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The term was originally proposed by the researcher in gender studies Jasbir K. Puar in 2007 to refer to the processes by which some powers line up with the claims of the LGBTI community in order to justify racist, xenophobic and aporophobic positions, especially against Islam, basing them on prejudices that migrant people are supposedly homophobic and that Western society is entirely egalitarian. Thus, sexual diversity and LGBT rights are used to sustain political stances against immigration, being increasingly common among far-right parties.
The main critiques of this phenomenon focus on the partial and sectarian use of the LGBT movement to further ends based in intolerance, ignoring the homophobia and lack of real equality in Western society as a whole. This idea of equality is usually symbolically represented by the access to equal marriage, heteronormalizing the relations between the people of the LGBTI community and favouring chauvinistic positions towards the Western country and suspicions towards people coming from those countries that have not legalized any kind of recognition of same-gender couples or that still criminalize homosexuality, often associating those stances with Muslims. Since developing the concept, Puar has more recently argued that the concept should not be used as an accusation or an identity, but that it is instead a transnational process that represents a historical shift.
Bruno Perreau has criticized the premises of Puar's argument. While agreeing with her critique of nationalist claims among some LGBT groups, he shows that Puar idealizes those she calls the "sexually nonnormative racialized subject". Perreau explains that "deconstruction of norms cannot be dissociated from their reproduction". Jason Ritchie has also critiqued some of the ways homonationalism has been used, especially as a totalizing theory.
Homonationalism and the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting
At the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL in 2016, the perpetrator was Omar Mateen who in a 9-1-1 phone call swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and said the U.S. killing of Abu Waheeb in Iraq the previous month "triggered" the shooting. Pulse was hosting a "Latin Night," and thus, most of the victims were Hispanic. It is the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history and the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks in 2001. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in the U.S., being surpassed by the Las Vegas shooting a year later.
In Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar sustains that “sexual deviance is linked to the process of discerning, othering, and quarantining terrorist bodies, but these racially and sexually perverse figures also labor in the service of disciplining and normalizing subjects worthy of rehabilitation away from these bodies, in other words, signaling and enforcing the mandatory terms of patriotism.” Puar claims that the binary reinforced by the othering involved in the War on Terror together with the othering of LGBT bodies “has rehabilitated some—clearly not all or most—lesbians, gays, and queers to U.S. national citizenship within a spatial-temporal domain I am invoking as “homonationalism,” short for “homonormative nationalism.”
In the wake of the Orlando shooting of the Pulse Nightclub in 2016, the outcome and the responses by U.S. officials and politicians demonstrated Puar’s claim of the use of LGBT bodies towards the demonization of “others” designated as terrorists. Puar states that de alignment with the nationalist discourses against terrorist groups and countries serves de purpose of strengthening the American nationalist projects across the political spectrum: “I argue that the Orientalist invocation of the terrorist is one discursive tactic that disaggregates U.S. national gays and queers from racial and sexual others, foregrounding a collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay and queer subjects themselves: homonationalism. For contemporary forms of U.S. nationalism and patriotism, the production of gay and queer bodies is crucial to the deployment of nationalism, insofar as these perverse bodies reiterate heterosexuality as the norm but also because certain domesticated homosexual bodies provide ammunition to reinforce nationalist projects.”
Gaetano Venezia III argues that the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida in 2016 provides a prime example of homonationalist narratives at work. Several reports emerging after the shooting declared this the Most reports on the Pulse shooting have described it as the largest mass shooting in US history. “However, the state sanctioned massacre of American Indians at Sand Creek in 1864, Clear Lake in 1850, and Wounded Knee in 1890 all had more victims. Furthermore, critiques of this misleading attribution have noted that “death tolls…were much higher in other shootings more than a century ago, including race riots and labor disputes in the early 1900s and massacres perpetrated by the U.S. Army or settlers in the American West.” Thus, describing the Pulse shooting as the worst mass shooting obscures state violence, protects the image of the state, and minimizes or erases the oppression of indigenous people and racial minorities.” In this way, the Pulse shooting served the purpose of both othering the shooter as a terrorist and at the same time softening the involvement of the state’s nation building project in the extermination of native populations.
Gaetano Venezia III addresses the responses by American politicians after the shooting. Venezia argues that the responses to the Pulse shooting strengthen and protect not only the image of the state but its officials. “Police and politicians often get good press by expressing their sympathy and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, even as they remain unapologetic and unresponsive in regards to oppressive policies and actions, like the Stonewall riots, abuse of trans folk, and restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights and protections. The discrepancy between rhetoric and actual treatment reveals the hypocrisy of their “support” for the LGBTQ+ community. This hypocrisy often strengthens their public image, making it even more difficult to gain allies, counter injustice, and secure equal rights and protections.”
Homonationalism and the United States 2016 presidential campaign trail
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The responses of the presidential frontrunners in the 2016 United States presidential election are evidence of the homonationalist sentiment that emerged after the shooting. The Republican and the Democrat leading candidates both responded a few days after the tragedy by delivering speeches addressing national security.
Donald Trump and other Republicans embraced this sentiment in their response to the shooting to argue that they were supporters of LGBT rights because of their support for immigration restrictions aimed at Muslims. This is what he said on his speech of June 13, 2016: “This is a very dark moment in America’s history. A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub, not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens, because of their sexual orientation.” “We want to live in a country where gay and lesbian Americans and all Americans are safe from radical Islam, which, by the way, wants to murder and has murdered gays and they enslave women.”
At the Republican National Convention, candidate Trump used the Orlando tragedy in his nomination acceptance speech in order to justify his antimuslim platform. “Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted the LGBTQ community. No good. And we’re going to stop it. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
On the other hand, leading candidate Hillary Clinton pledged to fight the terrorist virus in its origins, and therefore justified her party’s platform of military intervention in the Middle East. She othered these Muslim majority countries by describing heinous acts directed against the LGBTQ population: “The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive. And we must attack it with clear eyes, steady hands, unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values. […] we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. […] The terrorist in Orlando targeted LGBT Americans out of hatred and bigotry. And an attack on any American is an attack on all Americans."
The promise of both candidates made to the American LGBT communities was that they would work to favor their rights while at the same time advance their respective parties’ political agendas regarding Jihadi terrorism. While Clinton promised to terminate the virus of Islamic terrorism by attacking its origins, this would only mean that as an elected official she would be furthering the U.S. neoliberal foreign policy of intervention in the Middle East and the military invasion of foreign countries, Syria to be specific, justified by the War on Terror. Trump’s pledge in the light of the Orlando shooting was to argue that they were true pro-LGBTQ advocates because of their support for immigration restrictions aimed towards Muslims embodied by the Travel Ban. In their respective speeches, the bodies of the fallen queer people in the Pulse tragedy had been used by both presidential candidates as ammunition to strengthen the sense of urgency for their own political national projects.
Homonationalism and pinkwashing in the State of Israel
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Homonationalism is often paired together with pinkwashing as it happens with the discourse surrounding the Israeli occupation of Palestine. One of the most pungent discussions regarding homonationalism is how the State of Israel is proclaiming itself as a defender and advocate of gay rights as an excuse to justify the occupation of Palestine. In her 2011 article in the New York Times, Sarah Schulman posits that “the Israeli government began a marketing campaign, “Brand Israel,” aimed at men ages 18 to 34. The campaign, as reported by The Jewish Daily Forward, sought to depict Israel as “relevant and modern.” The government later expanded the marketing plan by harnessing the gay community to reposition its global image.” By selling itself as a “gay friendly” tourist destination, the State of Israel would proclaim itself to be protecting the liberties and rights of this marginalized population. Schulman claims that the anti-occupation LGBT activists have labeled these strategies as “pinkwashing”: “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”
Schulman explains that recent events in Western Europe and Israel have brought very problematic portrayals of immigrants in the light of violence and the LGBT populations in urban settings. She claims that: “depictions of immigrants — usually Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish or African origin — as “homophobic fanatics” opportunistically ignore the existence of Muslim gays and their allies within their communities. They also render invisible the role that fundamentalist Christians, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews play in perpetuating fear and even hatred of gays. And that cynical message has now spread from its roots in European xenophobia to become a potent tool in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Schulman claims that the message is articulated from the highest levels of the State’s bureaucracy where "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress that the Middle East was “a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted.” In this instance of homonationalism, gay rights and liberties have become a shield to enable a discourse that depicts the state as gay friendly or as an advocate of LGBT rights while some conservative religious officials, groups, and politicians may remain bigoted and passionately homophobic.
Schulman makes a call to be aware that “the long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.”
Maya Mikdashi summarizes the position of the Western power when it focuses on the rights and liberties of Palestinian LGBT people in this way: Today, the promise of “gay rights” for Palestinian goes something like this: The United States will protect your right to not be detained because as a gay, but will not protect you from being detained because you are Palestinian. As a queer, you have the right to love and have sex with whomever you choose safely and without discrimination, but you do not have the right to be un-occupied, or to be free from oppression based on your political beliefs, actions, and affiliations. As long as it is Arabo-Islamic culture and its manifestation through (Palestinian) law that is oppressing you, we are here for you. If you are being oppressed by Israeli colonial policies, you’re on your own. As long as you confine your politics to your sexuality, and you speak as a queer subaltern in a language of rights that we understand (because we wrote it) we are here for you.” And while this is falls within the main framework of homonationalism, Mikdashi claims that this reductionism of LGBT people to be read as political subjects is “an exercise in homophobia.”
Mikdashi warns about the risks of thinking about these issues through the misconception of a uniform “gay international” formation: “Many progressive critics miss the point that pinkwashing, the process by which the government of Israel attempts to promote itself as a safe haven for Palestinian queers from “their culture,” is not primarily about gay rights or homosexuality at all. Pinkwashing only makes sense as a political strategy within a discourse of Islamophobia and Arabophobia, and it is part of a larger project to anchor all politics within the axis of identity, and identitarian (and identifiable) groups. Thus critics of pinkwashing who assume an international queer camaraderie repeat a central tenet of homonationalism: homosexuals should be in solidarity with and empathize with each other because they are homosexual.”
Mikdashi interrogates further the idea of a “gay international” by stating that: “homophobia is not one thing, nor is it experienced in the same way or to the same extent by homosexuals the world over (because they themselves are not the same thing). Moreover, homophobia could be a less defining experience than say, the racism experienced by an African American queer or a Syrian queer protesting against authoritarianism and neoliberal market restructuring. In fact, the experience of homophobia as the primary discrimination one faces in life is usually the mark of an otherwise privileged existence. For the majority of the people of the world, oppression, to paraphrase Edward Said on culture, is contrapuntual. It moves, is multi-directional, it is adaptive, and it forms a terrain of interconnected injustices.” Thus, a common homogenous nationality based on sexuality can be used as a weapon to erase the nuances that emerge from the interaction of social, economic, and political forces upon other markers of identity such as class, race, ethnicity, or gender. Mikdashi ends her argument by calling for efforts “to critically inhabit this homonational world and try, always, to act within the uncomfortable and precarious line between rights and justice.”
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