In their article “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’” (2008), Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem critique white gay discourses in Germany and Britain that trade in Islamophobic constructions of a gay-friendly, sexually liberated ‘West’ and a homophobic, sexually oppressive ‘Islam’ as the West’s Other. They argue that these constructions are validated in the politics of the ‘war on terror’ and the erosion of migrant citizenship, and that racism is “the vehicle that transports white gays and feminists into the mainstream” (p. 72). Their work extends a tradition of antiracist feminisms that analyse the complicities of feminist and sexual politics in colonialism, war, and other forms of state violence. Writing collaboratively as trans of color, queer Muslim, and migrant feminist scholars and organizers, Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem call for a different kind of sexual politics.
This critique and call are now being suppressed. On September 7 the publisher, Raw Nerve Books, issued a public apology to Peter Tatchell, a white gay leader in Britain, and his organization OutRage, who are criticized in “Gay Imperialism.” Raw Nerve furthermore declared the collection in which the article appeared “out of print.” The collection Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, edited by Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake, has been censored. On the publisher’s website, where one could formerly order the book, one is now asked to read the publisher’s statement of “apology and correction” instead.
The “apology and correction” are a show of force. In an authoritative voice, the statement denounces that the article contains “untruths,” and it proclaims Tatchell “not Islamophobic” and not racist. It quotes brief phrases from “Gay Imperialism” and intersperses them with averments that it is “not” so, or that Tatchell has “never” done this.
“Mr Tatchell has never ’employed tactics of intimidation and aggressive divide and rule’, nor has he ‘attempted to discredit those who resist his patronage.’ He does not ‘sling mud onto Muslim communities’.”
Some of the phrases of “Gay Imperialism” quoted in the “correction” use obviously metaphoric language (“sling mud”). Their simple negation — without examination of the context from which their meaning derives — is a farce.
The “correction” next disparages the power of judgment of the African LGBTI human rights defenders whose scathing criticism of Tatchell and OutRage is referenced in “Gay Imperialism.” The judgment of Dorothy Aken’Ova of INCRESE in Nigeria and others who signed a public statement of warning against Tatchell and OutRage is deemed not significant because the signatories allegedly “did not know Mr Tatchell and OutRage.” The statement of warning, which is signed by twenty individuals representing over a dozen organizations in ten African countries is denounced as the result of “untrue gossip spread by one person who was waging a sectarian political vendetta.” (See Black Looks] .
The apology and correction finally conclude with a long list of Tatchell’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist credentials. This follows a common pattern of silencing anti-racist critique by posing to respond to it while deflecting attention from its substance. As Jay Smooth famously says, it is difficult to confront politicians and celebrities with their racism: “It always starts out as a what-they-did conversation, but as soon as the celebrity and their defenders get on camera they start doing judo flips and switching it into a what-they-are conversation.” (His video is called “How To Tell People They Sound Racist” and can be seen on his hip-hop video blog ill Doctrine.) The celebrities’ defenders, I would add, also take it upon themselves to define what racism is and to act as if their definition were the only one. It strikes me as unprecedented that Raw Nerve Books so wholeheartedly assumes the role of Tatchell’s defender. I can only speculate about the pressures that moved this small independent feminist publisher suddenly to claim that role.
What next? Smooth’s analysis would make me predict that after all this “empty posturing” on the part of Tatchell’s defenders, who perform their allegiance to the truth that Tatchell is not racist, the show will end and “we forget that the whole thing ever happened.” This is not an unrealistic scenario. The “apology and correction” and the decision to censor the publication are a violent inducement to “forget” that Tatchell’s rhetoric and politics ever motivated an anti-racist critique. If you read only the statement of apology and correction, you would not know that “Gay Imperialism” contains a critique. You are given the impression that the article is nothing but a series of baseless allegations, factual errors which “correction” has cleared away. The correction delegitimizes “Gay Imperialism” (comparably to how it delegitimizes the criticism by Aken’Ova and others) as something that cannot be taken seriously.
The censorship of Out of Place weighs perhaps even heavier than all these belittling statements, because it literally prevents many people from reading the critique and forming their own judgment. The violent suppression of “Gay Imperialism” and the book in which it appeared also works as a warning to the authors, editors, and other critics and potential critics of Tatchell to better keep their mouths shut.
We will not take this warning lightly. Whether we will obey it is a different question. People with few symbolic and material resources — women of color and queer and trans people of color, people from the Global South, often people with precarious jobs — have taken the lead in criticizing Islamophobia, racism and imperialism in white gay and queer politics. The censorship of “Gay Imperialism” has made the risks of such a critique manifest. It remains to be seen whether “we forget that the whole thing ever happened,” or whether a different “we” is emerging that gathers its strength as it recollects what it would much more easily forget.
“African LGBTI Human Rights Defenders Warn Public against Participation in Campaigns Concerning LGBTI Issues in Africa Led by Peter Tatchell and Outrage!” (January 31, 2007), Monthly Review Zine. Available at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/increse310107.html (last accessed October 7, 2009).
Haritaworn, Jin, with Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’,” in Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, eds. Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake, Raw Nerve Books, York, pp. 71-95.
Raw Nerve Books “Peter Tatchell: Apology and Correction,” August 2009. Available at http://www.rawnervebooks.co.uk/Peter_Tatchell.pdf (last accessed October 7, 2009).
Smooth, Jay “How To Tell People They Sound Racist” (video, 2008) on ill Doctrine (video blog). Available at http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/ and at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0TigkJiXc& feature=player_embedded (last accessed October 7, 2009).