Asia / International

Needed: International support for culturally savvy LGBTQI leaders

Chamindra Weerawardhana

Chamindra Weerawardhana

Advocates for queer liberation need to nurture a new generation of grassroots leaders who are well-versed in local culture, says Sri Lankan trans researcher Chamindra Weerawardhana. Only they can refute the conservative argument that LGBTQI rights are an unwelcome Western neocolonialist import.

The U.N.’s SOGIE expert and Global South opposition:

To win, we need to understand how to undercut the argument that LGBTQI rights are a Western imposition.

By Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

Vitit Muntarbhorn, the first UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. (Jean-Marc Ferré photo courtesy of the UN)

Vitit Muntarbhorn, the first UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. (Jean-Marc Ferré photo courtesy of the UN)

Since June 2016, two attempts have been made to annul the U.N. Human Rights Council’s appointment of an Independent Expert on the protection of peoples against violence and discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE).

The appointee, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, teaches law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. Despite the expert being from a Southeast Asian country, many governments in the Global South opposed his appointment. One of the arguments that they repeatedly raise against the establishment of the SOGIE Expert’s position is that the categories of  non-cisgender and non-heterosexual people are Western “impositions.” (In the eyes of governments that make this claim, apparently 100% of their citizens are cis-heteronormative.) Despite being a blatant inanity, this is nonetheless an argument that has much traction in government circles, and needs to be strongly challenged.

In the vortex of international politics, the human rights policies spearheaded by powerful Western governments serve, in quite a few cases, to strengthen and reinforce the conservatism of many politicians in the Global South.  That happens because, in fact, Western governments often use human rights policies as a tool for coercing nations in the Global South, in advancing strategic, foreign affairs and trade-related interests. The inconsistencies in the usage of human rights as a foreign policy priority can be observed, for example, in the way in which some powerful Western governments keep a constant focus on the human rights situation in selected non-Western countries, but never address similar issues in others, such as Saudi Arabia, where they have important trade and strategic interests.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (Photo courtesy of The Nation)

Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (Photo courtesy of The Nation)

Prior to the UN General Assembly’s vote on 19 December 2016 on the SOGIE Expert’s appointment (the second attempt to block him), Ambassador Samantha Power, the United States permanent representative to the United Nations, reiterated in her statement that the focus on SOGIE was “not an issue of the North trying to impose its values on the South. It is an issue of respecting the human rights and dignity of all people, everywhere — that is what we mean when we say that LGBTI [sic] rights are universal human rights.”

An interlinked quagmire? SOGIE cannot be separated from other global policy trends

Ambassador Power’s comment is extremely important, and it is closely interlinked to the opposition by many states in the South to the appointment of the SOGIE Special Expert. It also can reveal one of the key reasons behind reluctance of many countries in the Global South to implement legislation that safeguards the fundamental rights of citizens irrespective of gender identities and sexual orientation. Making LGBTQI rights and advocacy appear like a Western imposition, sometimes a coercive one, on countries of the Global South is a trend that, truth be told, Ambassador Power’s government has boosted for a long time.

Governments in the Global South are used to frequent pinkwashing discourses that are deployed by Western supranational bodies and influential governments. LGBTQI rights as well as the broader spectrum of human rights are often used as tools for exerting coercive influence on local politics, and in some cases, as tools for regime-change operations, all in the name of Western powers’ strategic interests. From Honduras (2009) to Ukraine (2014), coercive intervention is almost always concealed in an emphasis on human rights.

Social conservatisms, and in the case of ex-British colonies, Victorian values entrenched among colonised peoples put aside, the way in which the message on SOGIE is understood in terms of foreign policy and geopolitics is an aspect that deserves more attention, as it is a key factor that encourages many governments in the global South to avoid supporting the U.N.’s SOGIE initiative.

Policies favourable to LGBTQI rights in the U.S. and the priority granted to LGBTQI rights in some EU member states are often used as a means of “demonstrating” their excellence in advocating for human rights, especially when pressed on questionable conduct in foreign military operations. This further widens the perceived rift between a “liberal” West and a “less liberal”  if not “illiberal” non-West.

A more nuanced understanding of collective efforts to challenge social conservatisms is seldom given expression. Doing so would connect the West’s ongoing struggles over some aspects of LGBTQI rights (such as the challenges faced by trans people of colour, the continuing intransigence of some legislatures on trans issues, and in Western Europe and Oceania, some countries’ continuing hostility to equal marriage) with similar and perhaps more challenging struggles in non-Western contexts.

‘Divide and rule’-type LGBTQI activism?

It is crucial for LGBTQI activists not to fall into traps of pinkwashing and what trans activist poet Nat Raha calls the NGO-industrial complex. In places such as this writer’s native Sri Lanka, an influential chunk of LGBTQI activism and advocacy is considerably elitist, funded by U.S. sources, and in some cases run by U.S. citizens. In some instances, the leading advocates, i.e. those on executive director-level positions, do not even speak or write the local languages.  Their activism and advocacy frequently revolve around elitist gatherings of Colombo’s expat community (read, a 99.9% “white” expat community. The fact that people who come from non-white lands are somehow less entitled to the “expat” label requires no further comment here.)

Indeed, in many places in the Global South, a rift exists between activists on the ground (who work hard to challenge cis-norms and hetero-norms, refute conservatisms and develop locally grounded strategies for Queer Liberation) and their wealthier elitist local counterparts who, with much international exposure, operate on a different plane. When this is the state of affairs in the LGBTQI community, this creates further divisions between governmental authorities and LGBTQI activism/advocacy. Such divisions make it easier for governments to condemn LGBTQI rights activists as local agents of Western agendas. These are issues that require increased attention and dialogue as the U.N. zooms in on SOGIE issues at the world stage. Elitist LGBTQI circles in many Global South metropolises often operate along a black-or-white “West is good/non-West is bad” perception, which denotes a considerable shortage of critical insight into the national and international parameters of the politics of Queer Liberation, as the latest developments in Sri Lanka have shown.

President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In January, President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka blocked the proposed repeal of Sri Lanka’s anti-gay law. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Although Sri Lanka voted at the U.N. in favour of the SOGIE expert, the Sri Lankan President publicly affirmed an unwillingness to repeal British-imposed sodomy laws that criminalise non-heterosexual sexualities. In response, the local LGBTQI community is deploying a strong strategy of Queer Liberation that connects LGBTQI rights issues to the broader challenges of gender justice.

Liberal-illiberal collisions: Not sustainable?

There is a clear need for LGBTQI community leaders in the Global South to prioritise the task of “grounding” their work locally and profoundly challenging the stereotype of being viewed as agents of Western agendas. In order to reach this objective, it is necessary to challenge the all-too-common idea of a “collision” — What is locally perceived in many non-Western contexts as Eurocentric “human rights fundamentalism” vs. what is understood, in Western contexts, as “homophobic/transphobic fundamentalism.” This idea of colliding viewpoints may temporarily help Global South-based LGBTQI organisations in securing grants from Western funders and navigating the sector of international LGBTQI activism. However, this “collision-course’ approach is thoroughly unsustainable in the long run, as it weakens the LGBTQI community, and also hinders the development of a strong local Queer Liberation movement. It’s not a battle that Western ideals are likely to win, because the battlefields are in the cultures of the Global South.

Need for a new kind of leadership?

In countries in the Global South where a strong anti-SOGIE lobby prevails, there is a clear need for a new generation of political leadership, well-versed in the local languages, histories, literatures and folklores, and simultaneously international in their outlook and outreach, capable of concurrently working locally, responding to local priorities, and building partnerships internationally. Leaders capable of such a challenging role are indeed around, but existing national and international power-political structures are not always in their favour. This is where supranational and non-governmental bodies from the Global North, as well as media establishments, can and need to play an active role in promoting a new generation of cis and trans leaders supportive of SOGIE, armed with cross-cutting and critical perspectives on world politics, which can not only disseminate SOGIE-related knowledge but also promote relevant legislation in their home countries.

February press conference on Queer Liberation in Sri Lanka presented a trans-inclusive gender balance -- four women and four men, trans and cis, of various sexual orientations -- all sitting in front of the banner stating "Equality for all Sri Lankans" in Sinhalese, Tamil and English. (Photo courtesy of Samabima)

February press conference on Queer Liberation in Sri Lanka presented a trans-inclusive gender balance — four women and four men, trans and cis, of various sexual orientations — all sitting in front of the banner stating “Equality for all Sri Lankans” in Sinhalese, Tamil and English. (Photo courtesy of Samabima)


In Sri Lanka, to give but one example among many, this new generation of LGBTQI leadership, with fine mastery of local challenges and in-depth insights into global issues is already at work, bringing a locally grounded discourse on SOGIE to mainstream political debate.  An early example of their Queer Liberation work was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-sexual, multi-gendered awareness-raising-oriented press conference held in Colombo on 13th February 2017. Presenting a trans-inclusive gender balance, four women and four men, and the banner “equality for all Sri Lankans’,” that event captured the spirit of the collective local initiative to bring people together and work cooperatively on a national Queer Liberation strategy. 

Instead of supporting and prioritising initiatives of this nature, what we often see are unhealthy structures of dependence (and not of empowerment) created by the global NGO-industrial complex. In this scenario, national LGBTQI leaders with tremendous potential often risk being reduced to powerless beneficiaries of selective international NGOs’  benevolence, sitting at the outer margins of their own societies. If and when world leaders and supranational bodies begin to take concerted steps to change this reality as part of the U.N.’s SOGIE emphasis, more and more political establishments worldwide will also begin, for sure, to believe in Ambassador Power’s remarks on the U.N.’s SOGIE mandate.

A Sri Lankan national, Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a visiting research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, where she is the very first trans woman to hold a research appointment. She is a board member of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network.

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2 thoughts on “Needed: International support for culturally savvy LGBTQI leaders

  1. Changes have to be made with the help and representation of those who live and endure discrimination, other wise it will only be known to those in authority that this is outsiders pushing their own agenda against the locals. They disavow there are LGBT people in their country, without realize it is because of the fear created by their laws, and discrimination against others who dare to be who they are and not as society demands or dictates. Hope they realize they need to find brave people who will stand up to make changes of equality for all people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Needed: International support for culturally savvy LGBTQI leaders « Dr Chamindra WEERAWARDHANA

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