Sundlee ’16: The borders of gay marriage

Opinions Editor
Friday, September 11, 2015

Who can forget the iconic image of the White House on June 26? Bathed in polychrome splendor, the building sent an unmistakable message to the rest of the country and the global community: “America is now officially gay-friendly, and you should be too.”

The Supreme Court victory was a milestone for civil rights, and many activists have underscored the importance of maintaining the momentum. For some, this means taking the recognition mission abroad. After all, gay individuals are still viciously persecuted worldwide. With weekly horror stories from far corners of the world and President Obama’s new agenda to pressure Nigeria to reverse its anti-gay laws, going global seems to be the next logical step.

But, as with most global activism, there are issues with this vision. The gay rights movement runs the heavy risk of being exploited by nationalist interests and misinterpreted by publics grown wary of Western moral crusades. It is very difficult to present a social cause born in America to other cultures and have it be disassociated with Western cultural encroachment.

Marriage equality is not a cause that can, or necessarily should, be taken global. It has the same risks as second-wave feminism, and its Western-centric ideology has long served as justification for foreign meddling. The movement will have great difficulty gaining traction in nations leery of outside influences, because they hold different notions of what should comprise an identity. In the U.S. and many European countries, your sexual orientation becomes embedded with the image you present to the public, but this is not universal. Social activists must recognize that forcing our concept of how gay individuals should be able to live on other nations could be seen as tantamount to cultural imperialism.

The reality is that many of the countries that currently hold anti-gay laws, such as Iran, have rich histories of culturally sanctioned homoeroticism. Iran’s beloved poet, Rumi, wrote some of the world’s most celebrated love poems about same-sex desire. The difference is that in many of these cultures, it isn’t the gender of someone’s partner that informs identity, but rather their masculinity or femininity. Sexual orientation is somewhat beside the point.

Ironically, for men interested in same-sex relations in many countries, accepting the Western form of homosexuality means losing freedoms, as same-sex engagement entails taking on a whole new identity: the gay Western identity. For these countries, the choice is between accepting an alien social norm being forced upon them and maintaining their own traditions of identity. The concept of gay rights is not met with hostility in these countries simply because of some backwards fear of a person’s sexuality.

As Dennis Altman, a pioneering academic and gay activist, commented, “The rhetorics of liberation and modernity rarely allow for the fact that each change contains a restrictive as well as a liberatory component.” Indeed, in many Arab countries, the only gay men who can afford the restrictive Western label of ‘gay’ are those with immense wealth. Attempting to impose restrictions on sexual identity in foreign countries has not only imperialist implications, but also classist ones.

There is also considerable evidence that the increased volume of anti-gay sentiment from countries like Russia and Uganda has to do with resentment at being pressured to accept the American idea of what they perceive as a non-masculine lifestyle. These nations are economically stagnant. As many gender scholars have noted, this means nationalist masculinity is threatened, as countries are unable to adequately provide for their population. Leaders need a way to save face, so they target what they see as the embodiment of Western excess that poses a challenge to their culture’s masculine ideal.

Nicola Pratt of University of Warwick explores a prime example of this in her work “Queen Boat.” Pratt examines a case in Egypt in which gay men on a party boat on the Nile were arrested by Egyptian officials and subjected to terrible abuse. She deconstructs what appears to be a case of monstrous bigotry to reveal that the arrests were largely a result of Egypt’s insecure geopolitical position and were a stunt to defy Western culture and distract from government failings. The Egyptian leadership ordered the public arrests of the partygoers in the hopes of reasserting national masculinity and bolstering unity. The Queen Boat case shows that inadequate deference to local custom can actually hurt the cause of gay rights.

International activists must constantly strive to strike a happy medium between pushing for progress and succumbing to cultural relativism. Of course persecution should never be accepted or tolerated by the global community. But it must be recognized that these stances are not products of an ahistorical, demonic, unenlightened hatred. Rather, they are the result of social, political and economic insecurities. Attempting to insert American conceptions of sexuality into other parts of the globe is a task with dubious moral underpinnings and innumerable pitfalls. Activists heady with the success of the marriage equality campaign should celebrate their success but recognize that the vision of rainbow-gilded capitals across the globe is not realistic, and may not even be desirable.   

  • Bruce Frier

    You can’t really understand what nonsense this column is unless you have met (as I have) gay men and women from developing countries such as China, Egypt, and Nigeria, and have been allowed to see how oppressed they have been by their traditional societies, how much they envy the freedom they observe elsewhere, and how brave they are in the face of intolerance. The bottom line here is that, as the UN has recognized, gay rights are human rights. There is no reason whatsoever for Westerners to retreat into a defensive posture in advancing gay rights around the world.

  • Immortal Illumined

    what kind of god denies LOVE? a weak, evil, make believe christian one

    Loving, all-inclusive, helpful, profitable marijuana and hemp companies can’t even get tax status….

    yet discriminating, freedom denying hate groups hiding behind religion and “religious freedom” are TAX EXEMPT?…..

    …and still no LGBT protections in the workplace, housing, or education….the time to repeal tax breaks for discriminating groups claiming religious freedom is now…

    “If Jesus were alive today there is one thing he would not be—a Christian”…Mark Twain
    “I like your christ. I do not like your christians, they are so unlike your christ.”…..Gandhi

  • Confusedculturalrelativist

    How do you reconcile your argument on gay rights with the argument you made in your last BDH article on women’s rights?

    I selectively quote: “Indonesian female police recruits are being forced to undergo virginity tests, the Guardian reported Tuesday. Not only is this process humiliating, it also leaves these women in pain. This is yet another example of gendered violence based on cultural values. Indonesian culture is patriarchal and prizes virginity, therefore infringing on the human rights of women.”

    • Greek Alum

      Excellent point. It’s a shame Sundlee will never respond to it.

  • westburke

    Gay rights will spread to the whole world by television, movies and youtube, just like hip hop, and cat videos. People in every corner of the globe drink in our pop culture and adopt it. As they see more and more gay influence in our pop culture it will be accepted everywhere. The “Will and Grace” effect will be just as real everywhere else as it was in the USA.

  • jjgrandisland

    This article is spot on. Although I am sad every day for the terrible things being done to mostly gay men in these countries the changes must come from within each country if we are going to eventually achieve the end results. If we think we are going to get the Iranians and Saudis to listen to us on this issue we are just kidding ourselves. Heck we cannot even convince Iran to sign a nuclear non proliferation agreement or get the Saudis to stop funding ISIL. Gay rights is way way down on their lists.

    • Greek Alum

      I think there’s a difference between whether or not we should get involved vs whether or not it would be the right thing to do. What you are saying makes sense. What Sundlee is saying: “Social activists must recognize that forcing our concept of how gay individuals should be able to live on other nations could be seen as tantamount to cultural imperialism,” does not.

  • Idk

    Britain exported anti-slavery through imperialism at great expense. Africa and the Middle East heavily resisted. The world is kinda weird.