Monday, December 21, 2015

Against Gay Human Rights in Africa,
Or Activists Are Always Wrong

By Kelly Cogswell

Activists are always being told to shut up, sit down, go away--by people in their own movements. "Honey catches more flies than vinegar," they say. Or "The patient dog eats the fattest bone." The specter of backlash is also raised, as if the black activist were responsible for racism. As if the queer ones were responsible for homophobia which would have probably gone away by itself like a bad cold if we had just hunkered down and eaten some soup.

And somehow, these conservative, complicit forces rewrite history to take the credit when proven wrong. The local black luminaries who attacked MLK were practically photo-shopped in beside him there in D.C., or Selma. The queer institutions that sidelined activists, and tried to discourage a certain group of rogue lawyers from petitioning the Supreme Court to end the ban on same-sex marriage were first in line with their celebrations and press releases and demands for donations when the case was actually won.

No wonder that The New York Times can still publish articles like the tendentious "Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Hurt" which is just another argument for silence and inaction tarted-up with a juicy pseudo, neo-colonial twist. We're being told once again that the locals, in this case, Nigerian queers, were better off before activists got involved. And also that the current backlash is all the fault of Americans and their tame little proxies.

For the record, local queers have been activists in Africa long before they starting getting outside help. One of the oldest being Gays And Lesbians Of Zimbabwe (GALZ) founded in 1990. Second, Nigerian queers were never in great shape unless you ignore isolation, fear, stigma, shame, and violence. And finally, are we really expected to believe that a few years of cautious U.S. State Department reminders that queers, too, have human rights, and modestly funded local queer activities suddenly spurred Nigeria into a homophobic, gay-hating mess? Really?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't make her famous "LGBT rights are human rights" speech until late in 2011. Obama didn't properly evolve and make his own speeches until the following year. In fact, up through the Bush administration, the U.S. was still joining forces with the likes of the Vatican, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to squish every mention of LGBT rights in global anti-AIDS efforts. In 2001, we even went so far as to fight to exclude queer issues from the UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

If Nigeria recently exploded in homophobia, it's less because of specific activist groups or their meager American funders than because the entire African continent has been swept by a wave of gay scapegoating for the last two decades.

In 1995 in Zimbabwe, the opposition-massacreing dictator Robert Mugabe launched the campaign, telling his citizens it was their duty to arrest queers, citing the law of nature, morals, and society. Most importantly, he attacked homosexuality as "un-African," a phenomenon of colonists and whites. This gave him a convenient domestic enemy to distract his citizens from the usual ills of poverty and dictatorship.

His techniques were quickly echoed in Zambia, Uganda, and of course, Namibia, where government ministers denounced "un-African" homosexuality and demanded our elimination. Namibia's marginally better tyrant, President Sam Nujoma, euphemistically said we should be uprooted. He actually sent queers fleeing in 2001 when he not only characterized us as public enemies, but called for lesbians and gay men to be arrested, and deported or imprisoned.

Anti-gay campaigns weren't only in Africa's south or west. In Egypt, in 2001, the government put fifty-two men on trial for "contempt of heavenly religions" while the newspapers discussed whether homosexuals should be given a chance to repent before they were burned or stoned.

The irony, of course, is that for years, in order to finance their cynical local campaigns against "foreign" or "colonial" or "European" or "American" homosexuality, African homophobes have been gobbling up the money of white, extremist, right-wing American Christians, from Pat Robertson to the deep-pocketed National Christian Foundation. And not just the money, but also the guidance, support, strategizing and overall clout.

That is barely featured in the NYT article, which also ignores the fact that African governments' queer scapegoating is largely driven by political opportunism, as is the case of most state-sponsored scapegoating. The backlash the NYT frets about is to a great extent manufactured--by corrupt African politicians, U.S. Christian Right interlopers and a local yellow press. It's not particularly spontaneous, or "provoked" by home-grown queer activists and their meager, progressive American funding. In fact, the outsized, poisonous role the American Christian Right is playing in Africa should be, in itself, more than enough reason for other Americans to pour millions into LGBT projects in the region.

The fact that The New York Times actually thinks there are any cases of LGBT abuses in which we might be better on the sidelines makes me want to puke. The only question is what exactly we should do to help, not if we should. Money, of course, is the easiest option. Nigerian queers shouldn't have to apologize for taking American dollars, when they'd be bashed as foreign agents anyway. Americans shouldn't apologize for giving them. Especially since, by helping queer activists, we also bolster elements of democracy like freedom of speech and assembly. If we fight violence against queers, we make Nigeria a more peaceful place. Fighting for trans women or dykes, we improve the lives of all women in a country where their status is dire. Now, more than ever, we rise and fall together.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Selling Misery

By Kelly Cogswell

If you read the headlines, or read my column for that matter, you'll want to go back to sleep, pull the covers up over your head and stay there. The terrorists are around the corner, the world is going to hell, and despite our progress, queers all over the universe have little shiny targets on their foreheads.

But how accurate is that view, even for me, who can actually see the effects of gunman and mad bombers just down my Parisian block? I read an article the other day reminding us that in places like the U.S. or France we were much more likely to be killed by food poisoning, or crossing the street, or falling off a ladder than we were by murderous assholes that swallowed a little too much Islamist (or Christianist) propaganda.

Last December, Slate published an article called, "The World Is Not Falling Apart," which used wide-ranging statistics to prove that the world was more peaceful than ever before in history. "Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars." When it came to terrorist attacks, Americans, anyway, were more likely to die of bee stings or "deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents."

Even women have seen improvement, no matter that in France, one dies every three days in an act of domestic terrorism committed by their boyfriends or husbands. In Brazil black women are slaughtered so frequently we really have to use the word femicide. Nevertheless, global rates of rape, sexual assault and intimate partner violence against women are considerably less than they were a few decades ago.

And for us queers, in the last few decades many places have seen the repeal of sodomy laws, huge marriage equality wins, and major progress on trans rights. Isn't it time to pop open a bottle of champagne and celebrate? What's the matter with me that I keep harping on violence, and deaths, and antigay campaigns?

Maybe it's my activist past. I have that saying trapped in my head that declares nobody is free until we all are. And when it comes to queers, there are plenty being left behind. In the United States, LGBT people of color, trans people, poor people. The ability to exercise our new right to marry also varies from region to region. We heard a lot about Morehead, Kentucky, but there are plenty of other places where county clerks have announced they won't hand out marriage licenses to queers. The only difference is things are already so bad for LGBT folks in those communities, that nobody feels supported enough or safe enough to even begin to challenge them.

And if we Americans lift our heads to look outside our own country we see places like Nigeria where the war on queers is overt and institutionalized. If we dare concern ourselves with the bloody rampage of the Islamic State we see queers thrown off of cliffs and out of windows. Stoned to death. Iran is looking positively civilized for occasionally sending us to the gallows.

But still, how often does it happen overall? Isn't this backlash an indication of how threatened some people are by our progress, our new visibility? What do I stand to gain by encouraging you to keep your champagne safely in the fridge, to be afraid? Especially in the increasingly privileged U.S.?

After September 11th, I remember that Bush and company played on our fear and anxiety to sell us censorship, and spying, a Department of Homeland Security, and a shiny new war in Iraq. Probably some in the Bush administration believed these things were useful. But many just liked the new power. And a great many more stood to profit financially from new control of old oil fields, or the giant machine of war. They also used fear and anger to inoculate us against their abuses, like the torture engaged in at the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

As for me, all I want is for you to stay awake, pay attention. Remain mobilized. History teaches us that trends can be reversed. Things seem like they're getting better now, but nobody knows how sturdy our progress is, especially if you look at how easy it's been for the anti-abortion people to roll back women's gains.

And we are vulnerable. Not just from our enemies but from our own authoritarian trends. Squashing internal dissent. Attacking speech because we don't agree, or it lacks nuance. Trying to get things banned. We've forgotten that civil liberties like freedom of speech and association are the most important weapons we have to protect the gains we've made, and hopefully enable new ones.

I wonder sometimes if I've helped fuel that whole trend, with my constant doom and glooming, making everything seem equally important, equally dire. Maybe I should try to lighten up, remember what liberation feels like, and joy.