In his new book Queer Diplomacy: Homophobia, International Relations and LGBT Human Rights, Douglas Janoff explores how LGBT rights are promoted through diplomacy. For this book, Janoff interviewed 29 diplomats, human rights advocates and experts, and representatives from the UN and other intergovernmental organizations. This article is excerpted from chapters 1 and 7 of Queer Diplomacy.
IT IS TEMPTING TO SEE the global struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights as a relatively new phenomenon. However, these recent gains are the fruit of many years of struggle.
On September 30, 1984, a few hundred activists gathered on Christopher Street in New York City for the International March on the UN for Lesbian and Gay Freedom. The demonstration is long forgotten; according to Google, only one website in cyberspace acknowledges that it even occurred!
However, I know it happened because I was there: a skinny, mustachioed 26-year-old wearing tight jeans, a green hoodie and Kodiak construction boots, waving the Maple Leaf flag.
The crowd – mainly white, North American, left-wing activists – gathered in front of UN Headquarters in New York and listened to fiery speeches on the need for international solidarity.
Fast-forward to 2015, when I returned to UN Headquarters to conduct my doctoral research. I had taken academic leave from my work as a Canadian Foreign Service Officer and was in the middle of a series of interviews with diplomats, UN officials and human rights advocates – now called “representatives of LGBT civil society organizations” (CSOs). This time I had less hair, more girth, and was wearing a business suit.
Thirty-one years before, I had been a gay activist demonstrating outside the UN; now I was an LGBT diplomat on the inside. I made my way through the busy foyer, with its low couches, soft lights and cappuccino bar. People emerged from the adjoining meeting rooms, dragging laptops and talking into their cellphones.
In the 1980s, the activists’ colourful garb had made us easy to identify. In 2015, however, it was difficult to distinguish the CSO representatives from the diplomats: everyone was now wearing fancy shoes and tailored suits.
Since 67 countries still criminalize same-sex con-duct, debates around LGBT rights have generated considerable political friction within the frame-work of international human rights institutions and organizations.
However, there is a danger of falling into a narrative that features heroic “White Western saviors” squaring off against “homophobic” religious bigots in the Global South. Although the objective of this book is to analyze how LGBT rights are promoted internationally through diplomacy, one of my main challenges is not succumbing to an overly-simplified Western/Non-Western binary.
This abridged section considers diplomatic efforts to both promote and obstruct LGBT rights. I asked the 29 interviewees to reflect on how the human rights of LGBT people intersect with the diplomats’ world of multilateralism and diplomacy.
The interview subjects conveyed how LGBT rights are framed, constructed and debated in the multilateral context. Most revealingly, they discuss how they work to influence diplomatic engagement in these forums.
Diplomatic positioning of the “like-minded”
All the CSO and UN representatives I interviewed had their own theories about what messages diplomats are trying to convey through their support for LGBT rights.
One advocate cynically referred to LGBT rights as “… an issue that all countries agree to manipulate politically.” The advocate felt that LGBT rights have become a “hobby-horse” – a way for the West to demonstrate “moral superiority.”
For another advocate, this uniquely Western approach breeds mistrust and stokes fears in the Global South that LGBT rights is “a convenient way to divert attention from issues such as Guantanamo and mass surveillance.”
One UN representative observed that the West’s insistence on LGBT rights can come across as too much of a good thing:
“Some countries like to burnish their human rights credentials by championing these liberties in the international arena. It’s great that rich states have high-level political support and funding for LGBT rights. On the other hand, they are impatient. They want results. Many would like to see this go faster. Politicians will see this argument as an easy political win, portraying a political leader as a monster.”
Western states who promote LGBT rights internationally walk a fine line; if they are too insistent they risk creating a backlash.
The first-ever resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) to be adopted at the UN was passed at the Human Rights Council on June 17, 2011, with 23 in favor, 19 against, three abstentions and two absent. One advocate recalled how conservative member states targeted the US during the debate over the resolution.
Member states that opposed the US attempted to make the US appear hypocritical for promoting LGBT rights abroad while denying them at home. As a result, the US became the focus of almost the entire debate – rather than spending time discussing human rights violations against LGBT people around the world.
… there were 20 hours of debate. And eleven and a half hours of that debate were taken up with calls by member states for the US to repeal its military ban on homosexuality. Meanwhile, there were 25 NGOs lined up to talk about violations in other countries. You have to be able to point your finger at other countries.
To counteract this tendency, it appears that other Western member states take a more low-key approach. For example, one diplomat reflected:
We have to be careful; it requires a lot of tact and strategy… at the UN, we never talk about same-sex unions. We commend countries that legalize same-sex unions. But we don’t put that in our recommendations. Our goal is to get down the number of countries with anti-gay laws. Strident statements don’t help.
Another Western diplomat likes to arrange informal bilateral meetings before delivering a negative public recommendation on LGBT rights, describing these informal meetings as “another layer of the [Universal Periodic Review].”
Certain member states try to avoid the debate completely.
One Global South diplomat was torn, wanting to take a more aggressive stance in support of LGBT rights at the UN, but needing the support of African and Asian countries on a completely separate, but extremely divisive, domestic issue:
The reality is that sometimes you have to choose your issues. We were trying to get support for our resolution on [issue x]. The states that were against the SOGI resolution were actually supportive of the … resolution [on issue x]. As a result, we had to be moderate in our negotiation with the homophobic countries.
Not surprisingly, this polarizing atmosphere encourages Western countries to gravitate toward their like-minded counterparts: one mechanism that cements these relationships is the UN Core Group, an informal circle of pro-LGBT member states in New York that meets once a month.
A UN representative remained skeptical about whether countries from different regions will actually engage in granting LGBT rights or just give them lip service:
For many countries, with few resources and scant capacity, it will take a long time for governments to mainstream LGBT rights. Will they ever become a global priority? Unfortunately, nowadays every-thing is considered a priority. Nobody will actually say, “This is interesting, but it’s not a priority. Let’s talk again in ten years”.
Generally, though, a consensus seems to be emerging that the West’s insertion of LGBT rights in multilateral processes will continue.
As one CSO representative put it, “I believe that the non-Western diplomats are starting to realize that the issue is not going away. This is slowly sinking in because of the cyclicity of the human rights processes.”
One UN representative is convinced that, “the trend is not favorable towards the homophobic countries.”
Homophobia and diplomacy
To what extent does homophobia permeate the diplomatic environment?
In diplomacy, the personal and the political are often intermingled.
Although I did not set out to interview LGBT UN representatives, diplomats and advocates, I discovered that approximately two-thirds of my interview subjects identified as gay, lesbian, non-binary or queer.
In the course of the discussions on LGBT rights, examples of homophobia experienced by some of the interview subjects emerged.
For example, a Western gay male diplomat said he took it very personally when an African male ambassador told him privately that “the battle for LGBT rights was a ‘line in the sand’ that was threatening the traditional family.”
He was also bothered by comments made by his Middle Eastern male counterparts, who knew he was gay and would taunt him by reminding him how beautiful the women are in his country. He noted bitterly that a Middle Eastern diplomat “once told me that homosexuality does not exist” in his country. He said that another Middle Eastern diplomat shunned him by organizing a dinner party at his home and inviting every diplomatic counterpart on their committee – from dozens of countries – except for him.
Generally, as one UN represen-tative explained, people refrain from making explicitly homophobic remarks in public spaces. However, “diplomats have been known to make homophobic comments about lifestyle, illness, abnormality and debauchery. Still, this language tends to be in individual tweets or during the informal discussions on draft texts of resolutions.”
Other references to homophobia emerged.
For example, a young Asian man wearing a tiara was heckled by diplomats while speaking at a CSO forum at the UN. One diplomat felt that “the personality of the ambassadors and officials can play a significant role in opposing LGBT rights.”
This seemed to be confirmed by one UN representative:
One [Global South] Ambassador was so disgusted he could not bring himself to talk about homosexuality. He refused to push the issue and the momentum had come completely to a halt. Then suddenly he was replaced by a lesbian Ambassador, and the difference was like night and day. (Interview U11, 2015)
One person discussed homophobia in the workplace: the Global South diplomat’s president was choosing a foreign minister, but the most obvious, qualified candidate was passed over because “… he was gay, and the President was somewhat homophobic.”
The diplomat reflected:
I think it’s much harder for gays to get ahead… The gay diplomats have to work twice as hard. [At our mission], we had to recruit a team. We wanted to recruit as many professional members of our Foreign Service as possible. We selected two that were gay. At first the Ambassador rejected them. He finally decided to take one, but he said that the other was “too gay.”
Some advocates consider the education of diplomats on LGBT rights is central to their role:
- They sometimes “manage to get meetings with missions whose countries are generally hostile to LGBT rights. We were happy to have activists get in to see the ambassadors of [two African countries that criminalize homosexuality].”
- When a group of gender non-conforming activists visited an Asian mission, a diplomat asked them, “What do you do about procreation? How do you have children?” It wasn’t done in a super-insulting way. He wasn’t trying to harass us.
The examples are a good reminder of the value of educating diplomats: there is sometimes an assumption that people know more than they actually do.
The rise of the gay/lesbian diplomat
The appearance and mannerisms of some LGBT diplomats are often under scrutiny; they may have to regulate themselves considerably in the work environment.
A UN representative who has worked with many diplomats reflected:
A gay or lesbian diplomat will be careful before exposing his or her sexual orientation. There is a conservativism common in the profession; you can’t be too forward and need to build trust. The nature of diplomatic work contains a level of constraint that does not enter into other work environments. This could limit your career and your ability to operate within the system.
Some diplomats are more open to disclosing their sexual orientation than others.
A Latin American diplomat told me: “I don’t know how many of my colleagues knew that I was gay, though. There are delegates from other member states who are even more openly gay, but also some that are in the closet. I know an Ambassador from Africa who’s gay.”
One advocate has known gay diplomats from Africa who took a more assertive role on LGBT rights at their missions, only to be reprimanded by their capitals.
Still, a Western diplomat felt that the assertive role that LGBT people are now taking on LGBT rights “at the UN, the World Bank and the WHO … is a factor that has been overlooked and underestimated.”
One Global South diplomat reflected on the reasons for being so engaged on supporting LGBT rights at the UN:
I wonder if being gay made a difference… personally, I was very linked to the issue. At the very beginning, I said that [my country] was ready to support this, even though I had no instructions from my capital. Being gay helped me because I understand the issue. When I’m talking about discrimination and human rights violations, I have first-hand experience of the situation.
There seems to be something about the injustice inherent in the area of LGBT rights that inspires and motivates many people in this field. One straight diplomat who works on LGBT rights reflected:
I have always worked in the area of human rights. This file has been a natural progression for me: this is a societal advance of human rights and social justice. I am not personally impacted by these issues. I cannot represent LGBT’s because I am not part of their communities, but I consult all the time. My close friends are gay … Working in this area is extremely rewarding.
On the other hand, while not all straight diplomats are conservative, not all gay diplomats are necessarily progressive. One Western diplomat told me:
I try to use my own personal situation as a way to pass on the message. I try to assure them that you can be gay without looking like a drag queen. You can look like everyone else. These are seeds that we are planting.
I found this unapologetic comment to be ungenerous and not a little provocative – especially since, during other parts of the interview, the diplomat’s country was portrayed as a haven for liberal values while diplomats from Asia, Africa and the Middle East were disparaged as being homophobic.
This was the most blatant example of homonationalism to emerge from my interviews; however, there is no way of knowing how prevalent this attitude is without conducting more research on a larger scale.
The example also calls into question the “us and them” dichotomy: not all homophobia is found in non-Western countries.
Sometimes it is found even among those from Western countries who openly identify as LGBT.