Homonationalism: a radical critique of queer rights activism
Credits: U of T Magazine. New York City: June 28, 1970. The one year anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Probability is a beautiful thing. No matter how unlikely something is, with enough space or time it is bound to happen somewhere. Given UofT’s immense size, even within its most pro-establishment spaces, one is bound to occasionally find something different. That proved to be the case on Wednesday, November 6, 2013; within the confines of the infamous Monk school, the Peace, Conflict, and Justice society hosted a talk on homonationalism featuring UofT doctoral candidate and activist Natalie Kouri-Towe.
While UofT students occupy all positions on the political spectrum, the area of LGBTQ+ rights is one where it seems the vast majority of students see themselves as being on the progressive side. For those, however, who see the queer rights movement as a mere matter of promoting marriage equality and anti-bullying rhetoric, Kouri-Towe’s talk was a paradigm-shifting reality check.
Kouri-Towe’s talk focused on the rightward shift of the queer rights movement towards the centrist, state-oriented ideology/tactics of homonationalism. Homonationalism is just one component of the neoliberal ideology that has come to dominate western discourse in the post-Cold War era. Kouri-Towe’s described it as having three basic components: struggling for inclusion rather than emancipation from state structures, contrasting “good” and “bad” queers, and reinforcing the social order.
To illustrate the form the inclusion struggle takes, Kouri-Towe showed a TD add (TD is an official pride sponsor) that showed a young, white, economically comfortable, gay couple getting ready to buy a house. She explained how the image radically clashed with the goals of queer and feminist movements in the 70s and 80s that, amongst other things, questioned the legitimacy of state sanctioned marriage altogether.
Kouri-Towe discussed two examples of the “good queer” versus “bad queer” debate. She alluded to sensationalist headlines that warned of people pretending to be gay to get refugee status. From a neoliberal, homonationalist perspective this a legitimate concern as “good” queers obey western law and don’t fake their identities. A more traditional queer rights activist would outright oppose these concerns—not only because he or she wouldn’t want governments arbitrarily deciding who is gay and who is not, but also because he or she would be highly critical of immigration restrictions in general.
Credits: Journal de bord (embruns.net)
The other “good versus bad” issue Kouri-Towe addressed was the question of whether refusing to inform partners of one’s HIV status should be a criminal offense. Traditional queer rights activists would argue against the criminalization because it would increase anti-gay stigma and because many individuals with HIV in the global north, thanks to medical treatment, have low transmission rates. The homonationalist queer demographic, along with western society in general, however, are according to Kouri-Towe in favor of criminalization.
The third element of homonationalism is how it is used to legitimize states. Kouri-Towe brought up a National Post Article on how the Conservative party had become a champion of gay rights. Kouri-Towe pointed out that the only reason the Conservatives, particularly John Baird and Jason Kenney, jumped on to the gay bandwagon was to opportunistically critique Canada’s non-queer friendly enemies.
Kouri-Towe further alluded to the fact that in his tenure as immigration minister, Kenney had a terrible record with taking in migrant workers; however, he was able to use a few token gay refugees to cover this up. Kouri-Towe also showed posters from the Israeli Defence Forces and the “ethical (tar sands) oil” campaigns that used Israel/Canada’s acceptable gay rights records to silence criticism about their respective anti-Palestinian and environmentally unsound policies. This particular tactic is known as “pinkwashing.”
Kouri-Towe’s take-away message was that whenever one becomes too comfortable with an element of their life, one should find a critical way to look at it so that one can stand against oppression in as many ways as possible. While this message may sound a bit daunting, perhaps another way of putting it is that whenever one faces a political problem one should not look at that problem in isolation.
Just as the queer rights movement can be co-opted to serve otherwise reactionary ends, the same thing can happen with other movements. Consider how feminist rhetoric was co-opted to justify the war in Afghanistan or anti-fascist sentiments from the WWII era have since been used to justify various “humanitarian” interventions. If these movements had broader emancipatory viewpoints, and did not simply ask the state to address their single issues, this rhetorical co-option would not succeed. For now, social movements will continue to struggle to find the right tactics. Developinging a social consciousness that is united and looks beyond liberal norms will help set them on track.