I have been very pleased to read about the national response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments at Columbia University that there are no "homosexuals" in Iran. The crowd immediately burst into laughter and the comment has already made the circuit of email listserves, bloggers and some comedians.
First, I am really impressed that people are acknowledging that GLBT people are indeed everywhere, including the Middle East. The fact that the comment was treated as absurd is very hopeful. But the other point I want to make is that President Ahmadinejad's comments should be used as a teachable moment about different cultures, instead of making fun of his ignorance.
It would be too easy of a knee-jerk response to only focus in on the fact that the Iranian President doesn't get it. But what if he does get it? What if there are no "homosexuals" in Iran? What if labels and terms like "gay", "lesbian" or "transgender" do not apply the same way? Well, many of us do know that this is true.
Recall the stories that emerged a year after the Taliban regime fell in Afganistan. Tons of men reverted back to old cultural behaviors of sexual behavior with adolescent boys. All these men were steadfast that they were not gay, or homosexual. They were "saving" themselves for their wedding night by having sex with men. Makes perfect sense, right?!?
We all know that labels create clarity but they also obscure the reality that some people live in. We have heard homeless youth say "I am not homeless. I have a place to stay tonight." Or women who say, "I am not a feminist but I do support equal rights for women." Labels are tricky things.
Five years ago I met a dear friend named Chingg from Nepal. Many of us were sitting around at a retreat center in New Mexico and while talking about gay issues she said "We don't have gays in Nepal." Most of us laughed of course and immediately just chalked it up to a lack of cultural awareness of GLBT issues in her country. It was kind of condescending for us to just assume she didn't know what she was talking about. But she was right. Nepal had no GLBT "presence." (I am not claiming to be an expert on Nepalese culture by the way).
In the case of Iran we should take notice that sexual minorities there exist in a totally different context and may not be helped or feel supported by the traditional ways we have done that for closeted people in the West. Support groups, helplines, pop-culture inclusivity, and mainstream media coverage are not tactics that will necessarily be effective or reach who we need to reach. Mayb we don't need to reach anyone. Maybe we can take a lesson from cultures that have made no distinction between sexual behavior and being part of a social group. God knows that Gore Vidal has been saying this for decades. "There is no such thing as a homosexual person." He argues that having such an identity is false, misleading and leads to marginalization of such proclivities as "perverts."
We know that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Leaders around the world can deny there are gays in their country, while they still enforce laws against sodomy and pretend there is no contradiction. While this may seem like madness in the West -- it is a daily reality in parts of Africa, the Middle East and the far east.
I think we should take this moment and reflect on the sheer invisibility of queer culture in certain countries. Can other cultures absorb GLBT identity, the way they have absorbed a taste for democracy, music videos and commercialism? Do we want them too? Should we see an unlearned strategy emerging from this so-called gaffe? Does the discussion change if the terms change? Or is this a naive denial of a taboo topic that is not considered on par with current events or poltics?
We do know that there are likely tons of non-straight people in Iran. Like in the U.S. many may be completely happy identifying with a heterosexual lifestyle. Hell, according to Kinsey there might not be many straight people in Iran either. Hmmmmmm.