Last month Karma Chavez of WORT FM in Wisconsin did an hour-long interview with me about various things LGBT and global: Iraq, Iran, homonationalism, neocolonialism, ethical activism, Peter Tatchell, and other usual and less-usual subjects all came up. Here’s the whole thing. You have to skip over the scree-scraw noises at the beginning where a failed attempt to Skype me — I was in a remote foreign land — led to an explosively resounding reverb effect. Thunder on the left, the Romans thought, was a sign that Jupiter was pleased.
I hope African human rights activists, including LGBTI activists, will read this document. It’s the White House’s new “strategy paper” for sub-Saharan Africa, released in June. There is the usual airy talk about democratization and feeding people, unballasted by details or dollars. (There is substantial attention to trade, which reaffirms my sense of the shape of aid conditionalities to come: the main quid-pro-quo for US assistance to Africa will be not decreased rights abuses, but increased trading opportunities for US firms.) But the core of the paper mentions no ballots and promises no butter. It’s about guns. “Security” is its watchword. Reuters noted, in its neutral fashion, that the paper lacks “a single signature project which could cement Obama’s Africa legacy”:
Instead, attention has focused on AFRICOM, the unified U.S. Africa Command that the Pentagon established in 2007. It is playing an increasingly important role as the United States pumps resources into training African militaries. …
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council, said Washington’s emphasis on security, coupled with the lack of new economic initiatives, had shifted the balance in U.S. ties with Africa.
“It is militarization by default,” Pham said. “Part of the reason is the U.S. interest in fighting al Qaeda, and part of it is because of the weakness of our African partners which are unable to contain these threats themselves.”
One consultancy group of “Africa experts” speculates that “the timing of the paper is in response to the recent controversy generated by news stories reporting of the US’ ‘shadow war’ in sub-Saharan Africa.” Yup. Shortly before the strategy paper’s launch, the Washington Post revealed that the US has set up networks of secret bases across the continent, to use surveillance technology and Special Forces incursions against alleged terrorists and other undesirables. Special training for African militaries is part of the package. So, too, are murders:
The lightly equipped commando units train foreign security forces and perform aid missions, but they also include teams dedicated to tracking and killing terrorism suspects.
O, left hand! O, right hand! Here, poor Third Worldies, have some food before I shoot you.
Why should LGBTI activists care? Well, Hillary Clinton is, with quite genuine élan, promoting the liberties of LGBTI folk on the continent. The right hand is on your side. But US military policy is propping up exactly the regimes — in Uganda, the DRC, Ethiopia, and elsewhere — that relish your oppression. The left hand doesn’t give a damn about you. For how can there possibly be any benign result to all this: secret US aid to train secret African military forces in secret strategies of murder and oppression? What can this conceivably achieve but to prop up dictatorships, and threaten even democratic governments with armed coups and dictatorial control?
Just for one example:The BBC World Service just carried a fascinating report on the militarization of Ugandan politics, as the country becomes more and more a security adjunct to US ambitions in the region. See, or rather hear, here. (You have to sign up to listen.)
A reader has also pointed out Phil Clark’s op-ed from this spring, fingering the dreadful Kony 2012 campaign as part of a broader project to build up Museveni’s repressive military by any excuses necessary. It capitalizes on wide support “for two of the international community’s preferred means of ending mass conflict — military intervention and international justice.” And the enthusiasm has come not just from trigger-happy Western governments but from naive human rights organizations. They deliberately overlook
the fact that, in pursuing rebel leaders in central Africa, the United States and the I.C.C. have cooperated with the Ugandan and Congolese governments, which themselves are responsible for murder, forced displacement, rape and torture of civilians over the last 15 years. …
When President Obama sent 100 American military advisers to support the Ugandan government’s campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army last October, it was the latest move in a long-standing military relationship. Since the 1990s, Washington has viewed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government as a key regional ally against the Sudanese government during Khartoum’s wars in South Sudan and Darfur, the “terrorist” threat of the L.R.A., and most recently Al Shabab in Somalia. Washington’s political, military and economic aid to Uganda has propped up Museveni’s regime and strengthened the role of the armed forces in everyday politics. One reason that widespread protests in Uganda in early 2011 did not transform into another Tahrir Square was that the Ugandan armed forces — nourished for years on Museveni’s corrupt patronage, funded mainly by the United States — remained fiercely loyal to the president, including when asked to fire on innocent civilians.
It’s not just Obama. As Clark emphasizes, the International Criminal Court, beloved of those who think human rights aren’t real unless they have police and prosecutors attached like sinister Siamese siblings, has been equally complicit in whitewashing Museveni. The Court, he writes,
has relied on Museveni and the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, for the referral of their conflicts to the court, the security of its investigators, and assistance in identifying and transporting witnesses and gathering evidence. In January 2004, the I.C.C. prosecutor appeared side-by-side with Museveni in London to announce the opening of international court investigations in Uganda. Two weeks ago, Ocampo announced that he would soon visit Kinshasa to meet President Kabila and “thank him for his support” during the Lubanga investigations. From the outset, the close working relationship between the I.C.C. and the Ugandan and Congolese governments has allowed the latter to focus the court’s attention on atrocities committed by rebel leaders while insulating themselves from prosecution.
Museveni and Kabila have proven masterful at making themselves indispensable to international actors. Unquestioning international cooperation with the Ugandan and Congolese governments has allowed them to appear as agents of peace, security and justice while continuing to commit abuses against their citizens. That the United States and the I.C.C. voiced no concern while Museveni and Kabila cracked down on the political opposition during last year’s elections has emboldened them. The claim by the I.C.C. and its supporters that the court deters criminal behavior and therefore contributes to lasting peace rings hollow when state crimes are committed under its watchful eye.
Promoting his armed approached to governance and freedoms as a model for other regional leaders, Museveni this year hosted a conference of military brass from across the continent. Talk about resisting aid conditionality! When it comes to pernicious plots against sovereignty, it seems, the homosexuals are a minor annoyance next to perverted foreign pacifists. He blasted belt-tightening demands from donors that might shrink military spending:
“Africa armies must be ideologically independent from foreign exploitation and manipulation. Some external forces told us not to spend 1.9 per cent of our budget and we had to reduce the size the army,” Mr Museveni said.
A final point. I mentioned AFRICOM, the US military’s Africa command, above. At present, this relatively novel US unit is based in Germany, from where it played a leading role in the Libya intervention. That success (from the American standpoint) gave it a great deal of street cred, or rather sky cred, with DC policymakers. The Bush administration set up AFRICOM in large part as a military counterweight to growing Chinese involvement, and investment, in Africa. From this perspective, the secretive “counterterrorism” campaigns it dallies with conceal, like the proverbial Chinese boxes, yet another secret: they mask a larger geopolitical ambition. They’re more about Beijing’s honchos than Bin Laden’s heirs: AFRICOM aims to keep China away from that vast wealth of African raw materials that we’ve already succeeding in keeping Africans away from. (One fascinating thing about Africa is that all its riches, without exceptions, make the bulk of Africans poorer. This is a cultural phenomenon worth Mitt Romney’s study, though it has more to do with Western culture than its African counterpart.)
Several of Museveni’s supporters in the US Congress — including the head of the House’s subcommittee on terrorism, Republican Ed Royce — are exploiting the Kony 2012 mania to push for laws expanding AFRICOM’s role in Africa. Some want to move the command’s headquarters from Europe to the continent itself. All this would vastly increase the support it can provide to Museveni and fellow dictators.
Africans and their allies have mobilized against AFRICOM’s present and predicted roles in repression. You can visit the Resist AFRICOM site here:
With the establishment of AFRICOM, the Pentagon attempts to increase access to Africa’s oil and to wage a new front in the Global War on Terror without regard for the needs or desires of African people. Enabled by oil companies and private military contractors, AFRICOM serves as the latest frontier in military expansionism, violating the human rights and civil liberties of Africans who have voiced a strong “no” to U.S. military presence. We reject this militarization of foreign engagement. Instead, our vision is a comprehensive U.S. foreign policy grounded in true partnership with the African Union, African governments, and civil society on peace, justice, security, and development.
Hanoi held its first LGBT Pride on August 5, a march-cum-ride that went from the National Stadium to a downtown park.
Dozens of cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags streamed through the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Sunday for the first gay pride parade in the nation’s history.
Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists, despite their lack of official permits. …
“We don’t have permission for this and even if we had asked for official permission it would not have been possible,” said Van Anh, to the AFP news agency. “But we have a lot of support from Vietnamese society. Many people told me they want to attend the parade,” she added.
Demonstrators trailed rainbow-colored streamers and shouted “Equal rights for gays and lesbians!” and “We support same-sex marriage!”
It was a scene that was unimaginable a few years ago, when Vietnam still labeled homosexuality a “social evil” alongside drug addiction and prostitution. The country’s gay community was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed, and it was taboo to even talk about the issue.
There are many more pictures here.
This comes after Vietnam’s government announced in late July that it would address the status of same-sex couples, possibly with provisions for same-sex marriage, in a coming overhaul of marriage laws:
Video of Vietnam’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010, and a few other ceremonies followed, capturing widespread public attention. The Justice Ministry now says a legal framework is necessary because the courts do not know how to handle disputes between same-sex couples living together. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.
“I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it’s time for us to look at the reality,” Justice Minister Hà Hùng Cường said Tuesday in an online chat broadcast on national TV and radio. “The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It’s not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They may own property. We, of course, have to handle these issues legally.”
As I grow older I find I am becoming Eeyore, always determined to look at the unbright side of life. God forbid I should rain on this parade of cyclists, or their courage (AFP notes that the parade website warned each marcher to “consider his/her personal circumstances and the risks possibly involved before participation”).
Yet this march is no sign of widespread social liberalization. Vietnam remains an extremely repressive polity, and other politically as well as socially marginally groups still bear the brunt. Here’s more news from yesterday:
Vietnamese police detained at least 20 people on Sunday as they broke up a protest in Hanoi against Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, witnesses said.
Demonstrators were forced into waiting buses and taken to a rehabilitation centre usually used to detain sex workers and drug users, after attempting to gather in defiance of a heavy police presence, one detainee told AFP.
“There are at least 25 people here and there are arrestees elsewhere,” the person — who requested anonymity for security reasons — said by telephone from the Loc Ha detention centre. [emphasis added]
Or this, from last week — one reflection of a growing government campaign to imprison dissident bloggers:
The mother of a prominent Vietnamese blogger has died from her injuries after setting herself on fire in front of government offices, her family says.
She was protesting against the detention of her daughter, Ta Phong Tan, who is facing charges of anti-state propaganda, another daughter told the BBC’s Vietnamese service.
Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself alight in southern Bac Lieu province. Her daughter faces trial in August and could be jailed for 20 years.
Ta Phong Tan, a former police officer, wrote a blog called Cong ly va su (Justice and Truth), drawing attention to state abuses and demanding social justice. Arrested last September, she faces trial this month and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Cuba, of course, also indicated recently that it may move toward same-sex marriage, under the stewardship of Mariela Castro, President Raul’s daughter. The cases seem to me remarkably similar. Both are authoritarian governments, with Communist parties still steeped in the repression of dissent, and powerful histories of social control. Both seem to have decided that the best way to deal with a new, increasingly visible and vocal minority without a clear or oppositional political agenda is to integrate it into the existing structures of society and subordination. They rely on recognition to contain it, and marriage is one of the most trustworthy containers around.
Authoritarian governments do not like invisible groups, sneaking around in the subterranean structures of society. They want a transparent life-world, with everybody’s activities fully exposed like ants in an ant farm, or happy hamsters. The instinctive response to identities that prefer the safety of occlusion is to drag them kicking and screaming into the light– the switchless light of prison, under the perpetually buzzing electric bulbs of the Lubyanka. Stalin’s prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko famously expressed these fears, and this solution, in clarifying why the dictator recriminalized homosexual conduct in the 1930s. Homosexuals were subversives, he shouted:
Classless hoodlums, either from the dregs of the society, or from the remains of the exploiters’ class. They have no place to go. So they take to — pederasty. Together with them, next to them, under this excuse, in stinky secretive bordellos another kind of activity takes place as well — counter-revolutionary work.
The traditional response of repression is not always the best-working one, however. Sometimes, if you can’t beat them to a pulp, it’s better to join them. Or, more properly, to make them join you. Recognition is a comparatively painless way of easing the invisible into the light. Recognition in marriage is potentially a splendid means of identifying, registering, and integrating dissident sexualities, subjecting them to a state-defined structure that normalizes and depoliticizes them, nullifying and Novocaining any residual anti-social impulse.
There’s a pretty extensive literature on how marriage serves this function, even (or especially) in ostensibly democratic societies. After the Civil War and emancipation, for instance white American leaders hoped to shove or shovel former slaves into marriages, expecting that legal recognition of their relationships would impose on them a new form of institutional regulation — and would tame them for membership in a contract-dominated society. Tamara Nopper describes some of the motives as well as consequences:
African Americans were aggressively pushed to marry and register their marriages with the state. Registration policies (and the granting of certain rights to Blacks in general) also became a means to police and criminalize African Americans. For example, Blacks who married and failed to register with the state were prosecuted. Demonstrating the afterlife of slavery, the attempts of slaves to express some emotional autonomy and forge their own marriages (without the legal ability to contract) on plantations became the basis of social control in the post-Emancipation period. Black codes in different states declared slave couples who lived together during slavery as legally married. … In cases where a Black man might have multiple spouses, Freedmen’s Bureau agents would designate the Black woman with the most children to be his wife. Additionally, these policies and practices served as forms of privatization and anti-Black austerity as “the government used marriage to financially and socially domesticate newly freed Blacks to ensure that the white public faced minimal responsibility for former slaves’ economic security.” Put simply, instead of reparations, African Americans got marriage.
And Nopper detects in so-called “welfare reform” a contemporary, neoliberal revival of this push:
While some have described how Americanization campaigns encouraged marriage among immigrants during the Progressive Era or how gay marriage was facilitated by some city and local governments in the early 2000s, the most striking example of governments promoting marriage among U.S. minorities is the targeting of African Americans. ….
As several scholars and analysts emphasize, contemporary welfare reform, primarily targeted at the mythical “Black welfare queen” (despite the diversity of welfare recipients), pushed marriage among poor women as a solvent for poverty and female-headed households. Indeed, as Priya Kandaswamy points out, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) begins with the following “finding” from Congress: “(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” … PRWORA enacted, among other draconian measures, “stricter paternity identification practices” designed to force poor women to become more dependent on men with whom they had children (men who were most likely also poor). With little consideration for the dynamics of the relationship (be it violent or collegial), poor women were expected to maintain a particular type of relationship with men than to continuously access state support for taking care of themselves and their children.
Cuba and Vietnam are authoritarian in a different way from the United States, and they lack the full flowering of the US’s racial paranoia about a segregated underclass. But in confronting the sudden emergence of uncontrolled and unregulated forms of sexuality, their inchoate responses so far have a certain similarity to post-slave society, post-Great Society America.
A few examples do not a tendency make, but I wonder to what degree societies in the grip of authoritarianism (either in its neoCommunist or neoliberal versions, which in any case clearly are on the merge) will find same-sex marriage a useful tool for co-opting and controlling a novel social group.
China will perhaps be the test case. Right now, China is having enough problems with heterosexual marriages to keep it busy. If the People’s Republic starts moving toward recognizing same-sex unions, though, the rhetoric about marriage equality as a new step toward freedom will deserve a bit of re-examination.
But then, who am I to say? I’m Eeyore. Don’t pay any attention to me.
On Saturday, August 4, Ugandan activists tried — and, on the whole, succeeded in — staging the country’s first ever LGBTI Pride. There was, however, the nasty interruption of a police raid. This came just one day after the US State Department gave a coalition of Ugandan queer campaigners its annual Human Rights Defender award, calling them a “model for others and an inspiration for the world.” On that same day, visiting Kampala, Hillary Clinton met with Yoweri Museveni and, by the Department’s account, raised the issue of LGBT rights yet again. We’ll get back to Clinton in a moment.
Pride took place in Entebbe, by the shores of Lake Victoria, and hence was called a Beach Pride Parade. (I cannot speak too highly of an event which induced my friend and colleague Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda to dress up in the manner of Some Like it Hot‘s Osgood Fielding III.) Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican attorney leading the legal battle against the sodomy law there, visited to serve as grand marshal; he writes:
The Pride March had a truly carnival atmosphere … Everything was done very tastefully as the organizers were aware that it was a public beach and many young children were around. Many parents even brought their kids over to hear the music and listen to the few speeches and share in the jubilant atmosphere. The Pride organizers even shared food and drinks freely with the onlookers.
However, according to a statement from Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG):
Police stormed the venue where people had gathered after the march and ordered the party to stop and that no one should leave the area. Police is believed to have been tipped off by either a small group of Christians who were for baptism a few yards away or by the local[s] of the area who had gathered to witness the pride march. Police alleged that there was a gay marriage taking place and that two gay men were seen kissing. They then declared that the gathering was unlawful and wanted to arrest the whole group.
The “gay wedding” has now become the stimulus of choice for moral panic and police repression around the world. The propensity of the general public and the gendarmerie to fantasize nuptials with no provocation is one of the more fascinating aspects of our present moment in modernity, and one of the least remarked side effects of Goodridge v. Massachusetts.
Among those arrested were Tomlinson; Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, director of FARUG and the coordinator of Pride Uganda; Jay Abang, FARUG’s programs manager; and several others. Tomlinson writes:
I was detained for assisting a 60 year old woman climb into the back of the police van after police officers refused to help her! … After a very confusing and utterly disgraceful performance at the station by the police (including the officers insisting we all sit on the bare floor until we were processed, one officer pushing a young female to the floor and another verbally abusing the 60 year old female anthropologist from Makerere University) we were all released without charges or an explanation.
After their release, Kasha Jacqueline said,
I feel like our rights have been trampled upon. It is becoming a habit of police to interrupt our gatherings. It is as if a section of Ugandans do not deserve certain rights. The laws and bills [Uganda’s draconian, proposed “Anti-Homosexuality Bill”] have not been passed but police is already enforcing them.
Now, back to Clinton. Her support for LGBTI activists in Uganda, and for their freedoms of association and assembly, is genuine and unquestionable. What is questionable is her support for those freedoms as a property of Ugandans in general. After all, the US rushed precipitately to congratulate Museveni on his victory in a fraudulent presidential election in 2011. It issued only anodyne expressons of regret in the ensuing months when Museveni brutally suppressed demonstrations against the sham vote, arrested his opponent and members of Parliament, and ordered Ugandans shot for engaging in walk-to-work protests against skyrocketing fuel prices.
A curious form of reverse “pinkwashing” is at work in the Ugandan case, I’d (almost) argue. Museveni’s crackdowns on LGBTI people give the US something to condemn, so that it can claim it’s done its due diligence in criticizing Uganda’s rights record. For Museveni and Clinton alike, they help keep the spotlight off other violations. It’s not that the abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity are comparatively minor, or that the others are more grave or violent: far from it. But the US reprimanding Museveni for the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” won’t bring his regime down; if the US dissociated itself from his election fraud, it might.
So, in Kampala this time, Clinton pretty much left the question of when Uganda’s dictator might leave power as something for him to think about casually in his spare time: “It is important for leaders to make judgments about how they can best support the institutionalization of democracy,” she told reporters. “It’s not about strong men, it’s about strong institutions.” But the man is strong, so strong! — and we need him. “U.S. officials stressed that Clinton’s visit to Uganda was aimed at thanking it for its strong security assistance in Somalia and elsewhere”:
In Uganda, Clinton visited a military base where Ugandan and U.S. soldiers showed her the U.S.-made “drone” aircraft now patrolling the skies over Somalia, where an African Union force is seeking to crush al Shabaab Islamist insurgents.
Uganda, a strong U.S. security partner, has contributed the bulk of the Somalia force and Clinton said she foresaw a day when drones might help the United States and Uganda with another of their joint military efforts – the hunt for renegade Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
“Now we have to figure out how to look through thick vegetation to find Joseph Kony,” Clinton said, after inspecting a drone, a small unmanned aircraft no more than a yard long and mounted with cameras.
The United States last year dispatched about 100 military advisers to help Uganda and other central African nations track down Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been charged with repeated atrocities against civilians.
Give Museveni enough drones and you won’t need a few perambulating Christians to point out the perilous promixity of Pride. Electronic surveillance will search out the signs of gay weddings, and ensure that no exchange of vows passes without massive retaliation.
Although hunting down Joseph Kony would certainly be a popular move with the thousands of Americans hoodwinked by the viral video campaign earlier this year, it’s a minor matter to the US. The important thing for us is that Museveni is Stable, and willing to support US counterterrorist interference in East Africa, as well as our access to raw materials. If using some drones to neutralize an annoyance to the Museveni regime is the price the dictator charges, then, drone warfare being cheap, it’s easy to pay. Indeed, the function of the Kony 2012 campaign and the attendant hysteria becomes clearer and clearer in hindsight. It mobilized a public that by and large couldn’t tell Uganda from Uzbekistan to take some painless cyberaction on behalf of one of Africa’s more unpleasant despots. Indeed, while the US feints at criticizing Museveni’s harshness toward the gays, the head of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism introduces measure after measure to expand US military activities in Uganda: ostensibly to oppose Kony, but actually to prop up Museveni’s army. All very convenient.
Kampala’s campaigners for LGBTI rights have in fact long pressed their Western supporters to couch their opposition to Uganda homophobia in terms of Museveni’s appalling record as a whole — not to single out queers for special grace and favor. However well the message may have gotten across to Western civil society, it’s unlikely to play terribly well with the US government. But it does a disservice to the brave activists who marched, and faced down police, in Entebbe to divorce their courage from the politics and repression that give it meaning.
Images from Uganda Pride, 2012.
In the unlikely event that anyone’s been wondering, I am on vacation. To demonstrate this unlikely assertion, here’s evidence:
We have that healthy natural glow from gorging on Chick Fil-A.