Queers of War: Homonationalism, Militarism, and Imperialism

The following are a series of extracts from Hilary King’s chapter, “Queers of War: Normalizing Lesbians and Gays in the US War Machine,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 89-101:

Overview: Hilary King’s chapter is a very welcome addition to the subject of gender, sexuality, and corresponding ideas of rights that we first introduced in Volume 3. In her chapter, Hilary King begins by noting how at a recent Human Rights Campaign (HRC) gala in Los Angeles, US Vice-President Joe Biden, the keynote speaker of the evening, claimed that the rights of LGBT people are an inseparable part of America’s promotion of human rights around the world. This speech exemplifies the ways in national sovereignty, and whether or not any nation is deserving of it, has come to be decided by the extent to which a given nation accepts the gay and lesbian subject, King points out. In the past decade, the US has become a vocal advocate for the legal rights of LGBT subjects. Through the careful governance of liberal mentalities, as King explains, the appropriation of these rights by the US government has heavily aided the US in forwarding its imperial war machine. By relying on Jasbir Puar’s theoretical framework of “homonationalism,” King’s chapter looks specifically at the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the repealing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), as well as the HRC, in order to explore the ways in which sexuality has become a formation in the articulation of proper US citizens.

….In her book Terrorist Assemblages (2007), Jasbir Puar develops the conceptual frame of “homonationalism” to understand how the mainstream lesbian and gay movement has not only stifled the more radical anti-neoliberal LGBT movements, but has also become an effective tool for the advancement of US imperialism. I will explore this theory by looking closely at the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the 2011 repeal of DADT, and the recent growth in prominence of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as one of the most important LGBT non-profit organizations in the US. What does the seemingly progressive organization HRC have to do with military violence overseas? What is the link between the Hate Crimes Act and the increase of military spending? In addition to addressing these questions, I will provide an overall analysis of how the incorporation of gay rights into the US national discourse has governed US citizens into believing that they have not only the right, but the responsibility to propagate their values and beliefs overseas….

….Homonationalism describes the contemporary racial and economic relations in western sexual rights discourses, and explains the global narratives around sexual human rights, immigration, freedom and democracy. Natalie Kouri-Towe explains how it functions similarly to Orientalism:

“Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, [it] speaks to the ways Western powers circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order to produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony”. (Kouri-Towe, 2012)

Thus through sexual rights discourses, the US has been able to construct itself as a progressive and morally superior nation in relation to countries with different, more discriminatory laws and legislation towards its LGBT peoples. Since the US grants its lesbian and gay citizens some legal rights, government leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton feel that they are entitled to denounce the anti-gay laws in countries such as Russia, Uganda, or Senegal. It is important to interrogate how this arrogance is justified….

On March 22, 2014, Vice-president Joe Biden was the keynote speaker at a HRC gala in Los Angeles. In this speech he asserted LGBT rights should be a vital part of US foreign policy (HRC, 2014, March 22), in which he also denounced cultural differences around this issue:

“The single most basic of all human rights is the right to decide who you love….It is the single most important human right that exists…and hate, hate can never, never be defended because it’s a so called cultural norm. I’ve had it up to here with cultural norms”.

There are two concepts from this quote that require some interrogation. Firstly, Biden’s myopic use of the term “cultural norms” fails to account for cultures that have been stunted, robbed or shaped in some way by legacies of colonial power and imperialism. For example, he makes a point to shame Uganda for their laws that punish people for “aggravated homosexuality,” but conveniently omits the fact that these laws have been passed in large part due to groups of evangelical Christians from the US, who have been working with politicians and religious leaders in Uganda to promote the passing of these laws (Kaoma, 2012). Moreover, despite all this, Biden at no point scrutinizes the US for its cultural norms. He refers to the legal discrimination that still occurs against LGBT Americans as “barbaric” acts, but does not trace them back to America’s longstanding culture of heteronormativity. Secondly, by defining LGBT rights as the “right to decide who you love,” Biden removes LGBT identities from its intersections of race, gender, class, and ethnicity, and reduces it solely to a matter of sexual preference….

….In 2009, after tireless lobbying by the HRC, Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. A response to the horrific killing of Matthew Shepard, this act expanded on the 1960 US federal hate crime law to include crimes prompted by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability (US Senate, 2009). It aimed to protect LGBT rights by providing millions of dollars to enhance police and prosecutorial resources (Spade, 2011, p. 89). This law, however, was also the rider to the controversial National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year of 2010, an act that had authorized $680 billion for the Pentagon in the fiscal year 2010, making it the largest military budget ever (Martin, 2009/10/30). Therefore when people were rallying around what they considered to be the advancement of gay civil rights in the US, they were also rallying around increased US military spending, as well as military expansion overseas (US Senate, 2009)….


Human Rights Campaign (HRC). (2014, March 22). Vice President Biden’s Remarks from the 2014 HRC Gala. .

Kaoma, K. J. (2012). Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa. Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates.

Kouri-Towe, N. (2012). Trending Homonationalism. No More Potlucks.

Martin, P. (2009/10/30). Obama Signs Bills for Record Pentagon Homeland Security Spending. World Socialist Web Site.

Puar, J. (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Spade, D. (2011). Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Brooklyn, NY: South End Press.

US Senate. (2009). National Defence Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Senate.
http:// www.intelligence.senate.gov/pdfs/military_act_2009.pdf


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0

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