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.





Julie Gentron and the Lady League, Vol. 1, Ep. 1: Birth of the Plastic Demon

15 11 2011

Written by Brandon Arkell and Seth Gordon Little

A bright spotlight fell on a head deformed with a nest of wires which seemed to serve as hair. The figure worked busily on some task at an operating table, which was swathed in shadow. Soon a head rose, slowly turned, and faced its creator, who revealed a sunken, wizen face twisted into a huge, perverse grin of satisfaction. The wire-haired surgeon retreated a few steps from the table, from which a female figure slowly rose and dismounted, standing rigid like a mannequin in the stark interplay of light and shadow. His grin deepened into a grimace. A host of white-clad medical assistants emerged from the dark and stood impassive, awaiting his instructions.

“My eyes defy me”, croaked the surgeon in a frog-like voice. “At last, the labour of decades has granted me one moment—if just one sweet second—of bliss. Can it be? The perfect woman? No—the perfect human! You are my own”.

“To the contrary, hag”, murmered the patient balefully in her shoulder-padded 1980s power-suit and giant shellacked

hairdo.”You are mine. My servant-creator”.

The surgeon’s grin began to dissolve as he surveyed his patient’s face, which remained sheathed in darkness.

“And these, your helpers”, she said, pointing to his assistants with a long, green-nailed finger, “will be my minions! How well that you have so thoroughly plied them with the very substance over which I have dominion—plastic! What will you, hag? Be my proud chief of staff, or my unwilling, whimpering whelp?”

“Bow to my own creation?! Never!”

“Very well, my creator-hag. Have it your way.”

With a whirring sound, a ray of laser beams shot forth from the patient’s eyes and stunned the medical staff. Through some mysterious mental power, she took possession of them, and they suddenly became rigid and mechanical.

“This can’t be! I—I’ve calculated for every possible contingency, considered every possible backfire!”

“Not good enough, whelp! You may not know your own power—but I know mine.”

The medical staff converged on the surgeon. Under the patient’s command, they attacked him, stunning him with laser beams from their eyes and clawing at him until he crumpled to the ground in a sobbing heap.

“Yes, yes, yes, my synthetic beauties”, the plastic monster groaned to her new slaves in a fit of exultation. “Your serpentine precision pleases me well. You are quick as well as pretty”. She turned to her creator. “Though spineless and pathetic, your genius will serve me yet. I have much use for a bio-physicist of your calibre. With your service, soon I shall welcome more wayward sheep into my flock—black, white, and pink—and with such a legion, no one will stop me!” These last words were uttered with an evil cackle which resonated throughout the dark halls of the decrepit old surgeon’s secret medical facility.

Yet there was one woman who would foil the monster’s plans. In the year 2225, the galaxy was plagued with bloodthirsty criminals of every stripe, from the cold-hearted seahorse women of Titan’s methane lakes to the vicious unicorn-dragons of Vega’s great dust clouds. When all seemed lost, out she stepped from the ramshackle streets of Tower Hamlets, a hero of no ordinary stature. But a wisp of a girl, she fixed her mother’s laptop with the twitch of an eye, and neighbours gossipped about a gifted child who controlled machines with her mind.

When a secret shadow government of the United States sought to harness her powers with a vampiric alien entity known only as the Extractor, she turned the tables on them and escaped, only to discover that the radiation caused by this strange being had given her breast cancer. Desperate for a cure, she sought the finest doctors. However, during the procedure to remove the tumour, a mysterious race of benevolent alien beings appeared, placed a sleeping spell on the medical staff, and commandeered the operation, implanting in her an armoury of weapons which she could control with the power of her mind, including the deadliest weapon of all—the dreaded mammary cannon. Upon hearing of her recovery, the MI6 persuaded her to join their ranks as the founding member of a special branch of the agency called The Lady League, and they re-christened her Julie Gentron, first of the gen-trons, cyborg super-women!

Stay tuned for the adventures of Britain’s proud triad of women space-soldiers in the next instalment of Julie Gentron and the Lady League!