Sunday, February 17, 2013

Turning language inside out: "homonationalism" and "pinkwashing"

The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY are holding a conference in April on "Homonationalism and Pinkwashing." You may ask, what is homonationalism and what is pinkwashing?

To quote from the conference website:
Homonationalism occurs when sub-sectors of specific gay communities achieve legal parity with heterosexuals and then embrace racial and religious supremacy ideologies. The most obvious examples are in the Netherlands, Britain and Germany where white gays, most often males, increasingly join racist movements against immigrants and immigrations, especially from Muslim countries.
While I'm certainly not in favor of anyone, whether gay or straight, "embracing racial and religious supremacy ideologies," I don't see why racist gay people should be singled for special opprobrium over other racists. I'm also sure that gay people have always joined racist movements (like all other political movements) even before they managed to win legal equality. There were even gay men in the Nazi movement in Germany.

I would also challenge the idea that in any of the countries named above gay and lesbian people have actually "achieved legal parity with heterosexuals." The British House of Commons is only just now passing legislation to allow for same-sex marriage. Germany has repealed laws against gay sex, including the notorious Paragraph 175, which the Nazis used to persecute gay men and imprison and murder them in concentration camps. According to the Wikipedia article on LGBT rights in Germany:
There is legal recognition of same-sex couples. Registered life partnerships (effectively, a form of civil union) have been instituted since 2001, giving same-sex couples rights and obligations in areas such as inheritance, alimony, health insurance, immigration, hospital and jail visitations, and name change. In 2004, this act was amended to also give registered same-sex couples adoption rights (stepchild adoption only), as well as reform previously cumbersome dissolution procedures with regard to division of property and alimony.
There is, however, no legal same-sex marriage in Germany. There are other restrictions too -
There is no legal right to assisted reproduction procedures for lesbian couples, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, but they are not explicitly banned either. The German Medical Association is against explicit legalization and directs its members to not perform such procedures. Because this directive is not legally binding, sperm banks and doctors may work with lesbian clients if they wish. This makes it harder for German lesbian couples to have children than in some other countries, but it is becoming increasingly popular.
Gays and lesbians are not barred from military service. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal in Germany.

And that's only one example. I would be interested to know if there is, in fact, any nation on earth where all LGBT people have complete parity with heterosexual people in law. Certainly not the United States or Israel, the two countries I know the most about, having lived in both of them. If the criterion for the existence of homonationalism is "legal parity with heterosexuals," then this category should not be applied to any to any nation where LGBT people still lack complete formal legal equality.

And what's pinkwashing? According to the conference website:
Pinkwashing is a practice by which a government points to or exaggerates gay rights in order to present itself as progressive.
I suppose this does occur. The Israeli government has run advertising campaigns aimed at showing how tolerant Israel is of LGBT people, especially in the Middle Eastern context where same sex relations are legally forbidden in all the surrounding countries. The situation in Israel certainly has really improved in the last 25 years. I lived in Israel for two years from 1987-89 and very few people were out, even those involved in the local gay/lesbian rights organization, האגודה לזכויות הפרט - The Association for Personal Rights, whose name in those years did not even allude to gay people! But in the early 1990s Israel made it possible for openly gay people to be enlisted in the Israeli army, long before the US. Now there are openly gay members of Knesset, and Tel Aviv is very welcoming to gay people and has a big gay scene.

Nonetheless, especially in religious cities like Jerusalem, there is a lot of outright bigotry from religious leaders of the three monotheistic religions. When the Worldpride gay pride march was planned in 2005 in Jerusalem, leading rabbis, priests, and imams got together at a press conference to denounce the idea as an abomination.

I cannot imagine that these religious leaders would have gotten together for anything else, except for hatred of gay people. These leaders are, from the left: Sheikh Abed es-Salem Menasra, deputy mufti of Jerusalem; the Rev. Michel Sabbagh, the Latin Patriarch; Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Armenian Patriarch; Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, and Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi. The man to Metzger's left is unidentified in the New York Times article from which this photograph is taken.

To quote from the New York Times article about this rare amity:
Now major leaders of the three faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - are making a rare show of unity to try to stop the festival. They say the event would desecrate the city and convey the erroneous impression that homosexuality is acceptable. 
"They are creating a deep and terrible sorrow that is unbearable," Shlomo Amar, Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, said yesterday at a news conference in Jerusalem attended by Israel's two chief rabbis, the patriarchs of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, and three senior Muslim prayer leaders. "It hurts all of the religions. We are all against it." 
Abdel Aziz Bukhari, a Sufi sheik, added: "We can't permit anybody to come and make the Holy City dirty. This is very ugly and very nasty to have these people come to Jerusalem."....
Interfaith agreement is unusual in Israel. The leaders' joint opposition was initially generated by the Rev. Leo Giovinetti, an evangelical pastor from San Diego who is both a veteran of the American culture war over homosexuality and a frequent visitor to Israel, where he has formed relationships with rabbis and politicians....
Neither he nor other evangelical American leaders were at the news conference in Jerusalem, which was called by the chief rabbinate of Israel. But by all accounts Mr. Giovinetti played a crucial role in spreading the first alarms among religious leaders about the gay festival. ....
Mr. Giovinetti circulated a petition against the festival, titled "Homosexuals to Desecrate Jerusalem," which he said had been signed by every member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in the Israeli Parliament. Another American who helped bring together the opposition was Rabbi Yehuda Levin, of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, which says it represents more than 1,000 American Orthodox rabbis. At the news conference in Jerusalem, he called the festival "the spiritual rape of the Holy City." He said, "This is not the homo land, this is the Holy Land."
This disgusting exhibition of anti-gay bigotry is certainly proof that gay people have not achieved equal social recognition with straight people in Israel. A campaign which touts Israel's great gay rights record and omits information like this is certainly glossing over the considerable discrimination (legal and otherwise) and outright bigotry that Israeli gay people still face (and by "Israeli" I mean all citizens of Israel, Jews, Arabs, and anyone else). On the other hand, it does capture a certain reality in Israel - it's not completely untrue.

To continue with the definition of "pinkwashing."
Because LGBT people have been at the bottom of society for so long, many people mistakenly see some forms of “gay rights” (gay pride parades, gay people participating in military service, etc.) as an emblem of modernity. However because of Homonationalism and the shifting position of gay people this is no longer an accurate measure of social advancement.
I think is the most enraging part of the whole definition of "pinkwashing." Gay pride marches are NOT "emblems of modernity"? Do the people writing this definition have any memory of how exciting it was to go to gay pride marches in the 1970s (that's when my participation began)? Of how exciting it was to meet other gay people, in public, to take over the streets, not to be afraid to hold hands with your lover, to look defiantly at the anti-gay counter-demonstrators and overwhelm them with our loud voices? For one day a year to be out publicly and proudly? In many places in the US there has been a real, marked improvement in the lives of LGBT people, and do you know why that is? Because of the protests embodied in gay pride marches and other forms of activism (for example Act Out in the 1980s). Not because straight society graciously decided to give gay people equal rights (which we still don't have), but because we fought for our rights.

And we're still fighting for our rights. Only last year were gay and lesbian people able to serve openly in the US military. I suppose for the people who are putting on this conference it's not legitimate for gay people to want to serve in their country's military - that's a form of "homonationalism." Well, being gay is not some kind of rarefied identity that excludes one from the values of one's society - gay people have been in the US military probably from its beginning, and certainly in the 20th century, and have served honorably despite often being hounded from the service by anti-gay witch hunts. I suspect that the people putting on this conference think that no one should serve in the US military, straight or gay. In that case, why again is there a need to single out gay people who join the military as succumbing to a special form of nationalism - homonationalism? Why is homonationalism worse than other forms of nationalism? (That is, if you think that nationalism is always bad - which I certainly do not).
In some places where Homonationalism is active, gay people of the dominant racial or religious demographic may actually have far more secure social rights and political power than subordinate racial and religious communities, which of course themselves include LGBT people. This practice of obscuring or “whitewashing” racial or religious oppression with claims of “gay rights” is called PINKWASHING. Pinkwashing is of profound and engaged interest to scholars around the world who are interested in social justice and LGBT studies.
Even if there is no "homonationalism," gay people of the dominant racial or religious group will of course "have far more secure social rights and political power than subordinate racial and religious communities," because they belong to the dominant group, especially if they remain deep in the closet. What this has to do with "homonationalism" escapes me. Homonationalism has nothing to do with it - it has rather to do with (for example in the United States) our long history of white supremacy. And long before gay people in the US were close to gaining any rights, within the gay & lesbian rights movement there was certainly racism (and sexism and misogyny) - how could there fail to be? What's important is that people are trying to overcome racism while fighting for LGBT rights.

Postscript - if you look through the conference schedule, you will find an inordinate amount of attention devoted to the evils of Zionism and Israel. If homonationalism were really an international problem, why focus on one small country with no more than eight million inhabitants? The answer is obvious, of course - the organizers and speakers in many cases seem to be motivated by a general anti-Zionist and anti-Israel ideology, and a conference like this allows them to yoke LGBT identity to anti-Zionism. In fact, the conference seems intended to make it seem natural that one's sexual orientation should inevitably determine one's politics - which is the biggest lie of all.


  1. "While I'm certainly not in favor of anyone, whether gay or straight, "embracing racial and religious supremacy ideologies," I don't see why racist gay people should be singled for special opprobrium over other racists."

    In this case, then, I'm sure you will extend a similarly jaundiced view towards this formulation by AC Grayling, in which Jews are singled out for opprbrium by the author:

    "And on the subject of Jews: what a disgrace that the stone-agers outside parliament tonight will include a Jewish group. If anyone should be against discrimination of any kind, it is a Jew. Alongside the Jews murdered in Auschwitz were homosexuals, wearing a pink patch where the Jews wore a Star of David. The despairing implication of the fact that Jews are joining Christian and Muslims - the usual standard bearers of intolerance and reaction - in this campaign is that too many people learn too little, never connect the dots, and repeat the ghastly errors of the past, when under the thought-inhibiting influence of such toxins as religious belief."

    About which I had written here:

  2. This is the same reasoning that I denounced in my January post, "They of all people." It's the same idea - that being a victim of prejudice and oppression leads one to have a particular political viewpoint favored by the writer - specifically that it should lead to members of an oppressed group being morally better than other people (again, in the eyes of whoever is expressing this opinion).

    Grayling's argument is actually very much like David Ward MP's, since he also relies on the Holocaust to teach Jews how to live moral lives, as if the Holocaust were designed by the Nazis to provide the Jews (that is, those lucky enough to survive) with moral instruction.

    I read the Guardian articles but was unable to find out which Jewish group Grayling was referring to - the one he links to doesn't give any details. Do you have any idea which one it was?

  3. I could only find this reference:

    "Nadia Lipsey, spokesman for the Board of Deputies - the representative organisation of British Jewry - said yesterday: "It must be possible for people to live their lives in the manner in which they choose as long as it does not impinge upon the rights of others.

    "We hope that to this effect the regulations will be framed in such a way that allows for both the effective combating of discrimination in the provision of goods and services whilst respecting freedom of conscience and conviction."