SUMMARY: LGBTI rights are fast becoming part of the mainstream foreign policy debate. Having struggled so long just to get the spotlight, we now face the question of what to do with it. A reassessment of allyship and cost/benefit analyses of activist alignment with those for whom LGBTI rights have become the cause célèbre is in order. Feel free to share suggestions on how you think this can best be done in the comments below.
There can be no doubt that the campaign for LGBTI ‘rights’, broadly construed, has made significant advances, at least by its own terms, across the globe in the past decade. From (temporary) decriminalization in the world’s largest democracy, to recognition of gay rights as human rights on the international stage, the visibility long denied LGBTI individuals and their advocates has now not only been furnished, but put into explicit focus by the highest echelons of national and international governments.
This is surely a cause for celebration. After all, how many times were we called to action in the name of awareness? Once people hear of the problems, we assured ourselves, they’ll have to do something.
I’m not sure if anyone was prepared for what happened next – some actually heard! For the first time since the retarded awakening to the ‘gay disease’, LGBTI issues began to occupy prominent arenas in affairs of state.
Now the activist’s set of eternal questions have reared their inconvenient heads: how do we proceed from knowing something needs to be done to doing it? How do we do it well? Perhaps more importantly, how can we be sure ‘we’ are comprised of allies who share common commitments and ideals? Can we be sure those allies with less-than-spectacular track records of human rights advocacy can be trusted this time around? As Rahul Rao puts it:
The elephant in the room, then, is the question of whether imperial power—in whatever form it is exercised—should have any place in struggles for liberation?…Why should we view the unequal distribution of power in the international system as a (potential) force for good when the good that it could do might be used as reason for the perpetuation of that unequal distribution?
Until now, we bemoaned the lack of attention and action on the part of states and international presences. We are now in a position to bemoan flaws in their action. This is a privileged, but precarious position to be in. Scott Long’s years of experience provide essential perspective:
When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy. This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.
Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.
These near decades of legal, political, and social neglect have provided ample opportunity to participate in and learn from the trials of movements in intellectual and intersectional solidarity. We have learned many lessons which, as all good lessons should, have provided more questions than answers (more on those later). (Un)fortunately, we are now in a position which necessitates swift action, nonetheless informed by our (lack of) knowledge. Action which is optimistic and seizes on the support of global powers, but which is critically aware of ulterior motives. Action which is sensitive to difference, but not paralyzed by relativism. Action which refuses to sacrifice ethics for an end, but which cannot surrender an end for ethics.
So, where to begin?