Global Sexual Diversity Politics and the Trouble with LGBT Rights
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter responds to the challenge state homophobia poses to LGBT rights in its invocation of a “gay menace.” It engages the limits of a rights-based discourse in achieving security for sexual and gender minorities under threat: first, as homophobia is marshalled as a tool of statecraft and then as LGBT rights and identities are bound geotemporally by the historically specific context to which they responded. These two efforts demonstrate the need for an approach sensitive to the practical conditions faced within specific political contexts. The chapter’s argument addresses the political incommensurability of LGBT rights in the context of authoritarian and illiberal states and the danger of associating sexual and gender liberation with autocracy. It considers the consequences of a “gay menace” and of “rights”-claiming in response as both are bounded in geotemporal terms, then dislocated from history, culture, and politics as they become modular. Finally, the chapter asks what a global sexual and gender minority politics might look like through claims around capabilities tied to global civil society that foster collective self-actualization instead of “human rights” or “security” tied to authoritarian or fickle states.
“If time is a vessel, then learning to love
Might be my way back to sea.”
-Public Pervert, by Interpol
Since the nineteenth century, homophobia has come in waves of oppression, then combinations of accommodation and resistance from those oppressed; and these processes reshaped what were once behaviors into categories of modern sexual identity. Today, homophobia emanating from state actors, allies, or competitors for power is often the initial mobilization of sexual identity classifications, spread as a model from state to state (Bosia 2014). Nascent sexual and gender minority movements can be met with ready-set political and policy responses where state actors bypass actual claims in favor of preemptive countermobilizations (Weiss 2013), provoking a “moral panic” (Hall et al. 1978) about LGBT rights challenging sovereignty or family as naturalized orders. LGBT movements, then, are construed as an existential menace to society and nation. Even where little organizing has occurred, as Nyeck notes in her study of Cameroon (this volume), state actors or contenders for power adopt similar rhetoric and policies around a not-yet existent “gay menace” threatening the collective future. In this way, state homophobia is provocative, providing the substantive basis through which LGBT+ identities and rights are organized. In France, for example, LGBT+ activists still find themselves responding to state actors and contenders who craft fear in order to gain or maintain power; most recently, activists shifted from indifference over a new government’s (p. 434) marriage initiative to an enthusiastic embrace of it to counter a rising tide of nationalist and religious homophobia.
At the same time, homophobia and its responses are deeply contextual even as globalization brings increasingly similar inspirations, vocabulary, and conceptualizations. These tensions between globalized state homophobia supporting national and familial sovereignties and globalized LGBT+ rights responding to specific institutional and cultural contexts suggest the problematic nature of rights-based strategies noted by Rahman, Langlois, and Edenborg in their chapters in this volume. Yet, even as sexual and gender minority activists struggle to secure their safety through claims to human rights against the homophobic state, little attention has been paid to the role of state structures in constituting rights-based claims or to the rhetorical and policy histories and cultures in such states, as opposed to the state structures and rhetorical and policy histories and cultures where new waves of homophobia have swept ashore in recent years.
In this chapter, I respond to the challenge state homophobia poses to LGBT rights in its invocation of a “gay menace” before activists have the knowledge or resources to self-identify. In doing so, I engage the limits of a rights-based discourse in achieving security for sexual and gender minorities under threat: first, as homophobia is marshalled as a tool of statecraft and then as LGBT rights and identities are bound geotemporally by the historically specific context to which they responded—contexts no longer existing. An analysis of rights tied to the state and rights as geotemporal configurations demonstrates the need for an approach sensitive to the practical conditions faced within specific political contexts. Elsewhere, I have argued that the state is, by nature, a psychopath indifferent to moral claims beyond its own interests and constituencies (Bosia 2019). Here, my argument is limited to the political incommensurability of LGBT rights in the context of authoritarian and illiberal states and the danger of associating sexual and gender liberation with autocracy. I consider the consequences of a “gay menace” and of “rights”-claiming in response as both are bounded in geotemporal terms, then dislocated from history, culture, and politics as they become modular. Finally, I ask what a global sexual and gender minority politics might look like through claims around capabilities (Sen 1999) tied to global civil society that foster collective self-actualization instead of “human rights” or “security” tied to authoritarian or fickle states.
State Homophobia, Autocracy, and the Gay Rights Cascade
Between 1997 and 2001, three sensational trials with unusual media attention focused on accusations of criminal homosexuality. A former Zimbabwean president was charged with sodomy, and about 18 months later, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia was prosecuted on similar charges. Within another 18 months, fifty-two men arrested at a nightclub in Cairo were charged with debauchery based on allegations (p. 435) of homosexuality. Each trial allowed a state in crisis to deploy a “gay menace”: Zimbabwe was heading into national elections amid external pressures and domestic opposition, Malaysia faced external demands for reform after the financial crisis in the Asian region, and Egypt’s regime was challenged by a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood as it imposed structural adjustment policies pushed by foreign financial institutions (Bosia 2019). Including the Russian law against so-called gay propaganda passed in the aftermath of Putin’s troubled 2012 re-election and the ferocious and highly public crackdown on sexual and gender minorities in Egypt after the 2013 military coup, we see that state actors in the midst of challenge turn to flamboyant displays of homophobia to distract from or assign blame for rising dissent and external pressures.
While crisis has its role in the most current waves of homophobia, the modern state itself prioritizes the regulation of gender and sexuality (Bosia 2014). The state in its development deploys tools that couple the regulation of gender and sexuality with a variety of strategic, pragmatic, and existential-security ends (Peterson 2013). Governing through a mélange of constituencies, policies, rhetorics, and practices is in its nature as the sovereign political institution; as it is for security, social welfare, finance, industrialization, education, it is for gender identity and sexuality. Indeed, the regulation of gender and sexuality is evident in state homophobia as well as homophilia, where policies embrace a set of rights, practices, and rhetorics that constitute sexual and gender identities as protected. We see this in the transformation of LGBT politics from transgressive to mainstream with marriage, adoption and medically assisted procreation, military service, non-discrimination policies, gender recognition, and state support for LGBT cultural institutions. State homophilia can move to the forefront of politics when state actors need to affirm constituencies amid more controversial or less popular initiatives, as the Hollande government in France did with the marriage law before initiating controversial structural adjustment reforms (Bosia 2014). In essence, the state is not beholden to or seized by homophobes (or homophiles) and compelled to adopt policies it would otherwise loath; the role of state actors suggests a moral indifference of the state as entity to the social status of homosexuals other than to identify them and rally for or against them (Bosia 2019).
These processes of what Roscoe called “homosexualization” (1997) point us to three important observations flowing from the acknowledgment that sexuality and gender identity have been the purview of the modern state and to its articulation of nation (Slootmaeckers 2019). First, state actors intervene socially to address a variety of opportunities and/or challenges they themselves have identified and defined (Scott 1998; Tilly 1985), and this is inclusive of opportunities related to sexual and gender identity. Even as contested, sexual and gender identities more often have been imposed first in opprobrium, then embraced to secure rights in cycles that produce sexual and gender outsiders, LGBT rights claimants, and resistance to such rights (Bosia 2014). Second, homosexualization is a sociohistorical process that, like all aspects of state-building, becomes “geo-temporally dislocated” (Slootmaeckers 2017) and thus unmoored from context and made available for state actors everywhere. Third, the association of LGBT (p. 436) rights with the human rights discourse has produced an almost existential hostility from autocratic regimes; where we see a range of modes of accommodation to sexual and gender minorities in liberal democracies, the range in autocratic ones varies from indifference to death.
At the same time the rise of the state brought regulations over gender, labor, and soldiers, and the dismantling of familial bonds that Adam notes in his chapter (this volume) shaped new opportunities for the organization of sexual life, a scientific focus on sexuality and gender introduced concepts of normal and abnormal beings—not just sexual or social behaviors—who became the object of state action (see Greenberg 1988). Ultimately, these transformations institutionalized homosexuality as an identity distinct from, though still related to, gender, where nonconforming sexual expression presents a homosexual personality and thus a legally or medically proscribed identity. As modular, homosexualization came to be shaped and refined by “sexual late developers” in the same way innovative economic models from Britain and America were refined for later German and Japanese industrialization (Gershenkron 1962). Early on, the French were innovative in their search for bodily evidence of homosexuality, particularly in phallic or anal characteristics (Rosario 1996) that remain the objective of forced anal exams in Egypt today, while the British imposed anti-sex laws that remain an enduring legacy of colonialism (see Tabengwa and Waites, this volume). On both sides of the Atlantic a state–medical regime promoted social ostracism and isolation; this regime returned to Europe coupled with anti-communism as the homosexual was tied to Cold War dangers (Johnson 2013). Contemporary globalization magnifies the opportunities provided to modularity: evident, for example, in the rapid spread of anti-propaganda laws targeting LGBT rights advocacy or of the condemnation of “gender theory” across three continents (see Corrales’s chapter on Latin America).
With the indifference of the state in mind, I suggest we consider the effectiveness of LGBT rights-based interventions globally by examining the structure and culture of the state locally, from its historical and geotemporal circumstances, institutions, and constituencies to the contemporary challenges it faces and its self-conceptualization. In particular, state homophobia is most encompassing in authoritarian and illiberal regimes where autocrats surveille and restrict civil society, and when challenged autocrats characterize external homophile interventions as challenges to sovereignty and national identity. Lest we succumb to characterizing liberal democracy as homophilic, however, democratic practices have been used to deprive sexual and gender minorities of rights and the resources needed to organize and to restrict the rights of others in allocating security to some (Amar 2013). And populist democratic nationalism adopts homophobia as part of its toolkit. Nevertheless, democratic practice—with multiple points of policymaking and energetic political rights—creates sites of access and redress for sexual and gender minorities to exploit. While all states are inherently indifferent, these linkages between rights and democracy create a genetic conflict between such rights and the autocrats they often are deployed against today and an affinity between mobilization and democratization (Moreau 2017).
(p. 437) Indeed, human rights discourse takes root by bringing justice in the aftermath of non-democratic states. At the close of World War II, the victorious allies characterized certain state actions as so abhorrent as to be precluded by international law (Moyn 2010). Reflecting a revulsion against wartime atrocities and the Holocaust, the United Nations soon adopted a variety of covenants that codified emerging notions of global human rights. With the cascade of accountability that followed the collapse of the Argentinian junta in 1983 and that reverberated through emerging democracies and post-violence contexts (Lutz and Sikkink 2001), rights were institutionalized as measured with specificity against autocrats. In transitional processes, state violence was officially condemned: junta leaders were prosecuted and convicted (though broader prosecution was banned and perpetrators were later pardoned), truth and reconciliation in South Africa compelled testimony from perpetrators of violence under threat of criminal indictment, detailed examinations of genocides like those in Guatemala revealed the responsibility of top officials.
Transitional justice recalibrated the notion of human rights in relation to criminal law, establishing that, even in the context of cooperative transitions, those responsible in the autocratic past could be culpable—politically and socially, if not criminally—for their actions. Moreover, processes of democratic transition and accountability came to establish a link between human rights and national identity inclusive of LGBT rights in key contexts: post-apartheid South Africa, for example, embedded rights in the concept of ubuntu, indigenizing LGBT rights as the first country to write protections for sexual minorities in the constitution (Palmberg 1999) and the fifth to adopt marriage equality. As Argentina lifted the legal prohibitions on prosecutions to pursue new classes of perpetrators 25 years after the junta’s fall, the government drew from the association of Argentinian democracy with human rights to advance both marriage equality and rights for gender minorities (Pousadela 2013) and then to prosecute junta leaders for persecuting LGBT Argentinians (Bueno-Hansen 2017).
While homosexualization compels autocratic and illiberal regimes toward a particularly homophobic response that is at once a convenient tool for regime consolidation and retrenchment in times of crises, it also integrates with their conceptualization of state security and sovereignty contra rights (Bosia 2019). After a decade claiming that a neocolonial “gay menace” threatens national order, independence, and social integrity, the autocratic state model now defines itself in opposition to gender and sexual minorities locally so that it can more easily oppose the international human rights regime as a Trojan horse for sexual orientation and gender identity rights—characterizes as “the West” or “liberal democracy.” This model associates LGBT rights with human rights and democracy so completely that it is without question that human rights are LGBT rights, and so democracy represents a threat to the social order that the autocratic regime serves to preserve. Even “illiberal democracies” construe LGBT rights as dangers emanating from democratic rights, with elected nationalists characterizing the European Union and Western democracy as threats to tradition and national sovereignty, as Ayoub and Paternotte explore in their chapter in this volume.
(p. 438) Temporality, Sexuality, and an LGBT Rights Paradox
While scholarship once considered globalizing sexual and gender minority identities through similarities with and differences from Anglo-American LGBT advocacy, starting with the parallel development of differently politicized movements in Europe (Adam, Duyvendak, and Krouwel 1999), this research strategy is increasingly troubled empirically and in scholarship as nascent gender and sexual minorities face largely different economic, political, and social constraints (Thoreson 2017; Waites 2009). At the same time, it is incomplete merely to claim—as some activists and scholars do—that Western, liberal, or capitalist notions of the individual upon which LGBT identities stand are impositions (Massad 2007) without at the same time understanding state homophobia, against which they are deployed, as modular.
In this section, I instead trouble the notion of global LGBT rights, looking at how they derive from a particular historical moment to meet explicit challenges posed by state homophobia in liberal democracies; by including historical moments within our understanding of context, we can more carefully identify the geotemporal dislocations (Slootmaekers 2017) magnified by globalization’s processes that transpose activist responses, and state homophobia, from one moment to another, without regard for the politics where a right was conceived or the one where it was imported. Moreover, closer attention to historical moments also points to the “knotted temporality” (Kulpa and Mizielinska 2011), where various homophobias, rights frameworks, identities, politics, and sexual cultures might exist both simultaneously and decoupled from the historical circumstances that gave them meaning. By understanding that rights—for example, privacy or visibility in the West—are imbedded in identities, attached to temporalities as sociopolitical historical moments, we see a paradox that produces exceptional (not historical replications of) risks and vulnerabilities faced by emergent gender and sexual minorities in their specific geotemporal locations.
For argument’s sake, I identify four periods where a particular form of political and state homophobia predominated: the rise of a discourse in the nineteenth century, the link with national security during the Cold War, the restrictions on advocacy in the 1980s, and the twenty-first-century emphasis on marriage and gender. Though these are not the entire array of homophobias, each has its own characteristics and impositions that structure the lives of sexual and gender minorities in distinct ways. In the nineteenth century, the medical and legal establishments sought to create and identify a homosexual threat (Greenberg 1988). Such efforts included the elaboration of abnormal sexualities characteristic of a discrete category of being, a search for evidence of such a being on the body, and the legal and medical jeopardy faced by such a being, including imprisonment or institutionalization. By the 1950s and the Red Scare, however, the U.S. homosexual became associated with the threat posed by a presumed communist infiltration, associating their character not with body type but with the political inclinations (p. 439) and trepidations attendant on secrecy and concealment (Canaday 2009). At this time, homophobia turned from the New Deal’s relative indifference to mass purges and widespread public disclosure to reveal the menace, a model of state homophobia exported by the United States through the NATO alliance (Johnson 2004, 2013). This turn is noteworthy, bringing with it a panoply of innovative attitudes and rhetorics about homosexuality and security. Next, in the 1980s, state actors, allies, and contenders coupled homosexuality with HIV/AIDS (Youde, this volume) and pedophilia (Rubin 1993) as a disease that brought death and as a threat to social well-being through the recruitment of children. As policy, state homophobia emphasized the criminalization of HIV transmission and prohibitions on advocacy in the form of “No Promo Homo Laws” (Hunter 1995). Finally, state homophobia in the twenty-first century has associated homosexuality with a threat to marriage and a gendered view of family, even before marriage equality was central to LGBT advocacy.
Social mobilizations, activist strategies, and rights-based claims responded to the homophobic pressures sexual and gender minorities faced in each period. In the nineteenth century, transmen and transwomen were at times able to live openly as men and women until they were discovered because of an unrelated arrest, medical treatment, or death; lesbian and gay couples assimilated in what appeared publicly to be mixed-gender relationships or platonic amity; spinster aunts and eccentric uncles lived single lives (see Duggan 1993; Stryker 2017). By the twentieth century, discrete gay urban culture took root, and in Germany a movement for decriminalization was organized by reformists in the medical community (Koskovich 2009). More than anything, these efforts sought to constitute private social space where community formation occurred, when the risk of arrest and disclosure assumed by gender and sexual minorities produced the queer aspects of their lives, a kind of spectral inside and outside from the margins of society: clandestine encounters and coded language and visual cues (Chauncey 1994) to identify other “friends of Dorothy,” even drag balls that initially escaped attention by being organized as masquerades for Halloween. While emerging advocates sought the benefits of privacy, queerness at the same time troubles privacy by structuring the liminal self somewhere between public shame and private pleasure, forcing a negotiation that bends the social order but also drags, cruises, exaggerates, and parodies the boundaries of social convention as a means of psychosocial survival and communal aspiration. As Warner explains, “The fine gradations of nerviness that run through our culture measure our people’s willing to test the limits of shame” (2000, 34).
Early and quiet advocacy was often subordinated to other political efforts—from early revolutionary Russia to the work of Harry Hay within the Community Party in the United States and into Bayard Rustin’s role in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Explicit visible gay rights organizing largely began in the aftermath of the Lavender Scare at the start of the Cold War—with the Mattachine Society in 1955 and the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955—and sought a series of protections for privacy, including protections from discrimination that followed disclosure. But the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (following the Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco in 1966 and the 1967 demonstrations at the Black Cat in Los Angeles) brought a new form of gay liberation (p. 440) politics, grounded in the 1968 student, anti-war, and civil rights movements (Duberman 1993; Jackson 2006). While liberation demanded visibility in annual Stonewall marches and in the development of autonomous gay and lesbian communities in Paris, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles—or organizing linked with punk, artist, and squatter movements in these cities as well as London and Berlin—the primary political efforts remained decriminalization and anti-discrimination laws that would enshrine a right to private life. In France, in fact, the gay liberation movement largely disappeared after a new Socialist government abolished the last vestiges of criminalization in 1981.
The devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in the just recently vibrant gay neighborhoods across the West turned these communities inward as activism transformed into care and advocacy around the new disease. Even as advocates developed innovative programming to combat the disease by speaking frankly about it or to build new alliances based on LGBT visibility like those with striking miners (Hunt 1999) and left-wing municipal councils in Britain, a homophobic New Right sought to smother pro-LGBT speech. “No Promo Homo” laws prohibited the use of public funds for programs inclusive of homosexuality, like AIDS prevention, public education, and the arts (Hunter 1995). Within a few years, a resurgent right in the United States would craft so-called defense of marriage laws as “preemptive countermobilizations” (Weiss 2013) against initially localized and uncoordinated activist efforts to promote public visibility through marriage. In reaction to limits on speech, LGBT activism brought more persistent attention to visibility over privacy, with the right to speak and be “out” guiding the LGBT movement in the West for the next 25 years: from the emergence of ACT UP in New York and Act Up-Paris just before Queer Nation through national claims to full public citizenship, including a right to open military service and marriage equality.
Through our attention to geotemporality in the sequences of homophobic organizing and homophilic counterorganizing in liberal democracies, we hone in on an obsession with the display of individual homosexuality in the age of oppression and the silencing of LGBT advocacy in the 1980s, with each repressive wave generating a specific reaction from LGBT activists: claims about privacy address compulsory public disclosure, while public profession and visibility challenge efforts to silence homosexuality (Hunter 1995). Queering space became associated with display in public, not parodying or dragging sexual norms as much as demonstrating presence as normal (see Berlant and Warner 1998).
But outside the West today, activists face challenges to private and public life as state homophobia can whipsaw rapidly between public displays of oppression and bans on advocacy. If President Museveni once could claim that homosexuality did not exist in Uganda, later his allies in Parliament pushed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and for the criminalization of LGBT activism (see Tabengwa and Waites, this volume). While early activists in the West could deny any interest in marriage, homophobes around the world today claim with some (not nearly universal) validity that Western LGBT human rights include marriage, though local activists in the Global South have invoked no such right (see Weiss 2013). Moreover, state actors and their proxies easily manipulate the boundaries between privacy and public display brought (p. 441) about by shifting geotemporalities. In Serbia, for example, state actors, allies, and competitors characterized the experiences of sexual minorities as inherently private and so outside the realm of legal protection (Slootmaeckers 2017; and in Poland, the populist government claims that the “+” in the “LGBT+” acronym, increasingly popular in the West, is secret code for proscribed acts like pedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality.
As well, state homophobia and social condemnation are nowhere near the dominant source of information about sexual and gender minority lives that they were early in the West. Indeed, AIDS prevention and care programs became embedded in notions of rights (see Youde, this volume), and later widespread access to mobile devices brought an increasing awareness of visible LGBT culture, symbols, political strategies, and organizations (Martel 2013). No longer is it necessary to learn coded language or unlock the meanings of camp and drag to understand queer life and make your way in it. Instead, visible LGBT identities speak in global terms (Altman and Symons 2016)—even if symbols and terms have no robust local translation—embedded in legal systems, mainstream cultural forms, transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and aid programs. As well, transnational LGBT and human rights organizations, allied governments, and others demand local interlocutors, so some sexual and gender minority activists must be visible, speak in global terminology, and use available symbols—and do so “proud and loud” even when facing arrest, threats, and violence.
As a result, the liminal spaces of drag and camp are different, if they exist at all, as geotemporal compression and distortion characteristic of temporal displacement rapidly move sexual and gender minority lives from discretion to the novel combination of global oppression and global advocacy evident today, with notions of gender and sexuality exhibiting local specificity even as they engage global forms (see Broqua 2014). While few public spaces exist for collectivities to emerge and social life is subject to police raids—much like past experiences in the West—the advocacy that does exist is already organized locally and globally in terms of rights-bearing, visible identities. So, “queer” as a form of identification is not just incommensurable in that the word has no cultural heft outside Anglo-American origins since it suggests sexual suspicion in no other context. More importantly, “queer” as a conceptual state of being, with its confrontational liminal flair and the risks incumbent on such confrontation, is the product of a geotemporal sequence, and emerging sexual and gender minorities in their own historical moments do not have the same opportunity or space to drag, parody, or cruise the systems of oppression.
So geotemporal displacement makes the trade-offs between privacy and visibility different, and a paradox emerges through privacy rights and visibility rights as together they entail practical risks in lived experience that are exceptional: nascent LGBT organizing in such contexts cannot mitigate the risk of social isolation or violence coming with disclosure; activism is compelled by the need for privacy protections. At the same time oppression has compelled activists to defend their right to speak, the compulsion for visibility challenges the possibility of those alternative lives that Altman and Symons (2016) argue should be the center of outreach from empowered LGBT organizations to imperiled sexual and gender minorities. As a result, mechanisms for coping with (p. 442) oppression and concomitant risks diverge from those available in the historical West as the queer experiences and practices once associated with historically liminal collective space are not available in the same ways for sexual and gender minorities today. In South Korea, for example, lesbians and gay men marry each other to meet their social obligations while fulfilling their sexual selves elsewhere (Cho 2009), and they do so not “in the closet” but in full knowledge of the public face of LGBT movements around the world; in Egypt, closeted activists who identified wholeheartedly as LGBT told me they could not imagine such relationships, even though for many (in particular women) marriage offers the only path out of the family home. And as state security globally has closed public space to anonymous encounters, organization takes place increasingly on social media, though sexual and gender minorities are subject to entirely new surveillance and policing through the Internet they use to learn about visible LGBT culture, as happened in the brutal campaign against gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
From Paradoxical Rights to Queer Capabilities
I argued that sexual and gender minorities in the Global South often live without either the historical meaning of LGBT identities even if they exhibit vocabulary, claims, or symbols associated with the West or the relative indifference they enjoyed in their own immediate past. Instead, the politics of sexual and gender diversity has created unique historical moments of local and global confrontation, with practices and rhetorics of homophobic oppression destabilizing sexual and gender minority lives, rendering individuals vulnerable to state and social forces in ways that resemble but do not replicate experiences in the West. We also saw that global LGBT human rights politics suffers two interrelated complications: first, the connection to processes of democratization and transitional justice makes of LGBT rights a threat to the security and sovereignty of autocratic and illiberal states; then, the interdependency of rights, identities, and oppression within a particular geotemporal moment through which LGBT rights came to be known produces a rights paradox in nascent localities brought about by the globalization of these rights and identities displaced from their histories.
In this section, I review lived experiences in contexts of state homophobia where oppression and rights are historically and geographically dislocated, suggesting the limits of rights interventions in practical terms. I outline instead a politics of capabilities as institutional and social conditions, taking from Sen (1999) the argument that capabilities provide the conditions necessary for individuals and social collectivities to make substantive decisions about their lives. This approach leverages states in pragmatic terms, sensitive to the pull of neocolonial empire and the trap of seeking accommodation with autocratic and illiberal regimes. It draws on the conceptualization of insecurity and vulnerability as social processes that cause individual harm in structural terms (p. 443) (Turner 2006) but doing so without reference to fixed sociosexual structures. Instead, a queer politics of capabilities sees sexuality and gender as evolving markers of vulnerability, shaped by state actors, allies, proxies in global and local terms, and subject to local response and resistance. Such a politics is not evolutionary; it is situational but modular and globalized, locally structured yet only coming into being, and redolent of risk.
I focus on four vulnerabilities: reactionary hostile states and their imposition of identities; security, material, and emotional deprivations; lack of durable collectivities on any scale; autocratic and illiberal states. Reactionary hostile states create a number of interlocking risks, including the imposition of new criminal laws or innovation and enthusiasm in enforcing old ones, coupled with underresourced policing, that magnifies incentives for arrest and extortion. Moreover, for competitive media outlets where coverage of substantive politics like corruption or extrajudicial execution is inhibited, exposés about hidden homosexuality following police sweeps are an acceptable way to generate audience. For example, the arrest of a Ugandan transwoman resulted in her being forced to strip in public outside the police station, and the video of her humiliation was then shown on national television. In Cairo, a journalist was allowed to video record a police raid of a public bathhouse.
While rhetorical modularity rides on geotemporal displacement—including accusations of pedophilia, recruitment, marriage and gender disruption, and foreignness—the state’s ability to manipulate context generates local resonance in the global articulation of a gay menace. In Uganda, with little attention to same-gender sexuality in the past, discrete relationships and behaviors were possible if social obligations to family were honored. But state homophobia—including a 2004 Defense of Marriage Act—now encompasses what it means to be “LGBT.” Martin Ssempa, a leading adviser to the government on HIV/AIDS, is well-known for trolling the Internet for gay male pornography featuring scat and fisting, offering lectures in church with clips that, he claims, describe all gay men; he is credited with undermining condom use in HIV prevention and education campaigns and excluding gay men and transwomen from services. Press reports cover gay men arrested or targeted for preying on boys and described as suffering with bowel incontinence and rectal bleeding resulting from their promiscuous seductions. In a sociocultural context where the bodily atrocities of dictatorship and civil war and the devastation of AIDS still reverberate, these imaginings conjure a threat to hard-won stability that, combined with notions of contamination, generate a moral panic targeting newly created LGBT people.
In this way, geo-displaced moral panics deprive sexual and gender minorities of security, livelihood, and companionship, as well as the means for resistance. They all at once shift understandings of sexuality and gender, producing not only an identity out of behaviors but concomitant shame and isolation as individual and national failures, with no sense of self formed through historical local processes like those that formed collective space and being in the West. When those newly vulnerable are discovered, arrested, or revealed in the media, they are forced from their families, homes, and communities, most often under threat of violence, without durable networks to provide support. One activist saw his business burned to the ground after his name and photo were published. (p. 444) He lost his apartment; without income, he ended up living alone, isolated, and sick, in a shanty. Boda Boda drivers, recruited by the ruling party and some with motorcycles sporting the bumper sticker “We Should Drive out Homosexuality” (Boyd 2013, p. 698), are known to kidnap and torture transwomen and men they suspect of homosexuality. When police raided a Pride event, one attendee, fearing disclosure, suffered significant injury when he fled by jumping from a window on an upper floor. Many transwomen earn a living through sex work, which renders them vulnerable on a daily basis, without access to ongoing collective, psychosocial, or medical support. Gay men often risk arrest through unwitting encounters with police informants, facing extortion from sexual partners and the police.
These vulnerabilities are magnified by the lack of durable organizations. Often, existing ones are informal, underfunded, undernetworked, and imperiled. When I met with Sexual Minorities Uganda, their office had just been shuttered by the landlord because they missed the rent; and more recently, organizations in Uganda—even as they won support from the Obama administration and allies in local human rights and legal communities—face new government registration requirements and suffer an unusual number of suspicious burglaries. In Egypt, I met members of one online community in secret as even online organizing is dangerous. Social media is used by police to surveille a variety of precluded political and social activities in addition to entrapping individual targets. A wave of new laws prohibit civil society organizations from accepting foreign funds, a primary source of organizational support for emerging sexual and gender minorities. Combined, state homophobia often serves to isolate sexual and gender minorities from whatever human rights and legal defense networks exist, depriving them of even the minimal support available to other dissidents.
Through such vulnerabilities, we understand the limits of rights-based organizing. Decriminalizing sexual behavior, for example, does little to assist transwomen sex workers (Thoreson 2017), nor does it universally lift other restrictions that do not cite individual sexual acts, like Uganda’s NGO registration law or Jamaica’s restrictions on clothing (see Grey and Attai this volume). Homophobic rhetorics targeting sexual and gender minorities undercut any good that decriminalization might do, as in Russia. Change in criminal law does not provide resources to those currently unable to secure material well-being, and corrupt police practices are facilitated by, but not dependent on, criminalization. Overall, decriminalization does not address the cronyism and violence supporting homophobia in autocratic states, the informal and extrajudicial mechanisms of social control, or the rhetorical power of homophobia as deployed by state actors, allies, and proxies. As well, autocratic states are innovative in policy approaches—Russia bans LGBT advocacy despite decriminalizing same-gender sexuality in 1993 (see Wilkinson, this volume)—and in their responses to the demands of LGBT-allied states. When Canada’s foreign minister lectured Uganda’s parliamentary speaker at a Commonwealth meeting on her government’s “kill the gays bill,” she returned to Kampala and promised the legislation as her Christmas present to the nation. Finally, allied states themselves are unreliable, at best placing LGBT rights within a set of global (p. 445) interests, values, and strategies, as the United States did in addressing state homophobia in Uganda but ignoring the more brutal anti-LGBT crackdown in Egypt.
Capabilities, however, recognize that autocratic states produce a number of insecurities and risks, suggesting that well-being from the ground up provides the means to resist ostracism and develop networks of solidarity. Capabilities do not eliminate the legal vulnerabilities sexual and gender minorities face; instead, they ameliorate the material and social impact of these vulnerabilities by focusing first on the conditions necessary for social autonomy and the making of collectivities. In Uganda, for example, building capabilities includes skill training for trans sex workers so that they can develop licit economic activities and agricultural programs for LGBT youth. Internet and personal security are other interventions that can make significant differences in lived experience. Financial support for housing and economic development can mitigate lost employment and expulsion from families or homes, and resources to pay extortion can reduce the risks associated with arrest. Legal training and the elaboration of legal networks are vital for the defense of sexual and gender minorities, who are often lost in prisons because they are abandoned by family and have no recourse to legal aid.
Finally, homophobia is in the nature of autocratic and illiberal states—not merely criminalizing certain sexual acts but conducting broad campaigns securitizing against a “gay menace” as an existential threat that states themselves create. Certainly, this is not exclusive to such states; in democratic ones characterized by violence, weak legal institutions, or populist politics, homophobia can be potent; and even in stronger democratic states, populist and neocolonial politics can mark a threatening illiberal turn. But the presence of independent judges and lawyers, broad civil society organizing, and professional policing in liberal democracies limits vulnerabilities. Indeed, sexual and gender minorities are more vulnerable in democracies at the margins where such norms do not hold: in the United States, for example, transwomen of color are subject to police and extrajudicial murder and social isolation, young black gay men are most at risk for HIV infection, LGBT migrants live precarious lives, and sexual and gender minority refugees are turned away at the border with little recourse.
While race, gender, and systems of neocolonial exploitation fragment LGBT security in established democracies, it is cronyism, corruption, official and extrajudicial violence, and the lack of autonomous political space that render all sexual and gender minorities vulnerable in autocratic states—even as class, gender identity, or other structural categories distribute vulnerability. An emphasis on geotemporally appropriate capabilities, then, turns our attention to the kinds of political and social spaces that enable sexual and gender minorities to advocate for their material well-being in their own terms. Such space comes only with the fall of the homophobic state. Indeed, the reports I received about the presence of LGBT people in the Tahrir Square occupation—however discrete they felt they had to be—and their role in the Arab Spring more broadly (Khalid 2015) is testimony to the desire of sexual and gender minority activists for democratic practice and of their own understanding of the link between vulnerability and autocracy. Later, in the consolidation of liberal democracy in Tunisia, arrests and (p. 446) torture under the first postrevolutionary government gave way to the emergence of LGBT organizations alongside secular mobilizing, which fostered a context where the next government banned forced anal exams and moved toward decriminalization.
Capabilities, then, are not just social and material. They are political, calling our attention to transitional institutions enhancing material capabilities for autonomous decision-making. Looking at these institutions as capabilities themselves, we can see how law, media and communications, policing, and opposition parties are dangerous when constrained, weakly institutionalized, part of crony networks, underresourced, and poorly professionalized. Intervening here—as scholars examining the conditions of sexual and gender minorities and as advocates seeking effective interventions to secure against vulnerability—we can envision political frameworks that provide a range of tools for organizing and certainly identify those contexts that, to the contrary, serve to undermine organizing potentials and propagate vulnerability.
Finally, we can turn to conditions for alliances that global LGBT advocates can foster on the ground where sexual and gender minorities are vulnerable. In the resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the U.S. civil rights movement, it wasn’t LGBT visibility or privacy that mattered but LGBT presence. James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin made dismantling the racist autocracy in the United States their priority, and Simon Nkoli worked with the African National Congress to bring majority rule to South Africa. Global advocates today could do more to foster strategies of resistance to autocracy and build avenues and networks of solidarity between sexual and gender minorities and other oppositional formations. Certainly, this is not easy. Women’s movements in Uganda are state-directed, and human rights organizations in Egypt fear the taint of queer associations. Frequently, oppositional forces are merely alternative crony networks sidelined by empowered state actors.
However, by thinking of intervention as a politics “outside the closet” (El-Menyawi 2006), we begin to craft long-term local networks. In Uganda, global support for civil society, and for human rights networks to encourage the participation of sexual and gender minorities, has achieved much success. In 2016, thirty-one human rights organizations including local and global LGBT advocates signed a letter pressing the national police force to investigate a series of burglaries at their offices, and the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum organizes legal assistance and training on a range of issues, including for police on the vulnerabilities of sexual and gender minorities. Such efforts support and solidify constituencies in resistance and open sociopolitical space where resistance can organize. And the presence of sexual and gender minority advocates locally and globally can inhibit democratizing forces from using homophobia as an organizing tool, if not having the same broad effect on politics as such a presence did in South Africa.
The experience in Uganda also points out the need for skepticism in the face of allied states and local opportunities. Fickle states have a variety of strategic interests that might highlight or contravene the needs of sexual and gender minorities, including alliance-building, security, neocolonial and imperial ambitions, as well as the need to build domestic constituencies (Bosia 2014). Too close a relationship imbeds local collectivities (p. 447) in the priorities of external state actors, even though priorities can easily change, and subject those already vulnerable to accusations of being foreign agents of colonial ambition. Transitions from autocracy themselves entail danger, with evidence from Tunisia and Egypt indicating that political competition might at times exacerbate homophobic tendencies.
So fickleness and skepticism highlight the centrality of risk and temporality as part of a politics that addresses vulnerability, even as sexual and gender minorities face innovative ostracism. Certainly, democratic accommodations can affirm shame (Warner 2000) or homonationalism (Puar 2007), and the fickleness of allies suggests that hard-won gains are never fully won, when powerful support can be withdrawn. But such realizations should not repel us more than the thought of seeking accommodation with autocratic and illiberal states—the very states that have been most resilient in their homophobia. Instead, queer notions of drag and camp compel positionalities strategically distant from states and their aid, and cognizant of danger (Bosia 2019), as the emphasis in queer theory on oppositional politics and resistance calls to interventions that mitigate vulnerability but recognize that the process of collective organization is dangerous for all oppositional actors in autocratic and illiberal states. Moreover, attention to the geotemporality of globalized LGBT resistance suggests that local sexual and gender minorities should be free to generate their own innovative responses. Indeed, addressing vulnerabilities recognizes the work being done on the ground by sexual and gender minorities to build capabilities in their response to the dangers they face as their work generates dangers and vulnerabilities in its own historical moment.
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