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US President Obama’s 2011 Speech to the United Nations General Assembly marked the beginning of the country’s turbulent pursuit of establishing LGBT rights as an undeniable universal human right; the speech was, to many, refreshingly progressive.
To others, it was yet another example of America’s neo-colonialist overriding of other countries’ cultures.
The speech, which firmly stated that “No country should deny people their rights because of who they love” sparked outrage amongst foreign leaders, especially given Obama’s proceeding order that all government agencies everywhere do their utmost to protect said human rights (Encarnacion, 18). Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, for instance, reacted to the initiative by bluntly announcing to the UN General Assembly that this prescription of “new rights which are contrary to our values, norms, traditions and beliefs” would not be condoned and that Zimbabwe is “not gay” (Alexander).
Indeed, while harsh, Mugabe’s questioning of Obama’s sudden expansion of the laws set forth by the 1984 Human Rights Declaration is understandable, seen as the document itself does not mention sexuality whatsoever.
Thus, instead of just condemning Mugabe for not adhering to ‘acceptable’ American discourse, are US’s aggressive attempts to enforce gay rights in reticent countries another form of cultural imperialism?
It wouldn’t be the first time.
With its distasteful history of pervasively interfering in other country’s political affairs, the idea of the US ‘selling gay rights’ becomes highly troublesome (Encarnacion, 2). Add the fact that the Obama administration employed sanctions to forcibly demand ‘gay rights’ and the problem becomes noticeably graver.
Bishop Ammanuel Badejo of Oyo even claims that, when calling for the Obama administration’s aid in battling the terrorist group, Boko Haram, they were dismissed on the grounds that their laws on homosexuality and abortion were not progressive enough (Craddock). For the US to genuinely believe that such an economic, hard-handed approach would be effective is delusional.
Indeed, the ‘wave of homophobic legislation’ after 2013 is a clear indicator of the outrage that the Obama administration’s methods induced (Encarnacion 19). This included Uganda’s ‘kill the gays bill’, which generated various replicas across Africa, and Vladimir Putin’s laws encouraging the fining and detainment of anyone upholding homosexuality.
It is in fact difficult to interpret Obama’s speech as not being intentionally derogatory to countries who have failed to implement their own pro-gay legislation. By treating gay rights as a ‘marker for modernity’, the US is – as it so often does – putting itself on a pedestal and belittling those who
disagree with their stance, without providing any understanding for the difficulties of choosing progress over one’s perceived culture.
But should human rights be dependent on so-called culture?
Initially, ‘cultural relatively’ at first makes sense, as it stresses that it is culture, not universal morality, that defines well-being (Igwebueze and Ogundotun, 44). But this subsequently paints human rights as entirely normative and permits for their use as political tools, for dictators like Mugabe to do as they wish.
This phony ‘cultural relativity’ argument is the same obstacle that the women’s empowerment movement faced. It also one that will probably keep arising with more attempts to dispel discrimination.
But no country, the US included, thinks it’s easy to change centuries of bigotry and prejudice. No country lunges into the process believing they will not face setbacks. But nonetheless, they take the risk of going against what, to many, is the status quo because they recognize that, to too many, it is nothing but a culture of repression and intolerance.
In fact, the Bible too contains a plethora of sexist and homophobic references; Mugabe himself referenced them when criticizing Obama’s speech, saying that he could not understand how people could defy the fact that the ‘ Lord prohibited mankind from sodomy’ (Alexander).
So, which is it: is the US, by welcoming homosexuality, going against its own religion and ‘culture’ or forcing others to adopt their culture? Obviously, the latter does not make much sense.
So, we should know better than to keep falling for it, especially when it comes from the mouths of ‘strongman’ leaders who want to maintain the bigotry and intolerance that put them in power in the first place.
By Nathalia Gonzalez
BSc Politics and International Relations
Alexander, Harriet. “Robert Mugabe at UN General Assembly Says: We Are Not Gays.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 29 Sept. 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/11898748/Ro bert-Mugabe-at-UN-General-Assembly-says-We-are-not-gays.html.
Beinart, Peter. “The New Authoritarians Are Waging War on Women.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 June 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/authoritarian-sexism-trump- duterte/576382/.
Benstead, Lindsay J., et al. “Is It Gender, Religiosity or Both? A Role Congruity Theory of Candidate Electability in Transitional Tunisia.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 2015, pp. 74–94., doi:10.1017/s1537592714003144.
Craddock, Josh. “The New Cultural Imperialism.” National Review, National Review, 13 Aug. 2015, https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/04/new-cultural-imperialism/.
Igwebueze, Gideon Uchechukwu, and Opeyemi Adeola Ogundotun. “The Universality of Human Rights and Homosexuality: A Focus on Gender Issues in Africa.” Studies in Sociology of Science, vol. 7, no. 4, 2016, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0a6a/ca82b99b5ac96a5efc3721213df13c0eea9d.pdf.
Oakley, Ann. Sex, Gender and Society. Temple Smith, 1972.
Rao, Rahul. “Echoes of Imperialism in LGBT Activism.” Mar. 2015, pp. 353–368.,
Rao, Rahul. “Echoes of Imperialism in LGBT Activism.” Mar. 2015, pp. 353–368., http://iglp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Rao-Echoes-of-Imperalism.pdf
“When Men Murder Women .” Violence Policy Centre , 2017, http://www.vpc.org/studies/wmmw2017.pdf .