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date: 25 May 2020

What Makes LGBT Sexualities Political?: Understanding Oppression in Sociological, Historical, and Cultural Context

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains the sociological basis to identity categories of sexuality and their hierarchical organization that leads to oppression. It begins with some assumptions of “progress” that underpin contemporary LGBT politics, identifying that this idea of progress is based on assumptions that ignore the ways in which sexualities reflect the gender organization in specific societies and ignore the differences between the Western societies where LGBT rights have been institutionalized and other cultures. It describes the sociological analyses of heteronormativity, which entails both hierarchical gender and sexual organization and results in the oppression of non-conforming genders and sexualities. The chapter goes on to discuss how this structure emerged in the specific sociohistorical context of Western colonialist capitalism and thus how the politics of LGBT liberation are also grounded in this social context. It concludes by arguing that LGBT politics need to take account of these sociological insights to avoid an unreflective adoption of Western identity categories and equality claims and to better understand that any LGBT politics is a profoundly radical challenge to the institutionalization of patriarchal heteronormativity in any culture.

Keywords: binary, gender, heteronormativity, LGBT, politics

The appointment of the United Nation’s (UN’s) first dedicated human rights official for LGBT people in July 2016 was the culmination of years of activism and, more specifically, a fulfillment of a core recommendation from the 2012 report Born Free and Equal. This report from the UN’s human rights commissioner was the first policy statement at the UN to argue that sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) issues are human rights issues and thus, crucially, the first to argue that member states have human rights obligations toward their LGBT/queer populations (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2012).1 This is politically significant because it further legitimizes the rights of LGBT people as a global issue. While these rights have been increasingly protected by many countries since the 1990s (Hildebrandt 2014), the European Union remains the only intergovernmental organization (IGO) to incorporate SOGI within its human rights agenda (see Ayoub and Paternotte, this volume), although there is a debate about the legitimacy of SOGI rights underway in the Commonwealth (Lennox and Waites 2013) and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (BBC News 2018). For some nations, the protection and promotion of LGBT rights have become part of their official foreign policies, such as the United States under Obama (and continuing in practice since the Trump administration in 2017, although not in principle), the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands, including both the promotion of LGBT rights within the Commonwealth, the European Union, and the UN and the integration of LGBT rights within their individual international development policies.2

Of course, as many of the contributions to this handbook demonstrate, LGBT rights remain contested or illegitimate in many countries and at IGOs around the world. (p. 16) Nonetheless, the very existence of these conflicts also testifies to the increasing visibility of LGBT identities and rights globally, so it may be tempting to believe that we are in a historical period where the international normalization of LGBT rights is on the horizon, however difficult the process is right now. Indeed, this recent emergence of the international promotion of LGBT equality can be understood as the inevitable next stage in the expansion of LGBT rights and peoples, and it is logical, therefore, to view this dimension of international politics through a “progress” narrative. This view is shared by both LGBT and mainstream political organizations, including those Western governments mentioned that now promote LGBT rights internationally, as well as IGOs such as the UN Human Rights Council and, in a more nuanced way, some academic commentators (Weeks 2007). It makes sense in a temporal way since we have gone from complete social stigma and invisibility to the increasing public visibility and rights over the course of a few decades (Altman and Symons 2016).

There are, however, two major analytical pitfalls in relying on this timeline of political or evolutionary progress. First, it is based on Western experiences of both the formation of LGBT identities and politics and the sociopolitical organization of these societies that have permitted sexual diversity to flourish, captured in Figure 1.1. The danger is that we do not recognize the assumptions of social and political organization contained within this progress narrative, so we fail to acknowledge that these conditions may not be applicable as a trans-cultural or trans-historical understanding of how to achieve LGBT equality.

What Makes LGBT Sexualities Political?Understanding Oppression in Sociological, Historical, and Cultural Context

Figure 1.1 The “Progress” Model of LGBT Politics

Adapted from Rahman (2018). © Routledge 2018. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

Second, this historical model does not really provide any depth of explanation on the underlying question of why LGBT sexualities are so fiercely politically contested. The focus is on homophobia (often used to characterize the full range of queer-phobias), but there is little understanding of where this homophobia comes from socially, often defaulting to an assumption that it is an expression of negative individual attitudes toward a “minority” group that derive from “traditional” forms of belief like religion. Public opinion studies such as the World Values Surveys (n.d.) suffer from this lack of depth, and, moreover, the danger of this type of understanding is that it does not illuminate the fundamental causes which we need to understand for effective equality strategies (see also Pew Research Center 2013). Specifically, it does not promote an (p. 17) understanding of queer-phobias as the inevitable consequence of the social organization of gender into a male-dominated, binary gender model.

In order to render the assumptions of a progress model fully visible, I argue that we need some sociological understanding of sexuality rather than just a political one. By this, I mean that we need to understand the social meaning or significance of sexualities as part of human identity and, thus, how and why these identities have been organized into social hierarchies that cause the stigma and oppression of non-heterosexualities or LGBT peoples. Furthermore, we need to understand that the social significance and social organization of sexualities have varied across cultures and across historical periods. A significant consequence of these insights is to recognize that our contemporary understandings of LGBT identities have been products of Western forms of organizing and understanding gender and sexuality. We need to be cautious, then, when thinking through how applicable these understandings are in cross-cultural contexts and, moreover, what political consequences can arise from promoting “Western” identities in non-Western contexts.

Heteronormativity as the Basis for the Social Significance and Social Oppression of LGBT Identities

The overwhelming majority of feminist theories since the second wave of feminist politics in the 1960s have in common an argument that gender inequalities are the result of the socially allocated division of resources through gender rather than the inevitable consequence of natural differences between the biological and psychological capacities of men and women (Rahman and Jackson 2010). These analyses made political change possible because they suggested that we have the ability to argue for the transformation of gender inequalities through reform of social institutions, such as schools and what subjects they teach boys and girls; the reform of policies, like the introduction of laws that regulate equal pay and sexual violence; and the reform of cultural representations that stigmatize women as subordinate to men in areas such as popular culture and advertising. For gender, the key analytical point became the rejection of naturalist explanations of the binary division between masculinity and femininity and a focus on how this binary is a result of social processes rather than biological ones.

Furthermore, many different feminist theorists identified sexuality as a key aspect of gender oppression, particularly through the analysis that the dominant understanding of “natural” male sexual dominance and aggressiveness is, in fact, a learned ideology and set of behaviors that reflect the wider male-dominated or patriarchal organization of society. By locating sexuality as a dimension of gender organization, rather than (p. 18) accepting the common-sense idea that it is a natural biological function, the dominant or normative understandings of sexual identities and behaviors have been placed under interrogation, often conceptualized as institutionalized heterosexuality or heteronormativity. These feminist analyses and concurrent gay liberation theories from the 1970s also led to an understanding that it is the social organization of gender into a gender-unequal heterosexual norm that creates the stigma and oppression faced by non-heterosexual people. For example, Adrienne Rich (1980) argued that the institutionalization of heterosexuality as socially “compulsory” provides the basis for the stigmatization of homosexualities. Similarly, Mary McIntosh (1996) argued that the social labeling of the homosexual as deviant served to police the majority into heterosexuality, and Michel Foucault (1981) identified the emergence of the homosexual as a deviant “species” of human identity through medical, psychological, and legal practices that combined to legitimize normative heterosexuality.3

Politically, we characterize anti-queer and anti-trans attitudes as homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia; but, in fact, these are not the basis of oppression but rather the outcomes of the social system of intertwined gender and sexual hierarchies. This system is the basis of the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peoples; so when we argue for SOGI rights, we are not merely challenging the homophobic attitudes, practices, and policies of individuals and institutions but rather challenging a whole social system. LGBT sexualities are, therefore, the subject of contested politics because they represent a challenge to the dominant organization of gender identities, which has rigid, binary divisions between men and women and rigid, binary expectations of their respective sexual behaviors as heterosexually oriented. As the many examples in this handbook will show, when political arguments are made against LGBT rights, they are overwhelmingly couched in terms of the threat to “traditional” or “natural” forms of gender and sexuality but it is not accurate to take this at face value. What those arguments are based on is the heteronormative organization of gender identities and opportunities that overwhelmingly privileges men over women, binary gender over fluid gender, and a male-dominated version of hetero-sex over other forms of gendered sexual behavior.

Moreover, heteronormativity is institutionalized in all societies, reflecting and reproducing patriarchal privilege in schools, childcare, sports, workplaces, pay differentials, professions, public space, politics, intimacy, and sexual freedoms—indeed, across the whole social realm. To argue for LGBT rights is therefore not a simple case of expanding individual human rights for a previously under-represented set of people within the spectrum of sexual identities but rather a fundamental challenge to a dominant social form of organizing resources according to gender identity and division. That is the reason that LGBT identities and politics are socially significant and politically contentious. Having established the core conceptual sociological framework that underpins the significance of LGBT politics, I turn now to an explanation of how heteronormativity developed historically and culturally.

(p. 19) The Emergence of Modern Sexualities in the West: Heteronormative Capitalism and Essentialist Science and Their Role in Colonialism

Over the course of a few centuries, the Enlightenment in Europe resulted in a paradigm shift away from faith- and myth-based explanations toward rational and evidence-based understandings of how and why societies were organized, the related function of governance and the state, and the basis of human nature and behavior. This shift both was provoked by and contributed to fundamental changes in European societies during modernity, which is the period stretching from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries that witnessed the emergence of the sovereign nation state and its related expansion of bureaucratic organization to manage populations and the economy; Western imperialism and related hierarchies of ethnicity; the advent of modern rational capitalism and the social dominance of the capital-owning middle or bourgeois class; mass industrialization and urbanization as a result of capitalist development; and foundational developments in rational, evidence-based scientific knowledge. Historians of gender and sexuality have demonstrated how these fundamental changes contributed to new organizational patterns and new explanations of gender and sexuality.

Expectations and opportunities for men and women gradually transformed based on the separation of work from the domestic realm that was a consequence of the shift to a wage-labor economy during industrialization, creating a more rigid binary distinction between the expected roles of masculinity and femininity. This resulted in the normalization of gender-segregated work and leisure spaces, with the ideal femininity becoming associated with domesticity (however unrealistic that was for working-class women) and a notion of a passive female sexuality operating in a regulatory fashion through all classes (Weeks 1989). Concurrently, mass urbanization led to large-scale, potentially anonymous, gender-segregated leisure spaces, such as urban bars and parks, where sexual activity was increasingly difficult to police (D’Emilio 1993). During this historical transformation, moral panics periodically developed around sex work and homosexual behaviors, with many Western countries witnessing more rigorous policing of male and female sex workers and male homosexual activity after laws against “sexual depravity” were introduced or bolstered (Greenberg 1988; Weeks 1989). Thus, the need to both assert middle-class gender divisions and sexual norms and regulate perceived working-class sexual license produced more legal, moral, and social emphasis on a rigid, marital path for sexual activity and reproduction and an increasing stigmatization of all non-normative sexual activities.

(p. 20) Modern capitalism therefore had a direct effect on consolidating the heteronormative binaries of gender and sexuality, but it is the related development of medical and psychological sciences that legitimized queer-phobias by shifting our understanding of sexualities to an expression of an innate or essentialist aspect of human biological and psychological existence. Previous to this era, sexuality was certainly regulated with a heteronormative bias, but there is also evidence of same-sex behaviors and gender-diverse identities being socially tolerated in many cultures around the world, including the West (Greenberg 1988). Part of the reason for this seems to be that sexual behaviors were not necessarily equated to a permanent type of gender or sexual identity. They were regulated, often through dominant religious frameworks; but the behaviors that were stigmatized were understood as temporary aberrations of moral and physical control rather than as indicators of a core sexual orientation or identity.

As Foucault (1981) demonstrated, during the modern scientific era we see the shift in understanding sexual behaviors as indicative of a category or type of person who is a homosexual, rather than people who might engage in homosexual acts in various opportunistic social situations. Foucault’s core argument was that modern science led to the classification of homosexuals and other “deviants” as psychologically distinct “types” of individuals, with medical and psychological sciences producing studies of “deviant” sexual behaviors as indicative of innate biological and/or psychological flaws or misdevelopment. For example, the term “invert” became a common medical explanation for homosexuality, containing an understanding that gay men and lesbians were misdeveloped versions of binary heteronormative gender. This is not just about the regulatory power of science and medicine, but it also suggests that we did not equate sexual behaviors with specific distinct types of human identity until this modern era. Indeed, a vast majority of the research on sexual history has been anchored in this Foucauldian analysis, or it has provided evidence to support this core claim despite its theoretical orientation (Weeks 2016). Same-sex and gender-fluid behaviors have been documented across many historical periods and cultures but not the identification of those behaviors with distinct social identities. Thus, it is argued, LGBT identities are not indicative of some intrinsic, essential quality of individual humans, but they provide a culturally and historically specific framework of explanation for various sexual behaviors that have been located within discrete identities to make social regulation easier. This broad area of research on sexuality has come to be known as “social constructionism,” and it is directly opposed to the naturalist or essentialist model of explaining gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, precisely because it argues that essentialism is what underpins heteronormativity and thus is at the root of queer-phobias. The academic literature describes this understanding as essentialist because it locates sexual behaviors with a core sexual and gendered identity that is understood as biological and/or psychological and is therefore the very essence of an individual. Given that essentialism privileges heteronormative binaries and associated sexual identities, it is, of course, a legitimization of homo, bi, and trans stigma. This model became the dominant institutional and cultural way of understanding sexuality by the beginning of the twentieth century, legitimized as the new “science” of sexology (Weeks 1989), and therefore (p. 21) played a central role in justifying queer-phobias as a necessary defense of “normal,” “natural,” and “healthy” gender and sexual identity.

Furthermore, this transformation toward an essentialist hierarchy of sexuality was not limited to the West but exported through Western imperialism. As with gender and sexuality, modern science of the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries began to produce biological and psychological explanations of ethnic hierarchy in a body of work that is now described as “scientific racism.” This involved the development of the concept of “race” as a scientific hierarchical classification of the mental and biological capacities of ethnic groups that primarily positioned the “white” colonizing ethnicities as biologically and culturally superior to the colonized non-white peoples of Africa, Asia, and North America (Fenton 2010). Moreover, one major dimension of this racial ideology was the assumption that Western cultures had a more “civilized” treatment of women and more moral models of sexual behavior. The colonized “others” were often represented as sexually promiscuous or immoral and more “animalistic” in their sexual behaviors, justifying the “civilizing” cultural intervention of Christian Western “improvement” (McClintock 1995; Said 1978). It was the newly rigid male-dominated or patriarchal heteronormativity that was the Western model, and this resulted in narrower versions of appropriate sexuality for women and increased regulation of non-heterosexual behaviors in the “home” imperial nations (McClintock 1995, Weeks 1989), which were also applied to colonized areas and nations, both in settler and in military colonialism. This resulted in the imposition of laws against homosexuality, in particular, in many colonized countries (Lennox and Waites 2013). For example, Murray (1997) suggests that much of the regulation of public homosexuality in Muslim cultures is due to the impact of Christian colonialism that sought to use “Eastern” sexual depravity to justify Western moral superiority, something that Peletz (2006) also suggests was present in colonial southeast Asia and has been documented in India (Vanita and Kidwai 2000).

The Modern Momentums of LGBT Liberation

Since LGBT sexualities have been stigmatized for the vast majority of the modern period, we need to understand how the recent shift toward the acceptance of SOGI rights has occurred. The impact of political movements is, of course, central to this shift, and such movements are the focus of many contributions in this volume. Again, however, it is worth complicating this focus on politics by thinking about what social and political conditions allowed for the emergence of positive political claims and identities in the West. This understanding will help us to interrogate two major, and somewhat contradictory, assumptions about LGBT politics: first, that other cultures are “catching up” with these social and political conditions and so will ultimately accept SOGI rights (p. 22) and, second, that SOGI rights can be progressed regardless of the different historical and contemporary cultural, social, and political conditions that exist in countries other than those of the West.

Various chapters in this volume detail the specifics of the sociological basis to this political emergence, but I provide a brief summary here of the combination of factors in the West. First is the increasing material independence of women through access to education and employment opportunities and the consequent de-traditionalization of family structures in advanced capitalism from the mid- twentieth century (Weeks 2007). As we have seen, normative gender defines normative sexuality, so more flexible gender and family relationships led to a cultural space for non-normative sexualities Thus, we saw the rise of social justice movements from the late 1960s onward, usually understood as second wave feminism and early gay liberation, both taking advantage of and provoking social changes (Altman 1993). Furthermore, this occurred in broadly democratic societies with an institutionalized culture of rights (or at least political organizing around social equality issues) and relatively open civil societies. As space opened for new social movement organizing (both after decriminalization and with legal prohibitions still in force depending on the context), LGBT communities formed through political action along nationally specific lines, deploying both similar and different political tactics depending on the national contexts of institutional constraint and opportunity (Adam, Duyvendak, and Krouwel 1999 and see Rayside, this volume). So it is important to note that not every national movement used the same political strategies and understandings of identity and, moreover, that there was LGBT organizing outside of Western countries. But it is in Western countries that institutionalization of these rights arrived first, so over time these movements resulted in a paradigm shift in democratic values to include multiculturalism, gender equality, and, less consistently and much more recently, LGBT rights as part of their key criteria (Hildebrandt 2014).

A related contributory social condition has been the role of consumer capitalism in creating and sustaining LGBT subcultures. Decriminalization and/or public visibility led to community organization for both politics and sexual lifestyle behavior and consumption, at first clustered in gay metropolitan ghetto “gayborhoods” such as the Castro in San Francisco. The related expansion of public discussions around many areas of sexuality, driven by the various women’s movements’ critiques of sexual pleasure, sexual representations, and sexual violence, have combined to make sexual identity a much more public dimension of social identity. The period of gay liberation in the West, however, is also the period in which the “golden age” of social democracy as mass social provision gave way to consumer societies and often the withdrawal of the state from much public provision (Callinicos 2007), uniformly characterized as producing ever increasing emphasis on individualist social and political forms to serve the economic project of neoliberalism in Western capitalism (Harvey 2010). Crucially, individualist consumerism has increasingly drawn upon the public emergence of sexuality as a key dimension of social identity to promote goods, services, and lifestyle. Sexuality sells not merely through titillation but overwhelmingly because the essentialist ways through which we understand sexual identity make it excellent shorthand for a broader sense of lifestyle (p. 23) identity that is the contemporary language of consumerism (Bauman 2005). So while the sociological basis of gay liberation has included active resistance to stigmatized essentialist understandings of sexuality and the active de-traditionalization of gender divisions and their institutions, there has also been a wider social shift toward an individualist consumer culture of identity that has helped to legitimize a sense of LGBT identities as market-based, consumer groups (Duggan 2002; Hennessey 2000). In this sense, we must be aware that social conditions provide a large part of the explanation for what kinds of identities emerge in any given culture and time period. In both the era of institutionalized oppression and the subsequent era of liberation, sexual diversity has emerged from a combination of social processes that are first and foremost identified with Western modernity.

The final important component of this modernity is the historical spread of democratic ideals, including individual rights of protection from the state and powerful status groups and, since the era of liberation in the late 1960s, the gradual expansion of this framework to include human rights of personal identity, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. To varying degrees, the Western capitalist liberal democratic societies in which gay liberation first emerged had established models for minority politics (Epstein 1992), and this combined with the cultural dominance of essentialist explanations of sexuality to create LGBT politics as representative of a “natural minority,” especially in the United States, Britain, and Canada, though only later in France. Identity concepts such as “lesbian,” “gay,” “bi,” and “trans” man or woman are now commonplace in human rights and public discourse; but they have, in fact, been reclaimed from being stigmatizing terms of essentialist science by sustained academic interrogations of the social organization of sexuality and gender and related activist use as positive markers of identity experiences. In their public emergence during the era of LGBT activism they have, however, combined only a partial analysis of the social regulation of sexuality (“discrimination is socially based”) with the dominant common-sense “essentialist” understandings of these aspects of human identity (we are “born this way”). For example, Weeks (2007, 81–85) acknowledges that while gay liberation began as a revolutionary force to end sexual categorization, its sociological reality became about asserting a specific form of self-identity and an essentialist one at that. We have public understandings that are overwhelmingly essentialist, celebrating being “born this way” or, at the very least, that LGBT is somehow an “authentic” identity and the related political practices that promote rights on the basis of identifiable, stable, “natural,” or “authentic” sexual identities which are, importantly, also only minority ones on the full spectrum of sexuality.

Sexual diversity politics have become synonymous with sexual minority rights, rather than presenting the fundamental challenges to gender structures envisaged in the initial wave of gay liberation. In large part, this has been the inevitable consequence of the political structures and cultural contexts in which LGBT politics have emerged. Thus, the individualism central to liberal rights strategies reinforces the individualism of essentialist understandings of sexuality so that LGBT identity politics compound rather than deconstruct the dominant construction of gender that creates the oppression in the (p. 24) first place (Rahman 2000). This is not to deny that rights discourses and strategies based on identity politics have been successful in many contexts. Indeed, identity politics work because they provide a basis both to represent experiences of oppression and for collective political participation, and we have seen the legislative and cultural impacts of queer identity politics reach a critical threshold since about 2010, mostly in Western countries but also in some from the Global South (see the annual International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association report by Carroll and Mendos 2017). This model of politics requires, however, subjects who identify as LGBT and are able and willing to self-organize around this identity, so it requires that space exists within civil society for group association and that institutional routes are available for subsequent political demands—again, all factors that broadly comprise Western liberal democracy. The absence of public LGBT identities, through legal prohibition and/or cultural homophobia, combined with the lack of democratic institutions may be fundamental obstacles to LGBT equality in those mostly non-Western countries where LGBT rights do not yet exist.

Questioning What Makes Sexualities Political in Global Contexts

This handbook is global in two senses of the word because it contains research on countries and regions from around the world and because it addresses the role of LGBT politics in international realms, not only in the narrow sense of international relations between states but also more broadly by looking at sexuality politics within IGOs and the context of global economic and social divisions. The discussion throughout this chapter hopefully will help you navigate both senses of the global. LGBT politics are at the “tip of the iceberg” in the sense that there is a whole social structure of heteronormative gender that underpins them, as illustrated in Figure 1.2. Political studies that focus on national LGBT and transnational politics as the outcomes of these social processes are, of course, completely valid in the sense that it is important for us to understand how and when rights and policy changes are achieved, how communities and allies are organized to this end, and how majority public opinion is then transformed or not by LGBT political activity. Nonetheless, this sociohistorical understanding provokes some challenges to progress models of sexuality politics that often underpin empirical studies of political outcomes and to our ability to use comparative methods in assessing LGBT politics transnationally and internationally.

First and foremost, the dominant understanding of LGBT identity politics is based on versions of gender and society specific to the West and often considered predominantly Anglo-American, so we must be aware of the sociological underpinnings to this model (p. 25) of politics. This has implications for assessing the progress of LGBT rights in different countries, both in those that share similar socioeconomic and political structures and in those that do not. There may be useful comparisons between the similar, mostly Western contexts and those that differ in non-Western cultures given that many of the components outlined in Figure 1.2 operate in all cultures in some shape or form. Indeed, the evidence contained in this handbook demonstrates similarities and differences within similar Western capitalist democratic states as well as across non-Western cultures. The central point is not to take this model as a blueprint for universal political strategies and outcomes for LGBT equality because LGBT identities are both culturally and historically specific, so this insight needs to be taken into account when trying to understand the contemporary cross-cultural global dimensions of LGBT politics and the universalizing assumptions that might underpin both claims to advance these rights and discourses of resistance.

What Makes LGBT Sexualities Political?Understanding Oppression in Sociological, Historical, and Cultural Context

Figure 1.2 The Historical Western Sociological Underpinnings of LGBT Politics

Adapted from Rahman (2018). © Routledge 2018. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

At a more historical level, we must also be alert to the fact that the emergence of modern LGBT sexualities in the West has been characterized for most of the era by stigma and regulation, not by the linear temporal “progress” of the rights of a minority. Given that this model of LGBT politics has become increasingly globalized, as in the example of the UN’s discussion of this issue, it should provoke some skepticism toward the idea that the Western model of LGBT identities and politics is a consistent and principled history of the expansion of human rights—of an arc bending toward justice. Rather, we should think about the sociological history of sexuality in modernity as a combination of modern capitalism and science that created an increased regulation of sexual diversity (p. 26) because the social order required a privileging of heteronormative family structures and associated wider cultural divisions of gender. There were subsequent transformations in the organization of gender and related significance of sexual behaviors that permitted the emergence of feminist and LGBT identities and related politics, with both drawing upon and contributing to a gradually expanded realm of civil society freedoms and rights cultures. We should therefore be aware of the fact that current human rights strategies are based not only on Western constructions of gender and sexuality but also on Western experiences of coming out and its consequences. The trajectory of social change around sexuality in the West has been conditioned by political and social structures that have produced a particular, Western essentialist understanding of sexuality. Without reflecting on this specificity, we are therefore in danger of potentially promoting the globalized expansion of Western, essentialist, sexual minority politics rather than culturally relevant forms of sexual diversity. The research evidence on sexual diversity from non-Western cultures demonstrates that there are significant historical and contemporary differences in understandings of sexuality that are, in contemporary times, being variously influenced by adapting and resisting globalized Western understandings of sexual identities (Aggleton et al. 2012; Lennox and Waites 2013; Lind 2010; Weiss and Bosia 2013).

A more direct political consequence of these insights is to question the effectiveness of the rights strategies for social transformation. We operate in a political framework of LGBT rights that often assumes that those rights are attached to a distinct group identity that is seen as both “natural” and a “minority” (or simply does not interrogate the historical and cultural bases of that identity). By organizing around these identities, there is a danger that we are reinforcing the very regulatory frameworks that have created those identities in order to prioritize essentialist heteronormativity throughout every aspect of society from families to politics, and it is this structure that led to the oppressions against which we are fighting. This tension is an issue that has beset LGBT politics since their emergence and runs through many of our contributions in this handbook.

These points do not invalidate the political goals of LGBT equality but rather sensitize us to the complicated sociohistorical contexts in which they have emerged in the West. In conclusion, I leave you with a range of questions that this discussion provokes and should variously inform your engagement with the chapters through the rest of this volume. First, the current framing of LGBT politics overwhelmingly uses the principles, discourses, and techniques of human rights. Does this assume that the positive treatment of LGBT populations is an indicator of progress for general human rights in a specific country or region? Given that most progress in rights has been achieved in Global North countries, does this imply a Global North/South divide over the acceptability and institutions of human rights? Moreover, what does this imply for the attempt to internationalize LGBT politics if the framework of human rights is seen as “Western” or the product of richer Global North societies? Even where general human rights discourse and institutions exist, does the exclusion of SOGI rights indicate a lack of “progress”? In both cases, does the attempt to widen SOGI rights imply a new form of cultural (p. 27) colonialism whereby the West is seen as the vanguard of progress and the “rest” are seen as lagging behind in cultural and social development?

A second assumption may be that social conflict over SOGI issues is a reflection of more “traditional” societies, whose moral and religious norms reflect an older or less “modern” understanding of gender equality and sexual identities, one that was also dominant in the West until the last few decades. Of course, this second assumption relates to the first, in that we assume that the political progress of LGBT rights has been a consequence of the social progress toward gender and sexual equality that we have seen in the Global North. It also assumes, however, that sexual identities are both culturally universal and historically consistent.

Third, given that most “progress” has been achieved in democratic political systems that have some guarantee of individual rights, we may also assume that liberal democracy is the optimal political system for progressing SOGI rights, with its combination of liberal individual protection and democratic group representation? What does this then imply for how we argue to legitimize those rights in non-democratic systems or systems where individual human rights are not institutionalized? Moreover, what is the relationship between the social structuring of majority normative gender and the political possibilities of “minority” SOGI rights?

The various contributions in this volume will reinforce the central encouragement of this chapter to be skeptical of assumptions of a universal global “progress” toward LGBT identities and rights while at the same time illuminating how these freedoms have been achieved in their specific historical, cultural, and institutional context.


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(1.) In common with the rest of the handbook, I use “LGBT,” “LGBTI,” and “queer” synonymously to refer to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, intersex, and questioning people and associated politics since this is common usage in academic texts and public culture, although I acknowledge that “LGBT” excludes intersex and that “queer” is a contested term and more often used in Western cultures.

(2.) See, for example, the UK’s range of policies and resources at the Department for International Development (n.d.).

(3.) For an excellent overview and some key classic readings, see Steven Seidman (1996).