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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

Over the wall

“The politics of envy.”

The first time I came across this phrase, I was 23 years old and a founder member of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP London. We’d recently staged our first ever demo or ‘zap’ - catapulting condoms over the walls of Pentonville Prison.

As demos go, it was more symbolic than practical. As we soon discovered, sealed condoms aren’t weighty enough to catapult over prison walls. Most landed at our feet. So we tried inflating and floating them over the walls instead. Again, without much success.

Largely ignored by the mainstream media, ACT-UP’s photo-friendly actions were reported widely in the gay press. This photo was taken by Gordon Rainsford, who worked for the weekly free newspaper Capital Gay. (Gordon took lots of photos of ACT-UP - he’s the go-to guy for any archivists out there).

Shortly after this picture was published, someone - a gay man and proud Tory voter - wrote an angry letter to the paper, attacking our non-violent, direction action style of activism and accusing us of “the politics of envy.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt particularly envious of men locked up in prison. It’s not like in the movies one might accidentally stumble across on PornHub, though we know that sex between men in prison does take place. It was the state’s refusal to acknowledge this and provide prisoners with potentially life-saving condoms which prompted our actions.

In 1989, my AIDS activism was driven far more by grief than anything else. But looking back, I suppose there was some envy involved. Envy of those who were 23 years old and not facing the prospect of burying their friends. Envy of anyone who wasn’t living in fear that they might be next. Envy of someone so comfortable in their bubble of privilege they could afford to vote for a government who were demonising lesbians and gay men and had just introduced Section 28.

Since then, I’ve heard the phrase used in all manner of contexts. Criticisms of tax dodging celebrities are driven by “the politics of envy.” People campaigning for greater social mobility and equal opportunities are guilty of “the politics of envy.” People demanding more diversity in the workplace are riddled with “the politics of envy.”

Like “politically correct” or the more recent “woke”, the accusation is designed to belittle the person tackling injustice, reducing the political to petty jealousy and ultimately supporting the status quo.

In the worlds I mainly occupy, those of books, events and publishing, discussions about equality and diversity have never been more topical - or more heated. Lack of representation, sensitivity readers, accusations of cultural appropriation - these are all subjects guaranteed to unleash a Twitter storm and have people complaining bitterly about these uppity so-and-sos and their endless, unreasonable demands. When really all us uppity so-and-sos are asking for is a place at the table.

This is why I created Polari literary salon in 2007 and the Polari Prize in 2011. I wanted to celebrate, support and uplift emerging and established LGBTQ+ writers - people who, historically speaking, have often been denied a voice or at least a platform. The prize is now open for submissions and we’ll soon be moving to our new home at the British Library. Envious? Don’t be. It’s taken me 15 years of hard graft and often unpaid work to get there. I’d say I’ve earned it, wouldn’t you?

It was Margaret Thatcher who said “the spirit of envy can destroy - it can never build.” She was wrong about that, just as she was wrong about a lot of things. Envy can be a powerful motivating force. Channelled properly, it can help build new communities and create greater opportunities. I know. I’ve watched it happen. And to hell with false modesty, I’ve helped make it happen.

In some ways, I’m still catapulting condoms over prison walls - only now the walls are crumbling and a new literary landscape is emerging. Politics of envy, my gay arse. Seeds of change, more like.

Paul Burston’s memoir We Can Be Heroes will be published by Little A in June 2023

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