Sunday, October 29, 2006

GAY PANIC: Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and Canaan Banana in Zimbabwe

A fascinating chapter in the book Mobile Cultures deals with the imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia. The chapter is somewhat dated, however, as Ibrahim was released from prison in September 2004 after Mahathir had left office and the Federal Court overturned Ibrahim’s conviction. It’s a fascinating story, however. Anwar was Mahathir’s protege and ostensible successor. The Wikipedia article about Anwar Ibrahim explains the sequence of events that led to Anwar’s conviction and sentencing to six year in prison for corruption and eight years for sodomy. It doesn’t explore the dynamics of labeling Anwar Ibrahim as a sodomite in the Malaysian culture.

When I was in Malaysia in December 2005 and June 2006, I talked with a variety of people - hosts of ours, taxi-drivers, shop-keepers, etc. - about the situation with Anwar Ibrahim. Everyone with whom I spoke saw the event not as a moment of gay panic or sex panic; in fact, most people said that Anwar isn’t gay and proceeded to talk about his wife and children demonstrating them as substantiation of his heterosexuality. For most Malaysians with whom I spoke, the situation with Anwar Ibrahim was a political ploy to undermine Anwar and isolate him and remove him from power in Malaysia. Even to supporters of Tun Mahathir, the Anwar Ibrahim situation was a question of politics and economics. Many talked about how Anwar wanted to “sell” the Malaysian economy to the US run IMF in the midst of the “Asian crisis” and that action was necessary to prevent that and maintain the Ringgot’s independence from the US dollar. I think that a portion of these responses was a result of 1) the amount of time that had passed since the trial of Anwar, 2) the preponderance of people with whom I spoke were political in orientation and sought political answers to questions, and 3) the conceptions of gender and sexuality are different in Malaysia than they are in the US and explaining the nuances of them was something that some were reticient to do with a white, Western woman.

At the same time, when engaged further about the Anwar Ibrahim trial and questions of homosexuality in Malaysia, people with whom I spoke acknowledged the discomfort with gay people in Malaysian culture, although most people parsed the differences along cultural lines, separating Muslims from the ethnic Chinese and Indians, attributing greater acceptance of gay people among non-Muslims in the country but acknowledging that there are gay and lesbian people in all Malaysian cultures. One person talked about how gay and lesbian Muslims navigated family within the laws of shariah, by caring for parents or siblings as strategies to avoid marriage, and observed that flexibility to openly express homosexuality was tied with economic resources.

Although the people with whom I spoke didn’t view the issues as primarily only of homosexuality, they also didn’t believe the notion that homosexuality was only a construct of the West, despite the fact that that is a position strongly advocated by Mahathir. At the time of the Anwar Ibrahim arrest, members of Mahathir’s political party formed a group to stop the homosexual infiltration of southeast Asia. This confluence, in conjunction with other statements of Mahathir about homosexuality, to me demonstrates that the actions of Mahathir with regard to Anwar Ibrahim were orchestrated to induce a sex panic that targeted gay people.

There is an interesting parallel story here, however, that moves us from southeast Asia to Africa. Robert Mugabe, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, has orchestrated his own gay sex panic to manage political crisis. Canaan Banana, the first President of Zimbabwe and at one time a friend and ally of Mugabe, was labeled a homosexual and “tried” for sodomy at a time that he was trying to generate a political comeback and threaten Mugabe. Banana escaped from Zimbabwe and lived in exile in London after this event. This article reviews some of Canaan’s legacy after his death in 2004. Mugabe, however, continued his vicious homophobia and attacks and threats on gay and lesbian people in Zimbabwe. ILGA’s dossier on Zimbabwe continues to document the repression of queer people. Since the sex panic events around Banana, Mugabe’s dictatorial control of Zimbabwe has increased; his land reform efforts in the new millennium have catapulted the country in extreme poverty, hyper-inflation, and further repression of all people.

The connection between these two incidents is that Robert Mugabe and Mahathir Mohamad are political allies and good friends. Orchestrating sex panic and blaming it on the westernizing forces of homosexuality is a similar script acted by both leaders.

Of course, sex panic as a script is an old one with multiple uses by multiple actors in a variety of situations. Most recently, the sex panic that has been whipped up around Mark Foley may serve to secure political gains for the Democratic Party in the United States - and if recent reports are accurate, a gay person working for a gay organization had a hand in whipping up this sex panic further. For me the central question is, what needs to happen to eliminate the stigma that makes sex panic effective?

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