I'm thrilled to know Vladimir Putin has gay acquaintances, but it doesn't do much to change my opinion of his bigoted, tyrannical regime. In fact, I doubt anybody buys the nice friendly gloss he's trying to give Russia before the place is inundated with Olympic ice skaters and skiers, and vodka-guzzling, tee-shirt buying crowds.
In Nigeria, meanwhile, antigay hate is right out in the open. Hundreds of gay men have been reportedly arrested since President Goodluck Jonathan signed the "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act" last week, stripping LGBT Nigerians of most of their last remaining rights. Banning not just marriage, the legislation prohibits homoshows of affection, membership in gay groups or associations, and basically any language or activity that even hints LGBT people are human.
Ugandan queers are also under fresh attack. While President Yoweri Museveni declined to sign the similar "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" likewise punishing lesbian and gay people with life in prison, and jailing advocates, he gave antigay bigots encouragement, declaring us "sick" and "abnormal."
This is just the tip of the antigay iceberg in Africa, where in about thirty sub-Saharan countries, we face a range of punishments from prison to death, though the populations don't always wait for the state to pass sentence, and punish us themselves, with a beating here, a murder there. They often make our lives so horrible and hopeless, we do the fatal job ourselves.
My own hemisphere is barely better. At a holiday party I talked to a gay Jamaican couple who had recently fled to New York with just the clothes on their backs because somebody had found out that they'd gotten gay married on a trip to the U.S. And when that little detail spread, credible death threats followed.
In the United States, too, every advance is followed by a backlash on the streets and in the courts. Our homegrown homophobes draw their poison from the same well as everybody else, defending their antigay laws and violence with the identical blather about upholding religious and cultural values. No surprise then, that the money of fundamentalist American Christians fuels antigay campaigns worldwide, from Senegal to France.
The disturbing thing is that, while antigay bigots are united in their hatred for us, sharing strategies and money, we queers aren't allowed to do the same. We fight each enemy as if it were different, not one horrible beast with a gazillion different heads.
We identify different strains of homophobia, make allowances. Sometimes shy away from a full assault on bigots because it is said that they inherited their homophobia like their anti-sodomy laws from colonial rulers. (As if, unlike humans elsewhere in the world, no African person had ever felt hatred of the other. As if African politicians would never have thought of using queers as scapegoats to distract populations weary of dictatorships and failed economies. And as if they didn't make bad colonial laws worse.)
Too many of us even nod sagely at stories like one in the Global Post announcing, "Western-style activism may be hurting gay rights in Africa." This essentially blames African queers for their own oppression, and characterizes their most basic efforts to resist as somehow foreign. Because apparently those stupid African homos would never have thought to aspire to full human status, let alone hold a demo, write an op-ed or file a lawsuit, without Western influence or aid. Worse, it implies justice would have progressed merrily along its arc if only they had sat quietly with their hands in their laps.
It's weird, really, this rewriting of history, this assigning of strategies to one country or one movement, when all militants share them. Martin Luther King looked towards Ghandi. And Ghandi himself was apparently influenced by the American Thoreau, who got some of his own ideas from Indian philosophy and religion. American queers digested it all, inspired also by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The LGBT movement in Latin America looked to student revolution in '68 France as well as New York's Stonewall. Nobody owns a thing.
This insistence on putting LGBT activists in another category because of their geography or race, is just another kind of racism. Ironically, it may have its roots in American multiculturalism. In an attempt to grapple with race, and make clear the value of difference, we came to suspect any assertion of sameness, especially between the East and West, the global North and global South, as a racist, colonial effort to erase. And it really is sometimes.
But now, if we're going to support LGBT activists risking their lives all over the world, it's urgent to remember we're the same species after all. Near cousin to the earthworm, and closer to the ape than the angel. And in the matter of homophobia, we're dealing with human nature at its best and worse. The universal hatred of difference. And the equally global desire to resist in every form.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (March 2014).