norm for one or other gender.)

Family, state and society all treat children as they grow up on the basis of what gender the doctor assigned them in their first medical notes – even though what the doctor sees is only the outward result of a complex set of neurological and biological processes, well before the child is even old enough to talk about how they relate to what their society calls ‘male’ and ‘female’.

How someone’s body develops on the outside and how their brain has developed on the inside are not necessarily the same: struggling to realise that in your own case, in the face of so many powerful social messages telling you the opposite, is an experience that very many trans people share.

Why does the state even need to determine someone’s gender at the moment they’re born? As well as religious, conservative and nationalist ideologies that enforce prescriptive roles on both men and women, with a far stricter moral standard applied to women then men, a Marxist or other radical political theorist could argue it’s about defending the structures through which property is handed down and wealth is reproduced. The state, as a social institution that maintains these structures of wealth, promotes and regulates marriage because marriage gives men more certainty that a child claimed as theirs actually is theirs.

There are deeply embedded structures of power – the church, the state, the idea of the family itself, all the things that feminists analyse critically – which work against a world where society would just say ‘it doesn’t matter what gender a child is, let them figure it out in their own time.’

Emphasising that ‘trans women are women’ is a way of emphasising that individuals, not social institutions, have the authority over what their gender is. In stressing women’s and everyone else’s autonomy over their own bodies, it fights the same oppressive structures that feminists have organised against from the beginning. (Example: the US religious right’s cases for banning abortion and forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth rest on the same ideas.)

Besides gender as a category – is someone female? Are they male? Are they something else (many human societies have had three or more gender categories anyway)? – there’s also ‘gender identity’, or how someone makes sense of the relationship between their self, their body and the gender system(s) of their social world. When your gender identity doesn’t correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth, that everyone and everything treats you as, you know that something’s wrong – in a deeply felt, intimate, embodied way – even though it often takes years to name the reason why.

(The internet, where you can type the roughest description of what you think is wrong into a search engine and find the words of other people who felt the same way, has played a huge role in why so many people have been able to name themselves as trans so much earlier in life, and been able to see they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that.)

The statement ‘trans women are women’ resists the notion that only somebody who grew up being treated and oppressed as a woman can be one. The same structures oppressing a non-trans woman were oppressing a trans woman too – just in a different way.

Most cis people don’t have a word for how sexism and patriarchy oppress trans women (and trans everybody else). The trans writer and biologist Julia Serano popularised the term ‘cissexism’ to refer to the pervasive idea that trans people’s gender identities are less legitimate than non-trans people’s because they don’t have the rubber stamp of biology to back them up: deterministic ideas about biology are so ingrained in most people’s common sense that feminists are just as likely to make cissexist assumptions as anyone else, even when they’re trying to be inclusive towards trans people on moral and political grounds.

(Cis and trans just mean ‘on this side of’ and ‘on the other side of’, like some words in geography and chemistry: trans writers like Serano realised that to talk about being transgender, or on the other side of the gender you were supposed to be at birth, means there also needs to be a word for not being transgender; while if you’re not trans you might not even realise that you need one until it starts to come up.)

So how is insisting that trans women have the experience and authority to know that they’re women compatible with the idea that gender is a spectrum and that nobody should be confined to the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be? They’re compatible because none of the above means there has to only be a binary of gender, that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only gender categories it’s possible for there to be.

In fact, by recognising that gender isn’t determined either by genitals (who can reproduce with whom) or even chromosomes (which don’t even produce the genitals they usually produce all the time), it creates more space to overcome fixed ideas of gender, appearance and behaviour, not less.

One of the most revealing things for me about trans feminism was finding out that gender identity (what gender someone is) isn’t the same as gender expression (how someone uses clothes and other practices often thought of as feminine, and clothes and other practices often thought of as masculine, to present themselves to the world). I can have very similar gender expression to someone with a completely different gender identity – I do – and that doesn’t mean that either of our genders are wrong.

The writer and musician CN Lester, author of the forthcoming Trans Like Me, knows that ‘they’ not ‘she’ is the right set of pronouns for them and that the name they were given at birth doesn’t describe them; it would be as wrong for me to insist that they must be a queer woman because the ways we present ourselves aren’t a million miles apart as it would be for a sexist and homophobe to insist that, because I cut my hair short and deliberately play off masculinity in the way I dress, I must really want to be a man. Everyone knows best what their own gender is; everybody feels it, or would feel it, deeply if they are or were forced to live as something else.

Some people know, or realise after years of confusion, they’re neither male or female, as strongly as a trans woman knows that she’s a woman: gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and standing up for the womanhood of people who know that they are women doesn’t make it any less so.

 

Coming back to what originally prompted these conversations today – Jenni Murray’s article in The Sunday Times, which was screenshot here – what’s at stake in Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge that trans women are as real as she is, and the pain and anger many trans people felt on reading that, is the same cissexism we’ve just been talking about: who had the right, but also the power, to determine what someone else’s gender is.

Murray is particularly critical of trans women who have expressed stereotypical ideas about feminine beauty standards to her – as if cis women don’t ever say anti-feminist things – and who she implies haven’t faced the same oppression as women whose bodies make them able to have children, with all the sexist disadvantages that means.

But ‘woman’ isn’t one undifferentiated category – as black feminists and womanists have already had to say to white women for many years. (If you’re a history student who’s been linked here, look up work like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s ‘African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race‘.) Racism as another structure of power means that the experiences of black women and white women in the same society, at the same time, are extremely different even if we’re just talking about women who are cis. (And for women in any other racialised category it’s different again.)

‘Intersectionality’, as Kimberlé Crenshaw termed this idea in African-American women’s thought, means accounting for their race and their gender in talking about how they experience discrimination, and how discrimination plays out very differently at each race/gender intersection – which helps trans feminism make the case that trans women have suffered different forms of oppression than cis women but the root cause of that oppression still harms both of them. (While the intersection of race continues to shape trans and cis women’s experiences of discrimination too – see the writing of trans women of colour like Janet Mock.)

When so many trans women have been beaten – and worse – by transphobes and homophobes who targeted them as effeminate or gay men, it rings hollow to say they’ve had the ‘privilege’ of growing up as a man.

Many trans writers on Twitter today – Shon Faye and Mia Violet, Ray Filar and CN Lester, Katelyn Burns – have been writing about how Murray’s article gives trans people less say over knowing what their gender is than cis people get. (If these threads sound angry, it’s because that double standard happens in British media all the time – including the false-equivalence debates that keep forcing trans people to explain why their gender is real to critics and transphobes on Women’s Hour.)

No-one’s going to question that Murray is a woman, because her biological history already makes that case, including the traumatic experiences she’s faced because of what body tissue she has; but biology doesn’t determine her gender or what she should do with it either, even though she’s come out with the relationship between body and gender that most people expect. (And gender identity wouldn’t prevent someone with the same body tissue from suffering in the same ways that she has.)

 

One reason this is so confusing for many people who aren’t trans is because trans people’s experiences, from their own perspectives, are very rarely part of wider public culture.

If we use racism as an imperfect analogy (because the history of transphobia and the history of racism aren’t the same), many white people do know at least a little bit about racial discrimination and racism even though they can’t have experienced it themselves. Often, and with most emotional weight, this comes through the arts, like literature and film.

Representing the lives and histories of people of colour in the arts has been and remains its own struggle – and the structure of who gets jobs in the arts is still very far from properly resembling contemporary Britain, as the actor Riz Ahmed stressed in a powerful speech this week.

The stories of what it means to be trans are even more disproportionately told by cis creators, and keep coming round to the same tropes that fascinate people who aren’t trans – while publishing pressures trans authors to keep writing in one limited format (memoirs about surgical transition, which not every trans person even wants or needs).

That’s at the cost of cis people never getting to hear what trans people and their experiences have to say about different ways of moving through the world with genders and bodies that don’t fit in: compare CN Lester’s LGBT History Month talk at Oxford this year about the actual life of the Danish artist Lili Elbe and her queer and trans contemporaries in 1920s Europe to the limited, harmful perspectives that filmgoers were shown in The Danish Girl.

The connective fabric we need to see why ‘gender is a spectrum’ and ‘trans women are women’ are both true at the same time is a cornerstone of what trans people know about their own and others’ bodies, helping to explain why they’ve experienced the dissonances that they have; to most cis people who haven’t taken the time to listen, it’s invisible.

Let’s take the time to listen, and make space for trans people’s words and knowledge to reach further when we can.

Brexit has echoes of the breakup of Yugoslavia

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog on 5 July 2016.

Even before the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership, the tone of the campaigns, the polarisation of public attitudes and the uncertainty over the country’s constitutional future had all started to recall another European crisis, two and a half decades ago: the break-up of Yugoslavia and the international community’s failure to prevent a bitter constitutional crisis escalating into war.

Jacques Poos’s comment that ‘this is the hour of Europe’, when he flew into Yugoslavia as chair of the European Community’s foreign affairs council on 29 June 1991 to mediate between the Yugoslav prime minister and the presidents of seceding Slovenia and Croatia, not only proved hollow but also symbolised, as Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Croatian Serb militia offensives against Croatian towns escalated, an emptiness of ‘Europeanness’ at the very moment the EC had looked towards a future as today’s EU. (Poos’s remark gave its name to Josip Glaurdić’s exhaustive diplomatic history of the break-up.)

Yet for several years the Yugoslav public had already been feeling a sense of spiralling, interlocking crises over the balance of power between different republics and nations inside the federation. Slobodan Milošević’s moves to recentralise the federation on terms most favourable to Serbs, addressing Serbs as victims of persecution as he did so, interacted with Slovenian demands for fiscal and political autonomy with such implications for Croatia and its border regions (where Serbs were concentrated), and threatening knock-on effects for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that by June 1991 the ‘Yugoslav public’ was already an extremely fragmented – yet not defunct – idea.

People who lived through the Yugoslav wars – like Kemal Pervanić, who survived the Omarska concentration camp after the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took control of his home town in 1992 and now lives in Britain, or Feđa Burić, a Bosnian historian weighing up the dangers of referendums – draw parallels between Yugoslavia and Britain as multi-national, deeply unequal societies which would unsettle anyone who believed the causes of conflict in Yugoslavia were unique to the Balkan region. ‘These terrible things don’t happen to some strange people – they happen to people like ourselves,’ Pervanić said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation video published on 28 June.

The break-up of Yugoslavia took the public through a downward spiral of collapsing expectations, each dragging people into a new sphere of uncertainty and fear: from the Yugoslav system being more successful than its capitalist and Warsaw Pact neighbours, to the reverse; from it being unthinkable that the union of republics would break up, to it seeming inevitable that it would; from living an everyday working life to seeing your standard of living and the whole economy collapse beyond repair; from Communism being the ideology you learned at school, to an entire system of political power and property ownership falling apart; from moving normally around your town, to fearing for your safety on the streets, based on what others read as your ethnicity.

Even if these were ill-founded – historians still debate whether or not Yugoslavia had too many long-term weaknesses to be viable when it was unified in 1918 – they were part of people’s common sense, until they could not be.

When I teach courses about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the social contexts behind the 1990s wars, British students start seeing their own society differently.

The issues at stake for Britain and its constituent entities have many resonances with, and important differences from, Yugoslavia – but perhaps the most troubling parallels come from how politicians and the media brought Yugoslavia to the point of collapse and co-operated to intensify fear and hatred once Slovenian and Croatian secession was inevitable.

Recursive secession

Scotland’s likelihood of leaving the UK if Britain leaves the EU, because the larger country is seceding from something that the smaller country inside does not want to leave, is an example of what political scientists call ‘recursive secession’. In Yugoslavia, Croatian independence under a nationalist government was unacceptable to the Croatian Serb militias, supported by Milošević, who started taking control of Serb-majority municipalities in Krajina in August 1990. If Croatia seceded, the SDS threatened to secede in turn.

Structurally, though, Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) currently imagines it is the Slovenia of the piece: the small northern republic, keen to prosper within ‘Europe’ and struggling against political shifts in the larger country that will prevent it doing so. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to negotiate independently with European leaders strongly resemble how the Slovenian and Croatian presidents, Milan Kučan and Franjo Tuđman, started sounding out international support – finding their strongest allies in Germany and Austria – for their plans to secede after Slovenia held an independence referendum on 23 December 1990.

Kučan, indeed, recently drew qualified comparisons between Brexit and Slovenian independence, comparing the Leave campaign to the self-interest of Milošević and his supporters.

Croatia, in this mapping, would be the Northern Ireland. The prospect that Milošević would support his Croatian Serb allies in opposing independence and undermining Serbs in other parties who co-operated with the Croatian government made independence much more complex and risky for Croatia than Slovenia, which had no settled Serb minority.

Despite the intense nationalism of Tuđman’s government, and its indifference to how Croatian Serbs perceived Tuđman’s ambivalence towards the legacy of Croatian collaboration with fascism during the Second World War, public and political resolve for independence in Croatia was lower than in Slovenia even in spring 1991. The Borovo Selo massacre on 2 May, when Serb insurgents killed 12 Croatian police officers in Eastern Slavonia, tipped the balance. 93.2 per cent of voters in Croatia – not counting Krajina, where Serbs boycotted the vote – voted for independence in a referendum on 19 May 1991. SDS in Krajina had declared autonomy in September 1990 and claimed republic status in December 1991, after six months of open war.

Like Croatia did in 1991, but along different lines, Northern Ireland has a recent history of ethnopolitical conflict, and independence would risk instability and political violence on the mainland as well as Northern Ireland itself.

But there are important differences between the two sets of secessions – including how few voters in England seem to have appreciated the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the UK/Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of fearing a return to the violence of the 1970s–90s, compared to how keenly aware other Yugoslavs were in 1989–91 of the potential for violence in Croatia.

The most immediate is that neither Holyrood nor Stormont are militarising their police and equipping army reserves ready for confrontation with the armed forces of the larger state, as Slovenia and Croatia both did in spring 1991 – leading to Slovenia’s ten-day war against the JNA and Croatia’s much longer conflict with JNA and Krajina forces.

And, structurally, Scotland can hardly signify Slovenia and the Serb Democratic Party at the same time.

Asymmetric confederation

What makes Brexit a constitutional as well as a political crisis is that results in two of the UK’s ‘four nations’ (England and Wales) showed a majority to Leave, and results in the other two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were a majority Remain. Westminster rejected the SNP’s demand for a ‘quadruple lock’ on the referendum (so that Leave could not succeed without majorities in all four nations) in June 2015.

Scottish and Northern Irish voters who feel that they are being taken out of the EU against their wishes have a sense of territorial democratic autonomy to draw on which is not available to English and Welsh voters who feel the same way – except by building territorial–political identities around cities like London, Oxford and Bristol with Remain majorities.

After 175,000 internet users signed a petition for London to declare independence, the city’s new mayor Sadiq Khan said on 28 June that ‘As much as I might like the idea of a London city state, I’m not seriously talking about independence today – I am not planning to install border points on the M25!’. He did demand new powers over business, housing, transport, health, policing and tax, and has been negotiating with Sturgeon and the chief minister of Gibraltar (where 96 per cent voted Remain) about their ‘shared interests’ in remaining in the EU.

Proposals for some UK territories to Remain while others Leave, but for the UK to stay together as a state, arguably have partial precedents such as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland or Spain and the Canary Islands – though still skip over the problem of residents of England and Wales who would still want and need to exercise the individual rights, especially freedom of movement, they had taken for granted as part of the EU.

They echo the plans to reform Yugoslavia as an asymmetric confederation, proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in October 1990, where each Yugoslav republic would have its own defence and foreign policies and the right to apply for EC membership individually. The presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offered another ‘asymmetric federation’ proposal in February 1991.

Scholars debate why the confederation plan failed or whether it was even intended to succeed (Glaurdić makes the case that Milošević sabotaged it; Dejan Jović argues it was only ever a tactical move); but this is the level of complexity with which the UK constitution would have to be re-negotiated in order to balance the democratic majorities from Scotland and Northern Ireland with the total majority vote across the UK.

Constitutionally, however, the UK ‘four nations’ and the Yugoslav republics are different kinds of entity. The status of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to ‘Acts of Union’ with the Crown from 1536, 1603 and 1800, with subsequent amendments including the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the devolutions of 1998. England, the largest nation and the equivalent to Serbia in a rough UK/Yugoslav parallel, has no separate constitutional status, and it is UKIP rather than Labour which has led calls for an English parliament.

The Yugoslav republics, established as Tito’s Partisans gained control of territory during the Second World War and confirmed by the 1946 constitution, had all officially exercised national self-determination in forming the federation and ostensibly had the right to secede – though whether this right applied to republics or to ethno-national groups (whose demographic boundaries did not coincide with the republics) was the very constitutional issue behind conflict in Croatia in 1990–1.

How quickly public support for independence can flip

Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate commitment that ‘the option of a second referendum [on Scottish independence] must be on the table’ after the referendum results rested on an SNP manifesto commitment in the May 2016 elections that the Scottish Parliament should be able to hold another referendum if there were ‘a significant and material change in circumstances […] such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’.

While the change in the Scottish public mood isn’t so overwhelming for Sturgeon to actually call the referendum straight away, the closeness of the UK-wide result adds to the perception that the national Leave majority is too small to take such a drastic step.

So, even more damningly, does the feeling among Remain supporters that all the Leave campaign’s promises were based on misinformation – from the promise of taking back national sovereignty when the next prime minister is likely to be unelected, to the quoted £350 million per week that Britain could save by leaving the EU, to statements that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU and, with its large Muslim population acquiring EU freedom of movement, posing a national security risk to the UK. (The Leave campaign subsequently wiped its website.)

And so does the revelation that neither the Leave campaign or Westminster had a plan for actually managing and negotiating Brexit, leading to a situation where the all-important Article 50 notification (which would trigger Brexit after two years) might not even be made.

Remain supporters, in Scotland and elsewhere, do not just feel outvoted – they feel betrayed, and afraid (as Leave voters will if Westminster never activates Article 50). Scottish voters have an outlet for those sentiments in the SNP.

The shock of the result and its aftermath does not in itself evoke the same kind of visceral terror as the Borovo Selo massacre – though the fear created by escalating racist violence on UK streets has its own similarities to the early stages of ethnopolitical conflict.

But majorities tip from supporting autonomy towards the riskier choice of independence when it becomes clear that the nation has no prospect at all of achieving what voters see as its self-determination within the structure of a larger country – and the referendum crisis may have brought Scotland to that point.

By the time Slovenian and Croatian voters were deciding between autonomy and independence, political activity in Yugoslavia was centred almost entirely on the separate republics, with the multi-party elections of 1990 all taking place at different times. By the time the Yugoslav prime minister formed his own Yugoslavia-wide party in July 1990, aiming to offer an alternative to Milošević’s authoritarian vision for the federation, Slovenia and Croatia had voted already, with nationalist parties winning in both.

Building political alliances across, as well as within, autonomous national units will be essential for UK political movements that seek to hold the country together.

‘Europe’ as a symbol of hope – about to be betrayed?

While the UK referendum was directly about the European Union, Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence referendums might as well have been. Slovenian liberals aspired to join Europe culturally and politically, even (or in some eyes especially) if it meant leaving the ‘Balkan’ remainder of Yugoslavia behind. Kučan reformed the Slovenian League of Communists into a social democratic party under the slogan ‘Europe Now!’

In the early stages of the war in Croatia, the Croatian government as well as many of the public looked to the EC to intervene, force Milošević to accept Croatian independence and end the occupation of Krajina. ‘We want to share the European dream, we want democracy and peace,’ Tomislav Ivčić sang in an English-language song, written as war intensified in August 1991, which Croatian Television hoped would serve as a promotional video for the Croatian cause abroad.

 

A few months later, the hopes Croats had invested in Europe would be dashed as the JNA and paramilitaries overran Vukovar in November 1991 and the Croatian government accepted a ceasefire in January 1992 which left one third of its territory under occupation – just as SDS in Bosnia-Herzegovina was about to declare a sovereign ‘Republika Srpska’ to prevent Bosnia seceding too.

Bosnians who had hoped in 1990 that the Krajina conflict would not affect Bosnia would share Croatians’ disenchantment with ‘Europe’, and suffer an even more devastating war, as the EC failed to prevent SDS militias and the JNA killing and expelling non-Serbs in municipalities they controlled, encircling other towns and nearly partitioning the capital, Sarajevo.

Violence on the scale of the war in Croatia or Bosnia is not imminently threatening the United Kingdom. But scenes of young people appealing directly to ‘Europe’, like the March for Europe on 2 July or the demonstration in London that interrupted a live Channel 4 News broadcast on 28 June, recall independence rallies in Slovenia or, even more so, peace rallies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where other young people begged leaders not to let them down.

Politicians get emotional as ‘normal’ politics fall apart

Scenes from the European Parliament on 28 June – with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asking the UKIP leader Nigel Farage why he was still there, Farage goading MEPs (‘You all laughed at me… well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now’) and the SNP’s Alyn Smith, after demanding the EU respect Scotland’s vote to remain, receiving a standing ovation for his concluding ‘Scotland did not let you down… please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down!’ – were so far outside the usual frame of EU parliamentary politics that they immediately became items of viral news.

The spectacle came from the contrast between speakers’ emotions and what viewers probably expect to be the dispassionate nature of a European Parliament chamber (much more so than the unruly, ‘braying’ sound of UK Prime Minister’s Questions). The feelings Juncker, Farage, Smith and others displayed hinted at longer-standing resentments over questions of sovereignty and independence which were suddenly on public view.

Notable, too, was the invisibility of the United Kingdom, as opposed to its individual nations, in Smith’s direct appeal to European lawmakers.

All of these seem to be signals that the boundaries of ‘normality’ in UK/EU politics have shifted in a very short space of time, driven by people who are still coming to terms with it.

People who remember scenes from televised Yugoslav Party congresses and parliaments in 1988–92, or indeed news footage from the period in 1990–1 when the European Community still appeared to be able to influence the outcome in Yugoslavia, might see several parallels – from the unprecedented emotion with which politicians talk to each other, to the fact that, the euro crisis apart, the break-up of Yugoslavia was the last overnight geopolitical crisis where the EC/EU as an institution played a major role.

In the UK as in Yugoslavia, however, the media have been implicated in producing the crisis for much longer, in ways that might parallel the course of events that made it even become conceivable in the late 1980s that Yugoslavia could imminently break apart.

Media spectacle can make centres out of extremes

Only a few years ago, UK media treated UKIP and Farage as marginal parties rather than part of the core of political options (where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats belonged), giving them and the Green Party broadly similar coverage.

Ofcom and the BBC awarded UKIP ‘major party’ status in England and Wales for the 2014 European elections after it made significant local election gains in 2013–14, and confirmed UKIP, but not the Greens, as a ‘major party’ for general elections in 2015.

‘Major party’ status entitles parties to an extra party political broadcast and is also likely to influence news editors charged with maintaining political balance in reporting election campaigns. Themes and images in tabloid media, especially on immigration and on the disenfranchisement of England, harmonise with UKIP campaigns more directly than any mass newspaper or television channel amplifies Green campaigns when their policies fall to the left of Labour.

UKIP ‘managed to define the discourse around migration’ in the 2015 election, Laleh Khalili writes, even though the party itself only gained one seat.

Farage’s confrontational and triumphalist tone as a speaker appeals to UKIP supporters as a sign he will take on the Westminster and Brussels elite on behalf of England but strikes many on the Left experience as bullying and unpleasant, most of all in his post-referendum victory speech when he praised ‘the dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom […] without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired’ only a week after the shooting of Jo Cox. Although his own background is in City trading, and for years Labour and Conservative politicians had already been politicising immigration, his discourse stands out from established members of the political elite.

In a parallel way, Slobodan Milošević used populist language and a promise to reverse the disenfranchisement of a nation through constitutional change to present himself to Serbs as a political outsider, leading the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, even though he had risen through the ranks of the Serbian Communist Party and previously headed a major Yugoslav bank. (Charles Simić, writing in December, likened Milošević’s political communication to Donald Trump.)

Non-Serbs, especially Albanians in Kosovo, Croats and Bosnians – as well as Serbs struggling for more rather than less democracy in Yugoslavia – feared Milošević as a figure who would legitimise and incite ethnopolitical violence by Serbs. (One of Milošević’s first acts of aggression, in March 1989, was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a province of Serbia, repress Albanians’ political and cultural rights, and introduce martial law.)

Serbian media helped to create the myth of Milošević as a combative, anti-elitist defender of Serbs when TV Belgrade repeated clips of his comment, made while visiting Kosovo Serb protestors in April 1987, that ‘Nobody is allowed to beat you!’ (referring to their allegations of being beaten by Kosovo police).

Farage’s and Milošević’s programmes resemble each other in that both address disenfranchised members of majority nations (a white English public or the Serbs) as groups who are marginalised, victimised and under siege, using language of crisis and threat. For Farage, the threat is of floods or swarms of immigration, putting Britain under social and cultural strain, which EU rules supposedly prevent Britain from reining in.

Earlier on the day of Jo Cox’s death, Farage had posed in front of a poster reading ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. The image was of a column of refugees, mostly Middle Eastern, on the Slovenian/Croatian border in the summer of 2015.

Both Serbs in 1988 and residents of deindustrialised England in 2016 faced serious economic disadvantages, of recent onset, that Yugoslavia or Westminster had not addressed. (Even for Serbs, living standards would fall yet further under Milošević except for those in positions to benefit from corruption, war profiteering or organised crime.)

Yet ethnic minorities, EU migrants, LGBT people, disabled people threatened by further austerity, and left-wing activists in the UK fear the consequences of a UKIP-driven government in the UK in ways which are not identical to, but have some parallels with, the fears of non-Serbs in the early stages of Milošević consolidating power through the Yugoslav federal system.

One major difference between the media of 1988–91 and the media of 2016, however, is how and where the public see tide-turning audiovisual moments and in what ways the media fragment their audiences.

Fragmented media help interpretations of the crisis diverge

In Yugoslavia, people saw incidents like Milošević’s remark to Kosovo Serb protestors or the pictures from Borovo Selo at home on broadcast evening news. Today, moments like the European Parliament speeches or the news about Jo Cox reach us throughout the day, on workplace computers and mobile devices, at different times.

Which moments, narratives and interpretations even reach us are conditioned by how we structure our own social media and what network algorithms then choose to show us, in a more finer-grained way than different newspapers have always framed reality in different ways for their readerships.

Late 1980s Yugoslavia did not have such individualised media fragmentation but, with all republics’ broadcasters controlled by their republics’ Communist parties (and some programming shared between republics), its broadcast infrastructure still meant that viewers in different republics formed divergent, directly opposed understandings of what the Yugoslav crisis even was, unless they consciously sought alternative sources of information. After the 1990 elections, Slovenia and Croatia could follow Milošević’s lead in using television as a vehicle for their own political and historical narratives.

Different publics in Yugoslavia knew less and less about how the crisis was seen elsewhere in the country. Within an escalating cycle of ethno-political fear, increasingly, they did not want to, until ethno-national identity became the predominant frame of reference in public.

The Yugoslav crisis happened, and the Brexit crisis has happened, at dizzying speed, leaving the public trying to piece together ‘instant histories’ from media, their own experiences and their friends and neighbours. Digital media might intensify polarising tendencies even further, if people see less and less outside their online as well as offline ‘filter bubble’.

They might deterritorialise the polarisation which in Yugoslavia occurred on a territorial, ethno-national basis; in England, at least, the two hardening ‘sides’ are spread throughout the country, with more or less concentrated majorities or minorities in certain areas. Within as well as between nations, the public end up with substantially different ‘instant histories’ and act on them in different ways.

But digital media also give more access to alternative perspectives than print media and analogue broadcasting ever made possible – an advantage on which campaigns based on solidarity across difference will need to capitalise.

Ethnic and racist violence shapes how collective identities form

The most frightening, immediate effect of the referendum campaign and result in the UK has been what is publicly perceived as, and is highly likely to be, a dramatic increase in racist abuse and violence.

Jo Cox’s assassination on 16 June by a man linked to neo-Nazi terrorism shocked the public – including her fellow Labour MPs, now embroiled in a contest over the future and existence of their party – because it marked a form of political violence that UK residents not already under threat by the far right usually suppose not to exist in Britain.

During the referendum campaign, far-right groups circulated propaganda about Muslim refugees as terrorist infiltrators and sexual predators – playing on the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Cologne – that harmonised horribly with the mainstream Leave campaign’s public statements about immigration and Turkish membership of the EU. (Compare how caricatures of Albanian Muslims as rapists circulated in late 1980s Serbia, adding their undertones to Milošević’s claims that Serbs were being persecuted in Kosovo.)

Cox resembled the moderate police chief of Osijek, Josip Riehl-Kir, in her potential to interpret the crisis in an alternate way to the political consensus. Cox had written, days before her death, in defence of EU membership and free movement of people, and campaigned for Britain to resettle more Syrian refugees. Reihl-Kir had tried to defuse ethnicised Serb/Croat tensions in Slavonia in spring 1991, in marked contrast to Serb militants’ antagonism towards Croatian police elsewhere on the emerging front line, until his assassination by a Croat ex-policeman that July.

A report on Islamophobic hate crime by Tell MAMA, which Cox would have launched on 30 June, had already found a 300 per cent increase in offline crimes against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year, with spikes after the attacks in Paris. Muslims were most likely to be attacked in shops, on streets or on public transport, and when wearing Islamic dress.

Accounts of on-street attacks, threatening letters, school and workplace bullying, and racist slurs have spiralled since the very day of the referendum result – with police recording a 57 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to corresponding days last year, the National Police Council calculating that hate crime reports have increased fivefold since the referendum, and a Facebook group organised to collect first-hand accounts of racist violence, Worrying Signs, becoming overwhelmed.

Ethnic minorities, Muslims, East Europeans (already targets of cultural racism in UK tabloids) and white people with foreign accents have all reported abuse and attacks – giving the impression of violence that is both escalating and widening the range of people meant to be intimidated.

Public concern about a sudden ‘surge’ in xenophobia, Akwugo Emejulu writes, conceals years of ‘everyday and institutionalised racism and violence’ that people have experienced in Britain and which they have often been disbelieved when they describe. Race, and who has been more or less likely to feel the effects of racism, is the deepest-rooted dimension of the divergence of ‘scripts’ that different members of the public now have for making sense of the crisis.

Acts of ethnicised and racialised violence, even between one person and another, have collective effects. Before open war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and beyond areas that were occupied or became front lines, people who belonged – or were just finding out that they belonged – to ethnic, political and sexual minorities suffered intimidation that was supposed to reverberate into the consciousness of others who shared the same identity.

The difference between Britain and Yugoslavia is not the underlying dynamic of collective violence and intimidation so much as the different balances of histories and power behind the violence. War broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after sustained campaigns of intimidating ethnic others, undermining social and political alternatives, and equipping future armies and paramilitary groups on a mass scale.

The identities drawn into conflict with each other in Yugoslavia were ethno-national, all based on a link between ethnicity and sovereignty over territory that had to be proved or broken to determine which state the land should belong to.

Racist violence in England is based on a narrative of white English sovereignty in which Britain can never be ‘home’ to immigrants or to any Black or Asian Britons at all – a country which, Kehinde Andrews writes, ‘was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them.’ The global historical legacies of British imperialism and the legacies of Serbian national expansionism are not identical, and too direct a comparison between Yugoslavia and Britain would erase the reckoning with colonial history that Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, needs urgently to undertake.

Uncertainty and insecurity harden social divisions

The scripts about belonging that EU citizens living in the UK thought they had – though their scripts were already inflected by race, language and religion – have been whipped away since the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Without their own say in the referendum (unless they were Irish), 3.3m citizens of other EU states have had to watch British politicians and the public overturn plans they had made for their long-term future and expose them to at least two years of uncertainty over whether they can continue living in the UK on equal terms. Some arrived in schools and workplaces the morning after the referendum to be told by classmates and workmates they were going to be sent home.

Their uncertainty has only built further as David Cameron and Theresa May (now a front-runner for Conservative leadership) have refused to guarantee that EU citizens already living in the UK would retain their current residence rights after Brexit and a UKIP peer, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, encouraged the government to use uncertainty over EU migrants’ status to ‘retaliate’ if necessary in negotiations with the EU.

EU citizens’ prominence in arguments about immigration at this moment does not alter how seriously the political consensus to present immigration as a source of scarcity and tension has already affected non-EU citizens, or the violence that the EU will continue to inflict at its borders and through detention centres unless it significantly alters its own migration policy. Yet since Westminster not Brussels already controlled UK immigration policy, Brexit would change neither of those things except to the extent that non-EU citizens would have greater chances of obtaining UK visas – yet migrants from the Global South could anticipate visa requirements as restrictive as they are now.

Even many UK citizens who voted Remain have had their political identities, and their very senses of self, affected by the willingness of the Leave campaign to manipulate EU citizens’ uncertainty: with shock that they never predicted such indifference; with dread that extremism they had already predicted is coming closer to the centre of power; with grief and disbelief that the other side voted the way that it did.

How do you comprehend that so many people in the country you are supposed to share values with could vote with such indifference to 3 million others’ status and wellbeing – or, when stakes were so high, might not have been bothered to vote at all?

This is the beginning, but only the beginning, of how new political identities emerge and ‘other sides’ form.

The social bonds that broke down, and were deliberately broken down, before and during the Yugoslav wars included many ‘former neighbours’, close friends who found it impossible to understand the other’s perception of events when they themselves were experiencing so much horror.

Britain is nowhere even close to experiencing the levels of violence that divided Vukovar or Sarajevo, and the forces impelling polarisation are differently configured. In coming days and months, movements seeking to build coalitions for change will nevertheless have to appeal to mixtures of Remainers, Leavers and voters who did not use their vote, building solidarities which hardened political boundaries – though grown out of comprehensible, fearful emotions – could impede.

Here, polarisation can work both ways: projecting symbolic value judgments on to whole cities, such as Sunderland which highly visibly announced a Leave majority early in televised coverage of the results, ‘misses complex stories of racism and resistance’ that could help to build a broader consensus against austerity and racism than the Remain campaign was able to mobilise, or even commit to, in June 2016.

People are demanding alternatives nobody is offering

Public participation around both the Leave and Remain positions has revealed demands for social and political alternatives that no large political option currently has on offer.

No politician with a UK-wide remit began their post-referendum remarks with the kind of messages to EU citizens that Nicola Sturgeon or Sadiq Khan addressed to their electorates in Scotland and London.

No Leave voter who believed that a Britain outside the EU could afford to revitalise its economy and public services has been offered anything other than a politics of fear and ethnicised entitlement, or guarantees that the fruits of any prosperity Britain did achieve would go towards repairing their own marginalisation.

The loudest voices that members of the English and Welsh public determined not to be taken out of the EU against their will can identify with in their calls for an alternative to Article 50 negotiations are only able to offer another way out to a different British nation, unless Sturgeon can win substantial concessions affecting England and Wales in Scotland’s negotiations with the UK.

The pro-EU rallies since the referendum in cities that voted Remain are not direct equivalents of the Sarajevo peace rallies – and no Euromaidan.

But Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991 contained a strong civic upswell of support for democratisation and peace within a still-Yugoslav framework which some alternative political parties channelled yet no leader with sufficient power was prepared to adopt. Instead, bases for political solidarity outside the nationalist consensus were systematically intimidated and undermined.

Britain’s history is distinct from Yugoslavia’s, despite the surface parallels that attend the potential break-up of a multi-national state in contemporary Europe. Yet perhaps the most important insight from the break-up of Yugoslavia is that it was not inevitable, nor pre-determined by long-term ethnic tensions, for the constitutional collapse of the country to descend into war; the history of the Yugoslav wars, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo reveals detailed evidence of violence deliberately perpetrated and alternatives suppressed. Interrupting comparable processes in Britain, within a different set of social and political contexts, will be essential in building a more democratic and just society whether the UK’s future is as one country or more.

ISA 2017 calls for papers: war, aesthetics and embodiment; international relations of Eurovision

I’m trying to organise two panel proposals for the 2017 International Studies Association conference (in Baltimore next February) – one on War, Aesthetics and Embodiment (co-organised with Synne Laastad Dyvik at Sussex) and another on the international relations of the Eurovision Song Contest.

I’ve cross-posted the texts of both calls for papers in some other relevant places, but here they both are. Please email abstracts to me for the Eurovision panel and to both me and Synne for the war/aesthetics/embodiment panel.

Call for Papers: War, Aesthetics and Embodiment: Exploring Connections and Change
Convenors: Catherine Baker (University of Hull) and Synne Laastad Dyvik (University of Sussex)

Deadline extended to Sun 29 May 2016

This panel focuses on the connections and changes within two fields of study – aesthetics and embodiment – and how these together help us to understand war and processes of militarisation better. While studies of popular culture and aesthetic expressions in international relations and geopolitics have revealed the pivotal role these play in perpetuating militarisation and war, the connections between these and those that embody them remain underexplored. Yet there are many empirical instances where both lenses converge such as in consumer style fashion, music videos, military and police uniforms, the tattooing practices of military personnel, or forms of struggle against state violence that might constitute ‘counter-militarisation’. The panel invites papers focused on exploring a range of aesthetic embodiments that challenge, contest, resist and reaffirm the prevalence of militarisation and war in global politics. In so doing the panel wishes to chart changing technologies, bodily enhancements, art work, and manufacturing in relation to war and militarisation and how these are embodied and practiced by ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ bodies from a variety of locations. This can help reveal imaginative and changing circuits in the relationship between military institutions and wider militarised spheres. We are considering extending the submission into two linked panels and welcome contributions that seek to challenge hegemonic ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘perceiving’ embodiment, militarisation and aesthetics.

Please send a 200-word abstract to Catherine Baker (cbakertw1@googlemail.com) and Synne Laastad Dyvik (S.Laastad-Dyvik@sussex.ac.uk) by Fri 27 May.

Call for Papers: Popular Culture, Performance and International Competition: the International Relations of the Eurovision Song Contest
Convenor: Catherine Baker (University of Hull)

Deadline Fri 27 May 2016

The annual Eurovision Song Contest, founded by European public-service broadcasters in 1956, is resolutely declared ‘non-political’ by organisers. Nevertheless, it both causes off-stage political controversies and becomes a site where viewers and participants apply and may even gain understandings of international relations and geopolitics. Recently, for instance, the 2014 contest’s winner Conchita Wurst became a symbolic figure in contestations over LGBT geopolitics (and a case in Cynthia Weber’s new study of Queer IR), while Armenian and Ukrainian political communication campaigns directly entered Eurovision performance (e.g. Ukraine’s 2016 winner commemorating Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars) – yet the contest’s longer history also deserves attention. Contributions could explore themes such as: nation-branding, public diplomacy and ‘soft power’; sexual/gender diversity and popular culture in IR; war commemoration and genocide recognition; performance, embodiment, gender and nationhood; the contestation of ethnonational, transnational and other levels of cultural identity; symbolic geographies, boundaries and margins of Europeanness, including but not limited to ‘Europe/Russia’; Eurovision fandoms as everyday internationalism; the continuum between Eurovision and other international mega-events; the political economy of hosting, broadcasting, financing and securing Eurovision. The panel aims for its empirical evidence to contribute to wider conversations in fields such as popular geopolitics or Queer IR.

Please send 200-word abstracts to Catherine Baker at cbakertw1@googlemail.com by Fri 27 May.

…Those two things don’t possibly have anything to do with each other?

(It was either going to be that or Ruslana, and she’s already helped illustrate one post this week…)

What does ‘political’ mean at Eurovision, and can the contest ever steer clear of it?

This post originally appeared at The Conversation on 11 May 2016.

The ticket agency for Eurovision 2016 caused alarm at the end of April when it published its first “flag policy”. It restricted regional flags, sounded ambivalent about EU and rainbow flags, and even compared eight very different territories to Islamic State – all to protect Eurovision’s “non-political nature”.

Organisers relaxed the flags policy a week later, but the question remains: can a contest where countries compete against each other ever be non-political?

Strictly speaking, broadcasters, not countries, compete in Eurovision. Its organiser is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public service broadcasters founded in 1950 to relay radio and television signals across Europe.

But more people imagine what “Europe” might mean through watching Eurovision than might ever take part in EU public outreach. (How Australia features in this imagination is debatable.) And Eurovision certainly produces the impression of a competition between countries. Joe Woolford and Jake Shakeshaft are billed on screen as representing “the United Kingdom”, not “the BBC” – and Eurovision voting is famously divided up by country too.

Eurovision shorthand always mentions “countries” doing things, even though these are actions by specific organisations and people, not whole nations. This makes Eurovision a platform where states can promote narratives about national identity to more than 100m viewers – whether it’s showing off a national language, displaying a distinctive national music style, or tying in with national tourism campaigns.

But what if participants comment on politics?

A political ban

Although Eurovision rules ban “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature”, someone still has to determine what “political” means. At its strictest, there would be no songs about war or peace, history, the environment or nuclear disarmament – to say nothing of Eurovision 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where almost everything referenced freedom, eastern Europe, walls or peace. This obviously isn’t the case. But bans do occur.

In the 2000s the EBU twice objected to references to active political leaders. Ukraine’s host entry in 2005 had to remove lyrics naming the post-Orange Revolution president, and Georgia withdrew its 2009 entry (after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) when organisers challenged the double meaning of “We Don’t Wanna Put In”.

Other cases were more ambiguous: was it accidental that Ukrainian Verka Serduchka’s “Dancing, Lasha Tumbai” sounded like “Russia, goodbye”? Was it non-political for a Portuguese group during the financial crisis to pastiche ideological music from Portugal’s revolutionary mid-1970s? Where does satire end and politics begin?

And at a time of European centenaries, there’s commemoration. All commemorations involve political choices. What gets remembered, and what if dominant interpretations of events clash between nations – or if commemorating the past also implies commentary on the present?

In 2015, Armenia’s centenary genocide recognition campaign, which extended to Eurovision, did not have to contend with Turkish state refusal to recognise the genocide (Turkey has not participated in Eurovision since 2012 over issues with the voting system). The song’s title did change from “Don’t Deny” – but the performance still communicated Armenian national resilience and continuity. (Meanwhile, the 2015 French entry used digital backdrops to depict the devastation of World War I.)

This year sees the first Ukrainian entry chosen since Russia annexed Crimea. The song, “1944”, commemorates Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia during World War II. Beyond individual songs, the whole Eurovision project involves representing the meanings and boundaries of “Europe”. These are political ideas.

Come together?

Choosing the 2016 slogan “Come Together”, producers acknowledged the sensitivities of “throw[ing] Europe’s biggest party, while the togetherness you celebrate is being put to the test”. Thousands of refugees have died en route to Europe as border controls intensify.

Producers acknowledged the refugee crisis in the first semi-final through a dance performance honouring the struggles of refugees’ journeys. Refugees face the risks they do because of migration policies that have political origins, but clearly the producers considered this performance a social or humanitarian gesture rather than a “political” one.

Meanwhile, Eurovision’s history of LGBT fandom and visibility makes it a focus of international LGBT politics – with western European media as well as homophobic Russian politicians framing a moral struggle between “Europe” and “Russia” over LGBT rights. This was only amplified by Conchita Wurst winning in 2014 so soon after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics.

In these wider contexts, it becomes clear that Eurovision can hardly steer clear of politics. Eurovision is in a similar position to cult TV shows with vibrant fandoms (such as The 100, which dismayed fans by dramatically ending a relationship between two queer women). Producers plan what to depict; fans create their own celebrations within the space the show or Eurovision arena gives them. But producers depend on fans’ enthusiasm and creative practices (online or live) to drive interest in the show.

The “flag policy” controversy showed this tension at work. The first “flag policy” had stated “rainbow flags and the European Union flag will be tolerated” as long as they were not going to be used as a “tool to make a political statement”. An updated policy published that weekend removed this ambivalent language, but still seemed to exclude regional flags or the wider range of pride flags. Organisers implied that national flags or the rainbow flags still covered these identities, but many fans do not want these identities subsumed into a larger category.

Welsh and Sami fans had active media outlets following up the flag story, and were pleased to see the EBU later relax its policy. It also proposed “a more tolerant approach to other flags as long as the audience respects the non-political nature” of the show. But without any well-equipped organisation pushing the EBU on pride flags, Eurovision organisers haven’t as yet offered trans or bisexual flags recognition.

Eurovision’s priorities, “non-political” or not, are evidently those of countries and governments, not social movements outside the state. But fans, media and viewers often understand “politics” more widely. Eurovision’s organisers would be wise to embrace this.

Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference):

Call for papers (panel proposal for BISA 2016 conference): Popular Culture and International Politics: South-Eastern Europe and the Globe

This panel organised by the British International Studies Association’s South East Europe Working Group for the 2016 BISA Conference in Edinburgh (15-17 June 2016) asks how popular culture research about/from south-east Europe can contribute to a wider research agenda in International Studies. How far can popular culture be said to have shaped, as well as reflected, the politics of south-east Europe, and what insights might current research questions in south-east European cultural studies be able to offer the research agendas around Popular Culture and World Politics, Visual International Relations and related areas?

Contributions to the panel might focus on any of the following areas, or other relevant topics:

  • Construction and contestation of national identities and other layers of collective/geopolitical identity
  • The politics of war memory and collective victimhood
  • ‘Banal nationalism’ and ‘banal militarism’
  • Post-conflict/post-socialist political economies of cultural production
  • International politics of sexuality/gender and popular culture
  • Popular culture and the ‘affective atmospheres’ of politics
  • Celebrity activism and humanitarianism
  • Post-9/11 narratives of international security
  • Transnational processes of racialisation
  • Popular culture, digital media and diaspora as political actors
  • Virality and visuality on social media
  • The global movement of people, capital, technologies and texts
  • Popular culture and the emotions in IR
  • Producing popular-cultural artefacts as an innovative methodology in IR

Please send paper proposals (including a title, a 250-word abstract, a 100-word biography and a contact email to Catherine Baker (cbakertw1@googlemail.com), with ‘BISA SEE WG popular culture panel’ in the subject line, by Fri 20 November.