Queer wars: the best place to start promoting gay rights is at home

Australia detains asylum seekers in a country that criminalises homosexuality. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

When Austrian singer Conchita Wurst headlined the Mardi Gras afterparty on Saturday night it seemed as though all of Sydney was celebrating. Yet Wurst’s message of “respect and tolerance” continues to be controversial.

Wurst won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Her victory became a cultural flashpoint. While Russians booed her performance, crowds in Copenhagen jeered the Russian contestants. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that Eurovision:

… showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has sought to establish leadership of the non-Western world by defending “universal traditional values” against permissiveness and immorality. Putin has criminalised LGBT propaganda, turned a blind eye to vigilante attacks and supported international campaigns against sexual rights.

Advocates of “traditional values” are also mobilising in Australia. Former prime minister Tony Abbott recently called for the Safe Schools Coalition, an anti-bullying initiative focused on LGBTI youth, to be defunded.

Meanwhile, the Australian Christian Lobby has requested an “override” of anti-discrimination laws ahead of a coming plebiscite on whether Australia should legalise same-sex marriage. Although public support for same-sex marriage is stronger than ever, the plebiscite debate promises to be ugly.

Across the Timor Sea, another homophobic campaign is brewing. Indonesia has never criminalised homosexuality – excepting Aceh – and sexuality has rarely been prominent in public debate. However, public opinion is very negative. And there is a history of anti-queer violence by radical Islamic youth groups.

Recent political interventions have targeted university counselling services and even banned same-sex emoticons. At least in the short term, this debate risks creating new dangers.

As more countries embrace formal equality, there is a countervailing trend. A slew of countries – such as Malawi, Nigeria and Brunei – have either extended legal penalties on homosexual acts or passed laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality.

Why the growing controversy?

In our new book, Queer Wars, we ask why – as sexual and gender diversity has become more visible globally – have reactions become polarised?

Polity

In the 1960s and 1970s the gay liberation movement challenged the dominant homophobic culture. The feminist movement began to connect women’s sexual freedom to human rights. In many countries the AIDS epidemic opened up possibilities for queer activism. International human rights law began to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Each of these developments faced fierce resistance.

US President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 gave conflict over sexuality a new global dimension. During the Bush administration, South American and European countries were the most prominent advocates of sexual freedom. But America’s advocacy of “LGBTI rights” under Obama allowed opposition to be portrayed as resistance to Western neocolonialism and immorality.

Internationally, Russia and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (made up of 57 countries) have led this resistance. However, political homophobia is an increasingly common strategy for authoritarian leaders everywhere.

The irony is most homophobic laws are a legacy of colonial legal systems. And defenders of “traditional values” typically deny the various forms of sexual and gender diversity in their own cultures.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights never mentions sexual orientation. However, evolving interpretations mean human rights covenants now cover all people, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

A narrow majority of countries (including Australia) now support this view. However, opponents maintain that human rights must reflect traditional values – and that they have never consented to sexuality rights.

What is to be done?

When Hillary Clinton, as the then US secretary of state, promised “LGBT people” threatened by oppressive regimes that “you have an ally in the United States”, she placed those who do not meet conventional sexual and gender expectations in an unfamiliar position.

We, who were for so long cast as internal enemies, are now rehabilitated as icons of Western progressive modernity. Where colonialism was once partially justified as a civilising response to sexual permissiveness, will protection of vulnerable queers now warrant further Western interference?

This reversal creates profound dilemmas. Is it possible for outsiders to promote acceptance of sexual diversity in communities of which they are not members?

People are rightly horrified when countries like Uganda or Brunei propose laws that threaten death for homosexuals. But is it justifiable to impose “gay rights” internationally? How can we best promote sexual freedom at home and around the world?

One approach has clearly failed. Western leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron have linked aid to decriminalisation. In February 2014, the World Bank moved to delay a $US90 million loan to Uganda in response to it passing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Such conditionality plays into the hands of repressive leaders. It frequently encourages scapegoating of queer activists.

The international campaign against Brunei when Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah introduced sharia (which provides for stoning of homosexuals) was also instructive. People in Brunei did not request this activism. There was no reason to believe that a response from the gay international community would be productive, and nothing to suggest that sexual minorities were the sultan’s target. Local women were likely to be the primary victims and most effective opponents of the new laws.

Western leaders and activists should show humility and allow local organisations to guide them if they wish to be effective. Human rights agreements can help protect people from prosecution and victimisation. However, utilising the standard mechanisms of international human rights practice is likely to be more productive than Western leaders’ public moralising.

Offering refuge to those fleeing persecution is perhaps the most obvious way to help. During the Cold War the West offered refuge to Soviet dissidents. Today, guarantees of refuge might give confidence to queer dissidents in Putin’s Russia and other authoritarian countries.

Instead, Australia holds refugees in indefinite detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea – a country where homosexuality is criminalised. Recent reports detail the harassment and violent attacks gay refugees face on Nauru. For Australians seeking ways to intervene in the global debate on sexual rights, there may be no better place to start.


Gillian Triggs, Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons will discuss Queer Wars at Gleebooks in Sydney on Wednesday, March 9.

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