Affective Implications of LGBT Rights Advancement in the Post-Yugoslav and Iberian Spaces: Towards a Research Agenda

vz.pngBojan Bilić, Investigador Pós-Doc (ICS-ULisboa)


Neither numerous structural/historical accounts of activist victories nor widespread analyses of Europeanisation, activist NGO-isation, and human rights advancement are sufficient to capture affective ambiguities stirred by two opposing but contemporaneous processes that have been taking place in the European semi-periphery: impressive LGBT legal emancipation, on the one hand, and the increasing precarisation, on the other. This research project aims to bring together the post-Yugoslav (Serbia and Croatia) and Iberian (Portugal and Spain) spaces to examine affectively mediated ways in which recent LGBT rights evolution and an intense juridification of LGBT politics have been intertwined with the deterioration of economic and social networks.

More specifically, the post-Yugoslav and Iberian spaces are converging in this research because they share a set of important features:

a) both regions experienced long periods of authoritarian rule throughout the 20th century and tried to compensate for their political ills through rapid Europeanisation (joining the EU) and improvement of the status of human rights;

b) both were (Iberian)/are (post-Yugoslav) characterised by a high level of church involvement in political/public life which constituted/s a challenge for activist enterprises;

c) both have recently witnessed unprecedented intensity of LGBT-related activist efforts done by small, highly professionalised, and legal change-oriented activist groups (Pride parades starting in Lisbon, Belgrade, and Zagreb in 2000, 2001, and 2002, respectively; Madrid hosting the World Pride in 2017);

d) both have experienced major legal advances in the domain of non-heterosexuality [e.g., passed anti-discrimination laws, allowed same-sex marriage and adoption (Spain in 2005, Portugal in 2010/2016), or life partnership (Croatia in 2014)];

e) in both there is still a conspicuous paucity of academic research on and engagement with sexuality and gender-related issues – and especially their affective dimensions – regardless of an increasing presence of such topics in public debates;

f) ultimately, these two spaces have been at the same time severely hit by a deterioration in employment, rising inequality, and a drop in other measures of material and psychological welfare (precarity) which have stimulated ideologically and demographically variegated protests.

I argue that such uneven, surprising, and often contradictory developments are related to the semi-peripheral position of both regions in the international/global political system, which represents their major structural similarity and the departure point of my research. By being located between the “centre” and the “periphery”, these regions – with their political, social, economic, and cultural specificities – produce social hybrids that have a hard time entering into the mainstream Western/Anglo-Saxon explanatory paradigms.

The urgency of the semi-periphery to “perform” in spite of and beyond its structural (in)capacities while concurrently responding to and being “captured” by a range of possibly extra-institutional/extra-legal commitments (e.g., corruption, clientelism, oligarchy, church, etc), brings it into a perpetual state of reform and leads to what Blagojević (2009, p. 35) calls “eventfulness” – an “illusion” of change which often leaves untouched deeper, value layers of social life.

In such a milieu, change is distinctly fragile and keeps dwelling in the sphere of elite’s declarative and formalistic orientations whereas its diffusion into concrete practices across the social field encounters numerous obstacles. This study thus points to the fragility and starts unpacking the complexity of social change in (European) semi-peripheral environments by exploring its affective basis in relation to non-heterosexuality.

In other words, I believe that chronologically ordered narratives of activist legal victories leading all the way to same-sex marriage [which has happened in (some parts) of both regions] as the supposed pinnacle of activist achievement (Knauer, 2012), hardly consider not only how precarity traverses contemporary society and serves as a background against which this engagement takes place, but also how profoundly it has transformed the idea of activism by prioritising professionalisation, reducing the number of activists, and driving them towards emotional exhaustion.

I draw upon Rubin’s (1984, p. 267) argument that “disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties and discharging their emotional intensity” due to which “sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress”. Emotional mobilisation that accompanies legal LGBT emancipation intersects with the responses to precarisation, deciding the way in which legal change is propelled across the social field and applied in everyday practices. As emotions stream among various actors – sometimes with surprising velocities – they refract the unilinear trajectory that progressive legal measures would otherwise take, exposing both the necessity and the insufficiency of juridical orientations in either activism or social science scholarship.

Recent state-level legal advances – far from being mere law modifications – constitute highly contentious interventions into the symbolic layers of the social tissue and impact upon the ways in which we understand such basic notions as gender, marriage, parenthood or family (Vale de Almeida, 2010). Thus, rather than perceiving activism as an enterprise that smoothly moves in one direction, my research zooms in on the affective basis of power operation to claim that activist undertakings and their legal implications may encounter more or less palpable forms of resistance. Such resistance comes not only from the still homophobic portions of the general population, but even from policy makers themselves and can be ambiguously received by those who should directly benefit from legal advancement.

With this in mind, my project ethnographically engages with the omnipresent transitional/semi-peripheral trope of “good laws that do not work” which cannot be accounted for without examining the affective micro mechanisms that operate in the “contact zone” between legal norms, wider economic forces, class and geographical locations, traditional ways of “doing things”, expert/“expert” knowledge, and, in this particular case, sexual desires. The question of how legally induced change becomes socially sustained, how it begins to live and to make life more liveable, is particularly acute in politically, socially, and economically volatile environments in which legislation may appear not only (or even primarily) as an instrument of ordering increasingly complex social relations, but rather an effort to catch up with the White homonationalist core in which gay rights have become an indicator of modernity (Puar, 2007).

Como citar este artigo: Bilić, Bojan (2017) Affective Implications of LGBT Rights Advancement in the Post-Yugoslav and Iberian Spaces: Towards a Research Agenda.  Life Research Group Blog, ICS-Lisboa, 29 de Novembro 2017 (Acedido a xx/xx/xx)

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