Julie Bindel sells her mind (not body)

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks

Bindel, apparently being plied with drinks by a white slaver

Julie Bindel is a British journalist, a fierce opponent of trans people’s human rights (they’re imitation women), and an abolitionist who wants to see sex work eradicated from the earth. Bindel is now raising money for a book she’s writing, to expose the “global ‘sex workers’ rights’ movement.” She “will outline the emergence of a powerful lobby — the sex workers’ rights movement — that works in favour of a total decriminalisation of the sex industry.” She is “planning to visit around thirty countries in order to conduct my research, taking me to the UK, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, Germany, South Africa, East Africa, North America, South America, France, New Zealand and Australia, South Korea, Turkey and India”: an itinerary curiously resembling that of the mythical white slavers of old. To fund this self-trafficking, she’s crowdfunding the project, and she’s already raised £6,773.00. She’d only asked for £6,500. All systems are go.

Bindel’s project is predictable: part of anti-sex-work eradicationists’ ongoing drive to paint all sex workers speaking out for their rights as pimps and punters in disguise. (A reporter who attended one of Bindel’s talks at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that her “presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry’” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.”) Or, as Bindel herself exclaims — an old ally of my old friend Peter Tatchell, she shares his oracular way of dealing with opponents: Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM Bindel has the same strategy as rich and puissant abolitionist groups like Equality Now, who have urged “investigating” the paltry funding of sex worker advocacy with the zeal of prurient Mississippi congressmen ogling the Comintern. Those girls only seem to be ragtag sex dissidents; in fact they’re Stalin’s seed, a dark coven of subversives, “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man”! This myth of a monied, mighty plot by “sex workers” who are really pimps in drag is central to how the abolitionists think. They preen themselves on the heroic deeds of tiny Davids slinging at a sinister Goliath. All Bindel’s research and rhetoric, her travel and “tabloid-style personal attacks” and trolling, will be convenient tools to hide the basic fact: that sex workers’ rights groups are the least powerful part of the human rights movement, persecuted everywhere, unrecognized and underfunded, dissed and mistreated by governments and NGOs alike, even by LGBT activists who should share their goals of bodily liberty but sell their easy principles for the ignis fatuus of respectability. I don’t know a single sex worker’s rights movement in the global South that could easily muster the £6,773 Bindel ginned up in a few weeks. “Powerful lobby,” my white ass.

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

A tragic but typical story of crowdfunding

But here’s my question. Bindel offers benefits to people who give her money. Or as she puts it, “Those who pay will also have access to special rewards such as signed books, invites to a Q&A, and extra material.”

For £5 you get to “Access activity feed” (here’s my webcam); plus “early access to articles and” — lascivious, the ring of this — “extra content.” For £15 you get “right to ask questions individually.” (Talk dirty.) For £250 and more you get “All the below, plus coffee/lunch and a chat with Julie in London. You may also bring a friend.” Does Nick Kristof need to raid the premises and batter down the door, to rescue Julie from indentured slavery and a repulsive threesome? Should he bring Somaly Mam?

No, of course not. Back off, Nick. This enticement is fine, in Bindel’s book. She’s not selling sexual services, just mental ones. It’s only her mind that’s on the auction block.

You’ve got to get the value system straight. It’s not OK for women to sell sex, because sex is immensely precious, the essence of a woman, the cold gemstone set in her golden loins that establishes her value as a human being. (No wonder Bindel hates trans women; they lack the sex parts that make real women worthwhile.) It is OK when a woman sells her intellectual labors, as Julie Bindel does: because that’s just cheap, mass-market stuff you can find in any flea market in Brixton.

I’m glad I understand Bindel’s peculiar feminism now. Kapish. Let’s move along.

Flash-mob demo on International Women's Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Flash-mob demo on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, organized by English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Open University. Photo by Guy Corbishley

Fashion police

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

I agree; fashion is an art. But it’s a strange one. The other arts always held out promise of escape, or at least aloofness, from the ravages of time; they gesture at a world more lasting than our fragile and fugitive flesh; from a vantage mimicking eternity, they pass judgment on our inconstancy, like Rilke’s marble statue: “You must change your life.” Fashion, though, is within time and of the moment. It feeds on the awareness that what’s beautiful this spring won’t last till next season. Impermanent in essence, it inflicts the same transience on its consumers. You merit fashion mainly in those evanescent years when you are young and thin enough to be worthy. Brightness falls from the air; Prada has no patience for middle-aged weight gain. “The grand problem,” Coco Chanel said, “is to rejuvenate women.” But of course that’s impossible. Mercurial and mutable, fashion rejuvenates only itself, yearly; it leaves the women behind.

Fashion is art for an era that believes in nothing but its own acceleration. Fashion is the Sublime indexed to inflation. As the world speeds up, moreover, it comes to resemble the fashion industry, which takes over all of life in an osmosis of mimesis; a business that runs on models, becomes the model for everything. Lately this is also true of human rights.

That’s my thought on the Dolce & Gabbana furor, which is a fable for our time. You know the basics. In an interview an Italian magazine published last week, the two living labels — gay, and former lovers too — announced they don’t believe in same-sex parenthood. “The family is not a fad,” declared Gabbana. And Dolce (they still seem to finish each other’s sentences) said, “I am gay, I cannot have a child.”

You are born and you have a father and a mother. Or at least it should be so. That’s why I’m not convinced by what I call the children of chemicals, synthetic children. Wombs for rent, seeds selected from a catalog. …. Procreation must be an act of love; even psychiatrists are not prepared to deal with the effects of these experiments.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

Natural: Gabbana (L) and Dolce (R) in 2001. Photo by Bend.

The outrage broke when Elton John took to Instagram: “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’ …. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.” That’s a cruel cut. And: “I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana.” D&G retaliated by calling Sir Elton a “fascist.” RIcky Martin and Victoria Beckham and other celebrities jumped in to defend him. Overnight #BoycottDolceGabbana was trending. An employee of the Peter Tatchell Foundation named Peter Tatchell called for public protest:
Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 5.16.00 AM

D&G fought back by claiming, more or less, that Twitter terrorists were trying to censor and kill them.

CAO5f-KXIAAnRL4

Comparing themselves to the dead of Charlie Hebdo tended to magnify the anger. Still, Tatchell has also recently accused his detractors of wielding Twitter to try to murder him. Maybe the pair were bidding for his sympathy.

This whole story is pregnant, by God-given or artificial means, with implications.

First, the interview was astonishingly stupid for a couple of gay businessmen who cultivate a market niche among gay men. But it wasn’t spontaneously stupid. D & G have been trying to appeal to more conservative consumers for years. The pretext for the interview, in fact, was to publicize a project the company launched in 2013: #DGFamily, inviting people to submit portraits of ancestors, spouses, kids, to an online corporate collection. “The family is our point of reference,” the project website quotes Gabbana and Dolce. (Queer families who want to protest D & G might try sending their pictures; I don’t notice any same-sex couples in the gallery.)

This touching pictorial display was about rebranding D & G as traditional, less promiscuously trendy. When Gabbana claims “the family is not a fad” — thus distinguishing it from everything they’ve made their money on — he’s invoking a timeless realm beyond the vagaries of fashion. (“There are things that must not be changed,” Dolce chimes in, sounding like an oatmeal commercial. “And one of these is the family.”) That gives the company a tinge of permanence rather than constant newness. But he’s also lying. He’s making the family a fad; it’s part of an advertising campaign. The dynamic by which the traditional becomes the fashionable, and is sold as such, is a familiar one in capitalism. Nothing is immune to commodification, no value too solemn or secure to escape subjection to the capricious humors of the market. G and D may speak of the family as a pristine cultural unit, but they treat it as a luxury D & G product. Even the line about “synthetic” or “chemical” versus “natural” children sounds like a backhanded stab at polyester. The duo may well honestly believe in the virtues of an imaginary world where superglued mother-and-father units spawn incessantly without assistance; but it’s absurd for them to pretend this is purely a “personal view.” It’s calculated outreach to a different set of consumers. Their mistake was to mouth off too much, and anger other consumers in the process.

I'll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

I’ll see your wink and raise you a smile: Golce, or Dabbana, dreams wistfully of a happier, simpler time

Second: People have every reason to be outraged, most especially parents who dearly wanted children, and used the “synthetic” means — assisted reproductive technologies (ART) — the designers denigrate. But since the issue for D & G is the corporate image, the most meaningful response has been from those who ricochet images back. Parents have been posting beautiful photos of kids born through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), all over social media. It’s simple and lovely and it shames Dolce & Gabbana with a minimum of effort.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 4.57.15 AMIs it worth more energy than that, though? Cries for boycott and demonstrations seem disproportionate to the danger. If a self-styled human rights group like Tatchell’s foundation calls a protest, they must mean a human right has been violated. How? Insulting people isn’t the same as threatening their freedoms. D & G’s offensive statements will hardly make life worse for LGBT parents or their children. The designers don’t dictate laws; they don’t deepen stigma. (Alabama, where LGBT people’s families do face profound discrimination, is very unlikely to intensify its prejudices at the beck of two Italian queers.)

A real boycott, meanwhile, is a political act. What’s the purpose here? A real boycott should have demands; and no one has suggested getting anything from D & G. A real boycott should weigh strategies and targets. Scott Wooledge, a maker of Internet memes who chases all the big gay Twitter storms, had this dialogue with a skeptic yesterday; it suggests a paucity of thought and purpose.

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 2.01.50 AMGot that? Remember: gays are never poor, and they shouldn’t worry about the poor. The poor are interchangeable as off-the-rack clothing. They can always earn a dollar an hour somewhere, sewing purses in 14-hour shifts to buy those ugly rags they wear.

This pseudo-boycott isn’t politics. It’s celebrity dodgeball, Elton versus the Italians. In the manner of big-name grudge matches, it also attracts celebrity wannabes like Peter Tatchell, straining to scrape up leftover attention. It’s a show of muscle-flexing too, a few folks boasting, on behalf of LGBT communities they don’t particularly represent: Don’t tread on me. But beyond that, there’s no goal.

In fact, there’s one place where condemning D & G’s statements might have some political effect: back home, in Italy. Same-sex couples enjoy no legal recognition in Italy, denied both marriages and civil unions. Single people cannot adopt children — and that also bars gay people, since even same-sex partners are legally single. A 2004 law on assisted reproductive technology severely limits its use, and prohibits it for single women or couples without legal status. On the other hand, Italy’s Constitutional Court has demanded a “protective law” for same-sex couples to confer recognition short of marriage; it has also rolled back several provisions of the ART law. Parliament ignored these judgments. There’s an opportunity to use this anti-Dolce backlash to boost campaigns for tangible, feasible change in Italy.

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

I love you. Are those synthetic fabrics? Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2010

But nobody outside Italy has raised this possibility. It hasn’t crossed their minds. To follow through would take the boycott-backers a bit of research — ten minutes on Google. More seriously, it would require reaching out to Italy’s LGBT movement, hearing their advice, negotiating a strategy and message. That’s the hard part; that’s politics. And it’s much more satisfying to feel you’re a solo hero, fighting the demon designers on your own, at home, Tweeting.

And here’s another point.

Remember Russia?

Elena Klimova

Elena Klimova

On March 5, a court in Murmansk, Russia, punished an organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It fined them 300,000 rubles (around US $5000) because the group had failed to register as a “foreign agent,” the crippling label Russian law lays down for organizations that accept external funding. This came after another court, on February 12, slapped an identical fine on an LGBT group in Archangelsk, for the same crime. On January 23, a district court in Nizhny Tagil found Elena Klimova guilty of “propaganda” for “non-traditional sexual relationships,” under the famous, repressive 2013 legislation. Klimova had founded Children 404, a web project providing psychological and social support for LGBT youth. The judge denied her a lawyer and fined her 50,000 rubles (over US $800). What’s left of Russian civil society is being ground away, activist by activist, group by group.

You haven’t heard these stories, yet you have heard about Dolce & Gabbana. A year and a half ago, LGBT Russia was big news. That was when the fresh laws against civil society and LGBT speech still went largely unenforced. Yet from L.A. to London there were boycotts of Russian vodka, protests against Russian musicians, a whole hashtag storm around the Sochi Olympics. Foreigners trekked to Red Square to raise rainbow flags; celebrities like Harvey Fierstein and Elton John lamented the plight of queer Russians with Dostoevskian prolixity and pain. That lasted six months or more. Then it stopped. The same people Tweeting about Dolce & Gabbana now are often the ones who waxed loudest about Russia then; but with prosecutions under Putin’s laws launched in earnest, they’re silent. Fierstein — whose New York Times op-ed set off the 2013 frenzy — ignored the recent trials. So has Dan Savage, who back then demanded the gays swear off Stolichnaya. So has Jamie Kirchick, who became a minor star for walking off the Swedish set of Putin’s propaganda channel RT to protest homophobia. So has New York-based Queer Nation, which led many fine demos. Peter Tatchell Tweeted once about Elena Klimova’s sentence, but passed over the others. It’s deafening indifference.

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

Politics is so draining: Bar-goers dump Stolichnaya at a West Hollywood protest, 2013. Photo from International Business Times

It’s not as though Russia and Putin ceased to be headline fodder in the last year. But the Internet-fed furor over Russian homophobia was never a campaign capable of the long haul. There was never any effort to build a resilient structure, ally with other movements, or recruit students or reach into unions or explore other stories of international solidarity. There was never much strategy, just publicity. There were flash-mob attacks on labels like Stoli, which doesn’t prop up the Russian economy; there were no campaigns to get governments to stop buying Russian gas and oil, which do. There was faith that Barack Obama had some magic sway over Moscow. And there was wild over-optimism that hashtags and Embassy protests would manage, in six months, to make Vladimir Putin back down. Five days into the Stoli boycott, blogger John Aravosis exulted that they’d “pressure the most important brand of all, Brand Russia and its leaders in parliament and the Kremlin, to make permanent change on this issue – if for no other reason than to simply make us all just go away.” This assumed Putin gave a damn, or regarded Russia as a “brand.” He didn’t. When the promised quick victory failed to come, virtually everyone gave up. Energy and enthusiasm and idealism infused the campaigning; sadly, they were squandered. The laws still stand. The trials are starting. The Tweeters have moved on.

Campaigns like this try to make it look easy. They obscure the truth: that politics is not quick or solitary, that solidarity is hard. The gays have a boycott almost weekly, steady as the Two Minutes’ Hate: it’s Barilla, or Mozilla, or Brunei, or something. Few such campaigns have contributed to any substantive social change. Many don’t even try. Boycotting Dolce without a declared goal isn’t pressure; it’s self-expression. As a result, they last only as long as it takes for people to get the anger out of their systems: the noble Russian campaign was a Methuselah compared to most of them. This erodes the patience real change requires. Our political attention span is barely longer than the mayfly’s lifecourse. Look up the mayfly, people. Do some research.

Meanwhile, some corporations do terrible, material harm to LGBT people, not just dissing their relationships but colluding with their torture. They go unboycotted. What about GE and BP, which recruited for the investment summit of Egypt’s head persecutor General Sisi, and are sinking millions into a dictator’s private economy? What about the Silicon Valley-based Blue Coat Systems, which sells Sisi surveillance equipment that can record every keystroke Egyptian queers type? Where are the hashtags? Where’s the outrage?

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Surveillance hurts: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2012

Through these priorities peer some of the disorders that afflict Western LGBT experience. A fascination with celebrity runs deep in gay men’s cultures. It’s partly founded in the persistence of the closet, the years of our lives that withered in concealment; the memory breeds envy of lives led in utter exposure, the unreserved nudity of fame, stars with skin and secrets open to the world like French doors. As a result, the purely verbal sins of celebrity designers matter more than the depredation wreaked by a little-known, torture-enabling CEO. And a British comedian’s directives outweigh anything a mere activist in Russia or Italy can say.

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

The gay consumer: Dolce & Gabbana ad, 2014

But there’s also the way that gays, with identities demarcated by desire, define themselves less and less as political participants, more and more as consumers. Boycotts can be useful tools to change things, but they can also feed this apathy. I wrote in 2013, and nothing’s changed: “If the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices.” Taking sides is picking “brands”:

Is [boycott politics] a boycott of politics, evading the responsibilities and demands that politics impose on us for an easy cyber-way out? Does our consumer power — that $800 billion gays spend annually at being gay — really make us stronger, more potent citizens? Or does it makes us less citizens, shut us into ghettos where we become what we do or do not purchase with our power? Does it foreclose more generous identities, more onerous but meaningful commitments, larger and more human solidarities?

One last fact: there’s almost no LGBT organization with any political power in North America that’s democratically run. They’re either behemoths governed by unelected boards, or the odd authoritarian one-man show. Other activists have few ways to participate except by giving money. This fosters more and more roving Lone Rangers, accountable to no one, locked outside.

You can argue the causes; but you can see the consequences. Things accelerate, and the focus goes. Human rights present themselves as immutable values, the preserve of universals in an incoherent time. Yet as abuses multiply, politics and principle — strategy and capability — play less part in deciding which rights to defend, where to concentrate concern; taste takes their place, capitulation or whim, mass gusts of emotion across computer screens like the wind bending tall grass. This month it’s Uganda; next month, Egypt. There’s no persistence; the future erodes. Conscience is the creature of fashion. You can protest Dolce and Gabbana if you like; they’ve won already. It’s their world we live in.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it's not synthetic.

Get your rights abuses here: Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. The US National Organization for Women called it “beyond offensive, with a scene evoking a gang rape and reeking of violence against women.” But at least it’s not synthetic.

On death threats, trolls, and truth

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Violent transgender activists cooking up a juicy free speech stew

The center has shifted in the debate over last week’s Observer letter. What was once an argument about grave human rights abuses against trans people and sex workers has now become an argument about grave abuses against Peter Tatchell, mostly between him and him. I had no intention of writing another word on this; but then I read Peter’s self-defense. It’s headlined “Peter Tatchell: Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong.”

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 5.22.20 AMThis was strange. I’ve heard warnings of “killer trans people” from Turkish police trying to justify torture; never from a human rights activist before. So I spent a few hours searching on Twitter for Tweets containing Peter’s name plus any of a thesaurus of threats (“murder,” “kill,” “beat,” “stab,” etc.). I also searched for a variety of Anglo-Saxon terms of abuse.

First finding: this “Twitter storm” was maybe not so stormy. Peter laments that “I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments” on Twitter, “from Saturday [February 14] to Monday [February 16].” An advanced search on Twitter uncovers all the Tweets sent to and from @PeterTatchell during February 14 – 17 (that’s one extra day). By my count — my eyes are misty– there were only 2621, of which 174 were Peter’s own. Many of the rest had nothing to do with the Observer letter. Perhaps 2000 did, over the four days.

Second finding: this “Twitter mob” was no mob. So far as I see, Peter got one Tweet that contained threatening language; it’s the one he’s cited and retweeted everywhere.

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 5.37.35 AMThat Tweet is disturbing. I’d support Peter if he reported it to the police. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a clear threat — it’s riffing abusively off Peter’s use of the “MURDER of trans people” and his implication that trans activists didn’t care enough about their own, an assertion that infuriated many. The Tweeter seems to be a nasty kid (a self-described “Marxoteen”). Somebody else advised Peter:Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.50.19 AMWhat’s also important is that this Tweet was a complete outlier. I saw no other message that could be taken as threatening (nor has Tatchell cited any). (Again, all Tweets to and from Peter during the period are here; I encourage others to analyze them in detail.) Some Tweets tried to start a dialogue, some tried to explain why others were angry, some were critical, some raised questions of identity no doubt destined to discomfit Peter, but most were civil and none were menacing. These were typical:

Tatchell trans tweets 1

Only a few Tweets used language I might find abusive:

ab Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.29.11 AM

It’s disconcerting to find several hundred Tweets clogging your notifications, but volume isn’t the same thing as violence or abuse. I generally agree with trans activist Sarah Brown, who wrote Peter:

sb Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.55.33 AMI also feel for the trans member of the Green Party who wrote:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.31.46 AMThere was no trans “Twitter mob” threatening to kill Tatchell. What is clear is that Peter turned to the media to create the belief that there was. And mainly he went to the right-wing media, because they loathe trans people anyway. On Monday Milo Yiannopoulos at the far-right website Breitbart Tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 10.42.15 AM

(A commenter below notes that Yiannopolous was one of the wannabe-jock jerks who last year fanned up Gamergate and its misogynistic, anti-feminist vitriol. He wrote “column after column slamming feminists” and “sociopathic” women gamers — making him an odd partner for Tatchell, but a productive place to seek support.)  Later that day Breitbart published its article claiming Tatchell was being “persecuted” by the “vocal, and vicious,” “increasingly shrill and intolerant transgender lobby.” On Thursday Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator upped the transphobia, warning that the “grandfather of gay rights” was under assault from “vicious, narcissistic cowards,” “self-styled queers and gender-benders” who “went berserk,” a “petulant mob of moaners … hurling abuse.” And of course O’Neill, like Peter, said they were ungrateful. Tatchell’s

risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises [sic] about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.

That’s characteristic of Tatchell: when a person or group offends his amour-propre, he turns to the media to make them sorry. Using a single Tweet to discredit trans activists in general, however, shreds the claim to be an “ally.” Instead, Tatchell consciously strengthened gendered prejudices against trans people as hysterical, shrill, and dangerous. Sara Ahmed, in a thoughtful post last week that I’ve cited earlier, predicted exactly what he did:

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. …  The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. …

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly …: those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

And of course the opponents of trans people’s identities and rights took their cue:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 12.07.58 PMI’ve gotten a small but significant number of threats in my life. I’ve been a public voice on LGBT rights in a variety of places where the rights and their claimaints were violently despised — Romania in the early 90s, for instance, or Egypt now; threats go with the territory. Much more comparable to this kerfluffle was the flurry of opposing e-mails I got about a post on sex work a while back. Some of these raised important questions, most were no more angry than your average letter to the editor, a very few were abusive, and one — which stood out — said I should be “disemboweled”: “I want you to die in agony feeling the blood run down your thighs the way it runs between the thighs of a woman who has been raped by 27 johns in a single night …” There’s a certain kind of pseudo-human rights talk that imaginatively colonizes the experience of victimhood, like mystics meditating on the wounds of Christ. It’s distasteful, particularly when it’s used to tag you as a supposed abuser. But I didn’t assume this was representative of all sex work opponents, or radical feminists, or feminists in general, or people with Earthlink accounts, or Vermonters, or any other group identity I could have extracted from the e-mail. Now I see: I don’t dramatize myself enough. I should have run to the press with an op-ed saying, “I forgive the radical feminists who want to disembowel me.” I do forgive radical feminists who want to disembowel me. I just don’t think there are any.

One more thing. That phrase “fucking parasite” turned up amid my search results in one other place. A week before this controversy started, Tatchell Tweeted a complaint about why Muslims weren’t protesting the right things (not unlike his lament that trans people were ignoring murders of trans people). A Muslim woman responded to him. A nasty troll — prone to obscenity, misogyny, and racist browbeating — then intervened in Tatchell’s defense with a slew of Islamophobic messages. Tatchell was copied on all these; but he didn’t raise a keystroke on the woman’s behalf, neither to demur nor or to reproach the racist. He stayed indifferently silent, even at the culmination, when the guy shouted she was a “fucking parasite cunt”:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 7.45.50 AMI guess it all depends on who’s being abused.

NOTE: I’ve updated this post twice since it was published: once, to add information about a Breitbart editor to which I was directed by a commenter; and a second time to include, and explain, a link to the Twitter search results.

Help, I’m being persecuted: Hypocrisy and free speech

Trans

Trans activists in Mexico City protesting violence against LGBT people and sex workers, August 13, 2011. Photo: Alfredo Estrella for AFP

In long years of human rights work, I’ve seen plenty of hatred inculcated and discrimination enforced; but I can’t think of anyone more fitting the profile of les damnés de la terre than trans people and sex workers. Bearers of those identities (of course they often intersect) risk arrest almost daily across nine-tenths of the globe; police, if they don’t throw them in prison, can shake them down or rape them with impunity; on streets or in private places violence menaces their bodies constantly; the media mocks them, mutes them, fetishizes them, but mostly vilifies them; stigma, chasing them through life, bars them from jobs or homes or education; they die because health care systems ignore their needs; they die because people slaughter them. Why? Why are they hiding their lights under a bushel? For in fact, trans folk and sex workers are probably the most powerful people on the planet. They submit pliantly to these indignities in modesty or masochism, like Clark Kent letting bullies rough him up in front of Lois Lane; but with one flex of their superstrength they could blow us all to smithereens. Professors at world-famous universities, columnists in major newspapers, politicians, novelists, heads of NGOs all cower at the wrath of the raging sex worker with her scything fingernails, and tremble like skittish jellyfish at the earthquake clack of a trans woman’s heel. It just shows: things aren’t always what they seem.

This, I’ve learned from the hoopla over a recent letter to the UK Observer: “We cannot allow censorship and silencing.” Signed by dozens of those professors, columnists, and leaders, it says that sex workers (whom it calls “the sex industry”) and trans people (Beatrix Campbell, the screed’s lead author, has termed them “transgender vigilantes”) are behind “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.’” They scheme “to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”

These tactics [are] illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.

What’s most horrifying is: some trans people and sex workers answered. They pointed out that the people behind the letter have their own history of silencing sex workers and trans people. (Just one example: Campbell herself proposes that the UK’s National Union of Students should remove trans women – who practice “cultural conservatism and anatomical violence” — from its women’s sections and services. She’s outraged that the Union’s “solidarity does not extend to women who feel unsettled by the presence of people who used to be men in women-only spaces and services.”) Saying back-at-you like that, of course, censors and silences even more. These vigilantes prove the point! Some of the letter’s signatories had to endure the monstrous indignity of people Tweeting at them. Two days after the letter appeared, the right-wing media giant Breitbart bore the headline:

The face of victimhood

The face of victimhood

Persecuted, mind you. Never mind trans people imprisoned or sex workers raped: This is what a victim looks like. The evidence? Tatchell (whom Breitbart called “an unlikely conservative hero … with his views on extremist Islam”) “received ‘100s of hate mails’” for signing the letter. That’s how the worst regimes, Egypt and North Korea and Iran, abuse their most obstreperous dissidents to break them: They send them e-mails. I’m sure Peter Tatchell tried to withstand the torture, but everybody cracks. Lest anyone think Breitbart was exaggerating these brutalities, Tatchell himself tweeted his agreement:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.21.06 PMTatchell says he is a human rights activist, so he must know what persecution is. Now the UN has to amend its international treaties, to ban torture, inhuman treatment, and spamming.

Cyberbullying is real. Yes, some people’s careers or livelihoods have been damaged by Twitter storms. But none of this letter’s signatories have suffered in the slightest. Tweets have not yet forced Peter Tatchell’s employer, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, to dismiss Peter Tatchell. Not everyone lets insults feed their self-pity. (I’ve faced online vitriol too. Last year, for instance, I helped organize a Twitter campaign to support Amnesty International’s emerging stance on sex work; a whirlwind of radical-feminist Tweets called me a “pimp.” I was annoyed. I wasn’t “persecuted.”) Most Tweets I’ve seen in this brouhaha were questions or criticisms, not “bullying.” Yet one trans person got attacked for “verbal violence” just for posting this:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 8.07.27 PM

As someone else tweeted to Tatchell:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 6.16.08 PM

As Sara Ahmed explained in an excellent rumination on the controversy,

The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. … We need to hear the constant stream of anti­trans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects. Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But … those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

"All transmisogyny in feminism is a patriarchal tendency." Brazilian street poster: Photo from madmaria.org/ ?p=198

“All transmisogyny in feminism is a patriarchal tendency.” Brazilian street poster: Photo from madmaria.org/ ?p=198

Is anything about the Observer letter true? Is “free speech” under threat? The letter cited exactly four alleged cases where “transgender vigilantes” and the “sex industry” shut down speech.

FIRST: The most ambiguous incident is “The fate of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show, cancelled by Goldsmith’s College in London last month.” Smurthwaite, a stand-up comic, is also a sex-work eradicationist; she thinks prostitution should be wiped out. What happened to her Goldsmith’s gig is in no way clear. Smurthwaite says it was stopped by pro-sex-work feminists (or, as she prefers it, pimps and punters). But — I get this from her own blog — she has only one bit of evidence anybody opposed her: a message she saw on the Web, from a feminist student at another university, suggesting a picket. (It proposed a protest, not canceling the show. The moniker’s blacked out by me.)

Evidence adduced by Kate Smurthwaite of threats against her show

Evidence adduced by Kate Smurthwaite of threats against her show

In fact, the University’s student Feminist Society had voted 70-30 to co-host her show. There were no threats. The head of the Comedy Society, the student group that was her main sponsor, writes that “One [Feminist Society] member suggested a counter event for those who didn’t want to see Kate. This member assured me it wouldn’t be a picket, but just a different gathering at a different venue.” The dire warnings of disaster came solely from Smurthwaite herself (she “let the organisers know that I thought there was a risk of a protest or of people coming along to the show with the specific aim of disrupting it or arguing with me”). Meanwhile, nobody was buying tickets. The Comedy Society president says, “we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket … I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.” It’s hard to avoid suspicion that Smurthwaite, faced with an underselling show, avoided that embarrassment by arranging her own cancellation. She certainly got free publicity galore, tweeting:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 4.18.57 PM

Rupert Myers writes for the Telegraph (in an article quite sympathetic to other censorship claims):

A comedy society was going to hold an event, it received tepid response, and it decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle … “No platform” is a dangerous approach to controversial ideas … but this incident was more like “no interest.”

Smurthwaite: Bet you I have more fingers than I do audience members

Smurthwaite: I bet I have more fingers than I do audience members

SECOND: The letter says, “Last month, there were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer.” Greer, a writer I’ve found alternately inspiring and infuriating, has strong opinions against trans women: “ghastly parodies,” she’s called them. She regards them as gay men (never mind who they might be attracted to); she’s campaigned to get a trans woman ousted from a Cambridge University women’s fellowship for not being female; she allegedly has refused to contribute to anthologies or appear on platforms if certain trans people are represented. Nobody wrote open letters about that. 

Greer back then: I like men too, as long as they're cis and safe and don't steal my clothes

Greer back then: I like men too, as long as they’re safely cis and don’t borrow my clothes

This time, the Cambridge Union Society invited her; in a special snub, they scheduled her speech at the same time as a regular drinks event held for the Union’s LGBT+ group. Students asked the Union to rescind the invitation; they declined. The LGBT+ group then set up a counter-event “to celebrate and discuss the history of trans feminism, and think through how feminism can be made more trans-inclusive.” That sounds like just the kind of “democratic political exchange” the letter signatories claim they want. At Greer’s own talk, according to the Cambridge student newspaper, ”there were few signs of protest except for a few LGBT+ representatives handing out leaflets at the door.” Greer had her platform, and urged an end to surgeries and medical treatments for trans people during transition — she denounced them as “unethical.” No one got silenced or censored here.

THIRD: Most absurdly: The letter says “the Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans­ activists.” (What Read wrote, and later apologized for, was that trans women are “a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman.”). This is duplicitous. Trans activists didn’t react because Read’s a philosopher, but because he is a Green Party candidate for Parliament; they pressed the Greens to take a stand. As a politician, Read’s thoughts have implications. How would he and the Green Party vote on revising the UK’s inadequate Gender Recognition Act, for instance? Are political parties exempt from saying what they believe? When a Republican running for the US Senate alleged that women survivors of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant, feminists across the country demanded the Republican Party declare whether it agreed. Now the feminists behind the Observer letter are saying that was an assault on poor Todd Akin’s freedom. This is political insanity.

Candidate Rupert Read: If you feel a surge coming on, please go only to the bathroom of your birth gender

Candidate Rupert Read: If you feel a surge coming on, please go only to the bathroom of your birth gender

FOURTH: Oh, yes, “The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been ‘no­platformed’ by the National Union of Students for several years.” Bear with me. One must draw breath before dealing with Julie Bindel; I’ll go there in a moment.

But consider the facts: trying to establish an evil sexworker-trans axis against free speech, Campbell and Tatchell and the rest found virtually nothing. The basis for the letter is BS. What is true is the level of sheer self-contradictory hypocrisy in their claims.

There are ample examples of this hypocrisy, but I’ll just focus on a few. One of the letter’s signatories (gay novelist Paul Burston) and one person it’s about (Julie Bindel) were among 12 gay activists who wrote a statement in 2011 that was a prime case of “no-platforming.” They demanded the East London Mosque “stop allowing its premises to be used to promote gayhate campaigns” by banning a list of speakers they helpfully provided. Peter Tatchell wasn’t party to that statement but had long campaigned against the East London Mosque. In a separate article the next day, he complained the mosque “never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again,” though Tatchell had “publicly demanded that they do so.”

This is far severer “censorship” than those elusive proto-protests against Kate Smurthwaite that roused Tatchell’s and Campbell’s ire. These statements didn’t call for cancelling shows or lectures at a university, events where a diverse audience might take offense; they intruded on places of worship, sites particular to a community, institutions in no way obligated to represent opposing points of view. This is the kind of thing you can only advocate about Islam, because in the UK it’s known to be a public menace, requiring vigilant surveillance. Feminists complain, rightly, at the Catholic Church’s militance against reproductive rights; but imagine the uproar if they insisted that it ban all anti-abortion priests from its altars. With Islam, it’s open season.

Who's in there? The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel

Who’s in there? The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel

Their rationale for this remarkable demand was the same one the Observer letter mocks when trans people use it: These speakers make us feel unsafe. They opportunistically exploited a moral panic over an alleged burst of homophobic violence in East London, coupled with the trial of a Muslim man for putting up stickers that read “Gay Free Zone.” (Bindel and Burston dubbed his solitary stickering a “homophobic hate campaign.”) The excellent blogger How Upsetting noted that “Homophobic crime has decreased in Hackney.”

And before anyone tells you that this means nothing because it’s a huge figure nonetheless, the 47 homophobic crimes the MET reports to April 2011 in Hackney compares with 317 racist and religious hate crimes, 130 rapes and 5900 cases of “violence against the person.”

No evidence suggested a link between hate crimes, stickers, and the East London Mosque — which had condemned both. The writers virtually admitted banning the speakers would have no effect: “It is doubtful that many gaybashers are regular mosque attendees.” And many of the “hate preachers” were accused on flimsy pretexts. Tatchell’s article condemned one preacher, Uthman Lateef, as “virulently homophobic.” The joint statement gave more detail on Lateef,

who even hosted a gala dinner to highlight the Mosque’s supposed commitment to combatting homophobia earlier this year [but] is on record as saying to students at nearby Queen Mary University of London in 2007: “We don’t accept homosexuality… we hate it because Allah hates it”.

Read that again. Four years ago, he said “We don’t accept homosexuality”; but this year, he hosted an anti-homophobia event to make amends. Yet that’s not enough; he’s marked for life, and we’re going to get him banned not just from universities, but in his own community. Try doing that to Germaine Greer! This is “illiberal bullying” far beyond anything Tatchell and Burston piously decried in the Observer. Except here, Tatchell and Burston are doing it.

Hate preaching, I: Uthman Lateef

Hate preaching, I: Uthman Lateef

This censoriousness is ubiquitous in the UK, with nary an open letter against it. Earlier in 2011, for instance, Tatchell tried to no-platform “Muslim fundamentalist preachers who advocate the criminalisation of homosexuality”: “The Ibis Hotel group,” which was hosting a  Muslim conference, “should not facilitate speakers who promote homophobic discrimination and violence. They should cancel this booking.” The charge of “promoting violence” is elastic. After all, Uthman Lateef’s alleged statement “We don’t accept homosexuality” hardly incites anything specific. Even preachers who endorse the shari’a punishment of death for proven male homosexual acts (very unlikely to be enacted in the UK) are not exactly urging violence on the streets. But you have to wonder. That call is barbarous — but should only homosexuals be exempt from execution? Are we gays so special? Isn’t the death penalty always a barbarous human rights abuse? Shouldn’t Tatchell, a human rights activist, demand all death penalty supporters be barred from speaking, anywhere? That would ban Priti Patel, David Cameron’s Treasury Minister, who wants to bring back hanging. (OK, she’s brown, go ahead and ban her.) It would ban all the other Tory MPs who tabled a bill to the same end. It would ban almost every visiting US politician, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. Tatchell and Burston should get busy writing the open letter that calls for no-platforming these people, so that Burston and Tatchell can then write the open letter that opposes it.

Hate preachers. Top: English Defense League demo against the East London Mosque (photo: Jess Hurd/Reportdigital.co.uk). Bottom: English Defense League march in Telford, August 2011 (photo: MirrorImage/Demotix)

Hate preaching, II. Top: The fascist English Defence League protests the East London Mosque (photo: Jess Hurd/Reportdigital.co.uk). Bottom: English Defence League march in Telford, August 2011 (photo: MirrorImage/Demotix)

Then there’s Tatchell’s own record. Peter dislikes criticism. (He calls it “smears.”) In fact, he thinks criticizing him is censorship. (“The real censorship is by my critics. Some of them are posting entirely false allegations, often on closed lists that do not allow me to post my side of the story.”) When people criticize him, he tries to shut them up by threatening to sue. English libel law, which until revised in 2013 put the full burden of proof on the defendant and was among the most repressive in the world, handed him a potent weapon. In 2009, he threatened to sue a small feminist press (the aptly named Raw Nerve Books) that had published one of the UK’s first anthologies on race and queerness. An article in the book, by three academics of color, criticized Tatchell’s connections with the Islamophobic right. Tatchell forced the press to withdraw the whole anthology. Humiliatingly, he compelled them to publish a pages-long “Apology and Correction to Peter Tatchell,” written by Peter Tatchell, that praised Peter Tatchell’s career in wildly adulatory terms: a weirdly narcissistic exhibition. (It’s now only available on his own site, since the press is out of business.) “A really amazing book is being censored,” another academic wrote: “Meanwhile the authors’ reputations are themselves besmirched.”

All that was left: From the old Raw Nerve Books website

All that was left: From the old Raw Nerve Books website

The same year, Tatchell went after me. He threatened to sue Routledge, which had published a peer-reviewed and factual article I wrote, critiquing claims he made about Iran. (The article is here.) Then in early 2010, I stupidly sent an email to a third party in which I wrote, offhand, that “Tatchell makes up his own facts when the existing ones don’t suit.” (That’s a paraphrase; here in Cairo I don’t have the text in front of me. It’s also the truth.) The recipient inadvertently forwarded these unwise words to Peter. Tatchell leapt on them, and, since I’d sent the offending missive from a work address, threatened to sue Human RIghts Watch. HRW was eventually constrained to sign an apology which Tatchell couched in the most sweeping terms possible, a decision to which I reluctantly assented to keep their UK work free from his legal harassment. Tatchell then used that apology to force Routledge to concede, and pulp not just the article but the entire volume in which it had appeared.

Nor did it stop there. In 2011 I forwarded to an LGBT e-mail listserve, without comment, two blog posts by other people — both mainly about the Middle East but containing critiques of Tatchell’s work. (The e-mail’s here.) The next day, one “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who was also “the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation,” wrote to the Dean of Harvard Law School, where I was a Visiting Fellow, with a veiled threat of libel action unless I were fired. Legal threats against smart lawyers are ill-advised, and the school told him (I’m paraphrasing here too) to bugger off. In 2013, Peter wrote to a friend of Hillel Neuer, a pro-Likud propagandist some of whose misrepresentations of Egyptian human rights activists I had detailed. Tatchell urged Neuer to take “legal action” against me. (This time the e-mail was inadvertently forwarded to me. Be careful with those keyboards, people.) Tatchell has an odd fixation on me, which is a personal issue. His use of a draconian libel law to shut down speech is not. He now hypocritically claims (in Twitterese) “I defend precious human right of free speech, except 4 violent incites.” But that’s not true. He defends precious human right when it is good 4 him. Criticize, & he will make u sorry 4 it.

There are standards. See?

1) It’s utterly wrong if trans or sex worker activists no-platform speakers with transphobic or eradicationist opinions.

2) It’s absolutely right if gay activists no-platform speakers with homophobic opinions.

3) It’s wonderful if one particular gay activist uses the law against anybody criticizing his opinions.

Sex wars: Anonymous stencil

Sex wars: Anonymous stencil

But let’s face it, these are only local hypocrisies. The great dishonesty is claiming you’re being “silenced,” while trans and sex worker activists have mostly been the ones repression stifles and gags. This history stretches back to the sex wars in feminism that raged from the 1970s. When Barnard College held a famous, feminist sexualities conference in 1982, other feminists — fulminating at open discussions of porn and sex work — charged it was a coven of child pornography, in a furious push to shut it down. Trans researcher Natacha Kennedy wrote this week:

The so-called “feminists” who wish to initiate a debate about my existence have glossed over the nature and history of this “debate.” This is a debate that has raged since the early 1970s and which quickly became violent. …  [Feminist theorist] Janice Raymond publish[ed] a book in which she suggested that people like myself should be “morally mandated out of existence.” She also helped the Reagan government to withhold gender reassignment healthcare from trans people.

[T]hose transphobic “feminists” who wish to debate my existence are a group that has a long and sordid history of silencing and intimidating trans people. Indeed I invariably attract quite extreme personal abuse online whenever I write something to counter what these transphobic “feminists” have written. They provide no counter-argument, no engagement with the issues I raise, just abuse and occasionally threats. And I count myself lucky, others have been threatened with legal letters from solicitors trying to shut them up, some have had letters written to their employers, trying to get them sacked, in one instance a transphobic “feminist” even tried to intervene in someone’s medical treatment.

Cathy Brennan, a US lawyer, viciously harasses trans women through her website, Gender Identity Watch: in one case, she posted online the court docket information of a person trying to change her legal gender, and urged others to lobby the judge to deny her. Another, even more sadistic radical-feminist site “monitors” and outs trans youth, regularly posting names and photos of “who is transitioning.”  Maybe these are marginal; maybe not. Their acts are more terrifying to their targets than anything Kate Smurthwaite underwent. Why isn’t Bea Campbell cooking up an open letter?

And sex workers? The harassment they face is endless. Opponents accuse anti-criminalization campaigners of trafficking, or dub them a “pimp lobby.”

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 2.51.25 AM

This month anti-sex work groups in the UK published a “Guide for Journalists Reporting on the Prostitution and Trafficking of Women,” written by (there you go again!) Julie Bindel. The book aims to discourage journalists from talking to or trusting sex worker activists: “How to identify the pro-prostitution lobby.” A recalcitrant reporter at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that “radical feminist Julie Bindel’s presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry'” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.” It’s a two-pronged media strategy: first, make sex workers invisible; if that fails, out them. Either way, you shut them up.

The whole point of the Observer letter is to bury these facts and this history. This controversy has been less about speech than about forgetting. I”m not sure anything can be learned from such an episode of erasures. But as I mulled on it, four thoughts flickered though.

First: Free speech is easy in principle and complicated in practice. It’s an absolute ideal (an ideology, I’d say, if the word weren’t so weighted): something people hold up and value and use to judge acts and situations. But everybody knows that absolute free speech — a cacophonic babel where everyone talks at once and everybody’s heard — doesn’t exist. (Twitter pretends to be that, hence some folks’ passion for it. But the point is precisely that with everyone on Twitter talking, most don’t get heard at all. And just try Tweeting if you live in Egypt and earn two dollars a day.)

There are always limitations, some necessary (climate-change denialists or creation scientists should not be attended to in University departments) and some unjust (why should a gigabyte of WiFi cost a day’s food?). We negotiate what “free speech” means in specific situations. We decide what limit we’ll contest, who we’ll pay attention to, who gets a lecture slot, who sits on a panel. And when we decide, others should be able to argue back. These negotiations always involve power. Power (“privilege” is the trendy term) is also never absolute. There are different kinds, and race, gender, knowledges, class all shape it differently. Everyone has power in some ways and spaces, and people who have a lot can always point to times and places where they have less (or more). It’s absurd to suppose that Germaine Greer has as much power as David Cameron. But it’s ridiculous to pretend that a few students protesting Germaine Greer have as much power as Germaine Greer. It’s demeaning to posit that academics and politicians and NGO heads are helpless victims in the face of street sex workers or trans women whom police freely abuse. It’s insulting to claim “persecution” because you got too many Tweets from people who actually know what persecution is.

freedom-of-speech-megaphone2Second: Universities are separate and special places for producing truth: unique sites where we negotiate what free speech means. They are not places of “democratic political exchange,” and they never have been (though there may be democratic spaces within them, the freest usually being ones students establish). People in universities spend much of their time and energy deciding who should get to speak, sometimes fine-tuning fairer procedures for decision. Then sometimes other people protest their decisions. These aren’t Platonic paradises where the free-speech ideal effortlessly becomes flesh.

Bernard Lewis as drawn by the Spectator (UK). Turks may notice the resemblance to Suleyman Demirel.

Bernard Lewis as drawn by the Spectator (UK). Turks may notice the resemblance to Süleyman Demirel.

Most obviously, faculties constantly decide what can be taught or not. No decent university will hire someone to spread creation science or Holocaust denial. The second offends a lot of people, the first probably doesn’t rouse real ire except among dinosaurs, but that’s not the criterion. Those opinions won’t get class time because they’re not true. Yet the decision about what’s true does involve power, and there are steady struggles over it. Vast Turkish massacres of Armenians during the First World War — the word “genocide” hadn’t been coined yet — are well-documented. Yet many scholars still minimize or ignore them. Bernard Lewis, the immensely powerful Middle East scholar much beloved of neoconservatives, is a genocide denier. There are probably Armenian right-wingers who would say this discrepancy is because the Jews have power and the Armenians don’t, but they’d be wrong. The problem is, rather, that the Turkish government has power and uses its weight to cover up the killings, while most European states that murdered Jews have, imperfectly, come to terms with their guilt. Many foreign historians working on Turkey succumbed to unsubtle pressure to steer clear of the genocide, because their access to institutions and archives was at stake. All this is shifting  — partly because US conservatives are far less fond of Turkey; but also because Armenian activists have pushed, pressured, and sometimes protested to get their stories (and their ancestors’ stories) heard. Truth comes from negotiating such contests; it doesn’t descend immaculate from on high. Bernard Lewis is almost 100 now, and no one wants to trouble an old man, but if in his heyday Armenian groups had promised to shout him down in public till he changed his claims, I would have applauded. That would have been an opening of debate, not a closure.

Child refugees from massacres by Turkish troops: Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the Republic of Armenia

Child refugees from massacres by Turkish troops: Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in the Republic of Armenia

Then there’s the part of the university not under the faculties’ direct control. Student union “no platform” policies are much fought over. Several things should be clarified. These are policies of student unions, not the university administration. Students vote on them. They identify certain groups or even people whom the union won’t admit to its platforms. Their origins lie in a long tradition of working-class struggles against fascism (UK student unions are unions, after all). The National Union of Students no-platforms the English Defence League and the British National Party, but also several Muslim groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir. Its LGBT section has voted to no-platform Julie Bindel.

Anti-fascist demonstrators at Cambridge University protest outside a speech by French rightist Marine Le Pen, February 2013. Photo by  Justin Tallis/AFP

Anti-fascist demonstrators at Cambridge University protest outside a speech by French rightist Marine Le Pen, February 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP

No one — even among the advocates behind the Observer letter — seems to mind no-platforming fascists. Commentators are confused, though, over why fascists can be banned. Sarah Ditum, in an article defending Julie Bindel, claimed no-platform “was traditionally about rejecting the rhetoric of violence.” But surely the objection to fascism was less that it was violent than that it was fascism: racist, exclusionary. (Hizb ut-Tahrir is barred even though it has vowed a commitment to non-violence, and nobody on the right complained about that.)

Nick Cohen similarly contends that only ideas that “incite violence” should ever be no-platformed, anywhere. Yet – as the East London furor shows – very few who think this are willing to stick to any consistent or legal definition of “incitement”: that is, encouraging particular acts against particular people. Somebody saying “I don’t like you” is incitement enough in their minds. After all, Julie BIndel believes pornography, all pornography, incites (or is) violence. They use the incitement argument not as a heuristic tool, to winnow “good” speech from “bad” speech, but as an emotive spur, to whip up fear and anger against speech they don’t like.

In other words, hypocrisy once again riddles these arguments: No-platforming for thee, but not for me. But let’s admit two things. First, these student bans aren’t “censorship.” As trans activist Sarah Brown writes, “No platforming sounds terribly serious. In reality, it basically means, ‘we won’t invite this person to our stuff, and we won’t appear on the same platform as them.'” Having no platform at the student union doesn’t mean having no platform at all. There are other platforms in the university; there are platforms outside. Everyone has the right to seek a platform from which to speak; that doesn’t mean an absolute right to any platform in particular.

For student groups, no-platforming resolutions are a way of putting some opinions under the shadow of disapproval. I find no-platform distasteful, like most symbolic gestures. It gives people the warm feeling of fighting something, with little effort or impact at all. I think it should stop. But to confuse it with state suppression of opinion, with Iran or North Korea, is to lose all proportion.

Music to my fears: London protest against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, over his political support for Vladimir Putin, November 2013

Music to my fears: London protest against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, over his political support for Vladimir Putin, November 2013

Then: in our societies, groups censure or ostracise some opinions all the time. A great victory was won, in many places in the last 50 years, through the valor and vigilance of many movements. Some racist ideas became socially and politically unacceptable: not banned (though their expression is in some countries) but met with such disapproval as to disqualify you from public life. When a US politician shouts a racist slur, his career is over. Now there’s a steady struggle to bring other kinds of prejudice under the same penumbra. And gays and lesbians are at the fore, protesting and reviling. It’s like no-platforming, only played not in student unions but on larger fields. Getting the CEO of Mozilla fired because he fought gay marriage takes away a platform way bigger than Julie Bindel’s wildest dreams. Gay activists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere have militantly patrolled the limits of acceptable language and opinion. To tell trans people and sex workers that they can’t similarly fight back is, from this perspective, like saying gay rights are a settled issue, whereas their rights must stay open to debate. It’s the gays pulling up the drawbridge behind them. You’re surprised folks get angry?

I’m sometimes uneasy, even appalled about these wildfire campaigns (a clicktivist drive to fire a CEO is a diversion from fighting poverty or inequality), but they’re not “censorship.” Free speech is a struggle. Voices left inaudible (the powerless on one hand, the just-plain-wrong on another) are in constant contention with the ones behind the megaphones, to make themselves heard.

Much of the horror over who gives a lecture and who doesn’t draws on a fantasy version of how speech works. You’d think each of Earth’s six billion residents was guaranteed a speaking slot at Oxford each semester, and if one loses it, it’s censorship. It’s not. Each time a speaker is invited somewhere, it’s because somebody decided not to invite someone else. Usually these zero-sum contests are settled behind closed doors. But when a decision becomes public, the public can contest it. No university can hear all voices; the more discussion about which ones it will accomodate, the better. These arguments make that discussion open. They aren’t how free speech is suppressed. Often, they’re how it happens.

censorshipThird: What is censorship? The Observer letter leaves me hopelessly confused. Is it when you’re not invited to speak? When no one shows up when you speak? When someone protests your speaking? When somebody complains?

Censorship is none of these. Censorship is suppressing speech, usually by punitive or repressive force, with the intent to eliminate it altogether. People need to get their definitions straight. When a government closes a newspaper, jails a journalist, or passes an anti-pornography law, that’s censorship. When a person employs a draconian state law to threaten or silence speech, that’s censorship. (Peter Tatchell, with his exploitation of a grim libel law, is a censor.) If TV networks conspire to ban some opinion from the airwaves altogether, that’s censorship. Violence can be censorship. But protesting a program or demanding it be dropped is not censorship. Neither is picketing a lecture, or writing to a political party, or not being allowed on an e-mail listserve. You’re not being censored if you lose a platform and can find another: if the Guardian won’t publish you and the Independent will. The proliferating pseudo-dictionaries make it impossible to muster indignation against real censors.

Sex workers protest against violence, Vancouver, Canada, 1984

Sex workers protest against violence, Vancouver, Canada, 1984

Fourth. The one thing everybody in this controversy says is: they want more speech. Being human, they mostly don’t mean it. They want speech from those on their side, that’s all. But this does foreground the question of how we foster and further speech: how any of us, from polemicists to outside observers, can work so as to ensure that voices often relegated to silence are heard.

There is no easy answer, but I should say the beginning is: listen. And here I return to Tatchell, because what he’s written is instructive. Peter was hurt and indignant that trans people criticized him, because, as he kept saying, he’s fought for them for years. He’s right; he has. But as I keep saying to Peter — it’s one of the reasons he doesn’t like me — it’s not enough, and sometimes it’s not right, to fight for people. You have to be an ally, not a leader; to fight with them (at times, in all senses of the phrase); and you have to listen.

One reason trans people got angry at Peter in this twitter storm is that his reactions to criticism were infuriating. He patronized trans activists, accusing them of not caring about their own:

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.00.10 PM

He accused trans people of ingratitude:

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Many responded by asking what an ally is.

NOT AN ALLY

It all culminated with Tatchell claiming that he was simply a better trans activist than trans activists.

Screen shot 2015-02-18 at 1.02.50 PM

One demands gratitude not from equals, but from dependents. Tatchell might want to read yet another open letter: from Hannah Arendt to the French poet Jules Romains, after he claimed — at the height of Hitler’s war, in 1941 — that he had defended the Jews and they were ungrateful. (My thanks to Rahul Rao for pointing to this letter in this context, in his fine book Third World Protest.) Arendt reminded Romains that the Jews’ struggle was not just an adjunct to his own.

You complain in fact very loudly and articulately about the ingratitude of Jews for whom you have done so much…..

What concerns us Jews in all this and what makes us blush again for the hundredth time is our despairing question: Is our alternative truly only between malevolent enemies and condescending friends? Are genuine allies nowhere to be found, allies who understand, not out of either sympathy or bribery, that we were merely the first European nation on whom ‘Hitler declared war? That in this war our freedom and our honor hang in the balance no less than the freedom and honor of the nation to which Jules Romains belongs? And that condescending gestures like the arrogant demand for gratitude from a protector cuts deeper than the open hostility of antisemites?

I want also to think about that BBC radio debate with Bindel.

Tatchell’s proud of the broadcast — he Tweeted about it repeatedly to critics. Hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in 2007, It featured Bindel arguing that “sex change surgery” should be banned as “unnecessary mutilation.” Four respondents answered her: two well-known trans advocates — Stephen Whittle, a world-renowned expert on gender identity and the law, and Michelle Bridgman, a psychotherapist; Kevan Whylie, a clinician and expert on gender reassignment therapies; and Tatchell.

Censored? Julie Bindel: Photo by Elena Heatherwick for the Guardian

Censor me? Julie Bindel: Photo by Elena Heatherwick for the Guardian

At the end, the audience was polled, and Bindel’s perspective lost. But what remains of the debate? A recording formerly at the BBC’s site is gone. Two main accounts survive online: Bindel’s and Tatchell’s. (The two, despite their differences, are friends). Bindel wrote in the Guardian:

It was one of the most challenging and stimulating debates I have taken part in. Not because the panel or the audience conceded much to my arguments, but because I was given a platform for my opinions … I was outvoted at the end of the debate, but I felt I had done my job. All I intended to do was to ask the questions, “Are we right to support sex change surgery, and is it right to apply a surgical solution to what I believe is a psychological problem?

She quotes none of her respondents. Meanwhile, Tatchell’s account is on his website. He quotes Bindel generously, and himself at even more length. Although he refers to the other participants in passing, including the two trans advocates, he mentions nothing that they said. As far as he’s concerned, it’s entirely a debate between himself and Bindel. He headlines his version: “Transsexualism – Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.”

There you have it. First, that’s why I feel no sorrow when students no-platform Bindel. She has no lack of platforms; anyone who has the Guardian and the Royal Society of Medicine will never lack a platform. Second: who actually won? Maybe Tatchell, in his mind, but for trans people it may be more ambiguous; he buries them in that comma between “Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.” Their lives were at issue, but he renders their voices irrelevant, lost. Supporting people starts with hearing them: otherwise, the helping hand can become an occupying force. The storm about “silencing” and “censorship” shouldn’t whirl that lesson to oblivion.

Vanesa Ledesma, a transgender sex worker and activist, tortured to death in Cordoba, Argentina in February 2000. The painting by Tom Block is based on photographs of her mutilated corpse.

Vanesa Ledesma, a transgender sex worker and activist, tortured to death by police in Cordoba, Argentina in February 2000. The painting by Tom Block is based on photographs of her mutilated corpse.

UPDATE only for those too obsessed by this issue to sleep:  Peter Tatchell now says he has “proof” that Kate Smurthwaite was banned from Goldsmith’s.

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.41.02 PM

He doesn’t. This all revolves around what Smurthwaite says on her own blog, which is confused to start with. But here’s the gist.

Smurthwaite posts just a snippet of an online chat with a member of Goldsmith’s Comedy Society, as follows. She doesn’t post the whole chat so we have no idea where this conversation went, but let’s assume this is the best evidence she’s got.

From Kate Smurthwaite's blog

From Kate Smurthwaite’s blog

Now. Here is the safe-space policy of the Student Union at Goldsmith’s. And here’s what it says:

Racism, homophobia, biphobia, sexism, transphobia, disablism or prejudice based on age, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, immigration status or religious affiliation is unacceptable and will be challenged.

Well, that’s pretty sweeping, except it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a huge gap between saying something’s “unacceptable” and saying it “will be challenged.” There are neither penalties nor enforcement mechanisms, so evidently these kinds of speech are discouraged, not banned, but neither is there any real obligation to “challenge.” (“We refer to our ‘Safe Space Policy’ as a concept, not as a physical document,” the physical document says.)  What’s clear in context is that the main target is things that students say to each other — offhand slurs, for instance. The idea is mainly to get students to be nice to each other. You couldn’t really use this to ban any speaker’s speech: just to ensure they get “challenged,” which could mean anything..

This is a terribly written document (sorry, “concept”). It doesn’t offer a basis for suppressing speech; it offers no guidance, period. I hope no other school has anything like it. Still, the exchange above isn’t sinister censorship. It’s comedy. You can see the poor fellow has no idea what the policy is (it neither “kinda” says you “can’t say” things nor mentions sex work). Smurthwaite immediately leaps to the conclusion that it’s a “pro-pimp” Bible, because it’s basically a blank on which she can write her prejudices, hatreds, fears. I have to say that if were a comedy society honcho, and a comic started claiming I wanted a “pro-pimp event,” I might assume this wouldn’t be a funny evening, and pull the plug.

The other bit of evidence seems to be this:

Goldsmiths4

Let’s repeat: The person who told him there would be pickets outside the show was Smurthwaite herself, as she admits. And this was entirely based on a Twitter conversation between two persons that she saw online. Nobody was threatening to close her down, nobody was threatening violence. The threats, by Smurthwaite’s own account, came from Smurthwaite.

I still find the most plausible assumption to be that Smurthwaite inflated the “protests” because she didn’t want to perform with no audience; torpedoed her own gig; and has been milking the publicity. It’s also possible that the Comedy Society just decided she was a pain in the whatever, and looked for any excuse to cancel.  If the Comedy Society didn’t want to pay for security, that’s its decision. But let’s also note that there is a right to peaceful protest, as Tatchell admits:

Screen shot 2015-02-19 at 9.57.10 PMOr does he mean: “Protest anti-trans feminists unless the host organization might get cold feet”? And if he means that, exactly whose free speech is under threat here?

ISIS kills gays: A history of violence

Hands shove them forward, bound and blindfolded. Then comes the step when the stone beneath them stops and nothing is there. The photographs appall but they have the solidity of things you can see; they suggest but cannot summon the feel of one terrifying lurch in darkness when all that’s solid falls away. Death is what happens when you are there, alone, and the world disappears.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now styles itself just the Islamic State. Many Arabs call it Da’ish, an acronym (for Ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-‘Iraq wash-Sham) they prefer and the militants despise, partly because it echoes Arabic words for bearers of brutality and discord. Even in Iraq, where death dominates life, Da’ish’s violence is exceptionally uncompromising and public. An Egyptian leftist friend of mine calls it unprecedented. Plenty of political movements employ sadism (Stalin, Hitler). Some embrace it ecstatically (Romanian Iron Guardists smeared themselves with their victims’ blood and chanted, “Long live death”). But Da’ish treats absolute violence as propaganda, as entertainment. Displaying violence has become its essence, as if its ideology were a snuff film. Although it’s commonplace to say it wants to terrify (shock and awe!) the effect is to make unrestrained violence, which Hannah Arendt saw as the opposite of political life, the main feature of the public world. Da’ish’s broadcast deeds become as commonplace as campaign speeches. Western audiences, astonished at first, are now inured. The pictures keep coming, but only a few hit their target. Like these.

What do we know? According to Twitter these pictures first appeared on January 15, on the media-sharing site Justpaste.it (the post has since come down). They spread immediately. The left of each photo reads “Islamic State”; the right, “Ninawa” — Nineveh, Iraq’s northernmost province. Presumably they came from the Islamic State’s provincial media office.

1_small

Caption: “Muslims gather to watch the application of the verdict”

Caption:

Caption: “The shari’a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign”

The sign says: The Islamic State / The Caliphate in the Footsteps of the Prophet / Islamic Court – Nineveh State
Allah the Almighty said, “The penalty for those who fight God and his Prophet and spread corruption on earth is to be killed or crucified, or their hands or legs to be amputated, or to be exiled from earth. They deserve disgrace in mortal life and great torture in the afterlife.”
Verdict: Crucifixion or death
The reason: Kidnapping Muslims and stealing their money by force and in the name of the Islamic State.

Reading the statement of the shari'a law verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Ninevah against two persons who practiced sodomy [liwat]

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against two persons who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” [“People of Lot” derives from the Qu’ranic version of the Sodom story; “sodomite” might be an English translation.]

Then back to the tower’s top again. First a man in a red sweater is hauled forward:

Caption:

Caption:” Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot, by throwing him from a high place”

Then a man in a black jacket:

Caption:

Caption: “Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot”

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Caption: “Applying the shari’a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime”

Caption:

Caption: “This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set”

Back to the square. The frames on which men hang crucified were faintly visible in the first photo. Now:

Caption:

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against those who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons”

Caption:

Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

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Caption: “Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts”

The bandits are shot in the head.

Caption:

Caption: “This is the punishment for what their hands did”

Caption:

Caption: “Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state”

The last two photographs are in a park.

Caption:

Caption: “Reading the statement of the shari’a verdict issued by the shari’a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery”

The woman is stoned to death.

Caption:

Caption: “Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt”

Beyond those bare descriptions, all’s speculation. The executions may have happened January 14, maybe earlier. The city’s probably Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, which Da’ish captured last June. The white-bearded man who lurks in several shots and supervises the stoning, looking like a vengeful garden gnome, is likely Abu Asaad al-Ansari, a well-known ISIS cleric. The death tower is tall, yellow, mostly windowless. It may be the Tameen (Insurance) Building, a 1960s relic turned at some point into government offices.

That’s it. The story went viral internationally because of the two “sodomites” thrown to their deaths — the bandits and the adulteress were inadequate to colonize attention. Yet those victims are, in the images, the most anonymous: merely bent backs, or faceless corpses. It’s worthwhile then to pause (there’s little you can do with a Da’ish atrocity but pause) and ask what we’ve seen. What do we recognize in the victims? And what do we understand about the perpetrators?

The first looks easy. Jamie Kirchick (an instant expert on Islam and other un-American things) wrote, “As a gay man, I thought, there but for the grace of Allah go I.” They’re gay; they’re like us. The facelessness actually facilitates emotion; in the absence of particular selves to see, a generalized identity sets in.

It’s good to feel that identification. Only extraterrestrials and lice embrace all humanity without exception; most of us look for specific commonalities to carry sympathy across the abstract gulfs of difference. Still, sympathy always simplifies, smoothing over alienating idiosyncrasies, bland as asphalt. It leaves things out.

Back in 2012, there was a surge of killings of “effeminate”-looking men in Baghdad. Western gay activists immediately called these “gay” killings. In fact, as I quickly found, that wasn’t true. Iraq’s Ministry of Interior and media had been inciting fears of “emos,” youth corrupted by Western styles and music and gender ambiguity. Militias, mostly Shi’ite, took up the cause, murdering dozens or hundreds of suspect young men. Certainly gay and trans* people were caught in the sweeps — the rhetoric was vague enough to vilify any men who didn’t look masculine enough, and some Iraqi queers had found an emo identity congenial. But “gay” on its own was the wrong rubric to explain what was going on.

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

Anti-Emo meme (in English) from Baghdad, 2012

When I said that publicly, one well-known American gay blogger wrote that I was “confusing”:

You can’t just write a blog post about violence in Iraq, especially on a gay blog, nobody cares about violence in Iraq in general — and if anything, they’ll probably shrug and say “90 deaths sounds like a typical day in Iraq, oh well.” Unless it’s violence against someone we care about — then we care. The gay angle works … I’m just not sure how we write a post saying lots of people are getting killed, stop it, with any authority, or in a way that moves people.

On one level, perhaps, he was saying I want blog hits, and I won’t get them if I can’t write about gay stuff. On a larger level, though, he was right, and even principled: You can’t make people care unless, well, there are people they care about. The gays are an organized constituency primed for caring. There’s no comparable global solidarity among bandits or adulterers. (There is, of course, an international women’s movement that combats stonings and other atrocities, but it’s stretched pretty thin.)  Yet this was an American blogger, writing for Americans, in the nation that destroyed Iraq. Surely that’s an angle; could you drum up a little compassion, or even penitence, for what your readers’ government did to another country? Maybe they can’t fix it, but they could stop their government from doing it again. The strange thing is that, even though his blog has a big American flag on the masthead, gay as a source of sympathy trumps American as a reminder of responsibility. Probably that’s because sympathy, unlike responsibility, doesn’t carry obligations.

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

An image that did not go viral: US patrol in Fallujah, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

Context gets erased on both sides. The American gays can wield “gay” to forget they’re also American, at least in any way that implies guilt. But calling the victims “gay” and stopping with that erases the wider fears about masculinity and cultural invasion that inform the violence — obliterates what links the dead to the politics of post-occupation Iraq, and to the countless other Iraqis exiled, or injured, or killed.

Moreover, what do we mean by “gay”? It’s not self-evident. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) at first stuck the “gay” label on the 2012 killings; they retracted it rapidly, to their credit. Now they’ve issued a warning about the latest Mosul murders. They caution

in the strongest possible terms against assuming that the men identified as ‘gay’ and against assuming the men engaged in homosexual acts. ….  If the men did not identify as gay, the allegation is inaccurate and obscures the Islamic State’s motivation for publicly labeling them as such. If the men indeed identified as gay … widespread publicity potentially exposes their families, loved ones and intimate partners to harm.

They’re right on the dangers, wrong on the rest. The Islamic State didn’t “publicly label” the men “gay.” It said they “practiced the deeds of the people of Lot.” The prophet Lot in the Qu’ran preached against the things the residents of Sodom did — deeds often called liwat in Arabic, from his name; “sodomy” is a partial English equivalent. Da’ish killed the men for committing an act, not for inheriting a description. The difference matters. The American sympathy the blogger invoked demands its beneficiaries be like us, not just behave like us in bed. But Da’ish doesn’t posit a fixed, communal form of selfhood derived from “liwat.” The category “gay” means nothing to it. Sex exists for Da’ish in religious and juridical terms, as deeds, not identities.

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot's people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

Not your average metrosexuals: Lot’s people feel the fire and brimstone, in a scene from an Arabic cartoon version of the story

The idea that, deep down, Da’ish must see sex as we do is put to political purpose. Polemicist Jamie Kirchick assimilates the Mosul killings conveniently to the Paris attacks:

A thread links these atrocities to this month’s murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, beyond the fact that the culprits in both cases are Islamist fanatics … The more salient commonality pertains to the victims, executed solely because of irrevocable traits: Jewishness and homosexuality…. In Iraq, no expression is necessary as cause for atrocity. Gay men are hunted down and killed like rats solely owing to the fact that they are gay.

Kirchick clearly knows little about Iraq and less about Da’ish. Da’ish pursues the practitioners of liwat not to eliminate a race, but to discourage what it imagines are preventable perversions. Gay men have been hunted down in Iraq not “solely owing to the fact that they are gay,” but because a general environment where masculinity is believed under threat, and cultural authenticity endangered, makes specific behaviors — the way you dress or walk, where you meet your friends, whether and how you’re penetrated — suspect or criminal. It’s exactly these “expressions,” not the identities we impute from thousands of miles away, that put victims at risk. Da’ish is deluded, the Iraqi moral panics are paranoiac, but ignoring the context and motives behind the violence makes it impossible to help stop it.

How they look or dress or walk: Video memorial for Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City, Baghdad on February 17, 2012

For Kirchick, though, the idea that Muslims see gays as one unchangeable collective opens the door to treating Muslims the same way. It’s us versus them. “Oppression and murder predicated solely upon their victims’ identities,” he writes, “provides [sic] ultimate clarity about the nature and intentions of radical Islam.” What this clarity is, he doesn’t say, but you get an idea from how he describes the scene: “A crowd below [the tower] gawks like spectators at a sporting event.” Check those photos; who’s gawking, or cheering the killers on? The audience looks tense, unwilling. Mosul is a religiously and ethnically diverse city which Da’ish conquered seven months ago. The militia may force the occupied population to attend executions, but it can’t compel enthusiasm. Yet Kirchick’s own prejudices steamroller Da’ish and those it oppresses into the same ersatz category: the enemies of gays. This is a clash of civilizations, in which the “irrevocable” identity of one side mirrors the monolithic irrevocability of the other. (And Kirchick’s insistence that killing gays is worse because they have “identities” — as opposed to robbers, adulterers, women — echoes Da’ish’s own deranged value system, where stealing “the money of Muslims” merits a higher penalty than simple theft.)

Killing “gays” evokes an intense response in our societies partly because there’s a prefab constituency that answers. Yet this intensity also helps obliterate our ability to perceive the actual context of Iraq, not just its multiplicity and complexity but its past. To see Iraq clearly is to see not us-versus-them but us-and-them, not just an opposition but an entanglement, the violence woven into a history with the barbarities that the US and its coalition caused. Instead, it’s versus that infuses the UK Daily Mail‘s blaring version of the murders: “While the world reacts with horror to terror in Europe, new ISIS executions show the medieval brutality jihadists would bring to the West.” You see? It’s just about us, after all, because they’re coming, they’re bringing their business here; all those page-one warnings about immigration were spot on. First ISIS takes Baghdad, then Bethnal Green. What happens on the Tigris doesn’t matter in itself. What counts is keeping a crazed Tower Hamlets mob from tossing Soho’s gentle denizens off the London Eye.

They're here: Peace, love, and understanding according to the Daily Mail

They’re here: Peace, love, and Western values according to the Daily Mail

Already this leads to the second question: How do we perceive the perpetrators? Violence based on sexuality has been a minor theme drumming through US and British reportage on Iraq ever since the 2003 invasion. (It’s tended to drown out violence based on gender, though the two are certainly related.) But how seriously it’s taken has depended, at every point, on the politics of the invading powers.

ACT ONE: Sporadic reports of LGBT people targeted for violence started emerging not long after the invasion. Ali Hili, an Iraqi exile in London, was a key source. Hili had a wide network inside Iraq; he was also corrupt and unreliable. He placed full blame for the killings on Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid ‘Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of many Iraqi Shi’ites — and on the Badr Brigade, a militia affiliated with Sistani.  Peter Tatchell and reporter Doug Ireland both promoted HIli’s checkered career and adopted his version. The “campaign of terror is sanctioned, some say orchestrated, by Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” Tatchell wrote.  “The Badr Corps,” Ireland intoned, “is committed to the ‘sexual cleansing’ of Iraq.”

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his most scholarly

There was little truth to these particular charges. When I researched inside Iraq for Human Rights Watch in 2009, I found no evidence that the Badr Brigade had been responsible for extensive attacks on LGBT people; other Shi’ite militias had taken the lead. (Sistani’s website, probably largely written by junior clerics, had once carried a fatwa calling for the death penalty for “sodomy,” but when it attracted attention he quickly took it down.) Politics, tinged with old grudges, propelled the claims. Hili was a former Ba’athist, who shared the party’s loathing of Sistani. Moreover, the Badr Brigade was also a longtime enemy to the cultlike Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq guerrillas stationed in Iraq — and the Mujahedin had fed (false but headline-grabbing) stories to both Tatchell and Ireland in the past.

But Sistani was also the one Shi’ite cleric whom the US saw as potentially a force for “stability.” True or not, narratives that blamed him for the killings were unlikely to get much traction with a Western media that still took the coalition military forces as their main sources for Iraq events. Stories of “gay murders” stayed confined to the ghettos of the gay press.

ACT TWO: In early 2009, killings of LGBT people accelerated massively. What had once looked unsystematic became an organized campaign. I went to Iraq; it was obvious, there, that the forces of popular Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr bore main responsibility. Sadr City, the great Baghdad slum dominated by Moqtada’s movement, was the fulcrum of the violence; preachers there openly incited murder, and survivors blamed his Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi) for most of the carnage. Al-Sadr’s militia had gone underground at the beginning of the US-led counterinsurgency “surge” in 2007, and Moqtada himself fled to Iran. The killings seemed to be an bid to reassert his relevance and moral indispensability. One “executioner” claimed he was tackling “a serious illness in the community that has been spreading rapidly among the youth after it was brought in from the outside by American soldiers. These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them.”

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

So easy to hate: Moqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada was also the right criminal at the right time for an American audience. The US saw him as a prime enemy, driving Shi’ite resistance to the occupation. Blaming him was not just accurate but easy. His sinister dominance made sure the killing campaign got ample US and UK press. What helped stop the murders, by contrast, was the growing indignation of ordinary Iraqis. One Baghdad journalist wrote in Sawt al-Iraq that

In addition to death threats against any man who grows his hair a couple of centimeters longer than the Sadri standards that are measured exactly and applied harshly, there are threats against those wearing athletic shorts or tight pants … The slogan is to kill and kill, then kill again for the most trivial and simplest things.

ACT THREE: The “emo” killings in 2012 also swirled around Shi’ite-dominated eastern Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army was widely held responsible, along with a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) — though Moqtada al-Sadr distanced himself from the campaign, saying emos should be dealt with only “in accordance with the law.” But this time, the Ministry of Interior, which had called for “eliminating” emos, was also involved up to the hilt.

The Eye of Sauron relocates from Barad-Dur to Baghdad: Flag of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior

And this culpability was inconvenient for the US and its allies. Moqtada had now graduated to a force for “stability” himself. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry’s repression held the country together. Demonizing the guilty was politically difficult from the American vantage. Dozens or hundreds died in Baghdad in a few weeks — a toll comparable to the hundreds probably killed in 2012 — but the murders never drew the same international outrage: not just because emos were a vaguer target, but because the killers weren’t our enemies.

I don’t mean US or UK forces deliberately manipulated coverage of the targeted killings. (They manipulated other stories; they didn’t have time for this one.) But Western reporters relied on coalition “experts” to analyze the jumbled politics of Iraq, acquiring their prejudices with their statistics. And even the gay press instinctively trusted that our side, however grave an error the invasion was, still had a righteousness that rubbed off on its allies. Politics shaped the coverage, and some of the accusations.

We perceive the perpetrators, like the victims, largely in relation to ourselves. When our enemies murdered gays, it was clear-cut evil. When our friends stood accused, the case was merely confused. It’s a discourse about us; its ability to affect Iraq is therefore limited.

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch's 2009 report on Iraq

Cover of the Arabic version of Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report on Iraq

Here’s one instance. IGLHRC and MADRE, the international women’s rights group, released two briefing papers on violence against LGBT Iraqis last November. They were solid work, based on a small but significant number of harrowing stories. What was striking is that both appeared only in English, with no Arabic version or even summary. Thus, while the reports included recommendations to the Iraqi authorities — ranging from the feasible (“Amend the shelter law to allow NGOs to legally run private shelters for displaced persons”) to the fantastic (“Hold militias accountable”) — those had absolutely no chance of affecting Iraq’s government, press, or public. (By contrast, Human RIghts Watch’s 2009 report on death squads was released in Arabic, and headlined in Iraqi media.) The only audience the reports aimed at was an English-speaking one; and, of course, the US and UK no longer govern Iraq. Since the reports were meant for Americans but there was little for Americans to do, the advocacy seemed to acquire a slightly surreal quality. For example, the organizations told their followers (“Take action!”) to call on LGBT members of the US Congress to “stand with LGBT Iraqis.” This was less strategy than metaphor: a way of making Americans feel they were having impact when they were having none. I don’t wish to slight the groups’ excellent research, but the missed opportunity was painful. It’s pointless to imagine changing what Da’ish does: but there is a real opening to use Iraqis’ revulsion against its brutal murders — as well as violence targeting gender and sexuality elsewhere in the country — to affect public opinion and even a few policies in the rest of Iraq. As it was, from an Iraqi perspective, the reports were the former occupiers talking to themselves.

Da’ish, of course, has now seized a place in the West’s imagination as the ultimate enemy, the perfect storm. All evils meet there. (The Daily Mail warns that ISIS terrorists will “turn themselves into Ebola suicide ‘bombs.'”) Most of the earlier (probably more widespread) violence targeting sexuality in Iraq could be traced to Shi’ite militias or the US-supported state, but that’s forgotten. The Sunni soldiers of Da’ish define homophobia.  What Da’ish does is indefensible. Except when somebody else does it.

How different is Da’ish? It’s worth asking. This little graphic from the opposition Syrian Network for Human RIghts probably undercounts Da’ish’s murder toll, but its point is valid:

PrintIt charts the deep anger Syrian revolutionaries feel: how did a few viral photos of Islamist killings overwhelm the vaster, but mostly invisible, atrocities of a secular government the US has learned to live with? Then there’s that other Islamic state: the one due south.

Punishments_FINAL-01Middle East Eye published that after Da’ish released its own code of “Islamic punishments” last December. So how exactly is Saudi Arabia better, except we call it a nation and not a “terrorist organization”? (A language, they say, is a dialect with an army. What is a state but a militia with oil reserves?) This week, we learned the UK ministry of justice has set up a commercial arm with the Orwellian name of Just Solutions International, and is selling its expertise to Saudi prisons. Will David Cameron offer the shari’a courts of Da’ish a helping hand? This week, we learned the US defense department has launched “a research and essay competition” in honor of the late King Abdullah — “a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch,” to his “character and courage.” Will Obama also offer prizes for the best ISIS propaganda? Of course, Abdullah was a liberal and a progressive, the paid pundits say. Granted, he may have been the best of his venal, bloodstained clan: that’s like picking the most intellectual of the Kardashians. But give Da’ish a few years to sell oil to ExxonMobil. Then they’ll be “reformers.”

The real distinction between the two Islamic states’ degrees of violence isn’t severity but publicity. Da’ish, says Middle East Eye, “actively sought exposure for their brutal punishments, [while] Saudi Arabia has worked to keep evidence of their actions within the conservative kingdom.” 

Why is Da’ish so proud of its sadistic excesses? Why does it broadcast them? Because they mean success. Here, again, the history of Iraq both before and after the US invasion is a shaping fact. For at least thirty-five years, violence, unrestrained violence, has been the mark of power. Power — under Saddam, under the occupation, and under the sects and militias that fought to seize his mantle — meant inflicting violence without shame, fear, or limit. (In a different way this was also true of Assad’s placid Syria, where despite the surface calm the dictator could kill twenty thousand Islamists with complete impunity.) When Da’ish posts its snuff films on YouTube and its death porn on Twitter, they are saying: We have the power at last, we can do this without restraint, and we will have more power and kill more.

Photo of a mass killing of Shi'a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Photo of a mass killing of Shi’a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014

Da’ish’s flaunted success also declares the failure of two projects that dominated the Middle East for decades. It proclaims the bankruptcy of the dictators’ project of state secularism: regimes like Assad’s or Saddam’s that repressed popular politics and popular religion, to sustain a military elite’s privileges with all the violence at their command. And it puts paid to the US project of state-imposed capitalism: neoliberal immiseration of the masses, the kind Mubarak planned for Egypt or the coalition imported to Iraq, that could only be enforced by governments armed with maximum ruthlessness. Da’ish inherits their means while defying their ends. It bends their violence to its own agenda. The repressed have returned, with a vengeance.

The Egyptian leftist friend I mentioned at the oustet comes from a working-class family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them stood at Rabaa during the protests after Morsi’s overthrow; some could have been killed. Now, he says, he’s frightened by how many of his relatives say Da’ish is the solution. They aren’t running off to join ISIS’s fighters (though the Da’ish franchise is increasingly an attractive banner for the insurgency in Sinai). But they no longer believe in a democratic outcome. They no longer grasp how a group like the Brotherhood could survive, let alone succeed, through the normal means of politics. Sisi is trying to follow in Assad’s and Mubarak’s footsteps, with a program whose legitimacy is the weaponry it can command. They see Da’ish as the only alternative. The known world is disappearing. There’s emptiness underfoot. Violence is the future.

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah,  Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press

A US Marine pushes corpses of Iraqi fighters, Fallujah, Friday, November 12, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AP

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CORRECTION: The original version of this post described the acronym Da’ish (sometimes spelled Daesh) as “omit[ting] one of the ‘I’s, ‘Islam.'” This is, I’m persuaded, bad Arabic (mine), for which I very much apologize. There are two explanations floating round for why the name Da’ish offends the militants so much, and why it’s become popular among their Arab opponents. One is that it slights the Islamic character of the soi-disant state; the other is that it echoes words that mean “crushing underfoot” and “spreading discord.” The second is the important one. I’ve corrected the post, and thanks to the two readers who called me out.

Too brown to be heard: The Brunei brouhaha

LGBT rights in Brunei now have a face:

Brunei, or Brüno?

Well, sort of. When you see the Sultan-slamming headline that arcs over that pic in Queerty, “Why I Can’t Go Home Again: Young Activist Takes Stand Against Savage Antigay Policy, you naturally think it’s about a gay Bruneian driven into exile by the tyranny of shari’a law. Here’s a story of expulsion across continents, brutal police, fearful flight, uncertain welcome. Right? Well, sort of. The “young activist” is not exactly Asian. He’s the blond grandson of James Mason (Judy Garland’s husband in A Star is Born), and the son of Belinda Carlisle (the Go-Gos), and “home” isn’t Bandar Seri Begawan, it’s the Beverly Hills Hotel. The auberge has always been his refuge: his grandmother “said that when deciding where to live in L.A. that she couldn’t be more than five minutes away from the Beverly Hills Hotel. Being close to it gave her a sense of comfort and safety.” But no more. Now this gay scion of the West Coast’s ersatz Windsors knows he’ll be stoned to death if he sets foot in the bar … Well, sort of. Actually, he’s not in personal danger. Despite how very nice the minions are (“Whenever I go in, the staff members are always there to give me a hug, to give me a sense of belonging,” which is the least you can expect with rooms running $645 a night) it’s more the symbolism of the thing. The Sultan of Brunei owns the hotel (well, sort of: through his Finance Ministry’s investments) and you can read in the papers that he has a plan for “the stoning and murder of gay people,” and why should your own widow’s mite (suites start at $1280) go to swell the coffers of a man already worth $24 billion? So the young activist has been forced to seek asylum at less prestigious watering holes in LA, like those pathetic boat people drowning off Australia. … Well, sort of. “Alas that is the reality we are facing,” he writes: though given the distance between his problems and those of the Sultan’s subjects, the “we” seems more royal than real.

"An exile, saddest of all prisoners / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong..." Byron, The Prophecy of Dante

“An exile, saddest of all prisoners / Who has the whole world for a dungeon strong…” Byron, The Prophecy of Dante

It’s not fair to pick on the author, James Duke Mason. He’s obviously a nice and idealistic guy, and everybody should follow him on Instagram (“the Beverly Hills Hotel is my favorite place on the planet. Even those who don’t know me can see that from my posts on social media”) to find out what replacement hostel has taken the exile in.

The question nagging me isn’t about him, or “the reality we are facing” — it’s that “we.” Who is that “we”? Where the hell did that “we” come from?

I’ve said my bit on the recent burst of outrage over Brunei here, at PolicyMic. Briefly, I wrote that despite the exclusivist furor in the US and UK over the “antigay” impact of the measure, shari’a is much more likely to affect the rights of women. And I said that Western activists’ reluctance to acknowledge the multiple dimensions of the issue, much less the pioneering work of women’s rights activists across southeast Asia, was a disgrace.

I got some nods, some hate mail, and more than the usual amount of incomprehension. I had an argument on Twitter (an oxymoron, anyway), with an eminently earnest man who responded to me at complete crosspurposes. Why, I kept asking, wouldn’t you check with women’s groups or sexual rights activists across the region, who have experience with context and culture, in planning a boycott? “There are no LGBT groups in Brunei,” he kept answering, as if this meant there was no one to talk to about the issue anywhere except Los Angeles or London: no relevant expertise outside his postal code. Meanwhile, the tempest kept growing. Britain’s chief LGBT lobby group, Stonewall, declined to endorse a boycott of the Brunei-owned chain of hotels. Its acting head, Ruth Hunt, wrote in the Telegraph: 

We only implement actions that we can calculate will have an impact. … I do, however, fear that the boycott could do very real harm to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei. By turning the issue into a battle between gay people and the Sultan – which it isn’t, it affects everyone in Brunei, not just gay people – we limit the opportunity for dialogue and put the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei at far greater risk. A group of people, I hasten to add, who’ve yet to publically call for a boycott.

To anyone who’s actually done international solidarity work, this is a perfectly plausible thing to say. To many who hadn’t, it was Thoughtcrime. For instance, Peter Tatchell, who has a longstanding grudge against Stonewall, seized the chance to Tweet:

tatchell boss copy (Tatchell would of course never refer to himself as the “boss” of the coincidentally named Peter Tatchell Foundation, which is seemingly baptized after a completely different Peter Tatchell, not the Tweeter, who is a lowly janitor there.) Naturally, everybody else piled on, with varying degrees of violence:

Stonewall boss 3 The whole storm was a convincing display of peer pressure as a substitute for argument: straight out of Mean Girls

The question here isn’t the wisdom of this boycott or others, on which I’m agnostic. (It’s quite reasonable, in fact, to say both that a gay-rights group shouldn’t patronize Brunei-owned hotels, and that a loud, Western-centric boycott is a bad idea.) The question is: what kind of “activist movement” do we have when you can dismiss as mere “BS” all talk of “activists on the ground” in the countries where you’re allegedly defending human rights?

A bad one. And this is why I think James Duke Mason’s plea on Queerty for asylum is a revelation. Queerty, which if you haven’t heard of it is a Big Glay Bog in the United States, serves as a kind of beekeeper for the gay hive mind. And here’s what Queerty has to show. The Brunei campaign isn’t really about Brunei at all. That “we” isn’t some inclusive articulation of solidarity. The campaign’s about us, and the “we” is me. It would be presumptuous of real Bruneians to introduce their situations into the discussion; their role is to suffer and be silent. The voices belong to the people exiled from the Beverly Hills Hotel, crossing the swimming pool in flimsy rafts by night, traversing the border with only their Louis Vuitton luggage on their backs. The stir is more about our moral purity than about anybody else accomplishing change. This is less activism than narcissism, and the fact that most participants couldn’t find Brunei on a map only reaffirms that the ego has its own geography, as grossly exaggerated as a Mercator projection.

2ef3b2f0-3b1e-44f3-a7b1-860022caf330Here are some facts. Brunei’s government announced its intent to introduce a shari’a-based criminal code back in October 2013. In other words, the Western gay activists who just discovered Brunei and its “savage antigay policy” are at least six months too late. While the Westerners were doing other things, though, a coalition of regional and international women’s, human rights, and LGBT groups issued an analysis and condemnation of the Brunei code within days of its proclamation. They included eighteen organizations in neighboring Indonesia, as well as the influential Islamic feminist group Sisters in Islam from (also neighboring) Malaysia, and the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws. They called on Brunei not only to cancel the proposed laws but to fulfill other outstanding human rights obligations, such as reporting to the United Nations on its women’s rights record, and signing the UN Convention against Torture. You can find their appeal here. The action was coordinated with an ongoing international campaign to end the punishment of stoning, which has drawn support across the global South. Malaysia’s Islamic Renaissance Front separately condemned the laws. All the Western white people loudly clamoring about Brunei now — Cleve Jones, Peter Tatchell, James Duke Mason, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry, and somebody named Lisa Vanderpump who’s famous for something (I’m out of touch) — ignored these actions back then. They’re still ignoring them now. They haven’t acknowledged them or asked advice, much less taken note of what they called for. Those other activists are too brown to be heard. 

It’s true, there are no open LGBT organizations in Brunei in which Western gays can find their interests mirrored. Whether this is because they’re “terrorised into invisibility” is an open question; if they’re terrorised, it’s at least as likely to be due to the colonial-era, British sodomy law already on Brunei’s books, a law which will remain in force even after the shari’a code supplements it. (The sentence is up to 10 years in prison, and proving guilt is much easier than under shari’a. No Western activist has complained about that law.) But that doesn’t excuse anybody from listening to the other local constituencies that have already spoken on the issue, based on long histories of engagement.

For real international activists, a paucity of allies on the ground means a problem, and a challenge. It means you have to work even harder to figure out the context, to gauge the impact of anything you might do. It means an extra obligation to take the guidance of regional groups who know the situation and have records of relevant work. You’d think that campaigners or angry clicktivists who don’t know anything about Brunei would want to look for help; would want to coordinate with the prior efforts of activists in Indonesia or Malaysia, who fought against fundamentalism before Jay Leno even heard the word. But here’s the rub. These guys don’t see the supposed silence of Bruneians as a problem. They see it as an opportunity. It gives them freedom, in their own minds, to speak for the silenced and say anything they damn well please. It means they don’t have to share the spotlight with anybody at all.


American gay-rights activist Gloria Swanson prepares for a protest at the Beverly Hills Hotel

This does say something about “the reality we are facing.” It spells trouble for LGBT rights internationally.

There was a time, back when — fifteen, ten, even as little as seven years ago — when there really was no constituency in most Western countries that took an interest in LGBT people’s rights abroad. Gay men in Los Angeles or London couldn’t be bothered with what happened in Lagos or Lilongwe. If police arrested hundreds of homosexuals in Cairo, or brutalized the gender-nonconforming in Nepal, you had to fight to get even a brief mention in the Guardian or the New York Times. 

When I worked at IGLHRC or Human RIghts Watch, we’d drown our after-hours sorrows in lamenting this indifference, and the fog of inattention that curtained intolerable abuses. Yet it was enabling in certain ways — and not just in the ways that nostalgia gilds almost anything. We knew who our constituencies were, and they were different from our donors. They were the folks in Lagos or Lilongwe, the social movements that actually carried on the fight for rights, and absent constant pressure from publics at home we were free to let our work be guided, if imperfectly, by their devices and desires. The lack of a domestic audience freed up an ethical space for international solidarity where attention could be paid to the people who mattered.

Now all’s changed. In Europe and North America international LGBT rights are big news. There are big constituencies, too, of activists and tweeters who avidly absorb the stories of foreign abuse, and demand Action! Now! And there are more and more domestic LGBT organizations feeding on those audiences, and turning their eyes to foreign affairs, and pressing their governments for Action! Now! Neither the constituencies nor the organizations, though, know that much about the rest of the world, or human rights, or have patience for long-term efforts, or get the complexities of political action across borders. They just want Action! Now!, and the less they have to worry about subaltern voices muddying up the message, the better. The problem is that a lot of the new constituencies are idiots. I don’t mean they can’t tie their shoes or screwed up their SATs. They’re idiots in the root Greek sense, which is a lament rather than an insult:  ἰδιώτης, a too-private person, a consumer of politics rather than a participant in it. incapable of understanding the lives of others except as versions of himself.

And you should be.

And you should be.

Amnesty International used to work by mobilizing mass constituencies around international human rights issues, building publics that would support struggles in other countries. In the process, though, Amnesty also tried to educate those publics about both human rights and movement politics. That was a slower age. Who has the time to learn about anything multisyllabic in a 140-character world? These days, the idiots educate the experts; their demands drive what everyone else does. If you don’t react fast enough, a Twitter tornado will hit you. Remember #BS, and #StonewallDisgrace! Indeed, because many of the people insisting on Action! Now! are rich celebrities (James Duke Mason, who’s had minor roles in three movies, was named one of the 100 Most Influential LGBT People in The Whole Wide World by Out magazine), even groups like Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC are much too scared ever to step in and say: No, fellas. Bad Idea. 

When you come right down to it, isn't every human rights abuse about marriage? Human RIghts Campaign explains same-sex wedding packages in Brunei

When you come right down to it, isn’t every human rights abuse about marriage? The Human Rights Campaign explains same-sex wedding packages in Brunei

So we’ll have more and more overnight boycotts, and hashtag hurricanes, and flash-mob demos. We’ll have more and more white celebrities monopolizing the megaphones. None of these dust-devil campaigns will last much longer than you can remember yesterday’s TV commercials; then we’ll all move on to the next unpronounceable polity where there are people to be saved. The struggles of Southern activists who have built up movements and worked on dangerous issues for decades will be relegated to silence, along with their demands, their analyses, and their knowledge. This won’t be politics in any known sense, and none of it will do much for anybody’s human rights. Some folks’ awareness will be raised before crumpling down again like a painful Yoga posture, some Facebookers will synchronize their profile pictures for a day, Twitter will make a bundle. But rich people will feel good about themselves, and they’ll save money on their hotel rooms.

Iran: How assaulting eight women and girls can make you a “gay man” (updated)

Abandon hope: Surreptitiously taken photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Abandon hope. Surreptitiously snapped photograph of the entrance to Lakan Prison, Rasht, Iran

Note: Update at the bottom of this post

Let’s start with Washington, that pale cold city. The Washington Free Beacon is a right-wing US webzine edited by Matthew Continetti, who used to write defensive hagiographies of Sarah Palin. The zine is disarmingly blunt about its specialities: a) attacks; b) propaganda. (“At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”) Examining its mission statement when it launched two years ago, an Atlantic critic burst into adjectives: “flawed, soulless,” “vicious and unethical.” The Beacon loves guy stuff, neocons, and wars. It actually has a reporter named Adam Kredo — who sounds like a DC Comics supervillain, particularly since his name on the website is trailed by a Twitter command: Follow Kredo0.  

They turn to me, not to you, Spider-Man. Soon I will rule the world!

They turn to me, not to you, Batman. Soon I will rule all Gotham!

On March 3, Kredo published a piece declaring that “Iran executed two gay men on Sunday for the crime of ‘perversion’…The head of Iran’s judiciary department in the northern city of Rasht announced on Sunday that two homosexual men had been executed for ‘perversion,’ which is considered a severe crime under Iran’s hardline Islamic law…  As the Western world negotiates with Iran over its contested nuclear weapons program … While Iran is known to plan and fund terror attacks across the globe …” And on and on.

Where is Rasht? It is the capital of Gilan province, not too far from Tehran as an ambitious crow might fly, but a long way by land over the mountains. Thirty kilometers south of the Caspian Sea, the city once called itself the Gate to Europe: opulent trade with Russia and beyond rumbled over its pine-lined roads. In its prison last week, executioners put two men to death. Were they gay? The rumor trade, richer these days than spices, reached America.

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

L: Gilan province in Iran; R: Rasht and vicinity

These stories, about gays murdered in Iran, waken questions. The stories are recurrent and they all resemble one another, without enough detail to individuate them. They’re all unsourced — usually there’s a newspaper article the writer never actually read. They have their own life and appear in locust cycles, not so much out of design as from a summer swelter of fear and xenophobia, whenever a crisis between the US (or Israel) and Iran is imminent, or wanted. I’ve seen them many times before. The repression of LGBT people in Iran is real. These stories have little or nothing to do with it.

Instead, these rumors seize the lives of distant human beings, hollow them out, and use the husks. The victims become both mannequins and messages, static and imperative like propaganda posters. They also distort the reality of death as it’s actually dealt out to prisoners in Iran. Look at the gays, they say, the “innocent” ones like us, twisting our attention away from the scope of atrocities and the other dead who aren’t assimilable or attractive.

The stories play out in entirely predictable, functional ways. For Kredo0 (adding that extra zero to his name is irresistible) it’s mainly about showing his cojones to cowardly lefties who love the Muslims.

adam kredo gay iran

For Jamie Kirchick, it’s about how Iran never changes. (On Twitter, Kirchick lathers praise on Free Beacon and its editor Continetti with the ardor of someone angling for a job — the webzine supposedly has a cushy seven-figure starting investment.)

kirchick iran copy

But basically it’s about getting the gays to stop worrying and love that bomb graph Netanyahu used to hold.

iran israel copy

Nobody bothered to check Iranian sources. But I wanted to know what the real story was. 

Here it is.

In the last week, the local press in Gilan province reported just one case of two people executed together. The two men were killed on Wednesday, February 26 (7 Esfand,1392). The story first appeared in KhazarOnline.ir the next day. (Xazar is the Farsi name for the Caspian Sea.) It’s headlined “Two corrupt Rashti men were executed for the crime of desecration of 8 women and girls.”

Two predators were executed yesterday morning (Wednesday) at Rasht Central Prison … About two years ago, the defendants locked girls and women in cars for the keeping of livestock. The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary said the two men were executed for raping eight women and girls.

There you are. How did these rapists become “gay men”?

That’s a story in itself. It’s an Iranian game of Telephone. On Saturday (March 1, 10 Esfand) another Gilan website, DiyarMirza.ir, covered the case: “Execution at Rasht Central Prison of two accused of harassment  [آزار و اذیت].” It’s not clear why the charge has gotten vaguer and weaker-sounding in this telling. My suspicion is that concern, or pressure, to protect women victims’ honor mitigated against offering detail. (Moreover, the item is buried as a short postscript to a longer story about the execution of three other men for drug dealing — one of the most serious offenses in Iran.) The one paragraph gives the initials of the dead, and their parents’ first names.

Culture of killing, from the cradle to the grave: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Culture of killing: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

This is not a very important item. It’s not till Sunday (March 2, 11 Esfand) that it reaches Tehran, when it’s picked up by the national Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). It makes just a blip on their website, saying that “two men aged 28 and 30 years were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” based on information from the Gilan judiciary. It gives the offense as “unlawful acts” [اعمال خلاف شرع].  You can more or less see what happened: either IRIB gave Gilan a routine call to see if they had any news, or the Gilan PR people decided to phone their executions in, but in either case they gave only a cursory account of a really negligible slaughter. It would seem, moreover, that IRIB got the date wrong. (I checked. The Gilan news sites have no report of executions after February 26.)

Late Sunday, though, the generally respected Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), which tries to draw attention to all executions in Iran, carried the story. HRANA was set up in 2009, after the Green Revolution, to disseminate news of abuses and resistance; it has essentially relocated to the US now. “According to IRIB,” they reported, “two men were executed today in Rasht Central Prison,” for “unlawful acts.” Then, because HRANA is particularly concerned with the pretexts for which Iran kills people, they try to hone in on figuring out the “unlawful acts” phrase. It

consists of acts that are prohibited by law and by Islamic shari’a law, and the penalty for them is set on the basis of the religious laws in Islam. Acts of crime and sin can be included such as: lavat [ لواط] (men having sex with men), masaheghe [ساحق] (women having sex with women), zina [ زنا] (sexual relations between men and women who are not married to one another), moharebeh (attempting to overthrow the Islamic Government), drinking alcoholic beverages, sabolnabi (cursing the prophets and the imams), theft (stealing another’s property covertly), and ghazf (accusing others of zina or lavat) — and in general acts that are opposed to shari’a. 

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

I see some unlawful acts here: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

HRANA published a version of this article in English as well. That concluded by noting that “The specific charges of the 2 men hanged in Rasht on charges of unlawful acts against Sharia Law are not clear.”

But that warning went nowhere; because the next to take up the story was Iran Press News, in the United States. Iran Press News, a site dating from 2004, offers content in both Farsi and English, with a right-wing bent especially in the latter. One item in the HRANA lists of “unlawful acts” had jumped out at them. In Farsi, IPN published only a bare mention; but the headline was now “Two young homosexuals [ همجنسگرا ] were executed in prison in Rasht.”

The public affairs office of the Gilan judiciary announced that two men, aged 28 and 30 years, were executed today in Rasht Central Prison. The two men were guilty of unlawful acts … Unlawful acts as a crime in the Islamic state is usually used to suppress the execution of homosexuals. [Emphasis added]

This was the first suggestion in the whole trail that the men were homosexual; it was based entirely on the fiction that “unlawful acts” could only stand for one crime in the HRANA roster.

How did the “homosexual” version leap from Farsi to English news sites? Answer: Banafsheh Zand.

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by

Just a few centimeters more: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Banafsheh Zand is an Iranian exile in the US who couples far-right inclinations with a strong fetish for the gays. She’s been a regular for Fox News, Front Page magazine, and the National Review, though all seemed to inch away eventually from her extravagant insights. An immigrant herself, she pals around with racist, ferociously anti-foreigner Michelle Malkin; but she also gamely frequents Glenn Beck‘s paranoiac show to cheer for the homosexuals against Ahmadinejad. She’s a fount of conspiracy theories. Here, on the fringe Newsmax site, you can hear her descant on Egypt, only days after the military massacred a thousand civilians this summer. That leaves her unfazed; she’s still worried that Iran, through the dead Muslim Brotherhood, may overrun the country. Never mind that the Sunni Brotherhood oversaw what Amnesty called an “unprecedented level of sectarian violence against Shi’a Muslims” during its brief reign. “There are major Shi’a strongholds in Egypt,” she intones. Also, Iran has “forty thousand trained suicide bombers” planted worldwide, waiting to bust like balloons.

 I can see Ayatollah Khameini from my house: The mullahs are coming to Cairo

She’s part Scheherazade, part salesman, marketing stories. I encountered her first during the frenzy of July 2005, when GayWorld exploded over the “gay teenagers” hanged in Mashhad, Iran, and she played a central role. Peter Tatchell and Doug Ireland were devouring fictions fed to them in part by Iranian exile cultists; headlines burgeoned; and Zand was hourly calling up the offices of New York’s Gay City News, claiming she had incontrovertible proof the children were lovers and had been raped by mullahs in detention. (At the time she styled herself, uneuphonically, Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi: but Signor Bonazziwhoever he was, has since decamped into Shah-like obscurity.) Back then, and for years after, she was English editor of Iran Press News. I believe she helped found it. This time, she may have given the IPN story its “homosexuals” slant. If not, she knew how to run with it.

On the killer's trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

On the killer’s trail: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The hard-right website Gateway Pundit picked up the story on Sunday evening, March 2, only hours after IPN carried it. Zand had translated the IPN text for them; their version ended, “Hat Tip Banafsheh Zand.” (They added the obligatory, morbidly exploitative photo of “Iranian gay teens” in 2005 being prepared for hanging.)

From there, it easily made its way to Adam Kredo0 and the Washington Free Beacon. Despite his title of “Senior Writer” on “National Security & Foreign Policy” for the Beacon, Kredo0 seems to have limited international experience, apart from five swell months interning at the Jerusalem Post. Zand probably overwhelmed him. He quotes her all over. “Not much is known about the two men executed over the weekend due to” — an inability to read Farsi? — no, “Iranian efforts to sweep such executions under the rug, according to Banafsheh Zand, an Iranian political and human rights activist.” “‘When people talk about the nukes, the nukes are a symptom,’ said Zand.” And so on.

So there you have it. It is, of course, just possible that there was another execution of two men in Rasht last week, and both those men were gay; it’s also just possible that those stories of eight women raped were make-believe, like Obama’s birth certificate. But it’s not likely.

By Mana Neyestani

By Mana Neyestani

Rather, everything suggests this was a heterosexual rape case that quickly got turned into a “homosexual” story — the moment it reached the US. It was reshaped deliberately, deceptively, and opportunistically, as a small stratagem to persuade US gays to mobilize in opposition to Iran, Rouhani, and any possible nuclear accord. It’s another instance of what happened in 2005: facts manipulated to rouse a constituency’s intense emotions. We haven’t absorbed much since about skepticism or evidence. Possibly the Washington Free Beacon didn’t realize they were baited. But they didn’t try hard to learn. Adam Kredo0 didn’t look for the source article, or call any Iranian diasporic LGBT groups, or speak to anyone except Banafsheh Zand. Expedient distortion and lazy journalism cooperated to deceive. By the way, I did contact the under-resourced but always resourceful Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), an extensive, reliable, and diverse network of activists centered in Canada. They hadn’t heard of the Rasht “gay” story — bad sign for its veracity — but are investigating. If those hardworking people can add, contradict me, or confirm, I will let you know.

US gays have a little bit of political power now, in the Obama era. That augurs an intensified competition to get you to take somebody’s side, to seduce you into backing bombing or demanding droning, with the illusive wiles of solidarity.

But this story is also a reminder of how neither I nor you have ever thought hard enough about Iran. The one sensible thing Kredo0 did for his article was to quote my colleague Hadi Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: describing the case of Ruholla Tavana, who faced the death penalty for things he said in a private video on his personal computer. (Kredo0 didn’t bother to call Ghaemi, just used a press release.)

This is an unbelievable act of inquisition at its worst ….The Iranian Judiciary’s insistence on the death sentence calls into question whether these sentences are politically-motivated and intended to confront the wave of international protests against the trend of ever-increasing executions in Iran.

What Ghaemi points to is that all these sentences are “politically motivated,” meant to send a message about the state to its citizens as well as external foes. There is no special status for LGBT people in Iran; they’re not “innocent victims” to be preferred to others, to the rapists and murderers we can cast off when we find the unpleasant facts of their stories. The Iranian state lives increasingly on the death penalty, and the death penalty is an extreme assertion of ownership over the limit point of everybody’s bodies and life-spans. There is no distinction. The state is saying it wants to control anything it can, and those who resist that even in the inmost crevice of private spaces can lose their lives. The casual indifference with which its officials toss off the figures and details — another two dead, “unlawful acts,” today or last week, like Don Giovanni’s thousand-and-third in Spain — suggests the degree to which the allocation of death has become an ordinary business of living. The crime (rape, murder, warring against God, sodomy, harassment) matters less than the message, which is that your existence is submissive to power, is porous.

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana

Hanging toys: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

LGBT people live in oppression in Iran. The constant possibility of the death penalty is part of that, though it’s been inflicted for consensual lavat only rarely in the last decade. Far more comprehensive, though, is the intrusion that the death penalty stands for: the claims of the state over life as well as death, over clothing and skin and hair, orifices and closets, bottles and bedrooms and belief; the quality of the air you breathe (intolerable in many places), the onetime plenitude of water now being drained away, the things you whisper or write that turn out to be criminal after the fact. Everybody faces those in some measure. We outside gravely mistake that situation if we think we fulfill our responsibilities by showing our solidarity with respectable people: the nice attractive gays (the young, clean, virgin ones you can write your dreams on), the secular published authors, the decent political prisoners. Resistance comes from everywhere, and the strength of the movement LGBT people are building lies in its unexpected solidarities. Resistance hides amid the secret drunks, with the down-and-out heroin addicts in Artists’ Park, who don’t want to be told what they can put in their bodies. (To read the crime pages on Iranian news websites is to see in the mind’s eye a ceaseless parade of drug users marched to execution: it’s possibly the main pretext for the machinery of killing in the country.) It rests with the sex workers who spread their legs despite divine animadversions and don’t even bother to shield their hair, with the stoned street kids even more than with the North Tehran parties, and even with the rapists who, whatever else they may have done, don’t want to die. Feeling sympathy with likeness is one thing, but solidarity can’t stop with sympathy. Our local obsession with identity is a weak distraction. It divides and detracts from the struggle against the state of death.

If you want to read one thing about Iran, read this summary of longtime human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei’s advice for how to roll back the death penalty, in an Islamic state where execution is not just policy but religious precept. “Stop using slogans and save lives,” he says. Don’t deal with generalities or identities; talk about individuals and their cases. Every accused is worthy. “Nobody is born a criminal.” Every person has a story. All that matters is that the stories be true, and theirs.

"Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht": Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned for  four years, is freed in January 2014; by joindhands on Flickr

“Sweet moment of release from prison in Rasht”: Yousef Nadarkhani, a Christian preacher imprisoned under threat of the death penalty for four years, is freed in January 2014; photo by joindhands on Flickr

Note: Several friends I can’t name assisted me with research and translation here. All errors are my own. The drawings are by the remarkable Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani. Among Neyestani’s other distinctions, he’s one of the few Iranian artists of a political bent to have addressed themes of LGBT people’s oppression in his work:

cartoon 2 copyImportant Update: Ali Abdi, an Iranian-born anthropologist studying at Yale, has done his own research on this situation since I published this post, and has helpfully shared with me what he’s discovered. He did the sensible thing, and went to the website of the Gilan provincial judiciary to look for cases there. Here’s what he found:

a) The case of two men raping eight girls (reported in KhazarOnline.ir) and the case of two men executed for “harassment” [آزار و اذیت]; reported in DiyarMirza.ir on March 1 (or 10 Esfand) actually do seem to be separate ones! In fact, the execution of two men for eight rapes appears to have occurred all the way back in December. The Gilan judiciary website recounts it, dated December 19, 2013 (or 28 Azar 1392). The details are a bit different from the Khazar Online version but it certainly looks like the same basic story.

Ali caught me in one significant error: the Khazar Online story is dated 1 Esfand (February 19), not 8 Esfand as I reported. My apologies. But in any case, if the execution happened in December, why did Khazar Online resurrect it after two months, claiming it was recent? Abdi speculates that they were looking around for clickbait and hoped that “rape of women and girls” would lure readers. If so, it worked; the story is still one of the most viewed on their main page.

b) The Gilan judiciary website has a short announcement of the execution of two men on March 1, 2014 (10 Esfand); “harassment” [آزار و اذیت] is the only description of their crime. This is apparently the story that DiyarMirza.ir carried the same day. It got picked up by IRIB the following day; they substituted “unlawful acts”  [اعمال خلاف شرع] for “harassment.” It seems to me quite possible that IRIB jumbled together the rape case and the “harassment” case, each involving two executions, which the Gilan media had headlined in recent days. (Remember, the rape case was still prominent on the Khazar Online front page.) That might explain why they used “unlawful acts,” to cover the confusing multiplicity of accusations.

HRANA then took up the story, and included a list of things that “unlawful acts” might mean; their possibilities included extramarital sex, theft, blasphemy, false accusation, and lavat or sodomy. From there, Banafsheh Zand and right-wing hacks in the United States seized on the “sodomy” possibility as the only one that interested them. They started spreading their propaganda about “gay executions” to the American LGBT public. And so it goes.

Women's equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign)

Women’s equality: Cartoon by Mana Neyestani (apologies, of course, to the Human Rights Campaign, which probably has that symbol copyrighted)

c) So what does “harassment”  [آزار و اذیت} mean? It’s not a crime in Iranian law, which makes it strange to see on an official judicial website. A quick survey of Farsi media suggests it’s commonly used for “sexual harassment” in the generally-understood sense, particularly intrusive attacks in public places which have become an issue throughout the region. However, those would probably not make a capital crime in Iran. But it also seems to be used widely for sexual assaults on minor girls, including by people in authority (see here or here). And Abdi confirms this thought. Faced with an assault against an adult woman, he writes me, officials would refer openly to “rape” (and possibly try to publicize the state’s paternal efforts at protection.) But an assault against a girl might be shrouded in euphemism: “when a minor is raped, assaulted, etc. there is a conscious effort not to bring it up.” (Ali believes this would hold for assaults on minor boys as well. This makes sense, although in the Mashhad executions in 2005, the rape of a minor boy was widely publicized as such — as lavat beh onf, “forcible sodomy“.) There is certainly no reason at all, though, to think that “harassment” is a cover for consensual male homosexual acts.  

d) I’m very grateful to Ali Abdi for his research. Updating and correcting information is a basic part of honest human rights work. This, others writing on Iran might learn. Gay City News, for one, has never published a correction on any of its messily flawed Iran reporting, (Or anything else. Even when the late Doug Ireland, in one of his last pieces for them, confused Belarus with UkraineGay City News never corrected itself.) As for the egregious Peter Tatchell, he never admits to error; instead he stirs up a storm of invective, threats, and distractions in PR blasts and social media, in the hope that the facts, like light in the ambit of a black hole, will bend themselves before his mistakes and mendacities. If these folks had just done some basic checking back in 2005, they could have spared us a world of trouble.

It is, of course, beyond rational expectation that the Free Beacon would double-check anything. You have to live in reality to recognize the possibility of error.

e) Oh, and one thing about the Gilan judiciary’s helpful site. So user-friendly, so transparent! Truly, this is reform. Indeed, when they’re posting announcements on stuff like meetings, conferences, and judicial sentences carried out, the very avatar lets you know the topic, and the result:

Gilad judiciary copy

I don’t even need to try my feeble hand at translating. Then when you do clink the link (maybe with a tingle of trepidation, like turning a doorknob in a slasher movie), atop the announcement perch the images like Poe’s raven on the bookcase, reminding one, far more powerfully than any bureaucratic lingo, what the state in its might and majesty can do for you:

ImageHandler

Words fail me.

On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood — to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From www.gapminder.org

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From http://www.gapminder.org

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ’embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Health Comittee

Gene genie: Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Health Council

“Told you so” is no pleasure in this life. Still. Arab News (an English-language Saudi paper) this evening published a piece confirming most of what I wrote about Kuwait’s proposed policy. It entails gender tests, not exams for “gayness,” and it targets migrant workers, not tourists.

The Kuwait Ministry of Health has proposed tightening genetic tests for immigrant workers in order to prevent transgender migrants from entering the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council job market.

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the GCC Health Council, said, “The health checklist for migrant workers now contains a mandatory examination to determine gender.” … The proposal will be made in a meeting for the Central Committee for foreign workers’ at the Health Council to be held on Nov. 11, Khojah told Arab News.

Youssef Mendkar, director of the Public Health Department at the Kuwait Ministry of Health, confirmed that the proposal aims to prevent transgender migrants from working in GCC countries. The tests determine the gender at birth. Gender is also determined through the worker’s medical history.

According to local media, sex conversion operations are considered normal in some countries which supply manpower to GCC countries. He said that statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Interior show that some foreign workers had a different gender recorded on their identity documents.

Khojah also said that the exams are already in operation in some GCC countries – “More than 2 million expatriate workers underwent the new gender tests in 2012” – but didn’t say where. The tests are probably chromosomal samples, and there are questions enough about these and the definitions of “sex” they imply; but the reference to “medical history” also raises the possibility that still other kinds of investigation, including abusive forensic examinations, may be involved.

One of the more thought-provoking comments on my last post came from HIV/AIDS activist Gus Cairns, who wrote on Facebook – I’m oversimplifying– that if you can rouse public outrage on an issue by saying it’s about gay men, and you can’t by saying it’s about trans migrants, surely there’s a case for saying what’s strategic. Terrible abuses based on gender under Kuwaiti law have gotten little notice over the years. I admit I feel some nagging guilt for helping burst a balloon that, floating over the ravaged rights landscape, at least had the possibility of drawing some attention to them.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can get far by advocating about fictions. Inevitably the Kuwaiti government would be able to respond, blithely, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — and there would go any traction to the claims. Moreover, the problem with slants like this (a “gay exam” targeting privileged white tourists) is that they aren’t just popular because they’re sensational: they draw unwanted strength from releasing the darkest, rottenest impulses of the collective psyche, which float up from the depths like dead manatees. Gay superiority (over the L and B and T), gay imperialism (over other minorities and their needs), chauvinism, homonationalism, Islamophobia … these may not fully have reached the surface, but they were bubbling around under the reactions to this story. They lurk undesired in some of the furor over Russia as well, which is why, despite the surfeit of good intentions, so much of that still leaves me viscerally uneasy: not least because I respond to them too. The 24-hour Twitter cycle, the quick swell and ebb of anger, offers little time to think about what the facts are, much less what our words imply or why we use them. But we should be alert to these concealed beliefs and motives, and militant in resisting them. They pollute both the language of rights and the dream of liberation.

If you wonder about some of the politics behind the Kuwait tale, consider this: why was a group called Act for Israel (“Mission: to represent Israel’s interests in US through new media”) urging Peter Tatchell to take it up; and why did Tatchell answer by boasting that he’d already “helped break this story”? What was that all about?

Tatchell Kuwait IBT copyThe last word? I hope not. It remains formidably hard to whip up concern over the fates of poor workers, or foreign laborers, or trans people, and even harder to build a movement around the intersections. But I hope at least some of the folks who got agitated about this case when they thought it was a threat to football stars and white tourists will continue to follow it now that they know it’s about the marginal, the migrant, the despised. A simple Google search (try Kuwait gay tests) will turn up the names of notables who worried about FIFA and the limelight. Now let them show they care about those who don’t make the headlines. I remember (the music is at the end of the clip below) the frightening lines Brecht wrote at the very terminus of the Threepenny Opera:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean
Those you see are in the daylight
Those in darkness
Don’t get seen

Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:

What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted.  Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.

FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal.  It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal

aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”

So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.

Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)

In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.

The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)

This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”

 Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me

During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.

Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.

FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….

For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that

In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.

I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before — the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East.  His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason.  Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender?  Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?

FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!

The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport.  Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.

I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.

Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis