: Queer politics in queer times: Queer Wars

Queer politics in queer times: Queer Wars

Josh Pallas

We are living in very queer times in Australia. Queer politics is a consistent feature in our newspapers and on our television screens. The demonisation of Safe Schools, calls from the Family Court’s Chief Justice Diana Bryant to change the laws regarding special medical procedures for transgender children, and the queer issue par excellence of the day — same sex marriage and the plebiscite. It seems that, today, everyone from politicians to the person in the corner store has an opinion on queer rights.

Despite this, global queer politics rarely rates a mention in Australian politics. Whether it’s the brutal attacks on prominent queers in Bangladesh, the clampdown on queer rights in Indonesia or the degrading rhetoric and actions of the Islamic State towards queers in Syria and Iraq, 2016 has been a big year for queer politics. This can be contrasted with the ‘gay rights as human rights’ rhetoric which is seemingly gaining momentum in parts of the world, and greater awareness and attention of queer rights by international organisations and bodies.

Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons, the authors of Queer Wars, could not have timed the release of their intervention any better. The book serves to contextualise the current rhetoric on queer politics in Australia. An overarching theme throughout is that threats of violence are omnipresent for many queers around the world today and that queer scholars and activists should not lose sight of this. Queer Wars is framed by the paradox that many western states are reaching a pinnacle of queer rights while, in other States, there has been a dramatic increase in the oppression of queers. Briefly, the work is framed as one which will consider why queerness is reaching a new level of polarised visibility. It is also framed as one which explains what should be done to alleviate this polarisation and further the queer rights project.

The book is written by non-lawyers for a non-legal audience. Written in a highly accessible manner the book does not assume that the reader has a strong knowledge of queer theory or queer politics prior to reading. The first chapter contextualises the rise of queer politics, covering topics such as why homosexuality became so controversial and where political homophobia came from. The next chapter outlines the rise of a global queer movement, which corresponded with the global response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The third, fourth and fifth chapters are most relevant to legal audiences. The third chapter provides a solid overview of the way that queer rights developed through international instruments over time. This chapter also explains how queer rights came to be seen as human rights, and why this was not always the case. The fourth provides brief explanations of the way that particular municipal jurisdictions have effected repression of queer rights and the fifth draws out how queer rights became a political football between international organisations and political leaders which, in turn, has led to polarisation. The final chapter answers the initial question in the book: ‘what is to be done?’

So what is the solution called for by the authors to the growing polarisation? They ask for a nuanced approach which provides culturally sensitive incrementalism to the process of queer rights reform in different municipal jurisdictions. This incrementalism may sometimes even mean allowing things to change organically without the intervention of foreign activists and legalism which may detrimentally draw attention to fledgling queer activist communities.

Queer Wars understandably lacks the rigour and detail of legal texts, however it’s definitely worth reading. For readers familiar with global queer studies and sexuality studies literature, much of the book will repeat long familiar refrains about queer rights. However readers without this familiarity may appreciate the incredibly pragmatic and sobering conclusions of the authors — one of which is that human rights discourse and enforcement will not ultimately be the sole solution to deliver acceptance and safety, for all queers, in an instant. The authors call for a restraint of the well-meaning egoism and undertones of cultural imperialism that sometimes pervade human rights and queer rights activism as well. For general human rights, anti-discrimination or international law readers, this book will provide a very comprehensive overview of the history of queer rights and politics, and the current state of play.

Most importantly, Queer Wars provides an interesting point of comparison with present-day politics in Australia. It will assist readers in understanding the broader framework surrounding queer rights globally and show that the paradox of a society which broadly seems to support same sex marriage, and a parliament which will not legislate for it, is perhaps just another iteration of the global paradox that is queer rights polarisation.

JOSH PALLAS is a PhD Candidate in international law at UNSW.

Twitter @joshpallas.


Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons; Polity, 2016; 120pp; $28.95 (paperback).

(2016) 41(4) AltLJ 294
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