It wasn’t a particularly good week for the rights of sexual minorites around the globe.
On Thursday, May 20th, a court in China sentenced a man who participated in swinging and organized swinger parties to three and a half years in prison, a severe penalty for a crime that the Chinese government calls “crowd licentiousness.”
On Tuesday, May 18th, a court in Malawi convicted two gay men of unnatural acts and gross indecency. Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 33, and Steven Monjeza, 26, were sentenced to 14 years in prison. The charges resulted from the two men holding a commitment ceremony.
It would be easy to join in the international condemnation, with its slightly orientalist twist, of such repressive state actions. The criticism of Malawi has been extensive. Even the Harper government, that great friend of gay rights in Canada, condemned the persecution of the two gay men.
It might be more interesting to observe the discourse of the prosecutions, as well as the discourse of resistance within these countries.
In Malawi, homosexuality is often cast as a corrupt foreign practice. Leckford Thotho, the minister of information and civic affairs was quoted in the New York Times as stating:
“These immoral acts are not in our culture; they are coming from outside…Otherwise, why is there all this interest from around the world? Why is money being sent?”
Religious leaders join in the sentiment. The Rev. Zacc Kawalala, the leader of the Word Alive Ministry and a member of the national human rights commission, was quoted in the Times as stating: “The West has its gay agenda. It wants to look at Africa and say, ‘If you don’t accept homosexuality, you are primitive.’ But we’re not as wicked as the West.”
This is a common trope of nationalist post colonial states. Issues of women’s rights and sexuality have long been cast as Western, and as part of the West’s civilizing mission over the colonies. And the problem is – its true. The treatment of women in many traditional societies was used by colonial powers to justify their harsh interventions. Anti-colonial resistance would then defend their cultural practices, and denounce the corrupt ways of West.
This has been a delicate issue for international human rights activists for a long time: how to advance human dignity and equality, without deploying the colonial discourse of other nations and cultures as barbaric and in need of the civilizing mission of the West.
Different campaigns have forged different strategies to negotiate the dilemma. Campaigns against female circumcision, for example, have imperfectly moved away from moralizing to a discourse of maternal health. Others have shifted to a more cultural appropriate set of discourses to challenge traditional practices and discriminatory attitudes, working inside cultures and challenging the cultural essentialism that comes from those who would defend the practices/attitudes.
When in doubt, I tend to fall back on Foucault. And there is here I think a basic lesson in the repression hypothesis. State repression of sexuality produces more not less discourse about sex. This is true in Malawi, and true in China (where the prosecution of the swinger has received rather less international attention….no doubt saying something about the status of the swinger in the West…)
There has been an explosion of sex chatter. While many support the prosecution and the condemnation of gayness as foreign, many others have voiced opposition.
Two Malawi human rights organizations are taking up the appeal.
In China, the case has produced considerable public debate. According to the New York Times:
“Tens of thousands of Chinese engage in swinging (or partner swapping, which is a more direct translation of the relevant Chinese term), according to Li Yinhe, China’s most prominent sexologist. One Web site, Happy Village, has a chat forum openly dedicated to swinging.”
I don’t want to pull my punches. I don’t think that folks should go to jail for their consensual sexual practices, here or there, near or far. But, the cultural politics of challenging repressive state practices may need to be a little more nuanced. And it may be helpful to start by listening to the counter narratives and resistance that these cases are producing within their cultures.