Thank you Kaos GL for inviting me to the Feminist Forum 2012, special thanks to all of you who have worked hard to put this event together, and for the work that you continue to do every day.
I will try to do a short summary of how a shift in the Swedish political climate in the last ten years has affected the work and discussions around sexuality and gender.
I will give you two examples, concerning the Swedish policy on hiv, and the restrictive Swedish immigration policy and its consequences for people seeking asylum based on sexuality and gender. In both cases it is obvious to me that adopting a queer perspective, rather than focusing on identity politics, would be a more useful strategy on order to create necessary change in a system that violates the human rights of hiv positive individuals and refugees.
Finally I will briefly present a vision of a movement where I would hope to build alliances based on urgent issues shared in a wider sense, rather than focusing in a limited way on the identities and groups that are supposed to be included in the so-called LGBT-issues.
I am a journalist, based in Stockholm, Sweden, and I have been an active part of a queer and feminist movement in the country for the past 15 years. I consider myself both an insider and an outsider, an activist and an independent writer with access to mainstream media channels when I write about queerness, gender transgression and different aspects of politics around sexuality.
By the end of the 90s I was filled with excitement thinking of the new century in Sweden. I had recently left my job in the mainstream media in order to focus on a more specialized field. Along with a small group of friends I managed to raise enough money to produce the first issue of the brand new queer magazine ZON in Sweden.
We used the word queer with the intention to materialize and popularize new radical ideas concerning sexuality and gender that were gaining influence in the US and in Europe, through thinkers like Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michel Foucault.
These ideas felt new and mind-blowing, provided new platforms for thinking about identity, the idea of gender as a construct, and new conceptions of power.
We were particularly interested in exploring and working with the concepts of deviance and alienhood, in a tribute to diversity and difference, and in hope of creating a platform for strength and solidarity for people diverging from societal body-, sexual or gender norms. We collected individual stories that were often unheard, aiming at highlighting, celebrating and encourage subcultures. The publishing company sponsoring ZON was rooted in the leftist movement, This was important in order to emphasize the need for queer perspectives within a left.
We published articles with a humorous twist, on themes such as ”what is it like to be heterosexual for a day”, why are parts of a gay culture so fixated with being assimilated into the system, and how can doing drag or building a drag king culture bring new understandings of what it means to be a woman or a man.
At this time Sweden was still a country where the social democrats were in power, the party that had built Sweden for the second half of the previous century. It is a social democracy for which a class analysis was central, dedicated to constructing systems for securing a common social health care, free education, and a labor market with strong ties to the union. As early as the 60s, ideas about gender that emphasized the importance of building equality between men and women were introduced and spread in Swedish society.
Ten years later, the political map, and the context of where we write and work, has changed. A shift to a Western idea of a global financial system based on individuality and the concept of ”free choice” has affected our system in an immense way (even though this shift of course has been developing over a longer and more complex period overall). With new formations of a political right, and where extremist to the right have been taken place in the actual political parliaments within the European Union, there are new challenges and conditions in Sweden and most of Europe for how we work and think in order to build a resistance to these troubling formations.
To write and do activism under these conditions means something different today than it did ten years ago. It is work that requires strong critique and investigation of new types of power. While ive been continuing working with and writing about issues concerning sexuality and gender, I have continued to look at how the political environment has affected the activism and groups related to these grounds.
Other consequences stemming from how Sweden was built around the ideas of equality are now under investigation and needs to be updated for the twenty-first century. It is important to avoid that these ideas become reduced to a nostalgic political past. Histories and backgrounds differing from the normative understanding of men and women were not acknowledged in the Swedish ”peoples home”, the label for the political platform of building collectivity. Assimiliation and tolerance were central conditions for this system. As the Swedish professor in media and whiteness Ylva Habel calls it, ”nordic exceptionalism,” there is a growing conception in the public sphere of Sweden as a country that is incapable of serious mistreating and injustice. According to common interpretation of our history, we never took part in colonization or slavery, or were involved in the world wars. Swedes believes to see Sweden as more democratic and equal than other countries, less racist and heterosexist.
With the surge of neoliberalism in Sweden, which is the result of the globalized economy and dependence on the European Union, there is a growing urge to challenge the idealism and naiveté of the social democratic past. In this new society, marked by its celebration of the individual subject and widening gaps between people on socio-economic as well as ethnic grounds, talking about difference and diversity is all the more urgent. But it also requires more knowledge, resourcefulness and fearlessness.
At almost the same time as “queer ideas” were introduced in the Swedish mainstream another identity-based acronym was presented. The term HBT for homosexuals, bisexuals and transpeople was officially launched 2002 by RFSL, the Swedish federation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights that has successfully worked toward rights and visibility for people based on sexuality and gender for more than 50 years in Sweden. The purpose was to officially substitute the term gay commonly used when referring to issues concerning people breaking against sexual and gender norms, and to emphasize that issues concerning gender and sexuality are inseparable and should always be analyzed in a complex understanding of their mutual connection.
The term was quickly adopted by different parts of society, including the media. The use of the term homosexuals instead of calling it gay and lesbian caused some reaction from people who were already upset with the very male dominance of the gay movement. The easy adoption could also be seen as a easy ”quick-fix”. Using the term often implies knowledge that really does not exist. But it had impact on the views of the LGBT movement as a diverse movement, and the easy way of counting all the complicated categories without any deeper knowledge encouraged wider use and popularization of “HBT” issues. Over the following years the LGBT movement would celebrate success after success: a complete marriage legislation where straight and same sex marriages are now acknowledged on the same terms, laws making adoption equal for everyone, and the possibility of insemination in the general hospitals accessible to all women regardless of sexual orientation or relationship status. Extensive laws were developed around the labor market and against hate crimes to prevent discrimination against people based on sexuality and or gender transgression.
When the conservative/neoliberal parties came to power in 2006 they had no problem in continuing the support to LGBT people. The fact is that the use of the letters in Sweden has sometimes become even bizarre in how they are almost overused and it seems like every official want to make sure to say the letters in the right order and with the right pronunciation. But the underlying point, what they actually meant from the beginning—the inseparability and the potential queer perspective about the link to a fight for a solidarity between differences, groups, and issues that do NOT fit into the existing structures, and looking at what and who doesn’t fit into the system—seems to be discussed less and less than the letters themselves that have become the main focus of public officials.
(Even the new racist party that won 10 percent of the votes in sweden in the last election 2010 soon launched what they call an lgbtq-section in their party program).
In Sweden the success that we have had in terms of rights and laws has of course made winners of many people based on sexuality and gender. But there are constantly new people and groups linked to issues who have lost or who continue to fall outside the system in a political system and global economy. I will give you two brief examples of problematic political issues where I find that identity politics shows its limits, and that exemplify how the lack of a queer approach makes an important solidarization harder when the groups and identities cant be easily targeted.
They Swedish hiv politics was grounded in the 1980s when the epidemic was causing panic in the nation. Back then the gay men and their sex-oriented subculture was blamed for the spreading of the disease, and the saunas for sex were symbolically closed down and prohibited. The harsh response might have been understandable considering the panic state at a time when no one knew how many people would suffer and die from aids. But the policy grounded during this time became fixed and was basically identical twenty years later, long after the introduction of efficient antiretrovirals.
Today the law against saunas has been upheld (even though no saunas exist there since the culture died with the response in the 80s). But we have one of the world’s strictest and severe form of legislation when it comes to hiv. In practice it creates an extreme language in the public sphere that is filled with contrasts, such as sick and healthy, victim and perpetrator. In the last 10 years we have had an increase of court cases where people with hiv are being sentenced to jail and/or deported to countries outside the EU for transmitting or exposing another person for risk of transmitting hiv. Through this Sweden has become one of the top countries in a global criminalizing trend regarding hiv. Hiv-man is the term used in media when referring to these cases, evoking the image of deliberate perpetrators. The criminalizing trend is criticized by for example UNAIDS, as experience shows that people are less able to take in information around how to protect themselves and live with the disease when the country has a lot of repression tied to hiv. It also stigmatizes people and adds pressure to people who in many cases already live under extreme conditions, in this case most of all straight heterosexual migrating men that fall outside of the system.
But the Swedish norm around this issue in a political more conservative environment is that our hiv politicy is well-functioning, and that no changes of the present situation is needed. Despite the historical link, the silence with respect to this politics within the gay/LGBT movement is striking and to raise awareness of this issue outside the very small and affected minority of people living with hiv seems very hard. I would suggest that this lack is a direct response to the giving up on a queer perspective not built on simple identity categories such as gays, lesbians and bisexuals, but rather on a critique of system that let people fall out of a system when they don’t act as people should within the norms around sexuality.
Another urgent challenging example is the migration politics concerning people seeking Swedish asylum in based on sexual orientation and transgression of gender norms. In a country that is renown for the success of LGBT rights you would think that the level of understanding of how people are being persecuted on these grounds would be pretty high. But studies show that knowledge when it comes to LGBT issues is notably low within the European union. According to a recent Dutch study of Europe (Fleeing homophobia – seeking safety in Europe, 2011) this lack of knowledge does not only concern what kind of cases exist and what people that actually seek asylum on these grounds are fleeing from, there is also a huge lack around what the situation is really like in different countries. And when it comes to information around lesbian women and transgendered people the lack of information around the situation in different local contexts is almost complete when it comes to information in the Sweden for example. As a consequense the actual decisions about who gets to stay and who doesn’t seem to be based individual ideas around who is credible and who is not, rather than general knowledge about possible forms of persecution. This means that the legal security is low or even random. There are examples of people being granted or denied refugee status when the cases are similar to each other, which would suggest that notions and simplifications concerning what and who the term LGBT includes are preventing important understandings of what it means to be persecuted on grounds like sexuality and gender which is part of a very complex net.
I would like to end this where I started: Back in the days when a few friends and I very naively in the beginning of the century founded a magazine in a struggle for what we thought would be a way of politicizing issues around sexuality and gender transgression. Despite the fact that the fight today for a space in the public sphere and legal rights in the present political climate seems to lack something, I still want to try to be optimistic and hopeful for a continuing queer way of working towards political change. There are new strategies and responses to the current political climate in Sweden being invented today, and new ways of organizing. Today we have a wider spectrum of movements trying to address the power in different ways instead on focusing on identities, such as the Fat movement, the crip movement, antiracist movement and a various feminist movements. The question remains whether we will be able to be strong enough in a common critique towards the system that is sustainable. Questions like who gets the rights and on what grounds, and how to always look for alliances to build on a broad movement, are occupying our minds today.
I want to end this short report on the status of queer activism in Sweden by saying that I am very grateful to be part of this forum. I hope to bring back new influences and ideas in how to continue to work in a political environment where we need to be much more in opposition than in a very long time.
This article was written as my speech at a feminist conference in Ankara in 2012 arranged by the queer organization Kaos Gl who do awesome work in Turkey and surroundings. Check it at www.kaosgl.org