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How many queer Africans does it take for Barack Obama to lecture an entire continent on its countries’ domestic policies? Trick question: he doesn’t need any – just gay white American lobbyists.
President Obama’s recent trip (or safari, considering how much firepower he brought) to Africa has been widely reported on by mainstream, conservative, and liberal news sources. But his “gay rights” gaffes have received somewhat different coverage. For the record, God’s gift to the gays told a Senegalese audience that “regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you…people should be treated equally. And that’s a principle that I think applies universally.” Unsurprisingly, this led to some harsh responses from African religious and government leaders, who reportedly told Obama that he could take his gay rights and stick them where the colonial sun don’t shine. So what’s the best way for the United States to export its legacy of individual rights to industrializing nations? Actually, that may be the wrong question to ask. Instead, Westerners who advocate for LGBT rights need to question the ways their cause continues to justify neoconservative and imperialist interventions abroad. America cannot lead a crusade for sexual equality – not without alienating the entire “Third World.”
Homonationalism and the Conservaqueer
Despite coverage from the non-gay A.P. and only sort-of gay Huffington Post, The Advocate has yet to make any comment on Obama’s African adventure, instead choosing to dedicate 6 July’s website cover story to “accidentally homoerotic” artistic renderings of Jewish men. I love sexy Jesus as much as the next Catholic-in-remission, but you’d think that the most popular gay publication in the United States would have something to say about the President going to bat for LGBT rights in Africa. Shouldn’t he be praised for promoting tolerance and a liberal social policy abroad?
The silence emanating from the gay establishment is understandable in the light of recent academic criticism over the phenomenon of homonationalism, which “occurs when sub-sectors of specific gay communities [usually white] achieve legal parity with heterosexuals and then embrace racial and religious supremacy ideologies.” This ideology treats “[n]ational recognition and inclusion” in institutions like marriage and the military as “contingent upon the segregation and disqualification of racial and sexual others from the national imaginary,” according to Jasbir Puar, who coined the term. In other words, gay organizations and activists, in order to gain acceptance by the State, have taken on the language and causes of patriotism and nationalism. For the uninitiated, this means: spreading “democracy” in Africa and the Middle East, often by force; discriminating against Muslims and people of Arab descent; and military service as an unquestionable virtue. This also means that “gay rights” activism has become gentrified, serving the interests of primarily white and middle-class gay people who, thanks to their already privileged racial and economic status, can benefit from inclusion under marriage laws. (How do you benefit from estate tax exemptions if both you and your spouse earn minimum wage? How much does it help you to have legal access to your spouse’s health plan, if you and your spouse have no insurance?) In the last few years, queer academics have been raising more and more awareness about this pernicious influence on LGBT politics in the West. Conferences abound on homonationalism and “pinkwashing” (the practice of giving a nominally pro-gay country a free pass on its otherwise horrible civil rights record), the latest in April 2013. Companies and organizations like The Advocate and the Human Rights Campaign no longer have carte blanche to promote foreign intervention for the sake of LGBT interests.
So why is all the criticism of Obama’s homonationalist rhetoric coming from conservatives? The Washington Times condemned the president for “striving mightily to export…homosexual rights (and sometimes homosexuals),” and Breitbart.com took Obama to task for “imposing his own views on those of another culture….” (The irony of this multicultural language coming from Breitbart.com is perhaps lost on the website’s editors.) In all likelihood, this whole event has just been one big embarrassment for establishment LGBT organizations. To report on it would require that news outlets like The Advocate acknowledge the stark inequalities present in any homonationalist agenda, which they still implicitly support. How can we criticize Senegal for having laws against homosexual acts, which it usually doesn’t even enforce, when we still have a death penalty, and execute a disproportionate number of black men? (Senegal, by the by, outlawed capital punishment years ago.) How can Obama preach to Africans about the need to respect the equality of all consensual relationships when Muslims in the United States cannot engage in consensual polygamy (which is legal in most African countries)? Senegalese President Macky Sall brought these points to the table after Obama was done chastising and lecturing, and they were no doubt ignored.
When the State endorses equality, it is only ever to cash in on popular 21st century social movements. Obama’s attempt to foist a very Western, American conception of equality on his African audiences ignores the multiple factors at play in these countries, and as a result is impotent to improve anyone’s quality of life. Current state violence against people found guilty of homosexuality has a long and confusing history in Africa, much of it tangled up in colonial policy. Senegal, for instance, was once the most gay-friendly African nation, until the importation of the French/Western conception of “homosexuality,” a term with pathologizing and Western connotations. In the 1980s and 1990s, national discourse on homosexuality began to portray the phenomenon as a decadent French colonial import, with no possibility of reconciliation with “traditional African values.” So when Western liberals demand that Senegal and the rest of Africa import a Western conception of LGBT equal rights, they betray a profound ignorance of the fact that the West itself created this problem in the first place. It’s equally ignorant to deny the role of economics in shaping cultural atmosphere. We cannot protest the Ugandan “Kill the Gays” bill, for instance, without first understanding its ulterior purpose as a distraction from government corruption and interference in the Ugandan economy. The complexity of culture requires that anyone trying to promote change (especially change in a culture not their own) first take into account the intersecting factors which have made the current social situation possible.
No intervention without understanding
LGBT rights activists and organizations cannot simply erase their past (and, in many cases, their present) as mouthpieces for nationalism and its legal proxy, the State. They need to begin advocating a more radically libertarian approach to foreign policy, while incorporating the feminist concept of intersectionality. No one form of oppression can be isolated from any others. Violence against LGBT people in Africa is inextricably linked to colonialism, misogyny, and classism. Preaching about equality or trying to “spread democracy” without first understanding all cultural forces at work can only lead to conflict with native cultures, and damage to the very cause of equality.
In fact, it may be time for these organizations to give up the rhetoric of equality for a more radical discourse of liberation. How best can we liberate people from the intersecting oppressions they face from their States? Even better, how best can we help people liberate themselves, with their own unique approaches to resolving social problems? How, for instance, can Senegal bring back its respect for queer acts and identities? And how can we move beyond our fixation on equal access to State institutions, and start liberating ourselves from those institutions? These are the questions that advocates for LGBT rights need to confront if they hope to enact any kind of change in Africa – or in the West.
Brendan Moore is a current undergraduate at Coe College, studying feminism, zen deconstructionism, poetry, Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos. He currently lives in Las Vegas, and would like to help you smash the patriarchy.