By Kelly Jean Cogswell
I can’t help it. I cheer when I see headlines like “Hillary Clinton declares 'gay rights are human rights’” or “Ecuador: Lesbian who led fight against 'gay conversion' clinics appointed to Presidential Cabinet.”
I know the U.S. has its own, unsavory civil rights failures from domestic spying and indefinite detentions, to murder abroad by drones. And that the appointment in Ecuador is probably just a gay-positive bone tossed out there to quell international protests over the clinics before people start noticing how they’re just the tip of a human rights iceberg. President Rafael Correa’s pastime is pretty much tinkering with his constitution to stifle the press and squash his opposition.
Still, LGBT rights ARE human rights, no matter what you think about other aspects of American policy. And in the case of Ecuador, Carina Vance Mafla, an out dyke, is still going to lead the national Health Ministry, even if most of the gay conversion clinics that got closed, apparently re-opened about half an hour later. Tyrants, especially, are always trumpeting that new bridge, that literacy program as they throw another dissident in jail, leave another journalist bleeding in the gutter.
At least you end up with a bridge. The question for queer activists is, do you burn the thing down in a fit of pique, or go after the tyrant for his tyranny? Lately we’ve favored burning the bridge even if it leaves vulnerable queers isolated on the other side.
LGBT puritans of the left are even going so far as to condemn "white, middle-class, Western" queers like me for supporting LGBT fights in the global south. Either I’m complicit with the tyrant’s pink-washing, or a racist colonial monster trying to enslave the masses and fiddle with unalterable foreign cultures for my own homonationalist gain.
Who needs the likes of Rick Warren when we’ve got good old Judith Butler et al doing the work of conservative bigots by telling gay activists to stay at home? Especially now, when American Christian fundamentalist money is pouring into Africa and Latin America to support anti-gay campaigns by their protégés there who advocate torture and violence, not just on the street, but as law in the courts. Shouldn’t queer dollars (and U.S. aid) support LGBT activists fighting back? Shouldn’t we care what happens to people like us in the rest of the world?
Yes, America has problems with human rights. But does that disqualify us from also doing some good? We’ve never exactly shone around racial issues. But should we have abstained from participating in the boycott that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa just because our hands weren’t quite clean?
Likewise, the United States has always had problems with sexism, and rights for women, (what on earth were they thinking at the Komen Foundation???), but should we have used that as an excuse to back away from supporting women’s rights globally?
The real problem with "middle-class, meddling, Western” queers is that we don’t get involved nearly enough considering all the money and power at our disposal. And when we do, we have the attention span of a flea, and no understanding at all that we have to look at how LGBT rights fit into the broader picture of human rights if we want any of our gains to endure.
We have to do more than click on online petitions, declare victory, then move on. The trick is to congratulate people like President Rafael Correa for appointing a dyke and closing twenty clinics. Then tell him we’ll keep a close eye on things, looking forward to the moment we can celebrate closing them all. And when it comes to Ecuadorian activists, we need to ask if they need more than just a click online. Do they need money? Technical assistance for websites and networking? Are they hampered by problems in civil society? The crackdown on the press? Freedom of speech is the cornerstone for any civil rights movement to succeed. What else can we do?
LGBT people that are still struggling for their rights have to seize, and celebrate, every single opening, pressure every ostensible ally including Hillary Clinton. I remember that when Bush appointed Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, I sneered at them as mere tokens. But it’s hard to imagine America voting a black man into the White House if we hadn’t spent several years seeing people of color in some of America’s top jobs.
The world is complicated. Politics are messy. Our progress can be manipulated. But so what? If we can split atoms, we can surely congratulate Ecuadorian queers for what gains they’ve made, AND denounce their country’s treatment of dissidents. Ditto for Uganda or Israel, pink-washer extraordinaire.
The good thing about getting tossed bones is that you can gnaw them clean, then carve them into unexpectedly sharp points. Yes we can.