Selling out: The gays and governmentality

gayflagviwojimaOn 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.

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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.”

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the king following the 2014 coup: EPA/Diego Azubel

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the King following the 2014 coup: Photo: EPA/Diego Azubel

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.

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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?

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

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?

The world is waiting: HRC's Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

The world is waiting: HRC’s Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

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?

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Chad’s comments in fact were mocked in the dark recesses of the planet:

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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.

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

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.

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

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.

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

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.

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Imagine

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.

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman's Skammen, 1968

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s Skammen, 1968

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Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A talk

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraq, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraqi, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

On June 16, I gave a Human Rights Lecture as part of the program of Toronto Pride, on the 2014 bathhouse raid in Cairo and the ongoing crackdown on suspected trans and gay people in Egypt. Several people asked for the text, and I’m publishing it here. I owe much gratitude to Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, who introduced the lecture and placed it in a regional context. Many thanks are also due to Mathieu Chantelois of Pride Toronto; the hardworking staff of both Pride Toronto and The 519; and Brenda Cossman, Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, who together sponsored and organized the talk. I am also very much indebted to John Greyson and Stephen Andrews, artists and activists, who helped make the whole thing possible. 

For any who perversely want not to read but to watch me dissect this sort of thing, here’s a talk — on similar but not identical themes — I gave at Princeton University this spring:

And here is the Toronto lecture:

I feel overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed to see so many of you here. But I am also overwhelmed as so many of us feel overwhelmed right now: there is too much to talk about, and too little one can actually say.

I was asked here to describe the campaign against LGBT people, especially trans women and gay men, ongoing for three years in Egypt: particularly the now-infamous police raid on a bathhouse in Cairo in December 2014. I was asked partly in the context of the 35th anniversary of the bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 — “Operation Soap.”

The question was: how much consistency across time and space shapes the persecution and oppression that queer people face?

And here we are, in this moment, on this day, in this juncture: and I know that everyone in this room is thinking about Orlando.

In the US, now, you can witness a political contest over what that event means over what frame we’re going to use to understand it. This battle is also over whether it’s a local event or a global one, how much it crosses those boundaries of time and space:

  • the right wing – and Donald Trump – insisting this is “about” terrorism, about porous borders, about alien violence invading our spaces;
  • the left insisting this is about our, American, indigenous violence, our own fundamentalism, our guns, our propensity to see difference as a question of firepower.

These either-ors imply that Orlando was easily understandable, and can be not just comprehended but owned. Yet this kind of debate also indicates how deeply an instability of space — this troubled relationship between here and there, the local and the remote — has become integral to our thinking, and to our selves, in this increasingly elastic world.

It’s a world in which images circulate rapidly and globally; in which certain events become global, resonate far beyond their origins, are part of how people understand themselves , so that in South Africa or the Philippines, Orlando morphs into a reference point. It’s right that it be a reference point. The enormity and the suddenness of the violence mean it instantly touches innumerable queer people’s deepest fears. Yet some other events don’t circulate at all.

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate's love's victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate’s love’s victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

I’ll cite a friend of mine, a feminist in Egypt, writing about Orlando. She also speaks of how images spread globally – in this case, the celebratory images of gay triumphs. The killing, my friend writes, is “an ugly reality check to the fakeness of celebrating love wins” — by which she means that ubiquitous social media jubilation after same-sex marriage was legalized in a single, powerful country, the US.

When love wins happened, the Egyptian authorities were having raids arresting gay men and trans here. We couldn’t unsee the relation between the escalation of risk for being queer here and the media discourse which was commenting on love wins and which was [making Egyptians] realize that there are people who are actually homosexuals.

And she adds: “I am afraid that contrast can escalate badly. Anywhere.”

So: connections, and contrast. I’ll start with a short video.  It shows someone who was swept up in the crackdown that’s going on in Egypt: a trans woman, a leader in her community, named Malouka. Police arrested her in December 2014. The press vilified her as “the most dangerous homosexual in Egypt.” (Egyptian media recognize no meaningful distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity as comprehended in the West, just a collective and only vaguely differentiated category of “perversion”.) The video was obviously filmed in a police station. A website based in the UAE, one with close ties with Egyptian police, published it. It’s disturbing; I wouldn’t show it except that I want to disturb you. It shows Malouka traumatized, probably beaten, though it’s not clear what they have done to her. She keeps repeating, over and over: “My father never loved me.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t replay such images without permission of the person they show. Malouka, though, simply disappeared into the vast Egyptian gulag. A court sentenced her to six years. With her blood family rejecting her – legally recognized relations are almost the only people with even intermittent access to prisoners in Egypt – only the barest information emerged about what happened to her. A rumor six months ago said she had committed suicide in detention. I believe it was untrue; but we were not even able to confirm that.

Let me describe what has been happening in Egypt for the last five years.

In 2011 — you know this — there was a revolution and Mubarak was overthrown. The military took power, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2011-2012, it held first parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were multiparty, competitive, and generally free.  And both were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For a year, then, from mid-2012 till July 2013, Egypt had a conservative government, but a democratically elected one: the only democratically elected government in Egypt’s history. In fact, the one year of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency was probably, in certain senses, the freest in Egypt’s modern history. The relative freedoms to speak, to criticize, to demonstrate and to agitate came not because the government was liberal – it wasn’t – but because it was weak. Still, those freedoms were tangible.

Egyptian queers were also enjoying a degree of freedom, an ability to occupy social spaces from which they were previously debarred. Back in the three years from  2001 to 2004, there had been a massive crackdown on men having sex with men, by the Mubarak government. Probably thousands were arrested and given sentences of up to 5 years. The circus of raids and show trials served up a convenient distraction from political and economic problems. But in 2004 it stopped, and for the next nine years there were very few arrests under Egypt’s laws against homosexual conduct. Indeed, from 2008, police in Egypt focused more on repressing political dissent in the increasingly volatile public sphere, and less on day-to-day policing, including patrolling the frontiers of acceptable morality. And after the revolution, the police virtually disappeared from urban streets. They had been the most hated symbol of the old regime, and in the new conditions they were virtually were afraid to show their faces.

With their retreat, LGBT people became increasingly visible in the downtown scene in Cairo. They occupied the decrepit city center’s cheap cafes and bars; they used the Internet to make new kinds of virtual community.

In July 2013, a carefully plotted military coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new junta, under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly showed itself repressive in an unprecedented degree. The military’s ruling principle was that the old Mubarak regime had failed, was overthrown, because it was too weak. It had allowed bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and other perverts too long a leash. The new state wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In August 2013, Sisi massacred over a thousand demonstrators supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. It was a message written in blood that the old rules didn’t apply, that the leash was now a chokehold. The military took over all the interstices of daily life: the country was kept under rigid curfew for months. And the police returned. Egypt saw a concerted attempt to resuscitate intensive social control.

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

In October 2013, a few months after the military coup, came the first arrests of LGBT people. First police in a very working-class district of eastern Cairo shut down a local gym allegedly patronized by men seeking sex with other men. They arrested and tortured 14 people. Next came a raid on a private party in a Cairo suburb. Police loaded ten victims into their wagons. The cops leaked both these cases to the press; favorable headlines acclaimed the constabulary for cleansing the capital of its immoral unwanted.  Someone in the Ministry of Interior decided that arresting “perverts” made good publicity for the police.

The arrests continued, applauded by an increasingly docile media. There were raids on homes, on private parties; people who looked differently or dressed differently could be seized on the street. Hundreds were arrested. Two incidents were particularly central in the storm of publicity.

We do; they don't. Still from 2013'a viral "same-sex wedding" video

We do; they don’t. Still from 2014’s viral “same-sex wedding” video

First: at the very end of August 2014, a video leaked on YouTube and immediately went viral. Filmed by a cameraphone, it seemed to show two men staging a mock wedding on a boat on the Nile. The footage — I learned from men who were there — came from a floating party months before; no one knew how it had reached YouTube. There was speculation the police had somehow got their hands on it and leaked it themselves. Hundreds of thousands saw it on the web, even more when it reached TV. Police rounded up everyone they could find from the boat, and they got two years in prison. Meanwhile, though, the banned and exiled Muslim Brotherhood joined the universal indignation, tweeting from some of its accounts that Sisi’s regime was now bringing gay marriage to Egypt.

Those attacks made queers a political, not just a police, issue. The dictator, after violently overthrowing a religious government, fears criticism from his right and from the Brotherhood more than any other kind.  The matter of homosexuality became both opportunity and an obligation for Sisi; he needed to prove his aptitude as moral defender of the nation.

Mona Iraq, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

Mona Iraqi, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

On December 7, 2014, police raided an historic bathhouse in central Cairo, allegedly a meeting place for men having sex with men. They arrested 26 men, stripped them, marched them naked in the cold night; at least one was raped by other prisoners in the Azbekeya jail that night, with the guards’ collusion.  A TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, presided over the raid; she filmed it and publicized it. This was Sisi’s answer – meant to be a huge public show trial, proving the state’s will to suppress “perversion.”

It backfired. The government probably blackmailed Mona Iraqi into her repellent role in the raid: but for many Egyptians, including fellow reporters, she became a symbol of the “informer journalist,” selling her independence and soul to support the state’s agenda. (Since the trial ended, she has tried bizarrely to recuperate her reputation as a friend of queers, who emphatically don’t want her friendship. The “Love Wins” tweet I showed earlier was hers.) I was privileged to work with a few activists who fought to mobilize intellectual opinion, and the Egyptian media, against the raid. The outrage actually induced the government to back down. In an almost unheard-of event in Generalissimo Sisi’s Egypt, the men were acquitted. But their lives were ruined. One later tried to commit suicide by burning himself to death. And the arrests still go on.

Police use the Internet to entrap people: undercover agents infest apps like Grindr, pretending to be gay; or the cops enlist gay people as informers, blackmailed to help. Increasingly they target foreigners as well as Egyptians — sometimes Europeans, sometimes already-persecuted refugees: jailing them or deporting them.

At least 250-people in Egypt are now serving prison sentences of between 2 and 10 years for homosexual conduct; probably many more. Egypt now imprisons more people for their gender identity and sexual orientation than any other country in the world. 

What happens to queers in Egypt can’t be separated from the general draconian repression. Journalists are carted to prison; so are activists, students, or people who simply happen to be living in the wrong neighborhood.  People just disappear: into concentration camps, or — if they are abducted by the death squads that haunt the cities — their bodies turn up in ditches. Protests are punishable by three years in prison: or you can just be shot. NGOs face harassment and closure, including the very few that provide legal help to arrested LGBT people. And those downtown cafes I talked about? In late 2014 the government started harassing gathering spots in central Cairo, forcing them to shutter, because “undesirable people” – revolutionaries, atheists, perverts – gathered there. The spaces where ordinary solidarity can flourish are being strangled to death.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers to commemorate the martyrs of the Revolution, and its fourth anniversary.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers in commemoration of the Revolution’s martyrs, on the Revolution’s fourth anniversary.

So let me ask: Why don’t you know more about this?

The general situation in Egypt, and the horrifying situation of LGBT people, are consigned to the back pages of the papers, the fag end of the news, unclicked and untold.  Every queer schoolboy knows what’s gone on in Uganda or Russia in recent years. But Cairo or Alexandria? No.

One reason the LGBT arrests have gotten less attention? In a word: gender. 

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 -- mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists -- from a video published on the website of Youm7

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 — mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists — from a video published on the website of Youm7

The primary targets of these arrests haven’t been securely cis men who have sex with cis men. They’ve been trans women – or men who build their identities around not conforming to norms of masculinity. Egyptian society has no strong public recognition of gender identity as a category. There are, though, growing communities of people who identify as trans, and they’ve been more and visible — particularly in downtown Cairo. Indeed, “downtown,” wust el-balad, has turned into a term encompassing all kinds of deviance, from hash-smokers to atheists to revolutionary youth with long hair (government stooges regularly accuse former revolutionaries of gender and sexual perversion). Most of these fears focus on masculinity: “downtown” means men who aren’t men, and trans people symbolize the extremity of decadence. One word bandied about to summarize what the regime opposes is mokhanatheen: sissies. The need to enforce gendered norms, and in particular to make sure that men behave as men should, obey the behavioral rules for their assigned gender, is hard-wired into the military regime.

Yet this doesn’t interest international LGB activists the way arrests of gay men do. Which two cases in Egypt have had the most international attention? The wedding video arrests: where photos showed two bearded men, solid in their evident cisness. And the bathhouse raid: where images focused on photos of naked bodies in the cold December air – bodies that looked unequivocally male.

Most of the hundreds imprisoned in Egypt haven’t been like that. We claim to be having a “trans moment” in Europe and North America. Maybe. Has it gone from pop culture to politics — our politics, the politics of LGB-and-only-occasionally-T movements? No. It’s still painfully clear which bodies we prefer, even as passive victims. Masculinity infects our activism, as it pervades our media, our cultures, and our dreams.

There’s another reason for the silence: respectability. 

The law that criminalizes homosexual conduct in Egypt is, in origin, a law against prostitution. It was passed in a moment of nationalist fervor in1951. The British occupying army had for decades maintained brothels for its soldiers, staffed by Egyptian women, and this was seen across the political spectrum as an enormous national shame. Parliament passed a law that criminalized sex work by women, and then in a sort of throw-the-kitchen-sink fit of moralistic enthusiasm they tossed in parallel punishments for something called fugur or “debauchery” — which wasn’t defined. The term, though, was gradually interpreted by courts to mean non-commercial sex between consenting adult men

In Egypt, then, you don’t need to prove that two men are exchanging money to arrest them for having sex. But a link between homosexual conduct and prostitution is — again — hard-wired into Egyptian law and attitudes. In this crackdown, the military has been at some pains to stress the connection. When Mona Iraqi was criticized for raiding the bathhouse, she defended herself by claiming it was a den of “human trafficking,” because she knew this was an appealing line: a useful excuse locally — and internationally.

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

The US government, which now positions itself as the world’s foremost defender of LGBT people’s rights, is also the world’s most powerful opponent of sex workers’ rights. It promotes ridiculous and regressive myths that all prostitution is “trafficking”; it demands that foreign groups receiving its (ever so queer-friendly) funding pledge never to discuss decriminalizing sex work, or sex workers’ persecution by laws and police.  Hillary Clinton and the whole Obama administration have clung to the Bush administration’s failed moralism where suppressing commercial sex — and sex workers — is concerned.

Cover of a 1910 book on "white slavery" by Ernest Bell

Cover of a 1910 book on “white slavery” by Ernest Bell

And with US funding underpinning LGBT politics, many LGBT organizations have been happy to ditch sex workers’ rights and issues in pursuit of a respectable picture of LGBT communities. That’s less true of grassroots groups than of those operating in the international sphere: those that command media spaces like the New York Times, and set the agenda, and create images of what LGBT rights are.

Around the world, more LGBT people are arrested every day under laws targeting sex work than are arrested under so-called “sodomy laws” in a year. They aren’t just arrested because they may be doing sex work — but because those are the laws police use against cruising, soliciting, public displays of affection, walking while trans or butch.

Yet our international movement writes those people off. And that’s a disgrace. We congratulate ourselves when sodomy laws are repealed, as though that means full decriminalization of queer lives and bodies. We don’t notice laws that have even harsher impact on those lives.

Remember: The Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 took place under a 19th-century law on “bawdy houses.” Respectable gay sex in bedrooms had been formally decriminalized in Canada. But if they hate you, they can still find laws to use against you. And anti-prostitution laws are always a ready tool.

In Egypt, too, the idea that the arrested people are not respectable, are not like us, has inhibited sympathy, stifled response. And not just within the country’s borders. What images roused the first international outcry against the Cairo crackdown? Those two cis men pursuing the most respectable of American-style gay activities: getting married.

But trans sex workers? Who cares?

Egyptian protesters point to the "Made in USA" tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

Egyptian protesters point to the “Made in USA” tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

A final reason for the silence: security.

The Egyptian military and its conceptions of manhood are paid for by the United States. The US gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year (along with a small, steadily diminishing amount of development aid, currently less than $250 million). Each year, Egypt receives the world’s second or third largest sum of US military aid, after Israel.

The aid has stayed at the same level since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in the early 1980s. In effect, we pay Egypt not to use its military on its neighbors: with the implicit proviso that it will use its military on its own people, when needed.

We — and I mean Americans like me, and our allies — pay for the abuses the military engages in. 40,000 political prisoners held, mostly without trial? We pay for the concentration camps that hold them. Tear gas used on demonstrators?  We pay for it, it comes from US firms, it’s bought with money the US gives the government. We pay the generals’ salaries. We pay for the soldiers’ guns. We pay for the civilians the army slaughters in Sinai, or at least for their mass graves.  The surveillance equipment Egypt’s government is buying up, to monitor the whole Internet – and they’ve specifically said LGBT people are a priority target— is bought from US firms, with no objection from the US government.

(Canada, so far as I know, has a limited direct relationship with the Egyptian military –except for its peacekeepers in Sinai, who protect an ever-more-imaginary peace, one devastated both by an armed insurgency and by Egypt’s brutal, Israeli-supported campaign to exterminate it. But Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia indirectly aid Egypt, by channeling resources to one of Sisi’s main backers. Saudi Arabia is the root of evil in the region; you’re handing wands to Voldemort, you’re hawking rings to Sauron. And the Saudis  know they can use Canada’s equipment to prop up repressive regimes wherever they like.)

Egyptian activists — human rights activists, and LGBT activists among them — want the US and its allies to cut or stop military aid to Sisi. They want us to stop propping up the murder regime. This, the US and NATO refuse to do.

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and gives him $572 million in military aid, days after pro-democracy activists including feminist Yara Sallam were arrested and abused

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and hands him $572 million in military aid, days after police arrested and abused pro-democracy activists, including feminist Yara Sallam, for the heinous crime of marching down a street

John Kerry comes to Cairo once or twice a year, in his capacity as head imperialist tourist. I happen to know that dutiful State Department officers give him solid talking points for his meetings with Sisi; they say, “mention human rights violations” — sometimes even “mention the gays” (never the trans or the sex workers, of course.) But Kerry has a powerful mancrush on Sisi. He looks deep into those dark brown bloody eyes and throws his talking points out the window. He won’t mention the killings; he won’t mention the trans and gay arrests — I doubt he’s raised the issue once, even in a subordinate clause. Sisi is our ally. He safeguards security. The rest is silence.

In fact, none of Sisi’s measures increase security — not even the savage war against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and certainly not the torture of queers. They destroy security. Last summer, while I lived in Cairo, rebel bombings happened almost every week: they blew up consulates, subway stations, even the Prosecutor General.  ISIS kidnapped foreign workers on the streets of Cairo suburbs where I did my shopping.

But the life or death of locals matters less to the Obama administration than the big picture, the preservation of American power. The US mancrush on military dictators in Egypt long precedes the war on terror. It is a product of the way that US imperialism has approached the region for decades, a technique of power quite consciously set in opposition to the strategies of the British and French colonialisms it superseded. Aspiring to regional dominance, the US since the 1950s has attempted indirect rule. We don’t want to control territory or govern populations; we want access to resources, and the ability to keep others away from them. American ambitions have been exercised through anchor states, core allies whose job is to police the region and ensure stability for us.

The US pays for militaries strong enough to keep societies in subjection. We also pay to see the values of those militaries – the reliance on violence, the suppression of difference, the repressive cult of masculinity, the patriarchal faith in state power – spread throughout those societies and distort their workings, destroy their solidarities, suppress their dissenters. We’ve created militarized states throughout the Middle East, and we’ve also created militarized masculinities. So the lives of queers in Egypt are necessarily tangled up with the war on terror.

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in "advancing LGBTI-inclusive development"

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in “advancing LGBTI-inclusive development”

Today, the US exercises enormous hegemony over the international LGBT movement. Most of the largest organizations doing international LGBT work in the US get funding for acting as instruments of US foreign policy.  The Human Rights Campaign gets money from the US State Department; Outright Action International, which I used to work for, gets money from the US State Department. Many influential groups elsewhere in the global North are beneficiaries of American money. And even groups that don’t get funding rely on the US government for information, for access, for all the privileges that flow from proximity to power.

Increasingly, those groups are willing to play along with the US government and its priorities. You will hear no public criticism of US inaction on Egypt from these NGOs. You’ll hear very little criticism even of the Egyptian government for its crackdown. International LGBT politics comes to mirror US foreign policy, and exempts US allies from harsh scrutiny.

I fear we are creating a comprador LGBT movement, incapable of criticizing the misdeeds of governments that support it.  This movement enjoys what it believes is power — though often that merely means taking cheerful selfies with the politicians who really possess it. But that movement is content to sacrifice its own, in the name of preserving its own access to power: to rest in silence, complicity and compliance.

Canada has a new government, after nine years of Harper, and is moving in a new direction. Your leadership is increasing its commitment to LGBT rights worldwide. It’s doing what the Obama administration and other Western states have done, putting LGBT rights firmly on its foreign policy agenda. And like those other governments it has two motives.

  • Unquestionably some policymakers are sincerely committed to the ideal of universal human rights.
  • But they also know there’s an active constituency at home who can be pleased – appeased — and persuaded to vote by these commitments. Political self-interest amplifies idealism, and in some cases dominates it.

In the spirit of United States citizens who like to tell other people what to do, I want to offer some unwanted advice.  Because when the Trudeau government talks about LGBT rights abroad they’re not aiming at trans or gay Egyptians; they’re aiming at you, as citizens and voters.  And how you conceive these issues and frame them, the strength and reach of your imagination, will determine how successful the initiatives are.

First: LGBT rights can’t be conceived in separation from other human rights issues and violations, or from the overall human rights situation in a country. They’re not a lonely silo on a prairie, standing on its own. Moreover: what your government does to defend them can’t be evaluated without a grasp, and a critique, of your government’s overall foreign policy priorities in a country or a region.

Think of how the United States has dealt with human rights in Uganda. Defending LGBT rights in Uganda — fighting the “Kill the gays” bill — has been an American priority ever since Hillary Clinton launched her gay-rights initiative in 2011.  It hasn’t been entirely successful — the bill hasn’t passed, but it hasn’t gone away either. There is no question, though, that US efforts have bettered and bolstered Ugandan civil society, immensely strengthening its capacity to oppose the bill.

An American queer public outraged by Ugandan homophobia helped drive these initiatives. Yet it’s also convenient for the US government to confront Museveni’s dictatorship on this issue, rather than on its fraudulent elections or its ruthless repression of opposition — which aren’t, after all, abuses most American voters notice. The freedoms of LGBT people are vital, but don’t threaten the ultimate stability of the dictatorial regime. The Obama administration can keep its supporters happy and say it is addressing human rights in Uganda, while emitting only anodyne criticisms as Museveni quashes democracy. The US needs Museveni; he’s an ally in the little war-on-terror sideshow the US keeps going in East Africa. More importantly, he’s a useful stooge in the cold war the US wages with China for control of African natural resources, including the oil and gas that form a burgeoning part of Uganda’s own economy.

As in the Middle East, the US exerts its power in Africa through regional proxies. The Ugandan regime is one, and an exclusionary absorption with LGBT issues allows the US government to evade real condemnation of other Ugandan rights abuses. An American LGBT politics which lets Obama get away with this is partial, truncated, and blind.  Queers need a critical stance on their countries’ foreign policies in general.

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Changeat a Kampala protest against Museveni's 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change at a Kampala protest against interminable President Museveni’s 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Second: Break out of the focus on monolithic identities that confine our understanding of sexuality and gender — as well as the conceptions of who “real” or “respectable” LGBT people are. Linkages and intersections constitute queer lives, not monosyllabic words with easy dictionary definitions.

The example of sex work I’ve cited before is essential.  We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about the legal and social regimes that regulate how sex and gender appear in the public sphere. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about how states police people’s bodies and behaviors; how they govern the sex-money nexus; and how they repress and brutalize sex workers.

Another example, quite different, is the Canadian government’s decision to admit Syrian refugees who identify as gay men — but deny protection to single men who don’t identify as gay.

I agree that LGBT refugee claimants should get accelerated recognition if — as many are —- they’re trapped in second countries where they are unsafe. A Syrian gay refugee in Egypt risks arrest and torture. He needs to get out of there fast. I do not agree that LGBT claimants should get recognition to the exclusion of others. That willfully discounts the complexities of identity in a culturally hybrid context. It wilfully ignores the dangers people face, in refugee camps and refugee communities, in taking on a despised identity publicly. It wilfully neglects the rivalries it will create among refugees, which may put LGBT people in further danger from fellow claimants whose support and help they need. And it wilfully overlooks the commonalities of disadvantage between expressly identified LGBT people, and others who live outside normative family structures.

We need to think broadly about the relationship between the body and its freedoms on the one hand, and society and the state on the other. We need to look critically at the identity constructs that confine our thinking, and blind us to wider realities.

Many LGBT activists across the Middle East have chosen to advocate not in terms of “LGBT rights” — a construct with little local meaning or cultural resonance — but in terms of universal rights to autonomy and personal liberty and to privacy and freedom from state interference.  This is powerful language in the region, because it draws on experiences of state surveillance and control that LGBT people have in common with most of their fellow citizens.

Lisa Hajjar has argued that one powerful thread running through all the Arab Spring rebellions was resistance to torture. As a brute reality, torture threatened everybody. It also became a symbol of the broad power states claimed to watch, invade, and control individual bodies.  Resisting it was a key symbolic way of negating the state’s politics and pretensions. Resisting torture asserted the body’s power — the latent strength in those individuals and in their sheer material presence, saying “no” to the vast machinery of repression.

Perhaps this way of thinking about bodies and power is something we all need to learn.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

I want to close by quoting something a friend of a friend said recently: a feminist in Yemen. She lives in the murderous midst of a Western-sponsored proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the sky, day and night, seen and unseen, are US drones and Saudi warplanes. Through streets trundle combat vehicles that say “Made in Canada” on their underbellies.

She wrote about Orlando: “I’m not sure why I feel it, but it is surprisingly easy to grieve for the grieveable even though I know most would not grieve for me.”

Nearly all my friends in the Middle East share a belief that’s widespread across the region: that their lives don’t matter here. That their lives don’t matter to you. That the murders, the torture, the massacres carried out with our weapons, practiced by our proxies, and continuing in consequence of our wars, are invisible on our TV screens, unmourned and unnoticed and unknown.

Certain images circulate. Others don’t.

Certain deaths are mentionable. Others aren’t.

Given that strong belief, I continue to be surprised, and moved, by the solidarity my friends and colleagues in Cairo, or Amman, or Basra feel for the catastrophes they see elsewhere; the sympathy they summon for our sorrows over Orlando, their willingness to take on this grieving — even while we, in New York or San Francisco or Toronto, glide swiftly past what we dismiss as just another bombing in Baghdad, another drone attack on an anonymous crowd in Yemen, another mutilated corpse in Cairo.

Grief is by definition an emotion that lies beyond the economy of reciprocation. Its objects are those who cannot return our sorrows, acknowledge them or feel them; we grieve precisely because those we grieve are unable to respond.

But we will move beyond grieving. Our sorrow will necessarily give way to choices. We must decide how we respond to living others, how we acknowledge their sorrows, how we answer their demands, how we act.

We will not be judged by the number of our tears or the intensity of our sorrow, but by what we do, by the reach and the consequences of our sympathies, by whether they encompass those who are unlike us, who do not share our identities or our beliefs, whom we cannot fully know. Will we turn our grief into solidarities? Will we look across boundaries?

The choice is ours.

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

Tim Cook’s coming out: Leaning in, trickling down

Poster - Coming Out Party_04I’ve lost interest in being gay. Not the sex; the slogans. This has been gathering over time — whose identity wouldn’t shudder under the dark suspicion it was shared with John Travolta?  — but something changed when coming out stopped being a matter of self-affirmation, with its secret thrill of hedonism, and became a moral obligation. What’s the fun of being yourself if you have to?

Everyone must be out now; and it’s not enough to be out, you have to be out enough to affirm the community, uplift the race. Thus Guy Branum (“writer and comedian”) has reprimanded Nate Silver, the numbers man, who announced he was gay a couple of years ago. Silver topped off his moment of candor, however, with a demurral: “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician.” Wrong.

Silver’s refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem … We can’t behave like Nate Silver’s choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. … We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that. [emphasis added]

Just as Philip Roth had to be a Jewish novelist, and Toni Morrison had to be a black writer, constrained in the gated communities of identity, so “yes, Nate Silver, you have to be a gay statistician.” Coming out isn’t just a public act because it’s addressed to a public, but because it’s owned by one.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out this week, and oh the humanity. People didn’t just congratulate him; they hailed him as Moses or Martin Luther King, as if he hadn’t just written an op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek but had revised the Bible.

“Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life”

so said Chad Griffin of the Human RIghts Campaign. Apple is “a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign” (“The work we do with these groups is meaningful and inspiring,” the company says). While it’s impossible to decipher how much money they ladle out, they give enough to make them an HRC “Platinum Partner.” HRC thus slobbers on the hand that feeds it. But some praise for Cook is unpaid. The unbribeable New York Times quoted the unbribeable Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs:  “He’s chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.”

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

I love my Apple swag, and God forbid I should be cynical. Yet for days fulsome praise of Cook filled my Mac’s screen, and I resisted just enough to wonder where the enthusiasm came from. How will a rich executive’s painless revelation, offered at the apex of his career, change lives, even save them? What do you mean, it will “resonate” — where, with whom? What does it say about our ritual public confessionals? What does it say about us?

Start with this. The New York Times quotes “Richard L. Zweigenhaft, co-author of Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why it Matters … who has closely tracked the progress of minorities in business.” For Zweigenhaft, Cook’s announcement inspired “the same feeling that I had back in 1998, when many were speculating about when the first African-American would be appointed a Fortune-level chief executive.”

It’s odd Zweigenhaft was speculating about that in 1998. The first African-American head of a Fortune firm dates back to 1987. (At least by some counts.) So much for “closely monitoring.” The man was Clifton Wharton, and he was CEO and chairman of the pension behemoth TIAA-CREF.*

Jet Magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White's elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Jet magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White’s elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Yet questions start. One is: How earthshaking is it for a minority to run an enormous corporation if you don’t even notice when it happens? Another is: Why didn’t African-Americans explode with joy? Thirteen black men and one black woman have headed Fortune 500 companies since then. The “African-American community” seems different from the “gay community” (and not just because the “gay community,” whenever you hear the term, seems to mean a klatsch of people who are exclusively Clorox white). African-Americans didn’t hold a vast potlatch of rejoicing back when Wharton got his job, nor when Franklin Raines took charge of Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward took over Maytag in 1999. Nor are those successes lodged in some collective memory today. Wharton crops up, for instance, in a book called African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks. Perhaps that’s a warning to Tim Cook: you can go from resonator, life-saver to little-known, unsung in the time it takes to get a gold watch. Fame is a by-the-hour motel.

It’s not that those people’s strivings and stories aren’t important. But they haven’t fed the same hyperbole that Cook has among the gays. It’s’s presumptuous to generalize — yet African-Americans seem to have different priorities for celebration. Conservatives have, of course, a long history of condemning “black cultural pathology”: they cherish what Michael Eric Dyson calls “an updated version of beliefs about black moral deficiency as ancient as the black presence in the New World.” For the Right, this refusal to deify the capitalists in your community would be a prime case study. If ghetto kids only read Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, as infant gays do, then we wouldn’t have to gun them down! Lamenting the lack of a black John Galt is wrong in many ways. It neglects the obvious fact that capitalism has appeared in African-American history more as pathology than cure. John Galt himself, copper-haired and green-eyed, might have had a complicated relationship to private properties if his color made him one. There’s plenty of room for asking: How, if a system’s past is entwined with enslavement and exploitation, can it suddenly start strewing opportunity? Where’s the catch? 

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Cornel West has written how the “nihilism” he excoriates in black communities stems from “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life.” Yet Lloyd Hogan, the African-American economist and theorist of black empowerment, had a slightly different take. That negativity wasn’t just what the market left behind after scouring out all other values; “nihilism” abjured superficial hope, but could nourish a sustaining culture of resistance.

“Legally stolen African-American labor, transformed into non-Black material wealth,” long spelled “the physical death of the African-American population,” Hogan wrote. But there is also an “African-American internal labor to overcome the ravages of death.”

A significant component of that internal labor is indeed the development of a consciousness within the Black community to eradicate the social source of its exploitation.

Inherent in the internal labor of the African-American population is the  … creation of a surplus African-American population above and beyond the exploitative needs of capital. This is reflected in the growing absolute magnitude of unemployed African-Americans, who represent the “freeing-up” of African-Americans from the binding forces of the capitalist market mechanism. Unemployment among members of the African-American population could be part of a process that portends growing liberation of these people from direct capitalist exploitative mechanisms.

There’s a touch of the smugness of the Marxist longue durée here. The not-so-Marxist point is, though, that a liberatory consciousness doesn’t just arise through labor within the system. The working classes aren’t the only potential rebels. Being shut out from the system can emancipate you from its terms. The “internal labor” of developing that freed consciousness is a work of culture. A disparate range of cultural phenomena, seen in this context, start to make sense together. You can recognize the gangsta celebration of gain unredeemed by even the faintest hint of productive purpose, which reveals money for what Brecht and Proudhon said it was — a glint of bling decking the fact of theft; you can recall an exaltation of bodies driven by defiant needs, in dance or sport, no longer drilled and regimented by the factory ethic. These sensibilities deny the nostrums of triumphant capitalism; they form an ungoverned undercurrent in American culture, otherwise bound to the wheel of Work and Progress. To see them as freedom takes only a slight shift in vantage — though something enormous is required to shake white folks away from the heritage of Horatio Alger. Resistance isn’t just rejection; it’s the creation of visions of life alternative to what the prevailing economy has on offer. African-American experience has been rich enough in the legacy of these not to wallow abjectly in the rubbed-off pride of a few singular success stories.

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Didn’t homosexuality stand for something like that once? To claim the flesh is designed for desire and fun, not just assembly lines and breeding, was more subversion than self-indulgence. It formed a dissent and an alternative to the work-and-win compulsiveness of American life. It rebelled against the body’s subordination to morality and economy alike, its subjection to an imperative of production. Back in the Sixties, before Grindr or Lady Gaga, a lonely homo might spend a Saturday night reading Paul Goodman or Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse, homosexuality “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” The “repressive organization of sexuality” by culture parallels the repressive organization of creativity by capital:

The sex instincts bear the brunt of the reality principle. Their organization culminates in the subjection of the partial sex instincts to the primacy of genitality, and in their subjugation under the function of procreation. … This organization results in a quantitative and qualitative restriction of sexuality…. it is turned into a specialized temporary function, into a means for an end.

Homosexuality portends a polymorphous sexuality liberating physical existence from the factory floor, fantasy unshackled from the demands of realism. Our future hinges “on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor. … The emergence of new, qualitatively different needs and faculties seemed to be the prerequisite, the content of liberation.” The great mythic figures who embodied that perversity, Orpheus and Narcissus, “reveal a new reality, with an order of its own, governed by different principles.”

Innocent in the garden: Marcuse

Innocent in the garden: Herbert Marcuse in the Sixties

Those were heady days, when through the thickets of even the densest prose flickered glimpses of an erotic Eden; naked in the undergrowth, Marx and Freud copulated under a fringe of green leaves. The gays were tutelary spirits of this verdant wood, dissidents by definition.

And now, no more. The gay movement put on its pants and wandered in a different direction. Nobody’s interested in liberation anymore; least of all those who praise placidly zipped-up, buttoned-down Tim Cook. Brittney Cooper wrote a few days ago about the gulf between black and white feminisms in the United States: “White women’s feminisms still center around equality …  Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference.  One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” It’s tempting to say that here’s the distinction between the gay politics we practice now– the pursuit of belonging — and other movements that retained a tingle of radical aspiration, of transformational edge.

But does the gay movement even believe in “equality”? This is what the Tim Cook carnival makes me wonder. How can you praise equality when your poster boy is worth $400 million?

That’s an undercount. In 2011, Apple paid Cook $378 million, and his price has surely gone up. Business Insider notes that, although “compensated handsomely,” Cook

chooses to live a modest lifestyle. Cook lives in a modest, 2,400-square-foot condo in Palo Alto, which he bought for $1.9 million in 2010. He’s quoted as saying in the book Inside Apple: “I like to be reminded of where I came from, and putting myself in modest surroundings helps me do that. Money is not a motivator for me.”

The threefold refrain of “modest” is sweet. It’s true that most Americans spend much more than 1/200th of their annual income on a house. It’s also true that most don’t spend two million dollars. Cook is too poor to show up on Forbes’ list of the country’s very richest. But that’s OK; he’s Number 25 in its rankings of the most powerful people on the planet, “our annual lineup of the politicians and financiers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billionaire philanthropists who rule the world.” That’s an interesting list. It’s not about opportunity; it’s certainly not about democracy. Among the first 25 only five — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, François Hollande — are political leaders elevated in reasonably fair elections (unless you count the Pope). The rest are dictators or businessmen. It’s their world. We just die in it.

Equal affection, trickling down

Equal affection, trickling down

The gay movement talks about equality all the time. LGBT groups across the country sport it in their names; you could play a lethal drinking game with it cropping up in speeches; and then there are those damn equality signs, and the profile pictures. But how equal is it when your role model — “trailblazer,” “hero,” “an American Dream story” — has power and money to which no American can aspire?  It means your idea of equality has gone off the rails. “He serves as a shining example that you can be who you are, you can be gay, and become the CEO of the most valuable company in the world.” No, he doesn’t. In this century of spreading poverty, in this country of oligarchy, in this economy of injusticeno sane gay kid can or should grow up with the delusion that the path to infinite acquisition lies open.

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we'll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, from right-wing group Focus on the Family's website

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we’ll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, in a photo from right-wing group Focus on the Family’s website

What underpins this is the American gay movement’s firm, longstanding belief in a trickle-down theory of culture. We’re not trying to change realities, just opinions. A few well-placed examples at the top of things, a few powerful promoters of tolerance, and enlightenment will leak and dribble down to the mind-starved masses. We don’t need to tinker with the system, we don’t need to ask what keeps patriarchy going, we never need to think about money, we don’t need to wonder how poverty shapes masculinity or limits women or deforms childhood, and remember: race and militarism and the Gulag of mass incarceration have zero to do with sex or gender. All it takes are role models. The obsession with role models makes gay politics seem like a nonstop casting call. Celebrities — LGBT and out, or non-LGBT and approving — are the movement’s moral leaders; it’s as if Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy were the whole March on Washington. It’s all justified by the children — the kids who don’t need child care, or recourses from domestic violence, or protective laws, or better schools and textbooks, or homes for that matter, and who are never black or Latino or poor or anything except gay; they just need a wealthy gay man or occasional lesbian to look up to, otherwise they will commit suicide. In fact, children don’t kill themselves because of the absence of Tim Cook (unless, of course, they are Tim Cook’s children). They kill themselves because their families or communities fuck them over, and it takes more than a Silicon Valley executive to fix that. Cook may be a decent man, but Chad Griffin only calls him a “lifesaver” because Chad Griffin is unable or unwilling to think about the structural changes that might actually save children’s lives.

Trickle-down culture is a retreat from both “equality” and “justice.” It lures the gay movement into a never-never land where images fix facts miraculously, and a magic charisma conveyed by gods through their chosen paparazzi withers all wrongs like blighted figs. Trickle-down politics is a politics of pure recognition, where persuading the powerful to acknowledge your existence with a gesture or a sign calls for an abased, degrading gratitude, and substitutes for getting anything that counts. Trickle-down culture is the perfect entryway to trickle-down economics, the belief that the rich, like the famous, bless us by their mere existence. Contagious success is a lie. “Leaning in” doesn’t help those whose backs are against the wall. But while we beatify Cook as gay gazillionaire, that old Horatio Alger horseshit becomes part of America’s new gay ideology.

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?

We are ruled less by ourselves than by the rich, and everybody knows this, and the organized gay movement isn’t fighting that, just trying to get the rich on our side. This isn’t a job for activists, but for courtiers. Most other social movements in the US have figured out this won’t work, and why. They know by heart what Brecht said: “When everyone’s pursuing happiness, happiness comes in last.” If any African-Americans ever needed a lesson in the failure to trickle down, they got it in Franklin Raines, who became the first black CEO of Fannie Mae. What kind of role model was he? Raines enthusiastically drew the lending giant into the subprime mortgage business. His motives aren’t clear; perhaps, like many others at the time, he genuinely wanted to get the very poor invested in the economic system by making them homeowners. Or perhaps he wanted to raise his corporation’s short-term earnings, because his pay was based on them. (His creative accounting ended up overstating the earnings by more than $6 billion anyway, possibly in a conspiracy to inflate his bonuses.) Plenty of African-Americans took out mortgages and invested in the system, and when the system collapsed in 2008 it left them destitute. The money went to Raines and the banks. It trickled up.

I’m reasonably sure Tim Cook is a good man, personally. I fear the possibility he’ll be the gay community’s Franklin Raines. Apple makes beautiful things that gays love; but amid the euphoria, isn’t it reasonable to ask just what else the corporation does for us? Cook has tried to lever up Apple’s philanthropy, including to the Human RIghts Campaign. (“Unlike cofounder Steve Jobs who thought his company should focus on maximizing shareholders’ value so they can donate their own wealth, the new boss is adamant that Apple must do more.”)  In 2011, the corporation gave away $150 million, against $100 billion it had in the bank. This generosity takes on a paltry cast when you realize that, though now valued at more than $118 billion, Apple pays only a pittance in taxes. Anywhere. It’s one of Earth’s biggest tax cheats. For instance, Apple may seem to you like a Silicon Valley firm; on paper, though, it’s settled itself in Ireland, a notorious tax haven. It routs its international sales — 60% of its profits — through dummy companies in Dublin. From 2009 to 2012 it attributed net income of $30 billion to another offshore subsidiary which “declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” It’s as though Apple were a spaceship. A Congressional report estimates Apple evaded $9 billion in 2012 US taxes. Forbes, not usually a a Marxist rag, blasted the “vanity and contempt for government … amply displayed in Apple’s tax figures.”

Not giving at the office: Apple's profits vs. Apple's taxes, 2007-2011

Not giving at the office: Apple’s profits vs. Apple’s taxes, 2007-2011

Apple’s philanthropy redistributes to private causes what it robs from public coffers — a tiny mite of what it robs, anyway. Instead of paying its dues to democratic governments, where disposing the proceeds would be a shared decision (you vote on what to with tax money), Apple gives what and when it wants to whomever it chooses. That’s neoliberalism in action. Here it’s the gays who profit at the public’s expense. I don’t grudge them. But LGBT groups could get other donors to support their battle against bullying in education; whereas dwindling tax dollars are the only thing that supports the education. End school bullying. Don’t end the schools.

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

One area where Apple did something nice for the gays at last, after a string of mistakes, was privacy. True, it took long enough: years of bad publicity and stonewalling before the corporation showed it was truly serious about information safety. Data protection is vital to LGBT people for obvious reasons; not everyone is out, and cops and blackmailers in many jurisdictions would love to learn who isn’t. When Apple issued a new, sweeping privacy statement last month, promising not to share information with either marketers or governments, it was especially important to those customers. For sure, it’s part of the corporation’s branding:

Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it’s clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition.

It’s also imperfect — cops can seize information even if it’s not handed over — and Apple needs to answer many more questions. (Why does the Mac operating system still send Apple keystroke-by-keystroke data on what you do?) Yet the protections will let vulnerable users rest a bit more easy.

EyePhone: BIg brother thinks different

EyePhone: Big brother thinks different

“Privacy” is an interesting idea, though. It was a key theme in Tim Cook’s coming-out op-ed, a month after Apple’s your-data’s-safe-with-us campaign started — suggesting he saw his honesty through the same lens, perhaps as part of the same PR. “Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy,” he intoned, but “my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” Could this be a way of saying, Listen, geeks, there are bigger things than your selfish insecurity about your silly secrets? What’s certain is: Cook is willing to forgo his personal obscurity and become a news story and symbol; but Apple, by contrast, protects its corporate privacy to the death. Literally.

On July 16, 2009, Sun Danyong, 25 a Chinese factory worker for Apple’s manufacturing supplier Foxconn Technology, killed himself by jumping from the window of his 12th-floor apartment. Three days earlier, he’d told the company he’d lost a prototype model for the next-generation IPhone. Foxconn security forces searched his home, interrogated him, and beat him. Two hours before he died, Sun texted his girlfriend:

“My dear, I’m sorry, go back home tomorrow, something has happened to me, please don’t tell my family, don’t contact me, this is the first time that I have ever begged you, please agree to that! I am so sorry!”

And he wrote to a friend: “Even at a police station, the law says force must never be used, much less in a corporate office. … Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.”

Sun Dan YongSun’s death drew attention to the human consequences of Apple’s obsessive concern with secrecy. It also pulled back the veil on working conditions for those who make your IPhones and IPads. In 2010 alone, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide, and 14 died. Mic.com describes Tian Yu, a17-year-old migrant from rural China:

Her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy.

The company finally sent her on a bureaucratic run-around to get the meager monthly wages of just over $200 it owed her. She bussed from office to office in a futile quest: “Why was it so hard to get what I’d earned? Why must they torture me like this?” she asked a reporter later. That day, she jumped from her dormitory window, and barely survived.

A Hong Kong-based watchdog investigated working conditions at Foxconn, and found its factories were more like military labor camps. A Hong Kong professor, Jack Qiu, made a powerful short film on Foxconn’s sweatshops:

A former Foxconn manager told the New York Times that “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”

Apple promised audits and produced its own figures, but showed angry indignation that anyone dared impugn its motives or inspect its claims. Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that he was “outraged”: but by the abuses, or the reporting?

Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today … We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. …. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. … For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

What stands out is Apple’s fierce concern not just for its customers’ privacy, but for its own. Corporations are people too, and they have their intimacies. If they enjoy the full rights of free speech, surely they’re entitled to keep the state out of their bedrooms. Would you fuck somebody — the workers, in this case — with a whistleblower watching?

Apple’s philanthropy is a good investment. By buying up shares in US civil society, they ensure noisy activists will side with them, and ignore the nameless foreign workers. Apple donates to HRC in part to give itself a, well, righteous gloss. How could a bigtime patron of the Human RIghts Campaign flout human rights?

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

But all this exposes still another scandal: The complicity of US social movements with corporate abuse.

There’s nothing new here, and it’s not unique to Apple. In 2012, Bil Browning revealed how “One day after several leaders from LGBT orgs met to talk about American Airlines’ anti-union activities and how it’s been affecting their LGBT employees, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an email urging their supporters to purchase airline tickets from the company.” American Airlines is another big donor to HRC; just like Apple, it’s a “Platinum Partner.” Effectively, these companies pay the gays to pinkwash them, to do their PR work. Purchasing social movements through philanthropy is remunerative traffic for the Fortune 500, and the gays come cheap. All I can say is: when onetime activists for liberated desire become hired flacks for the profiteers of sweatshop abuses, we’ve come a long, long way from Marcuse.

It's my party: Movie poster from 1934

It’s my party: Movie poster from 1934

Coming out is so complicated! I began by citing somebody’s demand that Nate Silver come out as a “gay statistician.” What is a “gay statistician?” Presumably it means you deal in gay statistics. And what are those? If you’re gay, or black, or Jewish and a novelist, I get how you may write gay, or black, or Jewish novels — a novel tells stories, and the teller’s identity is free to enter. But how professional is it to pass pure numbers through the sieve of self? Or maybe it’s all about the subjects you research. Should gay Nate Silver serve us up statistics about the gay community, then? Yet that might include statistics the gay community’s leaders wouldn’t like us to hear. You know — figures like:

  • How much does Apple pay the Human Rights Campaign to advertise for it?
  • How many praise-filled Tim Cook-related press releases were funded by Tim Cook-related money?
  • How much money do groups that rate corporations’ “gay-friendliness” take from corporations?
  • What percentage of the US LGBT movement’s funding comes from corporate donors, or donors high-placed in corporations? And on what terms?
  • What percentage of LGBT groups taking cash from corporations have ever criticized the human rights record of those corporations?

No, that won’t do. I’m sure the Human Rights Campaign prefers fewer, not more, gay statisticians.

I have nothing against Tim Cook. I wish him well. We spend too much time looking for individuals to blame for the horrors we dimly discern in the world; it diverts us from thinking about the system that dictates individuals’ acts, and constrains their desires. Cook’s coming out, I think, is an attempt to be a personality in a career that provided few chances for it: to claim a little corner of real, old-time personhood, not the corporate kind, inside a structure where selves subordinate themselves to shareholder value. (Even Steve Jobs, as quirky a figure as any leader in US life, tried with Zen obsessiveness to erase and efface himself down to desireless degree zero.) But if being gay can be bought and sold, it’s not a realm of self-expression anymore. Rebellious soul and body dwindle to a market niche. Cook at least has a distinctive prose style: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he wrote in his op-ed. “This is my brick.” But where is that stone cemented? Is it the yellow brick road? Or another brick in the wall?

* NOTE: TIAA-CREF has always been enormous, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Fortune 500 list until 1998, I suspect because the magazine tweaked its rules then to include non-profit corporations. It’s been on there steadily ever since. So does Wharton’s 1987 accomplishment count? Was TIAA-CREF technically a Fortune company in 1987, since it was later? In any case, Wharton lists himself as the first African-American Fortune 500 CEO: here, for instance, and here. Either the Times didn’t acknowledge him as it should, or Wharton shows how CEOs — perhaps including Cook as well — are not to be trusted to measure their own importance.

Booya

Booya

Vultures over Iran: The Human Rights Campaign follows the money

vulture-9Why is the Human Rights Campaign hanging out with the friends of homophobe Gary Bauer?

Some background: HRC, the richest US gay group, has gone international. More and more of the news on its website features hard-to-pronounce foreign places: Brunei, Abuja, Alabama … And now “Iran,” syllabified by most Americans as “Satan.” Yesterday, HRC published an account of a Congressional event with which it seemingly had little to do. Two small House subcommittees held a hearing on “One Year Under Rouhani: Iran’s Abysmal Human Rights Record,” and one-quarter of the testimony dealt with LGBT rights. What’s interesting is the fine print.

The hearing itself (snippets here) was undramatic. The International Gay and Lesbian Human RIghts Commission (IGLHRC) sent its Middle East program officer to testify. Generally, when human rights organizations speak at congressional hearings, it’s because they want to advance a policy goal. In this case, though, it’s hard to define what policy goal for LGBT people’s rights in Iran could involve the US Congress, given that the US has neither sway nor leverage in Tehran. “The United States and other Western countries are in a unique position to make a difference in the future of Iran and in the surrounding region,” IGLHRC said — but they are not. (See note at end.) At least, any difference they’ve made so far has been almost uniformly for the worse. (See Iraq.) If ever there was a situation where the US government should acknowledge the primacy of internal social movements beyond its leadership or control, it’s the issue of sexual rights and state repression in Iran.

No, what’s interesting is how a writeup on this –“Congress Explores Iran’s Persecution of LGBT Community” — got onto HRC’s site, because it wasn’t written by anybody at HRC. It was “submitted” by Toby Dershowitz, vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). HRC has a new partner organization, and thereby hangs a tale.

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

I always quote Glenn Greenwald on FDD: “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” More politely, they are a DC-based neoconservative lobbying group with special interest in the Middle East: “founded,” in their own words, “shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West.” (We’ll get to the identity of those donors later.) From the beginning it drew on the High Hawkish tradition of the Reagan ascendancy, with figures like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert McFarlane conspicuous in its ranks; the Cold War being over, though, enemies of Israel displaced the Soviet threat in its demonology. The clearest idea of what they’re up to comes from listing some of the research interests of their fellows:

Iran, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Pakistan, Syria, Iran – Human Rights
Iraq, Iran, Lebanon
Iran, Iran – Energy
Iran – Energy, Israel, Europe, Iran – Human Rights
United Nations, Arab Spring, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Europe

It’s like a Symbolist poem. The main function of the Foundation these days is to drum up support for a US assault on Iran. To do this, it courts various constituencies in the American public, from energy conglomerates to women’s groups. Gays are one of them, increasingly endowed with clout; FDD adopts the language of human rights, plants op-eds. colonizes the gay press, and otherwise strives to shock and appall the homintern about the wiles of Sauron in Tehran.

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

This is not without complications. I first noticed FDD when one of its fellows, Ben Weinthal, published a bizarre piece in New York’s Gay City News three years ago, accusing Iran of an ongoing “anti-gay genocide.” When I paid a visit to FDD’s web page, I found that on their staff and board sat such luminaries as Frank Gaffney (a vicious and paranoid Islamophobe), Andrew McCarthy (perhaps the US’s most vocal advocate of torture) — and Gary Bauer. I remarked that it was strange for a gay newspaper to get into bed with right-wingers boasting such connections. The chipmunk-cheeked Bauer is one of the main strongmen of Christian fundamentalism. He served for eleven years as caudillo of the Family Research Council, named in 2010 as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its “false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.” “I don’t believe a healthy society can endorse, subsidize, or encourage” such a “destructive lifestyle,” Bauer said about the sodomites in 1998. (Bauer’s own lifestyle, padded by a web of consultancies and sinecures, is well-subsidized enough to ensure his health.) But he is also a Christian Zionist, militantly intolerant of any criticism of Israel, flush with evangelical faith in the Likud; so there was Bauer’s name, right on the list of FDD’s advisory board, a warning that its love for the homos had limits.

I flatter myself that the FDD learned from my research. Since then the organization, which like most neocon groups was never exactly crystalline about its connections, has become even less transparent. It erased the list of board members from its website. Instead, a short paragraph says,

FDD’s distinguished advisors include Sen. Joe Lieberman, former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former State Department Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, Gen. P.X. Kelley (ret.), Francis “Bing” West, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol … [Emphasis added]

This neatly obscures the question of who else is “included,” or whether Bauer still belongs to the family. Still, problems persist. Another “Distinguished Advisor” omitted from the list is KT McFarland; she flaunts her FDD title on her own website, though, and on others. McFarland, now a “national security analyst” for Fox News, ran for the Republican Senate nomination in New York in 2006. Midway through, scandal surfaced when New York magazine revealed how she had shunned and insulted her gay brother, who died of HIV/AIDS ten years before. She

couldn’t abide his sexual orientation. Shortly after she discovered Mike had AIDS, she wrote her parents lengthy, angry, almost Gothic letters in which she outed her brother, blamed her father for his troubles as well as those of her and her other siblings, and cut off contact with her parents. “Have you ever wondered why I have never had anything to do with Mike and have never let my daughters see him although we live only fifteen minutes away from each other?” she wrote. “He has been a lifelong homosexual, most of his relationships brief, fleeting one-night stands.”

This was too much even for the GOP; she lost the nomination, and the privilege of getting steamrollered by Hillary Clinton. No wonder she’s quietly disincluded from the FDD page; she’d crimp the outreach.

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain't heavy, and he is not my brother

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain’t heavy, and he is emphatically not my brother

One advisor FDD proudly names is Bill Kristol — he’s too big, and full of himself, to omit. Kristol edits the Weekly Standard, a conservative rag sweeping in its influence. (Dick Cheney, in the days when he ran the country, would send for 30 copies each Monday morning.) His work there has drawn the praise of no less than Austin Ruse, fanatical campaigner against LGBT rights, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom. “Do a site search at The Weekly Standard on social issues,” Ruse writes,

and you find – alone  among conservative magazines? – a publication that  has never wavered on them. …A great deal of credit for the Weekly Standard not abandoning the social issues can be given to one man, William Kristol. …

Where does this come from? Perhaps it’s the influence of friends. For years, the Kristol family took a summerhouse with Gary Bauer and his family. … For this, we all owe Bill Kristol a mountainous debt of gratitude and our regular prayers. He could have caved. But he never has. Bill Kristol is square and getting squarer.

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol has called those who deviate from “traditional marriage” “pathetic.” He’s perhaps best known as the divine voice who drew the Pucelle of Wasilla — the armor-clad Joan of Alaska, Sarah Palin– into the national fray. Long before he blessed the mama grizzly and anointed her Veep-to-Be, though, Kristol was staking out his orthodox, orthogonian positions on morality. In 1997, he gave the closing speech at a Washington conference meant to expose homosexuality as ”the disease that it is.” Afterward, he helped assemble a collection of essays on “Homosexuality and American Public LIfe,” actually about keeping homosexuality out of American public life: a book for “activists who want to keep the ‘hetero’ in ‘sexuality,'” as one right-wing reviewer said.

It goes without saying: any organization counting Bauer, Kristol, and McFarland among its patrons has no genuine interest in the rights of LGBT folk, in Iran or elsewhere. On moral matters, they are more likely to empathize with Ayatollah Khameini than to abhor him. (Mozilla got slammed with a boycott for way less than FDD has done.) FDD’s attempts to seduce American LGBT communities are opportunism, and riddled with the contradictions of the right-wing ideologies they promote. That doesn’t stop them, though, from trying to bury the paradoxes and insinuate themselves into the good graces of LGBT organizations; and HRC is a very powerful one.

What does HRC get, though, for associating itself with Gary Bauer and company?

Money.

One of the two big donors who offered HRC $3 million to start its international program last year is billionaire hedge-fund owner and vulture capitalist Paul Singer. Singer, a major funder of the GOP and other right-wing agglomerations, is also the second-biggest donor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He gave it $3.6 million between 2008 and 2011 alone.

The details of my life are quite inconsequential ... Paul Singer

The details of my life are quite inconsequential … Paul Singer

Singer isn’t just a “visionary philanthropist,” as FDD calls him; he’s an investor; his generosity expects returns. When HRC announced it was getting Singer’s largesse, one naturally wondered what Singer would demand back. The answer’s clearer now. He wants HRC’s cooperation with his other pet causes, including his lobbyists for the Likud. As The Nation observes, “Singer is a huge supporter of groups advocating for hawkish policies against Iran, including promoting the use of military force against Tehran.” He presses HRC to lend space to the war brigade.

The quote Singer approved in the HRC press release about his donation said:

LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are … Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe.

It’s evident which offenders he wants his philanthropic objects to focus on: not Egypt or Saudi Arabia, US clients, but anti-American miscreants like Russia or Iran. This conflation of LGBT people’s rights with a particular set of geopolitical exactions radiates through the little piece he asked HRC to publish. It uses the LGBT issue solely to bash a possible nuclear agreement, reproducing the legislators’ most belligerent rhetoric — Republican Ed Royce, for instance:

Let’s imagine that Iran and the [US] come to an agreement next month are we comfortable leaving this regime with much of the critical nuclear infrastructure in place. [sic] How can this regime which holds the noose in one hand be trusted with the keys to a nuclear bomb in the other?

It quotes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a conservative Republican whose interest in LGBT rights draws urgency from the many White Party gays in her Miami district), speaking “with an obvious sense of exasperation”:

Rouhani knows that all he needs to do is smile, and tweet, and promise the US and the West that he will cooperate on the nuclear issue … it’s way past our time for our administration to stand up to these thugs and to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. If we won’t do it, who will?

All this armchair-heroic stuff — voices for the voiceless, saviors with drones — is war talk in its essence, and HRC is endorsing it. FDD suppresses any mention of IGLHRC’s one concrete, pacific ask, that the US fund technological fixes to help Iranians circumvent Internet censorship. (See the note below.) The Foundation doesn’t want LGBT Iranians to surf the Web freely. It wants LGBT Iranians to die, with their compatriots, under a rain of bombs.

The moral compromises involved in an association with Paul Singer are intricate, and, for HRC, likely to be incessant. When you deal with the devil, don’t expect to be released from the contract. As I wrote last year, Singer’s fortune comes from one of the least ethical activities in the world of international capitalism. His vulture fund, Elliot Management, buys up distressed countries’ debt at bargain prices when they’re verging on default; he then goes to court in other countries, to force the states he’s scamming to repay the face value of the debt in full. The profits are astronomical, and some of the world’ most impoverished populations (Congo-Brazzaville, for instance) have been among his victims.

I'll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

I’ll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

Last week, a few days before the Iran hearing, the US Supreme Court ruled on Singer’s case against Argentina. 13 years ago, he began buying some $2.5 billion of Argentina’s then-cheap government debt; he held out fiercely for his full return, defying two negotiated debt restructurings in 2005 and 2010, when most other creditors accepted around 30% of face value. The Supremes handed Singer a victory, allowing him to start ransacking Argentina’s assets in search of money to repay him. They also opened the door for other vulture extortionists to move on the country, meaning Argentina could be compelled to pay $15 billion to opportunistic creditors — or could be manhandled into default. An economy that slowly rebuilt itself after the chaos of a 2001 collapse faces a new cycle of catastrophe.

“The decision makes no economic sense,” a prominent economist said. But Daniel Loeb, a fellow hedge-fund billionaire and the other megadonor to HRC’s international work, praised his colleague: “Whether it is gay marriage or Argentina or affecting the political landscape, Paul is intense and tenacious in seeing things through. He is intensely focused and result-oriented yet extremely principled.” It’s a study in how donors ostensibly supporting human rights define “principle.”

Argentina has a comprehensive battery of legislation protecting LGBT people, and the single most progressive law on gender identity recognition anywhere in the world. In the confrontation between a supportive Southern country and foreign capitalists who want to demolish its democratic governance, do you think HRC would put out a press release in Argentina’s cause? Do you need to ask?

(Struggling to win over US opinion in the Argentine debt battle, Singer didn’t hesitate to launch a campaign accusing his Buenos Aires enemies of ties to the definitive American bête noire — Iran.)

Meanwhile, Singer’s inflows of money continue to find new use. in May, he donated $1 million to American Crossroads, a super-PAC for Republican candidates run by conservative conspirator Karl Rove. What will HRC say? Can one expect “the nation’s premier gay and lesbian civil rights group” to find new and unpredicted virtues in Turd Blossom‘s career? Yes.

Argentinian poster: "Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture"

Argentinian poster: “Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture”

NOTE: At the Congressional hearing, IGLHRC specifically praised the Obama administration’s promise to provide technologies Iranians could use to circumvent Internet censorship — in particular, building independent communications networks for linking to the Internet. As Gandhi said of Western civilization: It would be a nice idea.

Many observers note that the US program has gotten nowhere in the last three years, and so far seems to envision only clunky, conspicuous and incriminating hardware — suitcases of stuff bristling with antennae, smuggled in over the mountains. I’ve voiced reservations about this project in the past; and even the New York Times has warned: 

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

To which you might add, in our post-Snowden era, that if the US erects the network, it can monitor everything that’s said on it. Move over, Ayatollah, the earphones are mine!

Moreover, as Omid Memarian has written, the blaring publicity the administration has given the program suggests it’s mainly for American consumption: “Many Iranians I spoke to about this news were shocked that the plan has been revealed; bringing such plans to the attention of the Tehran authorities may put people in danger.” He concludes:

The United States’ current plan to change the Iranian Web landscape is simply not realistic. In fact, the current plan makes me suspect that the U.S. isn’t taking Iran as seriously as it ought to.

Open-source, low-profile software tools such as Psiphon, originally developed at the University of Toronto, so far appear more useful to Iranians seeking to evade the censors’ grip.

Too brown to be heard: The Brunei brouhaha

LGBT rights in Brunei now have a face:

Brunei, or Brüno?

Well, sort of. When you see the Sultan-slamming headline that arcs over that pic in Queerty, “Why I Can’t Go Home Again: Young Activist Takes Stand Against Savage Antigay Policy, you naturally think it’s about a gay Bruneian driven into exile by the tyranny of shari’a law. Here’s a story of expulsion across continents, brutal police, fearful flight, uncertain welcome. Right? Well, sort of. The “young activist” is not exactly Asian. He’s the blond grandson of James Mason (Judy Garland’s husband in A Star is Born), and the son of Belinda Carlisle (the Go-Gos), and “home” isn’t Bandar Seri Begawan, it’s the Beverly Hills Hotel. The auberge has always been his refuge: his grandmother “said that when deciding where to live in L.A. that she couldn’t be more than five minutes away from the Beverly Hills Hotel. Being close to it gave her a sense of comfort and safety.” But no more. Now this gay scion of the West Coast’s ersatz Windsors knows he’ll be stoned to death if he sets foot in the bar … Well, sort of. Actually, he’s not in personal danger. Despite how very nice the minions are (“Whenever I go in, the staff members are always there to give me a hug, to give me a sense of belonging,” which is the least you can expect with rooms running $645 a night) it’s more the symbolism of the thing. The Sultan of Brunei owns the hotel (well, sort of: through his Finance Ministry’s investments) and you can read in the papers that he has a plan for “the stoning and murder of gay people,” and why should your own widow’s mite (suites start at $1280) go to swell the coffers of a man already worth $24 billion? So the young activist has been forced to seek asylum at less prestigious watering holes in LA, like those pathetic boat people drowning off Australia. … Well, sort of. “Alas that is the reality we are facing,” he writes: though given the distance between his problems and those of the Sultan’s subjects, the “we” seems more royal than real.

"An exile, saddest of all prisoners / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong..." Byron, The Prophecy of Dante

“An exile, saddest of all prisoners / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong…” Byron, The Prophecy of Dante

It’s not fair to pick on the author, James Duke Mason. He’s obviously a nice and idealistic guy, and everybody should follow him on Instagram (“the Beverly Hills Hotel is my favorite place on the planet. Even those who don’t know me can see that from my posts on social media”) to find out what replacement hostel has taken the exile in.

The question nagging me isn’t about him, or “the reality we are facing” — it’s that “we.” Who is that “we”? Where the hell did that “we” come from?

I’ve said my bit on the recent burst of outrage over Brunei here, at PolicyMic. Briefly, I wrote that despite the exclusivist furor in the US and UK over the “antigay” impact of the measure, shari’a is much more likely to affect the rights of women. And I said that Western activists’ reluctance to acknowledge the multiple dimensions of the issue, much less the pioneering work of women’s rights activists across southeast Asia, was a disgrace.

I got some nods, some hate mail, and more than the usual amount of incomprehension. I had an argument on Twitter (an oxymoron, anyway), with an eminently earnest man who responded to me at complete crosspurposes. Why, I kept asking, wouldn’t you check with women’s groups or sexual rights activists across the region, who have experience with context and culture, in planning a boycott? “There are no LGBT groups in Brunei,” he kept answering, as if this meant there was no one to talk to about the issue anywhere except Los Angeles or London: no relevant expertise outside his postal code. Meanwhile, the tempest kept growing. Britain’s chief LGBT lobby group, Stonewall, declined to endorse a boycott of the Brunei-owned chain of hotels. Its acting head, Ruth Hunt, wrote in the Telegraph: 

We only implement actions that we can calculate will have an impact. … I do, however, fear that the boycott could do very real harm to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei. By turning the issue into a battle between gay people and the Sultan – which it isn’t, it affects everyone in Brunei, not just gay people – we limit the opportunity for dialogue and put the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei at far greater risk. A group of people, I hasten to add, who’ve yet to publically call for a boycott.

To anyone who’s actually done international solidarity work, this is a perfectly plausible thing to say. To many who hadn’t, it was Thoughtcrime. For instance, Peter Tatchell, who has a longstanding grudge against Stonewall, seized the chance to Tweet:

tatchell boss copy (Tatchell would of course never refer to himself as the “boss” of the coincidentally named Peter Tatchell Foundation, which is seemingly baptized after a completely different Peter Tatchell, not the Tweeter, who is a lowly janitor there.) Naturally, everybody else piled on, with varying degrees of violence:

Stonewall boss 3 The whole storm was a convincing display of peer pressure as a substitute for argument: straight out of Mean Girls

The question here isn’t the wisdom of this boycott or others, on which I’m agnostic. (It’s quite reasonable, in fact, to say both that a gay-rights group shouldn’t patronize Brunei-owned hotels, and that a loud, Western-centric boycott is a bad idea.) The question is: what kind of “activist movement” do we have when you can dismiss as mere “BS” all talk of “activists on the ground” in the countries where you’re allegedly defending human rights?

A bad one. And this is why I think James Duke Mason’s plea on Queerty for asylum is a revelation. Queerty, which if you haven’t heard of it is a Big Glay Bog in the United States, serves as a kind of beekeeper for the gay hive mind. And here’s what Queerty has to show. The Brunei campaign isn’t really about Brunei at all. That “we” isn’t some inclusive articulation of solidarity. The campaign’s about us, and the “we” is me. It would be presumptuous of real Bruneians to introduce their situations into the discussion; their role is to suffer and be silent. The voices belong to the people exiled from the Beverly Hills Hotel, crossing the swimming pool in flimsy rafts by night, traversing the border with only their Louis Vuitton luggage on their backs. The stir is more about our moral purity than about anybody else accomplishing change. This is less activism than narcissism, and the fact that most participants couldn’t find Brunei on a map only reaffirms that the ego has its own geography, as grossly exaggerated as a Mercator projection.

2ef3b2f0-3b1e-44f3-a7b1-860022caf330Here are some facts. Brunei’s government announced its intent to introduce a shari’a-based criminal code back in October 2013. In other words, the Western gay activists who just discovered Brunei and its “savage antigay policy” are at least six months too late. While the Westerners were doing other things, though, a coalition of regional and international women’s, human rights, and LGBT groups issued an analysis and condemnation of the Brunei code within days of its proclamation. They included eighteen organizations in neighboring Indonesia, as well as the influential Islamic feminist group Sisters in Islam from (also neighboring) Malaysia, and the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws. They called on Brunei not only to cancel the proposed laws but to fulfill other outstanding human rights obligations, such as reporting to the United Nations on its women’s rights record, and signing the UN Convention against Torture. You can find their appeal here. The action was coordinated with an ongoing international campaign to end the punishment of stoning, which has drawn support across the global South. Malaysia’s Islamic Renaissance Front separately condemned the laws. All the Western white people loudly clamoring about Brunei now — Cleve Jones, Peter Tatchell, James Duke Mason, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry, and somebody named Lisa Vanderpump who’s famous for something (I’m out of touch) — ignored these actions back then. They’re still ignoring them now. They haven’t acknowledged them or asked advice, much less taken note of what they called for. Those other activists are too brown to be heard. 

It’s true, there are no open LGBT organizations in Brunei in which Western gays can find their interests mirrored. Whether this is because they’re “terrorised into invisibility” is an open question; if they’re terrorised, it’s at least as likely to be due to the colonial-era, British sodomy law already on Brunei’s books, a law which will remain in force even after the shari’a code supplements it. (The sentence is up to 10 years in prison, and proving guilt is much easier than under shari’a. No Western activist has complained about that law.) But that doesn’t excuse anybody from listening to the other local constituencies that have already spoken on the issue, based on long histories of engagement.

For real international activists, a paucity of allies on the ground means a problem, and a challenge. It means you have to work even harder to figure out the context, to gauge the impact of anything you might do. It means an extra obligation to take the guidance of regional groups who know the situation and have records of relevant work. You’d think that campaigners or angry clicktivists who don’t know anything about Brunei would want to look for help; would want to coordinate with the prior efforts of activists in Indonesia or Malaysia, who fought against fundamentalism before Jay Leno even heard the word. But here’s the rub. These guys don’t see the supposed silence of Bruneians as a problem. They see it as an opportunity. It gives them freedom, in their own minds, to speak for the silenced and say anything they damn well please. It means they don’t have to share the spotlight with anybody at all.


American gay-rights activist Gloria Swanson prepares for a protest at the Beverly Hills Hotel

This does say something about “the reality we are facing.” It spells trouble for LGBT rights internationally.

There was a time, back when — fifteen, ten, even as little as seven years ago — when there really was no constituency in most Western countries that took an interest in LGBT people’s rights abroad. Gay men in Los Angeles or London couldn’t be bothered with what happened in Lagos or Lilongwe. If police arrested hundreds of homosexuals in Cairo, or brutalized the gender-nonconforming in Nepal, you had to fight to get even a brief mention in the Guardian or the New York Times. 

When I worked at IGLHRC or Human RIghts Watch, we’d drown our after-hours sorrows in lamenting this indifference, and the fog of inattention that curtained intolerable abuses. Yet it was enabling in certain ways — and not just in the ways that nostalgia gilds almost anything. We knew who our constituencies were, and they were different from our donors. They were the folks in Lagos or Lilongwe, the social movements that actually carried on the fight for rights, and absent constant pressure from publics at home we were free to let our work be guided, if imperfectly, by their devices and desires. The lack of a domestic audience freed up an ethical space for international solidarity where attention could be paid to the people who mattered.

Now all’s changed. In Europe and North America international LGBT rights are big news. There are big constituencies, too, of activists and tweeters who avidly absorb the stories of foreign abuse, and demand Action! Now! And there are more and more domestic LGBT organizations feeding on those audiences, and turning their eyes to foreign affairs, and pressing their governments for Action! Now! Neither the constituencies nor the organizations, though, know that much about the rest of the world, or human rights, or have patience for long-term efforts, or get the complexities of political action across borders. They just want Action! Now!, and the less they have to worry about subaltern voices muddying up the message, the better. The problem is that a lot of the new constituencies are idiots. I don’t mean they can’t tie their shoes or screwed up their SATs. They’re idiots in the root Greek sense, which is a lament rather than an insult:  ἰδιώτης, a too-private person, a consumer of politics rather than a participant in it. incapable of understanding the lives of others except as versions of himself.

And you should be.

And you should be.

Amnesty International used to work by mobilizing mass constituencies around international human rights issues, building publics that would support struggles in other countries. In the process, though, Amnesty also tried to educate those publics about both human rights and movement politics. That was a slower age. Who has the time to learn about anything multisyllabic in a 140-character world? These days, the idiots educate the experts; their demands drive what everyone else does. If you don’t react fast enough, a Twitter tornado will hit you. Remember #BS, and #StonewallDisgrace! Indeed, because many of the people insisting on Action! Now! are rich celebrities (James Duke Mason, who’s had minor roles in three movies, was named one of the 100 Most Influential LGBT People in The Whole Wide World by Out magazine), even groups like Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC are much too scared ever to step in and say: No, fellas. Bad Idea. 

When you come right down to it, isn't every human rights abuse about marriage? Human RIghts Campaign explains same-sex wedding packages in Brunei

When you come right down to it, isn’t every human rights abuse about marriage? The Human Rights Campaign explains same-sex wedding packages in Brunei

So we’ll have more and more overnight boycotts, and hashtag hurricanes, and flash-mob demos. We’ll have more and more white celebrities monopolizing the megaphones. None of these dust-devil campaigns will last much longer than you can remember yesterday’s TV commercials; then we’ll all move on to the next unpronounceable polity where there are people to be saved. The struggles of Southern activists who have built up movements and worked on dangerous issues for decades will be relegated to silence, along with their demands, their analyses, and their knowledge. This won’t be politics in any known sense, and none of it will do much for anybody’s human rights. Some folks’ awareness will be raised before crumpling down again like a painful Yoga posture, some Facebookers will synchronize their profile pictures for a day, Twitter will make a bundle. But rich people will feel good about themselves, and they’ll save money on their hotel rooms.

HRC and the vulture fund: Making Third World poverty pay for LGBT rights

marriage-equality-red blood copyThe Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest US gay organization, is going international. It’s just been given at least $3 million to spread the word of marriage equality to benighted countries that treat gays badly. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Its chief partner and donor in this project wants the people in those countries, LGBT folk included, to starve – their economies wrecked, their incomes shipped abroad, their resources squeezed and stolen to pay off odious debt. HRC is receiving its money for gay rights in the Third World from the man who “virtually invented vulture funds”: a form of speculation that’s one of the worst contributors to Third World poverty ever.

But if you’re poor and getting poorer, look on the bright side (as long as river blindness hasn’t got you, that is). You can still have a nice white wedding; and you’ll save on the food bill if your nation has no food.

HRC is understandably happy about the sunny prospects opening up. It says,

The need to support LGBT advocates and call out U.S.-based anti-equality organizations abroad has never been greater. … At the same time, opportunities exist for a global equality movement as a growing number of countries are passing pro-equality legislation and recognizing marriage equality.  Seventeen countries around the world afford, or will soon afford, committed and loving gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry.

One of the two big donors to this project is a little more explicit about how the enterprise relates to the projection of US power:

“Every day around the world, LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are,” said Paul Singer. “Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe. [Emphasis added] As an organization that has been at the forefront of the equality movement for over three decades, the Human Rights Campaign is uniquely positioned to work in tandem with NGOs to empower LGBT and human rights advocates abroad and help stop these abuses.”

Well, yes, except … this doesn’t quite sound like “human rights” envisioned from the high vantage of universality and internationalism. It sounds like LGBT rights uneasily painted into a picture of US interests.

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Paul Singer (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

On the other hand, it’s natural to couch the project in terms of what the US will get out of it. After all, its two deep-pocketed benefactors are Singer, who runs a hedge fund called Elliott Management, and Daniel S. Loeb, who runs another called Third Point LLC. They’re both conservatives and huge donors to the Republican Party. Singer underwrote last year’s GOP National Convention with $1 million of largesse. One operative called himthe big power broker in the Republican financial world.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that 

He has given more to the GOP and its candidates—$2.3 million this election season—than anyone else on Wall Street, helping make his hedge fund … one of the nation’s biggest sources of political donations, the vast majority to the GOP.

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

My little man: Singer, with full-sized Mitt in front of him, for Fortune magazine

The New York Times writes that Singer “believes in the doctrine of American exceptionalism and is wary about United States involvement in ‘international organizations and alliances.’” (Apparently HRC won’t be supporting the hundreds of LGBT activists and groups who fight for their rights at the vile, collectivist UN.) Singer is a nexus of con and neocon ties and tendrils; he chairs the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and has served on the board of Commentary magazine, the national journal of Podhoretzstan. He’s ladled at least $3.6 million to the self-styled Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawksh outfit which Glenn Greenwald called “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” Dan Senor — the glib apologist who served as authorized liar and TV personality for the Coalition Provisional Authority while the Bush Administration devastated Iraq — is one of Singer’s foreign policy advisors.

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Loeb

Na na, na na, na na, come on, come on, sticks and stones may break my bones: Rihanna Loeb

Loeb, meanwhile, supported Barack Obama in 2008, but turned on him when the President ungratefully demanded that Wall Street let itself be regulated a little. In a celebrated email announcing his desertion he cast the President as abusive husband, with a bunch of submissive bankers as his bruised brides: “When he beats us, he doesn’t mean it … he usually doesn’t hit me in the face [so] it doesn’t show except for that one time … he’s not that bad really, unless he gets drunk (from power) …” Probably this was irony; I mean, a sheltered guy worth billions wouldn’t seriously compare himself to a poor woman living in a shelter, would he? By April 2011, Loeb had given almost $500,000 to the GOP, and he kept giving. In mid-2012, he co-hosted a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons. Mocked for extravagance, the proceedings seem to have furnished Romney with the intellectual foundations for his later comments about the wrongly franchised 47%. A guest lumbering up in a Range Rover told the media that

“I don’t think the common person is getting it. … We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

But all this GOP-ness isn’t the most interesting part. What matters isn’t where these guys give their money. It’s where they get it.

Curious how no one asks this. In gratitude for their generosity, HRC arranged for the two donors to feature in a puff piece yesterday by Frank Bruni, the New York Times’ designated homosexual.  “Elliott Management’s lofty offices in Midtown Manhattan look north, south, east and west across the borough’s thicket of skyscrapers …” The view was terribly distracting for Bruni, who probably lives, like most Times writers, in a windowless Bronx tenement where he makes matchsticks to pay the bills.

I sat in a 30th-floor library with the hedge fund’s founder and chief executive, Paul Singer, a billionaire who was one of the most important donors to Mitt Romney in 2012 … He’s wary of speaking with journalists, so much so that I’ve seen the adjective “reclusive” attached to his name.

The piece is all about Singer’s lavish giving for gay marriage, and it exhibits, if beneath the surface, the historical function of philanthropy: to silence annoying questions about where you got your fortune. “The battlefield” for gay rights “isn’t what it used to be,” Bruni wrote gauzily. “From the 30th floor, I could see that most clearly of all.” But there are other battlefields Bruni chose not to see.

Paul Singer runs a vulture fund. He makes his profits from the debt incurred by Third World countries — I won’t use the PC term “developing” countries, because the point of the debt is to prevent them from developing — and from the misery it causes their citizens. Of all the parasites in the global economy, of all the profiteers of poverty, vulture funds may be the worst.

Vulture funds operate by buying up a country’s distressed debt just as the original lenders are about to write it off  — usually, as the Guardian describes it, when the country “is in a state of chaos. When the country has stabilised, vulture funds return to demand millions of dollars in interest repayments and fees on the original debt.” In other words, you purchase the right to be a hardassed debt collector, and to harass and impoverish whole populations till you get your cash. Singer, says the BBC, “virtually invented vulture funds.”   A University of Pennsylvania expert on emerging-market debt told Bloomberg that Singer’s “actions are amoral,” adding that he puts the squeeze on “without worrying about the potential consequences for the country involved.”

That’s an understatement. Three examples of Singer’s work:

Peru. In 1996, just as Peru embarked on restructuring its massive debts, Singer’s hedge fund bought $20.7 million worth of old loans to the country — paying only $11.4 million, a huge discount. They immediately rejected the restructuring and sued Peru in a New York court, for the original value of the loans plus interest.  As the USA Jubilee Network explains, they “won a $58 million settlement and made a $47 million profit — a 400% return.”

Peru, however, couldn’t pay the sum. Instead, it put priority on paying back its other debtors, who had participated in the restructuring. Singer actually took out an injunction to keep Peru from repaying anyone else, thus shoving the entire country back toward default in the name of his own profits. Jubilee writes that “Elliott pioneered this litigate-into-submission strategy that allows these vultures to collect astronomical profits on countries in economic stress.”

Investigative journalist Greg Palast claims that Singer finally got his money when authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori had to flee the country in 2000.  Singer and his repo men, he says, put a lien on the Presidential plane before Fujimori could reach it — then demanded the full sum from the desperate dictator before giving it back. Singer piously defends his work as promoting “transparency” among foreign governments. Getting a corrupt leader to ransom away his country’s resources to save his skin hardly fits that description.

Vulture funds in Africa

Vulture funds in Africa

Congo-Brazzaville.  In the late 1990s, Singer’s Elliott Associates used a Cayman Islands-based subsidiary called Kensington International to buy, at a discount, over $30 million worth of defaulted debt issued by the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) — by some reports, paying only $1.8 million. It then sued the government for almost $120 million in repayments plus interest. That’s a 10,000% profit.

A UK court handed Singer victory in a succession of judgements in 2002 and 2003. The Congolese government couldn’t pay up, though: interest continued to accrue at a rate of $22,008.23 per day. Congo-Brazzaville’s GDP per person at the time averaged around $800. More than a quarter of deaths of children under 5 were from malnutrition. The country had, according to the Financial Times, “one of the highest foreign debts per capita of any developing country, estimated at $9 billion for a population of fewer than 4 million people” — and, following Singer’s model, private vulture funds hurriedly bought up about a tenth of that.

Singer and Kensington relentlessly chased Congolese assets in courts around the world. In 2005, another UK judge gave them partial satisfaction. He let Singer intercept and expropriate $39 million in Congolese oil sales to a Swiss firm. That’s still more than a 2000% profit, not bad when your only productive work is pushing paper. Other firms that have speculated in Congolese debts, though, continue hounding the impoverished country’s resources from court to court.

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas used against protesters in Buenos Aires

December 2001: Riot police and tear gas unleashed against protesters in Buenos Aires

Argentina. In 2001, Argentina had a revolution: citizens banging pots and pans in the public squares threw out a neoliberal regime that had driven the country into depression and stolen almost everybody’s savings. A new government of economic nationalists defied the Washington Consensus by defaulting on more than $80 billion in foreign debt and devaluing the currency. It worked: reasserting domestic control gradually revived the moribund economy.

That was the good news. Meanwhile, though, one of Singer’s companies called NML Capital Ltd. sniffed future profit. It bought over $180 million of the defaulted debt at between 15 and 30 cents on the dollar.

Impounded: Argentine warship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

Unenduring freedom: Argentine flagship Libertad, seized by Singer in Ghana, 2012 (Leo La Valle/EPA)

In 2005, Argentina’s President, Nestor Kirchner, offered lenders 30 cents on the dollar to forgive its debts. The vast majority of bondholders accepted the offer; Singer rejected it and demanded full repayment. Argentina’s legislature passed a law that barred the government from raising the offer — a sign, if one were needed, that Singer’s demands flouted the democratic will of a nation of 40 million. Singer refused to budge. He took Argentina to court in the US and elsewhere. In 2012, he actually managed to impound an Argentinian naval vessel while it rested in an African port, demanding an extortionary sum to release it until the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ordered it freed.

European judges have found against Singer, but in 2006 he won a judgment for $284 million in the U.S. (That would be at least a 500% profit.) The case is still in court. Singer’s pursued the same strategy he did with Peru, demanding that Argentina be barred from paying any creditors who joined the restructuring unless he‘s repaid in full. Either Argentina will be semi-bankrupted by his greed, or it will suspend its obligations indefinitely; in either case, that’s too much uncertainty for most lenders. Singer has pretty much singlehandedly kept Argentina an unsafe investment. The US judiciary’s willingness to buy his arguments has shaken Latin American financial markets, doubled the cost of Argentina’s borrowing, and pushed the country toward a new, disastrous default. Paul Singer is like honey badger. He don’t care.

Protestor outside the London offices of Elliott Management, Febuary 2013

Protestor at a Jubilee Debt Campaign demo outside the London offices of Elliott Management, February 2013

The World Bank has called on developed countries to put an end to profiteering like SInger’s. “Vulture funds are a threat to debt relief efforts,” its Vice-President for Poverty Reduction said.  “Their increasing litigation against countries receiving debt relief will penalize some of the world’s poorest countries.” George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary told Congress in 2007 that “I deplore what the vulture funds are doing.” Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, accused them of “perversity” and called them “morally outrageous.” I could go on and on — but so do Singer and his proteges. They don’t stop. The World Bank estimates that vulture funds have sued a third of countries receiving debt relief. Jubilee USA notes that

As of late 2011, 16 of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) surveyed by the International Monetary Fund were facing litigation in 78 individual cases brought by commercial creditors. Of these, 36 cases have resulted in court judgments against HIPCs amounting to approximately $1 billion on original claims worth roughly $500 million.

Red sky at morning

Red sky at morning

And no wonder Singer buys up political influence so assiduously. Hector Timerman, Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote in 2012:

Vulture funds abuse the system, acquiring distressed debt in secondary markets to multiply profits at the expense of the poor and weak. As these activities are ethically repellent, well-prepared propaganda machinery keeps their lucrative business alive.

It’s not just propaganda. Singer needs his paid politicians to fend off scrutiny and guard the “lucrative business” from disruption. A bill to curtail vulture funds’ profiteering was introduced in the US Congress in 2009. The next year, Singer told his heavily funded Manhattan Institute they had to combat “indiscriminate attacks by political leaders against anything that moves in the world of finance.” Will HRC flex its legislative muscle to fight the Stop Vulture Funds Act as well?

It’s a sick irony that the money HRC takes to fund its new work in the Third World is made off the backs of Third World suffering. It’s even worse when HRC’s PR machine colludes with the New York Times to whitewash — pinkwash — Singer’s record of destruction. It’s politically disastrous for an LGBT group to operate this way. They’re sending a message to governments in the developing world that the US really does see LGBT people as a privileged class, and is willing to promote their rights while condoning the immiseration of whole populations. But it’s self-defeating also. LGBT people don’t want this kind of “help.” LGBT people are citizens, workers, children, parents too. HRC should know that they are as affected as anybody when a parasite like Singer enforces endless debt service on states, devastates the necessary services that governments provide, litigates countries into permanent submission.  What does HRC think it can give the victims, after Singer has stripped their assets and sold off their national resources? Is same-sex marriage supposed to be a consolation? I’m afraid HRC is acting like old honey badger, too. It just don’t care.

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani

Since Argentina has been one of Singer’s targets, I went to an old colleague of mine, the great Argentinian feminist and sexual rights activist Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani. Alejandra has fought for the rights of LGBT people throughout Latin America for more than 20 years. She was sad but not shocked at the assembled ironies. She told me:

“International work” done “for” LGBTs (or women, development, girls, you name it) from the USA is, first of all, a great industry giving jobs to a vast majority [within the organizations] of USA citizens and also to a few privileged ones from the Global South (I was once among the latter, so I know what I am talking about). There are always a few good souls thrown in the mix, who normally can’t resist too many years. For too long our misfortunes (patriarchal social norms, authoritarian governments, condoned forms of violence, subordinated economies) have made the North rich, sometimes through jobs “saving us” and other times more directly, like in the case of the profits made by the vulture funds or the arms dealers. And they also serve to hide the existence of quite similar phenomena in the Global North itself and to keep the fragile national pride and self-esteem of our “saviours” intact.

“Another thing that does not surprise me,” she writes,

is that a USA based “LGBT” organization accepts money from such a source … [P]articularly in the USA many/most LGBT activists have a hard time linking their issues to broader social, economic and political realities, as they are too self-absorbed in all their identity politics. I hope that not many people in the Global South will agree to do work funded with this extremely dirty money — if they know where it is coming from. But sometimes, people are facing such difficult circumstances that they can’t afford to be so principled.

She adds that “in some Global South countries, activists belong to social and economic elites (this happens particularly in the early stages of movements, as these are the ones that can afford to be out) and they are as ignorant or unconcerned about broader social issues as their USA colleagues, so anything can happen.”

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Vultures and their masters: Argentinian cartoon

Maybe she’s right, but here I’m inclined to differ. Most LGBT movements in the larger world aren’t in their early stages any more. They’re mature and politically sophisticated. They don’t need HRC; try telling someone in South Africa (where LGBT rights are in the Constitution) that they should “learn” from the US. Far more valuable to them are their connections with local civil societies and social movements that fight for people’s real rights and freedoms. They ally with groups that combat maternal mortality, defend the rights to health care and education, press the State to keep the social welfare system functioning, ensure that votes count and that people can decide their collective economic as well as civic future. That’s not what Singer stands for, and outsiders paid from his dirty money may get an unexpectedly cold welcome.

I forgot about Daniel Loeb. He too has a history of bold international interventions, it turns out. If you want to read about him, Vanity Fair has a long piece coming out in its December issue, less puffy than Frank Bruni’s by far. There’s a nugget about how, on a 2002 vacation in Cuba with the heir to the von Furstenberg money, Loeb ran down a child with his car. Cuban authorities held him in the country until — well, whatever. Perhaps he made some investments. A friend recalled,

“I truly felt so sorry for him when he told me he had found himself unable to leave the country, curled up in a ball on the floor of his room crying, promising God that he’d do anything if the Almighty got him out of his predicament. It wasn’t as if Dan had done it on purpose, and who really knows what ended up happening to the kid?”

A benighted country that’s not the United States, a rich guy, a poor child with tire marks on his back, and — who knows. Isn’t that what the new landscape of LGBT organizing is all about?

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat

Forward to freedom, and fresh meat