LGBTI Organisations Navigating Imperial Contexts

Image: Peter Hershey

Monday 10th July, 2017

Matthew Waites

My new article in The Sociological Review is titled ‘LGBTI organisations navigating imperial contexts: the Kaleidoscope Trust, the Commonwealth and the need for a decolonizing, intersectional politics’. The article was conceived to report and address some issues I have become aware of through closely following, and engaging with, the development of UK-based transnational LGBTI activism. Specifically, the article is to consider the work of the Kaleidoscope Trust, and its role in forming The Commonwealth Equality Network as a new international organization, comprised of national LGBTI NGOs.

My engagement with transnational LGBTI activism has developed through collaboration with Kaleidoscope Trust, and the Equality Network in Scotland, in a conference titled ‘LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth’ at the University of Glasgow in 2014. In that context I worked to agree a statement from the conference that explicitly problematized racism and the British Empire - still available on the Glagow Human Rights Network’s conference page. The statement was sometimes selectively drawn on by a partner organisation after the event, illustrating both the possibilities and difficulties of promoting changes of approach to explicitly address racism and colonialism.

For most academics until recently, the Commonwealth has been either a big yawn or a big post-imperial groan – though in the Brexit era there has been a shift from the former, for many to the latter. Yet even before new interest was incited by Brexit, UK-based LGBTI activists and NGOs had begun identifying the Commonwealth as a new political opportunity structure to be occupied in the worldwide struggle for LGBTI human rights. Peter Tatchell began making such moves from 2009 onwards, then Kaleidoscope from 2011. What has interested me has been the late burgeoning, from 2011, of what I have conceptualised as ‘the new London-based transnational politics of LGBT human rights’; and the way this has tended to assume the value and legitimacy of the Commonwealth. This would not be the case in many other parts of the world, among peoples of formerly colonized states.

Generally analyses in literature on LGBT human rights and decriminalisation struggles have been developing in somewhat reductive and unsatisfactory ways. On the one hand in Western literatures there has been a tendency to focus on normative affirmations of human rights in a manner which implies human rights need to be extended from the West, without either much attention to alternative histories of individual freedom struggles in the Global South, or sociological analysis of how the process of extending rights takes place. On the other hand literatures influenced by postcolonial perspectives, notably including Jasbir Puar’s analysis of homonationalism, have tended to profoundly question narratives of the extension of human rights from the West. My sense has been that this has led to a rather dichotomized debate, so part of my interest in writing the article was to begin pointing to new sociological ways of conceptualizing the issues, which could help to develop more complex analysis. This was influenced by my work developing the sociology of human rights, including three volumes co-edited with conveners of the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Rights study group.

The central arguments that emerge in the article emphasise a need for fresh thinking. On the one hand critical scholars need to recognise that transnational LGBTI activism is not straightforwardly or overwhelmingly dominated by those in the UK or the Global North. For example the original idea to create The Commonwealth Equality Network came from Sri Lankan activist Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, of the NGO Equal Ground. Yet on the other hand there are more subtle power differentials apparent which derive particularly from a lack of critical attention to multiple inequalities, and particularly to the ways in which colonialism has shaped our present – for example through the way in which the global capitalist economy is still somewhat structured between core and periphery, as Wallerstein argued. LGBTI movements are calling for a decolonization of law, through abolition of imperial criminal offences like Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits the dreaded ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Yet the leading UK-based LGBTI NGOs have lacked a decolonizing critical framework which would systematically give attention to different access to the resources necessary to engage in transnational activism; and would also imply strategies of building and foregrounding South/North government alliances. The article therefore proposes the need to develop a decolonizing, intersectional politics.

Matthew Waites is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow and co-editor, with Corinne Lennox, of Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change. He tweets at @MatthewWaites.

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