Homophobia and the Post-colonial Predicament

As we mourn the passing of David Kato (h/t: feministing) and imagine how this is the tip of the homophobic iceburg, the whole global issue of homophobia makes me ponder some of the historical and structural issues that come into play with world-wide homophobia.

As some of us know, homosexuality is a recent development. While same-sex love has been around for all of recorded history, its iterations have been many, various and at times even the status quo (I’m looking at you, Ancient Greeks). Homosexuality itself, however, is an invention of a nineteenth-century Europe dedicated to SCIENCE!!!! and the “finding”–pronounced construction–of deviance from a bourgeois, middle-class state-promoted sociology of the nuclear family. This sociology was developed in order to guarantee the subsequent generations of a middle-class educated populace that is the foundation of the modern nation state. For those who like trivia, keep in mind that the term heterosexuality only began to see wide usage in the 1930’s, about 50 years after the invention of the term homosexuality (which, originally meant what we now think of as heterosexuality, with a brief period where it meant what we now think of as bisexuality).

Homosexuality as a term is not some neutral term that just describes the state of affairs of a particular sub-set of people. It is a term that springs from the titillated desire for science to shamelessly catalogue and pruriently search out for hidden deviance with a perverse twinkle in its eye. The term has a complex history that includes its use to discipline and discriminate against those classified as homosexuals. It has also been taken up with pride by those who faced oppression based on the term, and in this strategy there has been some success in the West in ameliorating its rhetorical uses for oppression.

Aside from these elements worthy of note, most important for understanding global homophobia is that at the same time as homosexuality is being constructed as a deviance–not coincidentally–European powers are colonizing the world. The power of Europe to be there (a phrase I take from Edward Said–also note how close this resembles Heidegger’s Dasein, “being-there”) enabled Europe to construct itself as the West, and this in turn affected its own constructions of sexuality. The end product was that most colonial powers brought a new and, for Europeans, important,  legal framework into the colonies: sodomy laws, and laws against homosexuality. For many of these colonized regions (aside from those already impacted by their common connection to Western epistemes, most noteably Islamic regions) these laws criminalizing homosexuality and sodomy were new and entirely innovative procedures of classifying people. For some countries, these laws were minor blips that were paid little attention. For other countries, especially those who were under discursive pressure to fight against the “feminization of the East” that Orientalism so handily lobbed towards them, these laws were quite useful for convincing themselves that they were as masculine as masculine can get.

And here we come up against what is known as the post-colonial predicament. This term was coined by Carol Breckenridge and Van der Veer in their edited volume The Post-Colonial Predicament. What the post-colonial predicament describes is the internalization and naturalization of colonial epistemes, structures and institutions by once colonized peoples. That is, it is when colonized and post-colonized people take once imposed colonial stuctures as if they were their own natural way of doing things.

In order to understand globalized homophobia, we need to understand that in almost all cases (I’m hedging my bets, but note I’ve never seen a counter-example) homophobia in postcolonial regions is precisely an example of the post-colonial predicament. The homophobia of, say Uganda, was a colonial trope that is now coming to fruition as if Uganda has always been against people of alternative sexuality. This is absolutely not the case. And it is not isolated. World-wide, almost every case of homophobia is caused by the remnants of colonialism.

In fact, there is even further transformation of discourse about this. In India, we find a discourse among the right that India has never has same-sex love and that homosexuality is a Western imposition, and that same-sex love is actually Indians pandering to the West as if they are some sort of colonial spy. This makes the right feel good, as it rhetorically situates them as anti-colonial gatekeepers. However, as people like Ruth Vanita and Peter Jackson and others have shown, India has a long long history of alternative sexualities. Indeed, what IS new is the taking up of Western understandings of same-sex love by activists in order to find strategies and global support for fighting DISCRIMINATION. It works both ways. Also note that this discrimination only began because of colonization.

So how do these insights help us? There are many answers to this question, but I would argue that a rhetorical strategy that reversed the Indian right’s strategy would not only hold some element of facticity, but also be quite attractive. I would argue that LGBT activists and the like should start arguing that homophobia is pandering to colonialism. One could even spin it by making material connections between the elites in, say Uganda, and the right of the United States. If homophobic rhetoric in post-colonized countries begins to be associated with colonial cow-towing, the anti-colonial sentiment that still remains a powerful rhetorical device world-wide can be strategically and fruitfully used to shame and counter this homophobic discourse. The key, of course is marketing and the pragmatic concern of being able to penetrate the media etc. with this trope.

Regardless, my sentiments go out to all those globally who have to face oppression based on the convoluted and complex history of homophobia and its rhetorical uses by elites to shore up their own power.

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6 Responses to “Homophobia and the Post-colonial Predicament”

  1. Shaun Turriff Says:

    Nice post. To add to the discussion: implicit in your understanding of colonial powers is the role of religion within the colonial process. Explicitly, the Catholic Church had a substancial role in the construction of homosexuality in Uganda. The missionary White Fathers (French Catholics) were responsible for the canonization of the first African born saints (sub-saharan Africa, that is). These martyrs were boys who were killed for resisting the sexual advances advances the King, who, the Church claims, was under the influence of the muslims. They were, of course, taught to resist by the Catholic missionaries, claiming that male-male sexual behaviour was a sin. A fine, localized, and concrete example, I think, of the processes you discuss.

  2. fuzzytheory Says:

    Thanks for the response Shaun,

    I totally agree! I left the discussion vague and theoretical as I tend to do, because the details of these broader processes play out with may variations in particular locales. Quite an interesting example you bring up there in regards to Uganda!

    One of the things I find interesting is how, say, Canada and the USA are also post-colonial countries. We tend to forget this. It makes it interesting to think about how these processes play out in North America–especially in the States where homophobia is a bit more rampant at the same time as so many little gains for LGBT rights are being made there.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Abhirup Says:

    I exactly did not understand your logical explanation here. It is true that at one time, same-sex relations were commonplace in India as well as several non-western cultures, and it was often more so than in European countries. Now suddenly the trend has reversed and it seems Europe and US are far ahead when it comes to giving homosexuals rights while in non-west these practices have become more or less invisible. Why and how did this happen?
    How did colonization create such rampant homophobia? Afterall, it is true that colonized folks hated the colonizers, so why did they import this homophobia from them?

  4. fuzzytheory Says:

    Hi Abhirup,

    Thanks for the comment! I think there are a few assumptions that need to be cleared up. Colonized folks are not a homogeneous mass and not all of them hated the colonizers. Back in the day, indigenous elites often loved the colonizers because it gave them more ability to push their own perspective as the “true” indigenous perspective. Their complicity with colonial regimes gave them more sway in their regions.

    In addition, many colonials and post-colonials see the discursive and material benefits of adopting (or “importing”) Western tropes as their own.

    I would say, however, the biggest factor here is how things like homophobia are systemic issues. They are large, subtle, and take generations to be internalized. While the first few generations of colonized may have been scratching their heads about the homophobia, wondering what the big deal was (which I don’t think is true, but a thought project), after a few generations it becomes so normalized that it is now “traditional”–regardless of the actual history of the subject.

    Why is the West more open about LGTB stuff? I would argue that it may not actually be the case. There are outliers like Canada and Spain, but think about the US and compare it to India… There are pretty similar attitudes there. It is a pretty complex issue of comparison and I don’t think it should be tackled without a detailed examination of the histories of the countries/regions being examined.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment!

  5. Abhirup Says:

    Thanks for your quick reply!
    You said:
    “but think about the US and compare it to India… There are pretty similar attitudes there”

    So you mean US is not less homophobic than a country like India in an age when President Obama has already started giving same-sex rights? Does it mean that the west is a bit hypocritical here?

    Besides, it is not just in this article. I have often heard this argument before that most of homophobia in the non-west today is due to the legacy of colonization, including in several Muslim countries.Many people have said that in one point of history, it was European cultures that were the most heteronormative and homophobic, and that, it were the Muslim cultures that were most licentious and liberal and where, sex between men was commonplace and easiest thing to get!

  6. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] Some basic theoretical stuff about homophobia is a global context can be found in Homophobia and the Post-Colonial Predicament. […]

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