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.

‘Decent’ people and lazy bigotry.

When the Boston marathon bombers were apprehended and the news kept broadcasting crowds of Americans chanting ‘USA! USA!’ on a loop, I quite foolishly lapsed into a moment of national pride. You wouldn’t get that in Britain! We’re too sensible, too reserved. It was a pretty dumb thought at the time but now it’s almost heart-breaking. Because this is all pretty grim, isn’t it? As with the English riots two years ago, an awful, violent and dramatic act on the streets of London has scratched the surface of our famed ‘tolerance’ and exposed the ugliness underneath. It’s been absolutely terrifying how easily and quickly so many have slid into the language of the far-right, complaining about ‘Muslims’, berating ‘Islam’, furiously condemning people who ‘come to this country’ to commit violent acts. It’s amazing how a mention of Allah and Western imperialism make so many instant experts. Indeed, the ‘new atheists’ were out in force as well, smugly (and idiotically) observing that ‘religion’ was to blame. You see, any mention of Islam (and of course brown skin) instantly trumps all other factors. The IRA (responsible for far more terrorist acts than any Muslims have been in the UK) had a political grievance. Dale Cregan murdered (at least) four people because he was a thug. The many victims of knife crime in London and beyond are gang things, obviously. 

The incredible thing is that many ‘intelligent’ people don’t see any racism in this. They don’t see any racism in it even when they resort to the trite ‘oh we’re meant to tip-toe around them because they’re black’ arguments. They don’t see it as racism when they’re explaining why all those other violent murders differ from this one. They don’t see it as racism when they’re dismissing claims that these murderers were on drugs or the possibility that they were mentally ill. They don’t see it as racism when they’re dismissing the fundamentally political message of their claimed motive and instead insisting that their religion was the issue. They don’t see it as racism when they dismiss out of hand actual evidence that Muslims are no more violent than anyone else or even MI5’s (not exactly renowned for its nice treatment of Muslims) report saying (amongst many other things) that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

They have zero interest in the countless terrorist acts, wars and deaths which have nothing to do with Muslims. (As an aside here, the ostentatious atheists have a unique ability to attribute any and all wars which have any religious aspect whatsoever to the cause of ‘religion’ and dismiss any comment that certain genocidal maniacs were atheist as juvenile. Read some books, for fuck’s sake.) They have a seeming inability to observe the difference in how mass shootings or bombings are treated when the perpetrator(s) are white as opposed to when they are not – even when the white people have explicitly political aims with their violence (which makes it terrorism, folks). Conversely acts of violence committed by people who ‘look a bit Muslim’ seem to quickly have the religious aspect brought in, even when there is little/no evidence for it – something I wrote about previously with regards to ‘homophobia’ in East London. Statistics were deliberately skewed in order to present a narrative of marauding Muslims attacking people. More so, this was viewed in complete isolation from attacks on others which were happening in the same areas (overwhelmingly high crime areas). I’ve mentioned it before but I’ll always remember asking a self-identified ‘gay activist’ why he was ranting about a gay man being stabbed in Shoreditch and not a black kid who was stabbed metres away a few weeks beforehand. “That’s got nothing to do with us”, was his incredible response.

Of course the EDL tried to capitalise on the East London Muslim scaremongering with an ‘East London Pride’ march. They are capitalising on yesterday’s murder too, with their Facebook page apparently attracting thousands of new people and their members encouraging violent reprisals against Muslims. What’s again remarkable is that many who have been so quick to rush into the ‘evil Muslims did this’ narrative seem to see absolutely zero connection between their ignorant, intemperate words and the ability of the far-right to exploit these situations. It’s like the EDL and their ilk are some kind of gauge of real racism – hey, if I’m not actually attacking mosques myself, I can spout any old claptrap about Muslims cobbled together from the tabloids and it’s fine! A nice liberal paper like The Guardian can print its deliberately inflammatory front page and it means nothing, because it’s not as if it’s aimed at racists is it?!

The unthinking response to both the riots and this murder remind me of Alone in Berlin and how it made me think about how evil creeps up on us.  We think we’re decent and as long as there are more extreme people out there committing evil, we can point and them and say “that’s not us!” Yet evil takes root in mundane ways – not least the unthinking and reactionary Facebook status following a violent outrage in London. More than ever the urge is to ignore these things – social media is almost entirely based around self-validation and group think and unpleasant accusations of ignorance and racism don’t really fit into that. Yet we must speak up, we must try and fight these attitudes in whatever ways we can. As I wrote in the Alone in Berlin post, as a society we are encouraged to dehumanise our ‘enemies’ and turn a blind eye to our own evils. We rightly are outraged by brutal murders such as happened yesterday yet we have nothing to say about the torture, mass murder and hatred endemic in our own society. If the kids being torn apart by drones are all the way over in Yemen, who cares? They were probably terrorists anyway. The CIA coined the term ‘blowback’ which is now widely used to refer to the unintended negative consequences of Western imperialism – consequences which we have been continually warned of with regards to our activities in the Middle East – and it seems to me that any serious response to violence in our society must look at the state-sponsored violence which occurs on a daily basis. Where’s the outrage over this? Decency comes cheap.

Inevitably such thoughts lead to accusations of ‘sympathising’ with murderers. Indeed it already happened to me last night. No matter – I don’t feel a need to write frothing-at-the-mouth statuses to prove that I don’t condone murder. The only way to stay sane amongst the grimness of yesterday is to use our voice to speak against lazy bigotry and reactionary hatred perpetrated by ‘decent’ people.