From Peter Drucker ed., Different Rainbows: Same-Sex Sexualities and Popular Movements in the Third World (London: Millivres/GMP, 2000)



Reinventing liberation: Strategic questions for lesbian/gay movements

Peter Drucker




Getting radical about sex


Multipled and nuanced LGBT identities have consequences for lesbian/gay movements. In the introduction I suggested some reasons why 'queer' rhetoric and politics have not caught on much in the Third World: queer theorists' one-sided emphasis on cultural issues, their lack of attention to economics and basic survival issues, and a diffuse conception of power that is not necessarily convincing to women, poor people and others on the bottom rungs of Third World societies. But the queer rejection of a homogenized, assimilationist lesbian/gay sexuality may well be convincing to many Third World LGBTs. Third World LGBT communities are unlikely to become homogenous, and there are too many diverse subcultures to marginalize them all.


Issues of transgendered people and sex workers in particular are important in the Third World. The great diversity of identities gives substance to the idea of an alliance of all the sexually oppressed, rather than a movement around a single lesbian/gay sexual identity. To the extent broad communities do come to identify as lesbian and gay, the words tend in the Third World to be defined politically rather than in terms of a sexual model. As Chou says, the extent of diversity does not allow for a single strategy or 'a single monolithic discourse'.


Lesbian/gay communities in Europe and North America are sexually diverse as well, of course. There has been a profileration of sub-subcultures in the 1980s and '90s. Transgendered people remain one of those sub-subcultures. But there has been a strong tendency to emphasize the most 'normal' images and keep the more 'extreme' ones under wraps as lesbian/gay organizations have pushed their away into the mainstream in advanced capitalist countries. Undermining gender differences, one of the original goals of lesbian/gay liberation in the 1970s and promoted by forms of 'gender fuck' in the 1980s, has been increasingly neglected as a goal by LGB movements. Third World movements can re-raise this dimension, and are in fact doing so, sometimes in the face of resistance from moderate leaderships and disproportionately middle class gays who prefer to mimic European and North American imagery. Challenging gender roles may help in the future to preserve Third World movements from a reformist, assimilationist politics, which always seems to leave transgendered people behind.


Transgender organizing has a long history in the Third World, as well as a growing presence today. Pakistani transgendered hijras organized successfully in the early 1960s against a ban on their activities by the Pakistani government. Indonesian waria were also organized in the 1960s, before there was any attempt to organize a gay movement as such, in fact before there was much gay organizing in Europe or North America.[1] Although hijra organizing seems rare today either within or outside South Asian lesbian/gay movements, one hijra ran for office in Pakistan in 1990, while another was even elected to the city council in the northern Indian city of Hissar in 1995. One of the most prominent leaders of the lesbian/gay movement in Turkey, Demet Demir, is a transsexual who has also played an important role in sex workers' organizing, the feminist movement, and HIV/AIDS advocacy; in 1991 Demir was the first person in history recognized as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience due to persecution on account of sexual orientation. Since 1993 Brazilian transvestites have both organized themselves and forced the lesbian/gay movement to open up to them.[2]


Transgendered people put forward specific demands when they mobilize. The lists of demands that have come out of transgender organizing in Argentina have been particularly comprehensive; some of the demands have been won. In 1998, for example, the city of Buenos Aires adopted a measure against police harassment of transvestites and sex workers. Other demands have been to reduce the number of documents and occasions when people are classified as male or female, since such classifications often serve no particular purpose, and to fund sex change operations by public health services.


The growth of organizing by transgendered people does not mean that they are monopolizing same-sex politics. 'Masculine' gay men and 'feminine' lesbians are organizing in increasing numbers as well. In the right political circumstances, transgendered people can even become politically active along with their non-transgendered, 'non-gay' partners. The transgendered skesanas' 'non-gay'injonga partners who led the 1992 Johannesburg Pride parade, whom I mentioned in the introduction, are a striking example. Injongas are exceptional in having a distinctive identity and a traditional word they use to refer to themselves; Latin American men who have sex with locas have neither, for example. But perhaps macho men or femme women who have sex with transgendered people in Latin America or Asia could one day play a visible role in lesbian/gay organizing, if and when lesbian/gay movements become strong and popular enough.[3]


Transgendered people's sexual partners, who sometimes have heterosexual relationships at the same time, can be seen in some ways as a Third World equivalent of First World bisexuals, who have also been organizing and demanding more recognition in recent years. But the dynamics of their organizing, and their special role in some Third World lesbian/gay movements, are in other ways quite different from those of First World bisexuals; in many ways they are unique. It is bound to be an enormous step for men and women in the Third World who are married and have families to acknowledge openly their own same-sex relationships. Until that step is taken, the potential base for LGBT organizing is divided and weakened by suspicions, tensions and sometimes even contempt between transgendered people and the non-transgendered people who have sex with them—all the more when class differences are at work. Replacing these suspicions with respect and solidarity is a crucial step towards liberation.[4]


The implications of a broad alliance of varied same-sex identities go beyond adjustments of terminology or this or that subgroup's specific demands. For lesbians, Mogrovejo says, it can mean 're-evaluating the masculine figure—seen no longer solely as an opponent, but rather as a potential ally: gay men, transvestites, transexuals and the transgendered'. It can also mean a redefinition of the lesbian/gay movements' goals.


European lesbian/gay movements seem increasingly to demand a recognition of same-sex love enshrined ultimately in the right to marry. The ideal of romantic love has a specific European history, from medieval chivalry to Protestant ideals of domesticity to nineteenth-century romantic novels; and European ideals of marriage are one product of that history. These ideals have been spread by global media, and they influence LGBTs as well, including in the Third World. But in the Third World as elsewhere, many sexual relationships have at least as much to do with satisfying desire or holding together family and community as with romantic love. As they formulate their demands, Third World lesbian/gay movements do not have to privilege relationships based on romantic love as the universal prism through which all struggles must be refracted.


Altman suggests that whatever country we look at, 'whether Indonesia or the United States, Thailand or Italy, the range of constructions of homosexuality is growing', and that this broad range will be characteristic of an emerging 'global community'. If so, the Third World may be playing a pioneering role in defining this global community now, as the US played a pioneering role in the first decades after Stonewall. The Third World can pioneer the return of lesbian/gay movements to a broad vision of sexual and cultural transformation. It can raise again the objective of universal sexual liberation, including as Chou says that of the 'so-called straight world', which 'is itself never immune to the seduction of homoerotic desire'.




[1] Nauman Naqvi & Hasan Mujtaba, 'Two Baluchi buggas, a Sindhi zenana, and the status of hijras in contemporary Pakistan', in Stephen Murray & Will Roscoe eds., Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature, New York, New York Univ. Press, 1997, p. 265; Dédé Oetomo & Bruce Emond, Homosexuality in Indonesia, [n.p., 1992], p. 23.

[2] James N. Green, '"More love and more desire": the building of a Brazilian movement', in Adam et al., Global Emergence, p. 104.

[3] Neil Garcia is skeptical, arguing that 'gay organizing in the urban centers of the Philippines will most likely always gravitate around inversion', while masculine gays 'will persist in their actively pursued silence: closetedness' (Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years, Diliman: Univ. of the Philippines Press, 1996, pp. 214). Adam, Duyvendak and Krouwel argue along similar lines that 'activo men, in a gender-defined system of homosexuality,... are not likely to feel a commonality with pasivos, thereby inhibiting solidarity and political organization' ('Gay and lesbian movements beyond borders?', p. 351).

[4] The workshop on Algeria and Morocco at the 1999 Euromediterranean Summer University on Homosexualities in Luminy, France, helped me get more of a sense of these dynamics.