Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gay Rights for Gay (Western) Whites?

...With all due apologies to Darren Lenard Hutchinson.

Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings points us to (and excerpts extensively from) a stellar article in the Washington Post on the status of gay rights in Africa. If you think the climate is bad here, you should hear what's going on over there. This is not to say that gay rights is an issue we've "won" in America, only that what is a major problem that occasionally spills into violence in America appears to be a violent problem that occasionally lapses into merely a "major" one in Africa. I've already once before blogged on how race intersects with homosexuality in shifting the nexus of oppression--and since I read an excerpt from Chandra Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes" for class today, an analysis of how "third world" modifies homosexual also seems appropriate (note to the uninitiated: Mohanty's article is considered a classic critique of how western feminism constructs third world women to fit within certain prefigured norms, and why this is harmful).

What's most depressing is that you get the feeling that this is rooted in the tradition of Western colonialism--that homophobia at the level described in this article is not "native" to the continent. This isn't a "blame the West" game--just an acknowledgement of history. The article notes that at worst, the status of homosexuals was ambiguous in pre-colonial Africa--sometimes scapegoats for droughts and crop failures, but sometimes seen as mystical healers and shamans. The primary organs of modern homophobia in Africa today are the Church and politicians trying to distract the masses from pressing problems at home (hmmm...sound familiar?). Scapegoating may be universal, but surely the fact that homosexuals seem to be one of the few classes in the west exempt from protection from explicitly expressed animosity by public officials, surely African leaders have gotten the message that this is a human rights violation for which they'll pay no price. If they choose a different characteristic that Western nations value (like Mugabe's racism toward White people), then the West will protest ferociously--for most countries, this isn't worth the cost. In other words, the status of gay rights discourse in America incentivizes African leaders to scapegoat homosexuals because insofar as they have to scapegoat somebody, this is an "freebie" that won't bring trade sanctions or any other such bad things.

Another thought I had after reading Mohanty was whether or not Western leftist ideologies also have aided African leaders in the suppression of homosexuals. Essentially, what struck me was how often the justification for the suppression of gays and lesbians was premised off it not being "African." The charge for local norms and customs taking precedence over universal human rights standards has been led, by and large, by the left. The rhetoric being used here (though not the effect) doesn't strike me as conservative--rather, what I'm hearing (and this has been heard from terrorist groups in the middle east too) is a co-opting of the leftist attack on culture imperialism and using it to proclaim that homosexuality is a Western value imposing itself on African(/Arabic) culture.

Leftists will argue that this isn't true because, as noted above, homophobia isn't actually rooted in African history at all but is primarily an import from the West. Okay, maybe. But this was still a foreseeable harm that needs to be addressed. By splitting off "African" norms from "our" norms, the left has shoved a wedge between what might be a necessary alliance between first world and third world gay activists. This doesn't mean that the first world should simply absorb the third world into its own framework--acknowledgement of difference is obligatory (for example, "tradition" is a strike against first world gays but perhaps an argument in favor for third world homosexuals). However, at some level I believe that severing human rights in the third world from human rights in the first world by extolling cultural differences and moral relativity is a convenient cover for activists who simply do not wish to address third world oppression. The division serves to allow us to turn the other way, and that shouldn't be acceptable (even if the goal is to focus on "our own" problems, doesn't that betray the sort of provincialism that liberals should try to avoid?).

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

My God!
Don't you think third world countries have enough problems? Why would why a person even consider "oppression of homosexuals" a problem to be contended with at this point? There is genocide, starvation, and AIDS, and you're worried about people's sexuality being oppressed: I see you have your priotities straght. And please, don't even begin to critisize a church that sends millions of dollars in aid and relief workers to Africa every year.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's not just a little name-calling. People get assualted, raped and murdered because of homophobia. So don't even trivialize it as just "people's sexuality". It's their safety and their lives at risk.

jack said...

1. Its a pretty damn serious problem:


From the Post article,

"From Uganda, where homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment, to Sierra Leone, where a lesbian activist was raped and stabbed to death at her desk last year...In Somalia, for example, armed militiamen frequently stone gays. In Egypt, Baumann said, 'you will just get killed.'...In Tanzania and Botswana, there were more than a dozen reports of lesbians being raped in an effort to persuade them to marry men.

2. Just because there are other problems isn't a reason not to address this. Societies don't reform on one issue at a time, thats just silly.

3. All of these issues are inseperably linked. Post again, "Politicians also have found gay-bashing a useful way to deflect criticism from unpopular policies.Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years, once declared: "Kenya has no room or time for homosexuals and lesbians. It is against African norms and traditions and is a great sin." Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe recently dismissed gays as 'lower than pigs and dogs.'"

If politicians are scapegoating homosexuals thats just a way of polarizing the electorate underming reform on all those other issues you mentioned.

4. Why in the world do you think that doing good things exempts the church from criticism? Considering Catholic reproductive dogma has been one of the largest barriers in the fight against AIDS I see no reason for not critisizing the church.


To David and anonymous: Why are we still using the terms "third world" and "first world"? Not only are there all sorts of hierarchies assumed by that dichotomy but the terms are based on ideological affilation during the cold war. The don't even make sense anymore.

Michael said...

The key to the conundrum you raise is the particularly Western *form* of homosexuality that is, with urbanization, increasingly being adopted by Africans and has different social implications than more "traditional" forms such as the lesbian sangoma (traditional healer). In South Africa, for example, those who have managed to integrate this form (I should be able to choose a same-sex partner based solely on romantic love) with "traditional" assumptions about family life (ongoing exchanges of resources between the bride and groom's families, or "bridewealth") have on average been far more successful. Importantly, this yields a "gay man" or a "lesbian" that draws on *both* Western *and* African influences, and cuts the "un-African" charge off at the knees. Equally importantly, it demonstrates that for many everyday Africans, the root of anxiety around self-proclaimed gays and lesbians isn't the sexual prudishness or religious conservatism that is at the heart of Western homophobia, but concerns about the maintenance and utility of a uniquely African family form. When Western leftists fail to appreciate this distinction, they do play into the hands of regressive forces, which is why indigenous political movements like that outlined in the article are so important: they can draw on both global and local inspiration in a way that makes better sense for people in that particular context.

As for the first "anonymous": maybe you haven't heard, but Africa is a big continent. Not all of it is beset by genocide, starvation, or even AIDS. Namibia in particular is actually doing pretty well on the first two counts at least.
(Which is another way of stating Jack's point: in what sense are all of these places supposedly "third" world? Have you even been there?) Plus it's ludicrous to assume that anti-gay prejudice is somehow distinct from these problems. Isn't the connection between anti-lesbian rape and AIDS patently obvious?

Anonymous said...

to the first anon comment:
don't get so upset that they are criticizing a church that sends millions of dollars in aid and relief workers every year, because for every $1 in aid that Africa receives, they must essentially pay $1.51 back to receive that aid. so, the "help" that they receive is actually helping them remain a third-world country.