Angelus Morningstar discusses how the entanglement of LGBTI rights with globalization and imperialism continues to present problems in countries such as Uganda.
Last week, the Constitutional Court of Uganda overturned the strict anti-gay law (notoriously known as the kill-the-gays bill for its original form having the death penalty) on the grounds that the bill was passed without having gone through necessary legal proceedings. While this offers a sign of hope that the matter will be returned to parliament for greater scrutiny, there is no guarantee that it won’t be passed with the right quorum in parliament.
What is happening in Uganda is unusual because it is receiving international attention, which is incredibly atypical for most human rights abuses directed towards sexual orientation and gender diversity in developing nations. What is happening in Russia, Greece, Uganda, and Iran, to name but a few, are all symptoms of a world struggling to find a place for a highly dissident and subversive set of communities, loosely affiliated across the globe. So yes, they constitute incredibly blatant breaches of human rights, but at least the Global North is finally reconciling with the issue that they are human rights issues – mostly. The history of these developments are deeply rooted in the history of colonialism, and a broader discourse on human rights.*
Like today, there is an international tension between the Western ideal human rights keyed to sexual orientation and a reaction by states and parties outside of the West suggesting that homosexuality, and rights-claims for them, is a sign of Western decadence and corruption. The reality is that this particular form of homophobia is a colonial legacy, and much of Western attitudes and anti-Western responses to homosexuality have their origins on the Wolfenden Report, and its subsequent impact on the British Empire’s attitudes on its subjects. Though ostensibly a report for British subjects, the colonial nature of Britain meant it had global implications. Through colonisation, Victorian attitudes of sexuality took primacy over local and traditional understandings of non-heterosexual lives, and in many cases eradicated these earlier cultures entirely.
On a broader level, imperialism expanded on rhetorical metaphors of patriarchy, with the colonial powers portrayed as masculine and dominant, while the foreign nations were portrayed as feminine, meaning passive and receptive to domination. Specifically, ‘the Orient’ and the South (and particularly their male subjects) were feminised as homosexual in order to emasculate their populations and compound their foreignness with a sense of weakness and vulnerability. This colonial influence on sexualities has been pervasive. It effectively reduced sexuality purely into a medical framework, and eradicated cultural meaning and context; this effectively pathologised non-hetersexual sexualities. That is, where decolonialism adopted strong statism and nationalism, there was frequently a strong push to adopt traditional family models, and to pressure the citizenry to conform. Homosexuality (and other sexual deviance) would be equated with the undesirable colonial influence and thus considered illegitimate towards that nation’s authentic culture.
A significant example is outlined by El-Rouayheb in his work on the pre-modern Arab-Islamic world, where he describes a visible toleration of same-sex practices within the Arab-Islamic elite before the 19th Century. Importantly, he argues that homosexuality was not a concept as understood in modern terms, but that the relationships were articulated through active and passive roles, infatuation and lust and non/penetrative intercourse. So, even though traditional interpretations of Islam held proscriptions against liwat (sodomy), he argued that it was not until the Victorian influence that social attitudes towards it became much more hostile and that Victorian influence destroyed a tacit and obscure culture (but socially understood), where sexual relations had more to do with power relationships of penetrator and penetrated.
The impact of colonialism remains as post-colonial nations attempt to create a national identities distinct from the West as part of their project of decolonisation. Specifically, Binnie argues that in an effort to recapture (and repatriate) a sense of national pride, many developing nations attempt to reconstruct their perceived lost masculinity, partly to demonstrate their equality in power and stature against their former colonial masters. Thus, nation building attempts to eliminate any social and political manifestation that is contrary to their perceived need for power, autonomy, and repatriation and their search for an authentic national (masculine) character. So homosexuality becomes doubly hit as being seen as a sign of weakness and the result of Western influence.
This colonial background paints a vast background of political issues that have heavily suppressed discussion of sexuality in international forums. Yet, in the formulation of human rights, the absence of sexuality in those foundational discussions is still anomalous, considering that homosexual men and sexually ‘deviant’ women were amongst the victims of the holocaust. The creation of an International Bill of Human Rights (a set of three international documents that are internationally understood to define the scope of human rights) was a strong reaction to the atrocities of state-driven persecution of minorities. However, despite laying claim to being universal, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (one of the three documents making up the International Bill of Human Rights) is the the result of collaboration among nation-states and represents an amalgamation of their ideas of fundamental rights at that particular time. It has only been since 2008, that there has been sufficient recognition by member states of the UN General Assembly to formally recognise that sexual orientation (and later gender identity) constitutes a subcategory of humanity warranting protection. This is 14 years after the establishment of the Human Rights Committee.
During the Cold War, any attempt at bringing up sexual minorities in international forums was met with reproach and silence. There was a strong tendency to equate sexual deviance with political deviance. This can be seen with McCarthy in the USA, who initiated a pogrom against sexual minorities. It was seen under Stalin when he reversed Trotskyism’s initial provisions for same-sex families and (re)patriated the family as a Soviet social unit. It would also be seen when Thatcher introduced Section 28, which would silence any attempt to publish or promote homosexuality. Not only were these designed to marginalise sexual minorities, but also render them invisible.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 80s, there were national movements promoting and advocating LGBT(I) rights in Europe, the USSR, and the USA (as well as other Western nations). When the bipolarity of the Cold War thawed, the primary concern of nuclear security lessened and allowed greater room for the politics of human rights (which has previously been considered a lesser feature of international law). This waning of tensions opened more avenues of political exchange and collaboration amongst national networks. Through these networks, the then established Anglo-American model of gay liberation began to filter into the former Soviet bloc (Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand for example had already followed the American lead).
Even so, the recognition of human rights and the decriminalisation of sexual orientation was deeply rooted in medical frameworks, a legacy of the Wolfenden Report. This was the consequence of the institutional organs of human rights law attempting to frame sexual subjects. That is, sexuality as a human rights concern only gained significant interest through the special rapporteur on the rights to health, and their findings concerning reproductive rights. Though these findings significantly advanced international discourse on engaging with sexual subjects, it would nevertheless initially link sexuality to health, and create sexual hierarchies to inform state (and other actors) on how to make decisions concerning sexual subjects and any rights advocacy, especially if there were culturally sensitive concerns over sexuality by interested parties. The consequence of this would be to firmly locate the sexual subject as a domain of bodily discourses.
The spread of ACT Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987 through a global network would foster the American model via the leadership of many expatriate Americans. The AIDS epidemic and the subsequent emergence of AIDS-specific NGOs and INGOs to respond to the crisis was significant. That is, HIV was a globalised problem, cutting across socio-economic divisions, national boundaries and consequently united issues of sexuality broadly under a single emergency. UNAIDS and other UN organs deliberately and consistently intertwined remedial measures against HIV with cultural programs targeting gay men, men-who-have-sex-with-men, and other same-sex attracted men (all deliberately sexually biased). Significantly, the language of safe(r) sex and its practices emerged from gay communities in San Fransisco to be adopted worldwide.
It took the initiatives of LGBT(I) organisations to shift the international discussion away from a purely health and medical framework towards a rights-based discussion. The foundation of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) in 1990 was originally designed to bridge cultural differences between the American and former Soviet homosexual agenda. The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the world’s most broadly active LGBTI legal organisation has its roots in American activism. Founded in 1978, it acquired an international presence in the 90s, and included a 13 year campaign to get Amnesty International to make gays and lesbians part of its international mandate (culminating in 1991 in success). Through an increased presence and networking, the language they used would be co-opted in international law, even being adopted by the IGLHRC. Such language includes terms like ‘sexual orientation,’ and the general assumption that this was not a culturally value-laden term. This continued throughout the 90s, until by the end of the 1990s, Europride had all the hallmarks of American LGBTI culture.
It is only in the post-millennial era that the international community has seen any real development on this issue. In the past decade, the spectrum of LGBTI minorities falling under the purview of human rights starts after half a century of resilient silence. This change is in no small part due to the Declaration of Montreal (2006) and the Yogyakarta Principles (2006), which formally articulated a vast range of issues affecting these minorities from many parts of the globe. Both of these documents have been led partially by the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Louise Arbour. She attended both the OutGames 2006, and the Yogyakarta conference where these documents were drafted. In both these documents, we see a replication of the language initially propagated by ILGA. Though these documents do not have any formal standing within the UN, they have gained an international presence and are influential towards NGOs and INGOs. While these documents capture an American mode and means of rights articulation, and focuses on concepts like ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender diversity’ they do branch out into areas of rights and framing that are not purely civil and political, which may represent a broader articulation of international queer identity.
Yet, despite their formulation, the advocacy of LGBTI human rights remains inescapably Western–partly because human rights emerged as a Western phenomenon and partly because LGBTI (as both a sense of identity and community) has an equally Western origin. Moreover, both have been exported to spaces outside of the West along the same lines as the forces of globalisation. This reinforces the perception that a push for LGBTI human rights by Western advocates has been met with a backlash from nations outside the West. Their entanglement with globalisation has contributed to the perception that LGBTI civil liberties as being synonymous with Western imperialism. Herein lies the double-bind.
* In writing this, I would like to acknowledge that there are still significant gaps in this history, largely because what is known of LGBTI history tends to obfuscate the role and participation of people that don’t fit readily understood models. There is so much of our shared history that completely erases trans and intersex narratives, or labels these personalities as gay or lesbian. Even the words gay and lesbian tend to hide cultural differences for sexuality outside the West.