QUEERS, TERROR and The Closing of the Western Mind (?)

Dr Rahul Rao (School of ‘Oriental’ and African Studies) gave a talk – more properly led a discussion – (Thurs., 10.02.11) Queer in the Time of Terror, as part of LGBT History Month.  It was held not in a SOAS building but in the Sir David Davies lecture theatre (University College, London) in the Roberts Building.  I was late partly because the Roberts Building does not describe itself as such (on the wall facing Torrington Place).  For some reason I kept assuming that I was in, or ought to have been in, an LSE (London School of Economics) building.*

Dr Rao asked ‘how do we protect… respect… multiple identities in a global society?’.  This was a challenge to (western) LGBT activists.  I think Dr Rao noticed a white bearded ‘noddy’ in the corner of the lecture theatre (which has ‘concealed’ but ‘third degree’, sight destroying bright lighting).  His argument was much the same as this publication.  ‘Western’ Gay activists are often in too much of a hurry to ‘solidarise’ with apparently oppressed Gay women and men in the developing world to actually examine the real circumstances.  Dr. Rao discussed the execution of two male mid- to late teenagers in Iran some years ago, and the current situation in Uganda.

The Iranian 16-18 year olds were depicted in the western Gay and liberal (and even right wing) media, as victims of an oppressive homophobic Islamist (Islamo-fascist) regime.  The complication that they had raped and killed a twelve year old boy was not allowed to interfere with our moral outrage.  Dr. Rao noted not particularly subtle elements in the Persian / Farsi language.  Crude translation allowed western media to claim that the trial and punishment were the outcome of a simple, consensual sexual encounter — and not a crime against the youngster’s person, and life.

He noted another aspect of this case.  It led to homophobic Islamophobic politicians and commentators in the USA, and elsewhere, (the British writer Melanie Phillips, for example) using this, alleged homophobia, as a stick with which to beat Iran.  This is upstart‘s major problem with these various cases.  Gay activists are prepared to think the worst of those who run, as examples, Iran, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.  They appear not to have similar problems with the US’s and UK’s establishments.  Section 28 (UK) was introduced at the height of the AIDS crisis.  The Conservatives in the current Cabinet, ‘bag-carriers’ at that point, raised no objections.  The current US Administration is not a great improvement on George W Bush’s, despite Obama getting most of the – substantial – Gay vote.

Gay people should be extremely careful about being seen as the ‘human face’ of ‘Western’ imperialism.  Particularly when it wears its ‘human rights’ mask.  That is not to argue that some punishments are acceptable.  Hanging even particularly brutal 16 year olds is pretty gross by upstart‘s standards — but not by the standards of the rulers of the United States of America.  The USA has the biggest per capita prison population on the planet.  It is second on the list for persons executed.  If you are a young male African-American, the likelihood of your being in prison, and on ‘Death Row’ is very high.  This is emphasised because some of Dr Rao’s audience implied that he approved of Iran’s punitive policies.  That is almost certainly not accurate.  Even if it were accurate it is, (presumably deliberately), tangential.  This was a discussion of our rights and not of the judicial and penal policies of individual states.  ‘The West’ has hardly covered itself in libertarian glory on these matters.

Dr Rao examined the attitudes of various British and American bodies to this case.  Peter Thatchell and Outrage used the ‘Islamo-fascist’ handle (which is relatively subtle, as it implies that there are non-fascist followers of Islam).  Andrew Sullivan (UK-born, but based in the US) claimed that Islam was simply anti-Gay, Doug Ireland said much the same.  Scott Long took a more ‘nuanced’ view of the matter.  (The latter two are American activists dealing with matters outside the USA, mostly through the San Francisco-based ILGHRC – International Lesbian & Gay Human Rights Commission).  Iran is an independent – democratic – state.  Amnesty International pointed out that Iran had signed various international agreements and treaties concerning the execution of juveniles.

My own response to this was a series of little thrills of recognition.  Gay activists in Northern Ireland, in the NI Gay Rights Association (named in emulation of NICRA, the NI Civil Rights Association), got plenty of ‘advice’ from activists in the rest of these islands.  (We got some gratuitous advice from the US.  There was some – but not much – from mainland Europe).  The advice was mostly to the effect that we should throw our mighty organisation behind the ‘national [or national liberation] struggle’.  Our response that it was not as straightforward as they appeared to believe.  There were (close up) all sorts of complications to take into consideration.  We were told that we should not be asking the British Government to change the law.  Nobody ever suggested an alternative – other than to contain ourselves in humility and patience – or support the IRA.  (The fact that there were two – even three – credible Republican armies rarely entered into these discussions).

The fact that NIGRA, and associated organisations – like Cara-Friend – would have been rendered totally ineffective mattered not a jot.  Even the 1981 (European Court of Human Rights) ‘Dudgeon judgement’ was deemed to be a mistake.  Gays Against Imperialism (GAI, a short-lived group consisting mainly of persons from Cork and Dublin) shortly after the judgement claimed that NIGRA was seeking ‘respectability’.  We were snuggling up to the Thatcher Government.  We had just forced Mrs T do an (unwanted and unwonted) U-turn.  We were embattled with the police over the killing of Anthony McCleave.  (The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) had claimed it was an accident and not a murder.  Despite GAI (and the police), NIGRA and Anthony’s family, got this assertion overturned in the longest Coroner’s Inquest in Commonwealth history.)

This sort of absurdity continued for years.  A favourite example was the assertion, by a young woman attending the NUS (National Union of Students) Lesbian and Gay Liberation conference, that she had visited the ‘Falls Hill Road’.  There is no such place.  Simple faith is a wonderful thing.  It’s just a pity it can get people killed.  We probably ought not to have been (as one suspects people in the actual  ‘third world’ / ‘global south’ were and are) so polite with such visitors.  Derisive laughter would have been the best response to a lot of the nonsense.

To return to Dr Rao’s talk, the Iranian elite, in embracing ‘modernity’ embraced homophobia (that was ‘modernity’, in Hidden from History ISBN 0453006892 (Penguin / NAL) Simon Karlinsky writes that the ant-Gay laws introduced by Tsar Peter in the early 18th century were part of his modernisation of Russia.)  Ireland underwent a somewhat similar experience.  According to the imperial authority the Irish were effeminate, flighty, ungovernable and probably unable to govern themselves.  The Irish toughened themselves up – though anti-Gay feelings, as such, were always pretty low-key.  (Fianna Fáil’s Máire Geoghegan-Quinn dumped the anti-Gay laws in part because they were imperial leftovers).   Iran was deemed to be part of Burton’s ‘Sodatic Zone’ where people were more prone (than manly white Europeans, anyway) to sodomy.  Men, and particularly teenage boys, in Iranian art could be portrayed as beautifully androgynous.  All this was derided, and dumped in closets, when Iran decided to become ‘western’.

Today, legalising homosexuality is ‘western’ but places like Iran have turned their backs on modernity, and are re-embracing a ‘masculinist’ version of their own traditions.  (Dr. Rao did not mention it, but the collapse of Bolshevism cut off a path to ‘modernity’ that was not humiliatingly ‘western’-imitative).  He pointed out that some versions of ‘modernity’ have ambiguous implications.  The British in India abolished suttee (the suicide, of wives on their husband’s funeral pyres).  It was a matter of brown-skinned women being saved from brown-skinned men — by white-skinned men.

Peter Thatchell (who asked Seán Óg Garland if NIGRA President, PA Mag Lochlainn (a founder member of John Hume’s SDLP) was ‘pro-British’) got a lot of (partly unintentional) ‘stick’ in this discussion.  In an interview in 2007 he said he would keep on campaigning (about Iran, for example) “regardless of the consequences in the world”.  Could this be a misunderstanding?  Such a position is simply fanatical.  Peter does seem to have opinions that appear not to change when circumstances change.  (He has been less inclined to pontificate about ‘Ireland’ lately.)  LGBT people in Nigeria and Uganda did not all welcome his interventions.  His claim that groups opposed to the one he wanted to (patronise?) in Uganda were motivated by jealousy was not – to put it mildly – diplomatic.

Two people in the audience attacked Dr Rao.  One was a thirty-something man, the other a man of my age (sixty-something).  The latter man seemed to agree with the proposition that ‘metropolitan’ people had to right to make their feelings (we were definitely dealing with feelings here) known, and damn the consequences.  The younger man defended Peter Thatchell’s record.  He’d been around since 1968 / ’69.  In 1972 he’d been ‘beaten up’ while engaged in a ‘zap’ of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. If the RCP, and other agencies, had been treated ‘sensitively’ nothing would have happened.  (The first editor of Gay Star, Peter Brooke, took part in that same zap – he managed not to get beaten up).

This man’s argument is based on the notion that society, and Societies, are monolithic.  Even in the DUP (Democratic Unionist, Dr Paisley’s Party) there are people who are not obsessed with other people’s sexuality.  There are a fair number of Gay women and men active in the Party.  It is the ‘democratic’ and the ‘unionist’ that attracted them.  There is the old cliché ‘horses for courses’.  It is pointless fixing bayonets and charging at the Methodists in Ireland — the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches might be in need of a jag now and again.  But only ‘now and again’, most Prods and Papes are pretty easy-going about queers.

There were other questions and comments, including from an African-American man and woman, presumably students.  The man said that ‘third world’ states “pushing-back” against Western values is understandable, if regrettable, especially as many western states, societies and individual politicians are being hypocritical.  The young woman had such a strong accent that I did not really understand her intervention.  (Possibly a touch of the snow calling the cocaine… I did not get to speak.  My accent would probably have been incomprehensible to her).

This was a very interesting discussion.  It is a pity it could not have gone on longer, or possibly it could be reconvened.   It is a pity it was not reported.  Gay / LGBT London is becoming an intellectual dust bowl.  The substance of Dr Rao’s talk touches on a crucial aspect of the work of Gay organisations in the ‘global North’ / ‘advanced’ world.  Which is, these days, solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the ‘developing’ world / global South.

Many Gay liberationists appear to have no problems echoing the glib (and often racist) language of our various Establishments.  As implied above, our (Gay) press has become almost entirely commercialised — it’s nearly all fucking and fashion.  The odd time politics (especially the politics of the Islamic world) intrudes, one might as well be reading handouts from the English Defence League (led by a chap called Lennon – a fine, ancient, County Armagh name).  I have – I am afraid – no solution to this problem.  Western Gay peoples’ minds are closing at the same rate as those of our fellow-citizens.

Seán McGouran


The title of this talk / discussion Queer in the Time of Terror is the same as Dr Rahul Rao’s chapter in a book:

Queer Perspectives on the Law,

edited by Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta

Yoda Press, New Delhi — (can’t find an ISBN number)


* To read about various LSE events read Labour & TU Review, Irish Political Review and other publications — try www.atholbooks.org.

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