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.
Let`s take the case of Palestine, which, as activists and academics have recently highlighted, is being subjected to a pinkwashing campaign by the Israeli government. Here, a focus on “gay rights” or “women`s rights” as opposed to “political justice” in fact repeats a colonial distinction made by a British mandate between two populations, a Jewish one that would have rights to a homeland, and a non-Jewish (the word Palestinian was not used) one that was to enjoy full civil rights. In the British mandate for Palestine, no mention was made of non-Jews` political rights, an omission which in hindsight we understand to be informed by the attempt to continue to deny the indigenous people of Palestine self determination, while promising them that they practice of life (as separate from politics) would continue without discrimination. Today, the promise of “gay rights” for Palestinian goes something like this: The United States will protect your right to not be detained because as a gay, but will not protect you from being detained because you are Palestinian. As a queer, you have the right to love and have sex with whomever you choose safely and without discrimination, but you do not have the right to be un-occupied, or to be free from oppression based on your political beliefs, actions, and affiliations. As long as it is Arabo-Islamic culture and its manifestation through (Palestinian) law that is oppressing you, we are here for you. If you are being oppressed by Israeli colonial policies, you`re on your own. As long as you confine your politics to your sexuality, and you speak as a queer subaltern in a language of rights that we understand (because we wrote it) we are here for you. One is tempted to call the production of such a narrow and reductive framework through which queers are to become politically legible an exercise in homophobia.
Many progressive critics miss the point that pinkwashing, the process by which the government of Israel attempts to promote itself as a safe haven for Palestinian queers from “their culture,” is not primarily about gay rights or homosexuality at all. Pinkwashing only makes sense as a political strategy within a discourse of Islamophobia and Arabophobia, and it is part of a larger project to anchor all politics within the axis of identity, and identitarian (and identifiable) groups. Thus critics of pinkwashing who assume an international queer camaraderie repeat a central tenet of homonationalism: homosexuals should be in solidarity with and empathize with each other because they are homosexual. Sarah Schulman recently wrote in the New York Times about the dangers of “the co-opting of white gay people by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political forces in Western Europe and Israel.” One should ask why white gays are seen as always being co-opted by these forces, rather than as active producers of and willing participants in racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. If queer activists in Palestine have taught us anything, it is that not all homosexuals are allies or potential allies. A gay Israeli in a military uniform is both an enemy and a target of anti-occupation politics, just as a gay Zionist in the United States is an enemy of the Palestinian cause and the cause of queer Palestinians because they are rooted within that Palestinian national cause. The idea that Euro-American gays must be appealed to on the basis of their sexuality by others who share their sexuality partakes in the the alienation of both sexuality from politics and of “queer Palestinians” from their non-queer selves and communities. It also panders to and reproduces a homonational argument that Euro-American gays are more likely to respond if they are addressed by an indigenous gay that, preferably, speaks about the Palestinian cause in the common tongue of LGBTQ rights. Furthermore, Schulman`s argument rests on the idea that there is something different, and potentially redemptive, about being gay, and in making this claim she relies on the affective scars of the universalized experience of homophobia. But homophobia is not one thing, nor is it experienced in the same way or to the same extent by homosexuals the world over (because they themselves are not the same thing). Moreover, homophobia could be a less defining experience than say, the racism experienced by an African American queer or a Syrian queer protesting against authoritarianism and neoliberal market restructuring. In fact, the experience of homophobia as the primary discrimination one faces in life is usually the mark of an otherwise privileged existence. For the majority of the people of the world, oppression, to paraphrase Edward Said on culture, is contrapuntual. It moves, is multi-directional, it is adaptive, and it forms a terrain of interconnected injustices
One of the surprising lessons we can learn from the emerging debate on pinkwashing is the extent to which homonationalism has become hegemonic. Both the Israeli government and pinkwatching -not pinkwashing- activists partake in different aspects of homonationalism because they must in order to be heard by the same intended audience: white gays who have economic and political resources. Pinkwatching-not pinkwashing - activists, in trying to counter Israel`s attempt to mobilize gay rights discourses to justify their brutal military occupation and ongoing policies of colonial settlement, teach us all a bitter lesson. Groups that try to counter pinkwashing by engaging in what they call pinkwatching, like PQBDS, Al-Qaws, and Pinkwatching Israel, try to strategically deploy homonationalism in order to include within it notions of political and economic justice for all Palestinians. They walk the precarious line between the daily realities of LGBTQ discrimination and oppression and the dangers of separating and elevating that particular discrimination over the terrain of interconnected oppressions that forms, in part, what it means to be Palestinian. They show us that the language of gay rights in the Arab world is a double bind: we must use it in order to achieve restitution from very real, and very immediate oppression, but as we use this language it mobilizes us in a struggle to transform questions of social, political, and economic justice into claims of discrimination. This discrimination, in turn, can only be addressed by nation states or by international political bodies that are actively involved in oppressing our peoples, our families and loved ones, and the parts of us that not captured by the LGBTQ paradigm. We cannot "choose" to not be who we have become, but we must recognize how we have been formed as neoliberal rights seeking and speaking bodies, and how this formation is linked to a history of depoliticization and alienation. In other words, we must be both tactical and skeptical when this language reaches to embrace us, and when we, as activists and as academics, use it ourselves. We must find ways to critically inhabit this homonational world and try, always, to act within the uncomfortable and precarious line between rights and justice.