Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Like Her Attitude

Today I'm reading Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality, and AIDS (Westview Press, 1994) by Marvin Leiner.  Though it was published during the Clinton administration, it tells me a lot I hadn't known about sexuality and gender in revolutionary Cuba.  Leiner is an admitted heterosexual, and I believe I've seen some criticisms of his work in other academic writings on homosexuality in Latin America, but I'll check those after I finish reading the book.  I have a few minor quibbles myself, but nothing that really affects the value of the book so far.

Leiner is also a socialist, and (or but?) he manages to rebut some criticisms of Castro without being uncritical of the regime.  (He often points out that much of the official and unofficial persecution against Cuban gays has its parallels in the US and elsewhere: like OMG, the nasty Cubans won't let homosexuals serve in the military!  When this book was written, we were excluded from the US military too.)  He's been a scholar of Cuba for decades and has lived there for extended periods; he draws on his own interviews for this book.  But for now I want to quote one of his sources, the director of the National Working Group on Sex Education (Spanish abbreviation GNTES), Monika Krause.  Krause, from the former East Germany, moved to Cuba to work on their sex education program.  Leiner quotes her lecture on homosexuality to Cuban doctors.
Then I say, "I need you, from this moment on, to be capable of repressing your aversion, your hatred, because I need you to listen.  You're doctors.  You are not anybody from the street: you are doctors."

I try to teach this class with a lot of participation, and, sometimes, depending on the group, I also introduce skits.  I tell the doctors that I need a volunteer.  If nobody raises his or her hand, I continue: "You are my doctor; I am an adolescent boy."  (That needs a lot of imagination.)

So I'm role-playing the boy, and I say to the young doctor: "You are the family doctor, and I am asking you what to do because I'm homosexual.  I have a lot of problems, and I don't know what it is, and I want to change because I want to live in accordance with the ethical and moral rules of society.  I don't want to be an outsider.  Well, doctor, what shall I do?  I need your help."

The members of the class don't know what to do.  They are asking the same questions of me, calling on me for help.  Well, then I say, "Tell me, every one of you, what are the main characteristics of a homosexual?"  And I write their answers on the chalkboard: "a disease, a plague." They continue, and I put all the words on the board: weak character, anti-social, faggot, corrupt, deviant, degenerate, unnatural.  All the familiar, terrible phrases.
[P.S. Krause's remark that "You are not anybody from the street; you are doctors" is probably unfair to people "from the street."  Lower-class Latinos have wide differences of opinion and attitude to homosexuality, but I can say that in my experience, working-class people without college educations are generally not hostile to gays; they may consider it sinful, but hey, we're all sinners.  Epithets like "a disease, a plague," are more likely to come from the more educated.  I realize that Krause means merely to shame her audiences for their irrational vehemence, but to do so by appealing to their class prejudice -- in a socialist society! -- isn't an ideal approach.]

While I hope that they are better than this now, the same program before a roomful of American doctors in the late 1970s and early 1980s would probably have gone exactly the same way.  American doctors weren't, until that time and possibly later, required to take any courses on human sexuality, even though general practitioners were sure to be asked questions about sex.  This is one reason why straight doctors mostly failed to deal properly with the AIDS crisis as it unfolded; gay doctors were another story.  Back to Krause:
Several times when I am talking, they jump and shout, and I have to say, "Are you a doctor?  Or are you illiterate?"  When they ask for further clarification, I explain that we do not yet know the real essence of homosexuality.  But neither do we know the real essence of heterosexuality.  Only nobody is asking about that; everybody is asking about homosexuality.  Our view  was always that homosexuality is something bad, evil, something terrible, unnatural.  I say, "We know a lot about what homosexuality is not.  We have enough arguments to say that it is not what is on the board; of that I assure you."  And we have no possibilities of carrying out research because our homosexuals in Cuba are still under obligation, if they respect themselves, to hide their condition.  Not to do so would bring about the end of his or her life as an accepted human being ...

Often when I teach this class, the doctors will interrupt me -- shouting, getting very agitated and losing their control.  Sometimes they feel very ashamed when I have to calm them down.  "Control yourself!  You are doctors!  You cannot behave this way in front of a patient; you can't.  Even if you hate homosexuals, you cannot manifest the same behavior and attitude you just have with me."

And then I say, "Of course, I do not expect that you will change your attitude from today to tomorrow.  I know what many of you are thinking: She is one of them because otherwise, she wouldn't say that.  She is perverted; she is a lesbian, she is a feminist; she is a this or a that and so on.  And I assure you, I was thinking the same things ten or fifteen years ago.  But we have to be consistent with our humanistic conception of society ...

And then I tell them an anecdote.  I attended the Latin American Congress on Sexuality and Sex Education in Venezuela two years ago.  The representative of the Catholic Church, Bishop Monsignor Leoni from Caracas, gave a speech.  He was condemning so many things, so many things.  Delegates from the Congress asked him: "What is the position of the Catholic Church concerning homosexuality?"  And the monsignor answered, "A homosexual can never be a good Catholic.  The Catholic Church and homosexuality are antagonistic."  People asked why.  He answered, "Because it is so."  "Why can't a homosexual be a good Catholic?"  He replied, "Because he cannot."

Then I say to the class: "You are not allowed to answer as did the Bishop Monsignor Leoni of Caracas" [46-48].
I think I'm in love.  I've often said that I don't like the term "common sense," but what Krause says here feels like common sense to me.  Lest anyone protest that she's imposing "Western" ideas about sexuality and homosexuality on a non-Western society, let me point out that, first, Krause was brought in by the Cuban government to teach these things; and second, the homophobic attitudes of those doctors (not to mention Monsignor Leoni) are thoroughly Western.  (As others have pointed out, when non-Westerners condemn homosexuality as a Western import, they are usually quite happy to cite Western bigots to support their views.)

When it's appropriate, and unfortunately it often is, I've said basically the same thing to classes which train teachers or social workers: you're entitled to your personal beliefs and opinions, but you are not entitled to impose them on your students and clients.  (Just as I, an atheist, would not be entitled to tell Christians I was counseling or teaching that they'll be just fine if they give up their religious beliefs.)  It's lovely to see someone else saying the same things.