The XX Factor

The Obama Administration’s Move to Support LGBT Rights Abroad is Awesome, but Complicated

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that it would be directing all federal agencies involved with international affairs to support LGBT civil rights abroad. President Obama presented the new policy in a memo, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech detailing the move at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Obama wrote that henceforth, the State Department would be tasked with leading the government in a “swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten [LGBT] human rights.”

This is clearly good news, and is in some ways a bold step, considering that the U.S. has a few allies who continue to punish homosexuality with torture or death (the New York Times has a great piece explaining these issues as well as the background of the policy). Of course, some critics (including me) would point out that we in the United States may want to put our own house in order a bit more before preaching to the rest of the world—DADT repeal and DOMA nondefense aside, we’re still a long way from real equality ourselves. However, at least it’s true that gay lynching is not official law here, so I’ll let it pass.

What does bear more discussion, though, is a point in Clinton’s speech regarding the “existence” of LGBT people in the non-Western world. Here’s the section in question:

Some seem to believe that it [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon. And therefore, people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors, and teachers; farmers and bankers; soldiers and athletes. And whether we know it or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends and our neighbors. Being gay is not a Western invention, it is a human reality.

I suspect that some people may have found this passage a bit odd—isn’t it obvious that something as basic as sexuality (regardless of type) would be universal to all human beings? Well, actually, the consensus on that question isn’t so clear-cut, and I’m not just referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s assertion that there are no gays in Iran. Some academics who study sexuality and culture argue that specific sexual identities like “gay” or “bisexual” do not in fact exist everywhere in the world. The most noted and controversial of these writers is Joseph Massad, a professor of Arabic Studies at Columbia University. In his book Desiring Arabs, Massad discusses the fact that, for example, men had been having sex with men in certain cultures long before a word (gay) was invented (indeed, by the West) to elaborate that basic sexual act into a larger identity; and furthermore, that the spread of the terminology is in fact responsible for the identification and oppression people are now experiencing.

Now, this is obviously a very complicated idea, and I am not endorsing it wholesale. (If you want to learn more, read here or here; as you’ll find, there are definitely some problems). However, I do think that these kinds of questions regarding language are important as we reach out to help in a world that may, indeed, conceive of itself very differently from the ways in which we choose to label it. Desiring and loving the same sex or wishing to align one’s biological gender with one’s internal feeling are almost surely universal experiences, but the larger identities crafted around them may not be so transcendent. My idea of “gay” and all the cultural and social assumptions that go along with it may be totally alien to a man in Iran. And then again, maybe not. The point is that, in trying to protect the rights and lives of queer people (a term I think is slightly less fraught) abroad, “swift and meaningful responses” must be tempered with a great deal of sensitivity. The people and their actual wishes and goals have to be privileged over our own ideas about how things should be done; otherwise, we risk hobbling our efforts even with the best of intentions.