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Homonationalism: Queer tales of queer prides

There is a transition in the way nation-states are portraying queer people: from figures of death from AIDS to posterboys for the freedom and modernity of the ‘progressive’ West. But is such pinkwashing co-opting queers into the politics of racism, asks Oishik Sircar as queer communities gear up for the Pride Marches  

Homonationalism comes home: The American Centre in New Delhi is sporting a huge banner with the melting colours of the Pride rainbow through June, Pride month

Queer racism and homonationalism

June is celebrated as Gay Pride Month across most of the world. The reason: June 28, 1969 is the day when the Stonewall Inn riots took place at Greenwich Village in New York. Many Indian cities host Pride Parades commemorating this historic moment of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) resistance against police brutality. In many European countries it is called the Christopher Street Day. Christopher Street is the name of the road on which the bar called Stonewall Inn was located.

In June 2010, I was in Berlin to attend a conference, and participated in the ‘mainstream’ Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade on June 19. Yes, Berlin has two CSD parades: the ‘mainstream’ one is larger, heavily sponsored by corporate brands, and has parted ways with the radical origins of queer prides, and has in recent times been accused of many de-politicizing practices. The ‘alternative’ CSD does not accept corporate sponsorship, is community-funded, and is committed to a radical politics of transformation that connects questions around queer marginalization to issues of poverty and migration.    

So at the ‘mainstream’ pride that I was attending, a large and colourful crowd had gathered in front of a huge stage on which Judith Butler, the renowned American feminist philosopher and queer theorist, was to be awarded the Civil Courage Prize. Everyone on stage was speaking in German, so a friend who accompanied me had to translate most of what was being said.  Butler was introduced as a “determined critic” by one of the organizers and was called on stage to accept the award. Butler took the award in her hand, went up to the microphone and said: “When I considered what it means today to accept such an award, I believe that I would actually lose my courage, if I would simply accept the prize under the present political conditions... I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism.” (1) By making her refusal clear, she went on to say that queers are being co-opted into the politics of racist hatred that justify the war on terror, and they have been used to advocate in favour of anti-immigrant policies and media campaigns in the name of protecting the ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ culture of Germany from contamination by the ‘backward’ and ‘homophobic’ outsider.

There was resounding applause from the crowd. While some of the organizers tried to say things to defend themselves, all was drowned out in the cacophonous uproar. To tell the truth I was a little confused. I couldn’t figure out how queer rights organizing could be racist and Islamophobic. Why would a marginalized group support the marginalization of another disadvantaged group? Later over a drink my friend told me how many white queers in Germany, and those associated with the ‘mainstream’ CSD, have for years been complicit in perpetuating racism that characterized Muslim immigrants as inassimilable into German ‘culture’. He referred to something called the ‘Muslim Test’ that several white queer organizations have long supported. The test, which was later rejected, was exclusively meant for people who sought immigration into Germany from a ‘Muslim’ country, and asked questions like: what would you do if your son comes out to you as gay?(2)  The politics that the ‘Muslim Test’ and several such articulations that Butler spoke against represented was a strange combination that spoke of queer rights in the language of violent nationalism. A nationalism that instrumentalized queer people to achieve the ends of a virulent racism that makes legitimate the bogus explanations for the war on terror: that it will bring democracy, peace, rule of law and freedom for women and queers to the ‘primitive’ Islamic countries that the US invades. This form of nationalism was given the name ‘homonationalism’ by a queer-of-colour academic in the US called Jasbir Puar.(3) A necessary function of homonationalism has been to keep the ‘primitives’ out of the land of the ‘progressives’, and hiding the racism of Western white queer organizing in the name of protecting queer rights. Occurrences of these events have heightened since September 11. 

And so it didn’t come as a surprise when I heard about another test for immigrants from the Netherlands. In this test, which is still in use, immigrants from a specific set of non-western countries are made to watch a video showing two gay men kissing in a park, and a topless woman bathing. Being able to watch these videos unflinchingly is a marker of whether prospective immigrants can embrace ‘modernity’. What’s more, a psychiatrist evaluates applicants’ reactions. Citizens of USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Switzerland applying for immigration to Holland are exempted from taking the test.(4)

Pride and pinkwashing

But this is not where the story ends. A few days later I received an email from a friend in Toronto about a controversy surrounding the Gay Pride Parade there. The organizers had decided to disallow a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) to march in the parade. The group was part of the parade for the past several years, so a sudden ban in 2010 seemed to suggest a new turn in the internal politics of the organizers. Apparently, the reason for the ban had to do with the accusation by the pro-Israel and Jewish lobbies (which includes queer Jews) about how the term ‘Israeli Apartheid’ was anti-Semitic.(5) This incident baffled me as well. Israel’s policies against Palestine that began on the Day of Nakba in 1948 and which continue with as much brutality even today are nothing but apartheid. So when one uses the expression ‘Israeli Apartheid’ it is a critique of Israel’s policies, and not of Jews or Judaism.

The ban, which might be imposed this year as well (6), was a clear extension of homonationalism. In this case, nationalist queer Jews were resistant to any critique of their government’s policies against Palestine, and identified those who characterized the policies as apartheid to be the Muslim/Palestinian/ outsiders. Interestingly, to position itself as the Middle East’s only gay-friendly country, Israel has to necessarily call the Palestinians homophobic. Tel Aviv is ranked the world’s most gay-friendly city. Many argue that this positioning operates as Israel’s cover for its anti-Palestine apartheid policies. While carrying out military brutality against Palestinians, Israel continues to build its global image as a progressive democracy that supports queer rights. As Puar notes: “Israel is invested in a large-scale, massively funded Brand Israel campaign… to counter its growing reputation as an imperial aggressor… One of the most remarkable features of the Brand Israel campaign is the marketing of a modern Israel as a gay-friendly Israel... Within global gay and lesbian organising circuits, to be gay-friendly is to be modern, cosmopolitan, developed, first-world, global north, and, most significantly, democratic.”(7)

I learnt that this political posturing is called ‘pinkwashing’, and it has been used by Israel quite effectively in Western Europe and North America to take attention away from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. (8) It is useful to quote Puar again: “Israeli pinkwashing is a potent method through which the terms of Israeli occupation of Palestine are reiterated – Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilized, suicide-bombing fanatics. It produces Israel as the only gay-friendly country in an otherwise hostile region. This has manifold effects: it denies Israeli homophobic oppression of its own gays and lesbians, of which there is plenty, and it recruits, often unwittingly, gays and lesbians of other countries into collusion with Israeli violence towards Palestine.” (9)

Politics and penetration

I travelled to the US the next year where discussions with radical queer activists revealed some interesting moments in the journey of homonationalism there, and all these moments are connected with the larger politics of the US’s imperialist foreign policies through the imagery of the good gay, the deranged faggot and the act of sodomizing him. I will offer a very brief account through three critical junctures of this journey by looking at three images.

The first image (see fig 1) appears in a T-shirt ad soon after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and while the US was getting ready for a war against Iraq. The ad’s copy urged Americans to buy the T-shirt. It said: “Americans Make a Statement… Express Your Patriotism”, and the image on the T-shirt showed an American flag in the background, on which was the rear of a camel, and on the camel’s posterior was Saddam Hussein’s smiling face with an Arab headgear on. A statement that accompanied the image on the T-shirt read: “America will not be Sadda-mized”. As many of my activist friends pointed out, this was the time when the faggot was the pervert Muslim outsider. The faggot in Saddam had already sodomized Kuwait (by invading it), and America would prevent him doing the same to Americans. (10)

Figure 1

Post-September 11, 2001 this imagery makes a drastic shift. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, a poster started circulating in Manhattan and went viral on the Internet. The image on the poster showed a naked Osama Bin Laden leaning on a bar stool being sodomized by the Empire State Building. The caption read: “You like skyscrapers, huh bitch?” The message gets completely inverted in comparison to the previous image and in this Osama, unlike Saddam, is cast as the homophobic barbaric outsider, and the act of sodomizing him is meant to be one that humiliates him as a Muslim. The logic is similar to the forced sodomy that male and female American soldiers made male Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib perform on each other with the intention of offending their religion. In reading this shift in US culture and foreign policy where the queer gets embraced and assimilated into the narrative of the nation, Puar provides an explanation in her book: “… There is a transition under way in how queer subjects are relating to nation-states, particularly the United States, from being figures of death (ie the AIDS epidemic) to becoming tied to ideas of life and productivity (ie gay marriages and family).” While the transition was already under way, September 11 provided the opportunity where queers could be mobilized in furtherance of the war on terror’s objectives, and symbolic images of sodomizing the homophobic Muslim enemy were the most potent way of furthering it. 

After Osama’s extrajudicial killing (that some even call ‘enforced disappearance’) by the US Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011, the US required another ‘living’ figure to symbolically sodomize. And this time it was the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade, a photograph (see fig 2) circulating on the Internet (11) showed a float carrying two people – one is a leather-wearing, whip-lashing gay man (presumably one who practices sadism/masochism) who uses a nuclear missile to sodomize Ahmadinejad with his pants down. The float was organized by a group called Iran 180 formed by the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and claimed to bring attention to Iran’s so-called nuclear belligerence. (12)

Among the many reasons for the US’s strained relationship with Iran, one is that Iran executes ‘gay’ people. I use the term within quotes because several non-governmental organizations both in North America and Western Europe have constantly attempted to capture human rights violations against queer people in Iran by reducing their experiences to meet Western identitarian constructs like ‘gay’. In effect, they have always represented Iran as barbaric and homophobic, on most occasions with catastrophic consequences for queer people and queer rights activists in Iran.(13) Such representations have caused a systematic erasure of methods of negotiation and resistance from within Islamic societies that testify to a much more layered understanding of the lives of queer people and the relationships they share with their religion and state. (14)           

Figure 2

Homonationalism comes home

Much before I became acquainted with the term homonationalism and its manifestations abroad, similar tendencies were visible within the queer movement in India. Historical works by many queer scholars and activists on same-sex relationships in India argue that Hindu culture has been open to homosexuality, but it was only when the Muslim ‘invaders’ plundered India that India’s tolerance with sexual diversity took a plunge. Irrespective of whether such an argument is historically accurate or not, it uses the same logic as that of the Hindu Right about ‘Indian’ culture, and sustains itself on the creation of the Muslim homophobic outsider.

The demonstration of nationalist pride at pride parades since the decriminalization of sodomy by the Delhi High Court in 2009 is palpable. At the Delhi Pride March I attended in 2009, there were passionate cries of ‘Jai Hind’; and as an activist friend from Mumbai mentioned, at the Mumbai Pride that same year, participants held hands at the end to sing the national anthem – despite resistance from many other participants. How would a Muslim homosexual feel at such a moment? How would she reconcile her feeling of alienation by the Indian state, with the feeling of solidarity that she seeks at a pride march?

A classic illustration of ‘the nationalist resolution of the homosexual question’ in India was a talk show on the news channel CNN-IBN discussing whether independent India is open to homosexuality, aired during the Independence Day week, just a few days after the Delhi High Court judgment in the Naz Foundation case in 2009. The ‘experts’ invited to speak were responding to a CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times survey in which almost 70% of the respondents felt that homosexuality should be ‘illegal’ in India.(15) The ‘liberals’ were represented by the likes of Shyam Benegal, Mukul Kesavan and Gautam Bhan. The ‘conservative’ was a young Hindu religious leader and sitting on the fence was Jaya Jaitley.

The discussion sparked many a fire, but was hackneyed – the same arguments and the same defences that are not worth repeating here. Yet, the unprecedented openness with which the audience was engaging with the issue of sexuality, and alternative sexuality, on primetime television was an encouraging sign. The findings of the survey (even if statistics are graver than damned lies) did throw light on the societal prejudice that queers face in India, despite progressive judgments like Naz.

The sharp divide in beliefs and perspectives among the panelists on issues of sexual morality finally reached a climax through a moment of nationalism-induced catharsis. Sagarika Ghose, the anchor, abruptly ended the show by asking everyone to stand up to the national anthem. And as per her instructions everyone did – the conservatives, the liberals, the fence-sitters, the homosexuals, the heterosexuals, the non-heterosexuals – everyone stood upright soaking in the buoyant verses of Jana Gana Mana and it seemed a perfect end to the crisis of India’s morals, culture, sexuality and religion where nationalist pride erased all differences and made us realise that, after all, we are all ‘Indians’ first – just like SRK’s Chak De India hockey team!

While the repercussions of homonationalism in India might not be as catastrophic as it has been in the West, given the history and growing presence of Hindu right-wing violence against religious minorities, we would do well to be cautious against any such turn that the queer movement (and I hope there is one) might take. The possibilities for that are real, because the movement is not immune to racist, casteist, sexist or religious prejudice. We must not shy away from asking: can there be a right-wing queer? Can sexual liberation come at the cost of religious domination? Could we have had several queer people voting for Modi in Gujarat? If yes, what would we see them as – Hindus or homosexuals? Are we comfortable with Hindu homosexuals voting for a Hindu nation? What are the connections between queer emancipation and economic liberalization? Can there be a lesbian woman, a senior executive who works with Vedanta, who wants to blast off the Niyamgiri hills, blames the Dongria Kondh for being primitive beasts, and chastises her heterosexual sister for falling in love with a lower-caste man? Has globalization benefitted queers, or has it in fact entrenched class prejudice within the movement? How can the movement engage with questions of poverty and other forms of material deprivation? What has led to the word ‘queer’ attaining a universal purchase? Is the term itself a category of exclusion? Should queer be understood merely as identity, or is it a form of political critique, or both?  

We cannot assume that by virtue of being queer one can respond favourably to other experiences of exclusion – especially when issues of class- and caste-related privilege intersect with queerness. As I write this article, it is imperative that I recognize that my fluent use of the term is in itself a signifier of privilege and access. Searching for answers to such questions – many of which are already being asked by others – will not be a move towards fragmenting queer solidarity or diluting the focus of the movement, but rather one that will strengthen the movement and build solidarity with other movements that confront and resist these other forms of marginalization.

In strategizing our legal battle against Section 377 we have borrowed heavily from the progressive jurisprudence on gay rights in the West, especially the US. But we must bear in mind the racist prejudices that (white) queers in those very countries have practiced against their (non-white) immigrants and Muslim citizens. There is no need to overemphasize that borrowing from the legal legacy of the West does not have to extend to borrowing their despicable racist practices. Right through this month the American Centre in New Delhi is sporting a huge banner with the melting colours of the pride rainbow, and a quote by Hillary Clinton on it saying: ‘Gay Rights are Human Rights’. US embassies organize pride events as well as marches in other parts of the non-Western world, notably Kenya this year, and Pakistan last year. While Clinton’s claim (a garb for US foreign policy interventions) might be worthy, we didn’t require her to remind us of this. It marks a perverse erasure of queer struggles in our part of the world, as well as of the struggles in the US. Our understanding of the US’s support for gay rights cannot afford to be a pinkwashed vision that erases its deeply racist and imperialist accompaniments.   

While we await the Supreme Court of India’s judgment on Sec 377’s fate, this Pride month is an opportune moment to do a quiet interrogation of the prejudiced ledge that the queer movement in India might just be perched on. It’s apt to close by recollecting some very powerful words by the late human rights lawyer and activist K Balagopal: “To condemn oppression is to condemn a little bit of oneself.” Maybe this is how we should celebrate queer pride, if at all.      

Infochange News & Features, June 2012

Endnotes 
(1) For the full version of Butler’s speech translated into English see, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-must-distance-myself/; the YouTube video of Butler’s refusal is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV9dd6r361k
(2) See, Deanne Corbet, Testing the Limits of Tolerance, http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,1935900,00.html
(3) Jabir Puar’s book ‘Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times’ (Duke University Press: 2007) provides a detailed survey of the forms that homonationalism has taken in USA post September 11.
(4) See, Dutch Immigrants Must Watch Racy Film, Fox News (16 March, 2006) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,188079,00.html
(5) Kelly Grant, Group That Dare Not Speak its Name to March in Toronto’s Pride Parade Anyway, The Globe and Mail (25 May, 2010), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/group-that-dare-not-speak-its-name-to-march-in-torontos-pride-parade-anyway/article4189686/
(6) Daniel Dale, Jewish Group Asks Pride to ban Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, The Star (12 June, 2012), http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1210370--jewish-group-asks-pride-to-ban-queers-against-israeli-apartheid
(7) Jasbir Puar, Israel’s Gay Propaganda War, The Guardian (1 July, 2010) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/01/israels-gay-propaganda-war
(8) A group called Pinkwatching Israel has been set up to circulate and archive information on Israel’s pinkwashing tactics – http://www.pinkwatchingisrael.com/
(9) Ibid.
(10) For a nuanced reading of this image see, Jonathan Goldberg’s ‘Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities’ (Fordham University Press: 2010)
(11) I acquired the photo from: http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/benjamin-doherty/israel-lobby-group-iran180-sodomizes-ahmadinejad-effigy-nuke-san-francisco
(12) For detailed analyses of the photo and the politics surrounding it see, Benjamin Doherty, Israel lobby group Iran180 “sodomizes” Ahmadinejad effigy with nuke at San Francisco Pride (June 11, 2012) http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/benjamin-doherty/israel-lobby-group-iran180-sodomizes-ahmadinejad-effigy-nuke-san-francisco  and Scott Long, The Rape of the Jock: A-jad, Manhood and “Iran 180” (13 June, 2012) http://paper-bird.net/2012/06/13/the-rape-of-the-jock-a-jad-manhood-and-iran-180/
(13) For an excellent analysis of this, see, Scott Long, Unbearable Witness: How Western Activists (Mis)Recognize Sexuality in Iran, Contemporary Politics, Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2009
(14) For a commendable representation of how Muslim homosexuals negotiate with their religion watch the documentary film ‘A Jihad for Love’ (2007) directed by Pervez Sharma, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0780046/
(15) Mansi Sharma, Homosexuality Still a Taboo in India, IBNlive.com (10 August 2009), http://ibnlive.in.com/news/state-of-the-nation-survey-homosexuality-still-a-taboo/98909-19.html