Sexuality Policy Watch

Key Trends and Tensions in sexual politics: a commentary

SexPolitics 1

by Mark Gevisser

Perhaps the most emotional session, at the Sexual Policy Workshop’s July 2016 seminar in Durban, “SexPolitics: Mapping Key Trends and Tensions in the Early 21st Century”, was the one about AIDS at the very end. Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton spoke about the remedicalization of the epidemic, and their presentations struck a chord: participants from the floor echoed the anger and the pain of activists and scholars who have dedicated much of their lives to fighting the epidemic, but have found themselves stymied – or perhaps even compromised – by the self-perpetuating commercialism of the AIDS industry.

I am something of an outsider to the SPW – this was my first meeting – and I was struck by two things in this session. The first was the extent to which the AIDS epidemic opened a door for societies to grapple with sexuality as never before – and the way it spawned (or at the very least inspired) a generation of activists and scholars who have redefined the way we think about these issues.

And so many of them,” I said to myself, “are sitting in this room.” That was my second insight. The people convened by SPW in Durban were, with a few exceptions, of a particular generation; a pioneering generation; my own generation. We are the children of the second-wave feminists and the anti-colonialists of the 1960s, and the younger siblings of the gay rights activists of the 1970s. We are the AIDS activists and global LGBT activists of the 1990s and 2000s; and the older siblings of the queer and trans* activists of today.

This generational profile gave the SPW meeting a particular energy: the gift of hindsight, certainly, and of reflection, but also something of a despondency about the state of the world. Would a younger generation of scholars and activists share this, I asked myself? Such despondency is often the consequence of the kind of idealism that powers arduous and selfless activism – an idealism that infects, in particular, those of us reared on mid-20th Century revolutionary Marxism – and I was glad when, early on in the meeting, Richard Parker warned about unhelpful millenarianism.

It also seemed to me that the general mood of pessimism came from the fact that most of the meeting’s participants were not digital natives, not exactly the ”globalized children”. This meant – again, with notable exceptions – that we still saw activism and policy advocacy in a rather 20th Century way, as something that is negotiated with the state and that happens somewhat apart from other energies that are perhaps more difficult to harness, such as the information revolution, mass migration, the spread of commodity capitalism, tourism, and the like.

This was reflected in what I thought was a significant gap in the content of the meeting: a grappling with the effects of digital technology and the information revolution on sexuality and gender policy and practice. It also meant a preoccupation with state power, something Sonia Corrêa identified: “We have to take distance and go beyond our crush on the state!” I shared this sentiment in my closing comments to the meeting, but I agreed, in the end, with Juan Marco Vaggione when he reminded us of the importance of negotiating change with the existing structures of power and suggested, instead, that we rather “renew our vows” with the state, taking into consideration the new globalized environment, where agency flows in very different ways to how it did in the 20th Century.

The marriage metaphors were apt, and dominated the meeting, because of the way the advance of same-sex marriage has come to represent a triumph for progressive sexuality policy to such an extent that it has eclipsed all other concerns in the field, particularly those of reproductive rights and sex-work. Cynthia Rothschild spoke, with some frustration, of how data about LGBT initiatives overwhelmed all other research she and Susana Fried conducted in the US, because of how many initiatives there were in this area as opposed to abortion rights or sex-workers’ rights. Several participants, particularly from Latin America, contrasted the advances made in this sphere with the lack of progress made in abortion rights. Many participants built on already-existing theories of homonationalism and homonormativity to explain this.

Dipika Nath and Carrie Shelver expressed the dynamic of homonationalism most vividly, at the beginning of the meeting, when they spoke of how “our wedding dress is spattered with [the] blood” of militarism committed against states who do not adhere to Western norms – which now, of course, include “LGBT Rights”. Paul Amar challenged us, too, to understand 21st Century framings of love and war by riffing on the American rhetoric about the global “thunderbolt of love” (Barack Obama’s phrase) spreading across the world – in the form, at least in part, of advancing marriage equality – which is set against the hate, the “hugs of death”, perpetrated by ISIS and the enemies of democracy. David Paternotte illustrated this dynamic vividly by looking at the way Western European right- wingers seek to exclude new immigrants on the basis of their alleged homophobia.

Sonia Corrêa  urged us to understand marriage as a “sexuality rights” issue and to critically examine how states are playing with same-sex marriage within the long-term project of “conservative modernization”, which has dominated Latin America since independence, in the 19th century. And, Maria Amelia Viteri spoke, compellingly, of how adherence to same-sex marriage has become a new regulatory apparatus for the Global South’s admission into the “civilized” Western world. Many participants spoke about how “LGBT Rights”, culminating in same-sex marriage, had become a fetish of modernity, a marker of “global citizenship”, a competitive market advantage. Anna Kirey and David Paternotte illustrated this dynamic as it related to accession to the European Union – and Russia’s framing of a “global culture wars” against the West, in reaction. Christine Barrow explored the way these “culture wars” are playing out in the Caribbean, where a reactionary “traditional values” camp – using religious ideology – has set itself up against perceived Western secular modernity; Horacio Sívori and Juan Marco Vaggione explored this ideology in the evangelical and Catholic churches respectively.

I was interested, particularly, in the way that Kirey explained the dramatic gap, in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, between a progressive legal framework – such as the decriminalization of homosexuality – and very reactionary social attitudes towards LGBT people. This was, she said, because such initiatives came from the state’s wish to join the “modern” European community of nations rather than from a grassroots movement for change: it was, in other words, driven from the top, or from the outside.

While listening to Kirey, I remembered what the Senegalese Prime Minister, Macky Sall, had said to Barack Obama when the latter visited Senegal in 2013. Obama had just come out strongly in support of same-sex marriage in his own country, and was, in turn, playing to his domestic constituency, given that the Supreme Court had just overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriage. In Dakar, he celebrated the ruling, and added that gay people should have equal rights in Africa too. Sall responded, in effect, that Africa was not ready for this, and offered the oft-cited canard that Africans do not preach to the West about polygamy. The Senegalese president subsequently defended his position, to Germany’s Die Zeit, by speaking about how “it takes time” for cultures to change, and that the West was expecting change from Africans too quickly: “You have only had same-sex partnerships in Europe since yesterday, and yet you asking for it today from Africans! This is all happening too fast. We live in a world that is changing slowly!”

Sall is wrong, of course, perhaps deliberately so, on two counts. The first is the misperception that a pressure for change comes from the outside – “you asking for it today from Africans” – and thus a denial of African agency. The second is that the world is not changing slowly, but actually – due to the digital revolution – more quickly than he (or, at the very least, the patriarchs and sheikhs he needs to appease) can handle. His argument is nostalgic, in that it imagines a world where national or cultural boundaries are still intact enough to be protected against the vectors of globalization. And so while Anna Kirey might be right about the former Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, at a time when the digital revolution had not yet fully sparked, such arguments no longer hold in the contemporary world, where actors in the Global South (or ‘Global East’) might be subject to all manner of influences, but make their own decisions and have their own agency.

In opposition to Sall’s assumption that outsiders are impressing change upon Africans, an are wanting Africa to change quicker than it is able, I hold up the words said to me in 2013 by Olena Sevchenko, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian LGBT movement. They are words, I believe, that anyone interested in policy advocacy or human rights activism should listen to, for they explain how these activities do not happen in a vacuum, particularly now, in our globalized and digitalized world:

Certainly, Ukranian society is not ready for LGBT rights, this is true. But Ukranian LGBTs, themselves, they cannot be restrained anymore. They go online. They watch TV. They travel. They see how things can be. Why should they not have similar freedoms? Why should they be forced to live in hiding? The world is moving so fast, and events are overtaking us in Ukraine. We have no choice but to try and catch up.

I was astonished by the breadth, and wisdom, and humor, and righteousness of the forty-odd people in the room at the “SexPolitics” seminar in Durban, and I was struck by the Sexuality Policy Workshop’s extraordinary network, across disciplines and geographic regions. Among the presentations were broad philosophical challenges issued by participants such as Paul Amar, akshay khanna and Maria Amelia Viteri. There was invaluable empirical research by participants such as such as Laura Murray, Huang Yingying and Ryan Thoreson, and invaluable analytical work by participants such as David Paternotte and Juan Marco Vaggione. And there was personal testimony offered by participants such as Fahima Hashim, Vivek Divan, Daughtie Ogutu and Peter Aggleton.

But I felt we all could have done better to listen to the sentiments expressed by Olena Sevchenko: “we have no choice but to try to catch up.” If, as part of the SPW’s global network, we are going to map “key trends and tensions” in the early 21st Century, we need to develop a broader understanding of the interconnected world we inhabit, and of the effects of these connections on the people who both forge policy and are subject to it. This means understanding, more clearly, the effects of the forces of globalization such as the information revolution and the social media; such as mass migration and urbanization and global tourism; such as the spread of global commodity culture and popular culture; such as the effect of transnational capitalism, multinational corporations, and “modernizing” elites; such as the consequences of what is termed “neo-liberal” socio-economic policy in the Global South.

It also means understanding, more clearly, the way the global human rights frontiers are shifting, due to the “global culture wars” between those who advocate for “universal human rights” on the one hand and those who fight for “traditional values” and “cultural sovereignty” on the other. And this means plotting what life is like for those on the frontiers, dodging the bullets from either side.

Finally, it means coming to terms with the way the frontiers are shifting, too, away from the “sexual orientation” battles that have dominated the sexuality policy arena for the last decades and towards the area of gender identity. Understanding this dynamic globally, and how gender identity issues interact with the “traditional” areas of sexuality policy research – sexual orientation and sexual and reproductive rights – is perhaps the key challenge facing the SPW network as it maps the global trends and tensions of the early 21st Century.

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