While Taylor Swift passes as a ‘queer icon’ these days, Sydney artist and author Guy James Whitworth isn’t convinced
Originally published in Sydney Sentinel, 19 September 2020
Now don’t get me wrong, I love me a bit of TayTay, but you know, unfortunately, a lot of what she does symbolises a big chunk of what we don’t need in the world right now.
Back in the late 80s, I moved to London and joined a queer direct-action group called OutRage!, co-founded by the very awesome Peter Tatchell (if you don’t know who he is, please give him a Google)
I’ll be honest, when I joined OutRage!, I was really looking to meet hot, cool activists.
One demonstration I was at was a same-sex kiss-in outside Lambeth Palace, which was the official London residence of the (incredibly homophobic) Archbishop of Canterbury (don’t waste your time Googling him).
Unfortunately, typically for me, I was too shy to ask anyone to kiss me, so I ended up holding the coats of people who were in amongst all the queer snogging and I ended up going home completely un-pashed and feeling a bit sad.
There was a fabulous queer-friendly magazine at the time called The Face which was sadly sued to bankruptcy by a then pop star called Jason Donavon (totally up to you if you want to Google him), who took offence at the magazine publishing a photo of him with a t-shirt that proclaimed the words ‘Queer as Fuck.’
Although this was pre-Photoshop, and it was obviously a clumsily collaged image (and at the time most of Donovan’s fan base were gay men) Donovan thought it of the utmost importance to defend his heterosexuality, hence the ensuing court case.
I didn’t create the artwork, but I was friends with the person (and OutRage! member) who did. I kept the original collage in a folder under my mattress for months while my friend lived in fear of being arrested and/or sued for millions!
So how does any of this ancient history tie in with the divine Miss Taylor Swift, I hear you ask? Well, it really kind of ties in with where we are culturally at the minute.
Back in those heady ‘OutRageous!’ days of demonstrations and 80s music, we had an edge, we did. Us queers, we were constantly pushing the pink envelope and testing the boundaries of what was accepted by mainstream culture.
We were reckless and revolting. We could definitely see an uprising of acceptance on the horizon. The revolution was imminent.
Pop music was filled with shocking androgyny and queer love. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was banned but still made it to #1! Edgy, unorthodox queerdom was everywhere. Grace Jones reigned supreme. All the lesbians I knew wanted to be Skin from Skunk Anansie (please, I beg you, Google her!) and all the boys I knew confusingly wanted to be Annie Lennox (you’d better know who she is without the help of Google!).
Okay, so, how does this connect to TayTay and her rebellious latest album? Well, put simply in one word: safety.
We have become too safe.
I’m aware that I’m saying this as a global pandemic rages around us, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is (rightly) in full force, and around the world economies are crashing. But I stand by that word.
We (certainly white) queers have become safe. Too safe.
I currently have an exhibition open here in Sydney and I was originally going to call it Safety in Numbness (but went with Enough of Your Nonsense instead).
From where I stand, the BLM movement is spectacular and long overdue. It is powerful and it is right. No white, self-respecting, queer person cannot get wholeheartedly involved.
As we now all hopefully do, I fully understand the need for diversity and inclusivity and eagerly stand alongside my colleagues and friends of colour. Because if we aren’t fighting for equality in all its forms, then we aren’t really fighting for anything worthwhile.
I hope that to people of colour, the BLM movement is seen to be on the same track as the queer rights campaign of the 80s and 90s, where success, change and positive outcomes through activism can be seen as inevitable and real.
But you see, that’s again why I have an issue with Ms Swift. Well, actually not her, but with a world that proclaims her to be spectacular—while really, she’s also just a bit too, well … safe. Although I’ve gotta say the issue I have with her is one I also have with Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, to name just a few.
Don’t get me wrong, I have played her Folklore album, and I like it, but if you want to hear the album TayTay could have made, please listen to Tracey Chapman’s self-titled debut album from 1988.
The chilled vibe is the same, the melodies are similar, however the meaning and message are so much more passionately and authentically delivered.
Quite honestly, you need to sit and listen to the very first song ‘Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution’ as if your queer life depends on it, because, actually, it really still might.
To me all good art should be political.
Yes, Swift is a vocal LGBTQI ally, but we still need activists pushing forward more than we do allies bringing up the rear.
In our modern world, where Trump revokes laws allowing trans people to be themselves, Russia is still persecuting and jailing LGBTQ people and in other countries, countless atrocities are being perpetrated against us queers, we can’t rest easy yet.
The battle is still raging around us, and that’s without counting the walking wounded where, on the cusp of intersectionality, queer, trans and black lives are especially at risk.
Unfortunately, while songs about ‘cardigans’ are soft, fluffy and safe, we really still need to be listening to queer black women singing about revolution.
Sorry TayTay, as much as I can appreciate your personal struggles (I watched your Netfilx special, you do seem nice), nobody ever chanted a song about a favourite cardigan whilst heading into battle.
Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist, author and provocateur. His exhibition Enough of Your Nonsense ran at M2 Gallery, Surry Hills, August-September. His book, Signs of a Struggle (Clouds of Magellan Press), is available online and at good gay bookshops everywhere, and he is a regular contributor to Bent Street. www.guyjameswhitworth.com