Commentary Magazine


Gay—or Left?

On July 19, 2005, authorities in the Iranian city of Mashhad publicly lynched two teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, for the alleged crime of raping a 13-year-old boy. Horrific pictures of the execution, including images of the boys crying while being loaded into the back of a police van and swinging from cranes in a public square, went viral. The case became an international cause célèbre, and not only because the executed were so young. Given the nature of the Iranian justice system, which makes no distinction between consensual or forcible sodomy (effectively rendering homosexuality a crime punishable by death), many suspected that the Iranian government had trumped up charges of rape against two gay teens.

The story of Asgari and Marhoni soon became a signifier for the plight of homosexuals in Iran. Popular accounts cast the boys as a gay Islamic version of Romeo and Juliet, their love doomed from the outset. “Not since they confronted snapshots of a slightly built young man named Matthew Shepard and the fence where he was left for dead in 1998 by two drug-addled no-hopers in Laramie, Wyo., have gay people been so agitated by a set of photographic images,” the Washington Post reported in an article about vigils commemorating the first anniversary of the hanging.

Among the more prominent gay activists to draw attention to the case was Peter Tatchell. For more than four decades, Tatchell has been one of the most outspoken and controversial figures in British public life. Leading an almost monastic existence, he has frequently put himself in harm’s way to promote his campaigns. He was beaten by Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards after attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest” on the Zimbabwean dictator, and had his nose broken by Russian neo-Nazis while marching in an ill-fated Moscow gay-pride parade. And though he is firmly a man of the left (having run for parliament on the Green Party ticket), he displays a moral consistency that regularly puts him at odds with his putative political allies. For instance, attending a 2004 Palestine Solidarity Rally in London, Tatchell and members of his group Outrage! turned up with placards reading both “Israel: Stop Persecuting Palestine!” and “Palestine: Stop Persecuting Queers!” 

Tatchell, citing an underground Iranian opposition group, issued a press release entitled “IRAN EXECUTES GAY TEENAGERS.” Like others, Tatchell was quick to label the sexual orientation of the murdered boys, but he was working under the known fact that they had been victims of a regime with murderously homophobic laws on its books and a capricious judicial system in which to mete them out. The following month, Outrage! amended its original claims of the boys’ presumed homosexuality: “We cannot be 100% certain,” of the boys’ sexual orientation, Tatchell said, “but alternative explanations concerning the charges against Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni are, in our opinion, more credible than the official Iranian court and media accounts.” It was, Tatchell conceded, entirely within the realm of possibility that the boys had been the victims of entrapment, and that their punishment was the government’s way of sending a message to the Iranian people. It is not uncommon for the Iranian government to pin false charges against anyone it deems an enemy. And regardless of what Asgari and Marhoni had or had not done, their execution was “just the latest barbarity by the Islamo-fascists in Iran,” Tatchell, a strident opponent of the death penalty under all circumstances, wrote.

The ongoing persecution of homosexuals in Iran became a subject of public discussion in 2007 when another young man, Makwan Moloudzadeh, was executed by the regime for having allegedly raped three boys seven years prior, when he was only 13 years old. Once again, Tatchell went straight to work publicizing the case in British media. Moloudzadeh, Tatchell claimed, was “the latest victim of Tehran’s ongoing homophobic campaign,” a delicate phrasing that did not assert the individual’s sexuality one way or the other but rather indicted the regime for its anti-gay laws and arbitrary justice system.

In these and other matters, Tatchell’s most virulent and prolific antagonist has not been a member of the Christian right, but rather a fellow gay activist: Scott Long, who was for many years the executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program of Human Rights Watch. In 2009, Long published an essay in the academic journal Contemporary Politics entitled, “Unbearable witness: how Western activists (mis)recognize sexuality in Iran.” The article was essentially a summation of attacks that Long had been making against Tatchell, mostly in private email list-servs, for years. Long essentially wrote in defense of the Iranian regime against its critics.

By stating that Mouloudzadeh was a “victim” of a “homophobic campaign,” Long wrote, Tatchell was “mortally incriminating not only Makwan under Iranian law, but his accusers—now transformed into his ‘lovers.’ All, he implied, were guilty of homosexual sex.” In other words, by merely reporting the plausibility that Mouloudzadeh had been sentenced to death for homosexuality and not the rape of underage boys—as the Iranian government alleged—Tatchell was offering the regime yet another reason to incriminate the young Iranian.It was as if Tatchell’s opposition to Tehran’s homophobic legal code, and not the Iranian regime itself, was responsible for the young man’s death. 

Writing about the case of the teenagers executed in 2005, Long did not just take the regime’s claims of violent sexual assault of a 13-year-old at face value, but went so far as to allege that Outrage! had “accused him of wanting the rape.” He then mocked people around the world, gay and straight, who exhibited an “almost Ashura-esque extraction of emotion from viewing the pictures” of the executed teenagers. Long then quoted an “acolyte of the ‘gay pogrom’ theory” who imagined that the two boys might have “went for walks together, or watched the sun rise over the mountains,” before sneering, “Or perhaps they raped a 13-year-old boy.”

While Tatchell and others hoped to use these cases to rouse international awareness about the cruelty of Iran’s revolutionary government, Long was more concerned by the prospect that the executions might be used “for promoting fear or engendering division or intimidating immigrants or selling the idea of war.” The first hangings, after all, had taken place just weeks after the London Tube bombings in July 2005. “Memories of old conflicts merged with new tension over Iran’s nuclear programme,” Long wrote. “When the executions happened, war talk had already intensified.”

On November 27, 2012, following three years of complaints, Routledge, the academic publisher of Contemporary Politics, issued a formal apology to Tatchell “for misrepresentations and distortions” in Long’s essay and announced that the article had been removed from the journal’s website. That withdrawal occurred two years after Human Rights Watch had issued a similar apology to Tatchell “for a number of inappropriate and disparaging comments made about him in recent years by Scott Long.” Soon thereafter, Long left HRW for a fellowship at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program. 

The spat between Tatchell and Long exemplifies a substantive and growing intellectual divide when it comes to issues of human rights and sexuality. Traditional gay-rights activists such as Tatchell consider discrimination against anyone for their sexuality or gender expression to be wrong no matter the culture or religious environment. Long represents a growing cadre of academic leftists who see stirrings of “Islamophobia” and “imperialism” whenever Westerners complain about the homophobic aspects of non-Western cultures.

The latter activists may claim to offer a “queer anti-racist critique,” but in fact are themselves proffering reverse-racist arguments that hold non-Western peoples and societies to a lower standard. And in so doing, they provide cover for various illiberal, misogynistic, and bigoted attitudes and behaviors—attitudes and behaviors they would never defend, and, in fact, endlessly decry, in the West.

Though the intellectual underpinnings of the “queer anti-imperialist” movement rely heavily on postmodern theorists who were faddish three decades ago (e.g., Michel Foucault), they did not find specific expression until 2002, when Columbia University’s Joseph Massad published an article in the journal Public Culture entitled, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World” (the basis for Massad’s 2007 book, Desiring Arabs).

Massad’s essential point is that a shadowy, nefarious conspiracy of white, privileged, Western gay activists and Zionists (which constitute the eerily capitalized “Gay International”) “produces homosexuals as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist.” The notion of gayness as an identity rather than a set of behaviors is a modern and Western one, Massad argues, and is not shared by men who have sex with men in Arab cultures. In such cultures, Massad claims, contrary to the image of repression and backwardness proffered by racist Orientalists, sexuality is in fact more fluid and free. Moreover, it is Western attempts to identify such men as “gay” and claim them as part of a human community transcending religious or ethnic categories that provoke the hostility against them—and not the fanatical and frankly medieval cultural and religious attitudes of many Arabs and Muslims.

While it is certainly true that the notion of a homosexual identity did not become widespread until the 19th century, and that many people who engaged in same-sex relations did not perceive of their sexual attractions as encompassing anything more than a set of desires, this is hardly the case today. It isn’t only that the innateness of homosexuality makes it harder to oppose as a political program (what, after all, should society do with gay people if their homosexuality is something they cannot choose or change?). It is also true, at least according to gay and lesbian people, the vast majority of whom say they have absolutely no control over the matter of their sexual orientation. This fundamental shift in society’s understanding of homosexuality is due entirely to the effort of Western gay activists and regular gay individuals who decided to be honest about their lives.

But Western cultural progress on the question of homosexuality is something that Massad and his acolytes, who see the West as the source of unmitigated evil and philistinism, cannot acknowledge. And so not only do they allege an imperialist conspiracy on the part of gay Westerners to paint Islamic societies as backwards; they also challenge the very notion of gayness itself. Yet in endorsing the two-centuries-old view of homosexuality as nothing more than a chosen set of behaviors rather than an identity, Massad aligns himself not with the progressive left but with those on the religious right who view male homosexuality in particular as a freely chosen and deliberately perverse “lifestyle.”

In 2009, a variety of academics took Massad’s arguments one step further by publishing a book of essays generally making the point that criticism of homophobic attitudes in Islamic communities works in the service of neocolonialism, racism, and war. The most revealing essay in Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality?*was entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror.” Hinging upon the premise that “besides terrorism, gender and sexuality are the grounds upon which the Islamophobic wars at home and abroad are fought,” the authors sought to portray discussion of homosexuality in Muslim countries as a new form of the 19th-century mission civilisatrice of the French empire. 

Coming in for special scorn were those Muslims who themselves criticized attitudes in their own cultures. The “popularity in Germany and Britain” of Canadian lesbian author and activist Irshad Manji, a globally prominent Muslim reformer, “is a reflection not only of her charisma but also of the ease with which Orientalisms travel between the metropoles.” The essay was full of distortions, particularly against Tatchell, who, the authors alleged, “often describes Muslims as Nazis.” (As was the case with Human Rights Watch and Routledge, the publisher of Out of Place subsequently apologized to Tatchell for the slanders made against him in the chapter on
“Gay Imperialism,” and withdrew the entire volume from circulation.) 

So averse are these academics to finding fault in Arab, Muslim, or other nonwhite communities that they have attempted to isolate mere discussion of homophobia by decrying it as a form of racism. Indeed, according to them, the promotion of gay rights is itself an offshoot of racism. The authors of the essay “Gay Imperialism,” for instance, condemned a German-government immigration form that asked for migrants’ views about spousal abuse and homosexuality. “This reflects a transformation of ‘European’ identities, which besides ‘democracy’ now claim ‘women’s equality’ and ‘gay rights’ as symbols of their superior ‘modernity’ and ‘civilization,’” the authors wrote, their utter dependence upon critical theory apparent in the number of scare quotes. “This elevates gender and sexuality to mainstream political status. While we welcome this development, we find it vital to note that its main basis is not a progress in gender and sexual politics but a regression in racial politics.” In other words, to expect immigrants from nonwhite majority countries to reject wife-beating and tolerate gay relationships is to be a racist. 

The last stripe in this rainbow flag of cynical distortion is the alleged phenomenon of “pinkwashing,” defined by City University professor Sarah Schulman in a New York Times op-ed in 2011 as the “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”

Though the phrase gained worldwide attention thanks to Schulman, it actually first came to prominent attention in a 2010 piece in the British Guardian by Rutgers academic Jasbir Puar, who claimed Israel was engaged in a “gay propaganda war,” using its supposed openness to homosexuality as a smokescreen to trick gay activists into thinking better of it rather than standing with those who argue Israel is an evildoer because of its conduct toward Palestinians. 

The campaign against “pinkwashing” reached a paranoid height in 2011 in a determined campaign by Arab and left-wing gay activists against gaymiddleeast.com—a Web portal featuring news and information about gay-related issues across the Middle East. That site found itself under attack by another—pinkwatchingisrael.com, a self-proclaimed “online resource and information hub for activists working on BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] within queer communities to expose and resist Israeli pinkwashing.”

Gaymiddleeast.com is run by the “British Israeli Zionist Dan Littauer” and “regularly collaborates with neocolonialist Islamophobes such as Peter Tatchell,” pinkwatchingisrael.com claimed. (Littauer, in a response to his critics, explained that the only passport he holds is a German one). And, according to its enemies, the site failed to condemn Israel and the positions of its government on issues wholly unrelated to gay rights (such as relations with the Palestinians). To add insult to injury, it had the temerity to publish “article after article of [sic] how awesome Tel Aviv’s gay life is,” rather than the “anti-apartheid statements of the various Arab LGBT groups.” A separate statement signed by a coalition of Arab gay organizations acknowledged that, while “no one has ever asked it to comment on the borders, Jerusalem, or two-states vs. one state,” gaymiddleeast.com could not be considered as anything other than a front for Israeli interests.

But if anyone was doing any “washing” here, it was the Arab and other assorted “anti-imperialist” gay activists, who showed themselves to be willing puppets of an old Arab nationalist narrative that seeks to downplay internal conflicts within the Arab orbit (between Arab regimes and gay activists, for example) and instead direct efforts toward attacking the Zionist entity. In so doing, they unwittingly twinned Zionism and homosexuality, which is something that both Islamists and the secular Arab regimes they claim to oppose do on a regular basis. In response to the attacks on its editorial content and origins, gaymiddleeast.com noted that “in some Middle Eastern countries the accusation of links with Zionism can get activists arrested, tortured, jailed, and in extreme circumstances even killed. These false accusations of Zionism are putting the freedom and lives of our courageous GME contributors in danger.” 

What the relativists ultimately cannot stomach are moral arguments coming from the mouths of Westerners, directed at non-Westerners. Writing in the Nation, Richard Kim assails “assumptions about the ‘clash of civilizations’ that supposedly pits enlightened, secular, humane Western society against backward, theocratic, oppressive Islamic society.” In the mind of the “anti-imperialist,” morality derives from oppression, and as it is the citizens of the “global south” who have always been the oppressed, it is they who have the right to figure these things out on their own terms, free from the hectoring of Americans, Europeans, or Zionist Israelis. “Absolute demands replace dialogues,” Long complains. “And the demands neglect disparities of power.” Gays in the UK, he writes, “have accumulated cultural capital and political influence” while “British Muslim communities…feel steadily more besieged, not only by daily prejudice but also by anti-immigrant hysteria and a security state,” as if the bigotry that exists in Britain toward Muslims excuses Muslim bigotry towards gays (and others). 

These ideas will get an airing in April at the City University of New York, at a conference entitled “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing,” in which the United States will also be accused of using its supposed open-mindedness toward homosexuality as a propaganda tool. To the proponents of the “pinkwashing” meme, the hard-fought, tangible victories won by gay people over the past five decades are illusory, because America remains a capitalist, oppressive, and imperialist hegemon. “In the United States, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have been invited into an equality defined, not by rights, but by the ability to participate openly in immoral wars,” Sarah Schulman writes in the conference description, reducing over half a century of gay-rights activism to enjoying, as an acknowledged homosexual, the right to kill innocent, dark-skinned people. By failing to engage in a more radical, Marxist critique of society, gay activists have sold out: They advocate for “assimilationist” goals like marriage and military service, when what they should really be doing is undermining the patriarchy and advocating pacifism. They have become handmaidens to “homonationalism,” or the “collusion between LGBT people and identification with the nation state, re-enforcement of racial and national boundary, and systems of supremacy ideology no longer interrupted by homophobia.”  

As gay people overseas become increasingly emboldened by the gains seen in the West, they are taking on a new visibility, which can be seen in the proliferation of gay associations around the world and through public demonstrations in places ranging from Moscow to Colombo. This has resulted in a backlash from illiberal regimes and other hostile forces, often religious but sometimes also secular nationalist. And so the positive development of gay people asserting their place in society and demanding legal equality has been met with reactionary counterattack. 

In determining a way to respond to this backlash, gay activists in the West already have a successful template from which they can learn: the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. Here was a cause that, no matter the statements of concern from various presidential administrations, had always remained an afterthought in American foreign policy. It took a grassroots movement, composed not only of American Jews, to bring the plight of Soviet Jewry to the forefront. Gay activists concerned with the oppression of gays overseas ought to find their own champion, as American Jews did in Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who fought for the passage of a 1974 provision penalizing countries that did not allow for the free emigration of their citizens. The campaign culminated in a massive, 250,000-person rally on the Mall during Ronald Reagan’s 1987 summit with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. According to Gal Beckerman, author of a recent history of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, “Every time Gorbachev would walk into a meeting with Reagan by the mid-80s, the first thing Reagan would do—and we see this in memoirs and oral histories—is Reagan would pull out a piece of paper with names of Soviet Jews who had been refused visas or had been somehow sent to prison for their activism and he said, ‘Well if you want to talk, first we have to discuss these names.’” Gay activists should aspire to the day when they can get an American president to reenact this scene every time a Russian leader or Ugandan president or Gulf sheik visits the Oval Office.  

But a necessary prerequisite of such a campaign is recognition of the cultural and political virtues of the West, a belief that the West does indeed have something to teach the world when it comes to the question of how gay citizens should be treated. This is something that too many gay activists and intellectuals refuse to do. Rather than expect Muslims to adopt more progressive and liberal attitudes, “LGBT activists” should “cooperate with embattled Muslims against police misconduct and policies of repression,” Scott Long wrote in that now discredited 2009 essay, because “a dress code that can be used against a woman in niqab can target a drag queen next.” Lamenting their “failure to be political,” Long wrote that Western gay activists “could profit a great deal from advocates in the Middle East—in Egypt, say, where secularists, including the very few ‘gay’ activists, have cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood on the shared ground of opposing the state’s control over the body, and a regime torture.” Such a prescription was laughable when it was made nearly four years ago; it’s a frightening recipe for disaster today. Following the advice of the “queer anti-imperialists” does not just pervert the cause of gay rights. It is quite literally a road to suicide.

About the Author

James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a columnist for Tablet, Ha’aretz, and the New York Daily News.