Globalization and the International Gay / Lesbian Movement

Dennis Altman. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

If by globalization we understand all those processes—social, economic, political and cultural—by which people, goods and ideas move increasingly across borders, then changes in our understandings of and attitudes to sexuality are both affected by and reflect the larger changes of globalization. Moreover, as with globalization itself, the changes are simultaneously leading to greater homogeneity and greater inequality. As all but insignificant pockets of the world’s peoples are brought within the scope of global capitalism a consumer culture is developing which cuts across borders and cultures, and is universalized through advertising, mass media and the enormous flows of capital and people in the contemporary world.

While globalization has become central to much work in the social sciences over the past decade, it has hovered on the fringes of gay/lesbian/queer studies. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that g/l/q work remains marginalized in the academy, and is almost entirely produced in the centres of the Atlantic world. Thus even a work with as promising a title as Fear of a Queer Planet remains exclusively North American in its content. There are of course exceptions—a few recent anthologies do try to include discussions from outside the First World, but too often the inclusions are so thin that they appear tokenistic, and merely underscore the extent to which the dominant paradigm is based in North America and Northern Europe. This is hardly surprising, though when one examines the specific literature on individual non-western countries there is far more available than is often recognized, as will be discussed later. Perhaps the most egregious example is the renaming of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Reviewto become The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, while remaining almost exclusively American-centric in its focus.

Yet debates on globalization are particularly relevant to what appears to be a rapid spread of gay/lesbian identities, and indeed the emergence of a politicized homosexuality in countries as different as Indonesia, Peru and Zimbabwe may be one of the most potent markers of globalization itself.

Homosexual Identities and Movements

The very idea of a universal homosexual category—reflected in the language of an international gay and lesbian movement—is thus a product of globalization. While homosexual behavior has existed in most societies at most times in history, the creation of a specific identity based upon homosexual behavior is a far more recent and limited phenomenon. The term ‘homosexual’ was coined in 1869 by the Hungarian doctor Karoly Benkert, but there is some evidence that people defined by a shared sexual attraction to the same gender had already formed loose social groupings in several European cities. More common, however, was a range of understandings of sexuality and gender which saw homosexual behavior as part of an undifferentiated range of possible sexual behaviors, and an equal range of acceptance and condemnation of such behaviors. Such understandings were always heavily gendered, and often ignored the potential for female homosexuality.

There is some debate about just when the ‘homosexual,’ in our understanding of that term, emerged, but the rapid spread of the concept in the nineteenth century was linked to the rapid diffusion of ideas and affluence which grew out of the expansion of capitalism. Moreover, the growing scientific awareness of homosexuality owed a great deal to the growth of European colonialism, and the accompanying interest in other ways of organizing sexuality and gender in non-European societies. By the end of the nineteenth century the idea of the homosexual existed to a sufficient extent that it became possible to imagine the creation of both social and political organizations for those people who identified with the term. The first overtly political organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, was founded by a German, Magnus Hirschfeld, in 1897, and campaigned for the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Hirschfeld believed that homosexuals constituted a ‘third sex,’ and therefore were inherently different, and no more deserving of condemnation than, say, someone born left-handed. However against the idea of the ‘third sex’ Freud postulated a universal ‘polymorphous perversity,’ so that childhood experiences determined whether or not one developed a primarily heterosexual or homosexual orientation. While many psychoanalysts developed a strong antipathy to homosexuality, seeing it as a pathology to be cured through therapy, another tradition, which would emerge in the 1960s, used Freud’s works to argue against the idea of a heterosexual norm.

After World War I both Europe and the United States saw the development of small homosexual social groups in major cities, most famously Paris and Berlin. Hirschfeld’s organization was ended brutally by the Nazis, and it was not until the aftermath of World War II that new organizations emerged—COC (originally the Shakespeare Club) in the Netherlands; Arcadie in France; der Kreis in Switzerland. COC remains by far the longest-lived gay/lesbian organization in the world. In the United States the first groups were established in the 1950s (the Mattachine Society in 1951; Daughters of Bilitis in 1955) but these groups remained largely underground, although some overt political protest began in the early 1960s.

In Europe and North America the dislocations of World War II meant that millions of people came in contact with underground gay and lesbian worlds, and although the post-war organizations remained very small, homosexual communities developed in most major western cities through the 1950s and 1960s. It was the presence of both social and commercial networks which allowed for the rapid emergence of a new sort of gay/lesbian movement in the aftermath of the major social and political upheavals in most liberal democracies from the end of the 1960s.

The contemporary gay/lesbian movement was born out of the political, social and cultural changes of ‘the sixties,’ symbolized by the growing freedom which surrounded discussion of sexuality, the rebirth of feminism and the student movements of 1968. In France and Italy it was the events of May ‵68 which led to the emergence of a radical gay movement; in the United States the turning point is usually assumed to be the riots which followed a raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, out of which emerged the New York Gay Liberation Front. The gay/lesbian movement of this period saw itself as part of a larger radical assault on hegemonic cultural and political ideas and institutions, and was closely linked to various elements of New Left theory. Small gay liberation groups also appeared in Canada, Britain, Scandinavia, Australasia and some Latin American countries: Argentina in 1969; Mexico in 1971; Puerto Rico in 1974; Brazil in the early 1970s. The first Israeli gay/lesbian organisation was established in 1976.

The post-1968 movement differed from its predecessors in its willingness to assert a new sense of gay/lesbian identity which demanded complete equality, at both an individual and a communal level. Although the original use of the term ‘gay’ included both women and men, tensions quickly emerged along gender lines, in part because of the strong interconnection between radical lesbianism and feminism, which had no equivalent for gay men. During the 1970s there was increasing divergence between lesbian and gay male organizations, as a growing commercial gay world opened up new ways of living as a homosexual, particularly for men. As one novelist wrote: ‘Almost through an act of will, I had made myself embrace this new identity of mine and never look back. I had gay friends. I ate at gay restaurants. I went to gay bars. I had my apartment near DuPont Circle …’

While ‘gay ghettoes’ such as that described here only developed in a few cities outside the United States—or, as in the case of Paris’s Marais, developed a decade later—the growth of gay and lesbian commercial space has been a feature of almost all western countries from the 1970s on. In many capitalist societies the ‘pink dollar’ has become seen as an important niche market, and this has made possible a flourishing gay press and an expansion of businesses and professional services aimed at a specifically gay and lesbian market. By the 1990s government authorities in a number of countries were promoting services for lesbian and gay travellers, and Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras was recognized as one of Australia’s most successful tourist attractions. The gay/lesbian press, originally an expression of the political movement, has become increasingly preoccupied by ‘lifestyle’ issues and the need to attract ‘mainstream’ advertisers.

Meanwhile, women developed a parallel if sometimes overlapping world, and developed a set of social institutions which allowed room for a ‘women-centred’ politics, sometimes extended to a rejection of anything that could be seen as male-dominated. In some countries links were maintained between women and men through common political organizations such as the National Gay (later Gay and Lesbian) Task Force in the United States. As the radical energies of the early 1970s dissipated so too did organized lesbian and gay politics, though the trajectory of the movements is rather different in different countries. Even in the western world there were significant differences between the English-speaking democracies, where decriminalization of homosexual behavior seemed the top priority; the countries of northern Europe, especially the Netherlands and Denmark, where social acceptance seemed most assured; and those of southern Europe whose laws were less repressive and where a language of universal rights was often used to argue against any sort of identity politics.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a rapid shift in most western countries in attitudes towards homosexuality, with growing recognition of gay men and lesbians as constituting legitimate communities with a certain political influence. Openly lesbian and gay legislators were elected in Norway, Canada and the United States, and almost all western countries abolished remaining laws which decriminalized homosexual activity. The great exception was the United States, where homosexual acts remain illegal in a number of states, in part because of a decision by the Supreme Court in 1986 which upheld Georgia’s sodomy laws. The rate of change was particularly rapid in cases such as Spain, which democratized during this period, a shift that would be echoed in Latin America in the late 1980s and some parts of Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

The rapidity of changes in attitudes towards homosexuality meant a corresponding backlash from moral conservatives, most pronounced in the United States. The mobilization of religious conservatives by groups such as the Moral Majority led to bitter attacks on homosexuality, both in the political arena and, not infrequently, in direct violence. While there were examples of similar reactions elsewhere, such as the Thatcher government’s prohibitions on ‘the promotion of homosexuality,’ it is probably true that the gains for gay and lesbian rights were rapid and irreversible in most western democracies. Over the past decade these gains have increasingly spread to non-western societies.

Globalization and the Emergence of Gay/Lesbian Identities

Over the past several decades the processes of globalization have ensured a greater number of people outside the liberal western world have adopted gay/lesbian identities. It is often assumed that homosexuals are defined in most ‘traditional’ societies as a third sex, but that too is too schematic to be universally useful. As Peter Jackson points out, the same terms in Thailand can be gender and sexual categories. This is not as different from western assumptions as is sometimes suggested. Insofar as there is a confusion between sexuality and gender in the ‘traditional’ view that the ‘real’ homosexual is the man who behaves like a woman (or, more rarely, vice versa), this is consistent with the dominant understanding of homosexuality in western countries during the hundred years or so before the birth of the contemporary gay movement. George Chauncey has argued that the very idea of a homosexual/heterosexual divide only became dominant in the United States in the mid-twentieth century:

The most striking difference between the dominant sexual culture of the early twentieth century and that of our own era is the degree to which the earlier culture permitted men to engage in sexual relations with other men, often on a regular basis, without requiring them to regard themselves—or be regarded by others—as gay … Many men … neither understood nor organised their sexual practices along a hetero-homosexual axis.

If one reads or views contemporary accounts of homosexual life in, say, Central America, Thailand and Côte d’Ivoire, one is immediately struck by the parallels. In many ‘traditional’ societies there were complex variations across gender and sex lines, with ‘trans-gender’ people (Indonesian warias, Thai kathoey, Moroccan hassas; Turkish kocek; Luban kitesha in parts of Congo) characterized by both transvestite and homosexual behavior. These terms are usually—not always—applied to men, but there are other terms sometimes used of women, such as mati in Suriname, which also disrupt simplistic assumptions about sex and gender. As Gilbert Herdt wrote: ‘Sexual orintation and identity are not the keys to conceptualizing a third sex and gender across time and space.’

Certainly most of the literature about Latin America stresses that a homosexual identity (as distinct from homosexual practices) is related to rejection of dominant gender expectations, so that ‘a real man’ can have sex with other men and not risk his heterosexual identity. As Roger Lancaster put it: ‘Whatever else a cochon might or might not do, he is tacitly understood as one who assumes the receptive role in anal intercourse. His partner, defined as ‘active’ in the terms of their engagement, is not stigmatized, nor does he acquire a special identity of any sort.’ Thus the nature rather than the object of the sexual act becomes the key factor. However, there is also evidence that this is changing, and a more western concept of homosexual identity is establishing itself, especially among the middle classes.

Sexuality becomes an important arena for the production of modernity, with ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ identities acting as markers for modernity. There is an ironic echo of this in the Singapore government’s bulldozing of Bugis Street, once the centre of transvestite prostitution in the city—and its replacement by a Disneyland-like simulacrum, where sanitized drag shows are performed. There is an equal irony in seeing the decline of a homosexuality defined by gender nonconformity as ‘modern’ just when transsexuals and some theorists in western countries are increasingly attracted by concepts of the malleability of gender. From one perspective the fashionable replica of the stylized ‘lipstick lesbian’ or ‘macho’ gay man is less ‘post-modern’ than the waria or the Tongan faka Jeiti.

Speaking openly of homosexuality and transvestism, which is often the consequence of western influence, can unsettle what is accepted but not acknowledged. Indeed, there is some evidence in a number of societies that those who proclaim themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’ that is seek a public identity based on their sexuality, encounter a hostility that may not have been previously apparent. But there is a great deal of mythology around the ‘acceptance’ of gender/sexual nonconformity outside the West, a mythology to which for different reasons both westerners and non-westerners contribute. Romanticized views around homoeroticism in many non-western cultures, often based on travel experiences, disguise the reality of persecution, discrimination and violence, sometimes in unfamiliar forms. First-hand accounts make it clear that homosexuality is far from being universally accepted—or even tolerated—in such apparent ‘paradises’ as Morocco, the Philippines, Thailand or Brazil:

Lurking behind the Brazilians’ pride of their flamboyant drag queens, their recent adulation of a transvestite chosen as a model of Brazilian beauty, their acceptance of gays and lesbians as leaders of the country’s most widely practised religion and the constitutional protection of homosexuality, lies a different truth. Gay men, lesbians and transvestites face widespread discrimination, oppression and extreme violence.

The emphasis of post-modern theory on pastiche, parody, hybridity, etc. is played out in a real way by women and men who move, often with considerable comfort, from apparent obedience to official norms to their own sense of gay community. Middle-class homosexuals in places like Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City and Istanbul will speak of themselves as part of ‘a gay (sometimes ‘gay and lesbian’) community,’ but the institutions of such a community will vary considerably depending on both economic resources and political space. Those who take on gay identities often aspire to be part of global culture in all its forms, as suggested by this quote from a Filipino anthology of gay writing: ‘I met someone in a bar last Saturday … He’s a bank executive. He’s mestizo (your type) and … loves Barbara Streisand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Pat Conroy, Isabel Allende, John Williams, Meryl Streep, Armistead Maupin, k.d. lang, Jim Chappell, Margaret Atwood and Luciano Pavorotti.’

Similarly, magazines, like G & L in Taiwan—a ‘lifestyle’ magazine launched in 1996—mixes local news and features with stories on international, largely American, gay and lesbian icons. As mobility increases, more and more people are travelling abroad and meeting foreigners at home. It is as impossible to prevent new identities and categories travelling as it is to prevent pornography travelling across the Internet. As part of the economic growth of South and East Asia, the possibilities of computer-based communications have been grasped with enormous enthusiasm. They have created a new set of possibilities for the diffusion of information and the creation of (virtual) communities. Whereas the gay movements of the 1970s in the West depended heavily on the creation of a gay/lesbian press, in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand or Japan the Internet offers the same possibilities, with the added attraction of anonymity and instant contact with overseas, thus fostering the links with the diaspora.

It is precisely this constant dissemination of images and ways of being, moving disproportionately from north to south, which leads some commentators to savagely criticize the spread of sexual identities as a new step in neocolonialism: ‘The very constitution of a subject entitled to rights involves the violent capture of the disenfranchised by an institutional discourse which inseparably weaves them into the textile of global capitalism.’ This position is argued with splendid hyperbole by Pedro Bustos-Aguilar who attacks both ‘the gay ethnographer … [who] kills a native with the charm of his camera’ and ‘the union of the New World Order and Transnational Feminism’ that asserts neocolonialism and western hegemony in the name of supposed universalisms.

Bustos-Aguilar’s argument is supported by the universalist rhetoric that surrounded the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall, and the pressure to support the rights of ‘gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people’ everywhere, even though this is a particularly American formulation. It finds a troubling echo in the story of an American, Tim Wright, who founded a gay movement in Bolivia, and after four years was found badly beaten and amnesiac: ‘And things have gone back to being what they were.’ A more measured critique comes from Ann Ferguson, who has warned that the very concept of an international lesbian culture is politically problematic, because it would almost certainly be based upon western assumptions, even though she is somewhat more optimistic about the creation of an international movement, which would allow for self-determination of local lesbian communities. While western influences were clearly present, it is as true to see the emergence of groups in much of Latin America, in South-East Asia and among South African blacks as driven primarily by local forces (and successful in South Africa because of links established under apartheid with the African National Congress).

It is certainly true that the assertion of lesbian/gay identity can have neo-colonial implications, but given that many anti-/post-colonial movements and governments deny existing homosexual traditions it becomes difficult to know exactly whose values are being imposed on whom. Both the western outsider and the local custodians of national culture are likely to ignore existing realities in the interest of ideological certainty. Those outside the West tend to be more aware of the difference between traditional homosexualities and contemporary gay identity politics, a distinction sometimes lost by the international lesbian/gay movement in its eagerness to claim universality. New sexual identities mean a loss of certain traditional cultural comforts while offering new possibilities to those who adopt them.

The Impact of HIV/AIDS

The first reports of what was to be named ‘AIDS’ (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) accompanied severe illness and death among young homosexual men on both American coasts, and for a short time the new disease was known as ‘gay-related immune deficiency syndrome.’ Within a few years it became clear that the syndrome was transmitted through sexual and blood contact, and in many parts of the world the bulk of sexual transmission was heterosexual. Nonetheless the epidemiological link to homosexuals in the rich world has a continuing impact on how the epidemic is perceived, and has had a major impact upon gay organization. The first responses to the new disease came from gay communities in major western cities, with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York (founded in 1982) becoming a model for groups such as the various Australian state AIDS Councils, the Terrence Higgins Trust in Britain and the Deutsche AIDS Hilfe (Germany).

During the 1980s the need to lobby governments, to provide information and preventive education, and to develop home-care and emotional support for those with HIV/AIDS, dominated gay movements in most western countries, and sometimes involved considerable numbers of lesbians as well. As the epidemic was discovered to be growing very rapidly in Africa and parts of Latin America, AIDS was to be the focus for a new wave of homosexual organizing in a number of ‘developing’ countries. (Homosexual transmission continues to be significant in many parts of the poor world, even if it is not the major mode of transmission in most countries.) Groups such as Pink Triangle in Malaysia or Triangulo Rosa in Costa Rica came into existence as de facto homosexual organizations because of the epidemic. The development of People With AIDS groups built on the earlier gay movement concept of ‘coming out.’

Programs around HIV/AIDS have often made use of identities such as ‘sex worker’ or ‘gay/bisexual men’/‘men who have sex with men’ (MSMs), thus assisting the further globalization of movements based on such identities. (Ironically the term ‘men who have sex with men’ was coined to reach men who rejected any sense of identity based upon their sexual practices, but fairly quickly became used in ways that just repeated the old confusions between behavior and identity.) Even while recognizing the diversity of sexualities, and the fact that for most people behavior does not necessarily match neat categories, there is a gradual shift towards conceptualizing sexuality as a central basis for identity in most parts of the world in which HIV programs have played a significant role. To quote from one example, a report from Proyecto Girasol, an HIV prevention program in El Salvador:

When the work started in 1994, few people imagined that this kind of organizing would be accepted or could have an impact. But the space was opened and defended with organization and visibility, and the project built self-esteem within the sex-workers and gay community, ‘changing their self-destructive image into a constructive one.’ For the first time a positive self-identified gay community was established in El Salvador.

The impact of AIDS on the gay/lesbian movement varied from country to country, but overall it meant a much closer relationship between the state and gay organizations, particularly in countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Canada and Australia where the epidemic remained largely due to homosexual transmission and national strategies incorporated community responses. At a global level the development of international responses through the Global Program on AIDS and then UNAIDS saw some institutional support for community organizations, including gay ones.

The Development of an International Gay/Lesbian Movement

In 1978 the International Gay (later Lesbian and Gay) Association (ILGA) was formed at a conference in Coventry, England. While ILGA has largely been driven by northern Europeans, it now has member groups from over seventy countries and has organized meetings in several southern cities. (Its attempt to win observer status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council was stymied by attacks on some of its members as allegedly sympathetic to pedophilia.) Other networks, often linked to feminist and AIDS organizing, have been created in the past two decades, and emerging lesbian and gay movements are increasingly likely to be in constant contact with groups across the world. Such networks argue for a certain universality of homosexual identity, and their major strategy has involved appeals to universal norms of human rights to oppose persecution and discrimination against homosexuals across the world.

It is striking that while the dominant image of gay and lesbian identity and culture is undoubtedly American, the development of international networks has owed comparatively little to American leadership. On the other hand, the two largest international gay/lesbian ‘networks’ are probably those based around the Metropolitan Community Church and the Gay Games, both American in origin.

In many cases homosexual identities are asserted without an apparent gay/lesbian movement. The best example of a non-political gay world can probably be found in Thailand where there is a growing middle-class gay world, based neither on prostitution nor on traditional forms of gender nonconformity (as in the person of the kathoey) but only a small lesbian group, Anjaree, and no gay male groups at all since the collapse of a couple of attempts to organize around HIV in the late 1980s. In late 1996 controversy erupted in Thailand after the governing body of the country’s teacher training colleges decreed that ‘sexual deviants’ would be barred from entering the colleges. While there was considerable opposition to the ban (subsequently dropped), apart from Anjaree most of this came from non-gay sources. In the ensuing public debate one could see contradictory outside influences at work—both an imported fear of homosexuals and a more modern emphasis on how such a ban infringed human rights. As Peter Jackson concluded: ‘A dynamic gay scene has emerged … in the complete absence of a gay rights movement.’

Indeed, it may be that a political movement is the least likely part of western concepts of homosexual identity to be adopted in many parts of the world, even as some activists enthusiastically embrace the mores and imagery of western queerdom. The particular form of identity politics that allowed for the mobilization of lesbian/gay electoral pressure in countries like the United States, the Netherlands or even France may not be appropriate elsewhere, even if western-style liberal democracy triumphs. The need for western lesbian/gays to engage in identity politics as a means of enhancing self-esteem may not be felt in other societies. Even so, one should read Jackson’s comment about Thailand with some caution. Already when he wrote it there was an embryonic group in Bangkok around an American-owned and run gay bookstore. At the end of 1999 one of the country’s gay papers organized a gay festival and twilight parade in the heart of Bangkok, announcing it as: ‘the first and biggest gay parade in Asia where Asian gay men have a basic human right to be who they want to be and love who they want to love.’ The following year there was speculation in the press of the role of ‘the pink vote’ in Bangkok’s elections. Similarly, accounts of homosexual life in Japan alternate between assuming a high degree of acceptance—and therefore no reason for a political movement—and severe restrictions on the space to assert homosexual identity as against behavior, though the gay group OCCUR has recently gained a certain degree of visibility.

The western lesbian/gay movement emerged in conditions of affluence and liberal democracy, where despite other large social issues it was possible to develop a politics around sexuality that is more difficult in countries where the basic structures of political life are constantly contested. Writing of contemporary South Africa Mark Gevisser notes: ‘Race-identification overpowers everything else – class, gender and sexuality.’ In the same way basic questions of political economy and democratization will impact on the future development of gay/lesbian movements in much of Asia and Africa. Yet in Latin America and Eastern Europe gay/ lesbian movements have grown considerably in the past decade, and there are now signs of their emergence in some parts of Africa, for example, in Botswana and in Zimbabwe where President Mugabe has consistently attacked homosexuality as the product of colonialism. Similar rhetoric has come from the leaders of Kenya, Namibia and Uganda, whose President Museveni has denounced homosexuality as ‘western’—using the rhetoric of the Christian right to do so. (Anglican bishops from Africa—though not South Africa—were crucial in defeating moves to change the Church of England’s attitudes towards homosexuality at the 1998 decennial Lambeth Conference.)

While many African officials and clergy maintain that homosexuality is not part of pre-colonial African culture, the evidence for its existence—and the slow acknowledgment of its role in African life—are happening across the continent. One might speculate that the strong hostility from some African political and religious leaders towards homosexuality as a ‘western import’ is an example of psychoanalytic displacement, whereby anxieties about sexuality are redirected to continuing resentment against colonialism and the subordinate position of Africa within the global economy. Western-derived identities can easily become markers of those aspects of globalization that are feared and opposed. Thus a 1994 Conference for gay/MSMs in Bombay was opposed by the National Federation of Indian Women, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India, as: ‘an invasion of India by decadent western cultures and a direct fall-out of our signing the GATT agreement.’

Six years later a number of such conferences had been held in India and there were also signs of growing political hostility, as in the protest directed against Deepa Mehta’s film Fire for its lesbian content. The twin impact of globalization and the discourses of international human rights are likely to see a strengthening of both gay/lesbian identities and arguments to include homosexuality within the framework of international human rights in the future, but there is also the likelihood of increasing fundamentalist hostility to any form of sexual-based identity politics. The question, as Richard Parker has posed it, is whether: ‘We can transform the politics of identity into the politics of solidarity.’