By Richard Pithouse · 12 Mar 2014
Some people love and desire people of the same sex. This is true everywhere and it has always been true. From Egypt, to India, Peru and Zimbabwe there is ancient art illuminating the consummation of the eternal and universal presence of homosexual desire. In the classic literature of China, reaching back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, it is described as the passion of the bitten peach. Homoerotic desire is described, with joy, in classic Arab poetry written more than a thousand years ago.
From Socrates to William Shakespeare and Arthur Rimbaud the desire that men have felt for men has left its traces at the heart of the literature that became central to how Europe imagined itself. America, it has been argued, began to learn to write itself for itself via Walt Whitman, who made no secret of his desire for “manly love”.
The persecution of men who had sex with other men predated the emergence of a specific form of personal identity, and a set of sub-cultures associated with it, that we would recognise as homosexual today. The Inquisition that held Europe on its rack from the 12th century and in to the 14th was the point at which theocratic state power began the persecution of people engaged in homosexual sex – along with Muslims, Jews and heretics of various kinds. Homosexual sexual practices were presented as a corruption of Christian Europe with their roots in the Islamic world.
In Seville the Inquisition launched a special investigation into sodomy in 1506. Twelve people were burnt at the stake. It is sometimes argued that the derogatory term ‘fagot’, which originally meant a bunch of kindling sticks, has its roots in the fires of the Inquisition.
In 1532 the death penalty was instituted for witchcraft in Catholic Europe. Indoctrination from above resulted in social panics from below. Feminist scholar Silvia Federici calls the hunt for witches that ranged across Europe, reaching its gruesome peak between 1580 and 1630, “a major political initiative” as it secured and centralised the power of the elites organised between the church and state. Along with herbal medicine and political and theological dissent sexual expression shared between women was grounds for the accusation of witchcraft.
King Henry VIII instituted the Buggery Act in England in1533. Its victims were put to death, and their property confiscated. The Act was, above all else, a useful tool in Henry’s struggle to break the power of the Catholic Church over England. The term ‘buggery’ entered the English language, via France, as a derivation of ‘Bulgarian’ during an earlier religious conflict. Henry’s state, founded on a break from Catholicism, found it more convenient to present a universal dimension of human existence as having peculiarly Italian origins.
By 1640 the situation in England was such that a new edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets was published with edits designed to make it appear that his appreciation of beauty, and sexual and romantic longing, was exclusively directed to women. It was only in 1932 that, in Cairo, the first attempt was made to censor the more directly homoerotic poetry of Abu Nuwas, written in Baghdad more than eight hundred years before Shakespeare published his first collection of sonnets.
The last two men to be put to death in England for expressing their sexual desire for each other were hung, in public, in 1835. But imprisonment continued and was exported to the colonies. In 1861 Britain imposed a law against sodomy on India. It went on to do the same in its African colonies.
In 1882 Oscar Wilde could travel to New York, enjoy a glass of elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden, and write to George Cecil Ives, an early activist for gay rights, that “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips". But in 1895 Wilde was taken to Pentonville Prison for the crime of what, at his trial, was called “the love that dare not speak its name”. In his famous letter written in prison, first published five years after his death, he wrote that “To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.”
The first major organised challenge to the persecution of gay people in Europe was the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the revolution homosexuality was decriminalised and gay people could serve in the government. But in 1933 Stalin, as part of a broader movement of reaction, recriminalized homosexuality. Under Stalin homosexuality was presented as inherently fascist and, like under Henry VIII almost four hundred years earlier, its criminalisation was used to settle political scores.
The persecution of gay people in modern Europe reached its peak in the fires of Nazi Germany. It is widely known that, along with Communists, Gypsies and Jews, gay people were also sent to the concentration camps. It is less widely known that gay people detained in the camps had to serve out their sentences in prisons after the camps were liberated and remained subject to serious discrimination after their release. It was only in the late 1960s that serious moves were first made to break with this aspect of how fascism had mutilated German society.
In 1968 struggles erupted on both sides of the Iron Curtain that developed a much broader conception of emancipation than that enabled by the narrow strictures of the Cold War. And on the 28th of June 1969 a riot against police harassment at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village in New York, marked the beginning of a process of real opening on the question of sexuality in the Western world. Pioneering activist Sylvia Rivera, who, impressively, managed to riot in drag, recalled it as “one of the greatest moments in my life”.
The freedom that began to be asserted in cities in some parts of the world after the Stonewall Riot was fought for, every step of the way, and often at great personal cost, against a history of persecution stretching back to the Inquisition. And that freedom is not always secure. Even in cities with thriving gay communities gay people are still at risk of attack and may still face discrimination. In parts of North America there are deeply conservative religious movements trying to force fixed gender roles on to society. There have been a number of cases where key figures in this backlash have themselves been found to be engaging in homosexual encounters. This is not surprising. There is clear scientific evidence that men with strong feelings of hostility to gay men tend to harbour repressed homosexual desire.
But there is a broader political context to the escalation of organised hostility to gay people. There has been a longstanding persecution of gay people by the theocratic dictatorships in the Middle East where, in a mirror image of the propaganda of the Crusaders, homosexuality is now presented as a Western contagion. Today homophobia, as a state project, is on the march in countries like India, Nigeria, Russia and Uganda. In all of these countries authoritarian leaders presiding over predatory social arrangements are presenting homosexuality as a Western contagion and themselves as defenders of the true nation.
In each of these countries there is an attempt from above to incite the sort of paranoid nationalism that can legitimate authoritarianism and protect corrupt and predatory elites in the name of the people as a whole. And in each of these countries gay people are not the only vulnerable group that is being scapegoated.
In India the Bharatiya Janata Party has some prospect of returning to office in the next election. Narendra Modi, its candidate for Prime Minster, has a long history of fermenting the violent persecution of the Muslim minority in Gujarat. Mridula Sinha, a party leader observed that wife-beating is acceptable “if it is done to bring the woman on proper track”. Rajnath Singh, president of the party, has embraced the recent recriminalisation of homosexual sex in India. Nigeria is acutely divided on ethnic and religious lines. In Russia journalists are regularly murdered and torture is widely used as a form of social control. In Uganda books critical of the ruling elite have been declared a threat to national security. Women were publicly stripped by mobs in the streets of Kampala after Ethics and Integrity Minister, Simon Lokodo, called for the arrest of women wearing mini-skirts.
The states that are trying to incite hatred of gay people amongst the people they govern are not trying to protect their people from cultural contagion. The love and desire that men feel for men and women feel for women is as Indian as it is Nigerian as it is Russian and Ugandan. It has always and will always be part of what it means to be human in every part of this world. Our best defence against the predatory elites that are trying to strengthen their authority, and divide the people subjected to their authority by turning society against itself, is to raise what the Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini called the “Red rag of hope”, social hope for everyone.
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Just like varying sexual orientations human beings who have a predatory orientation toward their fellows will, sadly, always be with us. What can we do about this social malaise? The biggest problem for society arises when the predators manage to get their hands on the levers of social power because then they use this power against their own people. Robert Mugabe is a case in point. The only antidote is eternal vigilance by the non-predatory members of society in the hopes of being able to nip in the bud any signs that the predators are infiltrating the power structures. Sadly South Africa's own predatory political elite has been steadily infiltrating our power structures, to a large degree unheralded for the majority, for the last 20 years.