By Taryana Odayar.
This week, in order to gain a meaningful insight into the important LGBTQ+ activism being carried out, I had the opportunity of interviewing Magda Orlander, a Luxembourger who has certainly done her fair share of activism. Her journey as an activist began in 2010, when she became involved with Secondary School Reform negotiations between the National Conference of School Students and the Luxembourg government.
Then, last year, as a fresher at the Miami University of Oxford in Ohio, she was a member of her Students Union Organizing Bureau which campaigned to stop budget cuts to students’ financial aid scholarships. Presently, she is the Secretary of Diversity Affairs in the student government; responsible for supporting non-dominantly positioned identity groups, whilst majoring in Social Justice Studies, as she intends to become a full-time community organiser and activist-scholar.
How has your activism contributed towards the rights of LGBTQ+ people and helped changed any misinformed or negative perceptions of them?
I’ve only recently started in on queer activism, and I’m noticing that it is definitely an uphill battle. I am currently trying to get the company that handles student insurance at my university to cover trans health-care for instance. But the difficulties start with convincing people that queer issues are not just afterthoughts. Just getting people to watch their gendered language in student government seems sometimes like it’s too much to ask people.
But I guess in a way I live my activism – as a queer person I feel like I’m constantly educating and informing my non-queer peers. But I do think that my being so vocal about queer issues is making a difference. I definitely have projects in mind that I’m working on, and I am a very active member of the queer community on my campus. In the end, every little bit of effort helps.
What is queer theory, and what are the commonly held perceptions towards queers?
Good question – I guess queer theory is best explained as a branch of studies within the context of critical identity studies, like race theory, feminist theory or disabilities theory. It explores the ways in which queer identity categories are constructed by and play out in society, with a clear social justice focus that builds on theories of social relations of oppression and privilege. In queer theory, there is a lot of deconstructive work done around identity, specifically gendered and sexed aspects of identity, and within contexts that are largely intersectional.
Intersectionality is a central component within critical identity theory. It’s basically the notion of how different aspects or categories of identity intersect in ways that cement and reinforce the oppressive dimensions of each other. So me for example, my experience of the world is not an addition of the different aspects of my identity – my womanhood is informed by my status as a second-generation immigrant, which is in turn perceived in a certain way related to my working class background that would be different if I came from a middle class background, which all make my experience as a queer identified person different. I don’t experience discrimination by virtue of being queer and female, but by virtue of being a queer female.
What are some of the main challenges facing LGBTQ+ people? How could these challenges be overcome?
I would say living life as an out, visible queer person is a challenge in and of itself. But I also have to differentiate – we often lump in all the letters under one acronym (LGBTQ+), but the reality is that different identities have different issues. That’s another reason why gay marriage can’t be the be-all end-all of queer rights.
The difficulties a trans person faces are so very different than those of homosexuals, and gay men have a very different kind of position in comparison to pansexual women. There are also many ways in which these sexual and gender identities intersect with each other and with other identity groups that complicate our lives as well.
Audre Lorde wrote that, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives”, and the challenges and issues queer people face are very much interrelated – which makes solutions equally complex. So on the one hand, there is a lot of policy that needs to be reformed and/or expanded, and on the other hand, queer identities need to be part of general education.
There is so much that people don’t understand about queer identities, and even more that they just don’t know. A big part of the struggle starts with erasure – many times, there is not even an acknowledgment of the existence of certain identity categories or intersections of these, so how do you go about serving these populations when they officially don’t even exist? Where, for instance, can a Trans man get assistance when the LGBT advocacy association only overtly includes Trans women?
Is homophobia harmful and hurtful? Why are people homophobic and how can homophobia be overcome?
Yes. Yes it is very much so. Homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, hetero-normativity in general are hurtful, and make our lives a daily struggle. Not only does it mean having to face discrimination within policy and public life, it means waking up in the morning and assessing whether or not the spaces that you will be moving in that day will be safe for you to be who you are openly.
If your outfit will make people guess. If you will be taunted on the bus. If, yet again, you will have to swallow workplace, classroom, pop culture micro-aggressions, -insults or -invalidations next to the regular overt aggressions many of us have to deal with. Some LGBTQ+ people have to worry about being physically harmed or even killed the next time they’re walking around town at night. Not having to worry about these things on a day-to-day basis is a privilege.
Now I’m painting a dark picture here, so I want to make clear that queer lives are not constantly depressing and awful, just like in any person’s life we have ups and downs and there can be so much wonderful experience in our identities. But when you identify as non-hetero-normative or non-cisgender, society doesn’t give you as many breaks as it does those who fit the norm. LGBTQ+ people are generally at higher risk for committing suicide, suffering violent crime, poverty, homelessness, unemployment and mental illness than the normative counterparts in society because of their sexual and gendered identities – and this is not acceptable.
What are the societal perceptions Luxembourgers have towards the LGBTQ+ community?
Luxembourg is a highly conservative country. The attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people are mixed, and have changed a lot in recent decades. I think it’s a question of visibility – a lot of people don’t really mind what they can’t see.
Luxembourg passed same sex marriage and adoption legislation in June, 2014. Was this an important stepping stone?
Same sex marriage is an important legal stepping stone, but at the same time, I think that a lot of the time gay marriage overshadows a lot of issues that are still very prevalent, as if it were the be-all end-all of LGBTQ rights. I think ‘stepping stone’ is the right word here – as there is still a long way to go. Reproductive rights, trans peoples’ legal protection, and general public education are far from being queer-inclusive let alone queer-friendly.
I think that even though gay marriage is important in many ways, it also obscures some of the conversations we ought to be having – just because there is marriage equality on paper, that doesn’t mean there is actual equality. There is still controversy around same sex couples adopting despite marriage, there is still a lot of latent homophobia and trans phobia and general intolerance towards visibly queer lives.
Has the Luxembourg government taken any other measures to ensure equality for LGBTQ+ people?
The government is not very proactive on LGBTQ+ rights. Anti-discrimination legislation is very flawed for instance – protection for trans people often apply only to post-legal transition, despite the fact that a lot of discrimination happens during transition, and the fact that a lot of trans people do not want to opt for extensive physical transition. The age of consent (16) for homosexual interaction has only been equal to that of heterosexual interaction for about two decades.
Do you think that LGBTQ+ rights are improving? Or is there much more work to be done to ensure full equality?
I definitely think there is a long way to go. There is a lot of work to be done to change existing legal parameters – a lot of forms still only have binary options for gender identification when asked to give that information, and although gay men can donate blood, the forms used are still very intrusive about the sexual activity of a gay male donor, and a lot of the time homophobia and transphobia related crime is not pursued as hate crime.
There is a lack of education and a lot of miseducation around LGBTQ+ identities, and this translates into all levels of social organisation. So materials on the websites of major LGBT advocacy associations are very gay-centric, the T only overtly includes MtF, and other queer identities such as pansexuals, non-monogamous people, genderfluid people and other people all across the spectrum, are subject to massive erasure. Change in Luxembourg only ever happens slowly, if at all – you have to remember, this is a country that, up until the latest election, had the same party in the government coalition since 1979. It is an extremely conservative country.
Do you think Luxembourgs’s conservative-leaning prime minister, Xavier Bettel, who is openly gay, is a good role-model for politicians and people in the public spotlight who want to come out of the closet?
I think it is encouraging, and it definitely normalises a type of homosexual identity with a conservative audience. However, this image of homosexuality still plays into a lot of hetero-normative ideas – he is in a steady, monogamous relationship and presents himself as being quite masculine, and his socio-economic status is that of a typical, upper class Luxembourgish man, which definitely makes him fit in with the ruling elite.
I think it codifies a socially acceptable, respectable way to be homosexual, that still excludes a lot of other identities. It reminds me of the sexual hierarchy that Gaile Rubin describes in her landmark piece, “Thinking Sex” – the closer you can get to the hetero-normative, the more acceptable you and your relationships are. There are all of these markers of socially acceptable relationships that go beyond just orientation – monogamy, preferably within marriage, lack of promiscuity or salacious public displays of affection, cisgenderedness, conforming to the codified gender standard, respectable socio-economic status, high level of education, employment within a “good” job, etc. Heterosexuality is a paradigmatic part of that, but increasingly it has become less of a standard with more and more acceptable role models in the public sphere coming out as homosexual – but it remains within a set binary.
Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister, Etienne Schneider, currently head of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party and Minister of Economy and Defence, is openly gay too. Is this a reflection of the progressivity of Luxembourg’s society that values political leaders purely on merit rather than sexuality?
I don’t know if I would say that. Etienne Schneider, although he is not currently in a long-term relationship to my knowledge, definitely fits the bill as far as respectable homosexuality goes, sort of like the Prime Minister himself. I think it is also one of those things where what people don’t see doesn’t bother them very much. There is a prevalent “not in my backyard” attitude around these kinds of things in general society, and as we’ve moved into the 21st century, homophobia is more of a latent kind of bigotry. Most people aren’t really overtly opposed to homosexuality, but many will still say things like, “I don’t care if you’re gay, as long as you don’t shove it in my face; I just think that two guys kissing is absolutely disgusting and gross and they shouldn’t do that in public where other people can see them – I mean think of the children!”
Luxembourg has a very image-conscious society, something that from my experience is common where populations are generally well off and there is a lot of conspicuous consumption. It’s also a very Catholic country, with the largest political party nominally even confessing its Christian values. But this is a very one-sided picture I’m painting – Luxembourg is also a very multi-cultural, multi-faceted place, there are definitely pockets of the community that are very open, and a lot of my friends and general social circles are really cool with these things.
I’m just describing a general public sentiment that I’ve experienced as a queer-identified person with many friends that don’t live the hetero-normative life. I think the ability of our political leaders to pass for “ordinary” men contributes to their likeability in general society.
Do you think that Luxembourg has broken certain stereotypes, especially pertaining to the social acceptance of the sexual orientation of its leaders, and as such, other European societies could learn from the Luxembourg example?
There’s definitely that whole aspect of having openly gay men in high-powered government positions, as well as the legalisation of same sex marriage that puts Luxembourg in the column of forward thinking countries I guess. But I don’t know whether Luxembourg has “broken” stereotypes more than it has put faces to this newer paragon of the “respectable gay man”.