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Gay Rights as Human Rights: The Pitfalls & Promises of Global LGBTQ Activism

Are human rights a form of imperialism? Is LGBTQ advocacy relevant in the Global South? Addressing these questions, this article analyzes the connection between gay rights and human rights in a transnational context. It explores activist movements across the globe that have relied on these discourses and have both met failure and achieved success.

Avik Sarkar |

“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Hillary Clinton said in 2011 to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The relationship between LGBTQ activism and human rights has become the subject of both celebration and criticism. On the one hand, human rights initiatives have played an important role in major victories for LGBTQ movements — from the 2010 legalization of same-sex marriage in Argentina to the 2019 decriminalization of gay sex in Botswana. On the other hand, many Western human rights groups have ignored local narratives and experiences and, therefore, contributed to the oppression, rather than the liberation, of queer people across the globe.

As scholars and activists alike have argued, human rights advocacy often imposes Western concepts and visions of queerness onto the Global South. In his seminal essay “Re-Orienting Desire,” Joseph Massad analyzes the efforts of American and European organizations — such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGBTIA) — who work in the Middle East, among other locations. With ostensibly good intentions, these groups seek to promote the social, political, and economic equality of LGBTQ communities throughout the world.

An optimistic reading might celebrate the emergence of this transnational LGBTQ activism, but Massad raises concerns about the potential of this approach. He notes, in particular, the limited usefulness of the very term “LGBTQ,” which plays a central role, of course, in the work of these organizations. The HRC website, as a characteristic example, states, “There are millions of LGBTQ people around the world who are gaining visibility and fighting for their rights.” But many of these subjects, specifically in the Global South, share no connection to the category “LGBTQ,” nor do they desire to classify themselves in this way. Instead, their identities are, in many cases, shaped by local vocabularies of queerness. If “LGBTQ” cannot encapsulate the complexity of the global queer experience, can we rely on LGBTQ human rights activism to defend global queer interests?

The discourses of transnational LGBTQ activism do not only raise questions about language and its failures; they also produce significant problems for the very subjects they claim to support. Massad describes, for example, the 2001 arrest of three Egyptian men who had engaged in anal sex. In a clear violation of human rights, the men were charged with “offending religion” and “practicing debauchery” and sent to prison. Western LGBTQ organizations quickly took to their defense. The Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society (GLAS), based in the United States, mobilized to “send a clear message that Gay Rights are Human Rights and that our tax dollars will not continue to fund the brutal oppression of our brothers and sisters in Egypt or any other Arab country.” But the men had never described themselves as gay; the court, therefore, had paid attention only to their physical behavior, not to their sexual identity. This new identification as “gay,” which resulted directly from the commentary of GLAS and other human rights groups, had unexpected consequences for the men. The court condemned their “gayness” as a Western attack on Egyptian manhood and, in turn, lengthened their sentences.

The court’s conception of gayness was undeniably problematic, but of concern, too, was the use — or perhaps, more precisely, the imposition — of the term “gay.” By framing the situation in terms of “gay rights,” GLAS and its peers sought to defend the men against their oppression, but this intervention evidently had the opposite effect. The case called into question whether frameworks of gay rights and human rights are always productive modes of social change. The struggle for LGBTQ human rights will necessarily face limitations in the many contexts where “gay” or “LGBTQ” are not legible identities.

For Massad, any association with Western discourses of sexuality is the result of cultural imperialism; that is, “gay” and “LGBTQ” can only be forced onto, never embraced by, non-Western subjects. If we subscribe to this line of thought, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see transnational LGBTQ human rights advocacy as more than a futile, neocolonial project. But is “LGBTQ” always an irrelevant identification beyond the United States and Europe? “The difficulty is denying particular subjectivities to people internationally who do identify with them,” said Ryan Thoreson LAW ’14, clinical lecturer at Yale Law School. “You can imagine someone who feels that they are being persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity saying, ‘I want to start an LGBT organization in this country to fight for LGBT rights.’”

Indeed, solidarity within and between communities who identify as LGBTQ has served as a powerful catalyst for human rights efforts in many contexts across the Global South. In India, for example, LGBTQ activists organized to demand the repeal of Section 377, a law inherited from the British Raj that criminalized anal sex. Central to their legal battle was the involvement and commitment of two dozen petitioners who spoke to the discrimination and suffering that they endured under the law. As noted in a New York Times opinion piece, these “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people… risked arrest simply for publicly identifying themselves as LGBT.” Their identification was not the product of Western intrusion; rather, it was the impetus that allowed them to work as a collective towards liberation from Section 377.

We cannot understand transnational queer activism only as an imperialist project. Many American and European LGBTQ rights organizations have, of course, been complicit in practices and structures of cultural imperialism. We must consider these relations of power and domination, but we must also remember that they do not define all human rights initiatives. Queer communities across the globe have adopted, shaped, and redefined human rights as a meaningful and transformative mode of change and resistance.

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