Queer Wars explores the growing international polarization over sexual rights, and the creative responses from social movements and activists, some of whom face murder, imprisonment or rape because of their perceived sexuality or gender expression.
This book asks why sexuality and gender identity have become so vexed an issue between and within nations, and how we can best advocate for change.
Dennis Altman is Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University
Jonathan Symons is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Macquarie University
Setting the agenda
It is tempting to see a new Cold War being played out around homosexuality. In 2014 the Winter Olympic Games took place at Sochi on the Russian Black Sea. The Games were carefully planned to enhance the reputation of Russia and its newly (re-)elected president, Vladimir Putin. But they followed the introduction of anti-homosexual-propaganda laws, disguised as protecting cultural values, 1 which in turn led to calls for boycotts of both the Games and some of the major corporate sponsors.
No country refused to participate in the Sochi Games, but the United States made its attitude clear by not sending any high-ranking official, and naming a delegation headed by several openly lesbian and gay sporting figures, including tennis player Billie Jean King. Other major political leaders and most European royalty also refused to attend the opening ceremony, although the king and queen of the Netherlands, flanked by Britain's Princess Anne and members of the Monaquesque and Luxembourgeois royal families, were present. The Dutch decision was somewhat surprising, given the extent to which the country has been a leader in promoting gay rights, and came in for some criticism at home. Nor were attempted boycotts always successful; a seemingly spontaneous boycott of Stolichnaya vodka collapsed when it became clear that the vodka actually came from Latvia, not Russia. Following the Sochi Games the International Olympic Committee announced new rules for the selection of host cities, including a requirement of full non-discrimination, which have yet to be tested.
In the controversies over Sochi and Eurovision one could see cultural battles around gay rights attaining a new international prominence. Such a coordinated international campaign around gay rights in an authoritarian country is unprecedented, even if the protests around Sochi were essentially symbolic. But homosexuality is constantly in the news. In one random day as we started writing this book (30 August 2014) the local Australian press carried stories about the first openly gay member of the Chilean navy, and commentary on same-sex marriage, alongside stories about the brutal lashings of a Saudi man caught using his Twitter account to arrange dates with other men. Not only do these stories point to the role of the state in regulating sexuality, they also underline the extent to which both public attitudes and state control appear to be moving in different directions in different parts of the world.
During the Cold War one of the few things on which both Soviets and the United States could agree was that homosexuality was a dangerous perversion. Indeed both countries saw an increasing fear and rejection around homosexuality in the 1950s, following a brief period after the Russian Revolution when the Soviets seemed to pursue greater tolerance, and the greater sexual freedoms that emerged in the United States after World War II. By the 1970s the social and cultural changes which are loosely associated with 'the sixties' had begun to challenge the dominant assumptions in most western countries that homosexuality was an illness, a sickness or a deviance. The Soviet Union was far slower to move in this direction, and although small gay movements emerged in a few non-western countries, homosexuality, indeed any deviation from 'traditional' assumptions about sexuality and gender, remained heavily stigmatized. While there have been huge shifts in general views of sexuality in the United States this century - epitomized in increasing support for same-sex marriage - the Putin regime has drawn on both the Stalinist and Orthodox traditions to increase persecution of people on the basis of their homosexuality.
After the re-election of both President Obama and President Putin (the latter after an obligatory period as prime minister) homosexuality emerged as a possible theme of a cultural Col