On ‘gay conditionality’, imperial power and queer liberation: Rahul Rao

Guest post by RAHUL RAO

It’s not clear what (or whether) David Cameron was thinking when he suggested recently that British aid should be linked to respect for LGBT rights in recipient countries. Almost immediately, the statement evoked homophobic responses from political and religious leaders in Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and elsewhere. Perhaps more importantly, African social justice activists (including many of the leading LGBTI activists on the continent) advanced a comprehensive critique of ‘gay conditionality’ in a letter criticising Cameron’s statement, signed by 53 organisations and 86 individuals. Warning that the refusal of aid on LGBT rights grounds could provoke a backlash against queers who would be scapegoated for reduced aid flows, the critics have pointed out the insidious ways in which such initiatives could drive a wedge between queers and a broader civil society in recipient countries, besides reinforcing perceptions of the westernness of homosexuality as well as the imperial dynamics already prevailing between donor and recipient countries.

Cameron’s remarks did not come out of the blue. Indeed they were made over the same weekend as the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) at Perth, Australia. In the run-up to that meeting, LGBT activists had been lobbying the Commonwealth Secretariat for a formal statement on the incompatibility of the criminalisation of same-sex sexual conduct with ‘Commonwealth values’. More particularly, activists such as Peter Tatchell had called on Cameron to ‘apologise for Britain’s imposition of anti-gay laws on Commonwealth countries in the nineteenth century, during the period of colonial rule’. (This is not to suggest that these activists were demanding the imposition of conditionality. Tatchell, for example, advocates diverting aid from states to ‘grassroots, community-based humanitarian projects’ rather than cutting it—a proposal that itself seems ill-thought out, oblivious as it is to the fact that aid in the 1980s and 90s took precisely this form and was criticised for bypassing and undermining the state in its neoliberal preference for ‘civil society’ actors.)

The biennial CHOGM meetings have been important arenas for activism around issues of sexuality for at least the last two cycles. Yet it is important, I would suggest, to think about the ethics and instrumentalities of working in and through an institution that is a legacy of empire. On the one hand, to draw attention to Britain’s culpability in instituting anti-sodomy laws in its colonies could be tactically useful in confronting the widespread perception in many African and Asian ex-colonies that homosexuality is a western import. Yet to call on Britain to play an advocacy role in the struggle against these laws invites a contemporary rerun of the civilising mission: the spectre of the erstwhile imperial power and its white dominions berating the black and brown Commonwealth for its backwardness is not one that is likely to engender the sort of change that its proponents wish for. Moreover, the demand for an apology for the sodomy law, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, late Victorian holocausts, dependency, slavery or all of the other phenomena typically grouped under the sign of ‘colonialism’ (except when Niall Ferguson is telling the story), seems tantamount to charging a rapist with minor misdemeanours. More troublingly, it isolates and elevates Commonwealth queer subjects as a privileged constituency deserving of an apology that is in fact owed to the entirety of the societies in which they are embedded.

If Cameron got it wrong, what should one make of Hillary Clinton’s more recent and impassioned statement, delivered in Geneva this year on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, calling for international recognition that gay rights are human rights? In contrast to the condescension of Cameron’s remarks (‘I think these countries are all on a journey, and it’s up to us to help them along that journey’), Clinton was candid in acknowledging that much remained to be done in the US and that much had been done in South Africa, Colombia, Argentina, Nepal, Mongolia and India—mercifully sparing her audience the usual ‘city upon a hill’ tropes of American exceptionalism. Little wonder, then, that her remarks have been welcomed by Frank Mugisha, director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and a leading face of the queer movement in that country. (Interestingly, Mugisha’s name is pointedly absent from the list of signatories criticising Cameron’s statement, although he has not spoken against that initiative.)

In Clinton’s account we are all on the journey, although Maya Mikdashi has been quick to question the assumption of an unproblematic ‘we’ interpellated by a particular rights framework and all en route to the same destination. Notably, Clinton’s statement and the Presidential Memorandum issued by the Obama administration the same day say nothing about conditionality (the memorandum is full of useful ambiguities, or weasel words depending on your perspective, such as the commitment to ‘enhance…ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons’). In an astute comment on these developments, Scott Long, while broadly welcoming the Obama administration’s recent pronouncements, has warned that ‘the devil partly lies in the absence of detail, and in the scope this opens for disaster’, citing by way of example the inexplicable decision of the US Embassy in Islamabad to host a Pride celebration in June 2011, which only succeeded in arousing the ire of the Jamaat-e-Islami at a time when relations between the US and Pakistan were already under considerable strain.

Insofar as we can discern them, are the differences between the Cameron and Obama approaches meaningful? At one level, it seems obvious that tactical choices in the way pressure is applied on a country to improve its human rights record can matter enormously—indeed, they can be a matter of life and death. Is pressure applied publicly or behind the scenes? Does it take the form of coercion or moral persuasion? Is the coercion military, economic, or diplomatic? Yet these tactical questions seem to leave intact the broader architecture of international politics in which the strong do what they can and the weak what they must. The elephant in the room, then, is the question of whether imperial power—in whatever form it is exercised—should have any place in struggles for liberation?

We know from histories of sexuality that imperial power shaped sexual subjectivities everywhere that it encountered difference. It did this through the introduction of discourses of law, medicine and literature that mapped its subjects onto a sexual matrix that originated in 19th century Europe. But it also introduced and imposed new moral judgments on different locations within that matrix. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s extraordinary work on the gender and sexual anxieties of Iranian modernity shows how a society in which homosociality was pervasive, gradually came to associate same-sex intimacy with moral perversion under a hostile heteronormalising European gaze. This is not a story of the straightforward imposition of European sexual mores on non-European societies, but rather one of a discursive encounter in which non-European elites responded to the challenge of the imperial civilising mission, in part, through strategies of mimicry of what was thought to be a more advanced modernity: becoming like them to overthrow them. The irony is that while the heteronormalisation of society was seen to be a marker of modernity in the 19th century, the exact opposite has become the case in the contemporary moment. Yet the underlying structural continuity is that the geopolitical/cultural bloc we call the ‘West’ continues to arrogate to itself the power to define the content of modernity, to shift the goalposts of modernity, if you like, as it sees fit.

A more specific working out of the elephant-in-the-room question, then, is this: if we (you know who you are) resent the sexual subjectivities in which we might feel entrapped as a result of an earlier exercise of imperial power, why should we trust contemporary imperial power to enable sexual (or any other) self-determination? Why should ‘LGBT men and women worldwide’ trust Clinton when she says ‘you have an ally in the United States of America’—when we postcolonials know, following Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, that white men once purported to save brown women from brown men as a way of casting imperialism as the establisher of the good society? Why should we view the unequal distribution of power in the international system as a (potential) force for good when the good that it could do might be used as reason for the perpetuation of that unequal distribution? Gramsci would have put this more succinctly: why should we buy into strategies for the legitimation of hegemony?

In discussions of human rights and power, two extreme arguments are often articulated in philosophical debate: on the one hand, a consequentialist position that subordinates means to ends and risks moral corruption; on the other hand, a deontological position that does the exact opposite and risks political irrelevance. In between, in that thoroughly inconvenient place called the ‘real world’, are a set of dilemmas that Scott Long describes so eloquently, that he is worth quoting at length:

When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy.  This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.

Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.

How do queers decide when to speak with and against imperial power? By what standards do we judge whether imperial power is a force for good or ill? Should we be doing this at all if case-by-case judgments leave undisturbed the very structure of that power itself? Towards the end of her speech Clinton gestures at a possible standard of judgment when she cites the phrase that people in the US supposedly invoke to urge others to support human rights: ‘Be on the right side of history’. In a sense, this is an incredibly irritating imperative—it brings to mind Tony Blair’s insistence in the face of all opposition to the Iraq war that ‘history will be my judge’, as if he alone could see all the way to the end of the arc of history and the vindication that judgment day would surely deliver him. But Clinton offers a sort of transhistorical normative standard that tries to make sense of the phrase by suggesting the ‘those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights were and are on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who tried to constrict human rights were wrong, and history reflects that as well.’ The implicit assertion here seems to be that ‘good’ power works in the service of the expansion of human rights, while ‘bad’ power constricts it.

Weirdly, this image of expansion resonates somewhat uneasily with more recent positions that Judith Butler has taken on the question of universality. In the first (1990) edition of Gender Trouble, Butler advances a relentless critique (not dissimilar from that articulated by Chandra Talpade Mohanty) of the assumption that universal categories such as ‘woman’ connote a common identity, arguing that gender intersects with and is always marked by racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities and is frequently colonised by hegemonic assertions of those identities. So thoroughgoing is the critique of universal categories that she warns that the problem is not ameliorated through an appeal to the category of women for merely ‘strategic’ purposes, ‘for strategies always have meanings that exceed the purposes for which they are intended’. (This Butler will not even endorse Spivak’s ‘strategic essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest’.) In the Preface to the second (1999) edition of the book, Butler retreats from this exclusively negative conception of universality, suggesting that as a result of her activist experience as a board member of IGLHRC, she has come to see that universality has important strategic use as a non-substantial and open-ended category, so that ‘the assertion of universality can be proleptic and performative, conjuring a reality that does not yet exist, and holding out the possibility for a convergence of cultural horizons that have not yet met.’ For all their many differences, one can see Clinton’s declaration of gay rights as human rights as doing just that: ‘conjuring a reality that does not yet exist, and holding out the possibility for a convergence of cultural horizons’. (On the other side of deconstruction, Butler can sometimes sound, oddly, like a reconstructed liberal.)

These happy notes on a future-oriented universality might be disrupted by recalling Jasbir Puar’s troubling and insistent reminder of the relationship between what Clinton might call ‘expansion’ and ‘constriction’. In Puar’s account of the discursive strategies that are central to US queer politics in the current historical conjuncture, the folding into civic, biological and consumer life of some (good) queer subjects is premised on exclusion and death for (bad) sexual and racial others: in the words of one reviewer of her work, ‘for every biopolitics, a necropolitics’. The ‘war on terror’ patriotism of some LGBT activists in the post-9/11 US, where assimilation at home became premised on distancing from, and death for, ultimate others (‘the terrorists’), provides only the most obvious illustration of this phenomenon. While much of this discourse was the preserve of gay Republicans, it is telling that the only two concrete US policy experiences of ‘expansion’ that Clinton cites in her speech both relate to developments within the US military. Thus, she mentions Truman’s racial desegregation of the military and Obama’s repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ as illustrations of human rights ‘expansion’ that, far from undermining ‘unit cohesion’, actually ‘strengthened our social fabric’. How odd, how telling, that even in her attempt to put her best foot forward, Clinton cannot disguise how the bringing into life of some previously marginalised US subjects, was made possible by its perceived strengthening of an institution that is now better able to bring death to others. What comfort are queer Iranians supposed to take from Clinton’s impassioned advocacy of their sexual rights, when the very success of her advocacy is premised on a power relationship that allows the country she represents to systematically undermine the one to which they belong? It may be that one’s attitude towards the Obama administration’s recent pronouncements on gay rights will likely be shaped less by whether one is on the right side of history, than by whether one finds oneself on the wrong side of empire.

11 thoughts on “On ‘gay conditionality’, imperial power and queer liberation: Rahul Rao”

  1. Point well made, but surely “imperial” must function here more as an epistemology of power than a material referent to countries like Britain and the U.S.. In other words, the problems you reference are similarly discernible in upper-caste advocacy of “liberatory” sexual practices as opposed to those espoused by Dalit and lower caste communities. The salvific recuperation of sexual minorities (and Muslims–an interesting equation in South Asia as you well know) has become de rigueur, a litmus test of progressive politics at the expense of so many other issues (pace here Flavia Agnes’s very compelling critique of the euphoria surrounding the repeal of Section 377). All I’m saying is that sure this is yet another incarnation of imperial desire, but that desire has equally noxious and perhaps far more dangerous local avatars as well. That makes it less easy to simply say hey, look, here we go again, all hail the recursivity of empire in the new world order!


    1. @anjali – thanks for your comment, with which I agree; I need to think about this more, so any useful references – including to Flavia’s critique – would be very helpful. Rahul


  2. rahul—look at flavia’s most recent piece on bar girls, and an essay in a 2012 collection on south asian feminisms (duke university press). if all fails, just e-mail me, and i’ll track it down for you (Anjali Arondekar; aarondek@ucsc.edu)


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