In the first two weeks of his administration Donald Trump has opened a can of worms spreading around draconian and regressive conservative policy measures to close borders, to retreat from international agreements including in relation to trade and also to signal towards more aggressive military interventions “if required”. As predicted by the tone of the campaign, in the midst of all this activity, measures and messages in relation to gender and sexuality have also been delivered.
The most flagrant, which rapidly reverberated across the global media, was the immediate re-instatement of the Global Gag Rule, which prohibits foreign NGOs providing abortion services or even just advocating for legal abortion to access US international cooperation financial resources.
Originally established by Reagan in 1984, the Gag Rule can be portrayed as a ‘vampire policy’. Since then it has been rescinded and then resurged again as the executive power alternated between Republican and Democratic presidencies. But, as accurately recaptured and analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the memorandum issued on January 22nd has significantly amplified the scope and potentially negative effects of the restrictions now attached to global HIV and AIDS policy initiatives such as PEPFAR, but also to US funds channeled to global health interventions through major institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health with unpredictable deleterious effects.
PEPFAR is, in fact, the other policy area that must be looked at closely. Dr. Deborah Birx, the current coordinator, who was nominated by the Obama administration, has been requested to stay in her post, at least for the time being. This should not be a surprise, perhaps, since Dr. Birx is a well-known Evangelical whose positions on issues such as abstinence and prevention and the role to be played by faith-based organizations in the HIV response have been lauded by US conservative religious groups. The hypothesis may be raised perhaps that if in in the recent past her personal views had been somehow restrained by existing policy guidelines, in the current political environment Dr. Birx may feel more confident to transport these values to her policy practice. In a recent interview with the Religious News Services, she declared, for example, that “President Trump can control the AIDS pandemic”. Yet more preoccupying, is the above mentioned attachment of the Gag Rule to PEPFAR funding streams, already criticized by a wide number of voices.
Another and even more concerning policy arena to be examined is located in the State Department initiatives on LGBT rights that expanded and became increasingly pro-active during the last years of the Obama administration. One of these initiatives was, for example, the creation of a new post of a Special US Envoy on LGBT rights, whose mandate includes travelling around the world to identify and speak about the violation of LGBT rights. The Obama pro-LGBT rights discourses and policies, while garnering support across the world of activism domestically and globally, have also been sharply criticized by a wide range of academic and activist voices – from both South and North of the Equator. These critical observers read these policies as another manifestation of homonationalist justification for military and policy interventions or else as market-oriented pinkwashing strategies.
It is not fully clear yet what the Trump administration’s propositions are for this troubled policy domain. As this note was being written, the LGBT web paper Washington Blade published an article informing that no definition has yet been taken, for example, in relation to the Special Envoy post. From SPW’s point of view, however, what matters most right now is to situate the signs emerging in this area against the backdrop of the nationalist and neo-imperial Making America Great Again ideology informing the overarching agenda of the new administration. This direction and tone is, for example, more than glaring in the observation included in the January 27th Executive Order that reads as follows:
“In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
These blatant Islamophobic views have been already contested. The Muslim Alliance on Gender and Sexual Diversity immediately issued a comprehensive statement correctly connecting it with the establishment of gender and homophobic tests as a criteria for the country’s admission of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants:
“As LGBTQ Muslims, we are keenly aware of the homophobic and transphobic policies of the Trump administration, and we know that the possibility of including a question about acceptance of homosexuality on the proposed “values test” is not driven by sincere concern for LGBTQ people. Rather, it is intended to be a ‘wedge’ that divides our Muslim and queer communities. We refuse to be used as a wedge against our own communities and families. When members of our communities and families are stigmatized as national security threats, it harms all of us. We call upon all people to reject Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry in all of its forms. This proposed “values test” also reinforces the false idea that LGBTQ rights are the sole province of the USA, and it undermines the many local movements for LGBTQ rights in Muslim-majority countries. We oppose any such ‘values tests’.”
The feminist web magazine Rewire has also published a detailed analysis of the Executive Order pointing towards the multiple traps and dangers it contains, in particular this accusation of misogyny and homo-lesbian-trans-phobia directed at Muslim immigrants:
Trump’s attempt to couch this order in paternalistic, hollow concern for LGBTQ communities, communities of color, and women is both dangerous and insincere. It directly ignores the lived experiences of Muslims within those communities, falsely implies that Islam’s principles are inconsistent with equality and justice, and is in direct contrast with the hostility Trump, his administration, and his appointees have exhibited toward these communities domestically and abroad.
One last policy event, which can no to be circumvented, as another strong sign of obstacles ahead for gender and sexual politics domestically (and potentially internationally as well), was the indication of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. If approved, in the NYT assessment, Judge Gorsuch will sustain a strong conservative position: “voting to limit gay rights, uphold restrictions on abortion and invalidate affirmative action programs” and for a long time, as he is just 49 years old. It is not trivial either that the day before this happened Trump fired the acting Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, because she refused to defend the executive order closing the borders (check Amy Davidson article). The New York Times, in reporting on the Gorsuch public hearing and nomination, has described the policy conditions prevailing in the first two weeks of the Trump administration as “chaotic” (read the reactions to Gorsuch indication).
Let’s remember that this was just the beginning of an era during which we will be perennially gasping at news and being ready to react. For example, on February, 1st, The Nation made public and analyzed a yet not approved Trump draft executive order. According to article , this new order, titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” frontally violates the principles of secularity enshrined in the US polity normative frames:
Language in the draft document specifically protects the tax-exempt status of any organization that “believes, speaks, or acts (or declines to act) in accordance with the belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.
The only good news, perhaps, is that this is not the first time so many threats to a social justice and human rights-based perspective on gender and sexuality politics have emanated from Washington DC on a daily basis.
When SPW was created, in 2002, our very first investment was, in fact, a critical examination of the Bush administration’s policies on sexuality and related matters. The final report of the study, prepared by Françoise Girard and titled Global Implications of Domestic and International Policies on Sexuality, was launched in San Juan de Puerto Rico, in a side event to the meeting of the Regional Commission on Population and Development, to mark the ten years of the Cairo Conference. At SPW, we informally called it the Bush Kamasutra (too many positions on sex) and this was the title we have used in the Portuguese translation, launched in 2005 in Rio.
The various policies domains then analyzed were largely the same as the ones that must now once again be put under critical scrutiny. The religious conservative moralistic premises informing Bush policies in relation to abortion, HIV prevention and treatment, sexuality education, LGBT rights, marriage and sex work are once again hegemonic in the US state apparatus. The proponents of these visions have indeed gained more power today than fifteen years back: suffice it to mention the profile and trajectory of the vice-president, Mike Pence. Even though US domestic and global conditions are not exactly the same today as they were in 2002-2004, we recommend readers to revisit the 2004 SPW Working Paper 1 as a source of inspiration as they begin the daunting task of starting to chart the contours of the Kamasutra now deployed by the ‘predator – in chief’, which is how Zilah Eisenstein, in her most recent and inspiring article.
Image: Fragment of the painting Snowstorm and ship entering the port, by William Turner