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What Might a Queer Critique of Homonormalization and Homonationalism in Flanders Look Like?

What Might a Queer Critique of Homonormalization and Homonationalism in Flanders Look Like?

1 Comment 🕔22.Apr 2014

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

by Bart Eeckhout

In academic circles, and particularly among those with an interest in ‘queer studies,’ it has become customary to develop critiques of what is called ‘homonormalization’ and ‘homonationalism’ in Western societies. But there are limits to the usefulness of such terms. In what follows, I want to ponder the case of Belgium, and more specifically Flanders, the northern half of the country, where most of the population speaks Dutch (a.k.a. Flemish). Together with the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, Flanders might be expected to be as close to the English-speaking world as it gets, not only because of the geographical proximity to the British Isles, but also because Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are all Germanic languages that are historically close to English. For the current discussion, it’s also relevant that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries have been collectively at the forefront of promoting Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) rights and policies in Europe. Thus, these countries seem to share an undertow of cultural values and attitudes. And yet, it’s by no means obvious to develop a queer critique of homonormalization and homonationalism in Flanders.

Or perhaps it isn’t obvious to develop such a critique in precisely those terms.

Since there’s no neutral way of entering this debate, I must situate myself first as a speaker. I come to the topic from two perspectives. On the one hand, I’m a professor of English at the University of Antwerp who specializes in queer studies (among other things). As such, I publish and lecture in the field, teach courses on Queer Fiction and Queer Studies, and supervise doctoral dissertations. I use the word ‘queer’ insouciantly here because my natural academic environment, whenever I read and write, is scholarship from English-speaking countries, in particular the United States. In a moment, I will talk about the limits of this insouciance. On the other hand, I’m an LGBT activist in Flanders. In this guise, I participate in the workings of the Flemish umbrella organization çavaria, which unites more than 130 LGBT grassroots organizations in the Flemish region. I’m a member of the political lobbying group and have been on the Board of Directors for several years. In this world, the English label ‘queer’ has no critical traction whatsoever, somewhat unlike neighboring countries such as Germany, where the term does seem to have caught on within parts of the movement.

My double experience as an academic and activist triggers my first reservations about undertaking a queer critique of the social situation in Flanders. What would it mean to attempt such a critique in the absence of a local audience and the possibility of any local effects? It isn’t only that the world of Flemish activism remains largely unaffected by international discussions waged under the umbrella of ‘queer studies’; it’s also that in the Flemish academic landscape I’m not aware of any other professors teaching courses with ‘queer’ in the title. What does it mean, therefore, when the implied audience for a ‘queer’ social critique is automatically an external one – an audience of international readers whose intellectual framework does comprise ‘queer’ scholarship in English, but whose gaze on Flanders isn’t very different from that of a tourist briefly passing through the country? (Should we say ‘country’ or ‘region’? Even the delineation of nation-states is too complex to explain in a nutshell.) What would be gained by confirming the general applicability of the latest shibboleths from international queer studies through a few selected illustrations of homonormalization and homonationalism in Flanders? How could such a schematic application of a queer critique have any desired effect on the ground in Belgium? And in the absence of such an effect, how could it avoid further entrenching the opposition between self-styled academic radicals in queer studies addressing a global audience and the mainstream of sexual and gender minorities in Flanders, which manages to congratulate itself on its progressive legislation and policies while keeping silent about the preponderance of racism and Islamophobia among its members?

Belgium Pride parade in Brussels, May 18, 2013. Credit: Kartouchken

To develop a local audience that might be responsive to a ‘queer critique’ of ‘homonormalizing’ and ‘homonationalistic’ tendencies in Flanders, one would first need to have the political clout to undertake a drastic makeover of the academic system (which is entirely state-regulated and very slow to integrate minority interests in the curriculum), as well as of the media landscape (in a direction that would run counter, moreover, to the economic logic underpinning this landscape). The current situation, in which international queer scholarship can’t be anchored structurally in undergraduate or graduate programs by those few Flemings who read up on it, is insufficient to let queer critiques be heard.

And so I find myself pondering here, to an international audience of mostly fleeting readers, what it might mean to import the terms ‘homonormalization’ and ‘homonationalism’ into the Flemish context, which remains blissfully unaware of them. Part of the difficulty I’m having is also the result of the semantic ambiguity of these terms. They are not in the first place analytically rigorous concepts. They are politically motivated labels that help queer critics to cut corners in what always threatens to become a sloganizing manner. As far as I understand the first term, ‘homonormalization’ is a back-formation from ‘heteronormativity’, which was launched by queer theorists in the early 1990s. But whereas the latter term had a wider application in that it summed up how heterosexuality sets the default in a society at large, the former narrows down the discussion to the effects on LGBTs themselves. ‘Homonormalization’ sums up various complaints about the extent to which post-emancipatory LGBTs in Western countries merely replicate and propagate dominant heterosexual norms in a society that has become willing to ‘assimilate’ conformist LGBTs.

Schematically, it’s very easy to apply this general understanding of ‘homonormalization’ to the Flemish situation. Belgium has been the second country in the world, after the Netherlands, to open up civil marriage to same-sex couples, which was soon followed by the opening up of adoption. Lesbian couples have relatively cheap and easy access to in vitro fertilization treatment through anonymous donors. The Flemish LGBT movement has systematically lobbied for such legislation and social policies, and shown a united (i.e., a ‘normalizing’) front in doing so. From the Belgian Prime Minister to the Flemish Minister of Education and Equal Opportunities, gay politicians have become normal members of the political class, and homophobic responses to their sexuality in public discourses are rare. In the Flemish media, there is now a constant flow of LGBT news items, LGBT characters in soaps, and LGBT individuals or couples in entertainment programs, especially if these people are otherwise inconspicuous and present themselves as copying traditional family life. Surveys indicate that the urban-rural opposition that is everywhere supposed to lead to a ‘reverse diaspora’, with LGBTs systematically moving away from the countryside to big cities, is hardly outspoken in Flanders.

Does all of this mean that there’s a massive current of homonormalization in Flemish society at this point in history? No doubt at some level of abstraction it does – just as one would expect from a Western country at which the critique of homonormalization tends to be aimed. But that is only where a nuanced analysis should start, I feel, if it doesn’t want to remain satisfied with foregone conclusions from international queer studies. A more nuanced analysis should pay attention to simultaneous attitudes, internal debates, and double agendas within the organized LGBT movement that do fit a queer manner of thinking and acting without therefore carrying the ‘queer’ label or getting conceptualized by those involved as a coherent cluster of social resistances. And this more nuanced analysis should extend from attitudes toward sexual politics among Flemish LGBTs to those among Flemings/Belgians at large, and even beyond, to European levels of decision-making. These widening circles are, after all, dynamically interrelated, especially in such a small country as Belgium, which is historically located at the crossroads of various European cultures and contains one city (Brussels) serving as the capital of Flanders, Belgium, and the European Union (EU) all at once. As soon as we attempt to think at this level of critical complexity and interrelation (which falls outside the possibilities of an online forum), the concept of homonormalization evaporates fast. Such a level of analysis requires readers to take a genuine interest in the opaque messiness and contradictions of everyday life on the ground in Flanders.

Something similar applies to a queer critique of ‘homonationalism’ in Flanders. Here the term is confusing because of the different ways in which it has been circulating. On the one hand, it is used to refer to pro-nationalist attitudes among LGBT activists, in particular when these involve an embrace of increased acceptance and visibility in a country’s armed forces as a way of championing social integration for LGBTs. On the other hand, the term is widely taken to refer to the embrace of LGBT rights by Western states as an ideological tool. Doubts are then cast on how this tool is used to wage war on cultural outsiders, whether these be political regimes outside the West (from President Putin’s Russia to Uganda), immigrants from ethnic backgrounds considered to be largely homophobic, or religious groups likewise regarded as intolerant.

Both of these applications raise serious problems when imported into the Flemish context. In the former case, one might be inclined, at first blush, to dismiss the application out of hand, for several reasons. The sense of nationalism and patriotism among Belgians is generally low compared with other nations. Partly as a result of this, public debates about the place of LGBTs in the Belgian army have been negligible. Furthermore, Flanders, where a sense of nationalism has grown in recent years, is a region. As such, it has no military, nor do Flemish nationalists make a fuss about a separate army, since these troops would continue to function within the context of NATO and EU policies anyway. Contrary to the United States and Israel, then, the link between LGBTs and the military has been largely absent from critical discourse in Belgium and Flanders. In this sense, using the label of homonationalism may be quite misleading. Yet this doesn’t therefore mean there hasn’t been a gradual shift among activist LGBTs in the direction of an increased nationalism. As an insider, I indeed find this shift quite palpable. Whereas historically LGBT movements existed in self-evident opposition to nationalist ideologies, since it was precisely the state that most clearly propagated the heteronormativity responsible for denying sexual minorities their rights and full ‘sexual citizenship’, such antinationalism has evaporated. Today, I’m living in a political landscape in which the only big party in Flanders (about 30 percent of the electorate) is a Flemish nationalist party. It sets a large part of the political agenda and manages to be the constant center of public debate. But while in terms of its immediate historical pedigree, this party is clearly right-of-center on questions of ‘moral values’, it now prides itself on being just as LGBT-friendly as all other Flemish parties (with the exception of the dwindling extreme-right nationalists, now polled at around 10 percent). In this context, many LGBT activists have come to regard allegiance to Flemish nationalism as intrinsically normal and in no way self-contradictory.

This complication suggests that the second use of the term ‘homonationalism’ is equally complicated – and hard to disentangle from the first, as traditional lines between the state and its LGBT citizens are no longer clear-cut. There can be no doubt, for example, that the Belgian state has become a vocal champion of international LGBT rights: being gay himself, the Belgian Prime Minister has used the stage of the United Nation’s General Assembly to call for the expansion of LGBT rights around the world. But how analytically helpful is the wide brush of ‘homonationalism’ when it needs to sweep a country’s internal political tensions under the carpet? The nationalists who are now dominant in Flanders are the sworn enemies of the Prime Minister’s Francophone Socialists, yet both these parties, as well as the majority of politicians in the Liberal, Green, and Christian Democrat parties on either side of the linguistic divide, are supportive of LGBT-friendly legislation and policies. The extent to which their homonationalist advocacy on an international stage is surreptitiously made to serve an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and sometimes antireligious agenda at home, however, differs considerably from politician to politician and from party to party. Such a fine-grained analysis is no longer served, arguably, by the homogenizing term of homonationalism.

In a recent article entitled “Rethinking Homonationalism,” Jasbir Puar has sought to adapt the concept with which she is frequently associated by seeing it as “a facet of modernity and a historical shift marked by the entrance of (some) homosexual bodies as worthy of protection of nation-states.” As she now prefers to argue, “homonationalism is not a state practice per se. It is instead the historical convergence of state practices, transnational circuits of queer commodity culture and human rights paradigms, and broader global phenomena such as the increasing entrenchment of Islamophobia.”[1] This very wide application suggests that the term is much better suited to ponder the place of sexuality and sexual minorities in international politics and comparative cultural studies than it is to undertake a microanalysis at the level of a small country such as Belgium, let alone an even smaller region such as Flanders.

 

Bart Eeckhout is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. He studied at Ghent University and Columbia University and taught at Fordham University and NYU. Besides being a leading activist in the Flemish-Belgian LGBT movement,Eeckhout teaches and publishes about queer studies and queer fiction. His publications on Belgian LGBT issues have appeared in the Journal of Homosexuality, the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, and Queer in Europe.

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.


[1] Jasbir Puar, “Rethinking Homonationalism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45, no. 2 (2013): 337.

 

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