Gay Rights in the Clash of Civilizations

Don Gorton. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 8, Issue 6. Jan/Feb 2002.

Retreating British troops played “The World Turned Upside Down after the Battle of York-town, which effectively ended the Revolutionary War in 1781. There was no doubt, at the time or since, that the success of the American Revolution had upended global politics. And while we lack the perspective of history, September 11 appears from our present vantage point to betoken change only slightly less dramatic. Still, backward-looking observers, then and now, readily fail to see the ramifications of events. In the 18th century the French ancien regime assisted the American revolutionaries only to find itself engulfed in a tsunami of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the first year of the 21st century, many of the old order of doctrinaire gay-lesbian leftists find themselves a similar anachronism, unable to move beyond their reflexive blaming of the United States as the source of evil, even as the terms of struggle shift violently away from familiar mid-20th-century paradigms.

Among the myriad changes set in motion by September 11 are many relevant to the affairs of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities in the U.S. and worldwide. Some details are plain enough for all to see. When an avalanche of official and journalistic condemnation met Rev. Jerry Falwell’s suggestion that sufferance of homosexuality, feminism, and paganism exposed America to divine rebuke, it pushed explicit homophobia further outside the mainstream of American public opinion. Senator John McCain eulogized Mark Bingham, an openly gay rugby player acknowledged to be among the heroes of United flight 93, who counterattacked the hijackers and took their plane down before it could damage the U.S. Capitol, its putative target.

In the early aftermath of the attack, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives voted to let the District of Columbia domestic partners ordinance take effect, reversing years of Congressional vetoes of the local pro-gay measure. Republican Governor George Pataki of New York acted to make relief aid available to gay and lesbian partners of victims of the World Trade Center disaster (even as the Rev. Lou Sheldon was calling for the denial of such relief).

A new national mood, steeped in old-fashioned patriotism, surged everywhere, including in GLBT neighborhoods, where American flags replaced rainbow flags on display. The new patriotism has shown itself to be remarkably inclusive, not only of gays and lesbians, but also of Muslim-Americans: the early spike in the number of hate crimes against Americans of Middle-Eastern origin has tapered off. There is a shared feeling of our being in this together, of the destinies of all Americans, and our prosperity and livelihoods, being caught up in the success of the new war on terrorism. The often competing ideals of diversity and unity seem to have harmonized, serving as a source of strength for this polyglot nation.

Yet this national coming together has occurred in tandem with an international geopolitical realignment—itself with particular relevance to GLBT communities. The “culture wars” of late-20th-century America have receded amidst the new national unity and the disgrace of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. A “clash of civilizations,” between the West and the world of traditionalist Islam, may be emerging in their place. Anticipated by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in a seminal article in Foreign Affairs magazine and a 1998 book entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the trend was detectable as the Cold War drew to a close. Huntington actually forecast the West coming into conflict with two separate and distinct cultural traditions: one East Asian and Sino-centric, the other Muslim, sweeping from Morocco to Indonesia. Only with September 11 did it become clear that Western and Islamist societies would be the first to come to blows in the 21st century.

Huntington has opined that Muslims are “convinced of the superiority of their culture and obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” In the wake of Islamic resurgence, Islamic fundamentalists have become belligerent in their rejection of Western values, particularly the separation of religion from government and the sexual revolution in all its manifestations. The proliferation of open homosexuality is seen as a prime example of Western decadence, and a reproach to any society that suffers it to emerge. Accompanying a reactionary posture of cultural chauvinism is a sense of grievance, of having suffered at the hands of the West through colonialism, through the establishment of Israel, the export of a materialist culture, and the desecration of Islamic traditions. Hostility to the point of homicidal hatred can flow from such a brew of misconceptions.

In declaring war on terrorism, President Bush, as President Clinton had before him, took pains to deny that the West was attacking Islam. Doubtless this dissimulation serves the diplomatic exigencies of securing support from Muslim powers, whose cooperation is needed to strike at the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, the fact that the terrorism was being carded out in the name of Islam can scarcely be ignored, any more than can its militant, fundamentalist cast. Of course the terrorists are not representative of all Muslims; for most, Islam is a religion that promotes peace. Still, it doesn’t much matter that the more moderate elements of Islam have not declared a jihad against the West. The most extreme Islamists are the ones at the cutting edge of the scimitar.

Islamic intolerance of homosexuality had made itself felt in the West before September 11. At the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on HIV/AIDS last June, Islamic nations blocked Western efforts to acknowledge the impact of the disease on the GLBT communities. GLBT issues were unceremoniously swept off the table at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, before it even began, again at the behest of Muslim delegates, whose sole agenda was to get the conference to declare Zionism a form of racism. The government of Malaysia used its sodomy law to disgrace a former Deputy Prime Minister, and recently declared that gay cabinet ministers from Britain would be unwelcome “with their boyfriends” in that country, even on official business. The Islamic government of Iran has instituted and carded out the death penalty for homosexual acts. Egypt carried out mass arrests at a gay club earlier this year.

The Taliban have emerged as the most extreme of the Muslim extremists who actually hold power, notorious for their treatment of women. Anti-Western to the point of banning music, artistic depictions of the human form, and television, the Taliban’s theocratic rulers have mostly occupied themselves debating questions such as whether the proper punishment for homosexuality should be live burial or being dropped from a tall building. (The U.S. bombing campaign may have already relieved them of this quandary!)

For those not realizing that fundamentalist Islam represents a threat to the freedom of GLBT communities, the events of September 11 wrote this fact in the sky. Many proud, out gays and lesbians were killed and injured in the attacks, further evidence of the extent to which we are integrated into the economic fabric of American life. Any prospects for the future advancement of gay rights and the growth of our communities will rest with the ability of Western values of liberty, tolerance, and pluralism to survive this clash of civilizations. To congregate in large numbers, to continue to build our institutions, we depend like everyone else on our government to guarantee homeland security—as well as the constitutional rights of free speech and association. We gays and lesbians have a considerable stake in the war on terrorism.

The idea that gays and lesbians might have shared interests with the American establishment disturbs the 60’s Weltanschauung that still pervades much of the contemporary gay rights movement. More orthodox gay and lesbian leftists hark back to the time when revolution really seemed imminent, when the cause of GLBT liberation seemed bound up in a comprehensive radical political agenda. “Amerika” was seen as the great obstacle to progressive advancement. Parts of the continuing gay movement still see themselves as outside the mainstream of American political life—and proudly so.

This tendency to “blame America” lingers anachronistically into the new century, and with absurd results. One prominent lesbian leftist spoke of her shame at being American in the early aftermath of September 11, declaring herself offended by the displays of the American flag. Others fell in lockstep with the anti-globalization crowd, behind the still tiny anti-war campaign, with echoes of the more potent movement for neutrality in 1939-41 that delayed American entry into World War II for two critical years. There was much gnashing of teeth at America’s “complicity” in the causes of terrorism. Some critics called for condoning militant Islamic hatred of the United States, failing to appreciate the specific cultural circumstances fueling it. What they failed to acknowledge was that the very success of the movements for gender equality and sexual liberation, spawned amidst the leftist awakening of the 1960’s, is itself a central element in the violent reaction of fundamentalist Islam.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that … If you will not hear reason she’ll surely rap your knuckles.” But things might not turn out so harshly. Success in the war on terrorism might spare leftists and everyone else in the Homeland the unpleasantness of an actual confrontation with fundamentalist Islam. Perhaps ironically, the benefits and protections of American citizenship have never required giving up the freedom to live in the past.