Holiday Issue: The Perils of Place

Published in: November-December 2019 issue.


THE ATMOSPHERE was triumphalist in New York City as we celebrated Stonewall’s 50th anniversary last June, and rightly so. Who can deny that it’s a different world for LGBT people from that of 1969? Of course there were reminders from the podium that discrimination is still with us, especially for transgender people; much remains to be done. There was even an alternative march called “Reclaim Pride” for groups that felt estranged from the mainstream parade with its corporate floats and lifestyle organizations.

         And they had a point. Whether you’re a victor or a victim undoubtedly depends upon who you are. It also depends upon where you are; this issue focuses on how the situation for LBGT people is shaped by place. What these articles reveal is that homophobia itself takes different forms according to its context.

         To start with a relatively innocuous form: many men over 45 have noticed that locker rooms and saunas have changed in recent years. Where once casual nudity was the norm, men now go to great lengths to avoid exposing their junk even for a second. Steven Spencer argues that this change is a homophobic response by straight men to the awareness of gay men’s possible presence, a side-effect of gay visibility.

         Now consider a very different all-male setting, that of a prison, where homophobia is official policy and sex between inmates is banned. The popular assumption that coercive sex is rampant is greatly exaggerated, argues Thomas Hubbard, who found in his research (including interviews with two ex-inmates) that consensual sex is far more prevalent than rape. He concludes that a more relaxed policy on consensual sex would reduce coercion and could help many gay men to acculturate to a healthy gay identity once released.

         If homophobia finds unusual modes of expression in prisons and locker rooms, there is still the garden variety form of discrimination that happens every day at the workplace, where vast swaths of Americans are vulnerable. Indeed this most basic of guarantees—protection from discrimination in hiring and firing—has yet to be secured though legislation at the national level, so now it’s up to the courts. A feature article and an op-ed piece discuss the Title VII cases that will soon be taken up by the Supreme Court. Much is at stake.

         Whatever the outcome, it will not affect the LGBT profile outside the U.S., which in some places is pretty grim. A piece by Kenyan journalist Tony Njoroge discusses the situation in Africa, where severe penalties for homosexual behavior continue to prevail—a product of European and Islamic conquest. The irony is that the Western colonial powers have moved toward LGBT equality while leaving a legacy of homophobia in Africa and South Asia. Much remains to be done at home, but surely we need also to address the extreme intolerance faced by LGBT people in countries around the world.