I am always slightly perplexed by the argument that the West invented homophobia. Certainly, extant homophobic laws in many parts of the world were put in place during the colonial period – by the British in particular. But to place the blame solely on Western culture as the inventor of homophobia is a little misguided.
Responding to Stephen Fry’s documentary on gay people around the world, Out There, Helen Razer recently described anti-homophobia activism as ‘a Western solution to a Western problem’, arguing that ‘Homosexual acts, of course, are just natural and normal, but homosexual people and the laws against them are one of the West’s many unpleasant and dangerous exports.’
Leaving aside the down-the-rabbit-hole argument that the post-identity queer politics Razer espouses is also undeniably ‘Western’ and not an especially effective answer to the violent homophobia faced by many queers around the world, blaming the West for homophobia is not only inaccurate but ‘fails to recognise or engage with either the agency of postcolonial activists or that of postcolonial homophobes.’
Such a position overestimates the influence of ‘the West’. It fails to explain homophobia and anti-gay laws in the handful of countries that have never been colonised, not to mention in non-Western countries on the Eastern edge of Europe (see: Russia), nor in the non-urban cultures of many colonised states, which absorbed limited influence from their imperial overlords.
Take Turkey, for example. Although homosexual sex has been legal in Turkey (formerly the Ottoman empire) since 1858, it’s hardly the most gay-friendly country in the world. It’s possible to see a few gay flags flying outside bars in the liberal, tourist-friendly Beyoğlu district in central Istanbul, yet only 11.2% of Turks think homosexuality should be legal.
Thailand and China are other uncolonised countries where homosexuality is technically legal, though homophobia is widespread, as Benjamin Law’s book Gaysia depicts.
Then there is Iran. This is where the argument becomes particularly tenuous – though Iran has never been colonised, it is one of the most violently homophobic places in the world.
What Razer sees as a ‘Western’ invention is instead the modern crystallisation of a phenomenon with ancient roots in many societies.
John Boswell’s Homosexuality, Christianity and Social Tolerance highlights the importance that cities play in gay identities and homophobia. Cities, by forcing residents together, encourage people to become more tolerant. Divorced from the social restrictions of the village and being assigned a monetary value in a market economy, those who prefer to have sex with those of their own gender develop a socially and financially independent identity outside the family.
Most city-dwellers gradually become more used to queer goings-on as gays come to be seen as unremarkable and normal. This is what is happening in the West, where urban cultures have long dominated national affairs.
Some will inevitably be riled by this increased visibility, however. Modern homophobia is not merely the product of religion, but also finds expression in the nation; conservatives see non-reproduction and differing household structures as threats to social control. Thus conservative politicians are tempted to capitalise on moral discomfort with what was once an invisible activity. Such individuals will likely have more influence in the early modernising/urbanising period of the state, something we can see happening in parts of sub-Saharan Africa currently.
There is evidence from some cultures ‘proving’ that homophobia did not exist before white people arrived. Nonetheless, most evidence for tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality in pre-modern and pre-colonial societies necessarily comes from urban cultures (such as Rome or Athens) or royal court cultures, neither of which could have been representative of the majority of society in those times.
While colonialism no doubt helped to spread homophobic attitudes – and codify such attitudes in law, an especially European preoccupation – it’s a bit of an overstatement to claim, as Razer does, that the West is ‘the effing starting point for intolerance that has led directly to the persecution of people who do homosexual things in Africa.’
David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets @davidadonaldson.