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Killjoys in Paradise
author Mathias Danbolt
Summertime is strawberry time, the taste of vacation and enjoyment. Summertime is happy and gay time, with Pride-parades taking over the streets in countless cities in the Global North in order to “celebrate human diversity,” as it is stated on the homepage of Oslo EuroPride 2014. This is the time when “we raise the rainbow flag and show that we stand together,” as the Mayor of Oslo from the Conservative Party, Fabian Stang, writes in his greetings to the participants of Oslo EuroPride. This summer in Oslo is in short the time for unity, togetherness, and love. It sounds like paradise.
In 2009 my friends and I were thrown out of a paradise of a similar kind during the Copenhagen Pride Parade. I was part of a small group walking behind a banner reading “ASYLUM FOR ALL / LEFT-RADICAL LGBTQs IN CPH” in the parade. This queer asylum block had been organized last-minute to give presence to some of the urgent political issues that many of us in the queer activist and artist community were working on––issues that we expected would be absent from this increasingly capitalized-oriented spectacle. The banner not only expressed support for the over sixty rejected Iraqi asylum seekers that at the time had taken refuge in the Brorson’s Church in Copenhagen, located close to the parade trail, it also responded to recent statements by conservative politicians who feared that participants in the World Outgames––a large LGBT-oriented sports, culture, and human rights event taking place in Copenhagen that same week––from the Global South would refuse to return to their home countries and instead seek asylum in Denmark.
The volunteers monitoring the parade relegated our unannounced queer block to the tail of the parade. We did not march for long before the police stopped us and accused us of having attached ourselves to an event we were not part of. Our asylum banner apparently made us stand out, and despite the fact that we were a diverse group of people, including small kids, the police accused us of being radical political opportunists who parasited on the attention given to an event we had nothing to do with. Our insistent efforts to explain that we were a group of LGBT people trying to participate in the Pride like everyone else was to no avail. The police, as well as the Pride Parade organizers that they conferred with on the phone, were of a different opinion. Unable to see any relationship between asylum activism and a LGBT event, we were told to immediately leave the Parade, as this was “a party, and not a political demonstration.”
Our abrubt exit from Copenhagen Pride highlights some of the wide-ranging changes that have taken place in the field of LGBT politics in many Western European countries during the last several decades. That the police are actively involved in protecting and monitoring LGBT Parades from “troublemakers”––like us––gives an indication of how far Pride has moved from being a political march in the spirit of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, to functioning as a state-sanctioned parade for LGBT people in all our commodifiable “diversity.” In and beyond Scandinavia there has been a widening gulf between those who view the shift from “march” to “parade” as a natural and positive outcome of the remarkable progress that has been made in terms of legal rights and cultural acceptance of lesbian and gay (more than bisexual, trans*, queer, and intersex) subjects in certain geographies in the Global North, and those who see the streamlining of Pride as yet another example of the pervasive “gentrification of the mind” in neoliberal times (to borrow Sarah Schulman’s terms), where the queer struggle for alternative lifeworlds is being replaced by de-politicized and commercialized assimilations to the normal. While our queer asylum block sought to carve out a space for a different political presence in the mainstream, the strategy was rejected and the message failed to register. A failure that indicates that the current format of large-scale Pride Parades––dependent on commercial sponsors and the blessing from the police and local municipalities––is often unable to encompass the co-existence of pride and shame, partying and demonstrating, joy and anger, desire and politics, raised fists and limp wrists.
While it is tempting to accept the invitation to “stand together” with Mayor Stang under the rainbow flag, it remains important to remember the political antagonisms and antagonistic political subjects who have to be dismissed to get this image of unity to work. The lacking space for queer asylum activists in a Pride parade is but one example, which also points to the ways in which questions of sexuality tends to be approached separately from other social and political vectors of difference in mainstream LGBT-political work in Scandinavia. A separation that has resulted in a lacking ability and/or willingness to engage with intersections of other forms of oppression. Over the last years many white LGBT organizers and activists have complained that sexuality has been “contaminated” by race, ethnicity, religion, and other so-called particularities. Conflicts have erupted on the relevance for LGBT politics of complicated questions concerning asylum rights, Western exceptionalism, national border customs, foreign policy, and the war on terror. The claims of “racial takeovers” are problematic, as they only make sense under the presumption that the production of sexual subjectivities have been and can be disentangled from its imbrication with questions of gender, class, racialization, and citizenship. The recurrent split between sexual and racial politics has widespread consequences as it not only disregards the ways in which conceptions of sexuality and race are constituted in relation to one another, but it also risks contributing to racist political configurations where “sexual rights and migrant rights […] become constructed as mutually contradictory,” as Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir, and Esra Erdem make clear in their important article “Gay Imperialism” (2008).
The exhibition Å paradis: Strategies on The Nordic Queer provides a welcome opportunity to reflect upon the conditions for aesthetic and political practice in a Nordic context today. The works on show present the viewer with a fundamentally different sense of paradise than the romanticized postcard image of rainbow unity presented by Mayor Stang. This show is far from happy and gay. Instead we are contfronted with artists that give room for connections between radically different subjects, aesthetics, histories, politics, and emotional registers.
“How I love the combination of questions,” reads a sentence scribbled in the margins of one of Ester Fleckner’s woodcuts from the series Clit-dick Register in the exhibition. Another note in the margin reads: ”I am unable to navigate in this picture”. Encountering the works in Å paradis, one is likely left with questions and frustrations. And questions and frustrations are important when making sense of “The Nordic Queer”. It remains pivotal to query what stories and subjects have to be forgotten to make the rainbow-colored narratives of Nordic exceptionalism appear convincing. And it is pertinent to reflect upon the difficulties of navigating politically within the framework of EuroPride, when having Pride in Europe (in all senses of thos words) risk support the frontiers of ”Festung Europa.”
Mathias Danbolt is a Norwegian art historian and queer critic based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Danbolt is the founding editor of Trikster––Nordic Queer Journal and co-editor of the book Lost and Found: Queerying the Archive (2009). His work on contemporary art and performance, queer temporalities and the politics of history, antiracist, queer, and feminist art and theory have been published in books including Temporal Drag (2010), Chewing the Scenery (2011), and re.act.feminism (2014). He is a Postdoc in Art History at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
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