Gay universalism, homoracialism and « marriage for all », Houria Bouteldja pour les nuls

Gay universalism, homoracialism and « marriage for all »

I’ve learned my lesson. And I think I finally understand. It would seem that words are important. So here are the words I said about gay marriage on the set of Ce soir ou jamais on 6 November 2012.

“I don’t have an opinion about the legitimacy of homo demands but I do have an opinion about the universality of the demand for a homosexual identity. I will tell you straight up, this debate doesn’t concern me. It doesn’t concern me because my words are particular and they are situated. A certain number of positions are expressed on this set and in France when this issue is discussed: you’re either on the right or on the left, progressive or reactionary. I don’t fit within that frame at all. I am outside of all of that because my words are situated somewhere else politically. I am situated in the history of post-colonial immigration and in the working-class neighborhoods. If I am asked about this issue where I am, because I do not have a universal point of view where I am, I say that this question does not concern me. Because if you take a microphone and go into these neighborhoods – Le Mirail in Toulouse, the Mas du Taureau in Lyon, Le Luth in Gennevilliers – and ask people about their problems, the spontaneous answers will be about housing, police harassment, or discrimination, unemployment, a bunch of questions related to everyday life; I bet gay marriage won’t come up. That doesn’t mean there aren’t gay practices in these neighborhoods, it means it’s not a priority issue and that people are dealing with things that are more important and urgent. Secondly, I don’t believe in the universality of the homosexual political identity. In other words, I make the distinction between the fact that there may well be homosexual practices in these neighborhoods or elsewhere but they don’t involve a demand for a political identity. Such a demand is not universal. And that’s what I’m sort of criticizing about the French political debate, focused on the majority within the gay community, that’s what is called homonationalism and what I prefer to call homoracialism, in which being homosexual means coming out and the demands that go with it.”1

My statements were generally well received by non-Whites but drew hostile and fairly disdainful and explicit reactions, including from supposed White allies. I can understand the lack of understanding. I did not have long to speak and the format of a TV show does not allow for in-depth development of an argument. But do admirers of Bourdieu and Chomsky really not know that? But the other thing is that it is rare for white – and assimilated – spaces to be truly liberated from all forms of eurocentrism. Not just anybody can be a – white – race traitor. This honour has to be earned.

When F. Taddéï invites me to speak about gay marriage, I hesitate to accept. It’s a delicate subject. There is a broad consensus on the issue among our white allies on the left, but that’s far from the case among the indigènes2, whether organized or not. They typically handle the issue with rejection or indifference. As a political activist trying to build something, I find myself taking risks that may cost me dearly. But can I afford to refuse the invitation? No.

The issue has been building steam for the last decade. The indigènes are taken to task for their real or supposed homophobia. On the international stage, a “sexual civilization” project is taking shape, promoted by international organizations in defense of sexual minorities under the umbrella of LGBT rights. There are plenty of examples. The International Day Against Homophobia was founded in 2004. The Day’s champion, Louis-Georges Tin, even launched a campaign to decriminalize homosexuality with the support of Rama Yade, then a minister in the Sarkozy government. During the Commonwealth summit in October 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to deny British aid to any countries that don’t recognize the rights of homosexuals. In New York, high-ranking neoconservatives tried to make the building of the mosque at Ground Zero conditional upon the opening of a gay bar in order to test the tolerance of Muslims. In 2010, during Gay Pride in Berlin, famous American intellectual Judith Butler herself spoke out against the xenophobic instrumentalization of LGBT struggles. “We are being conscripted into a nationalist and militaristic fight.” Those were her words. Israel has certainly understood this tactic of pinkwashing: over the last few years as it has gone about building a modern, gay-friendly image to obscure the continued violation of the rights of Palestinians. In France, we recently witnessed the exaggerated celebration of the “ghetto homo”3 and of a certain “Muslim progressivism.”4 Better yet, Marine Le Pen recently expressed an unexpected concern for gays in the neighborhoods. More ridiculous yet, on 7 May 2011, the French-identity (identitaire) movement put out a call for a kiss-in in front of the main mosque in Lyon to “fight homophobia in Islamic countries and the homophobia of a small minority of Muslims in France.” Telling.

To come back to the TV program that launched this article, I was forced to weigh in. The issue, framed as “marriage for all,” suggests the entire population must engage in this legislative project – and not just the gay communities of the White world.

For better or for worse, the indigènes are a part of French society. If there is public debate about “marriage for all” then some organizations can assume it is legitimate to break the relative silence coming, up to now, from immigrant struggles and working-class neighborhoods on this subject. And, of course, that’s what happened!5 Muslim organizations on the right of the spectrum and activists supposedly on the left jumped into the fray. Some answered the call of the coalition against marriage for all, made up of a number of right and far-right organizations, to demonstrate on January 13. It was this paradoxical and dangerous convergence, more than the wrath of our white “friends,” that pushed me to react.

As I said, the gay marriage issue is delicate and when I accept to go on the program, even walking on eggshells, I know that I won’t hesitate to sacrifice our white allies and pretty much all support among the broader white left which has committed to the fight of the homos. We have to know how to lose the whites temporarily, hopefully to win them back on a better footing, especially if we are in this for the long haul. The Indigènes de la République have never hesitated to take this kind of risk. In the end, this experience is a healthy one. What is most important to me is what the Indigènes think, and their deep motivations. If we depend too much on our white “friends” we will dissolve for no good reason into an apolitical stew in which purist principles are set against an abstract, individualist and liberal humanism – which is sometimes naïve, if not silly.

That said, I am lying a bit. As an activist, I must of course weigh the consequences and the alternatives and, even if I can’t avoid sacrificing the regard of the white left, it is still important and will not totally disappear from my radar – as long as both sides correctly identify the main enemy. I’ll come back to this.

Homosexuality and “indigeneity” in white politics

Three options are generally available to immigrant and working-class neighborhood activists when it comes to homosexuality:

1- Silence. This is the dominant attitude : a sort of non-aggression pact with the White world based on prudence ? An issue that doesn’t make sense to us? Indifference? It is likely a combination of all three. After all, the indigènes did not have a significant presence in the movements for gay marriage.

2- A belief in the so-called rightwing positions about the family that seem to be expressed more openly in the last few years. This point is mitigated by the fact that Blacks, Arabs and Muslims were also not a major presence in the various movements against gay marriage, which allows me to suggest, on the one hand, that there isn’t much active and aggressive homophobia among us and, and on the other hand, that panicked calls among some Indigènes against “marriage for all” clearly overestimated opinion within the community. I’ll come back to this.

3- A humanist and/or religious position that creates a paternalistic relationship with homosexuals. They are creatures of God so we must respect them and not do violence to them (even if religion disapproves of homosexuality) because only God has the power to judge. This is the position that will certainly be seen as the most “progressive.” It’s the expression of compromise between the supposed tolerance limit of Muslims and/or people living in the working-class neighborhoods and the sexual democracy espoused with more or less conviction among the Left.

Resistance to homosexuality as a social and political identity

There is a fourth possibility: the decolonial position. The one that does not view homosexuals as baby seals, a species deserving of protection or contempt, but as social subjects. It is a position that develops a political formulation free of a pathological or paternalistic relationship with homosexuality but refuses to align itself with the white agenda. This is far from homophobia. It is in fact its opposite. This position is however different from the Western gay movement in the sense that it denies pretentions to universalism and a transnational gay and lesbian political identity. It resituates the French or world colonial subject in its own space-time, while taking into account intra-indigène resistance in the context of a racialist and/or imperialist society. For example, the history of sexual practices in Islamic lands, including homo-eroticism, was displaced during the long colonial night. The heterosexual/homosexual binary was not only imposed in places where it had never existed, it was crystalized : representations driven by the West – orientalism – created lasting frames within which Arab intellectuals would debate sexuality. Through a set of discourses, travel writing, regulations and laws imposed by the imperial metropoles that homosexual practices became devalued, prohibited, turned into vices, sins, sickness. From the beginning of the 20th century, nationalist thinkers constantly reflected on their own literary, civilizational and religious traditions as a mirror image of the Western ideology of progress. For these thinkers, modernity for the Arab state also meant sexual modernity. Advancing toward progress therefore involved civilizing Arab sexuality, making heterosexual practices – the only legitimate ones in the eyes of the Europeans – the norm for their societies. By contrast, the periods in Arab history known for tolerance toward homosexual practices were reread as periods of decay and regression6.

Nonetheless, pre-modern forms of homo-eroticism survived and were maintained in complex and reconstructed forms resistant to the forms imposed on the world by the universalization of hetero- and homosexual norms and, locally, homoracialism. It is clear that the injunctions of the white world and the symbolic and political violence that comes with them produce homophobia. The promotion of homosexuality as political identity is damaging as much to the lived experiences of homosexuals whose lives can be put in danger as it is to social relations, particularly when the protection of sexual minorities becomes an international political and ethical imperative against which the civilizational maturity of neo-colonized nations is measured. It is time that we understood, once and for all, that imperialism in all its forms turns the indigène into a savage: the societies of the South respond to the gay international with a burst of hate toward homosexuals where it didn’t otherwise exist or with a resurgence of homophobia where it did once exist. Just as they respond to imperialist feminism with a hardening of patriarchy and a rise of violence against women, to white and human-rights humanism by rejecting white universalism and to all forms interference committed by the West that don’t need to be listed here with a growing hostility.

That’s also why the working-class neighbourhoods respond to homoracialism with indentitarian masculinism and … ever more homophobia. As ugly as those reactions seem, they have a common motivator: ardent resistance to white Western imperialism and a stubborn desire to preserve a real or imagined identity about which there is broad consensus. For whether we identify as homo or not, whether we engage in homo-erotic practices or not, to be a colonial subject means that you are always defined against the “model immigrant.”  When it comes “homosexuality” in working-class neighbourhoods we must avoid the impasse of demanding assimilation into Western sexual democracy and the attendant reaction of various actors to this call. In this respect, it is interesting to see how the defenders of a “universal” homosexual identity impose the frame of analysis at the heart of their campaigns to « save » the homos in working-class neighbourhoods.  In an article that virulently denounced what I said on the TV program discussed above, Johan Cadirot – head of the Refuge, “an association that houses victims of homophobia” – says that there are not “fewer homos” in these neighbourhoods but that they are “more hidden and in denial.”7

The goal is therefore to convince non-Whites that they must identify as homosexual. This is the choice offered by hegemonic homosexual activism: pride or shame, coming out or the closet. This is not to question the sincerity of people who come to the aid of the persecuted or harmed. But hell is paved with good intentions. In this discourse, any resistance to LGBT identities is seen as an effort to hide or closet, if not as latent or explicit homophobia. How can this assimilation of sexualities – hetero or homo, hidden or visible – be justified?

Very numerous forms of social-sexual relations were corrupted by the colonial fact. The indigènes of the world are fighting to reconstruct them and to rebuild the link to the fragments of social history and memories at risk of disappearing, not without certain ambiguities and not without being interlaced with the white heterosexual model.8 This is also true for reactions hostile to “homosexuality” in working-class neighbourhoods. There is no doubt on this point: hostile reactions to homosexuality, calls to join hard-right or Frigide Barjot demonstrations are also signs of assimilation into the Western family as defined within the French national identity. In this homophobia there is therefore both integration and resistance at the same time – a “toothless resistance” to paraphrase Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “toothless racism” of the colonized toward the colonizer.

And so the struggle against gay imperialism and homoracialism contains both a struggle against homophobia and a struggle against racism and assimilation to the white norms of “sexual democracy.”  It is therefore quite possible that, behind the virulent criticism of the gay international (with which I agree) there is a true concern for the protection and integrity of sexual practices threatened by a Western-centred order. It is even quite possible that we are horrified by the violence engendered by this pressure on homosexuals and a sincere concern for the “other.” So If I say that the homosexual political identity is not universal it is also perhaps in order to better protect the practice, to protect freedoms but also lives. The political formulation of the indigènes must therefore become the best alternative to the White injunction and also serve a fundamental need of the indigènes: to rediscover rightful personality and to think according to one’s own situation. The goal is to respect ourselves and our relationship with the world, while refusing to accede to the white world’s attempt to universalize LGBT identities or to its neoconservative, hetero-patriarchal and European Christian form.

Space-time and political alliances

I can well imagine the confusion of a white lefty before the incomprehensible spectacle of the blurring of the class divide. Watching their flock of indigènes escape them when they put so much into teaching them left values. Hasn’t the white lefty put body and soul for years into protecting their friend from the Front National? And now the ungrateful friend goes and demonstrates with the fascists and conservatives of all stripes against gay marriage. Beneath it all, the indigène is more reactionary than progressive.

At first view, yes. If we stick to a strict left reading of class and right-left divide, the amorphous slogan “left on labour, right on values” corresponds fairly well to the sensibility of the indigènes. This is how some surprising convergences have emerged in recent years between the descendents of immigrants and far-right movements of the kind led by Alain Soral or, on the more moderate end of things, alignments with Villepinism or Modem. But will this convergence last? Does it have a future? No.

First, let’s address the questions related to class position. The indigènes are an important component of the French proletariat and sub-proletariat. Further, these friends of convenience, whether it be the Socialist Party, the right or the extreme right, are the ones that produce the repressive and racist policies and laws that confine people in their conditions as indigènes. Those who promote the call for a “debate for all” must know this. It creates a precedent for which they will be politically and morally responsible. At the same time, a long-lasting alliance with the left and far left is also illusory at this point. In the actual state of things, it would be difficult to gather large segments of the post-colonial immigrant population into an anti-capitalist, “secular” and feminist program that is open to the issue of homosexuality, in short into a “progressive” project.

“Progressive:” if there is a hollow, unsubstantial term, it is this one. Doubtless it has real political content for a number of white lefties and covers a spectrum that includes Jean-Luc Mélenchon at the far left as well as libertarians and other anarchists. For many indigènes, it has little meaning. And for the decolonial indigènes it means even less. In our history, imperialism, colonialism, racism and the global confrontation with the white republican system and eurocentrism have convinced us to drop all belief in this paradigm of progress. First because this idea is strictly linked to Western modernity and its false idea of linear time that will, according to preconceptions, lead to more rights and more freedoms. Second because the colonial/racial system forces the “white man’s” rhythm on us. Racism suspended us in time. We can’t advance, let alone “progress” if we don’t find our backbone. In this process, priority is given to rebuilding the social link between broken identities, marginalized but considered as ours and as authentic. Everything that seems capable of threatening this project to reconquer ourselves will be intuitively rejected. There is no sense searching for Islamists behind this conservative façade. As a result, so-called progressive ideas such as the atheism that strongly informs the left, feminism and the homosexual struggle, are also rejected. What appears as reactionary is also, and above all, decolonial resistance. It’s what is commonly dismissed as a retreat into identity politics [“repli communautaire”] but what we call the “space-time” of the indigènes, that temporal discord that manifests itself as a kind of “productive regression,” which seems like a regression but is in fact progress from the point of view of the overall interest of racialized people, a moment of reformation that we should protect from white interference no matter the cost. It is a question of social survival. “We don’t live simultaneously,” observes Sadri Khiari.9 In my view, that’s what unequivocally explains the unapologetic disloyalty of those among the indigènes known otherwise as being on the left who are siding with the right. But above all, this is what explains the significant absence of indigènes in movements for or against gay marriage. I mentioned above that calls against “marriage for all” had overestimated the actual feelings of the indigènes and, especially, the neighbourhood inhabitants. The truth, in my view, is that those in working-class neighbourhood have no reason to react. They do not feel “threatened” by marriage for all. The customary laws of the neighbourhoods are much stronger than those of the state. In other words, the indigènes know intimately that gay marriage will not penetrate into the neighbourhoods even if it is institutionalized. To me, that is the main reason for their absence in the mobilizations against Hollande’s promises. It is a hypothesis but it deserves exploration. From the white point of view, it will doubtless prove that there are effectively “lost territories in the republic.” From the point of view of the indigènes, it is a demonstration of unprecedented – and formidable – resistance.

I am part of this “productive regression” since I am resolutely on their side of the racial divide. That’s why I will reject categorically any attempt to place Civitas and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France [UOIF] on the same side, or to compare Chaambi and Barjot, regardless of their absurd political choices. A racial divide that separates them (us).

I am part of their productive regression. I am a woman and am fully aware of the power of the patriarchy of the indigènes. I am even more aware of its redeployment and new energy under the pressure of racism. That’s why, in all good conscience, I negotiate with the patriarchy10. It is the same for homosexuals, men and women. Their experience within racialized communities convinces them of the necessity of such a negotiation in order to avoid any kind of complicity with white imperialism. They know that white imperialism can only weaken the already-compromised social body of the indigènes and work to dismantle the family, which has become, for the indigènes, the ultimate refuge. The family is therefore magnified, affirmed and confirmed. Heterosexual marriage is therefore the only possible horizon … to the extent that the Western family, as defended by Civitas and the right of the political spectrum, remains a desirable horizon for non-Whites in France. Let’s not forget that “family reunification” remains a matter of decree for the republic and it makes sense that the family aspirations of immigrants are the object of political battles. Our communities are ravaged by endemic unemployment and neoliberal austerity. The decline of the social state reinforces communitarian and family solidarity. Above and beyond economic conditions, the immigrant family is stigmatized and subjected to symbolic indignities, the target of a large number of moral panics – from “forced” marriage to polygamy to honour crimes. Our families are torn between rising unemployment, women’s domestic employment in white families, workplace discrimination suffered by both men and women, and educational underachievement. Under these conditions, how not reinvest in the family; what other option is there ?

Homosexual indigènes confronted with this dilemma therefore face three possibilities11 : distancing themselves, geographically or otherwise, from family and community when they have the means to do so (which is rare), submitting to heterosexual marriage and therefore to significant emotional precarity, or marrying a homosexual of the opposite sex to keep up appearances. What links these three strategies is the preservation of the family and community order and the impossibility of coming out. Homosexual identity and its related political demands? Certainly possible for a small number (at what cost?), but a dead end for many.

There are therefore white and non-white social spaces that each defines a distinct political space. This raises the question of the autonomy of these spaces but also of the mutual comprehension of the space-time dimensions , and the need for a political strategy that allows a convergence against the main enemy, even as some are fighting for progress and individual emancipation while others resist this. And this requires, above all, the identification of the enemy. Is it imperialist, capitalist, bourgeois and racist power? Or is it the bearded and veiled “sexist” “reactionaries” for some and the progressive, feminist pro-homo rights for others? The resolution to this equation is, above all, up to white progressives as long as the left and the indigènes agree they have the same primary enemy. Why is it up to white progressives? Because the indigènes will make no concessions that cost them their already damaged dignity and because from a revolutionary point of view the priority must be given to the political projects of the most fragile and dominated. I think it’s illusory to expect the indigènes to submit to the white agenda. The wounds are too deep and the social conditions too precarious to believe that organized or unorganized indigènes will align themselves with the positions of white progressivism. It is urgent that these positions be abandoned.  This does not mean capitulation but respect for the space-time and confidence in the intra-indigènes dynamics that often know (when we leave them alone) how to negotiate collective and individual freedoms in a hostile context. Of course “freedom” does not have the absolutist character of the progressive ideal (is this really desirable?) and certainly these individual demands will never be fully satisfied. But sacrifice is an integral part of the reality of the indigènes. We make do. In fact, respect for indigenous time – putting an end to commandments and interference in the affairs of the indigènes – can also have the positive consequence of reducing the violence experienced by those indigènes seduced by the call of progress, individualism and white modernity;, all of which stand opposed to communal structure and family solidarities. In the longer term, we can hope that the easing of the two constraints – the one that forces people to identify as homosexual and the one that enforces a rigid heterosexuality – will allow non-white people to find a balance between their public and private lives, their relationships and their family solidarities.

But is this intra-indigenous peace a priority for our anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophic and, of course, anti-neoliberal “friends,” articulators and intersectionalists who love to see their own image in the mirror?

Houria Bouteldja, February 12, 2013

Translated from French by Karen Wirsig.

Revised by Stefan Kipfer.


1 My intervention continued as follows: ‘Yet this is not true. It is possible to live homosexuality in the most intimate, not at all public, way. I am not at all saying that those with political claims are wrong, I am saying that we live in a society with several rhythms, that we all live in France but that in reality, in France, there are several societies with multiple space-times.’ Later I added, just as Paul-Marie Coûteaux fully agreed with me and, not without a certain delight, thought he embarrassed me: ‘No, you haven’t put me in an awkward position. I do not support gay imperialism. I understand that gay demands can emerge, I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with models of society being imposed onto social groups and peoples, models of emancipation that are not universal.’

2 The notion of indigènes (indigenous) used here has a particular referent in French colonial history. The French empire used the term indigènes to refer to the colonial subjects in all its colonies across the world. The movement known as « The Indigenous of the Republic » in France is composed principally of French youth of African, Arab, and Antillean origin, born and raised in France, who live the experience of colonial racism and its consequent social marginalization and exploitation. Read more about this movement here.



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6 On this subject, see Joseph Massad, Desiring Arabs, University of Chicago Press, 2008.


8 For a wider discussion on this topic, see Maria Lugones, « The Coloniality of Gender », Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise, Spring 2008.

9 To understand the notion of time-space, see: « Nous avons besoin d’une stratégie décoloniale », Sadri Khiari in Race et capitalisme, Félix Boggio Ewanjé-Epée, Stella Magliani-Belkacem, éditions Syllepse, 2012. See also Sadri Khiari, Pour une politique de la racaille, éditions Textuel, 2006.

10 I have already discussed this question in Pierre, Djemila, Dominique…et Mohamed ?id_article=1612

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