Queering Diplomacy

Shifts in US foreign policy reflect the globalisation of LGBT politics

01 May 2014
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the rights of LGBT people all over the world in a speech at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2011.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the rights of LGBT people all over the world in a speech at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2011.

THERE WAS A TIME, in the not-so-distant past, when sexuality politics could scarcely be conceived without reference to particular national contexts. The argument in the renowned historian George Mosse’s 1985 book, Nationalism and Sexuality, that the nineteenth-century European bourgeoisie sought to define itself through a version of sexual respectability, became a kind of model for scholars trying to understand how sexuality served the project of crafting national identity, and vice versa. In India, the rise of Hindutva in the 1990s brought about a flurry of scholarship aimed at understanding how this ideology processed questions of sexuality as national questions, as it did during the controversy surrounding the lesbian-themed film Fire in 1998. Both supporters and detractors of the film used the rationale of nationalism in framing their arguments, with the former claiming that lesbianism is part of India’s history, and the latter insisting that it is an unwanted Western import.

As LGBT people have become more visible in the media and in Indian political discourse, the question of whether homosexuality is Western no longer dominates the discussion. The pre-election coverage of whether or not the major political parties had addressed India’s law criminalising gay sex between adults in their manifestos was yet another indication that LGBT people have found a place in the national consciousness, and on the agenda of policy makers who, at least in some corners, wonder how large a vote bank we constitute. If LGBT people are part of an explicitly politicised discourse in India, then we are also beginning to be a part of the international policy discussions in which India, as a nation, participates. This is increasingly in line with the way LGBT existence is being understood in countries around the world, and in the international discourse on LGBT rights.

The dominant discussion on LGBT issues changed considerably over the last decade or so. LGBT people are now spoken about as a group in media outlets everywhere. The passage of anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda and Nigeria; gay marriage laws and campaigns in Australia, northern Europe, and the United States; and, of course, the struggle to read down Section 377 in India have all made international headlines. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are no longer marginal to the news. We may also say that we are no longer marginal to geopolitics.

This implies, among other things, that we have now arrived as a foreign policy peg for Western governments seeking to provide aid to countries in the Global South (a collective descriptor for the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa). This development is itself significantly shaped by the changing perceptions of homosexuality in the West, and in particular in the United States. In 2011, Hillary Clinton affirmed these changed attitudes in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, on International Human Rights Day:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes … Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality.

Svati P Shah is an associate professor in the department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA.

Keywords: Section 377 aid sexuality diplomacy foreign policy NGO lobbying LGBT East-West cultural imperialism