Throughout history most women have had little privacy. Since autonomy and liberty—as well as certain kinds of creativity and self-expression—are almost impossible without it, establishing its place in a woman’s life is a primary task of any bid for equality. —Janna Malamud Smith, Private Matters
In the last few weeks we’ve been hearing about laws passed in Nigeria and Uganda banning the free assembly, association, and consensual relationships of LGBTI people, and instituting multi-year prison terms or even a death penalty for “offenses.” While the draft Ugandan bill has been circulating for more than 2 years, we don’t have firm information on which versions of which provisions actually passed.
Warren Throckmorton is a psychology researcher who has reported on the Ugandan law alongside local workers like Dr. Frank Mugisha since it was introduced. But when he asked the Ugandan parliament to confirm the passed law, they sent him the 2011 version of the bill. This is discomforting.
Despite the uncertainty, an organization that supports LGBTI current and former Adventists across Africa and around the world released a new statement about these laws this weekend. Yesterday, the US State Department also expressed “deep concern.” Arrests have already been made in northern Nigeria, and human rights organizations are alleging torture and intimidation. These bills in West and East Africa follow a marginalizing pattern similar to those at work in India and Russia: India and Russia passed laws restricting the behavior and speech of LGBTI and LGBTI-supportive people last year.
I’ve seen legal analyses of the new Nigerian law but haven’t yet seen articles focusing on how such anti-LGBTI norms and laws especially impact women, whatever their gender identities or orientations. As Malamud Smith argues, women’s privacy is an essential part of our self-awareness and creativity. But so are the rights to associate freely with peers and communities of choice and to speak openly of and for oneself: these freedoms are part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and influence our capacity for individual and social organization, innovation, collaboration, and advancement. Communities that cannot interact or exchange ideas or emotional support without the threats of physical violence, restricted freedom, or social estrangement will suffer.
I take it for granted that the collective suffering of minorities is one motive behind so many versions of these laws around the world. And I include the United Kingdom in that judgment since the UK only repealed its no-“promotion” law in 2003 and it remains ambivalent about making British civil society a space in which non-heterosexuals can share heterosexuals’ ability to live, work, and run their families in peace without having to first lobby for the opportunity.
My hunch is that women suffer under these norms and laws regardless of whether they’re targeted directly, as same-gender loving and cis, or trans- or non gender-conforming people, or more indirectly as the partners, relatives, and allies of those that the legal system harasses. Insofar as anti-LGBTI norms and laws depend on binary, exclusivist, and male-centric views of gender and sexuality, women won’t and can’t be well-served by them. And verbal, legal, social, religious, and physical violence against so-called “offenders” warns everyone else not to breach the rules—that is how terrorism works.
There’s a section toward the end of Privacy Matters where Malamud Smith describes two impacts of legalized terrorism: there is the fear, grief, and violation of the population addressed by violence, but then there’s also a perceptual cloud that covers the rest of a society that fails to connect the dots between individual instances of violence and the social context that makes violence possible or likely. Referring to the case of John Salvi, who murdered receptionists Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney at clinics in December 1994, Malamud Smith writes:
I was driving to a store when word came over the radio… I parked the car and listened in horror. My grief was visceral, unconsidered, unintended. I felt traumatized. Other women, I learned later, all over the city felt similarly. Terrorism uses violence against one person to inspire fear in all who feel kinship with the victim. The gunman shot particular people, but his gun was aimed at any woman who had ever counted too many days since her last period. It didn’t matter if you had never visited a clinic.
Subsequent stories portrayed the killer as a troubled man acting alone. This assessment was literally true, but emotionally speaking, he was acting on behalf of others… Societies have much in common with a line of wobbly kids playing crack-the-whip. Whenever issues get heated, extremists tend to shoot out wildly, carried by the group’s intention beyond its common range. Bystanders, watching only a lone child speeding along, might think she had propelled herself. So too with John Salvi, the murderer. Until you appreciate the context that propels him, he resembles a man acting alone. —Janna Malamud Smith
But none of the extremists who arise when discrimination and prejudice was worked into law have really “acted alone.” I’m troubled by how easily we disclaim our connection and complicity with the social and legal context of such extremism at times like this. As Nigerian writer Ayo Sogunro has said: “It’s easier to sit down and criticize other bigots in history—but do nothing when faced with a similar situation [in the present]… Your individual silence in the face of such an injustice is a tacit approval of its execution.”
If you’ve seen any recent articles that address how anti-LGBT legislation impacts women, particularly in postcolonial nations, please share them with me in the comments below or via Twitter. I will share a summary of anything that comes in.