For activists and advocates of sexual rights, the very recognition of sexuality as a valid aspect of ‘development’ or of rights itself, has been a slow and thankless battle. As such, yesterday’sstatement by David Cameron confirming that the British government will withhold aid from countries with homophobic policies might ostensibly be seen as a ‘victory’ of sorts. And yet there is something more fundamental at stake here – the idea of ‘sexuality’ as political object and the perpetration of a racialised discourse of difference that highlights the colonial continuities in ‘development’.
Cameron’s statement suggests that a progressive politics of sexuality can only be imagined in the form that it has taken in Europe and North America. This is the language of ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights’, where the world is imagined as constituted of homosexual and heterosexual people (with the nominal inclusion of bisexual and transgender categories).
Limits of an LGBT politics
This idea, that ‘who you have sex with defines what you are’ is just about a century old, and arises in a very particular political-economic context where medical professionals claimed a monopoly over defining the ‘truth’ of desire. This peculiar idea is far from universally experienced. In several parts of the global south, South Asia, for instance, people experience and express same-sex desire without needing to think of themselves as in any way different from the next person. In other words, same sex desire is expressed without reference to the idea of personhood. Activism in these parts of the world has recognised this diversity and addressed the politics of sexuality in a far broader way.
In India, for instance, the Queer movement, which has succeeded in overturning a colonial anti-sodomy law, has been critical of an ‘LGBT politics’. This has been a movement that recognises the politics of sexuality as affecting everyone – not just those who fall into the politically constructed category of LGBT – and being central to the politics of caste, class, race, religious fundamentalism, nationalism and economic development.
In the UK we see the reduction of the queer agenda to simply demanding a space within the structures of hetero-normativity (the notion that a monogamous relationship with someone of the same class,-race, and religion is the only legitimate form of sexual relationshiop, and the structuring of the political economy on the basis of this norm) – without questioning these structures themselves. The demands are as minimal, for instance, as demanding recognition of same-sex marriage. Rather than asking the question of why rights are accessible to people only insofar as they fit somewhere on the heteronornative matrix, these activisms have reduced themselves to the demand for a place within it.
At another level, we have seen the more troubling phenomenon in the UK is ‘homonationalism’ – the easy appropriation of the LGBT rights discourse by virulent right-wing, racist, Islamophobic nationalism. Earlier this year we saw an attempt by members of the English Defence League to use the long standing tradition of the Pride March as a vehicle for Islamphobia – in an attempt to collapse Islam with Homophobia. This was in absolute disregard to the processes of activism and community action by local Muslim LGBT groups, and indeed the explicit acceptance of homosexuality by the local mosque and religious associations. This amounted to the denial of the very existence of Muslim LGBT folk, and the rich traditions of homo-eroticism and gender diversity that have been celebrated in various forms of Islam. At its worst, this implies that to be Gay, one needs to be White. At its best, the underlying logic frames the European and North American Queer folk as bearing a burden of rescuing Queer folk in the rest of the world – a slight variation on the colonial theme of saving brown women from brown men.
In this context, activists and policy makers in Europe and North America would do well to inculcate humility in light of these limitations and open the doors for more creative, radical and brave strategies in the politics of sexuality, especially those arising from the Global South, from such places as India and Brazil.
Importance of understanding local experiences
There is another more urgent and specific problem with the UK government policy – and that is the manner in which it denies the possibility that there might be local movements, dialogues and activisms around sexuality and homophobia. Those who have taken the care to understand the politics of sexuality and gender in post-colonial societies know that they are always entangled with notions of nationhood. Right-wing nationalism, including that ironically inspired by aggressive North American Evangelism (as is the case in several parts of Africa where we are seeing the emergence of a new homophobia) has often embarked on ‘Xenophobic Queerphobia’ – the exclusion of Queer folk from the self-same nation. Simply put, the conservative right-wing portray Queerness as being somehow a western import, or the result of western influence that must be excluded, often violently, from the nation. The ‘nation’ then becomes the basis for homophobic violence. This has been one of the major problems that indigenous Queer movements have had to face in different parts of the post-colonial world. Historians tell us that this is, of course, untrue – for the large part, homophobia is a legacy of colonialism, something that developed more specifically through British colonisation, which went about criminalising same-sex desire and gender plurality in the most brutal ways.
The UK government’s expression of support for rights of homosexuals in the global south, without reference to local struggles for rights, in such a context feeds into this impulse and enables exactly such an argument. At one level it places the concern for sexuality rights outside the given country, and at another, it disavows the significance and strategies of local activists and movements that are engaged in the project of actualising citizenship.
While the rise of sexuality on the development and rights agenda, is a welcome development, to be truly progressive western forces might do better by supporting Queer movements in the global south, learning from them, and recognising the specificities of Queer struggles.
akshay khanna is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.