On October 13, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died. 88 years old and the longest-seated of the world’s shrinking stock of monarchs, he was almost uniformly revered by a grieving public. Certainly he embodied unity in a country riven by fractious politics and class struggle. It can’t have hurt his popularity, though, that Thai law punishes lèse-majesté with three to fifteen years in prison. Any criticism of the King, previous kings, the royal dynasty, members of the royal family, the monarchy in general, or the monarch’s fantastic wealth — he had more than US $30 billion in the bank — can land you in jail. Easy to get people to love you if the alternative’s a prison term.
Odd, then, when Outright International, the LGBT rights organization, whose Twitter feed is generally confined to issues of sexuality, suddenly retweeted a series of encomia to the late King. After all, no one’s threatening them with prison.
These tweets were spawned in UN missions, and the stultifying UN-speak shows; a tribute that lauds someone as “a strong supporter of multilateral systems in sustaining peace” was written by bureaucrats, or is covering up for something, or both.
Mainly, King Bhumibol was a strong supporter of military dictatorships. Back in 1957, he helped engineer his first coup, encouraging a friendly general to rebel against an army-led government that had tried to restrict royal prerogatives. More recently, he endorsed the 2006 putsch that deposed populist prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra; in 2014 he similarly oversaw the overthrow of a cabinet led by Thaksin’s sister, installing the most draconian and brutal military regime the country has seen in decades. (In 2014, the dictatorship cemented its control by arresting dissidents under the lèse-majesté law; in 2006 the army justified the coup by claiming that insults to the King were surging, and only soldiers could safeguard the royal reputation.) Even the King’s elected governments had his mandate to use a harsh hand: in 2003, Bhumibol supported Thaksin’s “war on drugs,” which smeared the country with the blood of almost 3000 extrajudicial killings. As the monarch’s American biographer wrote after his death, “King Bhumibol did not set out to build a representative democracy or promote the rule of law. For him, parliaments were impermanent, disposable … Democracy was never his goal for Thailand.”
So it’s interesting for a human rights group not known for engaging with Thailand to go out of its way in the late King’s praise. By contrast, Human Rights Watch, longtime critic of Thai governments (and the lèse-majesté law), posted just one neutral sentence on its Thailand page.
And Amnesty International stayed decently silent. Two weeks before the King’s death, Thai police had shut down an Amnesty meeting in Bangkok, in order to ban the group’s report accusing the military junta of “a culture of torture.”
Those gratuitous retweets, though, had little to do with Thailand’s rights record — or “multilateral systems,” or “sustaining peace,” etcetera. They had to do with power: power at the UN. Outright International works extensively on LGBT rights at the United Nations (sometimes with good results, sometimes, in my view, not so much). For five years, Thailand has supported UN measures favoring LGBT rights. LGBT praise for a defunct and anti-democratic King is a low-cost way of lubricating that support. (Moreover, the Kingdom of Jordan’s UN mission, where one of the tweets bemoaning a fellow-monarch originated, has been making ambiguously positive noises about LGBT issues in official settings; they need encouragement. Retweeting them cozies up to two Kings at once.) An organization’s tweets don’t have much impact on the world. I fear, though, that parroting praise of the late King tends to set aside the language of human rights in favor of strategically satisfying a few diplomats. I worked for Outright for many years. I was its program director until 2002. There was no Twitter then. But if there had been, we wouldn’t have sent those tweets.
The tweets aren’t important, but the issue is. How do human rights relate to power? Surely the answer’s simple: Rights rely on governments’ power to realize and enforce them. Maybe the question is, instead: How do we, who defend human rights, relate to power? Are we inside it or outside it? What will we do to get power’s attention, sustain its regard, enjoy its favors? And what does that do to us?
The questions are particularly acute for people defending LGBT rights. For a long time, in almost every country in the world, LGBT activists had no access to power at all. In the US, 20 years ago, we had trouble just getting a meeting with the State Department. When I lobbied the UN’s human rights meetings in Geneva back then, even diplomats from the most supportive states had to be persuaded that queers weren’t either a distraction or a joke. Now plenty of governments say they’re all in for LGBT rights. No doubt some are propelled by politicians’ sincere concern (if that’s not an oxymoron). Others want to appease voters back home; still others see a convenient way to pinkwash their national reputations. They approach the subject, that is, with the usual confused and chiaroscuro motives states show. Their ministrations, though, give LGBT activists the unfamiliar sense of power, even if the reality is still remote. They’re listened to, suddenly; the elixir of authority is sitting on the table, with three icecubes and a swizzle stick, and even the smell intoxicates. How do they accommodate themselves to this new condition? Many queer groups lack any history of negotiating their relationships to power — the history that feminist movements, for example, have accumulated through decades of harsh experience. Moreover, they are less and less inclined to listen to those other movements, or learn from their stories. Wounded by hate and vitriol, LGBT activists’ egos are often desperate and valetudiniarian. Who can say how well we’ll withstand the swift explosion of self-regard that comes when ambassadors and presidents, principalities and powers, bestow on us the swerving lighthouse beam of their attention?
Not well, I think.
But this goes beyond LGBT movements; the question afflicts the whole of human rights activism. Human rights have long had two sides, two Janus faces. In their international iteration they originated as, quite literally, powerless, a corpus of principles devoid of virtually any enforcement. Human rights, even as late as the post-World-War-II Universal Declaration, were pure critique untrammeled by practical authority: a criticism of the actual terms of national legal systems, a semi-Utopian vantage from which to look down on the existing norms of positive law and judge them. They were a language more for activists than lawyers, more competent to imagine a living future than to mandate it. Over time, human rights grew into a system of positive law in their own — er — right. They were embodied not just in demands and needs but in codes and treaties; increasingly the lawyers took over; and as rights became norms, they acquired, and their exponents desired them to acquire, power. This is necessary and, mostly, good. It’s good that rights are codified, good that they have clout, very good that some governments take them seriously. But to work in human rights is still to be caught between these poles, between the idea that rights criticize power and the idea that they should possess it. Should we confront the bearers of state power as opponents, or as partners? Did the late king of Thailand deserve our analysis and anger, with a history of abuses to be considered and condemned? Or was he, along with the government that commemorates him, a potential ally in cooperative work, in making rights principles matter to a thoroughly compromised world? Should we tweet our own understanding of his record, or retweet the Thai Mission to the UN?
Those tweets were trivial, but there are more serious cases. The Thai Mission is one thing, but what if you’re dealing with the hugely powerful government of the United States? What’s the right relation to that hideous strength?
Here’s a story. On October 26, Human Rights First and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the latter, for any non-denizens of GayWorld, is the richest gay group in North America — hosted a speech by Susan Rice in Washington, DC, on “Global LGBTQ Rights.” Rice was Obama’s first ambassador to the UN, and now chairs the National Security Council. Introducing her, HRC’s head Chad Griffin said that “LGBTQ people around the world are looking to us” to be a “beacon of hope.”
And at a time when extremists are throwing gay men off buildings, when transgender women are being relentlessly attacked in Central America, when laws are being passed to silence and marginalize LGBTQ people, they need American leadership now more than ever before.
This is telling the US government what it wants to hear: America is moral, America is exceptional, and America leads everything (even Honduran travestis march in line). Chad Griffin really believes this. Otherwise, why would HRC tweet these words to the world, oblivious that activists elsewhere might resent the picture of them pining for a US cavalryman on a white horse?
Chad’s comments in fact were mocked in the dark recesses of the planet:
But it’s not like the US, or the US LGBT movement, to care what the brown masses think.
Then there’s what Susan Rice had to say. Her speech recited what the Obama administration has done for LGBT folk, at home and out in the dark lands. She talked about Uganda; she talked about ISIS; but basically she made a pitch for Obama’s third term. It illumined the instrumental character of Obama’s international LGBT commitments, in large part keyed to solidifying LGBT votes in the homeland. One paragraph hit me in the face. Back in 2003, Rice says, “One of my closest staffers, as a young Foreign Service officer, once asked if he and other employees could screen a documentary at the State Department about a gay nightclub in Cairo that was brutally raided by the Egyptian police. He was told no—it would be too controversial and too damaging to our relationship with Egypt. ” Look how far we’ve come! “Under President Obama … LGBT people can serve openly and proudly throughout government—from desk officers to the NSC staff to eight openly gay ambassadors,” and so on.
On the rare occasions US officials acknowledge there are problems with Egypt, I take note. I do not give a flying fuck whether the US government screens gay films about Egypt for its employees. What I do give a flying fuck about is that the US government hands $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, promotes the Sisi dictatorship as its partner, and sells LGBT Egyptians and all other victims of human rights violations down the river. Those eight openly gay ambassadors have done nothing to help keep queers in Egypt out of jail.
Arrests of queers in Egypt aren’t a quaint facet of the previous decade’s history. They’re happening now. Egypt has probably sentenced more LGBT people to prison since 2013 than any other country in the world. Neither Rice nor anybody else in the US government will discuss these arrests, much less condemn them. There are more than 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt; torture and death squads are rampant. The US refuses to raise these facts with its its Cairene client-tyrant in any consequential way — because “it would be too damaging to our relationship with Egypt.” For Rice to claim something’s changed because State Department staffers can now watch movies about handsome brown men being abused, and do so on government time — that is obscene. Screw the movie, Susan. Stop endorsing torture.
Yet the Human Rights Campaign condones torture; and so does the audience of professional gays who turn out to applaud Rice’s platitudes. Not that they’re bad people or malevolent organizations; far from it. They’d be horrified if they ever met a torture victim face to face. But they know the Obama administration is power, and they believe it’s on their side. They can’t contravene power. They see it has done good in places; so they can’t see or speak about places like Egypt where it’s done wrong. The convolutions of a state whose actions aren’t all categorizable under the same moral absolute are too much for them. And to raise their voices risks alienating that power. Then their own capacity for good, so invested in the authority of others, might slip away. So they let Rice drone on; they don’t confront her; they convince themselves that the government’s symbolic gestures — screening a film! making a donor an ambassador! – have a magical impact on the reality that rests in people’s lives. Nor does this blindness stop with Egypt. Chad unctuously imagines poor Honduran travestis long for US “leadership” to free them. They don’t. They long for an end to the violent waves of social-cleansing killings that the 2009 coup d’etat, enabling right-wing death squads, unleashed. And they know the US (and Secretary of State Clinton) propped up the bloody post-coup regime. Guns we send to Honduras murder travestis in the street. Not to see the complexity of these relations, not to understand how the people you flatter are implicated in the abuses you abhor, goes deeper than sycophancy. It’s complicity.
There’s a point where human rights, entangled with the hunt for power, stop being human. I will lay my opinions on the table, as someone who has worked within the force-field of human rights for 25 years. Human rights are not just a body of law, but a pattern of thought: a way of criticizing things that are and their existing arrangement. Either they retain some quantum of their dissenting energy, their capacity for radical critique, for questioning equally the premises and practices of friend and foe – or they cease to be of use. Rights exist in opposition. I do not believe human rights activists should readily celebrate governments, or fawn over their representatives, or adopt their language and agendas. I believe human rights activists who do that stop being human rights activists, and become something else. As a mode of thinking, human rights must negate in order to affirm; only through undermining the reified authority of what is can they clear a space for the liberating fortuity of difference, of what isn’t yet, of an alternative. Adorno wrote: “The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up. Thinking is not the spiritual reproduction of that which exists. As long as thinking is not interrupted, it has a firm grasp upon possibility. Its insatiable quality, the resistance against petty satiety, rejects the foolish wisdom of resignation.” Only by abandoning the false positivities that power always posits, and pursuing the relentlessly negative logic of that thought, can the discourse of rights change anything that needs to be changed about the world.
I called this essay “selling out.” Sometimes we activists indeed can sell out friends, allies, even those we call our own kind — sometimes without seeing it; queer Egyptians, say, sold by the US to sustain the deadly dictatorship. There’s another meaning, though. Sometimes we sell our very outness to the holders of power. To keep proximity and access, we hand them our presence and our visibility to exploit. We’re here, we’re queer. We’re useful.
Think (on the first point) of the arguments this year among LGBT movements about creating a new special mechanism at the UN, to research and respond to violations. These discussions were divisive. Many wanted a mechanism to deal broadly with diverse issues of sexual rights: for instance, connecting “sodomy laws” to other laws that control sexual freedoms. Others, including leaders of many LGBT organizations, wanted their own mechanism, in effect — one focused on a particular identity. I was in Geneva while the UN debated the mechanism; I was struck by how advocates of the narrower mandate reacted when I asked why the rights of sex workers were excluded from it. The general response was: sex workers had nothing to do with LGBT communities. They weren’t relevant, useful allies; and sex workers within queer populations seemed no longer to exist, like Neanderthals or moderate Republicans. I heard this even from people who I know perfectly well have paid for sex with queer sex workers, apparently in episodes of absent-mindedness. The end result? The narrow mandate won. Laws targeting sex work – laws that imprison thousands of LGBT people — were excised from the public ambit of LGBT concern. Invisible sex workers were sold out; visible and respectable LGBT activists acquired a UN post. So it goes.
And think how the World Bank loudly declared, in 2013, that it was going to adopt LGBT rights as a priority – pretty much its first-ever human rights priority; a project it launched by invoking Uganda’s anti-LGBT legislation to cancel a loan targeting maternal mortality. Health and reproductive rights in East Africa are easy to sell out; they lack a DC lobby. American NGOs, the Obama administration, and Democrats in Congress could see Ugandan LGBT people, but not Ugandan women. (The two, again, don’t overlap.) But there was another aspect to the bargain; the Bank’s pronouncements on LGBT rights had the effect – perhaps not planned at first, but obvious afterward – of enlisting vocal, visible queer activists in powerful countries to support the institution and its leaders. (Jim Yong Kim, the Bank’s embattled president, even dropped in on BuzzFeed’s offices while pushing for a second term, to remind its gay readership how gay-friendly the Bank is: not the sort of campaign stop previously common on the commanding heights of the world economy. Imagine Alan Greenspan advertising the Federal Reserve by parading in Pride.) Even LGBT activists in powerless countries — the countries the Bank lends to, and often destroys — have their usefulness. Although no policy changes and no new programs have come out of the Bank’s well-publicized concern, it does annually fly LGBT campaigners from the global South to its Washington HQ to sit round a table, be consulted, and be photographed. You can see the Bank’s calculus; these are economists, after all. Surely every activist tempted with the fleshpots of DC means one less activist who’ll join a rally against structural adjustment or debt or the Washington Consensus. Why protest outside when you can sit inside with a per diem? With enough time, LGBT politics around the globe will don the values of Davos and shuck off those of Porto Alegre. That may or may not happen: the Bank has never figured out how activists really tick. But In a decade when many LGBT movements actually do have increasing influence in their domestic politics — and are increasingly resourced by the US government, which runs the Bank — it’s a reasonable bet to make, if not a sure one.
Michel Foucault employed the idea of “governmentality” to describe the multiple means, from the sweeping to the microscopic, by which institutions create, mold, control, and discipline subject populations. Foucault also showed that to participate in governmentality, to share in the play of power, is equally to be shaped, to be controlled, to be disciplined. Power is exercised not only through, but within, the powerful. The conscious agent is also the inadvertent victim.
The more LGBT movements appropriate their portion of power, they more they risk becoming its subjects and servants. The more HRC stakes its claim to participate in US foreign policy, for instance, the more it constricts its vision. The seductive project of building an “LGBT foreign policy” disciplines LGBT Americans — and HRC itself — not to think of foreign policy in a critical or complex or comprehensive way.
Governmentality is an academic concept, of course, arcanely argued over by scholars. In fact, I can describe that entanglement and complicity simply: in a monosyllable, even. Sometimes giving a thing its proper name is analysis enough. But I’ll repeat it a few times; in speaking of power and the powerful, one should make the word sound polysyllabic, important.
Shame. Shame. Shame.
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