Saturday, September 27, 2008

Suicide, Slavery, and Sarah

Statistics don’t have to be dull if they involve sex, death, and chocolate. In one of those research quests that leads all over the web I stumbled onto which, about halfway down, has a table of states ranked by suicide rate. The US average is posted with the higher suicide rates above and the more life-embracing states below.

What stood out in this table is that the more do-in-yourself states toward the top of the table are pretty much “Red States” and guess where’s Numbah One? Our most suicidal population lives in Alaska! (Arizona ranks #11. On the other side of your presidential ballot, Illinois is #46 and Delaware ranks #34)

At the bottom of the list, the least suicidal states are the very Democratic turfs of New York (#50) and Massachusetts (#49), but wait! There is an even more Democratic – and less suicidal – population in Washington DC, happily at #51. Even California, famous as the state where dreams go to die of drug overdoses or a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge, is still at a life-affirming #42

Where’s the sex and chocolate here? Aside from the political implications – or maybe not so far aside – the Blue states are the one with the best chocolates and more relaxed sexual attitudes, and maybe those also help people to feel life is really worth living! There really is a serious connection here: It used to be common for a girl who “got into trouble” to end her life rather than face the stigma, and so-called “honor killings” happen even today in America. While it seems medieval, and thank God it’s become more rare, suicide of pregnant teens is still around. Even while that has become rarer, suicide among gay teens is still horribly high. GLBT children raised in homophobic cultures are so taught to hate themselves, so trapped in isolation, that they are much more prone to depression and suicide.

Another interesting correlation should be obvious enough, as the current geographic division is based on Nixon’s racist “Southern Strategy,” but the maps make it clear at:
Generally speaking the old slave states and territories are now “red states” and the “blue states” were indeed those that put their boys in blue uniforms against the grays.

Alaska isn’t on this map, but friends who’ve lived in Alaska report that it is indeed very racist. The Alaskan Independence Party quotes “President Jefferson Davis” urging in 1881 to preserve the struggle for the Confederacy. This atavistic bunch claims Sarah Palin as one of their own. She’s not a member, but her husband was from 1995 – 2002, until she got high enough in GOP circles for his membership in another party to be a tad embarrassing. Sarah’s cheery welcoming address to this clan of neo-Confederates is available on Youtube as are several clips of some AIPs enthusing over her progress in politics. As much as Michelle Obama has been grilled for her associations, it would seem only fair to ask Alaska’s “First Dude” about his links to these secessionists. Give him enough rope, and he just might hang himself. Just a figure of speech, First Dude! Don’t boost the stats!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Gays vs. Muslims question

One on of several e-lists I'm on a subscriber from Amsterdam asks a question that I get a lot, one way or another:

"I have never asked this, and I know you are involved in the Moslim thing yourself,but, it seems to me,that the Moslim people over here,and there are A LOT, Turkish and Morroccans, mostly, but a huge and powerful population, anyway-most of them really disrespect and do NOT tolerate Homosexuality. Period. write always like, "Oh, poor Moslims,"but,In my experience,as a Homo in a place where there are alot of very powerful and empowered Moslims, it seems that the thing I don't like,is that they mostly hate,discredit and disrespect Homos."

My answer:

This is a long and complicated problem, actually an intersection of several issues -- homophobia, racism, colonialism, immigration, and modernization. In early 2001 I realized the importance of studying mid-eastern and Muslim cultures and history and come that September what had been an academic fascination became a screamingly obvious need to struggle for mutual understanding to head off further violence. In the ensuing years I studied simply for the sake of knowledge, with no intent to convert, but the more I learned about Islam, the more it called to me. In that time I was making contact with GLBT Muslims and Muslim feminists, fully aware of the problems, and eager to see how they were being dealt with. Granted it's not often a comfortable place, but there is room for queer and feminist muslims and that room is slowly growing. While my interest in Islam and Islamic cultures and history was purely academic and I had no intention of converting, I did end up embracing the faith in 2003 and have been a practicing Muslim since then.

Yes, there is a lot of homophobia in most Muslim communities -- as there is in a lot of traditionalist religious communities of all types, certainly with the Christian Fundamentalists trying to take over America and in some of the Orthodox Jews who reacted violently to the Pride fest in Jerusalem. Still, there are religious communities within all these traditions that are more open and accepting. The MCC, Dignity, and other Queer Christians have made considerable progress in the last 40 years as have GLBT Jews. Queer Muslims in many countries are about where Queer Christian Americans were in the late 1960's.

The fact of homophobia in Muslim communities does not in any way negate or justify the racism against immigrant communities, or the oppression of neo-colonial regimes, or Israeli terrorism against Palestinians. And the more we use queer issues to define differences between "them and us" the more we become polarized into "them" and "us".

In fact Islam has historically been accepting of sexual diversity, but this changed in the colonial era -- not coincidentally the Victorian Era -- when homophobic laws from France and England were imposed on the colonized nations. Look at any historical map, and you will see that nearly all the Islamic countries were subjugated to European colonialism, and the early colonists were horrified at the rampant "sodomy" which they punished harshly once in power. If you look at a map of colonialism -- any political map from the early 20th century showing colonial holdings -- you may notice that, while, yes, there is a much longer history of tension between Christiandom and Dar-al-Islam, in recent centuries it has been overshadowed by the question of colonialism. Turkey may be the only Islamic nation not to have been colonized, but it was in fact a colonizer of Arab and other nations, both Islamic and Christian. And once released from Ottoman dominance, most Arab lands fell to the French or British.

Skipping ahead to the present our immigrant communities from Islamic countries are mostly fleeing the impoverishment and repression of neo-colonial states. Now the situation in the US is very different from that of European countries. It takes more money and wherewithal to cross the Atlantic than to cross the Mediterranean. Our Muslim immigrants are by and large more educated and ambitious, parlaying their own education and upper-middle class backgrounds in pursuit of the American dream. In Europe you have a lot more people who came in as cheap labor during boom years, and their descendents. (We have Latinos in that niche.)

Such immigrants, be they Morrocans in Rotterdam or Salvadoreños in California typically are not so invested in assimilating into a new culture as they are trying to preserve their old ways and hoping to go home with the money earned in the richer country. But life and connections overtake them and they stay in their new land, usually attached to ghettos or barrios where they cling to their old ways. Unfortunately this feeds into the racism that already exists in their host countries. In these insular ghettos the most conservative and traditionalist leaders and tendencies hold stronger sway. And, yes, that means there is a lot of homophbia in those communities.

There is a surprising bit of racism in the gay community, too. And there is no excuse for racism or homophobia. My love of my religion and defense of communities is not to suggest that they are simon pure nor should bigotry on anyone's part be excused or justified. But how do we deal with the problems of bigotry? It's all too common for outsiders to launch verbal attacks, saying for example that Muslims are misogynist and homophobic. Indeed, far too many are. But the religion does not call for that (despite what Wahhabi clerics say) and in my experience of meeting and working with Muslims, a great many are open and accepting.

The hatred and rejection of either side is polarizing, and leaves GLBT muslims in the crossfire. As a middle-aged white convert who's been fighting sexism and racism for years, fine, I signed up for this even if the Islamophobia has turned out to be much uglier than I'd anticipated. It's the Muslim GLBT kids who are very much caught in the middle that I worry for.

No religious community is monolithic or all of one mind on issues of sexuality. Rather than attacking the community and painting them all with one brush (as does Ayaan Hirsi Ali) causing further entrenchment and polarization I prefer the approach of working within the community to effect change. If everyone agrees loudly that Islam is homophobic, then the Muslims cling to their homophobia. If we respect the relgion, understand the Qur'an and the context of the Ahadeeth, and can argue that Islam is not inherently sexist, but that cultural accretion has burdened the religion with hateful baggage; that we can let go of those prejudices to become better Muslims, we have a better strategy to reconciliation of communities.

In the Netherlands of course you have huge, well-developed queer and Muslim communities so the tension is probably more articulated there than anywhere else. That also might also provide the most opportunity for people of good will in both communities to find common ground, build alliances, and work to ammeliorate the situation. There are GLBT Muslim organizations and gay-friendly organizations in the English speaking world, and in Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, plus international groups operating in the Arabic and Persian languages, reaching out and supporting queers in those countries, plus diaspora Arabs and Iranians. I keep a list of such groups and links to them on my webpage at and expect there is most certainly some GLBT and/or progressive/accepting Muslim group in Holland.

Here in the US, the Islamic community is much smaller (proportionately at least) and ethnically diverse. There are two Muslims in congress, both African-American, and both on the GLBT Equality Caucus! It is known at my mosque that I'm gay, and I recently brought my partner (who is not Muslim) to our annual inter-faith dinner. I know this is not representative, but one small opening, and there are many such openings taking place all over. We are organizing, we are building acceptance. It's slow, gradual change. It is arduous work, but the progress is already measurable. Seven years ago when the GLBT pride parade went by the Mosque at Jones and Market, people in the Mosque threw trash at the GLBT Muslims who were marching. Now they welcome my partner and me, and are listed as a welcoming house of worship for GLBT people.

If you really want to do something about Islamic homophobia in Holland I recommend that you seek out the GLBT Muslims and ask them where they need help. And if they have a website, please let me know. I'd love to add them to my online resource list.