Queer Ecologies Roundtable in UnderCurrents: Journal of Critical Environmental Studies 19

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Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram, Peter Hobbs and Catriona Sandilands. 2015. Roundtable. Part 1: From Queer/Natures to Queer Ecologies. UnderCurrents: Journal of Critical Environmental Studies 19: 15-16 and
Part 2: Examining Heteronormativity, Reprocentricity, and Ecology: 27-28;
Part 3: Politics, Resistance, Alliances, and Imbroglios: 46-47; and
Part 4: Queer Ecologies at the Limits: 60-61.

PDF of combined Roundtable transcripts: Brochu-Ingram Hobbs & Sandilands 2015 Roundtable UnderCurrents 19Undercurrents 19 cover_Page_1

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Ryan Thoreson on the Struggles, Achievements and Foibles of a Quarter Century of Transnational LGBT Activism

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Transnational LGBT Activism

Interviewed by Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram in April 2015

 IGLHRC logo

Modern LGBT organizations now go back more than sixty years with international solidarity work having linked communities for three decades. Yet there have been few public reflections on the many achievements and setbacks of hundreds of activists, initiatives, partnerships and staff. Even within transnational LGBT initiatives, there are almost too many issues, chronologies, and personal recollections from which to draw lessons.

 

Ryan Thoreson’s 2014 Transnational LGBT Activism: Working for Sexual Rights Worldwide is one of the first comprehensive studies of the evolution, indeed the repeated transformations, of one LGBT organization, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC)—a smaller, United States-based NGO compared to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) that is more active in Europe. Thoreson spent a tumultuous year spanning 2009 and 2010 working for IGLHRC as the organization assessed situations, contacted media, coordinated demonstrations, and provided technical support and other resources in order to challenge homophobic laws and policing around the globe. Starting at the grassroots, IGLHRC grew to support local organizations in many countries around the world and became increasingly active in international forums, including United Nations bodies.

 

Thoreson interviewed scores of current and past IGLHRC staff and executives through both an anthropological lens and international law at a time of progressive institutionalization of human rights initiatives. In the year that Thoreson was working for IGLHRC, Uganda, Malawi, and Senegal all saw clashes that were often difficult to fathom from IGLHRC’s office in New York.

 

In Transnational LGBT Activism, the twenty-five years of IGLHRC’s initiatives break down into at least three rather different phases and organizational frameworks loosely connected by name and a few shared board members and staff. At various transition points, there was high turnover of personnel. But instead of emphasizing the conflicts, Transnational LGBT Activism describes institutional learning in the face of dynamic and unpredictable economies and increasingly savvy local organizations even in the poorest of countries. Transnational LGBT Activism provides critical reflections while suggesting more effective strategies for new kinds of solidarity and partnerships between LGBT and other human rights activists.

 

Ryan

Ryan Thoreson

 

GBBI:

You describe how IGLHRC formed in San Francisco in 1989 as a “ragtag organization” rooted in “radical queer movements,” then became more professional by the time that it moved to New York City a decade later. In its second decade, IGLHRC became increasingly active in international forums and some United Nations bodies. Few grassroots organizations survive for a quarter-century and then receive an evaluation, especially at the level of careful explorations of operational priorities and activist practices. It sounds like the activists and staff whom you interviewed had a lot to say even years after working for the organization. What drove people to be so passionate about this work and then to create such an influential network? What kinds of formative experiences did current and former staff describe that explained their motivations?

 

RRT:

I was struck by how deeply activists who’d worked at IGLHRC were moved by their own experiences with injustice. I think there’s a tendency to think of activists in New York or Geneva as kind of technocratic or far removed from grassroots struggles. But when I asked activists at IGLHRC why they did transnational LGBT work, they usually responded with stories about people, not abstract principles. They recalled having their home raided, or seeking asylum, or making prison visits to people arrested for same-sex activity, or being marginalized in other social movements because they were queer. The specific experiences differed widely, but a strong common thread was that they were passionate about the work they did because they had seen or experienced injustice first-hand and were committed to working against it.

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IGLHR co-founder and first Director, Julie Dorf

GBBI:

You described several phases in the history of IGLHRC describing a shift “from working directly with at-risk individuals to working primarily with [other] activists and [other] NGOs.” What drove those shifts and the changes in staff numbers, goals and the focus of day-to-day work?

 

RRT:

NGOs are interesting because their work is so heavily influenced by individual agendas and political trends, but it’s never reducible to one of those things or the other. In the book, I argue that IGLHRC’s history illustrates how much individual activists can shape an organization’s focus. Its founder, Julie Dorf, built the organization from a grassroots group in the style of ACT-UP or Queer Nation into a more professional 501(c)(3) that became an authoritative source for information about LGBT rights globally. Paula Ettelbrick, a feminist legal scholar based in New York, moved IGLHRC from San Francisco to New York and intensified its work at the United Nations. And Cary Alan Johnson, who had helped launch IGLHRC’s Africa Program, maintained a strong focus on LGBT rights advocacy in the region when he became the organization’s executive director.

 

But I also argue organizational priorities and programming can only be understood in the context of the wider political environment. From 1990 to 2010, foundations, governments, and other NGOs became increasingly receptive to the idea that LGBT rights are human rights. Against that backdrop, activists expanded IGLHRC’s focus in some respects—most notably, by opening regional offices—but narrowed it in others. In its early years, IGLHRC had an overt focus on people living with HIV/AIDS, whether queer or not, and operated a dedicated program to assist with immigration and asylum claims. For a variety of reasons—as needs changed, as other organizations took up those issues, or as IGLHRC sought to refine its mission and target its resources—the HIV and asylum programs were dropped. Those kinds of shifts are driven by a mix of individual and structural conditions, and I don’t think you can understand LGBT rights struggles without understanding how those aspects of advocacy affect each other.

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GBBI:

Within several years of the founding of IGLHRC, a number of larger international human rights organizations, notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, became active in challenging institutional homophobia and later transphobia especially for people suffering from state violence and incarceration. For example, I was active in an Amnesty group working to dismantle the more homophobic and AIDSphobic laws in China. Within this broader international movement around a great many needs for rights and protections for populations vulnerable to homophobia and transphobia, what distinctive roles have been taken on by IGLHRC that has allowed the organization maintain a well-defined niche in order to continue to expand its work?

 

RRT:

Defining IGLHRC’s niche was an ongoing conversation during my fieldwork, and I think it’s a really productive one. When IGLHRC was founded, one of its first campaigns was to pressure generalist human rights organizations like Amnesty to incorporate LGBT rights into their work. A quarter-century later, IGLHRC is no longer a lone voice in the wilderness. NGOs like HRW and Amnesty regularly work on LGBT issues, many governments and UN bodies recognize the legitimacy of LGBT rights, and there are visible, vocal LGBT groups engaged in advocacy in virtually every country around the globe. It’s a huge shift, and I think that’s been cause to re-evaluate where IGLHRC, as a U.S.-based organization, might add the most value to the global movement.

 

In the past few years, I think IGLHRC has done some of its most groundbreaking work as a kind of connective tissue linking different actors involved in the movement. It does that in a number of ways, like bringing activists together to strategize around shared challenges, partnering with groups to produce reports on themes like LGBT rights in post-disaster and post-conflict settings, and providing guidance and translation to help LGBT activists raise concerns with UN officials and bodies. For a variety of reasons, I think IGLHRC does that connective work very well, even as the movement has grown considerably.

Greetings from IGLHRC

GBBI:

Early on in Transnational LGBT Activism, you talk about an underlying role of an international organization such as IGLHRC in “norm-creation” in constructing expanded notions of human rights. In what resistant governments was IGLHRC the most influential and how was this work achieved?

 

RRT:

I don’t think the efficacy of transnational LGBT groups can be measured by how often they name and shame a government into remedying a violation. Activists recognize that, as a practical matter, a lot of political leaders globally won’t lose sleep at night because a U.S.-based LGBT NGO is upset with them. Instead, I think efficacy is measured by how well you support the efforts of local activists, impress upon governments that they have to answer for violations, and bolster the norm that LGBT rights are human rights. At IGLHRC, I think effectiveness on those fronts has been facilitated by having staff members from a country or region. During my fieldwork, for example, IGLHRC did great work in Uganda, where Victor Mukasa had deep ties to the movement, and in the Inter-American system, where Marcelo Ferreyra was very invested in regional efforts. Its efficacy has also been bolstered by its work at the UN, where local and transnational groups have built relationships with governments and officials that have begun to generate meaningful precedents which activists around the globe can then use in their work.

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GBBI

Your study of IGLHRC was partially funded through a Rhodes Scholarship, which has quite a legacy of the ‘white man’s burden,’ and as a part of your doctoral studies in anthropology at Oxford. What are the most important lessons that these activist anthropology studies can teach us about individual activists, organizations, and social change? In other words, how could any individual active or on staff in an international or LGBT organization read Transnational LGBT Activism to become more proactive about delving into these organizational politics and to further build these workplaces?

 

RRT:

I think the primary lesson is the value of asking different questions in activist anthropology. My earliest anthropological work was with LGBT activists in South Africa and queer people living in poverty in the Philippines, and I felt a growing discomfort with the ways anthropologists scrutinized sexual politics in the Global South but often assumed they understood what sexual politics in the Global North and in transnational work entailed. The project that generated the book was meant to train the anthropological gaze on transnational LGBT advocacy, and to encourage a more empirical look at its underpinnings—who engages in that work and why, what ideologies actually guide their advocacy, and why their efforts produce intended and unintended outcomes. Those are scholarly questions, but they’re also political questions for activists who work on behalf of global constituencies. The book focuses on LGBT advocacy, but my hope is that it illustrates that those are valid and important questions for activists in any transnational movement, and worth investigating empirically instead of assuming we know the answers.

GLAA forum 2011

GBBI:

The field research that led to Transnational LGBT Activism was constructed around the idea of the “broker,” who works within activist organizations doing the day to day tasks as staff or consultants. You even talk about “brokerage” as a dynamic set of practices. When is an activist a “broker,” whether or not they are collecting a salary from an organization. And when is an activist or staff member doing important work in a human rights organization but not actually acting as a “broker”?

 

RRT:

For me, brokerage is a lens to focus on some of the dynamics I consider interesting in transnational activism. I think all transnational LGBT activists act as “brokers” to the extent that their work is about negotiating among various actors, who operate in different political systems, and who often bring their own distinctive agendas or objectives to the wider movement. Those actors not only include partner NGOs in both the Global North and Global South, but are also funders, journalists, experts, and governments, among others. For me, the concept of brokerage is a way to underscore that advocacy—and especially transnational advocacy—isn’t only a matter of pursuing a set of preordained goals or principles, but is really about the painstaking work of navigating relationships and building a political project.

 

GBBI

What struck me throughout Transnational LGBT Activism was the wide array of different tasks that were expected of staff as “brokers” with expectations often only based on vague strategic plans set every few years. When in your interviews did brokers feel like they were driving or at least shaping the agenda of the organization and when did they feel more constrained by the IGLHRC board and executive along with the limited terms of references of international initiatives?

 

RRT:

I think this is a real challenge for smaller human rights organizations with broad constituencies or goals. IGLHRC’s motto—“Human Rights for Everyone, Everywhere”—is ambitious, and IGLHRC has always used a lot of different tactics to advance their mission. Even as staff pursued the same overarching goals, they favored different tactics to achieve them. Some of the staff at IGLHRC really enjoyed the higher level planning and advocacy that gradually moved the ball in spaces like the UN, while others drew strength and satisfaction from more immediate work in service delivery, asylum claims, or emergency response. Some NGOs have a pretty defined mandate or model—think, for example, of the approaches that HRW and Amnesty have historically employed in their work—but for smaller, scrappier organizations whose work is guided by the felt needs of a global constituency, the activist toolkit can be much more fluid. Brokers at those organizations might favor very different strategies, and the challenge becomes how you effectively harmonize a set of approaches that could be used to reach the same ends.

 

GBBI:

Your approach of viewing the IGLHRC as sometimes a network and more often a hierarchy of brokers allowed you to delve into structural problems and contradictions, often felt more through the working conditions of the staff, common to quite a number of LGBT organizations in both poor and less repressive and wealthier countries. What were some of the obstacles described by the staff, as brokers of information and activist initiatives, to their doing the work of IGLHRC? Why did so many individuals only work IGLHRC for a year or two?

 

RRT:

IGLHRC had a policy of hiring activists, and I think that can pose unique challenges both for NGOs and for their employees. A lot of staff came to IGLHRC with previous leadership experience and well-defined ideological commitments, and some emphasized the difficulties of working for a transnational NGO where priorities, expenditures, and day-to-day work had to be vetted by colleagues or fit within a broader institutional workplan. The creation of regional offices did a lot to expand IGLHRC’s networks around the globe, but it also put a tremendous amount of responsibility on the two to four staff members tasked with being the organization’s eyes and ears in continent-sized regions. And some staff described struggling with their identification with a cadre of transnational activists, especially when colleagues from their former groups and networks approached them seeking funding or forms of support that they couldn’t provide in their role at IGLHRC.

 

And while there certainly have been periods in its history where the staff changed very rapidly (and contentiously), I don’t think IGLHRC’s turnover is uncommon for a small NGO. IGLHRC made a point of hiring activists, and some turnover is inevitable simply because activists have their own interests and commitments that aren’t strictly tied to the place where they work. They may work at any given NGO for a year or two and then move elsewhere as part of a longer career in human rights and social justice advocacy—and that was certainly the case for many of the interviewees I spoke with during my fieldwork. On one hand, that means that the composition of the staff might change noticeably from year to year. But on the other hand, that brings a steady flow of fresh ideas and perspectives into IGLHRC’s work, and historically, I think a lot of its most innovative projects and reports have been the result of that dynamism.

LGBT struggles in Africa

GBBI

One of the most important contributions of Transnational LGBT Activism is in examining IGLHRC’s shifting priorities, practices, and programs over the years. You provided six chapters along with conclusions. Could you describe the progression of concerns in Transnational LGBT Activism and the key lesson or idea in each chapter?

 

RRT:

The themes of the book are that activists simultaneously construct, promote, and institutionalize human rights, and by doing so, they meaningfully shape what we collectively recognize as human rights.

 

The initial chapters of the book explore the human side of transnational LGBT activism—first, by reconstructing IGLHRC’s history, and second, by looking at who worked at IGLHRC, what perspectives they brought to their work, and how that shaped IGLHRC’s day-to-day advocacy. The subsequent chapters explore how activists at IGLHRC shape what we now recognize as a transnational LGBT rights movement. Chapter Three looks at how brokers conceptualize the category of “LGBT human rights” and how the conjunction of sexual politics and the human rights framework enable projects that other NGOs would be unlikely to undertake. Chapter Four and Chapter Five examine how brokers at IGLHRC promote human rights, and highlight the central role that North-South partnerships and knowledge production play in brokers’ work. They highlight that both phenomena involve complicated dynamics with groups around the globe that activists have to navigate in practice. Chapter Six details how brokers at IGLHRC have institutionalized human rights, and underscores the difficulties and potential payoffs of translating activist demands into actionable protections at the UN and in other intergovernmental spaces. Anthropologists have paid attention to each of these facets of human rights advocacy, but what I think IGLHRC’s work suggests is how these phenomena inform each other—how what happens at the UN affects what we think of as an LGBT human right, which then affects what activists promote in their work and how they go about it.

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GBBI:

In your conclusions you note that, “As a form of law, human rights require categorization for their very operation, and sexuality is a field that, to put it mildly, resists easy categorization.” It struck me that one of the ongoing difficulties of being a broker at IGLHRC was coping with various soft kinds of institutional discipline that determined on a week-to-week basis how much work to put into a certain issue or country. You described an example from Senegal where two men were arrested for public sex but where you were told by an IGLHRC executive to not research or pursue the situation because the case was nominally about the location of the contact and not specifically the homosexuality. Reflecting back five years, don’t you think the guidance to not pursue that case, that kind of institutional discipline, could be considered misplaced by more recent thinking?

 

RRT:

As a matter of principle, I think it’s difficult to defend any absolute valorization of private sex over public sex. I find feminist and queer critiques of the public/private dichotomy compelling, and I think most brokers at IGLHRC understood that sex in private is a luxury that isn’t available to a lot of queer people globally. In practical terms, though, I think those kinds of calls are incredibly contextual. A very relevant consideration—if not the most relevant consideration—would be whether Senegalese groups would find it helpful or harmful for IGLHRC to publicly declare an arrest for public sex unjust. Would a strongly worded letter or press release from a U.S.-based LGBT organization actually help secure the release of the arrested individuals, or would it make their situation worse? What beliefs about a gay agenda would that confirm for Senegalese audiences, and how would it complicate the work of local LGBT or MSM NGOs?

 

In the episode in the book, the issue was dropped and those questions weren’t asked. Without knowing the answers, I’m hesitant to declare the guidance misplaced. I think a challenge for principled activists doing transnational work is that your queer politics always have to coexist with a deep sense of humility and a meaningful commitment to doing no harm. In practice, that’s a constant tension, but the activists I worked with recognized it’s critically important to keep in mind when the people who issue press releases from New York or Cape Town are not necessarily those who will face the consequences.

 

GBBI:

The focus in Transnational LGBT Activism of sketching an organizational anthropology of activism is quite a different lens than, for example, cultural studies and queer theory in the 1990s or recent work on the reshaping of regional political economies and moving outside of more urban enclaves. Why are these kinds of organizational and anthropological studies important for further building LGBT organizations in the coming decades? I am thinking in terms of both poor and repressive regions, such as in much of Africa, with little of the kind of social infrastructure crucial to empowering people to tolerate sexual difference, and, in contrast, more developed regions with higher levels of rights protections, such as Canada, that are still behind in providing resources to a range of communities, including trans, indigenous, migrant, and impoverished demographics.

 

RRT:

I actually think inward-looking analyses are productive in the Global North and Global South for fundamentally the same reasons. They’re a way to reflect on the human aspects of movements that are too often regarded as monolithic or coasting along a predetermined trajectory. And especially in demanding contexts where activists are moving from crisis to crisis, organizational and anthropological studies are a way to pause and assess what’s working and what’s not working, both for the NGO and for the people who work within it. Some of the things I think organizational studies do especially well apply with equal force to Northern, Southern, and transnational NGOs—for example, articulating the motivations that guide activists and organizations, identifying how the personal and political goals within a single organization converge and diverge, and exploring affective dimensions of activism like frustration, burnout, solidarity, and satisfaction. You reach those questions differently with an anthropological toolkit than you would using queer theory or international relations methodologies, and I think that’s indispensable.

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GBBI:

Based on what you have seen succeed at IGLHRC, and other efforts that have faltered, what kinds of organizations would you invest time into for the coming decade? What are you looking for in seeking out and supporting other LGBT and other social justice initiatives that have had as much impact as has IGLHRC?

 

RRT:

I think the anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda and Nigeria and the anti-LGBT propaganda laws in Central and Eastern Europe illustrate that top-down pressure, even with powerful allies, has its limits. I think an enormous amount can still be done by funding smaller NGOs that are moving the needle of public opinion in rural and underserved areas, among people of faith, or in solidarity with other social movements, and doing that in really transformative ways. And that’s true of groups in the Global North as well as the Global South—I think groups like the Safe OUTside the System Collective, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Southerners On New Ground are having an outsize impact relative to their size and budget because they not only speak to the felt needs of queer populations, but are also deeply invested in transforming communities and institutions.

 

GBBI:

What is the most important lesson in Transnational LGBT Activism that activists can apply to organizations for the next twenty-five years?

 

RRT:

Practically speaking, I think Transnational LGBT Activism illustrates that what human rights organizations do—from articulating ideals about the way people should be treated to agenda-setting and norm creation to the codification of laws and policies—is the product of committed activists working tirelessly over time. For identity-based movements, that involves working to ensure that the human rights framework is equipped to recognize and remedy the injustices that marginalized groups are experiencing acutely. The book focuses on LGBT advocacy, but as I discuss in the conclusion, the commitment and creativity involved in that work has also been evident in other identity-based movements—women’s rights, children’s rights, and indigenous rights campaigns, among others—that haven’t shied away from challenging dominant models and insisting that human rights should be flexible enough to accommodate a wider spectrum of human experience. It’s a kind of unapologetic demand for recognition and transformation that I think is very, very powerful.

 

GBBI:

You began this study of IGLHRC partially funded through a Rhodes Scholarship as part of doctoral studies in anthropology at Oxford. Then you combined this work with legal studies at Yale University and more recently you married another 29 year old man who is a Presbyterian chaplain. What kind of social justice projects interest you now?

 

RRT:

I’m still very interested in the questions addressed in Transnational LGBT Activism, but my current work focuses on limitation clauses in human rights law and how assertions of national security, public health, public order, and morality are balanced against the rights of marginalized individuals and groups. My most recent piece in that vein examined the recent rash of anti-LGBT propaganda laws, and argued that human rights bodies should consider children’s rights guarantees when scrutinizing child-protective rationales for rights restrictive laws.

 

GBBI:

What kinds of LGBT organizations and social justice initiatives forming today could have as much impact as has IGLHRC over the last decades and what obstacles do you foresee?

RRT:

I think organizations that take advantage of new technologies have a huge amount of potential to gather and share information, broaden the scope of service delivery, revolutionize fundraising, and expand social movements to rural or underserved areas. Obviously, those technologies raise difficult challenges, not least of which are disparities in access and affordability, difficulties in vetting information as it rapidly circulates, and the question of whether they necessarily generate transparent, democratic, and responsive organizational forms. Over the next twenty five years, though, I think groups that learn to harness the positive potential of new tools will produce a very different model of LGBT advocacy than we’re used to today.

 

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Ryan R. Thoreson. 2014. Transnational LGBT Activism: Working for Sexual Rights Worldwide. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 

Ryan R. Thoreson is a legal anthropologist. He has worked with a number of LGBT NGOs, including ILGA, IGLHRC, and HRW. His most recent work, “From Child Protection to Children’s Rights: Rethinking Homosexual Propaganda Bans in Human Rights Law,” appears in the January/February 2015 issue of the Yale Law Journal.

 

Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram is an environmental planner whose work extends to LGBT spaces, organizations and public policy. He authored a chapter on decolonizing Vancouver in the 2015 UBC Press anthology, Queer Mobilizations: Pan-Canadian Perspectives on Activism and Public Policy.

Cameroon map

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Building Queer Infrastructure: Trajectories of Activism and Organizational Development in Decolonizing Vancouver

Lower Mainland 1 Fragment of a photograph taken on September 6, 2014 by an astronaut on the International Space Station: metropolitan Vancouver with all of its suburbs often referred to as “The Lower Mainland”

 

West End

Fragment of a photograph taken on September 6, 2014 by an astronaut on the International Space Station: Vancouver’s West End, Downtown, and False Creek the focus of early LGBT activism and gay male neighbourhood formation in the second half of the Twentieth Century

 

Brochu-Ingram, Gordon Brent. 2015. Building Queer Infrastructure: Trajectories of Activism and Organizational Development in Decolonizing Vancouver. in Queer Mobilizations: Pan-Canadian Perspectives on Activism and Public Policy. Manon Tremblay editor. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 227 – 249.
PDF copy available:  Brochu-Ingram 2015 Q infrastructure in Queer Mobilizations

Commercial Drive & Main Street

Fragment of a photograph taken on September 6, 2014 by an astronaut on the International Space Station: The Eastside of the City of Vancouver including Main Street and Commercial Drive and bounded in the north by Burrard Inlet and in the south by the Fraser River. Commercial Drive was the fulcrum of lesbian neighbourhood formation and activism in the 1980s and 1990s.

 

 

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Surrey British Columbia

Fragment of a photograph taken on September 6, 2014 by an astronaut on the International Space Station: the sprawling city of Surrey the second most populous municipality in The Lower Mainland that recently elected an openly lesbian councillor.

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Review in press: Christina B. Hanhardt 2013 Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence

brochu-ingram's  safe space graphics 2

Review in press Journal of American Studies (Cambridge University Press)

Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013, $25.95). Pp. 376. isbn 978 0 8223 5470 3.

Any arc of identities, subcultures and alliances that has made such spectacular social and political gains, as have lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations in five short decades across half the world, must have made some exceptional comprises with the state, powerful economic interests, and the turn towards neoliberalism. Yet this field of how certain LGBT political formations have been accommodated by, and sometimes collaborated with, the elites of metropolitan political economies has remained exceptionally under-researched. Moreover, topics involving the questions of the mixed impacts of LGBT activism in contemporary political economies remain largely ‘unfundable’ in the scholarly mainstreams of contemporary political science, urban planning, sociology, and even cultural geography. Emerging from this vacuum, Christina Hanhardt’s Safe Space is a courageous and almost paradigmatic development. Hanhardt’s argument is that while much of successful early LGBT activism depended on coalitions with other marginalised urban populations, by the late 1970s a kind of ‘militant gay liberalism’ created the ideological basis for LGBT municipal politics to drop the coalition-building, especially with blacks and Latinos, in favour of a new ideal for safe neighbourhood space that played into both the hands of real estate speculators gentrifying San Francisco and Lower Manhattan and advocates for quality of life policing and today’s high rates of incarceration.

 

A line of thinking was initiated with Jasbir Puar’s 2007 Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times where the egalitarian patinas of some LGBT alliances was exposed as covering policies and apparatuses that actually functioned quite the opposite. ‘Pinkwashing’ has became a term for the cynical use of supportive positions towards some LGBT populations while actually oppressing other groups such as Palestinians or LGBT people of colour. But aside from rhetorical analyses of contradictions in broad national policy, this line of critique of ‘homonationalism’ has more often been poorly substantiated. By focusing on the urban processes in central neighbourhoods of New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, Safe Space represents something of a methodological breakthrough. Hanhart deftly illuminates a line of more principled LGBT positions and alliances, especially with people of colour, stretching back a half century – along with many more instances of quiet betrayal by white activists couched in a preoccupation with street violence.

 

Safe Space is almost paradigmatic because the work is something of a transitional and often muddled project loyal more to the only partially convincing research methods and analytical frameworks of cultural theory. Hanhart is successful in confirming a half-century dynamic of genuine coalition-building between white LGBT activists and a range of political formations organized by people of colour (some of which were LGBT) being regularly subsumed by alliances dominated by urban elites that in turn regularly marginalized and displaced more vulnerable inner city populations (some of which were LGBT and more often were people of colour). But with all of her copious notes and research, the author barely engages in the critical operational dynamics of gentrification within the context of shifting metropolitan politics. Safe Space only sketches rhetorical positions, opportunism, and moral vacuums, whether well-voiced or obscured as in the case of key local politicians nearly all still active in the Democratic Party elite, along with some of their more perennial backers, the real estate developers. In this way, Safe Space opens an invaluable window on five decades of urban cultural history and political cultures for some now very expensive urban neighbourhoods (so exclusive that large portions of the white LGBT populations have more recently been pushed out). But without a more serious engagement in the research methods and analytical work of political economy, urban planning, or cultural geography, Safe Space more often reduces itself to another American story of idealism, hype, and betrayal. Hanhart’s avowed scepticism of empirical data in general, while being rather selective in her choice primary and secondary sources, for example largely eschewing key records on municipal policy-making, begs a deeper critique of the bias and abuse in earlier social science research rather than her current attachment to the kind of queer utopianism that begun to be articulated by the late José Esteban Muñoz. But then Safe Space is so well researched, and somewhat under-theorized, that Hanhart has effectively committed herself to a much longer investigation that will invariably uncover many new sources, some more quantitative and spatial.

 

At times a bit shrill, Safe Space can best be read along with Sarah Schulman’s 2012 The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination and Amin Ghaziani’s 2014 There Goes the Gayborhood? Both of these monographs are more cogent while based on less careful and passionate research than Safe Space. Hanhard’s first book suggests the beginning of an important new turn in LGBT and urban studies warranting subsequent works engaging in a wider array of sources and many more years of the kind of creative investigations that she could only have begun under the rubric of American Studies.

GORDON BRENT INGRAM

brochu-ingram's safe space graphics 5

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From queer spaces to queerer ecologies: Recasting Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind to further mobilise & anticipate historically marginal stakeholders in environmental planning for community development

Ingram, Gordon Brent. 2012. From queer spaces to queerer ecologies: Recasting Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind to further mobilise & anticipate historically marginal stakeholders in environmental planning for community development. European Journal of Ecopsychology 3 (Queer Ecologies issue): 53 – 80. PDF copy available: Ingram 2012 Queer spaces to queerer ecologies – E J of Ecopsychology

‘Warrior’s Feather Head Dress’ Cowichan man – photograph taken by Edward S. Curtis in 1913

This individual would have had considerable knowledge of the second case study in this paper, the south-west slope of Mount Maxwell on Salt Spring Island, that was a few miles away from his village.

 

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