Anthology: Transforming Identities: Critical Essays on Knowledge, Inequality and Belonging

Antologi från Routledge/Taylor Francis. Red Elisabeth Lund Engebretsen, Mia Liinason. 2023

Chapter 6: Gayness between Nation Builders and Money Makers – From Ideology to New Essentialism

Anna-Maria Sörberg


This chapter explores the question of what supporting the rainbow flag, gay friendliness, and homo-tolerance really mean for the contemporary LGBTQI movement. Through a tour that starts in today´s Sweden, back to the late 1990s in New York’s Chelsea district and making a stopover in Amsterdam, the chapter illustrates the development of the essentialist views at work in the commercialization of contemporary LGBTQI cultures. This particular brand of essentialism, which depicts gayness as both universal and beyond issues of class, with experiences and a history that everyone is expected to share, transforms the once-progressive fight against homophobia into a pernicious Islamophobia by way of what Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism.” Through a series of vignettes based on journalistic interviews with politicians supported by the work of scholars and astute on-the-ground observations, this chapter exposes what problems crystallizing around symbols like the rainbow flag can present and the reasons why it is important to find new ways to challenge the essentialism that has transformed parts of LGBTQI movements into a conservative brand of homonationalism. It is a call to revisit understandings of sexuality and gender anew as a means for transcending the commercialization and essentialization of the concept of “gayness” that is all-too prevalent in LGBTQI culture in parts of Europe and the US.

Keywords: Rainbow Gay-Friendliness Gayness Instrumentalization Essentialism Nationalism 

It is the height of summer when Pride time begins in Sweden, which means 22°C in the air and a sky packed with fluffy white clouds. Rainbow flags fly on buses, shops, hotels, outside the castle and municipal buildings. This year’s main sponsor of Stockholm Pride, a well-known coffee chain, has distributed thousands of rainbow cups as their “welcome to the capitol.”

A month before the nation’s prime elections, as a staged act of the Swedish national anthem, the leaders of the major parties in parliament gather at a table draped with the rainbow flag on the main stage of Stockholm’s cultural center. All parties are present, with the exception of the openly radical nationalist party, The Sweden Democrats, who were not invited. The applause in the packed theater is affirmative, serving as an endorsement for Stockholm’s Pride Week and the absolute power that has entered the stage. The moment can be considered a shift from the not-so-distant past, with the implication that more oppressive times are now behind “us”—whomever that “us” is meant to capture. An important feature on stage, which is reinforced by the long, warm applause, is that there will be no ideological debate among the parties seated at the table. Although they cover a broad spectrum of political perspectives—conservatives, Christian Democrats, liberals, and socialists—the tone around LGBTQI issues is increasingly one of non-confrontational agreement. While there may be disagreement about specific issues regarding rights in relation to family, reproduction, and medical treatment, the overall message is unanimous: Sweden is or soon will be, as declared by, among others, the leader of the Liberal Party, “the best country for lgbt-people in the world” (Sörberg, 2017, p. 11). In this staged act, the accomplishments, progress, and even the history of the LGBTQI movement have been appropriated by governmental power as a set of national values, represented by the rainbow flag that blankets the political leaders at the table (see also Lentin and Titley, 2011). This appropriation, which implies that oppression based on sexuality or gender identity belongs to the past, leaves activists, whether they are anarchists, socialists, and liberals; moreover, the actual suffering and costs that living a queer life can entail, in the shadows, out of the spotlight. It is a celebration of a gay-friendly diversity. A Pride time that is inscribed in what many scholars have done extensive research on as a part of a broader Nordic history related to a particular nationalist hymn (Stoltz, 2021, p. 28) a moment in Sweden that dates back to the insertion of the 1970s’ welfare programs and policies with an effort to overcome gender inequalities. Theorists, feminist scholars, detect this particular nationalism as one that brought many consequences in the complex history of power relations—parts of the feminist movements worked in close relations with the Swedish state. Extensive research works have also looked into the phenomenon of national branding and the growing importance for nation states to create diversity and feminism as a national value. I argue that gay-friendliness can be linked to this development. To portray a country as a superpower of gender equality is never an objective or neutral act but a result of political agency imbued with potent symbolic value, writes Eirinn Larsen, Sigrun Marie Moss, and Inger Skjaelsbek in their anthology, Gender Equality and Nation Branding in the Nordic Region (2021). A growing affirmation in the Swedish public on LGBTQI issues has taken place in the past decade. Major leaders from conservative, liberal, and social democratic parties have acknowledged the importance of LGBTQI rights in speeches and Pride parades, and the rainbow flag has become the symbol and visual proof of a nation that stands behind the LGBTQI community, built in as a natural and national core value. Even the contemporary nationalistic party leader Jimmie Åkesson[1] used the rainbow flag next to the Swedish flag on stage in his political speech in Almedalen without any mentioning of what it means for the party.

The fact that trans people were subjected to forced sterilization as a condition for receiving sex reassignment surgery up until 2013, and the so-called chain of rights, including same sex marriage and insemination, a result of a very recent past disappears into a history, a past, far away.

In this chapter, I will—with the help of theorist and politicians I have met and read over the years—explore the instrumentalization of gay culture in contemporary politics and the use of gay rights in shaping national identity, expanding markets, and renewed essentialism. In a dialogue with books, people, and personal reflections from three decades of queer activism, I look for factual and potential answers to a few basic questions: When did gay friendliness become crucial for positioning a nation or a culture as modern? Where have gay rights become an utilized asset in the mobilization of a cultural “we”, and what are the consequences of this political endeavor? How are particular notions of gay rights linked to ideas of progress, future, and freedom? Some scholars talk about “sexularism” and a “post-progressive” society—what do they mean? If there is a “new gay political agenda”, how could it be met and tackled?

A 20-minute subway ride from the main central stage of Stockholm Pride is Järva, a predominantly migrant area of 90,000 inhabitants and considered a deeply segregated area and a constant projection of the so-called failed consequences of multiculturalism of Sweden. For two consecutive summers, the area has been swept up in a media frenzy in relation to Sweden’s annual Pride celebration with the rainbow flag in a starring role of a cultural conflict that has put the organizer, the former editor-in-chief of Samtiden, a magazine owned by Sweden Democrats, in the middle of a perceived cultural conflict or even cultural war. It’s a well-known script—a reproduced story with a life of its own—familiar from similar marches in European cities like London, Paris, and Amsterdam.

In the middle of a main square with clouds piling up in the sky, a group of 20 people are standing close to each other. They draw visual attention being draped in full body rainbow-flags and colorful wigs in pink, orange and green. More than a Pride parade, it looks like clowns gathering in front of a circus. A portable speaker plays gay classics on repeat as YMCA and Pet Shop Boys from the 1980s and 1990s.

Curious habitants and a growing number of journalists are stopping by. The group consists of politically active radical nationalists—some from openly neo-Nazi groups and others who are sympathetic to, or members of, The Sweden Democrats—that has designated Järva fertile ground for manufacturing a culture war. In an opportunistic act of provocation, they begin their march toward a two-hour walk through Järva protected by a massive police presence, which further implies that the small colorful group in favor of LGBTQI pride would be in need of protection against Järva’s inhabitants. With their video footage already pumped into a vast, viral, transnational ecosystem of internet trolls on social media and streaming channels like YouTube, the message is already out. Even though the Järva march (media stunt) occurred without incident—many people waved in support of their perceived cause—the false message that this Pride march is a threat to, and met with strong resistance from, the people of Järva still circulates across the internet. Moreover, the frenzied media coverage not only in Sweden but throughout Europe provided precisely the sort of bullhorn these rainbow-flagged “protesters” sought to advance their real agenda: a designated protest under the assumption that the rainbow flag would be deemed unwelcome or threatening. It’s a constructed clash that forces LGBTQI activism into the background, while populists and radical nationalists deploy the cause in the service of their anti-immigration agenda. It is a broadcast (via the ensuing media frenzy) which contains the belief that there is an irresolvable clash between people with migrant backgrounds and those captured in the category of “us” implied by the politicians on the stage in the center of Stockholm blanketed by the rainbow flag.

Benjamin Dousa is a politician for the local conservative party in the district committee of Rinkeby-Kista, a part of Järva, where he grew up. Dousa belongs to an aspiring and young conservative political movement and is also the head of Moderaterna’s (The Conservative Party) youth wing since 2016. Given that the march in the area was organized by people sympathetic to The Sweden Democrats and other radical right-wing movements, he dislikes the attention, though he does not necessarily disagree with the message. “After all,” he claims, “we are making progress when it comes to LGBT-issues.” Dousa and his political colleagues responded to the march by what he calls the “best and only way”: flying more and additional rainbow flags around the municipality building because, as he explains, this is “the way to reclaim the flag from the radical nationalists.” Dousa’s political views are heavily inspired by his grandfather, who came to Sweden from Czechoslovakia with experiences of communist oppression and a strong conviction that only through ownership and freedom of choice can people fight the forces of totalitarianism, which he noted is “a policy that has come to characterize [his] whole family, [himself] included.” Dousa and I met at the central café in Husby, next to the subway, where the price of coffee is half of that in central Stockholm and cookies are available in 25 shapes, including classic Swedish and baklava varieties. “I have been active in the Conservative Party for a long time, and I’ve noticed that it is, increasingly, almost more normal to be gay or bi these days,” Dousa said with a smile. Politicians like Dousa and other young conservatives convinced that freedom is something gained through private ownership, consider it a strength that a symbol like the rainbow flag has transformed so fundamentally that it has become an important part of Sweden’s national values. To Dousa, the fact that it has been normalized as a symbol of tolerance at the same time as financial streams have become more global than ever is a sign of success—a success that to him and many others is inspiration “to work hard, effect change and achieve better lives.”

The millions of rainbow-colored coffee cups spread across the city are, according to Dousa, not only a symbol of freedom but they are also important moral indicators. He recounted a scene he witnessed while waiting for his coffee at the gas station, where two men who spoke Arabic were in line in front of him. When the cashier handed them their rainbow-colored coffee mugs, they refused to take them. Dousa speculated that perhaps the rainbow colors made the men uneasy but, he argued, “We can’t accept this. We can’t forbid people to have an opinion in their homes, but on the street and in public areas, we have to stand united when we see signs of intolerance.” Dousa believes that there might be a point in making compromises in deeply segregated areas like Järva. The Arab language could be allowed more space on street signs, for example. People should be allowed to decide for themselves which holidays they choose to celebrate and, Dousa argued, halal is just a slaughtering technique, not a specific cultural expression that needs to be prohibited. Likewise, Dousa holds that the rainbow flag as a symbol is enough to separate tolerance from intolerance. In other words, those who walked through the suburb stoking cultural conflict under the banner of Pride might have the same basic idea, he said, but, while their parade was held for the wrong reasons, it was not wrong in its use of the rainbow flag as a symbol.

Recently, we placed the rainbow flag on the cover of the publication that contains documents for our youth wing’s conference. It was large; it took up the whole cover. The rainbow stands for something positive. It stands for joy, love, and celebration, he explained, adding that The Social Democrat’s youth wing chose to do the same by putting the image of the rainbow flag in a central place on their political program. No detailed explanation of what it denotes was included, since there is the assumption that no further political argument is necessary: “This combination of colors represents an important symbol of freedom that everybody owns,” Dousa[2] declared.

“The men sitting here have just realized that they won’t die,” H said as he pointed to the newly furnished room with seven differently colored chairs in the packed coffee shop, where the floor-to-ceiling windows gave it an airy feeling. This was not just any coffee shop; this was the new hotspot in Chelsea, New York City’s most rapidly growing gay ghetto in the late 1990s.

I arrived in New York in 1996 at the height of Chelsea’s gay boom; high on the civil partnership law that had just been passed in Sweden, I stepped immediately into an enthusiastic, intense gay moment beginning to gain ground. An evolution manifested in a vision of a “New Tomorrow,” which was meant to be uplifting and in stark contrast to the shame and death from the trauma of AIDS that had been materialized in vivid images by political activists in groups like ACT UP. This neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side provided a promising infrastructure, where everyone seemed to be part of a round-the-clock affirmation of an aspiring gay life. Rainbow gyms, gay real estate agencies, vitamin shops, and a new emergent figure of the “Chelsea fag.” This figure appeared in the form of mannequins in the stocked clothing stores and was seen roaming the streets and patronizing local cafés; he seemed to be rising out of the ashes toward Fire Island beaches and gay parties, taking an increasingly homogenous, cloned form, with his perfectly balanced body mass. He wore straw hats, plaid shorts, and Hush Puppies, and used just enough drugs so as not to (ever) forget tomorrow. The New Tomorrow had open windows in every direction. Like many people at the time, H reached out to Alcoholics Anonymous and nearly immediately had made it a habit to stop at the cafe between the therapist and the gym. The long, traumatic period following the AIDS epidemic would come to an end. With AZT and functioning HIV meds for the first time on their way, everything and nothing seemed to vibrate in the air. H sipped his last drink slowly. This was before he realized that the pain from a bleeding ulcer in the making is not mitigated just by drinking a cocktail with a straw. Now that he had a dog and established a new, sober life, he found the area a bit boring—there were nevertheless worse places to be.

At the time assimilationists, radical liberals, and queer activists alike busied themselves by analyzing contemporary events as they unfolded, “When Did Gays Get So Straight? How Queer Culture Lost Its Edge” was the cover headline that attracted an enormous amount of attention when published in New York Magazine (Mendelsohn, 1996). In the window of the gay bookshop, titles such as The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture—an intellectual review of how commercial power risks destroying gay culture—sat side by side with political thoughts emanating from an expanding radical queerresearch field, Queer Theory, arguing for a new progressive left-wing movement that could fight the prevailing system with its narrow categories like gay, woman, and man entangled in a heteronormative system. At the end of the 1990s, an American gay right-wing movement with ties to the Republican Party was still seen as odd, although it, too, was growing. Their platform was based on the idea of forging a “gay mainstream” and was one of the stronger among a new conservative political initiative. The think-tank, Independent Gay Forum (IGF), formulated a ten-point-program to target and overturn what they called the “leftist liberal agenda” that had dominated gay activism since the 1960s, with a central critique aimed at the economic system and heteronormative power. To them, anarchist grassroots organizations such as ACT UP were examples of an ideological extremism that should henceforth be replaced by a pragmatic, isolated, rights agenda. The rights to marry and serve in the military became designated as two of the most important issues. The platform redefined the struggle as having a beginning and an end, as the writer and IGF founder Andrew Sullivan anticipated in his manifesto Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality (Sullivan, 1995)—a post-political era awaited that would occur after a quick embrace of the politics of rights.

On 8th Avenue, above my and H’s heads, hovered a giant rainbow-colored coffee cup. The menu with all its varieties of coffee seemed endless in terms of flavorings and toppings. The morning light stretched out across the cafe while we chatted, and it projected the shadows of the little group of hunched-over, elderly men that passed by the windows. They had just stepped out onto the street after the morning’s last cocktail at the corner bar. This bar was one of the oldest in the neighborhood, which, just like the men passing by, appeared increasingly deserted—as if it were slowly becoming empty, the curtains gradually being shut, and the boards that were nailed across the windows getting discarded bit by bit. At the gift shop further down the avenue, Tom peddled rainbow kitsch merchandise to enthusiastic gay newcomers. With a shaved head, a gray stubble beard, sideburns, and now reading glasses, paired with his black leather vest, camo pants, and military boots, he seemed to embody a part of gay history. His, as well as many others’, unimaginable recent experiences were amplified by his directness. Without hesitating, he spoke candidly about friends he had lost and how the area had changed over time—evolving from a multicultural mix of various racial and ethnic groups with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, to the changes that rapid gentrification of the neighborhood was effecting, and of his plans concerning his inevitable aging. He would continue to live his life; maybe he would retire in Florida together with other gay men, who for the first time in a decade dared to make plans for more time to come. Tom had moved here from Greenwich Village, a few blocks south, looking for a fresh start and new memories after the activist meetings, street actions, and bar collections for hospital bills and funerals grew increasingly scarce. It was a relief for him not to have to walk by the places where his friends and loved ones once lived or to see new couples move into the neighborhood, people who he believed lack both insight and interest in what he and others had gone through. “Did you notice? No one here says fabulous or style anymore. The foundation of our culture is disappearing,” the writer David Mendelsohn explained when I met him for an interview in relation to his article that continued to draw attention. Mendelson was in a personal gripe with Chelsea—the area whose transformation, according to him, was best summarized through the tagline “We’re here, we’re queer, let’s get coffee.”—a sarcastic critique of a gay movement about to lose its political sting, and perhaps, in his view, even its history. While Mendelsohn snarled about the recent closure of a former party palace—where the leather kilts, party drugs, and naked skin of the wee hours were yet again replaced by a daytime café—it was hard to separate nostalgia from real concern in a constantly changing political landscape with its newly awakened interest for the “gay markets” of an urban gayberhood. What might the political consequences and changes imply, where were these “new gay times” heading?

By 1996, about 80,000 people had died of the after-effects of AIDS in New York alone. The city was left shattered, with gaping holes where gay culture once existed. Entire buildings were emptied of people and activism, as Sarah Schulman documents in her important book, The Gentrification of the Mind (Schulman, 2012). For queer culture, the post-AIDS period meant a catastrophic shift, writes Schulman; it was a time that coincided with a new gay political agenda and aggressive gentrification (Schulman, 2012, p. 37). Skyrocketing market rents not only affect those who move in and out but also create a fundamental change in how people understand both urbanity and themselves, she argues (p. 29). Many of those who died or fell out of the system as a result of society’s inability to take care of its sick were suddenly erased—not just erased from activist or creative movements, but from history itself. While many close relationships were created or permanently altered, a void appeared, making the post-AIDS period a transitional time during which central parts of a queer history were erased or replaced. This void, however, would soon be filled with a new wave of gay politicians, who saw possible strongholds and, in particular, the formulation of a new political agenda that moved away from the politics typical of those who had demanded the overthrow or redistribution of power. Instead, these new politicians condemned the old politics as extreme and outdated.

In his article “The Future of Queer: A Manifesto,” Fenton Johnson recalls a meeting at New York´s LGBT Community Center where a group of gay white republicans gathered in the sanctuary for the city’s LGBTQI activism. He notes that the fact that this meeting was held at The Center indicated that the conservative agenda had made its impact on the entire LGBTQI movement. With reference to the entrance of antiretrovirals, which transformed the struggle for political power and messaging that the assimilationists would soon win, he noticed how fast the transformation went (Johnson, 2018). Two decades after Johnson’s political, queer writer’s life began, the political agenda had been radically rewritten. The stories that formed the basis of politics and struggle during the AIDS years—the rescue actions, the activism, the experiences of multifaceted relationships during the AIDS panic—all seemed so far away. This new conservative agenda can be read as a micro-study of the consequences of a long decade filled with forced, benevolent diversity policy, according to Lisa Duggan, who called it “the new homonormativity”—a mainstream political order that found its perfect posterboys in a new consumption-driven gay culture (Duggan, 2003). Ten years later, in her book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Jasbir Puar illuminated the central role sexuality plays within the newly drawn strict border between who does and does not belong in Western nations, particularly the US (Puar, 2007). Importantly, with this book, Puar coined the term “homonationalism” to indicate a starting point in the wake of the War on Terror. It was published just prior to the wave of right-wing extremism that provided the basis in the US for the homonationalism Puar diagnosed. And, later or simultaneously, its European rendering emerged, with counter-jihad movements led by politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders making their way into the spotlight with ever-present rainbows and gay-friendly airs. Puar later wrote a follow-up article, “Rethinking Homonationalism,” in which she argued that the impact of her book had been enormous, almost shocking: new critical conversations had arisen within institutions and activist movements followed by discussions and demonstrations in the US, France, Sweden, Palestine, and India. Still, she noticed that the most fundamental aspects of the issue always seemed to slip away: Why in these times has gay friendliness become so very attractive such that it has become the measure by which, and definition of, what is seen as certain nations’ freedom and success? And why are concepts like tolerance and acceptance so hard to define even when they continue to constitute the ultimate “evidence” that it was “here” that LGBTQI rights were created (Puar, 2013).

“There are three things you can’t avoid when you talk about the development of LGBT rights in the Netherlands,” Paul Mepschen says when I meet him at a local café in central Rotterdam, Amsterdam’s tougher little sister. The first is the neoliberal populist, Pim Fortuyn, the politician who built his career on his flamboyant queerness and whose political legacy goes under the heading “The Legacy of Pim” in travel guides. The second is the transformation of social democracy, and the third is the significance of religion, or rather, the country’s rapid enforcement of secularization. Mepschen entered the political scene in the 1990s via a socialist queer group that, with growing concern, witnessed the combination of populism and nationalism that accompanied Fortuyn’s increasing hold on public debate. Mepschen decided to organize within a wider left so that he could participate in a stronger resistance. It was a time when the ruling Social Democrats were already experiencing a crisis. Saturation and consensus, rather than ideological dialogue, characterized politics—politics that, during the 1990s, were balancing on the edge between quiet advocacy and pragmatic bureaucracy, with the overall aim of avoiding politicization of important issues that affect minorities. No one wanted to talk about how people should live together, or how segregation could be countered. With Fortuyn’s constant attacks on an anxious political establishment, the Social Democrats became a natural target. The same political climate that the reformist social democratic left-wing wanted to silence returned with even more radical force, Mepschen argued. Today Mepschen observes these issues from the perspective of being a university researcher. The sun forces its way into the outdoor terrace of the cafe in his hometown. The same town that constituted Fortuyn’s political base prior to what was predicted to be his most successful election, perhaps even giving him the role of prime minister, if he had not been assassinated by an animal rights activist in 2002. It was no coincidence that Fortuyn’s breakthrough into politics happened here, Mepschen said, “He exploited the city’s demographics, where fifty percent of residents have direct or indirect experiences of migration.” Significantly, many are second- or third-generation migrant workers from the country’s former colonies in Morocco or Algeria.

Fortuyn launched himself as an eccentric gay, an entertainer who broke onto the political scene at a time marked by consensus. By making himself the main evidence of the country’s progressive gay friendliness, he laid the groundwork for the immanent conflict he soon made his hallmark. This image was portrayed as if it was under threat from a supposedly “backward” Islamic culture and, above all, the country’s Muslims were singled out and became subject to rhetoric that would continue to echo across Europe. “Unfortunately, many stop there,” Mepschen lamented. The rhetoric that was Fortuyn’s brand may be seen as a normalized part today in an emerging conservatism and gay racism and, further, can be linked to a number of movements where gay men and women joined right-wing populist or radical national movements. This is a narrative that is both dismissed and causes dismay. But it is a much broader issue than one loud, gay man that took the country by storm. It is an ideology where issues of sexuality and gender—in particular, the notion of gay friendliness and an increasing whitening of gay culture—have become distinct markers in a simplified model of tolerance and freedom. It is this phenomenon that requires a deeper analysis, argues Mepschen (2018).

The politicization of Fortuyn’s agenda has been normalized since his death by pundits like Ayan Hirsi Ali, Frits Bolkestein and, zealously, by Geert Wilders, the leader of the radical nationalist Party for Freedom. For them, all societal and problems are given an explanatory basis in this presumed cultural conflict. In particular, the blame is placed on “The Other’s” culture—those who, according to their rhetoric, never “belonged here in the first place.” The development of this political climate is mainly characterized by a rapid transformation from the welfare state to the “lean state,” where gay culture has been utilized as one of the key mobilizing components. While these pundits insist upon the acknowledgment of a certain measure of sexual freedom, they move away from other government commitments. Middle-class men—preferably homosexuals of the kind that (commercial) gay culture has come to represent in some parts of the West—are not seen in conflict with the market but rather as strengthening it as Mepschen argues (Mepschen, 2018, p. 23). Or as Fatima El-Tayeb puts it, the commercialization of gay culture presents itself as “a truth” with the perfect dilemma and dichotomy built into the drive behind a modern, urban, and whitened gay community that needs an antithesis: the communities of Others—migrants, people of color—which are assumed to be, by definition, homophobic and heterosexual (El-Tayeb, 2011, p. 125).

“The closing party was the bomb, better than anything I’ve ever experienced,” the young guy enthusiastically tells his girlfriend at the adjacent table as the busy lunch restaurant along one of Amsterdam’s canals fills up. This is a perfect, almost clichéd, illustration of modern, urban life waking up the morning after its Pride celebrations have ended. An intense week of partying is over and the finale—the world’s only Pride parade on water, gliding through the city in a canal carnival with thousands of boat floats—has once again triumphed. Another attendance record is broken in “the country that founded gay rights,” as the city’s tourist brochures proudly declares. It has been more than two decades since the “new morning” of Chelsea urban life and, since then, the era that followed has grown into a flood of new versions of LGBTQI-friendly neighborhoods. A stone’s throw from the restaurant, the line to the Anne Frank Museum, is long, winding past the so-called Homomonument: the world’s “first and only monument” commemorating those persecuted for their sexuality and gender expression by the Nazi regime. Nowhere is LGBTQI culture as intensely integrated in the cityscape as it is in Amsterdam. The city established itself as a symbol of freedom, gay friendliness, and liberal values, strongly manifested through an emerging gay white middle-class culture that has evolved through its embeddedness in the construction of “Dutchness.” A rarely defined, but nonetheless present, gayness is fundamental to what is today considered natural and progressive. This story goes hand in hand with, and is constructed at the expense of, the narrative of the immigrant—in particular, Muslims—as a reactionary antithesis. The young men whose parents or grandparents once came to this hyper-modern, secularized, fantastically free country are now a relentless target of projections of conservatism and homophobia. This linkage between middle-class, white gayness and national identity, El-Tayeb argues, “completely erases class as an analytical category and instead replaces it with the understanding of culture” (El-Tayeb, 2011, p. 33). Some scholars call this European version of gay-friendly politics a post-progressive society, where society has nearly achieved complete freedom from oppression with respect to issues of sexuality. Paul Mepschen builds on Joan Scott’s concept “sexularism,” where secularism is increasingly presented as something that permeates society and is realized once and for all—as if the mere fact that certain forms of sexual expression are allowed by law would automatically stop, for example, the oppression of women. In Scott’s “sexular” society, authorities that have previously assumed the right to decide for example what women should wear seem to have disappeared. This society instead prides itself on being a place filled with free individuals who possess agency and the power to create their own destinies, who treat (all) other people as autonomous individuals and respect their freedom and personal rights.

While white gay culture is considered free from oppression, those who reach the West through migration are described as constantly in need of liberation, which leads to increased focus on making homosexuality in minority cultural groups visible. However, this is impossible work, since it is presented as a cultural issue linked to an already assumed, immutable homophobia that is presumed to be in constant need of supervision. It is akin to the rainbow flag flying in an already segregated, poor neighborhood of people with migrant experience, where nuanced socio economic and geopolitical issues are abandoned in favor of a never-ending cultural clash based on essentialized and predetermined ideas of “us and them.” Moreover, the presumed and unquestioned cultural clash serves to hide the development of a nation state that has abandoned or put ideas of a welfare state in the background in favor of privatization and individualism. Gay friendliness in combination with the new neoliberal state, thus, becomes a marriage.

As I hold the rainbow-colored paper cup in my hand from another Pride summer—witnessing politicians and corporations fight for the limelight by holding seminars at Pride and in the public arena, reading reports that the event has again set new attendance records—fundamental questions remain unanswered: what does standing behind the rainbow flag, gay friendliness, and tolerance really mean for the contemporary LGBTQI movement? Who is doing the work to critically examine the already-accepted concepts to which politicians, conservatives, radicals, liberals, and nationalists refer? And, finally, is there a way to get beyond the essentialism contained in the contemporary concept of “gayness” that emerged through the powerful commercialization of LGBTQI cultures in parts of Europe and the US?

The chosen places in this essay—Sweden, Netherlands, and the US—are all different in terms of history, including the operation state and in what ways race, sexuality, and gender are intertwined in their powers. But they all build on a particular notion of a gay rights politics that is linked to progress and modernity that is built although conditioned on a gay or LGBTQI culture, a notion that has inscribed itself in a historical shift that theorist Jasbir Puar and others mark as the moment where some homosexual bodies have gained certain protection while others (refugees, migrant, nonwhite bodies) are left behind.

I would argue that in order to return critically to the complexities of sexuality and gender expression, it is necessary to combine both a re-envisioning of the future and a reevaluation of history.

Almost 30 years of rainbow romance have passed since I roamed that American gay ghetto with its new, conservative gay agenda looming on the horizon. However, many of those who, today, emphasize their support for queer issues have not participated in the historical struggles that preceded that moment of transition, nor are they directly affected by them. This might explain the sense of detachment that many of us experience today in relation to the complex work and multi-faceted processes that laid the foundation for contemporary sexually progressive movements. Moreover, the flood of critical thinking about both the present and those times that have been relegated to history is more intense than ever. Postcolonial feminists, women of color, writers, and activists are increasingly abandoning the idea of a triumphant gay revolution in favor of returning to a long, often violent history, and its attendant shame and grief, to the realm of political life (see, Muñoz) , 1999). As Heather Love writes, it is a shared knowledge that constitutes our lives, our history and our present (2007) , p. 126). It is also an acknowledgment that a history shared by queer lives is far from over, thus providing a place in the present for all the bodies once considered savage, unmodern, violent, diseased, and death bearing in addition to those that are today (still) considered outcast.

A few years before the affirmative politics appeared in full force, queer theorist and poet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued for a vision that both haunts and inspires: there is no unthreatened, unthreatening conceptual home for the concept of gay origins. We have all the more reason, then, to keep our understanding of gay origin, of gay cultural and material reproduction, plural, multi-capillaried, argus-eyed, respectful, and endlessly cherished. (Sedgwick, 1990, pp. 43–44) This seems important to remember during this period in which new polarizations, or new iterations of historically familiar polarizations, seems to grow every day around issues of sexuality and gender. Maintaining multiple perspectives by looking back to history and ahead to the future is vital.


Duggan, L. 2003. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

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[1] Jimmie Åkesson used the rainbow flag on stage in his Almedalen speech 2019—a political annual event that takes place in summer on the Swedish island Gotland.

[2] It should be noted that Benjamin Dousa left party politics in 2020 and is at the time of writing, the executive director of Timbro, a leading think tank that works on ideas and policies related to the free market in the Nordic countries. It is located in Stockholm, Sweden.