A future torture victim sat next to me yesterday, on my flight from Paris to New York. She was in her twenties, and strung tight as piano wire, and professed to be half-German, half-Egyptian. She’d been subjected to a random search back at Charles de Gaulle. This put her in a state of steaming outrage, during which she emitted, to no one in particular, vocal and egregious threats: “I hope they bomb that airport. I hope everyone is killed. I feel like I am in Auschwitz. How dare they serve Coca-Cola on this plane?” Finally she wrote, in big black letters on a piece of paper, and pinned to the TV screen in front of her:
CHARLES DE GAULLE
HITLER’S AIRPORT AND
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
I hope you are blown to bits and
I huddled in the aisle seat, thinking in no special order: a) Given all the security, it’s impossible she has a bomb. b) Then why does she keep talking about it? c) Can the stewardesses see that note? d) I need more wine. e) If the stewardesses see this, she will be taken to Guantanamo. f) If we make an emergency landing so she can be taken to Guantanamo, my flight will be six hours late. g) Should I protest if she’s taken to Guantanamo? h) Do I want to go to Guantanamo? i) I need more wine.
Air France handled things surprisingly well, as it happens. Nobody was wrestled to the floor or cuffed. Instead, a senior, marmoreally-coiffed French woman shunted me from my seat and lectured the passenger for almost an hour. I heard snatches of the one-way conversation: “You can of course think zat. But you cannot say it on an airplane. And you cannot expose it zat way for others to zee.” There is nothing like a dressing-down from une française soignée to put even incipient psychosis in its place. The note vanished, the writer calmed down, the plane landed on time, and no one seemed to go Gitmoward. I desperately hope someone was waiting past customs with Valium, and not an orange jumpsuit.
I’d meant to spend the flight thinking about the Obama administration’s new LGBT human rights initiative; and instead I worried about whether seat 27b had a ticket to a Caribbean prison. Yet this made sense somehow. How progressive are the Obamaites in talking about human rights! They meet with rights NGOs and flatter their fragile egos; they support the touchy issues, the women and the queers; they speechify. But Guantanamo is still there. The military tribunals still promise to happen in a slow parody of justice. Drones still descend from the sky, with a blue whine beyond appeal, to kill people we don’t like. It’s nice to be part of the class that merits concern, not cages; protection, not jet-fueled murder. This administration does demonstrate more real action on human rights than its bloody predecessor. But the action is just selective enough to leave you wondering why you were singled out, when so many others still suffer the vast yet individuated violence. As Samuel Beckett wrote, musing on the two miscreants crucified on either side of Christ: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”
Reading some of the US responses to Clinton’s speech only reinforces this queasy feeling. Take gay activist-at-large Wayne Besen, who writes:
A historic address of this magnitude was desperately needed to counter the rising tide of backwards and barbaric nations that had recently been persecuting LGBT people to distract from their glaring problems. …
The list of countries that recently declared war on sexual minorities include Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Iran, and Zimbabwe. For the contemptible despots who run these underachieving nations, fomenting homophobia makes political sense. .. [S]omething drastic needed to happen to turn back the tide of violence and discrimination that plagued these “loser nations.”
Or, as Besen intones elsewhere,
The LGBT community rarely thrives in backward places that promote ignorance over education and medieval views over modernity. As these intellectual swamps sink, sexual minorities make ideal targets… [P]laces that are leaders in passing anti-gay laws are losers in virtually every other category that defines successful, civilized societies.
I can’t imagine how you could even communicate to Besen that the gays in “loser nations” like Nigeria or Uganda don’t really like having their countries called “backward and barbaric.” Besen wouldn’t get it: he’d counter, But the gays are civilized! It’s the other Cameroonians who live in trees! In other words, he understands why the gays in loser lands deserve to be singled out: they’re better than their compatriots, more successful, more unbarbaric, more like us.
Why would that be so? Well, possibly the foreign gays have a cultural leg up, and have gotten book-learned and Westernized by reading … oh, for instance, Wayne Besen, who’s available on the Internet even in darkest Russia. Or possibly it goes deeper, it’s in the chromosomes, and even in Cameroon the gays are genetically predisposed to be like “us,” park-cruising rather than tree-dwelling, forwards rather than backwards.
Except that isn’t so. As far as a) the chromosomes go, there are plenty of theories about the genetic roots of gayness, but none of them argue it’s linked to a gene for intelligence or Western-ness. And if you tried to contend that, there’d be Wayne Besen to disprove it: clearly not the brainiest fish in the primal soup, and a permanent dilution in the gay gene pool. Moreover, as far as b) culture is involved, I can testify that the lesbians and gays in foreign countries really don’t read Besen ever, at all. Maybe this is evidence for a) after all — maybe their intelligence genetically disinclines them to study him; but then you have to deal with Besen disproving the theory again, because after all he’s gay and he reads himself. Or you’d think so.
By a fearful symmetry, though, the forward Besen and the “backward” lands he criticizes match each other. His rant exactly echoes how the offending parties he condemns rage against the initiative. There, too, people know why Clinton singles out the queers: they’re infiltrating agents of the West, objects of its special and invasive interest. The rhetoric is entirely predictable, because it’s been used so much before. “Africa new frontier for West’s gay rights crusade,” one African news source headlines. In Nigeria, now finalising a draconian bill to ban public expression around homosexuality, legislators rushed to assert their independence:
“Why would America want to dictate to a sovereign country which law to make and which one not to make? How can the depraved ways of a minority become the standard for law making in Nigeria?”
And so on.
Then there’s the question of just how the Obama administration will support LGBT rights elsewhere in the world. Clinton’s speech and the president’s memorandum are rather vague on the techniques. This leaves considerable white space to be filled in by the imagination. On the right, various voices already kvetch because Obama isn’t willing to send the army out to protect the gays. On the neoconservative Commentary site, Abe Greenwald complains:
At the end of this year, the United States will cease to be a military presence in Iraq. Here’s whose influence will grow in Iraq once the U.S. leaves: Al-Qaeda, whose new leader once shot a male teenage rape victim in the head for the “crime” of homosexuality. … Who else stays on in Iraq after the pro-LGBT president has pulled out American forces? Iran, world leader in the public hanging of gay teens.
And, in 2012, when Obama withdraws surge troops from Afghanistan against the advice of our military commanders, what exactly does he think Afghan homosexuals will face in the resurgent Taliban (the same Taliban Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to strike deals with)? The answer is known: they will face something called “death by falling walls.” …
Although George W. Bush is vilified by many in the gay community for talking about the sanctity of marriage, the freedom agenda he instituted did more for global human rights—gay or otherwise—than any speech or memo that might warm your heart.
Never mind that Bush’s own Texas has, statistically, almost certainly killed more teenage gay offenders in recent years than Iran. The point is: the best way to protect human rights is to invade and conquer countries. We’ve already got our hands on Texas. What about the others? By not listing an axis of homophobic evil — bauxite-rich Jamaica! oil-endowed Iran! — Obama failed to make the case for future action. He didn’t even use the homophobes to prolong the invasions we’ve already got going on.
If diplomacy for the neocons is merely a preamble to bombing, for many US and European gays it’s a synonym for money. And in this equation they’re aided by the brouhaha over David Cameron’s incredibly ill-handled statements on LGBT rights and foreign aid last month. This fiasco — threats that Cameron bandied about without even the pretense of a strategy, then tried to abandon after half of Africa reacted in fury — has imprinted itself on the imaginings of activists and reporters alike. If you have an agenda, why not enforce it with cash? Even the US and UK headlines on Clinton’s speech suggested an aid linkage. “U.S. to Use Foreign Aid to Promote Gay Rights Abroad,” the New York Times said. “Gay rights must be criterion for US aid allocations, instructs Obama,” the Guardian reported. And of course the
chronically inaccurate sporadically truthful blogger Paul Canning spun that spin: “Obama admin to ‘leverage’ foreign aid for LGBT Rights.”
As always, pursuing exactly what Canning says gives an insight into a whole mindset, of which he is the sum, the symbol, and the White Whale. He embraces multitudes, the way a blank piece of paper contains all the dumb things that could be written on it. Canning is very attached to the idea of “leverage,” so much so that when @iglhrc tweeted, “Significantly, neither the memo nor Clinton’s speech said LGBT rights would become a condition for foreign assistance,” his beak bit back:
“It says ‘leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination’. Sounds like conditionality to me!”
But it’s true; neither Clinton nor Obama said a syllable about conditionality. The word “leverage,” which Canning rolls lusciously on his tongue, comes not from the Clinton speech or the Obama memo, but from the fact sheet the White House press office put out to summarize things for reporters. It has no official weight. The president’s directive instead ordered:
Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons.
“Ongoing efforts” doesn’t sound like a completely new policy — rather, like existing conversations more aggressively pursued. The US has a very spotty record on linking aid to any human rights issue; ask any Egyptian about America’s long support for the military, or any Palestinian about … well, anything. It would be a peculiar and skewed occurrence if the administration launched a first-ever policy of general aid conditionality in the specific and limited sphere of LGBT rights. And most likely, it won’t happen. The idea of “leverage,” and of supporting LGBT rights at the domestic level, will most likely involve private and particular conversations. Any public aspect is adequately embodied by Clinton’s proposal to launch a fund for LGBT rights advocacy.
Canning, however, wants broad aid conditionality; it gives him a sense of agency; it makes him feel that his emails to the UK Foreign and Colonial Office bear immediate fruit in action, in treasuries trembling and programs withering on the vine. Much as the neocons see diplomacy as war pursued by ineffective means, Canning sees it as money given or withheld under a convenient cover. In either case, the Obama statement becomes a field of dreams, a place where imaginings about Northern power get printed or palimpsested on the global South. It’s fun, it’s fertile, but it’s not quite real.
Trying to look realistically at what Clinton and Obama actually said, I still see occasion for optimism. The contrast with Cameron’s recent blather is telling. Cameron came up with a quick-fix bit of rhetoric, not to benefit LGBT activists anywhere else in the world, but to silence the Peter Tatchells and Kaleidoscope Trusts, noisy Brits who wanted to see their country dominating the Commonwealth in the cause of justice and freedom. It meant nothing except short-term political gain, and when he got burned loudly enough by the stubborn ex-colonized, he flailed ineptly, trying to dog-paddle backwards and away. There is, by contrast, little domestic political gain Obama and Clinton can extract from their move; the LGBT vote is largely on the administration’s side already. On Clinton’s part, and I suspect on Obama’s also, there’s a sincere commitment. Her speech was intelligent; it reflected an engagement not just with the issue itself but with the reflexive opposition it inspires. They’re trying to develop a strategy, not just a posture. The reaction from the usual suspects — such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania — whlle vocal, has actually been subdued by comparison with the Cameron affair, and this also, I think, displays a feeling that there is something substantive here that can’t simply be shouted out of existence.
The devil partly lies in the absence of detail, and in the scope this opens for disaster. Obama’s memo offers the agencies few patterns or directions for action. They’re supposed to come up with their own plans, and no one knows what that will add up to. A dozen or so Southern LGBT activists were flown to Geneva to sit and applaud Clinton’s speech; the main measure of success will be whether they, and their innumerable colleagues elsewhere, continue to be consulted on what the US government should do in their countries. What if aid conditionality really does rear its head — what if an ill-conceived proposal for tying all funds to repeal of a sodomy law moves publicly out of the embassy in some unfortunate nation? What if a particular post decides on loud, press-release-based advocacy that backfires and stigmatizes local LGBT groups as servants of a foreign power?
In June 2011, the US Embassy in Islamabad took a pointer from Obama’s proclamation celebrating US Pride that May, where he’d perorated that “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The embassy hosted what it called “Islamabad’s first ever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration,” to show
continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society. Over 75 people attended including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups. … Addressing the Pakistani LGBT activists, the Chargé, while acknowledging that the struggle for GLBT rights in Pakistan is still beginning, said “I want to be clear: the U.S. Embassy is here to support you and stand by your side every step of the way.”
That’s from the embassy’s press release. “Every step?” Well, except for steps outside the embassy walls. It didn’t occur to them that announcing the country’s “first-ever” Pride from behind the turrets of a fortified compound, guarded against a public enraged by American assassinations and bombs, sent a not-very-indigenous message. A South Asian blogger remarked:
Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan … were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests. …
Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently over[looked] the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.
The idiocy of all this seems obvious; but it wasn’t obvious to the diplomats involved. With an only-broadly sketched plan, there’s ample leeway for an embassy or two to try this catastrophic kind of thing again.
But the devil lies also in the way that Clinton’s initiative necessarily entangles LGBT movements around the world — mostly progressive, mostly loud in their opposition to unjust and oppressive domination, many resolutely radical — with the US, its rights record, its power, and its imperialism. And the truth is, this may be terrible, but we are at a point where such imbrication could no longer be avoided. We’re stuck with being fully a part of the world we live in, and with trying to maintain our ideals and values despite, not through and with, our friends.
When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy. This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.
Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.
We can’t, as movements, reject all those who want to aid us. Maturity means negotiating, not denying, these obstacles. Politics means accepting the burden of having — however little — power. But we also have to be willing to stand up to our friends and risk their enmity in the name of what we see as truth, instead of clapping hands mechanically and taking handouts with uncritical gratitude. Indeed, nobody needs to be grateful for Hillary and Barack’s support. Never thank others for recognizing human rights, unless their case is such that they show real courage or risk some tangible cost in the act. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing more than their duty, to you and to the world. And a duty demands no recompense. Acknowledge it, but feel no obligation. You owe nothing in return.
Instead, each movement in each country needs to figure out whether it will accept America’s new assistance, and if so, how to do so on its own terms. Hillary and Barack’s one-two performance carries opportunities. More largely, though, and in the ethical sphere, it offers a renewed challenge: to maintain values in the face of power.