It's no surprise that the English Defence League has gay and lesbian members – liberal inclusion has always been exclusive
Is the presence of gay and lesbian people and other minorities in the English Defence League, an "extremist rightwing" hate group that propagates anti-Muslim racism, as remarkable as the Guardian's investigation suggests? How should we understand their participation in the inflammatory street protests organised by the EDL?
I want to extend my argument about the ever-changing relations among nation, sexuality, and race – outlined in my book Terrorist Assemblages – to offer an alternative perspective on what the Guardian fears is a renewal of the kinds of popular organising not seen since the heyday of the National Front 30 years ago.
Today's British Sikhs and gay and lesbian people (of what race or ethnicity, it is unclear) who are bona fide members of the EDL should not be seen as anomalies, but rather as part of a larger and longer history of incorporation of "strange bedfellows" into rightwing political projects that claim such participation as a sign of populism rather than extremism. Their presence also demonstrates the incoherence of white supremacy understood as simply about white identification, or heteronormativity for that matter. Far from being disadvantaged members of such rightwing movements, racial minorities and gay and lesbian people are offered a way of reclaiming an otherwise withheld national belonging – to be British is to be anti-Muslim – while maintaining their exceptional minority status.
There certainly needs to be greater investigation into the viral rise of the EDL and its historical and contemporary links to other rightwing extremist and white supremacist activities. (Recall, on a more poetic register, the homosexual love affair between Johnny – Daniel Day-Lewis – a white working-class skinhead aligned with fascist politics, and Omar, played by Gordon Warnecke, a young "Paki" aspiring to join the ranks of the diasporic nouveau riche in the 1985 film of Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette.) But to suggest that their activities are exceptional – they are certainly easy targets to criticise – is to miss other forms of less visible, more insidious, and yet equally damaging anti-Muslim racism. What groups such as the EDL exploit are the longstanding tensions between groups jockeying for limited recognition within liberal multiculturalism – a weak opportunity at best, given the history of racial formation in Britain.
A recent controversy within progressive gay and lesbian activist circles highlights the contradictions of the multicultural politics of inclusion. Last summer, a dispute erupted between Peter Tatchell, a co-founder of Britain's premier queer human rights direct action group OutRage!, and the authors of "Gay Imperialism", an article critiquing the "Islamophobic" effects of OutRage!'s political campaigns. The article was published in Out of Place (eds Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake), a volume committed to opening up a discussion about racism within gay and lesbian communities. Raw Nerve Books, the publishers of Out of Place, printed an apology to Tatchell, deeming the research into Tatchell's local and global gay activism inaccurate. The authors, Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, queer scholars of colour, were castigated for attempting to discuss the subtle racisms that liberal "gay rights" platforms can (often unwittingly) promote: not the violence of hate, but the violence of liberal inclusion based upon the continued subordination of those it proposes to not only assist, but even rescue.
What becomes clear from cases like the one above is that there is little consensus regarding the impact and import of the violence of liberalism, and even less room to debate it. That gay and lesbian rights discourses can risk slipping into Islamophobic and racist discourses that in many ways propagate or support racist agendas is not really news. Nor is it without historical precedent. Liberal feminism has long been accused of needing the oppression of the native woman in order to achieve its own libratory trajectory. "How well do you treat your women?" became a key measure of the ability of a colonised or developing country to self-govern. While "the Woman Question" has hardly disappeared, we can now find its amendment in "the Homosexual Question", or "How well do you treat your homosexuals?", as a current paradigm through which nations, populations and cultures are evaluated in terms of their ability to conform to a universalised notion of civilisation. Rescue fantasies and projections about endangered homosexuality "elsewhere" are aspects of liberal gay rights frames, functioning in order to support the predominance of gay and lesbian proper subjects "here".
What is gaining acute force is the anti-Muslim form that such missionary politics are currently taking. From the liberation of burqa-wearing women as a partial rationale for invasion of the Middle East, to gay marriage as a barometer of civilisational aptitude, to Sex and the City 2's trading in banal, unsophisticated orientalist fantasies, propagating anti-Muslim attitudes is becoming the most expeditious passage to national belonging. This form of national empowerment can also work for (predominantly white, middle-class) gays and lesbians. We shouldn't miss an opportunity, then, to contextualise EDL's emergence not only within rightwing hate groups but also within progressive and liberal political and cultural organising, in the UK, the US, and Europe more broadly. The seeming exception of gay anti-Muslim hate violence allows a false benevolence to exist about liberal inclusion.
Jasbir Puar at Comment is free