by: Raechel T
On December 6, 2011, the Obama administration announced that they would deny foreign aid to countries that “criminalize homosexual conduct, abuse gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people or ignore abuse against them.” Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton stated that “gay rights and human rights….are one in the same.” Currently, much of Africa and the Middle East still have laws that make it illegal to engage in homosexual sex acts or maintain gay relationships, and as recent as the last few months, both Nigeria and Uganda have worked to keep alive bills that would make homosexuality a punishable offense. 
At first glance, this is an executive decision worthy of celebration. For a presidential administration to not only make a strong statement about gay rights, but also connect that rhetoric to the allocation of funds, is undeniably an important moment for the global LGBT community. The administration’s words and actions do, in many ways, affirm an intelligible category of citizenship for LGBT-identified individuals, which is key for the ability to fight for and maintain rights.
However, as is usually the case with ostensibly progressive decisions from the powers-that-be, there is more going on here. While the announcement draws attention to serious human rights abuses abroad, it simultaneously constructs the US as progressive, tolerant and “civilized.” In contrast, we are left condemning “dark” nations that are still living in a barbaric past.
But isn’t that the case?, you might ask.
I’m not denying the ugliness of de jure laws that criminalize homosexuality. I’m not defending them, nor the countries that keep them in place. But this discursive construction of “us” vs. “them” is riddled with a history of the United States’ racist and imperial relationship to “underdeveloped” nations. With this history in mind, the LGBT community becomes a tool to further an agenda that privileges Western ideology as not only better than anti-gay nations (which, in this instance, I would agree is true), but that also upholds the US as the exemplar.
Jasbir Puar describes this phenomenon as “homonationalism,” or, the emergence of a national homosexuality that furthers a “dynamic form of sexual exceptionalism.”  Puar explains that this “corresponds with the coming out of the exceptionalism of American empire” and that
this brand of homosexuality operates as a regulatory script not only of normative gayness, queerness, or homosexuality, but also of the racial and national norms that reinforce these sexual subjects. There is a commitment to the global dominant ascendancy of whiteness that is implicated in the propagation of the United States as empire as well as the alliance between this propagation and this brand of homosexuality. 
In other words, by accepting certain normative forms of gayness, US exceptionalism lives on — even while, at the same time, the US not only further harms certain members of the LGBT community in the US, but also further perpetuates racist understandings of “third world” nations.
Puar theorizes this term through an analysis of the post 9/11 US, specifically by interrogating the sexualized terrorist body. In one of her chapters, she remarks that the photos of the naked Abu Ghraib prisoners worked both to prove that the behavior of the prison guards was an exception to the tolerant U.S. nation, and also to further feminize and Otherize the Muslim body.
When President Bush — and the US media — condemned the actions of the guards involved, they did so by explaining how, for Muslim men especially, this was a terrible offense. This framing allowed the US to take a progressive stance on homosexuality, all the while working hard to deny rights to the LGBT community at home.
This week’s announcement about foreign aid is not dissimilar in that it allows the status quo in the US to thrive as ultimately superior towards other nations, particularly non-white nations.
More insidiously, perhaps, is the way this move affirms the acceptability of only certain queer bodies: queer bodies that are allowed access to and desire normative forms of neoliberal citizenship. This means “gay rights” are granted for only certain types of gays. Most recently, this has been made clear through the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the influx of gay marriage amendments.
Thus, rights are granted to gays who are willing to participate in racist imperialism, and gays who desire relationships concretized through marriage certificates. Those left out of these categories are often poor and working-class queers and queers of color,* which the United States rejects almost as violently as the countries they are trying to reprimand for their “backwards” views on homosexuality.
While I don’t suggest doing anything to actively challenge the ultimately important and progressive decision made by the administration, I do urge that we actively work against the baggage it carries with it: a discourse of US exceptionalism. While we fight on Wall Street against the 1% in the US, it’s important to remember that the US, as a whole, is the 1% in relation to other nations. If we want human rights, universally, we have to not only reject anti-gay legislation abroad, but also reject the superiority and greed practiced at home.
*Note: I’m not trying to condemn those who want to participate in the institution of marriage, but there is evidence to support that this is a fight largely supported by middle and upper-middle class queers. And while I do condemn military service, I also realize that there are poor queers and queers of color that feel as though the military is their only chance for survival, since it offers a living wage and a chance for education. Still, there are a large number of gay members of the military who are there for reasons that, as I note above, are rooted in racism and imperialism.
 Puar, Jasbir. (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press.
Raechel T is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include: critical media studies, queer studies, rhetoric, critical pedagogy, and the labor movement. She’s a long-time labor activist and a full-time cat lady. You can read more of Raechel’s thoughts atrebelgrrlacademy.wordpress.com, and you can follow her adventures with vegan food and healthy living at rebelgrrlkitchen.wordpress.com.