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Anatomy of a Backlash: Sexuality and the “Cultural” War on Human Rights
by Scott Long1

What is at issue in cultural terms is a conflict of interest between the whole body, which is the Zimbabwean community, and part of that body represented by individuals or groups of individuals.  The whole body is more important than any single dispensable part.  When your finger starts festering and becomes a danger to the body, you cut it off—the homosexuals are the festering finger.
-Statement in a parliamentary debate in Zimbabwe, 19952

A tale of one city: Cairo, in 1994, hosted the U.N. World Conference on Population and Development. The meeting marked a major advance in recognizing women’s sexual autonomy. Its final declaration linked sexuality, health, and human rights, affirming that reproductive health “implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life”—in effect, that control over the enjoyment of one’s own sexuality was essential to the well-being of both women and men. 

Much the same affirmation was made the next year, at the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing. The impact on local activists was considerable. The Cairo conference, for instance, gave strength to campaigns against female genital mutilation—in Egypt and elsewhere. But other, more sinister notes were struck. The Kenyan press, for instance, paid leering attention to lesbian activists marching at the Beijing meeting, leading then President Moi to declare: “The government rejects the immoral culture of homosexuality and lesbianism raised during the … women’s conference.”3

Switch to Cairo seven years later. Police seized dozens of men in raids on cruising areas and a discotheque where men who have sex with men were believed to gather. The press accused them of staging a “homosexual wedding” service. Prosecutors charged them with “debauchery,” the language for sex between men in Egyptian law, and alleged they belonged to a blasphemous, “Satanist” cult assaulting culture and religion. Their sensational trial inaugurated a massive, national crackdown on homosexual conduct, in which hundreds of men have been seized and tortured—as well as a moral panic about sexual “deviance” escaping state control. Local human rights groups that tried to intervene have been smeared as agents of perversion.4

A spectre is stalking the arenas where human rights activists work. Its avatars range from politicians in Zimbabwe to policymakers in the United States. It might be called an alliance of fundamentalisms, though not all its agents embrace the term. The forces in question define themselves most often by what they claim to defend—and that shifts from time to time and territory to territory: “culture,” “tradition,” “values,” or “religion.”  What they share is a common target: sexual rights and sexual freedoms.  These are most often represented by women’s reproductive rights, the assault on which continues. The most vividly drawn and violently reviled enemy typically is homosexuality. “Gay and lesbian rights,” the dignity of people with different desires, the basic principle of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation: all these are painted as incompatible with fundamental values, even with humanity itself.

The target is chosen with passion, but also precision and care. Movements for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people, along with movements that assert sexual rights more generally, are arguably the most vulnerable edge of the human rights movement. In country after country they are easy to defame and discredit. But the attack on them also opens space for attacking human rights principles themselves—as not universal but “foreign,” as not protectors of diversity but threats to sovereignty, and as carriers of cultural perversion.

In many countries, forces opposed to universal rights standards have found their strongest stance is to declare themselves defenders of “authentic” (though often invented) cultural tradition.5 “Culture talk” increasingly opposes itself to “rights talk.” Rights are treated as invaders. Sexuality has turned into a key battleground in the conflict. The “cultural” argument against sexual rights sees itself as striking the exposed flank of rights protections. The onslaught also has devastating effects on public health—as essential measures to prevent HIV/AIDS are scrapped in the name of “morals,” and as vulnerable people are driven into the shadows. 

Fundamentalism not only pits “culture” against rights, it paints a somber picture of society in which sexuality—and, implicitly, a range of other human experiences—demands continual and restrictive state scrutiny and control. Against this bleak and onerous vision, rights activists must reassert basic principles of personal freedom; but they must also affirm that human beings require the autonomous enjoyment of their sexualities to lead satisfying, fulfilled, fully human lives.  

The standard articulated in the preceding essay in this volume—that rights groups must oppose efforts to legislate morality where the only “offense” is in the mind of the person who feels someone else believes or behaves “immorally”—applies not only when the motive is religious but more generally, whether campaigns to restrict rights are carried out in the name of faith, tradition, culture, or collective values. At the same time, rights activists must see defending sexual rights not as a distraction from their traditional preoccupations, but as a necessary and logical development. Human rights are the possessions of embodied human beings, whose dignity is bound up with the capacity to inhabit and experience their bodies as their own. Everyone deserves the free enjoyment of their sexuality. No one who does not hurt other people should be a prisoner of others’ consciences.

[1] Scott Long directs the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.  Jonathan Cohen, researcher with the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program, assisted in conceptualizing and researching this essay.

[2] Quoted in Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, More than a Name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and its Consequences in Southern Africa, 2003, p. 16.

[3] “Moi says no to ‘unAfrican sins,’” The Nation (Kenya), September 24, 1995.

[4] See Human Rights Watch, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct, 2004.

[5] See Mahmood Mamdani, ed., Beyond Rights Talk and Culture Talk: Comparative esays on the Politics of Rights and Culture (Palgrave, 2000); see also, for a study of how “traditions” are manufactured to suit political and social agendas, E. B. Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1992).

index  |  next>>January 2005