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Import Ban

Denis Solomon • 972 words

It seems to be a condition of colonialism that even when colonies become independent they remain mired in attitudes their former colonial masters have abandoned.

One corollary of this is that it is easier and safer for politicians to divert the attention of the public from their failures, by feeding its known prejudices, than to attempt to give real moral leadership.

One example is the way administrations of former colonies have seized on the retention of the death penalty as a supposedly “moral” issue against the more enlightened attitudes of Europe and even Latin America. Britain has consistently failed to persuade its remaining colonies in the Caribbean, as well as Bermuda, to abandon the practice. The former colonies comprising Caricom have even made common cause on the question by jointly stating their support for capital punishment during the Rome Conference for the creation of an International Criminal Court. This position was distinguished by its irrelevance to the proceedings and outcome of the conference and by the fact that it was spearheaded by a civil rights lawyer and opponent of the death penalty, the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj.

The same is true of attitudes to homosexuality and treatment of gays. The British are in trouble with the European Union because of the homophobic policies of some of their colonies, such as banning gay cruises from some ports.

Not that homophobia, or at least ambivalent public attitudes to homosexuality, are dead in Britain. But recent events have shown that gays in public life are no longer an issue of any great concern to the public.

A number of “outings” that showed a quarter of Tony Blair’s Cabinet to be gay resulted in an attempt by the tabloid newspapers to whip up public frenzy over the possibility that Britain was being run by what one of them, the Sun, called a “gay mafia”.

The ministers in question were the Secretaries for Culture, Trade and Industry, Agriculture and Welsh Affairs. The Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, was openly gay. Peter Mandelson, Secretary for Trade and Industry and Tony Blair’s right hand man, was widely assumed to be gay though he had never confirmed or denied it. Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, resigned after an “incident” in which, apparently in search of a bit of rough trade in a sleazy district of London, he was robbed at knife-point. In the explanation he gave to Parliament about the incident he was ambiguous about his sexual orientation. Mandelson was “outed” by a former Tory MP in a remark on a BBC programme. The Agriculture Secretary, Nick Brown, was forced to admit he was gay by a tabloid newspaper following an attempt by a former lover to sell a story about their relationship.

So muted was the public reaction to all these non-scandals that Davies may well regret his resignation and the abandonment of his ambition to become chief executive of the new Welsh Assembly. The Prime Minister and the local parties of the ministers concerned made it clear that their private life was of no consequence to their office, and the public seemed to agree.

The only note of “caution” was sounded by Lord Tebbit, the former Chairman of the Tory party under Margaret Thatcher and a man of known Neanderthal opinions, who wrote a letter to a Conservative newspaper to say that Mandelson should never be made Home Secretary because gays, like Freemasons, were in a position to do each other favours. Why they should be more so inclined than heterosexuals he did not say, nor did he seem to realise that any need to “do favours” could only spring from a sense of persecution which would only be justified by the kind of ban he himself was proposing.

The tabloid witch-hunt, therefore, turned out to be a thoroughly damp squib, and while Downing Street did not seem to want to clash with the press over their right to discuss the sexuality of public figures, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Party and the Deputy Prime Minister called the tabloids’ coverage “deplorable” and suggested that it be referred to the Press Complaints Commission.

The situation is very different in the former British colonies of southern Africa, where the attack on gays comes not from press or public but from government leaders. An article in last week’s Economist refers to President Mugabe of Zimbabwe’s frequent diatribes against homosexuality, in which he has said that gays are “worse than pigs and dogs”. President Sam Nujoma of Namibia has pledged to “uproot” homosexuality, and President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia has threatened to arrest members of a gay rights group if they attempt to register as an official organisation. These threats are taken by civil rights groups to be part of a concerted campaign against gays as a soft target to divert public attention from domestic economic and social problems, such as Mugabe’s failure ever since Independence to institute a workable land reform policy.

Ironically, the African leaders pillory homosexuality not only as un-African but as a “sin against God” and an example of moral pollution imported from the West. They are apparently unaware of the contradiction of using one colonial importation from the West, namely Christianity, to condemn what they claim to be another, while the Western Christian nations and even Christianity itself is becoming more liberal on the question. In fact, the real import is religious intolerance. The attempts of the Anglican Church to admit gays to the priesthood was torpedoed not by British but by African bishops, who in true Third World style have acquired more of the prohibitive and regimentational aspects of Christianity than of its tolerance and humanity. Perhaps they were also worried about their position vis-a-vis the benighted political leaders in their home countries.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top