This week’s gruesome and brutal murder of a gay 19-year-old in Puerto Rico, George Jorge Mercado (pictured), is the latest horrifying reminder that violence against LGBT people is on the rise worldwide. Is there any consensus on why this is happening? Conventional wisdom says that the growth of the international queer movement, pushing visibility and civil rights, has intensified the backlash, but the sheer dehumanizing ugliness of the attack in Puerto Rico—which makes Matthew Shepard’s murder 11 years ago seem nearly tame in comparison—makes me wonder, do we really even understand homophobic violence?
This question had been on my mind since last week,
when I saw a San Francisco performance by the British group DV8 called To Be
Straight With You. DV8 combined its hallmark physical theater with audio culled
from man-on-the-street interviews spouting blatant
homophobia, and more personal testimony from people who had been victimized by anti-gay violence. Some of the victims were refugees from countries like Iraq, Zimbabwe and Jamaica, where anti-gay hostility is so culturally accepted that queer people are often forced to seek asylum in places like the U.S. and Britain, which offer some degree of legal protection.
The vocal collage in To Be Straight With You created for me a sense that anti-LGBT violence is a global
crisis, something akin to “ethnic cleansing.” (Indeed, in Jamaica, where
homophobic culture flourishes through the hatred inspired by murder music from singers like Buju Banton, one community recently declared a Gay Eradication Day, demanding that gays and lesbians leave the town or "suffer the consequences.") Is there any other population in the world today who can be put to
death in 7 countries, as LGBT people can in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and parts of Nigeria and Somalia? That these seven countries are
all Islamic and bound to Sharia law explains why DV8 put a particular, though not exclusive, focus on homophobia
among Britain’s large Muslim population. The question of how organized religions promulgate this global crisis was
the underlying thesis of the entire piece.
Religions are kept alive within the structure of the nuclear family. What DV8’s stage piece
drove home was how the nuclear family is more often than not the conduit for organized religion to transmit homophobia. The strongest moment of To Be Straight With You featured one dancer jump-roping nonstop (above) while voicing the reminiscence of a
Muslim queer boy in England who, after coming out, was chased down and stabbed by
his father, with the help of his older brother. The boy survived, retaining enough sassiness and strength to find his way to gay pride parade at
Familial homophobia is the subject of writer Sarah
Schulman's new book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, which Doug Ireland in Gay City News
has dubbed "one of the most exciting gay liberation texts to appear in
years." The same night I was watching DV8 in San Francisco, Schulman (pictured) was delivering
the prestigious Kessler Lecture in New York City. Among Schulman's assertions is that homophobia—long understood to originate from the fear of one’s own innate
or latent attraction to one’s gender—is not a phobia at all, but a "pleasure center." She writes:
"...homophobes enjoy feeling superior, rely on the
pleasure of enacting their superiority, and go out of their way to resist
change that would deflate their sense of superiority. Homophobia makes
heterosexuals feel better about themselves. It’s not fear—it’s fun."
I think Schulman's on to something, but I think there's more going on. The attack in Puerto
Rico, the Shiite death squads who patrol Baghdad for queers to torture and
kill, and the exhortations to violence by Jamaican dancehall singers are all based
on something that seems deeper than “enacting superiority.” The leap to
violence might best be understood by research done at the University of Arkansas in
2002. Psychologists noted that anti-gay feeling is often less a matter of fear than of
disgust. Homophobes have been trained to see gay people as dirty and contagious—something diseased than can spread. Arkansas researcher Jeffrey Lohr notes,
"While fear causes a 'get me away from that' reaction, disgust manifests as 'get that away from me.' These different emotional reactions can lead to very different behaviors, according to Lohr. 'The same emotions that mediate attitude can mediate behavior,' he said. 'If fear mediates avoidance, other emotions may mediate attack.'"
The oft-quoted Bible verse used to support violence against gays, from Leviticus, refers to man-lying-with-man as an "abomination," with its connotation of disgust and loathing, and says, “blood shall be upon them.” Does anyone need any clearer example of how a religion can propagate anti-gay violence—comparing the way some people naturally love with a disease that needs to be wiped out? In DV8’s piece, a young woman from South London claims not to be prejudiced but says of gay sex, “It’s nasty." Disgust like hers is the end result of ancient tribal dogma turned into scripture by organized religion, propagated within family structures and unquestioned at the street-level by poorly educated youth.
Can art adequately address this kind of entrenched disgust? One of the feelings I
was left with, amid many, after watching the DV8 show, was that it had created an argument for the importance of tough penalties for hate-based violence. The good news is that after years of trying to enact federal hate crimes laws, our Democrat-controlled Congress finally succeeded. Last month, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Just as significantly, Obama signed legislation that finally lifted the ban on HIV-positive travelers entering the U.S., a law that had been on the books for 22 years. For all the shortcomings of the
Obama's actions on gay civil rights, these two laws strike me as an especially important tandem victory, as strong a stance as any world leader has taken to ensure not just that gay people are protected under
the law but that this country actually can serve as a kind of safe haven for
those who have nowhere else to go.
After signing the Hate Crimes Act—which, it's worth noting, also includes religious belief as a protected class—Obama spoke from the podium [video], saying,
"You understand, that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones but to break spirits. Not only to inflict harm but to instill fear...No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hand of the person they love."
I was particularly moved by his inclusion of that final phrase. Perhaps the best way to confront the global crisis of hate that we are facing is to remember we are fighting for our right to express our love.