From the pilot issue of The Against Nature Journal, a biannual arts and human rights magazine exploring “crime against nature” laws and their legacies, we bring you four columns authored by activists, writers, and scholars that glimpse into LGBTQI+ life, culture, struggles and hopes in locations where crime against nature laws and related regressions of reproductive, sexual orientation, and gender identity rights still prevail.
This article was originally published on The Against Nature Journal.
Pride in Jesus Church Service: Bridging the Divide in Barbados and the Caribbean
It is no secret that religion largely fuels the rampant homophobia that exists in the world. More specifically, it fuels the homophobia that exists in the Caribbean where I live and where I tirelessly pursue with others a path toward equality and justice for all people.
It then raises the question as to why Barbados–Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexualities against Discrimination (B-GLAD), the organization which I’ve led for seven years, would host a Pride in Jesus church service during Pride Month in 2019. Much like other LGBTQ organizations across the Caribbean region, our main adversary has always been the Christian church. They argue that homosexuality equates to a demonic spirit, as preached at rallies across the island, or is against the natural order of man, or further that it is “the erosion of the fabric of society.”
Despite some pushback from within the church itself, the resistance to such beliefs in the local LGBTQ community has created much discussion. The church is still a source of trauma for LGBTQ people—many of whom left the church quite some years ago. Feelings of rejection, self-hate, and inadequacy stem from our early experiences with religion. So, the question remains: Why would we host such an event?
A church service with song, prayer, and worship allows believers in the Christian faith to have important conversations about equality. Barbados is touted as a Christian nation. Yet, over the years the church has only demonstrated fear, spread misinformation, and blocked the progress of the LGBTQ community. Our church service was an effort to heal and overcome that divide. This is where real progress is made, by building bridges.
Christians who believe in equality, fairness, justice, and love exist, of course: they are often the ones who send us encouraging notes to our inboxes or quietly stop us in the street. They recognize that the LGBTQ community needs to be protected and not denounced. There are also Christian–LGBTQ people, who in existing within this intersection more often hide their own sexualities but support us from the shadows. We accept them for living their truths, too. It’s important that they are not forgotten.
As expected, the event caused quite a stir. Leading antigay religious leaders attended, quietly listened, and discussed among them- selves, sometimes disagreeing with the need and relevance of such an event and interrupting with opinions. However, the service allowed all religious leaders, falling either side of the LGBTQ inclusion argument, to hear each other out and share in common scripture, differing experiences, and various perspectives.
If we are going to embrace and celebrate diversity, we must be inclusive. As a non-Christian member of the LGBTQ community, I may not know the direct outcome of the dialogue for Christian people. But I do believe that it was a step in the right direction because real change starts with just that—dialogue.
Antigender Agendas as Colonial Reestablishments in Brazil and Abya Yala
Two episodes from the Brazilian context that occurred in the last year might be useful for reflecting on antigender agendas in our regional political contexts. The first, a legislative attempt in the state of São Paulo to establish “biological sex as the only criterion for the definition of competitors’ gender” in professional sports (Assembleia Legislativa, no. 346, April 2, 2019); the other, violent remarks made by Jair Bolsonaro, (still) the country’s president, about a Rede Globo TV program on trans women and travestis in prison, after the cause of imprisonment of one interviewee was publicized.
By bringing these incidents together, I invite consideration on the connections between antigender agendas (as proposed by Sexuality Policy Watch) and the idea of “colonial reestablishment.” I consider this as a theoretical assemblage of bio-necropolitics and colonialities (of power, knowledge, being) that constitute socioeconomic dispositifs and force multipliers, which legitimize, actualize, and normalize the past, present, and future of sociocultural and geopolitical relationships. Colonial reestablishment is a present political desire for many worldwide: a “natural” order of things based on supremacist perspectives and hierarchies placed between existences. In this sense, the two episodes are illustrations of institutional exclusion and offenses, perpetrated by political representatives against trans and gender nonconforming peoples, and both evoke a space-time that amounts to at least five hundred years of white, European genocide.
The connections between these events also situate the complexity around the perspectives and rights regarding gender identities, gender expressions, and sex characteristics in resisting against antigender agendas. As detailed in the “Rights at Risk” report by the Observatory on the Universality of Rights in 2017, it is important to realize how such agendas are promoted and funded by secular and religious stakeholders at various levels, and how they affect various groups through different strategies. As some countries implement sex/gender-based social segregation measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems important to map the elements that drive societies’ imaginaries.
These interconnections bring forth the worldwide precarization of socioeconomic rights and auton- omy, particularly of marginalized groups, including LGBTI people, in the intersections of race and class. They also highlight the need to locate sociohistorical specificities in understanding the ways in which power operates within colonial ideologies, industrial revolutions, and supremacist projects.
When a bill excluding trans women from professional sports is proposed—ignoring directions from international bodies on the issue— it is not a mere act of excluding a social group from an occupation. A deeper question arises: Can trans politics allow us to better regard broader economic injustices of gendered bio-necropolitics? Could it contribute to a collective rethinking of the professional sports’ hyperproductive, corrupt economies, and the gendered dispositifs they rely upon?
And when a gesture of “humanized” treatment toward trans women and travestis in prisons is instrumentalized by Bolsonaro’s Mafia through insults, it is not solely about defending individual rights independently of one’s crimes, but an opportunity to promote critical perspectives on judicial rights and the prison-industrial complex and its increasingly privatized, mediatized functions; a complex that must be linked to the extreme global extractivism, militarism, and fascism which organize violence.
I share these few thoughts in the hope of situating antigender agendas within the attempts of colonial reestablishment operating today in Brazil and Abya Yala through bio-necropolitical supremacisms and extractivisms, which in relation to data invisibilities and exotisms also interrogate the political role of the sciences. To connect these dots, especially in times of pandemia, seems critical for our collective survival and well-being.
Of Islamic Laws and the Colonial Past: The Conundrums Faced by the Malaysian LGBT Community
In September 2018, Malaysia made news for caning two women for attempting musahaqah (lesbian sex). The women were charged under Section 30 of the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment 2001, read in conjunction with Section 59 (1) of the same enactment. They were fined US$800 each and caned six times in front of around 150 people in the court of the conservative state of Terengganu.
The caning was intended to humiliate. LGBT activist and friend Thilaga Sulathireh, from the group Justice for Sisters, said she wept witnessing the event. As someone who identifies as lesbian, I was shocked by the court decision, along with my fellow community of queer women. Our community stays away from provoking the authorities, meeting only here and there in secret. Many scholars state that lesbians have not posed much of a threat historically, in comparison to homosexual men.
Malaysia has two legal systems: one secular, inherited from British colonialism, and the other is a Syariah system which governs Muslims in matters such as marriage, divorce, and alimony. Both systems discriminate against LGBT people.
Malaysia’s preoccupation with our community is not new. In 2008, the National Fatwa Council issued a religious edict against pengkids (a degrading term for women who dress like men and who may or may not have sexual desires for other women). Gay men have been sent to prison. Transgender women are routinely murdered. And online harassment of Malaysian LGBT people persists.
Malaysia is considered a “moderate Muslim nation” by many but it has seen a rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the 1970s. Most Muslims believe that the community of Prophet Lot was condemned by God for practicing homosexuality, as described in the Qur’an. Sodomy is today outlawed under Section 377 of the Malaysian Penal Code, which was first introduced by British colonial rulers. The most famous use of this law was in 1998 when Malaysia’s then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim on allegations of sodomy in an attempt to destroy his career.
Yet, despite popular misconceptions, Southeast Asia, the Malay Archipelago included, has a rich history of gender and sexual diversity. Researcher Sarah Ngu asserts that Malay rulers as far back as the fifteenth century appointed sidasida in their palaces. These androgynous courtiers had sex with both genders, and their role was to protect the women of the court.
Regarding the recent caning, local feminist group Sisters in Islam released a statement: “Qur’anic teachings emphasize repentance, forgiveness, and personal transformation. God is forgiving and merciful.” While it may not be approving of homosexuality itself, their statement is radical. Such progressive voices are rare in Malaysia because many Muslims believe that human rights, liberalism, and pluralism go against Islam. It may take years, generations even, for Malaysian LGBT people to get their rights, but there is a glimmer of hope. I for one hope that as Malaysian society progresses, so do the rights for our marginalized community.
A Church Coalition’s Rainbow- Inclusion Efforts in India
Religion does not enthrall me, but its influence on queer lives does affect me. As a queer activist working since the 1990s, I have come across people who have reconciled their religion’s diktats on sin, guilt, and shame with their gender or sexuality, HIV status, or occupation in sex work. There are others, though, who remain trapped in between. In search of better ways to help them, I became familiar with faith-based organizations (FBOs) in the mid-2000s in the context of the HIV epidemic.
I was highly skeptical about their approach at first, suspecting a judgmental attitude rather than respect for human diversity. However, in 2009, I came to know about an FBO called the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), when they issued a statement in support of the High Court of Delhi’s decision to read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a British-era law that continued to criminalize queer people even after sixty-two years of Independence. NCCI, a forum of thirty-one Protestant and Orthodox churches across India, was one of the few FBOs willing to revisit their stance on non-normative genders and sexualities, and seemingly even at the cost of upsetting member churches. Given that Section 377 was a “great religious unifier,” NCCI also put themselves at risk of unshielded criticism from non-Christian organizations.
In 2016, when I attended an NCCI conference of church leaders, theologians, and queer activists at the United Theological College in Bangalore, I further learned that NCCI’s ESHA program had convened workshops on human sexuality for church leaders as early as 2001, engaging queer Christians as advocates. In their centennial year of 2014, NCCI set up the National Ecumenical Forum for Gender and Sexual Diversities. They also drafted a course on human sexuality for graduate students of theology. This was rather courageous since the Supreme Court of India had just turned back the clock to reinstate Section 377—though they eventually read it down again, and irreversibly, in 2018.
NCCI now aims to transform the Ecumenical Forum into an autonomous institute for gender, sexuality, and religious equality, and to move beyond individual programs like ESHA to make NCCI’s entire organizational policy queer inclusive. NCCI’s efforts are thought-provoking. Hinduism as a faith and amalgam of cultures already embodies several examples of queerness. It also claims to have no queerphobic strictures comparable to those supposedly prescribed in Judeo-Christian religions. But I fear that this openness is being appropriated by queer Hindutva proponents as an unsubstantiated claim of cultural superiority, where literary research shows that queerness has a positive space in other religions as well.
I hope that NCCI’s credibility as a queer-friendly FBO grows. Simultaneously, I look for greater nuance in their work. They have published a considerable amount of literature to question the belief that the Bible condemns homo- sexuality as a sin. Yet, some of these texts only seem to accept queer people contingent on same-sex marriage. What about single queer people?
If a kinder and more just practice of religion is possible, one that overcomes the literal adherence to scriptural divination, then a queer studies circle piloted in 2019 by Bishop’s College, a Kolkata-based NCCI affiliate, comes to mind. The circle aimed to facilitate friendship between “faculty and students of theology” and “queer persons.” Such an initiative might better address the post-decriminalization need for an anti-discrimination ethos and drive home the message that “homophobia is un-Christian.”