After attending NUS LGBT conference 2012, at which former England Rugby Union player, Ben Cohen gave a speech regarding his anti-homophobic bullying foundation “The Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation” I went away feeling less than impressed. Some criticisms of his speech can be found here: however, I actually want to speak about the work which his foundation carries out.
Within his speech, he talked of how the foundation; which is designed to fight homophobic bullying, has drawn up a t-shirt contract with Nike in order to raise funds, now this immediately raised flags in my mind: why use a company which has a record of using sweatshop conditions and child labour in order to fight homophobia? Personally, I do not want any cause I support to be associated with such practices, of course I am against homophobic bullying, but I cannot support the Ben Cohen Foundation. You cannot claim to be working to make kids lives better, if within that you are raising the money by making the lives of children worse elsewhere in the world.
Now, the next question here, will of course be “well, where is the evidence that Nike is still using sweatshop labour, after all, the media uproar surrounding Nike happened back in the 90’s. To find the answer to that, you only have to go online and see the same story repeated over and over again with information being leaked to the public at periodic intervals. For example this article here (apologies for referencing the Daily Mail) is the most recent article I’ve found (13th July 2011) , and this was when just taking a cursory glance over internet search results. On top of all this, the t-shirts which Nike are producing for the foundation don’t even mention homophobic bullying, or issues relating to LGBT people on them; now, perhaps that is intentional in order to make them safer to wear on the streets. But its not as if the range even gives the purchaser the option as to if they want to have an anti-homophobia statement on their shirt; but with Nike, you do have the option of having Ben Cohen’s signature on your shirt: Yay, Ben!
Now, just to round off the issue, here’s a quick video detailing Nike’s use of child labour in Pakistan:
Furthermore, there is the issue of where the money actually goes. Now, I cannot speak on all the organisations listed on his site for I do not have an in depth knowledge of all their work, but a list of organisations which the foundation donates to, (and a picture of Mr Cohen shaking David Cameron’s hand) can be found here. Now, the Foundation claims that the fund support their own original work, as well as funding to other organisations; but to be honest, I can’t actually tell what their own work is; maybe someone else can shed some light here. The list of organisations on their funding page also contains projects which are already highly funded, and at times problematic, with the two UK organisations being “bully free zone” to which the weblink on the foundation’s site is broken, and Stonewall UK. Of those which I am familiar with, the US organisations are also very mainstream. Now, I could go on here with trans related criticisms of Stonewall e.g. their nomination of a transphobic journalist for “journalist of the year”, the fact that when they mention trans issues they invariably misrepresent what trans actually is, and in this sense, go beyond “not having the T” to be actively damaging towards the trans community here in the UK.
But I feel it would be wrong to pick out one organisation, so instead I am going to talk about the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex”, INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence have done some great work on this, and have published a book which gives a through analysis of the problem. Over the years, the use of funding foundations has created a model wherein non-profit organisations have to tailor their work to the demands of funders in order to carry out their work. The result is charities run on business models with CEOs, and a politics which has lost its critical edge. We now see a number of large, well funded Lesbian and Gay rights organisations, who work on short term goals in order to fulfil a tick box list of achievements, rather than working towards long terms goal. This is placed under the cloak of “pragmatism” wherein activism is divided into “achievable aims” and “impossible aims”, creating in of itself a self fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, through holding the budget strings, foundations can actively limit the work of an organisation through withdrawing funding from groups whose work does not align with their own interests; whilst this might not happen with all foundations, it has been known to happen. The result? A small number of highly funded, and yet ineffective organisations dominate the agenda, and no matter how well intentioned they may be, they fail to reach the root of the problem. We need to have a politics which can be critical of capitalism, rather than one which relies on it if we are ever to achieve liberation, and in doing so we must be self aware of how we carry out our work; for what is the point of trying to do “good work” in one place, if we simply cause harm elsewhere? As trans people, we must also learn from this, with the T in LGBT all too often standing for “tokenism” we have directly experienced the impact of groups who claim to work for us, but in fact pay only lip service (at least in the case of Stonewall we know where we stand). Sure, we can attempt to get trans issues further up the agenda in these organisations, or we can seek to replicate their work in a trans specific context, but in doing so we will only replicate the flaws creating yet another movement dominated by an elite.
I realise that I may have gone off topic from the original context of this blog, but it all comes back around to the same core issue: no matter how well intentioned the work of a particular group may be, we must be careful not to replicate the conditions which create our own marginalisation when carrying out our work. Through making use of a company which uses child and sweatshop labour, the Ben Cohen Foundation is simply replicating these conditions unto another group, and for what? To fund a set of organisations who already receive huge budgets, with which they do relatively little. For those of you who wish to give money to fight homophobia and transphobia, perhaps instead of buying a t-shirt, you should find a local organisation which say, works with homeless LGBT people, or works specifically with the trans community, or provides outreach work, a place which really could do good things with your money.