John M. Becker

Colonialism, Homophobia, and Absolution

Filed By John M. Becker | July 03, 2014 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Cameroon, colonialism, cultural sensitivity, homophobia, imperialism, Jamaica, legacy, Mark Joseph Stern, Slate, statute of limitations, tough questions, Uganda

british-colonialism.jpgEver have one of those moments where someone else's words so handily encapsulate your own views that you find yourself shouting at your computer screen in agreement (either in your mind or out loud)? Have you ever read something and thought, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"?

I had one such moment this morning when I read the newest column by my friend Mark Joseph Stern over at Slate, titled "Don't Blame Yesterday's Colonialism for Today's Homophobia."

Mark writes:

Last Sunday, 25,000 Jamaicans rallied in support of their country's explicitly homophobic anti-sodomy law, comparing homosexuality to rape and murder and arguing that anti-gay laws are "righteous and Godly." Jamaica's anti-sodomy law, as many Western news sources are eager to remind us, is a "colonial leftover," a "holdover" from Britain's bygone rule over the island. As controversy over the law swells, expect these whispers to turn into roars blaming Jamaican homophobia on the country's departed colonial overlords.

Don't believe it. This idea that the British government must "answer for" modern homophobia carries an unfortunate currency among the Western left, which often tacitly excuses gay hate in former colonies as an inevitable vestige of colonialism's anti-gay bent. You hear it in story after story about a developing country's rampant, frequently violent homophobia: Anti-gay laws and attitudes are the "legacy" or the "inheritance" of Western colonialism, and the homophobes of today cannot be blamed for the sins of their former rulers. For a time, this was probably true. But the statute of limitations has long run on this kind of soft-core cultural relativism. And the homophobes of 2014--be they in Jamaica or Britain, Uganda or America--cannot toss their culpability onto a historical scapegoat.

I, too, have long been uncomfortable with the conversation around homophobia and colonialism. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely think it's important to view homophobia in its broader context in every society -- and in formerly colonized countries, colonialism and its shameful legacy are without a doubt a critical part of that context, especially as it relates to colonial-era anti-gay laws.

daenerys-targaryen-white-savior.jpgBut here's where I have a problem: the self-flagellating "don't blame them for their homophobia, because colonialism" meme that so many well-intentioned Westerners -- especially my fellow lefties -- default to in these conversations sounds progressive and enlightened, but to my ear, it's exactly the opposite.

To me, it sounds like a sort of masochistic white-splaining. "Don't blame them, blame imperialism" infantilizes the very people (in Jamaica, in Uganda, in Cameroon, etc.) that my fellow lefties profess to be concerned about -- by absolving them of their personal culpability, as fully autonomous adult human beings, for their own actions. In their noble effort to be culturally sensitive to the legacy of Western imperialism, these Westerners inadvertently become what they despise.

And as Mark points out, that plays right into the hands of anti-gay leaders in many of these countries by casting LGBT equality as a Western imposition instead of a universal human right:

The African presidents who have signed extreme anti-gay bills into law have played upon colonialist guilt, castigating gay rights as a neocolonial attack. They claim that that LGBT tolerance is a "Western" innovation being foisted upon their countries in violation of "traditional African values." These euphemisms are devilishly effective, painting basic gay rights as a Western swindle by lumping them into the same category as other colonialist humiliations. And they inject patriotic pride into measures like Uganda's "kill the gays" law, turning support for such odious bills into a symbolic severing of the colonialist shackles.

I hope you'll head over to Slate and read Mark's piece in full. And then I hope you'll head back here and let me know what you think. Were you shouting at your computer in agreement, or in frustration? What do you think is the most productive approach to the conversation about homophobia and imperialism?

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