I got a right old slap in the face this week. Shocking really. I’ve been dwelling on it for days. A mate of mine rang me from Tanzania one evening and we had quite the chat. I asked what life was like over there as we plan on visiting him next year. On a personal note, I was particularly interested in how he was faring in the romance department. I wondered if there was a new man on the scene. Being gay in a country where homosexuality carries a 30-year prison sentence is no joke. I wondered how he was doing and how much the draconian laws affected his life. [According to Amnesty International, four African countries still have the death penalty for homosexuals.]
He’s keeping a low profile, he said, but thankfully, he’s not living in the capital. Last month, according to a report in The Guardian, hundreds went into hiding to avoid the witch hunt currently underway in Dar es Salaam, where Paul Makonda, the city’s administrative head, has called for people to out their gay friends, neighbours, and relatives. The US embassy has advised US citizens in the country to review their social media posts for content…just in case. Mad, I thought. And very worrying. How could anyone live in those sorts of circumstances?
Anyway, I was recounting this story to another friend of mine, who said: ‘I assume you won’t be going there, then.’ And before my brain kicked in, I heard myself reply: ‘Of course I’m going. I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.’
I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.
Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, how did I get to this low point? When did I start thinking that as long as it wasn’t being done to me, I’d nothing to worry about?
To say I was disgusted with myself is an understatement.
Many years ago, I came across a quotation by Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It affected me deeply. I have serious issues with Azerbaijan and doubt I’ll ever set foot in the country again after that Azeri murderer debacle. I try my damnedest not to buy anything made in China because I’ve taken umbrage at its censorship laws. After some soul searching in October, given what’s going on with the Rohingya, we decided not to go to Myanmar, even though we could see it across the water. Realistically, if I took stock of the human rights record of every country I visited and avoided those with a blemish, I’d find my map of travel opportunity much smaller. But that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s the quickness with which I came back with the answer that has me concerned.
I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.
A few weeks back, in a comment on something I’d posted on Facebook, a former colleague (and friend, or so I thought) called me a racist. No explanation was given. Just a statement: ‘You’re a racist.’ That same week, because I don’t happen to think George Soros is evil, another friend lumped me into what they call the Zombie Minions. Not usually one to give a rat’s ass about what people think of me, these two labels hurt me deeply.
Just about any policy or political post I read today on social media has a litany of comments following it that vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ad hominem attacks are rampant. People’s characters and/or personal attributes are being attacked to discredit their arguments. Criticisers are not engaging with the subject of the debate but the person debating it. It’s mean. It’s nasty. It’s debilitating. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming the norm. There seems to be a prevailing sense that ‘I’m right and if you don’t believe as I do, then you’re wrong.’ In this black-and-white world, I’m finding it hard to find even two shades of grey, let alone fifty.
In one comment on an anti-Trump post recently, someone pointed to a page on the US State Department’s website which lists all that’s been achieved since getting into power. Arguably, Obama had set the groundwork, but still, these were accomplished with him in office. I read the list and spot-checked, looking for alternative sources to support the claims. And they’re there. So why then can’t those against the man and all he stands for admit the accomplishments but ask what they’ve been achieved at the expense of? And has it been worth the price? Isn’t that a better basis for discussion?
I’m slowly losing the will to engage. I’m having visceral reactions to the strident posts I read on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sick to my stomach of the anger and the hate and the superiority of the arguments. I’ve blocked, muted, and unfollowed but then I wonder if I need to read/hear all sides to keep track of what’s going on and not get lured into that self-righteous box of moral certainty.
I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.
But is it too late? Am I already there? Have I tucked away my principles until a more convenient time dawns?
I still plan to go to Tanzania. I want to see my friend. It’s been too long. But now I’ll do so consciously.
This week, I’m grateful that we had the chance to talk and that I had this recalibratory moment. Now more than ever, I need to keep my wits about me, to keep thinking for myself, and not fall victim to the hype and hysteria I see and hear every day.