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.

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8 Reasons Why Homophobia Makes No Sense

26 08 2011

I’m usually pretty hard on gay men, because I think they tend to be a little bit vain and self-conceited. It’s one of those cases where minority members exploit their position by bemoaning their fate and eliciting pity through loud, obnoxious mirror-gazing antics. I even get a wee bit Ann Coulter-ish towards the gays sometimes, and that’s very hard for me to do. So you like dick? So what? The world doesn’t revolve around you and your crying penis. For these gays (for certainly not all gays are like this), everything is reducible to their own problems, which they constantly brood over in a desperate attempt at self-validation.

That said, gay people are still discriminated against in the United States and are bumping up against a particularly scary group of right-wing Christian dominionists campaigning for the presidency. Even though some gays act like whiney little bitches, none of them deserves to be denied their deceased partner’s Social Security benefits, equal treatment under the IRS tax code, or equal spousal immigration rights, among the many other federal protections they do not receive because they are attracted to members of the same sex.

For this reason, I would like to provide a comprehensive refutation of eight common arguments launched against homosexuality. These arguments, which I shall attempt to destroy one-by-one, can be summarized as follows: homosexual marriage goes against tradition; homosexuality is a choice; homosexuality is condemned in the Bible; homosexuality is unnatural; homosexuals cannot procreate; all men can marry women, and all women can marry men; if gays can marry, what’s next?; and what shall I tell my children?

1) “Marriage should be between a man and a woman, because it has always been this way.”

This fallacy is called an argumentum ad antiquitatem, or an appeal to tradition. It states that a thing is good because it is traditional, and bad because it is novel. But a thing is not necessarily good because it is traditional; it is good because it makes sense. At one time black people couldn’t marry white people in the United States, but this wasn’t right just because it was traditional. The law didn’t make sense, so we changed it to allow interracial couples (such as the current U.S. president’s parents) to marry and be happy together. Similarly, homosexuals cannot marry each other in most places, but this isn’t right just because it is traditional. The law does not work for homosexuals, so we should change it to allow same-sex couples to marry and be happy together. So, no, just because marriage has traditionally been a union of one man and one woman does not mean that it should be.

2) “Homosexuality is a choice.”

Usually you’ll argue, “The gay rights activists say that there’s a gay gene”. This is a big, fat straw man argument. Nobody with the faintest understanding of biology is arguing that there is a gay gene. What they are arguing is that there is no single gene for any sexual orientation. Rather, all sexual orientations are determined by a complex interaction of polygenic traits, with no single gene acting as the “signal” for whether you like fannies, pee-pees, or both. At the same time, I will concede that sexual orientation might have some environmental cause, because I am not a biological determinist, but, then, this would apply to heterosexuality too, right? So, no, you can’t say that homosexuality is a choice any more than you can say that heterosexuality is a choice.

3) “Homosexuality is condemned in the Bible.”

So what? The Bible is full of horribly offensive things. The Bible says you can sell your daughter into slavery to pay off a debt (Exodus 21:7). It also says you can execute people who cheat on their partners (Leviticus 20:10). But you wouldn’t do these things, would you? No, you wouldn’t, because these things are barbaric, tyrannical, and entirely incommensurate with the “crime” committed. Why, then, should you believe that homosexuals should be executed (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)? “That was the old covenant”, you will say, but the new covenant required a human sacrifice in the form of Jesus Christ the avatar, so some form of blood-sacrifice and recompense is required to propitiate God. That’s just ruthless and bloodthirsty. And, besides, it still implies that dues need to be paid for the sin of homosexuality. And in the meantime, two adult women or men could be having the most loving, fulfilling consensual sex imaginable. Why, then, should we abide by such sanguinary, blood-soaked scriptures?

4) “Homosexuality is unnatural.”

This fallacy is an appeal to nature. It states that a thing is right just because it is natural, and a thing is wrong just because it is unnatural. But a thing is not right just because it is natural, and a thing is not wrong just because it is unnatural. Clearly, rape and murder are a part of human nature, but we don’t say that these things are right, because they harm people; similarly, aeroplanes are unnatural, but nobody goes around protesting against aeroplanes, because they are helpful to us. Besides, a great deal of evidence suggests that, in large part, homosexuality is natural. We see it everywhere in nature. Penguins do it in the zoo, lions do it on the savanna, and Ellen Degeneres does it with Portia de Rossi in the bedroom of their Beverly Hills flat while their dogs and cats watch. Oh, and bonobos practice lesbianism as a way to cement social bonds. Human beings have practised homosexuality all throughout history, all around the world, in almost every culture. On top of that, do you know how many species of animals are hermaphroditic or transsexual? The permutations are mindboggling. Just watch one of Isabella Rossellini’s strangely droll and artistic Green Porno or Seduce Me short documentaries about mating habits in nature. How can it all be heterosexual?

5) “Homosexuals  do not procreate.”

True. Homosexuals do not procreate. Neither do sterile couples. Or post-menopausal women. Or hysterectomised women. Or couples who simply choose not to have children. Seriously? You don’t think that any of these people should have sex just because they don’t make babies? That’s just ridiculous. You may as well pass a law which states that couples must procreate within a certain number of years following their marriage or else their marriage will be annulled—and they will be banned from having any kind of sex afterward. Sounds fascist to me. Obviously people don’t just have sex to make babies; they also have sex for pleasure. Having sex for pleasure can help forge vital social bonds and nurture social stability. It also creates personal happiness, which has a positive trickle-down effect on the larger community. In a world verging on 7 billion in population, homosexuals have sex for love and pleasure, not to make more people, thus they play a vital role in creating social and demographic stability. So, no, homosexuality is not wrong just because it does not result in babies.

6) “All men can marry women, and all women can marry men. Therefore there is no inequality.”

This argument is a sophistry—it deliberately misses the point by setting up a straw man. The point is not whether all people are allowed to marry members of the opposite sex; the point is whether all people are allowed to marry members of the sex that they are attracted to. The injustice is in the fact that women cannot marry other women and men cannot marry other men, while women can marry men, and men can marry women. This means that gay people cannot marry the people they are attracted to, but straight people can marry the people they are attracted to. Thus, all people cannot marry the person they are attracted to. That is where the inequality lies. Obviously, the whole point of marriage equality is the right to marry a member of the sex you are attracted to, not a member of the sex you are not attracted to. So, no, it isn’t clever or valid to say that all men can marry women, and all women can marry men.

7) “If we legalise gay marriage, what’s next?”

This is the classic slippery slope argument. It makes me want to ask, well, if we legalise miscegenation, what’s next? Mulatto offspring? Sex with donkeys? Barack Obama? They were singing the same tune, I’m sure, in the United States back in 1967 with the ruling Loving v. Virginia, which legalised interracial marriage. Back then, too, I could have asked, what’s next? child molestation? Seriously, if you think that letting gays marry will lead to people having sex with children and donkeys, you haven’t heard of a little thing called adult consent. And if you compare sex between consenting adults with sexual abuse, there is seriously something broken inside your head. The requirement for morally sound sex is adult human consent. Period. Therefore gay sex between consenting adults is morally sound, while sex with children and donkeys is not. (Animals can’t really consent, can they?)  So, no, none of that nasty, scary donkey sex stuff will happen, dears, because it isn’t between consenting human adults. So just relax.

8 ) “What will I tell my children?”

Tell your children that Pam and Sally, the two ladies who have lived in the mysterious house across the street since before your own family existed, live together because they love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together, in peace and happiness. That is what they want. And that is what you should tell your children. I know—isn’t it so simple?

And those are the eight reasons why homophobia doesn’t make any sense, and why the U.S. federal ban on gay marriage should be repealed. I hope I expressed my points in the most trenchant prose possible. The federal ban on gay marriage destabilises loving unions, families, and children. If one truly cared about marriage and family, one would want to maximise the potential for lovingly committed adults to raise children in healthy, loving environments which nurture dignity, cooperation, and social cohesion. The current U.S. federal law falls short of this goal, but for some reason I have an inkling that this will change very soon, and when it does, it will be as a much-welcome torrent bursting forth over a dam on to a long-parched field, tended naively by the very people who built the dam in the first place.