The identity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community has largely been formed by western culture and the western markets. Films, magazines, internet sites and tourism all spread norms of sexuality and identity. But in some parts of the world expressions of gender and sexual orientation are more diverse and fluid: for the hijra in India, who see themselves as neither male nor female, being homosexual or heterosexual is irrelevant. Coming out, regarded in the West as essential, is hard in a repressed societies, where different strategies for emancipation and resistance need to be worked out.
“Queer” theories over the last 20 years have developed the argument that gender and sexuality are not “natural” (1) but socially constructed, diverse and fluid. This intellectual current is associated with the emergence of radical political movements such as Queer Nation in the US, Queers for BDS (boycotting Israeli products) or the French Canadian gay movement Les Panthères Roses, who describe themselves as “transfagdykes” (transpédégouines). Like the militants of the 1970s, these activists want to combine feminist, antiracist, and anticapitalist struggles. They challenge the institutionalisation and commodification of gay and lesbian identity.
The main strategic questions today concern ways of organising. In the northern hemisphere in the 1970s, militant lesbians formed separate structures in reaction to the misogyny they encountered in groups formed with gay men. Linked to feminism, these structures were one of the main political characteristics of the lesbian movement, although there were strategic alliances with mixed-gender organisations. In the 1990s, trans people felt the need to set up separate groups. Ultimately, the issue is whether LGBT groups, dominated by gay men, can be as universal, as they claim to be. Gay men continue to dominate the public arena, contributing to the invisibility of other struggles.
The importance given to the struggle for rights overshadows another fundamental dimension of emancipation: economic equality. Gays, lesbians and trans often do not have the support of their families, and are vulnerable to cuts in public services and welfare provision. Over the last years the experience of these groups has varied enormously. In the South, the financial crisis has made them even more economically dependent on traditional support networks, hampering individual or collective attempts at emancipation. In the North, for an urban and affluent minority, being homosexual no longer means significant discrimination.
For women, trans, the young and the poor, it is still hard to access the resources offered by the gay and lesbian commercial world; asserting your identity is hindered by lack of job security and economic dependence on your family. Interests no longer converge solely within the traditional gay movement: in many countries “pink blocs” highlight sexual orientation issues during protests against cuts, racism or imperialism, emphasising how closely connected these struggles are. This convergence also takes place within trade union committees or collectives like Queers Against the Cuts in the UK.
Winning legal victories and transforming the social order are not mutually exclusive goals. The issue is the ability of these movements to define inclusive identity policies and form alliances with other social organisations. Although the recent debate about homonationalism has been confined to a small circle, it could open up new strategic and political perspectives. We could see a historic and healthy challenge to the hegemony of gay white men from the North over the homosexual movement. Other groups asserting themselves usefully call into question the limits of what L, G, B and T people have in common, so coalitions can be redefined. The danger is fragmentation or separatism, which would make forming alliances more difficult. Campaigns in the South that combine the struggle against oppression, the fight for rights and the desire to transform an unequal system are perhaps the crucible for the political strategies of the future.