The blame game


Seeing the Bollywood film yesterday transported me back to my travels in India.  I remembered that coincidentally, there was an important (the first, I believe) gay pride march set for yesterday in Mumbai and I was curious to see how it went. When I got home I looked up the news accounts on the internet and did find mention of it, but I was a little surprised by the theme picked up by the majority of articles I was reading. Most of them talk about how these were demonstrations against the legacy of the British and their penal code (section 377) that outlawed homosexuality and is still in force to this day, and how they were basically calling on Britain to apologize for introducing this penal code. I have to admit to having been a bit bemused by this and so I sent an email to some of my friends in Mumbai to ask a few questions. Was this a tactic to get a greater majority of the Indian public to approve repeal of 377? Hating all things that represent British colonial rule, it would be an easier sell I suppose than simply accepting the right of people to be gay…?

My friend Alok responded by saying it is a strategy both to get greater media attention, and “to highlight that criminalization of same sex activity has no roots in Indian culture/history”.

I am sure that is true, but there are also many examples of politicians in India (and in many parts of the non western world) who blame the very existence of homosexuality itself on “western influence”, claiming it to be foreign to their culture. In both cases (saying homophobia or homosexuality is a foreign thing), there seems to be an attempt to deny any responsibility for the current climate according to one’s beliefs and tastes. I am sure it is more palatable to place the blame squarely outside of ourselves for those tendencies in our cultures of which we don’t approve, and that this is a world wide phenomenon. I asked my friend if he could then perhaps explain to me how India after independence managed to create a constitution and dismantle some of the legal system left by the British, yet still left in place (when it had the opportunity to do away with it) 377? Was it mere convenience?

My point is simply that it is too facile to lay Indian intolerance solely at British feet, no matter how tempting, and even though most definitely part of the reason. That is why I asked if it was a strategy, to make Indians feel that rejecting homophobia is rejecting something intrinsically British, and that this was an easier “sell”, and more patriotic. (Which is hogwash anyway. I don’t believe any nation to be “intrinsically” homophobic. Cultures change and grow into and out of their hatreds all the time. And I’m sure anyone would agree that Britain today is a far more hospitable place to be gay than India.)

The more I travel, the more places and cultures I see, the more of a universal humanist I become. There is a wonderous diversity of life and culture on this planet. And there are many awful systems of oppression in place that must be challenged. But the longer I live, the more I see the folly in assigning blame without action, and without looking in the mirror. There are unfortunately (and on occasion wonderfully) many many examples across cultures of the things that humans do to (and for the benefit of) other humans, and it is obvious that these are human tendencies that are located in our biological makeup. No culture has a monopoly on the truth or beauty, and cultures change enormously over time. One constant that I recognize with great sadness is the very widespread human desire to fear and hate and demonize that which is different or other. For me, humans are at our very best when we work to transcend these hatreds in our individual selves, our families, our social groups, our regions, our nations, and finally our world.

The forty and one


Since we are discussing interesting euphemisms, let’s talk about another I came across today.

I am still deep into the Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. The book is truly amazing, especially Paz’s deconstruction of Mexican machismo (which is arguably and happily on the decline). In and among these descriptions and my subsequent internet research on the subject, I came across a fascinating (and now mostly out of use) euphemism for male homosexuality in Mexico. The number “41” has been equated with homosexuality in Mexico since a raid that took place in 1901 on a party (with 41 participants). Half of the guests were dressed in women’s dresses and were dancing with the other half. Although not so much in use anymore, for many years the number 41 was a highly negative euphemism for homosexuality in Mexico. The taint of the use of the number was so great apparently, that it would be avoided at all costs in the numbering of all manner of things, including hospital rooms, birthdays (men would skip from 40 to 42), public documents, etc.

Gay debutante


Some new friends took me to a gay party in the neighborhood last night. It was a lot of fun and really interesting to see what gay life is like here, especially after spending a year in Asia.  It could not have been more different.  The rare parties that I would go to in India were very closed affairs.  Usually when talking to people there one would see how incredibly afraid they were to be public in any way.  They would tell stories of their family “duty” and plans for marriage. They would talk about how unimportant it was to be able to live openly.  There were a few rare exceptions of course, and I think these people are very brave (and necessary).  Here in Mexico, attending this party was a completely different feeling.  It was lively and open and I doubt there was anyone in attendance who felt the need to be particularly discreet.  Everyone was very friendly and although such environments are a huge challenge when trying to speak Spanish (because of the chaos and noise), I felt very comfortable and welcome.  Mexico has a reputation for being a culture of machismo, and perhaps this is true in many areas, but it also seems a culture that is changing rapidly in this regard.