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




What kind of equality?


Victories for lesbian/gay rights in advanced capitalist countries have usually gone together with other changes in sexual culture—particularly the spread of contraception, abortion rights, and tolerance for pre- and extramarital sex in general. But the backdrop to these changes has been a relatively stable democratic capitalist order. In the Third World, by contrast, the backdrop has more often been emergence from dictatorship, accompanied by some degree of social upheaval.


Even in Third World countries that have multiple parties, elections and other trappings of constitutional democracy, it is often difficult or virtually impossible for independent social movements to have an impact on decision-making. In Mexico, for example, where a single party has in practice monopolized political power and dominated social movements for 70 years, Mejía describes the consequences for LGBT people: 'the corruption of the authorities, the dead letter' of the law, and police abuse. Mogrovejo points out that there are similar problems in other Latin American countries too—'police abuses, extortion, murder and even torture', charges of 'corruption of minors' and 'immoral and indecent behaviour'—including in countries where dictatorships are a thing of the past and different parties are routinely voted in and out of office.


In many Third World countries today many of the most important policy decisions are not made by elected governments at all, but by unelected officials of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This does not necessarily mean that politics is unimportant to people. On the contrary, particularly when unemployment is very high, getting a government job or official favour can make an enormous difference. Whole towns, ethnic groups, regions and extended families can line up behind particular parties and fight fiercely to put 'their' parties in office. But this kind of politics, even when it is formally democratic, often leaves little room for individuals to decide their loyalty on the basis of their personal beliefs, social positions or sexual identities. People may be able to change one government for another but be powerless to bring about any kind of structural or social change. Politicians faced with multi-party elections for the first time may even end up catering more to entrenched elites and communal prejudices than they did when they headed liberation movements or single-party regimes, particularly where multiethnic grassroots movements are weak.


Organizing LGBTs in the Third World is easier when there is a minimal democratic space in which to form an organization, hold a demonstration or hand out a leaflet. But winning victories usually seems to require a deeper kind of democracy than that: not just a free press and elections, but also a political culture in which there is room for individual, active citizenship and a lively civil society. Even a difference only in degree can make a big difference for gay organizing. The Philippines is a poor country where parties are often led by rival landowning families, but as Dennis Altman points out, 'there is a more politicized gay world in Manila than in Bangkok, despite the latter's huge commercial gay scene', thanks to differences in political history and culture. Turkey is a country that has emerged only recently and incompletely from military dictatorship, but as I mentioned in the introduction, that still leaves room for gay organizing that does not exist in Egypt or Pakistan, which also have multi-party elections.


Wherever a minimal democratic space and lively civil society develop in the Third World, there is reason for optimism about the chances of lesbian/gay movements. This can be true even when poverty and underdevelopment persist and deepen. The gay commercial worlds that were growing up until 1982 in Latin America and until 1997 in Southeast Asia have been set back by economic crises. For individual LGBT people, this has often had tragic consequences. But lesbian/gay organizing has often bounced back in the wake of these crises and sometimes even been stimulated as rigid political and social orders have been shaken.


The one country in the Third World where the widest range of lesbian/gay rights has been won, South Africa, experienced a deep economic and social crisis in the 1980s that is not yet over. Partly as a result, it went through a far-reaching process of democratic transformation with the end of apartheid in the 1990s. Vast sectors of South African society were mobilized in the process, including black LGBTs. It has not always been easy after the end of apartheid to keep the lesbian/gay organizations going that were built during the struggle. The mobilization has nonetheless resulted in gains for LGBTs that are unique in Africa, and one of the two national constitutions in the world (Ecuador has the second) that explicitly bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.


Mark Gevisser quotes a drag queen who sums up the constitution's importance: '"You can rape me, rob me, what am I going to do when you attack me? Wave the constitution in your face? I'm just a nobody black queen.... But you know what? Ever since I heard about that constitution, I feel free inside."' Discriminatory laws, including the sodomy law, have been struck down, and same-sex relationships are now recognized for immigration purposes. Resistance to lesbian/gay rights and the danger of backsliding still exist, of course; Gevisser describes the bigotry and intransigence present at the highest levels of the ANC and in many parts of society. Nonetheless, South Africa's legislative record is one that lesbians and gays in the United States should envy.


Wherever lesbian/gay movements have emerged in the Third World, they are fighting for the same equal rights that South Africans have fought for. The fight against sodomy laws continues in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico (the only countries in Latin America that still have them), in India and Sri Lanka. In some cases these discriminatory laws can probably be repealed through lobbying and organizing without major upheavals. Other demands will be harder to win. So far efforts to win national constitutional bans against discrimination have failed in Brazil, despite the breakthoughs for lesbian/gay movements as the dictatorship was dismantled, and been fiercely resisted in Fiji. The kinds of partnership rights that have been won in several Western European countries have not yet been achieved in South Africa despite the constitutional promise of equality, in Brazil despite the Workers Party's support, or in India despite the movement's call for them in its 1991 charter of demands.


Furthermore, even the kinds of breakthroughs for lesbian/gay liberation won in South Africa fall short of full lesbian/gay equality. There are after all limits to the lesbian/gay equality that can be won in countries marked in general by deep social and economic inequality, as almost all countries in the Third World are.


Even the South African lesbian/gay movement now finds itself wrestling with questions about the meaning and content of their newly won equality, because South Africans in general are struggling with such issues. The democratic transformation that the ANC called for from the 1950s to the 1980s included more than an end to formal apartheid: it included land for blacks whom apartheid had been made landless and a more just division of the economic power concentrated in white hands. Democratic transformation on this scale has still not taken place in South Africa. This constrains the lives of most LGBT people. Gevisser notes that in black townships, for example, where families often sleep eight to a room, 'there is simply no space to be gay'.


Full lesbian/gay equality requires Third World liberation in a broader social sense: liberation from poverty and dependency. LGBT people need housing to give them physical room for their relationships, for example, and jobs that can save transgendered and young people from dependence on the sex trade. How can gay men deal with AIDS, in those countries where male-male sex is a major factor in the epidemic, without challenging structural adjustment programmes that decimate health care? How can LGBT people hope to escape from or remould their families without the protection of a genuine welfare state? 'In the late twentieth century', however, 'the resurgence of market dominance once again threatens to pull away a wide range of social supports and rights', including whatever fragile welfare states had been won in the Third World. (1)


Freedom and equality for lesbians in particular in the Third World means women's emancipation, so that women have other options than marriage and economic dependence on men. All these concerns help explain the links described by Mogrovejo that Latin American lesbian/gay activists made in the 1970s between lesbian/gay liberation, socialism and feminism.


There are many countries in the Third World that have the potential to build advanced economies. Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia certainly have the land mass, population, natural resources, know-how and industrial base to be economic powerhouses. Whatever the different factors holding back their very different economies, there are clearly structural reasons why not one dependent nation broke through into the closed circle of advanced capitalist countries in the whole of the twentieth century. Those Third World countries that achieved the fastest growth rates and most dramatic gains—like Latin America in the 1950s and '60s and Southeast Asia in the 1970s and '80s—have seen their gains undone by the logic of the world market as it is now structured. For this reason the idea of breaking with the world market as it is now structured—breaking with capitalism—will undoubtedly continue to be raised in these countries, including in their lesbian/gay movements. The idea will be more credible to the extent that the left understands that Marxist categories on their own are not adequate to deal with women's and sexual oppression—they must be enriched by the analyses of feminist and lesbian/gay theorists—and that socialist parties need to respect the autonomy of lesbian/gay movements.



(1) Barry Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak & André Krouwel, 'Gay and lesbian movements beyond borders?: national imprints of a worldwide movement', in Adam, Duyvendak & Krouwel eds., The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics: National Imprints of a Worldwide Movement, Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1999, p. 356.