Pride and Prejudice: Current Conflicts Between Ethnic Minorities and LGBT

The latest edition of TRENT Magazine has been mailed out to alum and friends of Trent around the world. We're excited to share some of the stories here at TRENT Magazine Live, including this piece on the conflict that exists between gender/sexuality groups and ethnic minorities -- and the hopes for resolution.

Dr. Rahman researches in the area of LGBT citizenship with a particular focus on Muslim LGBT politics and identity, including a four year SSHRC funded project on Queer Muslim Visibility in Canada and the United States.

He was a member of the Academic committee for Fifth International Conference on Queering Paradigms “Queering narratives of modernity”, Quito, Ecuador, February 20-22, 2014 and a member of the Organizing Committee and Programming sub-committee for the World Pride Human Rights Conference, June 25-27th, 2014, Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto.

Pride and Prejudice?  Current Conflicts between Ethnic Minorities and LGBT

Dr. Moman Rahman

LGBT Pride in Toronto this year embodied two significant and conflicting momentums. It was the first year that the festival ran for an entire month, signalling a popularity and legitimacy to LGBT identities that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago, maybe even more recently than that. In contrast, the closing parade was disrupted by a political protest from the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM). BLM produced a specific set of demands that were focused on increasing the visibility and funding of ethnic minority groups within Pride and, more broadly, challenging the oppressive policing of Black, Aboriginal and ethnic minority sex workers in Toronto.  This conflict in Toronto illustrates a much broader issue in contemporary LGBT politics in the West and globally.

LGBT citizenship has made striking advances across many western countries and some southern ones in the last decade or so. After the initial emergence of gay liberation in the early 1970s, there was limited progress on decriminalization of homosexual behaviour, anti-discrimination protections and civil rights. This was also, however, a period of community building and organization and, like many social movements, it took some time for LGBT groups to become organized enough to start having a political presence and impact. It is important to realise that academic analysis of homosexual oppression was also crucial in articulating that society had gendered and sexual “norms” that were not justified by “natural” laws but rather the result of the political, ideological and social organization of gender—what we now term heteronormativity. In the last ten years, we have seen the culmination of this activism and passed a threshold of LGBT citizenship rights in many countries around the world. So maybe a month-long Pride is an inevitable marker of this success?

Well, the story is not quite so simple when we consider the diversity within LGBT identities. There has always been ethnic diversity within LGBT, but the mainstream politics of focusing on sexual oppression has failed to take into account other vectors of inequality—what we now call intersectionality in most of the academic and policy literature. Indeed, BLM Toronto was echoing a broad criticism of the gay movement, that it has become more conservative as it has become more successful and mainstream—echoing dominant identity norms of heterosexuality, ethnicity and class rather than disrupting them. This is termed homonormativity in the academic literature and perhaps the best example is same-sex marriage, which many argue, impersonates an oppressive institution of heteronormativity. LGBT politics has forgotten that the structures that privilege certain identities and stigmatize others, operate across and intersect with categories of gender, ethnicity, colonization and physical ability and are not exclusive to sexual identities. Hence, the lack of intersectionality has produced less awareness that visibility for ethnic minorities within the LGBT community is as important as sponsorships from big corporations who want to access LGBT customers.

This awareness of the diversity of experience within LGBT communities is also important when considering the increasingly global conflicts around LGBT rights and some states, often allied to major religions, and some immigrant communities, again often religiously identified, within countries such as Canada. For example, there continues to be a battle over the LGBT elements in Ontario’s sex education curriculum, with many ethnic minority groups providing resistance on the basis of religion, often in alliance with more established Christian groups in Canada. Globally, many countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia are resisting the internationalization of LGBT rights as human rights, claiming that these identities are “western” imports. There is a real danger here that LGBT rights become deployed as a new technique of racism and colonialism—being used to mark out immigrant communities, global south countries and religious communities in both cases, as “less developed” and “less civilized.” For sure, there are stark differences in the acceptance of LGBT rights between the West and many immigrant communities, religions such as Islam, and non-Western countries, but they always proceed on the assumption that there are no traditions of sexual diversity within the resistant communities. We know from historical evidence that this is inaccurate, although versions of sexual difference do not match our more recent Western versions of what it means to be gay or lesbian.  We also know that there has always been ethnic and cultural diversity within Western versions of gay identity, but that seems to have been hidden from our public versions of LGBT. Not every lesbian or gay person in the West is like the heteronormative couple in Modern Family and yet we must remember that it is positive that a mainstream popular TV show can now include LGBT identities without upsetting or losing its audience. With these tensions and evidence in mind, there is the possibility for dialogue between seemingly mutually exclusive groups.

One important way to begin dialogue in these conflicts is to raise the awareness and visibility of traditions of sexual diversity within ethnic, national and religious groupings, so that when we think of LGBT, we don’t only imagine the White Western people that are too often the representation of our communities in our own mainstream media and our own political organizations. The BLM protest has highlighted this need for dialogue in Toronto, and has provoked a process of reflection by the Pride organization, which will hopefully lead to some positive moves to return Pride to a more balanced event that represents both its diverse communities, and is commercially viable. If you live in Toronto, go to the town halls and public consultations occurring over the coming months and raise these complications. We have also seen some voices from within mainstream ethnic minority groups start to articulate their support for LGBT dignity, particularly in the wake of the Orlando massacre, where some anti-immigrant politicians sought to blame Muslims and their religion for the motivations of the shooter. Muslims for Progressive Values in the USA has been a particularly important group here. On the other side, LGBT groups are starting to acknowledge that they must also stand up against racism and Islamophobia in order to break down the opposition between LGBT rights and ethnic and religious groupings, and the International Lesbian and Gay Association of Europe is a good example here. Internationally, there is an increasing recognition that governments and IGOs need to address these issues. I have recently been at some private meetings at the UN Human Rights Council and Wilton Park, a think tank associated with the British Foreign Office, both of which are aimed at navigating a way through these conflicts.

What academics do is an important contribution to our communities and countries that are facing these difficult questions of homophobias, racisms and intersections between the two, both at home and abroad. There are academics involved in BLM for example, continuing a long tradition of academic activism within LGBT politics. Moreover, universities provide us with the space and time to reflect more deeply on social issues, and allow us to produce analysis that can be used politically to achieve social justice—heteronormativity, intersectionality, and homonormativity are all concepts developed by academics that are now widely used by political activists and policy makers. Trent is a particularly good example of a university that supports social justice research, not only for people like me working on LGBT issues, but across a range of social conflicts and inequalities in environmentalism, Indigenous politics and refugee politics, to name but a few. Universities are more than just businesses that process students: we are spaces where societies and communities can take time to reflect and work through important issues and places where we, as members of the university community, learn about ourselves and others. Universities help to make good societies, and being part of that experience is one of the best aspects of being here at Trent.

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