26 October 2014

Now They're Blaming This On Gays

Here I was, worrying that a President who's even worse on civil liberties than George the Younger would use the Ebola outbreak as an excuse to trample whatever rights we still have.

Well, my worries were misplaced.  Governors Christie and Cuomo didn't wait for Obama to out-Bush Bush. Not long after they ordered mandatory quarantines of people suspected of having the virus, a nurse returning from volunteering with  Medecins sans Frontieres in Africa is treated to a new version of stop-and-frisk--in Newark Liberty Airport.

(You can't make this shit up.)

But, as bad as Kaci Hickox's experience was, I am now even more worried about some folks in Africa.  As an example, Leroy Ponpon is one of many Liberians who might lock himself in his flat because of the virus.  If he doesn't do that, he has another option:  He can lock himself in his flat (in Monrovia) because he's gay.

In his country, church leaders are telling people that Ebola was a curse sent by God to punish sodomy.  That is, really, not surprising:  LGBT people have been blamed for the Newtown Massacre, Hurricane Katrina, the economic disaster of post-World War I Germany, Superstorm Sandy, the events of 11 September 2001  and all manner of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, floods, climate change and other natural and human-caused disasters. Oh, and let's not forget the AIDS epidemic.

But attributing the Ebola outbreak to gays takes on a particular virulence in a country in Liberia.  An acquaintance of mine hails from that country , when asked about LGBT rights in Liberia, says, "You can't say both in the same sentence."  As far as I know, he's straight.

Still, he says, the situation for gay and lesbian people in his homeland is better than it is in neighboring Sierra Leone and  Guinea.  Those nations and Liberia are, in turn, like San Francisco, Berlin and Montreal in comparison to nearby Nigeria.

Now, having never been in Africa and having almost entirely positive experiences with the Africans I've met, both here in North America and in Europe, I have no wish to paint the continent as a hotbed of homophobia.  Interestingly, in another of Liberia's neighbors--Cote d'Ivoire--has never criminalized same-sex relations conducted in private, though public same-sex sexual acts are considered punishable offenses. 

So how is it that Liberia and its other neighbors have such restrictive laws, and nearby Nigeria has ones that are draconian, even by the standards of such stalwarts of LGBT rights as Putin's Russia?  One reason is that Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Guinea were colonized by Great Britain during the Victorian era, when sexual mores were more repressive.  While Liberia doesn't have that history, it was founded by freed American slaves who were infused with the conservative Christianity of their time and their former masters.

Cote d'Ivoire, on the other hand, was--as its name indicates--a French colony.  Thus, its laws about homosexual relations are basically the same as the ones that prevailed in France at the time it ruled.  When you think of it, the law reflects a French attitude that persists even today:  Everyone there knows that certain people, some celebrities and others members of the local community, are gay.  But it is not discussed and, for the most part, the French don't care--as long the gay people in question keep it as leur propre affaire.

One might wonder why the other countries I've mentioned haven't updated their laws about LGBT people.  After all, the British colonizers haven't been in those countries in decades, and Liberians are several generations removed from their history as slaves.  The reason, I believe, is that all of those countries are still bound by another, and more insidious kind of colonialization.  The kind I'm talking about wasn't brought by merchants or by men in uniforms who arrived on gunships.  Rather, the ones I'm talking about--who probably never saw themselves as colonizers--sometimes wore clerical collars and habits.  Or they were the kinds of modestly-dressed people one sees handing out pamphlets on street corners.

I'm talking about religious missionaries.  They brought with them their churches' attitudes about sex and family that prevailed in their home countries at the time they arrived.   Nigeria in particular was affected:  It now has, arguably, the most conservative Christian church--the local Roman Catholic--on the continent.  (Indeed,  in part because of his conservativism,  Father Francis Arzine was considered a leading candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II.)  Nigeria also is home to Boko Haram, in the mainly-Muslim northern part of the country.  The organization's name means, "Western education is forbidden."  That, I think, says a lot about their attitudes toward women, let alone homosexuality. 

Between the Boko Haram and a conservative Catholic church, how much respect--let alone tolerance--would you expect to find for LGBT people?

If anything, the surprise is that some bishop or imam there didn't beat Liberian officials in blaming LGBT people for the Ebola epidemic.


No comments: