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Sexuality in a Lockdown

Pandemic Politics and the Future of LGBTQ Liberation

April 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has frequently highlighted social divisions and sometimes reinforced them. The inadequacy of current health care systems – underspending on the NHS in Britain, an American system which leaves millions with no care at all – has been made plain. The undervaluation of the demanding and skilled work of caring – often performed on low pay by staff without permanent contracts, usually women and often people of color – has also become obvious. We’re seeing countless examples of unnecessary suffering caused by neoliberalism, austerity, and attempts to carry out social reproduction at minimal cost.

Gender and sexuality are inseparable from these broader questions regarding social reproduction. Governments have given two kinds of answers during the pandemic to the question of how sexuality and gender relate to their task of maintaining a healthy and compliant workforce, one neoliberal, the other neoconservative. For the first approach, we could look to Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. Harries was asked on March 24 how social distancing was to be carried out by people who were in a relationship but not living together – could they meet up or not? The Guardian’s rolling news reported her response as follows:

Harries says the government is asking people to stay in their household because the infection risk within a household is much the same.
She says ideally the two partners should stay in their own households.
Alternatively, they might want to test the strength of their relationship and try living together, she says.

On March 19, meanwhile, the New York City Health Department had produced guidelines on “how to enjoy sex and avoid spreading COVID-19.” Their first suggestion for appropriate sexual activity read:

You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys)…

These two pieces of advice represent a major shift from attitudes to sex which dominated British and American society until the 1970s and which no doubt still dominate some communities today. From that perspective, it was immoral for unmarried people to live together, and masturbation could be tolerated (especially in adolescents, boys in particular) only as long as it did not become “excessive.” (How often qualified as “excessive” was never defined.) Now, masturbating and experimenting with cohabitation are recommended by government officials.

This has not, however, been the only kind of approach governments have taken to gender and sexuality during the coronavirus lockdown. On Monday March 30, the Hungarian parliament passed measures allowing far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree for an unlimited period. The following day, a bill was submitted which would make it impossible for people in Hungary to legally change their gender. A person’s gender would be assigned at birth and remain fixed for life, legislation which would also impact intersex people. The bill would legitimize a refusal to accept the existence of trans people which has been going on in practice in Hungary since 2018. That same year, the government moved to close all gender studies courses in the country. In common with the alt-right internationally, they see rights for trans people as part of a pernicious “gender ideology” which undermines the common-sense truth that people are irreversibly either men or women.

However, the “tolerant” neoliberal and “repressive” neoconservative approaches should not be taken as mutually exclusive. Some weeks into the lockdown, on April 22, the British government signaled a sharp move towards transphobic policies. Equality Minister Liz Truss issued a statement which echoed some of the talking points transphobic campaigners have been making for the last two years. First, she stressed the importance of preserving women-only spaces – a key point for transphobes who claim, against the evidence, that trans women are a threat to cis women in these spaces. Second, she suggested that it should be harder for young people to transition – echoing the transphobic claim that young people are encouraged into transitioning, against their best interests, by social forces ranging from misguided professionals to YouTube videos. In fact, far from young people being pressured to transition, the only NHS-funded clinic supporting young people with gender issues has a waiting time of around two years between an initial referral and a first appointment.

Gay Liberation and its Limits

These two trends, apparent in the pandemic, actually preexist it. The rhetoric associated with the neoliberal approach asserts the formal equality of LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people as citizens under the established order. The gay liberation politics of the 1970s were part of a broader radical left seeking systemic social change. Neoliberalism, by contrast, has seen a politics centered on liberation from capitalism replaced by one which is all about diversity within it.

Whatever its limitations, this change – exemplified by the Equality Act in Britain – has meant real improvements for LGBTQ people. Injustices that occurred during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s – the estranged family who appeared as a person lay dying and then excluded that person’s partner from their deathbed and funeral, for example – are now outlawed, as are discrimination at work and police entrapment. The fact that some ruling-class figures are lesbians or gay men goes unremarked – the head of London’s Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, is a lesbian, while former head of Stonewall Ruth Hunt has been granted a life peerage. (This level of unproblematic visibility is less often achieved by bi or trans people.)

Major corporations now mark June, the month of the Stonewall rebellion, with rainbow logos on social media. Last year Sainsbury’s, the British supermarket chain, hung banners outside selected stores proclaiming that “we proudly support the LGBT+ community” while upmarket food store Marks and Spencer sold an LGBT sandwich (that’s lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato) in rainbow packaging. However trivial and opportunistic some of these examples are, they still reflect and reinforce an extraordinary change in attitudes – back in 1987, for example, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that only 11 percent of people thought that “same-sex relations” were “not wrong at all” while by 2018 the figure was 66 percent. The same survey, as regards “premarital sex,” found in 1987 that 42 percent of people thought it was “not wrong at all,” a figure which has now risen to 74 percent.

However, the “tolerant” neoliberal and “repressive” neoconservative approaches should not be taken as mutually exclusive.

The Rise of Neoconservative Queerphobia

Meanwhile, the last ten years have seen the development of a very different neoconservative approach towards LGBTQ people among many governments. Of course, homophobic and transphobic attitudes have a long history. But a new form of bigotry first appeared in 2009, when a Ugandan MP introduced an Anti-Homosexuality Act which proposed criminalization of same sex acts and the death penalty for repeat offenders. In 2011, after the proposal became law, a leading gay activist was beaten to death. The Ugandan Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 2014, but the same constitution has also banned same-sex marriage since 2005. In Malawi in 2012, a man and a trans woman were arrested at a betrothal ceremony and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment; after international pressure they were eventually freed. As well as in Africa, government-sponsored homophobia and transphobia have developed in some Central and Eastern European countries and Muslim-majority ones, though by no means all. At the moment municipalities in about a third of Poland have declared themselves to be “gay free zones,” pledging to avoid encouraging tolerance or financially assisting equal rights NGOs.

These characterizations are of governments, not of populations. Public opinion is much more varied and complex. It’s true that last July, a Pride march in Białystok in north eastern Poland was attacked with stones, bottles, and firecrackers. But it’s also the case that the previous month had seen a pride march in Warsaw attended by 47,000 people. That public opinion and legal practice can vary within one country is most dramatically shown in the US, where California law mandates the teaching of LGBTQ history in schools while in Alabama it’s a crime to sell sex toys. The social norms of New York and the Deep South are very different, as are attitudes within and among “red” and “blue” states. Atlanta is a major LGBTQ hub, while on Staten Island, this year, Miss Staten Island was banned from participation in the St. Patrick’s Day parade after coming out as bisexual.

British government rhetoric is still strongly in favor of legal equality around sexual orientation, though many on the right would no doubt be happy if attacks on trans people open the door to an increase in official homophobia. These are crucial points to make if we’re to avoid stereotypes of America as the land of freedom (an idea which turns up in LGBTQ culture worldwide, oddly enough), Western Europe as civilized and tolerant, Eastern Europeans as backward, and Muslim and African people as simply inferior. It may be that life for queer people in London is, on average, better than that for queer people in Kampala or Białystok. But it’s a false generalization to divide the world up on that basis, in a reinvention of nineteenth-century imperialist attitudes, into “civilized” and “uncivilized” nations.

As many people have pointed out, many of the homophobic laws now used to oppress people in African countries were initially introduced by colonial occupiers. Back then, colonizers argued that comparatively relaxed, egalitarian African attitudes to sex demonstrated an inferior culture and restrictive European attitudes a superior one. Now it’s the relaxed European attitudes which denote a civilized approach, but Africans are still being held collectively responsible for the “backward” policies of their governments. What’s more, just as Christian missionaries brought homophobia to Africa in the nineteenth century, evangelical Christians – often based in the US – have been behind the growth of government homophobia throughout the world. In Uganda, American evangelists prompted the introduction of the Anti-Homosexuality bill by speaking at meetings involving thousands of people the previous year. At present, American fundamentalist organisations form part of global alt-right networks that are channeling tens of millions of dollars into homophobic campaigns in countries including Hungary and Poland, as well as those led by the far right elsewhere in Europe.

So we can’t straightforwardly take government attitudes to LGBTQ people as an index of whether a country is neoliberal and “advanced” or neoconservative and “backward.” But, many people will say, assuming we can put that to one side, don’t we have to accept that neoliberalism may not be ideal, but it’s a far better option than state-sponsored oppression, including imprisonment, violence, and murder? And yes, to have come in Britain from imprisonment of men who have sex with other men to protection of employment rights, or in California from compulsory sterilization of “moral or sexual perverts” to a ban on conversion therapy – these developments are unquestionably huge advances.

We can’t straightforwardly take government attitudes to LGBTQ people as an index of whether a country is neoliberal and “advanced” or neoconservative and “backward.” But, many people will say, assuming we can put that to one side, don’t we have to accept that neoliberalism may not be ideal, but it’s a far better option than state-sponsored oppression, including imprisonment, violence, and murder?

Neoliberalism’s Failures for LGBTQ Liberation

At the same time, oppression of LGBTQ people still continues in these and similar places. So, as well as highlighting the advances that have been made, we need to chart their limitations. Many trans people still face appalling attacks – research by the British campaign group Stonewall has found that “two in five trans people have had a hate crime committed against them in the last year, and one in eight trans people have been physically attacked by colleagues or customers at work.” In the United States, at least 26 trans people were killed in 2019, most of them trans women of color. Racialized queer people face murderous oppression. Research in Britain found that “98-99 percent of gay and lesbian asylum seekers had been refused asylum and told to go back” to their countries of origin. In the US, non-white and Hispanic people are 37 percent of the population – but accounted for 74 percent of the new HIV diagnoses in 2017, twice their population share, with many of those infected being black or Latino gay men. As well as oppression because of their sexuality, lesbians face oppression as women, from lower pay to sexual harassment and violence. And the assumption that everyone is either lesbian, gay, or straight can make bisexual people invisible – 59 percent of gay men are out to their whole family, but only 14 percent of bi men are.

Class is hardly absent in these staggering statistics. In the US, costs for gender confirmation surgery can run into the tens of thousands of dollars – unaffordable for most. In her memoir Redefining Realness, for example, Janet Mock has described how the only way she could pay for surgery was through sex work, which exposed her to the risk of violence. In Britain, the National Health Service provides some procedures for free – but waiting times can be years long, and those with cash often choose to go abroad. LGBTQ people face discrimination in housing and employment – a loss of income or home can cause personal disaster for those without savings. Welfare cuts can make it harder for people to live in LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods, or among their families of choice. As trans campaigner Dean Spade has highlighted, the lower a person’s income, the harder it can be to live in an ambiguous gender – state services such as welfare, probation or prison typically force people into the categories “male” or “female,” often on the basis of the gender they were assigned at birth.

It isn’t even the case that rich, white cisgender gay men entirely escape oppression – any more than Barack Obama escaped racism or Hillary Clinton sexism. Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket: How to be Gay and Happy documents the experiences of gay men, some of them well-paid, dealing with internalized homophobia and a London gay scene obsessed with sexual competition and physical appearance, a world where every gay man feels he needs a gym membership. It’s this hostile environment, Todd suggests – where men feel under pressure to have a wonderful job, a stunning apartment and perfect pecs – that has led to the spiraling use of drugs like crystal meth and people taking part in chemsex.

If the reality of neoliberalism for LGBTQ people comes far short of genuine liberation, it’s also the case that neoliberalism and neoconservatism aren’t just simply polar opposites – oftentimes, they feed each other. Neoliberalism and austerity destroy the lives of ordinary people. That process leads to the rise of neoconservative governments who claim to pose an alternative, but have no intention of attacking capitalism. Instead, they scapegoat minorities such as LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people or groups with neoliberal governments are understandably appalled – or foreign governments or corporations want to assert pro-LGBTQ policies – so they attack the homophobic or transphobic neoconservative government. The neocons now use this intervention as proof that gay people or “gender ideology” are foreign imports, alien to the traditional culture of their country, undermining national unity or even insurgent populist politic, left and right, that aim to resist the status quo – and so the spiral continues.

Two examples show how this works in practice. In Uganda, President Museveni came to power in 1986 and early in his first term agreed a structural adjustment program with the World Bank and the IMF, privatizing state enterprises for a pittance and cutting government spending. For this he was praised by Bill Clinton’s administration, which described him as a “beacon of hope” who ran, as they put it, a “uni-party democracy” – a political set-up maintained in fact by intimidation of political opponents and torture. Posing as a moral leader and defender of African values, while doing the exact opposite in practice, was thus convenient for Museveni. The introduction of the Anti Homosexuality Act in 2011 led in turn to condemnation from British Prime Minister David Cameron – a right-winger who had enthusiastically supported marriage equality, and as such, a textbook example of a neoliberal approach to LGBTQ issues. Cameron commented that Uganda, a former British colony and recipient of British aid, should respect human rights. The Ugandan government, in return and with some justice, accused Cameron of demonstrating an “ex-colonial mentality.”

The Neoliberal/Neoconservative Dialectic

Central and Eastern Europe provides further examples of how neoliberal and neoconservative approaches to LGBTQ people reinforce each other. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Empire in 1989-91 many in the former Warsaw Pact countries hoped to experience Western-style democracy and Western European standards of living, which they assumed came as a package. They were eager to join the European Union, which had by this point, somewhat reluctantly, come to accept LGBTQ rights and human rights in general as part of its remit, as well as adopting an undemocratic and neoliberal structure connected with the introduction of the euro. By the time that countries actually joined, mostly in 2004, the hopes of 1991 were far in the past, and the status of central and eastern Europe as a source of educated but cheap labor for its western neighbors had become clear. Even before Poland joined the EU, for example, hundreds of thousands of people had left the country.

The accession process took several years but was not in any sense a negotiation. Countries were presented with the accumulated body of EU laws and told that they must incorporate them into their own systems wholesale. Reports by the European Commission, the EU’s central bureaucracy, chided them for any delays. A neoliberal version of LGBTQ equality having become part of EU law, the accession countries were told they must accept this. This process did not involve the Commission discussing with LGBTQ people in those countries what might benefit them or what they wanted to happen – the process was much more about making governments bow to the will of the Commission than about improving LGBTQ people’s lives.

Meanwhile, Brussels-based LGBTQ activists with funding from the European Parliament began to work with eastern European LGBTQ activists, including those in Poland, this work funded by George Soros’ Open Society Institute. The Polish activists who got on best with those from Brussels spoke Western European languages and had cultural reference points in common with them such as American TV shows. These factors were, as one study notes, “related to social class.”

American culture also influenced how the Polish activists conceived of campaigning around gender and sexuality. The program of the Culture for Tolerance festival in Kraków in 2006, for example, included references to “Stonewall” and the “rainbow flag.” The implicit suggestion was that Polish people didn’t need to develop their own thinking and practice on these issues – they were simply backward and needed to catch up with the example of the more advanced Americans. Yet the recent history of Polish society as regards sexuality is much more complex than simple “backwardness.” Abortion was legal from the 1950s to 1993, for example, and in the 1960s and 70s, it was available on demand.

An account of Poland which exaggerated its differences from more “advanced” countries and its domination by “tradition,” meanwhile – a picture of traditional Polish values rooted in religion and the family – was now held up as something to celebrate by the alt-right parties which had been growing since the turn of the century. The grim dance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism could now begin. Polish LGBTQ activists funded and supported from outside the country would organize an activity.

They would face condemnation and possible attacks from right-wing nationalists. International NGOs and members of the European Parliament would arrive to support Polish LGBTQ people, but the alt-right then used these interventions to argue that being gay was not part of Polish tradition but a foreign import, its activists part of a sinister and well-funded international network. At this point, old antisemitic stereotypes could be easily converted into homophobic and transphobic ones. The only way out of this impasse is for Polish LGBTQ activists to develop a movement with a strong base of support inside Poland – and, while difficult, this is not impossible, as the 47,000 people marching in Warsaw last year demonstrates.

International NGOs and members of the European Parliament would arrive to support Polish LGBTQ people, but the alt-right then used these interventions to argue that being gay was not part of Polish tradition but a foreign import, its activists part of a sinister and well-funded international network. At this point, old antisemitic stereotypes could be easily converted into homophobic and transphobic ones.

Post-crash Appeals to Neoliberalism Backfire

Since the economic crash of 2008, the tendency to identify the EU with neoliberalism and austerity has only increased – no doubt helped by the fact that Donald Tusk, from 2007 to 2014 neoliberal Prime Minister of Poland, was from 2014 to 2019 President of the European Council, a senior EU position. Tusk’s neoliberal Civic Platform party was beaten in elections in 2015 by the far right, homophobic Law and Justice Party. Law and Justice has gone further than rhetorical condemnation of neoliberalism. It has overseen a redistribution of wealth which has benefited many of the poorest in Poland, while reinforcing support for “traditional families.” Parents receive a monthly subsidy of 500 złoty (about £100 or $120) for their second and subsequent children, and low-income parents receive it for the first child too. State pensions have been raised, the retirement age lowered, and the minimum wage increased. Law and Justice supporters, mostly people living in small towns and rural areas who will have seen their lives impoverished by neoliberalism, now see improvements – as long as people conform to “Polish tradition,” the family, and the church.

The actions of Polish LGBTQ activists, meanwhile, can continue to feed the right-wing narrative. After the violence against the pride march in Białystok last July, the country’s largest LGBTQ group launched a petition condemning the attack. Unfortunately, it was addressed to the European Parliament, and called on it to intervene and force the Polish government to abide by EU norms – giving right-wingers yet more evidence to support their claim that LGBTQ campaigners are alien to Polish society. The final irony in the situation is that, while individual Members of the European Parliament are firmly committed to LGBTQ rights, the EU as an institution does little in practice to advance them.

Thus, while neoliberal attitudes to LGBTQ people might lead to somewhat easier lives for some people in the here and now, it’s mistaken to regard them as a way to liberation or to imagine that neoliberal elites are on our side – a mistake repeatedly made by the LGBTQ media, which all too often regards figures like Apple boss Tim Cook or talk show host Ellen DeGeneres as key figureheads for a supposed “LGBTQ community.” We have to reject the claim that neoconservatism and neoliberalism are the only choices on offer, and that therefore we have to choose neoliberalism because it’s marginally less bad. We’re opposed to both neoliberal capitalism and to nationalist and homophobic alternatives.


Queer Anti-capitalism

Rather than choosing between supposedly better or worse versions of capitalism, then, our task is to integrate LGBTQ issues into broader anti-capitalist struggles. If this approach goes against the common sense of many LGBTQ organisations and media, it is also one with a rich history. The movie “Pride” (2014, d. Matthew Warchus) tells how the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners made links with a previously conservative Welsh pit village. In South Africa, the near-revolutionary strike wave that brought down apartheid called all accepted values into question. Gay activists who were part of the movement – such as Simon Nkoli, who had come out to his comrades in an apartheid jail – were able to argue that the new South Africa must ensure not only racial justice, but justice for lesbians and gay men. Their broad public campaign was successful, and lesbian and gay rights were written into the post-apartheid constitution. The Stonewall rebellion itself, of course, and the best of the gay liberation movement it began, were not about winning an improved form of capitalism but about a vision of a completely different kind of society.

At the current moment, it’s impossible to predict which political currents which will emerge as the coronavirus pandemic develops. On the one hand, we can clearly see the potential for movement to both the left and the right. In terms of left-moving currents, austerity has meant cuts in health services in countries like Britain, and no effective healthcare for millions in America, with large numbers of deaths as a result. The incompetence of right-wing leaders like Johnson, Bolsonaro, and above all Trump is clear to see. Support for workers, often insecure and low-paid, such as those in care homes and supermarkets, has hugely increased.

But there is also potential for moves to the right. Governments which have been forced to spend vast sums early in 2020 will be looking to recoup that money, as they did after 2008. We are already seeing attempts at scapegoating, with politicians blaming China and Trump restricting immigration. Mass unemployment through the rest of 2020 can be expected to create a high volatile situation. As far as gender and sexuality goes, in this situation it will be naïve and dangerous to seek a return to a status quo where we hope we can rely on our neoliberal allies. It’s the examples of South Africa, the British miners’ strike, and Stonewall which we should be looking to, not neoliberalism – and queer involvement in, and leadership of, recent US struggles from Black Lives Matter to Palestine suggest that the tradition they are part of continues today.



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