“Queer Wars” by Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons

Today, May 17, is IDAHOBIT (the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia[i] – previously known as IDAHO, and IDAHOT). Described as a “worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities”, it was started in 2004, with the date chosen to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s 1990 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.


To mark this occasion I thought it would be useful to focus on the issue of LGBTI rights around the globe. In my view, given the relatively advanced state of LGB rights in places like Australia[ii], it is time we devoted more attention to considering how we can effectively contribute to the international struggle for LGBTI rights.


Fortunately, a recent book, Queer Wars, written by Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons, concentrates on exactly this issue, so I will use this post to look at the many interesting ideas and debates that they have raised.


Specifically, Queer Wars sets out to answer two questions:

  • “[F]irst, why, as homosexuality has become more visible globally, have reactions to sexual and gender diversity become so polarised?”[iii] and
  • Second, “what is to be done? As writers who believe passionately in the right of people to choose how they love and how they present themselves, we are equally concerned to think through how we can best achieve these rights globally.”


In answering the first question, the book takes a fascinating look at how, and how far, LGBTI rights have progressed in six extremely varied countries: Australia, Spain, Cuba, India, South Africa and South Korea[iv], including the factors that have aided, or hindered, change in these places respectively (the need to address HIV, and prevent its spread among men who have sex with men, being a frequent, although not universal, motivator for reform among this group).


It then spends some time considering the specific factors that may have held back change, especially in other parts of Africa and in much of the Middle East, as well as possible explanations for recent attacks on LGBTI rights from Russia to Uganda and elsewhere.


Without wishing to over-simplify what is a complex discussion of often inter-related influences, these include:


  • An almost inevitable reactionary backlash to the progress that has been made. This can be triggered when the rights of LGBTI people are recognised more quickly than their acceptance by the community. But it also derives from the well-resourced and highly organised efforts, of people like Scott Lively and groups like the World Congress of Families, to oppose LGBTI rights across the world. As noted on page 105:


“International organising to oppose gay rights – and, more broadly, anything that suggests the blurring of gender lines or acceptance of gender diversity – has paralleled the growth of international gay organising. American-based organisations defending ‘family values’ have been particularly active in promoting an anti-homosexual line both in international fora and within a number of overseas countries.”


  • The scapegoating of LGBTI communities by authoritarian regimes when they need a distraction from other problems, a tactic perfected by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe[v], and later emulated, to some extent, by Russian Leader Vladimir Putin.


  • The role of organised religion – including the Catholic Church, the virulently-homophobic Anglican Church in parts of Africa, as well as fundamentalist Islam and Hinduism – also cannot be ignored in this context. As Altman and Symons note on page 24:


“One of the few issues on which religious fundamentalists of all faiths can agree is opposition to homosexuality, and much contemporary anti-homosexual rhetoric is justified through particular interpretations of religious texts, even where it is driven by other factors.”


  • Finally, one of the more interesting recurring topics of Queer Wars is the role of ‘masculinity’, or at least particular conceptions of it, in contributing to attacks on LGBTI rights. From pages 108-109:


“RW Connell’s concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, aimed at preserving the dominance of men over women, is important; as Connell writes: ‘the contempt for homosexuality and homosexual men… is part of the ideological package of hegemonic masculinity’. Opposition to sexual diversity combines both consciously political and unconscious fears and desires, which makes countering it particularly difficult.”


The relative local strength of these four factors goes a long way to explaining why, “[d]epending on where in the world one stands there is huge progress towards greater acceptance, or increased intolerance.”[vi]


The more pertinent, and challenging, question is what to do about it, and in this respect Queer Wars presents a thoughtful analysis of the opportunities, and pitfalls, of ‘global gay activism’.


Starting first with the limits of what those in the developed or ‘Western’ world can do to assist their global queer comrades, Altman and Symons present a stark warning of the risks of campaigns for LGBTI rights being externally imposed on countries (rather than developed in partnership with or, ideally led by local groups, with support where necessary – and only where invited – from outside organisations). As noted on page 34:


“Is speaking out strongly for gay rights, as is now the practice of the US and other governments, helpful – or does it, in practice, help fuel, even create, more political homophobia? What to western eyes might seem a basic assertion of human rights can easily be portrayed in much of the world as echoing a colonial language of a paternalistic civilising mission.”


Even more damning is the description on page 144, which is perhaps one of the strongest passages in the entire book:


“Rahul Rao describes the plight of third world queers, trapped between homophobic nationalist governments and the frequently misguided interventions of the ‘gay international’, with a phrase that he borrows from Hannah Arendt’s account of Jews in World War II choosing between ‘malevolent enemies and condescending friends’. Since the relationship between western and third world activists will often be one of inequality, it is easy for activists to participate accidentally in a ‘discursive colonisation’, which presumes that western concerns will be universal and so ignores the wishes of intended allies.”


Given this, what then can ‘we’ effectively contribute? On this, Queer Wars seems to make two main arguments:


  • First, that – as frustrating, slow-moving (some might say glacial) and occasionally opaque as its processes are – we should primarily concentrate on using international and regional human rights[vii] instruments, bodies and, where they exist, courts, to push the LGBTI agenda. This includes:


“The ‘Universal Periodic Review’ of each [UN] state’s human rights records, conducted every four years by the United Nations Human Rights Council, [which] creates an opportunity for other governments and civil society actors (both domestic and international) to discuss issues of concern, [and] which frequently include sexuality.”[viii]


  • Second, that this agenda should be relatively narrowly conceived, focusing on the right to be free from criminalisation, and the right to be free from violence. This argument is best encapsulated on page 135:


“If the international system were able to protect people from violence and persecution, this would create space for local activists to push for a deeper acceptance of diverse sexualities, kinships and families. The forms of liberation they pursue may be unfamiliar to us; indeed, some western activists may regard them as ‘liberation-lite’. Since international campaigners are likely to misunderstand the kinds of changes that will gain local acceptance, the international effort should focus on universal protection against criminalisation and violations of personal safety. If international consensus can be built around these minimal protections, this will support more transformative local changes without dictating them.”


This is not to completely rule out other types of activity. At multiple points, the book describes the inter-connectedness between this decriminalisation agenda and global efforts to combat the HIV epidemic (with men who have sex with men recognised as a priority population by most international organisations)[ix].


After a long discussion of ‘aid conditionality’[x], and the major risks involved in this approach, the authors also do not exclude the possibility of ‘Western’ Governments providing specific aid “to expand support for local community-based and –led LGBTI programmes”[xi], although even here care must be taken to avoid perceptions of the external imposition of a pro-LGBTI agenda.


And, of particular relevance for a country like Australia, which detains LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries where they are at risk of criminal prosecution, Queer Wars highlights the importance of the acceptance of refugees fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status[xii].


Nevertheless, Altman and Symons’ main focus remains on working towards an international consensus in favour of decriminalisation, and personal safety, thereby helping to allow the conditions for local activists to push the issues, and agenda, that are most relevant to them. In this way, we, as privileged activists in ‘Western’ countries can best avoid what they describe, perhaps accurately, as the “traps of well-meaning egoism”[xiii].




Outside of these two main arguments, Queer Wars touches on a range of other pertinent topics concerning international LGBTI issues across its 158 pages, including:


  • A necessary reminder that one of the key historical forces that has contributed to the fact that, in 2016, 77[xiv] countries continue to have criminal laws against homosexuality, was the British Empire (later known as the Commonwealth of Nations, or just ‘the Commonwealth’). As noted on page 113 “[t]he majority of countries that retain criminal sanctions against homosexual behaviour are members of either the Commonwealth or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), or both”.


Altman and Symons also note that “Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Section 28’ laws in the UK in 1988, which was aimed at preventing ‘the promotion of homosexuality’, were in some ways forerunners of what is now occurring globally”[xv], including recent laws against ‘gay propaganda’ passed by Russia.


  • We should also remember that, just because LGBTI rights might be reflected in a country’s laws, does not automatically mean the ‘real-life’ situation for LGBTI people in that country is especially ‘rosy’. Examples of this include the contrast between Singapore, where homosexuality remains illegal, and Russia, where sexual acts are lawful[xvi], as well as variations within South Africa, with it Constitutional protections around sexual orientation – and recognition of marriage equality – but which also gave the world the term ‘corrective rape’[xvii] for the sexual assault of women perceived as lesbian.


  • Highlighting that the rate of ‘advancement’ on LGBTI issues can vary within countries between sexual orientation and gender identity. Some places are more likely to recognise diversity in gender identity – such as India, through the hijra identity[xviii], and fa’fanine in some Polynesian cultures[xix] – while in others transgender rights lag far behind those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (with few countries explicitly acknowledging, and therefore protecting, intersex status).


  • Above all, that even the use of ‘Western’ terms like LGBTI can be problematic, because it assumes that all countries, and all cultures, will adopt the same approach to, and definitions of, differences in sexual orientations (or even that a person’s sexual practice should form the basis of an ‘identity’ in the first place), gender identities and intersex characteristics.


Overall, then, Queer Wars was a pretty appropriate book to read in the lead-up to, and then explore via this post on, IDAHOBIT. In my view, it asks the right questions that ‘we’, as LGBTI activists in the ‘Western’ world should be considering about the contemporary global situation, and how we can best assist our ‘queer comrades’ in other countries.


Better still, it provides thoughtful answers, even if Altman and Symons’ conclusions can be somewhat frustrating because of their limited scope (although the reasons for that narrow focus are well-argued). And it wraps it all together in an accessible and engaging package.


Finally, if I did have one criticism, it would be that the book doesn’t answer some of the more detailed or specific questions that I have, as an Australian cis gay man, about how I can contribute to campaigns for the recognition of LGBTI rights of people in the countries in our region, and especially Papua New Guinea and South Pacific nations.


However, given Queer Wars is explicitly global in focus, that’s an entirely unfair criticism to make – instead, it’s a conversation that I’ll need to have elsewhere, albeit one that will be better-informed for having read Altman and Symons’ book.


Queer Wars



[i] Taken from the official website: http://dayagainsthomophobia.org Personally, I prefer to describe it as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia, although that terminology is not yet in widespread use.

[ii] Noting that some discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians remains, not just marriage equality but also barriers to inclusive education and limits on anti-discrimination protections, and of course acknowledging that the rights of transgender and intersex Australians remain poorly protected in many more areas.

[iii] Page 3.

[iv] Pages 47-70.

[v] From pages 28-29: “As president Mugabe tightened his hold over Zimbabwe he scapegoated the small homosexual organisations as un-African and responsible for many of the economic troubles of the country, paving the way for increasing homophobic rhetoric from a number of African leaders.”

[vi] Page 32.

[vii] Altman and Symons take a nuanced view of ‘human rights’, including defining it by how they fit within the political systems within which they are recognized – from page 141: “The ‘political conception’ of human rights offers a persuasive explanation of how human rights are formulated in the international system, but it is also inherently conservative: a claim will only become a human right when a preponderance of international opinion (as expressed by states) accepts it” (emphasis in original). As they readily acknowledge, this conception “makes more modest claims for human rights” (p140), which may help to explain their focus on campaigns against criminalization, and for personal safety, to the exclusion of other issues.

[viii] Page 154.

[ix] “The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was founded in 2002 as a partnership between governments, civil society, the private sector and people affected by the diseases, and has sought to link funding to governments’ demonstrating that they are willing to work effectively with marginalized populations most vulnerable to HIV, usually identified as MSM [men who have sex with men]” pages 127-128.

[x] Defined on page 124 as “[c]onditionality refers to linking conditions to the provision of benefits such as loans or aid.” This is a practice that has been emerging in recent years as the Governments of the US and UK have sought to require greater acceptance of different sexual orientations as a pre-cursor to receiving, or continuing to receive, aid.

[xi] Page 130.

[xii] Discussion on pages 88-89.

[xiii] Page 144.

[xiv] The exact number is different according to different sources – this is based on the website of Australian Professor Paula Gerber: https://antigaylaws.org

[xv] Page 98.

[xvi] Page 112.

[xvii] Discussion of South Africa from page 62 onwards.

[xviii] Page 59.

[xix] Page 16.

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