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It was with the line that we should “always be on our guard that someone out there hates us” that Stephen Fry sent a stark shiver down my spine in his new documentary, Out There. It was this frank admission, this pressing “fear of someone out there hating us” that reasserted Fry’s place in my mind as a central thinker and trailblazing figure of LGBT visibility in the UK. It is true after all, and it is this fear of the unknown “out there” that often justifies and enforces the LGBT bubble that many metropolitan gays live their lives by. As Stephen Fry launched his new series last night, tackling the subject of homosexuality and its acceptance around the world, he struck a chord with this viewer that the “out there” could just as well be down the road outside Yates’ as on the streets of Kampala. Whilst we should never forget how far we have come, the “out there” cannot be overlooked.
As Fry’s journey began amidst the open excess and unabashed frivolity of World Pride on the streets of London, the true scope of our country’s transformation in terms of LGBT rights, in such a relatively short period of time, struck home. Despite the latent homophobia that could flare up “out there”, outside the bubble, today the UK is a proud beacon of LGBT progress, passing same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and promoting a continual thirst for equality on all fronts. However, it was within the crowd of liberated thongs at World Pride, beneath the leather daddy on stilts, that the wider picture was unpicked. An LGBT man from Sri Lankan approached Fry and highlighted the disjuncture between the joy of Pride and the harsh reality lived by those abroad, whose sexuality meant they received the scorn of the state. A harrowing coffee break with an asylum-seeker from Iran, forced to prove his sexuality to the UK Border Agency or be deported and face potential execution, resoundingly burst the bubble. Stating that he preferred suicide, death on his own terms, than the authoritarian dictates and execution promised by his home country, the man broke Fry’s heart and provided the arc to explore the wider issue of homosexuality abroad.
First on Fry’s list was Uganda, infamous for its proposed death penalty for homosexuals. As Fry visited this country and debated with various prominent anti-homosexual figures, Out There greatly improved my respect for Fry as a man. In my previous life as an academic, I would often get lost in the theoretical and rhetorical anger of the abuses and excesses carried out by systems of power abroad. My Postcolonial MA course meant that I became an expert in the inner workings of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda in regards to homosexuality, yet I never visited, never put a face to the speculative defiance we had concocted in the seminar room. Out There allowed Fry to take this step and at least lessen the helplessness many of us feel, concerned about foreign policy and actions yet so far removed from the shock headlines and provocative images. As Fry took on the bigotry and fetishism of Pastor Solomon in a radio debate, I was heartened by the visible face of defiance that is so often absent, allowing such hate rhetoric to proliferate.
As Pastor Solomon released his rehearsed speech, his clichés of sodomy, and the unnatural order of homosexuality, there were chilling echoes of Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Indian and Pakistani minority from Uganda in 1972. While checked in this instance by the presence of Fry and the pending status of any legal state punishment for homosexuality, the hate speech voiced over the radio sent a stark warning that rhetoric wins hearts and minds, and given a common enemy, as shown through Rwanda, can potentially lead to violent and traumatic ends. It is with this in mind that we should look beyond our own lives and truly address the status of homosexuality abroad. Pastor Solomon’s fixation on the physical act of homosexuality, focusing on the base instincts, showed more of a fetishized image of the homosexual on his side than Fry’s declaration of love. As the pastor proclaimed “Carrots cause anal leakage,” his performance verged on the unwitting carnivalesque. Yet any humour was lost when Fry met a survivor of “corrective rape,” a lesbian raped by a farmhand who justified the act as a remedy to her homosexuality.
While the theoretical positioning of where such homophobia stems from is a valid debate, binding colonialism and its travels with the Bible implicitly with repression and fetishism, the real, lived trauma of homosexuality in certain parts of the world should not be overlooked. Too often academic activists write books and essays, as I once did, while the rhetoric of the state and physical actions of its converted set about destroying the marginalized individual.
When meeting Simon Lokodo, Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity – a worrying title in itself – the real political threat to LGBT Ugandans struck home. Acting as if the law proposing execution for homosexuality had been passed already, Lokodo’s vision of Uganda was one of a police state in which citizens would be arrested for not turning in homosexuals within 24 hours of discovery. The mock shouts of “I will arrest you!” at Fry made the viewer wonder how the political machine would have treated a gay man who dared to question the status quo, had he not been a foreign celebrity.
As Lokodo declared an ethical quest against homosexuality – particularly singling out the good work and community of the Ice Breakers, an underground LGBT sexual health service in Kampala – the obsessive one-mindedness of such hate became unfathomable. The true grotesque point of this rhetoric was Lokodo’s insistence that “we don’t discriminate”, in utter contrast to the state sanctioned violence against minorities he was trying to promote. Despite all this, the community fostered by Ice Breakers was a heartening one. Meeting behind barred gates and constantly switching locations, their gatherings were honest and vital in showing homosexuality to be what it is, a connection between the same-sex.
Whilst Pastor Solomon would obsess over Fry’s sodomy and Lokodo would justify his self-seen paternalism by anecdotes about homosexuals with “pussy anuses”, the physical act of homosexuality is one of the heart. As members of Ice Breakers casually stared into each others’ eyes, it was clear that no contorted rhetoric could convince them otherwise about who they were and who they loved. Fry later went to America and visited gay-cure therapy professionals, yet this all paled into insignificance in comparison to the connection between individuals whose love refused to give in to state sanctioned hate in Uganda and abroad. It was the love for his boyfriend that had forced the Iranian asylum seeker to an uncertain future in the UK and barred him from return, and it was the love for each other that kept Ice Breakers a solid unit, beyond the reach of Lokodo’s corrosive speech.
This was the enduring message of Fry’s Out There, one that will no doubt play out in the rest of the series, as ultimately love is the homosexual condition.
You can view the first episode of Out There at the following address: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01fttrl/Stephen_Fry_Out_There_Episode_1