One of the dangers of awareness campaigns centred on social media is that they risk being online popularity contests. The [Dutch] national “Wanted For Love” campaign—a collaborative initiative of Hivos and Human Rights Watch aimed at drawing attention to the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in “Africa”—welcomes the like-tivist spirit with open arms.
While arguably an honest project powered by good intentions, there are a number of knotty aspects (sentimental slacktivism aside) to the campaign that need to be disentangled. I’d like to focus on these and some other aspects that are not included in the campaign’s happy narrative.
Even though this is not a direct critique of Hivos or Human Rights Watch [HRW]—despite my gesturing toward their respective problematic aspects—it is important to address issues regarding their focus and funding. In The Bias of Human Rights Watch independent journalist Garry Leech addresses Human Rights Watch’s skewed priorities. Leech’s critique is that by privileging political and civil rights over social and economic rights Human Rights Watch [HRW] inadvertently promotes capitalist-individualistic values.
One of the major donors/strategic alliances of Hivos is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, which states on its website that “[I]ssues of peace and security, good governance and human rights, trade, poverty, the environment, and migration are all closely interconnected.” The goodwill of the Dutch government is, arguably, part of its larger international policy.
Moreover, through its strategic alliance with Hivos, which works in 26 countries located in the Global South, the Dutch government can exert control and regulate the world beyond its borders. With this in mind, one cannot divorce the Wanted For Love campaign from the global flows of bodies, information, capital, affect and the “rights discourse,” which posits gay rights (and tolerance of homosexuality) as important markers of “modernity,” and “Westernization.”
Although the Wanted For Love website states that there isn’t a continent where LGBT people are not oppressed, they point to “Africa,” in particular, as a site where LGBT people encounter the most intense resistance. The Wanted For Love campaign, then, functions as a tool to further a pinkwashed/homonationalist agenda, which not only presents Europe as better than anti-gay (African) nations, but also upholds the Netherlands as an exemplar.
The campaign discursively constructs a specific image of “Africa,” rights, and culture which it, then, exploits for rhetorical purposes. Contrastingly, it constructs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bastion of freedom for LGBT people. In its bid to support activists in Africa Wanted For Love ends up juxtaposing a “homophobic Africa” with a “liberal Europe.” Thus, “Africa” is made to serve as “homophobic Other” for Dutch homonationalism.
The 2011 project Fleeing Homophobia. Seeking Safety in Europe, which was funded (among others) by the European Refugee Fund and the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, makes the same conceptual move—which makes one beg the question, is Europe really a safe haven for LGBT folks? Well, no.
A recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has revealed that LGBT people in the EU (and Croatia) “experience bias-motivated discrimination, violence and harassment in different areas of life, including employment, education, healthcare, housing and other services.” Moreover,
The findings show that many hide their identity or avoid locations because of fear. Others experience discrimination and even violence for being LGBT. Most, however, do not report such incidents to the police or any other relevant authority.
Wanted For Love softens through its use of language and images the ongoing oppression that LGBT people in the EU face. It presents a tidy version of a complicated narrative in “easy-to-digest” imageries in order to “get more people to care.” Ironically, this campaign ultimately forecloses the question of what it would mean to show genuine solidarity (or, at least, a solidarity that goes beyond creating one’s own Wanted For Love poster) with African LGBT people—whether they are in Africa, or in Europe.
Undocumented African LGBT people face an enormous amount of violence in the Netherlands—where they are not “wanted for love,” but wanted for deportation. A Ugandan LGBT activist, Kalanzi Marvin Richard, was detained in Rotterdam awaiting his deportation—a gross violation of his human rights. What does it mean to promote “gay rights as human rights” in “Africa” when the “human rights” of the very same people who are being targeted in Africa for being gay, are violated in Europe?
The global human rights discourse (which is problematic) and the Dutch immigration and border security policies intertwine, offset and complement each other. And this turbulent dynamic creates a tension between “the sovereign competence of states to regulate migration” and “the human rights of the migrants.” As stated before, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs views security, human rights and migration as interdependent, which makes it easy for the government to justify practices (e.g. detention) that violate the basic human rights of undocumented migrants.
A further effect of this dynamic is that it is extremely difficult for the Dutch government to develop, especially as regards LGBT people, a coherent asylum policy that also honours the human rights of undocumented migrants. As it stands, it has become increasingly difficult for LGBT people from certain “non-Western” nations to obtain asylum. According to the “Fleeing Homophobia” report,
In the Netherlands, the existence of enforced criminalisation in Iran was sufficient for a policy rule to the effect that LGBT applicants from Iran will in any case be granted asylum on domestic law based, humanitarian grounds. Decisions and case law rejecting LGB claims because in those countries there is no evidence of enforced criminalisation against LGB people suggest that LGB claimants from countries where criminalisation is enforced would qualify for asylum.
What does it mean to offer a legal presumption that makes it easier for LGBT asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and, recently, Uganda to claim asylum in the Netherlands? What does it mean to allow LGBT people from these countries—and not others—to settle in the Netherlands while impoverished people, either from the “approved” countries or elsewhere, cannot? What does having “gay rights” mean when asylum seekers need to “prove” that they are LGBT before their request is granted?
While Wanted For Love draws attention to the plight of African LGBT people, it simultaneously limits, through its emphasis on love, the scope of aspects that affect LGBT people from Africa. Consequently, we are left to worry only about the plight of LGBT Africans “over there.” The plight of LGBT Africans “over here,” however, is seemingly irrelevant.
Under the banner of “caring and showing support” capitalism and racism intersect with systemic state-violence (committed by the Dutch state through its immigration policy) against the very same queer bodies we are called to care for. For instance, on the Wanted For Love website it says that, “Erwin Olaf photographed the activists in a beautiful, un-African way,” which has left me wondering what “un-African” signifies.
The role that foreign capital plays in the “homophobia in Africa” narrative is significant. On the one hand, anti-gay sentiments are being fanned by moneyed Christian fundamentalists from the US. On the other, the Dutch government, through its funding of organizations like Hivos, exerts influence on local politics. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs baldly states that its international policy—which the promotion of “human rights” is a part of—serves to advance Dutch prosperity. “It is,” as its website states, “the responsibility of the government to create global conditions that favour Dutch interests.”
We need to ask ourselves what kind of work these acts of care through capitalism are performing—both domestically and abroad. “The politics of care,” Miriam I. Ticktin writes, “maintains a racialized postcolonial nation-state, rendering immigrants visible [in French society] primarily in the form of gendered and racialized victims—they can never be equal.”
At the same time, a conservative, consumerist gay mainstream culture has moved gay pride away from its radical potential. Instead, gay pride has become a corporate capitalist spectacle. Capitalism, as Kenneth Cimino citing Bob McCubbin argues, has redirected the call for gay liberation “into safe business networks, like advertising in magazines, marketing of gay consumer products, and/or trying to make gay pride marches into innocuous celebrations.” When gay pride does incorporate a pressing political issue, like solidarity with LGBT activists in the Global South, it takes on a form that doesn’t contest the dominant narrative, but supports and perpetuates it.
The African LGBT activists, who were visiting, were invited to participate in the Tears of Pride Walk—a walk against violence against LGBT people. The walk is a highly problematic event. It started last year and the walk is from Amsterdam West, a racialized space with a large Muslim/Moroccan population, to the homomonument, a symbol of gay emancipation. I’m sure they didn’t know the symbolic nature of that.
The LGBT movement has shifted strongly to the right these past years. In an online poll conducted by the newspaper Gay Krant in 2010 the anti-Islam and anti-immigration PVV received almost a quarter of the votes. Much animus is directed particularly toward “the Moroccans.” This mythical group of people that Dutch politics keeps referring to is structurally positioned as Muslim and therefore homophobic.
What does it mean to mobilize an Islamophobic, racist LGBT community to “save African gays”? What does it mean to mobilize an (depoliticized) LGBT movement whose universalizing gay (pride) discourses seek to render all same-sex desire intelligible on Western neoliberal capitalist terms? (re Gay Imperialism)
Queers of colour have to face much more than just homophobia, and taking on the label “gay” goes beyond embodying a “transgressive” identity—especially, in a world in which “being black” already represents transgression. In reference to her work Zanele Muholi once wrote,
I need to underscore that naming ourselves and ‘being’ is more than a fashion statement or a research topic. Rather, it is a political consciousness that we do not have a choice about. To be black, lesbian and African is by its very nature political in a world that is still overwhelmingly heterosexual.
And “fear,” to quote Rosemary Hennessy, “is only one of many palpably violent consequences of a vast sea of heterosexual prescriptions.”
Support, advocacy, and transnational activism, in this context, can offer much needed morale boosts. Moreover, transnational activism can also be invaluable in seemingly local struggles, e.g. the plight of LGBT asylum seekers from the Global South in the Netherlands. However, in order for these transnational alliances to be fruitful we need to unpack them first and reframe the context of the human rights struggles of sexual minorities in the Global North and Global South. “We cannot,” as Tarso Luís Ramos citing Kapya Kaoma writes, “understand—never mind win—either struggle without understanding their interrelation.”