The ILGA and the question of pedophilia: Tracking the demise of gay liberation ideals

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In 1993-1994, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) lost its observer status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) because US conservative groups publicised the membership of two pedophile groups. This article examines debates on pedophilia within ILGA before this event, and documents the slow decline of pro-pedophilia stances. It relates them to wider debates on gay liberation, and argues that pro-pedophilia arguments lost most of their appeal when new ways of imagining homosexual emancipation and new political goals emerged. Beyond the issue of intergenerational sex, it shows these debates were also about the kind of movement activists wanted to build together. [...]

The documents of the 1980 Barcelona conference, where pedophilia was thoroughly discussed in two workshops (the women's caucus and a specific one on the topic), reveal that, despite the cautiousness and the already emerging dissent, positions were primarily liberationist. The defence of pedophilia was presented as an issue of solidarity between oppressed sexual minorities and an endorsement of young people's right to sexual autonomy. If the women's caucus raised the issues of power imbalance in sexual relationships, of patriarchy and of institutional violence against women and children, it refused a systematic association between pedophilia and gender violence, stating that 'mutual relationships are possible between adults and children'. Besides, female activists emphasised the existence of 'a link between the repression of (paedo)sexuality and the appearance of repressive sexuality (rape and sexual assaults)'. At the same time, they were claiming that, as 'children have limited power at present to determine the course of their own lives; a liberation movement should aim to change the relations between adults and children to provide children with more ability to control the course of their own lives'. They raised the issue of age of consent laws, but a consensus could not be reached concerning their overall abolition. The pedophilia workshop, which included representatives of some pedophile groups (the German DSAP, the British Fallen Angels and the French Groupe de Recherche pour une Enfance Diffe ́rente), proposed another resolution suggesting to continue the debate, both within national organisations and at ILGA. Although this document acknowledged tensions and debates within IGA, its preamble was clearly inspired by a liberationist agenda. It claimed that arguments about this topic were often used against 'homosexual liberation', emphasised 'the place liberation of paedosexuality takes in the whole of sexual liberation', and stressed 'our distinctive ability, derived from our own experience of oppression as gay men and lesbian women, to contribute to the discussion of the liberation of paedosexuality'. Age of consent laws were condemned, and activists claimed the right to sexual self-determination irrespective of age. A discussion paper prepared by the COC on request of the 1980 Barcelona conference and discussed at the 1981 Torre Pelice conference, which relied on an earlier decision by the COC annual congress (Sandfort, 1987b), confirmed this stance. It urged homosexuals to show their solidarity with pedophiles, particularly because both groups suffer from normative compulsory heterosexuality, and maintains that 'a successful homo-emancipation should include pedo-emancipation'. It also calls for the abolition of age of consent laws, claiming that 'children often have the same capacity for sexual response as adults'.

The debate was however far from settled. A 1984 open letter from the Flemish FWH to the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM) reveals that IGRM had suspended its membership because of disagreements on the way pedophilia had been handled at the 1983 Vienna conference. In this open letter, the FWH emphasised that the call for 'international solidarity in the face of universal oppression' in IGA's foundational document actually included pedophiles and other oppressed sexual minorities, and that, if pedophiles are not necessarily gay, pedophilia was definitely a gay issue (Elsen, 1984: 14–15).

If this crisis was the external element necessary to expel pedophile groups from ILGA after long and fierce internal debates, it had been prepared by the previous discursive and conceptual changes outlined earlier. Indeed, the discursive context and the power relationships within ILGA had dramatically changed when the UN crisis finally broke out. Therefore, former arguments relating the issue of solidarity with other sexual minorities and to the dissociation between paedophilia and young people's sexuality were still present. However, a more recent argument became central and was combined with the two former ones: political pragmatism and strategy. The UN status, which had been pursued since 1978, was central to ILGA's aims and strategies, and could not be jeopardised because of this scandal. Internal debates, including numerous letters sent by member organisations to ILGA's secretariat, also confirmed the geographical and cultural divide. The most hostile organisations came from the USA, Australia, Sweden or the UK. Reversely, although they may have voted for the expulsion of pedophiles for pragmatic reasons, groups from Brazil, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands proved to be more sympathetic, or at least expressed doubts about the way the whole issue was handled." [...]

Reversely, pro-pedophilia activists kept insisting on the need of solidarity. VSG [Munich-based group Verein fur sexuelle Gleichberechtigung] argued that 'as a gay and lesbian organization, the ILGA must not behave towards a minority among us as hostilely as the anti-homosexual majority behaves towards ourselves. Otherwise ILGA will lose its credibility and its right to exist'.

source: Article 'The International (Lesbia and) Gay Association and the question of pedophilia: Tracking the demise of gay liberation ideals' by David Paternotte (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium); www.docfoc.com/download/documents/cuestion-de-la-pedofilia; Sexualities, 17 (1-2) 121-138.; 2014