European Sexual Nationalisms: The Culturalization of Citizenship and the Sexual Politics of Belonging and Exclusion

Guest Authors: Paul Mepschen and Jan Willem Duyvendak

This article examines the remarkable shift in the social location of gay politics and representations as they relate to the rise of anti-multiculturalism in Europe. Gay issues have moved from the margins to the centre of cultural imagination, necessitating a rethink of the sociology of sex beyond post-Stonewall liberationist perspectives and identity politics (cf. Butler, 2008; Duggan, 2002; Puar, 2007; Seidman, 2001). We do so here in line with Judith Butler’s call to reconsider sexual politics in the light of the temporal politics implicated in progressive narratives: apprehending sexual politics today requires ‘a critical consideration of the time of the now’ (Butler, 2008: 2). We agree. In order to unravel the entanglement of sexual politics with anti-Muslim discourse, we need to analyze how sexual liberation is used to frame Europe as the ‘avatar of both freedom and modernity’ (Butler, 2008: 2) while depicting Muslim citizens as backward and homophobic.

The Netherlands in European perspective
The Dutch case, in our view, provides quintessential examples of the sexualization of European anxieties about cultural and religious diversity. In no other country have discourses of gay rights and sexual freedom played such a prominent role. These narratives are part and parcel of a wave of aversion to (public) Islam in Europe. Recent examples include legal measures against the burqa in Belgium and France, the constitutional ban on minarets in Switzerland, the debates about the veil in various European countries, and the electoral rise of the explicitly anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Islam and multiculturalism have become subjects of heated debate in numerous European countries, including the UK, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The convergence of gay rights discourses with these debates unveils a shift in the social location of gay politics in Europe. Gay issues have moved from the margins to the center of cultural imagination and have been recast as an ‘optic, and an operative technology’ in the production and disciplining of Muslim others (Puar 2007, xiii).

Cases of homophobia among Muslim citizens are highlighted, epitomized as archetypal, and cast within Orientalist narratives that underwrite the superiority of European secular modernity. To understand this new politics of sexual nationalism we highlight two developments (Mepschen et al. 2010): the rise of Islamophobia already discussed and the culturalization of citizenship. We briefly focus on these Europe-wide trends before turning to more specific, albeit not unique, characteristics of Dutch social history that may explain why the Netherlands is such an extreme case of sexual nationalism: the remarkable leeway given by the Dutch state to new social movements and hence the enduring influence of ‘the long 1960s’, the strong focus on individual and sexual freedom; and a far stretching, albeit limited, ‘normalization’ of gay sexuality in recent decades.

The culturalization of citizenship and the rise of Islamophobia
The ‘culturalization of citizenship’ in Western European societies denotes the increasing importance attached to culture and morality in shaping citizenship and integration policy (Duyvendak 2011; Geschiere 2009, 130–68; Schinkel 2008). It constitutes a deeply ingrained cultural essentialism that simplifies the social space by symbolically dividing society into distinct, internally homogeneous cultural entities, reducing opponents to a knowable and perceivable essence: his or her culture. This understanding of culture grounds a cultural protectionist outlook: a delineation of cultural diversity as problematic and perilous and a concomitant emphasis on the need to construct and defend European cultural heritage as an alternative to non-Western influence. The ‘sexualization of citizenship’ denotes a temporal politics shaping an imaginary of modern individualism versus subjectivities embedded in tradition, community and family. In order to criticize Muslims as backward and as enemies of European culture, gay rights are now heralded as if they have been the foundation of European culture for centuries.

Sexual freedom and secular nostalgia
In recent decades, secular ideologies and moralities have gained great momentum in the Netherlands, and have become increasingly influential. As the religion scholar Peter van Rooden argues: “Dutch Christianity died when the collective, ritual and ir-reflexive religious practices in which it had articulated itself […] gradually became less important in the lives of believers, in the wake of the popularization of the discourses and practices of the expressive and reflexive self” (2004, 22). This dynamic was part of a broader historical process of ‘de-pillarization’ – the crumbling of the hierarchically organized religious and socialist subcultures (‘pillars’) composed of their own media, schools, institutions and political parties. These pillars, which formed a basic mode of social organization in the country, faded away after the 1960s (Kennedy 1995). Virtually all institutions associated with the old order were attacked as traditional and authoritarian; de-pillarization and secularization were thus interpreted and delineated as a break from oppressive, paternalistic structures. In the process, the religious had become framed and seen as out of sync with progressive secular moralities: as ‘other’. Muslims have been the most conspicuous objects in recent years of what Sarah Bracke refers to as ‘secular nostalgia’ (2011). They are framed as trespassing on a secular moral landscape, distorting the dream of a unified, secular and morally progressive nation (Duyvendak 2011).

Sexuality has been key in shaping this secular nostalgia. Compared with other Western European countries, the Dutch authorities’ corporatist and consensual style afforded greater political influence to the new social movements. The ‘long 1960s’ (Righart 1995) had far-reaching effects – especially in the realms of morality and sexuality – and led to the country’s ‘liberal’ policies on drugs, euthanasia, abortion and lesbian/gay rights. After an initial period of cultural polarization, large segments of the Dutch population have distanced themselves from moral traditionalism. The percentage of Dutch citizens who agree with the proposition that ‘homosexuality is normal’ and who support gay marriage exceeds that in other countries (Gerhards 2010).

In this context, expressions of homophobia have increasingly been represented as ‘alien’ to secular, Dutch ‘traditions of tolerance’. This was aptly illustrated when Khalil El-Moumni, an imam working in Rotterdam, insisted on national television in May 2001 that homosexuality was a dangerous and contagious disease (Hekma 2002). The imam had tread on one of the cornerstones of Dutch cultural self-representation. The Dutch Minister of Integration grilled El-Moumni and other imams in a meeting in which ‘Dutch values were explained’. He and others stated that legal action against El-Moumni should not be ruled out. Sociologist Gert Hekma recalls that the Prime Minister used “the full 10 minutes of his weekly interview […] to tell Muslims to respect the Dutch tolerance of homosexuality,” although the Prime Minister himself was clearly uncomfortable speaking about the issue in public (2002, 242). In a poll on the website of a mainstream gay and lesbian monthly, 91 percent of respondents agreed that “newcomers should tolerate our tolerance or should leave” (Prins 2002, 15). A commentator in the populist daily De Telegraaf argued that El-Moumni’s views could only be found in “the medieval deserts of North Africa.”

The discourse of Pim Fortuyn, whose ascent on the political stage took place shortly after the El-Moumni affaire and – perhaps more significant – after 9/11, capitalized on the trope of sexual freedom as inherently Dutch and was pivotal in ingraining it deeper into the Dutch self-image. He described Islam as a backward culture and a threat to his personal way of life: “I refuse to start all over again with the emancipation of women and gays.” Fortuyn presented himself as a liberated gay man whose way of life and cultural gains were threatened by ‘backward’ Muslims and leftist immigration policies. Fortuyn successfully connected sexual liberation and secularization as markers of the modern, individualistic character of Dutch (national) culture and painted Muslims as trespassers on sacrosanct secular terrain.

The politics of normalization
A third facet of Dutch social history is pertinent here: Dutch gay identity and politics have undergone a far-reaching process of ‘normalization’ that has stripped sexual politics of its deviant and radical character in a more profound way than in many other ‘Western’ countries (Duyvendak 1996). The Dutch gay community has been deeply affected by the emergence of what Lisa Duggan refers to as a ‘new homonormativity’ (2002): articulations of lesbian and gay identity that no longer threaten but replicate and underscore heteronormative assumptions and structures. This is an important development within European and North American gay culture more generally (Duggan 2002; Seidman 2001). As various authors have shown, the rise of neo-liberalism and the commodification of gay culture and identity have played a central role in this (Bell and Binnie 2004; Duggan 2002; Richardson 2005). With the rise of neo-liberal capitalism in the 1980s, culture and identity became increasingly entwined with consumption, while gay men especially were discovered as affluent consumers. The commodification of gay identity and community that followed created a new kind of idealized gay persona. The campy, nonconformist gay man of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture transformed into a champion of bodily perfection, consumption and affluent individualism.

Gay culture and identity, with its focus on unattached, self-fashioning and self-regulating individuality, became folded into a discourse of neo-liberal citizenship. Migrants, on the other hand, have come to be framed as embodying the values and properties that in neo-liberal societies are delineated as problematic: their alleged piety and preference for community and tradition, and their relative social marginalization. To become ‘individual citizens’ in a post-industrial, neo-liberal society, old values had to be unlearned. Gay rights became the litmus test for this integration.

The role of neo-liberalism notwithstanding, in the Netherlands, an ‘assimilationist’ strategy focusing on equal rights rather than ‘queerness’ or radical social change characterized the movement almost from its inception. “The Dutch gay and lesbian movement has accommodated itself to the parameters of the political, cultural and power balance” (Schuyf and Krouwel 1999, 161). Duyvendak (1996) has shown how, unlike in countries such as France and the United States, the Dutch state in the 1980s gave gay men a significant role in managing the HIV/AIDS crisis affecting their community. The radicalization of AIDS activism that shaped the French, US and other ‘queer’ movements played a very small role in the Netherlands, where radical articulations of queer activism remain marginal.

‘Normalization’ does not imply that heterosexual normativity has been surpassed (Seidman 2001). Rather, the popular representation of gay identity has changed from a deviant other to the mirror image of the ideal heterosexual: ‘Normalization is made possible because it simultaneously reproduces a dominant order [….] [L]egitimation through normalisation leaves in place the polluted status of marginal sexualities and all the norms that regulate our sexual intimate conduct’ (Seidman 2001, 326). Homonormativity produces “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative forms but upholds and sustains them” (Duggan 2002, 179). Paradoxically, it is the de-politicized character of Dutch gay identity, ‘anchored in domesticity and consumption’ (Ibid.), which explains its entanglement with neo-nationalist and normative citizenship discourses. Dutch gay identity does not threaten heteronormativity, but in fact helps shape and reinforce the contours of ‘tolerant’ and ‘liberal’ Dutch national culture.

As argued, the rise of sexual nationalisms in Europe must be understood as part and parcel of the culturalization of citizenship and the concomitant politicization of home in Europe (cf. Duyvendak 2011; Holmes 2000). Processes of culturalization not only unfold in the form of the spectacular success of nationalist and anti-Muslim political parties like the Dutch PVV, the Danish Folkeparti, or the French Front National (Art 2011), but need to be understood more broadly as a zeitgeist, affecting and transforming political relations and policy within European nation-states at the level of immigration control, ‘integration’ policies, securitization and urban regulation. This discourse can be placed within a broader relational context, ‘neo-liberalism’, and be understood as part and parcel of the project to reinforce or restore the authority of state institutions over the production of (national) citizenship and political subjectivity and the regulation of labor markets and urban marginality, just as this authority is “being undermined by the accelerating flows of money, capital, signs and people across national borders, and by the constricting of state action by supranational bodies and financial Capital” (Wacquant 2008, 76).

Movements for cultural protectionism have thus proliferated throughout Europe, including Western Europe, and have developed and popularized discourses that pit native, ‘autochthonous’ communities against outsiders with, allegedly, aberrant morals and devious intentions (Geschiere 2009; Schinkel 2008). In these discourses the world is represented as divided into different, inimical cultures, and the ‘national cultures’ of Europe are framed as in need of protection against the effects of globalization and immigration (Baumann 2007). Proponents of this new ‘culturism’ (Schinkel 2008) frame migrants as outsiders and emphasize a perceived need for their cultural education and their ‘integration’ in a Dutch, European or ‘modern’ moral universe. Muslim citizens have become the most conspicuous objects of these ‘discourses of alterity’ (Schinkel 2008). Indeed, the rise of neo-culturalism has gone hand in glove with the framing of Muslims as backward, intolerant and incongruous with ‘European’ secular modernity.

As Willem Schinkel argues, the very notion of ‘integration’ that is so central to this logic is what brings ‘society’ into being as a stable, delimited object. Integration discourse is, he argues, “one way to discursively demarcate the space occupied by ‘society’. The idea of a ‘Dutch society’ is fixed precisely through the production of a marker of ‘society’ vis-à-vis the ‘non-integrated’ ‘outside society’ that is part of the process of globalization unsettling the notion of ‘Dutch society’” (2011, 99). Following this approach, nationalism must be understood as a discourse of alterity, symbolically casting (post)migrants out as moral and sexual others, ‘non-integrated’ because of their alleged (universal) homophobia. The figure of the homophobic (post)migrant outsider thus symbolically demarcates the space occupied by the universally homo-tolerant insider.

From the point of view of both immigration and integration studies and the study of sexuality, it seems necessary to get beyond the ‘integration’ imperative. In a critique of Dutch homo-emancipation policy, which is often looked at as a model for sexuality politics, Suhraiya Jivraj and Anisa de Jong have recently warned against a reification of the Dutch model. They argue that the focus on speakability and visibility “fails to grapple with the complex subjectivities of diasporic queer Muslims” (Jivraj and De Jong 2011; cf. Wekker 2009).

This is a solid critique. We argue that social researchers as well as policymakers and activists need to take seriously the diversity and complexity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) cultures and the possibility that queer post-migrants might choose forms of sexual emancipation, of sexual freedom, that deviate from ‘modern’, ‘normative’ articulations (Wekker 2006). At the heart of this approach is a critique of exclusionary assumptions about Muslim and migrant sexualities, and of the temporal politics that has become entwined with progressive discourses.

Paul Mepschen is an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam. Jan Willem Duyvendak is professor of sociology at the same university. A slightly different version of this article was published in Perspectives on Europe, Spring 2012. A more elaborate version of the argument has been made in Sociology, October 2010.

This is the second post in the series of the Citizenship Carnival. The first one was Nadia Fadil’s What is Integration?


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