7 min

Freedom will be won by local gays

Progress for gays cannot be imposed from the outside

We see something wrong and our first instinct may be to intervene, to solve the problem, someone else’s problem. I think we’ve all experienced that feeling. On a personal level, I bet you can remember seeing a friend doing something you thought was wrong for them and wanted to stick your nose in and change their lives — for their own good, of course. How did it end? Badly, most likely.

We learn this on a personal level. We eventually realize that we can make the resources available for that friend to use if and when they’re ready. But we really don’t know what’s best for other people and when we try to change their lives to what we’d like them to be, well, friendships are destroyed by that — and the person goes on doing what they think is best for them.

Governments are prone to making this mistake. George W Bush and Darth Cheney were sure they knew what was best for Iraqis. That really turned out well, didn’t it? Saddam Hussein was a horrible man and he did horrible things, especially to Kurds. But his was a secular society that kept the Islamic extremists on a short leash. By Middle East standards, life there was tolerable for gays, barely. Today, religious leaders are orchestrating outrageous sectarian violence that, among other things, is targeting accused gays with death. And then there are the atrocities against Iraqi citizens by US soldiers and their allies.

This isn’t just about Bush’s doctrine of American Exceptionalism — that is, a belief the US is a beacon of light that is so special, the work of the Christian God even, that the rules that it demands others follow don’t apply to the US.

No, I’m not talking about that kind of American Exceptionalism. I’m talking about the misguided progressive impulse to intervene to help other countries. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair cited liberal values when making his call for other countries to join in the invasion of Iraq. Some countries bought it; luckily for Canada, we did not. (Of course, we now know that the British were involved in manufacturing false evidence of Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. And we know that Blair was a religious nut bar on par with Bush, even getting down on his knees beside Bush to ask his God to guide their work in Iraq.) Acting on good intentions and liberal (or socialist) beliefs don’t result in better outcomes than acting on regressive beliefs or brutal power politics when you should not be interfering in the first place.

“Mind your own business,” US advice columnist Ann Landers used to repeatedly tell readers who wrote in to ask how they can help their friends or neighbors make better decisions — “better” being defined as what the letter writer would do, of course. Landers had her own shorthand for her advice: MYOB.

Canada is making this mistake in Afghanistan. You will recall that we joined with our Nato co-members to invade the country after the attack of 9-11. The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were giving shelter and encouragement to al Qaeda, which had ties to the hijackers who flew the planes into towers. Should Nato have gone in? This is a legitimate questions in an era when we have a United Nations. Still, Nato requires each member of its military alliance (why does it still exist after the fall of the Berlin Wall? I hear you asking) to come to the defence of any other member if they are attacked. The US asked fellow Nato members to join in the retribution against Afghanistan. We went. We bombed. We got rid of the Taliban.

And then we stayed, while the US reduced its role and went on its mistaken adventure in Iraq. And we stayed. And we stayed. And we made up a fiction that we were helping the Afghans adopt democracy, we were freeing their women and educating their girls, we were bringing development aid and human rights. Well, now the Taliban is getting stronger and the wisest journalists see Robert Fisk at the Independent online are calling it an unwinnable war.

The trouble with Afghanistan is that to be sustainable, democracy, the rule of law, and a culture of human rights must evolve out of the local culture. It cannot be imposed from the outside, even with the support of a minority inside. Most Afghans do not want radical change to their social order, their deep-seated conservative religious values, and their tribal politics that have more to do with the European Middle Ages than the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They’ve got to want it.

What most Afghans do want, however, is for the people who arrived in 2001 to liberate them to now go home. We’ve overstayed our welcome if ever we were welcome. No doubt, we’d feel the same if a foreign power liberated Canada from a fanatical religious dictatorship and then decided to stay and “supervise” our elections, then our “development,” and then our “social progression.” Hmm.

Hands up if you think things will get better for women, for homosexuals, for liberals and genuine democrats when Nato finally does leave Afghanistan. And keep your hand up if you think Taliban government is a thing of the past. Yeah, I thought so; not many hands up. Can you say “Bloodbath?”

But individuals and governments aren’t the only people that have a hard time learning that you can’t change people who don’t want to change, that you really don’t know what’s good for others. That people have to liberate themselves, and that yes, it takes decades or even centuries but it’s the only way that results in lasting change.

Progressive movements sometimes make the same mistake. When we hear about gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans being violently attacked or abused by legal and medical systems in other nations, we get angry as individuals. We want to reach out and find out how we can help, how we can help make it stop. That’s all good; after all, those of us in North America, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand have financial and political resources to spare. We can use those resources for good.

But our group leaders sometimes take that next, unfortunate step of interfering in a battle that is not theirs. Of making decisions on behalf of local gays and lesbians in other countries, without their involvement and support. Take, for example, a boycott of Jamaican products and tourism announced by some US groups in response to ongoing violence against gays in that former British colony.

Our US sister publication, Guide magazine, published an opinion piece by Jason McFarlane, programs manager for the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays. McFarlane actually lives in Jamaica, unlike the US activists making decisions on his behalf. What is his opinion of the boycott?

“While we appreciate the support given by our international allies, and understand their impatience for change, we who live in Jamaica best know and understand the dynamics of our situation. We also know that change is a slow and tedious process and those who engaged in it must be patient.

“Jamaica’s deeply ingrained antipathy towards homosexuality and homosexuals is a social phenomenon that will not be undone by boycott campaigns or government dictate. It requires the painstaking effort of confronting the society and talking to social actors who can bring change in the way society sees LGBT people. We have been doing this through a small but growing group of increasingly aware opinion leaders who are concerned about the damage homophobia does to our society. We need those ears to continue being open to us and we need the relative safety that some of us have been given to speak to them.

“It is important that our international allies understand the nature of our struggle and engage us in a respectful way about it. Unless they are willing and able to lead the struggle in the trenches as we have done, it is important that they be guided by us. To do otherwise would be to act in a manner that destroys the space for dialogue that we have managed to create over the past decade and to set back our struggle.”

Jamaica’s homophobia is largely the result of laws promulgated by British colonists on the island. The homophobia is a holdover from a time when the majority on the island were not free, did not have the vote, did not share in the economic wealth — or the development of social and legal norms. The British monarchy and colonialists believed that they were on a mission to save the world from backwards religions, backwards social beliefs, warring tribalism, illiteracy and lawlessness. They convinced themselves they were acting in the best interests of the people they governed. They were wrong, horribly, cruelly wrong, and they left a legacy of broken culture, racial inequality and race-based poverty, religious dogma, and oppressive laws that continue to plague the former colonies. Jamaica is one of the more tragic examples of this legacy.

There’s something awfully, darkly, familiar about well-meaning gay activists in the western world imposing a boycott on Jamaica without first consulting the local gay movement. And not publicly calling off the boycott when people like McFarlane first spoke up. I think the overlords of the British Empire would be proud of this boycott campaign.

Do US gay activists know what is good for Jamaican gays? Not a chance.

It’s understandable that they want to run to the rescue without asking first if people want to be rescued and how. We’ve done it with our friends, we’ve seen our national leaders use the same language. But it’s a horrible mistake.

(Of course, there’s a less charitable interpretation that goes something like this: those of us living more comfortable lives in greater freedom and wealth periodically feel guilty and get caught up in frenzies of “helping” others that leave us feeling that we did our bit for a better world, leave us believing that we aren’t so bad after all. Sometimes our actions even leave us feeling smug and self-satisfied and more advanced than those in other countries who don’t seem as well organized at helping even themselves. But I choose to be more charitable in this column.)

But we don’t need to stand around feeling helpless. As individuals and within gay organizations we can help gay Jamaicans in two substantial ways.

First, we can work to change our refugee laws to make it very easy for a Jamaican gay — or someone from any country that outlaws sodomy and/or oppresses its gays, lesbians and trans — to make a successful refugee claim here.

And second, we can transfer significant sums of money from our national groups (yes, I’m thinking the same organizations that came up with this boycott) to the local Jamaican gay groups, and groups in other countries. Imagine what Jamaican gays could do by way of changing the minds of their fellow citizens if they ran public information and communication campaigns funded by those of us who so obviously care deeply about their oppression.

I say this to leaders of those groups: Put your money where your mouth is. Boycotts are not only too easy, and don’t cause you any personal pain, but they also cause actual pain to the local gays and lesbians who are scapegoated because of your actions. And remember, only local people can set themselves free and it takes a long, long time.