Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

But gay is a Western invention

By Matthew Beetar

Wow, go Hillary Clinton! As a friend on Facebook said, “It’s about time that the world’s most powerful leaders started acting like leaders”. In her recent speech made before the UN, the US Secretary of State argues, in short, that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) rights are human rights, concluding that “all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights”. She even hails the South African Constitution as a beacon of progressive thought and human achievement.

Great stuff! A real step forward for sexual equality. But there’s a sentiment that makes me uncomfortable, and it’s like an awkward itch that you can’t quite scratch. No matter how hard I try to ignore it, it just won’t go away. It’s the catchphrase from the speech that is doing the rounds on the social networks: “Being gay is not a Western invention.” And it’s from this idea that LGBT rights (as human rights) need to extend into “non-Western” contexts.

On the surface, a great phrase — even in a South African context where the strong idea that “being gay is not African” still exists, despite legal equality. But in terms of a foundation for social support and ideological understanding, and from a perspective of policy change, it’s a deeply problematic assumption.

You see, the problem is that “gay” actually IS a Western invention. Scratch, scratch, scratch.

Whether you trace the term and the identity from a historical, cultural, economic, or social perspective the concept of “gay” (and relating to it, “gay culture”, “gay community”, and “gay identity”) is deeply embedded in a very Western context. It’s an identity label with specific connotations and assumptions. Using the term, from a social understanding perspective, implicitly assumes the existence of the support structures and social attitudes that go hand in hand with what has been called “healthy”, “positive”, or “integrated” gay identity/community.

I know that the idea of having a “healthy gay identity” is a bizarre notion (a standard, but flawed, assumption is that “you’re either gay or straight”, simple), but it’s important to recognise that the labels “gay” and “gay rights” are linked to a Western framework: a decades-old liberation movement, working towards legal change, manifesting itself in identifiable support structures.

In other words, on a level beyond everyday interaction, “gay” does not just mean you like the same sex. Sure, if you call yourself gay that’s all you may mean it to be. But from a position of ideological reconfiguration and understanding, “gay” is much more: “gay” is political.

Obviously same-sex sexual encounters and identities based on same-sex sexual attraction exist in every country/culture/history, and it’s fundamental to human rights to recognise this. But to call these “gay” is troubling. And it’s most troubling from perspectives of reconciliation, education, and leadership. Without local understandings and an approach that favours an appreciation of local issues/anxieties/traumas, achieving reconciliation is exceptionally difficult.

“Gay” assumes a Western configuration of politics, desire, and identity. It assumes a largely American understanding of the issues that people face, and the trajectory of social change. Think on this: gay identity is linked to gay liberation, which in the US is a social battle for legal change. But in South Africa, we have the legal ideal that the US is working towards. Where does that leave the social struggle, then? A completely different set of attitudes and ideas are needed to bring about social change when the legal framework is already in place.

I know some may call me pedantic. And I’m not suggesting that people stop calling themselves gay — that would be pedantic. I just believe that a shift away from a framework of understanding based squarely on “gay” needs to occur.

Because words do matter, and labels do matter.

Yes, Clinton is a politician who has to speak in general terms. But there’s a danger, in South Africa, of assuming that just because we have a Constitution which already encompasses the legal ideal in many regards there isn’t a need to rethink our approach to sexual rights. Recent research by Human Rights Watch suggests that we’re in dire need of new ways to think about, understand, and support sexual diversity.

Labels like “gay” are commodified cultural imports. And we need to avoid the further commodification of sexuality. We need to develop a framework of understanding that will speak to local identities and local challenges. This is not to say that rights relating to sexual-orientation are not necessary in a South African context (that would just be silly to say). Rather, our approach to such rights needs to consider the actual South African context. And calling rights in this context “gay rights” is a misplaced assumption with potentially damaging consequences.

There are many concepts in development studies and cultural studies that may prove to be useful in this endeavour. And it’s exceedingly important to recognise that South Africa has a wonderfully rich history of sexual diversity. But grouping this history, and the quest for social acceptance, under a banner of “gay rights” risks rendering local history invisible. South Africa isn’t America: we have our own challenges, own triumphs, and own identities. The same can be said of any country in the world.

While I applaud Clinton for her overall speech, I hope that the quest for human rights as sexual rights doesn’t become overshadowed by a commercial and commodified Western homogenisation. Not only would this be tragic for appreciating and preserving local experiences, but it would have the effect of assuming that the structures which support a “gay identity” in other contexts are seamlessly transferrable without consequence.

I only hope that the catchphrase of “being gay is not a Western invention” doesn’t impede international attempts of positive, local ideological reform.

Matthew Beetar is a 2008 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. He has just completed his second master’s degree, in gender and cultural studies, and is currently working towards a PhD proposal focusing on sexuality and social attitudes in South Africa.

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