Beyond Neoliberal LGBTQI politics: on duplicities, challenges and hope for change
In Sri Lanka, the LGBTIQ community — or many segments of that community — has come together last week to stand against the decision of the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to ‘bin’ a provision to ensure equality and justice to all citizens irrespective of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The most recent collective action happened to be a press conference held in Colombo, attended by academics, legal experts, and most importantly, LGBTIQ people, with an intersectional representation of trans women, Trans men, cis gay women and men. This press conference, perhaps the first of its kind, included statements made in the local languages and in English, and was represented by LGBTIQ citizens of Sri Lanka who campaign fiercely for equality and justice, who, like this writer, travel with Sri Lankan passports, and have their feet on Sri Lankan soil.
This is of tremendous importance, in a world in which LGBTIQ rights are often deployed by powerful neoliberal Western governments and supranational bodies as a means of coercing governments in the global South, in dubious efforts to promote Western agendas, and in some cases, to topple democratically elected governments and coercively facilitate regime change operations. Similarly, LGBTIQ rights are also deployed as a means of upholding erroneously construed invasive agendas and in some cases, in justifying the oppression of minorities. The case in point of such ‘pinkwashing’ is the State of Israel. The work of organisations such as Al-Qaws, Mosaic and many other individual activists across the Middle East has been absolutely crucial in challenging Zionist pinkwashing as a strategy of continuing the shameless oppression of the Palestinian people.
The Obama administration: pinkwashing as foreign policy?
Yet another case in point of pinkwashing was the Obama administration. The White House website under that administration even had a page entitled ‘President Obama and the LGBT community’. Domestically, it was an extremely laudable approach. Indeed, the Obama presidency took unprecedented measures in promoting LGBTIQ rights in the USA, supporting marriage equality and standing in solidarity with the Transgender community. Towards the latter part of the Obama presidency, very important steps were taken to protect the Trans community from rising hatred, on matter as trivial as using public rest rooms. However, the same administration continued its policy of cooperation with the State of Israel, and despite very subtle and distant commitments to the ‘two-state’ solution, was never prepared to advocate a clear stance on the matter. When the UN decided to take action, this earned the Obama administration’s wrath. Similarly, close relations with extremely anti-LGBTIQ governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar continued unhindered. The plight of Palestinian LGBTIQ people, Yemeni LGBTIQ people, Lebanese LGBTIQ people were all of zero interest to the Obama administration when it launched fierce and destructive wars in these countries, with the plain and simply objective of advancing its strategic and natural-resource controller-economic interests.
Exposing the cracks: the Jennicet Guiérrez intervention
These duplicities were also apparent in the domestic sphere. At the 2015 White House Pride reception, Jennicet Gutiérrez, a committed activist especially for the rights of undocumented and incarcerated LGBTQI people of colour (and very especially trans people of colour), interrupted President Obama at the White House Pride reception. President Obama was very irate, and ordered security to escort Jennicet out. She was not invited for the 2016 Pride reception. However, the 2016 reception included a large number of prominent Trans people, all of them doing excellent work, but none of them were of the ilk that strongly provides a ‘voice for the voiceless’ and the marginalised. Jennicet’s case is a fine example of the duplicities inherent in the Obama administration’s neoliberal LGBTQI rights agenda. As it promoted and supported equal marriage, it ignored the plight of many hundreds of thousands of LGBTQI migrants and undocumented people, people held in incarceration under appalling conditions within the prison-industrial complex, and many hundreds of LGB and Trans/Queer people of colour, especially Trans women of colour, who continued to experience poverty, violence and brutal murder. Cases such as that of late Islan Nettles come to mind, and LGBTIQ people of colour represent a demographic who, to a large extent, continued to ‘not’ benefit from the dividends of a neoliberal pro-LGBTIQ policy agenda. Besides, the unsustainability of this policy approach, repeatedly highlighted by people such as Jennicet and many other activists, has been proven crystal-clearly by the elephant in the room — the Trump phenomenon. The Democratic Party hierarchy’s resolve to prevent Senator Sanders from progressing to the presidential candidacy was the strongest proof of its myopic commitment to domestically and internationally destructive neoliberal politics. The low inclination in that political fold to develop a new approach that corresponded to the challenges of the times is what resulted in the most unprecedented rise in neoconservative politics, in the form of Donald Trump and his endorsers.
Pinkwashing as counterproductive to all?
We can therefore conclude with a strong sense of certitude that politics of pinkwashing are thoroughly unhelpful in promoting LGBTQI rights anywhere. This does not imply, however, a non-endorsement of international human rights monitoring mechanisms such as UPR, which are of crucial importance, and which help zoom in on policy lacunae, from compulsory sterilisation for Trans Women in Finland, the continuing restrictions for reproductive justice in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the continuity of legislation in Sri Lanka’s statute book that condone discrimination against citizens on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Instead, what is highlighted here is the importance of not conflating LGBTQI rights with neo-imperialist agendas of powerful governments and supranational bodies. The debate needs to be nuanced; the struggle is for the securing of fundamental rights, which are often denied to citizens of countries in the global South as a direct result of Western colonisation.
A Commonwealth quagmire: Repealing Victorian Legislation of Yesteryear?
Many member states of the Commonwealth of Nations continue to be under the hammer of Victorian legislation, forcibly imposed upon colonised peoples, as a means of regulating social and cultural lives in all parts of the British Empire. In the Sri Lankan Penal Code, for instance, Articles 365 and 365A involve oppressive laws that discriminate against citizens on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. These are laws that Sri Lankans never requested, and were imposed by force, unilaterally by the British.
Some UK-based LGBTQI rights advocacy bodies are completely oblivious to the reality that their country’s historical legacy of colonization, plunder and oppression is at the heart of violence against LGBTQI people in many parts of the world. Instead of developing a broad dialogue around the fact that anti-LGBTQI legislation across the non-white New Commonwealth is the result of colonial oppression, and assisting LGBTQI organisations that work for Queer Liberation from an anti-colonial and a ‘liberation from all forms of oppression’ perspective, these organisations engage in extremely pathetic politics of patronage, creating and nurturing ‘allies’ in Commonwealth member states who unconditionally stand with their neoliberal agenda. The latter are most often organisations run by Western expats, or people from the global South with Western expat backgrounds, and access to ‘multiple levels of white privilege’ such as a Western passport or being ‘white-passing’.
The colonialist video
Neo-Imperialist attitudes of this nature are a major hindrance to LGBTQI rights advocacy within the Commonwealth of Nations. The ways in which non-governmental bodies such as the Kaleidoscope Trust and organisations such as the Commonwealth Equality Network engage in promoting LGBTQI rights can be summed up in one word — eurocentrism. Last month, the Kaleidoscope Trust released a video that is exemplary of this approach. The video first features a London-based cis gay man, who explains how ‘free’ he is in London, followed by people of colour from several Commonwealth member states in the global South, explaining how difficult things are for them back home. The focus is on the lack of visibility, acceptance and socialising spaces. This video paints London, if not the UK, as the model, and it carries the connotation that the other countries featured in the video are far behind the UK, as backward and detestable places. This creates a politics of (neo-colonial) exclusivism, in which the UK is presented as the model for LGBTIQ rights in the rest of the Commonwealth. Lets’ not forget that it was precisely this approach — the UK’s exclusivism — that used to be robustly deployed to promote British imperialism and the exploitation of colonised peoples. It was precisely an attitude of British exceptionalism that was used when imposing Victorian moralities and laws upon colonised black and brown peoples. Looking at the UK as a norm was therefore the root cause of intolerance towards gender pluralities and non-cis-heteronormativity across what we know today as the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’.
Bragging how good the UK is in terms of LGBTQI rights is simply an immature, ill-advised, childish and strategically poor approach when talking about the Commonwealth. It is an approach that further strengthens the socially conservative anti-LGBTQI lobbies in Commonwealth member states in the global South, who can use this video as proof to further cling to their Victorian hangovers and come up with inanities (which are nonetheless marketable) such as ‘the LGBTQI lobby is trying to infest their countries with gay bars’.
Instead, the most worthwhile approach lies in articulating LGBTQI rights in the form of a strong strategy for Queer Liberation, aligning it with struggles against misogyny and neo-colonial oppressions. An approach of this nature is inherently anticolonial, and prioritises grounding Queer Liberation locally. This prevents the struggles of the LGBTQI community from resembling efforts to ‘impose’ Western values or lifestyles.
There is also a tendency among some LGBTQI community leaders of the neoliberal ilk to interpret coercive Eurocentric calls for LGBTQI equality as ‘international campaigns’. All Out’s recently launched petition campaign calling upon the EU to not to provide Sri Lanka with trade concessions until what they term as ‘homophobic’ legislation is dropped, is a revealing example. They categorically avoid the question of ‘who’ introduced such legislation to Sri Lanka. Secondly, they also ensure that agents of neoliberal LGBTQI lobbying in Sri Lanka support this initiative. Conflating LGBTQI rights with the EU’s trade links with the government of Sri Lanka is extremely myopic and inconsistent, as the EU has no qualms whatsoever in carrying out deals in many sectors with a large number of countries with even worse records of violations of LGBTQI rights. This does not imply an opposition to international solidarity campaigns. Instead, it is a call for such campaigns to be focused on Queer Liberation and not coercion, positively complementing the work of grassroots Queer Liberation activists in a given country.
A global trend?
International LGBTQI activism copies oppressive templates from the cis-heteronormative world of international affairs and aid distribution, which creates hierarchies and dependencies, and a clearly visible ‘white saviour’ complex and to borrow from scholar-activist and poet Nat Raha, an ‘NGO-industrial complex’. Neoliberal LGBTQI lobbies in the EU and North America often condemn violence against LGBTQI people in Islamic republics, but never support a Queer Liberation-oriented, anti-imperialist and anti-fascist organisation such as Al-Qaws. They may express tremendous disappointment over the election of Donald Trump, but would seldom extend their support to the Trans Women of Colour Collective or to the Audre Lorde Project. They may express dismay at the refusal of the present government of Sri Lanka (put in place through a regime change operation supported by the West, and is therefore generally perceived to be a pro-Western and therefore ‘progressive’ government) but never extend support to Sri Lankan LGBTQI organisations that work at the grassroots, led by Sri Lankan citizens who speak and write Sinhala and Tamil, and travel with Sri Lankan passports. Instead, they extend their support to individuals and organisations worldwide that appear to be ‘trustworthy’ to them. In addition, the stringent anti-LGBTQI mindset in many countries in the global South (especially in the African continent) is the direct result of missionary work carried out by misogynist, homophobic, transphobic and outright fascist ministers of religion especially from the USA, who ‘use’ poverty and deprivation in underprivileged communities to promote their agendas of hatred.
Towards a ‘liberating’ global LGBTQI activism?
The bottom line of neoliberal LGBTQI international politics is that in many cases, the West uses LGBTQI rights as a pawn to promote their agendas in selected countries. They do so with the express intention of ensuring that issues of discrimination and oppressive laws remain unhindered. Their objective is not the ‘resolution’ of such issues but their continuity, so that LGBTQI issues can be used as a coercive strategy over a prolonged period. This is why Western funders and supranational bodies seldom support Queer Liberation-oriented grassroots activist and scholar activist groups, as strengthening their hands is bound to lead to the repeal of discriminatory laws, enactment of equality provisions and attitudinal changes. Instead, their support is extended to organisations that unconditionally uphold neoliberal LGBTQI politics, which thrive on the NGO-industrial complex.
As long as such outfits hold sway as the public faces of LGBTQI activism, the future for Queer Liberation looks somewhat bleak, to say the least. On a positive note, the rise of LGBTQI activists inspired by the idea of ‘grounding’ their activism in specific local contexts, speaking and writing local languages, and working towards Queer Liberation one step at a time, offers much hope.
A Sri Lankan national, Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a Research Fellow at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, and a board member of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network.