Passing the Impasse: Refusing Racism and Striking Solidarities in the Fight Against Homophobia

In the summer of 2010, two prominent members of Vancouver’s gay community–David Holzman and Peter Reiger–were brutally attacked outside their home by two men, Parminder Singh Peter Bassi and his brother, Ravinder Robbie Bassi. Last week, the Bassi brothers’ trial began. Reiger and Holzman allege that the crimes were motivated, at least in part, by homophobic hate; the Bassis stand accused of calling the pair “fucking faggots” during the attack.

An exhaustive retelling of the trial is not my focus here. A number of local and national papers are taking care of detail handily (Xtra.ca, for its part, is providing unusually astute coverage). Nor is my intent to launch some vague invective against the horrors of homophobic violence–my opposition on that front goes without saying. Rather, my concern is with how the Bassi trial has inflamed a particular tension within queer politics that, while in urgent need of interrogation, is rarely openly addressed. The reaction of many ‘progressives’ and allies in the city’s gay community has been recourse to outright racism and white ethno-nationalism, charging Middle Eastern communities with being inherently and irrevocably homophobic. In the same way that many Western liberal democracies have elected to read a woman’s donning of the niqab or hijab as a signal of Islam’s allegedly inescapable misogyny, the Bassi trial has brought out the worst strains of  Western exceptionalism, white supremacism, and orientalist othering in our city’s gay community. This comment, lifted from a friend’s Facebook page, should make that clear:

Go ask the LGBT communities why it always seems to be East Indian males committing the gay bashings! My point is and will continue to be that until the East Indian community stops breeding this violence of which I speak within their communities… The facts regarding violent men within the East Indian community speak for themself. And in the Temples they promote hatred, violence and homophobia and we are supposed to take this because it is part of their religious freedoms to spew this hatred? I say not in my Canada.

With such rhetoric, we come to an apparent impasse: the seeming impossibility of reconciling, within a liberal politics, oppositional or antagonistic relations between persecuted minorities. Conservative ideologues delight in this kind of conflict, gleefully declaring that “multiculturalism has failed,” that all of our “liberal immigration policies have turned against us.” We have allegedly welcomed into our ranks inherently heterosexist and homophobic cultures. It’s not much of a mental stretch to imagine even soft conservative figures tenting their fingers as they watch white queers level charges of barbarism against Asian immigrants, advancing arguments that accord all-too-closely with the rhetoric that has sustained a decade of war in the Middle East. As our community expounds at length on the need to erase the “hatred, violence and homophobia” taught in Sikh temples, it retrenches the very same civilizing, liberating mission rhetoric that leads to the destruction of human lives abroad. Our freedom and protection as queers, hailed so proudly as harbingers of progress, become instruments of coercion, oppression, and systematic destruction.

We see this kind of impasse play out again and again within liberal political frameworks, particularly those that take issues of gender and sexuality as their focus. As noted in passing above, niqabs, hijabs, burqas, and other visible expressions of Muslim cultural practice are often seen as diametrically opposed to the liberation and equality discourses of the Western women’s movement (this is an issue explored beautifully by Sunera Thobani in her 2008 essay, “Gender and Empire: Veilomentaries and the War on Terror“). When the Burnaby Parents’ Voice party, a predominantly Chinese-Canadian organization, formed in 2011 to oppose the passage of anti-homophobia policies by the Burnaby School Board, it was again taken as the death knell of multiculturalism, the turning of progressivism in on itself. As progressives, we are constantly needled with such challenges: how can we advocate for the accommodation of immigrants if those immigrants are taken to represent violent, repressive, regressive cultures (cultures which just so happen to match up with those cultures roped into the visual language of the war on terror; people who look vaguely Middle Eastern but are still somehow more of a threat than any white supremacist neo-Nazi)? How can we claim to stand in solidarity with the struggles of queers or women when the very people we allow to cross our borders seem to perpetrate precisely the kinds of gendered and sexualized violence that we fight against?

In my view, there can be no more shallow, no more seductive, and no more dangerous critique of progressive values than this highlighting of the impasse. It tempts us primarily on the basis of self-preservation and the instinct toward survival. If there is a threat to our safety, it is in our own best interest (we are led to believe), to eradicate or rebuff that threat. This means standing up against the ‘homophobia and violence’ inherent to ‘East Indian’ cultural practices. It means safeguarding the shining values of Western liberal democracies–equality before the law, individual rights to self-determination, etc. In short, it means reaffirming the fundamental rightness of our own practices over and against a whole world of others who must be either assimilated or excised. In the final instance, it  boils down to an imperialist, civilizing mission: difference must either be expelled or cleansed…or both.

Yet to commit to this logic is to commit a severe ontological error. Many Western gays, largely because of the heterosexism and homophobia that still inheres in our own cultural practices (conveniently forgotten when ‘other’ bodies are involved), are quick to refuse the notion that their gayness defines them as subjects: “Being gay is a part of who I am, but it’s not everything.” This common rejoinder is essentially a refusal of overdetermination; an unwillingness of the subject to have its fragmented, variable ontology reduced to a single practice. Yet those who so steadfastly reject the overdetermination of their subjectivity, without batting an eye, commit the same error of overdetermination against religious, racial, and cultural minorities. The complicated intersections between body, sexuality, and belief that reside in us all are callously dispensed with when we charge cultural minorities with some kind of inherent homophobia; a charge that collapses differential experiences of sexuality into some oblique and one-dimensional cultural difference.

In this moment of over-determination, we give into the temptation of the impasse and fortify the divisions between persecuted minorities erected by those who benefit from the reproduction of injustice. It is this giving-in that allows our queerness to be co-opted by those forces and institutions that are sustained by and sustaining of violence. If the Islamic body is inherently threatening to the queer body, a space opens up in which it becomes possible to commit violence and oppression against the former in the name of the latter’s safety. And so we come to the issue at hand here: the emergence of gay racisms, ethno-nationalisms, and increasingly, militarisms. Our liberated bodies are compelled and encouraged to defend their liberty by destroying the bodies of others. The moment of giving-in is thus the moment in which the limit of a liberal queer politics, and indeed a liberal subject, reveals itself:

‘One of the tensions that hold a modern subjectivity together’ involves two apparently opposite values: ‘reverence for human life, and it’s legitimate destruction…Liberalism, of course, disapproves of the violence exercise of freedom outside the frame of law. But the law is founded by and continuously depends upon coercive violence (Asad, as cited in Butler, 2010, p. 160).

The rights of queers, in other words, are increasingly protected by and enshrined in Western law. Yet that act of enshrinement operates precisely through the excision and refusal of other minority practices (and in many cases, bodily and coercive violence against those practices). This is how we end up with a queer politics such as the one practiced by the Dutch government:

In the Netherlands, for instance, new applicants for immigration are asked to look at photos of two men kissing and report on whether the photos are offensive, whether they are understood to express personal liberties, and whether the viewers are willing to live in a democracy that values the rights of gay people to free expression.

[…]

And so a certain paradox ensues in which the coerced adoption of certain cultural norms becomes a prerequisite for entry into a polity that defines itself as the avatar of freedom. Is the Dutch government engaging in civic pedagogy through its defense of lesbian and gay sexual freedom, and would it impose its test on right-wing white supremacists, such as Vlaams Blok, who are congregated on its border with Belgium and who have called for a cordon sanitaire around Europe to keep out the non-Europeans? Is it administering the tests to lesbian and gay people to make sure they are not offended by the visible practices of Muslim minorities?

[…]

Is the test a liberal defense of my freedom with which I should be pleased, or is my freedom here being used as an instrument of coercion—one that seeks to keep Europe white, pure, and “secular” in ways that do not interrogate the violence that underwrites that very project? (Butler, 2010)

In light of such ludicrously coercive political tactics, it seems to me that the paramount task of any progressive politics, particularly a queer politics, is to work toward undoing the impasse. Not simply because it brings our language into an uncomfortable parallel with the conservatives we so often and so publicly critique, but moreso because the impasse itself produces conditions under which it becomes possible to destroy in the name of freedom, to coerce in the name of equality, to kill in the name of preservation. The impasse, left alone, is not simply a strategic and rhetorical boon for the right. It is more importantly a weapon that we wield against the very communities we must stand in solidarity with: our sisters, bothers, and allies in persecution.

How, then, do we begin undoing the impasse? If one accepts Butler’s argument in Frames of War, this arduous process of disentanglement begins with a rejection of the discursive conditions that produce it in the first place. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, bodies of colour that bear even a slight resemblance to the ‘terrorist’ media archetype are discursively produced as threats. The frame of interpretation and apprehension set up by the War on Terror relies, for its ontological and political coherence, on the constant reiteration of a fundamental divergence between the secular, liberal, fully modernized West and a foreign, fractured, not-yet-modern world of the other.

The work of building solidarities between persecuted minorities within and across both of these worlds, then, must begin with a critical intervention into these frames of apprehension. In this regard, Butler is quite right to argue that “perhaps the most salient site where an ‘impasse’ emerges is not between the minority sexual subject and the minority religious subject, but between a normative framework that produces such subjects in mutual conflict” (my emphasis).

Mounting a challenge to these frameworks allows us to refocus our attention on those vectors of oppression that cut across the cultural boundaries that define minority populations. Butler locates one such vector of oppression in the state apparatus. In this political moment, while the state indeed grants rights to queers, it does so almost exclusively in a way that retrenches heterosexist ideals of desire (marriage, monogamous coupling, reproductive and biological destiny, nuclear family-as-productive unit, etc.). This practice ultimately reaffirms the very relations of sexual subordination that legitimate homophobic violence. That very same state is also the instrument that commits violence against Islamic populations abroad and gives legitimacy to a generalized climate of violence and oppression against cultural minorities on domestic shores.

And so emerges a new opportunity for solidarity between persecuted peoples. The task of articulating an extensive and thoroughgoing critique of state violence and coercion is one that demands collaboration among minority subjects. Even if that collaboration is short lived, even if it is fraught with its own internal difficulties, even if it is a contingent coming-together of historically opposed interest groups, this act of articulation nonetheless holds out the promise of 1) at a practical level, blocking the formation of policy that bolsters state violence 2) at a conceptual level, interrupting the frames of apprehension that allow such policy formations to take shape in the first place.

To apply this analysis to another challenge of the contemporary left, the breaking of frames also allows us to undo the apparent impasse between labour and environment. An environmentalism predicated on the principles of deep ecology seems irrevocably at odds with a labour advocacy predicated on the right of workers to participate in ecologically damaging industrial practices. A collaborative articulation of these struggles, however, against the extractive logic of capitalism in general holds out the promise of moving beyond the liberal impasse. Just as the capitalist mode of production extracts natural resources from the earth, resilience from natural systems, and individual elements from holistic relations for the purposes of commodity production, so too does it extract surplus value (in an act of violence that retrenches asymmetrical relations of power) from the abstract labour of workers. A coalitional opposition to this extractive logic allows us to imagine a solidarity beyond the frame of capitalism; beyond compromises like “green jobs,” which in the end do nothing to undermine the regimes of accumulation and growth that sustain capitalism in general.

And so while both homophobic violence and the outright racism that surrounds the Bassi trial must be condemned, we would also do well to react to the relation between the two more substantively. That is, to reflect upon on it critically and comparatively, considering how it illuminates the kind of oppositions that we might undo by bravely forging new solidarities; solidarities that refuse to comply with those practices and institutions that  benefit from the reproduction of violence among persecuted populations; solidarities that break with dominant frames of apprehension; solidarities that simply will not abide by the assumption that difference can only beget antagonism.

An Open Letter to Gregor Robertson

If any of the images and stories trotted out during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are to be believed, ours is a city of thoughtful progress,rooted in a shared history; a space of integration, accommodation, diversity, and reconciliation; a vibrant cultural sphere animated by the words and actions of people from all social, racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic strata.

Of course, even at the time of the Olympics, such narratives were obviously disingenuous. But now, with the municipal election looming over a political field littered with broken promises, illusory progressivism, and crass, opportunistic electioneering, they have started to look less and less like the mere banal fictions of political marketing. Rather, they have been revealed as deliberate falsehoods, engineered to obscure the dramatic environmental, social, and human injustices that our city continues to accommodate in the defense of private profit.

As you, Mr. Robertson, trumpet the horn of progressivism to the tune of bike lanes, community gardens, public art, and composting, your refusal (or inability) to curb the influence of developers and adequately protect low-income neighbourhoods has turned Vancouver into little more than a speculative playground for the ultra-rich.

With rents skyrocketing, those without the means to live in luxury are increasingly forced out of the central city or into sub-standard housing that deprives them of safety and dignity. Quite against your grand ambition to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city, and against the tenets of inter- and intra-generational equity so central to conventional definitions of sustainability, this means more commuting, more emissions, more sprawl, more strain on the most vulnerable among us, and the eviction of cultural and economic diversity from the Vancouver community. All your political posturing—encouraging us to cycle to work, to buy local, to participate in the knowledge economy—is hollow, at best, unless you are willing to ask why. Why ecologically devastating industrial agriculture continues to thrive despite the growth of the local food movement, why so many knowledge workers seem to be leaving the city for other markets, why the injunction against Occupy Vancouver has been met with such fierce resistance.

When we ask why, we come across the ugly, difficult fact of injustice, a fact that this city council refuses (or again, has become unable) to confront. We come across a city traced and retraced by the contours of class inequity, racial injustice, and dramatic income disparity. We find a city where indigenous citizens are asked to perform at civic festivals and marquee events, but are brutally relegated to the margins of civic life through such processes as the gentrification of the DTES; where a tragic death at an otherwise beautiful demonstration is seized upon in a crass act of electioneering while the countless deaths that occur in the DTES because of poverty, homelessness, and inadequate access to public health services, go unmarked; where civic engagement, the subject of many a proud boast at City Hall, apparently doesn’t include peaceful assembly (at least not when there’s a football party to be thrown); where the work of our artistic community is relentlessly called upon to gussy up our events while the community itself is forced out of the city by exploitative rents and archaic zoning policies; where the fundamentally collective task of addressing the injustices that ravage our communities is privatized, collapsed completely into the politically suffocating question of how and what we buy.

Certainly, these charges will be met with the correct rebuttal that a Vision city council is preferable to an NPA victory. In short: it is only responsible to choose the lesser evil. I don’t think that this glib assessment, despite its appeal, needs to be the only tenable one at our disposal. If the Occupy movement has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t have to settle, and that we can create alternatives, provided we stake out spaces of mutual support in which they can appear. What kind of a choice is the lesser evil when there are clearly more ethical judgments to be made, in exactly the moment when making them seems more possible than ever before?

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’m advocating here, beyond the simple recognition that business in this city simply cannot continue as usual if our political process is to have any meaning whatsoever.

Mr. Robertson, it is my sense that you will win this election (with a split council, without my vote). As such, I urge you to not just act within, but to think about your environment. Political bravery, as our fellow citizens are showing us in this moment, has not simply vanished. If there is any time to seize it, it is now. Over the past few weeks, you have shown yourself to be a tremendous electioneer. But your job, if your authority is to be taken seriously, is not to win. It is to govern, to think, and to judge.