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Cultures and their Faces

On the night of September 29, 2004, FannyAnn Eddy, founder of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Organization, was brutally murdered in the group’s offices in Freetown. Although the motives for her killing remain unclear, many suspect she was targeted for her visibility as a lesbian and an activist. Human Rights Watch worked closely with her. This essay is dedicated to her memory.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have learned one lesson over the last twenty years: violence follows visibility. People can be killed for their courage in standing up, in speaking out about themselves. Yet FannyAnn’s life and death, on a continent where homosexuality is again and again called “un-African,” call attention to another truth. Cultures are made up of faces. They are not monoliths; they are composed of diverse individuals, each contributing to and minutely changing what the culture means and does. 

When a culture is reinvented for ideological purposes as a faceless, seamless whole—incapable of dissent from within, so that any dissenter automatically becomes an outsider; incapable of changing, so that growth seems like destruction—it has ceased to be an environment in which people can live and interpret their lives. It has become a rhetorical weapon to be wielded against individuals, a tool of repression. And any phenomenon that embraces innumerable Africans like FannyAnn can be called good or bad, right or wrong; but it cannot be called “un-African.”

The forces described here draw their strength from fear. They share an anxiety: that norms governing personal life, which family or community or religion used to inculcate, are losing strength. They share an ambition: to enlist the state’s authority to enforce those norms. If there is a useful definition of “fundamentalism,” perhaps it is this drive to seize the state, turn its spotlight on private life, and make it the agent of a newly-codified “tradition.” They fail to understand—or, perhaps, they understand too well—that a norm changes when it becomes a law: that, once backed by all the power of a modern state, it loses the flexibility and negotiability that are the essence of a tradition. It can only punish and repress, and it will find new victims.

The role of human rights principles, unquestionably, is to mark out spaces of personal freedom, to affirm areas where individual privacy and dignity and autonomy should prevail against state or community regulation. But human rights principles also defend communities. They guard them against measures which, by isolating or marginalizing people, threaten the whole body politic with epidemic disease. They protect minority and subcultural communities against change or uniformity forced on them by the state. They ensure diversity both among communities and cultures, and within them. 

A dialogue between “rights talk” and “culture talk” is overdue—one which explores not only the real meaning of culture, but the actual workings of rights. Rights work does not promise utopia, only an endless process of protecting basic human values against constantly renewing threats. But it also does not promise the dissolution of cultures or the annihilation of traditions. It helps to ensure that they remain responsive to the human beings they contain. To conserve is to care for, not to preserve unchanged. The dialogue will happen only if true conservatives, who respect the past because they grapple with its complexities, dismiss the false ideologies of cultural uniformity that exploit sexuality with no other real goal than to reject, exclude, and destroy.

<<previous  |  indexJanuary 2005