Universal line on gay rights must take in local twists

March 15, 2002

Gay rights campaigners must address the diverse mores of different cultural groups, argues Alan Sinfield.

" When gays and lesbians are attacked, it's particularly viciousI They aren't just punched. They're punched and kicked. They're beat and spit on. They're tied up and dragged behind cars. It's almost as if the attacker is trying to rub out the gay person's entire identity ." 1997 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, US.

It might be supposed that this vicious fervour occurs because the sexual dissident is ineluctably alien, but time and again, documented assaults of police and guards on lesbians and gay men display a manifest sexual aspect.

A recent Amnesty International report, for example, documents the case of Luciano Rodriguez in Mexico: "If that's what you want, I'll give it to you," prison guards told him as they held him down and inserted a finger into his anus. Another incident describes how police in Venezuela forced transgender people to perform sexual acts in return for release. The torturer, in such cases, is himself involved in sexual acts. Whatever he tells himself, at some level he is likely to know that he himself is implicated in the deviant sexuality that he abhors. It is because of this complicity that the sexual dissident must be not just punished, but destroyed; because of what he tells the torturer about himself.

Conversely, one of the most prominent scenarios in gay male pornography and chat lines dwells upon police and military uniforms, punishment, bondage and assault. Some of us entertain fantasy investments in the scenes of our own humiliation; indeed, it is the humiliation that we desire. Of course, heterosexuals do this as well. But the notorious concern of many gay men with machismo is located - argues Leo Bersani, professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley - in "the logic of homosexual desire", which "includes the potential for a loving identification with the gay man's enemies". The dominant definitions of masculinity, which the gay man must resist because they are the ground of his oppression, are "in part constitutive of male homosexual desire".

If violence is not an aberration in desire but integral to it, and the good guys are interinvolved psychically with the bad, where does this leave organisations such as Amnesty International? If torture is mingled with desire, it will take more than fair-minded protests to control it.

The rhetoric of rights affords a lever for lesbians and gay men. The United Kingdom's Human Rights Act 1999 and a recent European Court of Human Rights ruling suggest that anti-discrimination legislation may be applied to sexual orientation.

But we know very well that these "rights" have not been recognised universally throughout history and are not recognised worldwide today. Claiming that your preference is a right is a strategic way of adding emphasis to a position. Anti-choice campaigners speak of a "right to life", their opponents of a "right to choose". Section 28 was promoted by a Parents Rights Group.

It is customary for lesbians and gay men to respond to the charge that our practices are "unnatural" and "inhuman" by declaring: to us they are natural, to us they are human. However, this is a relativist position that logically has only the same force as when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe brands gays "less than human".

While torture may plausibly be presented as unacceptable on any terms, intervening in the sex/gender systems of other cultures necessarily involves disputing not just the laws and not just the abuses, but also the mores of those cultures. An endemic problem for the rights activist intervening overseas is that anything they do is open to the construction that it is an imperialist intrusion. It is indeed arrogant to take it for granted that metropolitan ways of doing things are superior, let alone more natural or more human. We should not expect to find the gradual emergence of something like our present-day array of lesbian, bisexual, gay, transvestite, transsexual and transgendered relations, as if other peoples should be "developing" in our direction. Concepts of gender and sexuality are contested within the metropolis, too. After all, repressive laws on sexuality in the Caribbean derive from British colonial rule; male homosexuality was legalised in England and Wales only 35 years ago, and not in all contexts; sodomy remains illegal in nearly half the states of the United States.

Moreover, the preoccupation in many non-metropolitan contexts is more with gender than with object choice; not so much whether you have sex with a man or woman, but whether you consider yourself masculine or feminine. In Brazil, travestis - cross-dressing male-to-female prostitutes - offer a range of sexual services to their clients and live with macho boyfriends. This is not because they have sex with these macho men, but because such a boyfriend is the guarantee that the travesti is indeed female. "They don't get sex from their men - what they get, instead, is gender," says Don Kulick, an anthropologist at Stockholm University. In Latin America especially, alarming levels of abuse, including torture and ill-treatment, against transgender people have been documented. If we are to support these people, we have to acknowledge the specificity of local preoccupations.

Wariness about cultural imperialist claims must undermine the authority from which we pronounce on the sex/gender system of other societies. Yet, at the same time, metropolitan lesbians and gay men are all too familiar with this kind of discrimination, hostility, shaming and violence. Fellow-feeling demands that we affirm and support persecuted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people everywhere. It should demand also, by the same token, that we respect their difference from us. This respect should generate a close attention to their own understandings of what they are doing. Wherever possible, our protests must build on local campaigns - even though the problem, often, is harassment of those campaigns. This approach may be formalised through an appeal to specific civil rights, rather than to universal human rights.

The rights for which lesbian and gay people struggle are the same rights as everyone else in that place; not something invented elsewhere and not necessarily universal. In some places, those rights will not be extensive or secure but at least they will be acknowledged locally. This strategy was successful when British lesbians and gays campaigned for an equal age of consent.

Admittedly, pursuing a civil-rights agenda lets the sex/gender system off the hook, fostering the inference that an out-group needs concessions rather than the mainstream needing correction. Another problem is that it influences sexual dissidents to behave, indeed to conceive themselves, in accord with prevailing mores. However, the pragmatic tendency of a civil-rights discourse may enhance its local validity.

Anyway, the influence is not all one way. Although the concepts of gay and lesbian that we have developed in parts of North America and parts of northwest Europe over the past 30 years have been immensely liberating, they have also been restricting. Both straight and gay people have come to believe that there are two distinct populations: the straights, and the lesbians and gays. The latter are defined by same-sex object choice; they make themselves known by coming out - individually, in campaigning groups and as a niche market. It has been relatively difficult to see people who complicate or fall outside those categories - those who prefer to remain discreet, transsexuals, bisexuals, married lesbians and gays. Knowledge of the diversity of queer subcultures in other countries may help to free up our self-perceptions. For instance, in many parts of the world marriage is obligatory, but this does not prevent same-sex relations from flourishing.

Speaking of marriage, a key concern for lesbians and gays in Britain now is civil partnership rights, but we should be wary of gaining these at the expense of our traditions of public cruising and accessible off-street cultural resources. We have to resist attempts to divide us into good and bad gays - the married and the cruising. We should claim the same right as other citizens, to be disreputable when we want.

Advocating the extension of human rights to sexual dissidents exposes disconcerting possibilities of cultural imperialism and provokes challenging new demands for respect.

It is in the absence of a secure theoretical grounding that we have to insist, nonetheless, on the liberty of sexual dissidents everywhere to organise their subcultures and live their lives, in negotiation with local configurations of gender, sexuality and authority. Meanwhile, we may learn from other cultures, provided that we do not begin by declaring some of the most serious questions off limits. The project, ultimately, is the working-out together of new ways of being human - though not, of course, in conditions of our own choosing.

Alan Sinfield is professor of English at the University of Sussex's School of English and American Studies. This is an edited version of a talk given as part of the Amnesty Lecture Series, supported by The THES .

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments