Irresponsibility, ignorance, and self-declared “experts” on Iran

This way, please: Rumor leading the chariot of War (Vincenzo Cartari, 1582)

Go ahead: Google “Stop Iran from Executing Four Homosexual Citizens.”  You’ll get well over a thousand hits. They link to petitions that accuse four Iranian men in the small town of Charam of being gay — a capital crime. The insane activist misbehavior over Iran goes on unstoppably. And those responsible for it take no responsibility at all.

When I last wrote about this, none of the petitions were yet directly addressed to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian authorities. That didn’t take long to change. This one, on CNN’s website, now has 5000 signatures; but beyond that, it comes with helpful e-mail addresses and links so that you can contact Iran’s authorities yourself.


The suggested missive not only affirms the men’s gayness, and hence guilt, but makes a weird link to Iran’s nuclear program. With the Flame virus spreading like, well, wildfire, it’s hard to imagine what could be more incendiary; the drafters might as well just brand the four men Israeli spies:

Your Excellency, This is a petition to bring to your attention to [sic] case of four gay men in Iran who are sentenced to be hanged for “sodomy…

If this execution goes forward, it will constitute a crime against humanity in the eyes of the international community, as well as a profound affront to the international standards of justice and norms of modern cilivization [sic] as codified in human rights treaties and conventions to which Iran is a signatory state.

Unavoidably, the question arises: if the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted to honor its human rights obligations under international treaties and covenants, how can it be trusted to honor its commitments in other areas of pressing urgency such as nonproliferation? [emphasis in the original]

In fact, the last paragraph is really the most revealing. Whoever dreamed up this language, it’s clear, isn’t thinking about whether the men live or die. He or she is thinking about Iran’s nuclear program; the men’s fates are a propaganda tool. None of this is doing any good for the men. Nearly all of it is poised to do them harm.

tweet them out

Now, it’s worth repeating: we still have zero information suggesting that the men are “gay.” But none of these petitionmongers cares much about facts. On one page, I see, comments from a Morocco resident who raised doubts about the story have simply been deleted.

What, in truth, do we know now?  One human rights activist in Iran reported to the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) that “The four individuals are related and come from the same tribe. They’re among the thugs in the area. About two and half years ago, they have ‘cornered’ a young man of 18-19 and raped him.” He added that HRANA (the Human Rights Activists News Agency), the Farsi-language source of the original story “received th[is] original version too, but intentionally altered it to create media uproar.”

There is recurrent mistrust of HRANA’s reliability among sexual-rights activists and some other human rights campaigners in Iran. Still, after this circulated, on May 17 (28 Ordibehesht 1391), HRANA published an elaboration, based on an alleged interview with a relative of one of the four. This article states that the actual charge was “lavat beh onf,” or rape. The interviewee told HRANA that  “the families of all four” believed that the victim actually had consensual sex with the men, but had turned this into a rape claim, enlisting two other sexual partners as witnesses against them.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

What we have, then, is characteristic confusion caused by a dearth of information. An editor at JOOPEA, an Iranian sexual-rights platform, wrote me, “5 adults are involved [presumably including the alleged victim]. We don’t know this was a rape, normal sex, a game or something.” It’s an article of faith among the Peter Tatchells and Doug Irelands of the world that male-male rape never takes place in Iran, and that all alleged incidents are “really” consensual homosexual acts. In promoting this version of the famous 2005 case where two youths were hanged for the rape of a 13-year-old, Peter’s then organization OutRage! both belittled the violence and defamed the victim, accusing him of wanting the sex and then lying about it. Of course, while mounting these allegations, they knew nothing about the victim, not even his name — and very little about Iran; nonetheless, Gay City News, Doug’s employer, intoned back in 2006 that “rape of men by men is comparatively rare” worldwide, an astonishingly ignorant generalization. (Underreporting, mainly due to stigma, means that almost no country has statistics on male rape that can be considered reliable. One Australian psychologist estimates that only one out of eleven cases there is reported.) In fact, in several years of interviewing Iranian LGBT people, I talked to dozens of men who had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused by other men — in jails, in schools, or in families. Children were particularly at risk; and “effeminacy,” looking or acting somehow unmasculine, made them vulnerable.

It’s certainly possible that the four men in Charam are “gay” or hamjensgara, and have been framed. It’s certainly also possible that they raped an “effeminate” victim, and that he is the one who suffered for sexual dissidence. Quite possibly, in fact, that’s the pattern underlying these stories of rape. In other words, conceivably Tatchell, Ireland, and their cohorts have spent all these years speechifying and pontificating in support not of “gays,” but of their persecutors. The point is: We don’t know. All this is speculation. And the only responsible way to defend any of these people from the death penalty is not to make imperial, destructive, and unsupported claims about their sexualities, but to oppose the death penalty itself.

That, however, is not an issue to motivate Western queers.

Down, boy: Sir Calidore and the Blatant Beast

Meanwhile: No one who launched the story has bothered to follow up the facts. Dan Littauer and one of his editors are both on the listserve where the IRQO’s account, and the HRANA elaboration, appeared. You’d think that this might stimulate a further article. You know: New allegations on both sides have been forthcoming, and so on. Naturally, though, there’s been nothing of the sort. The MO of the rumorists is like that of Spenser’s untameable Blatant Beast: Never apologize, never explain.

True, the publicity hounds at Italy’s Everyone Group — who organized similar petitions incriminating Makwan Mouloudzadeh before his execution back in 2008 — did at least respond to me on their website. They title their answer “Gay Persecution under Sharia: the Silence of the West.” The phrase “Silence of the West” endlessly fascinates me. It’s used almost invariably in relation to subjects about which the West will not shut up. What it means is not that the West is neglecting something, but that one discordant voice unsettles the harmony and unanimity. It’s an odd sort of aural hallucination: while the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir is bellowing out the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a single person whistling “Hava Nagila” softly to herself is enough to drown out lungs and pipe organ alike.

Since Everyone Group did me the favor of a reply, though, I’ll reply to them here in turn. They write:

We are very familiar with Islamic law (Sharia).

No, you aren’t.

An accused person can be sentenced exclusively on the EYE WITNESS accounts of at least FOUR PEOPLE OF ISLAMIC FAITH. The Islamic judges do not consider as evidence the statements given by “infidels”.

Nonsense. As is well known, in Ja’fari shari’a legal interpretation, there are two additional bases for convicting people of liwat/lavat:  a confession repeated four times, or the judge’s personal knowledge of the acts (in Arabic, ‘ilm al-hakim).  The former arguably gives considerable scope to torture to extract confessions; In Iran, the latter has turned into broad leeway for circumstantial evidence to decide cases.

Death kitsch: “Makwan, a Letter from Paradise” by Everyone Group

Anyhow, in this situation we are not discussing first-instance verdicts. The question is how to persuade Iranian authorities to show mercy and suspend an already-decided sentence of death. Everyone Group clings to the unaccountable delusion that telling Ahmadeinjad et. al. the convicts are gay is actually a means to this end.

Then we get into Everyone Group’s favorite bugaboo: the idea that they have an absolute right to use anyone’s name — an asylum-seeker, a refugee, an Iranian facing the death penalty — in any way they want to, without the person’s consent. God forbid you disagree:

Unfortunately, some governments and associations connected to public funding and not to human rights, often seek to prevent (as occured during the National Socialism period) the names of the condemned being published. The real purpose of these policies is to obtain silence on refugees and the persecuted …

It’s true; we’re all Nazis!  Everyone Group has been saying this for years. Back in 2009 they had the same refrain: blanking out the name of an asylum-seeker in a campaign “mean[s] denying, as in Apartheid and slavery, a fundamental right. In this way, a person becomes isolated, he becomes an anonymous figure, a common Mister X or a number and is cancelled out, as happened in the Nazi concentration camps and in the present day jails of fundamentalist Islamic countries.” (Their emphasis.) Of course, you might imagine a person has a “fundamental right” to decide how their identity is represented and their name is used: a right not to have their safety endangered for publicity’s sake. Look at yourself! You think that because you are a racist, an ayatollah, and Heinrich Himmler.

Finally, as far as the Makwan Mouloudzadeh case goes, Everyone Group indulges in a bold rewriting of reality:

As for Makwan, it is not true that the accusers retracted the allegations: the identities of the five accusers have never been revealed, but we do know that they were police officers. The charge of “lavat” against Makwan was never retracted!

I puzzled over this wildness for some while, since the facts of Makwan’s legal situation at least are no secret. In September 2006, three men in the town of Paveh told police that Mouloudzadeh had raped them seven years earlier. During the subsequent trial, they retracted their accusations. Mouloudzadeh was convicted nonetheless, based on a confession he claimed was coerced under torture.

no knowledge, but a lot of expertise

I can only assume that Everyone Group’s error here derives from an attempt to confuse “accusers” with “arresters.”  Yes, the police arrested Makwan, and were responsible, as in most systems, for charging him before the law. But the accusation of rape that came from the three alleged victims was certainly retracted — by the alleged victims themselves. A guilty conscience perhaps informs Everyone Group’s uncertainties about what happened in the Makwan case, but it’s no excuse for confusing matters further.

Finally, it’s inevitable where publicity and Iran are concerned that Peter Tatchell should rear his head. He gets cited in the petitions. And I notice (see to the right!) he is now giving himself a new title: “expert on Iran.” It’s astonishing you can become an expert on a country where you’ve never been, and don’t even speak the language. How do you manage? Perhaps some geek on the Mother Ship transfers the expertise direct from a jump drive into your brain, like in The Matrix. “Can you fly that helicopter?” “Not yet.” “Can you comment on that country?” “Wait, I’m downloading.”

How to become an expert on Iran: One theory

Of course, there are other means. The London Review of Books this week carries a very useful article by Owen Bennett-Jones on the Mujahedin e Khalq or People’s Mujahedin (MEK), a cultlike and exceptionally repressive Iranian resistance group that’s campaigned for years to get itself removed from the terrorist lists of the US and other countries. I recommend the piece to everybody.

The People’s Mujahedin used to be a pet cause of Peter Tatchell. He’s dismissed charges of terrorist violence as a “smear”; he said of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), MEK’s political wing, that “it has played a heroic role in resisting the clerical fascist regime in Iran and campaigning for democracy and human rights.” He compared it to “the African National Congress in South Africa or the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War Two.” He told The Nation it was “a key liberation movement inside Iran that deserves international support.”

The MEK’s generous funding has long been a mystery, though nobody was much surprised by Seymour Hersh’s revelation this year that, despite the “terrorist” designation, the US has been channeling not just money but arms to the group — as well as training them in Nevada. What they do with their CIA-and-other largesse is perhaps even more interesting. In addition to full-time lobbyists, they pay a stable of prominent personalities not just to defend their record, but to lend them mute luster by their mere proximity. Bennett-Jones notes,

Three dozen former high-ranking American officials regularly speak at MEK-friendly events. They include Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Obama’s former national security adviser General James Jones and the former congressman Lee Hamilton. The rate for a speech is between $20,000 and $40,000 for ten minutes. Subject matter is not a concern: some speakers deliver speeches that barely mention the MEK. … The Treasury is investigating whether speakers have been receiving funds from a designated terrorist organisation. … Most of those who back the group do so because they will back anything that seeks to upset the regime in Tehran. They seem unaware that the organisation has been called a cult and have not heard the complaints of former members. A number of the most prominent MEK lobbyists say they agreed to speak because they were reassured by the respectability of those who were already doing so.

Tatchell’s own funding is, of course, also a mystery of long standing. For example, his latest venture, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation,” is not a UK registered charity, and offers no reports on where it gets its monies or how it spends them. Given the MEK’s avidity to recruit celebrities major and minor to flack for it, and Tatchell’s own diehard defenses of the group, one does rather wonder what exactly exchanged hands between them. Expertise, very possibly (perhaps on how to run a cult, perhaps even on Iran). But were there more material aspects to the Vulcan mind-meld?

How to become an expert on Iran: Another theory

Of course, this is pure and simple speculation. But it’s no more speculative than the stuff Tatchell and Ireland have disseminated on Iran in the past. And it has one advantage they don’t. It doesn’t endanger lives.

Four “sodomy” sentences in Iran: On not learning from our mistakes

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

Iranian authorities killed Makwan Mouloudzadeh on December 5, 2007.  Six months earlier, a court had convicted Mouloudzadeh —  a youth of Kurdish descent from near Kermanshah — of raping three other boys when he was 13.  However, his accusers retracted their claims; no evidence against him remained. In November, Iran’s chief justice had overturned the death sentence. Yet a panel of judges illegally defied him; they ordered the execution to go forward. Makwan was 21 years old.

“Hier ist kein warum,” an SS officer in Auschwitz told Primo Levi: “Here there’s no ‘why.” Try finding the “why” in Iran’s criminal justice system, riddled with corruption, incompetence and contradictions that unravel the basic rationality and syntax intended to constitute the law! If the mullahs behaved inscrutably, though, you have to grasp the matching weirdness in the deranged behavior of Western gay activists, who had mounted a massive campaign on Makwan’s behalf. Their goal wasn’t to persuade Iran’s authorities of Makwan’s evident innocence; it was to convince them he was guilty of a different crime. They accused him of consensual homosexual sex — which is also a capital offense.

But Boris’s is bigger: Anti-Iran protest, London Pride, 2008

They all wanted a “gay” victim, even if it meant his death. Peter Tatchell, the British activist, had been obsessed for years with proving that “gay” executions were a regular event in Iran. He seized on Makwan’s case as evidence, broadcasting that he was the “latest victim in Iran’s on-going homophobic campaign.”  He referred to the 13-year old, who had recanted any claim of rape or other sexual relations, as Makwan’s “partner”: and he urged letters to Iran’s government, calling for Makwan’s release while further incriminating him.  Meanwhile, EveryOne Group, a rogue Italian circle of publicity hounds, organized a petition to Ahmadeinejad for the “young homosexual Makvan,” and argued explicitly that he was “‘guilty’ of having loved a peer when he was 13 and having sexual intercourse with him.”  Not a shred of evidence underpinned these fantasies of erotic culpability. But God knows how many messages Everyone Group showered on Teheran, all telling the authorities, completely falsely, that Makwan had committed a capital crime. It’s impossible to suppose these didn’t play their part in the judges’ sudden reversal, and the execution. Makwan’s self-appointed “friends” had blood on their hands.

You know the cliches. Those who don’t remember the past …. And, of course, History repeats itself … “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” that was what Marx said, right? Except what if both times, it’s tragedy?  What if it’s just a grinding recurrence of the same mistakes? Not even laughing gas could let you find comedy in the senseless reiteration, the stupid waste.

Everything old is new again; and the same people are still looking for “gay” victims, and still indifferent to the consequences.

Here’s the story. On Saturday, May 12 (that’s 23 Ordibehesht, 1391, in the Persian calendar) the website of Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an independent Farsi source for rights news, published the following note:

The sentence of death against four citizens in the province of Kohgiluyeh on charges of “sodomy”  has been confirmed.

HRANA, a news organization for human rights activists in Iran, reports that  the execution of four people named Saadat Arafi, Vahid Akbari, Javid Akbar and Houshmand Akbari has been approved.

These four persons residing in the city of Charam in Kohgiluyeh province, are facing charges of sodomy punishable by death. The charge of sodomy  is an accusation often referring to sex with [persons of the] same sex.

This is very little information, and the last sentence indicates that HRANA itself didn’t know the substance of the charges — whether they involved consensual sex or rape, both of which can be included under lavat (sodomy) in Iranian law.  HRANA is the only source we have; no independent account seems to turn up in any other Iranian news organ, at least not online. It’s not on the local Kogiluyeh websites, here or here or here; it’s not even on the helpful page of the province’s religious police.

My little town: Charam

That doesn’t mean it isn’t true — but it does mean HRANA’s information is probably pretty fragmentary. Charam is a small city (population 12,000 in the 2006 census) in the out-of-the-way and mountainous Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province in Iran’s southeast. Even HRANA doesn’t seem to draw a whole lot of news from there, judging from their website.

So the first thing a human rights activist or a journalist would do is try to reach HRANA and get more information. The real human rights activists are trying this (and I too wrote to HRANA today). Unfortunately, there are also journalists who have learned in the Doug Ireland school that speculation is what makes a story.

The HRANA piece was posted to a listserve I’m on, that same Saturday. Dan Littauer, of the dubious website Gay Middle East, is on the same list. Within a few hours he’d written a lengthy article, which was up on three British gay news sites. (The alacrity with which these articles blossom on the Web suggests a certain sparsity of fact-checking.) The piece is an educational example; it reveals how to pad out the virtual absence of detail in the HRANA piece with other non-details, until it looks like you actually know something. Naturally, Littauer didn’t reach HRANA itself; but he quotes an unnamed gay activist in Iran, as well as Iranians in London and Austria, none of whom have any direct knowledge of the case. One says, “this is the most clear statement against same sex-acts in past months.” Another: “The rhetoric of announcement makes the link between same-sex sexual activity, or sodomy with corporal punishment very clear.” I don’t quite know what the last sentence means; but of course, we don’t have any official “announcement” or “statement” to judge from. We have only the blip from HRANA, in HRANA’s own words. It’s hard to read a new government stance into that.

Then, to fill space, Littauer indulges his own Orientalist speculation:

Iranian Human Rights activists constantly note the fact that the two genders are strictly segregated increases the tendency for same-sex acts among the youth, in a phenomena [sic] that is also similarly known in single gender prisons. Indeed this phenomenon happens throughout highly segregated societies in the Middle East and North Africa.

Now, I’ve never heard an Iranian human rights activist say anything of the sort. I have, however, heard plenty of white gay tourists, plumped up with their own fanciful sex scenarios about endlessly available Middle Eastern men, offer up just this account. What this has to do with the skeletal story from Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad is anybody’s guess. But rule one in the Doug Ireland school of journalism is, Remember, Westerners’ fantasies are your audience. And rule two is, Every added paragraph makes it seem more true.

the awful consequences of gender segregation

But the sad part is what happens then. Over the weekend, some other websites start carrying the tale. “Iran to Execute Four Gays by Hanging,” one right-wing page serves up, complete with ideological icing: “It is very rare that liberal media cover Islamic hatred towards gays, or killing of gays.” Well, actually, they do.  Monday the wildly popular US-based Huffington Post  picks up the story, headlining it “Iranian Gay Men To Be Hanged For Sodomy: Report.” But: what? What, even in Littauer’s article, suggested the men were “gay”? Does HuffPo have any proof they were even guilty of sodomy, or any other form of sex? Do its editors repose such doelike trust in the Islamic Republic’s justice, such faith in its forensic uncovering of truth, that they can’t imagine the poor men’s innocence? That’s the liberal media for you.

Pretty soon it’s all over the web. The Advocate blares “Breaking News”: “Four Gay Men to Be Hanged in Iran for Sodomy.” (It’s listed under Crime, because after all, they’re guilty.) Philadelphia’s gay magazine muses on “Life, Death, and Being Gay in Iran”:  “How do you save four men sentenced to hanging for sodomy?” Not by calling them “gay,” for starters.

None of this would matter much — the Iranian authorities probably aren’t fans of the Advocate, or even Arianna Huffington. But invisible capillaries carry information, words, fantasies across borders these days; and some of this language starts to bleed back into how the story is represented in Iran. By today, the story’s been picked up across the Farsi blogosphere. The HRANA article is, so far as I can see, the only source any of them have. But an inflection from the US articles starts creeping into the story: the headline changes. “Risk of imminent execution in Iran for four homosexuals [hamjensgara]” one Farsi account reads, and others echo it.

Worse, the repeat-offending Italians at EveryOne Group get back into the act. They advertise an “Urgent Appeal” to — what? — “save the lives of four gay men.”

EveryOne Group is asking the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, the European Union Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and civil society to support our call for the defence of the lives of these four young homosexual men and all those who suffer persecution because of their natural orientation.

The accompanying petition already has 4000 signatures.  (The one mercy is that Ahmadinejad is not yet among the addressees, but one imagines they’ll add him soon.) “The blood of four innocent gay men will be an indelible stain upon the conscience of the world community if this atrocity is allowed to proceed!” But don’t you see?  Marking them “gay” means they are not “innocent,” not in the Iranian judiciary’s eyes. You know nothing about these four men, nothing at all. But you’re still content to call them names that convict them. What gave you that right?

Everyone Group on Mouloudzadeh, 2007: Makwan lives on, so why feel guilty?

And of course Peter Tatchell, who’s always happy to exploit the living or the dead, rejoins the parade. He fires off a press release — “Four Iranian men to hang for sodomy” — not designed to help them, but to advertise a panel for the International Day against Homophobia that he’s cosponsoring.

I don’t know anything about these four men; none of us are likely to, until we hear from HRANA. I think I can predict, though, what will happen. The EveryOne Group’s campaign will go forward, the petition will accumulate its fungal signatures, all with the greatest good will; demonstrations and banners may cap off the news articles. And the men will die. Whether all these voices chanting that they’re “gay” will contribute to their deaths depends on how loud they grow, and whether the Iranian authorities are paying attention. But the ease with which we attach identities to people we’ve never seen and know nothing of — only because they’re there, not here, only because they are malleably foreign and employable to us, only because they’re in Iran and we need to affix a certain narrative to both violence and victims there — is overwhelmingly distressing. And so is the ease with which we neglect the threatened consequences. We’ve learned nothing from the miserable follies around Makwan. Blood cries out from the ground; we haven’t begun to listen.

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, 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 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.