Last week, I read about Washington DC’s City Council agreeing to recognize out-of-state gay marriages by a vote 12-1. The Washington Post reported that numerous black churches rallied against the bill, and when it passed, demonstrations turned so loud and angry (near rioting) that the police had to forcibly clear the hallway.
Marion Barry, who won a City Council seat after he lost the the Mayor’s office amid a drug scandal, was the only councilman to cast a “no” vote.
He warned of an African-American uprising.
“All hell is going to break lose,” Barry said while speaking to reporters. “We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this.”
I’m totally cool with free speech opposing these policies (“I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”) and peaceful protests should always be protected. But threatening insurrection really goes beyond acceptable, and begins to cross over into dark and violent territory.
This made me realize something. This is the same violent homophobia we’ve seen from African countries and some Afro-Caribbean nations like Jamaica. For people of African descent of such disparate locations, backgrounds and situations to respond so similarly to gays, this stuff must be embedded deeply in Africans’ cultural DNA, their collective memory.
Did you know that 38 African countries (a supermajority) have laws banning homosexuality? Four of those (Mauritania, northern Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia, all Islamic states) impose the death penalty on anyone found to be gay, while the rest sentence gays to pay fines, go to prison or labor camps, sometimes for over a decade.¹
When the Episcopal Church USA ordained an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire, it effectively shattered the Anglican Communion, with most African churches breaking away, and some dioceses in the US joining the African provinces.² The Anglican Church of Nigeria, the worldwide Communion’s second-most populous province, issued a particularly pointed statement in 2006, affirming their “commitment to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality which is a perversion of human dignity and encourages the [Nigerian] National Assembly to ratify the Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality.”
Early this month in Senegal, Muslims exhumed the body of a man rumored to be gay from an Islamic cemetery. His family reburied him, only to find his corpse again dug up and dumped in front of their home the next day. His family has now interred him in a hidden grave.
Jamaica, mostly populated by ex-slaves (forcibly brought over from Senegal and Nigeria, by the way) is widely seen by human rights activists as the most homophobic place on Earth. Their current ruling party rose to power in 2001 with a campaign theme song about murdering gay men, after beginning a rumor that the incumbent Prime Minister was gay. Popular music in Jamaica is obsessed with anti-gay lyrics
Per Jamaican law, convicted homosexuals face up to 10 years in prison. But the police also love extrajudicial punishment of gays, and often beat them in public, in concert with vigilantes or on their own. Angry neighborhood mobs routinely assault and/or chase gays out of town, forcing them to abandon their homes and belongings.
One man described how six men from a “garrison community” (poor, inner-city communities controlled by either of Jamaica’s two main political parties) blocked a road to beat a local gay man:
“The crowd stood around watching, chanting “battyman, battyman, battyman” before gathering around him as he lay on the sidewalk. The crowd beat, punched and kicked him. They threw water from the gutter and garbage on him, all the while shouting “battyman, battyman.” Then they dragged him down the road for half a kilometre. They shouted “battyman fi’ dead.” As I stood across the street I realised there was nothing I could do to help him. Some mothers were actually in tears at what they were witnessing but there was nothing that they could do either. . The crowd was saying “Give him to us! Let us kill him! He’s a battyman!”
The story is typical. Once a person’s sexuality becomes known to family or community, they are at risk. Amnesty International has interviewed many people who have been forced to leave their areas after being publicly vilified, threatened or attacked on suspicion of being gay. They face homelessness, isolation or worse.
Amnesty also gave an example of a recent incident reported in a national newspaper, where a father encouraged a mob to beat up his son, who he suspected was gay, while he looked on smiling.³
What’s up with all the anti-gay hate from people of African ancestry? Obviously there are plenty of Africans friendly to gays (I get that no ethnicity is monolithic), but I can’t ignore the prevalence of a virulent, violent homophobia among African-descended communities that exceeds anything I’ve seen elsewhere. You just don’t see this level of violence and hate against gays this often in Europe or East Asia.
Why is this the case? What’s the origin of these attitudes? These feelings have to come from somewhere.
Is it due to the influence of Islamic norms on West Africa for over a millennium?
Is it part of pre-Biblical African culture?
What is it? (please chime in in the comment section if you have a theory)
One of the aides here from Jamaica recently told me, “men not supposed to cry.”
My theory is that, perhaps, when places experience severe poverty and day-to-day material insecurity, it shifts the culture to demand more manliness, more images of self-reliance and security. There is no room for men who don’t project that image, who look or act outside the most uber-masculine traits.
It’s like what Judith Warner wrote when discussing homophobia in America’s schools:
It’s weird, isn’t it, that in an age in which the definition of acceptable girlhood has expanded, so that desirable femininity now encompasses school success and athleticism, the bounds of boyhood have remained so tightly constrained? And so staunchly defended: Boys avail themselves most frequently of epithets like “fag” to “police” one another’s behavior and bring it back to being sufficiently masculine when someone steps out of line, Barbara J. Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found while conducting extensive interviews in a southeastern urban middle school in 2003 and 2004. “Boys were showing each other they were tough. They were afraid to do anything that might be called girlie,” she told me this week. “It was just like what I would have found if I had done this research 50 years ago. They were frozen in time.”
Pascoe spent 18 months embedded in a Northern California working-class high school, in a community where factory jobs had gone south after the signing of Nafta, and where men who’d once enjoyed solid union salaries were now cobbling together lesser-paid employment at big-box stores. “These kids experience a loss of masculine privilege on a day-to-day level,” she said. “While they didn’t necessarily ever experience the concrete privilege their fathers and grandfathers experienced, they have the sense that to be a man means something and is incredibly important. These boys don’t know how to be that something. Their pathway to masculinity is unclear. To not be a man is to not be fully human and that’s terrifying.”
These phenomena are in overdrive in societies that have experienced extremely impoverished, subsistence lifestyles since time immemorial. The undercurrent in society becomes that “if men aren’t men (in a certain way), we’ll lose everything.” Hopelessness and lack of opportunity for advancement just magnifies this. And then when you add the layer that, in the culture, men can’t gain honor and esteem from battle anymore, and few from riches, so the way they get honor and esteem increasingly focuses on how many women they can get; and that means even less room for gays.
That’s my theory anyway. What’s yours?
It’d be great if everyone in the world could heed these true words from Barack Obama, given at Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta for MLK Day ’08: “if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them….Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country. I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans. I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”