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March 2002 Email this to a friend
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Sex & Empire
Post 9/11, the world is now America's oyster. What does that mean for gay sex?
By Bill Andriette

Did you hear about the recent Internet sex stings? Cops replied to a personal ad they thought looked fishy. Pretending to be simpatico, they got the man who placed it to e-mail back his history of sexual escapade. Investigators' eyes bulged when they read it, and they arrested him, using the man's own words in court to win a quick conviction. In another case, police raided an apartment on a tip, nabbing eight sex-offenders. On the premises investigators found, according to one newspaper, "an address book containing the names and addresses of a large number of perverts." Maybe you read the news in January about the executions of three sexual predators in one day? Or maybe you didn't notice or don't recall. With datelines such as Toronto or Omaha, stories like these-- along with car crashes, drug busts, and bombing runs on Afghanistan-- are the background radiation of American news.

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ut read past the headlines and you notice that the men arrested in the apartment were found "in debauched positions." They were "wearing gowns and makeup." The executions were not by electric chair or lethal injection, but public beheadings by sword. These news reports, it turns out, weren't from North America at all, but dispatches from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, respectively-- allies in the America's War on Terrorism. The victims? Men accused of homosex.

Since May 2001, Egyptian police have arrested dozens men in anti-gay street sweeps and Internet sex stings. In the largest series of arrests, 52 men and one teenage boy were apprehended after a raid last May 11th of a cruise boat that docks at the Cairo Marriot, with arrests continuing around the city. Police beat some of the accused with batons, doused them with cold water, and handcuffed them to their cells. Their names, addresses, and pictures have been splashed all over the newspapers, where they've been denounced as "blasphemous" and "traitors." In cases where men have been sentenced, penalties have ranged up to five years in prison with hard labor, and averaged two or three. The "Cairo 52," arrested in the cruise-boat raid, were tried in a special "State Security" court, which limits their rights and preclude any chance of appeal. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues its sporadic executions of men for homosexual offenses.

Amnesty International has condemned the Egyptian arrests and the Saudi executions, sending some 10,000 letters of protest on to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The US has stayed mum on the matter, but a few individual politicians, including French President Chirac, have spoken out. Egypt has responded testily. "Only the Egyptian Parliament has the right to monitor the respect of the government for human rights," declared Fathi Sourour, speaker of the Egyptian People's Assembly in reply to European criticism. More arrests have followed. The crackdown looks set to go on.

American Rome

It's easy to read the news from Saudi Arabia and Egypt as manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism, whose harsh public stance toward women and homosexuals legitimated for many progressives the US's overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban government. But the harassment of gays in the Arab world, and the response from the West, also demands consideration from another perspective. Startling as 9/11 itself is what's been proved by its aftermath: America's utter world domination. America's Afghani military quagmire never materialized. Its chip-and-laser-driven firepower, directed improbably from Tampa, won the day. The overthrow of the Taliban showed-- or at least the powers that be are reading this way-- that there are no limits to the ability of the US to project its military, economic, and political aims. The world hasn't seen anything like it since the Roman Empire. The only check on America is thinner than paper-- the claims of human rights: highly abstract principles, the rough common minimum that it makes states uneasy to run foul of.

America is not simply the new Roman Empire. It also relates to the world as the Vatican did to medieval Europe-- serving as cultural and spiritual capital. The average global citizen is no longer a peasant, his village his only reality. In villages everywhere there is TV, and America is the channel. The US now furnishes the world's prevailing notions of Heaven and Hell. Uncle Sam offers his chosen the redemption of plush suburban living, SUVs, and plastic surgery. For those who transgress, there's the hell of guided missiles fired from unmanned drones into the hut where your children are sleeping-- or more prosaically, unemployment, under-nutrition, and chronic disease.

With its iconography of ghostly virgin motherhood and a barely-draped young man nailed in ecstatic agony to a cross, Catholicism was all about sex-- even if often through an insistence on its denial. America is also All About Sex-- though as a continent where an Arctic front of Puritanism collides with the hot air masses pouring from Hollywood and the Las Vegas strip, America is no less radically ambivalent about sex than the Vatican. The lightening and thunder produced by America's clash of chaste and torrid gives its culture much of its energy and global sex-appeal-- and its insanity.

For medieval Europe, the legitimacy of the Church's vision of reality was beyond question, artistically or politically-- indeed, beyond imagining. The American Empire, behind its military and economic might, is an empire of the imagination. So if the only limit to American power is human rights-- a collective mental construct-- then a question arises: has America hijacked the DNA of human rights, the way HIV subverts the immune system the body depends upon to defend against infection?

Contrast in gray

Headlines that seem like they belong in the category "Demonic Sex Predators" can, on further reading, get filed under the heading "Islamic Barbarism." So it's interesting to compare Egypt and the US on how they handle queer sex.

-- Anti-gay laws. Egypt has no laws against homosexuality, unlike the US, where 16 states criminalize sodomy. In the US, sodomy laws are used routinely in consensual sex involving teenagers, often with lengthy prison sentences. In February 2000, Matthew Limon, who had just turned 18, had oral sex with a schoolmate, a boy just shy of 15. A Kansas court sentenced him to 17 years in prison, a punishment upheld by a Federal court in February, even though, under Kansas law, had his partner been a girl, the sentence could not have been so severe.

The recent arrests and convictions in Egypt have been for "debauchery" and prostitution-- not for any specifically homosexual conduct. Prostitution is illegal in almost all of the US. Canada criminalizes those who maintain a "common bawdy house," a venue for used for prostitution or unspecified "indecent acts"-- which can include what goes on in gay bathhouses or when three men gather in a bed. Egypt is probably arresting men under its "debauchery" statutes in order to avoid being seen as specifically targeting homosexuals, and that it's probably playing fast and loose with "prostitution" charges. The US also aims its vague and draconian sex laws disproportionately against homosexual conduct as well.

-- Terror courts. John Ascroft isn't suggesting extending Bush's proposed "terrorist tribunals" to sex crime. But there'd be little need-- in sex cases US courts are already kangaroo courts. Sex has a special category under US laws, much as crime committed by blacks used to be under Southern jurisprudence. The 80s and 90s saw a continual toughening of sex laws, along with diminishment of the rights of defendants, who in many states are not allowed to face their accusers, are subject to hearsay evidence, can be convicted for acts committed at no specified time, and can be charged with "crimes" committed anytime in the past or anywhere in the world.

In a way, Egyptian prosecutors were right to contend that the Cairo 52 were committing a crime against the state-- the men sure weren't harming any particular individuals. But in the US and throughout the West, sex laws have been broadened to cover theological crimes-- acts of thought and expression that hurt no one. Last July, Ohio sentenced 22-year-old Brian Dalton to seven years in prison because of sex fantasies he penned in his diary, and you can get decades in US jails for possessing images created purely from imagination.

-- Internet censorship. The anti-gay arrests in Egypt are partly due to the Internet-- which allowed gay men in Egypt new opportunities to hook up-- and gave snooping sex cops new opportunities to catch them doing it. Egypt wanted to be au courant, and so established special cyber-crimes police. "With internet use mainly confined to the country's law-abiding middle classes, there was little real work for them to do," notes Brian Whitaker in the UK Guardian, "but they needed to show results."

Egypt wants the Internet to be a no-sex zone. But so does the US. The Communications Decency Act, signed by Clinton, allowed the government to impose a two-year prison term and a $100,000 fine on anyone who transmitted "indecency" over the Internet where a minor could possibly see it. The US Supreme Court struck down the CDA, but Son-of-CDA is now waiting for the high court's stamp of approval, with "indecency" replaced by the no less vague standard, "harmful to minors." A federal judge would rule in his sleep that the chatter in Houston Men4Men vaults over that bar.

-- Punishment. There's one place where Egypt and US diverge-- in prosecuting sex cases-- the leniency of Egyptian courts. It's the rare convicted American sex criminal of any stripe who gets off with three years. A woman teacher in Arizona up on trial last month for a relationship with a 17-year-old boy faces 100 years in prison, in the sort of case that a generation ago would have led only to amused gossip or reassignment. Life sentences for men convicted of pornography crimes are not uncommon in the US-- and possessing back issues of gay magazines and films you could buy on newsstands in the 70s and 80s can trigger a prosecution. The Egyptian sex criminals will have to register with police for at most three years. Sex criminals In the US usually have to register for life. In some states, such as Colorado, they are kept on lifetime parole, effectively forfeiting forever all their civil rights.

The US Supreme Court reaffirmed last month that states have the option-- virtually at their discretion and uniquely in sex cases-- to lock up people up indefinitely after their sentences are finished. At Bridgewater State Hospital, where Massachusetts holds the ex-prisoners it seeks to commit, two-thirds of the new arrivals are gay, according to an inmate awaiting his own fate. In Egypt, at least prison sentences for crimes of homosex come to an end.

Saudi Arabia may seem in a class by itself in imposing the death penalty for sodomy. But based on what little is known about those cases, the three men could have been executed as readily in the Florida or Louisiana-- US states which allow the death penalty for homosex with minors.

Blowjob = murder?

The comparison between the Middle East and America is instructive not because anyone suggests the US is blameless when it comes to human right for gay people, but because of how rights violations in the former get attention, but violations in America largely do not. If Egypt suddenly adopted America's regime of sexual regulation, the international criticism it faces now would stop cold. It'd be great if Egyptian cops ended their 1950s-style round-ups. But it would hardly be a good thing for them to proceed further down the trail of sexual repression that America has blazed.

No major human rights groups-- not the ACLU, not Amnesty International, not Lambda Legal Defense-- could bring themselves to say that imprisoning Matthew Limon for 17 years for a consensual blow-job with another teenager is an outrage against human rights. Lambda Legal Defense and the ACLU argued that the fundamental injustice was not the harsh sentence for consensual sex, but rather that the same punishment was not extended to heterosexual cases. If that argument prevailed, then Kansas legislators of course would make sure the toughest penalties for "child rape" were imposed all around. Given its approach, it's perhaps fortunate the ACLU did not convince the judges. A federal appeal court ruled in February that because the Supreme Court says it's okay to criminalize sodomy, harsher sentences for underage gay sex are okay, too. But when defeats for gay human rights groups mean preserving a tad more sexual freedom, you know there's a problem.

Terms of confusion

A clue to what's wrong can be found in the language Amnesty International uses to draw attention to the cases in the Middle East. The Saudi executions violated the rights of the men because of their "alleged sexual orientation," Amnesty declared. In Egypt, Amnesty gave special attention to the case of Mahmud Abdel, who was 15 when he was arrested in downtown Cairo on charges of "obscene behavior" in the sweep made of suspected homosexuals after the raid last May at the Marriot. "Egypt Must Release Child Imprisoned for Alleged Sexual Orientation," was the title of Amnesty's press release.

Amnesty's intentions are surely for the good. But their phrasing is tone-deaf to reality. There's a long tradition of male homosexuality in the Islamic world-- a taboo on dating before marriage and a tendency of people to hang with same-sex friends sees to that. But gay identity-- New York or San Francisco-style-- is a recent import that's taken root only among the Westernized elites. These are the folks bearing the brunt of the recent raids-- unemployed men don't lounge in the Cairo Marriot and can't afford Internet connections. Crackdown or no, quiet homosex among Egyptian youths in the villages flows on like the Nile.

Given their skew toward the narrow, thin tip of Egypt's social pyramid, some of the men arrested in the anti-gay sweeps probably do read The Advocate, wear Calvin Klein underwear, and otherwise proclaim a "sexual orientation." But 16-year-old Mahmud Abdel, who hails from a poor neighborhood and reportedly offered sex to men for pay, probably does not. Homosex is so common among adolescent boys in places where it's not rigorously stamped out that to label such youths as "gay" misses the mark. Mahmud perhaps had sex with men for money, for companionship, for pleasure. But he probably appreciates Amnesty's pinning on his chest an "alleged sexual orientation" as little as he does the similar efforts of the Cairo morals squad.

Mahmud is also not something else that Amnesty International says he is: a child. Sixteen-year-olds are not "children." To say they are insults and demeans them. Adolescents, by definition, are sexually mature. They are not irrational-- or not much more so than their elders. In most places, persons of 16 years shoulder considerable responsibility and, particularly if they are boys, are out-and-about in the world. Mahmud's case is not more tragic than that of the dozens of other men arrested-- in some ways less so: his trial was in juvenile rather than terrorist court, and in December, maybe thanks to international pressure, a judge suspended his three-year sentence (though it's not clear whether he's indeed out of lockup). So why the special attention? Was it perhaps rhetorically irresistible for Amnesty to beat the drum about a "child victim"?

Human rights groups like joining the parade to "protect children." They like to talk about "sexual orientation" to evade talking about sex, perhaps because it makes them uncomfortable, or perhaps-- maybe correctly-- they feel it's hard to wage campaigns to defend the rights of guys who put it and take it up the ass. But also, in the end, rights groups don't believe that consensual sex deserves strong protection from harsh punishment-- just ask Matthew Limon.

Carping criticisms?

Maybe because it's a rootless society of immigrants, maybe because race slavery gave it a firm sense that humans come in absolute kinds. Whatever the reason, identity politics has triumphed in America. The social movements of the 60s and 70s were about people seizing ascribed identities-- blackness, femaleness, queerness-- for themselves and refashioning them on their own terms. But a generation later, not all is well. Woe to the politician today who does not mouth the appropriate pieties during Jewish Heritage Week, misses the Kwanza luncheon, or slights the enormous cultural contributions of Armenian-Americans. Identities have become like supermarket brands-- all are great values, all monotonously worthy. In the reality of the market's melting pot, they are mostly alike. To differentiate themselves, America's identity movements have embraced a politics of victimhood, which politicians, in the style of a protection racket, are only too happy to indulge. In America, your clout as identity group depends how much of an enhanced sentence someone gets for dissing you.

The same PR machinery that produces all these feel-good identities naturally segues into manufacturing demonic ones-- indeed, creates a demand for them. The ascription of demonic sexual identities onto people helps drive repression, from attacks on Internet freedom to sex-predator laws. Identity politics works gear-in-gear with a fetishization of children, because the young represent one class of persons free of identity, the last stand of unbranded humanity, precious and rare as virgin prairie. The various flavors of identity forged in the hot crucible of America's cultural iron works-- the good as well as the demonic-- are pushed by American market and military power all over the world.

But not without engendering resentment. The real backdrop to Egypt's ongoing anti-gay arrests is a society that is starkly unequal, with a corrupt elite running a system bankrolled by the US for its geopolitical ends. The resentment of the poor finds voice in support for political Islam, some of whose tendencies are violent, but all of which the Egyptian state has ruthlessly suppressed-- which is the purpose of its US-backed "terrorist" courts that lately have dabbled in debauchery. American aid is contingent on keeping the Islam, and the poor, down and out. For poor families, who've had their sons harassed, beaten, jailed, and perhaps executed, how irresistible it is to read in the papers about fat-cat Egyptian queers, exemplars of a corrupt elite, getting the boot. That the crackdown on homosex is a distraction by the elite to protect its status and that it catches some of their own sons somehow doesn't matter.

Egypt's anti-gay raids may relieve some of the pressures that have built up from being a client state in the American Empire. But in a world encapsulated by the US there is no outside. Comparable pressures fuel increasing domestic repression, too. Human rights activists help shape the one barrier to America's power. Unless they come to appreciate how America exploits sex for empire, there will be plenty more for queers to fear on the streets, in Egypt or at home.

Author Profile:  Bill Andriette
Bill Andriette is features editor of The Guide
Email: theguide@guidemag.com

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