Hillary Clinton, Gay Rights, and Cultural Relativism

12 12 2011

I’m not a cultural relativist. Sometimes customs are culturally relative, and sometimes, quite frankly, they are not. I don’t believe that sexism, racism, child abuse, animal abuse, rape, torture, murder, or homophobia are excusable depending on cultural context, because in each context these atrocities share the traits of hatred, violence, and exploitation committed against a sentient being. Let me get this caveat out of the way first: on some issues we are in no place to judge the practises of other cultures, and on other issues we most certainly are. In return, these other cultures are allowed to judge us on our faults. With that out of the way, LGBT rights are not an imperialist vision; they are a humanist one.

Given my wariness of cultural relativism, I was elated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s amazing speech at the United Nations in Geneva. In her speech, Clinton declares that the Obama administration will defend LGBT rights as a part of its human rights and foreign policy, and that the President will command all government agencies operating overseas to defend LGBT rights through various diplomatic strategies. She makes several points about how and why the world community should end persecution of LGBT people: first, LGBT rights are human rights; second, homosexuality exists in all cultures; third, religious and cultural beliefs do not justify persecution of LGBT people; fourth, the world must confront persecution of LGBT people, not dismiss it; and fifth, we must employ practical means to obtain equality for LGBT people. All of these points are interesting and relevant, but the most provocative to me are the second and third points, which challenge the cultural relativism cited to defend persecution of LGBT people.

In her second point, Clinton challenges the assumption that homosexuality and LGBT rights are purely Western, imperialist conceptions being foisted on non-Western cultures. This is simply not true, Clinton shows, because homosexuality exists in every culture, and homophobia is a problem in every culture. It is, in other words, a human condition, and creating artificial cultural barriers to LGBT liberation would do a disservice to LGBT people:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbours.

And just in case anybody insists there are no examples of efforts to advance LGBT rights in non-Western cultures, Clinton deftly turns the tables:

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Clinton has obviously done her fact-checking (which is to be granted, given that she is America’s chief diplomat): heteronormative sexualities, if not exactly ubiquitous, are well-distributed among the world’s cultures, hence LGBT rights are a relevant concern to all of the world’s cultures. It is now common knowledge among well-informed people that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not the product of a particular culture; they are a product of living organisms in general, from shellfish to human beings. It seems absurd, then, to say that these sexualities are the luxurious fad of one particular society (the West) of one particular species of animal (homo sapiens), hence it seems absurd to suggest that LGBT rights are relevant only to that society or species.

In her third point, Clinton criticises the notion that cultural or religious beliefs somehow justify persecution of LGBT people, and roundly dashes it to pieces. (I exaggerate, but still, she could have, and she probably would have if representatives of countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan weren’t present.) She does this by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of other persecuted peoples. Specifically, she draws an analogy between crimes against LGBT people and crimes against women, both of which derive from patriarchal hegemony:

[The justification for persecuting LGBT people] is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

Cutting off a woman’s clitoris is universally wrong because it causes unspeakable pain, stress, and health problems for the victim, whether she is from Sweden, Somalia, or Seattle. This is because every person of every culture possesses a common human physiology; the nervous systems of all human beings are basically the same. I suspect every woman feels immense pain when she is mutilated, burnt to death, or stoned to death, despite the cultural situation. And when proponents of cultural relativism cite reasons for their stance, those reasons fall nothing short of pathetic: women shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with men other than their husbands, women shouldn’t be allowed to experience sexual pleasure, or women shouldn’t be allowed to live if their husbands die. Forgive me if I find these justifications more solipsistic than utilitarian, and hence hardly socially beneficial. They’re just the laws of self-serving tyrants who view women as mere incubators. Similarly, every gay person experiences unconscionable pain and horror at being hanged or crushed to death for being gay. Opinions, insecurities, and concerns specific to a culture do not justify violence against women or gay people, because we all share the same basic human physiology despite cultural context. I think this is what Clinton was pointing at.

I won’t mince words. Hillary Clinton is right, and the cultural relativists are wrong. Heteronormative sexuality is found everywhere in the world, and LGBT rights are no more culturally relative than women’s or racial minorities’ rights, because all are products of a common human mental and physical experience. For some reason, though, this is a sensitive topic for many anti-imperialists, who often happen to be from the West. It seems to me that a lot of this cultural relativist dogma stems from white, middle-class people who feel guilty about their colonial heritage, and they spout this disingenuous nonsense about relativism to soothe their own conscience. But think about it. Arguing that women’s or LGBT rights are culturally relative is basically discriminating against women and LGBT people who live in countries, like Iran, which don’t recognise their status, and that isn’t very feminist or pro-gay, is it? It isn’t even very pro-human, as Clinton showed, and I can’t help but respect her for sending such a bold, unapologetic message to countries which still use cultural relativism as a loophole to commit human atrocities. It was truly a satisfying vindication of LGBT rights.





Sometimes It’s Hard To Be A Drag Queen

3 07 2011

I’ve always been preoccupied with gender theory, but I’ve never been able to distil the mechanism of homophobic sexism into as few words as RuPaul. She has such a down-to-earth, unpretentious, matter-of-fact style of stating things, and such a cutting perspicacity, that I simply had to write a blog entry on what she had to say about the way the world views feminine men. In a word, she slams patriarchy square in the jaw by exposing the way it reacts to drag. Patriarchy reacts negatively to drag and homosexuality because these are heteronormative, in the same way it reacts to feminists because they are heternormative, hence drag queens and gay people have something in common with feminists.

Let me start by explaining the way homophobia and sexism are related. Both homophobia and sexism are products of a patriarchal society. A patriarchal society is a society in which males dominate females through a strict set of biologically-justified sex roles. In this system, the man conquers the woman socially, legally, economically, and sexually in order to keep her as his own private incubator, so that the genes of other men don’t compete with his. (I know. How barbaric. Who would want to have those genes?) Obviously, if a man is not interested in sexually conquering a woman (and thus not interested in conquering her in any other way, insofar as sexual conquest is inextricably intertwined with other forms of conquest), he cannot fulfil his role of taming women and maintaining dominance. Well, gay men cannot fulfil this role, since they are not sexually attracted to women, therefore, in a way, they are traitors to the patriarchal cause of dominating women. In other words, gay people and feminists share a cause—the dismantling of traditional sex roles—hence both groups are scorned by the patriarchy for failing to preserve the patriarchy, which is essentially a sex-based hierarchy contrived by heterosexual males.

Besides, as a man, why would I want to control a woman? How could I live with myself, knowing the smug tyranny that has infected my soul? It is a repugnant pride in one’s own sex, a need to create an identity, to forge a sense of being in contrast with others. It is an act of the ego. How could I be comfortable with that? To be so arrogant towards half of the human population, I would have to be a truly ruthless, heartless person—or else extremely scared and insecure. Why would I want to be like that toward my fellow human? And straight men have no more reason to participate in this nonsense than gay men do, because it shouldn’t make a difference whether or not you want to put your penis in a vagina.

(Disclaimer: I love men and straight people, and most men are not like this, but most people who are like this probably are men. There is a difference between “most men do this” and “most people who do this are men”. Most men don’t rape, but most rapists are men.)

Now that I have shown how both gay men and feminists threaten and thereby stoke the wrath of patriarchy, let me give you RuPaul’s refreshingly concise and conciliatory spin on the topic. In a gay.com article, she attributed antagonism toward drag queens to patriarchal expectations: “In our culture, lesbians, because it’s a masculine culture and a patriarchal society, it’s okay for them to behave in a masculine way”, she says, “but it’s not okay for men to behave in a feminine way.  In fact, even among gay people, it’s looked down upon.  So, will there ever be a day where people won’t look down upon men who act feminine…I don’t think so. (Laughs).” I hope there will be, if only for the sake of all of those poor little sensitive intelligent boys who are savaged and reprimanded daily by their overbearing fathers for being too “girly”—whatever that’s supposed to be. But the point RuPaul makes is that patriarchy embraces masculine people because they fit the mould of what is considered ideal human behaviour, but reject feminine people because they do not fit this mould.

Let’s look closer at this point. Femininity is associated with nurturance, weakness, and submissiveness, whilst masculinity is associated with discipline, strength, and aggression. In patriarchy, masculinity, not femininity, is the prototype for human behaviour, because patriarchy values discipline, strength, and aggression over nurturance, weakness, and submissiveness. On top of this, women are associated with the feminine role, and men, with the masculine role. (Even if these roles do not accurately describe their respective sexes—what matters is that these roles are believed to describe their respective sexes, even when they actually don’t, because people can persecute others based on entirely fallacious assumptions). That women are associated with the feminine role automatically means that they are not the human prototype. When women assume the aggressive role, they are transgressing, and when men assume the submissive role, they are transgressing. Women must always be the “feminine” non-prototype, and men, the “masculine” prototype.

So, in a patriarchal society, in terms of power and respect it is easier to be a man, or to be like what a man is believed to be (even if he isn’t), because patriarchy values masculinity, and men are associated with this valued virtue. Well, drag queens are a slap in the face of this system. As RuPaul said, they toy with the ego and identity, which means they also toy with masculine identity, and this scares the living daylight out of people who take their identity seriously. It’s easy for a woman to wear a pair of pants, because she is exemplifying the supposed “masculine” role, but it is hard for a man to wear a dress, because he is exemplifying the supposed “feminine” role.

Ultimately this double standard is rooted in misogyny. Again, to be clear, this does not mean that women actually are feminine—it only means that they are expected, obligated, or perceived to be feminine, even though many of them are not. Many women don’t wear makeup, but they are treated as though it is their wont to do so. In other words, it is enough to believe that women are supposed to be feminine in order to persecute them accordingly. (Analogously, a person can be bullied for being gay even if they are actually straight.) Given this, any man who assumes a feminine role, which is reserved for women, is a “traitor” to his sex, for he is abandoning the masculine prototype for something feared and abhorred—the underprivileged opposite. It is precisely this irony that drag queens embody.

It is very important that drag queens mock ego and gender identity the way they do, because it forces people to confront their fears and surmount them. It also challenges traditional notions of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. RuPaul accomplishes this feat with particular panache—and she has the philosophical wit to justify it. We should also remember how gay men and feminists both suffer from patriarchy by challenging it—this is a reason to celebrate solidarity. Why is drag such a fundamental horror to us? Why does a man donning a dress and wearing lipstick scare people so much? Why are we so obsessed with preserving our identity, with focusing on who we are? Why not experiment a little? We are who we want to be. What in the world could a drag queen do to you and your cherished nuclear family? Teach them a lesson on reason, humour, common sense, and humanity? Watch re-runs of She-Ra: Princess of Power with them? Oh, I feel so sorry for you. Maybe you should take your spouse and your children to a drag show some time and undergo a very long-overdue paradigm shift. I don’t mind if you have to pull out a nipple to feed baby, either—I’m all for public breastfeeding. In fact, public nudity should be legalized. (It already is in Seattle.) See? I support everyone.