The anthology I’ve been co-editing with Julia Watts, LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia, is off to the editorial department at West Virginia University Press, and I’ve recently composed an introduction and a Suggested Reading List for a new edition of one of my books of poems (details to come), so I’ve taken a short break from writing to catch up on my summer reading.
The first book I’ve gotten to this summer is Cynthia Burack’s brilliant Because We Are Human: Contesting US Support for Gender and Sexuality Human Rights Abroad. I’ve recently written an Amazon review of that book, so I’ll be lazy and reproduce that review here.
“As an author of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, I rarely read books of political science or political theory, but I chose Dr. Burack’s Because We Are Human for summer reading because I’m a gay man interested in how other LGBTQ folks live across the globe and because I’m a big fan of Sin, Sex, and Democracy: Antigay Rhetoric and the Christian Right, one of Dr. Burack’s earlier books.
One of the things that I most enjoyed about this book is its readable style. Some scholars and academics write in the clotted, elitist style of High Theory, which alienates and infuriates me, but there’s none of that oblique tedium in this book. In fact, the book ranges from a poignant thoughtfulness to deliciously understated irony.
To break the book down:
The Introduction does a good job of giving us some history: Where and when did modern conceptions of human rights originate? How did they eventually expand to include SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) human rights?
Chapter 1 looks at SOGI human rights during the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and examines several programs and organizations that intervened on behalf of SOGI human rights overseas.
Chapter 2 analyzes a remarkable speech that Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, gave in December 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland, and discusses public responses to it, both positive and negative. I had heard of this speech—it’s one of the reasons that I’m a passionate admirer of Hillary Clinton—but Dr. Burack’s book not only gave me the opportunity to see the speech discussed in great detail but also to read the transcript of the speech, which appears at the end of the book as Appendix B. What a magnificent speech it is! It left me wet-eyed.
Chapter 3 takes a look at US government interventions for SOGI human rights overseas after that historic Geneva talk (which was given just as Barack Obama released his ‘Presidential Memorandum—International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons’). This chapter examines the Global Equality Fund, embassy engagements, and international SOGI human rights conferences, including two in Africa, one of which Dr. Burack attended in person, giving her access to indigenous LGBT rights activists. One section of this chapter examines the creation of the Special Envoy for LGBTI Human Rights.
Chapter 4, ‘No Human Right to Sodomy,’ focuses on conservative Christian objections to US interventions on behalf of queer folks abroad, as well as the religious right’s domestic efforts to quash civil rights for queer folks like me. Having grown up in the Bible Belt and having lived my life there, I did a lot of lip-curling and snarling during this chapter. Dr. Burack very cogently summarizes the ways in which the Christian Right adopts whatever conflicting rhetorics are at hand, including cultural imperialism, in order to spread its homophobic agendas. They’re ever so interested in their own human right to religious freedom, at the same time that they refuse to accept that universal human rights should include SOGI human rights.
Chapter 5 is perhaps the most entertaining one. I took huge delight as Dr. Burack analyzed and invalidated the progressive humanists’ objections to SOGI human rights overseas. It’s clear from this chapter that such people are so obsessed with their own Ivory-Tower theories that they refuse to look at empirical evidence. Even more damning is their determination to win rhetorical arguments rather than invest their time in saving the lives of SOGI folks overseas. I’m reminded here of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, ‘Ethan Brand,’ in which ‘the unpardonable sin’ is revealed: ‘The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!’ Burack’s analysis of the obnoxious Jasbir Puar and her concept of homonationalism is particularly devastating. (Puar claims that same-sex marriage is racist! I’ll have to tell my husband that!)
The book’s Afterword examines and for the most part dismisses several concerns held by those who object to US government interventions on behalf of SOGI rights abroad: ‘evading human rights transparency,’ ‘imposing Western gender or sexual identities,’ and the fears that human rights assistance might undermine indigenous democracies and/or strengthen authoritarianism and facilitate violence.
One of the most important questions that Dr. Burack asks is this: ‘Is it possible for agents of the US government to devise programs and interventions that, when implemented, improve the conditions and life chances of some people in the global South/developing world?’ In other words, can such actions help save the lives of SOGI people at jeopardy in their own countries? This book makes clear that, despite the negative claims of both conservative Christians and theory-bound ‘progressive’ critical humanists, the answer is a resounding YES.”
As you can tell from the above review, this book impressed me mightily, and I highly recommend it! Here’s a link, if you’d like to buy the book: