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date: 15 January 2021

Homonationalism and Mediafree

  • Alexander DhoestAlexander DhoestDepartment of Communication Studies, University of Antwerp

Summary

Homonationalism, as defined by Jasbir Puar, refers to the growing embrace of LGBT rights by (mostly Western) nations, as well as the parallel complicity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and associations with nationalist politics. First developed in the context of the U.S. “war on terror,” where the United States presented itself as exceptionally LGBT-friendly in contrast to “homophobic” Muslim others, the concept of homonationalism was quickly adopted by authors across the world and in different disciplines, writing on a number of LGBT-friendly in-groups in contrast to a number of homophobic out-groups. Besides the United States, other Western countries figure prominently as in-groups in this literature, particularly Western and Northern European ones, but also larger regions such as the European Union (EU) as well as subnations such as Catalonia and Québec. Muslims constitute the most prominent out-group in homonationalist discourses, although other groups and regions also appear, in particular, African countries and, in the European context, Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia. In each case, a simplistic opposition is set up between a homogeneously modern and LGBT-friendly “us” and an equally homogeneous antimodern homophobic “them.” These discourses are prominent in (often right-wing) politics but are equally replicated across a range of media, which play a crucial role in the spread of homonationalist discourses but remain underexplored to date.

Introduction

Homonationalism is a 21st-century concept, addressing a historically and culturally specific constellation of views on the nation and on homosexuality. Although it may seem simple at face value, suggesting forms of nationalism that embrace homosexuality, it is theoretically complex. Moreover, it is applied to a variety of countries and situations, proving to be adaptable and productive as an analytical and heuristic tool, but losing some of its specificity and critical edge in the process. This article provides an overview of some of the literature and research on homonationalism, which is recent but quickly expanding. Although the theoretical ramifications of the concept are disentangled, this article does not aim to open a theoretical discussion, but rather to explore the lay of the field. In particular, it aims to show how the concept has been applied in a variety of settings involving a range of nations and fields of research.

To start, some preliminary remarks are in place. First, it is important to point out that the concept of homonationalism is most used in queer studies as well as cultural and political analysis, also appearing in other fields like sociology and geography, but only rarely in media studies. Although media are often used as a source of research, the research itself is rarely situated in media studies, and the specific role of media in originating and circulating homonationalist discourse is hardly reflected on, let alone studied systematically. Hence, one of the aims of this article is to chart the role of media in (the study of) homonationalism, focusing in particular on the (limited) amount of research explicitly studying media, and to suggest further avenues of research in this respect. Second, it is important to point out that this article does not offer a comprehensive overview of all literature on the topic, as it only discusses English-language literature on the topic. Although the article aims to include a wide range of international literature, the emphasis is still on U.S. and Europe-based authors. Third, a note on terminology: as a general rule, the original terms used by the authors referenced in this article are adopted, which leads to a variety of terms referring to sexual and gender minorities. When no particular author is referenced and no specific group is referenced, the umbrella term “LGBT” is used, as this is the most commonly used term in the literature discussed here.

Defining Homonationalism

Jasbir Puar’s (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times is the seminal text on homonationalism. In this ambitious book, she tackles a number of issues in a rich theoretical and cultural analysis. Rather than giving a full overview of the book, a number of key elements are presented here as a foundation and background for the discussion of subsequent literature drawing on Puar’s work. Puar’s work is extensively quoted here, to evoke her style and vocabulary; in later sections, some of the threads introduced in this first section are further disentangled.

Before beginning, it is worth noting the central but implicit role of media in her account. When listing her sources, among other things she names governmental texts, films, documentaries and television shows, print media (especially LBGTIQ regional, national, and international newspapers and magazines), organizational press releases, manifestos, and ethnographic data (Puar, 2007, p. xv). Media figure prominently in this list, but Puar does not focus on media as such, rather reading them discursively as part of a broader cultural field, which is typical of most of the research discussed in this article: different media constitute a key source of data, but they are seldomly reflected on or analyzed in a systematic way, considering their specificity as media.

It is also important to situate Puar’s writing in cultural and historical terms, for this context is crucial for her argument and it also cautions against too easy transpositions to other settings. Writing in the United States in the early 21st century, the post-9/11 American “war on terror” is an explicit reference point in Puar’s book, including its title. At this particular time and place, Puar observes a rise of what she calls “homonationalism,” briefly defined as “the dual movement in which certain homosexual constituencies have embraced U.S, nationalist agendas and have also been embraced by nationalist agendas” (Puar, 2007, p. xxiv). There are two sides to this equation: on the one hand, Puar states that “homosexual constituencies” are complicit with nationalist politics, and on the other hand, she states that they have been embraced by nationalist agendas.

Starting with the latter, Puar observes a growing American “benevolence to sexual others” which, however, “is contingent upon ever-narrowing parameters of white racial privilege, consumption capabilities, gender and kinship normativity, and bodily integrity” (xii). Although the inclusion of queer subjects in self-images of the nation could be seen as a positive evolution, Puar is critical of the normative and exclusionary nature of this inclusion. In relation to its normativity, Puar is indebted to the notion of (new) “homonormativity” as defined by Lisa Duggan (2002), who uses the term to describe a neoliberal sexual politics “that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (p. 179). This notion is revisited in the discussion of the first part of Puar’s equation, queer complicity with nationalism, but for now it can be observed, with Puar, that not any kind of queer sexuality is embraced by the U.S. nation. Moreover, the inclusion of (some) queer people is inseparably connected to the exclusion of others: “National recognition, here signaled as the annexation of homosexual jargon, is contingent upon the segregation and disqualification of racial and sexual others from the national imaginary” (Puar, 2007, p. 2). These racial others, in the United States after 9/11, are mostly defined as Muslims.

All of this leads to the self-presentation of the U.S. nation as exceptionally accepting of homosexuality, which Puar describes as a form of sexual exceptionalism:

As the U.S. nation-state produces narratives of exception through the war on terror, it must temporarily suspend its heteronormative imaged community to consolidate national sentiment and consensus through the recognition and incorporation of some, though not all or most, homosexual subjects.

(Puar, 2007, p. 3)

This self-presentation is accompanied by a process of sexual othering, targeted mostly at Muslims, who are presented as homophobic, in a new form of Orientalism: “Religion, in particular Islam, has now supplanted race as one side of the irreconcilable binary between queer and something else” (Puar, 2007, p. 13).

Returning to the first part of the equation, Puar is particularly critical of the complicity of the “gay left,” stating that gay, homosexual, and queer national subjects aligned themselves with U.S. imperial interests in the context of the war on terror, which she connects to homonormativity: “America is narrated by multiple progressive sectors as embodying exceptional multicultural heteronormativity, one that is also bolstered by homonormativity” (Puar, 2007. p. xxv). She argues that “some homosexual subjects are complicit with heterosexual nationalism formations rather than inherently or automatically excluded from or opposed to them” (Puar, 2007, p. 4). Broadening the scope to the Global North, Puar observes the rise of homonormative Islamophobia, “whereby homonormative and queer gay men can enact forms of national, racial, or other belongings by contributing to a collective vilification of Muslims” (Puar, 2007, p. 21).

After this initial broad exploration of the concept, Puar offers a more succinct reflection on the topic in her 2013 article “Rethinking Homonationalism.” Here, she presents homonationalism as a conceptual frame “for understanding the complexities of how ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ for gay and lesbian subjects have become the barometer by which the right to and capacity for national sovereignty is evaluated” (Puar, 2013, p. 336). To Puar, acceptance of homosexuality has not only become an important part of the American national self-image but is also used to (mostly negatively) assess other nations. This, as such, is historically interesting as it implies that being seen as “gay-friendly” has become desirable in the first place, which for a long time was not, and in many countries still is not, the case. As most clearly illustrated by the war on terror, homonationalism has implications for international politics, “as it undergirds U.S. imperial structures through an embrace of a sexually progressive multiculturalism justifying foreign intervention” (Puar, 2013, p. 336).

While Puar’s critique on queer complicity was pronounced in “Terrorist Assemblages,” in the 2013 article she clarifies that it is not simply an accusation of “gay racism.” Rather, she develops the idea that it is a facet of modernity, “the historical shift marked by the entrance of (some) homosexual bodies as worthy of protection by nation-states” (Puar, 2013, p. 337). Moreover, she draws attention to the racial dimension inherent in the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others: “The narrative of progress for gay rights is thus built on the back of racialized others, for whom such progress was once achieved, but is now backsliding or has yet to arrive.” She also discusses pinkwashing, which is often connected to homonationalism, stating that pinkwashing is a manifestation of, and made possible by, homonationalism. The term is most applied to Israel, criticizing its promotion of a LGBT-friendly image “to reframe the occupation of Palestine in terms of civilizational narratives measured by (sexual) modernity” (Puar, 2013, p. 337), which leads to “the cynical promotion of LGBT bodies as representative of Israeli democracy” (Puar, 2013, p. 338). Finally, Puar also situates homonationalism in the broader discussion of the globalization of Western identity constructs:

The gay and lesbian human rights industry continues to proliferate Euro-American constructs of identity (not to mention the notion of sexual identity itself) that privilege identity politics, “coming out,” public visibility, and legislative measures as the dominant barometers of social progress.

(Puar, 2013, p. 338)

All these threads are further explored in the discussion of later research. For now, it is worth reflecting on the temporal specificity of Puar’s analysis, which is very much connected to the Bush and Obama presidencies, the latter in particular embracing LGBT rights in the national self-image. Under Trump, the climate has radically changed, so one wonders to what degree LBGTQ rights and individuals are still included in the national self-image, by whom, and under which conditions. What clearly remains, however, is the nationalist logic of identifying external others threatening “our” norms and values, the key dynamic in homonationalist policies and discourses.

Unpacking Homonationalism

Although the term “homonationalism” is strongly associated with Puar’s work, as the account above illustrates, she builds on a wide legacy of scholarship and brings together a number of ideas that were developed across a wide range of fields, in particular, (intersectional) feminist theory and postcolonial queer theory. Therefore, first, while acknowledging the originality of her work, it is also important to recognize how she is indebted to a broad range of authors who developed similar analyses using different theoretical concepts. Second, as a consequence of these diverse roots and components, homonationalism has a lot of ramifications, which makes it a rich and inspiring concept but also leads to diverse uses as well as debate over the applicability and limitations of the concept.

Thus, it is worth taking a closer look at the “nationalism” in homonationalism, which is rather under-theorized in writing on homonationalism. On the one hand, Puar’s initial definition suggests LGBT individuals and associations that are complicit with nationalist politics, but this ramification has remained relatively underexplored. Only some research has specifically focused on homonationalist attitudes and voting behavior among LGBTs, which will be discussed below. On the other hand, one could consider homonationalism as a specific form of nationalist politics, but it is certainly not limited to explicitly nationalist parties or politicians. Rather, “nationalism” is to be understood in a broader sense here, related to representations of and discourses about the nation, not limited to nationalist or rightwing politics nor even politics. In this sense, Puar’s work builds on and contributes to a broader literature exploring the connection between (homo-)sexuality and (mostly Western) nations. As discussed by Pryke (1998), one important thread in research on the connection between nationalism and sexuality concerns the role of sexuality in nation-building, whereby the nation aims to delimit what is acceptable sexual behavior on behalf of national citizens. Historically, this mostly led to the marginalization of and violence toward sexual minorities, as these were seen as a threat to the national community “by undermining the family, failing to adhere to national gender stereotypes, challenging its internal homogeneity and deviating from shared social norms, especially those derived from religious teaching” (Mole, 2017, p. 660).

In more recent times, certain sexual minorities have acquired “sexual citizenship” in (mostly Western) nations, through the cultural normalization and social inclusion of lesbians and gay men (Richardson, 2017). Like Puar, Richardson (2005, 2017) connects this to neoliberalism and (homo-)normativity, also noting on the use of sexual citizenship as a symbolic marker of tolerant and intolerant countries, opposing “modernity” to “backwardness.” Haritaworn (2008) agrees, reiterating the notion of exceptionalism: “Sexual freedom has moved from the realm of the immoral or perverse to the realm of the morally superior, a central ingredient of U.S. and Western exceptionalism.” Sabsay (2012) elaborates on the notion of Orientalism, which implies a process of cultural othering, distinguishing Western democracies from “undeveloped others.” In their edited collection, Haritaworn, Kuntsman, and Posocco (2014) further discuss the exclusionary nature of Western gay rights discourses, which exclude non-White and non-Western groups and thus perpetuate inequality.

Although the notion of homonationalism was quickly adopted by many authors across a number of fields, it was also criticized, partly because of its original formulations but also and particularly because of the way it was broadened and applied by other authors. Schotten (2016) tracks the evolution of the notion of homonationalism throughout Puar’s writing, and she is critical of the broadening of the concept beyond its original theoretical frame and the U.S. political context. She observes two main evolutions in Puar’s use of the concept: an expansion beyond the U.S. context, considering homonationalism as a more general feature of Western sexual exceptionalism; and the abandonment of the critique on LGBT people’s complicity with the (U.S., nationalist) state. As a consequence, Schotten (2016) argues, the concept loses its specificity and critical force.

Zanghellini (2012) does not criticize Puar’s work as such, but she does question the way homonationalism is used as a critical tool. To her, the term is applied too easily to a variety of situations, leading to a “near-ubiquity” of homonationalism. As a consequence, gay rights discourses and activism are too easily discredited as complicit with homonationalism and Islamophobic, in line with Massad’s (2002) influential but controversial critique of the “Gay International,” Western LGBT nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) defending queer people in the Middle East but at the same time imperialistically imposing Western concepts and politics on them. Zanghellini is critical of the way this discredits “local” queers who may find the language of gay rights promising, while also excluding racialized and Muslim queers. Dhawan (2015) is also critical of some forms of “anti-homonationalism,” which to her too easily dismiss each form of critique on homophobia in postcolonial contexts as Orientalism. Moreover, she criticizes the “state-phobia” of anti-homonationalism, which considers any collaboration with the state as suspect, not considering different historical and cultural contexts, even if negotiations with the state are indispensable for emancipatory politics in many states.

A recurrent thread in these critiques on the way the notion of homonationalism has been applied is related to its broad use, not considering the specificity of national, historical, and cultural contexts. In this vein, Ritchie (2014) states that homonationalism is elevated to a kind of “master narrative that explains all things in all places” (Ritchie, 2014, p. 620). In such a broad use, homonationalism becomes an oversimplified, homogenous, global external entity, which does not help in understanding the everyday experiences of LGBT people in specific contexts and does not pay sufficient attention to particular local micro contexts. For this reason, in what follows, studies from different national contexts are discussed, drawing attention to their local specificities. Where possible, the focus is on empirical research operationalizing and applying the concept, and particular attention is paid to the role of media in these analyses. In the “Conclusion,” these scattered insights on the role of media are brought together as a first step toward developing a research agenda on media and homonationalism.

Muslim Others

A first cluster of research focuses on discourses about and representations of the own nation as LGBT-friendly as opposed to Muslims as a threat to “our” sexual values, very much in line with Puar’s initial analysis. Starting in the United States, Meyer (2019) explores homonationalism in online reporting on the Pulse nightclub shooting, qualitatively analyzing reporting on five LGBT websites, using a grounded theory approach. His analysis discloses that the shooter, Omar Mateen, is represented as a Muslim outsider rather than as a U.S. citizen. Even when these mostly left-leaning websites condemn Islamophobia, they do simultaneously link Islam with terrorism and homophobia while overlooking Mateen’s Americanness, thus setting up the us versus them divide that is typical of homonationalist discourses.

Homonationalism and pinkwashing in Israel are also a rich source of writing and debate, for instance, in Hartal and Sasson-Levy’s (2017) analysis of the way the Gay-Center, a LGBT community in Tel Aviv, is presented as a symbol of Israel as a modern Western liberal country, in contrast to Palestine and other Arab countries. Using ethnographic analysis, they show how dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are at work in presenting the Gay-Center as a clean, normative space. In the process, certain LGBT individuals are included in the nation but also normalized, while (perverse) others remain excluded, illustrating the homonormativity discussed by Puar. Writing from the perspective of queer people themselves, and focusing on online media, Kuntsman (2009) did ethnographic research on an online portal for Russian-speaking queer immigrants in Israel, disentangling the complexities of sexual, ethnic, and national belonging in online discussions.

Besides Israel, Western Europe is a particularly fertile ground for research on homonationalism. At the EU level, Ammaturo (2015) studied how the “queer liberal subject,” which is presented as integral part of the nation, is constituted through the practices of the Council of Europe. She argues that the promotion of LGBT rights by the Council of Europe is part of a broader “Pink Agenda,” which works by “creating and promoting lines of fracture between presumably queer-friendly and homo-transphobic countries within and outside the European borders” (Ammaturo, 2015, p. 1152). In line with Puar’s argumentation, she states that the Pink Agenda is used as a yardstick to measure the progress of other states, instrumentalizing LGBT identities while also creating norms of sexual citizenship. She applies this analysis to two contexts: the way asylum for LGBTs is instrumentalized (persecuted queers becoming “trophies” of the West), and discussions over Pride marches in Eastern Europe (a region that is further discussed below). Overall, Ammaturo argues that the Council of Europe, particularly through the European Court of Human Rights, “plays a crucial role in portraying Europe as a tolerant, open and respectful continent for LGBT persons while, simultaneously, identifying intolerant and homo-transphobic ‘others’ both within and outside its borders” (Ammaturo, 2015, p. 1161).

Indeed, the “others” in homonationalist discourse can be situated within and outside of “the nation”—while the latter, as became clear in the writing of Ammaturo, can encompass larger regions such as the EU. Europe’s “others” are mostly situated in the East, both within its borders (Eastern Europe) and outside its borders. Turkey occupies a liminal position, as it is situated on the border between Europe and Asia, and Szulc and Smets (2015) explore how this is reflected in Western reviews of Zenne Dancer (2012), a Turkish film dealing with gay honor killing. Based on a broad sample of Western film reviews, they identify a Western progressive narrative, focusing on conservatism, tradition, and Islam as key elements explaining the honor killing in the film, homogenizing and othering Turkey, thus setting up a simplifying opposition between the West and the East.

Within Europe, Islam also occupies a central position in discourses about sexuality, as argued by Mepschen and Duyvendak (2012). They state that gay issues moved to the center of the European cultural imagination: “Cases of homophobia among Muslim citizens are highlighted, epitomized as archetypal, and cast within Orientalist narratives that underwrite the superiority of European secular modernity” (Mepschen & Duyvendak, 2012, p. 71). Meanwhile, gay culture was strongly normalized, changing “from a deviant other to the mirror image of the ideal heterosexual” (Mepschen & Duyvendak, 2012, p. 73). The national cultures of Europe are framed as in need of protection against globalization and immigration, while Muslims are framed as “backward, intolerant and incongruous with ‘European’ secular modernity” (Mepschen & Duyvendak, 2012, p. 74).

The Netherlands is one of the countries where homonationalism is most pervasive, a situation which is further investigated by Mepschen, Duyvendak, and Tonkens (2010). They observe a number of broader European tendencies: the culturalization of citizenship in Western European societies, that is, the growing importance of culture and morality in citizenship and integration policy, and Islamophobia. They also note a number of specific Dutch contexts: strong secularization, a focus on sexual freedom, and the normalization of gay sexuality. Within these contexts, the Netherlands is one of the countries whose acceptance of homosexuality is strongly opposed to Muslim citizens, who are depicted as backward and homophobic, in particular by populist politicians like Geert Wilders. Kešić and Duyvendak (2019) frame this form of nationalism in a broader pattern of nativism, a number of right-wing parties strengthening the opposition between natives and immigrants, focusing in particular on Islam in relation to norms around gender and sexuality.

Bracke (2012) also discusses the Dutch situation, drawing a parallel between women’s rights and sexual rights. Referencing Spivak’s rescue script “white men saving brown women from brown men,” she broadens the argument to “rescue gays” and in particular “rescue brown gays,” identifying the gay Muslim as a victim figure in Western civilizational discourses. This leads to a situation where queer Muslim asylum seekers are welcomed in the Netherlands because of their sexuality, whereas Dutch-Islamic people who have lived in the Netherlands for several generations are still considered as outsiders. Other authors have also addressed the precarious position of queer Muslims in the Netherlands (and beyond). For instance, Jivrai and de Jong (2011) state that the discourse on Muslim homophobia silences queer Muslims, imposing Western standards of sexual identity on them while creating a false dichotomy between religious or cultural and sexual rights. Similarly, El-Tayeb (2012) criticizes the opposition between the implicitly gay White community and the straight Muslim community, whereby queer Muslims are represented as undeveloped others, racialized queers who need to be liberated. Also including media in the analysis, Yildiz (2017) analyzes a documentary about a Turkish boat participating in the Amsterdam Canal Pride, criticizing the strong media association of the Dutch Muslim community with gay bashing, presenting gay and ethnic identity as mutually exclusive.

All of this research focuses on the second part of Puar’s equation, the incorporation of LGBT rights in national discourses, but some researchers also focus on the first part, LGBT “complicity” with such politics and discourses. Thus, Mepschen (2016) did ethnographic research on everyday expressions of Dutch sexual nationalism, reporting on discussions with gay men who replicate the culturalist framework discussed above, which rest “on collective representations of reified ‘groups’ whose members are thought to be defined by social stereotypes that are seen as inherent to their groups’ collective life and culture” (Mepschen, 2016, p. 161) Spierings, Lubbers, and Zaslov (2017) researched voting behavior among nativist voters, exploring whether “sexually modern nativists,” who support LGBT rights but hold anti-immigration attitudes, tend to vote for populist radical right parties, which in some European countries such as the Netherlands strongly support LGBT rights. While anti-immigration attitudes are more prevalent and decisive in voting behavior, they indeed do find that sexually modern nativists are more likely to vote for populist radical right parties then more sexually traditional nativists. Spierings (2020) continues this line of research, further reinforcing the idea that homonationalist citizens are ardent populist radical right voters.

While the Netherlands is the most prominent country in literature on homonationalism in Europe, other countries are also discussed. For instance, Kehl (2018) analyzes how a Swedish right-wing publicist and politician, Jan Sjunnesson, talked about Pride Järva, a “gay pride” march he organized. She situates his speech in broader homonationalist discourses presenting Sweden as particularly progressive in relation to gay rights, as opposed to threatening Islamic and racialized others, discourses which are also shared by certain LGBT associations and activists who aim to “protect” LGBTs against immigrant homophobia. To Kehl, this is a clear instance of Swedish (and more broadly European) exceptionalism, constructing Swedishness along lines of progress, secularism, enlightenment, and rationality.

Although homonationalism is mostly connected to nation-states like the United States or the Netherlands, and also occasionally connected to broader regions such as the EU or Western Europe, the concept has also been applied to smaller, subnational regions. For instance, Bilge (2012) discusses sexual nationalism in Québec, defining sexual nationalism as “the incorporation of gender-and-sexual normativities into the governmentality of migrant/Muslim integration and the politics of the nation” (Bilge, 2012, p. 304). She observes how women’s and gay-and-lesbian rights have become core values in Western nations, constituting a new form of Orientalism, not associating Muslims culture with sexual excess, as before, but with gender and sexual oppression. Drawing on theories on homonationalism and homonormativity, she connects the opposition to Islam in Québec to the importance of secularism, as well as nationalist and separatist discourses presenting Québec as a vulnerable minority nation to be protected from religious others. In the Catalan context, Sadurní, Montengro, and Pujol (2019) similarly connect homonationalism to Catalan nationalism that presents Catalonia as a progressive minority seeking emancipation from the more traditionalist Spanish nation-state. Drawing on the analysis of newspapers and public documents from actors of the Catalan independence movement, they observe a form of Catalan exceptionalism which connects Catalonia to the European protection of LGBTI rights.

Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking community in Belgium, offers another instance of a subnational region where homonationalism has been analyzed. Eeckhout (2014) cautions against the straightforward application of homonationalist critiques to Flanders. LGBT rights are widely supported across the political spectrum, with the exception of the extreme right, both in Belgium (as a nation-state) and in Flanders (as a subnational region), so it is not possible to connect support of LGBT rights to nationalism, and it is necessary to consider the varied ways in which different parties support LGBT rights. Research by the author of this article (Dhoest, 2020b) explored how Flemish newspapers report on homosexuality and Islam, identifying some explicit homonationalist discourses explicitly connecting Muslims with homophobia and opposing them to “our” LGBT-friendliness. However, the national in-group often remains unspecified, and when it is named it can be Flanders, Belgium, or even Europe. Even when Flemish nationalist politicians talk about homophobia and Islam, they often do not refer to Flanders explicitly, partly because Flanders is self-evident as a reference point in their political discourse, but also because most legal realizations in relation to LGBT rights were effectuated at the Belgian level. Besides explicitly homonationalist discourses, also identified were partial discourses, where Islam is connected to homophobia but not contrasted to an in-group; and counter-discourses, which question the binary opposition inherent in homonationalism. Overall, however, the connection between Islam and homophobia is pervasive, corresponding to most research discussed in this section where a clear opposition was found between a LGBT-friendly “us” and a homophobic, Muslim “them.”

Other Others

Although Muslims and Islam figure most prominently in homonationalist discourses and research on the topic, it is clear that not only can the (subnational, national, or regional) in-group vary but also the out-group. Radically shifting contexts, Yue (2012) discusses how Indian students and Malaysian transgender refugees are discussed in Australian media, analyzing newspapers and websites as well as policy and parliamentary reports. She argues that Australia’s homonational modernity normalizes homosexuality, which regulates the Indian student migrant and the transgender Asian refugee:

on the one hand, mainstream media such as newspapers have queered the straight student migrant through associations with racial and sexual prejudice, and, on the other hand, alternative media such as gay websites and social media have valorized the transgendered refugee through racial assimilation and fetishization.

(Yue, 2012, p. 283)

Several authors have also written about homonationalism in discourses about Africa. Returning to Sweden, Jungar and Peltonen (2017) discuss the “spectacle” that was made in Western media about African homophobia, in particular in writing about Uganda. Analyzing reporting in Swedish daily newspapers, they argue that Sweden is presented as the epitome of progress, democracy and the civilized West, whereas Africa is represented as a homogeneous homophobic other. Rao (2014) is equally critical about neo-Orientalist narrative strategies in media reporting on homophobia in Africa, and particularly Uganda. For instance, he discusses two documentaries presenting a White, Western journalist visiting Uganda and comparing it to Britain, which is presented as a space of gay freedom.

Wahab (2016a) also analyzes discourses around Uganda’s so-called “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” which presents homosexuality as “un-African.” He signals the strong influence of U.S. evangelism in stimulating homophobia, while also criticizing the role of transnational LGBT activists, in line with Massad’s (2002) critique as well as Puar’s criticism on the complicity of LGBT activists. Wahab states that the whole discussion is strongly influenced by Western discourses about sexual rights, universalizing Western views while culturalizing African differences. He sees this as an instance of “homotransnationalism,” where the Euro-American discourse on gay rights as human rights is used on a global scale to oppose the progressive West to the homophobic Rest (i.e., the Global South). Wahab (2016b) also applies this line of thought to Jamaica, which is similarly presented as uniformly homophobic in Canadian homonationalist discourse. As elsewhere, homophobia “at home” (i.e., in Canada) is made invisible while homophobia abroad (in Jamaica) is naturalized and discussed without any consideration for local contexts.

On this global map of homonationalist discourses, generally opposing the West to the East and South, in Europe there is a particular dynamic of Western Europe talking about Eastern Europe and Russia. Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) figures prominently in these discourses and is generally presented as a “poor cousin,” which is trying to “catch up” with the West after coming out of the closet in 1989 (Mizielinska & Kulpa, 2012). These discourses frame CEE as “permanently post-communist,” in transition, and homophobic (Kulpa, 2014). Analyzing three resolutions of the European Parliament, Kulpa (2014) argues that CEE is othered by presenting homophobia as a problem extending uniformly across all of CEE, presenting the EU as non-homophobic and tolerant. Kahlina (2015) focuses on Croatia and Serbia, arguing that sexual citizenship has been instrumentalized both by sexual rights activists and by pro- and anti-EU proponents, the latter protesting against Pride marches in order to defend national values. She concludes that homonationalist discourses externalize homophobia and may be responsible for increased resistance to the struggles for sexual equality.

Russia is another prominent focal point in European homonationalist discourses opposing the West and the East. Wiedlack (2017) investigates discourses on Russian LGBTIQ+ issues in Anglophone media, focusing on the visual politics, which tend to present victimized bodies of Russian dissidents. As in Uganda, legislation (in this case the so-called “anti-homosexual propaganda law” of 2013) prompted this discourse, which presents Russia as brutal, backward, and anti-modern as opposed to the European North and West, which is presented as tolerant. Persson (2015) studied Russian media, highlighting the importance of media in creating the spectacle around the 2013 law. He found three tropes in Russian reporting on the homosexual propaganda bill: presenting homosexuals as a threat to the survival of the nation; representing homosexuals as an influential minority enforcing its values and lifestyle on the majority; and the refusal of Western modernity and values, proposing an alternative form of modernity. Overall, Russian media present homosexuality as alien to the nation, thus offering a counter-narrative to the homonationalist discourses in Western media.

Edenborg (2017) confirms this analysis, also discussing the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as an instance of Russian national self-presentation in the face of LGBT protests. Indeed, Sochi—and the Olympics more broadly—feature prominently in the literature on homonationalism. Le Blanc (2013) discusses the calls for a boycott of the Sochi games, acknowledging the problems in relation to gay rights in Russia but questioning the limited attention to other human rights issues in Russia as well as Western states’ idealized self-image as progressive and liberal. Travers and Shearman (2017) studied reporting on the Sochi Olympics in American and Canadian LGBT publications, concluding that these celebrated the Olympics and presented Western countries as human rights leaders and safe havens for LGBT people, without any consideration of inequality and racialized violence, while they “othered” Russia as antigay but stayed silent about racism and ethnic violence in Russia. Duholke (2016) agrees, also drawing a line between the Sochi Olympics and the 2012 London Summer Olympics, which celebrated the inclusion of LGBT people, an equally homonationalist discourse presenting the West as uniformly LGBT-friendly. Hubbard and Wilkinson (2015) similarly argue that the London Olympics promoted an image of gay-friendliness, but that inclusion was conditional and normative, framing this not only as homonationalist but also as homonormative, an undercurrent in much writing on homonationalism: LGBT rights are promoted as a key value in the West, but are normative and conditional, excluding some forms of (racialized and/or “perverse”) sexual diversity.

Another recurrent topic in the literature on homonationalism in relation to the East–West divide in Europe is the European Song Contest. Baker (2017) calls it the “gay Olympics” and considers it as a node in the geopolitics about LGBT rights symbolically opposing “Western Europe” and “Eastern Europe” as well as “Europe” and “Russia.” Since the 1990s, she argues, national and European history have been reconfigured around supposedly exceptional levels of sexual and gender diversity, presenting an “essentialistic binary between an inherently tolerant West and an inherently homophobic Russia, reducing complex politics of gender and sexuality in any of these countries to a simple national us–them” (Baker, 2017, p. 107). While not explicitly using the framework of homonationalism, Cassiday (2014) does discuss the strong gay appeal of the Eurovision Song Contest and the changes in the way Russia positioned itself in this context, observing the initial strategic use of Eurovision’s gay identity politics but also a subsequent backlash and distancing, in line with Russia’s broader counter-discourse previously discussed in relation to the Sochi games.

In this author’s own research (Dhoest, 2020a), Russia and Eastern Europe were found to figure in a similar way in Flemish newspapers. In an analysis of three months of reporting, a small number of articles were found explicitly connecting Russia and Eastern Europe to homophobia in contrast to an LGBT-friendly in-group. However, hardly any counter-discourses (questioning this binary opposition by questioning the in-group’s gay-friendliness) were found either, and all articles discussing Russia and Eastern Europe in relation to LGBT issues framed those regions as a homogeneous homophobic “Eastern Bloc.” Again, as with reporting on Islam, the in-group varied and often remained unnamed, which may suggest a weaker form of homonationalism but at the same time underlines that it is self-evident that “we” (however defined) are LGBT-friendly. Even partial discourses only talking about homophobia abroad implicitly create a self-image of tolerance, reinforcing a taken-for-granted binary opposition.

Conclusion

Despite its relatively recent introduction, the concept of “homonationalism” has inspired a rich literature. In the process, it was extended from the United States to other national contexts, and the “outgroups” identified in research also extended from Muslims to other (mostly Eastern) “others.” This has led to discussions about the applicability of the term to different contexts and to critiques on the overuse of the term. At the same time, homonationalism has shown its strong heuristic value as a tool for empirical research. Although the term may lose some of its conceptual complexity and distinctiveness through its operationalization in much of the research discussed in this article, it has allowed the identification of strong and recurrent patterns of opposition between the in-group and out-group, which are inherent in nationalism but get a new and problematic slant here, as the inclusion of some is actively used to justify the exclusion of others. LGBTs, which are typically considered as an “out-group,” suddenly become part of the “in-group,” but at a heavy price.

Despite frequent references to media in writing on homonationalism, the account above illustrates the lack of substantive argumentation about the specific role of media in relation to homonationalism. Although a lot of work on homonationalism does heavily draw on media as a source of data (including Puar’s own writing), there is only limited interest in the workings of media, which tend to be considered as mere “vessels” for homonationalist discourse. Media are mostly treated as a way to access and analyze discourse, leading to a rather vague notion of “media” as a unified realm. Some literature, however, does explicitly focus on particular media, often singling out a specific medium such as newspapers, magazines, or TV. While more explicitly acknowledging the role of media in spreading homonationalist discourse, the workings of these media are hardly reflected on, leaving a number of questions unanswered.

Thus, first, it remains unclear which media in particular play a role in spreading homonationalism discourse. Most research to date focuses on mainstream “legacy” media such as newspapers and television, but other media and platforms, also online, may be equally important. In particular, despite their central position in the contemporary landscape, social media are remarkably absent from discussions about homonationalism, although they may be instrumental in spreading homonationalist discourse beyond the journalistic and political realms that are mostly studied. Second, by either talking about the media in generic terms or only focusing on a single medium, the broader circulation of homonationalist discourse across media remains undetected. In the current era of mediatization, where a multiplicity of interconnected media occupies a central position in all areas of life, it is important to better understand the interplay of different media, particularly in a field such as politics which is so heavily mediatized. Thirdly, most research is qualitative and explores the form and content of homonationalist discourse, but this leaves the question of the prevalence of homonationalist discourse unanswered. Particularly in a comparative perspective, it remains unclear to what degree homonationalist discourses circulate in different national contexts. This relates to a fourth issue, that of sampling: most research to date has analyzed a small, purposive sample of media texts, deliberately selected to discuss homonationalism, but this makes it hard to assess how homonationalist discourses circulate beyond these specific instances. Fifth, there is the matter of genre: most research to date has focused on informative, factual media genres such as (political) news reporting or print journalism. As a consequence, research may have underestimated the importance of media in spreading homonationalist discourse in other genres, prioritizing explicit (homo-)nationalism over “banal,” everyday reconfirmations of the LGBT-friendly nation. Sixth, all of these unanswered questions relate to a more fundamental question concerning the role of media: Do media only circulate pre-existing homonationalist discourse, for instance, by giving a platform to certain politicians? Or do they actively initiate homonationalist discourse? Based on the existing research, it seems like media do both, but a lot of further research is needed to disentangle which actors develop homonationalist discourse on which platforms and how these discourses further circulate across different media.

Further Reading

  • Baker, C. (2017). The “gay Olympics”? The Eurovision Song Contest and the politics of LGBT/European belonging. European Journal of International Relations, 23(1), 97–121.
  • Dhawan, N. (2015). Homonationalism and state-phobia: The postcolonial predicament of queer modernities. In M. A. Viteri & M. Lavinas Picq (Eds.), Queering narratives of modernity (pp. 51–68). New York, NY: Peter Lang.
  • Dhoest, A. (2020a, April 23). Eastern others: Homonationalism in the Flemish press. International Communication Gazette, 1748048520918495.
  • Dhoest, A. (2020b). LGBTs in, Muslims out: Homonationalist discourses and counterdiscourses in the Flemish press. International Journal of Communication, 14, 155–175.
  • Kahlina, K. (2015). Local histories, European LGBT designs: Sexual citizenship, nationalism, and “Europeanisation” in post-Yugoslav Croatia and Serbia. Women’s Studies International Forum, 49, 73–83.
  • Mepschen, P., Duyvendak, J. W., & Tonkens, E. H. (2010). Sexual politics, orientalism and multicultural citizenship in the Netherlands. Sociology, 44(5), 962–979.
  • Puar, J. (2007). Terrorist assemblages: Homonationalism in queer times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Puar, J. (2013). Rethinking homonationalism. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45(2), 336–339.
  • Zanghellini, A. (2012). Are gay rights Islamophobic? A critique of some uses of the concept of homonationalism in activism and academia. Social & Legal Studies, 21(3), 357–374.

References