PART I: THE TROUBLE WITH OPPRESSION
In 2005, the gay press reported that two men were hanged for consensual sexual relations on July 19 in the town of Mashad, Iran. The story that they had been punished for being lovers was especially propagated by writer Doug Ireland on his blog.
This year, an assortment of groups backed by leaders of the “global gay community” like Peter Tatchell declared that July 19 would be “The International Day of Action against Homophobic Persecution in Iran.”
Commemorations were to include worldwide protests, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was among the sponsors. Significantly, Al Fateha, the biggest queer Muslim organization in the U.S., did not endorse the protest. But there was widespread dissent among queers about the politics of the event, and IGLHRC eventually withdrew its support. Instead, with HRW, it organized a community forum that conflicted with the protest outside the Iranian embassy in New York.
The flurry of acronyms hides the fact that the criticism came from individuals like me as well as organizations. What follows is an account of how radical and progressive queers expressed and mobilized dissent against this event. It details the extent to which so-called Leftist gay leaders are willing to use the strategies of the Right. The story reveals that the trouble with the putative fight against homophobic oppression is that it draws upon conflicting impulses of solidarity and imperialism. In the rush towards establishing a transcendent global gay identity, there may not be much difference between the two.
Despite the claims of organizers that they wanted to work in solidarity with Iranian and other oppressed gays everywhere, I initiated a critique of the protest on the queerfist listserv ( www.queerfist.org ) that was taken up by others, and eventually suggested that dissenters contact sponsoring organizations to withdraw their support. We were wary of perpetuating a U.S.-led hostility towards a country that Bush once declared part of an “axis of evil.” The idea that the two men were gay lovers, not rapists or murderers, seemed the only basis of mobilizing the gay community’s outrage against the hangings.
But, I asked, why base a critique of the wanton use of the death penalty solely on the notion of innocence and the claim that the two were lovers? If they had been rapists and murderers, would that make the punishment more acceptable? In that case, this Day of Action was extremely limited in its understanding of social justice.
Critics also took issue with Doug Ireland’s claim that gay Muslims seek a “self-affirming gay identity.” They countered that not all gays subscribed to mainstream American notions of an exact match between sexual identity and practice. From Beirut, Daniel Drennan wrote a nuanced and incisive critique of Ireland’s positions. He was especially critical of the posture of rescue that the “West” tends to adopt in relation to the “East” and wrote, “Please give it a rest. We are very tired of the ongoing ‘interventions’ on our behalf.”
PART 2: SHE’S NO HOMO!
Ireland’s responses to criticism became increasingly more febrile, and he suggested that I was among the “sectarian apologists for the Islamic Republic of Iran.” I am not, and was shocked that someone who claimed leftist politics would use McCarthyesque tactics to smear his opponents. Finally, Ireland lost journalistic credibility with a single e-mail. He forwarded, without comment, a message from Jeff Edwards, a former member of the now-defunct Queer to the Left; we had been members. The message was a series of ad hominems and included a claim about my sex life ( I’m happy to forward a copy to anyone ) . But one comment stuck out “… she has never had to face what it means to be a homo.”
Ah, I thought. Yes, perhaps. After all, this whole out-queer-woman-of-color-with-a-noticeably-Muslim-name-in-a-post-9/11-world thing will only take a lifetime to negotiate. The next time I’m pulled aside for a “random search,” I’ll remember my relatively privileged position vis-à-vis white gay men like Ireland, click my heels Dorothy-style and chant “I’m no homo” three times in the hopes of being whisked away to Kansas. Where I will be stared at and denied service because of the color of my skin. Which will never compare to being a homo.
I don’t, of course, believe in a hierarchy of oppressions. My point from the start had been that we could not argue against a horrible action against gay men without and outside of relevant contexts—such as global politics and gender oppression—in Iran and the U.S. Yet, here was Ireland attempting to silence me on the grounds that my supposed non-homo-ness and my gender made my critique irrelevant. Posting an e-mail about my sex life was a weak attempt to discredit and, presumably, shame me. It made him no different from right-wing ideologues who ferret out salacious details about opponents in order to shut them up. Ann Coulter, meet Doug Ireland.
Unable to counter my political critique, he proved that there were no sustainable politics of social justice behind the protest. The event’s success depended on manipulating the emotions of people who will only support a ‘gay’ action if the principals involved led unimpeachable and beautiful gay lives of love and romance. As Long pointed out, organizers of the protest never offered a plan for action that could utilize the energy of the event. Ireland revealed himself as a megalomaniac whose feverish blogging indicates a talent gone awry in the pursuit of narratives of persecution, real or imagined. His constant proximity to the computer screen bears an inverse relationship to his distance from reality.
PART 3: IT’S OVER
What does this tell us about queer politics and the contemporary gay movement? We’re so used to thinking that anything LGBTQ is automatically a progressive cause that we have yet to develop a language of dissent among ourselves. A truly progressive movement could absorb and integrate points of critique without deflating into meaningless ad hominems. There can be no doubt that people are repressed, brutalized and killed in many parts of the world, including the U.S., on account of their gender and/or sexuality. But rushing blindly into projects of rescue benefits no one and, as Long and others indicate, the Iran fracas may eventually do more harm than good to the situation of Iranian queers whose accounts are clouded by suspicions of their authenticity.
We are bound to hear more stories like the one in Mashad. It’s difficult for individuals not to sympathize, but it’s worth asking hard questions about not just the stories but our motivations for rescue. Who tells the story? Who else can corroborate it? What do we really want to gain from endorsing actions on behalf of those oppressed? Is it likely that our need to save others might be motivated by a hope of being glorified by them as their saviors?
Yet, it’s difficult for most of us as individuals to stand by and watch atrocities and not respond in some way. I don’t endorse the idea that only organizations should do the work of research and negotiation on our behalf, given their uneven politics on most issues. IGLHRC’s flip-flopping on the Iran protest is hardly commendable. And most gay organizations endorse gay marriage and hate-crimes legislation; neither cause is part of progressive politics. In a perfect world, the work of individual activists and thinkers and rational and even-handed journalists could serve as a counterbalance to the work of organizations. The problem is not that we lack the resources but that radical queer organizing tends to become invisible and unintelligible amidst the cacophony raised by the Gay Right and by organizations that have too much clout and dictate what the “community” should stand for. An even bigger problem is that we haven’t yet come to grips with what we define as a radical or progressive vision in relation to the “gay/homo” agenda.
Queers stood by uneasily as the Gay Movement moved rightwards in its quest for the status quo, most notably around the issue of gay marriage. Proponents of Gay Marriage (PGMs) and most gay organizations can not move beyond asking for acceptance into the mainstream. They are too wedded to the principle of asking for equality. Such rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that the claim for equality rests on the idea that all queers equally want the same thing. As the gay marriage movement demonstrates, the principle of equality is only another way of asking for the status quo. So, for instance, gay marriage supporters argue that gays should be able to marry in order to gain healthcare benefits. Their insistence that this is somehow part of a liberal/progressive gay agenda has taken real healthcare reform off the radar of progressive organizing. PGMs have yet to articulate a larger vision for social justice that includes healthcare and benefits for all, not just couples.
It’s time to be blunt about the pitfalls of gay marriage. The fight for gay marriage directly contributes to inequality in America. It takes away resources from pressing social concerns and it assumes that only people in coupled relationships are of any consequence. PGMs have even hijacked the immigration rights movement by arguing that the queer partners of citizens should gain a quicker path to citizenship on the grounds of ‘life-long commitment’ and ‘financial interdependence.’ [INSERT CFS] This is unfair to single immigrants; considers them unworthy of any recognition; and reinforces antiquated and heteronormative patterns of relationships.
All of these struggles over the status quo reinforce simplistic ideas about who gets to be “gay” or “homo” enough to warrant attention. A gay movement without an expansive notion of queer social justice is doomed to failure. The Iran fracas demonstrates that conservatives among us will always attempt to define our politics by a singular notion of gay and that only gay lives defined by sexual practice and identity are worth noting.
If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If a lesbian goes through life without a partner, is she never a lesbian?
The dissent over the Iran protests signals the end of the Gay Movement as we know it. In its place lies the potential for a more critically self-aware and nuanced queer movement that goes beyond affirming the status quo. It’s time for supporters of gay marriage to end our specious call for equality and seek an end to inequality.