When I started questioning my sexuality, I dealt with it the way I deal with everything in my life: I looked into it on the internet. I found online pamphlets about “how to accept your sexuality” and read articles that “proved that being gay was natural.” (Homosexuality is found in 450 species, homophobia is found in one, am I right?) I watched videos of people telling their stories of how “things got better.” That’s when I first encountered the term “coming out.” All the people in the stories I read, which I later realized were overwhelmingly white, told me “things would be better” once I told everyone around me that I’m gay, and if I did get rejected by my family and friends, all I had to do was find my “chosen family.” Being raised in Turkey, where sex ed doesn’t even exist, talking about my sexual orientation with my family seemed like the most uncomfortable thing I could imagine. But all the stories I read seemed to suggest that this “coming out” was a necessary part of being gay. This is an account of the unbearable whiteness of visible gay and lesbian narratives.
In contrast to some intersectional feminist movements, most white gay people do not identify as part of a subculture whose internal diversity requires acknowledgement and adjustment, especially recently. Rather, they locate questions of power and injustice firmly outside their community. This idea of a group that doesn’t have power structures within itself creates the illusion that there exists a global homogeneous LGBTQI community, made up of people that share the same ideas, the same values, and the same struggles that they fight for together. What is problematic about this global LGBTQI community (among many other things) is that its “agenda” – what it’s fighting for – is determined for the most part by cis white gay men. And queer people of colour in Western countries, but also especially those abroad from the metropole of this queer hegemony, usually don’t have a say in it.
“The idea of a global LGBTQI movement is internalized even by those who do not have a say in this movement and are most of the time left outside of it.”
One example of the discrepancies between these different agendas and needs is the varying attitudes of queer people toward the military. In Turkey, one of the biggest issues for the LGBTQI movement is mandatory military service. All people who were assigned male at birth, who have a blue ID card (it’s literally blue, this is not a metaphor), have to serve in the military for about a year and a half sometime between the ages of 20 and 41. This, of course, is a huge problem for queer men and trans women who face a lot of violence from both their fellow soldiers and their commanders while they are serving.
There is one way to get out of military service, which is getting a statement from the military hospital that declares you unfit to serve due to what they call “a psychosexual anomaly.” Gay men have to go in front of a jury of five or six doctors and prove their homosexuality, which, more often than not, includes showing pictures of themselves having sex with another man. But that creates even more problems for most people, because many businesses ask for the military documents of men during the hiring process, and having “didn’t serve due to a psychosexual anomaly” on your records doesn’t exactly increase your prospects of getting a job. Because of this, the LGBTQI movement in Turkey is pretty anti-military and argues for the government to grant people the right to not serve in the military as conscientious objectors.
This is in direct contrast with the LGBTQI movement in the U.S., which fought for and celebrated the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” doctrine, a U.S. military policy that allowed gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans soldiers to invade foreign countries or operate drones, as long as they did not openly talk about their sexuality or gender. What is interesting to me about this is that when this policy got repealed in the U.S., a lot of LGBTQI people in Turkey also celebrated – often the same ones who oppose mandatory military service and are against the military industrial complex. This serves to show that the idea of a global LGBTQI movement is internalized even by those who do not have a say in this movement and who are most of the time left outside of it.
But the fact that the military would be a part of this international gay identity is not surprising. Going back to the idea that white gays believe that questions of power dynamics exist only outside the community, they also tend to see communities of colour only as perpetrators of homophobia. Individual queers of colour are seen as “exceptions” who have liberated themselves from their “repressive cultures.” However, since they are a part of “those” communities, they need white gays to save them from their backgrounds.
This is what Jasbir Puar argues in her book, Terrorist Assemblages. She has coined the term homonationalism, which refers to a new “civilizing mission” based on the idea that how a country treats its LGBTQI population is a barometer for civilization. The idea that Muslim countries and/or African countries are inherently homophobic and misogynistic is used as a means to justify U.S. and European intervention in those countries. Afghanistan is a great example of this because of the popular narrative of U.S. intervention having the aim of saving the women and, more recently, the gays of Afghanistan from the cruel Muslim fundamentalists. It also portrays Western countries as morally superior to these “backward” countries.
These assumptions of immorality have also influenced people’s ability to immigrate to Western countries. For example, in 2007, Germany introduced what became known as the “Muslim test” for immigrants, asking them questions such as “What do you think of gay people?” and “Would you beat your wife?”in an attempt to preserve what they called a German tradition of tolerance toward women and LGBTQI people. This is ironic, considering Germany began recognizing same-sex partnerships in 2001, so this was actually only a six-year tradition.
“While words put you in a box and allow people to associate things with you that might not necessarily apply, actions allow you to determine the facets of your own identity and also allow it to change over time.”
This white saviour complex is not only satisfied through military operations and government policies, but also through humanitarian campaigns. Petitions to stop homophobia in “backwards countries” pop up daily on Facebook. One such campaigner, Peter Tatchell from England, is described in his personal webpage by one of his coworkers as follows: “Peter’s human rights campaigns have gone global. His successes mean he is deluged with requests for help from activists all over the world. To meet these demands he is working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Such a huge workload is damaging his health and is unsustainable. We need to raise enough money to get Peter a fully equipped office and full-time staff support.” Now who exactly is demanding this service from Peter is unclear, but the undertones of “the white man’s burden” image are very clear.
What white gay activists refuse to understand is that, most of the time these campaigns backfire because they’re started without consulting the people who actually live in those countries. In 2007, African LGBTQI human rights defenders wrote a press release directed at Peter Tatchell that said, “Stay out of African LGBTI issues. You have proven that you have no respect for conveying the truth with regards to Africa or consulting African LGBTI leaders before carrying out campaigns that have severe consequences in our countries. You have betrayed our trust over and over again. This is neo-colonialism and it has no place in our struggle or in Africa.”
Aside from Western activists doing what they think is the right thing without gaining an understanding of the area in question, the work done by local LGBTQI rights activists in the Middle East and Africa are usually not recognized by the Western mainstream. For example, in Palestine, there are two main queer organizations. The first is called Aswat and focuses primarily on queer women. One of the most important things Aswat has done is translating publications on queer issues into Arabic and creating an Arabic glossary of queer terms to provide a common language for people to talk about their experiences. This glossary is a form of activism in itself, as it aims to increase the presence of women’s sexuality and lesbianism in the Arabic language and culture, by forming an alternative vocabulary and a “mother tongue” with positive, non-derogatory, and affirmative expressions of different genders and sexualities.
The other group is al Qaws (which means “rainbow” in Arabic) and it focuses on the particular experiences of Palestinian queers living under occupation. Because of its intersectional understanding of Palestinian queer identities, al Qaws focuses its activism on fighting the patriarchal and heteronormative structures of the society the group exists in, as well as opposing settler-colonialism. The work al Qaws does opposing the occupation has gained respect throughout Palestine, allowing the group to hold forums on sexuality and host cultural events to raise awareness on queer issues, slowly changing conceptions of LGBTQI issues in Palestine. Both of these groups focus more on informing civil society and grassroots change, rather than legal changes such as marriage equality and adoption rights, which is different from the majority of Western LGBTQI rights movements. This might be one of the reasons why Palestinian queer activism is not recognized by Euro-American liberals, since it is different from the narrative of progress accepted by these groups.
“Placing communities of colour as inherently homophobic, and anti-homophobic dialogues as exclusively a white thing is extremely detrimental to queers in said communities.”
Placing communities of colour as inherently homophobic, and anti-homophobic dialogues as exclusively a white thing, is extremely detrimental to queers in said communities. Oftentimes, it’s even a racist phenomenon, considering the prevalence of Islamophobic and anti-Black sentiments among white gay activists. Pitting the entirety of these communities against queer rights in this “us, the liberal West versus them, the backward East” mentality, makes it harder to spread awareness and understanding in our own communities without being seen as brainwashed.
I did eventually come out to my parents like the people I read about on the internet. I spent weeks trying to find the right words to use, so that it didn’t sound like I “became gay” in Canada. Though it was hard for them to understand at first, since they’ve never talked to a queer person before, we’ve had many conversations since and have a great relationship now. Yet even though there is a happy ending to my coming out story, if I could go back I wouldn’t have come out to my parents.
In my conversations with other queer people (especially other queer people of colour) in the past year, we have talked about the difference between actions and words in creating identity. While words put you in a box and allow people to associate things with you that might not necessarily apply, actions allow you to determine the facets of your own identity and also allow it to change over time. It encourages the building of understanding and respect without necessarily having to have conversations that would go against what makes sense for your relationship with someone. So, for example, while I will never talk to my grandmother about my sexuality – because you just don’t talk about sex with your grandparents in Turkey – I know that she has developed some sort of understanding of who I am. I also know that she has learned to accept it, which she makes manifest through the clothes that she buys me for my birthday, getting me things that I actually like to wear.
Yet these stories never make it to the “it gets better” videos or pamphlets of mainstream queer associations in the West. So if white allies actually want to help create social change in countries and communities other than their own, instead of buying into the idea that LGBTQI people experience the same things no matter who and where they are, they can start by listening to our stories and respecting them.