Barry D. Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak and André Krouwel, editors. The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics: National Imprints of a Worldwide Movement Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 381 pp. $34.99.

This important collection explores the origins and development of lesbian and gay movements across a range of countries, from north to south, including Canada, the U.S., select European countries, select Latin American countries, Japan, Australia, and southern Africa. As the editors point out in their introduction, in many parts of the world, lesbian and gay studies are non-existent or in their infancy. In some cases, political and social persecution may prevent the formation of lesbian and gay organizations. For these reasons, the editors do not attempt to justify their choice of case studies, beyond pointing out that the cases come from all five continents.

In the introduction, the editors provide a brief summary of social movement theory, pointing out – rightly, in my view – that lesbian and gay movements have been strangely neglected by social movement theorists. The editors are critical of ‘new social movement’ (NSM) theory á la Touraine and Melucci, arguing that such approaches do not account for the diverse organizations of lesbian and gay movements and the fact that these movements are not simply engaged in cultural and identity politics but may be closely involved with the state. Equally, however, the editors are skeptical about the political process or political opportunity structure approach to understanding social movements.

As is often the case with edited volumes, the individual authors do not necessarily follow the editors’ injunction to examine emerging queer movements in light of social movement theory. Some chapters, such as Ken Plummer’s on Britain or James N. Green’s on Brazil, provide strong country maps of particular movements, without necessarily tying the case to the broader theoretical concerns of the volume. Others, such as Stephen Brown’s chapter on Argentina and Steven Epstein’s on the U.S., place the country case in the context of social movement theory. Nonetheless, all of the country specific chapters present us with new empirical accounts of the communities and movements they depict; many of them, such as the chapters on Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Japan, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, provide the first easily accessible accounts in English of the country cases they examine. For this alone, the collection deserves to be widely read.

The editors’ conclusion sets out similarities and differences among the movements examined in the volume. For example, the fight against discrimination and the creation of public space are major goals of lesbian and gay movements across countries. In turn, the diversity of country studies highlights the preconditions for the emergence of these goals. Mai Palmberg’s fascinating chapter which compares South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe points out that the key difference between these three cases is the level of urbanization and the development of civil society in non-white society, a precondition for the emergence of lesbian and gay spaces. At the same time, Wim Lunsing’s chapter on Japan, and Fillieule and Duyvendak’s chapter on France demonstrate that development, capitalism and democracy do not necessarily produce the political space for lesbian and gay movements. National cultures and frames (Japan’s emphasis on consensus, France’s republican tradition) shape the trajectories of lesbian and gay communities and movements. Countries which have historically sought to accommodate minority groups such as the Netherlands, Australia, the U.S. and Canada, will be more open to the claims of multisexualism.

The editors’ conclusion lists a series of factors that are prerequisites and facilitating conditions for the emergence of lesbian and gay movements. As the authors point out, the list is an eclectic one, ranging from the emergence and construction of sexual identity through the role of organized religion, the role of nationalism, and the position of countries in the international capitalist system. While this section is full of analytical gems, it lacks coherence as an alternative to or critique of the social movement theories that are introduced at the start of the volume. For example, the editors are critical of NSM theory for its focus on culture and identity. Yet, they are also critical of the political process approach for its emphasis on instrumental rationality. Their own perspective does not suggest how these traditional bipolarities are to be reconciled. Furthermore, the editors and most of the country authors do not include the most recent syntheses of social movement theory, represented by the continuing work of McCarthy et. al. and Tarrow or the recent three volume masterwork by Manual Castells, which places “the power of identity” in the context of global changes in the nature of modern societies.This recent work attempts to reconcile the culture v. instrumental divide, albeit with mixed results. At the least, it rated a mention. Similarly, some recent cross-national work is not discussed, including David Rayside’s book on the politics of lesbian and gay rights in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. In Adam’s Canadian chapter, important recent works such as Becki Ross’s on lesbian organizing in Toronto or the huge Canadian legal literature on queer politics are not even listed in the references.

Nonetheless, the salutory range and diversity of country studies included in the volume provides a rich empirical base for further speculation and theorizing on social movements. In my view, one main question that needs to be answered about queer politics and social movement theorizing is: what is the question? The volume touches on at least three different questions. Social movement theories that may be useful for answering one question may not be useful for others. First, if we are trying to explain why lesbian and gay movements cultures and movements exist in some countries and not in others, then factors such as the degree of urbanization, development and democratization may be the most important. To this end, it might have been interesting to include more material on cases in which lesbian and gay communities and movements do not exist at all or barely exist, in order to form an explanatory counterpoint to the cases included in the volume. On this first question, the European NSM approach appears to be particular irrelevant. Queer politics is the product of modernity, not post modernity or post materialism, a point that is rightly emphasized in the editors’ introduction.

A second potential question would be to explain the particular shape of national movements. If this is our question, then we need to develop a taxonomy of ‘types’ of lesbian and gay cultures and movements. This volume suggests some tantalizing possibilities in this regard. For example, the editors, drawing on the country chapters, distinguish movements which are separated from their communities from movements which are deeply embedded in their communities. In explaining why some countries develop different types of communities and movements, factors such as national political cultures and the role of religion may be the most important.

Third, if we are trying to understand why some movements are more successful than others, then we first need to define ‘success.’ Is success defined in social terms or in political terms? Even within each of these categories (social and political), there are further divisions. Is social success to be conceptualized as the survival of distinctive queer subcultures or as the eradication of the boundaries between queer and straight? In political terms, is ‘success’ to be defined as similarity of legal treatment between straights and queers? Not all Canadian lesbians and gay men would agree that the wanton pursuit of spousal benefits and obligations, as espoused by Canada’s leading lesbian and gay rights organizations, is necessarily a Good Thing. The grounding of our theorizing about ‘social’ success may be quite different from explanations of ‘political’ success. As a political scientist, I have thought more about ‘political’ success than about ‘social’ success, as I have distinguished them here. In political terms, the political opportunity structure approach has much to recommend it, including a focus on differences in political institutions between otherwise similar countries. This may explain not only the legal and policy success of queer movements, but also the very nature of the types of demands that are made by such movements. Most of these political factors – differences in electoral systems, for example - are listed by the editors in their conclusion.

Finally, most of the chapters point out that the division between lesbians and gay men has been an important cleavage in queer movements. The presence or absence of allies – one of the key features of the political opportunity structure approach – is evident in every chapter. For the Brazilian and Argentine cases, the relationship between the incipient lesbian and gay movement and the movement against military rule was key. For the southern African cases, an important question was the relationship between queer politics and the national independence movements. In many countries, as the editors point out, left parties have been erstwhile allies of queer movements. However, the one movement that does not rate much discussion in this volume is the women’s movement. Aside from Stephen Epstein’s chapter on the U.S. , which includes a separate section on lesbian feminism, the relationship between lesbian culture and politics and the women’s movement does not receive the attention that it deserves.

As Epstein points out, lesbian, gay, transgendered, bisexual, or queer movements “exist emphatically in the plural” (p. 30), a comment that should be pinned over the desk of every researcher who ventures into the terrain of queer studies. For many lesbians, the women’s movement was the start of their coming out and, hence, the start of their community participation and political involvement. If this is a culturally parochial observation on my part, I can only say that I was not corrected by any of the country studies in this volume, because I learned almost nothing about their women’s movements. As is often the case in writing about ‘lesbian and gay’ movements, one gets the feeling that, as Geoffrey Woolcock and Dennis Altman comment at the start of their chapter on Australia, “we use gay movements to describe both gay and lesbian movements” (p. 326), thus reproducing the traditional elision that obscures the existence of lesbians. It seems that a generation of lesbian carping has not been enough to convey the point that sexism and the structures of patriarchy should be major concerns among those who study the cultures and politics of sexual diversity.

Adam, Duyvendak and Krouwel are to be commended for undertaking an ambitious project that has greatly enhanced our knowledge of lesbian and gay politics around the world. In many ways, the shortcomings of this volume are related to a lack of basic primary research on queer movements. It is to be hoped that more researchers will warm to the task, with the inspiration of this pathbreaking volume.


Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes - Toward a Synthetic, Comparative Perspective on Social Movements,” in Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald (eds.) Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996): 1-20 and Sydney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

David Rayside, On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politic (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Becki L. Ross, The House That Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995).

Miriam Smith
Department of Political Science
Carleton University

September 1999
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