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Beyond Gay Imperialism

Complicating the “global divide” in LGBTQ protections

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers by Mark Gevisser. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pages.

On February 4, 2021, during his second full week in office, President Joe Biden signed an order reaffirming and augmenting a 2011 memorandum that directed U.S. agencies abroad to “promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons everywhere.” Lauded by LGBTQ advocacy groups, the order noted, “Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection . . . The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle.”

In recent decades, the campaign for queer rights has gone global. While the United States has played an ambivalent role, depending on the administration in power, most North and South American as well as European countries have adopted, to varying degrees, pro-LGBTQ policies. In 2015, for instance, the Republic of Ireland adopted marriage equality in a national referendum, the first country to do so through popular vote. Two years ago, a Gender Identity Law, guaranteeing trans people the right to change their name and legal gender went into effect in Chile. Elsewhere, there has been something of a backlash. Countries like Poland, Uganda, and Russia have either rolled back protections for queer people or passed legislation that more harshly punishes same-sex acts or gender nonconformity.

This global divide is underscored each year when the advocacy organization ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) publishes a map charting laws governing sexual orientation around the world. On the 2021 map, the Americas, Europe, and a handful of other countries are colored in progressive blues. Much of Asia and Africa are shades of red.

Claims that turn on a stark divide between pro- and anti-LGBTQ countries often whitewash genuine problems in those places that purport to be friendlier homes for queer minorities.

This division probably make sense to the casual observer. But queer scholars and activists have noted that it also has colonial overtones. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European states cast their imperial projects as “civilizing missions.” In a similar manner, some global LGBTQ advocacy essentializes the differences between countries with more robust protections for gay, lesbian, and (sometimes) trans individuals, and supposedly less-developed countries that need to catch up. This tendency constitutes a kind of “gay imperialism,” in the words of scholars Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir, and Esra Erdem, allowing white people to once again “identify themselves as the global champions of ‘civilisation’, ‘modernity’ and ‘development’.”  Writing in 2008, these scholars were criticizing, among others, British activist Peter Tatchell and his group Outrage for using terms such as “Islamo-fascists.” But their point applies just as well to more recent efforts, such as Ambassador Ric Grenell’s 2019 campaign to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.

Claims that turn on a stark divide between pro- and anti-LGBTQ countries often whitewash genuine problems in those places that purport to be friendlier homes for queer minorities. They can also paper over the ways in which gay, lesbian, and trans rights are not always linked. Historians have pointed to ways in which gay men, in particular, have discriminated against trans individuals. More recently, in the United Kingdom, so-called Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have endeavored to link anti-trans and pro-lesbian activism. As Rahul Rao, a scholar who writes about global LGBTQ activism, notes, if one overlays the ILGA map of gay and lesbian rights with a map showing the frequency of trans murders, “the whole world turns red.”

In sum, we can imagine gay imperialism making two distinct, but interlocking claims. The first is that there are allegedly backward countries where gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, and trans individuals are persecuted for cultural reasons. The second is that there are other, supposedly more advanced countries where queer individuals are cherished and protected. These two claims together suggest that the latter have an obligation to impose their own gender and sexual norms onto the former—what queer theorist Sara Ahmed criticizes as “white queers saving brown queers from brown straights.”

Hijra (third gender) entertainers, 1865. | Wikimedia Commons

The problem of gay imperialism is at the heart of South African journalist Mark Gevisser’s The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, published last year with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Part travelogue, part history, the book represents Gevisser’s effort to come to grips with how trans, lesbian, and gay people around the world live and how global politics have shaped their lives over the last two decades. The book is structured as a Bildungsroman, with Gevisser inviting the reader to follow his own personal, intellectual evolution. He allows us to see how encounters with queer people disabused him of his earlier views, which had been largely, if unconsciously, shaped by the rhetoric of gay imperialism.

Gevisser’s book unfolds in two registers. He alternates between reporting on the lives of queer individuals around the world (from Cape Town and Cairo to Tel Aviv and Ann Arbor) and charting the longer global history of norms surrounding gender and sexuality. While the more analytical chapters are approachable, the book shines in the individual stories. Gevisser approaches his subjects with empathy, seeking to record their stories in their words. Moreover, these interactions push Gevisser to reexamine his own beliefs, adding nuance to a book that sets out from a rather inexperienced place of privilege.

That naivety is particularly apparent in the early chapters. Gevisser initially conceives of “the pink line” almost as a physical demarcation, something drawn “between those places increasingly integrating queer people into their societies as full citizens, and those finding new ways to shut them out now that they had come into the open.” He seems to pin much of the world’s homophobia and transphobia on religion—specifically Catholicism and Islam. References to Sharia law are sprinkled throughout the text, as he notes anti-LGBTQ legislation from Malaysia to Nigera. At times he chalks such laws up to “patriarchs and priests, who feared the inevitable loss of control” that LGBTQ rights might entail. Most queer people can of course attest to the ways in which religion perpetuates animus. Yet such formulations flatten the complex role belief plays in their lives, while also eliding rich historical traditions of Catholic and Muslim homoeroticism. Studies in the history of sexuality—such as John Boswell’s work on male-male relationships in the European Middle Ages and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s research into homoeroticism in nineteenth-century Iran—belie a simplistic connection between religious tradition and anti-queer prejudice.

Elsewhere in these early pages, Gevisser formulates the pink line as something that set “‘tradition’ against something called ‘modernity’.” As this “modernity” spread, “it was vibrant and often violent, as conservative forces blew back against the inevitable consequences of a newly globalized world and the ideas that it generated.” The language he uses to describe this battle for sexual modernity can be quite vivid: 

Sometimes, during the years I was researching this book, I closed my eyes and saw a Red army thundering across the African savanna . . . led by Vladimir Putin waving a ‘traditional values’ flag, with phalanxes ranged behind him of American right-wing evangelists, Catholic anti-‘gender theory’ warriors, imams and priests and nativists . . . Coming to confront them from the west was a Blue army behind Barack Obama, commanding international human rights organizations, Western development agencies . . . and LGBT activists.

At times, Gevisser appears to valorize a new kind of civilizing mission: that enlightened, western queers have a duty to bring the gospel of liberation to their underdeveloped brethren in Africa and the Middle East. If a reader were to throw down the book after the first hundred pages, they might come away with the impression that Gevisser is nothing more than, as Rao quips, “the white, Western journalist as speaker of truth to homophobic power.”

Yet, that reader would be wrong. For as the book progresses, Gevisser grows increasingly self-reflective, understanding that such sweeping, received ideas fail to measure up against the lived experiences of queer people around the world. Textured reporting plays a key role in this transformation. While these human stories do highlight how lesbian, trans, and gay individuals are persecuted or ostracized in various countries, they are hardly one-dimensional. For instance, Gevisser follows Pasha Captanovska, a trans woman from Lyubertsy, Russia, who was deprived of any access to her son until he turned eighteen by a court, which ruled that seeing her would damage “his understanding of ‘traditional family values’.” This seems like a marker of social backwardness. But Gevisser also notes that Pasha was able to begin her transition at a Moscow gender clinic and that many of her neighbors continued to treat her as a good friend. Even her wife, Yulia, had initially been supportive, until Vladimir Putin began to scapegoat queer people in his 2012 re-election campaign.

Sweeping, received ideas fail to measure up against the lived experiences of queer people around the world.

Another chapter follows Maha and Amira, a lesbian couple from Cairo. In June 2012, they opened a locale called the Girls’ Café in downtown Cairo. Gevisser describes how the joint attracted all kinds, from a “well-dressed older man who settled in every evening with his newspaper” to “fragrant young men in sharply pressed shirts and tight jeans,” many of whom identified as “ladyboys.” The story turns for the worse, as the couple finds the country growing more inhospitable after the June 2013 military coup (which the pro-LGBTQ Obama administration declined to recognize as such, eventually providing the new regime with military aid). Still, the point is that countries like Egypt and Russia are actually home to complex societies where queer people often find ways to flourish.

Many of the individuals Gevisser meets eventually seek asylum in the global North. Maha and Amira move, at different points in time, to Amsterdam; Michael, a young gay man from Uganda, comes to Vancouver. But their experiences there are defined by racism, further contradicting any firm division between allegedly progressive and backwards countries. “There’s a lot of discrimination in this country,” Maha tells Gevisser. “It looks beautiful on the outside, but going through it, the system is horrible. It doesn’t give you the space to make progress as a refugee.” He notes that Maha said it was particularly alienating how politicians “use asylum to show Netherlands is a great, secure country, but the system really fucking people up.” When the reader leaves Maha, she is considering a return to Cairo.

Many of the book’s later chapters turn to the experiences of queer people from the global North. Gevisser further troubles the rosy picture that these countries are uncomplicated havens for LGBTQ individuals, while also underscoring that queer rights have perversely become allied with other forms of oppression. He highlights, for instance, the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” As the name implies, pinkwashing describes a government, party, politician, or corporation that, in Gevisser’s words, uses its “liberal gay rights record to launder its violations” against other groups. It has become an increasingly common practice as conservative politicians, in particular, use their alleged support for LGBTQ rights as cover for xenophobia and Islamophobia. In some countries, those efforts seem to pay electoral dividends: in France, some polls indicate that gay men are more likely than straight men to support the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front).

In one chapter, Gevisser homes in on pinkwashing in Israel, which markets itself as a place where gay men and lesbians enjoy robust legal protections. He spends time there with Fadi Daeem, a gay, Christian Arab man, whose grandmother had fled Palestine (during the Nakba, Gevisser implies). Daeem was the subject of a film, Oriented, which headlined Israel’s 2016 Pride Week. Although invited to attend the launch event, he decided not to go, calling it “a direct act of Pinkwashing.” It effaced Palestinian suffering including, Gevisser notes, the fact that even queer Palestinians are barred from asylum in Israel.

Later, Gevisser turns his attention to trans and non-binary youth in the United States, following a handful of young Americans who do not identify with the rigid gender binary. He recounts the challenges they face in defining their gender and sexuality. Among those he interviews is Rose, a queer woman in Oakland who describes herself as right on the cusp of masculinity and femininity; she once identified as a trans man, even taking testosterone for a period. Cases such as Rose’s—individuals who begin to transition and then stop—have become causes célèbres for the new transphobia. In the fervid imagination of trans-exclusionary pundits, youths are being pressured into transitioning and later regret these choices. In fact, data from the U.K. indicate few gender-nonconforming youths actually seek out transition. It takes tenacity and determination to take that step. Moreover, as Gevisser notes, quoting sociologist Tey Meadow, “only a tiny percentage of individuals who make full social and medical transitions regret those decisions.”

In the end, Gevisser is not just after equality, but rather mutual intelligibility and empathy.

Gevisser is less interested in statistics, though, and more in how young people around the world continue to challenge received understandings of gender and sexuality. Quoting historian Susan Stryker, he notes that transgender is “the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place, rather than any particular destination or mode of transition.” As Rose tells Gevisser, “It’s nice always to be able to change, like a chameleon, blending into this situation or that, but at the same time I do have this desire for consistency between the internal sphere and public sphere. It would be nice if people saw me the way I see myself.” Stories like these add up to a subtle argument: sexuality and gender are still being contested in western countries—no place can claim to have reached sexual modernity.

As the book progresses, Gevisser increasingly catches himself—telling us how he used to think about an issue and what’s wrong with it. When he brings up the red and blue armies in his mind, for instance, he quickly corrects course: “the image was misguided. It must have been formed, somewhere in my brain, by overexposure to the ideas of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. . .” It is, I think, courageous of him to admit to his own earlier thinking. Such introspection gives the book its intellectual scope, enacting a kind of critique and corrective to gay imperialist rhetoric. In the book’s epilogue, about the “It Gets Better” campaign, he argues against such unidirectional queer advocacy, contending, 

It posits a one-way generational traffic flow between older people in ‘freer’ environments, and younger people in more constrained ones . . . It suggests forward motion—the ineluctable progress promised by liberal democracy—that comes with growing up. It predicts that Uganda and Egypt and India and Mexico might, with the right influence, ‘mature’ into the kinds of societies, with the kinds of freedoms, that are found in western Europe or North America. Such a worldview restricts one from seeing people in other places—with other experiences, in other circumstances—as equal.

Perhaps Gevisser’s most moving reflections come in the sections where he explores non-binary conceptions of sexuality and gender that exist outside the western framework. He touches, for instance, on “the third-gender ‘yan daudu of northern Nigeria,” who typically participate in trades dominated by women; the “bakla” in the Philippines, who “have their roots in the precolonial babaylan, shamans who presented as female but could be either male- or female-bodied”; and the “goor-jigeen” of Senegal, gender nonconforming individuals who, Gevisser reports, were “often attached to wealthy houses,” where they served as masters of ceremony. The final chapter details his time in Devanampattinam, a fishing village in the southeastern tip of India. There he meets people known as kothi, individuals assigned a male identity at birth, but who live as women without medical intervention. Lakshaya, a kothi in her early twenties when Gevisser first met her, puts this succinctly: “Gays wear nice clothes and have parties and sex. A kothi is someone who lives in the village and does women’s work.” Examining these identities allows Gevisser to get out from under western presuppositions about sexuality and gender, which he contends are ultimately “surface wrappers, like the rainbow flag itself, furled as it was around various agendas and subjectivities and histories.”

Indeed, Gevisser reports that he finds the identity of kothi more freeing than conventional western homosexuality. “I no longer walk around in the certain box of my masculinity,” he reflects, regarding his work on the book, “and I find that immensely liberating.” This seems like a small answer to Rao’s recent observation, that “it is difficult to think of any Western activists today who draw on the resources of non-Western cultures to argue for greater toleration of sexual minorities within their own societies.” In the end, Gevisser is not just after equality, but rather mutual intelligibility and empathy. Perhaps these are the bedrock on which to build a new queer activism for the whole world.