What’s sexuality got to do with it? On sexual citizenship

Katja Kahlina
LGBT Pride

“[…] despite the imperatives of globalization and transnationalism, citizenship continues to be anchored in the nation, and the nation remains heterosexualized.”
(Bell and Binnie, 2000, p. 26)

In the past few decades the persistent engagement of LGBTIQ activists has made the issue of discrimination and marginalization of sexual minorities an important part of public debates across the globe. In the context of the former Yugoslavia, Gay Pride Marches, consisting of a short march through the city center finishing with political speeches and entertainment,  became rare public protests that have been continuously taking place each year in Slovenia (Ljubljana Pride), Croatia (Zagreb Pride and Split Pride), and, with some disruptions, in Serbia (Belgrade Pride). While in the past few years Pride Marches in Ljubljana and Zagreb have gained increasing public support (which in a way also testifies to their success in raising the public awareness on sexual discrimination), marches in Belgrade and Split are still facing violent attacks by right-wing extremists, religious-nationalists, and football fans. Faced with the negative reactions and violence that is to a great extent motivated by a nationalist political agenda that denies equal national belonging to non-heterosexual people, Gay Pride Marches came to represent the sites where the intersection of nationalist ideas of community and belonging and particular regimes of sexuality grounded in the heteronormative logic of descent that privileges reproductive heterosexuality is clearly visible. Thus, while being sites of gay visibility and the struggle for equal rights, Gay Pride Marches in general, and in post-Yugoslav states in particular, are spaces where the dominant notions of community, belonging and citizenship have been questioned.

The story of Pride Marches as spaces of struggles over re-definition of nationalist heteronormative citizenship regimes constitutes only one aspect of the relationship between sexuality and citizenship. This relationship has been best formulated through the concept of sexual citizenship. But why is it important to bring sexuality into citizenship debates? What does the concept of “sexual citizenship” signify?

Sexuality, nationalism and citizenship: An intimate interplay

As a site of human reproduction on the one hand, and bodily pleasure and desire on the other, sexuality has always been an important object of normalization and control, which often involves prescribing particular norms of sexual behavior. The modern European regime of sexuality is based on the developments that took place in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Western Europe, when sexuality entered legal, medical, and psychological discourses and practices. The nineteenth century legal and medical discourses defined heterosexual monogamous coupling as the only “proper” mode of sexual behaviour, consigning all other practices to the status of illness and a crime against morality. Being a part of the new discourses of capitalist productivity on the one hand, and the process of formation of a particular type of bourgeois respectability on the other, new norms of sexuality greatly relied on its reproductive function (Foucault, 1988). Thus, it is interesting to note that the significant population growth in the “long eighteenth century” in England (from 4.93 million in 1681 to 13.28 million in 1830) has been primarily caused by a rise in reproduction-oriented sexual intercourse. This rise can be identified on the grounds of four different factors: there were fewer women who stayed single and the age of first marriage decreased, while at the same time there was a significant increase of children born outside marriage accompanied with an increase in prenuptial pregnancy (Abelove, 1992). The normative status of reproductive monogamous heterosexual coupling was gradually secured through the strict hetero/homo binary that relegated homosexuality, regarded as a non-reproductive form of sexuality, to a status of deviance, amorality, and illness. At the same time, while becoming a subject of law and psychology, attention was diverted from a particular sexual act to the actor, and sexuality subsequently became a personal feature that can be attached to individuals (Foucault, 1988).

Thus, it is possible to argue that modern forms of sexuality imbued with the homo/hetero divide and regulated by the legal and medical practices emerging in the context of early capitalism coincide with the modern notions of citizenship that are closely related to the formation of the nation-states in Western Europe throughout the nineteenth century. As George Mosse (1988) contends, the history of European nationalism and that of the middle-class norms of the body and sexual behaviour appeared together at the end of the eighteenth century. Starting from the same premise as Mosse, feminist and sexuality studies scholars have given detailed accounts of the ways in which nationalism as a dominant framework of citizenship relies on particular regimes of gender and sexuality.

The concern over heterosexuality and women’s reproductive role has been especially salient in nationalist projects that construct and legitimize national communities on the grounds of the assumption of some common origins. In this context, the notion of human reproduction plays a crucial role in determining the boundaries of a group and securing its longevity (Yuval-Davis, 1997). The centrality of reproduction to nationalist ideas of community and belonging has been particularly obvious in the context of nationalization processes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which relied on the symbolic construction of national identities that were increasingly constituted in ethnic terms. The new national imaginary constructed women/women’s bodies as symbolic markers of ethnicity/nation and its imagined territory. Facing the risk of being violated and invaded, they were seen to be in need of protection. At the same time, men were given the role of protectors of women/nation. More importantly, they were also constructed as bearers of the “genetic material of the nation,” which, in the act of rape, was planted in the body/territory of the ethnic other, violating in this way its national integrity (Žarkov, 2007). In line with the changing gender roles taking place in the context of militarization and nationalization in the former Yugoslavia, women were increasingly conceived in terms of their reproductive tasks and non-paid home labour as caregivers and homemakers (Žarkov, 2007), while non-heterosexual sexual identities and practices were at the same time heavily stigmatized and silenced.

(Hetero)Sexual citizenship

Structural inequality and exclusion from equal membership in the nation-state on the grounds of sexuality has been identified, described and addressed through the concept of sexual citizenship. The notion of sexual citizenship emphasizes the often neglected interplay between regimes of sexuality and citizenship regimes, thus representing an important contribution to the studies of citizenship.

Scholars who write about issues of sexual citizenship usually point out different ways in which sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and other non-heterosexual individuals) have been marginalized, criminalized, and denied equal status when it comes to membership in the nation state. After World War II in most Western countries homosexuality was still a criminal act. One of the most famous cases of criminalization of non-heterosexual people in this period is the case of Joseph McCarthy’s persecutions of “hommies and commies” who were conceived as a threat to the nation and national security in the Cold War U.S.  In the context of the Yugoslav Federation, male homosexuality was first decriminalized in 1977 in the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, SR Croatia, SR Montenegro and the Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. Interestingly, in Serbia male homosexual encounters were decriminalized in 1994 during a period of aggressive military nationalism emerging in relation to the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. In Macedonia de-criminalization took place in 1996, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina it happened in 1997.

Although same-sex relationships were gradually de-criminalized in the past fifty years in most of the countries, they were by no means made equal to monogamous heterosexual relations. The scope of exclusion on the basis of sexuality cuts across different aspects of citizenship and has been the subject of various legal acts, from the citizenship and immigration acts, to labour and health insurance acts, all of which in most national contexts recognize only a monogamous heterosexual relationship as a potential beneficiary of particular provisions.

However, the most visible site where sexual citizenship is defined is Family Act Law, which determines in great details what the legitimate forms of intimate communities and living together are. In most Family Law Acts in Europe, North America and Australia family assumes a registered (by the act of marriage) or, sometimes, non-registered community composed of a man (husband) and a woman (wife) and their children. Family Act Law provisions, including the right to marry do not refer to other forms of intimate cohabitations. Thus, intimate communities which include more than one woman and one man, two or more people of same sex, or individuals who do not comply with sex/gender norms are completely excluded from the Family Act Law and do not enjoy the social and economic benefits that come with marriage.

The exclusion from the legislation deprives people who live in the communities other than monogamous heterosexual partnership of a wide range of rights that are often taken for granted, from a right to take care of the partners who are ill and visit them in the hospital, to joint parenting and inability to obtain a visa or residence permit on the grounds of partnership. At the same time, the existing provisions that refer to only one form of joint life push people to organize their intimate lives according to legal standards, i.e. to get married and form a heterosexual nuclear family.

Sexual citizenship and neoliberalism: Rights of sexual minorities and the rise of homonationalism

In the past decade we have witnessed significant changes of sexuality regimes in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. Activists, usually those in non-governmental organizations for the rights of sexual minorities, have played a great role in putting pressure on governments to change the exclusionary acts. In most cases, the changes have been done in the form of “special” acts giving special provisions to same-sex couples. These acts treat the same-sex unions as some “special” communities that are not completely equal to the heterosexual family that remains the basic social unit. In addition to positioning same-sex couples as something that still diverges from the norm, these provisions almost unanimously refer only to monogamous couples, discriminating against other types of intimate communities.

Thus, although accommodating some positive changes, sexual citizenship continues to generate further exclusions. In addition to leaving different sexual practices and relations that do not comply with the new normativity out, the newly achieved gay rights are increasingly becoming a marker of “civility” and “superiority” that, together with women’s rights, serve as a means through which discrimination of migrants and military attacks are justified in the context of the “war on terror” after 9/11. The process whereby the rights of sexual minorities are utilized in nationalist and imperialist projects in some Western nation-states are most clearly articulated through the concept of homonationalism put forward by Jasbir Puar (2007). The concept articulates the ways in which the limited recognition of the rights of sexual minorities functions as a “regulatory script” that defines the new “racial and national norms,” constructing the hierarchical distinction between the tolerant progressive “self” and homophobic uncivilized “other” (Puar, 2007, p. 2). In other words, the new homonationalist practices, through which the rights of sexual minorities are domesticated in the liberal framework of modernity, plurality, and tolerance, often result in reasserting the boundaries of class, ethnicity, race, and nation and reaffirming existing privileges. As an example of the new exclusions, Haritaworn et al (2008) point to the practice of constructing the Muslim population in Great Britain and Germany as the homophobic, misogynistic, uncivilized “other” that represents a threat to an allegedly tolerant and thus superior and “civilized” British-ness and German-ness.

 Moreover, the logic underpinning the homonationalist discourses represents one of the most visible means through which the unequal division between Western and Eastern Europe within and outside of the European Union is constructed, with international organizations such as ILGA Europe and the EU enlargement officials reinforcing the image of Eastern Europe as a place of violent homophobic attacks and banned Gay Pride Marches. In opposition to the homophobic Eastern Europe, Western Europe is framed as a place of rights and safety for sexual minorities, which strengthens its image as a role model of liberal pluralism and democracy for Eastern Europe to follow. In this way, the problematic “catching up” model that secures the Western leadership position while keeping the East in the need of help from the West is re/produced. The position of Western Europe as a knowledgeable teacher, leader, and help-provider further legitimizes its role of an informed decision maker capable of making decisions for the entire EU.

In other words, although in recent years we can witness some positive changes when it comes to rights of sexual minorities in what has been commonly labelled as Western Europe, these improvements have often been appropriated by the nationalist discourses that homogenize the space of Western Europe thereby concealing the issues related to sexual citizenship still existing in the West. At the same time, the ways in which the gay rights as examples of positive practices have been used in the re/production of the West/East hierarchy proves to be counterproductive as they end up in feeding the nationalist homophobic discourses that point out the inequalities produced in and through the EU enlargement process.  The nationalist opposition and violence against the Pride Marches in Belgrade and Split that had a clear anti-EU note can be regarded as cases that speak in favour of this argument.

Thus, what we can see from all these examples is that regimes of sexuality represent one of the main constitutive elements of citizenship regimes in both its more “ethnic” and more “civic” forms.  Also, sexual citizenship makes visible the ways in which sexuality intersects with other aspects of citizenship, representing the site where different power relations are played out, reinforced and sometimes contested. In the post-Yugoslav states the process of re-definition of sexual citizenship has been gaining much prominence in the past years. With local organizations for the rights of sexual minorities and European Union with its human rights agenda as the main driving forces behind the emerging changes, sexual citizenship is increasingly becoming a space of struggles over democratization and European Union accession in this region. It is yet to be seen what kind of outcomes these struggles will bring and what kind of (sexual) citizenship regimes will be (re)established. 


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Bell, D., and Binnie, J. (2000). The sexual citizen: Queer politics and beyond. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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Haritaworn, J., Tauqir, T., and Erdem, E. (2008). Gay imperialism: Gender and sexuality discourse in the ‘war on terror’. In A. Kuntsman, and E. Miyake (Eds.), Out of place: Interrogating silences in queerness/raciality (pp. 71-95). York, UK: Raw Nerve Books.

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Puar, J. (2007). Terrorist assemblages: Homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Žarkov, D. (2007). The body of war: Media, ethnicity, and gender in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Durham: Duke University Press.


Photo 2: Stonewall Inn is the bar in New York that was the site of resistance to police raids against the homosexual and transsexual people in 1969. Public protests taking place in front of the Stonewall Inn are often considered as a starting point of the global sexual politics of visibility with Pride Marches as its central events.