QOTD (2009-08-17)

From Human Rights’ Watch’s report on the horrible crimes committed against gay men in Iraq:

All the survivors of militia violence Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report identified themselves as “gay.” Some reflection on terminology and identity is necessary here. The use of “gay” in English to describe men who have emotional or sexual relationships with other men is relatively recent, emerging out of a North American subculture in the twentieth century. (“Homosexual” does not much predate it in European languages; the term was coined by an Austro-Hungarian doctor in 1869.)

All the survivors we interviewed told us they first heard “gay” with that purport after the US invasion in 2003. Most said it had come to Iraq through the Internet or Western media, particularly TV and films. Its use cuts across classes: a doctor and a high-school dropout each employed it in talking to us about themselves. The men integrated the English word seamlessly into Arabic speech. [emphasis mine] The recent deployment in Arabic of mithli (plural mithliyeen) as a neutral, non-condemnatory equivalent of “homosexual” in English has not taken strong root in Iraq. Most of the men, if they were familiar with it at all, said it was rare. “All of us use ‘gay’ among ourselves, never mithli,” a gay hospital employee told us. “Even doctors in speaking to each other won’t use the Arabic word for it—they’ll sometimes say ‘homosexual’ in English.”

It is vital to stress two points. First, the fact that the word comes from beyond Iraq’s borders does not point to anything imported or foreign about the phenomenon people use it to describe. To the contrary: the conduct called “homosexual”—desires, erotic acts, or emotional relationships between people of the same sex— has always existed in Iraqi society, as in all societies. A new name for it is, by itself, only a shift in vocabulary, not in values or behavior.

Yet at the same time, no one should assume that the word bears exactly the same connotations in Iraq as it does elsewhere. That homosexual conduct has happened everywhere does not mean people interpret it in the same way, or give it the same individual or collective meanings. […] Many gay Iraqis we interviewed implied that, for them, having a “gay” identity is at least as much about how “masculine” or “feminine” they see themselves as about the object of their desire. Gender—the accumulated distinctions that societies and cultures impose, to demarcate what is “proper” to men and to women—is an important axis along which they situate their self-understanding.

I posted here a passage about the construction of gay identity, because I found it interesting, and it relates directly to what I write about on this blog. However, I consider the true substance of the report, which describes the cruelty of those who have kidnapped, tortured and murdered men based on allegations and appearances, far more important than the above triviality. This report, with its graphic depictions of violence and torture and unchecked hate, is terrifying, and it gives me a sick feeling in my stomach and I am trying not to cry while I read it. I’m working on a related article for Campus Progress, so expect that later this week.

It’s important to note that this kind of violence skyrocketed after the US invasion. We as a country have so much in the past six years to answer for.

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