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Igor Kochetkov: Human rights through the prism of the LGBT movement [Cogita]

posted 27 Jun 2017, 06:52 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 27 Jun 2017, 07:49 ]
15 June 2017

By Igor Kochetkov, PhD, a human rights activist, director of the Sphere Foundation for Social and Legal Aid, board member of the Russian LGBT Network, member of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Cogita]

When the media started to pay attention to the mass kidnappings, torture, and murder of gays in Chechnya, one well-known human rights activist, an expert on the Caucasus and on Chechnya in particular, said that he did not understand why so much attention was being paid to gays. After all, in Chechnya everyone was being murdered. We, understandably, may react emotionally to such a statement. But it’s worth thinking about it.

After all the same could be said about the Holocaust. Why focus on the Jews? Questions of this kind are voiced. Why should so much attention be paid to the torture and mass murder of Jews? After all, everyone suffered. All the Germans were victims of Nazism, and the Jews were not the first to be sent to concentration camps. The first were the dissenters and, incidentally, also the homosexuals.

I realized that we, including activists, researchers, and publicists often have no convincing answer to such a question. And, truly, why, since the time of World War II has the theme of equal rights for the LGBT community had greater resonance in the international human rights movement than anything else?

We cannot answer that question if we approach it in the traditional way, comparing the history of the LGBT movement with that of other social movements. Usually, when we are thinking of the LGBT movement we start by making comparisons with the movement for equal rights for Afro-Americans in the mid- and second-half of the last century, and the movement of equal rights for women, beginning with the suffragettes and continuing. Here, it seems to me, we fall into a very deep trap. Because these are absolutely different movements. My thesis rests on the argument that it is much more appropriate to compare the LGBT movement with the holocaust or with the Soviet dissident movement than with those of Afro-Americans or women. They were based on the existence of a particular identity, race or gender, and on the recognition that people with that identity did not have equal rights with the majority. Theirs was a movement for equal civil rights.

It’s a little different as regards the LGBT movement because it’s a movement for sexual self-expression. It’s not seeking the freedom that all the others have. The vaunted heterosexual majority also does not have the freedom of sexual self-expression, it too is subject to limitations, sufficiently restrictive ones.

Homosexuals are always the ones who shouldn't exist. It was the same for the Jews during the Second World War. They were the ones who shouldn't have existed. In the minds of the majority, they didn't serve any kind of useful function in society. It was a very particular situation, and this concept of situation reveals itself here. I think that when we talk about homosexuality and sexuality in general, it would be more appropriate to apply this concept of situation, rather than the concept of identity. Identity is someone categorising himself or categorising me as belonging to a certain tradition, a certain history, to ancestors, to certain norms, a certain culture and so on. I think Hannah Arendt put it very well when she said that Auschwitz cannot be explained by either German or Jewish history. It was not a social phenomenon, but an existential one.

So the concept of identity does not work here, but the concept of situation does. Following Jaspers, we can take situation to mean a clash between the subject and his intentions and objective reality. A situation comes into being when this clash generates a certain resistance. And in this particular case it is possible to talk about the situation of Jewry or of homosexuals, which have defined the role of both the Holocaust and the LGBT movement in the modern world. What kind of “situation” is this? Here we can talk about a category of situation called a limiting situation. These are situations that force us to fight, to resist, to survive or to die. Or to take the blame for something, to take sole responsibility.

The difference that unites Jews of the 20th century and LGBT people today is that they are people who create themselves. The Jews created a state that had actually never existed before. Even the legendary, mythical state of Israel that we know from the Old Testament has little in common with modern Israel, to put it mildly. It is the same with LGBT people. Homosexuals are philosophers because they have to invent themselves every day. They also have to prove that they exist, because only gays and lesbians are ever asked: "Are you sure that you're gay or a lesbian?" They also need to prove it, to construct themselves completely. They need to identify themselves as people. And there are no examples for them to follow. This is why I have included the concept of 'human rights' in the title of my paper, because this is exactly what human rights are about. It is an attempt to create a normative framework for those people who are choosing a real human existence, for those people who want to create themselves.

The vaunted majority can only offer gays kinds of assimilation, but this does not protect their identity. And this explains the uniqueness of the LGBT movement. In fact, the success of the LGBT movement is that it represents a movement of individuals whose common cause is trying, first and foremost, to save their own lives.

In the West there was the history of AIDS: "the gay plague" as it was then called. But that was their story. It is clear that LGBT history has a certain kind of mythology. For example, Stonewall, Harvey Milk and so on. But if we look at it critically, as it seems to me, as we will see, that, in fact, it has proved quite fruitless to attempt to follow in their footsteps. Stonewall and all the movements that we saw emerge in the 1960s were in imitation of the US black and the women’s movements. Striving to struggle for some kind of civil rights has led absolutely nowhere.

When HIV arrived on the scene, it became clear that this did not lead to anything at all. Because the American government said: "You are dying? Well, die then, you don't have any rights, not even the right to life". And then individuals came together in this struggle for their very survival. They united not because they were gay, they came together because they wanted to live. They wanted to live, while preserving their identity. It was their position of principle, that we are not prepared to live at any price. And it was also the emergence of a movement, and it was a movement for the survival of their otherness, not for their integration into society.

Today we can see both in the post-Soviet space and in other non-Western parts of the world that something similar is happening. The same thing is happening, but not because of HIV since HIV was the story of American gays. Now HIV is no longer terrifying as people don’t die of it any more. But now when we see what happens in Chechnya, for example, we realize what could happen to us.

But what’s to stop it? And then the individual people who are part of the community understand that the issue is about choosing between death and preserving their own identity, individuality, that they can only survive by retaining their individual identity. This is not the same as the struggle for civil rights. It is a struggle for universal human rights, the fight for the right to be oneself, to be a true human, someone who determines one’s own identity.

On 18 May 2017 at the seminar "The right to gender" Igor Kochetkov read a paper "Human rights philosophy through the prism of the LGBT movement". This summary of the paper has been prepared by Andrei Tiukhtyaev

Translated by Graham Jones, Mary McAuley and Nicky Brown

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