The transnational battle over gay rights took an interesting turn last week when the Obama administration announced that it would work hard to promote gay rights worldwide. The gay community welcomed the news. But more strategic thinkers also raised questions. As Neil Grungras of San Francisco’s Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration cautioned:

“In countries where U.S. moral leadership is not high and where increasingly Western values are [seen as] negative . . . there is a real danger people can use this issue and say, ‘No, we are cleaning up here, we are going to reject this American imposition of decay.’” As an example, Grungras pointed to last year’s gay pride event at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. This sparked large demonstrations against the U.S., gay rights, and homosexuals.

Also of interest is the reaction from American religious conservatives active in the fight against gay rights. They decried the Obama initiative, and vowed to oppose it. In the past, they have scored successes. They have formed a “Baptist-burqa” network of religious conservatives, both state and nonstate, including Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and more, spanning the world, just like the gay rights network. They have successfully blocked major new UN initiatives on gay rights and excluded gay activists from participation in international institutions. They raise rival norms, primarily to religious freedom and cultural autonomy, as a means of attacking gay rights. And they are supporting the backlash against gay rights in many countries, especially in Africa.

This may be a rearguard action, but there is little doubt that it has and will slow the progress of gay rights around the world. True, there have been major, hard-fought advances for gay rights in some countries in recent years. But many countries remain indifferent or, if anything, have become more overtly hostile as gay rights advance. Uganda’s horrific Anti-Homosexuality Law, complete with death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality,” is an example.

Scholars who study such issues sometimes ignore “retrograde” networks, in favor of studying progressive new norms and their moral entrepreneurs. Yet in the transnational battle over gay rights at the UN and in many countries, opponents are powerful and important. One can’t understand the politics of gay rights without examining their sworn enemies. One can’t appreciate the framing of a “new” norm without noting its rivals’ frmaing. One can’t explain the shifting policy outcomes without analyzing the bitter conflict among hostile sides.

Beyond gay rights, this is true of countless other policy issues, from global warming to global health. One side’s solution to what it portrays as a pressing crisis will itself be a problem for another group, generating fervent opposition activism. One side’s initiatives are invariably matched by a rival’s counterpunch.

[SELF-PROMOTION WARNING!] For those interested in transnational battles over gay rights and other issues – as well as the implications for understanding global public policy more broadly – my book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics – is due out next month from Cambridge UP. [STORY IDEA for Brian Rathbun: Things PSers Like: Ironic attitude toward shameless self-promotion.]

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