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Imperialism by another name

(This was originally posted at Womanist Musings. Reprinting here for archival purposes.)

Is still imperialism. Recently, my (and many others’) Facebook and Twitter feed was full of people happily congratulating the USA and Hilary Clinton for this “historic speech,” regarding queer rights in the big, wide world. Most of the commentary I’ve read has been all happy about how great this is…

And it really would be, if the world wasn’t still recovering from the last time a bunch of empires decided that they needed to help those poor people (over there) become more civilized. I take issue with how her speech frames other countries as doing worse than the US (with only a few tokens mentions of how the US still has long way to go before it is truly recognizing the humanity of its queer citizens). It is especially frustrating because in many places in the world, their harsh anti-queer laws are the direct result of colonialism (often by England).

Once upon a time, I was a budding academic. I was poised to do a PhD and had just been accepted to the best school to study my chosen field. This school was the National University of Singapore. In hindsight, I realize that I made a mistake by only researching the school, and not the overall culture, before I applied. Thus, it came as a shock to realize that all homosexual acts in Singapore are illegal. (yes, this means that I decided not to do a PhD and, thusly, killing my academic career)

But why are they illegal in Singapore? Because the British put this into law during their colonization of Singapore. This holds true for every single country and people colonized by England. Thus, it turns out that oppressive laws and attitudes towards queers was actually something taught, coded into law, and forced upon many a colonized people (I definitely know this to be true of the British empire). This is why hearing speeches like Hilary Clinton’s makes me role my eyes.

The West always (always!) likes to frame itself as being so much more humanitarian, kind, and respectful of human rights than all other countries. I mean, we are talking about the birth place of human rights themselves! Considering how the United States still routinely denies equal rights to its queer and trans* citizens, the speech is also deeply hypocritical.

And before anyone jumps all over me about this, I know that there are countries with homophobic laws that are not a consequence of colonization. This is (possibly) true of places in the Middle East (but I’m not historian, so I don’t know for sure0. However, the main problem I have with the speech is its imperialistic call to arms. The United States does not need to profess a global commitment to queer rights when it has so much work to do at home. The world does not need any more white saviours. Really.

More to the point, people in countries with homophobic laws and policies are already working to achieve equality and liberation. There is good reason to be suspicious of programmatic claims like Hilary’s. We’ve seen how little good is has done most Muslim women, having the West paternalistically trying to ‘liberate’ the Muslim woman by legislating against the niqab or hijab. The West continuously likes to think that its ways are the only and best methods to achieve equality and liberation. It also likes to force these methods and ‘truths’ onto sovereign countries and independent peoples.

And, in the end, it is still imperialism. I have difficulty seeing the difference between this type of proselytizing and all the missionaries sent out during colonial times.