Friday, August 5, 2016

You've Been Served: First World Problems, LGBT Activism Dept.

A couple of interesting and symptomatic passages from Dennis Altman's latest book Queer Wars: The New Global Polarization over Gay Rights (written with Jonathan Symons; Polity Press, 2016).
AIDS activism has often seemed inseparable from gay activism, and has contributed to the development of an emerging group of professional and skilled 'LGBT' activists, who have played crucial roles as brokers between communities and international institutions.  Moreover, the priorities of HIV activists, often well connected to an international movement such as the Global Future on MSM and HIV, have sometimes clashed with the needs of those for whom immediate survival is the major priority.  This is a not uncommon problem when well-intentioned activists seek to apply models developed elsewhere [46].
It's depressing that this is still a problem, decades after it was first identified.  I've been reading essentially the same diagnosis of cultural incomprehension by foreign activists since at least the 1980s, exemplified by the Mexican-born (but professionalized in the US) activist Hector Carrillo, who after only a few years away returned to Mexico totally clueless about the needs and hangups of the people he'd come to "help."  Outside of specifically gay or AIDS work the syndrome is far older.  In her 1901 novel Work: A Story of Experience, for example, Louisa May Alcott wrote about clueless "ladies" trying to organize "anxious seamstresses, type-setters, and shop-girls" in a manner that suggests that what she was describing was already a cliche -- and that was within American society, not on foreign shores.  Yet the "professional and skilled" activists are always taken by surprise, which indicates that something is badly wrong with their training.

The consequences can be worse than the embarrassment produced by patronizing ignorance, since as Altman and Symonds point out, there are countries where LGBT activism is highly dangerous for the locals, notably African countries whose governments reject "foreign" influence in the form of the gay movement, but not the equally foreign influence of Islamist and American Evangelical missionaries, let alone the weaponry and training of death squads that the American government has shared so generously around the world.
Writing of Namibia, Robert Lorway argues that the foreign-supported Rainbow Project 'not only inhibited important political possibilities, but sometimes also reinforced social inequalities'.  The emphasis of the project on law reform often seemed irrelevant to young and poor Namibians struggling to survive, while fascinated by a particular identity politics that threatened to alienate them from family and community [ibid.].
Don't these well-intentioned activists ever begin by educating themselves, by asking local workers what they need, and under what cultural and political constraints they must live and work?  For that matter, these American professionals tend to be ignorant of gay people's lives on the ground in their own country.   Professional and skilled they may be, but people skills seem to have been forgotten somewhere along the way, and that's a failure of basic competence.

I'm a bit suspicious about that passage on Namibia, though.  It treats the "young and poor Namibians" as if they were innocent, ignorant savages, just as those foreign activists thought they were: blank slates who need to be carefully taught.  It reminded me of the account of a South African workshop on "real gay" identity, described in the anthropologist Graeme Reid's How to Be a Real Gay, led by a local organizer (tainted, alas, by contact with activists in Johannesburg).  Reid was distressed that this workshop tried "to impose a standard norm on the myriad processes, performances, desires and identities that constituted gay life in the area of my fieldwork?" (Reid, page 154), but on his own account the participants, though not uncritical of the presentation, were fascinated by it.  A second workshop, on gays and the law in South Africa, was run not by a local but by professionals from Johannesburg, bored the queens and drove most of them outside.  That didn't mean they weren't interested in their legal status -- according to Reid, they brought questions with them -- only that the workshop was badly designed by people who didn't bother to learn how to communicate with non-professionals.  The conflict appears to me to be less about "East vs. West" culture clash and more about class, and to repeat, the problem lies in a basic failure of professional competence.

Still, in the West we've come to expect professionals to meet their clients at least halfway: to ask them what they need, and to listen to the answers; to try to explain without condescension what the professional has to offer.  This expectation too is a product of American activism in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically the Women's Health movement, and it's rooted not in professionals (though some professionals participated early on) but in grass-roots organizing by people who were tired of being pushed around and talked down to.  It's also a product of AIDS activism before the movement became professionalized.  That's a model that should be exported to the Third World, though it's probably already there; the Western-trained activists should respect and cooperate with it.

One more bit:
As one activist remarked of South Korea: 'Oppression is real and ubiquitous, yet invisible enough to make calls for advocating homosexuals' rights look "excessive" or "privileging"' [47].
I hope I don't need to point out that resisting oppression is always considered excessive by the oppressors, who regard any diminution or rearrangement of their status and power as an attempt to hang them all up from the lampposts, or at least to shoot a third of them.  Leaving aside the possible merits of such an approach, I've pointed out before that there's no reason South Korean or other Asian LGBT activists must model their movements on American precedents: they should take what they find useful, and leave the rest.  If a rights-based ideology and discourse aren't appropriate in a given country, that doesn't mean that gay people there have no recourse.  Every culture has its own traditions of justice and, yes, activism.  We in the West have often learned from them.  Yet even learned and experienced observers like Altman seem to have trouble recognizing that the influence has always gone both ways.