A Tale of Resistance: Queer Resilience Around the World

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Discourse surrounding queer resistance, resilience, and liberation is overwhelmingly focused on the Western world. Consequently, coverage of international queer stories often lacks cultural competency and awareness, and we impose Western belief systems and logics upon LGBTQ+ victims around the world. In reality, though, many global institutions of LGBTQ+ discrimination are remnants of European and colonial justice systems. A nuanced and comprehensive approach to queer liberation, thus, must shine a light on the formidable courage of queer activists worldwide, amplify their voices sincerely and authentically, and recognize the uniqueness of their experience.

With the rise of ever-intensifying culture wars, movements to censor LGBTQ+ representation in public schools, and rampant hate crimes against LGTBQ+ Americans, the purview of Western media coverage has overlooked the robust, innovative, and pertinacious efforts by global LGBTQ+ activists beyond the United States. Taking a global and multicultural approach to social justice, it becomes evident that LGBTQ+ individuals around the world resist their countries’ discriminatory policies not only through legal advocacy and transnational organizing, but through online resistance and meaningful, resilient communities of care and allyship.

Meet the Organization: Helem — Lebanon

Personifying nuanced and multidimensional approaches to queer advocacy, Helem is the first LGBTQ+ organization in the Arab world. Founded in 2001, it focuses on legal aid, community building, and policy research on the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights in Lebanon and the greater Arab region. In an interview with the Harvard Political Review, Helem’s Executive Director Tarek Zeidan shared his insights on his experience as an organizer in the Arab world and his philosophy on what it means for a liberation movement to be effective, resilient, and intersectional.

Zeidan broke down Helem’s focus into three major sectors: first, legal aid, particularly in reference to human rights violations in Lebanon and the greater region; second, in community centers, as Helem operates the largest non-commercial space for LGBTQ+ people in the Arab world as a resilient setting of mutual aid, support, and coalition-building; and lastly, through research and policy, enhancing campaign effectiveness and building capacity for their advocacy efforts in decriminalization, socio-economic justice, housing and education access, digital security and hate speech prevention, and more.

Zeidan shared that it is necessary for advocacy to go beyond simple vertical organizing strategies in political and economic institutions, but to simultaneously generate horizontally-energized coalitions. He elaborated that horizontal organizing necessitates an emphasis on “issue-based engagements rather than identity-based engagement.” Clarifying that his philosophy on advocacy is not an erasure of queerness but rather an embodiment of it, Zeidan continued to explain that the goal is “that these movements would come to see queer people as part and parcel of their own movements rather than what has unfortunately been happening across the world, which is the segregation of queer people as a distinctive group or population.” 

Zeidan continued to discuss Helem’s central philosophy on fomenting sustainable queer liberation movements, explaining that organizing consistently requires looking inward: “We’re not sacrificing identity by de-emphasizing it as the sole unifying or structure,”  but it is incredibly important to reinforce the fact that even marginalized identities can “become exclusionary and violent.” Along the theme of exclusion within the community of queer activism, he noted, “it is very easy for us to see marginalized, oppressed identities also become very exclusionary, much to the detriment of the well-being of the commons, or of the community itself.” 

To Zeidan and Helem as a whole, global intersectionality is not merely a buzzword to placate liberal critics but rather a significant responsibility, one that mandates us to understand the implications of queerness for the full gamut of policy issues. He argued that strikingly absent from queer liberation discourse today is a robust class analysis. Zeidan even pointed out that “it’s only relatively recently that race became part of the conversation.” Noting the chronology of the queer liberation movement in the United States, Zeidan questioned why a racial analysis of queerness only began upon the federal protection of marriage equality. Urging us to question the liberation agenda thus far, Zeidan asked why marriage equality took precedence “as opposed to stopping the murder and ostracization of trans people of color.” Explaining the fact that civil and political rights have often taken primacy in the West, Zeidan noted the lack of focus surrounding socio-economic issues such as “the very fact that queer people are suffering from the lack of a robust healthcare system in the United States, and healthcare coverage in particular.”

Regarding Lebanon, Zeidan spoke on the hierarchy of needs for marginalized queer individuals. “The biggest problem facing trans women in Lebanon right now isn’t the existence of a law that prohibits them from marrying or engaging in same-sex relations; the biggest problem is that there’s no shelter, housing, food, education, or jobs.” And this echoed a familiar theme throughout Zeidan and Helem’s narrative, that queer individuals should not be seen as separate social class with a distinct narrative, but that the socioeconomic grievances that plague individuals worldwide are ever-present and magnified through nuanced intersections within queer identity.

The relationship between queer activists around the world is not a one-way street, but rather a symbiotic relationship that requires unification, solidarity, and most importantly, questioning. “Many activists in the Global South also have a lot to learn from what has happened in the Global North or in the West. He added,“that doesn’t necessarily mean blindly emulating.” Instead, it means “communities needing to come together in environments that allow us to honestly, compassionately, and courageously question one another’s assumptions. That’s the only way we both learn, grow and realize that we’re part of a global movement that needs a global dialogue.”

Zeidan warned that, absent constant inner confrontation, queer movements are susceptible to counterproductive advocacy that not only hamstrings liberation but reinforces systemic violence. “It is incredibly important for us to break vicious historical cycles … mobilizing in a certain way that at best delays liberation, or at worst reinforces and replicates these existing power structures.” He explained the importance of introspection, noting that “the work, the engagement, the confrontation that needs to happen should happen both externally and internally. We do not subscribe to this incredibly simplistic division between us and them, good and bad … whatever it is that is so super superficially consumed, particularly on social media. There needs to be a lot of external and internal work done.”

Moving Forward

While there have been innumerable contributions made by queer activists and advocates in the West, for too long have the resilient voices of global activists been ignored. The West often falls victim to moral condemnations of developing nations, particularly in the context of their social and political inclusion of LGBTQ+ folk, but chronically missing from these discussions is any mention of the cycles of imperial and colonial violence that have not only brutalized such populations but also imposed upon them their heteronormative and gender binaristic agendas. A key example of the West’s generational impact on anti-queerness worldwide is the non-binary Hijra population in India, once anciently revered for their loyalty and religious wisdom but today victims of persecution and social ostracism as a result of the British colonial rule that criminalized Hijras in 1871 in pursuit of their total extermination.

Understanding the narrative surrounding queer activism, resistance, and progress necessitates a diversification and decolonization of the narrative of transnational liberation movements. This begins by going beyond just recognizing the work of human rights advocates globally, but also amplifying the voices of marginalized communities, standing with activists in solidarity, and educating ourselves on the robust and nuanced mechanisms through which individuals have been able to resist oppression and drive incremental change outside the Western world. With this nuance, we can begin to better comprehend queer resistance. 

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