Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.

LGBT Rights in Russia and our Western Fantasies

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If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.

The above is from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the response to a speech Clinton gave which ‘promoted gay rights around the world’. The overwhelmingly positive reaction (and concomitant presentation of America as a champion of ‘human rights’) neatly illustrated some problematic aspects of ‘LGBT rights’, not least the tendency for them to be viewed as separate from (even superior to)general human rights. At times it can seem like liberal Westerners are like laser-guided drones, zooming around the world in order to pinpoint abuses (perceived or real) against LGBT people (and really we’re overwhelmingly talking about the ‘G’ here.) We get petitions about Uganda, inaccurately attributed photographs about Iran and demands to cut Western aid to ‘anti-gay’ countries and in each case the engagement never progresses beyond the facile. There are no efforts to understand the wider context, few efforts to engage with activists who actually live and operate in the countries in question and certainly no consideration of Western complicity and/or hypocrisy. The simple narrative goes “LGBT rights are being abused somewhere, as Westerners we can do something about it”. And that’s it. You don’t have to ponder this for long for the ‘white saviour’, imperialist and orientalist fantasies to make themselves obvious.

We’ve been seeing this again recently as the noise around Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens grows louder, culminating this week in a New York Times column from Harvey Fierstein and a Buzzfeed ‘article’. Seriously, when you’re sharing Buzzfeed pieces to highlight human rights abuses you should probably have the self-awareness to step back. Now, the situation in Russia is clearly worrying and shouldn’t be ignored. The introduction of such a law on a national level and a law effectively banning LGBT activism have drawn Western attention. However while this marks a deterioration in LGBT rights in Russia, the situation has been troubling for quite some time with various regions of Russia bringing in laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ over the past decade.  More than that, the human rights situation in Russia has been dreadful for many years. Even if we only look at the past month or so, we see a law criminalising blasphemy, the murder of journalists, the persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to the regime, the harassment and murder of human rights activists and extradition and torture. Russia has not been a functioning democracy, or respected human rights, since well before Putin came along. Yet it’s the LGBT issues which are seized on and lead to demands to boycott the country and the Winter Olympics. As is almost always the case, these calls for boycotts don’t seem to have arisen after discussions with activists in Russia over how best to proceed but have rather been imposed on high by Westerners, many of whom have clearly never set foot in Russia.

There’s a lot to be untangled here. There’s the question of whether a country which had its own ‘homosexual propaganda’ law until fairly recently really has the moral authority to be lecturing another on its treatment of LGBT people, of course. There’s the small matter that LGBT people are far from equal and far from free of homophobia in most Western countries. Yet as the wonderful Scott Long notes in this great piece, attacks on LGBT people in Western democracies tend to be portrayed as aberrations rather than being evidence of the daily hell faced by all LGBT people. There’s also the detail that the West has played a massive role in establishing and/or supporting regimes with appalling records on LGBT rights. This obviously brings to mind both the legacy of colonialism and the many repressive regimes which have Britain and America’s sticky fingers all over them but there’s also soft power. For example the One Campaign, which Bono credits as saving 9 million lives in Africa, opened the door to American evangelicals whose influence permeates (for example) the homophobic actions of the Ugandan government.

Then there is the tension between LGBT rights and ‘human rights’ which I wrote about in the piece first linked to above. It’s with neat symmetry that the Youth Olympics are to be held in China next year, as the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The wider LGBT community never joined in calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there are pretty much no calls for a boycott of the Youth ones, yet China is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. As Russia’s human rights record has only become of interest once it was seen to be targeting gay people, China’s perceived lack of laws targeting the same means their appalling human rights record is of little interest to people like Harvey Fierstein. Indeed, our own Olympics last year brought their fair share of authoritarianism and abuse, from ‘pre-arrests’ and forced evictions to exploitation of migrant workers and the prohibition of political protest. Yet speaking about these as a British person was seen as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negative’.

It’s this inability or flat-out refusal to look at our own human rights records first which most grates. Russia has human rights activists and they lead their fights, sometimes apparently with notable success. We should be so brave. Before being so eager to point out the problematic human rights of countries we perceive as lesser we should take a look at ourselves and our allies. It’s not without irony that Edward Snowden looks likely to be given at least a temporary Russian visa as he flees America’s persecution of whistle-blowers which is most notably represented by Bradley Manning (one of whose heroes is Harvey Milk). It is without irony that we condemn Russia for locking up Pussy Riot for ‘criticising the government’. The massive abuses of our national security agencies exposed by Snowden, both in America and here, have been met with nary a whimper by most people despite their enormous implications for our democracies.  We rightly applaud the bravery of Malala Yousafzai yet are utterly silent about the (at least) hundreds of children murdered by Western (mostly but not solely American) drone strikes. The American government has even assassinated its own citizens and it hasn’t inspired much of an outcry. We turn a blind eye to our government’s support for Israel and its brutal oppression of Palestine.  We shriek about the authoritarianism of Russia while the insanity of Guantanamo continues for yet another year and our own government destroys legal aid and sets up secret courts. Yet Fierstein declares that he has “a lot of faith in Obama”. Where is his concern for the human rights of those affected by his own government? From Trayvon Martin to Gareth Myatt, Jimmy Mubenga to Mark Duggan and beyond, our ‘liberal’ Western societies are riven with abuses. We wouldn’t expect activists in Russia to deal with any of these problems yet have no compunction about wading into their country without even speaking to them first. What these cases show is that ‘human rights’ are not experienced by all in the same way. They are always contested and always must be fought for and this requires that we pay some attention to our own societies first and foremost rather than indulging in liberal fantasies that we’re well-placed to start dotting around the world solving the problems which our governments and NGOs often have had a huge role in to begin with. 

08-08-2013: This blog was getting a lot of hits yesterday which I’ve no doubt was due to Stephen Fry’s ‘open letter’ about Russia going viral. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned it’s pretty much a perfect illustration of some of the issues I wrote about here. It’s almost entirely about him, for a start. He finds no space to quote or even refer to voices from within Russia, despite having visited there last year. He surely can’t be unaware, for example, that LGBT activists in Russia have actually spoken out against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics? If you’re directly contradicting the wishes of activists actually living in the country you profess to speak for, you better have a compelling reason. Fry doesn’t even begin to offer one.

Furthermore, he contrasts Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and ends with an obsequious tribute to David Cameron:

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

“I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right”. Clearly this is not a man affected by the government’s ‘austerity’ programme and his words elide the many struggles occurring in the United Kingdom. Yet even looking beyond the myriad of injustices wrought by this government, we see that only this week Cameron entertained the King of Bahrain, a truly brutal dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship which is sold arms by the United Kingdom. Funnily enough, we also sell arms to Russia. “The civilised world”. The situation in Yemen is similarly sold to us as a battle between “the civilised world” and the barbarians – a narrative which obscures the complex and morally abhorrent truth.

Fry’s words further cement the myth that the people of Russia are voiceless, less-than-human and need saving by the eloquent, ‘civilised’ West. They act as propaganda for Cameron and the West and insult the many activists here who are fighting their own struggles against the government. And all for an action which there seems to be little call for from within Russia, and which the only Russian LGBT activists whose words we can find oppose. Western fantasies, indeed.