The fourth post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is from Cyril Ghosh. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here.
Cyril Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Government & Politics at Wagner College and Part-Time Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School. He is the author of The Politics of the American Dream: Democratic Inclusion in Contemporary American Political Culture (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013). He is currently working on a book manuscript (with Elizabeth F. Cohen): Key Concepts: Citizenship (under contract with Polity Press, UK).
Cynthia Weber has written a very compelling contribution to the study of queer international relations. In this symposium entry, I intend to identify what – to my mind – are the three biggest achievements of the book. Here, I want to specifically offer some reflections on two figures discussed by Weber: one is the neoliberal, docile, gay, homonationalist patriot – in other words, the ‘good gay’. The second is the figure of Tom Neuwirth/Conchita Wurst, whom Weber sees as a destabilizing persona that lends itself beautifully to reading sexuality and/or the queer into international relations. I will conclude the post with a few remarks on some of the questions the book raises and invites further discussions about.
But I begin with the achievements: first, the book clarifies queer IR as a method in a way that is both urgent and welcome. In doing so, it secures a solid foundation for both future and contemporary scholarship on queer IR. The specific discussions of tropes from Foucault, Sedgwick, Haraway, Butler, Barthes, and others is fascinating to me – especially as a combination of lenses that can be used to refract and pluralize analyses of contemporary IR.
For some time now, we have had a feminist IR movement within the field of IR. But, at the present time, only a handful of scholars examine tropes of sexuality. As Weber correctly identifies, this is because IR scholars and Queer Studies scholars rarely converse with each other. And, in doing so, they leave unexplored much fertile ground of inquiry.
Discourses surrounding despised sexualities of various kinds present themselves in international affairs. In fact, they are ubiquitous. Thus, as Jasbir Puar, Lily Ling, Anna Agathangelou, and others have shown, ‘political’ rivals are routinely presented/depicted using imagery and language predicated on despised sexualities. These depictions can range from the figure of a highly sexualized violent rapist to emasculation (and defeat?) through anal penetration. Analyses of these tropes obviously transcend the field of IR (I am thinking here of Edward Said or Jack Shaheen), but they remain particularly relevant for it.
So, in offering a systematic and yet not reified methodological approach to queer IR, Weber has done, I think, a great service to this nascent subfield. Hers is not the final word on the subject, as she would herself acknowledge. However, the book represents a bold step forward in this line of inquiry.
Second, Weber’s discussion of Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day appearance at the UN in 2011, where she delivers a searing speech about gay-rights-as-universal human rights, is both excellent and nuanced. I want to emphasize this idea of nuance here because Weber actually makes two interesting – and apparently discordant – moves. On the one hand, she acknowledges the problematic nature of the speech, and on the other, she also cautions against taking it as axiomatic that the speech is an example of neoliberal ‘pinkwashing’.
In fact, as she correctly points out, the terms Clinton uses do not exhaustively define what this call for ‘gay rights as human rights’ might ‘do in the world’. In this context, Weber wisely reminds us that we also ought to think about what it would mean for the United States NOT to call for gay rights as human rights.
Yes, it is well known that President Obama and the-then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself have apparently ‘evolved’ (and, god knows, taken their time to do so) on the question of gay rights as human rights and changed their minds about whether gay people should have the right to marry. It is also well known that the US itself had sodomy laws on the books in several states till as late as 2003 – one of the few countries of the global North that still had these kinds of laws (to be fair to her, Clinton does explicitly acknowledge this).
So, it is actually easy – but ultimately simplistic – to focus exclusively on what might seem like hypocrisy in the way in which the speech has been used to leverage a pinkwashing campaign against countries that don’t try to assimilate their queers into becoming good gays by according them rights. The reality is, though, that across the world LGBT+ people have celebrated this speech, circulated it on social media, talked to their friends and families about it, and so on.
It doesn’t matter if Hillary Clinton’s own position on marriage equality has taken a bit of time to evolve (For political reasons? Was she always a supporter?). What matters is that LGBT+ people across the world are grateful to her for delivering that speech. In fact, many of us were very, very deeply moved when we first saw/heard it. So, it is important that Weber cautions us to remain mindful about what this speech might ‘do in the world’.
At the same time, however, one should not erase the fact that the speech itself is part of a larger discursive context that routinely interweaves ‘homonationalism’ with international affairs. In recent years, under the Obama administration and indeed in the speech itself, the US has repeatedly characterized the figure of the LGBT+ individual as a gay-rights-holder. In so doing, it has contributed to a phenomenon that has come to be described, correctly, as ‘pinkwashing’.
This figure of the gay-rights-holding individual is always presented as an unencumbered, abstract, identity-less, Kantian, and by that logic Rawlsian, individual. But somehow, she also has some of the following characteristics: she is privatized and depoliticized, and flourishes only in domesticity, consumption, and what might be, and has been, called homonormativity. This is simply a version of heteronormativity but with its own, somewhat peculiar, aesthetics. She may or may not be repronormative; but she never transgresses any boundaries of civilized and bourgeois decency. She loves; she marries; she doesn’t cheat on her partner; she never cruises the streets; she shops; she spends money; she vacations; and – and this is very important – she doesn’t ‘live in the shadows’ and she is HIV negative.
In other words, this gay-rights-holder is a universal figure precisely because she is ‘normal’ in every possible way. She is the ‘not-perverse’ LGBT+ person. That doesn’t mean there are no ‘perverted’ homosexuals. But we are not talking about them here. Or really anywhere. Any talk about these ‘other’ gays falls outside the range of conversations permissible in the elevated and hallowed registers of human rights discourse.
Weber is keenly aware here that Clinton never says the word ‘homosexual’ – and exclusively uses the less pathological signifier, ‘LGBT’. This LGBT+ individual has the right to have rights (as Arendt would say) and should be accorded status and recognition as full citizens. And here is where a move to pinkwashing is made more or less explicit in the speech:
If you are a state that does not accord an identical basket of rights and immunities to straight citizens and the domesticated LGBT+ individuals, then you are on the wrong side of history. As it turns out, then, there is only one right side of history and the US, UK, and Israel (on Israel, see Katherine Franke’s excellent work) – because they give gays and lesbians rights – are all standing and evolving on that very nice side of history.
It is also significant that the relationships these ‘good’ states have crafted with their homonationalists are mutually beneficial. Here’s how: the state accords these people rights. And they, in turn, protect the homeland. They do so by doing one or both of two things. First, they preserve domestic tranquility and normalcy by staying true to their consumerist credentials and by thus sustaining neoliberal markets. They sometimes help the economy by becoming entrepreneurial gays. They also often do their part for a ‘reproductive loving national family’ by bearing and/or raising children. And they are patriots. Thus – and this is the second very nice thing that they do – in the US, since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, they also openly serve in the military and, in doing so, more performatively protect the nation from foreign aggression.
The tiresome punch-line, then, as must be obvious to anyone, is: you are a good gay or a perverse homosexual; you are a nice gay-friendly state or a state that persecutes its homosexuals; you are either on the right side of history or on the wrong side.
Obviously, there are multiple unsustainable dichotomies at work here. This is why queer studies – which takes as a central underpinning the refutation of binary logics and ostensibly stable categories – is so very useful in deconstructing these rhetorical tropes and indeed what these tropes are intended to ‘do in the world’.
What Weber does here is systematically take apart the implications of Clinton’s speech but she does this while addressing the many complexities surrounding the issues at hand. This is one of Weber’s great strengths. It is also precisely this ability of Weber’s to take apart concepts that are routinely and misleadingly presented to us as non-problematically dichotomous that culminates in what I think is the towering achievement of the book: Weber’s reading of the liminal position occupied by Tom Neuwirth/Conchita Wurst as the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest’s bearded drag queen winner. She reads Neuwirth/Wurst as (a) an amorphous figure that is simultaneously normal and perverse, and (b) as both Europe’s hope for normalcy and/or Europe’s anxiety about perversion, and, by extension, abnormality.
For Eurovision, which is always already a politicized event (the Russians and the Ukrainians vote against each other; the Germans and the Turks try to vote for each other, and so on), Neuwirth/Wurst is a persona – a bearded drag queen – that both exceeds analysis and contains it within what Weber identifies as ‘”European” debates about “European” integration.’ Does Neuwirth/Wurst represent a new figure of European tolerance for difference? Or do they mark the end of normality, a perverse homosexual/Europe?
The figure is replete with misalignments, crossings, transgressions, and discordance. Not only is Neuwirth/Wurst a bearded drag queen, even her name(s) destabilize(s) sexual/gender identity and gender expression: ‘Conchita/shell/vagina + Wurst/sausage/penis.’ Thus, this ‘border’ figure refuses to signify one thing or another. They are in part Colombian, in part German, and in part Austrian. They are in part immigrant, and in part native. They are in part white, and in part not white. They are in part wanted (by tolerant liberal Europeans) and in part unwanted (by the Russians, for example; Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky has apparently observed: ‘They don’t have men and women any more. They have “it.”’). They represent Europe and they don’t. In other words, they contest any easy and stable narrative of the European integration project: the participating countries want immigrants; they don’t want immigrants; they want to share key elements of their sovereignty; they don’t want to do so; and so on and so forth.
This discussion, I think, is particularly fascinating in the summer of 2016 – as I write this. In embodying the contradictions that have always characterized the European integration project, in a ‘queer’ way, Neuwirth/Wurst presages what the UK will now, post-Brexit, inevitably, have to become – somewhat vaguely a part of a ‘common’ Europe, but also, technically, most certainly not a part of it.
In short, Queer IR’s and/or queer IR’s central contribution is its/their ability to destabilize and contest received wisdom about international relations. And Weber has done an excellent job here of offering one foundational text for this area of inquiry. However, the discussions in the book do, I think, raise a few sets of questions for further thinking and inquiry.
First, why is stabilization ALWAYS a bad thing? I am reminded here of the discussion of ‘strategic essentialism’ – a concept some attribute to Gayatri Spivak – in the case of identity-based politics. This, surely, is an instance of stabilization of identities that even the phenomenon’s staunchest critics might, nonetheless, and even reluctantly, endorse. What value, if any, then, might the stabilization of identities have? And what is lost from/in destabilization/queering?
Second, in the analysis of the Clinton speech, I wonder if there is some room to discuss gay-rights-withholding states – that is, the states on the wrong side of history – as ‘perverse’ states (who mirror the ‘perverse homosexual’ – living in the shadows). I was expecting to see such a description/discussion; I was disappointed to not find it.
Finally, in the discussion of the gay-rights-holder figure and the Clinton speech, there is, I think, room for an interrogation of the word ‘rights’ in Clinton’s phrase ‘gay rights are human rights’. To what extent can one talk about ‘gay rights’ as if this were a settled concept? What precise rights is Clinton talking about? The right to physical security? To bodily integrity? The right to life? Marriage rights? Political rights? Economic rights? Social rights? Cultural rights? Sexual rights? Which of these are ‘gay rights’? How are they ‘gay rights’? How does she foresee enumerating these ‘gay rights’? It seems to me that without further clarification, the word ‘rights’ and the phrase ‘gay rights’ mean very little. To be sure, Clinton does try to clarify what rights she is talking about – but in doing so I think she raises more questions than she resolves.
Thus, inadvertently, and most probably against her best intentions, Clinton’s speech erases from the discourse the various ways in which an entire gamut of rights violations are routinely experienced by sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression minorities both in the US and elsewhere because it presents ‘rights’ and ‘gay rights’ as settled concepts within a presumed (but eternally unspecified) linguistic community. Whatever happened to unequal pay and employment discrimination? Why don’t these rights violations make the cut in her speech? These are not ‘gay rights’?
While it ought to be clear from what I have said above that I could not agree more with Weber when she urges us to remain mindful of what a statement like Clinton’s might ‘do in the world’, we might also want to remain aware that the language of rights is often ungrammatical, idiosyncratic, and arbitrary. It sometimes helps. But it can also mislead.
I realize that we cannot not talk about ‘gay rights’.
However, I do hope that those who claim, together with Clinton, that gay rights are human rights, do not find themselves – as Stanley Fish, citing Milton, would put it – in ‘wandering mazes lost’.