What have Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, American Tea Party conservatives, Islamic extremists and Ugandan Bishops got in common?
They all share, or shared, an obsessive hostility to homosexuality. They belong to the strange group that seems terribly upset that some people are attracted to their own sex. Their upset can turn to madness: Fidel Castro set up special prison camps to punish people for being homosexual. In South Africa, which has a genius for violent bigotry, hatred of homosexuality can take the extreme form of the "corrective rape" of Lesbians as a means of persuading them to change their sexual preferences (roughly equivalent to shooting a pacifist in the stomach to convince him of the delights of armed combat.) For me, admittedly one of nature’s innocents, the mystery of homosexuality, since my earliest sexual knowledge until now, late in life, is this: why does it bother other people?
Compounding the mystery is that hatred of homosexuality seems entirely inconsistent in time and space. For long periods nobody is the slightest bothered about it; then the hatred springs up; then it seems to die down again. Today some communities in some countries are neurotically opposed to homosexuality; elsewhere they couldn’t give a damn. What causes these attitudes?
One of the greatest sources of hostility and fear between men is sexual jealousy. From their first sexual stirrings and their first desire for girls, little boys see other little boys as rivals. When they discover that there are a minority of boys who are not interested in girls, their potential animosity towards this minority surely melts away. This is exactly what happened to me and, as far as I can tell, happened to all the boys of my age at my school. We were fascinated to discover the concept of homosexuality and found it very funny (as we did anything to do with sex) but we had not the slightest ill feeling towards homosexuals. Quite the opposite, we regarded them as harmless oddities.
Any rational heterosexual man can see only two reasons to envy a homosexual man. The first is that homosexual couples have exactly the same sexual appetites as each other. Alas, this is seldom true for heterosexual couples. The second is that homosexual men are very good at dealing with women. They seem better able than heterosexual men to understand women, sympathise with them and, most to be envied, be confident with them. (It is a curious fact that homosexual men seem to like women whereas Lesbian women seem to dislike men.)
It is impossible to identify a homosexual man, unless he parades the fact, except for this one test. If you see a man in close company with a beautiful woman he doesn’t know, and if he doesn’t stammer or start boasting in a loud voice or generally make a complete idiot of himself, if he remains calm and sensible, then he is probably homosexual. But such envy never seems to lead to hostility. This is not a reason for the hatred of homosexuals.
Looking elsewhere for a reason, let me give examples of tolerance and intolerance from famous people.
Representing intolerance, here are Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe. When Castro took over power in Cuba in 1959 and then established his Communist Revolution, homosexuals were declared to be "Maricones" (faggots), "sexual deviants" and "agents of imperialism". This echoed Stalin’s USSR, where homosexuality, which was illegal, was declared to be "bourgeois decadence" and "capitalist degeneration". Castro set up his MUPA (Military Units of Production Assistance) concentration camps for homosexuals and other "dangers to society". (Castro has since repented to some extent and homosexuality became legal in Cuba in 1979).
Robert Mugabe in 1995 said that homosexuals "behave worse than dogs and pigs". During his 82nd birthday celebrations, he said homosexuality was abhorrent, and added, "Let whites do that". When David Cameron, the British Prime Minister urged him to be tolerant to homosexuality, Mugabe said, ""Nature is nature. It has created male and female. You David Cameron, are you suggesting that you don’t know that, or is it some kind of insanity or part of the culture of Europeans?" (Unfortunately for Mugabe, the first President of Zimbabwe was charged with homosexual assault. Even more unfortunately his name was President Banana.)
Representing tolerance, here is Denis Thatcher, husband of Margaret Thatcher. OK, these aren’t really his words, although they sound just like him. They are the words of Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, which featured the "Dear Bill" column, pretending to be the letters of Denis Thatcher writing to his friend Bill Deedes of the Daily Telegraph. There had been yet another sexual scandal in England and some politician’s reputation was in peril. Writing of the lurid goings on, Denis summed up his ethics on sexual behaviour as follows: "What a man does with his wedding tackle is his own affair."
Denis’s remark fully and accurately describes my own feelings towards homosexuality. I find it difficult to believe that most people don’t agree. The anti-homosexual rantings of Castro and Mugabe seem contrived, as if they are trying to invent enemies for other reasons. Perhaps this might explain part of the mystery.
In their statements above, both Castro and Mugabe suggest that homosexuality is a decadent vice introduced by the enemy. Castro blames capitalism for homosexuality, Mugabe European colonialism. They both suggest that homosexuality is not part of human nature but only occurs in corrupted societies. What does history show?
The Ancient World is a good place to start. Judging by everything we know and can infer about the Ancient World there was exactly as much homosexuality then as now but nobody was the slightest bothered about it. Was Alexander the Great homosexual? Well, maybe but, if he was, nobody cared. Various English kings were homosexual and again it didn’t seem to bother anyone much.
Edward II, a homosexual, was murdered in the most horrible manner, but this was entirely because of his political and military failings and not his sexual nature. James I, "The Wisest Fool in Christendom", was open about his preference for his own sex, and again this seemed to bother Englishmen far less than his disgusting table manners and, even more reprehensible, the fact that he was also openly Scottish.
A telling fact in support of the argument that homosexuality was mainly ignored in past ages is that no word existed for male homosexuality in the West until very recently. The word "homosexual" was cobbled together in the 19th Century in Germany, a clumsy combination of Latin and Greek. Before that you can only find reference to "Sodomites", which is not exact. (Incidentally, I use the word "homosexual" for want of a better one. I find "gay" offensive.
It suggests that homosexual people are frivolous and that their condition is trivial. Having known how some of my homosexual friends have suffered, I find this wounding. Imagine using the word "gay" to describe Oscar Wilde as he was being broken in Reading Gaol. "Gay" seems to have been invented by certain flamboyant homosexuals as a term of mocking defiance but I doubt very much if most homosexuals like it anymore than women would like being called "sluts" even though a group of militant feminists use this word in defiance of bigoted men.)
By contrast, from ancient times there have been words for another minority, left-handed people, and they have all been derogatory. "Sinister" comes from the Latin "sinistra" for left-handedness. This seems to me clear evidence that the ancients did care about left-handedness and did not care about homosexuality.
In Europe, since the fall of Rome, persecution or toleration of "sodomites", has an erratic history. Some random examples follow. Poland, for some reason, was tolerant since its foundation in 966 AD. In 1179, the Third Lateran Council of Rome decreed that sodomites should be excommunicated. In 1265, Thomas Aquinas said that sodomy was second only to murder in sinfulness. In 1483, the Spanish Inquisition persecuted sodomites, which is not surprising. But here is something surprising. In 1483, in England, Henry VIII, passed the "Buggery Act", making homosexual acts punishable by death. In 1553, his daughter, Mary – known as "Bloody Mary", notorious for her murder of religious dissidents – scrapped this act.
But in 1558, Elizabeth, famed for her tolerance and wisdom, brought it back. In 1794 Prussia removed the death penalty for sodomy. Homosexual acts became legal in Portugal in 1852, in Japan in 1880 and in Italy in 1889. In 1886, England made homosexual acts illegal for men but not for women (the rumour is that Queen Victoria couldn’t understand what women did with each other; this is probably totally unfounded). If there is any pattern in all this, I can’t see it, except perhaps that religious intolerance seems to lead to intolerance of homosexuality. But Mary contradicts even this tentative suggestion.
In Africa, the colonialists are blamed both for tolerating homosexuality and for condemning it. African homophobes, like Mugabe, claim that it is a colonial import. African homosexual activists claim that homosexuality has always existed in African society, which is doubtless true, but only became frowned upon when colonial authorities passed laws against it, which might have some truth in it. I suppose passing a law against some behaviour or another does draw attention to it and is inclined to make it look improper. If there were a law against picking your nose, I suppose this would make it seem rather profane.
38 African countries have laws outlawing homosexuality. Most of the laws are colonial left-overs but some countries are adding new ones. Uganda is now passing a vicious law against homosexuality, as "a Christmas Gift" to its advocates, according to the speaker of the Ugandan Parliament. By way of explaining the legal intentions of this new law, the local newspapers have entitled it, "Kill the Gays Bill."
Within the worldwide Anglican Church, it is striking that the white bishops tend to be completely tolerant of homosexuality, and are sometimes homosexuals themselves, whereas the black bishops tend to be fiercely opposed. (Unfortunately, this can be extremely funny. Few confrontations are more comical than those in England between a white Anglican bishop, representing the zenith of political correctness, applauding "gay rights" and fawning before everything African, and a black Anglican bishop who bashes homosexuals as ungodly and degenerate.)
With Castro, as with Mugabe, homosexuals do just seem to be a useful enemy. There is no theory for the structure of a communist state – Marx’s theory was entirely a criticism of capitalism – so in practice the "Correct Road to Communism" is simply whatever thought happens to trickle through the mind of the Great Leader/General Secretary as he gets up that morning. Most of his thoughts are about enemies: identifying them, vilifying them and smashing them, and using them to unite the people in loathing and fear. Communist enemies have included kulaks, capitalist roaders, infantile leftists, Mensheviks, land owners, Vietnamese (in the case of Pol Pot), Trotskyites (in the case of Stalin) and the Gang of Four (in Communist China). Homosexuals as a great enemy? Fine. They’ll do nicely.
Nazi Germany supports this argument in an interesting way. An English politician who had visited Germany in the 1930s described the mood there as "strongly homosexual", by which I suppose he meant there were exaggerated displays of machismo: jack boots, goose stepping, leather belts, shaven heads, guns, steel helmets, male camaraderie going a bit too far, and so on. But on the other hand there was also persecution of homosexuals, who were sent to the concentration camps (as in Communist Cuba but under even worse conditions). Herman Röhm, the founder and leader of the SA, without which Hitler would not have come to power, was openly homosexual, as were other SA leaders. Hitler himself was almost certainly sexless.
The wife of a senior Nazi, after meeting Hitler for the first time, told her husband, "I tell you, he is a neuter." Hitler was well aware of the homosexuals in the Nazi movement but didn’t seem to care in the slightest, except in so far as he could use the fact to destroy them if they got in his way. Röhm, his closest friend, did get in his way. Röhm’s SA, a very large and dangerous private army, antagonised the generals of the Wehrmacht, and compromised Hitler. So in July 1934, Hitler had him murdered along with other SA leaders. Although Hitler referred to Röhm’s homosexuality afterwards, the murder was pure political expediency, like so many of Hitler’s crimes.
The trouble with using homosexuals as political enemies is that their political affiliations are exactly the same as heterosexuals’. Homosexual men may be disproportionately represented in certain professions, such as fashion, ballet and South African Airways cabin crew, but not in political parties. A homosexual is exactly as likely as a heterosexual to be a liberal, socialist, fascist, communist, conservative or revolutionary. I suppose this is why Mugabe and Castro never explained why homosexuals were politically undesirable but simply condemned them as degenerates who were self-evidently bad for society.
Religious attitudes towards homosexuality are as confused and inconsistent as those of politicians. In Cape Town, the Reverend Oscar Bougardt has made a name for himself by declaring that "Lesbians and gays are a curse on any community" and predicting that "Desmond Tutu will burn in hell for misleading homosexuals and for saying God don’t (sic) have a problem with them."
As I mentioned above, many African Anglican Bishops agree with him, and so do white evangelists from the US. What actually do the great religions say about homosexuality? Here I must confess that I am an atheist and, much worse, have next to no theological knowledge. However, looking at Christianity and Islam, one fact is surprisingly clear.
The holy books of Christianity are the Gospels of the New Testament. Christians believe that Jesus is God and that the Gospels record His Word. So what did Jesus say about homosexuality? We know the answer with precision: nothing.
The holy book of Islam is the Koran. Moslems believe that Mohamed was the Prophet of God and that the Koran consists of the Word of God as transmitted through him. In the Koran there are some references to the sinful homosexual practices around "Lut" (the "Lot" of the Old Testament). There is only one passage, and a vaguely worded one at that, where God suggests punishment for such behaviour, and the punishment is mild. Some scholars suggest this passage is referring to religious infidelity rather than sexual behaviour. And that’s it.
From the holiest books of Christianity, there is no reference to homosexuality. From the holiest book of Islam, there are only the slightest and mildest references. Surely this is highly significant? So how can some Christian and Moslem religious leaders thunder against homosexuality in the name of God? The secondary books of both religions, including the Epistles of Paul and the Hadith of Mohamed (his thoughts as a man rather than his transmission of God’s thoughts), do have more to say on homosexuality but they are secondary books. If the primary books, the books that transmit the word of God, say little if anything about homosexuality, surely there can be no other interpretation than that God doesn’t care much one way or the other?
So much for the attitudes of political and religious leaders. What about ordinary people? In my experience the overwhelming majority just don’t care. They regard homosexual people in the same way as they regard left-handed people, as belonging to a minority whose difference from the majority is of no particular concern to them. But some do care madly, as can be seen from the horrible example of corrective rape.
Perhaps there are some people with a powerfully bigoted nature looking for objects of their hatred. Perhaps some people, whether because of their genes or their circumstances, become bullies and need someone to hurt and dominate. Homosexual activists often blame homophobia on the need for some inadequate people to exert power over others. There’s probably merit in this argument.
Another theory is that the homophobe might have his own uncertainties. When a man shouts too loudly against homosexuals, you can’t help wondering about his own sexual nature. During the apartheid years, whenever you heard a white man declaring how disgusting it was for a white man to have sex with a black woman, you couldn’t help guessing what was uppermost on his mind on lonely nights. And indeed your guesses would be proved only too accurate by a series of unfortunate episodes in the Orange Free State and elsewhere, whose scandalous tragedy was made worse by the loud laughter that accompanied it.
Political tyrants always need identifiable enemies, and homosexuals are as good as any. Religious fanatics are obsessed about sex and morality, and homosexuality provides them with satisfying object of sin. A minority of humans have a great mass of prejudices and bigotry, and homosexuality feeds it nicely.
This is a feeble attempt to explain the mystery of hatred of homosexuals. Frankly, for me it remains a mystery.
1. Castro’s persecution of homosexuals from "The Black Book of Communism" by Courtois et al and an article by Peter Tatchell in Gay & Lesbian Humanist, Spring 2003.
2. Mugabe’s remarks on homosexuality from The Global Post, 30 May 2012.
3. I subscribe to Private Eye. I haven’t got the issue where Denis made that remark but I remember it vividly.
4. The homosexuality of Edward II and James I from innumerable history books. Edward was killed by having a white hot poker rammed into his bowels. He had lost the all important Battle of Bannockburn to the Scots, to Robert the Bruce, in 1314.
5. List of tolerance and intolerance of "sodomy" from 10th to 19th Centuries from "Timeline of LGBT History", Wikipedia.
6. Uganda’s new anti-homosexual bill from New Republic, 5 December 2012.
7. Hitler stuff from "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" by Alan Bullock.
8. The theological thoughts of Rev Oscar Peter Bougardt on homosexuality from mambaonline.com, 17 Oct 2011.
9. I did a search on the web for the attitudes of the holy scriptures of Christianity and Islam on the subject of homosexuality and have recorded the unanimous conclusion of this search.
10. During the apartheid years, there was one scandal after another featuring the most bigoted supporters of apartheid having affairs with black women, often their "maids". There was a particularly sensational scandal in Excelsior in the Orange Free State in 1971. The fact that the worst white racists might be lusting after black women was common knowledge. In the navy, I remember one of the sailors in our mess, saying about the romantic preferences of some white brute of a Petty Officer, "He likes his women as he likes his coffee: black and bitter."
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.