Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Anti-Gay Human Rights Professor

Via Feminist Law Professors, New York University School of Law has just, ironically, hired a new visiting professor of human rights who is a vehement supporter of laws criminalizing sex between two consenting adult men. The professor, Li-Ann Thio of Singapore, previously testified before her country's Parliament in favor of retaining one such law.

Her speech, which can be found here, was quite long and comprehensively covered nearly every argument I've heard against legalizing "sodomy." I find it a little interesting only because it's more rare for women to be so thoroughly and strongly opposed to anal sex, as the majority of the most vocal opponents of the buttsex (between two men, anyway) seem to be men.

As a preliminary matter, I find it quite annoying that, although Thio's speech refers throughout to "homosexual sodomy," the law in question and much of her testimony pertains only to sex between two men. The very phrase "homosexual sodomy" is always bothersome mostly because it means different things in different cultures and legal systems. Its definition varies from anything that is not heterosexual missionary "coitus," to sex between any two people of the same sex, to gay male anal sex, and other variations of sexual behaviors that people decide are immoral. Nonetheless, placing that bizarre-yet-common primacy on the penis, Singapore only bans sex between two men. I wonder if it's the case that sex between two women isn't significant enough to be banned or whether no lesbians live in Singapore. Inquiring minds want to know.

Secondly, I won't re-hash her numerous arguments against legalizing homo "sodomy." I read through her long piece and subsequently lost minutes of my life in the process; but instead I would like to focus on a misconception that she seems to have with respect to what constitutes an infringement of her own liberty. Near the end of her speech, she says:

"Homosexuals as fellow citizens have the right to expect decent treatment from the rest of us; but they have no right to insist we surrender our fundamental moral beliefs so they can feel comfortable about their sexual behaviour. We should not be subject to the tyranny of the undemocratic minority who want to violate our consciences, trample on our cherished moral virtues and threaten our collective welfare by imposing homosexual dogma on right-thinking people."

While I wonder what constitutes "decent" treatment, it is kind of Thio to acknowledge that "homosexuals" have the right to expect it from "the rest" of society. Yet, she insists that she and those who think like her will lose something if they are no longer able to restrict who can and cannot have what kind of sex with whom. The argument is that the preservation of anti-gay morality depends upon upholding laws that criminalize "sodomy." This argument about the tarnishment of our so-called shared Moral Ecology is an old one. Yet, to argue that it is somehow unjust for an anti-gay majority to no longer be able to regulate the private sexual behavior of two consenting adults speaks to a real confusion as to what "tyranny" means.

Generally, tyranny means oppressive, absolute power imposed by the state or some other outside force. Let's contrast that definition with freedom. Freedom generally means the state of not being constrained by another entity's power. In light of what the words Thio uses really mean, what I suspect Thio and other anti-gays mean when they refer to the so-called tyrannical power of homosexualists, I think they really are referring to a loss not of their freedom, but of a loss of their own power. Namely, the tyrannical and near-absolute power that a heterosexist majority holds to constrain the lives of sexual minorities. When these people "lose" culture war battles, they do experience a loss. But, this loss is much more accurately identified as one of power, rather than freedom.

It's a small, but important, distinction. For, contained within that distinction is the reality that those opposed to homosexuality are aggressors, rather than the victims they so often paint themselves as.

All this being said, I am not actually opposed to NYU's hiring Thio. Students, who tend to go into law school with strong already-held political leanings, are generally savvy and intelligent enough to pick up on the political leanings of their professors. In that context, extremists are rarely able to convince those who do not already agree with them about things. Besides, advocating for NYU to not hire her would only fuel that deep persecution complex that conservatives and anti-gays tend to have when it comes to academia.

Still, I can't say I would find it all that resonating to be lectured to in the arena of human rights by a woman who within her manifesto against buttsex has said "diversity is not a license for perversity," among other things.

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