Continuing the series of blogs by current VCD students, this week Gemma Taylor investigates what earthquakes can teach us about tackling anti-LGBT violence.
Something is going wrong in the fight for LGBT equality. Despite recent progress towards equality, violence towards LGBT people remains prevalent – each year hundreds of LGBT people are murdered, thousands subjected to violent attacks and millions more living with abuse, harassment and discrimination. How do we explain this ongoing violence? More importantly, how do we tackle it?
First, we should recognise that violence does not occur in a socio-political vacuum - there are many factors which play in to the creation and manifestation of violence in its physical form. Galtung’s conceptualisation of cultural and structural violence and the relationship between a direct act of violence and the wider socio-political context in which that act occurs can help us understand the dynamics of anti-LGBT violence.
Galtung distinguishes three types of violence:
- Direct violence – acts of violence perpetrated by an individual, including physical and psychological violence.
- Structural violence –discriminatory structures which create inequalities and social stratification, preventing people from reaching their potential.
- Cultural violence – religion, ideology and other aspects of culture which legitimise structural and direct violence.
Now this is where earthquakes come in: Galtung uses a simple earthquake metaphor to illustrate the relationship between the different types of violence. Think back to old geography lessons and imagine this – direct violence is the earthquake, structural violence is the tectonic plate, and cultural violence is the fault line.
We can easily see this dynamic at play with regards to anti-LGBT violence – cultural beliefs portray LGBT people as immoral deviants, and legal systems treat LGBT persons as criminals and second-class citizens, both establishing a context in which acts of direct violence against LGBT people are seen as legitimate and justified.
So what does this teach us about tackling anti-LGBT violence? Primarily, it tells us that we are focussing on the wrong thing. Direct violence is the most visible form of violence and therefore gets the most attention when it comes to legal protections and violence reduction efforts, however we need to acknowledge that direct violence is a manifestation of the structural and cultural underpinnings. Our focus needs to shift towards root causes of the violence, not just tackling the visible manifestations. Earthquakes do not happen without plate movement and fault lines; violence does not happen in a socio-political vacuum.
Feeding in to direct violence is an invisible process of othering, whereby groups are excluded from mainstream society based on group identity, i.e. sexual orientation. It is in this process where the cultural and structural forms of violence take place - where the LGBT community are stigmatised and ostracised, and a social divide is caused which allows for a hostile and violent landscape to emerge.
The question remains: How do we prevent cultural and structural violence? I’m not going to profess that I have the answer because, well, I don’t. There is no catch-all cure to violence, no immediate solution. Addressing cultural and structural violence is a more difficult task than addressing direct violence – we need to examine, understand and then dismantle the belief systems and social structures which perpetuate and legitimise violent behaviour. We need to find a way not only to stop the tectonic plates from moving, but to stop the earth from cracking in the first place. This might sound impossible – but all hope is not lost.
The good news is that cultures and social structures are not fixed – they are made of learned behaviours and social norms which can be influenced and changed. I want to highlight two important areas for change, which I believe are key in tacking anti-LGBT violence - political rhetoric and criminalisation.
The use of homophobia as a political strategy has been utilised by many political actors to stigmatise and dehumanise the LGBT community and legitimise, either implicitly r explicityly, violence against the LGBT community. The recent rise of conservative politics and use of homophobic language by politicians campaigning for “traditional values” correlates with an increase in anti-LGBT violence. This effect can be seen across the globe, most recently in Brazil, with President Jair Bolsonaro a “proud homophobe” using hateful language when talking about the LGBT community, creating a culture of everyday violence – a worrisome new era for the country which has previously hosted the world’s largest Pride Parades. One approach to prevent this cultural violence would be to introduce legislation to protect the LGBT community from hate speech, thereby preventing hostile and discriminatory views from being broadcast and limiting the spread of hateful messages.
In the 72 countries where the State criminalises homosexuality direct violence towards LGBT people is much more prevalent. This is because criminalisation legitimises anti-LGBT violence, creating a hostile social environment in which discrimination, harassment and abuse of LGBT people is met with impunity. The effects of criminalisation are not just seen in vulnerability to direct violence but also in a wider structure of violence where people are faced with discrimination in employment and education; lack autonomy over sexual and reproductive health choices; and are ultimately unable to express their identity due to fear of arrest or reprisal, leading to mental health issues and staggeringly high suicide rates. Decriminalisation is an important step in reducing violence as it not only prevents the cycle of structural violence which is associated with criminalisation, but it also delegitimises violence in other forms.
Change is slow, painstakingly so, but it is not impossible. Stopping the propagation of hatred towards the LGBT community and ending the criminalisation of homosexuality are two concrete steps that can be taken to dismantle the climate of intolerance which engenders violence. Preventing and reacting to direct violence is important but we are ignoring the underlying socio-political factors which feed into this violence. Going back to the earthquake metaphor: earthquake preparation is a necessary endeavour, but we also need to be stalling the movements of the tectonic plates and filling in the fault line – impossible geographically speaking but possible when tackling anti- LGBT violence.