Friday, December 2, 2011

Canaries In Coal Mines

In general, I think the writers at Box Turtle Bulletin (BTB) are doing admirable and important work in monitoring the status of gays in Uganda, specifically with respect to the proposed "Kill the Gays" bill.

That being said, I found BTB writer Jim's statement, below, to be problematically gay-centric:

"...Uganda is little different from the rest of the world: the gay community functions as the canary in the coalmine. How a society treats its gay community is a good predictor for how a society is capable of dealing with other groups who are either out of favor or out of power."

In the comment section, I noted:

"Actually, I’d argue that women function as the canary in the coalmine.

Women in Uganda are economically dependent upon men, have limited job opportunities, have lower literacy rates, have lower rates of land ownership, have limited participation in government, and have little control over their sexuality compared to men.

How a society (mis)treats half of its human population is a good predictor for how it will treat other relatively powerless groups, including LGBT people, especially when those people don’t conform to the society’s proper gender roles."

Folks at BTB didn't really engage my comment, but I think it's an important topic so I'd like to explore it more today.

Although, I now think I would revise my statement to read, "at half the population, it is curious that it's not women who function as the canary in the coal mine when they are mistreated." For, it is true that, for many people, it is gays, and not women, who function as canaries in the coal mine. And so, I am curious what that implies. Does suggesting that the mistreatment of gays signals the mistreatment of other relatively powerless groups suggest that it is homophobia that is a root cause of other oppressions? Why is the oppression of other groups, especially groups consisting of far greater numbers, not seen as the key indicator of other oppressions?

It seems reasonable to assume that the oppression of gays would at least correlate with the oppression of other minority groups, but it seems myopic to make a "gays are the canary in the coal mine" statement without exploring societal causes of homophobia and other-ing.

Being separated by gender is one of the first instances of dualistic other-ing humans experience and, for many, it occurs before birth or immediately after. Girls are other-ed from humanity the moment they are recognized as girls, which tends to occur much prior to when people are categorized and subsequently other-ed as non-heterosexual. Following from this early categorization, gender role policing, sexism, and homophobia are inextricably intertwined and utilized to support male supremacy. As Suzanne Pharr writes in Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, "Heterosexism and homophobia work together to enforce compulsory heterosexuality and that bastion of patriachal power, the nuclear family." Along with threats of violence and fewer opportunities for female economic self-sufficiency, homophobia keeps in place male dominance and control over women.

Lesbians, in their non-reliance on men, are hated because they represent independence from a patriarchal, male supremacist system; gay men because they are seen as breaking ranks with the heterosexual male brotherhood of supremacy.

Pharr's piece is US-centric (and somewhat dated), but Uganda seems to have a similar, but more extreme, process of making heterosexuality compulsory and male supremacy the rule, of which the "Kill the Gays" bill (if passed) would be only one aspect.

While Uganda's Constitution demands sex equality, many cultural customs deny that equality in practice. Women are often discouraged to be involved in business, poverty leads to early marriages for many girls, female genital mutilation is practiced, men can "inherit" widows of their male relatives, land inheritance is predominately through male heirs, and men "purchase" wives with bridewealth payments to the bride's family. See also this PDF report on gender and economic growth in Uganda.

Tellingly, and in an echo of some of their US counterparts, the report notes that some men in Uganda perceive a growth in women's rights as a "threat to the institution of marriage." Likewise, I think it's also important to note that current anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda are relics of British colonialism, suggesting that homosexuality in Uganda pre-dated its colonists (contrary to some anti-gays' claims that homosexuality was a white man's "import" to Africa). The colonial roots of anti-homosexuality laws suggest that it was actually homophobia that was imported.

So, when I hear men in Uganda make claims about how increasing women's equality will supposedly Destroy Marriage, I think (a) good, because maybe marriage as it's currently practiced should be destroyed, and then (b) since the Destroy Marriage thing is an anxiety also uttered by insecure, sexist Western men, I think it is reasonable to assume that the colonists also imported sexist views of women and/or reinforced already-existing views regarding women's lower status.

The oppression of gays is an integral part of keeping in the genders fixed in a hierarchical relationship to one another. When we understand the inter-connectedness of sexism and homophobia, we understand that eradicating a "kill the gays" bill, by itself, would not end homophobia because it would do little, if anything, to improve the status of most women in Uganda.

My point here, with respect to Jim's claim is that I think it is highly unlikely that the status of gays can be improved in a society if the status of women remains subordinate to that of men. And women, roughly half the human population of Uganda, are subordinate to men in many ways.

With that in mind, what does it mean that it is gays who represent the canaries in the coal mine signaling the oppression of other relatively powerless groups?

Why is it not women?

Are we seeing an illustration of Catherine MacKinnon's observation that "what is done to women is either too specific to women to seen as human or to generic to human beings to be seen as about women."

In Uganda, or any country really, women functioning in a society in a subordinate role cannot and does not signal the possible oppression of other groups, because the women in such societies are seen as just women fulfilling women's role in those societies. Their concerns are "women's rights" concerns. For, the group "women" consists entirely of women, after all. Only women.

The group "gays," however, is a group that consists of men, in addition to women. And when men are being oppressed in places, it begins to register as a human rights issue, because some members of the group consist of beings who are more readily-recognizable as humans than mere women are.

And herein lies the reason for my ambivalent marriage of LGBT advocacy and feminism: Until more gay men realize that sexism and the oppression of women is a gay issue (just as homophobia and heterocentrism are feminist issues), they do "their" gay causes no favors by joining the rest of the world in ignoring feminism and by remaining complicit in sexism against women.

No comments: