Beyond Gay ImperialismHistorians in the News
tags: global history, book reviews, LGBTQ history
Samuel Clowes Huneke is an assistant professor of modern German history at George Mason University. His first book, States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany, is forthcoming with University of Toronto Press.
ON FEBRUARY 4, 2021, during his second full week in office, President Joe Biden signed an order reaffirming and augmenting a 2011 memorandum that directed U.S. agencies abroad to “promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons everywhere.” Lauded by LGBTQ advocacy groups, the order noted, “Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection . . . The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle.”
In recent decades, the campaign for queer rights has gone global. While the United States has played an ambivalent role, depending on the administration in power, most North and South American as well as European countries have adopted, to varying degrees, pro-LGBTQ policies. In 2015, for instance, the Republic of Ireland adopted marriage equality in a national referendum, the first country to do so through popular vote. Two years ago, a Gender Identity Law, guaranteeing trans people the right to change their name and legal gender went into effect in Chile. Elsewhere, there has been something of a backlash. Countries like Poland, Uganda, and Russia have either rolled back protections for queer people or passed legislation that more harshly punishes same-sex acts or gender nonconformity.
This global divide is underscored each year when the advocacy organization ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) publishes a map charting laws governing sexual orientation around the world. On the 2021 map, the Americas, Europe, and a handful of other countries are colored in progressive blues. Much of Asia and Africa are shades of red.
This division probably make sense to the casual observer. But queer scholars and activists have noted that it also has colonial overtones. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European states cast their imperial projects as “civilizing missions.” In a similar manner, some global LGBTQ advocacy essentializes the differences between countries with more robust protections for gay, lesbian, and (sometimes) trans individuals, and supposedly less-developed countries that need to catch up. This tendency constitutes a kind of “gay imperialism,” in the words of scholars Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir, and Esra Erdem, allowing white people to once again “identify themselves as the global champions of ‘civilisation’, ‘modernity’ and ‘development’.” Writing in 2008, these scholars were criticizing, among others, British activist Peter Tatchell and his group Outrage for using terms such as “Islamo-fascists.” But their point applies just as well to more recent efforts, such as Ambassador Ric Grenell’s 2019 campaign to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.
Claims that turn on a stark divide between pro- and anti-LGBTQ countries often whitewash genuine problems in those places that purport to be friendlier homes for queer minorities. They can also paper over the ways in which gay, lesbian, and trans rights are not always linked. Historians have pointed to ways in which gay men, in particular, have discriminated against trans individuals. More recently, in the United Kingdom, so-called Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have endeavored to link anti-trans and pro-lesbian activism. As Rahul Rao, a scholar who writes about global LGBTQ activism, notes, if one overlays the ILGA map of gay and lesbian rights with a map showing the frequency of trans murders, “the whole world turns red.”
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