Building LGBTQI+ solidarity in the age of pinkwashing


Kit Muirhead


Towards the end of last year I attended the UK LGBTQI Global Giving Summit, hosted by the Baring Foundation and Giveout. As a young, queer person, I was excited to see a conference devoted to this topic, and, maybe even more so, to enter a philanthropic space that endorsed Doc Martin shoes, nose rings and the modern mullet. 

Although a few piercings and mullets did emerge amongst the freshly pressed suits and beige blouses, I left with a feeling of mild discomfort and disconnect from my community, something that doesn’t often happen when I enter a queer-friendly space.

In the weeks since I’ve been trying to pin down why I felt this way and have been left with more questions than answers about the makeup and motives of LGBTQI philanthropic giving. 

With the release of The UK LGBTQI International Giving Report, the Summit focussed on the theme of ‘seeking solidarity’ between diverse stakeholders and the community. Indeed, the Baring Foundation is known for building bridges between government and philanthropy. This is undoubtedly an important task – such relationships foster accountability, awareness, transparency, and lead to more resources for marginalised communities.

A successful example of this work was revealed during the Summit, when Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State (Development and Africa), announced a package of 40 million pounds to assist global LGBTQI+ activism and research – an immense increase from the government’s previous commitment of 13 million pounds.  

Despite the impressive makeup and diversity of speakers, from local activists to parliamentary ministers from both major parties, the conference still raised questions of how ‘solidarity’, in the way that I and my community understand it, can practically work in spaces that try to build bridges between the government, the wealthy and the community. What does ‘solidarity’ look like when our needs, as queer people, come to rely on the state and elite groups, who have historically (and continually) excluded us and violated our rights? 

In thinking about solidarity, particularly in the context of funding queer communities in the Global South, I was also confronted with questions of decolonisation. I came to reckon with the long history of ‘gay rights’ aid agendas and their role in fuelling Western imperialism – a history that was certainly touched on by many speakers at the summit, but probably warranted some deeper exploration.  

In 2011, for instance, imperialism and queer rights converged when David Cameron pledged to cut aid to countries in Africa where homosexuality remained illegal, despite calls from local LGBTQI activists that such ‘gay conditionality’ would put them at further risk of violence and scapegoating. Cameron, much like the two MPs speaking at the Summit, failed to recognise that anti-gay laws in the Global South are the simmering symptoms of British colonial rule. Labour, under Tony Blair, has also been called out for promoting domestic ‘gay rights’ to distract from tightening anti-migration laws and justify the UK’s imperialistic involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

There is no doubt that the Baring Foundation and Giveout have made monumental and commendable moves away from this kind of ‘conditional’ giving. Amongst the panellists, there was meaningful talk of ‘shifting the power’ to grassroots LGBTQI+ activists to avoid causing further harm to these diverse communities. 

Indeed, Nick Herbert, the UK Prime Ministers Special Envoy on LGBT+ Rights made it clear that ‘we should not impose a template on the rest of the world’ for achieving equality and warned against the use of LGBTQI+ rights as ‘some kind of Western agenda’ – two very salient points for funders to take note of. 

LGBTQI+ solidarity means liberation for all

And so, what does this mean for a ‘queer solidarity’ that attempts to engage government, philanthropy, and community?  Importantly, real solidarity for queer liberation does not just exist between the queer community and our ‘allies’. Instead, it must link multiple and overlapping struggles for justice.  

As discussed during the ‘Lessons in Philanthropy’ session, we cannot separate the needs and rights of LGBTQI+ communities from the human rights and climate struggles of other marginalised groups. LGBTQI+ people are also refugees, migrants, people with disability, people of colour, women, and children. They belong to working-class communities, to minoritised religious groups, they exist in wars, are affected by rising sea levels and many have had their land colonised. It is no secret, as highlighted by Hosh Ibrahim, Board Member at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, that social movements across the world have gained success through building coalitions and solidarity with other groups suffering differently under the same systems. 

In other words, (specifically those of Audre Lorde); “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. 

This understanding of solidarity certainly does not mean that philanthropists and the government should avoid funding the specific needs of LGBQTI+ people. As highlighted by speakers, the needs of queer communities have been methodically overlooked, with current UK government data sets still ‘lumping LGBTQI+ people in under a ‘marginalised people’ category’. This has resulted in very little clear evidence to encourage funding for LGBTQI+ rights and contributes to a myth that the battle against heteronormativity ‘has been won’. 

Rather, this understanding of solidarity means that we do not allow those in power to ‘conditionally’ fund specific LGBTQI+ people when it suits their political or financial agendas. It means that we commit to the idea that the only liberation possible, is liberation for all. This sentiment was present at the conference and yet, I was still uneasy. 

I was left questioning what it meant, for instance, to have the Shadow Minister for International Development speak about ‘gay rights for all’, whilst refusing to vote for a ceasefire when given the chance in Parliament… (I read: gay rights for ‘all’, except for gay Palestinians, whose existence sits at odds with our government’s imperialistic agenda). I don’t think these kinds of ‘conditions’ are worthy of applause. 

So, this is where my unease lay – in the deep fear of having the political goal of ‘solidarity’ co-opted and pink-washed by the very systems that have sought to oppress us. It’s happened before, it’s happening now, so what does this risk of co-optation mean for foundations, like the Baring Foundation, who have a strategic, and well-intentioned goal to engage the government and other powerful stakeholders? 

Do they have a responsibility to decolonise the work they do with policymakers? To hold politicians accountable for pink-washing and ‘gay conditionality’? If so, what risks would these actions pose for achieving more funding or policy change? As activists, what parts of our aspirations for solidarity are we expected to give up, in exchange for resources and recognition for our communities?

Importantly, how are global LGBTQI+ communities expected to trust these institutions enough to ‘build solidarity’, if such bodies are unable to recognise their positions in driving this inequality in the first place? 

The Baring Foundation and Giveout are undoubtedly doing great work in a sector that has systematically and violently excluded queer voices and experiences. They are smart, strategic and have achieved commendable outcomes for LGBTQI+ giving. Nevertheless, it is crucial, as more foundations begin to fund LGBTQI+ issues, that they continue to ask the hard questions, to decolonise their thinking, link struggles for justice and hold others accountable to do the same. It is through these processes, and more, that we can give genuine solidarity a chance to prevail. 

Kit Muirhead, Partnerships manager, Alliance magazine

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