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When States Come Out: Q&A with Phillip Ayoub, PhD

June 27, 2016

Phillip Ayoub, PhD
Phillip Ayoub, PhD

“When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility”, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

Ayoub's research agenda exams comparative social movements and LGBTQ politics, as well as the politics of visibility. We sat down with him to chat about "When States Come Out", the dynamics of challenging and contesting norms, and his upcoming projects.

Q: Tell us more about the research project behind "When States Come Out", and your findings. Most people probably grasp the importance of an individual coming out to his or her family and friends at the personal level, but your work takes this process of coming out to the state and international level.

A: Yes, the book actually moves partly beyond “coming out” at the individual level, which is a personal experience that is not equally available or desirable for many queer people, depending on their context and circumstance. Instead the book is primarily concerned with the “visibility” of norms that champion sexual minorities more broadly, which thinks of coming out as a political process that can apply to collective and state identities. I illustrate how the visibility of norms empowers marginalized social groups and moves them to the center of political debate and public recognition, making it possible for them to obtain rights to which they have claim. In some cases it empowers individuals to also come out, if they so wish to do so.

Q: What sorts of data did you gather from your time in the field?

A: I spent 25 months in the field (not counting preliminary and follow-up research), during which I conducted nearly 100 interviews. I also went to archives to collect data on various measures (e.g., in Chapter 3, the data from the travel guides I coded to understand the differences in social spaces, across time, in Germany and Poland). Finally, I spent much time doing participant observation, both at demonstrations (for and against LGBT rights) and activist summits.

Q: Explain this idea of contested norms – it’s not at all this neat little linear path from being “in the closet” to being out to being a recognized and protected group, correct?

A: That’s right. The word “contested” is important here, because such norms are not received the same way across contexts. They are often portrayed as “external” and “imposed”, and in some cases they are seen to threaten the very foundations of national identity. The degree of religious nationalism in the domestic sphere especially moderates the way international norms are received and internalized. I propose not simply that religion bars the advancement of LGBT movements—religion is not a strong predictor of rights on its own. Instead, it is the politicization of the historical antecedents of the idea of the nation that can make religion a force for countermobilization. For example, the Catholic Church in Poland was perceived as a great resister against outside occupations, a force for liberal change during democratization. It wields considerably more political authority than its counterpart in Spain, which fell on the wrong side of transition with close ties to Franco. This helps explain the reception of LGBT norms in Poland, which are often painted as external and imposed by local opposition movements.

Q: So you have these pretty positive findings that visibility prompts political action demanding greater respect and better protections under law for marginalized communities. Did you find any evidence that greater visibility made people more vulnerable, or opened up space for a backlash against LGBTQ rights?

A: My findings may be modestly optimistic, but they also very much emphasize a common occurrence of backlash and countermobilizations in response to visibility. To elaborate on your previous question, an important part of the argument is that differing perceptions of threat define how distinct domestic realms receive international norms, and threat perception increases where religion is historically embedded in the popular conception of the nation. It explains why we see more extensive resistance in some cases than in others. Whether resistance is effectual, however, is a separate question. Where sexual minorities become visible, contestation is common, if not expected, but in Europe that contestation rarely leads to the demise of the movement. The book’s evidence suggests that in high-threat contexts, resistance to the LGBT movement can also be self-defeating (as Conor O’Dwyer has also persuasively argued), in that it can galvanize the movement and enhance both the visibility and the salience of the LGBT rights norm. In sum, visibility can provoke both recognition and resistance. In many cases, resistance follows visibility and precedes recognition.

Now to return to your point about positive findings: while looking at the rapidity of change in some regions over the last two decades may make it tempting to have modest optimism, it is important to note that such modest optimism should not overshadow that the oppression of LGBT peoples across societies persists, and LGBT norms continue to provoke resistance, and transnational advocacy is limited in many corners of the globe. Indeed, the homophobic and racist attack in Orlando is a manifestation of violence that too many LGBT people still face in their everyday lives. Contemporary politics in many countries (e.g., Russia, Uganda, and many parts of the United States) demonstrate that, even at this historic moment for LGBT rights, vulnerability has only declined for some sexual minorities in some contexts. The book has been both an effort toward a holistic understanding of how and why states embrace LGBT rights and an acknowledgment that that does not always occur.

Q: So what sort of impact do you hope this research will have for activists and the LGBTQ movement in general?

A: By isolating some patterns, I hope it presents a bird’s eye view of movement dynamics surrounding contested norms. The book’s case studies show how these general trends need to then be adapted for the specificities of distinct local contexts. This is something that activists have taught me, but I hope I can also give back with this overarching synthesis.

Q: Finally, tell us a little about the rest of your research and teaching agenda – what’s next after this?

A: Currently I am working on several projects that (1) explore the effect of the media on global attitudes towards LGBT rights (with Jeremiah Garrestson), (2) track global networks of anti-LGBT activism, (3) trace LGBT movement frames over time (with Agnès Chetaille), and (4) explain varied trajectories of female labor force participation across countries. Next year, I will be teaching Social Movements in Comparative Perspective (PSCI 260), The Politics of LGBT Rights (PSCI 280) and Introduction to Political Science (PSCI 100).

Watch Phillip Ayoub, PhD, discuss his new book

“When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility” is currently available in the Drexel University Bookstore and online (with discount code AYOUB16 if ordering from Cambridge University Press).