The AQA exists as a dedicated home for queer anthropology within the larger discipline. Nonetheless, in these pages, on the AN website, and in their own work, AQA section members have critically situated recent work on gender, sexuality, and queerness in a broader political context. As leaders hawk authoritarian and xenophobic populism globally, broadening our analytical and ethnographic outlook is a particularly urgent task.
In the early hours of June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old, US-born security guard, entered Orlando’s Pulse nightclub on “Latin night,” an evening catering to LGBTQ latinx communities, armed with an assault-style rifle and a handgun. Between 2 a.m. and 5:15 a.m.—when police reported Mateen dead—he shot 102 people, 49 of whom would die.
The following month, the Washington Blade—self-proclaimed “America’s LGBT News Source”—ran a story headlined, “Trump Makes History with LGBT Inclusion in Acceptance Speech.” Indeed, Donald Trump—then the GOP presidential candidate—did make reference to the “LGBTQ community” at the Republican National Convention. Trump specifically asserted that “49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist,” locating danger within “hateful foreign ideology.” Trump’s commentary was dubious in that Mateen, both at the time and after the fact, had no affiliation with any Islamic terrorist cells and was not clearly motivated by “Islamic terrorist” ideologies. And, significantly, Trump did not explain how his administration would actually protect LGBTQ rights. Indeed, his campaign promises and the GOP platform at the RNC evinced a deep-rooted hostility toward sexual rights and social justice. Laudatory references to Trump’s overtures to LGBTQ people—including by LGBTQ people themselves—reflect a larger socio-political trend toward mainstream gay and lesbian complicity in forgetting that the rights and lives of queer, trans, and other sexually liminal persons are gravely endangered by the rise of populist ideologies that claim to support an imaginary “LGBTQ community.” They also fail to acknowledge the demonization of other communities, particularly Muslims and immigrants, in these nods toward LGBTQ equality.
The strategic embrace of gay and lesbian rights has become an emerging feature of right-wing populist movements around the globe, and most notably in Western Europe. In the Netherlands, the late gay politician Pim Fortuyn took aggressive positions against Islam and Muslim immigration, a position extended in the present day by Geert Wilders. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front adopts similar tactics, positioning Muslims as a threat to women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. To this list we could add the UK Independence Party, the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, the Swedish Sverigedemokraterna, or the Swiss Schweizerische Volkspartei and Union Démocratique du Centre. In the refugee crisis, a putative concern for women and LGBTQ people has been widely taken up by right-wing movements across Europe as a more progressive justification for exclusion.
The mobilization of sexual rights in the name of neoconservative foreign policy is not new. During the Bush administration, hawks cited the rights of Afghan and Iraqi women to justify invasion and occupation. Homonationalism, in this context, builds on homonormativity and is “contingent upon the segregation and disqualification of racial-sexual others from the national imaginary” (Puar 2007). This logic underlies gay and lesbian disregard of immigrant rights, trans rights, and the rights of any body or nation-state deemed Muslim. This kind of exceptionalism—an amnesia of historical and even continued violence against communities deemed Other—is present in both populist ideology and within gay and lesbian support of these regimes.
In its earliest days, Trump’s administration has institutionalized Islamophobia in laws, policies, and practices, and begun dismantling the few established protections for queer and trans communities. The Departments of Justice and Education have tossed guidance affirming that Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity, leaving transgender and gender non-conforming students vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. In March, Trump revoked the Obama-era Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, which safeguarded LGBT employees from harassment and discrimination.
Amnesiac gays and lesbians in support of violently nationalistic and anti-Islamic governance produce the conditions that render death and violence against some queer and trans bodies acceptable, if not also expected. It is through these conditions that mainstream gay and lesbian media can amplify Trump’s demonization of Mateen’s subjectivity as a racialized, potentially queered Other, while failing to foreground Trump’s actual campaign promises of white nationalism, anti-immigrant, anti-disabled, anti-Islam, anti-woman and anti-poor policies. To adopt such a hypnotically powerful brand of gay rights that forgets, quite literally, so many other queer/ed bodies, is precisely how, and why, the rise of radical populism is both unthinkable and entirely plausible.
Elijah Adiv Edelman is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rhode Island College.
Ryan Richard Thoreson is an independent scholar with Human Rights Watch.
Cite as: Edelman, Elijah Adiv, and Ryan Thoreson. 2017. “On Queer Amnesia.” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.534