Monday, December 07, 2009

Gay rights: the emerging global dichotomy

Terrible things are happening in Uganda. Under an anti-homosexual bill currently before the country’s parliament, life imprisonment would be the minimum punishment for anyone convicted of having gay sex. If the accused person is HIV positive or a serial offender, or a "person of authority" over the other partner, or if the "victim" is under 18, a conviction will result in the death penalty.

As Britain’s Guardian reported on November 29, “Members of the public are obliged to report any homosexual activity to police with 24 hours or risk up to three years in jail – a scenario that human rights campaigners say will result in a witchhunt. Ugandans breaking the new law abroad will be subject to extradition requests. . . .

“Human rights groups within and outside Uganda have condemned the proposed legislation, which is designed to strengthen colonial-era laws that already criminalise gay sex. The issue threatened to overshadow the Commonwealth heads of government meeting that ended in Trinidad and Tobago today, with the UK and Canada both expressing strong concerns.”

This outrageous bill reflects deeply-rooted homophobia in Uganda, which is, it must be said, not an advanced society. Yet the situation is being aggravated by a US-linked evangelical campaign alleging that gay men are trying to "recruit" schoolchildren, and claiming that homosexuality is a habit that can be "cured.”

Well, perhaps the bill is simply a vehicle for venting, with little chance of becoming law. Not so, however, In an interview with The Guardian, James Nsaba Buturo, the minister of state for ethics and integrity [sic], said that the government was determined to pass the legislation, ideally before the end of 2009, even if meant withdrawing from international treaties and conventions such as the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and foregoing donor funding. Apparently, the discovery of oil makes the Ugandan authorities confident that they can now forego some of the donor funding, which has been abundant over recent decades.

Some ordinary Ugandans seem frankly to avow and even cherish the retrograde nature of the proposed legislation. As one remarked, “We would rather live in grass huts with our morality than in skyscrapers among homosexuals.”

Uganda, it seems, has usurped the dubious distinction of Jamaica as the "most homophobic place on earth" (Time Magazine). Long familiar to Americans as a laid-back beach destination, Jamaica is hardly idyllic. Not long ago, two of the island's most prominent gay activists, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, were murdered--and a crowd even gathered to exult over Williamson's mutilated body.

Jamaica may be the worst offender, but much of the rest of the Caribbean also has a long history of intense homophobia. Islands like Barbados still criminalize homosexuality, and some seem to be imitating Jamaica's violent example.

As in sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean antigay feelings rest on a bedrock of Christian evangelical homophobia. However, gay-rights activists ascribe the current viral spread of homophobia in Jamaica largely to the country's increasingly thuggish reggae music scene. Reggae's anti-gay rhetoric has seeped into the country's politics. Having passed some of the world's toughest antisodomy laws, Jamaica's regularly incorporate homophobic music in their campaigns. A tourist boycott is long overdue.

Regrettably, a number of other countries could be cited as places where homophobia is getting worse. They lie mainly in the Third World and the Islamic zone.

In other parts of the world very different trends are evident. Thank goodness. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, a gay-male couple had been denied a marriage license last April, but took the matter to court. On November 13, a city court ruled the denial unconstitutional; Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri said that he would not appeal the decision. José Maria Di Bello and Alex Freyre were set to be the first gay men to marry in Latin America. Yet a day before the event, National Judge Marta Gómez Alsina ordered the wedding blocked until the case could be reviewed before the Supreme Court.

As of this writing the matter has not been resolved. Yet there is no doubt about the way matters are proceeding. Previously, civil unions had attained recognition in several cities in Argentina. In that country, civil unions are registered unions conducted between two adults, either of the opposite or same sex, and provide some of the rights granted to married couples, such as health and insurance benefits and hospital visitation. They do not provide inheritance and adoption rights. Civil unions can only be entered into once a couple has lived together for a given time, usually one or two years. It is not certain whether the right of same-sex couples to marry will be generally confirmed, but clearly Argentinians are on their way.

In Portugal, Prime Minister José Sócrates said on January 21, 2009 that, if reelected in the September 2009 elections, he would introduce a bill granting same-sex couples the right to marry. While the bill does not contemplate adoption, most LGBT organizations in Portugal support the measure as an important step towards equality. In fact, his party won the largest share of the vote on September, 27 2009.

In October 2009, the newly reelected José Sócrates stated that the Socialist Party would move ahead to fulfill its campaign promise regarding same-sex marriage. The plan received strong support from the Left Bloc, with its parliamentary leader presenting a proposed amendment to the Family Code that would make the definition of marriage gender-neutral. Government spokesperson Jorge Lacão said that is likely that same-sex marriage will become law in Portugal in early 2010.

In Ireland the authority of the Roman Catholic church has been severely damaged by its complicity in covering up the widespread allegations of sexual abuse of minors. This change has improved the prospects for gay rights in that country. Same-sex relationships are due to be recognized in Ireland under a recently published bill (Civil Partnership Bill 2009) that would permit civil partnerships between same-sex couples with extensive legal rights but not full civil marriage. The Government had indicated that the bill will become law before the end of 2009. The debate on the Second Stage of the Bill took place in the Dail (parliament) at the beginning of December 2009.

It is evident that the world is seeing a massive split. Some nations, generally the richer and better educated ones, are becoming more gay-friendly. Other countries, mostly in the Third World, are becoming more openly homophobic, even lethally so. It is true that some religious figures in the US and Britain are promoting homophobia abroad, but the general trend in our own countries is in the opposite direction.

On October 17 an interdisciplinary conference at Yale University (which I was unable to attend) addressed the dichotomy through the prism of the worldwide Anglican community. The conference was entitled “Why Homosexuality?  Religion, Globalization, and the Anglican Schism.” Participants included Kwame Anthony Appiah, George Chauncey, Mark Jordan, and Mary Jane Rubenstein

The conference statement is as follows: “Rather than restaging the arguments for and against the ordination of openly gay clergy, this day-long conference analyzes the threatened schism in the Anglican Communion in order to examine wide-ranging and interrelated issues of religion, secularism, globalization, nationalism, and modernity.  How and why, we ask, has homosexuality come to serve as a flash point for so many local and global conflicts?”

The last sentence is indeed the pivotal question.

The first panel, on The Politics of Schism, took place under the following rubric: “What global and local conditions (e.g., economic, political, theological, postcolonial, mediatic) have fostered the peculiar global realignments pertaining to the schism? To what extent (and why) has sexual liberalism, including both the recognition of homosexuals as distinct subjects and the extension of tolerance toward them, come to serve as a marker of a distinctly Western modernity, to be embraced or resisted?”

Another panel offered the following acknowledgment. “All parties in the struggle seem to agree that beyond the institutional and legal stakes of church property and governance, the unity of a larger body is at issue.  How is sex mobilized by different parties in order to define (or purify or regulate) confessional traditions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism?  Why do sex and sexuality especially serve as the occasion for such struggles over religious collectivity?  How does this wedge issue serve different parties?”
The final panel addressed this question: “How is the Anglican debate shaping—as well as reflecting—broader debates over sexuality, morality, and the norms of public and private both within and between North American, British, African, Asian, and Latin America societies?   What may be the broader consequences and significance of a schism?”

Anglicanism does indeed offer one entry point for exploring the global question. Yet it is clear that the conundrum must be tackeled in a much broader context, one that would include such topics as Islamic homophobia, Confucian silencing, and psychiatric inferiorization. We can look forward to further, more incisive analysis. Regrettably, though, the negative side of the dichotomy is unlikely to disappear any time soon.



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