Last month, Cuban authorities, citing “current uncertainty” and “new tensions” with the Trump administration over the Venezuelan crisis, canceled the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia events scheduled for May 11. In response, more than 100 people marched down Havana’s Paseo del Prado, without official permits, carrying Cuban and rainbow flags and calling for “una Cuba diversa, una Cuba inclusiva.” Upon reaching the Malecón—Havana’s famous seaside boardwalk, long the center of the capital’s gay nightlife—the protesters were blocked by the police, who arrested several participants. Cuban queer activists immediately dubbed the impromptu, unauthorized demonstration “el Stonewall de la Habana,“ “el Stonewall Cubano.”
Though a relatively small incident, international media such as the BBC and The New York Times quickly reported on the events in Havana. It was a far cry from the response to the uprising by a group of mostly drag queens and transgender people of color resisting police harassment in Manhattan 50 years ago, a story barely noticed by local media outlets at the time.
But the world has shifted, and the march down the Paseo del Prado and the subsequent arrests illustrate how the international movement for LGBTQ human rights is at the heart of the global struggle to defend democratic civil society. In turn, today’s global queer culture wars are every bit as much a struggle for the past as for the future.
Five decades after Stonewall, activists are organizing in almost every country to create legal, social, and cultural space for sexual and gender minorities—often publicly; sometimes, facing grave political or extrajudicial danger, sub rosa.
Legal activists, having won the decriminalization of same-sex sex for 1.3 billion Indian citizens in 2018, continue the fight to repeal colonial-era sodomy laws in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and dozens of other countries. From Argentina and Uruguay to Western Europe, transgender activists are winning the rights to have their gender identity recognized without having to undergo invasive medical interventions or evaluations. Meanwhile, intersex advocates are making progress towards banning medically unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries. In May, Taiwan became the 27th country—and the first in Asia—to implement marriage equality. And just a few weeks back, Botswana’s high court overturned a colonial-era law criminalizing same-sex relationships.
But a lethal, worldwide backlash accompanies the global queer movement. The ongoing purges in Chechnya, where since 2017, authorities have detained and tortured more than 200 LGBTQ people, with at least 20 killed, are the most publicized flashpoint in this backlash. More often, such violence is virtually invisible: I recently worked to win asylum for a Mauritanian gay man viciously tortured, physically and psychologically, by police and prison officials for his interracial same-sex relationship. Had he not managed to escape first the prison and then his homeland, he likely would have perished, his story untold.
In Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, and many more countries, authoritarian leaders cynically attack their LGBTQ citizens, through smear campaigns and through legal measures denying the fundamental rights of speech, association, and assembly. Such attacks on unpopular minorities—slandered as the fifth columns of Western neocolonialism—are strategic measures in the battle to shrink democratic civil society at large.
Though the history of sexual and gender diversity spans six continents and several millennia, such leaders conveniently overlook that, willfully ignoring how European colonizers exported homophobia, in the form of sodomy laws, as a tool of social control. Instead, they rely on anti-historical myths of supposedly timeless norms of gender and sexuality.
They point to the Western origins of the LGBTQ movement—a movement that emerged in the West after World War II and grew dramatically after Stonewall, a movement grounded in Western language of rights and identities—to deny their societies’ own queer pasts and thus deny rights and freedom in the present. This abuse of history allows authoritarian regimes to misrepresent their own LGBTQ communities as alien threats to “traditional” family values.
That familiar family-values discourse is no accident: American evangelicals have been exporting homophobia to Africa and the former Soviet bloc for at least two decades, building a multibillion-dollar conversion therapy industry and promoting insidious laws such as Uganda’s now-nullified 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act (which President Yoweri Museveni supported in a calculated example of an authoritarian ruler deploying homophobia to undermine independent civil society).
Today, “gender ideology” is the latest buzzword, a catchphrase used by religious reactionaries to smear queer and feminist work for gender equity, reproductive justice, and transgender rights as attacks on “traditional” families. Anita Bryant’s 1970s “Save Our Children” discourse is alive, well, and global, from anti–marriage equality advocates in Poland and Costa Rica to Jair Bolsonaro’s inaugural address in Brazil to a host of prominent international policymakers in the Trump administration. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent launch of a special commission tasked with redefining human rights in terms of “natural law,” grounded in this country’s “founding principles,” reflects gender ideology advocates’ push to exclude women and queers from “universal human rights.”
So here in 2019, queer activists are still organizing to undo the damage of European imperialism—and the ruling in May by Kenya’s High Court, upholding the sodomy laws originally imposed by British colonizers as reflecting contemporary Kenyan values and culture, drives home how the struggle for the future is a war over the past.
Meanwhile, even in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, where state homophobia has lessened somewhat in recent years, organized LGBTQ activism still runs the risk of harsh crackdowns, as these authoritarian governments fear the emergence of an independent, resilient civil society—which is why last month’s march in Havana had to be dispersed by state security forces.
Last December, Tarek Zeidan—co-founder of Helem, Lebanon’s leading LGBTIQ rights organization—declared that “our Stonewall not only may not look like your Stonewall, we may never have a Stonewall—not something that looks like a Stonewall.” Indeed, Stonewall itself wasn’t “the beginning” but rather a transition, a moment that brought veteran social justice organizers into the LGBTQ movement. In order to build a better queer future, we need to keep close tabs on the use and misuse of the past.