Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights

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What new politics and ethical imperatives emerge when the rights of lesbian and gay people begin to gain traction, and when the state becomes a partner in defending those newly-won rights?  In Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights, just published by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, I offer a critical analysis of the complexities of having the state recognize and then take up gay rights as a cause of its own. I examine three principal contexts – the role of gay rights in the state of Israel’s re-branding campaign, the response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University in which he claimed that there were no homosexuals in Iran, and the role of gay rights in Romania’s effort to join the European Community – as examples of the moral hazards that a minority faces when the state takes up their interests and uses their rights for purposes that well-exceed the obvious interests of the new rights-bearing community. I conclude that critical awareness of the state’s role as fundamental partner in the recognition and protection of a form of sexual rights should push us to regard these “victories” as necessarily ethically compromised.

The essay turns to several diverse sites of global politics to illuminate the centrality and manipulation of sexuality and sexual rights in struggles for and against the civilizing mission that lies at the heart of key aspects of globalization. I began this essay with the discussion of Israel not to single it out, but to illustrate a larger, more widespread phenomenon. It is worth tracing why, how, and to what effect a state’s posture with respect to the rights of “its” homosexuals has become an effective foreign policy tool, often when negotiating things that have little or nothing to do with homosexuality.

I aim in this discussion to intervene in an ongoing conversation among scholars of international law and politics that has cleaved into two rather unfriendly camps. On the one side are human rights groups and activists who seek to secure human rights protections for subordinated, oppressed, tortured, and murdered sexual minorities around the globe. They have worked hard to bring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people within the protective infrastructure of the well-organized human rights communities. On the other side is a group, perhaps most provocatively represented by Joseph Massad in Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World, that derides the work of LGBT human rights actors and organizations for a kind of missionary zeal to universalize Western, sexualized identities that have little or no fit with the ways in which sexuality—or, for that matter, identity—takes form in settings outside the West. “Following in the footsteps of the white Western women’s movement, which . . . sought to universalize its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on . . . women’s movements in the non-Western world—a situation that led to major schisms from the outset—the gay movement has adopted a similar missionary role,” wrote Massad in Public Culture in 2002.  Not surprisingly, Massad received some pushback from the persons and entities he identified as imperialist missionaries who have sought to redeem their good names and good work.  In the middle of these two polarized perspectives lie a few activists and scholars who have charted a middle course, acknowledging the everpresent risk of imperial effects, if not aims, when undertaking rights work in an international milieu, while at the same time recognizing the important and positive work that rights-based advocacy can bring about.  For this last group, as for Gayatri Spivak, rights are something we “cannot not want,” yet we proceed with them cognizant of the complex effects their use entails.

The present essay carries a brief for neither side of this debate (though I will confess sentiments that strive toward the middle course). Rather, it seeks to introduce an analysis none of the disputants have acknowledged: To focus this discussion on the relationship between LGBT human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the metropole and the potentially colonial subjects they seek to aid misses a third and vastly important actor in this theater—the state. In hugely interesting ways, states have come to see that their political power, their legitimacy, indeed their standing as global citizens, are bound up with how they recognize and then treat “their” gay citizens. A careful analysis of the role of human rights mechanisms and institutions in the expansion of human sexual freedom requires that we recognize and account for the manner in seek to aid, often find their work and their interests taken up and deployed by state actors for purposes that well exceed the articulated aims of something called “human rights.” The Israeli example I opened with is but one of the ways in which sexuality bears a curious relationship to global citizenship, politics, and governance.

Illuminating this complex dynamic reveals some patterns: Modern states are expected to recognize a sexual minority within the national body and grant that minority rights-based protections. Premodern states do not. Once recognized as modern, the state’s treatment of homosexuals offers cover for other sorts of human rights shortcomings. So long as a state treats its homosexuals well, the international community will look the other way when it comes to a range of other human rights abuses.

Katherine Franke, Columbia Law School

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