May-June 2003: Not the American Issue

Published in: May-June 2003 issue.


That this is “not the American issue” is not a political statement but instead a comment on the odd fact that the cover of this “international” issue sports a parody of the iconic American Gothic. But it seemed the best way to salute Dell Martin and Phyllis Lyon, themselves American icons of sorts, on the fiftieth anniversary of their founding of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization, in 1953 (see Michael Schwartz’s review).

As I write, the war on Iraq has begun. Even if it turns into the benign incursion the Bush Administration is promising, it cannot help but shine a light on America’s gathering impact on the world’s peoples and cultures, on civilization itself. And while there’s been some discussion of the “What hath America wrought?” variety in the intelligent press, questions about the America’s global reach have been oddly taboo in the general media ever since 9/11/2001—as if to acknowledge this impact might somehow justify the terrorists’ deeds.

But the impact is certainly real, and it extends well beyond the dreaded drek of American culture—Coke, McDonald’s, Hollywood—to embrace basic assumptions about the ordering of society, the family, sex roles, and sex itself. And it’s not only Arab societies that struggle with our consumerism, our sexual freedom, our feminism. In India, for example (see Patricia Ould’s piece), public discussion of sex is taboo, which makes it pretty hard to “come out” publicly! In China (see Kyna Rubin), the expectation of marriage—often as arranged by families—is such that resistance is usually futile. In both societies, the concept of a “gay person” is largely an alien one (but this is complicated), while its introduction in recent years has been met with both curiosity and resistance.

Indeed the very notion of a “gay rights movement” is essentially an American invention, for it was in the U.S. that the first such struggle began back in the 1960’s. Why it originated here can undoubtedly be traced to the fact that the Civil Rights movement had blazed a huge trail starting in the 50’s, furnishing what we now call the “identity politics” model according to which GLBT people defined themselves as an oppressed minority fighting for “equal protection.”

This model traveled well to northern Europe and to the English-speaking world, where it has since met with much legislative success; but its diffusion both south and east has been more convoluted. Even in European countries like Spain and Poland (discussed in this issue), people have resisted the notion of a fixed “gay identity” that defines a person in some exhaustive way and casts him or her into a minority status. In most of the world, in fact, the struggle for sexual freedom is being waged under a concept of “human rights,” defined in the U.N. Charter of 1948, that calls for freedom from oppression for all persons regardless of both ascribed traits (e.g., race) and practices (e.g., religion).

Even this broad concept of human rights as a platform for gay equality has made few inroads in some societies, notably those in the region of Gulf War II, which officially do not even recognize the existence of homosexuality. Surely it would be an ironic result of this war if notions of gay rights were to spread into that region as a result of it!