Amsterdam, Netherlands Intelligence agencies across the Atlantic are joining the struggle for LGBT rights. While some call this a cynical tactic, a genuine concern for LGBT rights is even more troubling. It shows how utterly ignorant intelligence agencies are about the relationship between LGBT rights and mass surveillance. The struggle for LGBT rights is meaningless unless it is embedded in a larger political project.
The British intelligence agency GCHQ is probably best known as one of the most invasive intelligence organisations in the world. On May 17, 2015, however, GCHQ engaged in a different kind of operation. To celebrate the international day against homophobia, the agency lit up its iconic headquarter in rainbow colours, inspiring praise from David Cameron to the nephew of Alan Turing.
This symbolic gesture is remarkable since the agency has come such a long way. Until the early 1990s, the agency banned openly gay people from employment (together with its sister intelligence agencies MI5, MI6, and the Foreign Office). This is particularly striking since the closeted-and-oppressed gay Alan Turing played such a pivotal role in breaking German ciphers while working at GCHQ’s forerunner during WWII. After being convicted for “indecency” in the 1950s, Turing lost his security clearance and was thus barred from consulting the GCHQ on cryptography. Given the agency’s history, should the LGBT community applaud their new commitment to “diversity”?
Some have called this alliance with LGBT issues a cynical tactic. These attempts to be more diverse and inclusive have been According to Glenn Greenwald, quite the contrary. In an article on the Intercept, Greenwald argues that the agency’s commitment to LGBT rights is nothing but a “deeply cynical but highly effective tactic”. Not just GCHQ, but also the CIA has celebrated LGBT Pride Month. Support for these institutions is “manufactured by parading them under the emotionally manipulative banners of progressive social causes”. How can progressives possibly oppose institutions that embrace their very core beliefs?
As a queer woman, I cherish all efforts to increase diversity, especially in technology and institutions that have come such a long way. I would like to believe that GCHQ has a genuine interest in the wellbeing of its workforce and their rainbow spectacle was more than a tactical move.
The agency however, is not just promoting “diversity”; it embraces the entire spectrum of the minority rights discourse. On its homepage, the British intelligence calls itself “a modern organisation that does not tolerate discrimination in any form”, which proudly celebrates “a day for freedom, diversity and acceptance.” As a tribute and almost remission of its past, Alan Turing’s nephew is quoted to have been “delighted” by the rainbow coloured bath: “It is important that [Turing’s] successors at GCHQ today are free to be themselves and therefore bring their full potential and talents to such vital work.”
Surveillance is antithetical to LGBT rights
Diversity, the freedom to express oneself; all of these values stand in direct opposition to the mass surveillance that has been, and continues to be conducted by GCHQ. Just last year we learned that the UK government has quietly passed new legislation that exempts GCHQ, police, and other intelligence officers from prosecution for hacking into computers and mobile phones. Amnesty International, Liberty and Privacy International are currently suing the UK Government at the European Court of Human Rights over its indiscriminate mass surveillance practices.
If GCHQ is in fact acting out of genuine commitment to diversity and LGBT rights, it must mean that the agency is completely oblivious to the relationship between mass surveillance and those rights. On a very fundamental level, mass surveillance is antithetical to the subversive origins of most major social revolutions. This is a point that Edward Snowden made crystal clear in a surprise Reddit AMA in March:
“When we look back on history, the progress of Western civilization and human rights is actually founded on the violation of law. America was of course born out of a violent revolution that was an outrageous treason against the crown and established order of the day.”
“History shows that the righting of historical wrongs is often born from acts of unrepentant criminality. Slavery. The protection of persecuted Jews. But even on less extremist topics, we can find similar examples. How about the prohibition of alcohol? Gay marriage? Marijuana?”
“Where would we be today if the government, enjoying powers of perfect surveillance and enforcement, had — entirely within the law — rounded up, imprisoned, and shamed all of these lawbreakers?”
“Even the perception of being surveilled can effect the ability to live a life to one’s full potential”
The same holds for the level of the individual. What Sir John Dermot Turing cherishes — the freedom to be oneself and live life to one’s full potential — is one of the strongest arguments in favour of privacy and against mass surveillance. To be oneself, let alone to discover who or what that self is, requires a fundamental respect for privacy.
Many LGBT peers, for instance, rely on privacy daily, whether to explore their sexual identities online, to seek support or to keep their sexual orientations from their families, coworkers, classmates or friends. The knowledge or even the perception that one is being surveilled can have a chilling effect on the ability to live a life to one’s full potential.
Finally, the agency’s uncritical appropriation of the LGBT struggle shows a historical blindness to the close relationship between government surveillance and LGBT individuals specifically. Files of actual and presumed homosexuals have been collected to out, criminalise, blackmail or bully LGBT people in the past.
Germany, where I come from, is an excellent example of how persistent records of personal and potentially discriminating information can be. The so-called “Rosa Listen”, the Nazi records of homosexuals, were still used by police departments even long after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1969.
The US also has a history of collecting and misusing information on the sexual orientations and activities of its citizens. According to the EFF: “In the 1960s FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover maintained a notorious ‘Sex Deviate’ file filled with salacious bits of information on the sexual proclivities of prominent Americans: actors, columnists, activists, members of Congress, and even presidents. Hoover used that information to ensure appropriations for the FBI and expand his political power. 2013 documents reveal that agents used the NSA’s out-of-control surveillance apparatus to spy on and track women and that the NSA tracked the porn-viewing habits of “radicalizers” in order to discredit them.”
When you shouldn’t fight for LGBT rights
What should we make of GCHQ’s symbolic alliance with the LGBT community? In the words of German writer Roland M. Schernikau (1979):
“The world is not what it is because it suppresses gays, but it suppresses gays because it is what it is. […] As long as we are not even close to solving the world’s most fundamental problems, it is absurd to conceive of the world as predominately gay-dicriminating. Those who fight for homosexuals but nothing more, don’t do enough.”
GCHQ might or might not have bathed itself in rainbow colours as a deliberate PR tactic. Regardless, the stunt is a perfect example of how the struggle for LGBT rights is meaningless unless it is embedded in a larger political project.