Monday, May 29, 2006

Steps forward?

It's sometimes easy to forget how quickly attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality have changed in the UK. Homophobia still exists here: gay people are attacked in cruising grounds, the right-wing newspapers make ignorant spiteful comments and for many young people "gay" means "lame" while religious communities impose their own form of intolerance. But on the whole, the situation is much improved than what it was 20 years ago. When I came out to my parents at the age of 17, it was a hugely traumatic incident, with tears, anguished discussion, arguments that went on for months and my mother's fear that "the neighbours would find out". It was like living in a bad made-for-tv movie that wouldn't go away. When I first started a relationship with my fella in the early 1990s, I was 19 - two years away from being "legal". But there have been a number of important legal advances in the UK since then - equalising the age of consent to 16, allowing gay men and lesbians to serve in the military and Civil Partnerships. When I "come out" now, I do it in exactly the same way as a straight person would "come out" as being straight - by mentioning my partner if it comes up as relevant in a conversation - it's no big deal. Additionally, the media is a lot more accepting of gay men and lesbians. The other day I watched one of those tv home-improvement shows on BBC1 at 10 in the morning - it was about a gay couple who were intending to downsize their home. The banality of it all made it very clear - gay is normal.

For young gay men, it's easy to think that it was always this way. But it wasn't. And you only need to step outside the UK to realise that the relative tolerance experienced here is certainly not the case in other parts of the world. In fact, the situation seems to be getting worse, not better in some countries. In Poland, for example, the Polish President Lech Kaczynski regularly bans Equality Parades while frontbench parliamentarian Wojciech Wierzejski of the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) claims that gay men are paedophiles and have links with drug dealers. A similar situation is happening in Russia where a couple of days ago a Gay Pride event in Moscow resulted in violence instigated by neo-Nazis. In Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a general fatwa against gay men and lesbians, calling for the killing of homosexuals in the "worst, most severe way". Militants entrap gay men via internet chat rooms, arranging to meet them and then killing them when they show up. The Iraqi police recently executed a 14 year old boy accused of having sex with men and creating a scandal. In Iran, gay men are also routinely hung. In Nigeria, new anti-gay legislation outlaws almost every expression of homosexuality and even forbids gay safer sex education. In Jamaica, homophobic reggae stars like Buju Banton advocates people to shoot gay men in the head, pour acid over them and burn them alive. The list goes on and on.

Another depressing aspect of this global homophobia is the rather languid or even brazenly stone-faced response that our so-called "betters" sometimes present. In 2004 the MOBO Awards accepted the nomination of homophobic reggae singers, the Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has remained silent about the homophobic legislation in Nigeria. The Queen failed to send out messages of condolence when 3 people were killed and 70 injured during the bombing of the Admiral Duncan, a gay pub in 1999. She has never publicly referred to homosexuality during her 54 year reign (although ironically a very large percentage of her staff are gay). When you are in a position of leadership, your silence on a subject is often interpreted in a certain way. People like the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury could do an awful lot of good to improve attitudes towards gay people if they wanted to. It can be difficult to criticise other countries' social policy, leading to at best accusations of being patronising and at worst racism. But when there is a human rights issue at stake, such criticisms should and must be made.

Religion, or the interpretation of religious law has a large part to play here. Although religion is only a part of the problem - often used as an excuse to impose hatred of anything different. At the bottom of things, it's simply about creating and maintaining power. And particularly male power over other men and over all women. Men are supposed to be the head of the family, act butch and fuck women. Anything which threatens this very narrow conceptualisation of what it means to be a man has to be routed out, despite the fact that bisexuality is very common in many of the most homophobic cultures. But it all has to be kept hidden. Similarly, when effeminate men are punished, we are reminded that women or anything womanly is inferior or second-class. If women had equality in these cultures, then there would be no shame in men who possess stereotypically female traits.

Although I'm glad I'm gay, I don't consider myself lucky to be gay. But I do consider myself lucky to be living in the UK in this period of time. I believe it can only get better, and that gradually, education, prosperity and political stability will mean that the more homophobic countries will come round to our way of thinking, despite the fact that it sometimes feels we're taking two steps forward while they take one step back.


Emma said...

This is really interesting; I'm studying for my exams at the moment, one of which concerns current theoretical debates in archaeology; the main one being gender. Although not specifically tied into homosexuality, I think a lot of preconceptions and prejudices are based on our stereotypes of gender.

The prevalent attitude to homosexuality, I think, stems from the Victorian period. In the Middle Ages it was accepted and encouraged for men to weep and swoon; and anthropologically it is not uncommon to find societies where typical western gender roles are reversed, with the females being the (masculine) provider and disciplinarian, and the males being the (feminine) caring nurturer.

In other cultures bisexuality and trans-sexuality are revered as to their society it represents the elevated status of having "two spirits."

In the rituals surrounding puberty in New Guinea, gender roles are similar in form to western ones, however one of the rites young males must undergo is the routine ingestion of the semen of older men in order to take in the essence of man.

What I'm trying to say is, people who claim that discriminatory attitudes to gender and sexuality are "natural" and based on what we *should* be based on our sexual biology are crap. This is an essentialist view that tries to excuse our socially constructed prejudices and ideas about what it is to be a "man" or a "woman." If homosexuality is "unnatural" why can we observe homosexuality in the primate world?

Ok. Rant over - thanks for posting something that's made me feel like my procrastination is legitimate revision :)

Dessie said...

It's an interesting point. Are we being insidious in pushing our way "into" society or are we normalizing people around us?

As it stands, the Queen and the Archbishop will never roll with the minority, so the support you're looking for isn't going to come until we firmly have our feet under the table. As you point out though, that's always going be a precarious position. Some days it feels like we need to reach a level of acceptance where danger from people around us is the minimal threat because attacking someone for being gay is unthought of. As the press shows though we're a long way from that.

Reluctant Nomad said...

I don't know how I missed this makes interesting reading. And, coincidentally, the Archbishop was on TV (visiting Leicester) as I was reading it.