Queering Diplomacy

Shifts in US foreign policy reflect the globalisation of LGBT politics

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. J SCOTT APPLEWHITE / AFP / Getty Images
01 May, 2014

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.

On the same day that Clinton outed America’s new assessment of sexuality and gender beyond its borders, US President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to various American government agencies stating that LGBT rights were now a foreign policy priority. These agencies included the US departments of state, defense, commerce, and homeland security; the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID; the Export–Import Bank; and the US Trade Representative. The memo’s strongly worded directives, which dovetail with financial commitments to LGBT organisations in the Global South, included two entitled “Combating Criminalization of LGBT Status or Conduct Abroad” and “Protecting Vulnerable LGBT Refugees and Asylum Seekers.” Both of these are especially relevant to India. Whereas asylum in the United States on the basis of sexual orientation for Indian nationals was considerably more difficult to procure after the positive 2009 New Delhi High Court judgement on Section 377, this seems to have changed dramatically following the retrograde Supreme Court decision this past December. A case in point is the treatment of an Indian gay couple who were given asylum in the United States on the basis of sexual orientation in late December, but only after they had languished for six months in a detention centre on the US–Mexico border.

Every country’s foreign policy is partly a product of its domestic policy. Among Western nations, the United States’ government has perhaps changed its perspective on homosexuality the most, and in the shortest period of time. The legitimacy that gay rights now enjoys in the American foreign policy establishment is a direct result of the triumph within the US of biological explanations for same-sex desire. In the years when funding gay rights activism in the Global South was taboo, the charge of Western influence in “spreading” homosexuality was contextualised by a lack of consensus on why homosexuality existed in the first place. Rather than rejecting the question of what “causes” homosexuality outright—why not ask what “causes” heterosexuality, while we’re at it?—American activists and their allies chose to answer it with science. The consensus today is that homosexuality is innate, something individuals cannot change, like race and ethnicity.

The consequence of this new consensus was that the fight for gay rights essentially became another battle for the civil rights of minorities, where minorities are understood to be defined by religion, biological race and, now, biological sexual orientation. (In particular, the campaign to legalise gay marriage has become a way to frame gay rights as civil rights; its success has helped spread the idea of a biological explanation for sexual orientation to the whole world.) If homosexuality is innate, then a Western government promoting gay rights internationally is no longer vulnerable to the charge of cultural imperialism. Promoting gay rights in any country now becomes an exercise in finding, facilitating and funding what is already there.

There are of course dissenters, myself included, who argue for a social constructionist understanding of the world and the people in it, rather than concurring with a purely biological explanation for a phenomenon like sexuality. Yet the re-emergence of biological explanations for social categories is bringing about fascinating changes in governance, and these must be viewed in the context of the broader trend of civil rights movements becoming globalised (or being perceived as such). As funders and advocates in the West scramble to figure out what it means to be able to advocate for gay rights without being called neo-imperialists, the potential consequences for India are, at the moment, far from clear. Certainly the United States looms large in civil rights models for international social justice, and its policies will influence, at the very least, how grassroots organisations present their programmes and constituencies to potential funders.

As the United States articulates its foreign policy on LGBT rights with reference to a biological worldview, an infrastructure to support this policy is emerging within its government. This infrastructure builds, financially, on the US government’s longstanding international HIV/AIDS work, and, legally, on the body of international law on LGBT rights being developed since the 1980s. In the past, foundations and governments in the West did not offer grants explicitly for LGBT work in the Global South. They did, however, begin providing grants for HIV/AIDS work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While this money was used for HIV prevention and surveillance, donors and implementers recognised the need to provide shared spaces for people who were seen to be most at risk for contracting the virus, including gay men and men who have sex with men. As a result, the money also paid for office space where LGBT people would meet; for telephone lines; for newsletters and magazines; for travel that allowed activists to network and conduct research; and for publicity for all of these things. The role of HIV-related funding is not the whole story of the rise of LGBT movements in India since the 1990s, but it does partially explain the current emphasis on gay men among funded institutions working on sexuality related issues.

The new US foreign policy initiatives being built on this historical foundation are largely being implemented through the US State Department. These include the Global Equality Fund, which is housed within the State Department and was instituted to provide direct financial support to LGBT organisations outside of North America and Western Europe. The new infrastructure that is emerging around such initiatives will aim to create “public private partnerships,” and includes a host of non-governmental foundations and private organisations as well. One of the initiatives at the heart of the policy shift is called the LGBT Global Development Partnership, which involves USAID; the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency; the New York-based Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice; the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute, which helps elect LGBT candidates to public office in the United States; the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank based at the University of California Los Angeles; and Olivia Companies, which sells lesbian cruises and resort holidays. As Scott Long, a former fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, has pointed out, the incursion of the private sector into this fray also includes titans of “vulture funds,” such as Paul Singer, who has made billions of dollars from purchasing the debts of Third World countries and then suing them to the hilt. Singer has gifted several millions of dollars to the Human Rights Campaign (“America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality”) in Washington, DC, for its slate of new international projects, including a fellowship initiative called the Global Engagement Program, whose two current fellows are in Kenya and India.

At the moment, this new policy infrastructure is mostly tilted towards serving sub-Saharan Africa, where a growing wave of anti-gay sentiment has been fuelled in part by American Christian fundamentalists, who have successfully encouraged anti-gay rhetoric and legislation in Uganda and Nigeria. Both countries have recently passed anti-homosexuality laws, where the penalty for being “discovered” to be gay can be life imprisonment or death. Uganda seems to be emerging as a test case for the United States’ international LGBT rights work, which is, ironically, an exercise in shadow boxing. The US government has essentially found itself fighting a spectre from its own backyard: an anti-gay movement in Uganda, promoted in part by an American evangelical group based in Massachusetts.

The US foreign policy establishment’s understanding of Uganda rests on a dichotomy between religious fundamentalism as intolerance and secularism as tolerance. This simplification, though it may have its uses, can play into divisive American foreign policy elsewhere. There have already been instances of gay activists in the West conflating a pro-gay stance with what seems to be an uncritical position against Muslim “extremism,” at times, for example, eliding the distinctions between the mainstream British Muslim public, the claims of Muslim religious leaders, and the suppression of free speech. Paul Singer stated a version of this position plainly last November: “Every day around the world, LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are. Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe.”

In its worst form, human rights work evinces a model of freedom that has failed to shed the historical specificities of its Western European origins, re-entrenches age-old models of saviour and victim, and ends up replacing an emancipatory notion of human rights with an administrative notion of citizenship rights. The factoring of LGBT rights into larger foreign policy decisions could be particularly dangerous if, for example, India should be cast as a bulwark against “radical Islam” in Pakistan on the basis of sexuality politics. If organisations in India can continue to receive grants from abroad under the next government, then money for sexuality work will soon start to flow, though we have yet to see how much and to whom. As Indian and US business interests continue to converge, and India remains a close strategic ally of the United States, the last thing LGBT people need is to be entangled in a foreign policy outlook that uses us as any government’s rationale for militarisation. While the strength and diversity of Indian LGBT groups will likely forestall any such dystopic extremes, a certain vigilance is called for as organisations frame their work and maintain autonomy while negotiating new aid structures in a rapidly changing international political environment.