Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Gema Pérez-Sánchez and Brenna Munro

“Gayropa”: Transnational Sexual Politics in Europe. Interview with Phillip M. Ayoub

Part 1: Introduction and Description of His Book and General Fieldwork

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: Hi. This is Gema Pérez-Sánchez. We are here at the University of Miami. We are about to interview Phillip M. Ayoub, who is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Drexel University. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Cornell University in 2013, after obtaining a B.A. from the University of Washington and M.A. degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Cornell University. He spent a year as Max Weber Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute.

His research bridges insights from international relations and comparative politics, engaging with literature on transnational politics, gender and politics, norm diffusion, and the study of social movements. He is particularly interested in how the transnational mobilization of marginalized peoples and international channels of visibility influence socio-legal change across states. His book, titled When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility, was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2016. It uses a mixed-method approach, combining large-n quantitative analysis with in-depth qualitative analysis of key cases, in order to explore the domestic conditions under which international norms governing LGBT rights are most likely to spread.

In 2014, Ayoub was the recipient of the American Political Science Association’s Human Rights Section award for Best Dissertation, and the American Political Science Association’s Sexuality and Politics Section award for Best Dissertation. The following year, he received the European Union Studies Association’s biennial 2013-2014 award for Best Dissertation. He also received the 2014 Janice N. and Milton J. Esman Graduate Prize for distinguished scholarship, and the 2011 George McT. Kahin Prize for the research in the areas of international relations and foreign policy studies judged to hold the greatest promise as a contribution to the discipline (both from Cornell University).

His publications have appeared or are forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, Mobilization, the European Political Science Review, Social Movement Studies, the Journal of Human Rights, Critique Internationale, and Perspectives on Europe. He also received various grants and fellowships, including a Fulbright Schuman Fellowship for the European Union, an Alexander von Humboldt Chancellor Fellowship, a Cornell Sage Fellowship, a Mellon Writing Fellowship, three FLAS Fellowships, and a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Please tell us a bit about your book and your fieldwork.

PHILIP M. AYOUB: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me be part of this great project. It’s really an honor to get to talk about my book.

The book has its roots from when I was a master’s student living in Berlin. It was a time when there was a lot of attention on Poland, in part because of the activism that Polish activists were doing to draw attention to the case. But there were buses going across borders bringing people to march. And a lot of LGBT people felt a solidarity or a connection across borders. And at the time I was in Berlin, observing some of that which interested me in what became over a decade-long process before the book was published, and it became part of my PhD research. What I was fascinated by was that there was such variation within Europe despite a lot of talk at the European level about there being a norm, or some rhetoric about LGBT rights being part of what it meant to be European; but, of course, there was a lot of contestation in terms of how that actually looked on the ground. The rights that the different countries had varied a lot. Also, the attitudes that we saw towards LGBT people varied a lot across different countries. I was wanting to understand why we see this variation and also how activists navigate these very complex, domestic, and international worlds wherein 2017 we have ideas and images about LGBT people—sometimes very simplistic, of course—but that spread and diffuse across borders because of governments or activists, but sometimes also just because the media indirectly diffuse them. These issues are debated in places, and that creates a really interesting dynamic for activists to try to make: to graft and fit different ideas about LGBT people to local contexts, especially when there’s so much contestation.

So that became the endeavor, and norm visibility is one of the concepts I look at, which is like looking at this politics of visibility, how, obviously, visibility can be a resource in that we see things like the diffusion of certain policies that happen across many different countries, but it can also provoke resistance and backlash, and also how activists navigate that. But at the end, visibility is a really political part of this movement. And the felt intensity of norms varies a lot in different contexts and the norms concerning LGBT rights, for better or for worse, get made visible in different ways and different contexts.

So that’s the overarching theme of the book. I can be more specific than that [in answer to your] future questions.


Part 2: Fieldwork in Poland and Forms of Transnational Visibility that Have Helped to Attain LGBT Rights

GEMA PÉREZ-SÁNCHEZ: So, could you tell us a little bit more specifically about how German activists crossed [the] Polish border and what kinds of roles they had in making this visibility of LGBTQ rights in Poland work out?

PHILLIP M. AYOUB: Yeah. So German activists were definitely involved, but in large part, it was Polish activists who were in Germany or in other parts of Europe. So, this was still very much a local movement but that had a strong transnational dynamic to it. The reason Germany was on the map, in this case, was in part because (of) the proximity—geographic proximity—to Poland; also the fact that there’s a large [Polish] migrant population in Germany. There were similar types of activism in other countries that other scholars have also worked on, like Polish activists in the UK that were drawing attention and resources back to Poland.

But yes, at the time, especially around 2004 when there was the [planned] Equality March in Warsaw, which was made illegal, and then Kaczyński, the mayor of Warsaw, did that again in 2005. And various Polish cities had banned public assembly by LGBT people, so that attracted a lot of international attention in large part because Polish activists really tapped into resources across borders and drew attention to what was happening.

And then there were buses organized, campaigns organized, and in some of these other cities, there [were] connections to the élites that could also place some kind of pressure. That can also lead to backlashes. It’s a bit complicated, but we had by 2006—so the year after the famous 2005 march which happened illegally—by 2006 there were 32 parliamentarians from 16 different governments that marched in Warsaw. So already in 2005, there was élite support.

BRENNA MUNRO: You mean parliamentarians from across the EU?

PHILLIP M. AYOUB: Parliamentarians from across the EU, yes. So, Claudia Roth, Volker Beck in terms of the Germans are kind of notable examples. Claudia Roth was a European MEP in the past, in the ’90s she had an important report on LGBT rights. But then as the chairwoman of the German Green Party, she was also involved in some of this activism in Poland, at least as a guest. And that [Parliamentarian presence] brought some protection when the march was illegal because the state wasn’t protecting those marches when they were made illegal. But then if obviously, you have embassies bring certain dignitaries to the march, then it actually provides a shield for the march in a way that it creates a space for visibility.

BRENNA MUNRO: So the ways in which you’re talking about how uneven the pace was across Europe is really interesting. Can you give us an example or some examples of these forms of transnational activism or forms of transnational visibility that made an impact?

PHILLIP M. AYOUB: Yes. Well, I’ll go back to the Polish example in a second, actually, which is an interesting and difficult case. But I can start more broadly by saying LGBT activism has a long transnational history, even if we look back to the late 1800s and early 1900s – and certain campaigns that were done by activists and [their] communications across borders in Europe. And then if we move into the post-war period, of course, with the formation of groups like ILGA – what we know today as ILGA, was called IGA at the time – starting in 1978 had a transnational dynamic. Those activists saw the visionary role for institutions even before European institutions had the social mandate to be involved in this process. And rights have diffused that way also.
If we take one of the classic examples [such] as partnership legislation between 1989, when Denmark passed a Registered Partnership bill, [and today], we now have several dozen countries that have some form of same-sex union in place that has happened in a short period of time, which really helps us to think about the transnational component to what has been often theorized as domestic stories, and that there is something transnational happening that is spreading certain ideas across borders and that leads states to think about certain issues as needing to be incorporated or that they ought be incorporated with the visibility of a group.

In terms of the Polish case—especially if we think about what’s happening in Poland now, it was a very difficult case for LGBT rights. Like many other cases in Europe or many states in the U.S. or all over, we have a lot of resistance to LGBT rights. But there are small steps where you do see changes. For example, at the turn of the century, there was very little discussion by any political parties on the Polish political spectrum about LGBT rights at all. And that was in part because the Democratic Left Alliance had constituents that didn’t have very favorable views either to LGBT groups. So, on the left and [on] the right, there was a gap [in terms of attitudes toward LGBT people]. But some activists say that through having the presence of colleagues transnationally as part of the Social Democratic bloc of the European Parliament or by having colleagues come to marches it changed the discourse where some parties now think that they must be able to speak about this issue or that on a European level, this is part of what it means to be the left, to have some kind of a platform that’s engaging on LGBT rights.

So those kinds of collaborations – not to say that they’re implanted from the outside in, but that they create these interactions across borders, [they] create new conceptions of LGBT people and politics. The police protection of marches, of course, which I mentioned before, is another example. Also, we see examples in terms of media attention that states receive when there’s transnational activism.

Those all have negative dimensions to them too, which we’ll talk about later. But in Poland, despite the very difficult context that we have here, we had a new political party, Ruch Palikota, in 2011 that ran on a platform of representing some kind of anti-clerical platform in Poland, but also brought with it a platform on LGBT rights. They had the first [openly gay candidate] – Robert Biedroń, the former president of the main LGBT organization, KPH [Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (The Campaign Against Homophobia)] – who was elected as a parliamentarian, as was Anna Grodzka, who is a trans woman who was president of Trans-Fuzja, a trans organization in Poland. And so Poland all of a sudden became a country with, at the federal level, a trans parliamentarian, which we had only seen a couple times before that [in world history]. So in many ways, some of the landscape had changed. Was there resistance? Of course, which we see manifested now in this current government. A gender recognition bill was vetoed by the new president. But the fact that that made it through parliament [was significant], and then also we got much closer to seeing some form of partnership recognition. Despite the backlash, which we have to be attuned to, it would be wrong to say that we haven’t seen changes. And that is mainly due to the hard work from Polish activists for sure. They’ve done that, though, in collaboration also with the context of open borders and Europeanization and also through solidarity with other activists across borders.

BRENNA MUNRO: Do you think that there’s something, thinking comparatively, unusually transnational about queer activism in this context?

PHILLIP M. AYOUB: Yes. That’s a hard question to answer, but yeah. Looking at activism by queer people and a long history of collaborations across borders, there is a unique propensity to be involved in cross-border activism. I want to be very cautious about saying that somehow queer identities can transcend other identities, like national identities, but some of the activists that I talk to, and this doesn’t apply to all by any means, but many activists really noted feeling some kind of a sympathy or solidarity with the experience of a queer person in another country. Some of them even said that they felt they had more in common with that person than they do with straight or cis people in their home context. And I think that relates in part to a long history of marginalization of queer people.

Of course, whether that holds as some queer people become more incorporated into the nation, mainly if we see some mainstream issues like marriage, which affects certain subgroups, and of course, [mostly] white, upper-middle-class gay men within the LGBT group [who] have benefitted in some ways in becoming part of the nation more. Of course, that might change some of that radicalism and also solidarity. We don’t know how that develops, but I think in general there has been a long history of transnational collaborations amongst queer people.

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