Dean Cooper-Cunningham and Jess Gifkins outline six ways researchers and policy-makers can better address queer and trans experiences of mass violence.
Politicized homophobia and transphobia often precede democratic backsliding, mass atrocity and identity-based violence. Yet a systemic failure to include queer perspectives in frameworks designed to cultivate peace, security and respect for human rights, such as the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P), leaves the international community ill-equipped to support queer people facing persecution. It also undermines our ability to identify and effectively react to the threat of anti-democratic, violent and often fascistic politics.
Drawing on our research, we show why a queer perspective is vital for effective mass atrocity prevention and outline six ways in which such a perspective can be cultivated.
Why is queering R2P necessary?
Identity-based violence often lays the groundwork for mass atrocity and conflict escalation. We know that the targeting of individuals based on their (assumed) identities compounds the risk of atrocity crimes; this has been consistent across time and space from Nazi to Sudanese to Yugoslavian atrocities. Despite this, the R2P framework has had a longstanding blind spot regarding the persecution of people with non-heteronormative sexuality and/or who are not cisgender. This is the consequence of what we call a ‘cisheteronormative blindfold’, i.e. ignorance of how society privileges cisgender and heterosexual identities as the norm and fails to recognize the needs of individuals outside the cisheteronormal.
The failure to recognise queer and trans people as uniquely at risk has (had) significant material consequences for those targeted because of their (suspected) ‘abnormal’ sexuality and/or gender identity. It is therefore necessary to remove the cisheteronormative blindfold and ‘engage with LGBTQI+ experiences, vulnerabilities and expertise when it comes to atrocity prevention and identity-based violence in order to better respond to existing and emerging threats to LGBTQI+ communities’.
How to queer atrocity prevention
In response to the above oversight, we argue for queering contemporary approaches to atrocity prevention. Queering is not just adding queer(s) and stirring. Rather, queering R2P means adopting a queer politics and ethics that ceaselessly interrogates relations to power, commits to the perpetual reconfiguration of power structures, and refuses sexual moralism rooted in a politics of sexual shame and practices of stigmatization. Thus, to queer R2P means highlighting the horrific violence people face on the basis of their assumed sexuality/gender, creating policy space for discussions and developing solutions to prevent such violence that is attentive to local dynamics. This is not and cannot be, we emphasise, a one-size-fits-all response.
In this context, we propose six ways academics and policy-makers can help guide policy, theory and understanding of the complex and multifaceted interactions between queer people and atrocity crimes:
1. Conduct case-study analysis of how queer people are targeted in atrocity crimes
This should include documenting and researching instances of homophobic and/or transphobic violence in all analyses of conflicts, to build knowledge about how such identity-based violence links to wider dynamics of conflict and security. Consequently, this would feed into the construction of risk indicators for conflict escalation that stem from homophobic and/or transphobic violence.
2. Research how homophobia is used as a foreign policy strategy
We could start by researching how internationalist projects promoting heterosexuality under the guise of ‘traditional values’ give legitimacy to anti-queer violence, and how this can inform diplomatic engagement under R2P. Furthermore, it is also vital to analyse states and organisations that promote cisheteronormativity as the only and proper way to exist, such as the International Organization of the Family or the Conservative Political Action Conference.
3. Research on each pillar of R2P and integrate queer perspectives across state and international responsibilities
Atrocity prevention must include listening to queer people’s experiences of atrocity crimes to bolster protections assured under R2P.
4. Investigate how queering R2P inevitably intersects with other UN agendas
Creating a collaborative approach across the entire UN Peace & Security apparatus and Human Rights programmes such as Women, Peace and Security, Protection of Civilians and the Human Rights Up Front initiative would help integrate queer perspectives.
5. Develop and apply queer methods in the study of queer insecurity
There is a burgeoning debate about queer methods. Many questions arise such as: What methods can be considered ‘queer’? Are any methods ‘queer’ if they are not developed with a queer politics and approach since inception? Can a method become queer(ed)? These are discussions that need to be taken seriously when considering the ‘how’ of studying queer insecurity, particularly when it comes to thinking through atrocity crimes. Importantly, centring queer experiences is critical for this research as is ensuring that data collection does not put queer folks at risk.
6. Think expansively about how security, human rights and cisheteronormativity intertwine
As intersectional feminists have long argued, asking ‘the other question’ is key when thinking about how people’s subject positions predispose them to particular forms of structural and physical violence and disciplining.
The six proposals must necessarily be approached from a decolonial perspective. Despite colonial assumptions that queer rights are protected in the global North states for whom R2P is a foreign policy concern, we see increasing repression of queer and trans people across Europe and north America. Alarm bells should be ringing. In the work on preventing atrocity crimes, we must also look at Europe as a site of atrocity prevention: politicised homophobia and transphobia are on the rise in Hungary and the UK. R2P must not be limited in scope to states’ international responsibilities to protect or intervene elsewhere. Rather, it is essential to devolve R2P and start atrocity prevention at home and in every single state.
Those working on R2P need to remove their cisheteronormative blindfold and engage with the diversity of identities and experiences of those subjected to atrocity crimes. Preventing mass atrocities and genocide requires protecting all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Queering and decolonizing atrocity prevention is thus vital for both ensuring that policy-makers meaningfully protect queer and trans people from violent repression and responding to the dire warning such persecution represents.