Provocations on mainstream LGBTQ+ activism
By Jose Monfred Sy
Project Leader, Program on Alternative Developmen
UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies
LGBTQ+ peoples have existed and played crucial roles in societies across Southeast Asia for the longest time. However, today, our lives have been marred by violence, discrimination, and exclusion from economic and political participation. At the regional level, the responses from Southeast Asian governments and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN against SOGIE-based crimes and the disregard of LGBTQ+ peoples’ rights are inexcusably unsatisfactory. Often, religious beliefs have been invoked as grounds to deny us fundamental freedoms, such as the rights to free expression, political association, family, health, and the like. Disavowal from gender stereotypes and sexual norms are always met with harsh criticism and religious intolerance.
Despite this challenge, pride groups—so named for our celebration of dignity, equality, and increased visibility of LGBTQ+ persons—in the region emerge to lobby for human rights. These groups, whether loose or formal, inspire support from civil society organizations (CSOs) from the grassroots level to the regional. While it is generally accepted by many CSOs that sex and gender intersect with other realms of positionality such as class, race, and ethnicity, caution must be made as bigtime non-government organizations (NGOs) and global institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the main drivers of neoliberal economics, convey heteronormative logics in projects such as the “Economic Cost of Homophobia,” which monetizes the “cost” of discrimination.
Corporate entities and Western states alike have coopted mainstream LGBTQ+ advocacies as a scapegoat for exploitative and marginalizing actions—“pinkwashing,” in contemporary parlance. For instance, nations that parade their queer-friendliness have used LGBTQ+ issues as an excuse to embargo other countries pathologized as discriminatory. Similarly, many corporate entities that espouse inclusive workplaces are the same companies that exploit their workers through contractualization and unlivable wages. These institutions shape and deploy symbols to frame issues that suit their purposes best. Instead of addressing the root causes of oppression as in the heyday of the queer liberation movement, these neoliberal enterprises allow for a consumption-centric citizenship to queerfolk who have been withheld from civil participation.
Sometimes, even we have fallen prey to an individualist and identity-centered activism. For example, some of us may find appealing a focus on same-sex marriage policy. However, the diversity of LGBTQ+ experiences and needs cannot be boxed in a historically heteronormative institution. We must also cast doubt on adopting a human rights discourse as the sole mechanism for LGBTQ+ advocacy. The dominant human rights discourse extended from the West to the Global South may miss the point that sexualities will inevitably be regulated, oppressed, and stigmatized while heterosexuality retains its privileged position as the unquestioned cultural norm defining “human.” Heteronormativity is taken as the standard on which human rights are founded and hence the issue of rights is posed in terms of equality with heterosexuals.
Can neoliberal capitalism, where all dimensions of our lives are subsumed by the market, to end sexism and SOGIE-based marginalization? No way.
Capital accumulation threatens LGBTQ+ lives given its dependence on gendered labor production and social reproduction. Rights such as same-sex marriage and cultural representation may be celebrated in superpower countries, but only insofar as a pool of heteronormatively gendered labor is available in peripheral nations, such as those in Southeast Asia. Neoliberal economics depend on the very cultural institutions that exclude and marginalize LGBTQ+ peoples. It guarantees the reproduction not just of children or the next generation of workers, but also of heterosexism and homophobia.
The ASEAN Way, working within a neoliberal framework, ensures that profit trumps queer experiences. The ASEAN diplomacy of non-coercive, consultative, and consensus-seeking interactions and decision-making disallow it from openly discuss sensitive issues with domestic political implications such as justice for LGBTQ+ peoples in the face of recent tyrannical regimes. Economic integration with superpower countries is its primary objective.
Queer politics in the Third World concerns imperialism and underdevelopment. Fighting for gender equality means liberation from poverty, socio-economic dependency, and barriers to political participation imposed by the elite class upon the majority of our populations.
Solidarity, then, must be the core of LGBTQ+ activism. This is a product of a people-to-people interaction that works hard to overcome social inequalities along with systematic transformation of societies. Emerging from the ideologies and histories of plurality and diversity, it values the important cross-border political struggles of other communities. The praxis behind solidarity as a right concerns the presence of a greater opportunity for people to learn from each other and build networks to assert better wages, housing, food security, and other rights for all marginalized sectors.
The regional networks blossoming especially in the last two decades from cross-national campaigns among SOGIE-based organizations are fertile ground where advocacy that cuts across identity markers can be cultivated. The task therefore is to revalorize our already shrinking space at the regional level outside the limits of activism allowed by neoliberal states.