Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality

akshay khanna

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.

11 Responses to Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality

  1. Ranjan says:

    I think some excellent points are made here. At the same time, one does sometimes have to narrow one focus to get results in the real world.

    For those who appreciate the wider focus, it would be good to see engagement with the data from neuro-science on neural stability being the outcome of authentic intimacy – and explore the implications for sexual behaviour that is not self-sabotaging rather then getting caught in the web of hetero-normative/homo-normative polarity.

    If neuro-scientific research is not bumkum, then the data it gives us has profound implications fro how we think about sex – and get us away from the paradigm arising out of thinking that reproduction is the purpose of sex.

    THomas Lewis’s ‘A General Theory of Love’ is a good starting point. Also the work of James Prescott.



  2. […] the lives and determining the safety of LGBT communities in other countries. An Indian blogger comments: There is another more urgent and specific problem with the UK government policy – and that is […]

  3. Paul Halsall says:

    Some Africans, south Asians, etc. do identify as some aspect of LGBT. Others who do not do so at home, adopt such identities as soon as they are available to them as migrants within western countries. Still others, based in their home countries, wish to advance such identities at home (just as *gay* people did in the some major cities of the West only 40 years ago.)

    Ugandan and other homophobic African governments are not being treated by the UK government as children, but as bullies of their local LGBT populations.

    Let me reverse your claims, which I see as anti-humane and opposed to individual choice. Do you think western governments should refuse asylum to LGBT Ugandans, etc, because there is no real oppression at home?

    Some countries have governments that practice vicious homophobia. Jamaica is perhaps the very worst. I absolutelk support the UK government withholding AID, and support asylum claims by those who can get out.

  4. Jay says:

    I agree with Paul Halsall above: “homophobic African governments are not being treated by the UK government as children, but as bullies of their local LGBT populations.”

    Peter Tatchell made an interesting point when he asked that Cameron precede his threat of withdrawing aid from homophobic countries by apologizing to them for imposing sodomy laws on Commonwealth countries during colonialism, thus making them aware that the real legacy of colonialism is not homosexuality but homophobia.

  5. akshay khanna says:

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you so much for your comment and for the opportunity to explain some of the points i have attempted to make above.

    To begin with, let me clarify that it is not my case that there are no Africans or South Asians who identify as LGBT – of course there are, and in addition there are multiple other sexuality identity categories and idioms that people, increasingly, adopt and embody. But this relationship between desire and self is ONE idiom of several, and as i have attempted to argue, clearly not the best framework for addressing the politics of sexuality. My point in this context is that there are other ways to address these politics of sexuality – including addressing extreme violence and marginalisation, that are not first and foremost pegged on identity. It is this challenge that i suggest is before us as activists in the global south as well and the European context and its diasporas.

    Second, to engage your metaphor of ‘bullies’ and ‘children’ – you have put it very clearly – it is the LGBT populations that this policy treats as children, children who must be protected from these bullies. Thanks for pointing to this metaphor. The point is that this strategy totally disregards the political struggles of LGBT and other Queer groups in Africa. For a very eloquent response by African activists to this, please do visit .

    From what i hear, the fears that this policy decision will lead to a further marginalisation of Queer folk is already playing out as Gay people are beginning to be blamed for this threatened loss of funding. Would it not have been better if the British state, if at all it is keen on the protection of human rights of Queer folk, had been in conversation with, and working with African activists, contributing what it might to their struggles for justice? On this point do also take a look at a blog post by Stephen Wood:

    Third, I do not understand the context in which you bring in the question of asylum. At one level i do not see the moral or political logic that allows a(n ex)colonising force to close its borders at all. but in a world where there are borders, of course i support, and work to enable people who are facing violence and exclusion to change their circumstances, and of course i believe that the British state is obliged to provide asylum to those facing violence that has been enabled by their homophobic policies during the days of Empire! Further, nowhere have i denied violence, and real oppression, and i am a bit unclear where in my piece you find material to come to this conclusion!

    Hope this clarifies my position on these things, and do look forward to a constructive debate on them!


  6. Thanks much to Akshay for this article, and for clarifying the arguments further in the comments. The oft-noted neocolonial instrumentality of aid – the disbursal or withholding of aid as a means of establishing first world control over ‘third world’ states and economies, and also to establish a moral hierarchy of ‘developed’ countries of ‘developing’ ones as the justificatory ideology of such control – comes out well through this particular case. As scholars like Jasbir Puar have repeatedly pointed out, LGBT identities and people are increasingly evoked as token vulnerable subjects in various forms of imperial and neocolonial politics, e.g. to justify Israel’s actions and occupation of Palestine. (I have also heard analogous arguments to justify Indian administration/occupation of Kashmir, even if they are less publicly articulated than the Israeli case: statements from acquaintances to the effect ‘can you imagine how they’d treat their women and gay people in a ‘free’ Kashmir if we left?’, etc. – the tendency of Indians taking up such self-righteous positions might have increased in the light of the repeal of its own colonially inherited sodomy law, in comparison to ‘backward’ Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) All such arguments are of course profoundly ironic given how many neo/colonial powers (particularly the British state) have actively constructed and perpetuated homophobia through colonial rule and administration, as Akshay and others have pointed out.

    However, while completely in sympathy with its overarching purpose, I also have a few additions and (if I may) disagreements regarding the article. Firstly, while maybe the evocation of the Indian queer movement as an example of better queer politics is strategic in order to demonstrate the problems with mainstream LGBT politics in the UK, it has to be acknowledged that the Indian movement has largely given over to LGBT identity politics, at least at the institutional level and in media/civil society representations. While South Asian feminists have repeatedly looked at sexuality as central to constructions of caste, class and nation and not just about a separate ‘sexual minority’, the same cannot be said of most of the organized queer movement – no longer, at least. Whether it is the SAHRCMSG (South Asian Human Rights Commission of Marginalised Sexualities and Genders), organizational networks like INFOSEM (India Network of Sexual Minorities), MINGLE (Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment), etc., the language of LGBT identities and rights has long become not just a strategic tool but the hegemonic common sense. While these coalitions, networks, organizations etc. certainly do not exhaust the range of queer politics in India (especially the complex terrain of unorganized, semi-organized and lower class/caste queer dissidence), they do have an important hegemonic function and set the dominant language for talking about queerness to the state and the media (and I do recall some of Akshay’s earlier published articles as critiquing the organized movement for some of these reasons).

    This brings me to the second point. While the threat of withholding aid from homophobic states is a strikingly new development, a much more pervasive aspect of aid conditionality is the presumption and construction of a universalized framework of sexuality (and gender!) to demarcate the targets of aid. This is apparent in the case of both HIV-AIDS prevention funding and human rights related funding. While a detailed discussion is not possible in this space, I would note that increasingly, it is not only gender/sexual identity per se but also a certain dominant rubric or framework of identities that serve as the prerequisite of aid for the sexual health or rights of (broadly speaking) queer folks. This dominant rubric of identity seeks to demarcate vulnerable populations not only through the dichotomy of homo- and heterosexuality, but importantly, also that of gender and sexuality (gay and transgender; MSM [men who have sex with men] and TG; GLB & T). The impacts of such a framework on the ‘target groups’ of aid cannot be detailed here, and I have been working to understand and document it through my broader dissertation work. Suffice it to say that many lower class queer spaces/communities that are loosely bounded and encompass a variety of subject-positions are increasingly having to define themselves as either homosexual or transgender, ‘MSM’ or ‘TG’, leading to boundary wars and controversies over the ‘proper’ labeling of persons, and the potential exclusion of people who do not neatly fit into the aforementioned categories from aid and funded projects. As I argue elsewhere, many subcultural terms of queerness used in India like Kothi, Dhurani, Hijra, Launda, etc. (which can encompass a variety of positions, subjectivities, desires in their everyday usages) have proved to be problematic for institutional HIV-AIDS and human rights discourse because they are difficult to classify into the hegemonic rubric of identity, and are increasingly being ‘phased out’ from the institutional language of funders and NGOs.

    Lastly, in that context, I want to voice the reservation that a dichotomy between identity and non-identity (or identity/desire, identity/behavior, etc.) might not be very useful in understanding the problems of hegemonic LGBT identity politics. While Akshay very rightly points out that ‘homophobia’ and stigma do not just happen on the basis of identity – which I take to mean that they might be directed at a range of behaviors and desires and not just to persons demarcated as ‘homosexual’ – I argue in my broader work that forms of stigma do cause people to resist and form spaces which are differentiated from the mainstream (e.g. in case of South Asia, cruising networks in cities and small towns, Kothi/Dhurani/Hijra kinship networks, virtual spaces for more middle-class sections, etc.) These spaces and sites often encompass a range of people, desires, or subject-positions brought together on the basis of common situation and interests, and signal forms of queer collectivity that are not singular or homogenous identities, but do forge complex and variable forms of collective identification. While – as I suggested above – the attempted containment of these spaces as LGBT identities through institutionalized aid has problematic and harmful effects, the valorisation of non-identitarian modes of desire or behavior, to opposed to gender/sexual personhood, might further erase or elide the history of such collectivities and their difficult, ongoing forms of resistance/dissidence.

    I am aware that I might be speaking beyond the scope and purview of the current issue or debate, but just wanted to articulate some of the points that struck me as relevant to the broader claims of the article. Once again, thanks a lot to Akshay for raising these issues at a very expedient moment.

  7. […] their identity. I’ve been thinking about this since reading Akshay Khanna’s superb piece on “Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality”, which I also encourage you to read in its entirety. In particular, this particular passage struck […]

  8. […] their identity. I’ve been thinking about this since reading Akshay Khanna’s superb piece on “Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality”, which I also encourage you to read in its entirety. In particular, this passage struck a chord […]

  9. […] Fellow akshay khanna tackled the political fallout of this announcement head-on in a blog post “Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality”, when he challenged the usefulness of an LGBT politics that fails to account for the complexity […]

  10. […] Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality (by Akshay Khanna) […]

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