why the world needs to unite in the fight for lgbt rights
After attending UCL’s recent Queer Wars panel, we reflect on the explosive impact queerness has on international relations and ponder how we can ensure basic sexual rights for all.
"There are three words I often use when talking about human sexual rights globally: rape, murder, and torture," announces Dennis Altman, a prominent gay thinker speaking at UCL's panel, Queer Wars. "That's the reality for people all around the world while we sit here." Rape. Murder. Torture. The words resonated through the room.
Homosexuality remains punishable by death in around 12 countries, and criminalised in 73 others. With state support, lynch mobs torture and massacre queer people worldwide. Just weeks ago, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, prominent Bangladeshi LGBT activists, were hacked to death. Across South Africa, lesbians endure the horror of "corrective rape" to convert them to heterosexuality, while in Nigeria, recent years have regularly seen mobs beat gay men to death to "purify" the community. Trans issues remain explosive, as in the case of Dwayne Jones, a sixteen-year-old trans Jamaican who was beaten, stabbed and run over after attending a party wearing a dress in 2013. Dwayne's parents refused to claim her body.
The examples are endless, and the stories reported are far outweighed by those that weren't. The explosion of queer rights, same sex marriage and trans visibility on to the global stage has failed many outside of the west, and politicised LGBTQ rights to an unprecedented degree on the international stage. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation recently blocked the attendance of LGBTQ campaigners from a UN High Level Panel on HIV/AIDS. Western relations with Uganda have, in recent years, been dominated by the upsurge in homophobic legislation and repression, just as Western European tensions with Russia have heightened following Putin's introduction of gay propaganda laws. Why has queerness become so explosive in international relations, and how can we ensure basic sexual rights for all?
The explosion of queer rights, same sex marriage and trans visibility on to the global stage has failed many outside of the west, and politicised LGBTQ rights to an unprecedented degree on the international stage.
To a degree, the rise in the repression of queer sexuality and gender fluidity can be understood as a backlash: "Heightened homophobia is precisely because of the gains we have made," argues Jeffrey Weeks, the leading British sociologist and campaigner and speaker on the Queer Wars panel. Visibility, in many cases, means violence, and according to Weeks, queerphobes "now feel the need to defend what was once taken for granted." While homophobia and transphobia might once have been so obvious a facet of ordinary life as not to need reinforcing, the success of LGBTQ rights movements have threatened their invisible power. Progress in one place often leads to increased prohibition on another.
Backlash is only half of the story, however, and at the core of the issue is what theorists have termed "political homophobia." The term denotes a phenomenon by which countries use anti-queer prejudice to assert their independence and defiance in an international arena. When Zimbabwe's President Mugabe sought to assert his power by tapping into the nationalism that had brought him power, he began scapegoating queer organisations as "un-African" and symbols of colonialism. Uganda's infamous 'Kill the Gays' bill, and Russia's "gay propaganda" laws to protect Russian "tradition" from Western meddling were much the same. For Jeffrey Weeks, "sexuality has become a kind of language through which [non-sexual] divisions and ideologies are expressed."
The West is far from blameless, however. Its use of very recently afforded queer rights to proclaim itself progressive, and legitimate its meddling in other states and cultural superiority is imperialism in action. The fact that the anti-sodomy laws in Jamaica, as but one example, are a direct legacy of British colonial lawmakers makes such a position all the more hollow. Continued fuck-ups don't help either: raising the rainbow flag over the US Embassy in Pakistan and, in the process, adding fuel to the flames of rampant homophobia did little to advance queer agendas. Whispers that governments should withhold aid to homophobic regimes seem similarly wrongheaded: while minimising the misuse of that money is crucial, the fact that the state is run by assholes doesn't mean its people aren't in desperate need of support, and playing fast and loose with international aid does little to shed the West's image as a domineering monolith. Political opposition doesn't change our moral obligation to the global poor.
What we're seeing, therefore, is queer issues taking the stage in international relations as never before, but on each side, being cynically co-opted into longstanding power plays.
What we're seeing, therefore, is queer issues taking the stage in international relations as never before, but on each side, being cynically co-opted into longstanding power plays. Each side is at fault, but LGBTQ organisations and activists often make ill-informed decisions too. As a Human Rights Watch Report from 2009 made clear, Western activism rarely works in non-Western contexts: "[Identity politics] have misfired disastrously as a way of claiming rights in much of the Middle East; the urge of some western LGBT activists to unearth and foster 'gay' politics in the region is potentially deeply counterproductive. Rather, the [appearance of queer rights in the mainstream has been] won largely by framing the situations of LGBT (or otherwise-identified) people in terms of the rights violations, and protections, that existing human rights movements understand."
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identities are not universal. Same-sex desire, fluid sexuality, and gender non-conformity have always existed, but were for the most part practices not identities. The notions of these behaviours defining one's identity were initially born of repressive forces, not by queers finding their own voice. As but one example, the word "homosexual" was coined in Germany in the 1860s, precisely as the discipline of sexology was on the rise. The result was the idea of homosexuality as pathology, an illness in need of remedy. In trying to foist identity-based models on foreign nations, queer activists risk reproducing the colonial power dynamics that have made so many Middle Eastern and African nations so hostile to queer rights in the first place, and enforcing an idea of identity whose very roots were as a construct born of oppressive categorisation.
The only real way forward is a movement of international solidarity based on shared oppression, not identities. Facing the same hostility, not performing the same identities, is what matters. As Weeks argues, "It's about finding common linkage points, rather than just assuming there's a common identity just because we use the same word. The fact is, these words have different meanings in different contexts. Identity of struggle isn't automatic, it has to be struggled for."
Militating for change as a white westerner risks neo-colonialism and cementing the growth of political queerphobia. Fighting for sexual rights without Western resources and financial support risks a slow, drawn out battle that will cost innumerable queer lives. Only in unison will progress be made, and lives cease being lost. But, considering such a struggle demands rebuilding many Western assumptions of gender and sexuality from the ground up, when that happens, and even if it will, is anyone's guess.
Text Edward Siddons