Please allow me to address a series of misconceptions expressed in many letters to regional newspapers. One such letter appeared in the Guyana Chronicle dated September 20.
In the letter the author, name withheld, called for the further legal discrimination of homosexuals: “Please implement a new law about so-called sexual behaviour unless we all come down with the epidemic of AIDS or lawlessness!” Homosexuality is also referred to as “abnormal” behavior and homosexual persons, “loose and uncultured.” It is implied in the letter that the author was the target of untoward sexual harassment, which was perceived as a crisis. I would like to address the expressed concerns.
It is no coincidence that the author chose not to use a religious or scientific stance to express intolerance. The discriminatory and punitive tone would have trampled the Pope’s exhortation for a charitable approach of others. In addition, all scientific evidence is to the contrary that homosexuality is abnormal. Nathan W. Bailey and Marlene Zuk at the University of California Riverside indicate that homosexual activity falls within the normal behaviour repertoire of scores of observed species, humans included.
Instead, the author waxed reminiscently of the “once colourful country, fragrant with the innocence of bare-footed country folk and merriment of calypso rhythms.” This phrase is akin to the term good old days, which is often employed to express prejudice. In the United States it is recited by racist individuals who long for the days before civil rights. A time when black Americans were legally discriminated against. Like these individuals, the author is more concerned with self-serving ignorance rather than any real sense of justice. The purported crisis is no more than the author’s inability to accept change and process uncomfortable emotions privately. Still, the letter touches on misconceptions that should be addressed.
I remind the author of the British West Indies, a society where decency was defined by the social ideas of British colonists. People who neither celebrated calypso music nor walked barefoot, but likely saw such practices as lawless. The Human Rights Watch report titled The Origins of Sodomy Laws in British Colonialism states that “the laws that Europeans brought [to the New World] dragged a long prehistory behind them ... [They believed] sexual pleasure itself to be contaminating, tolerable only to the degree that it furthered reproduction (specifically, of Christians).” A ludicrous and deleterious moral code of which the author is a blind prisoner. Calypso was the antithesis of this. In fact, calypso and carnival were expressions of protest against the British criminalization of traditional African and Indian cultural practices, including sexuality. To invoke calypso as a platform to argue for the persecution homosexuality is absurd.
In 19th century South Asia, homosexual practices were still part of life. It was the aberrant 19th century British sense of morality that resulted in them being outlawed. Lord Elgin, viceroy of India feared that British military camps could become, “replicas of Sodom and Gomorrah” as soldiers acquired the “special Oriental vices.” It is startling how closely the author’s language reflects that of the 19th century viceroy's. The British Indian penal code criminalizing homosexual behaviours was implemented in 1860 and became the archetype for other colonies. It was crafted to eradicate all native behaviours the British deemed vulgar. It instituted persecution of hijras, South Asia’s third recognized gender who had been an integral part of society and celebrated in the Ramayana.
Indian scholars Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have spent a decade researching South Asian sexuality. They have found that eradicating sexual and gender diversity from the Indian psyche was an important function of colonialism. In researching records from over 2,000 years and 15 languages, Vanita wrote, “We found that same-sex love and romantic friendship have flourished in India in various forms, without any extended history of overt persecution … British 19th century administrators and educationists imported their generally anti-sex and specifically homophobic attitudes into India.” Some might envisage that it was the prevalence of homosexual practices in other cultures that precipitated its criminalization by the British.
The same process is responsible for homophobia among Africans. Stephen O. Murray, author of Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, points out that, in Northern Africa, separation of the sexes organized society so that homosexual affection and practices were part of life. Homosexuality in Sub-Saharan Africa has been blamed on Western societies. This is false, as like so many other societies prior to European invasion, sexual and gender practices were varied. Among the Maale people of Ethiopia, when tradition forbade premarital sex between the king and a woman, he was allowed to have sex with a female-identified male. In the Meru of Kenya, the religious leadership role of Mugawe included female attire, female hairstyles and same-sex marriage. The Bantu-speaking Pahouin of Gabon and Cameroon believed anal intercourse was medicine for wealth, transmitted from receptive partner to insertive partner. Among the Dagara of Burkina Faso, spiritual astrologers were homosexual. Similarly, researchers Robert Fulton and Steven A. Anderson also note third gender practices in pre-colonial Amerindian cultures. The historical records lay bare the rich variety of human gender and sexual practices around the world. Especially where most Caribbeans draw their ethnic origins.
Homophobia is also the result of homosexuality being defined as separate from heterosexuality. This conceptual separation began around 1869 when the terms were minted by Karoly Maria Benkert, a European. Prior to this, human sexuality in Europe and America was viewed as a mix of sexual propensities. A better reflection of empirical evidence.
Patriarchy and misogyny are also relevant to this discussion. Michael K. Sullivan, a researcher of social welfare at Lamar University explains that homophobia can be explained by misogyny. The detestation of homosexuality is linked to a perceived threat to the patriarchal privilege system. A system that has resulted not only in suppression of women, but contributes to the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual harassment gripping the region.
The letter implies that the author was subjected to untoward sexual harassment by someone of the same sex. I empathize. Sexual harassment is a public nuisance. However, I disagree that sexual harassment perpetrated by a homosexual person on a heterosexual person is any different than that of a man targeting a woman. Homosexual and transgender people constantly suffer from being taunted by whistles and denigrating call outs. They deal with stigma, harassment and violence, yet the author is up in arms with no more than a few such experiences. This is an attempt to employ a form of the ‘gay panic defence’ -- a tactic used by homophobic men to attack homosexual men who might have shown interest in them. Last month, the American Bar Association agreed with scientific evidence and notified state and federal officials that there was no substance to the gay panic defence. A person with a decent and cultured mind would have reflected on how uncomfortable it made him or her and called for all sexual harassment to be prohibited, period.
The author’s short letter exercised a generous disdain: “Please implement a new law about so-called sexual behaviour unless we all come down with the epidemic of AIDS or lawlessness!” There have been laws criminalizing homosexual behaviour for over a century. They are still in code in many countries, and enforced by stigma, as the author clearly illustrates. Institutionalized discrimination has not helped staunch the spread of HIV, but assisted. A 2013 UNAIDS Caribbean report stipulated, “Punitive laws and discriminatory actions are continuing to hamper national responses to HIV …” Fear and shame create barriers to seeking proper education, feeling empowered to practice safe sex and interacting with the medical community. Further criminalization is not a solution, but a problem.
Homosexuality is an innate component of animal sexual practices found throughout the animal kingdom and throughout global cultures prior to colonialism. A century and a half of its colonial criminalization has resulted in attitudes such as the author’s. It has also contributed to the spread of HIV, not helped. What is unnatural is the drive to eliminate a fundamental component of the human sexual repertoire instead of understanding and incorporating it into our world view. Caribbean cultural legacy is not linear. Answers to social issues may require invoking all our ancestral background. There is benefit in a measured approach to uncomfortable feelings. What the author displayed is exactly the type of behavior that leads to discrimination and oppression of others. A situation, which could have been seen as a problem of sexual harassment being too prevalent, instead resulted in a call for criminalization of an already marginalized group. It is important that we recognize the source of our prejudices and feelings, acknowledge them and act with empathy. Punitive reactions lead to far more lawlessness and indecency.
Gregory Sanjay Kanhai