Living in truth: Chelsea Manning in prison

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Little more than a week after the brutal liquidation of the brave Cameroonian gay activist Eric Ohena Lembembe this July, a trans* woman was killed in Barranquilla, Colombia. Wizy Romero was 21, a community activist “widely known for her leadership in the barrio and district,” especially in sports. While she chatted with friends in the street on the night of July 23, two men on a motorcycle shot her dead. It was the eleventh known murder of an LGBT person in the Caribbean region of the country since the year began.

A few days before Lembembe’s murder, on July 10, friends found a trans* woman’s body at her home in Kuşadası, Turkey: circumstances much like the discovery of Lembembe’s slaughter. An unknown assailant had stabbed Dora Özer to death. Violence aganst trans* people is epidemic across Turkey.  “Every year a few of my friends get killed,” one activist, remembering Dora, said. “I often think of the question, ‘when will my friends hear about my death?’ Saying this is very painful. But I don’t even know one transsexual who died of natural causes.”

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

On July 22, just days after Lembembe’s killing, Jamaican police in Irwin, near Montego Bay, discovered the mutilated body of a 16-year-old whose identity papers said  “Dwayne Jones.” The story, as slowly reconstructed, was typical of trans* and non-conforming youth in many places. The father threw the child out of the house at 14 for “effeminacy”; the community drove Dwayne out of the neighborhood. Dwayne had gone to a street party dressed as a girl. A crowd chased the child into the street, stabbed her and shot her, till she died after two hours of multiple attacks.  They beat and tried to rape an older trans* friend who was with her; she managed to escape.

People mourned, condemned, protested Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death around the world. Nobody much noticed Wizy Romero’s or Dora Özer’s killings. Human Rights Watch produced a press release on the murder of Dwayne Jones. The contrast with their response to Ohena Lemembe’s killing is instructive. They invited you to take the crime against Eric personally. His murder evoked tributes to his character: “Advocating for equal rights in Cameroon, where LGBTI people face severe discrimination and violence, takes tremendous courage,” the organization said. ” Dwayne was depersonalized. Nothing suggested the heroic individuality of a 16-year-old who braved the cruel streets as herself, not a cipher; she blurred into a lesson for “Jamaican authorities,” who  “need to send an unequivocal message that there will be zero tolerance for violence” against all “LGBT people.” (By contrast, the Associated Press was able to speak to Dwayne’s friends and “humanize” her, though they still referred to “him.”)

A murdered gay man is a symbol. A murdered trans* woman is a symptom.

Amnesty International also wrote about Dwayne’s killing. In a blog post, they described her as “gay” in pointing to the larger lesson: “Gay people’s rights in the Caribbean have to be respected.” Like Human Rights Watch, they said “he was cross-dressing” — an irritating term implying mere fashion choices at cross-purposes with the person’s genital-given gender, which is inescapable. We don’t in fact know whether Jones saw herself as mainly male or female at the time of the murder, but HRW and Amnesty make the decision for her. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s friends remembered him in death. Dwayne Jones’ advocates erased her.

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin's Russia

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the entirely free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin’s Russia.

I thought of this in the dramas yesterday around Bradley Manning’s sentencing. Let’s call her “him,” and “Bradley,” in this paragraph for the last time. Manning received 35 years in military prison on various charges, “including violations of the Espionage Act, for copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” He’d been acquitted of the simultaneously most serious and ridiculous charge, “aiding the enemy,” but in the end this didn’t seem to matter. In fact, the symbolic message of the sentence (everything has a “lesson” these days) was that spreading information is abominable even if it doesn’t aid some enemy. Silence is life, silence is breath. Silence is a value for its own sake. Gays in uniform or no, the military’s mantra remains: Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.

The long prison term is likely to hearten national security officials who have been rattled by the subsequent leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Manning’s conviction might also encourage the government to bring charges against the man who was instrumental in the publication of the documents, Julian Assange.

You can read Manning’s statement after sentencing here. “In in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy,” Manning wrote, “we have forgotten our humanity.”

We consciously elected to devalue human life … When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

“Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society,” Manning said.

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

A day later, Manning’s lawyer read another statement from the prisoner on TV.

I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. … As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

The prosecution painted Manning as a “narcissist” during the trial: apolitical, unconstrained by responsibility to society. (“I only wanted to help people,” Manning said after sentencing.  “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.”) Thus it’s predictable how her coming out as trans* is playing today. She’s just selfish, trivializing her own claims to higher purpose, and chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of sick fantasy to boot. “So Manning wants to live as a woman,” looney Laura Ingraham tweeted. “Let me guess, we have to pay for it.” Then there’s Adam Baldwin. I don’t know why we should care how Adam Baldwin addresses this or any other issue, but his avatar predicts his answer:

Adam Baldwin. "American Individual. Amiable Skeptic." Male impersonator.

Adam Baldwin. “American Individual. Amiable Skeptic.” Male impersonator.

GayWorld’s reaction will also be interesting to behold.

That Manning’s gender identity was ambiguous, and that she might prefer to be identified by it rather than as “gay,” was no secret. The information’s been out there for years. Living (like many closeted people these days) a fuller life online than in the physical world, she’d come to trust Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker, in the months before her arrest. Lamo published their chats after he turned Manning in for whistleblowing. Manning wrote him that “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed, so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.” Military doctors later leaked to the press that the soldier considered herself female, and a few voices referred to her as a “transgender hero.”

There may not have been enough information for supporters to affirm unequivocally that Manning was trans*: but there was certainly an ambiguity demanding to be respected. Yet it was effectively covered up.  As Emily Manuel wrote in late 2011, the media, and many if hardly all Manning’s supporters

continue to refer to her as male  (for instance, this Glenn Greenwald segment on Democracy Now  still using male pronouns, and still conflating gay and transgender, or Michael Moore’s steady stream of supportive tweets and blog posts).  But at what point will progressive media, those who are at least pay lip service to the idea of being LGBT allies, decide to respect the most likely scenario of Manning’s preferred gender ID?

Several things showed here, not least Manning’s defense team’s fear that, if homophobia in the military was slowly ebbing, transphobia remained rife. To admit a trans identity would alienate the court. It would suggest she was a double traitor, not just a leaker but an undercover woman in a masculinity-obsessed institution: a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a she in warrior’s clothes. Manning, unlike the information she revealed, had to stay behind the veil.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007.  Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007. Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

There’s something else, though. As Manuel wrote, “Why do we assume that ‘hero’ and ‘transgender’ are mutually exclusive, and are unwilling or unable to imagine rallying around a transgender woman rather than a bright-faced young man?” As the stories I told above show, a gay man murdered means courage. Trans women murdered can quickly be forgotten. Some of Manning’s defenders found it far easier to describe a brave “he” in uniform.

Mentioning gender identity became the province of those who smeared her, like the dreadful Jamie Kirchick. “Manning is gay and reportedly suffered from gender identity disorder, at one point adopting a female alter ego,” Kirchick noted in Out magazine. Why being a woman should be an “alter ego,” except to Jamie’s ego, is anybody’s guess. But: “Bradley Manning is no gay hero,” Kirchick concluded. Pointing to Manning’s femininity helped Jamie undermine both descriptions, and unsettle the “many gay activists” who refused to “condemn him as the traitor he is.” 

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

There’s a longer history here, though: a twinned history of gay men dominating the movements, and of activists dictating to subalterns whom they won’t let speak for themselves. Peter Tatchell has, typically, been particularly militant in demanding that Manning accept the identity assigned to her. “Bradley Manning is openly gay,” he declared; “he has participated in Pride marches” — something trans* folks apparently never do. Tatchell urged people to send messages to “the gay military whistle-blower” (if Manning feared having her image plastered over the Internet “as [a] boy,” she might perhaps have been still more alarmed to get thousands of missives addressing her as “gay”). Tatchell continued proclaiming this till the morning she announced her trans* identity. (As usual, when questioned on his facts, Tatchell goes — no pun intended — ballistic; when I pointed out the ambiguities some months ago, he accused me on e-mail of “factually inaccurate, sectarian smears.”)

But Peter has a long record of deciding how people should identify themselves, regardless of how they actually do. In some cases, he picks on the dead, like Whitney Houston. In some cases, it’s the living; his insistence that certain Iranians were “actually” gay (while, being in prison, they couldn’t address the question in person) has probably contributed to the killing of at least one victim. In 2010, when Malawi charged a couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, with “unnatural acts” under its sodomy law, Tatchell intruded in the case. His stream of press releases cemented their depiction as “gay” and a “same-sex couple,” even though it was clear to most people that Tiwonge didn’t identify as a man. Gender identity is an undefined area in Malawian law. If a court could have been persuaded that Tiwonge’s gender identity made them an opposite-sex couple, there was a slight chance they might have gone free. Instead, aided by Tatchell’s publicity and aversion to trans* identity, they got 14 years.

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission carries a sign, 'Tiwonge is a Trans Woman," May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his gay message was disrespected, "Peter Tatchell was unable to attend." http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission in London carries a sign, ‘Tiwonge is a Trans Woman,” May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his all-gay message was disrespected, “Peter Tatchell was unable to attend.” http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

In other words, GayWorld’s fear of a trans* corner of the planet has consequences. 

Manning’s gender identity came to the fore only at trial’s end, in the sentencing phase. Then her attorneys introduced it, to prove she was “confused” and troubled in the lead-up to the leaking. In no way do I criticize anything the defense said to mitigate Manning’s punishment in an unjust, torturous system. They were doing their best for her, though it does demonstrate that lawyers don’t have the last word about a person’s selfhood, any more than human rights activists do. But the strategy invited the court to see Manning’s gender issues as an illness — and the attendant media seized the opportunity.

Pretty much all the press coverage of Manning’s sentencing treats gender identity as disease. It’s a sickening boost to the worst transphobia. The Guardian, in the UK, throws the book at him. “The odds were stacked against Manning before he was even born … he had characteristics of an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome.” Manning “was still only being fed baby food when he was two years old.” But all these oddities build up to the Real Enchilada, or lack of it, which is her failure to be a man. “An email Manning sent his sergeant, containing a picture of himself in a wig, dressed as his female alter ego [again!], Breanna, gave some insight into his motives.” Does it? What I can’t comprehend is why somebody so infantile, so Dr.-Phil simple, so anxious to return to (and turn himself into) the womb, would do anything so adult — so inimical to childish comfort — so conscious of and caring toward the outside world, as noticing his country’s criminality and leaking a whole slew of highly political information. It’s as if a baby in a Pampers commercial started spouting Shakespeare. Could it be they have Manning and her manliness all wrong?

Military psychologists examined Manning three times, as Kevin Gosztola summarizes. 

His therapist in Iraq, Cpt. Michael Worsley, diagnosed him with GID [“gender identity disorder”] after he opened up to him in May 2010. The sanity board that reviewed whether he was fit to stand trial diagnosed him with GID in April 2011. And the forensic psychologist, who was tasked with reviewing Manning’s records for the defense, Navy Captain David Moulton, diagnosed him with GID and found that to be the primary disorder of which he was suffering.

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and "Gender Identity Disorder," 2009

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and “Gender Identity Disorder,” 2009

Let’s be clear. This suggests that Manning was under stress, and sustained a strong view of her own gender. None of it indicates that she had “gender identity disorder.” “Gender identity disorder” doesn’t exist. Indeed, the belief that categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual have some independent existence in reality, aside from psychologists’ use of them to place patients in convenient pigeonholes, is a myth on the order of supposing that medieval lists of angels’ names prove that heavenly beings perched on the roofs of Notre Dame back in the fourteenth century. What all this diagnosing demonstrates is that the US military has a primitive understanding of gender. “Gender identity disorder” (more recently called “gender dysphoria”) is a disease invented by the psychological profession out of a peculiar, mid-last-century confidence that doctors had a fix for everything: that people whose sense of self wasn’t at one with their biological sex were sick, and that medicine or surgery could cure them. Trans* people have found this diagnosis useful at times, to get medical care when none was otherwise available, and to access medical procedures they need. For the most part, though, the “disorder” has malignly pathologized gender itself as a sickness: if you actually think your self and your sex are different, there’s something wrong with you. By this standard, Plato, Joan of Arc, and Judith Butler are all as dysphoric as Bradley Manning. Shock therapy for all of us!

Anyone who’s ever dealt with psychologists knows that you can get them to say anything, particularly if paid. The last of Manning’s examiners, Captain Moulton, was particularly febrile in his rhetoric.

Repeating a diagnosis made famous by the 1995 film “Clueless,” a forensic psychiatrist testifying in defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning on Wednesday emphasized that the WikiLeaks source was in a “post-adolescent idealistic phase.” The phrase is unrecognized in clinical psychiatry. “It’s a period of time when people are more focused on, become focused on making a difference in the world, societal changes, things like that,” Navy Capt. David Moulton testified. …

Turning to this case, the doctor surmised: “Pfc. Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was really going to change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually.”  This thinking was unavoidable in Manning’s “post-adolescent … little world,” Moulton said.

Mandela and Martin Luther King also suffered from deluded post-adolescent regression, then, and would probably be played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie. Of course, Manning’s leaked information really did change “how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a minor detail, but that doesn’t make him any less crazy for focusing on “societal changes” and things like that! Jesus Christ, what kind of fucking world do you want? You want to live in some fucked-up suburb of BizarroLand where any teenage loser thinks he can make a difference, instead of worrying about what really matters, playing football and praying to Tim Tebow and keeping his balls out the claws of Jerry Sandusky? And fuck Jesus Christ while you’re at it. He was a “post-adolescent” too.

Holy writ: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Holy writ, wholly shit: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Fine, they adduced all this crap in an effort to spare Manning jail time. Given that the trial and the whole national security system are run by lunatics, the best you can probably do for some lost idealist caught in their paranoid webs is to pretend he’s a lunatic too. That doesn’t mean, though, that the rest of us have to believe it. As another psychiatrist remarked to the press, “Tagging a ‘pseudo-diagnostic’ string of polysyllables on a defendant’s behavior is a common practice in court proceedings.” And he added, “Many young people are idealistic, but so are many older people.” (Idealism in the old is called “Alzheimer’s,” and that drooling nursing-home inmate Mahatma Gandhi is a fine Dr. Oz example.)  “Gender identity disorder” is only more slab of crap, nine more syllables of this garbage jargon. Anybody who truly believes it, or thinks this language gropes up out of its garbage can to hold a mirror to a reality, and that this reality somehow bears on Chelsea Manning, has a dysphoria of his own, which is beyond treatment.

I have a different understanding of Chelsea Manning.

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I lived in Eastern Europe for six years just after the 1989 revolutions. I read Vaclav Havel obsessively, mostly while travelling with Romanian friends on slow and decrepit trains. In “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay I once almost knew by heart, Havel describes a greengrocer who regularly “places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!'”

That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.

But what if, one day, that combination of conformity with an unspoken, underlying fear gives way? Even the powerless can act, if only in negation. Imagine:

Something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. … He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. …

[T]he power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie.

There, not in the shrinks’ reports, is the record of what Manning has done. And her personal ordeal not only runs parallel to her political one, but is inseparable from it. Her whistleblowing and her coming out are each a journey toward life in truth. It’s hard to imagine the first happening without the second.

Miroslav Hucek, "Mr. Makovička' s Wings," photograph, Prague, 1972

Miroslav Hucek, “Mr. Makovička’ s Wings,” photograph, Prague, 1972

I can already hear GayWorld’s Jamie Kirchicks spluttering in complaint: How can you compare a … a cross-dresser and a traitor to Vaclav Havel, to Angelina Jolie, to Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg, to our saints and role models?

But it was an ordinary greengrocer Havel described resisting, not a saint. His point was that the powerless have the power to live in truth and to say no: not soldiers, not athletes, not celebrities, not people with perfect childhoods and perfect teeth. Manning is a true dissident and a true heavyweight because she wasn’t born to be one. Being a hero, like being a woman, is part of her becoming.

Bravery has something to do with suffering; and, as Theodor Fontane wrote, “True heroism, contrary to military heroism, is always bound up with insults and contempt.” It’s interesting to compare Manning’s heroism to incidents in the recent career of Jamie Kirchick. Kirchick was all over the Web in recent days because, invited to Russia Today’s Stockholm studio to discuss the Manning sentence, he instead went into an on-air rant over Putin’s anti-gay laws. It makes for interesting TV; Kirchick impersonates morality convincingly. But from GayWorld’s hysterical reaction, you might suppose he was Solzhenitsyn scribbling in the Gulag, or a lone soldier standing up to Mongol hordes. “The best word to describe this man: BRAVE! WTG!!!!” one comment gushed. And famous person Stephen Fry tweeted“Truly magnificent! Articulate, passionate, brave and JUST what is needed. Three cheers to James!!!!”

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

What these innocents neglect, of course, is that Kirchick drew fleeting attention to the persecution of LGBT people in Russia — but only by derailing a discussion of a persecuted trans* person in the United States. So much for striking a blow for LGBT rights! “I’m not really interested in talking about Bradley Manning,” Jamie began. And of course, Kirchick cared rather less about dissing the Russians than about defending America’s stained virtue. He was eager to stop listeners from learning about Manning’s torture and Manning’s sentence, because Kirchick believes the pervert got off light

What’s most distasteful is the preening praise for Kirchick’s “bravery.” No one menaced him in the Russia Today studio; his only suffering came when they tried to cancel his paid car service to the airport. Kirchick loves to dream of a military heroism that both prudence and reality deny him, which perhaps accounts for why he hates Manning. Famously, Jamie once imagined an all-gay unit in the US army, mandated to take out Muslims and vindicate the Kirchick masculinity in the process: a Village People fantasy where “Taliban fighters” would bite the dust at the hands of “warrior homosexuals.” This macho wet dream was notable only in that Kirchick himself played no part in it. The longed-for vindication was vicarious. Jamie never enlisted in anything. The kid has bellicose reveries of being a he-man (he likes to call himself “JK-47”), but, a classic chickenhawk, he has never served in any army. So far as I can see he’s done little that’s brave, in any real sense, in his life. When he merely repeats the things that millions are saying, though, he gets applauded for a fake, factitious courage that’s lacks both risk and substance. 

We're in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? AWOL from the gay brigade

We’re in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? The lonesome gay brigade

While Jamie goes viral, Chelsea Manning goes to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, to start serving a 35-year sentence. This is bravery.

Manning has already undergone inhuman treatment in pre-trial detention. For 11 months she was held in extreme solitary confinement, a purely vengeful measure. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned the cruelty, noting that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.” (The judge struck 112 days from Manning’s sentence in acknowledgement of “unlawful pre-trial punishment,” a curious and risible compensation for her suffering.) Now, with her trans* identity a matter of public knowledge, she can reasonably expect the abuse redoubled.

US_incarceration_timeline-clean-fixed-timescale.svg
More than almost any country in modern history, the US relies on prisons as its primary means of social control. Its incarceration rate is the world’s highest (almost 40% higher than the Russia Jamie Kirchick hates). The values of violence, secrecy, and masculinity that Manning rejected rule our prisons, distilled, intensified, and concentrated. Gender policing may be the most constant form of authority. It’s how the prison population is led to regulate itself; its norms are enforced by guards, guns, and the whole official hierarchy.

Rape is ubiquitous, meted out on those who are too weak or can’t conform. T. J. Parsell was thrown in an adult prison because, as a 17-year-old, he stole $53 from a photo store with a toy gun.

On my first day there — the same day that my classmates were getting ready for the prom — a group of older inmates spiked my drink, lured me down to a cell and raped me. And that was just the beginning. Laughing, they bragged about their conquest and flipped a coin to see which one of them got to keep me. For the remainder of my nearly five-year sentence, I was the property of another inmate.

That’s only one among thousands of stories of prison rape. No one knows the exact figures; most inmates who suffer sexual abuse won’t, or can’t, report it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” takes on its most malign meaning here. And rape is only one of the punishments dealt to the vulnerable and exposed.

Trans* inmates are among the worst abused. “Gay and transgender inmates are perhaps the hardest hit by sexual violence in custody,” the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape declared in 2006.

A study of one institution reported that 41 percent of gay inmates had been sexually assaulted, a rate that was three times higher than that for the institution overall. … Contributing to the heightened risk that gay and transgender inmates face are the reckless and indiscriminate classification practices that most facilities continue to use. For example, transgender inmates are often automatically placed either in protective custody with few opportunities to participate in prison programs, or with the general population without regard to their unique needs and physical appearance.

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Nobody knows what conditions will face Manning in Fort Leavenworth. What’s certain is that her gender identity won’t be taken into account in placing her: she’ll be shunted into a men’s ward. If there’s abuse or violence from inmates, solitary confinement — a form of punishment, not protection — is likely to be the authorities’ only answer. She’s asked for medical assistance. It won’t be granted. “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder,” a Fort Leavenworth spokesman told the press. Some courts have begun to mandate giving such care to trans* prisoners in some state institutions, but the decisions are still on appeal. It will be a long time before a precedent reaches the Federal prison system, or before it does any good for Chelsea Manning. (The US has 51 prison systems, in effect: one for each of the States, and a Federal one for people convicted under national law, like Manning. A detailed fact sheet on trans* rights in US prisons has been assembled by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.)

It’s important to speak out for Manning over the coming years. It’s important to call her trans*. Erasing the identity Manning expressed only reinforces the silence she sought to undo — and anticipates the violence she’ll face in prison. Fighting for trans* people’s safety within the prison-industrial complex may be the best way to fight for Manning now. The National Center for Transgender Equality has recommendations for trans* rights in Federal prisons here. To summarize:

  • Access to Healthcare. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons guarantee trans* prisoners all medically necessary health care, including therapy and surgery for their transitions.
  • Classification of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons  issue policies on the placement of trans* prisoners that take strongly into account each person’s self-identification, as well as his or her safety.
  • Safe Housing of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons develop measures to protect the physical safety of trans* inmates, without relying on automatic segregation, isolation, or solitary confinement.
  • Prison Rape Elimination Act Regulations. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, and the Prison Rape Elimination Commission which it created has proposed standards to protect trans* people. Demand that the Attorney General act on these to safeguard trans* Federal prisoners from sexual assault.

Stop Prisoner Rape, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the TGI Justice Project, and the Transgender Law Center are among the organizations working on trans* prisoners’ rights, and they need your support. Critical Resistance and End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) are resources on prison abolition.

Chelsea Manning has asked for mail from her supporters. She can be written at:

Bradley E. Manning
89289
1300 N. Warehouse Road
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
66027-2304

It’s one of the system’s first indignities that the envelopes must read “Bradley Manning” for them to be delivered. In the inside text, though, letters should address her as Chelsea.

NOTE: A commenter points out that Dora Özer’s murder was hardly ignored by everybody: it led to protests by sex worker activists worldwide. See http://jasmineanddora.wordpress.com/. This still points, though, to the grim divide between sex worker movements and LGB ( and a few T) activists, who don’t give a damn about sex workers in their own community, much less about the principles involved. They just don’t get the intersections or why issues of sexual freedom cut across identities and practices. That’s disgraceful. And it’s a post and a history in itself.

 (I am especially grateful to the members of the Real Pride, Real Issues coalition in San Francisco, whose members have kept up the pressure on SF Pride for its disgraceful abandonment of Manning, and whose Google group is a constant source of information.) 

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge Bradley Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge pro-Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Eric Ohena Lembembe: Not again, or never again?

2013-07-18-eric-ohena-lembembe-camaroes-assassinato-gay

They found Eric Ohena Lembembe’s body four days ago. He had a title and he had attracted praise before, and more has accrued to him now that it does no good. He was executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, and he fought not just for the right to health but for the other rights of people vulnerable to the virus, LGBT folk among them. He was brave, he was visible, he was gentle, he was outspoken. If you have ever seen a tortured body, you know how little this language signifies against the violence of somebody’s flesh being broken.  They discovered him at home; he had been missing for two days. The door was chained, but, staring through the window, his colleagues saw his corpse. His neck was snapped. The murderers had used a clothes iron to burn his limbs and his face. When I think of him I don’t think of his titles or his bravery. I only think of him suffering pain: intense pain, perhaps coming in sharp blows or perhaps in mounting waves, pain large enough to extinguish everything else in the world. The measure of how nobody deserves that is exactly that nobody can understand that. The pain blots out explanation or description. It is necessary to say something, in the end, but first one must think of the pain.

A necessary thing to say, once words restore their hegemony, is: It’s not the first time. I had the same thoughts of pain when David Kato’s body was found in Uganda in 2011. David was a slight, almost breakable-looking man: when he got excited, which was often, his body shook like an aspen with the intensity of expressing himself. The killer had beaten his head in with a hammer. There is a great, long poem about the First World War; toward its end a soldier reflects, in a moment when pain makes time stop, on the shell that has just struck him:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.

The violence is out of all proportion to our human weakness. Yet the killings keep coming.

David Kato

David Kato

One thing that struck me when David died was that, while human rights defenders and anti-Museveni dissidents in Uganda had faced harassment and persecution for years, he was the first in a long while to be murdered for his pains. Country after country, of course, defenders die in retaliation for all kinds of offenses against the powerful. In Russia, you can be shot in an elevator or murdered on the road for the articles you write; in Egypt, you can be tortured to death for talking back to the police. Still, in much of the world, activists working on gender and sexuality are among the most endangered defenders. I used to say: those who talk about the body and its rights face revenge upon their bodies by those who hate them. Perhaps that’s too pat, but there is something in it. The torture Lembembe underwent is what forensic examiners sometimes call “overkill,” defined aseptically as “wounding far beyond that required to cause death.” In many jurisdictions it seems to typify murders of LGBT people. The standard explanation is that hate drives the surplus violence. But a more excruciating economy than that is probably at work. You make your body support a politics; make your body suffer pain, and die of it. Isn’t that what they were trying to say not to, but through Eric Lembembe?

Lembembe died in Africa, of course. But there was nothing uniquely African about his death. Western press coverage falls back almost instantly on “African homophobia” as an explanation, painting the whole continent as one entity with a single culture that is unvaried, implacable, and impervious to history or distance. It’s “a notoriously homophobic continent.” “Gay rights face an uphill struggle throughout much of Africa,” Time intoned (click Time’s link and you’ll find that Africa is largely about dead gays, mass murder, elephant poaching, and Mandela). This is hardly new. A few weeks ago an American paper was warning of “An African Epidemic of Homophobia” (add epidemics to Time’s list). And so on.

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

Jayaram, a meti who survived a murder attempt on the street in Kathmandu, 2004

But Lembembe didn’t die of something both diffused across all Africa and distinctive to its “culture,” any more than Mark Carson, gunned down in New York City in May, died of a cultural pathology infecting all the rotten traditional communities of North America. For years reporters have been asking me what is “the world’s worst place to be gay.” The expected answers usually are a) all of Africa; b) all of the “Muslim world”; c) Jamaica. The question isn’t just reductionist, it’s racist. It assumes that all gay people’s experiences in a country are alike and can be assembled for insertion somewhere in a sliding scale. It assumes that homophobia is uniform across particular countries or cultures, and that you can rate the places like the Rough Guide. It takes a picture of monolithic and exclusionary cultures that Russian nationalists, African traditionalists, and American fundamentalists could all go jismic over — and combines it with a nineteenth-century race theorist’s facility in ranking all these on a ladder, leading up to white liberals in pith helmets on top. (There’s even a poll out now asking fools what they think are the world’s least gay-friendly countries, with Iran victorious by virtue of bad publicity.) But any place –Stockholm or Amsterdam or San Francisco — can be terrible if you are gay and poor, or gay and a member of another group that people don’t like. And Kingston, Teheran, and Yaounde are perfectly safe for plenty who have power, position, or money. No “culture” has slapped a copyright on the idea of murdering LGBT people. It happens in Kathmandu and in Montreal.  Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should not blind us to other horrors, less conspicuous and less known although — or perhaps because — they may be closer at hand.

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen's definition (1972)

Moral panic: Stanley Cohen’s definition (1972)

What’s happened in Cameroon for more than seven years is a moral panic: a moment when social and political anxieties — usually fears about rapid change — grow too intense to find release through argument, and turn to a hunt for scapegoats. Moral panics are not “cultural” eruptions from primeval magma. They’re always political. They enlist political actors (journalists, pundits, religious leaders, intellectuals, police, politicians themselves); almost always politicians instigate them, or try to manipulate them. This is especially true of panics around sexuality and gender. “Panic,” Gayle Rubin wrote a long time ago, “is the political moment of sex.” Sex is a charged question everywhere. It’s an easy way for opportunists to define their enemies. In Cameroon, the furor arguably dates to 2005, when a few newspapers launched a campaign to expose a homosexual “conspiracy” in high places, outing allegedly deviant celebrities. There was obscure political scheming behind the defamations. It created a miasma of public uncertainty and fear, though, in which stripping away secrecies became a civic duty. The ensuing years have seen mass arrests, trials, blackmailing, threats, violence, and now murder.

The most “African” thing about the long panic in Cameroon is precisely its political side. Public figures since Robert Mugabe in the early 1990s have figured out how to wield homophobic rhetoric for distraction, division, and support. Cameroon is only one more country (think Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal and more) where whipping up fears of sexual corruption has become a collective sport.

When the first shock of Lembembe’s killing recedes, it’s easy to let the repetitiveness dull you. There’s the recurrence of homophobia: the same political gesticulations and demonizing sounds, the same gibbering scarecrows set up to appal. And there’s the recurrence of death. A lot of us have our private mourning lists unscrolling in our minds: Fanny Ann Eddy, David Kato, Lawrence King, Vanesa Ledesma, Cynthia Nicole, Ebru Soykan, Daniel Zamudio. About now is the time some people get orotund, and say sententiously: “Never again.” Another voice in the mind, though, between exhaustion and despair, wheedles instead: “Not again. Not this again.” As though you know it will be this inevitably, again and again. More death.

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

Fanny Ann Eddy, Lawrence King, Cynthia Nicole, Daniel Zamudio: RIP

My question is: What can we do?

That “we” has two sides. LGBT movements worldwide are divided in resources and perspectives. There’s a difference between the groups that say they work “internationally” — mainly meaning they are based in North America or Europe and identify themselves by their synoptic view — and groups that, even if they work extensively across borders, don’t look quite so international because based in the South: Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. They have different capacities, monies, and power. In preventing violence and murder, they have different responsibilities.

I’m interested in the internationals, because, of course, I’m one of them. I worked for IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch for almost twenty years. I have a fair idea how international groups think. They’re like anybody else: a triumph happens – a sodomy statute struck down, or discrimination banned — and they’re more than happy to assert their share of credit. When a catastrophe takes place – an activist murdered, a bad law passed – they condemn, but don’t guess whether they might have done something different. You know what people say. Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is a Russian orphan; the law bars gay groups abroad from adopting it. 

Almost from the beginning of the panic in Cameroon, international organizations descended on the country. (Many had paid limited attention to Cameroon before the gay issue came up.) Human Rights Watch did joint letters with Amnesty, IGLHRC, and other organizations, including Doctors of the World and Physicians for Human RIghts. in 2010 a joint report came out, authored by Alternatives-Cameroun and l’Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels (ADEFHO), together with HRW and IGLHRC. Earlier this year HRW produced another report, with ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, and Eric’s organization CAMFAIDS. Amnesty International featured Cameroon in its recent analysis of homophobia in Africa. All Out announced petition campaigns, and praised itself for their impact. IGLHRC has its own roster of letters and press releases on the country. Surely, then, one should be able to say what this accomplished. I stress that I was involved in much of this — I oversaw HRW’s early interventions in the situation, including the research for the 2010 report. So any critique must criticize me.

But has this been a great success? If it were, Eric Ohena Lembembe would not be dead. The murder of a leading movement figure — and the brutal “overkill” with its message of revenge and loathing — means, whatever else we may have accomplished around the edges, we’ve failed at something. Something central.

The questions for me are twofold: how does the discourse change, how does the discussion shift, when you internationalize a situation like this? and what does “security” mean when your whole work is about making human rights stories — and activists and actors — more visible and exposed?

First, international actors worked in Cameroon, of course, at the request and by and large under the guidance of domestic activist groups. The 2010 and 2013 reports in which Human Rights Watch joined were if anything unusually collaborative for an NGO that is used to going it alone. Our partners, ADEFHO and Alternatives-Cameroun, were extremely clear in setting out what they did and did not want us to do. The problem was not with the terms of the relationship (ADEFHO and Alternatives, of course, might disagree), and certainly not with the guidance we got. My question is rather whether international groups’ engagement carries hidden costs — ones that can only be seen by testing whether their agendas, the terms in which they frame things, are really responsive to other realities.

For example, there’s the idea of “equality,” which comes up again and again in the responses to Eric’s murder. “Eric’s activism paved the way for a society based on equality and nondiscrimination,” says Human Rights Watch. “The global movement for love and equality is poorer for the loss of Eric Lembembe,” says All Out. “Equal rights” was an important term in Eric Lembembe’s advocacy, as well. But did it mean the same thing?

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

Shut up and like it: This is all you need

There was a time — as little as ten or fifteen years ago — when the LGBT movement as a whole talked about “equality” in a constellation with other values like privacy, and dignity; when it also talked about specific rights, like expression, association, and assembly, as well as the rights to health or livelihood. That’s over. The big gay gurus now rattle on about “equality” as if it subsumes them all. It’s a master key that explains everything we apparently want, and you don’t have to descend to talking about specific rights at all. In fact, the internationals know what equality means: there’s a road map hidden in the word, with a general understanding that it leads through anti-discrimination laws toward relationship recognition and marriage. Never mind that marriage is exactly the prospect that inflames the intensest opposition in large quarters of the world, and that foreigners throwing around “equality” language in those precincts may be juggling with Molotov cocktails. “Equality” has become the be-all and end-all of LGBT aspirations in North America and Europe.

The US State Department, for instance, has set up a public-private partnership “Global Equality Fund” to govern its giving to LGBT causes. This is christened after the Council for Global Equality, an NGO set up by excellent friends and colleagues of mine to lobby US diplomacy for … well, equality. “Equality” is the only term in which the most powerful government in the world envisions LGBT rights.

Predators don't play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

Predators don’t play in Peoria: Drones for me but not for thee

It would be hard to say that the USG has a vision of global equality, though: at least, one that extends to the percent of the world’s population who, not being LGBT, aren’t eligible for the fund. US foreign policy is not based on reciprocity among global citizens. We have, after all, a world order where the US can send drones to kill Pakistanis unimpeded, while Pakistan certainly can’t do the same to the US. But even if you think (as most people in the US surely do, myself included) it’s a fine thing not to have Pakistani flights laying waste to Peoria, one still might question a global order in which the governments of Pakistan, and Yemen, and for that matter Poland and Romania, are too enfeebled, dependent, and submissive to the United States even to protest when America wants to slaughter their citizens, or spy on their diplomats, or set up torture camps to brutalize victims on their soil.  It may be an orderly and stable world. It may be a grand Pax Americana. But equal it isn’t.

And one needn’t turn to Great Game geopolitics to wonder what “global equality” is about.  Take the question of humanitarian aid from rich countries to poor –which a number of governments and international organizations would like to see tied to whether the poor countries treat their LGBT people equally.  Of course, humanitarian aid is itself a function of an unequal world, a way of palliating its inequalities. Tying that aid to political conditions is a stark reminder of the political inequality between peoples. And enforcing those conditions and cutting the aid will make economic inequality worse. From an African’s perspective, it might look suspiciously as though rich governments are willing to make some people less equal in the name of making others more so.  How did those folks get to be the favored beneficiaries of equality, whereas these aren’t? Obviously some are more equal, or at least more global, than others.  You can understand why most African activists have rejected aid conditionality as a way of achieving rights. But leaders like David Cameron keep babbling about it. And as long as they do, resentment over why the gays get this extra dollop of equality denied to others will multiply: not because of what African activists themselves are doing, but because of how their international friends try to help.

Nor is it just government policies that raise doubts about what “equality” means to the West. Non-governmental organizations create similar confusion. All these groups believe enthusiastically in formal equality before the law. When it comes to economic equality, or even to the social conditions that make legal equality real, they sometimes stare slack-jawed as though they have no idea what one means. Human Rights Watch used to have particular insecurities about approaching economic rights.  In a famous or notorious article, Ken Roth, the executive director, suggested back in 2004 that poverty was not a structural problem at all: “poverty and severe deprivation is [sic] a product less of a lack of public goods than of officially promoted or tolerated policies of social exclusion.” In other words, the difficulty is not with the recipe for the pie, or the men who bake it, or the oven in which it’s made. Nothing about the economic structure in which the pie is produced keeps it small. Other bakers aren’t monopolizing the ingredients. The pie is fine. It’s just that somebody is dividing this mini-pie up wrong, so that one group or another doesn’t get its negligible bite.

It's fine. Fine.

It’s fine. Fine.

The result was that Human Rights Watch committed to dealing with poverty – in rights-ese, the denial of economic and social rights – not as an economic issue, but as a matter of discrimination. Poverty was bad if some people were deliberately made poorer than others. In this model, you could talk about the right to education if certain kids – children of ethnic minorities, for example, or children living with HIV/AIDS—were denied schooling. You couldn’t talk about policies that threatened all, or nearly all, children’s access to education, though: policies like privatizing schools, or the school fees or exorbitant textbook prices that international lending institutions loved to impose on Africa. Because those applied across the board, they weren’t issues of “social exclusion.” The pie was simply made that way, that’s all. In fairness, almost the entire organization tacitly rebelled against this argument. Human Rights Watch’s reports on kids’ education back then, for instance, reveal researchers finding all sorts of ingenious ways to urge that school fees were excessive, or unnecessary, or should be “reconsidered,” or lifted in nearly all cases, without actually writing that school fees were wrong. This kind of casuistry helped salvage the organization’s reputation in many places, including Africa. But the economically uninformed picture of poverty that underlay it hardly went unnoticed. It pointed up the fact that “equality” meant something different to HRW than to almost every activist in Africa. And the problem is that the more your agenda as a local activist got identified with HRW’s, the more your own articulation of equality got subsumed beneath this partial and impoverished one.

I have some experience with LGBT rights activism in Africa. And I find the way its diverse goals are represented, not just in the media but by its international partners, often reductive and distorting. There are a great many LGBT activists who don’t see some broad “equality” agenda as standing for their struggles. They want specific things: the right to privacy, say, represented by repealing sodomy laws; the right to associate, represented by registering an organization; the right to expression, enjoyed when you can give an interview to a radio station without fear of reprisal. The nebulosities of “equality” as Westerners bloviate about it aren’t nearly precise enough. There are activists who see formal, legal “equality” in the Western sense as simply a cover for neocolonial forms of segregation and domination, a substitute (as arguably it’s been in South Africa) for deeper, radical social transformation. There are activists who feel that “equality” in relationships can only be achieved by exempting them from the patriarchal state’s regulation, not getting them a far-off seal of repressive approval. And there are a lot of activists who would say that it’s destructive to talk, for example, about “LGBT equality” in access to health care when nobody has access to adequate health care. “Equality” for them does not mean some particular protection for LGBT people; it doesn’t just mean remedying “social exclusion”; it means changing the rules of the game. It means comprehensively redistributing goods so that all sectors of society can obtain them. It doesn’t imply privileging those groups who can make “discrimination” claims that Western actors will recognize.

Equality, an African view

Equality, an African view

These are only a few of the positions out there. All these disputes take place at a time of extraordinary economic flux and chaos in Africa. What Achille Mbembe wrote (in On the Postcolony) is still true: there is a “crisis of the taxation system, shortages, and population movements,” and it often looks like “simply a struggle among predators.”

Meanwhile, below the state sphere new forms of belonging and social incorporation are gestating, with the formation of “leagues,” “corporations,” “coalitions,” and so on. There is no doubt that most of the religious and healing movements proliferating in Africa today constitute visible, if ambiguous, sites where new normative systems, new common languages, and the constitution of new authorities are being negotiated.

There is a “heteronomous and fragmented conception of the ‘political community.’ The basic question, of the emergence of a subject with rights, remains unresolved.” But exactly because of this ferment and uncertainty, assuming the Western vision of formal legal equality encompasses a solution is both stupid and premature.

However. It’s very hard for this fertility of ideas, which so informs what happens in African movements, to filter into what international organizations do. There’s no mechanism built into their board-governed systems to listen or respond. My fear is that, because the internationals have the discursive power, what African (and other) activists are doing will get further identified with their HRC-sticker agendas. It’s easy to predict two results. The internationals’ interventions will be ignored — unless they grow addicted to relying on Western governments’ economic leverage, which will only discredit LGBT issues still more. And many African LGBT movements will look more isolated from their countries and peoples, rather than more integrated into the collective pursuit of justice. There is still time for the internationals to enter into a dialogue with Southern partners with a view to more open and flexible definitions of a rights agenda. It’s not happening yet. If it doesn’t, I can tell you what the consequences of isolation and stigma will be: More blood. More pain.

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Moral entrepreneur: Ghanaian newspaper, 2011

Second: Visibility leads to violence. It’s a lesson that (to return to what’s happened in Africa) twenty years’ experience should have enforced on everyone. Again and again, the first time somebody came out or was outed or made a public statement about LGBT identity in a particular country, a ferocious backlash followed; lives were destroyed. Zimbabwe! Zambia!  Uganda! Kenya! This didn’t happen (to repeat) just because of some cross-continental cultural pressure for conformity. It happened, by and large, because some players knew how to exploit the spectre of sexual difference, and gin up fears for political ends. They had models for doing this, furnished ready-made from Mugabe on down. The dynamic of panic is reproducible. As with an earthquake, it’s hard to tell exactly when the backlash might break out or the violence begin. But as with an earthquake, you can predict that, precise dates aside, it’s coming.

From the beginning — with Mugabe’s attacks on the Zimbabwe Book Fair and GALZ in the early 1990s — international organizations have largely intervened to publicize these episodes, which started with publicity, still further. That’s the main thing international human rights groups do, after all: their work is predicated on faith that shedding light and telling stories are the foundations of change. A cycle of publicity starts, with exposure leading to more exposure. The victims and the local activists both become more public. I could hardly claim to see this with disapproval. It does, however, place a responsibility on international activists. Having shed the light, they are liable for the consequences. Their obligation is, as far as humanly possible, to ensure the safety of those they work with. It’s particularly salient because most international human rights organizations claim special expertise on issues of security, transcending local knowledges about safety and defense. They talk about it regularly. They raise money for it.

I’ve seen international groups promising to protect the security of LGBT activist partners for twenty years now.  We’ve done a shamefully incompetent job.

Some things improved in recent years — there is more funding for security, there are more experienced organizations involved. Some individuals devote their time to helping with security concerns. But these small marks in the ledger haven’t stopped the deaths. If they had, Eric might be alive. Human Rights Watch used to say that defending the defenders was at the core of its mission. When did this become defending the defenders after they’re dead?

Everybody agrees vaguely that LGBT activists face distinctive dangers in many places. But no one, so far as I know, has even tried to analyze systematically what those dangers are, how they’re different, or what can be done. As for the risks endured by “ordinary” LGBT communities, not just rights defenders: the serious studies of how they could be countered can be counted on one hand.

And there is thinking about this that goes on among local groups!  Just this afternoon I sat with a couple of Egyptians who brainstormed innovative approaches to provide some protection for people who look funny — not “masculine” or “feminine” enough — in downtown Cairo. There’s more imagination there than the big human rights groups have evolved in years. For most of us on the “international” side, the reflex reaction when confronted by an activist in danger is: Get her out of the country. Escape substitutes for protection. The asylum system –unwieldy, prejudiced, deeply flawed — serves as the nearest thing we have to a security plan for the international LGBT movement.

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is so easy

Asylum is necessary. Asylum is a human right. The incessant efforts by governments to restrict it are intolerable. This afternoon I’m also finishing an affidavit for a gay Egyptian seeking asylum in Europe. The contortions the authorities undergo to deny him are amazing; if they could find an expert to testify that the man’s buck teeth proved that he was heterosexual, and thus ineligible, they’d jump at the chance. People who work full-time on asylum and refugee concerns are tottering on the brink of permanent despair. I profoundly respect them.

On the other hand, half the time when I hear LGBT people from North America or Europe talking about LGBT asylum, I want to pound somebody’s head, possibly but not necessarily mine, against a well-built wall. The subject brings out the worst fantasies in Western gays’ imaginations. All too often they feed on the needs of asylum-seekers, for a vampirish, sanguine satisfaction. There is, on the one hand, the dream of being a savior without going anywhere, of staying securely at home while rescuing some helpless subaltern from her own society. There is also the sheer pleasure of seeing one’s own country exalted, as the abode of freedom and the goal of others’ aspirations. The rhetoric can be Dickensian in its mawkishness, and patronizing to the point of racism. “We helped save a 19-year old Iranian!” Or: the poor victim “has NEVER been accused of a crime, except leaving his homeland to come to America. He was shunned by a society that wants to kills gays. He is an orphan and has no one.” Lucky you: “We can give one gay man … the gift of freedom.” That some asylum-seekers are desperate is beyond doubt; that emotional excess can energize an appeal is at least arguable; but reducing them to emblems of abjection only redoubles the humiliation they have already suffered. That this self-indulgence also lets people suppose they are doing something constructive for the security of LGBT movements around the world is hard to bear.

Image from the "Save Pegah" campaign (the asylum-seeker's name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Image from the “Save Pegah” campaign (the asylum-seeker’s name was publicized apparently without her permission), 2007

Particularly self-congratulatory is the rhetoric that asylum for LGBT people — or anybody — “saves lives.” Just for the record, it doesn’t. Asylum can often save biological life: one reason why it’s absolutely necessary. But that’s not the same as saving lives, saving the way people live as connected and implicated beings in their cultures, contexts, communities. It’s exactly this that exile destroys. Asylum can keep your physical existence going at a distance from those who want to kill you, but it can’t give you back that connectedness and system of meaning, that way of living. To the contrary. Almost any asylee will tell you that exile is a social death, and there is no easy way to rebuild a lost vocabulary of values or a syntax of belonging in a new country. Asylum is suffering, not hope. This is why hardly anyone ever seeks it casually or lightly, and why so few claims actually are fraudulent. Who would inflict such an amnesia and amputation on himself with so tenuous a prospect of recovery, unless there were absolutely no alternative?

And it’s this social death that — contemplating the dangers LGBT movements face around the world — we hold out as a security program.

We, and by “we” of course I mean the international segment of the LGBT movement, have to do better. Much better. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death should make us do more than mourn, and calls us to condemn more than state inaction. We need to examine ourselves, what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.  International organizations need to return to their Southern partners for analysis and critique, with a much-made and superannuated promise to listen and learn: not just about strategy and method, but about the meaning of rights talk itself, what needs it stands for and how it performs in the open politics of movements as well as in the chambers of law. I’m not too optimistic that this will happen. But the alternative to patiently educating ourselves is either becoming irrelevant, or a lot more pain.