A Sprawling Study Tracks the Global State of LGBT People

By Michael NavaDecember 30, 2020

A Sprawling Study Tracks the Global State of LGBT People

The Pink Line by Mark Gevisser

A GOOD FRIEND of mine who directed the LGBT litigation project at a major public interest law firm and participated in some of the most significant court decisions affecting LGBT rights in the past 30 years told me recently that our side has won. He acknowledged there were still battles to fight against the so-called “religious exemption” claimed by religious bigots to except themselves from LGBT anti-discrimination laws — claims which may well succeed given the current composition of the federal judiciary — and that protections for transgender people lag behind those for gay and lesbians. His point was this: in his 40 years in the trenches of queer activism, there has been a sea change not only in the law but in social attitudes toward LGBT people.

Polling data supports his view: Gallup reports that in 1986 only 32 percent of those Americans polled believed gay and lesbian relationships between consenting adults should be legal; in 2020, 72 percent answered yes. The same poll reports that in 1996, only 27 percent of the sample supported same-sex marriage; by 2018, 67 percent did. This trend is not confined to the United States. A Pew poll shows similar data in other liberal democracies from Sweden (94 percent support legality of same-sex relationships) to Mexico (69 percent support). But acceptance of LGBT people is far from universal. The same Pew poll reports that in sub-Sahara Africa (except South Africa) and the Middle East (except Israel) acceptance of queer people is in the single or low double digits. The same holds true of Russia where only 14 percent of those polled believe society should accept homosexuality. With the exception of the Czech Republic, no Eastern European nation reaches 50 percent on the question. In India, the world’s biggest democracy, and the economic powerhouse of South Korea, only 37 percent and 44 percent respectively believe homosexuality is acceptable.

Mark Gevisser calls the demarcation between those regions of the world where queer people have gained legal protections and a level of acceptance and those where they remain powerless and persecuted “the pink line.” In his eponymously titled book, he describes his six-year investigation, from 2012 to 2018, during which he “traveled extensively, trying to understand how the world was changing.” Gevisser traveled to countries on “the new global frontier in human rights discourse,” the subject of which is whether LGBTQ people are comparable to other historically oppressed groups and equally deserving of recognition and protection. He wanted to understand in what way, for example, the LGBTQ rights movement is similar to the women’s rights movement and in which ways it differed “in this era of digital revolution and information explosion, […] of mass migration and urbanization, of global human rights activism.”

His travels have produced The Pink Line. The book provides an invaluable snapshot of a particular moment in the worldwide response to the queer rights movement. It also raises provocative and uncomfortable questions about Western assumptions of the universality of “human rights,” specifically whether sexual orientation and gender identification are such inviolate aspects of personhood that the state should make no laws, nor uphold any cultural bias, that restricts them, as well as the conflict between international norms and national sovereignty and even if LGBT identity is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Having raised these questions, Gevisser never definitively answers them. Indeed, these larger issues tend to get lost in the more personal stories Gevisser tells in a book that alternates between personal reportage, standard journalism, and memoirish self-reflection. If the whole of the book is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves can be thought-provoking and may provide the starting point for future studies that are less ambitious but more coherent.

Gevisser structures The Pink Line around the individual stories of people he encountered and followed over a period of years from Africa, the Middle East, Russia, the United States, and India. These are not simply one-off interviews or even a series of interviews. Gevisser establishes multi-year relationships with his subjects, some of whom he tries to assist in material ways with money and helpful contacts. These personal stories are woven in with more general reportage about the government-sanctioned persecution of LGBT people on the other side of the “pink line.” But the book is not a simple screed against that persecution. It probes more deeply to challenge Western assumptions about the universality of the LGBT identities — gay man, lesbian, bisexual, transgender person — that most Western nations have come to recognize and accept as in some sense innate and which therefore should not the basis for any form of pernicious discrimination. Whether this analysis of human difference, and its political and cultural implications, is appropriate to non-Westerners is a question asked not only by reactionary governments but also by the very people to whom they ostensibly apply.

For example, Gevisser’s first story introduces us to Tiwonge Chimbalanga from Malawi who was prosecuted and imprisoned for conducting a traditional Malawi engagement ceremony (chinkhoswe) with Steven Monjeza. Local papers referred to this as “the first recorded public activity for homosexuals in the country,” and Chimbalanga and Monjeza were prosecuted under a Malawi statute that outlaws homosexuality. However, when Chimbalanga met Gevisser after her exile to South Africa (Gevisser is South African) she told him, “I am not a gay, I am a woman,” and that she had never heard the word gay until after her arrest. Born male, Chimbalanga had lived as a woman in Malawi and called herself, and was called, “Aunty.” Was she transgender, then? We would say yes, and eventually she adopts LGBT terms. But her embrace of that identity may have been less out of conviction than expedience. As Gevisser notes, she recognized that “the wealthy West — people like me — valued such identities and understood people like her as vulnerable, and deserving of our help, or at the very least our solidarity.” So, the woman who initially denied she was gay would later, when speaking to an LGBT audience in Cape Town tell her audience that “her chinkhoswe was ‘the first gay marriage in Malawi.’” In doing so, Gevisser concludes, “She was singing for her supper along the Pink Line.” The whiff of judgment there seems to be directed at the wealthy Westerners rather than Chimbalanga, as if Gevisser is saying the price of our support for people like her is to force square pegs into round holes. But what is frustratingly elusive in this story, as in some others, is the book’s suggestion that Western queer identities are somehow reductive when taken out of the Western context. It’s a tantalizing question that Gevisser never explicitly answers.

Another case in point: Gevisser writes about the kothi community in southeast India led by Sivagami, a priestess of Angalamman, an iteration of Kali. When Gevisser first met Sivgami and her kothi community in 2012, they had never heard the word gay; three years later, they knew the word but did not identify with it. One of them explained to Gevisser, “Gays wear nice clothes and have parties and sex. A kothi is someone who lives in the village and does women’s work.” As the Western concept of transgender found its way into the social and legal discourse of India, it secured a measure of legal protection for the kothi community but also altered its traditional understanding of gender identity. Sivagami, for example, who had adamantly rejected gender reassignment surgery, told Gevisser in 2015 that she was now considering it “because of peer pressure, and a feeling that she would not otherwise gain the requisite respect from the broader hijra community.” (The hijras are an ancient class of Indians who, born male, undergo emasculation and identify and live as women.)

Does this mean the importation of Western LGBT identities undermine local, traditional understandings of those behaviors? Again, Gevisser doesn’t provide a clear answer but he does point out that those traditional understandings can be a double-edged sword. While they may have created a small space for difference, it was at most a space of bare tolerance that consigned people to the lowest rungs of society. In India, for instance, hijras make their livings through sex work and begging. When, by contrast, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, the chief justice called for the eradication of discrimination against LGBT Indians and particularly hijras. He praised them for “their formidable spirit, inspired commitment, strong determination and infinite hope.” In the case of India, then, any disruptive impact of Western understandings of sexual orientation and gender on traditional culture may be offset by their liberating effect.

This has not been true in other parts of the world. In sub-Sahara Africa, the legitimizing of male homosexuality, particularly, has been fiercely rejected on the grounds of religious proscription and national sovereignty. The more adamantly the West insists that the protection of LGBT people falls within the umbrella of basic human rights, the more intense the official persecution of gay men in countries like Malawi, Uganda, and Nigeria. This persecution has been justified on religious grounds in these largely religious countries and, simultaneously, on the grounds imposition of LGBT rights is a form of ideological colonialism. This latter argument has particular resonance in a part of that world upon which the hand of European imperialism fell with particular brutality.

Yet, the coupling of these arguments is transparently ironic. The sodomy laws under which nations like Uganda officially demonize LGBT people were imposed by the colonizers from countries — England, France, Germany, Belgium — that have themselves abandoned those laws as inhumane. More strikingly, the Christian faith on which these religious proscriptions are based are themselves the legacy of European colonialism. They are being reinforced by a new class of Western missionaries, American evangelicals, whose views (at least on LGBTQ matters) have been largely discredited in their own country. Now, they preach their particular sectarian understanding of Christianity in Africa.

Among the most notorious of these “secret theocrats” is Scott Lively, author of a book called The Pink Swastika. That book “alleged that a homosexual plot to take over the world began in Nazi Germany, and that gays worldwide now connived to foment ‘social chaos and destruction’ through gay marriage, divorce, child abuse, and AIDS.” Lively influenced Ugandan evangelicals and David Bahati, the Wharton School–educated parliamentarian who in 2009 authored a law that would have imposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” The law was eventually revised to remove the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment and in 2014 was declared void by Uganda’s Supreme Court. Nonetheless, “[i]n the intermediate time, a wave of violent homophobia swept Uganda: a prominent activist was killed, many others were outed by a sensationalist media, and many fled into exile.”

The anti-colonialism prong of the attack on LGBT rights in Africa reflects the shaky sense of national identity in some African countries. This, too, is a legacy of European colonialism which arbitrarily devised African borders without regard to linguistic or cultural differences among the people it shackled together geographically. Internal, domestic tensions combined with a seething resentment against the West fuels the claims by African leaders that LGBT rights are a form of ideological colonialism. Rejecting the imposition of those rights is a way for these leaders to assert their independence from the West even as they rely on Western aid to prop up fragile economies and their own political positions and even though their persecutions of queer people are based on prejudices brought to Africa by their European colonizers. In Zambia, for example, when the American ambassador protested the 15-year sentences meted out to two gay men caught having consensual sex, Zambia’s president accused the ambassador of meddling in Zambia’s internal affairs and demanded his recall.

This raises another interesting question that, unfortunately, Gevisser does not answer. What right do Western countries have to insist that non-Western nations adopt international norms of “human rights” with respect to LGBT people? (This is a separate question from whether those rights are universal.) The African leaders are correct: international pressure on any country to revise its local laws or customs impinges on national sovereignty. What would have been the American response if in the Jim Crow era the international community threatened economic sanctions and boycotts unless Southern states repealed those laws and the federal government protected Black Americans? Or, for that matter, if the inhumane treatment of immigrants on the US Southern border was denounced in the United Nations? Does the international community have a right to pressure individual states to change internal policies against the claims of religious doctrine or local tradition or national ideology on the grounds that such doctrines, traditions, or ideologies offend basic human dignity? Gevisser does not directly confront this question. It could be he just doesn’t have an answer — it’s not an easy question, after all. But it may also be that he became so invested in the personal stories of his subjects that he avoided the question because of the answer might be No: Western governments may try to persuade but they have no right to coerce.

It is clearly a question with which Western governments have struggled. Gevisser recounts a telling incident — Barack Obama was in Senegal when the United States Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage equality. Senegal criminalized gay sex. Obama was asked whether he had pressed Macky Sall, the Senegalese president, to decriminalize homosexuality. Obama responded by “drawing a line between personal beliefs and traditions, which had to be ‘respected’, and the state’s responsibility which was to treat all people equally.” Obama’s answer was a politician’s equivocation because the state’s responsibility to treat people equally under the law will, in the case of LGBT people, require it to override personal beliefs and traditions. His answer served mostly to give cover to Sall who replied, “[W]e cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations,” and while “Senegal is a very tolerant country, […] we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.” (As of this writing, homosexuality is still criminalized in Senegal for both men and women.)

Setting aside the philosophical question, the practical impact of Western pressure on non-Western states on the LGBT issue has been to increase, rather than lessen, persecution. Gevisser illustrates this in the story he tells of Michael Bashaija, a young Ugandan man caught up in the homophobic backlash against gay men that followed the passage of the “Kill Gays” legislation. When, at 15, his parents discovered his affair with another boy, they threw him out. He made his way to the capital, Kampala, where he hoped to find other gays but ended up on the streets. As his life became increasingly dangerous and intolerable in Uganda, he sought refugee status in Kenya only to be attacked on the streets of Nairobi for “walking girly.” Given asylum in Canada, he soon became disillusioned. “I thought people would be welcoming,” he wrote to Gevisser. “They seem to be welcoming, but they push you away indirectly. I thought people were going to be all happiness.”

In Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, the persecution of LGBT people is motivated less by religion — though that provides support for it — than by the atavistic nationalism that has swept the globe in the last half-decade. Vladimir Putin frames the issue as a conflict between Russian moral purity and Western decadence. In this scheme, LGBT Russians represent the advance guard of moral decay, as Gevisser observes, “an ‘enemy from within’ getting their corrupting ideas from ‘without.’” The Russian campaign to demonize LGBT people has gained traction in some Baltic and Eastern European states and played out most dramatically in the self-governing Russian territory of Chechnya, where gay men have been tortured and murdered.

Gevisser profiles a Russian transgender woman named Pasha Captanovska to illustrate the effects of Putin’s use of LGBT people as punching bags. Pasha was engaged in a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful custody battle with her ex-wife over their eight-year-old son. In denying her even monitored visitation rights, the judge cited Putin’s infamous law banning any discussion of homosexuality as propaganda: “The plaintiff does not conceal her transgenderism, talking to the child about the possibility of changing sex, and thus in fact violates the Federal Law on Protection of Children from Harmful Information, which prohibits the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors.” That law, while rarely enforced, has given license for attacks on LGBT people ranging from hounding them out of their jobs to physical violence and murder. Meanwhile, Putin continues to insist that homosexuals are not subject to discrimination in Russia but must “please leave the kids alone,” thus perpetuating the demonic stereotype of LGBT people as child molesters.

Gevisser’s travels also take him to countries where LGBT people have been afforded legal protections and enjoy a measure of social acceptance: Mexico, the United States, and Israel. In these sections, his purpose seems much less clear and they illustrate a basic weakness of the hybrid nature of the book pointed out earlier. The gay Palestinian he profiles in the Israeli section and the lesbian couple he profiles in the Mexican section certainly encounter challenges, but these seem more personal problems than the direct consequences of falling on the wrong side of the “pink line.” The struggles of these subjects are in no way comparable to the physical and psychological violence inflicted on their African counterparts, for example, nor are they subject to government-sanctioned persecution. The American section, which discusses the challenges of asserting non-binary gender identity, only serves to highlight the relative privilege that LGBT people enjoy in the United States.

The personal stories Gevisser recounts are engaging and illustrate the impacts of official policy on individual lives, but they are also distracting to the extent that they eclipse the more global issues he raises about whether LGBT rights are part of a set of universal human rights, how far the international community can go in enforcing those rights against claims of national sovereignty, and whether Western conceptions of LGBT identity are completely transferrable outside the Western context. These are crucial questions, the answers to which — whatever they may be — will affect millions of people on both sides of the pink line. Again and again, Gevisser approaches these question only to pull back and retreat into anecdote. As such, The Pink Line makes for an often frustrating read.

Yet, despite its sprawl and the unanswered questions it raises, The Pink Line is a consequential book. Gevisser’s opus will knock its Western readers out of any parochial sense of complacency about LGBT rights and challenge them to think both globally and strategically about how best to support their brothers and sisters on the other side of the pink line.


Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.

LARB Contributor

Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of seven novels featuring a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios. Nava is a six-time recipient of the Lambda Literary Award in the mystery category, as well as the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for gay and lesbian literature.


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