Racism and the Censorship of “Gay Imperialism”


Dear friends,

Over the last few years a number of timely publications have illuminated the connections between gender and sexuality, the War on Terror and racialisation.  One of these is Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, edited by Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake and published by Raw Nerve Books in 2008.  An edited collection examining intersections between race and sexuality in the United Kingdom, Out of Place joins Jasbir Puar‘s Terrorist Assemblages as a key contribution to this debate.  Alongside other contributions in Out of Place, the chapter “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror”, by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem pointed to the continuing deployment of queerness as a symbol of “freedom” to rationalise the continuing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and future wars in Iran and elsewhere, as well as to rationalise restrictive and racist immigration policies in “Western” or “liberal” nations.  “Gay Imperialism” uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers.

On September 7th, Raw Nerve Books declared Out of Place to be out of print, removed it from circulation and sale, and issued an online apology to Peter Tatchell.  Presumably this is the result of threats of legal action by Tatchell and Outrage!.  The apology quotes its own publication to apologise for what it accepts as defamatory statements and misrepresentation of Tatchell and Outrage! by Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem.  These include:

  1. that Tatchell is “Islamaphobic” and “part of the Islamaphobia industry”
  2. that Tatchell is “racist”
  3. that Tatchell “sling[s] mud onto Muslim communities”

As one sees if one reads “Gay Imperialism”, these so-called accusations are all taken grossly out of context and reduce the complexity of Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem’s argument.  The apology continues by obsequiously praising Tatchell and Outrage!’s “anti-racist” work, and making further accusations against a number of African LGBT activists, who had refused to work with Tatchell precisely because of his paternalistic attitude, and who are cited in “Gay Imperialism”.

It seems likely that Tatchell’s lawyers presented Raw Nerve with an already-written apology and asked them to sign and publish it.  Tatchell is notoriously litigious.  He is equally notorious for staging highly publicised, “one man” actions that appear to have just as much to do with his public image as a gay celebrity activist as any political work.  However, Tatchell himself is not important here.  What is important is that this critique is evidently so threatening to Tatchell and to the book’s publishers that it must be removed from circulation, and the authors must be condemned as liars.

This incident proves something about how difficult it is to do anti-racist work.  Pointing out racism, no matter how carefully we might phrase it and no matter which arguments we have about the use of the word ‘racism’, is often perceived as a personal and individual affront.  Those so accused often appear to find it wounding or traumatic — psychically wounding, but more importantly, wounding to their public image.  “How dare you accuse me of racism?  I am not racist; I have lots of friends who are people of color!” goes the cliched defensive response we are all familiar with.  This way, the person or organisation critiqued can escape engaging with the content of the critique and put the burden of proof back on the person who raised the issue.  It is not coincidental that the person making a critique of racism is often non-white, deploying old colonial stereotypes that people of colour are untrustworthy ingrates who don’t know what’s good for them.  This problem of white, “well-intentioned” activists ignoring or actively silencing the desires of the people they profess to help in order to maintain the myth of their own generous self-sacrifice is endemic to many struggles: feminist anti-“trafficking” activism; indigenous land and rights struggles; migration activism; the backlash against the wearing of hijab by Muslim women in France and elsewhere, and on and on.  The only way it might ever stop is for its perpetrators to acknowledge their role.

Meanwhile a really amazing book is being censored.  The authors of the chapter and the editors of Out of Place are unable to comment due to UK libel law.  It’s unlikely that Raw Nerve will reissue the book, even if the editors wanted this.  Meanwhile the authors’ reputations are themselves besmirched.  There are several things you can do about this situation:

  1. Circulate this and your own commentary among your friends, companeros, colleagues.
  2. Circulate “Gay Imperialism” — a PDF is online here:
  3. Write letters in support of Jin Haritaworn to:
    The Gender Institute,
    The London School of Economics and Political Science,
    Houghton Street, London
    WC2A 2AE, UK

Please pass this around, respond, send it to other listservs and read the other statements written about the censorship of Out of Place:

“Out of Place, Out of Print: On the Censorship of the First Queerness/Raciality Collection in Britain” by Johanna Rothe, Monthly Review, <monthlyreview.org/mrzine/rothe151009.html>

“On the Censorship of ‘Gay Imperialism’ and Out of Place“, X:Talk website, <www.xtalkproject.net/?p=415>

In solidarity,

Aren Aizura

Aren Aizura is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies of Indiana University, Bloomington.

| Print