Gay Rights as Human Rights: Pinkwashing Homonationalism

Published: December 16, 2011

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the news that the United States has come out as the global defender of LGBTQ rights. This confusion is not only due to the United States’ own record on gay rights, but perhaps more importantly, it is due to the United States’ role as the premier imperial power in the world today. After all, while Secretary of State Clinton acknowledged that the United States has an imperfect record of defending and legislating gay rights domestically, she was curiously silent about how and why, exactly, the United States would monitor and regulate LGBTQ rights internationally. Would the American army, for example, start “enforcing” the rights of gay Iraqis or gay Afghanis? Would the United States impose sanctions on governments that were non-homo friendly? Would Secretary Clinton welcome the intervention of the “international community” over the fact that people are denied the rights to live with their families due to an immigration law that gives right of residence on the basis of a couples’ genitalia? What, exactly, does Clinton mean when she says that the world over, “gay rights” should be recognized as “human rights?”

At the UN Clinton offered a quick history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She mentioned, correctly, that the document was in part in response to the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust and WWII. As Hannah Arendt has written, the urgency with which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written was informed by the idea there must be more to being a human than being a citizen. For centuries, those not deemed “ready” or “capable” of politics or civilization had been relentlessly exterminated and enslaved. With the rise of the nation state and Euro-American imperialism, the world became stratified between citizens (of different hierarchies) and non-citizens (of different hierarchies). Citizens had rights, non-citizens did not until, in the terrifying logic of the enlightenment, they proved they were “ready.” Due to the conflation of rights and citizenship in the modern period-particularly in totalitarian states-people who had been stripped of citizenship, as Jews in Germany were, would be confined to an existence outside of law, outside of regulation, and by extension, outside of humanity. But Arendt’s true lesson is not the story of a victory of human rights legislation, but rather her prescient warning that the legal production of the “human right” as prior to that of the citizen could only come through the increasing ability of the state to regulate life and to determine when, how, and to what degree the two poles of “human rights” and “political justice” could be collapsed and alienated.

In her speech Secretary Clinton was, perhaps unknowingly, reproducing this generative alienation between political and human rights. She emphasized that LGBTQs everywhere had the same rights to love and have sex with whomever they choose as partners, and to do so safely. In making this statement, she reiterated a central tenet of what Jasbir Puar names homonationalism: the idea that LGBTQs the world over experience, practice, and are motivated by the same desires, and that their politics are grounded in an understanding that ties 1) the directionality of their love and desire into a stable identity and 2) that stable identity into the grounds from which one speaks and makes political claims. Secretary Clinton suggested that queers everywhere, whether white or black, male or female or transgendered, soldier or civilian, rich or poor, Palestinian or Israeli, can be comprehended and interpellated through the same rights framework. But the content of what she she calls “gay rights” is informed by the experiences and histories of (namely white gay male) queers in the United States, and thus there is an emphasis on visibility and identity politics and an elision of the class and political struggles that animate the lives of the majority of the third world’s heterosexual and homosexual populations. Thus detached from its locality, “gay rights” can travel internationally not only as a vehicle for normative homo-nationalism, but as a vehicle for neoliberal ways of producing politics and subjects more broadly.

Of course, as Clinton said, homosexuality is not an export from “the west.” Homosexuality is not like Coca Cola or Cheerios. It is not diasporic, in that it has a fixed origin point that then is spread throughout the rest of the world, even if it is true that what it means to identify today as homosexual is historic and emerges at its apex within the transition from the civil rights era, through the GRID/ AIDS killing zones, to the era of liberal identity politics in the United States. Furthermore, non-Western people who identify as homosexual through a homo-national narrative or through the consumption of homonational products are not somehow “inauthentic.” They are markers of the reality that we live within a world that is increasingly connected through the movement of people, capital and information yet increasingly stratified across class and political lines. We live in a world of rights and in a world where the female and/or queer gendered body (but never, we should note, the male heterosexual body) has become a political anchor. This success story did not begin with homonationalism, which is only one of its latest railways stations. Homonationalism is not the end goal of a conspiratorial “gay international,” rather, it is only one aspect of the reworking of the world according to neoliberal logics that maintain not only the balance of of power between states, but also within them. In fact, homonationalism produces normative homosexuality in the same fashion that normative “heterosexuality” continues to be shaped and regulated internationally through the interventions of human rights corporations, international funding and research agencies, and the foreign and domestic policies of states. Thus the The World Bank, The UNDP, Human Rights Watch, and the US State Department together project ideal modes of heterosexuality by promoting “adult” ages of consent, educated, employed and (re) productive couples, and love/choice, non kin and non arranged marriages that mimic the model of “stranger sociality” at large. Within a neoliberal framework, all of these are not seen as “political interventions” but merely policy recommendations. Clinton’s speech fits neatly into this project by isolating “gay rights” as rights to identity, from “political justice,” understood as the continuos participation in the reconfiguration of power and the grammar of life that it licenses. To act within a framework of political justice implies an acceptance to play the role of agitator, an acceptance to act in the spaces that human rights cannot and will not capture for both disciplinary and political reasons. It is to act knowing that you will never achieve your goals, but that you will play a role in pushing the cause of justice forward even if, by definition, justice can never be achieved because it is constantly moving. It is a positionality, not a position. As Arendt once explained, political activism is acting with the knowledge that you will fail, but that you care enough to act under this signature of immanent failure.

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