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Movements and Moral Panics

The last fifteen years have seen great growth worldwide in the visibility of people gathering, organizing, and campaigning around sexuality—and around sexual rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. There are many causes. One lies simply in the spread of democratic governments in the 1980s and 1990s. As dictatorial regimes receded—in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in Africa—and civil society asserted itself, activists for sexual rights and sexual orientation also claimed freedom to join that self-assertion. Models for organizing thus proliferated as well. Emerging groups across Africa that identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender may look to, and learn from, the work courageous people have performed in achieving equal protection in South Africa (where many activists in turn got their education in the anti-apartheid movement) or answering a dictator’s vilification in Zimbabwe. 

Meanwhile, movements around women’s health issues—whether female-genital mutilation or access to reproductive health services—increasingly approached their work through a rights-based framework. Women’s sexuality, when viewed through the prism of human rights, could be seen as an empowering capacity, not a source of vulnerability (as movements opposing violence against women had long tended to portray it)—as something to be prized and defended. 6

HIV/AIDS put sexuality squarely in the center of health policy debates; and HIV/AIDS activists also pushed public health discourse to open up to rights-based approaches.  This soldered links between “sexual minorities” and the languages of rights. Indeed, the struggle against the epidemic has given many groups previously marginalized to the point of invisibility a new importance in human rights discussions, including drug users, prisoners, sex workers, and migrant workers. 

The emergence of new or once-hidden identitiesin political life and in human rights discourse has prompted part of the backlash. “Lesbian,” “gay,” “sexual orientation,” “gender identity”—these concepts have been employed by activists in diverse places to explain who they are and why their constituencies share common ground. At they same time such concepts are decried as inauthentic imports or cultural impositions. Of course, as has been widely noted, “homosexuality,” in the sense of a social self built around the gender of one’s object of desire, is a construct that originated in modern industrialized societies.7  It is only one way of attaching cultural meanings to the phenomena, universally found, of homosexual desire and conduct. Yet the charge (heard sometimes from intellectuals as well as from conservative politicians) that those who translate these terms into settings other than their origin are the agents of an alien lexicography, pursuing their self-definition in foreign terms—this claim does not hold up. It neglects the creativity and capacity for bricolage with which humans reinterpret and adapt ideas to their own environments and needs: a constant change and interchange which is one of the basic workings of culture.

And in fact ideas as much as identities are ultimately at stake in the backlash. Advocacy around the rights of so-called “sexual minorities,” however they define themselves, neither takes place in a vacuum nor is reducible to a minority concern. This advocacy asserts a broader principle: that people should control their own sexualities; that, in the context of respect for others’ dignity and consent, everyone has the right (as the World Health Organization puts it) to “pursue a satisfying, safe, and pleasurable sex life”; and that this pursuit is not inimical to cultural and social values, but supports people’s healthy integration into culture and society.8 It is an assertion which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists make together with activists for women’s rights, campaigners against censorship, and other human rights defenders. The claim to sexual freedom is the deepest threat. The extension of human rights beyond consciences to bodies is the unbearable presumption.

Sexuality is something on which every society—probably every person—imposes a portentous array of meanings. It may be the most highly symbolized of human experiences. Fundamentalists fear sexuality emerging from the cocoon of significance in which they feel traditions once contained it. Yet this apprehension of escape itself becomes a metaphor for other, larger anxieties about cultural, social, or political change.  Sexuality stops being an experience and becomes an emblem.

“Gay and lesbian rights” and the promise of equality serve, to their fundamentalist opponents, as symbol rather than tangible threat. Those opponents rarely bother to examine the substance of what such equality might entail. It is the monstrous apparition of men’s and (particularly) women’s sexualities breaking the frame of traditional, authoritarian control that terrifies them, and leads them to call on the law to repress the genie back into the bottle. They are right that the liberatory impulse of human rights will not be restrained from defending freedoms in people’s intimate and physical, as well as political, lives. They are at their most dangerous in acting on the insight. Using sexuality as metaphor for broader processes of change, they extend their attack to the logic and essence of human rights themselves.

One feature of fundamentalist discourses is the way their different terms collapse into one another. “Culture” loses its variety and becomes indistinguishable from “morality,” and “morality” from “religion,” which in turn is defined by and often defines “tradition.” Collectively they can colonize “nationhood” until it becomes not a political entity but a rhetorical weapon. All these words will run through the examples of the backlash. In all cases, however, fundamentalisms strip these terms of ambiguity or negotiability. They become, in the fundamentalist vision, not ideas to be debated or environments in which to live, but mandates enforced by law. 

Sometimes the backlash around sexuality has been overtly nationalistic. When the film Fire, depicting a love affair between two women,was released in India in 1998, it was met by riots and was hauled before the national Censor Board. Both violence and silencing were instigated by the right-wing government and its allies. One leader of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party said lesbianism “is not in our national culture,” and wondered why the women had been given Hindu instead of Muslim names. 9 Similar arguments have been used to support the arrest and harassment of HIV/AIDS outreach workers.10 In defending India’s law penalizing homosexual sex—a relic imported and imposed by British colonialism—the government has claimed it was needed to preserve true Indian mores and identity. 

Sometimes the attacks show a mingling of religion, culture, and nationalism: as when Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has devoted a decade to steady homophobic attacks, wondered how “immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals who offend both against the law of nature and the law of morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates.” 11 Usually, however, they are meant to send two ominous messages: that freedom is a gift, not a given; and that if one group’s freedoms can be stripped away, so can others’. Thus Mugabe has said:

Freedom … is not a selfish, one-way street. The greater the freedom one enjoys, the greater the responsibility one owes the community which bestows that freedom. … If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organized drug addicts … the rights they might claim and allege they possess under the rubric of individual freedom and human rights, including the freedom of the press?12

Mugabe meant it. His threats to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were a prelude to crackdowns on farm workers, farmers, trade unions, opposition parties. The press freedoms whose exclusivity he claimed to prize went out the window early in the process. 

Political leaders in many African countries have imitated Mugabe’s rhetoric. Yet by contrast, in neighboring Namibia, where President Sam Nujoma indulged in similar attacks for years, human rights activists quickly saw the assaults as aimed at all their work and at the core values of human rights themselves. One said, “The government is making attacks on homosexuality a central part of its outlook. But it will not end with homosexuality—it is to create a culture of intolerance, a culture that will grow. Either we change this culture and become more tolerant, or it will get worse.”13

Disentangling intolerance from “culture” led to danger. Another activist whose organization condemned Nujoma’s statements related how he and his co-workers “have been attacked as traitors, as spies, and as being un-African. And we have been attacked for promoting homosexuality. … We are not promoting homosexuality, we are promoting human rights.” 14  It is to their credit that human rights organizations fought back, and affirmed both that homosexuality belonged to, and that human rights principles were integral to, Namibia’s diverse culture. 

In Egypt, the crackdown on homosexual conduct was used to isolate and defame the country’s embattled human rights organizations. Few groups intervened: those who did faced condemnation. The message was clear: that human rights had become the portal to perversion.  “They’re defending Egyptian perverts under the pretext of ‘human rights!” one tabloid headline raged.15 A columnist asked of “sexual perverts,” “What moral debasement has this group arrived at? What kind of people are they, without religion, moral values, or honor…claiming human rights? What human? What rights?”16

Similarly, in Jamaica in 2004, attacks on a Human Rights Watch report linking endemic homophobic violence to the spread of HIV/AIDS turned into attacks on human rights groups in general. A writer charged that “homosexual surrogates attached” to Human Rights Watch have “ripped” into Jamaica for what it imagines is wide scale abuse here against male homosexuals. Homosexuals have always found that their viral-like attachment to key groups in civil society and other bodies where social activism is a calling card has always assisted them as a launching pad from which they can subtly foist their sexuality on a nation of people totally turned off from and sickened by the abnormal and filthy act of one man having sex with another man.”17

Others threatened mainstream Jamaican human rights activists. The Jamaica Police Federation, representing most of the country’s police officers, ominously lashed out at Human Rights Watch’s “local accomplices” for “deliberately maligning the police and the state.” Declaring that “The government and the police cannot be held responsible for either the careless liaisons by homosexuals or the cultural responses of the population towards gays,” it called on the Minister of Justice to “slap on sedition charges where necessary to both foreign and local agents of provocation.”18

Religious groups have played a significant role in the backlash—and a significant role in opposing it. Within many religious traditions, powerful voices have spoken up to defend sexual rights, along with human rights principles generally. Still, evangelical Protestant churches in Africa (many of them North American in origin) have often preached homophobia. The Catholic Church in many places has lent official weight to campaigns against equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as against reproductive rights.19 Yet the role of churches or mosques in whipping up fears around sexuality should not be overstated. In most places the backlash’s leadership remains lay.   In many countries the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that identify themselves as defending religious values, without being tied to a particular institution or denomination, have been more powerful, and their rhetoric more ferocious, than most religious figures. 

This is nowhere more true than in the United States. Controversies over lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people’s claim to equality have burgeoned since 2003. That year, the Supreme Court struck down the country’s remaining “sodomy laws.” Social conservatives saw this as a blow to their own authority, and as the loss of one of the basic ways in which governments declared their “disapproval” of homosexuality—a disapproval manifested in a jail cell. Later that year, courts in the state of Massachusetts ordered that the full rights of marriage be extended to same-sex partners. At least in one jurisdiction, it seemed, equality was at hand.20

Individual states have wide latitude in the U.S. to set their own marriage policies; however, the federal government has intervened in the name of overarching principles—most notably when the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriages as fundamentally discriminatory. Social conservatives therefore took a two-pronged strategy. They have pressed, with great success, for states to amend their own constitutions to ban equality in civil marriage. Eleven such initiatives came on the ballot in 2004; eleven states passed them, often by enormous margins. Some of these amendments ruled out legal recognition of same-sex relationships in any form, such as civil unions. Their sweeping wording could conceivably bar companies from granting domestic-partner rights to same-sex employees, or actively prohibit a lesbian from visiting her partner in the hospital. The zero-sum meanness of such provisions reveals the underlying mindset, that certain relationships can be “protected” only by taking a legal bulldozer to others. The motive is not “defending marriage,” but fear: fear of difference, of the other. The only union they defend is the shotgun coupling imposed between government and religious compulsion.

The second strategy was to go national. President Bush has urged passage of a amendment to the U.S. constitution which would bar equality in civil marriage. It would be the first constitutional change in American history not to affirm a basic right but to ban a specific group from enjoying it. Legislative proposals to achieve the same effect nationwide are multiplying as well.

In the United States as in other countries, panics over sexual nonconformity have often been connected to political repression. Consider how, in South Africa, the legal prohibition on interracial sex became a foundation of the apartheid regime; consider too how, during the McCarthyite period in the United States in the 1950s, the search for invisible and insidious communists was paralleled by campaigns to root down and crack down on homosexuals, in local communities and in government itself. The strong desire of some social conservatives to expand state control over personal life, while eviscerating the state’s secular character, was suggested by the influential conservative leader Bob Jones in greeting the 2004 election returns. Warning that “liberals … despise your Christ,” he urged the victorious president to “exercise forceful leadership … in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and”—it is not clear how compatible this is with the rest of the list—“limited government.”21

But the blend of social conservatism and sexual fear in U.S. policy is up for export, where its effects are still more dangerous. Under the influence of religious and conservative NGOs, the United States has—both domestically and in its capacity as the world’s largest donor to HIV/AIDS programs—heavily promoted HIV prevention programs that define sexual abstinence and marital fidelity as the sole solutions. The “United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act”—a foreign aid program passed in 2003, and commonly known as President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)—mandates that one-third of prevention spending go to “abstinence until marriage” programs. In the United States, such federally-funded programs have censored scientific information about the efficacy of condoms, and called marriage the only reliable strategy for preventing sexual transmission of HIV.22 In teaching that heterosexual marriage is the sole safe environment for sex, these programs implicitly but intrinsically condemn lesbians’ and gay men’s sex lives—since, in most countries, they cannot marry. The programs also cut off people at risk of HIV from information that could save their lives. 

The result, in countries that are candidates for PEPFAR funding, has been a rash of statements endorsing abstinence and condemning condoms. In May 2004, for instance, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who had long supported condoms as part of a prevention strategy, changed his position and declared that they should only be provided to sex workers.23 In March 2004, Zambia reportedly banned distributing condoms in schools, claiming they spread promiscuity among youth.24

One characteristic of many of these assaults on sexuality is that fundamentalist forces interpret opposition—attempts to keep their proposals from being enacted into policy—as an attempt to silence them altogether, or to keep them from urging their principles upon free individuals. Thus promoting an open public sphere where religious institutions and others with different views can speak is treated virtually as an initiative to suppress the church. One can—and human rights activists do—oppose those who want gay sex criminalized, while respecting the opponents’ consciences and safeguarding their political freedoms. Yet in a strange inversion, those who vociferously object to applying human rights principles sometimes claim that any debate itself breaches their basic rights. 

They do this by claiming that individuals’ rights violate the “rights” of the “community” to enforce morality—and silence. This appropriation of rights language should not be curtailed—the words are available to all—but it deserves to be questioned. When an Australian evangelical group claims that anti-discrimination legislation would infringe “the rights of heterosexuals,” 25 it may seem marginal. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines carried more authority, though, when answering Human Rights Watch’s criticism of government policies—heavily church-supported—that impeded condom use.26 A spokesman said, “If we speak the language of rights, let it be about authentic human rights—rights which foster human dignity.… The right to religious belief is a paramount human right. Will Human Rights Watch deny that?”27

The right to religious belief does not mean that belief can tyrannize over others’ bodies—or deny others what they need to save their health and lives. The exercise of individual conscience is not infringed if governments give men and women information and condoms that will help them survive. Human rights groups should and typically do stand up fiercely for religious freedom and the rights of believers. They should also stand up against religious groups seeking to dilute or destroy rights protections on the sole ground that they safeguard actions which faith or teaching may condemn. This holds true whether the freedoms at stake are those of religious dissenters, atheists, women, or men, or whether they involve consensual sexual behavior. Human rights principles should not be twisted into a tool to suppress expression, conscience, or conduct, when the only harm is in the mind of someone who takes moral umbrage at another’s behavior or belief.

Finally, the public health consequences of the policies in question expose how untenable are fundamentalist forces’ claims to be defending “rights” or to be standing up for “communities.” When HIV/AIDS outreach workers are assaulted, in the name of national tradition; when people are force-fed unscientific propaganda instead of life-saving facts, in the name of safeguarding the family; when they are refused condoms, in the name of moral values: it is communities who suffer, as HIV infection spreads.    More than ideology is at stake in the backlash over sexuality. Societies are devastated.  People die.

[6] See, for instance, Lynn P. Freedman, “Reflections on Emerging Frameworks of Health and Human Rights”; Rebecca Cook, “Gender, Health, and Human Rights”; and Alice M. Miller, AnnJanette Rosga, and Meg Satterthwaite, “Health, Human Rights, and Lesbian Existence,” all anthologized in Jonathan M. Mann, Sofia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, and George J. Annas, Health and Human Rights: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1999).

[7] Or, more precisely: the option of organizing a lifelong social identity around the experience of homosexual desire has historically been available only in certain cultural and class settings, modern industrial capitalism—with its loosening of the economic function of traditional family networks—being one. (The word “homosexual” itself, a hybrid of Greek and Latin roots, was only coined in 1869.) In other settings homosexual desire has been interpreted in other ways: as something to be consummated only at certain stages in the life-course, for instance.  See David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (Routledge, 1990) for a fuller discussion.  A number of recent movements have adopted, or adapted, more “traditional” identities as axes for organizing around sexual difference.  In south Asia, for instance, older cultural identities for people who might, in a Western context, be called “transgender,” such as hijra or meti, as well as identities such as koti referring to men who have sex with men, carry a resonance not at all reducible to Western equivalents.  Alternatively, in  Zimbabwe, men within the group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe have carved out their own space and sub-sub-culture, calling themselves chengetanai (a Shona word meaning “taking care of each other”) or “liberated queens,” and identifying themselves much more by their dissidence from gender norms than by their sexual behavior.

[8] See World Health Organization, “Technical Consultation on Sexual Health: Working Definitions,” at, retrieved November 22, 2004.

[9] Bal Thackeray, quoted in “Protest in front of Dilip Kumar’s house justified, says Thackeray,” Times of India, December 14, 1998; “Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family,” Agence France-Presse, December 14, 1998.  For a full account of the Fire controversy, see a report by the Campaign for Lesbian Rights, India (CALERI), Emergency Jaari Hai/Lesbian Emergence (New Delhi, 1999).

[10] See Human Rights Watch, Epidemic of Abuse: Police Harassment of HIV/AIDS Outreach Workers in India,  2002.

[11] 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, pp. 13-14.

[12] Ibid..

[13] Ibid., p. 31, quoting Norman Tjombe, Legal Action Centre, Namibia.

[14] Ibid., quoting Phil ya Nangoloh, National Society for Human Rights, Namibia.

[15] “Special report: How could anyone believe them after this ridiculous statement?  They’re defending Egyptian perverts under the pretext of ‘human rights!’” Rose al-Youssef, July 15, 2001.

[16] Wagih Abu Zikri, columnist in al-Akhbar, February 17, 2002.

[17] Mark Wignall, “What do these homosexual activists want?” Jamaica Observer, November 21, 2004.

[18] Sergeant David White, public relations officer, Jamaica Police Federation, “Charge those groups for sedition,”  Jamaica Observer, November 25, 2004.

[19] In some countries the Orthodox Church has campaigned particularly militantly against sexual rights.  In Romania, the church engaged throughout the 1990s in a long, ultimately unsuccessful struggle to prevent the repeal of that country’s brutal, Ceausescu-era sodomy law.  (See Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Public Scandals: Sexual Orientation and Criminal Law in Romania, 1998.)  Political calculation underlay the intensity of the fight.  The church was discredited among many Romanians by its tacit support of Ceausescu, and was searching for an issue to regain clout and credibility; opposition to reproductive rights—an immensely productive wedge issue for religious conservatives in other countries—was closed to it, however, by the acute unpopularity of Ceausescu’s pro-natalist, anti-abortion and anti-birth-control policies.  The campaign had international repercussions.  In 1998, Orthodox churches threatened to pull out of the World Council of Churches in outrage at the possibility of discussions of sexual orientation at its Eighth General Assembly (held in Harare, Zimbabwe). 

[20] See “Non-Discrimination in Civil Marriage: Perspectives from International Human Rights Law and Practice,” a Human Rights Watch briefing paper, at

[21] At, the website of Bob Jones University; retrieved November 11, 2004.

[22] See Human Rights Watch, Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States, September 2002. The domestic mandate to promote “abstinence only” education had been a project of conservative members of Congress since the 1980s.  The 1996 “welfare reform” bill in the U.S., for instance, required states accepting federal funds to teach “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children,” as well as that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” The bill points to one of the origins of the policy: in the endeavor to exert state control over the sexual lives of the poor. Meanwhile, both domestically and internationally, the Bush administration has used its commitment to “abstinence-only” education to funnel funds to “faith-based” organizations that are among its political supporters.  Groups that criticize “abstinence-only” programs have been subjected to fiscal audits, apparently in response to pressure from the White House and conservative politicians. See Francoise Girard, Global Implications of U.S. Domestic and International Policies on Sexuality, International Working Group on Sexuality and Social Policy Working Papers No. 1, June 2004, at, retrieved November 21, 2004.

[23] Rachael Rinaldo, “Condoms take a back seat to abstinence with U.S. AIDS Money,” Inter Press Service, May 24, 2004.  The article quotes an anonymous U.S. official as stating that funds could be used by governments to buy condoms—but that they should only be distributed to “high risk” groups. 

[24] Z. Geloo, “Anger at move to declare schools condom-free zones,” Inter Press Service, March 16, 2004.

[25] Website of John Mark Ministries,, retrieved November 12, 2004.

[26] See Human Rights Watch, Unprotected: Sex, Condoms, and the Human Right to Health in the Philippines, vol. 16, no. 6, May 2004.

[27] Patrick Goodenough, "Philippine pro-lifers stand by anti-condom policy," CNSNews, May 6, 2004, at, retrieved November 12, 2004.

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