Surveying homophobia

Submitted by Matthew on 6 November, 2013 - 12:52

In this two part documentary, Stephen Fry and the director Fergus O’Brien set out to survey what the situation is for LGBT people around the world.

A laudable task, and a good way to use your celebrity. In some ways the documentary lives up to its good intentions to expose homophobia across the world; the interviews with victims and survivors of some of the most extreme consequences of homophobia moved me.

Fry’s journey surveying the situation for LGBT people took him to the US, Uganda, Brazil, Russia, and India. He did not visit the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Yemen or Mauritania where homosexuality is punishable by death, or the Gulf states which are reportedly developing medical “tests” to exclude gay migrants, or Nigeria or Cameroon, who parliaments debate anti-gay laws similar to those of Uganda. Clearly there is only so much one documentary can cover,  however I found the selective nature of those places mentioned frustrating, especially when space was found for a “look-we-can-have-normal-lives” segment on Elton John that took up a sizeable chunk of one programme.

The documentary fails to properly address what causes homophobia, and its cultural, social, and historical roots, too often attributing it to the ravings of mad bigots (usually from non-white or non-western countries), although Fry does seem to try and counterbalance this by discussing the origins of many homophobic laws in old British colonial laws.

The programme was best when Fry was interviewing those who had suffered at the hands of the worst homophobes. Including a very touching interview with a woman from Uganda who had suffered “corrective rape” due to her sexuality. This is shown after Fry is invited onto a Ugandan English-language radio station to debate a pastor who preaches against homosexuality. As expected, the arguments of the pastor are ridiculous. He claims that he has worked with women that suffer UTIs from sexual activities using carrots, talks of “penises terrorising young people’s anuses”, and holds up a newspaper headline that reads “how bum shafting shattered my whopper”.

Fry quite rightly makes the point that it is easy to write off the views of people such as the pastor he debated as those of marginal fanatics, but that these ideas have influence in society and directly lead to the abuse that many have suffered.

The documentary also showed the case of Farshad, a gay man from Iran who has fled to Britain fearing for his life. Despite the fact that he almost certainly faces the death penalty in Iran for his sexuality, the immigration system here has told him that he “needs good proof that he is gay.”

The main failing of the documentary is any serious attempt to discuss the issues that lead to homophobia. The program was peppered with very twee comments from Fry about the unnatural or illogical nature of homophobia. Announcing at one point that “over 500 species have been observed to engage in homosexual behaviour, but only one species engages in homophobic behaviour”. This an overly simplistic look at the issue that does not take into account the prominence  of the nuclear family unit in society, the role of religion, and general issues of expression (or lack thereof) of sexuality in our lives.

Fry does go some way to talking about the social conditions that lead to homophobia, however in a faltering and narrow way. Fry talks about how it is “much easier to be gay if you live in an area of a city that is full of educated people, because educated people aren’t filled with hatred towards gay people. You only hate when you are ignorant and afraid. Ignorance and fear is fostered by a lot of things, poverty is one and fundamental religion is another.”

I can agree with this to an extent. Education is important in challenging oppressions of all kinds. However, Fry seems to imply here that it is “more educated” middle or ruling-class communities where it is easier to be gay. To an extent this maybe true, but I think this its cause is usually more economic than ideological. Fry seems to have a distaste for working-class culture and communities, which he sees as unable to break from backward ideas.

Fry rightly identifies that: “Homosexuals are not interested in making other people homosexual, homophobes are interested in making other people homophobic.”

We are dealing with dangerous ideas that require us to show solidarity with LGBT people across the world, to fight homophobia at home, and to fight against the ideological structures (including the idea of the heterosexual “nuclear family”, and reactionary religious institutions) which breed it.

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