The Supreme Court recently declared that federal laws barring same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits were discriminatory and had no place in our society. Even now, and in typical American fashion, lawyers in a handful of states (including Pennsylvania and New Jersey) are determining how they can use this precedent (which applies only to the federal government) to attack and destroy all vestiges of a pre-gay marriage America. Their announcement was in line with President Obama’s current views on the subject, feeling that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should enjoy all the benefits that our society has to offer: marriage, employment, housing and tax breaks.
Within the frame of Western politics, this is great news. America is one step closer to being in social communion with Europe, where 18 nations already recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions. But if we take a look at the wider scope, some disturbing trends begin to appear. Anti-LGBT violence in the Republic of Iraq has been on a steady increase following the installation of a United States-backed government in 2005. Violence against LGBT people in sub-Saharan Africa has also been the focus of press attention recently, especially since President Obama’s clash with Senegalese President Macky Sall and the murder of a Cameroonian LGBT activist. Anti-gay rhetoric in the Russian Federation has similarly been a concern for American and European diplomats, as the Russian Legislature passes increasingly draconian laws governing “homosexual propaganda.”
In each of these three cases, two common factors become apparent. For both Iraqis and sub-Saharan Africans, Islam is the governing religion for social issues, and a post-Communist Russia has embraced the Eastern Orthodox Church in a similar capacity. However, organized religion alone is not the driving force here. It has existed in these countries (in one form or another) for centuries. Some critics call the “apparent increase” in anti-LGBT violence an artifact of America’s recent interest in LGBT issues. They say that this violence has always existed here, but Americans just weren’t looking for it.
This argument (while possessing some validity) is not the main reason for Iraqi, sub-Saharan and Russian extremism. When comparing these governments to culturally similar ones (Iraq to Saudi Arabia, Russia to Ukraine, etc.), it becomes clear that the countries I have highlighted are experiencing quantitatively more violence than their neighbors. Saudi Arabia endorses Sunni Islam as a political philosophy and threatens to punish homosexual acts with death. Yet if you talk to a resident of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Region, you’ll learn of the (closeted but obvious) homosexuals who live freely in their society. Compare that to the reports of the Iraqi police working their homosexual convicts to death or assaulting them when they request assistance. Similarly, while gay pride parades are legal and protected in Ukraine, the very act of kissing a same-sex partner is now criminalized in Russia.
So why are Iraqis, Sub-Saharans and Russians so homophobic? If only it were that easy to demonize cultures that we don’t really understand. The second (and more important) common factor among these people is their desire to be free of us. Anti-LGBT violence in these countries is usually related to increasing religious conservatism among their leadership, which is itself a response to increased pressure by the United States for them to conform to our beliefs. A severe lack of respect by the U.S. government, combined with a cultural arrogance about our “superior” way of life, makes negotiations with these countries difficult because they view our presence as a threat to their cultural uniqueness.
Even using the phrase “LGBT” to describe sexual minorities in other countries is a form of this arrogance. Around the world, local understandings of gender and sexuality vary greatly, and the “gay and lesbian” identities simply do not apply. Similarly, these sexual minorities do not demand the same rights and privileges associated with the LGBT movement in the U.S. They have unique problems to contend with, like rampant HIV infections, discrimination against HIV-positive individuals, police brutality, and media-encouraged violence against their most vulnerable members. When President Obama was asked to stand before the people of Senegal and lecture about same-sex marriage, it did nothing to address the widespread police brutality there. By the same token, Germany’s announcement to restrict Russian visas for its homophobic laws does nothing to aid the Russian LGBT community in its struggle for equal protection.
So how can the U.S. actually help the LGBT people whom its Department of State claims to love? By listening. Instead of assuming that gay people around the world want essentially the same thing, the U.S. could benefit from learning what “LGBT rights” mean to an Iraqi. Promising “marriage for all” doesn’t go over well when dealing with countries where sodomy is still criminalized. Working with and encouraging local LGBT activists must not be encumbered by U.S. assumptions of our cultural superiority.
Supporting the global fight for LGBT rights is neither simple nor short-term. When Western governments bring their self-aggrandizing views into the discussion, they alienate their allies and hurt those allies’ LGBT constituents. An effective strategy to protect sexual and gender minorities around the world is one written in terms that the locals can understand. It must reflect local values and respect local beliefs. Without such compassion, homophobia and Americaphobia will continue to grow.
Richard Furstein is the manager of distribution services at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].