Why people are angry at Jameela Jamil for coming out as queer

Sirena Bergman@SirenaBergman
Thursday 06 February 2020 14:00
news
(Getty)

Queer Twitter is in the midst of a civil war today, with everyone trying to work out how the​y feel about Jameela Jamil, and the answer is: it's very very complicated.

Here's what went down:

Accusations of cultural appropriation

Yesterday, it was announced that Jamil would be a judge on HBO's new voguing competition called Legendary. Her appointment was heavily criticised on the basis that she has no known background in ball culture, which is historically linked to the oppression of black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people in 20th century America.

It could be argued that taking a subculture which belongs to an oppressed minority and exploiting it for mainstream consumption is problematic in itself, but that at the very least it should serve as a platform to elevate the members of that community. As far as the internet was concerned yesterday, Jamil was not part of that community, and her taking the job essentially meant that the opportunity was being taken away from someone who was.

One of the people who made this point was trangender actor Trace Lysette, who said she auditioned for the role and that "as the mother of a house for nearly a decade it’s kind of mind blowing when ppl with no connection to our culture gets the gig". Jamil responded by a) trying to tell Lysette that she was wrong about her own audition; and b) blaming Deadline, which originally reported that Jamil would host the show.

Lysette, along with many others, were frustrated at the response.

However, there were people who didn't see a problem with Jamil taking the position. One of the most common comparisons was to Michelle Visage, who is a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race despite being straight, however this isn't really a direct equivalent, because Visage does have decades-long ties to the community. She apparently has been part of the scene since she was a teenager.

Jamil on the other hand, is unclear on her own connection to ballroom. In her original tweet she says she is "a long time fan of ballroom", but this isn't something that people can remember ever having heard her mention in the past. And in her later statement, she claimed she was a "newcomer to ballroom". People are confused.

Deleted tweets and conflicting information

Further, there seems to be confusion about who reported what, when and why. According to Out, a press release sent on Tuesday did indeed state that Jamil would be the "MC and judge". Deadline wrote up the story, and Jamil tweeted it, saying she was *so* excited to "to be a tiny part of bringing ballroom further into the mainstream where it belongs". However, she later deleted this tweet and replaced it with one that blamed Deadline for saying she would be a host:

According to Out, the press release stating she would be the MC was actually still live on their website at the time of publishing. They write:

In almost all of her tweets reworking the framing of Legendary, Jameela Jamil has expressly tagged Deadline, accusing them and other journalists (i.e.. me) of 'messing up' the reporting, or making a mistake. That is something we all know to be patently untrue. For her to do that for an audience of her one million Twitter followers is frankly insidious. Jamil never should have been announced as a host, or MC of Legendary, this we all know.

Jamil comes out as queer

Following this debacle, Jamil took a controversial step, releasing a statement on Twitter revealing that she identified as queer.

She said that while this isn't something she's overtly hidden, she "kept it low" because:

I was scared of the pain of being accused of performative bandwagon-jumping.

The sentiment is something many straight-passing queer women can relate to.

Jamil has been in a high profile relationship with a man for the past five years. For many queer people, especially bi or pansexual women, identity erasure is a real issue – unless people decide you are visibly not straight, it is totally fine to dismiss our identities. This comes from straight people and from the LGBTQ+ community. People can have a bad habit of buying into I-kissed-a-girl-and-I-liked-it narrative which implies that bi or pan women are basically just straight girls who want to make themselves seem more interesting.

That she felt fearful to come out is as understandable as it is heartbreaking, but her revelation is not without its issues.

The backlash

In her statement Jamil acknowledged that she would be criticised for the timing. She said:

I'm jumping off this hell app for a while because I really don't want to read mean comments dismissing this. You can keep your thoughts.

The criticism may not seem fair to some. After all, everyone should be free to come out (or not) however and whenever they want. But it's fair to say that her doing so directly after receiving backlash from the queer community raises questions. A lot of the criticism was focussed on her apparent straightness, and that would undoubtedly be incredibly painful to endure. But by coming out as a response she's opened herself up to the idea that she is implicitly suggesting that her queerness exempts her from such criticism. She seems to recognise this, saying:

I know that my being queer doesn't qualify me as ballroom.

Which is making many people wonder, why come out at this precise moment? And why be part of the show at all?

Queerness is not created equal, and identifying as LGBTQ+ doesn't mean you can't also be guilty of appropriating parts of the culture which do not belong to you. Jamil's experience as an incredibly high profile British queer woman of South Asian descent will be very different to that of an African American or Latinx trans, nonbinary or genderqueer person, or gay man in the US – and these are the people who have historically made up the majority of the ball scene.

The claim that criticism forced her to come out has also prompted questions. Ultimately, the vast majority of people who were saying she was wrong to take the role on Legendary were mostly queer people of colour with ties to the community, so dismissing their points as simply "bullying" (as many have done) betrays a worrying shortsightedness when it comes to these complex issues.

Ruben Jean, a stylist and drag queen who is performing at Glitterbox in London next month (an event in celebration of ballroom culture), said:

I would like to highlight the fact that a queer person of colour found the strength to come out which we know isn’t an easy task and I think this should be celebrated on its own. On another note, I think Jameela should have chosen another moment to come out as this now sounds like a reason for her to be on the show as she is queer.

I find it surprising that [HBO] have chosen people who have not been involved previously, and who don’t have a technical knowledge of voguing for a judging position. I like the fact that they are bringing big names to the table but remember this community is striving for growth while preserving their identity so allow them that by putting the right judges to judge the show and give relevant critiques.

The background

Jameela Jamil has been criticised in the past for popping off on Twitter without a clear understanding of the issues she's addressing. Most recently, she defended Ellen DeGeneres for being friends with George Bush, but was forced to backtrack after she admitted she didn't really know much about the Iraq War, which was the aspect of Bush's legacy which many took issue with.

While it's positive to see a celebrity use her platform to address social issues, the "at least she's trying" argument is dividing people. At the end of the day when someone has such a huge audience to broadcast to, it seems fair to feel frustrated with them using it to spread misguided or ill-informed information, especially when speaking to people from different communities to understand their point of view is an easy way to educate oneself on issues that we are not personally affected by.

The backlash to the backlash

Others were quick to praise Jamil for coming out. More out queer celebrities is undeniably a positive step towards better representation.

In addition, people were upset by the fact that she felt she was "forced" to come out because of the criticism she received yesterday.

The takeaway

Jamil is still incredibly popular with the mainstream, and it's hard to imagine that a spat with one faction of the LGBTQ+ community will lead to any kind of genuine cancellation.

But she is still planning to work on Legacy, proving she either doesn't understand or doesn't accept the criticism.

The winners from all this seem to be HBO, whose responsibility it should have been to cast within the community, and who have thus far escaped the firestorm with minimal criticism. If anything, Legacy has created a buzz before filming has even started, and it's easy to see people tuning in as a result.

Will the entertainment industry begin to take intersectionality and proper representation seriously as a result? Only time will tell, but it's not looking likely.

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