Sunday, May 29, 2011
Imperialism and homophobia
Feature by Colin Wilson
Recent years have seen increased international coverage of LGBT issues. While activists are rightly outraged by the attacks people suffer in other parts of the world, it's important to understand the broader context of homophobia in order to avoid promoting racist stereotypes, argues Colin Wilson
In February the BBC screened a documentary about Uganda, The World's Worst Place to be Gay?, fronted by gay Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills. Mills documented the grim facts: serious attacks against lesbians and gays are going on in Uganda, with a bill under discussion in parliament which would introduce the death penalty for gay sex if the offender has previous convictions, is HIV+ or has sex with someone under 18. There is widespread public hostility to gay people, and gay activists face murderous attacks - such as that on David Kato, who was beaten to death in January.
The government of Malawi also received widespread publicity in May 2010, when Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga - who was born male but identifies as a woman - were sentenced to 14 years jail after being arrested at a traditional betrothal party. The couple were eventually pardoned after considerable international pressure. Homophobic attacks have also taken place in Muslim countries: in 2001 in Egypt 21 men were arrested at a nightclub in Cairo and eventually sentenced to three years jail for "habitual debauchery", while the government of Iran has also executed and publicly flogged lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
These facts are bad enough. What is just as worrying is the perception that has now become "common sense" for sections of the LGBT media and community - that African and Middle Eastern people are generally homophobic, while white Western Europeans are on our side. This is just too close to colonial style racism - whites are enlightened, non whites are backward - for us to accept it. It fits all too well with Islamophobia against Muslims in this country, such as Johann Hari's recent article in gay style magazine Attitude, in which he claimed that exactly zero percent of Muslims have positive views about gays. And it can give comfort to the English Defence League's claim that they support LGBT rights against Muslim homophobia.
Such stereotypes about Muslims in the UK are entirely inaccurate. As with any group, some Muslims are homophobic - but most are not. Stonewall research has repeatedly found that religious people are no more likely to be homophobic than anyone else - and the group most likely to be prejudiced is not Muslims or people from ethnic minorities, but older white British men.
The fight against homophobia in the UK is also far from over. While Scott Mills assured a group of men in a Kampala gay bar that "In England it's easy to be gay, everywhere it's allowed" and that he can be openly gay in any bar in London, the truth is less rosy. Ian Baynham was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square in 2009 by homophobic attackers. Stonewall figures suggest that each year one in eight lesbians or gay men are victims of hate crime. We've only had an equal UK age of consent since 2000, all sex between men was illegal in Britain till 1967, and 41 US states still ban gay marriage - it's absurd to talk about LGBT rights being an essential part of Western values.
Research by Stonewall, for example, shows that LGBT refugees frequently face appalling treatment from immigration authorities - they are expected to describe intimate and sometimes horrific experiences to officials without hesitation, only to have their sexuality questioned, or to be told to go back to their country of origin and live "discreetly".
We need a better understanding than the "common sense" one, starting with the nature of the international political order. We live in a world divided up into countries in competition with each other. In each country political and economic power is integrated - oil is a crucial commodity economically, for example, so the US uses its political and military power to try to gain control over oil reserves. In this system - which Marxists call imperialism - some countries have much more power than others. The US currently uses economic and military power to dominate the world: in the 18th and 19th centuries Britain and France controlled vast and brutal empires. The British Empire was originally built on Caribbean slavery, and its crimes included one million deaths in Ireland during the 1848 famine - during which the authorities continued to export food from the country - and killing thousands of Indians to suppress the Great Rebellion of 1857-58.
The main motivation for imperialism has always been control of territory, resources and trade. Columbus sailed to America by accident because he was looking for a trade route to China. But sexual oppression has frequently been part of the picture too: as early as Columbus's second voyage to America in 1495, the sailor Michele de Cuneo reported in a letter home that he had come across a beautiful Caribbean woman "and the admiral gave her to me".
Different attitudes to sex became markers of the relative worth of different cultures - British respectability was judged superior to more relaxed Asian or African attitudes. Anal sex between men was banned throughout the empire by the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, creating a taboo which had not existed in many places till then. Because the non-European world was seen as an exotic, sensual place, it was also depicted as a European's sexual playground. Gauguin painted naked young women from the Pacific Islands, while other painters depicted harems filled with luxurious furnishings and compliant sex slaves.
Nor was sexual subordination confined to art. In 19th century British India, for example, most ranks in the British army were not permitted to have their wives live with them. Instead the army authorities organised brothels where Indian women and girls, some as young as 12, provided sexual services for the British troops. The memoirs of colonial administrators tell the same story: a 1950s British rubber planter in Malaysia recalled that he was provided with a female servant who cooked his meals and had sex with him.
This sexual playground was also open to men who sought sex with other men, if they could afford to travel there. British novelist E M Forster lost his virginity in Egypt in 1914 with another man. 1960s gay playwright Joe Orton took holidays in Morocco because teenage male prostitutes were available. These encounters reflected a general perception that Muslim countries were more accepting of sex between men than Christian ones. In the 1840s a Moroccan visitor to Paris wrote with surprise about French customs: "Flirtation, romance and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful."
For the African and Asian independence movements which developed through the 19th and 20th centuries, sexual exploitation was an example of imperialism's moral bankruptcy. The great anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon wrote in his book The Wretched of the Earth about sexual exploitation in the Caribbean, where "centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts [are] organised to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie". A concern for sexual dignity, a rejection of racist stereotypes of Asians and Africans as exotic and sexual, an end to exploitation - in particular, that of women - were thus all part of anti-colonial movements.
Activists in the nationalist movements were not typically the rural poor, peasants or workers, but middle class urban people. Generally men, they had been educated in schools run by missionaries, spoke English or French, and worked in professional, European-style roles as doctors, lawyers or civil servants. They felt that they were fitted to rule their "own" countries - a view which led them to oppose white colonialists, but also set themselves apart from the mass of the people.
Such leaders were concerned to show that they would make capable, respectable rulers. The end result of many anti-colonial struggles in the mid-20th century was that societies changed largely at the top - black rulers replaced white rulers, and while this was a real step forward, much of the existing structure of society was left intact. This separation from the masses was crucial to the attitudes nationalist leaders took to sexuality. Along with European concepts like the nation- state and modernisation, they accepted the ideas about sexuality which dominated Europe at the time. For example, Arab nationalist intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries argued that their society had been colonised because it had become decadent. To gain independence its national culture must be revived. But that national culture was now reinvented to fit European standards, and so, for example, poems by the great 9th century Arabic poet Abu Nuwas which mentioned the pleasures of boys and wine began to be left out of anthologies.
One final element in nationalist attitudes to sex is that most anti-colonial struggles were won in the mid-20th century. In this period the rapid economic development of the Soviet Union seemed an attractive model to many nationalist movements. Many nationalists were influenced by Stalinist politics, which provided an apparently radical alternative to those of their former colonial masters. But the Soviet Union was far from radical in any sense - including over homosexuality, which was illegal there.
This explains how ideas about sex which were typical of 19th century Europe came to be accepted in anti-colonial movements. But to give a more detailed picture of recent events in Malawi and Uganda, we have to look at some issues particular to Africa.
Like everywhere else on earth, pre-colonial African societies included sex between women and between men. An anthropologist in the 1950s reported that among the Iteso people of Kenya and Uganda "people of hermaphroditic instincts are very numerous". Still today there exist in parts of Africa traditions of hugging and kissing, and sometimes also sex, between young women. In 19th century Uganda, King Mwanga insisted that his pages have sex with him, as was traditional. They had recently converted to Christianity and refused: the king demonstrated his authority by executing 30 of them.
Yet it's common for Africans to assert - as they did repeatedly in the Scott Mills documentary - that homosexuality is non-African, a destructive European import. Such ideas go back, once again, to the colonial period, and attitudes that developed in different parts of the empire.
It was impossible for Europeans to deny that Asian history had included advanced civilisations. But since Europeans had now conquered them, they concluded that Asians must have become decadent, a decadence which included sexuality. So Europeans didn't deny that sex happened between men and between women in the Middle East or India.
Africa and the Pacific, meanwhile, were seen by the colonial powers as peoples without a history, living in a "state of nature" - primitive, but natural. Europeans used this idea to make both liberal and reactionary arguments. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, for example, claimed that Pacific people had a relaxed attitude to adolescent sexuality: by implication, this was natural, so Europeans and Americans should take the same approach. But the assumed "naturalness" of African sexuality also implied that Africans were incapable of "unnatural" same-sex practices.
Against this background, we can begin to understand the growth of homophobia, for example, in Uganda. Uganda is a poor and undeveloped country: one in three people live on less than $1 a day, and four out of five people work in agriculture. This is a legacy of empire: the role of a colony is to produce raw materials, not manufacture goods. Since the 1970s imperialism has further undermined African development through debt and privatisation. Since coming to power in 1986 Ugandan president Museveni has done nothing to resist such attacks: early in his first term he agreed to a structural adjustment programme with the IMF and the World Bank, privatising state enterprises for a pittance and cutting government spending. He became popular in Washington: in 1997 the US Clinton administration described him as a "beacon of hope" who ran what they called a "uni-party democracy". In fact he has remained in power thanks to the use of torture and intimidation of political opponents.
Promoting a homophobic panic suits Museveni. Scapegoating a minority diverts attention from his own corruption, and allows him to pose as a defender of a supposed traditional African culture against the corruption of Europe and America - when in fact he has worked hand in glove with global financial institutions and multinational companies.
The Christian right in the US has also played a major role in developing Ugandan homophobia. The New York Times reported in January 2010 that American evangelical Christians prompted the original introduction of the Anti Homosexuality Bill by speaking at meetings involving thousands of Ugandans the previous year. They had spent three days telling audiences that gay people could choose to be straight and that homosexuality is linked to paedophilia.
The Anglican Church in Uganda also has a poor track record: the Anglican priest at gay activist David Kato's funeral chose that moment to deliver a homophobic rant, Anglican bishops unanimously gave a standing ovation at a conference last year to anti-gay speakers, and the church has cut the pension of a retired bishop who opposes the Anti Homosexuality Bill.
So Ugandan homophobia has developed in a context of poverty and lack of democracy, in which Western governments are complicit, and has been provoked and sustained by right wing Christians from the US, and others who are part of a church based in Britain. So it makes no sense for LGBT people in imperialist powers like Britain and the US to side with their goverments against African and Asian governments. Nor does it help LGBT people in the countries concerned. European interventions can, firstly, help reinforce the claim that homosexuality is not part of African or Asian culture. British activists need to take particular care regarding countries like Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Uganda and Malawi, all former British colonies - for someone from Britain to complain about these countries' human rights record can look ridiculous to people in them, many of whom can remember the brutality of empire.
Second, attitudes will only really change in Africa or Asia if those changes are won by people in those countries. Of course, you can understand why LGBT people here are horrified when they see witch-hunts going on: they want to express solidarity and do what they can to help. But just as real change in Egypt and Tunisia only happened when people there fought back for themselves, so Western ideas, support or money aren't the main things that will bring change for LGBT people in Africa or the Middle East. Just as we fought to change attitudes here, rather than someone handing us our freedom, sexual minorities in other parts of the world must find their own way to liberation.
Such change is a concrete possibility. The end of apartheid in South Africa was won amid a near-revolutionary situation as huge strikes by black workers created social upheaval in which all accepted ideas were called into question. Gay members of the liberation movement came out - in some cases in prison, while facing a death sentence from the racist regime. The fact that LGBT people were part of the movement helped activists to argue that the new South Africa had to include justice for lesbians and gays as well as racial justice. Gay and lesbian rights were included in the 1996 constitution - a first for any country - and laws were passed which guaranteed equality in employment, in service provision and regarding civil marriage. In each of these areas equality was gained in South Africa before it was won in Britain.
These changes are a first step, and they can be reversed, but they make the key point: imperialism has created the context within which homophobia can grow. We fight for sexual liberation not by siding with the imperialists, but by forming part of the struggle against them.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Spain Protests Claim 'European Summer' Follows Arab Spring
NEW YORK – There is relative calm after police injured more than 100 protesters in Barcelona Friday. Barbie Latza Nadeau and Mike Elkin report on the scene and whether Greece is next. Plus, photos below and tweets.
There is nothing like police brutality to rekindle civil disobedience. After tens of thousands had filled the main plazas of around 60 Spanish cities last week, fed up with what they called an incompetent and corrupt political class, protests resumed on Friday after riot police, trying to clear a peaceful sit-in at Barcelona's Plaça Catalunya, injured more than 100 people with nightsticks and rubber bullets.
Photos: Protests in Spain Turn Violent
The images and videos of excessive force against an unarmed and non-violent crowd shocked Spaniards into returning in droves to the squares after protests had calmed this week while organizers honed their diverse message. “Barcelona is not alone!” chanted thousands of Madrileños in the Puerta del Sol Friday night. “These are our weapons!” shouted the protesters, holding up long-stemmed flowers.
One off-duty officer in Barcelona told The Daily Beast that he and his colleagues were angry the cops resorted to violence, adding that after recent cuts to police salaries and pensions, it should be them in the square protesting. Many, he said, do just that.
Since May 15, protesters of all ages and backgrounds have flocked to the squares with a mixture of ideologies, but overall feel unrepresented and used by politicians. Not helping is the 21-percent unemployment, around 40 percent for young people, and a recession with no end in sight. The governing Socialist party and the opposition People's Party (PP), they say, are two sides to a broken record, and citizens are powerless to change the situation at the voting booths because the system is designed to favor one or the other.
“This is the democracy that we want,” said Eduardo Gómez, 31, a lawyer volunteering at the protesters' legal consultation tent in the Puerta del Sol, pointing to the white-haired woman eating ice cream and discussing the best use of a vote with a spiky-haired youth. “Going out to the public square to debate issues, not voting every four years and switching off in-between.”
Protest organizers have whittled down their proposals to changing election rules so that votes do not count more depending on geography, creating a true separation of powers between governmental branches, instituting political oversight, and fighting corruption. In April, ahead of last Sunday's local and regional elections, one newspaper found that in seven regions, half of the PP candidates and 35 percent of the Socialist candidates were implicated in corruption investigations.
Authorities across southern Europe fear the Spanish protests will spark a European version of the Arab uprisings. Momentum is already gathering in Greece, where 20,000 people have been protesting austerity measures since Thursday with a massive demonstration scheduled for Sunday in Athens. In Italy, an equally dire economic situation and growing frustration with the establishment looms. Banners in the Spanish squares touted slogans “This is our Revolution.” In Athens, signs read “This is our Tahrir Square.”
On the surface, the protests do look similar in style to those that brought down the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, from the social networking calls to battle to the colorful tents pitched on the cities’ main squares. But there is a fundamental difference—Spain and Greece are democracies, not dictatorial regimes. And, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, in countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, there is a long history of social disobedience and political protests to get the attention of voters and democratically elected leaders.
There is another vital difference, and one that is disconcerting to authorities watching the situation. Protests like those in Spain and Greece have traditionally been a breeding ground for anarchist groups that tend to hijack more noble causes to push an anti-authority rhetoric. That has so far been kept at a minimum in Spain, likely because the anarchists are regrouping after protesting the G8/G20 confabs in France last week. But there are urgent calls to action on anarchist websites and a real fear among authorities that if the protests spread across Greece and Italy, the extreme elements of the anarchist groups will not miss the opportunity to get a piece of the action. Franco Pavoncello, a political analyst and president of John Cabot University in Rome cautions that growing discontent is not to be taken lightly. “This is anomic terror spurred by the economic crisis and growing content,” he told The Daily Beast. “Extreme groups are quick to capitalize on a difficult situation.”
The growing theme of anti-establishment sites might just foretell the months ahead. “We've got the Arab Spring. What about a European summer?”
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.
Mike Elkin has been covering Spain for Newsweek since 2006, and also writes for The Times, American Lawyer and Archaeology magazine. Recently he reported on and photographed the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya for USA Today, Newsweek, Wired.com and The Daily.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
$2K for McCain, $0 to No on Prop 8
Talk about a grand exit from the closet. Yesterday's front-page of the New York Times' recycled-tree edition reported the official coming out of Phoenix Suns executive Rick Welts as a gay man, and like many others I too laud his stepping out. Always good to have high-profile business folks, especially inprofessional sports, doing the right thing and stating that they are gay.
Wanting to learn more about Welts's political views, as best as they can be gleaned from Federal Election Commission and California election disclosure laws, I searched for any donations he may have made to politicians or PACs.
At the federal level, Welts in March 2003 donated $2,000 to Sen. John McCain's Patriot First PAC, and I imagine since Welts's team is based in the GOP senator's state, it makes sense that as a businessman he would want to support McCain. But what about McCain's opposition to gay rights legislation? Did Welts ignore those issues in order to make a contribution?
In February 2004 Welts gave former Sen. John Edwards $500 for his presidential campaign, and Edwards is way more supportive of gay rights than McCain so I don't believe Welts had to ignore anti-gay views of the recipient when writing the check.
That's it for Welts's giving at the national level, and in California norecords turn up for him having made donations to any politician or ballot proposition race. The Secretary of State's campaign disclosure search engine shows no contributions, while the SF Chronicle's comprehensive data collection of donors contains no record of giving to either the Yes or No on Prop 8 campaigns.
Make of this what you will. I won't be surprised if Welts starts making donations to Gay Inc organizations, LGBT politicians and finds other ways to share his wealth and status with the community.
(Photo of Welts taken by Joshua Lott for the NY Times.)
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Friday, May 20, 2011
A marriage equality sellout in R.I.
The announcement, which came on April 27, was a shock for activists on the ground, and drew the ire of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) and the state's gay press. This defeat, while tragic, is worth exploring in order to tease out the political questions opened up by the betrayal of our legislative "allies" and to contribute to a debate on how to move forward.
The fight for marriage equality in Rhode Island had been previously looked at as virtually unwinnable, given that former Gov. Don Carcieri (whose opposition to same-sex partners planning each other's funerals drew national attention) was guaranteed to veto such a bill. In the legislature, although Gordon Fox, an openly gay man, rose to the position of speaker of the House, state Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed remained an opponent.
Despite this, a marriage equality bill has been dutifully introduced every year since 1997. The activists in MERI and its small army of volunteers centered their strategy on lobbying individual legislators, both directly and by hand-delivering postcards from their constituents. This was successful in building a core of support inside the legislature, but an open vote on marriage equality was never achieved.
This year, with the loathed Carcieri gone and the election of Republican-turned-Independent and progressive favorite Lincoln Chaffee (a marriage-equality supporter) as governor, a new wind was put in the sails of marriage-equality supporters. Chaffee, in his inaugural address, stated, "I hope that Rhode Island will catch up to its New England neighbors and pass a bill to establish marriage equality, I urge our assembly to quickly consider and adopt this legislation. When marriage equality is the law, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortunes to defend human equality."
In response, the right-wing National Organization for Marriage went on the offensive, calling for a popular vote on the issue.
In January, the bill was introduced with great hope for its passage, and with good reason; Lincoln Chaffee had called for it, while Gordon Fox, being an openly gay man, has a personal stake in the battle (one would think). The R.I. Bar Association, the New England Association of Educators-Rhode Island (NEARI) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) all put out statements endorsing marriage equality. In 2009, a Brown University poll stated that 60 percent of Rhode Islanders were in favor of marriage equality.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
SO WHY, then, did Gordon Fox effectively end the debate on marriage equality this year?
The truth is that Fox had shown earlier signs of wavering. In the face of a February 9 rally for marriage equality that drew some 500 people--with 137 people sitting through an eight-and-a-half hour Judiciary Committee meeting to testify in favor of marriage equality--the committee Chair Edith Allejo stated that the next logical step would be a committee vote.
It was Fox who very quickly stepped in to put the brakes on. He was quoted in the Providence Journal as stating, "Edie wants to move quickly. She's a new chair...and she wants to push things so they can get through their agenda. But we, in the leadership, myself and the majority leader, really need to talk to a few people. We actually want to have some conversations with the senate, with the governor's office, and that is going to take some time."
The Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearing on marriage equality in early March with similar results.
But all this set the stage for supposed marriage equality "ally" Gordon Fox to follow in the footsteps of openly gay "pioneers" like Barney Frank in selling out the interests of the LGBT movement and squandering the political momentum that many had worked very hard to build.
Abandoning the fight for marriage equality, Fox stated in an e-mail that he would recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill. Instead, he said that he would offer a civil unions bill in its place.
For those of us fighting for full equality and liberation, terms like "compromise" and "practicality" should not even be in our vocabulary. Gordon Fox, by giving ground to the bigots of the National Organization for Marriage, has proven just where his loyalties lie. Civil unions, in legal terms, do not offer the same protections as civil marriage, and cannot be accepted on that ground alone.
Those elected to public office (even the openly gay ones) will not act without continued pressure from below. The fight for full same-sex marriage rights is not over, but activists must fight to set the terms of the debate and make the legislature act. This means we must wage the ideological battle in the streets.