Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Gays (and Lesbians?) In Iraq

I recently read a very disturbing article on regarding the oppression of gays in Iraq. While the article regularly mentioned "gays and lesbians," the article only presents evidence that gay men are the ones targeted for this horrendous violence. Meanwhile, it seems that all women, no matter their orientation, are at risk for similar violence. After reading similar articles, I think that what is lacking in many articles regarding violence in Iraq is a clear distinction between the unique challenges faced by women (including lesbians) and gay men.

In the mainstream media, when lesbians are mentioned as a distinct population from gay men, it is usually in some sort of cursory sentence like:

"Lesbians are also victims of harassment and violence, but not nearly as often as gay men."

Now, I want to first state, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that I'm not complaining about the fact that gay men are targets of violence and lesbians (supposedly?) are not (as frequently?). Rather, I'm critiquing the relative invisibility of lesbians in media accounts. For, my guess would be that lesbians aren't targeted as frequently as gay men are in Iraq, because lesbians are largely assumed not to exist. If they were as visible as gay men, I would bet that they would frequently be targeted for violence too.

All too often, the media has a tendency to group "gays and lesbians" together when an article obviously only pertains to gay men. Google searches turn up numerous reports and articles of gay men being raped, threatened, or attacked in Iraq, but I found no reports of lesbian victimization. This is not to say, of course, that lesbians have not been attacked. In fact, it's probably pretty likely that if a lesbian is victimized it's just another everyday instance of a woman being victimized. Nothing too "newsworthy" about that, I suppose.

I think that the reasons for both this type of coverage and the hyper-targeting of gay men are several. For one, in cultures, religions, and other contexts in which women are oppressed, male homosexuality is often considered a greater sin than female homosexuality. Two men together, after all, challenges the notion of so-called "gender complementarity"- an oft-used term that's another way of saying that it's the destiny of men to be the dominating partner and the destiny of women to be the submissive one. A two-male partnership challenges this theory by demonstrating that a man does not require a submissive female partner.

In other words, male/female biological sex roles are more fluid and less biologically determined than some people like to pretend. The male-as-dominator myth is a social construct used, particularly in hyper-oppressive societies, to perpetuate male supremacy. Men who are seen as stepping out of line with respect to their gender role are particularly threatening to the idea of inherent male supremacy. This is one possible explanation as to why gay men are targeted for violence.

From the relative lack of information about lesbians in Iraq, I would imagine that this population is largely invisible. In a society in which women have less opportunities for self-sufficiency than men, it is not surprising that even lesbians would marry men and present as "heterosexual." Not discussing this context in an article about "gays and lesbians" renders this invisible population even more invisible.

For too often throughout history, "gay" has been synonymous with "lesbian" when it was clear that only gay men were being referenced. Yes, gay men and lesbians fight many of the same battles. But constantly grouping us to together just because we're all "homosexual" glosses over the complexities of particular situations and renders invisible those who, like lesbian women in misogynistic societies, are dealing with oppression on multiple fronts.

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