Egypt: Tweet and blog against homophobic brutality, September 24 and 25

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

URGENT! This Wednesday and Thursday, September 24 and 25, Egyptian activists want a worldwide storm of tweeting and blogging to protest the recent, massive wave of brutal repression of LGBT people.

Here’s the call to action in English, followed by Arabic. (You can learn more and join the event on Facebook — and while you’re at it, check out the Solidarity with Egypt LGBT page as well.) The Arabic version below includes sample Arabic tweets (in red) but please write your own in English! Paste the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
in Arabic, or use it in English —  #stopjailinggays. Please share widely and join in!

TWO DAYS OF TWEETING AND BLOGGING: #STOPJAILINGGAYS

Because the Egyptian government has recently focused its efforts on monitoring people’s private lives, whether in the bedroom or on their facebook accounts …
Because the police have paused in chasing “terrorists” and are going after people for their sexual orientation and gender identity …
Because since October 2013, police have arrested more than 80 people for the “crime” of being gay or transgender …
Because some of these people receive humiliating treatment including physical violence and rape threats in detention …
Because the Forensic Medical Authority conducts anal examinations on these people, considered sexual assault and a violation of human rights and medical ethics …
Because they are sentenced for up to 10 years on charges of debauchery — a vague word …
Because the media has been waging a sensational campaign against LGBT people in Egypt, violating people’s privacy by publishing names and photos …
Because of all of this, on September 24 and 25 we will be tweeting and blogging using the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
which means “Against the Jailing of Gays.”
Join us. Invite your friends. Raise your voices.

يومين للزقزقة والتدوين #ضد_حبس_المثليين

بمناسبة إن الدولة متفرغة في الفترة الأخيرة لمراقبة الناس في أوض نومهم وعلى صفحاتهم الخاصة، وبدل ما الشرطة تقبض على الإرهابيين مخصصة وقتها كله لملاحقة المثليين من أول أكتوبر السنة اللي فاتت الدولة قبضت على أكتر من 80 واحد بتهمة المثلية، بعضهم بيتعرض لمعاملة مهينة جوة السجن من ضرب وذل وشتيمة، وتهديد بالاغتصاب، غير إن الطب الشرعي بيطبق عليهم كشوفات غير آدمية وبيكشف على فتحات الشرج بتاعتهم عشان يثبت هما مثليين ولا ﻷ، بعضهم أخد أحكام بالسجن بتهمة الفجور، اللي هي تهمة مطاطة ومش واضحة، ولإن الإعلام قاعد يخلق أساطير حوالين المثلية الجنسية زي إنها مرض نفسي والقنوات والجرايد بينتهكوا خصوصية الناس وينشروا أساميهم وتفاصيل حياتهم

فاحنا يوم 24 و25 سبتمبر هنزقزق وندون باستخدام هاشتاج #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية الجنسية مش جريمة والدولة المفروض عندها حاجات أهم تعملها من مراقبة مين بينام مع مين،

شاركونا بالتدوين والكتابة خلال اليومين دول ودي نماذج من التويتات اللي ممكن تستخدموها:

المثلية هي ميول عاطفية أو جنسية ناحية انسان من نفس الجنس. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش جريمة. إزاي حبس المثليين في السجون هيحل المشكلة؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش اختيار. محدش بيختار يكون جزء من فئة مهمشة ومرفوضة من المجتمع. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

أكبر مؤسسات الطب النفسي بطلت تعتبر المثلية الجنسية مرض نفسي من السبعينات. مفيش علاج نفسي معترف بيه عالميا للمثلية الجنسية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثليين جنسيا بيتعرضوا لعنف مستمر، سواء من الدولة اللي بتجرمهم، أو من الأهل أو في الشارع. المثلية مش مقبولة بس العنف مقبول؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش تقليعة ولا موضة ولا بدعة من الغرب. المثليين موجودين في كل العصور وكل الحضارات. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

جسمي أنا حر فيه. عاوز تتحكم في جسمي ليه؟ تقبل حد يقولك تعمل ايه وماتعملش ايه في جسمك؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

من حق كل شخص بالغ انه يختار يدخل في علاقة ولا لأ ويختار مين الشخص المناسب ليه من غير تدخل من أي جهة. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش مرض نفسي ولا بتسبب أمراض نفسية ولا جسدية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

شهد العام الأخير تصاعد في عدد المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا الذي تم القبض عليهم فيما يزيد على 80 شخص. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية غير مجرمة بالنص في القانون المصري ولكن يستخدم مصطلحات فضفاضة مثل الفجور لملاحقة المثليين جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

عقوبة الفجور المستخدمة للقبض على المثليين تصل ل 3 سنوات ويضاف أحيانا اتهامات أخرى ليصل الحكم ل 10 سنوات #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الشرطة لم تستهدف فقط المثليين جنسيا ولكن استهدفت أيضا المتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

النيابة بتحول المتهمين للطب الشرعي والذي يقوم بعمل فحص شرجي ضد إرادتهم بمخالفة حقوق الإنسان ويعتبر انتهاك لكرامتهم وخصوصيتهم

التغطية الإعلامية لعبت دور كبير في التحريض على المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا واستخدمت ألفاظ سلبية مثل الجنس الثالث أو الشواذ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الإعلام انتهك خصوصية وسرية المتهمين عن طريق ذكر أسماء المتهمين أو نشر صور وفيديوهات لهم مخالفة للمهنية ولأخلاقيات الإعلام #ضد_حبس_المثليين

Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

Vietnam: Marriage, authoritarianism, and social control

Dykes on bikes, Hanoi style: © AFP

Hanoi held its first LGBT Pride on August 5, a march-cum-ride that went from the National Stadium to a downtown park.

Dozens of cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags streamed through the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Sunday for the first gay pride parade in the nation’s history.

Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists, despite their lack of official permits. …

“We don’t have permission for this and even if we had asked for official permission it would not have been possible,” said Van Anh, to the AFP news agency. “But we have a lot of support from Vietnamese society. Many people told me they want to attend the parade,” she added.

That’s from an AlJazeera English report (it’s almost as fascinating to have a Qatar-based news outlet devoting extensive coverage to sexuality these days). AP adds:

Demonstrators trailed rainbow-colored streamers and shouted “Equal rights for gays and lesbians!” and “We support same-sex marriage!”

It was a scene that was unimaginable a few years ago, when Vietnam still labeled homosexuality a “social evil” alongside drug addiction and prostitution. The country’s gay community was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed, and it was taboo to even talk about the issue.

There are many more pictures here. 

Breaking away: © Reuters

This comes after Vietnam’s government announced in late July that it would address the status of same-sex couples, possibly with provisions for same-sex marriage, in a coming overhaul of marriage laws:

Video of Vietnam’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010, and a few other ceremonies followed, capturing widespread public attention. The Justice Ministry now says a legal framework is necessary because the courts do not know how to handle disputes between same-sex couples living together. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.

“I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it’s time for us to look at the reality,” Justice MinisteHà Hùng Cường said Tuesday in an online chat broadcast on national TV and radio. “The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It’s not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They may own property. We, of course, have to handle these issues legally.”

As I grow older I find I am becoming Eeyore, always determined to look at the unbright side of life. God forbid I should rain on this parade of cyclists, or their courage (AFP notes that the parade website warned each marcher to “consider his/her personal circumstances and the risks possibly involved before participation”).

Yet this march is no sign of widespread social liberalization. Vietnam remains an extremely repressive polity, and other politically as well as socially marginally groups still bear the brunt. Here’s more news from yesterday:

Vietnamese police detained at least 20 people on Sunday as they broke up a protest in Hanoi against Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, witnesses said.

Demonstrators were forced into waiting buses and taken to a rehabilitation centre usually used to detain sex workers and drug users, after attempting to gather in defiance of a heavy police presence, one detainee told AFP.

“There are at least 25 people here and there are arrestees elsewhere,” the person — who requested anonymity for security reasons — said by telephone from the Loc Ha detention centre. [emphasis added]

Or this, from last week — one reflection of a growing government campaign to imprison dissident bloggers:

The mother of a prominent Vietnamese blogger has died from her injuries after setting herself on fire in front of government offices, her family says.

She was protesting against the detention of her daughter, Ta Phong Tan, who is facing charges of anti-state propaganda, another daughter told the BBC’s Vietnamese service.

Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself alight in southern Bac Lieu province. Her daughter faces trial in August and could be jailed for 20 years.

Ta Phong Tan

Ta Phong Tan, a former police officer, wrote a blog called Cong ly va su (Justice and Truth), drawing attention to state abuses and demanding social justice. Arrested last September, she faces trial this month and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Cuba, of course, also indicated recently that it may move toward same-sex marriage, under the stewardship of Mariela Castro, President Raul’s daughter. The cases seem to me remarkably similar. Both are authoritarian governments, with Communist parties still steeped in the repression of dissent, and powerful histories of social control. Both seem to have decided that the best way to deal with a new, increasingly visible and vocal minority without a clear or oppositional political agenda is to integrate it into the existing structures of society and subordination. They rely on recognition to contain it, and marriage is one of the most trustworthy containers around.

Nikolai Krylenko, b. 1885, shot 1938: I know a stinky secretive bordello when I see one

Authoritarian governments do not like invisible groups, sneaking around in the subterranean structures of society. They want a transparent life-world, with everybody’s activities fully exposed like ants in an ant farm, or happy hamsters. The instinctive response to identities that prefer the safety of occlusion is to drag them kicking and screaming into the light– the switchless light of prison, under the perpetually buzzing electric bulbs of the Lubyanka.  Stalin’s prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko famously expressed these fears, and this solution, in clarifying why the dictator recriminalized homosexual conduct in the 1930s. Homosexuals were subversives, he shouted:

Classless hoodlums, either from the dregs of the society, or from the remains of the exploiters’ class. They have no place to go. So they take to — pederasty. Together with them, next to them, under this excuse, in stinky secretive bordellos another kind of activity takes place as well — counter-revolutionary work.

The traditional response of repression is not always the best-working one, however. Sometimes, if you can’t beat them to a pulp, it’s better to join them. Or, more properly, to make them join you.  Recognition is a comparatively painless way of easing the invisible into the light. Recognition in marriage is potentially a splendid means of identifying, registering, and integrating dissident sexualities, subjecting them to a state-defined structure that normalizes and depoliticizes them, nullifying and Novocaining any residual anti-social impulse.

There’s a pretty extensive literature on how marriage serves this function, even (or especially) in ostensibly democratic societies. After the Civil War and emancipation, for instance white American leaders hoped to shove or shovel former slaves into marriages, expecting that legal recognition of their relationships would impose on them a new form of institutional regulation — and would tame them for membership in a contract-dominated society. Tamara Nopper describes some of the motives as well as consequences:

African Americans were aggressively pushed to marry and register their marriages with the state.  Registration policies (and the granting of certain rights to Blacks in general) also became a means to police and criminalize African Americans.  For example, Blacks who married and failed to register with the state were prosecuted.  Demonstrating the afterlife of slavery, the attempts of slaves to express some emotional autonomy and forge their own marriages (without the legal ability to contract) on plantations became the basis of social control in the post-Emancipation period.  Black codes in different states declared slave couples who lived together during slavery as legally married.  … In cases where a Black man might have multiple spouses, Freedmen’s Bureau agents would designate the Black woman with the most children to be his wife. Additionally, these policies and practices served as forms of privatization and anti-Black austerity as “the government used marriage to financially and socially domesticate newly freed Blacks to ensure that the white public faced minimal responsibility for former slaves’ economic security.”  Put simply, instead of reparations, African Americans got marriage.

And Nopper detects in so-called “welfare reform” a contemporary, neoliberal revival of this push:

the message is very simple

While some have described how Americanization campaigns encouraged marriage among immigrants during the Progressive Era or how gay marriage was facilitated by some city and local governments in the early 2000s, the most striking example of governments promoting marriage among U.S. minorities is the targeting of African Americans.  ….

As several scholars and analysts emphasize, contemporary welfare reform, primarily targeted at the mythical “Black welfare queen” (despite the diversity of welfare recipients), pushed marriage among poor women as a solvent for poverty and female-headed households.  Indeed, as Priya Kandaswamy points out, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) begins with the following “finding” from Congress: “(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”  … PRWORA enacted, among other draconian measures, “stricter paternity identification practices” designed to force poor women to become more dependent on men with whom they had children (men who were most likely also poor).  With little consideration for the dynamics of the relationship (be it violent or collegial), poor women were expected to maintain a particular type of relationship with men than to continuously access state support for taking care of themselves and their children.

Cuba and Vietnam are authoritarian in a different way from the United States, and they lack the full flowering of the US’s racial paranoia about a segregated underclass. But in confronting the sudden emergence of uncontrolled and unregulated forms of sexuality, their inchoate responses so far have a certain similarity to post-slave society, post-Great Society America.

A few examples do not a tendency make, but I wonder to what degree societies in the grip of authoritarianism (either in its neoCommunist or neoliberal versions, which in any case clearly are on the merge) will find same-sex marriage a useful tool for co-opting and controlling a novel social group.

China will perhaps be the test case. Right now, China is having enough problems with heterosexual marriages to keep it busy. If the People’s Republic starts moving toward recognizing same-sex unions, though, the rhetoric about marriage equality as a new step toward freedom will deserve a bit of re-examination.

But then, who am I to say? I’m Eeyore. Don’t pay any attention to me.

 

Obama, marriage, race, rights

I had brunch today with the kids who changed the President’s mind. If you’ll remember, when Barack Obama ten days ago declared his support for same-sex marriage, he cited “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” There was one member of the White House staff during the presidential term who was both queer and a parent — she even took the bairns to meet the Leader of the Free World and get their pictures snapped — and this shining Sunday, she and her partner entertained. The twins in question are extremely self-possessed toddlers, who could probably persuade me of anything given the chance. I hope no one informs them of their role in history for some time yet. To have succeeded at so much at so young an age could drain them of the ambition to get through kindergarten.

Everything has already been said about what Obama said. Consider this:

President Barack Obama’s May 9 announcement that he favors same sex marriage led to a huge spike on YouTube … YouTube is owned by the online search giant Google, which [also] saw a 458 percent increase in national searches for “Obama” and “gay marriage” between 10 am and 6pm the day Obama disclosed his views …

Matthew Nisbit, a professor of communications at American University who studies the intersection of politics and social media, said online videos and an interest in gay rights were a natural pairing. “The heaviest users of video are people under the age of 25, and gay rights is one of the few political issues young people feel passionate about,” Nisbit said. “And the gay community was an early adopter of social networking—the technology was a good fit for people of minority status looking for like-minded others.”

Following Obama’s announcement, more videos with the key words “gay marriage” were uploaded on YouTube than ever before, drawing more than 3 million views and 100,000 comments.

Am I the only person who finds that terrifying?

Anyway, I can add nothing but point to a couple of interesting consistencies in all those images and words.

What am I pointing at? Huck and Jim on the raft, by Thomas Hart Benton

You might call one of them the Persistent Sexiness of Race, or Raciness of Sex. Put simply: sex and race are the two authentic American obsessions. But so close are they to every American’s pulsing heart that proximity induces blindness, and natives of these territories have considerable difficulty telling them apart, or deciphering where, when, or how they interrelate or -twine. On one day, your average white American will go from believing that sex was invented by non-white people — carried to this shore to sap the moral rigor of austere Puritans who reproduced by spores — to supposing that non-white people are fierce enemies of sex in general, paralyzed by their primitive inability to appreciate orgasms, orifices, or online porn. When it comes to homosexuality, there are thus two versions. Either black people are responsible for it, because they got the gender roles all wrong (“Come back to the raft ag’in, Huck honey!” cries Jim in the one true, classic narrative of the American Dream, and surely the white boy’s comparative health is figured in the fact that his name rhymes with “Fuck” as any proper man’s should); or black people are going, by their weird and regressive goetic magic at the ballot box, to forbid loving white people from enjoying the rightful dignity of gay marriages in jurisdictions from Palo Alto to High Point.

It’s inevitable, then, that the first African-American president’s support for LGBT people should be read through these antinomies. Even before Obama took the plunge, the Washington Post warned him:

African Americans, one of the main pillars of the President’s political coalition, remain decidedly skeptical about gay marriage. In the last year’s worth of Post-ABC [polling] data, just 42 percent said they support legalization while 55 percent oppose it. … Coming out in support of gay marriage … would clearly thrill a portion of his base (gays and lesbians) but it could alienate — at least in parts — another portion of his base (African Americans) that he desperately needs to win reelection this fall.

Now, there is plenty of counter-evidence of sympathy and support in black communities. Just yesterday the executive board of the N.A.A.C.P. — the country’s “most prominent civil rights group,” as the New York Times notes — overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring that “We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The legendary African-American activist Julian Bond told the Times that the vote “proves that conventional wisdom” about black opposition to marriage equality “is not true.”

Still, where there are divisions, as many people have pointed out, the tenor of white LGBT activists’ advocacy bears a substantial share of the blame. Last week Andrew Sullivan (who wept when his “father figure” affirmed his marital authenticity) wrote a piece for Newsweek, speculatively borrowing Obama’s racial identity in service to Sullivan’s own gay one:

Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family.

It’s not the same, you want to scream. Experience is not to be expropriated like that. Assimilating race to sexuality, as though both were purely defined by internal awareness and “discovered” the same way, is likely to put off plenty of non-gay African-Americans, and possibly some gay ones. Moreover, Sullivan has an unerring instinct for finding ways to be more alienating.  It’s an article of his faith that he invented the campaign for gay marriage, and that it’s a right-wing idea. (How Sullivan continues to call himself conservative, when he dissents from the right on every issue from Obamacare to Israel, is one of the present era’s greater mysteries. The only leftists he appears to dislike are the gay ones, perhaps more from sour memories than ideology.) “Marriage equality started out as a conservative revolt within the gay community,” he wrote: “Gay conservatives and Republicans helped pioneer gay marriage as an issue.” And in a rather pissy-sounding email to Gay City News (capable of making anyone pissy, to be sure), he added:

[I]t was a struggle to be heard above those on the left arguing for employment protection, hate crimes, and economic ‘justice’ as core priorities… Without the emergence of the gay right, I don’t think we would have come as far as we have.

Those quotes taloning “justice” are the giveaway. They show how little a perspective informed by Sullivan would make sense to many African-Americans, for whom material inequality and economic reality are the urgent facts of politics.

It’s true that “civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” as the N.A.A.C.P’s president said; and as one former N.A.A.C.P. official informed the TImes, the resolution entailed “coming to a very civil rights understanding of marriage equality versus a theological understanding of marriage.” Does that make marriage “the new civil rights movement,” though? Does that make Obama’s embrace the equivalent (as Jonathan Rauch suggests) of LBJ adopting MLK’s language and intoning, “We shall overcome”? Uh, no. Marriage is a civil right, but not a political right. Being deprived of it marks out “impaired citizenship,” in Gayle Rubin’s phrase; but it doesn’t mark you as deprived of entry, respect, resources, or decision-making throughout the entire public realm.  The laws and prejudices that did isolate LGBT people in that way have, in the US, largely receded over forty or fifty years, thanks to the long labors of people living and dead; it’s only possible to talk about marriage because those more terrible impediments have eased.  Imagine living your lifetime without the right to marry, and then imagine living it without the right to vote. You’ll understand what I mean, and maybe see why the uncritical comparison to the civil rights movement is, for some African-Americans, annoying.

Huey P. Newton, 1942-1989

That said, African-American history has confronted the denial of both rights — slave marriages, of course, had no status in law, and African slaves were unable to make a legal contract. There are several things to draw from this, but one is that the “outreach” model — where white gay activists troop out to teach African-American communities why the marriage battle is important — is crazy. Too much experience and wisdom about having your rights curtailed lie on the other side. Listening and learning are a better stance for marriage activists than presumptuously leaping to the parallels. And a deep African-American engagement with the issues we would now call “sexual rights” goes back centuries –certainly way farther back than the movement activist Bayard Rustin, a true civil rights hero who seems, all the same, to be the only black gay man some people can name these days. (Obama has now put a tribute to him on his campaign website.) In my perverse way, I prefer to cite  Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who on August 15, 1970 gave a speech on “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements”:

Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say “whatever your insecurities are” because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.

We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. … Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it.

Now, that’s honest.

The second consistent note of the Obama commentaries is what I would call the Politics of Premature Ejaculation. It consists of announcing, midway through any controversy,  that it’s over, all over — even though the fat lady has neither sung, nor shivered, nor even opened her mouth. Liberals, acolytes of Enlightenment and its pre-ordained triumphs, are particularly prone to this. Thus the American Prospect proclaimed the war over marriage equality “is over,” the opposition a “lost cause.” “Support for marriage equality has crossed the halfway point, and no one in their right mind could think there will be some reversal in that trend.” Yet conservative David Link also contended, “As a national matter, today we can envision as a reality the last days of government discrimination.”

This contention is a bit weird, since national polls don’t decide the issue. In 31 states, it’s already decided. That’s the number that have added amendments to their constitutions banning recognition of same-sex marriages, all since the marriage wars began.  North Carolina passed the latest, the day before the President’s announcement. Unless a certain four justices of the US Supreme Court all perish of salmonella from eating Nino Scalia’s calamari, and Obama gets to replace them, most of these bans will take decades to reverse, either by votes or courts.

everything that rises must converge

Nonetheless, two successive Gallup soundings have now shown a thin majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, a far cry from the nearly two-thirds opposed a decade and a half ago. This is neither final victory nor the tidal inevitability of Progress, but it is no negligible fact, either. The commentariat is busy trying to explain the sea-change: is is the neighbors? is it the TV?

Did popular culture bring us here –  … Ellen Degeneres and popular sitcoms like ABC’s “Modern Family”? Or is our liberalized attitude just a cumulative effect of the straight community having more contact with “out” gay couples who, like them, just strive to form loving families and raise well-adjusted kids?

I have a different take. Opinions changed on marriage because marriage didn’t change anything.

the weather in Sodom: maybe we should move the wedding inside

For all the apocalypse predicted when Massachusetts went off the deep end into Gomorrah in 2004, the impact of eight states opening civil marriage to same-sex couples has been pretty much nonexistent. For the couples themselves — those who availed themselves of the opportunity — it’s been nice enough, primarily in terms of symbolic recognition (all at the local level; federal rights, which include immigration and income-tax benefits, of course are still debarred.) But nobody else has been inconvenienced in the slightest. Nobody else’s marriage was devalued or changed in any way. Most people didn’t even notice. Of course, Pat Robertson and preacherdom can fulminate that brimstone impends: “In history there’s never been a civilization ever in history [sic] that has embraced homosexuality and turned away from traditional fidelity, traditional marriage, traditional child-rearing, and has survived.”  But eight years after avenging fires should have crisped us, the polity continues as if nothing had happened at all.

If you believe, as many people now do, that marriage is the end point and goal of LGBT people’s liberation struggles, this is all remarkable. How many revolutions have succeeded by changing nothing? When in history has a people been granted rights long denied them, and left everybody else completely undisturbed? America is still grappling with the massive consequences and implications of African-Americans’ sixty year-old civil rights movement, even if it remained unfinished. Europe’s emancipation of the Jews in the nineteenth century still has echoes, heard alike in debates about the conduct of Israel and the identity of France. Most contemporary social movements — the ones the French call the révolution des sans — are defined by people wanting something others have. The sans papiers, the immigrants, want to break the borders; the sans emploi want jobs and benefits; the sans abri, housing. The enthusiasm and the resistance they rouse both reside in the struggle to wrest those things away from their accumulators, to redistribute possessions and prepositions, to turn “without” into a “with.” Is the movement of the sans épouses distinctive in that it doesn’t ask anybody to bother?

really a very simple request

You could argue that this means the gay movement’s inner meaning really is conservative, as Sullivan argues. If marriage is its core issue, then the movement has no positive demands to make on government, for benefits or protections. It just wants a little recognition; then leave it alone. It’s a very good movement, modest in its aspirations and quiet in its manner, leaving the peace unbreached and the indifferent untroubled. David Link writes, “However we get to marriage equality, I’m going to view that as the end of the line.  I don’t want the government discriminating against me, and once it doesn’t, my activist days will be over.” But he adds:

The left expects more of government.  In addition to not discriminating itself, the left believes government should also act to prohibit others from discriminating, and should do a lot more as well.

And beyond that, there was an old left dream of social transformation as well: an idea, often slipping toward the Utopian, that individual lives and their interconnections could be radically renewed. And should be. Changez la vie! Sous les pavés, la plage. And more.

I don’t think Link quite gets what the movement has really done.

My belief is: the sheer innocuousness of the success of marriage doesn’t mean the LGBT movement itself is innocuous. It means that the historic meaning, the larger impact, of the LGBT movement lies quite elsewhere. There is a radical change, partly accomplished and partly still to be fulfilled, that marriage misses. It’s not that marriage is an unimportant goal; but it is only achievable when the deeper, the more lasting and far-reaching challenges to reality as it was given us have been launched and felt. Some historian a century from now, I’d guess, would see the real effects of the movement not in wedding vows but in the widespread acceptance of a radical claim to everybody’s sexual freedom and bodily autonomy; the insistent assertion that customarily “private” acts have public and political relevance; the tectonic shifts in gender roles and the way they’re understood. When we — by we I meant the movement, or the movements — talk about marriage as our political terminus ad quem, we are a bit like Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, contemplating courses that are perfectly plausible but somehow not quite authentic, not his life’s meaning, not himself. “But whatever destiny awaited him, he knew it must be something entirely different.”

N.B. For a collection of skeptical writings about same-sex marriage and US politics, see the resources here. 

Nigeria: Screwing the nation

Nigeria has seen the first successful blow struck against neoliberalism in the New Year. After a week of massive nationwide protests met the removal of a key fuel subsidy for consumers, President Goodluck Jonathan backed down — a bit.  He reinstated the subsidy partially. That, together with reportedly massive payoffs to union leaders, persuaded labor to cancel the strike.

Lagarde in Abuja, with President Jonathan (L) and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (R)

The compromise was far from perfect. Dropping the subsidy initially more than doubled the price of gasoline, from (US) $0.40 to 0.88 per liter; now the price is teetering at around $0.66. The settlement outraged considerable parts of the protest coalition, including students, who remain committed to opposing neoliberal policies.  There’s considerable suspicion in Nigeria that the IMF and World Bank were behind the attempt to scrap the subsidy; IMF head Christine Lagarde visited Abuja in December, allegedly to congratulate Jonathan on his “reform” and anti-corruption initiatives, but more likely to set the terms for allegedly-indigenous structural adjustment efforts. Few believe the government’s retreat means the proposal is in permanent abeyance. Still, a half-victory is a victory. Jonathan, who announced the subsidy removal in a speech declaring, “Let me seize this opportunity to assure all Nigerians that I feel the pains that you all feel,” was made to feel rather more pain than he had banked on.  And even the Financial Times acknowledged that for the subsidy’s “removal to be tolerated” in future, “poverty must be alleviated in other ways.”

Attention immediately shifted to the horrific violence inflicted by the Islamist group Boko Haram on northern Nigeria, including coordinated bombings and shootings in Kano on January 20 that killed almost 200 people in one day. Zach Warner, in ThinkAfrica Press, has a fascinating analysis of the group’s rise. He admits that “Communal violence has been a constant for the last three decades, while the mobilisation of faith-based political identities has been a defining feature of Northern Nigeria for centuries.”  But in recent decades, Nigeria’s central government has eviscerated traditional Islamic hierarchies and power structures in the North, thinking it was eliminating a base for separatism. At the same time, a shift from Northern-based military leadership to democratically elected governments with their roots in the South has starved the region of resource allocation. The result has been spreading poverty, particularly among the young:

Thus, by the time of … the restoration of civilian rule, centuries-old social and political hierarchies of Islamic power had been completely smashed. Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the only viable leader of the Fourth Republic, engendering a massive power shift to the south after decades of predominantly northern military rule. Elite Muslims were sent reeling; the Sultan [of Sokoto, still the ostensible religious leader of Nigeria's Muslims] could hardly show his face throughout the region.

Amid such social confusion, young Muslim men again tried to assume their place at the helm of the north. From late 1999 to 2002, twelve states expanded Sharia (Islamic law). Reacting to what they perceived as endemic corruption and moral decay, this crop of younger politicians enunciated a wish to return to Islamic governance outside the strict confines of the emirate structures which they felt were complicit in failed governments and national decline. As John Paden wrote in 2002, the sum effect was a split in Islamic solidarity and “significant confrontations between anti-establishment groups and northern Muslim elites, which in turn, [sic] are causing these elites to reconsider how to strengthen their own politico-religious credentials”.

The resulting alienation is fertile ground for insurgencies.

John Campbell (a former US ambassador) argues that, religion aside, Boko Haram bears conspicuous similarities to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which sponsored campaigns of kidnapping and bombing that kept the country’s oil-producing areas on edge from 2006 to 2010.   Both are symptoms of a disintegrating rentier state, which lives off the oil revenues it appropriates from a single region of the country, but has never tried to redistribute them evenly or fairly—either among the country’s geographic divisions, or among its social classes.  The subsidy protests and the Kano bombings reveal the same rot.

The massive unrest has drawn the public’s eye away from the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill,” a sweeping proposal that would criminalize most aspects of lesbian and gay people’s lives.   At some point soon, though, Goodluck Jonathan will have to decide whether to sign it.  The recent tumult reveals the underlying motives behind the law—a classic distraction, to unify fissiparous sects and interests around a common bogeyman, and turn disputes away from raw social reality toward imaginary demons.

Seun Anikulapo-Kuti: Don't fuck with the Nation

LGBT rights activists joined the popular protests to retain the fuel subsidy.  They took heart from reports that Seun Kuti (popular musician and son of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti)  shouted at a Lagos rally against the move:  “When two men fuck each other, it is better than one man fucking the Nation as a whole.”  It’s hard for political commentary to top that (as it were).   However, I also like the remark of my friend Dorothy Aken’Ova, of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, INCRESE: “Nigerians now know what is [really] evil.” One can hope.

Mitt, money, Mormons, class

Among the revelations stemming from Willard Mitt Romney’s tax returns – now being combed with the exigetical intensity usually given to sacred texts – are his contributions to homophobia. Most directly, his family foundation gave $35,000 to two “pro-family,” anti-gay groups. For Mitt, of course, that’s nothing. But he also tithes — gives at least 1/10 of his income to his institutional religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; in the last two years, that amounted to more than $4 million. The Mormons, in turn, are big funders of the homophobes. Mike Signorile says, “The church itself gave over $180,000 to help pass Prop 8 [the 2008 anti-same-sex-marriage referendum in California]. The church was fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting its numerous financial contributions to the cause.” The Mormons also have a network of small, strange NGOS, circling around a few post office boxes in Arizona, that carry on similar struggles at the United Nations.

It seems to me this opposition has a large component of sour grapes.   Deep in the Church festers a feeling of: If we didn’t get to redefine marriage, why should you? 

The LDS, after all, held sacrosanct for years the practice of polygamy or plural marriage, as in Big Love, the better to multiply their congregants.   A Supreme Court ruling conclusively banned it in 1879, and eleven years later God spoke to the head of the Church and told him, be fruitful but only with one woman per, until further notice. But a certain resentment remains, a feeling that others should not get away with matrimonial overflow – whether beyond the bounds of number or of gender — denied to the chosen. I say this based not just on intuition but on some conversations with very right-wing Saints over the years. Most notably, around a decade back I spoke at a conference on religion at Cornell. Upstate New York (where Joseph Smith found the golden plates and the magic spectacles, and founded the glorious religion) still has warrens of underground Mormons, some of them dissident, clinging to the old-time faith, living in secrecy somewhat like monsters in an H.P. Lovecraft story.   Several were in the audience. They seemed to blink unfamiliarly at the light. They were all men, all compact as Toby mugs, with those patriarchal beards that omit mustaches and make the wearer look like his own ancestor, or C. Everett Koop. (Later, when I met Salafists in Egypt, I recognized the style.)

Brigham Young and his beard

After my address, we got into a discussion about the concept I’d introduced: sexual rights. Almost shyly, they asked how a right to sexual autonomy would affect the number of people one married. I said, very carefully, that one could in theory construct a human rights argument for legal recognition of polygamous relationships – as long as gender equality was respected. They perked up visibly, like portraits coming to life. The reservation about gender seemed to them a potentially endurable concession, something you could put in the law as long as you didn’t tell the women. The women wouldn’t learn to read, anyway! I felt that if we had a few more hours, we might almost have arrived at some historic compact, like Mussolini’s concordat with the Vatican: a polygamous-promiscuous alliance to sweep the nation simultaneously forward to the Age of Aquarius, and back to the Age of Abraham.  I wonder if we could revive the prospect someday. Divided, we are weak; but together, we can rule the world.

Happy Pride! You're fired.

Mitt, notoriously mercurial about everything, used to be a bit nicer to the gays. His opponents this year brought up a bright pink flyer his campaign distributed during his 2002 run for Massachusetts governor, with he and his running mate saying “All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference.”  Mitt now says he never saw it before. Probably this is that pink slip he was always worried about getting.

Mitt’s devotion to one-man one-woman marriage is perhaps made more interesting by the fact that Mitt’s own family comes from the Mormon colonies founded in Mexico by plural marriers fleeing persecution in the United States. His father, George Romney, was born there, in 1916, just before the colonies broke up because of the Mexican revolution and the exiles returned to the U.S.   (George ran for president in 1968.  Spawned on foreign soil, he would, oddly enough, have been disqualified under the standards birthers try to use against that Kenyan interloper, Barack Obama.  Mitt’s son Tagg, who lately voiced his affinity with the birthers, might want to check his family history.)

On a very cursory search, I don’t see any evidence that Mitt’s own ancestors practiced plural marriage; there seem to be few enough of them to suggest that monogamy straitjacketed their sperm into limited outlets. But certainly they must have been ideologically, or theologically, in favor; that was the main motive for the exodus to the Sierra Madre.   It would be intriguing to confront Mitt with this genealogy sometime, particularly if Rick Santorum were in the room to contribute his own questions. They have coyotes in Mexico, Mitt; did your granddaddy marry any dogs down there? It could make an interesting discussion.

The reason I got to thinking about these things was because for weeks I’ve kept seeing Mitt Romney described, in news articles, as a “WASP” and an “aristocrat.” And he’s not.

It’s  a terrible, amnesiac misrepresentation. He cannot be called a WASP; Mormons are not, in the normal sense, Protestants, which is what the P stands for. They occupy their own distinct niche within (or maybe a little bit without) Christianity. Meanwhile, his clan were aristocrats, in  a sense, but Mormon aristocrats: dignitaries within a community that had long been a tribe wholly unto itself. Until his father’s generation, they had nothing to do with the seats of American power. The sachems of the Protestant ascendancy, with their rites of the Episcopal Church and the Porcellian Club, their temple complexes at Exeter and Andover, Harvard and Yale, their human sacrifices at the debutante ball, inhabited a completely different world. The Mormons were beneath their notice, hardly better than far-off Aztecs when viewed from New York or from the heights of Beacon Hill.

"In Memorial Brigham Young": 1877 anti-Mormon cartoon

In America, for a very long time, the Latter-Day Saints remained morally and sociologically isolated. It took the Mormon church decades to shed the disreputability that polygamy had smeared across it.  In the first decade of the 20th century, the US Senate required three years of hearings before seating an electee from Utah (the later-famous Reed Smoot), because his detractors claimed his status as a Mormon Apostle disqualified him.  (It was of Smoot and his battle against immoral literature that Ogden Nash wrote the immortal lines:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a war on smut …
Senator Smoot is an institute
Not to be bribed with pelf.
He guards our homes from erotic tomes
By reading them all himself.

Read more here.)

By the time the church had won a partial respectability, the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s made it a pariah in a new sense. The Latter-Day Saints still understood the deity to say that blacks were a separate and inferior creation to whites; the rest of the United States heard the Lord, or at least the law, differently.   Only in 1978, when God changed his mind, did the ideological barriers separating the Church from broader American society fully relax. For those of us in the advocacy business, it would be interesting to know what kind of lobbying persuaded God.

Romney père: auto-maton

George Romney was a figure who bridged both worlds, the insular one of his tribe and the wider one of public power. He was a thoroughly self-made man – he never went to college, and worked his way up to head of the American Motor Corporation, which as they said at the time was fourth among the Big Three car companies. He then ran for governor of Michigan, and won.  Despite the Church’s residual prejudices, he fought racism vigorously in public life and supported the civil rights movement honorably. At the same time, he was a grandee of the Church, in every way a pattern of dignity and rectitude. (His uncle, also a Mexican colonist, had been the first president of what’s now Brigham Young University.) But with all that, you wouldn’t quite call him part of the American elite. The deliquescent ease with which his presidential candidacy dissolved in 1968 (his support melted away like Utah snow when he said he’d been “brainwashed” over Vietnam) indicated that the truly powerful felt no special closeness to him. He ended his career as Nixon’s secretary of urban development which in that administration was like a chauffeur pensioned off to polish hubcaps when he can no longer drive.

If you want to know what an American patrician looks like, cast an eye instead on George H. W. Bush: Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, son of a senator and grandson of an arms salesman. How different from the Romneys! He was Gumby-postured and slouchy; he spoke like Bertie Wooster; he wore unpressed suits in the style of 1955, and he got blind drunk every day by 3 PM. (So it was rumored in Washington. He was careful to start press conferences and wars before noon.)   He didn’t have to prove anything to any higher class, because there was no higher class. He could just be who he was, although what that was in a deeper-than-sartorial sense he was never sure.  (Unfortunately, as a politician he was forced to pander to the lower classes, which caused him no end of trouble, as he proved terrible at it.  His apparently smug son George W. was actually much more insecure, probably accentuated by his eschewal of hooch, which served him well – he empathized with the jitters of the unwashed Yahoos, and could talk their language.)

Are these things clothes, even? They don't have pinstripes.

Mitt Romney is nothing like that. Just watch. He’s stiff. He’s uncertain. He combs his hair too closely and his suits seem to have been dipped in Superglue. He moves like someone who just got his body for Christmas, but lost the instruction manual.  Persuaded to wear unfamiliar jeans on the campaign trail in order to “humanize” himself, he keeps glancing down uneasily as if he’s really naked and they just haven’t told him yet. His robotic demeanor has nothing to do with the hauteur of “aristocracy.”  Iit’s the checked hyper-caution of someone watching his own every move and trying to be what he’s not. He’s impersonating a member of an elite that hasn’t let him in. As a devout Mormon leader he’s obliged to wear special underwear, certifying he and his genitalia are secretly sacred to the Lord. These antiquated garments keep showing in the imagination, faint creases through his shellacked clothes, and they seem like the most natural part of him. The rest is all costume, and it’s not cut to his size.

Mitt Romney’s father George remained  in and of the West, as Nick Carraway would say in Gatsby – in that abode of American individualism very different from the class-bound, class-defined East Coast. He knew his limits and by and large he stuck to them. (Michigan, for Carraway, would have been amply West enough.)  Mitt sought out the East; he came to Harvard; he stayed in Boston; and it’s fairly obvious this exotic Mormon with his strange skivvies never quite fit in. He still doesn’t fit in. He’s comfortable in a simple corporate world where status comes from money — but not in the world of class, that other ghost-world that persists and underlies it, made out of memories, of phrases registered and gestures half-remembered, where people are judged by a numinous quality of accommodating, of knowing how things are done or are undone, of understanding how life is woven out of signs and one must signal back to be a part of it. In his hardened carapace of fake skin, he sees the seamless world of the social but it can’t reach him.   He’s lost and no longer at ease there, not recognizing the looks on people’s faces, smiling when he ought to sigh.

Poor Mitt. He’s a prisoner of the persistence of class in American life. It’s the thing nobody talks about but everybody has to understand.

Maybe the real insecurity of his church is actually similar — I mean, the reason they spend so much money to “defend marriage”: they know the memory that shadows them in American society, the mark of their exclusion from the class system, is that they were off the map on marriage before, and now they must be plus royaliste que le roi.   Still, it’s Mitt who’s suffering right now from the paradox of class. His inability to comprehend it is destroying the political career he spent his adulthood trying to buy.

It’s sad he keeps getting confused with an “aristocrat”: that only makes things worse.   Maybe he’d be happier off in the simpler past, in that long-lost Mexico colony where each hut had bedrooms for eight wives, in the vanished century and the arid hills.  Somebody should ask him. Rick Santorum?

“I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others”

Haugen

The legislature of Washington (the state, not the capital) in the US will vote soon to become the seventh state recognizing same-sex marriage. The deciding vote will come from State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, who announced her commitment yesterday, after long deliberation. Here is what she said:

“For several weeks now, I have heard from the people of my district. They’ve shared what’s in their hearts and minds.

“I have received many letters, emails, phone calls, very heartfelt, from both sides of the issue. I’ve also received a number of very negative comments from both sides.

“For some people, this is a simple issue. I envy them. It has not been simple or easy for me.

“To some degree, this is generational. Years ago I took exception to my parents’ beliefs on certain social issues, and today my children take exception to some of mine. Times change, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I think we should all be uncomfortable sometime. None of us knows everything, and it’s important to have our beliefs questioned. Only one being in this world is omniscient, and it’s not me.

“I have very strong Christian beliefs, and personally I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others. I stopped judging people and try to live by the Golden Rule. This is part of my decision. I do not believe it is my role to judge others, regardless of my personal beliefs. It’s not always easy to do that. For me personally, I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That is what I believe, to this day.

“But this issue isn’t about just what I believe. It’s about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I. It’s about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed.

“For as long as I have been alive, living in my country has been about having the freedom to live according to our own personal and religious beliefs, and having people respect that freedom.

“Not everyone will agree with my position. I understand and respect that. I also trust that people will remember that we need to respect each other’s beliefs. All of us enjoy the benefits of being Americans, but none of us holds a monopoly on what it means to be an American. Ours is truly a big tent, and while the tent may grow and shrink according to the political winds of the day, it should never shrink when it comes to our rights as individuals.

“Do I respect people who feel differently? Do I not feel they should have the right to do as they want? My beliefs dictate who I am and how I live, but I don’t see where my believing marriage is between a man and a woman gives me the right to decide that for everyone else.

“I’ve weighed many factors in arriving at this decision, and one of them was erased when the legislation heard today included an amendment to clearly provide for the rights of a church to choose not to marry a couple if that marriage contradicts the church’s view of its teachings. That’s important, and it helped shape my decision.

“My preference would be to put this issue on the ballot and give all Washingtonians the opportunity to wrestle with this issue, to search their hearts as I have, and to make the choice for themselves. But I do not know that there are the votes to put it to a ballot measure. So, forced to make a choice, my choice is to allow all men and women in our state to enjoy the same privileges that are so important in my life. I will vote in favor of marriage equality.

“I know this announcement makes me the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage. That’s neither here nor there. If I were the first or the seventh or the 28th vote, my position would not be any different. I happen to be the 25th because I insisted on taking this much time to hear from my constituents and to sort it out for myself, to reconcile my religious beliefs with my beliefs as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy.

“This is the right vote and it is the vote I will cast when this measure comes to the floor.”

Nigeria: No marriage here, move along please

I was for it because I was against it: Nigeria's Senate President David Mark

A Nigerian Senate committee held hearings Monday on the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill.” This product of moral panic would provide criminal penalties for engaging in, solemnizing, or “aiding and abetting” a same-sex marriage — all quite unnecessary, since Nigeria’s colonial-era sodomy law already penalizes homosexual conduct sternly.

Nigeria’s politics often have a slightly mad quality. The hearing was no exception, since some participants seemed to have no idea what the bill was about, believing they were there to oppose a proposal for same-sex marriage, not support a ban against it. The Catholic Church mobilized in this addled fashion; Catholic Women of Nigeria (CWON) claimed it sent women from “36 states of the federation” who “converged in Abuja to march to the assembly.”

Speaking in a telephone interview, the CWON’s national president, Mrs. Felicia Onyaibo, said the women will this morning match to the National Assembly to hand in a letter of protest to the Senate President, David Mark, condemning the initiative, and urge him to discard such bill, as it is not in the interest of the nation and dignity of marriage.

“We are also extending invitation to the male counterparts to support us in this protest. They can join us in the protest today so that we can help fight this ill initiative, which is aimed at destroying marriage values and its dignity,” she said.

Other news stories lent credit to the same notion. But no one has offered a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Nigeria; no one in Nigeria has suggested it. Imaginative Christian soldiers, these souls are girding their loins and going off to war against a figment, a fiction, a ghost.  As a statement by bill opponents explained a month ago,

We as human rights defenders are aware that not a single gay group has asked for the right to marry. Our advocacy is not directed at that.  We are advocating for tolerance and respect for everyone irrespective of his or her sex, gender, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and gender identity, etc.

The spectral ability of same-sex marriage to induce a panic even in the absence of anyone proposing it has been repeatedly shown worldwide, and is worth deeper consideration. In this case, the bill would be largely a symbolic insult to the same-sex loving population, but one with practical ramifications — a bullying threat to public activism, and an affirmation that they have no place in Nigeria’s diverse array of communities and cultures.

Meanwhile, at Monday’s meeting of the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, opponents of the bill were given only two slots to speak, while proponents (that is, opponents of non-existent same-sex marriage) were given many more. The Senate President appeared at the hearing and “openly rejected the proposal for same sex marriage in the country,” which nobody proposed:

“It is incomprehensible to contemplate on same sex marriage. I cannot understand it. I cannot be a party to it. There are enough men and women to marry each other. The whole idea is the importation of foreign culture, but this one would be a freedom too many. We cannot allow our tradition and value system eroded.

“It is offensive. It is repugnant. I will preach against it and we must stand up to reject same sex marriages in Nigeria. I do not think any religion support this. I don’t know where this whole idea of same sex marriage comes from.”

The Daily Times notes that the “senate president’s disposition on the bill is a strong indication of its fate. It suggests that the bill, which has failed at two consecutive sessions in the House of Representatives, may finally be passed into law by the Senate.”  But the paper adds, “the little population of public homosexuals in Nigeria – with help from the international community – have been able to put up a strong resistance to the promulgation of any law directly against the act [of same-sex marriage].”

Aside from the question of international help, of which there’s been not so much, this is true. Activists in Nigeria managed to quash the early bill in 2006 -7 essentially on their own, by organizing, appearing at hearings, and speaking out when everybody believed they would be too intimidated to appear or to raise their voices. Courage to them as they face the same ruckus and rhodomontade for another round.

Rogue bishop evicts nuns

Archbishop Nolbert Kunonga in full antichrist drag

Really, this is only for the sake of the headline.  Nolbert Kunonga, the onetime Anglican bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe, was excommunicated four years ago for sermons that incited violence on behalf of Robert Mugabe’s ruling party. Calling Mugabe a “prophet of God” helped him get the police on his side, and he seized the Harare cathedral and a good many church resources in the process.  And he managed to find a highfalutin excuse for the expropriation, attaching himself to the anti-homosexuality brigade in the Anglican church.   Thus he is not a thug and thief backed by a dictator’s power, in his own eyes and those of his adherents; he’s a persecuted crusader against perversion.

He now claims to be an archbishop, and therefore the peer of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The latter is visiting Zimbabwe next week. Since he is likely to express some animadversions against the Mugabe regime’s violence, Kunonga naturally objects: “He is coming to represent neo-colonialism. He is coming to lobby for homosexuality.”

The Anglican Church in Africa is of course in origin a colonial church, and as long as Kunonga wears some version of its robes he too can be called part of a neo-colonial system; people who live in glass cathedrals shouldn’t throw scones.  The homophobia he spews is equally a funded product of forces outside Africa, spawned by US right-wing donors promoting an Anglican schism.   The folks abroad who back Peter Akinola, Nigeria’s rabid prelate, have so far not openly embraced Kunonga, because his affiliations with a dictator are a little too toxic for their tastes.  But he’s the logical embodiment of their ambitions.

Meanwhile, Kunonga’s latest move has been to grab control of a church orphanage — undoubtedly a donor magnet — and kick out the nuns who ran it.

Sister Dorothy, one of the three nuns in charge of the care of orphans at the Shearly Cripps home near Murewa, [said that] local officials and followers of Kunonga told the orphanage staff they were under orders to leave because they “support homosexuality.” … Local officials in this longtime Mugabe party stronghold showed an unsigned court eviction order when the caregivers were bathing, feeding and giving medication to children last week, she said … Visitors to the orphanage have since reported that children appeared not to have received regular meals and it was not clear whether qualified replacement staff were at the historic Shearly Cripps home.

Come on; kids don’t need food, they need heterosexuality. And obviously those weren’t real nuns, just a bunch of pederastic drag queens. Having shut down the local branch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, what will Kunonga do next? Such a poster boy for traditional morality surely has some new defense of virtue up his capacious sleeve. Anglican schismatics everywhere will be breathlessly waiting.