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Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons. Queer Wars: The New Global Polarization over Gay Rights, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), pp. 178.

Reviewed by: Jess Gifkins (Senior Lecturer, Leeds Beckett University).

Queer Wars provides a practical overview of gay rights through time and offers advice on the future of LGBT rights. The rapid increase in Western countries legalising same-sex marriage could point towards global patterns of increased liberalisation, but Altman and Symons demonstrate that this is not the case. Instead there are two competing narratives: Western liberalisation alongside an increase in criminalisation of homosexuality in other regions. This is framed as ‘international polarisation’ in the book, an argument that was fleshed out in theoretical terms in a companion article, “International Norm Polarization: Sexuality as a Subject of Human Rights Protection”, published in International Theory in 2015. The article argues that debates over sexual orientation and gender identity are a rare example of polarisation between rival norms. In the article, the authors present an amendment to standard accounts of the norm life cycle and include resistance to change alongside norm acceptance. The polarisation of norms between increased liberalisation alongside increased criminalisation is a theme discussed throughout the book.

2011 Capital Pride Parade – Dupont Circle – Washington, DC. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: ep_jhu.

The book seeks to answer two questions; first it asks “why, as homosexuality has become more visible globally, have reactions to sexual and gender diversity become so polarized?” and then it looks at an activist question of “what is to be done?” (pp. 3-4). To answer the first question the authors highlight a postcolonial backlash. This backlash encourages a rejection of Western conceptions of liberalised sexuality politics as a means of resistance to the neocolonial imposition of Western ideas. The politics of homophobia has strong links to both colonial legacies and post-colonial tensions. As the authors demonstrate, the United Kingdom (UK) and France exported their prejudices on same-sex relations which became a part of colonial laws (pp. 22-23). Although the UK and France have since decriminalised homosexuality and legalised same-sex marriage, many of the colonial era restrictions still apply in former colonies. In light of Western liberalisation of LGBT rights in recent decades, homosexuality has become a symbol of anxiety about Western ideas for some countries in the Global South. While the focus of the book is LGBT rights, it draws on broader themes of postcolonialism and globalisation.

To answer the second question, Queer Wars adopts an activist approach and turns to the relationship between LGBT rights and human rights. Given concerns over Western advocacy and activism on this issue, the authors conclude that to be successful LGBT politics should be driven by domestic groups. Additionally, the authors find that human rights are a useful concept in the campaign for LGBT rights. For international activists, the authors recommend that activism should be limited to protecting people from violence and persecution. This recommendation will sit uncomfortably with those who favour a more radical and progressive approach to LGBT advocacy. Authors recognize this concern and anticipate that Western advocates might deride their conclusions as “liberation-lite” (p. 135). This minimalist role for international advocates arises from the perspective that more sustainable advances in LGBT rights will come from local actors and that backlash against attempts to impose rights from outside are already materialising. One such example is Obama’s advocacy of LGBT rights in Uganda, which according to the President of Uganda was the reason he decided to criminalise homosexuality (pp. 145-146). As such, the modest goals set out in the book are an attempt to prevent further backlash being provoked by international advocates.

For those interested in the United Nations and LGBT rights the book touches on a number of issues such as asylum claims, and the lack of discussion of sexuality in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Queer Wars also demonstrates how polarisation on this issue has played out within United Nations’ fora. For example, when the International Lesbian and Gay Association was given consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1993 conservatives in the United States lobbied the government to terminate American funding going to the UN until this status was withdrawn (pp. 118-119). Similarly, reference to “sexual orientation” in annual reports to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in relation to extrajudicial killing have proved contentious for more than a decade. The reference to “sexual orientation” was removed from this report in 2010 (pp. 119-120). As such the United Nations can be viewed as a key site where the polarisation over LGBT rights is visible.

The polarisation described in the book is strongly linked to the contestation between homophobia and liberalisation of attitudes towards homosexuality. The book’s subtitle – “The New Global Polarisation over Gay Rights” – therefore offers a clearer image of the scope of the book than the title “Queer Wars”. The chosen title of Queer Wars could suggest that the book engages with a poststructuralist understanding of sexuality and gender, as in ‘queer theory’, rather than an interpretation firmly located in the ‘identity politics’ tradition. As such, Queer Wars has very different goals than Cynthia Weber’s ‘Queer International Relations’ which begins from Queer Studies rather than from a rights-based approach to LGBT politics. The book’s cover image features Conchita Wurst, a drag performer and a winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. This image could give the impression that the book engages with questions of gender identity more than it does.

The White House illuminated in the rainbow flag colors in June 2015. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: tedeytan

Queer Wars focuses on changes in legal rights, which has led to a focus on male homosexuality since laws tend to target male homosexuality more than female homosexuality. As such, there is comparatively little focus in the book on lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people (let alone the plethora of other sexual orientations and gender identities that are often grouped under the label “queer”). The reader is left wondering whether the norm polarisation described in Queer Wars is similar or different in relation to social and cultural change for identities other than cisgender gay men. Strangely, the words ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ are not even identified in the book’s index; though they are mentioned (the index itself is quite brief).

Queer Wars is accessible and provides a good overview for non-specialist audiences. It will particularly appeal to activists and undergraduate students. A key strength of the book is that it is both historical and up to date. If you are looking for a chronological account of LGBT politics, you may find this book frustrating as it is written thematically with examples that jump back and forth in time. Ultimately, Queer Wars is a compelling and short read which raises interesting and challenging questions for international activists.