May 6, '08 - From Trenton, New Jersey
Last Week Philadelphia, the city known as both "The Cradle of Liberty" and "The City Of Brotherly love" lived up to both titles by again hosting the huge Equality Forum series of events - a series that included panel discussions on a range of queer issues, a showing of "Jihad For Love", art exhibits, parties, a street fair and appearances by LGBT leaders such as Representative Barney Frank. This year's theme was Gays & Lesbians In The Muslim World.
Among the many aspects of this topic, one issue that was discussed from time to time was whether the assumption of Western activists that our paradigm of liberation should be universal can translate into the the traditionalist societies of Muslim and Third World nations.
It sometimes comes a a shock to committed Western activists to learn that our concept of liberation may not be viewed as desirable or even possible by all gays and lesbians in non-western societies. Do the queers of Tehran, for example, actually want the right to parade down the street in drag or leather or thongs in the same way New York queers do in the annual Pride Parade? It may be unthinkable in Tehran now but it was unthinkable in New York as well, within still-living memory. That's an extreme example but it illustrates the question - which is "is there an absolute right way toward and interpretation of queer liberation, a way that is universally applicable?" After even a moment's thought, most people will probably agree that there is not, knowing after all that there is very little that can be said to be universally applicable when it comes to any activist or moral issue. On the other hand, where then is the line to be drawn when cultures conflict? An excellent historical example is the British suppression of Thuggee in India. As a rule, The British Empire took pains to avoid interference in the religious practices of it's citizens. However, a religion based on murdering strangers by the roadside was simply over the line. The ancient nature of the religion or the facts of its cultural context in no way justified ignoring its murderous nature. The Brits put a stop to it without a moment's hesitation, hanging every Thug they could lay hands on.
A good contemporary example would be the practice of involuntary female circumcision in certain African societies. I have no hesitation in saying this is absolutely barbaric, immoral, not to be tolerated and without justification. Those who argue otherwise are wrong - period. The practice should be criminalized and vigorously suppressed. I couldn't care less how ancient a part of the cultures in question this is.
So then - from these extreme examples, we see that we agree to respect SOME aspects of other cultures while fighting tooth and nail to change or suppress other aspects. Where is the line to be drawn? Surely the torture and execution of LGBT people is absolutely unacceptable. But from that starting point, how far do we go in assuming western ideas of liberation are exportable? Equality Forum put this question on the table for discussion and it is one that activists will have to contemplate and debate.
NB: Equality Forum advises "Our Conversation with Barney Frank ended up being replaced by a Conversation with Judy Shepard on the 10th anniversary of her gay son Matthew’s murder."