Western Media & Pride Won’t Save Us: A Response to The Economist, The Intelligence Podcast
“In many countries Pride is a time when people of all sexualities and genders are celebrated…” but not in China! “In the past,” the narrator drones on, “Pride used to be stamped out in the West, and in some countries it still is.” Ominous music swells behind these words. The effect of this is China=bad. But the journalistic use of the past tense when discussing Western repression of “pride” combined with the mention of current celebration heavily implies Western superiority vis-à-vis the mention of Chinese suppression and the accompanying dark musical turn. But this comparison is intellectually dishonest — or blind. It misrepresents the current situation in the so-called West.
First, what the heck is the West? We should ask this more often. As a Canadian (white) scholar working in Europe, Europe seems like a logical place to start (all those old buildings!). But when looking here, it becomes complicated fast. Who counts as a Western European is not always a matter of simple geography. In the LGBTQIA+ space, it gets even more complicated. When Hungary went full anti-trans at the beginning of this decade, the West, which Hungary is only provisionally a member of, vehemently denounced these moves as anti-European/Western (all the leaders tweeted about it). From this, one could infer that LGBTQIA+ rights are at the core of Western European values — at least if you read Mark Rutte’s tweets (Dutch PM). But before we even point to the caveat of current political projects and climates, is this the case? Some European countries indeed protect gender identity and sexual orientation (SOGI rights in human rights parlance). But the EU does not protect them comprehensively. My arrival on this continent for living — recolonization — barely proceeds a ban on mandatory sterilization. Yuck! This was cutting edge when Sweden proposed it in the 70s.
And then there is the Anglo-side of the West. In 2011 Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton went full, “gay rights are human rights in a speech given in Geneva. The speech foregrounds the West’s moral superiority. But ten years later that looks like little more than homonationalism — i.e. using gay rights as an excuse to invade another, supposedly less advanced, country (Afghanistan for example). This type of nationalism has been pointed out by queer theorists since at least the turn of this century. And then there’s the US’ current crimes against LGBTQIA+ people. Even in Canada, Pride is receiving extra security this year because of increased attacks on LGBTQIA+ activism.
So, what is with the finger-pointing at China? Sure, the situation in China should be highlighted, but only in the context of the mountain of anti- LGBTQIA+ laws and acts of violence piling up in Western societies. Sure, the crackdown on niang pao, or “sissy boys” is bad. But it is part of a global phenomenon that is deeply entwined with a return to reactionary politics and the rise of traditionalism and nationalism. Fascism, and there are many ways to be a proto-fascist, is tied to definitions of the masculine body. Look no further than Tucker Carlson’s weird “End of Men” (2022) docuseries. I would argue that this form of pointing at the other, here orientalised as the barbarian society without respect for rights, is what the West does best when it comes to LGBTQIA+. Protecting and caring for us is a different matter.
This isn’t surprising as the media is also complicit in this behaviour. One needs only look to The Economist itself. Which has gleefully platformed TERF philosopher Kathleen Stock — among others — thus participating in the UK’s current orgy of transphobia. Its peers, the BBC and Guardian, are renowned at this point for their anti-trans agendas. So why do they get to tell us, queer people, about Pride? Maybe it is because Pride is a white middle-class event where the only most admissible gays, usually white men, are permitted to temporarily shrug off the shackles of heteronormativity in a controlled manner (now with more security checks in Toronto). This includes bilking this spectacle for billions of dollars in endorsements and advertising. Thus, Pride is often viewed as being for LGB persons, and the T, Q, and I can easily be left out. But the LGBs included here are not part of a core demographic beloved and protected by Western modernity. But rather, as Clinton reveals, symbols the West can mobilize to further its various agendas — like preserving its cultural and military hegemony over China. Or blowing up Muslims — but look, Israel has a trans soldier! In the end, you can’t exclude the T, and largely forget about the I, in the morning and expect them not to come for your rights in the afternoon. And of course, despite all the hand wringing over Roe, and how this will affect us queers, it’s clear. This was always going to happen. Gender, sexuality, and repo rights are tied together. Exclude one at your peril.
I cannot speak in totality about the intentions of those who fight for civil rights. We often have the US’s struggle with racism in our minds when we think of this enterprise. Or the more global turn toward enfranchisement of women. But gay rights, and later trans rights (intersex rights are only beginning to see the attention they deserve), were extended (sometimes only considered) in a particular politico-economic environment: neoliberalism. They began radically enough in the 60s-70s, but they quickly shifted to being agenda points forwarded by large civil society and NGO organisations, like ILGA, PFLAG, GLAD, GLAAD, COC, EGALE, etc. These organisations are run as corporate entities by a managerial class of queers who want to privatize being queer — in line with the general neoliberal turn. The problem is, that being queer/trans cannot be so simply reduced to fungible consumer demographics. We face incredible systemic barriers which are not erased through nebulous human rights laws or marriage equalization. This is what we are celebrating at Pride — or at least The Economist is. This is to say nothing of how queer people are being vilified by the right because of how we have been so performatively taken up by these forces. As if we ever got to set an agenda.
This podcast was released on the eve of the Roe opinion. But it so expertly captures what corporate entities (media included) plug into when they do Pride content. They operationalize queer and trans narratives as part of a wider ideological narrative about superior and progressive Western values — the kind you can’t find in China or Palestine. That is incredibly deaf considering the expected overturning of Roe in the States which is only the tip of the global iceberg when it comes to the turn toward reactionary conservative politics. In this regard, this type of progressive posturing has done almost nothing to insulate LGBTQIA+ communities. Pride is a riot. Let’s throw bricks. This other crap isn’t working and I am sick of picturing Orwell’s future with the boot on my face.
The referenced podcast was posted June 23rd, 2022. It is titled “Pride and Prejudice: China’s LGBT Crackdown.”