The sources of global homophobia

Activists and politicians working for the human rights of LGBT people must study the history which underlies the fears they are trying to allay. Understanding who benefits from homophobia, and why, is a crucial step in this process, argues Rachael Crook

Rachael Crook
30 March 2012

International attention paid to safeguarding the rights and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people seems at an all time high. Whether it be the dire protestations of opposition to gay marriage emanating from the Catholic clergy, the international media attention paid to the views of the new Jamaican Prime Minister, or the proliferation of internet petitions calling for major banks to disinvest in countries that fail to protect sexual minorities. 'Gay rights' are having a moment. The  attention can be seen at all levels - from the politicians of Washington and Whitehall - to the newly appointed sexuality based researchers of human rights giants such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

These developments are often seen as the apex of a trajectory of ‘progress’ stemming from the struggles of sexuality liberation movements in the later half of the twentieth century, in which religion plays centre stage. But the ebb and flow of events surrounding LGBT rights shows the development to be less linear. In part this stems from a lack of detailed understanding and examination of the historical sources of homophobia that have served to sustain and reproduce the myth of universal heterosexuality, and to ensure that those who love others of the same sex are identified as a threat to all that society and the state holds dear.

The necessity of understanding the complex causes of homophobia can be seen in the divergent reactions to international leaders’ statements. On reflection, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s Speech at United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last year were well informed and refreshingly humble. While acknowledging the controversy and hypocrisy of her position as a leader of the American people, a nation with a chequered gay rights record, she proceeded to name, address and dismantle the arguments used to justify persecution of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people around the world, and pledged the establishment of a fund of 3 million dollars to support the provision of LGBT rights around the globe.  Her speech was met with a flurry of ambassadorial exits, a protracted standing ovation and the approval of LGBT activists and academic commentators alike.

In contrast, David Cameron’s announcement of his intention to reduce development aid to those countries that ‘persecute homosexuality’ was immediately met by a statement of opposition signed by 139 individuals and organisations in Africa.  They stated that while his intentions may be worthy, ‘the decision to cut aid disregards the role of the LGBTI and broader social justice movement on the continent, and creates the real risk of a serious backlash against LGBTI people’. The divergence between the reactions to Clinton and Cameron announcements demonstrates the vital importance of understanding the historical, political, and religious barriers that give rise human rights violations.

Much attention has been focused on violations of the rights of LGBT people in former colonies, such as the India Minister for Health’s statement last year that homosexuality is a ‘disease’ brought to the country by foreigners. While his comments disregard the rich history of sexual minorities in India and the prominence of the Hijra community, they demonstrate the desire to reject cultural norms and practices perceived to come from the West in the post-independence era. This is profoundly ironic, because as Human Rights Watch have demonstrated, it was colonial powers that legally prohibited sex between people of the same sex in many states in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and sought to enforce a view of sexuality that equated heterosexuality with morality and order - and homosexuality with sin, condemnation and chaos. Spain, Portugal, Britain and France passed and enforced strict laws against same sex sexual relations in their imperial territories. Under Section 377 of the 1860 British Penal Code, first enforced in India, and later transplanted to all British colonies, ‘carnal knowledge of another man, women or child against the order of nature’ was criminalised. It is this Section that the British group of Barristers ‘The Human Dignity Trust’ now seeks to overturn; and it is this Section which continues to provide the legal basis for intimidation, arrest and untold misery for hundreds of thousands of people, decades after the flags of independence were raised.

Uncovering this colonial origin of criminalisation laws is central to  debunking the myth of a universal, heterosexual, pre-colonial history in Africa and Asia -  and Sylvia Tamale  has edited a book African Sexualities for this purpose. However, this process of social control is not unique to former colonies, and present debates continue to omit the complex history of persecution of LGBT people in Western Europe in particular.

Contemporary claims opposing gay marriage often rest on the view that marriage was ‘created’ to reflect the biological imperative of reproduction, and that the inclusion of same sex couples reflects a disastrous ‘perversion’ from this norm, or a consequences of hyper-sexualised contemporary culture. What then of Eric Heinze’s finding that gay marriage was practiced and accepted in Ancient Greece? The fact these records are so surprising illustrates a key finding: the histories of sexual minorities have been purposefully concealed as the lives and practices of LGBT people have been literally and rhetorically extinguished. This is demonstrated in the 13th century papal edicts which not only condemned ‘sodomites’ to be burned, but ordered that the records of their crimes to be immersed in the same flames, and the 15th Florentine Officers of the Night who arrested some 15 000 men and boys suspected of engaging in same sex sexual relations, many of whom were driven naked from the city and forcibly castrated. Such findings are vital in uncovering the ‘hidden histories’ of sexual minorities as Vanessa Baird’s incredible book ‘A No Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity’ shows.

Criminalisation statutes function not just as justifications for intimidation, but as attempts to regulate social interaction and behaviour, and enforce strictly segregated gender norms. This knowledge explains why ‘sodomy’ was regarded, and continues to be so in some contexts, not merely as a moral issue, but as an existential threat to state security. This was based on the fear that sexual diversity and perceived ‘immorality’ was representative of a disordered corrupt polity.

The focus on prohibiting ‘sodomy’, named from the divine destruction of Sodom in Genesis, illustrates the determination to enforce gendered roles in public and private. This segregation, supported by the often low or unpaid labour of women, was, and remains, vital to the maintenance of the nation state -  a formula which breaks down if relationships are not composed of one man and one woman. Such norms not only disadvantage women who seek to transgress them, but many men who do not conform to masculine stereotypes of virile heterosexual sexuality. Thus ‘sodomy’ was legally condemned as a ‘crime against the state’ in which gay men and women were made scapegoats for the all the ills of society. Sex between men was blamed for natural disasters and for political opposition. Indeed, denouncing individuals as homosexuals was a common tactic to discredit political enemies, as many argue has been the case in the trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim this year. The political context of homophobia highlights the significance today, in countries like Uganda, of pastors accusing each other of having sex with their male charges.

In the post-independence era marginalised groups have often found themselves in a double bind. They are instrumentalised to provide a symbol of the reassertion of localised control of behaviour and ‘morality’, while simultaneously having their agency circumscribed by (former) imperial powers’ attempts to intervene on their behalf. Western countries often lack the contextual knowledge to make this intervention helpful. It is a situation recognised in the attempts to ‘liberate’ Muslim women from the ‘oppression’ of the burqa, and in the intensification of homophobia in Iraq following the 2003 American invasion, as explained by Ali Halli of the group Iraqi LGBTI. Halli tells how gay men have been arrested, hung by their wrists and beaten as a symbol of local resistance to foreign rule, in which homosexuality is perceived as a western import, and the persecution of LGBT people an act to reassert localised control over societal values in the context of occupation.

An examination of the complicated terrain on which the battle for gay rights has been fought reveals a political struggle in which imperial practices and legacies interact with moralised views of sexuality in which the power of the state to control what goes on between the sheets is seen an emblematic of national stability. However, this has been masked by the systemic attempts to cover up and ignore the hidden history of sexual diversity. Indeed the largest record of accumulated papers relating to sexual diversity were destroyed by Nazi fires in 1930s Germany, annihilating records of the hugely important 18th century German gay rights movement, during which the term ‘homosexual’ was coined. Furthermore, the colonial origin of criminalisation statutes in developing countries significantly complicates the notion of western states urging for more tolerant practices. If activists, politicians and individuals are serious about pushing for long term change in the recognition of the human rights of LGBT people, then they must return to study the history and context which underlies the fears they are trying to allay. Understanding who benefits from homophobia, and why,  is a crucial step in this process. It is only by embarking on this journey that those who wish to aid LGBT people in their struggles can meaningfully contribute to improve the lives of sexual minorities. Failure to do so will result in culturally insensitive and ineffective politics that may do more to spur, rather than stem, contemporary homophobia. 

This article follows Rachael Crooks' earlier article 'Gays,Gods and Governments': homophobia in Uganda


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