A response to the Tatchell/Out of Place debate written in solidarity to the authors of the “Gay Imperialism” chapter. Some of the authors of the response were present at the reading group today. The text has previously been published at the Grassroots Feminism blog.
In Solidarity with “Out of Place”
This statement is written by a group of white non-Muslim queer activists in solidarity and support for the writers of the article “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’” (2008) by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauquir and Esra Erdem. This article problematises the role of the white queer activist Peter Tatchell, amongst others, in the construction of Muslim communities as homophobic, highlighting the racist and imperialist effect such constructions have in the context of the ‘War on Terror’. Haritaworn et al. point out that in many of Tatchell’s campaigns and political statements the discourse he uses reinforces the idea of Muslims as dangerous extremists, and constructs Muslims as “the other” of white gay people, and that in doing so he dismisses and marginalises the voices and experiences of queer Muslims, in particular those who object to having Tatchell as a spokesperson for their struggles.
Following the publication of this article in the book Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality (Raw Nerve Books, 2008) a debacle ensued whereby Tatchell has effectively censored this article, and in the process the entire collection. He has pressurised it’s publishers, Raw Nerve Books, to publish an apology:
He has implicitly threatened legal action if the book is reprinted, since he claims that the comments made by Haritaworn et al. are “highly defamatory, libellous and untrue allegations” against him.
In a statement on his website,
which acts as a counterattack to his supposedly being “smeared” by the authors of the article and those academics who have supported them, Tatchell polarises his position and that of those who critique him, using the emotive language of “honesty” “truth” and “lies” to galvanise support and to attempt to tarnish the academic credentials of the academics concerned. In doing so Tatchell seeks to assimilate into his own simplistic and propagandistic terms of reference a critique which represents the relationship between Islam, sexuality and gender as multidimensional and complex. White non-Muslims may well find this critique unpalatable, to the extent that it challenges them to move beyond their prejudicial and limited frames of reference. It is disappointing that Tatchell has chosen to respond in a typically defensive way to the critique that is being made against him. As the statement by X-talk has pointed out,
the critique of Tatchell was never a personal attack. No-one is disputing that Tatchell perceives his work to be anti-racist and non-Islamophobic. However his intentions fail to be coupled with a critical awareness of in its effects his work has reproduced oppressive power structures. A prominent example of this is that a worrying pattern of Tatchell appointing himself as mediator between his own white, Australian- British background and the “homophobic” or otherwise implicitly backward or morally inferior values of cultural contexts different from his own. In positioning himself as expert in this way, he makes himself, his values and his supposed benevolence the focus of this work. This is despite the fact that time and again activists of colour have pointed out to him that not only does his work suppress and negate their activist work, but not infrequently also exposes them to a greater risk of homophobic attacks from within their own communities, as was pointed out recently by African L.G.B.T.I. human rights defenders:
That Tatchell has taken this critique as a personal attack only confirms the central importance that he places on his own reputation in his activist work. Through constructing this critique as a personal attack he has managed to once again shift the spotlight onto himself and to divert attention from the important issue which this critique raises, namely the need for white, non-Muslim queer activists to critically examine their politics and communities for the ways in which they may be (whether intentionally or not ) perpetuating racism and/or Islamophobia.
Through his failure to situate his work within the wider political context of an increased use of western discourses of gender and sexuality as the yardsticks for “progressive democracy”, which are then used to legitimate Islamophobic and racist practices such as repressive anti-terror measures, attacks on immigration rights and the erosion of civil liberties1, Tatchell is aligning himself with and is reproducing oppressive power structures. This serves to increase his position of security and comfort while at the same time undermining the position of Muslim queer activists. Tatchell’s response also strengthen’s the argument of the original article, in which the authors point out that “In a typical reversal of actual power relations, Tatchell has attempted to discredit those who resist his patronage, by interpreting their resistance as an attack, and himself as their victim”2.
What seems to be lacking in all this is an understanding that part of the work of being an ally to people of colour is to be able to recognise that the conversation is not about you. It is about the radical re-distribution of power, which means actively seeking to give that power and privilege up, not to use those campaigns as a vehicle for the reinforcement of your own personal and cultural agenda. It means following leadership from people of colour, Muslim people and those who you seek to support, not seeking to lead them. And it means being able to take criticism, to listen, and to readjust your behaviour and the way that you work accordingly- not using that critique as a further opportunity to argue the uprightness of your moral standing and to debase the reputations of those who would dare to disagree.
In order to do genuine solidarity work rather than re-enforcing neo-imperialist/racist power structures, anyone from a privileged (read white) position needs to be constantly reviewing their anti-racist politics and closely examining how they benefit from white privilege. This absolutely requires one to take a step back and listen to criticisms from POC and/or Muslims rather than dig in on the defensive and use silencing measures. This is basic anti-racist behaviour.
Furthermore, it requires accountability for what you do. This is especially important to keep in mind when the intentions behind the work fail to be fulfilled, as the critique that has been presented in the paper by Haritaworn et al. makes clear. If we are to believe in the good intentions that underpin Tatchell’s, and also our own political activism, we must make ourselves responsible to the effects and outcomes of our work, not only on ourselves but on all who are, or might be, affected. In this situation, an appeal to good intentions is not enough, it’s the outcome that must be accounted for.
Tatchell is for many people an emblem of radical L.G.B.T. activism; in this influential position many people look to him to shape their ideas and practices. Unfortunately, this critique of Tatchell has therefore become the occasion for the repetition of his narrow-minded arguments and their racist and damaging effects, which has been reinforced as many of his supporters have come out to further attack the authors of the article and their supporters3.
In writing this statement we seek to disrupt the continual reproduction of Tatchell as at the centre of this debate. Tatchell is not alone in producing this kind of racist discourse; that this hostile response to the authors of this article should come from such a high profile L.G.B.T.Q.I “activist” is symptomatic of a lack of anti-racist awareness amongst the wider white, non-Muslim L.G.B.T.Q.I community. We need to refocus the terms of the debate in order to make the white non-Muslim L.G.B.T.Q.I. community as a whole accountable for the reproduction of racist and islamophobic discourse.
The “Gay Imperialism” article (along with many other chapters of the Out of Place collection which have effectively also been censored), challenges not just Peter Tatchell, but all of us who are privileged along the axis of race and religious orientation within the L.G.B.T.I.Q. communities to reassess our understanding of what it means to be an ally to those who do not have such privilege, and to develop new anti-oppressive practices which do not support racist and imperial agendas. We must not let Tatchell’s actions suppress this very important and urgent discussion.
‘In solidarity with “Out of Place”, London’