The Liberal Democrat youth wing decided to launch an embassy crawl today of countries with bad human rights records. A lovely idea to represent an internationalist commitment to love? Theoretically, yes. In practise, a group of majority white people getting a photo op outside embassies, some of which were former British colonies. In practise, a group of people stealing voices from LGBT People of Colour.
The struggle for LGBT rights belongs to the LGBT people from those relevant countries who have been persecuted by these laws. Some of these people may outreach to Britain to support their struggle and we stand in solidarity, but for others this is an internal struggle. This is not my struggle as a Person of Colour, nor is it the struggle of British LGBT people. LGBT People of Colour (PoC) have been forced to start their own movement for equality because the mainstream LGBT rights movement has favoured equality for cis white people over People of Colour and Trans people. This is not my struggle to preach about, but it is important to note the scepticism People of Colour hold towards all mainstream liberation movements. Intersectionality is a virtue yet to be discovered by many white equality activists.
My knowledge of LGBT rights is focussed on India and for the purposes of this blog I’ll speak solely about Indian LGBT rights. I cannot speak about the struggles in other countries as I do not know about their context, nor can I speak as an LGBT Indian as I am straight and a British citizen. It’s not great in India. Section 377 of the Indian penal code labels all non-hetero missionary sex as “unnatural”. (FYI This law was imposed by the British during colonial rule.) Recent years have seen a cultural shift with attitudes towards homosexuality, with celebrities speaking in support, and LGBT films having a mainstream release. It’s an uphill struggle but times and attitudes are changing. The Naz Foundation has submitted a petition to revoke Section 377, pending another review.
India’s LGBT community have not been waiting patiently for Britain’s fifth largest political party’s youth wing to suddenly save their lives and open Modi’s eyes to discrimination. The movement has been going along for decades to reverse the attitudes brought into India by British colonial rule. If Liberal Youth, or other British activists, want to help they should do so by assisting existing Indian LGBT organisations with their campaigns. Turning up outside an embassy to demand they change their laws suggests that we as British people have more clout over law making than Indian LGBT citizens. It screams of post colonial white privilege and is damaging and upsetting to People of Colour. Part of the campaign to reverse the criminalisation of “unnatural” sex is to point out the colonial context of the law. Having a group of British people cry about how regressive India is, gives the entirely opposite effect.
For India, there is a more topical and timely situation taking place right now post Facebook’s Free Internet campaign. Zuckerberg et al turned up in India to solve poverty. India ruled that this actually did little to solve poverty and a Facebook director took to the internet to say “anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for India.” In this very fresh backdrop of white activism being used to impose post colonial ideals, Indians have a touch of an anti Western stance towards activism at the moment.
The concerning issue internally is the reaction by numerous non People of Colour speaking up on behalf of international LGBT people. I’ve had a day of Twitter whitesplaners telling me why I’m wrong about colonialism, and that I should ignore racial insensitivity if it causes me so much distress. The reactions people have had to ignore intersectionality and racial sensitivity, encompasses why the Liberal Democrats have such a huge race issue. When a person of colour expresses unhappiness towards racial attitudes, the response should be to understand why they are upset, and to attempt to empathise (like Bradley did here). The immediate reaction should never be to shut down already marginalised voices. Claiming “but this BME person thought it was ok!” is the equivalent of “I’ve got a black friend!” One BME person’s voice is not representative of an entire international community (including mine). This should be a moment of reflection for some members about how they respond to underrepresented groups.
The voices which should be heard the loudest are the voices of people who suffer under the rule of these countries. These types of marches should be held with those communities taking the forefront, not hijacked by white well meaning Liberal Democrats.
Where do we go from here? Does this activism and solidarity include working with LGBT organisations based in those countries? Will you suddenly move to rural Madhya Pradesh to work with the marginalised hijra community? Or does the activism begin with a march and end with a photo op to print on a FOCUS leaflet? If this was a fun day out with some mates and you’ve got some cute selfies out of it, perhaps you’ve missed the point. Activism is not meant to be a way to make yourself feel good about the atrocities people suffer abroad. Activism is not a charity act to get votes in the next local by election. Activism must continue and we must all understand the cultural context of our actions.