The West likes to think of itself as a pioneer of LGBTQ2 acceptance, in part because most of the countries that currently recognize same-sex marriage are in Europe or North America. But the truth is more complicated than that.
Over the past few years, many of us in the West have been outraged by increasing headlines about crackdowns on LGBTQ2 populations worldwide. After news broke last spring of Brunei’s new penal code — which prescribed death by stoning for anyone convicted of gay sex — a former prime minister of New Zealand tweeted, “Hard to comprehend what could be driving such a barbaric move which stands in stark opposition to fundamental #humanrights principles.”
Shocking news from #Brunei 🇧🇳 where new penal code provides for death by stoning as punishment for gay sex. Hard to comprehend what could be driving such a barbaric move which stands in stark opposition to fundamental #humanrights principles. @hrw https://t.co/fw9z2IsuZV
— Helen Clark (@HelenClarkNZ) March 28, 2019
It’s not too hard to comprehend, actually. A good place to start would be to go back to 1871, when the British took its India Penal Code, which criminalized sodomy, and exported it to all its colonies, including Brunei. (Notably, the only Southeast Asian country that was not colonized, Thailand, is far ahead of its peers in terms of LGBTQ2 acceptance.)
Before colonization, many non-western cultures were more welcoming of LGBTQ2 people than we might think, especially in spiritual and religious contexts. When Europeans arrived in Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Americas, Africa and elsewhere, they found that gender-diverse people were often revered by their communities as shamans, healers and spirit mediums. Especially in cultures where the gods themselves are understood to be both masculine and feminine, gender-diverse people have often held important spiritual roles.
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Examples abound. In what is now southern Congo and Angola, European missionaries recorded their observations of chibados or quimbandas. These were “men …[who] dressed as women” and “unite[d] in wrongful male lust,” some of whom were esteemed as “powerful wizards.” In Indigenous communities in what is now North America, those who were “two-spirited” or “dual-gendered” tended to occupy important roles such as shamans or medicine people; many of them felt called to their roles through visions and dreams from deities. And in pre-colonial communities in the Philippines, religious leaders called babaylan were typically women or other feminine people, whom the missionaries read as men, who tended to “dress as women” and “marry other males.”
In these communities, and many more like them, religion provided a safe, legitimizing space for queer folks.
Christian colonialism played a large role in the decline of queer acceptance among non-white communities globally. For example, Spanish missionaries persecuted and killed babaylan, accusing them of witchcraft. When the Indigenous populations in the Americas were decimated by warfare and disease, the Spanish considered it God’s punishment for their “animalistic” practices of sodomy. And as historian Barbara Andaya notes, “no group criticized Southeast Asia’s sexual practices more vehemently than those who came to preach the Christian gospel.”
Even in the West, LGBTQ2 people have been included more than we might realize. Male homosexuality, at least, was tolerated in Europe up until around the beginning of the Inquisition in the 12th century, when the death penalty for sodomy became common. It seems that LGBTQ2 acceptance is not a western invention after all, but the West can claim to have invented LGBTQ2 hostility.
To be sure, there were real constraints to what pre-colonial queer acceptance looked like; I do not want to romanticize the “East” or the past. Moreover, some of the biggest challengers to LGBTQ2 equality are now from countries in the Global South where queer acceptance is seen as a western, colonial phenomenon. There is a pressing need to fight for LGBTQ2 equality worldwide, but western advocates must begin their work by acknowledging colonialism’s own responsibility for the conditions they now seek to reform.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s June 2020 issue with the title “Inclusivity around the world.”
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