Resistance to Global LGBT Norms

International Relations is not normally thought of as the go-to place for lessons on the protection of gays, lesbians, trans, bi and queer people. But in recent times, it has been possible to get the impression that something about the practice of international politics has changed; that norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were gaining prominence and exerting discernible influence. In politics and policy making, one could point to the Yogyakarta principles. In mainstream IR theory, one could assess the steady stream of work that has arisen from theories of norm change and entrepreneurship and consider how they might apply to the LGBT case.


The Secretary General of the United Nations has launched a campaign for the protection of the human rights of LGBT people (with its own Bollywood movie clip!) He has said that the protection of human rights is “one of the great, neglected human rights challenges of our time.” In 2011, the UN released its first ever report (pdf) into the human rights of LGBT people. It states that:

a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response. Governments and inter-governmental bodies have often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The mandate of the Human Rights Council requires it to address this gap: the Council should promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. (see here, paragraph 2)

The question of how “Governments and inter-governmental bodies” might go about looking at and responding to violence and rights abuse against LGBT people is a complex one. Knee-jerk responses that impose aid conditionality measures, such as that suggested by UK PM David Cameron in the case of Uganda, are probably the least helpful route. Nonetheless, some form of conditionality, or assessment of the rights afforded to LGBT peoples, has become a standard within the repertoire of pro-LGBT rights states and their foreign policy advocates.

The high profile case of Uganda gets much of the attention in discussions of the casually interested at this point in time. But push-back against LGBT friendly norms within the international system is in fact a widespread phenomena. It is certainly not limited to the case of Uganda and other African states which are often presented as being particularly “anti-gay” – as having a kind of “anti-gayness” which is somehow worse than the acceptable forms of discrimination which have been common practice for all states. A careful consideration of the many cases in different regions of the world of push-back against LGBT norms and rights is needed.


Very fortunately, I can now flourish my magic wand and pull just such a project out of my hat: Cai Wilkinson and myself have had the great honour of co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Human Rights which furnishes interested readers with a range of articles examining forms of local resistance mobilized against the influence of international norms for the protection of LGBT persons.[1]

Here is the run down on what you will get in this Special Issue. Michael J. Bosia leads off with “Strange Fruit: Homophobia, the State, and the Politics of LGBT Rights and Capabilities.” Bosia draws on research from Kampala, Cairo and Paris, and furthers his account of state homophobia which you can also find discussed in a fabulous new book he has co-edited. Bosia argues that a politics of social and political capabilities, rather than of rights and identities, will serve sexual minorities better in the context of such state homophobia. Momin Rahman, in “Queer Rights and the Triangulation of Western Exceptionalism”, looks at the relations between LGBTQ rights and Muslim cultures. He argues for an alternative to the standard oppositional account which is framed in terms of Muslim traditionalisms which lag behind in the modernization trajectory. Instead he develops a “Homocolonialist” critique of the way in which queer rights discourse if often employed. Momin also has a recent new book!

Karen Zivi offers a critical assessment of same sex marriage right in the USA: “Performing the Nation: Contesting Same-Sex Marriage Rights in the United States” Zivi examines the way in which both critics and proponents of marriage rights advance a conception of good citizenship linked to marriage, reproduction and certain norms of intimacy and parenting. Zivi calls this constellation of norms “repronormativity” and advances her critique using a theoretical framework she has previously elaborated which sees rights claiming as a performative practice. This framework is also utilized by myself in “Human Rights, ‘Orientation,’ and ASEAN”. Performative analyses of rights proves a useful tool for analyzing and asking questions about the recent human rights developments in the ASEAN region. Since 2009, a host of new Human Rights institutions and instruments have been created – but according to local civil society activists, these developments have not positively advanced the standing of LGBT persons in region, to which there is still much resistance.

Katherine Browne and Catherine J. Nash consider states where, by contrast, LGBT rights are usually considered a done deal. In “Resisting LGBT Rights where ‘we have won’: Canada and Great Britain”, they ask us to reconsider the tendency to focus especially on resistance in places that do not have LGBT equalities legislation, and to consider oppositional discourses in states that do have such legislation. Philip M. Ayoub offers a comparison of Poland and Slovenia, in “With Arms Wide Shut: Threat Perception, Norm Reception, and Mobilized Resistance to LGBT Rights.” He asks why LGBT norms sometimes meet active resistance and sometimes do not. He discusses the way in which differing perceptions of threat are crucial here, and in particular the way in which these perceptions are related to the role of religion. (And he has another new piece here).

Finally we come to Cai‘s contribution, “Putting ‘Traditional Values’ into practice: The Rise and Contestation of Anti-Homopropaganda Laws in Russia”. Here, Russia’s use of traditional values is analysed and critiqued, in ways which challenge both the logic of political homophobia in Russia, but also the homonormative account of the rights approach advocated by the LGBT mainstream in response. This leads to a further discussion about the utility of identity based LGBT rights claims within the broader discourse of universal human rights norms.

All of the contributions to this volume are rich and generous, providing much food for thought. Beyond their immediate subject matter, it is also worth considering the light that they shed on international relations itself. While none of these pieces specifically turns their attention to (disciplinary) IR for long (if at all), we can observe that they provide a very different lens (or set of lenses) through which to look at the putative subject matter of the discipline. In turn, the discipline looks rather different when considered with their themes and examples in mind. This will be the subject of a further post; but for the moment see here.

In the meantime, happy reading!

The Special Issue had its origins in a panel at the 2013 International Studies Association Annual (ISA) Convention in San Francisco. The panel was organised by Cai and was co-sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Queer and Allies Caucus and the Human Rights Section of the ISA. The panel’s title is now the title of our Special Issue: Not Such an International Human Rights Norm? Local Resistance to LGBT Rights. Richard P. Hiskes, then editor of the Journal of Human Rights was in attendance at the panel, and was keen to see our discussions brought to a wider audience – for which we are all most grateful!


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