Write it down: General Giap and Robert McNamara

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led North Vietnam’s armed forces to victory in its wars with France and the United States, died today in Hanoi, at the probable age of 102. I have little to say in praise of military men, or for that matter of the unfree Vietnamese regime he helped to build (and which sidelined him circumspectly in later life). But this man defeated two great powers — one of them the greatest power in the world at the time, at any time. No other people struggling for liberation from colonialism had to fight so many masters, so long, against such overwhelming odds. Whatever else can be said of Giap, he contributed to human freedom in his terrible century.

His death reminded me of his counterpart Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense during the war, perhaps his most brilliant yet somehow stunted opponent. McNamara resigned his office in 1968, announcing it even before the Tet debacle. He was in despair over the war, yet he could never bring himself to denounce it fully, or, over the wasteland of ensuing years, to evaluate his role in moral rather than technical terms. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote, a quarter century after; even then no one quite knew whether he thought it wrong to lose the war or to lose all the other things we lost. In 1997, at 81, McNamara returned to Vietnam for a conference bringing together US and Vietnamese strategists from the conflict. (He met for an hour with Giap, who delivered a propaganda monologue and declined conversation.) The New York Times published a long article on his sojourn — his power walks through Hanoi at dawn, his persistent refusal to countenance certain questions:

Feelings were not on McNamara’s agenda. ”That’s not what I’m focusing on,” he declared before the trip. ”I may not tell you how I’m feeling.” And he never did, even when questioned about the thoughts that were running through his head as he walked around this city, among these people. ”I try to separate human emotions from the larger issues of human welfare,” he replied. ”Human welfare requires that we avoid conflict. I try not to let my human emotions interfere with efforts to resolve conflict.”

McNamara (center) in a cabinet meeting with Lyndon Johnson (left), 1968

McNamara (center) in a cabinet meeting with Lyndon Johnson (left), 1968

There’s one part of the article that’s stuck with me ever since. McNamara and several US colleagues

agreed that casualties did not seem to weigh heavily with North Vietnam, either in diplomacy or military planning. ”Was there any consideration of the human cost in Hanoi as they made these decisions?” McNamara asked. ”Is the loss of life ever a factor?” He noted that while 58,000 Americans had been killed, the most authoritative estimate — in a September 1995 article by General Uoc [Nguyen Dinh Uoc, head of the Institute of Military History] — put the number of Vietnamese deaths at 3.6 million. ”It’s equivalent to 27 million Americans!” McNamara exclaimed. …

”Were you influenced by that loss of life?” he asked [veteran Vietnamese leaders] in the conference. ”Did it move you to probe the negotiations?” Considering that a man responsible for so many casualties was accusing his enemies of caring less, the Vietnamese responded with exceeding courtesy. At first, when McNamara asked [former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach] the question over lunch, “the answer was, They paid no attention whatever to the casualties,” McNamara reported triumphantly. ”What I thought was — and I was wrong — that a very high rate of casualties would lead them to be interested in trying to find a less costly way of achieving their objectives — i.e., negotiations.” But all he had got was the standard line that the cause was worth any sacrifice, based on the often-quoted mantra of Ho Chi Minh: ”There is nothing more precious than freedom and independence.” 

McNamara found these values, this stubborn insistence, baffling. And this leads to the passage that despite all my efforts I can’t forget:

To explain this to himself, he remembered seeing, during World War II in China, a worker fall and get crushed by a huge roller flattening earth for an airfield. The Chinese laborers laughed. There were some people to whom life was not the same as to us, he reasoned as he stood one evening in the hotel lobby. ”We’d better understand that and write it down.”

This is the man who calculates that he killed more than three and a half million women, men, and children. He is surprised that others let him kill them. Those people don’t see life the same way he does. He doesn’t laugh, he just acts, and measures others’ morality by observing their reactions. We’d better understand that and write it down.

Thunder on the left

Last month Karma Chavez of WORT FM in Wisconsin did an hour-long interview with me about various things LGBT and global: Iraq, Iran, homonationalism, neocolonialism, ethical activism, Peter Tatchell, and other usual and less-usual subjects all came up. Here’s the whole thing. You have to skip over the scree-scraw noises at the beginning where a failed attempt to Skype me — I was in a remote foreign land — led to an explosively resounding reverb effect. Thunder on the left, the Romans thought, was a sign that Jupiter was pleased.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

This is part 3 of a three-part post. Parts 1 and 2 are above.

Campaign poster for Proposition K, a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, US

Professionally, we prefer victims:  or, the rescue trap

Does human rights – the Western human rights movement  — respect human autonomy?

I don’t just mean “sexual autonomy” now. I mean autonomy that encompasses and goes beyond that, the power of everyone to speak for themselves, represent themselves, be the selves or unselves they desire.

What a silly question. Of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

And yet.

Other people ask the questions better than me. Teju Cole, for instance, countered the save-Africa panic churned up by the Kony 2012 viral video by naming and shaming the “White Savior Industrial Complex” and its attentions to the continent. He doesn’t single out the human rights industry, but it’s implicit in the way he describes social movements doing it for themselves:

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. … [A] nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. …

… How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. … But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. …

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. … There is certainly no “bridge character,” [Nicholas] Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Women in fuel protest, Lagos, Nigeria, January 2012 (Photo: AP/Sunday Alamba)

It’s interesting how often Nick Kristof serves as symbolic figure for folks who want to critique the white savior complex. But he sets himself up for it. His telegenic stunt activism – live-tweeting his raid on a brothel to “rescue” women, congratulating himself on his flirtations with peril, all with a cool eye on divine Reputation and its Valkyrie paparazzi – lays out a seductive pattern for the type. (He comes up for approving mention in The Unfinished Revolution too.)  Laura Agustin, as always, is incisive:

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. … The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. …

Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Placard from sex workers' human rights march, March 2012, Cape Town, South Africa

The temptations of this kind of self-aggrandizing self-delusion are all the stronger in international human rights work, which carries both the armor of moral impeccability and the obligation of representation. Its job is carrying stories across borders; it takes on representing people in absentia, a strange, dangerous task.  Who’d be surprised if, in the process, its practitioners begin to acquire a creeping indifference to the wills and voices of those they represent?

Human Rights Watch is not overcome by those impulses, but it’s certainly not immune either. It used to say, in its self-descriptions, that it provided a “voice for the voiceless.” This phrase, so malignly common among those who work and talk across borders, neglected the fact that the movements and activists and even victims it supported usually had plenty of decibels at their disposal, and could scream with the best of them; it was just that the West preferred not to listen. But if you say that about yourself enough, you start acting that way, around the edges.

The effects showed when, for years, rights activists who were recipients of HRW’s prestigious annual award – articulate spokesmen at home — arrived in the US, only to be handed the speech the organization had written for them. They showed in a film screened at one of the Human Rights Watch gala annual dinners, full to the gills with gazillionaires: a very nice production about the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem was that, as the minutes wore on, you realized not a single person from the DRC was speaking. You saw them them in footage, interviewed by an HRW researcher, who diligently took notes; but the soundtrack and the voiceovers drowned them out. The organization did’t think them relevant: They cannot represent themselvesthey must be represented. Instead, HRW talked to itself about its own efforts in the DRC. It felt like a cross between Heart of Darkness and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Oh, Krapp

Some shows up in The Unfinished Revolution, as well. Although it calls itself “Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights,” two thirds of the book’s chapters are by present or former HRW staff. And with two articles on Afghanistan, you’d think an actual Afghan could have been found to write perhaps one. It’s hard not to read in this an unconscious confidence that the organization knows best about the world and its countries, better than the countries’ citizens do. As the old Oxford doggerel went:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am master of this college;
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

For far too long information in the international human rights movement has flowed from periphery to center, from Congo and Cairo and Buenos Aires and Bangladesh to London, Geneva, New York. Only there, once edited and published in the capitals, did it mature into Knowledge. And there it stayed, little bartered back and no returning current. Sometimes it festered, and the gangrene of arrogance set in.

shut up, he explained

I’m certainly not calling this universal, in Human Rights Watch or anywhere else. Nor is it some sinister, deliberate plot to deprive others of their voices and agency. It’s rather a danger built into the practice of representation, the art and politics – Faustian with a touch of Edgar Bergen – of speaking for somebody else. The exercise of lending vividness to the lives of others tends to shale into the assumption that one knows what they want, and what’s best for them. You get more used to their desperation than their autonomy. You start seeing victims even when they’re not there.

There is a less tendentious dimension to this problem as well – one not just about the problems of practicing politics in a still-imperial world, but about democratic politics itself, and its discontents. A line of thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, and John Gray, has emphasized that a coherent liberalism, unlike most philosophies, can imply no single vision of the Good Life to which members of a community should aspire. The old moral philosopher’s vision of existence cut to one dress pattern is motheaten now. Modern democratic society must embrace the maximum diversity of life projects without tilting its overt or intangible preference toward any.

Human rights, which expressly aims only to set out basic ground rules for the functioning of political societies, in some ways models this modern claim to neutrality in values. Yet maintaining the pose of studied impartiality is particularly hard both for communities and for individuals accustomed to subjecting not just acts, but lives, to moral scrutiny. And political life, as well as the practice of rights protection itself, keeps slipping back over into an idea that freedom implies a positive commitment, is about you living the life I like for you, one fulfilled not just in itself but by certain external standards. Some versions say: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which means wearing gray pajamas, saluting the Leader, and bathing in cold bilgewater every morning at 5. But it hardly has to be that extreme. More commonly they tell us: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which is the life of political struggle and engagement. Or the life of appreciating Beauty and Art. Or the uxorious life of family with someone whose genitals differ from your own.  Or the life which certainly does not include selling your sexual services online.

What kind of self-correction can we build into human rights movements — especially with the moral exemption from critique they often claim — to keep them understanding victimhood as an exceptional breach rather than a definitional condition of people’s lives; to keep them respecting autonomy in all parts of all people’s lives, including that most charged and symbol-laden sphere, sex?

Me, I have no answer. In fact, the best self-correction I know is asking questions.

However. This has been as long as a human rights report; and since reports end with recommendations, I’d feel amiss if I didn’t offer a couple, at least to Human Rights Watch. Here goes:

  • Human Rights Watch needs to work much, much harder on integrating thematic issues across all its work, so that no wasted opportunity like the untruthful, unfinished Unfinished Revolution occurs again. And donors have a role to play in this. You need to support the LGBT Rights Program, and other thematic divisions, because their work is vital. But supporters who care about sexual rights should press HRW to make it part of all its relevant reporting. Before you sign the check, ask HRW’s leadership to tell you in concrete terms what they are doing to change both the mindset and the structure of the organization, to implement and cement that integration. If you’re going to show you think the work is important, so should they.
  • I’ve got no idea whether, after years of being dissed, sex worker movements are really interested anymore in nicely asking the mainstream organizations to recognize their rights to bodily autonomy and livelihood. A sex worker picking up The Unfinished Revolution couldn’t be blamed for saying, Why bother? But in principle, one should press the organization to do the right thing. And I recommend bypassing the lawyers and their obfuscations, and going to Ken Roth and the leadership directly. If anybody still cares to make an effort, the World AIDS Conference is coming up, and Washington is just a short train ride from New York. This might be a good time to demand a meeting.

Sexual rights are too important to get screwed again.

Lesbian Avengers flyer, US

N.B. This piece draws on the draft of the volume I’m finishing, tentatively titled Out of Here: Sex and Rights in the World. If you like it, look to buy the book when it’s published. If you don’t like it, buy the book anyway and deface the margins.

Cruise control: Gay pirates in the Caribbean, the economics of it all, and Tony Blair

Two men in a boat: A tale of a fateful trip

An Atlantis Cruises ship packed with 2,000 partying gay men pulled into port in the Caribbean nation of Dominica Wednesday morning.  Later it left, minus two of them. They were in the jail at Roseau, waiting to be arraigned on Thursday morning.

Apparently a taxi driver glimpsed something untoward.  He later said, “I did not know that it was a gay boat, but when I reach [the dock] I realized it was. We were struggling to get some business but when I gazed to the ship I saw two men engaged in sexual activities on the balcony of the ship. It raised our anger here.” Police Chief Cyril Carrette told the local press,

“We got a report that there was an unlawful act going on aboard the cruise ship which was in port. Police were dispatched and the persons were taken to the police headquarters where charges have been laid against them. The act of buggery was committed and there are witnesses saw this thing happening live.”

Carette: I cover the waterfront

Dominica, like the rest of Britain’s onetime Caribbean colonies, inherited English legislation against “buggery.”  As revised in 1998, its law punishes the crime (defined as “sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person”) with up to 10 years in prison.  Carrette says police reduced the charge to indecent exposure because the process of proving buggery “is a much longer one so we want justice to be swift to have these people leave our shore.”

Now, this little scandal (not so little, of course, for the two guys, who have legal fees, a ruined vacation, and eventual airfare home to deal with) has actually been a long time brewing.  Dominica News Online (DNO) reported way back in early January that the queers were coming:

 A gay website is offering to one of its lucky clients what is described as a  “lavish and exciting vacation “ to the Caribbean, with Dominica as one of the destinations. According to the site massageM4M.com, the world’s largest gay male massage directory, the  “All-Gay Caribbean Cruise”will include $1,000 airfare credit on American Airlines and will include destinations such as Grenada, Barbados, Dominica and St. Barths.

Cub reporter needs a tender hand

A journalist’s life is hard, and despite the benefits of a balmy tropical climate on the one hand, and the disincentives of a repressive law on the other, you get kinks in the neck from all that Googling that demand relief. Hence in winter the budding Jimmy Olsen‘s fancy turns to gay massage; and this whole mess is the result. Let the cruise lines pay for journalists in their destination countries to receive wholesome heterosexual backrubs weekly, tipping covered, and perhaps such brouhahas can be averted in the future.

There was plenty of indignation to spare when the boat came in; while “busloads of only male passengers have been seen taking brief tours around the capital,” a “reinforced police presence” protected the dock. “The ship evoked mixed reaction from observers who noted that ‘only men’ were disembarking  … One hair braider told DNO that she was ‘mentally disturbed, first time I am seeing that in my life.’” (I assume she meant the sex, not the homosociality.) But not everybody was outraged.

Another taxi driver who also witnessed the act said he was not in any way disturbed; in fact he seized the opportunity to solicit tours while others were engrossed in it. “The people it disturbed were the ones who stood looking at it. People stood there looking at it, if you don’t want to see it then don’t look.”

He said he will not support calls for the government to prevent them from coming to the island as there are “many gay people right here in Dominica why should I have a problem with a gay boat?”

“All I want is to make my money I don’t worry with those people. We know they are gay and we know that they are doing it, we know those things are happening in Dominica so I don’t see how this should be a problem.”

That’s progressive capitalism in action.

More seriously: the roots of this mess reach back even further. Periodic uproars over gay cruises have become a minor feature of Caribbean politics, and an impeding factor in domestic activists’ struggles to scrap the colonial buggery provisions — impeding as far as they reinforce the notion that the homosexuals, rather than the laws, come from outside.

The cruise crises date at least as far back as 1998, when Cayman Islands authorities refused permission for a ship carrying 900 gay men to dock. The Tourism Minister said that “Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behaviour expected of visitors to the Cayman Islands, so we regrettably cannot offer our hospitality.” The Caymans, of course, are an actual British colony (or British Overseas Territory); fourteen such political droppings of the white man’s burden still dot the seas, a state of affairs, when one remembers Britain’s history of exploitation, as odorous as turds left by Colonel Blimp. The islands have only severely limited self-government, and this show of morality was also in some measure a defiant exercise of pseudo-sovereignty. Since most of those on board the spurned vessel were Americans, the U.S.’s richest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, got in the act. They called on the High Post-Colonizer, Tony Blair, to intervene.

Blair was notoriously metrosexual, until awed a few years later into imitating the strutting, sweating, crotch-padded masculinity of George W. Bush. Thinking him a sensitive and kindred spirit, and unprepared for his future evolution into a missile-sporting Marlboro Man, UK gays had balloted for him in large numbers. Now Blair’s newly-elected government was stung to anger: how dare a mere dependency offend a domestic constituency so vital to his votes! He demanded the territories get rid of their British sodomy laws. Eventually he made this a condition of restoring British citizenship to their populations (Margaret Thatcher had stripped the colonies of those rights as an anti-immigration measure in 1981).

(L) Blair as they thought he was; (R) Blair as he wanted to be

I can’t think of anything more idiotic he could have done under the circumstances. His high-handed posing proved as catastrophic in the Caribbean as David Cameron‘s similar threat last year to tie aid to LGBT rights was across Africa. It set in stone the regressive terms for talking about gay people across the region that have persisted in politics till today.  Nobody from then on would think of the sodomy laws as colonial impositions; instead, it was their possible repeal that would reek of submission to the colonizer.  The Caymans’ Community Affairs Minister said the islands had a “mandate from god” to keep the legislation. The rage extended beyond the actual colonies to countries jealous of their independence. In the Bahamas, a few months later, protesters greeted a gay cruise with jeers and threats, furious that their government had permitted it to land. And Blair’s actions also cemented the idea that homosexuality was a contagious vice of visitors, an incursion of corruption.  “This foreign issue has sensitized us to the urgent need to attack the problem,” one protester in the Bahamas said. “The foreign homosexual problem can only add to ours.” Sex had become both a mark of nationality and a register of sovereignty.

The way it used to be

You know: there’s something rotten in Britain. The United Kingdom in the last twenty years has become abode and asylum for a particular brand of lunatic activism, both among its citizen-activists and, more ominously, its politicians. Nowhere else is personal messianism applauded so much or given such rampant rein, with such utter indifference to its disastrous consequences on those it claims to speak for and save. In the LGBT sphere, eidolons like Peter Tatchell or Gay Middle East hold court over small cliques of uncritically devoted fans; but in the larger world of Little Britain as a whole you have the Nick Cohens and the Johann Haris and countless more, all persuaded that in a world warped by barbarous clitoris-slicing Africans, menaced by mad Arabs bent on a caliphate in Clapham, it’s the duty of white British men to save civilization and, heroically pathetic as the Little Match Girl, keep the faint flame of humane values alive. Teju Cole has written brilliantly about the White Savior Industrial Complex, which he treats as headquartered in the moralist, manifestly destined precincts of God’s City on the Hill, the Great Republic: “I deeply respect American sentimentality,” he says, “the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” But in America hippohood is an explicit and historic part of the national ideology, out there for critique. In Britain these days it’s simply taken for granted as a basic term of morality and action, insidious and silent. In America, you could argue with credibility that G.W. Bush’s sense of Christian mission was evil in itself. In the UK, even many lefties treated Tony Blair’s messianic tendencies as a mitigating factor, a virtue inhibiting or excusing some other, numinous vice. In the US the hippos are open targets.  In the UK, the hippos are us.

what Tony Blair doesn't understand

Yes, I blame Blair. Dean Acheson said famously, back in the American Century, that “Great Britain had lost an empire, and failed to find a role.”  After years of prime ministers floundering to fill the gap, Tony figured out the way. The UK would corner the market on moral leadership. It would rescue a world it couldn’t rule. America would provide the guns, Colonel Blimp the Bibles. At the previous century’s turn, Hillaire Belloc had caught the essence of colonialism in a devastating couplet:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

Substitute “morality” for the Maxim Gun, and you pretty much have Blair’s version of a postcolonial world. And it still scans.

The division of labor was imperfect — there are plenty of Bibles in the US, and in Iraq, the UK ended up providing considerable ammunition too. But, much more avidly and articulately than Bush, Blair limned an utterly insincere picture of the Baghdad war as a rational, humanist crusade, Erasmus against the Saracens.

As with every other endeavor he crowned with his peculiar brand of charming unsuccess, Blair’s vision was unctuously persuasive even as, by every practical measure, it failed. His renewal of national purpose has seeped into the collective consciousness despite all the misery it brought in train. It informs — or infects — the activism of amateurs as much as it doomed the targets Blair bombed. Britannia used to rule the waves; now it saves the ruled. Whether they like it or not.

But I digress.

As years passed, the lines hardened on both sides in the cruise ship conflicts. Foreigners seemed more and more convinced the real problem with Caribbean sodomy laws was that they affected foreigners, not just nationals. Anybody could wind up in the primitive clink, for God’s sake!

“We’ve continued to put pressure on these islands because we’ve received reports of gay travelers feeling harassed in certain places,” said Augustin Merlo, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

And, of course, the notion grew that the islands were wilfully rejecting tourist money — which in turn could provide an additional threat to pressure them. After all, Third World countries come cheap. “We’re professionals with money to spend,” a passenger on the ship barred from the Caymans said. “If they don’t want our money, Jamaica and Belize are just itching for it.” (Were they? Really?)

Yesterday Queerty.com carried a blip about the Dominica arrests, and if you look at the comments field, you see these coupled sentiments of entitlement on full display (along with, I hasten to add, more nuanced reactions). One angry American writes:

The morons in Dominica can’t even feed themselves or control violence on their cesspool island, and they’re worrying about a boy liking another boy or a girl liking another girl? LOL. You’d think they’d spend their scant resources on something more productive. Homosexuals around the world need to start taking WHATEVER actions are necessary to secure their human rights. …  And shame on Celebrity Cruises and Atlantis for giving support to such a disgusting, backward society like Dominica or letting Dominican authorities on board the ship. And by the way, if those gay Americans are sent to jail, the judge, jailers, and politicians (and their families) that send them there … should be attacked and people all over the world should attack Dominica citizens in their countries. Start with embassy personnel.

Open war!  Well, you know, Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada for less. You have to be struck, though, by how such a racist rant exactly parallels the reasons for not tolerating homosexuals heard throughout the Caribbean. They fit together like Yin and Yang, hand and glove, penis and — whatever you prefer. The argument about “scant resources,” other priorities, for instance? Here’s a letter from one reasonable homophobe to a Jamaican newspaper:

When one considers the deep and entrenched problems of poverty, dispossession, joblessness, the abominable atrocities against children, the plight of the elderly, among other day-to-day abuses, the revocation of Jamaica’s Buggery Law could by no means be considered to be high on the list of priorities.

And the bit about physically attacking those disgusting furriners who cause us so much trouble? Here’s an editorial from Belize:

And you know why the homosexuals feel that victory is within their wicked grasp if they fight hard enough? It is because of powerful people like the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. That man is sick. He deserves to be flogged.

It’s not just that the two sides deserve one another. The two discourses are one another. They made each other, in each other’s image. The neocolonial insistence and the anti-colonial resistance keep reproducing each other reflexively, plagiarizing one another’s fears and mirroring one another’s language, as if in a fantasy by Fanon or a farce by Genet. It’s a perfect deadlock, North and South caught and copulating in a wrestler’s hold; and without a way to break out of it, to split up the wrangling incest of these opposed but mutually reinforcing views, nothing new will be said, and nothing will change. As  usual, moreover, it’s the actual LGBT people in the Caribbean who are caught in the infinitesimal space in the middle, stifled in the process, like a kitten in the marriage bed.

I certainly haven’t got a way out. One thing that has to happen, though, is to think through not just the myths and fears but the material realities of what gay tourism means in the Caribbean. And that, as always, means looking at the economics.

Gaycation: Sunsets and sodomy

The gay tourism industry is always touting how much money it has. The latest figure I saw, from “leading global LGBT marketing specialist Out Now Consulting,” is that the “global market potential of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market is set to reach almost USD$165 billion in total spending on leisure travel in 2012.” (That’s three iterations of market in a sentence: they’re obsessed.) I don’t know whether “potential” means the queers can spend this much — for instance, by going without food —  or they will. Still, it’s a lot of moolah, and you’re supposed to imagine it flouring down like manna on those sunny little islands full of poor people who don’t eat food either.  How nice!

Naturally, it’s not that way. And the cruise segment of the travel industry is particularly egregious in not showering wealth on the touristees.  In fact, compared to other forms of tourism, cruises — gay or straight — bring very little benefit to the shores where they land. Most obviously, the travellers sleep on ship; so local hotels are cut out of the deal. Beyond that, though, cruise lines have increasingly worked to focus the tourists’ spending on board, rather than diffusing it outward. Stays in any one port are short. The beautiful locales shrivel to so much background. One academic paper observes,

Although the cruise industry initially touted exotic ports of call as a principal thrust of its tourism experience, increasingly marketing campaigns focus on the on-board amenities … “with the cruise ship itself providing the holiday experience rather than any destinations to be visited” (Ubersax, 1996). This shift from floating hotels to floating resorts increases the incentives for the industry to maximize the time (and money) cruisers spend on board and minimize their time in port. As such, cruise ship companies are in direct competition with local communities for the expenditures of cruise tourists.

Chances to tour off-ship in ports of call are tightly limited; usually the cruise lines contract with specific businesses onshore, and get back up to 40% of the take in return. So there’s not much random spending on the locals. The same study estimates that in Costa Rica, “cruise tourists spend just under $100 each during their stay.” Ross Klein, author of the insightful Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas, found that spending by cruise passengers in port communities halved from 1994 to 2002.

Aboard this tiny ship: The telltale liner in Dominica

Most gay cruise companies don’t own their own ships; they charter from other companies. (The Atlantis Cruises trip to Dominica was actually on a Celebrity Cruises liner, creating some confusion in the country about who was in charge.) This is cheaper in the long run but creates a short-term need to recoup the rent, so they’re even more likely to squeeze customers into reducing the amount they spend onshore.

Governments try to get back some money for their countries from cruise ships’ berthing, principally by charging port fees — usually a sum assessed per passenger. Partly it’s supposed to compensate for lost hotel revenues, partly for the expenses of docking. It’s a minimal amount, but cruise lines resist it bitterly. According to Klein,  “Carnival Cruise Lines began a boycott of Grenada in November 1999 over a $1.50 per passenger charge [think about that: $1.50] the island is required to collect under a World Bank-sponsored loan for a region-wide garbage reception capability. .. Ironically, Carnival pays the fee in other ports. Grenada apparently is a reminder to others thinking of raising port charges.”

You can grasp, then, why states tend to see cruise ships as probably the least profitable, least desirable kind of tourism imaginable. And gay cruise ships … well, there you go.

Cruise ships embody, of course, a huge accumulation of privilege. When they pull into port, towering in white solitude over the neighborhoods, they look powerful as crenellated  castles. Theres lots of money in those heights. It may not seem so much to an American wallet; checking the Atlantis website, I found a weeklong cruise — 3000 gay men over Halloween — priced from $600 to $2300 ($200 in port fees  not included). The average income in Dominica, though, is $6700 a year. The cruise runs from 10% to 40% of an annual local salary. And, as we’ve shown, almost none of that goes into the country’s economy. The openings for resentment are clear.

What, though, are travelers buying for that money?  Freedom — including the freedom from normal law. Cruises thrive implicitly on the romance of extraterritoriality, the thrill of being beyond anybody’s domain. International waters seem a legendary place where, as the song says, anything goes. (To press the point, in Cole Porter’s musical, the song is sung on … a cruise ship.)  The anything-goes-ness extends, as it happens, to throwing people overboard.  There is a remarkably high incidence of people disappearing from cruise ships; the Guardian has counted 171 vanishings in the last decade. Sometimes it’s just an accident –a passenger went overboard from an Atlantis ship just last month.  Sometimes there are suspicions of foul play. In either case, unencumbered with legal obligations, the ship sails on.

It’s remarkable how cruises bring the expectation of immunity. In a listserve discussion of the Dominica case last night, someone expressed surprise that a ship in port is subject at all to local law. (Think of the commentator above raging at Atlantis Cruises for “letting Dominican authorities on board the ship.”)  In fact, when ships enter territorial waters — usually stretching 12 nautical miles from shore — national law clamps down. You wouldn’t guess that from the brochures, though.

Cruising indoors vs. cruising Atlantis: Which would you choose?

This libertarian idyll is especially appealing to gays, I think. Atlantis Cruises makes a point of shilling it on its website: “The Only Rule is There Are No Rules…. [I]n general we adhere to a simple philosophy: No one should tell you what to do on your vacation.” Post-Dominica, that looks like a recipe for a hefty lawsuit. Here, though, is where my sympathy for the two arrested guys kicks in. The dream of being both safely obscured from unfriendly judgement, and exposed to the airy world, is a very visceral gay one.  Dennis Altman wrote in the early Eighties that gay men tended to gather in dark bars with windows blacked from outside view, in order to watch porn videos that showed men having sex in forests and fields. The fantasy of openness needed the fact of seclusion. Gay cruises furnish both. The dynamics of the closet that feed this paradox are transnational enough that I bet most Caribbean gays too would pay for the same safe-but-sunny setup, if they could afford the fees. Who can blame the two men for believing what the cruise line told them?

There’s some dispute now online about whether the ship broadcast a warning that, entering Dominica’s waters, a buggery law was now in force. Some say they did.  A commenter on Queerty, though, claims that when his ship “stopped in St Lucia last year, I did not hear any warning about the fact that being gay in St Lucia was illegal from anyone at Atlantis or the cruise operator.” If the loudspeakers did say something, I suspect it was like the lists of side-effects that US prescription-drug commercials are required to include: a voiceover says sotto voce that the medicine may make your eyeballs explode, while images show kids cavorting with ponies in a flowery field. You’ve paid the cruise line for the illusion of uninterrupted freedom. Why should they spoil that by shouting out the fine print?

As of this morning, a Dominica court slapped the two men with fines of $888 US apiece, then set them free.

“Free”: the multiple meanings of that are, ultimately, the key message. The magistrate called them “rogues and vagabonds”; it’s a weighted phrase, also from ancient British law. It means masterless men, vagrants, people whose freedom has got out of hand and displaced and unhoused them. (It’s sometimes used for actors.)  While enjoying their freedom, that’s how they looked in Dominican eyes. The guys had already paid for a week’s sunlit liberty; it turned out to be a little more expensive. And it ran up against a different definition of freedom, national and political — one that, literally, made them pay.

Caught in the middle, between these clashing versions of freedom that nonetheless feed on and harden one another, are the LGBT people of Dominica and the rest of the ex-British Caribbean. They’re not yet free, while the buggery laws persist. And neither Blairesque interventions, nor the cruise-ship onslaught, nor all the international controversy over this casual arrest do anything to make them so.

Thatcher, dead, endorses gay rights

Baird and baroness in happier days: Meryl Streep will play her in the movie

John Baird, now Canada’s Foreign Minister,last made news a couple of years ago when his cat died.  The cat was named Thatcher, after an object of Baird’s admiration, and he sent friends a text message reading, “Thatcher is dead.”  As word raced through Canada’s Tory government, mourning spread, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepared a message of condolence to the British people. It took some time for Buckingham Palace to confirm that the Iron Lady was still alive, though rusting. Harper’s spokesman concluded, “If the cat wasn’t dead, I’d have killed it by now.”

Baird made news today as well, in a more congenial way, by an act of homage to another tough woman, Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s  initiative of US support for LGBT people’s human rights, announced last month, has become a model for other politicians striving to make a mark.   In a speech in London, Baird therefore took his shot at the headlines, and outlined two priorities for Canadian foreign policy: LGBT rights and religious freedom.

What’s striking about Baird’s mimicry, though, is how generally appalling his speech is, once you get beyond the gay-specific sections.   He targets the developing world — Uganda is, as is ordinary these days, his preferred negative example.  But his language is that of an increasingly illiberal interventionism, driven by the need to reshape other societies, and economies, in a pliable and useful image.  LGBT rights advocates should not be happy to find their cause mixed in with this repressive agenda.

Let’s see. Seething just beneath the surface of the speech, there’s neoliberalism:

The support for free markets and open societies will be the defining struggle of the coming decades – the United Kingdom and Canada have been partners in this great endeavour before; we are partners now, and we will be partners in the future in our common cause.

There’s state feminism, Tory style, with a nod to his late cat:

We in Canada, and in Britain, know well the Queen’s leadership and both our countries benefit from the full participation of women in all aspects of society. I think of leaders like Baroness Thatcher.

Thatcher (femme, not feline) at least fought for her own rights, but in other countries, passive women force us to go out and bomb things on their behalf:

 I am particularly proud of the role Canada has played – in concert with our NATO allies and Afghan civil society – in advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The women lucky enough to have survived NATO’s help, though, have an exciting time ahead of them: “The young Afghan girls that go to school today in Kandahar and Kabul will grow up and learn about the political tenacity of Margaret Thatcher.” The prospect of a whole generation of Afghan females, unveiled and pompadoured, proclaiming that “There is no such thing as society” must strike terror into Taliban hearts.

And, of course, there’s a blissful amnesia about the past:

Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality. In some countries, these laws are unenforced hang-overs from an earlier era; in others, they are actively implemented. The criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the fundamental Commonwealth value of human rights.

How you “enforce” a “hangover” is less than clear; but never mind that — you’d think these countries picked up these laws during a drunken binge, instead of during the nightmare of colonialism.   That “c” word is unspeakable for Baird, himself the scion of a settler colony, as it implies a common responsibility for that old oppression’s effects. And such commonality in turn seems incompatible with the Commonwealth.  (Meanwhile, elevating human rights as “the fundamental Commonwealth value” may be rhetorically useful, but ignores where the Commonwealth came from.)

To the contrary.  Colonization, though we can’t actually call it by name, was the source of all the good stuff:

Voluntary associations like the 54-nation Commonwealth can and must be propelled forward as an agent for democracy, rule of law, human rights and development. That reflects the true value of the British democracy that has spanned the continents and shaped the world.

There’s a blithe confusion about all those funny little countries in Africa, which are hard to tell apart:

However, there are slivers of light.  Rwanda and South Africa have been leaders in protecting and promoting the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians. Slivers of light.

Rwanda?  Who told him that?

There’s a vision of human rights that deprives victims of both agency and voice:

As citizens of a global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to give voice to the voiceless, to challenge the aggressor, and to promote and protect human rights and human dignity, at home and abroad.

Finally, there is his fixed conviction that injustice and oppression happen somewhere other than at home.

[A] priority to me as Foreign Minister… is, promoting and protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of people around the world. It is something we often take for granted in our pluralistic societies, something we often overlook. But the vivid images of suffering and repression beam through our television sets, and are plastered in our newspapers.

I am not sure where that “plastered” comes from.   But you can compare this to Clinton’s comment in her Geneva speech last month:

I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. … Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.

It’s unusual to accuse a Canadian of lacking humility as against an American; but there you are.

Identity crisis

A scandal arose in Canada this week over an amendment to airline security regulations that the government had enacted quietly last July. The new rules read:

An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if
(a) the passenger presents a piece of photo identification and does not resemble the photograph;
(b) the passenger does not appear to be the age indicated by the date of birth on the identification he or she presents;
(c) the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents; or
(d) the passenger presents more than one form of identification and there is a major discrepancy between those forms of identification. [Emphasis added]

Item c) would seem to ban transgender people who haven’t changed their identity papers from flying. Activist Mercedes Allen explains more:

Most Canadian provinces require evidence of genital reconstruction surgery before allowing the change of gender markers on foundational documents.  Standards of care call for a minimum of one year living as one’s identified gender before the required procedure can occur (two years in some provinces, including Ontario).  This is further complicated by the fact that some provinces have removed coverage for this surgery from their health coverage, so some individuals can be trapped indefinitely with incongruent gender markers on their identification.

In fact, there have been no reports of trans people denied air travel because of the ban. The transport Minister’s spokesman claims that “Any passenger whose physical appearance does not correspond to their identification can continue to board a plane by supplying a letter from a health-care professional explaining the discrepancy” — though the regulations are far from clear on this.

The deeper problem is that Canada treats the legal identity of certain people as a medical problem, and demands a medical solution.  Recognizing gender identity should not depend on genital surgery, anymore than it should (as in Sweden) depend on sterilization. Requiring that opens the door not only to discrimination, but to physical abuse.

For a loud defender of religious freedom, John Baird seems deaf to the old verse — it’s Luke 6:42 — that asks, “How can you say to your brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in your eye, when you yourself behold not the beam that is in your own eye?”  And, equally, he appears oblivious to how human rights activists must be aware of history, including history’s curious susceptibility to irony.

P.S. A petition against the travel regulation is here

More thoughts on aid conditionality: And an apology to Paul Canning, III

My masculinity, sprouting

Blogger Paul Canning calls me a “b*tch,” undoubtedly meaning “butch,” and all too sadly that is true. Thirty years of wearing this macho mustache, half Marlboro Man and half John Bolton, have made my inner fem dwindle to a shrunken Munchkin, curtseying to Dorothy over the witch’s corpse while pathetically throwing myself at the he-men in the Lollipop Guild.

My femininity, what’s left of it

Still, I’m not nearly as much of a he-man as Paul is. In fact, Paul’s affirmations of his own manhood have gone over the top lately – judging from his comments here,  on my own little blog.   I take a holiday vacation from things, and what do I find when I return?  Paul positively daring me to test-drive my testes, and prove I’m not “chicken”:

Am hard noting your ignoring Gay Kenya’s statement and use of *150*, say it agin,*150* activists as a battering ram. Let’s see you fisk the Kenyan statement. Or are you chicken? I think we can guess.

I’ll try to explain what Paul means in a little bit, but just note how noting things makes him hard.  Also, observe the elegant phallic metaphor – the “battering ram”! Apparently it takes 150 activists to make one phallus. Then there’s this gem, a few days later:

But I wonder why you have not responded to my chicken call to respond to the Kenyan activist David Kuria on aid conditionality? I search in vain for such a response. Is it here? No! Is it there? No! Where could it be? Could it be, perchance, be that, for once, an African activist has shut you the fuck up? Has the wisdom fount dried up? It CANNOT BE!?!

And again:

Not publishing my comment on my previous mention eh Scott? Why would that be I wonder. Legal reasons? Defamation? Something else?

One of the things you notice about the guys in the Peter Tatchell crowd, who have been cheerfully harassing me for years, is not just that they’re all guys, but they’re terribly, terribly macho.   Of course, as you would expect from such a diverse crew of highly white people, their testosterone infestations take different forms. For Tatchell himself, a Dickens character if there ever was one, the display of male authority means a transit from his usual Uriah Heep sanctimony – notifying you over and over again ‘ow ‘umble he is, truly ‘umble, very ‘umble– to a loud, Mr. Chadband style of oratory undoubtedly influenced by his Evangelical origins, a booming and all-silencing sermonizing that tells you he is about to tell the Terewth.  (The Terewth, alas, never gets told.)  For Doug Ireland, the literate one of the crew, it takes the shape of a terrible onslaught of intimidating adjectives whenever  his competence is  called into question, on the apparent assumption that mere feminine types like his opponents, however deep their throats, cannot possibly wrap their mouths around the assemblage of misused polysyllables at his disposal.   For Michael Petrelis, Tatchell intimate and convicted stalker, it takes the form of yelling, which he can do as well on e-mail as in person.   (I once compared Petrelis’ communication style to Divine starring in La Voix Humaine, and he took umbrage, thinking this a reference to his weight. However, I meant vocal, not physical, volume.) But ¿Quien es mas macho?  Surely Canning outdoes the whole gang. I haven’t been faced by anyone calling me “chicken” since the fourth grade. Arguing with Paul brings one back in memory to those halcyon days of boys comparing organ length in the school bathroom, innocently ignorant of what puberty had in store for those peculiar appendages, or what exactly, besides urination, they were meant to do. Paul is similarly unaware what the notions he hawks will lead to, or what causes they further in the real world. But he knows they’re bigger than mine, and that’s all that counts.

Ascending scale of manhood: Peter Tatchell, Michael Petrelis, Paul Canning

So you’re wondering, what the hell is this all about?  Well, if you’ll remember, back in October David Cameron, boy prime minister of Britain, created a furor by declaring the UK would tie overseas aid to LGBT rights.  This made aid conditionality a subject of vigorous debate. 86 African social justice activists  and 53 organizations (hence the figure 150 in Paul’s battering ram, above) signed an open letter opposing aid conditionality.  It struck me that Paul’s slanted all-embracing blog, which claims to give you all the international queer news you need to know, overlooked the letter completely.  And I realized speculated that Paul’s own opinions were again might  possibly be affecting his definition of news. Paul indeed ignored the letter — but he doesn’t ignore me.   While I spent my December prone under Neil Patrick Harris in a drugged, drunken stupor, Paul busily honed his demand that I deal with what he obviously regarded as a conclusive refutation: statements on aid confidentiality by Gay Kenya and my friend the Kenyan activist and politician David Kuria.

Believe me, I would shave my mustache before I let anyone call me “chicken” three times! More to the point: I have no problem with arguments that run counter to my own, especially when they come from activists  who are on the front lines.  My issue with Paul himself has never been that he thinks aid conditionality is a Good Idea, which is perfectly legitimate.  It’s that, running a news source with a fairly wide readership in the US and UK, he treats the opposing opinions of a whole phallus phalanx of African activists as unworthily irrelevant to his own agenda.

So let me address a few key points in David Kuria’s column.

First: Kuria points out that there’s no unanimity among Africans on the subject of conditioning aid.   He’s right, obviously. A recent Canadian news article interviewed Malawian LGBT leaders who favor such ties (as well as a Jamaican who’s generally against them). I do disagree with the way David frames the divisions:

On the one hand, an elite group of African activists feel insulted by the presumed neo-colonial undertones of Western powers using aid to set priorities for the African movement without as much as consulting the activists. These activists are vocal, well connected or have lived in Western countries. Their animus may as much be about the desire to show they are in are in charge as it may also be about a genuine fear of backlash.

On the other hand are the ordinary gay or lesbian on the street – for some reason gay/lesbian on the street does not translate well from “man on the street.” For him or her, a threat of aid withdrawal was received with great jubilation – finally the ray of hope they had for so long waited!  These are unsophisticated, have either been victims of homophobic violence or live with an ever present threat of attack, and the only thing keeping them alive are the ever thinning walls of their closets.

Looking at the signatories to the African activists’ statement, I’m not persuaded that they’re more “elite” or cosmopolitan than those who didn’t sign.   Nor do I think that the fear of backlash can be reduced completely to a strategy of control.   The fact is that, since the early 1990s, almost every first glint of public visibility for LGBT people, or for sexual orientation and gender identity issues, in any country between the Limpopo and the Atlas Mountains has produced an intense and menacing public backlash. In Zimbabwe, a gay and lesbian group rents a stall at a book fair; the President condemns them, and years of political incitements to homophobic violence ensue. In Zambia, one gay man, tired of the closet, walks into the country’s largest newspaper and offers an interview; after the article appears, all of public life from university professors to the President is consumed by a wildfire of condemnation, and for the next three months hardly a Zambian can talk of anything else.   In Nigeria, a few men stage an LGBT-rights protest at an international AIDS conference; two months later, the President’s office cites the affront in justifying a draconian bill to silence virtually any mention of homosexuality. One could go on and on, but the point is that a generation of African politicians, starting in the crisis years of structural adjustment,have learned very clearly how to link popular anxieties around sexuality to other, more immediate or salient fears — xenophobia among them — and drum up support in the process. You can argue about whether, or how, such a backlash could be avoided — and Kuria proceeds to do that. But the record of its recurrences makes considering it not only inevitable but, I should think, necessary in debating decriminalization strategies and the uses of aid.

Second, David observes:

Instead of assuming that we can have a “pan-africanist” approach, we should instead query what challenges and opportunities it presents to us as a country. Gay Kenya’s statement on aid, noted that each country has had a different aid narrative, and could thus not talk of an “African” but a contextualized Kenyan response. In Kenya’s case aid conditionality had proved effective in compelling reforms to an unwilling government. …

I see a group of villagers who once visited my dad, a Central banker asking him if [authoritarian former President Daniel Arap] Moi’s government would collapse at the back of donor conditions compelling political reform. As I recall it, they were very disappointed, and even thought of my dad as a Moi sympathiser when he told them government collects billions in taxes, and the only people who would be affected would be the poor.

The aim of withdrawing aid was to make the masses so angry that they would force Moi out of power he told them. It took time, but change did finally come, and the poor sung for Moi “yote yawezekana bila Moi” [Everything is possible without Moi] at Uhuru Park as a parting shot.

With the bulk of what David says here, I altogether agree. Any approach that elides national borders and differences in political history and culture is going to cause disaster. The more African activists speak up to assert the divergent narratives that demand disparate strategies, the better — the less likely some foreign government will take the whole continent as the convenient product of a cookie-cutter, and start to incinerate it accordingly. A history of aid conditionality producing democratic change may well make a population more disposed to suffer it in the name of something they can regard as progress. The one distinction I would point out is that back in the 90’s, when (some) Western governments were pushing for democratization in Africa, privations attending aid cuts could be justified as promoting a general good, something everybody — or nearly everybody –wanted. Joy Mdivo, in a recent blog post, remembers:

it is difficult to miss the happiness, the euphoria, the joy at common folk finally bringing down the Tyrant and winning Freedom.  We had our own “jubilation” in 2003 when Kibaki came into power and we saw the back of Moi.  People were literally drunk with happiness and giddy with anticipation of a better Kenya without Moi.

The queers may dance in the streets if Kenya’s sodomy law goes, but I doubt the general population will gather round the disco ball.   Instead, if the aid conditions — or cuts — have aimed at broad development initiatives, people are likely to feel the public welfare has been risked or sacrificed to get a particular group its rights. Or, as the churches are likely to say, its perverted privileges.

Now, this kind of antinomization of rights protections — their rights, not ours — is made possible by the minoritization of sexuality: the prevailing idea that homosexual desire is the property of a small minority, not the potential of a larger number, and that only that bounded group will be affected by its liberation or persecution. Such thinking clearly is one import from the West that the present structure of “assistance” to ensure rights promotes and confirms. It dominates the help promised by foreign governments (Clinton’s and Cameron’s bruited initiatives exclusively talk the language of LGBT, not that of sexual rights for all), as well as the intrusions of NGOs (from Human Rights Watch on down, all the major human rights players have “LGBT Rights Programs,” and “sexual rights” is only mentioned in a whisper).

Gay Kenya has recently developed a “business case” to consolidate economically as well as politically based arguments for scrapping the old sodomy law. This document, Breaking the Wall of Criminalization — which I think deserves wide study — seems partly meant to counteract the minoritizing discourse.  The essence is that getting rid of the repressive law will benefit broad strata of the population; the specific case revolves around how outreach and openness help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.   My guess is that arguments like this are the best if not only route to abrogating the laws across much of Africa. If so, everyone has a stake in extending them beyond economics and health to contend that decriminalization is a benefit to democracy itself. And that case would require engaging with a lot of existing critical thought about nation-building, the African state, patriarchy, and the politics of development. Some of this is already moving forward in the work of thinkers like Sylvia Tamale; the Kenyan document can contribute. The “business case” is noncommittal on the question of aid conditionality, though — precisely, I suspect, because the idea that (what are still seen as) “special rights” can have a general benefit hasn’t begun to catch on.

The politics of donor funding and sanctioning to induce the desired political response, especially in the area of human rights, is often characterised by a complex matrix of competing interests. … [S]hould aid be conditional to removal of structural barriers that we know lead to inefficient use of resources and negatively impact efforts to reduce HIV infections? This is not an easy question to resolve, partly because African leadership can engage in dangerous brinkmanship over HIV funding …

The “brinksmanship” is enabled — despite the years everybody spent ritually affirming the mainly heterosexual epidemiology of African AIDS — by the persisting belief that the pandemic primarily affects the marginalized, and that these inhabit the margin because they are immoral.  Governments don’t think they’re playing va banque with public health in general when they put their AIDS budgets in the poker pot. In their piggybank heart of hearts, they still consider this a concern of homosexuals, drug addicts, and prostitutes, and of course women, who aren’t really part of the general public either. In this light, the “business case” makes  an obvious point, but one still worth making. The less any aid cut affects the general population, the more closely it is targeted toward the issues engaged by conditionality, the more the same people you are trying to help will be hurt. It’s the marginal who will pay:

In the case of HIV … [w]ere aid to be withdrawn, it is the vulnerable, especially those on treatment, who would suffer the most and that would not only be punitive but also unethical.

Third, David observes that the aid conditionality question should have been argued yesterday, or last week. And in this he may be right. He writes:

I have bad news both for the elite African activists and the gay/lesbian on the street. To the Elite, quit whining, the genie has already left the bottle. When the U.K. statement on conditioning aid to gay rights, became public we should have known scapegoating and blame-shifting was to follow. … You can take this to the bank, any misunderstanding between an African state and any Western power on anything under the sun will from now on be blamed on gays.

It’s true, Cameron’s inept initiative, and Clinton’s more thought-through one, burst into daylight without any particular consultation with the people who would be, for worse or better, most affected. And what David and Hillary said and did will inflect all the backlashes to come.

Treatment Action Campaign T-shirt, South Africa

Still, it’s not hard to hear in this some of the despair of a continent that is used to having not just its resources colonized but its voices ventriloquized, its needs spoken for and its aspirations represented and decided by others outside. For the queers confronting their impeccable and indifferent benefactors, this is as ineluctable a fact as for any other Africans.   Yet I can’t believe it’s either universal or permanent.   In the realm of HIV, treatment activists, many of them in countries across Africa, have shaped and redirected the global discourse about who’s responsible for the pandemic and what to do about it. They’ve accomplished this with an uncompromisingly confrontational assault on the received verities of globalization, one grounded equally in history and politics.   Now that debate has begun in the UK and the US about what exactly these new, ill-formed initiatives mean, there’s no reason LGBT activists in Africa — either country by country, or finding commonalities across regions or the continent — can’t try to do the same.

I have no dog in this fight, no vested interest in either side of the question, though I have a fairly visceral distrust of whether aid conditionality will accomplish what it sets out to to do.  What I can do is pose  questions about how the manipulation of aid –or, for that matter, other kinds of foreign support for LGBT people’s rights — would work. Some questions are:

a)     How can you prevent backlash; how, in particular, to avoid the appearance of elevating queers as somehow superior to other citizens, subjects, and “victims”?

b)    What’s the history that will shape how Western influence will be regarded, and answered? Rahul Rao lays out persuasive reasons why British interventions in the Commonwealth are especially problematic:

 [T]o call on Britain to play an advocacy role in the struggle against these laws invites a contemporary rerun of the civilising mission: the spectre of the erstwhile imperial power and its white dominions berating the black and brown Commonwealth for its backwardness is not one that is likely to engender the sort of change that its proponents wish for. Moreover, the demand for an apology for the sodomy law, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, late Victorian holocausts, dependency, slavery or all of the other phenomena typically grouped under the sign of ‘colonialism’ (except when Niall Ferguson is telling the story), seems tantamount to charging a rapist with minor misdemeanours.

In addition to history, there’s also the ally’s present stance, including its funding on other issues. The new US embrace of LGBT rights has not altered one whit its Puritanism where other kinds of sex are concerned.    It still enforces, for instance, a gag order banning money for any NGO abroad that won’t sign an oath to support criminal penalties for prostitution.  It’s easy to imagine this situation:  the US threatens to cut aid to a government that endorses criminalizing homosexual conduct — while defunding an advocacy group in the same country that endorses decriminalizing prostitution.  How can activists negotiate these thickets of contradiction? How can they oppose a supportive government’s other, offensive policies?

c)   Who will be affected by any conditions on or cuts in aid? Will women (who tend to be the targets of many aid programs, if not necessarily the recipients of actual aid) suffer in order to secure gay men’s rights?

d) Development is notoroiously a depoliticizing business; it turns rights claimants into supplicants. Drawing LGBT communities deeper into development discourse risks turning advocacy for political change into lobbying for resource allocation, and replacing rights campaigns with service provision.  Indian feminist scholar Nivedita Menon describes how

The Indian population recognizes itself quite easily as the target of development policies of the state … The depoliticization (and feminization) of development discourse into ‘devel- opment altruism’ is noted by a study from Kerala …. Their interviews with women presidents of panchayats (village councils) show that these women identify as ‘development agents’ rather than as ‘politicians’. This is consistent with the discourse of the Left Front government’s Peoples’ Planning Campaign (1995–6), in which … ‘the panchayat was consistently projected as a space of ‘‘development’’ beyond divisive politics’. This allows the panchayat ‘to be projected as a non-political space, the space of development altruism.’

Assuming this space “beyond divisive politics” is recognized as fake, and its effects as deleterious, how can the pitfalls of “developmentizing” LGBT issues be circumvented?

e)    Finally, where do the core problems, and the main target for change, lie? Are they in law and policy, or in hearts and minds?  An obstreperous and oppressive law regularly enforced, or the promise of new and repressive provisions, would be one kind of threat. A pervasive atmosphere of prejudice, tending to eruptions of moral panic and collective rage, is another. It’s not that they don’t intertwine often and reinforce one another. It’s not, moreover, as though changing a law can’t be one road to changing people’s attitudes. But there are plenty of situations where a loudly foreign-enabled campaign against a particular law can make prejudice worse, and perhaps provide the spark that sets a full-scale popular panic going. My own pragmatic guess is that any threats involving aid would work best — indeed, may only work  — where a specific law or a specific case is the clear target, or where, as in Uganda or Nigeria, a new law proposal requires urgent opposing action.  If the goal is, instead, to alter attitudes and prejudices, even if as a precondition for law reform, aid conditionality (and many other kinds of overt foreign pressure) risks reinforcing hate and making reform impossible.

Soekarno said, in his famous speech at the Bandung conference in 1955, one of the early high points of tiers-mondialisme: “What harm is in diversity, when there is unity in desire?” The trajectory of the Third World since, as of the other two, has tended to reinforce not only the impossibility of the latter, but the importance of thinking of the former, so far as feasible, not as potential harm but as actual strength. But a conversation about desire — and especially, now, about what is wanted and what unwanted about Western support — can still help LGBT activists in Africa and elsewhere to shape what their allies do, and decide what can and can’t be done.

Me, in future

I feel I have failed Paul. He expected fireworks and battering rams, and he has got something less loud and conspicuous. So again, as so often before, I am constrained to offer him an apology. I can do nothing to redeem my masculinity but to grow my mustache. As of today, I break my razor as Prospero did his staff; and I shall not reapply it until my manhood stands proud on my upper lip like 150 activists, or a grove of Sequoias. Meanwhile, among African activists, the conversation should carry on.  I hope folks like Paul will start to report it.

p.s. CORRECTION. We are sticklers for accuracy here at A Paper Bird. I just uploaded December’s photographs to my hard, hard drive from my tiny, feminine camera. On examining them closely, I don’t think that was Neil Patrick Harris at all.

Friends Forever

Please do check out this excellent blog from Kenya. It deals with language, music, poetry, politics, post- (are we ever “post”? — which is the point) -colonialism, and a whole range of other things; I’m always delighted to find a spirit whose interests are more eclectic than my own. Here’s the post that drew me to it, reprinted by the author’s permission. (The Fanon picture, one of my favorites, is my fault.) Just read it.

Friends Forever

November 26th, 2011

I am well aware that I could not do justice to the subject without offending those “professional friends of the African” who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him. To such people, an African who writes [or thinks] is encroaching on their preserves. He is a rabbit turned poacher.—Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (1938)

I want you to understand, sir, I am one of the best friends the Negro has in Lyon—Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

Africans have many friends.

I am often amazed by how many friends we have. Friends who multiply, especially when they learn about the multiple oppressions we face. Friends who launch campaigns, write letters, donate things we really need, including underwear and textbooks written in the 1940s, because every little bit helps.

Every little bit helps.

Our friends like to smooth our way. Aware that Africans are bashful, they write our documents for us, write and edit our speeches, adopt and present our petitions to those in power, and facilitate all the little transactions we cannot, because we are bashful.

We blush in gratitude.

And because they really care, they are willing to handle all those things we cannot, including financial things. Africans are intuitive and love music and cannot handle math or money. Haven’t you heard about the African farmer who planted coins and waited for a tree to sprout?

Yes, our friends are very helpful. We could not exist without our friends.

Even Fanon says so: “Willy-nilly, the Negro has to wear the livery that the white man has sewed for him” (Black Skin). Because our friends are kind and generous, the livery will be sewn to accommodate all those African extras—the buttocks, the genitals, the breasts, you know. Space enough for the African to breath.

But then Fanon is not very generous. He does not appreciate the friendliness of those who are friendly: “We shall have no mercy for the former governors, the former missionaries. To us, the man who adores the Negro is as ‘sick’ as the man who abominates him” (Black Skins). I am not as ungenerous as Fanon. I appreciate our friends. We appreciate our friends.

In fact, we appreciate our friends so much that when we hold meetings and forums, we are excited when they monopolize these spaces with their ideas and visions and expertise. And we don’t even mind fetching water when they get thirsty. And we are even more grateful when they bring along their friends who monopolize question time. We are so grateful to learn from them.

What would we do without our friends?

Friends are friends forever!

We are happy that our friends want to save us. We are delighted that they translate our statements so that others can understand them. Regrettably, we have not yet learned to write or speak in ways that make sense to anyone else: our translators are our very best friends. We are very grateful.

And because our friends want only what is best for us, we should have no problems assenting to their plans. After all, they have been doing this for a very long time and we are still underdeveloped. If we want to be like them, we should listen to them, or so they say.

As Fanon says, “The black man wants to be like the white man. For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Black Skins). Fanon is too harsh, I think. Surely our friends do not think like this. They want us to be developed, like them, not white! Simply free and developed. In fact, one day we will be so developed, our gay people will be free to wear leather chaps bare-assed in the middle of Moi Avenue. On that day, we will know we are truly free.

Until the day we can be as developed and free as our friends, we will never be truly free. Or so our friends keep telling us. Until then, our friends will continue to fight for us, to talk for us, to write for us, to use our stories, to show pictures of our faces, to create scholarships and awards in our names, to create petitions for us, to translate our lives for important people.

Our friends will never abandon us.

We are in this together.

For good.


This used to be her town: Elizabeth greets the Commonwealth Secretary-General

Every two years, the heads of government of the Commonwealth of Nations –– formerly known, back when there was a single head of government, as the British Empire — meet.   The leaders of Britain’s former colonies (plus, for reasons not quite clear, Rwanda and Mozambique) discuss issues of general moment, from apartheid in the old days to Tony Blairesque generalities like “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience.” The next summit will be in Perth, Australia, in two weeks.

Contingents of LGBT activists from the global South lobbied at the last two CHOGMs (that’s Commonwealth Head of Government Meetings), in Uganda in 2007 and Trinidad in 2009. Their aspiration, since the Commonwealth claims human rights as part of its reason for existence, was to draw attention to surviving sodomy laws in the former colonies. They did this at great expense of money and effort, and with some danger. In Kampala they faced angry government officials and an inflamed, homophobic public, and in Trinidad they met in the shadow of a colonial-era law punishing homosexual conduct with up to a quarter century in prison. Nonetheless, because they were voices and faces from the communities actually affected, their presence meant something. Both times, they succeeded in getting LGBT people’s human rights included in the official statements of the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the NGO conference that accompanies the summit.

This year, CHOGM organizers have set up structural barriers to activists from the South attending.   A letter to Commonwealth officials from 15 LGBT and human rights organizations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean explains:

We understand that under the rules of participation, with only 250 slots available, two of every five have been reserved for Australian participants, leaving the rest of the world to compete for the remaining three. We have not fared well in that competition and, although a number of us who faced recognizable challenges in doing so have finally secured travel support, we have found registration for CPF closed. We are asking you to ensure at least five LGBTI activists from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands from our group, who have secured travel funding, are admitted as official delegates at the Commonwealth People’s Forum and CHOGM 2011, and provided due assistance with obtaining visas. [emphasis added]

They add:

Being left out of CHOGM 2011 is symptomatic of a larger issue. Since our work at CHOGM 2009, we have been noting with keen interest the flourishing of dialogue, interest and specific initiatives in relationship to questions of sexual orientation and gender expression in the Commonwealth, and specifically at this year’s CHOGM. We have also noted with considerable concern that virtually none of the South-based activists who participated in CHOGM 2007 and 2009 have been invited to share our experiences, strategise or guide this London-centred work and advocacy.

It could be pinker: the Commonwealth (and its slices of Antarctica)

This is the interesting part. All year long, activists in the United Kingdom — the onetime colonial conqueror — have been shouting up a storm about their own plans to force the CHOGM to place LGBT issues on the government leaders’ formal agenda. The inimitable Peter Tatchell has taken the lead, with multiple action alerts warning that “we” want “this to be the breakthrough summit,” and taking full credit for recent positive murmurs from Commonwealth leaders. A new British organization, the “Kaleidoscope Trust” which bills itself as “a major new initiative in the global campaign for diversity,” has signalled it will “fight homophobia in the Commonwealth.” It will do this from its easy chair in London, where of course all the homophobic laws in the British colonies had their origin. What goes around, comes around.

Some of their plans and methods show themselves in this document, circulated today.  It purports to be a “Civil Society Statement of Action on the Decriminalisation of Adult Same Sex Conduct in the Commonwealth,” but what does it mean by “civil society?” Well, of the 26 organizations that signed it, fully 10 are based in London. (Tatchell managed to coax his own group, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation,” seemingly created to fund Peter Tatchell, right to the top of the list.) Two are from Australia, one from Malta; another five are from European countries that aren’t Commonwealth states at all — Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands. Only 8 of the 26 signatories are from countries in the global South, or from countries that have or recently had a sodomy law. These represent just four countries (Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Cameroon).   No one from Kenya, Uganda, or other African countries; no one from the rest of the Caribbean; no domestic group from India or elsewhere in South Asia.

Apparently this statement came from a “roundtable conference” for  “LGBTI Rights Activists working across the Commonwealth” that a London NGO organized in August. (Notably, a lot of the signatories aren’t LGBTI groups at all: there are teacher’s unions, mainstream rights NGOs, and others.)  “Across the Commonwealth!” Right. More like: across town.

In other words, the task of lobbying the Commonwealth about the lives and freedoms of people in countries with sodomy laws has been taken over, not by activists from those countries, but by people in the United Kingdom.   The folks who led the fight in 2007 and 2009 have been crowded out.

What could the organizers of this statement have been thinking? What could possibly be the case for excluding from their deliberations the lawyers and activists who got India’s Section 377 eliminated two years ago — a transformative victory in the Commonwealth’s biggest state?  Isn’t it conceivable they might have some strategic wisdom about decriminalization in other Commonwealth countries? Treating them as irrelevant is not just disrespectful, it’s self-defeating. Instead, the folks in the U.K. have decided they know what the goal is, and they know how to get the former Empire there.

The whole project of “ensuring that LGBT human rights are on the agenda of the heads of government when they meet in Perth” seems to me to deserve a little further discussion. Might it not be better to wait till a few government leaders from the global South are primed to speak sympathetically on the issue — till Manmohan Singh, for instance, is ready to defend his country’s legal reform? Otherwise, the “debate” will consist of David Cameron and Julia Gillard berating Uganda and Jamaica, and the latter bemoaning “imperialism.”  How much progress can be expected from that? The fact is, though, that these strategic and tactical questions should be for activists from the countries most concerned to decide. And, token exceptions aside, they haven’t been asked.

It is only natural that activists in London should have easier entry to the Commonwealth’s institutions, which are also based there. But can’t they use that access to open access in turn for activists in the South? Tatchell and the “Kaleidoscope Trust,” moreover, have considerably more resources, and political clout in the UK, than their Southern counterparts can possibly muster — and more power to them.   But how will they use these benefits? Kaleidoscope’s glossy launch last month elicited glowing encomia from everybody from Ed Miliband to Elton John — all without the new organization giving even the slightest hint of what it planned to do.  Great!  But the Kaleidoscopers never reached out to activists in the South to announce their vaunted coming, or ask what they might want or need.  This left little doubt about where their priorities were. Elton John, yes; brave Ugandans, no.

The “Civil Society Statement” from London says: “Since the declaration of the Commonwealth Principles adopted by Heads of Government in 1971, the organization has defined itself by its values.” Well, more or less. The Commonwealth began as a more acceptable mask for empire; it evolved, very imperfectly, toward a vague ideal of power parceled out among equal states and held in common, rather than monopolized by the colonial metropole. What this episode reveals, though, is that the international LGBT movement isn’t evolving in the same direction.  It is still defined by inequalities of money and voice, through which activists in the former colonial capital feel at liberty to speak for their former subjects.

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted. If they disappear and this initiative turns simply into a ventriloquists’ display, it’s doomed to fail.  I challenge the London signatories of the “Civil Society Statement,” and the Kaleidoscope Trust, to spend the next two weeks lobbying for the Southern activists’ demand: five seats for them at the Australia meeting.  It is the least they can do. Am I holding my breath, though? No.