May 1, 2023
Content Warning: Gendered violence, Homophobia, Transphobia
Last October, I wrote an article for The Student Insurgent based on my experience conducting research with an Indigenous community in rural Colombia last summer. That article uses the example of my personal experience as a queer anthropologist who had to hide my bisexual orientation from my research collaborators so as not to jeopardize my relationship with the community—which observes Catholic norms of gender and sexuality—as a departure point for a discussion of the nuances and tensions of solidarity and allyship in cases where culture and ethical values differ. The conclusion I come to in that piece is that often, when we are able, we should put aside personal disagreements to meet people where they’re at and provide support in the ways we can for the sake of solidarity, even with people who we might not otherwise agree with. I stand by this argument, but in this article, I would like to expand the terms of the discussion. Here, I return to that discussion asking some of the same questions, though now with reference to my current experience as a research intern in Senegal, a West African country in which similar intercultural tensions between ethical values and allyship are, once more, on clear display.
As I write this, I am interning with a Senegalese NGO that works on issues of youth development, public health, and sexual education in the schools of rural Senegal. This NGO does important work in the fight against HIV/AIDS, child marriage, female genital mutilation, teenage pregnancy, gendered violence, and other problems common in Senegal, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Presumably, we would all agree that these are problematic issues that ought to be opposed. Unfortunately, that’s what my Senegalese colleagues would say about LGBTQ+ rights too. They say that being gay or transgender isn’t a part of Senegalese culture, that it’s something brought by TikTok and Western cultural imperialists. Feminism, too, is a Western imposition, because Islam teaches that men are the head of the house. Clearly, I don’t agree—and this is where the questions arise. How far can culture be taken as a defense of questionable ethics? What happens when political solidarity and personal ethics seem to be at odds? Crucially, what is the role of the bystander or potential ally in these situations of contradictory commitments?
As an anthropologist, the principle of cultural relativism—the notion that different cultures should not be judged or condemned according to the values of one’s own culture, but rather understood on their own terms—is a pillar of the professional ethics of my discipline. My training tells me that it is not my place to judge, only to attempt to understand. In general, I agree with this outlook. Cultural relativism is an important tool meant to help avoid the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, Othering, and essentialism which both anthropology and popular culture are vulnerable to. The cultural relativist perspective is especially important when engaging with peoples and cultures who have historically faced oppression and marginalization at the hands of politically dominant groups. This is, of course, the case with my Indigenous and African collaborators in Colombia and Senegal, respectively, who have suffered colonialism, racism, and other forms of exclusion.
My politics, on the other hand, tell me that sometimes it is necessary to judge, to take ethical stands against beliefs or practices that I believe are wrong. Now, usually I am willing and able to distinguish between these categories—professional ethics on the one hand, personal ethics on the other. Sometimes, however, the personal is political. I’m lucky enough to be straight passing; I don’t have to worry about my safety as a queer person in Colombia or Senegal, as long as I don’t tell people I’m queer. I’m comfortable enough keeping it that way, and that’s a privilege. Clearly, some people don’t have that privilege, and for them it may be best not to expose themselves to danger in the same context. But let’s assume that you, like me, are capable of putting your personal identity aside to engage with people and cultures who think differently. Just how far can those engagements be taken? Remember that in Senegal, it’s illegal to be gay. Men can have multiple wives, but it’s illegal for women to take multiple husbands. Female genital mutilation remains widespread among certain ethnic groups in the country, despite decades of opposition by both Western NGOs and Senegalese organizations. I assume the reader will agree that these are bad things. But at what point do we allow them to prevent us from standing with the people who justify them when it comes to questions of oppression or shared interests?
An anecdote will serve to illustrate my point. Recently I attended a meeting at the headquarters of the NGO I work with in Senegal. A group of visiting students came to learn about my organization’s sexual health pedagogy. An open and frank discussion was had and the students were attentive and mature. I was glad to be able to sit in and observe what is clearly an important area of work within a country that generally remains highly socially conservative as far as sexuality is concerned. However, it soon became clear that there is a fundamental difference in how my Senegalese colleagues and I approach questions of sexual health. For me, it’s a matter of responsible and enjoyable sexual exploration. For them, it’s strictly a matter of abstinence. My colleagues may do a lot of good work in terms of frank education and awareness around traditionally taboo subjects in Senegal—but ultimately this country remains 95% Muslim and the bottom line is that sex must wait until marriage.
At some point during the meeting, the subject turned to the nefarious influence of the internet and apps like TikTok as vectors of sexuality among Senegalese youth. Personally, this is not an issue that I think is particularly important. The meeting coordinator, however, posited that TikTok and other apps are threatening to sexually pervert Senegalese youth by introducing them to such dangerous foreign concepts as the existence of gay and transgender people. Not only are teens being encouraged to express and explore their sexuality by online content, but also dangerous foreign ideas like queerness threaten to undermine Senegalese family values. Think of the children! This discourse was met with unanimous nods around the room, both from the visiting students and the NGO activists. I stayed silent. I don’t think Senegal is ready for that conversation—and who am I to try to initiate it?
The truth is that, for cultural and religious reasons, practices like female genital mutilation and the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people’s lives will probably remain commonplace in Senegal for a long time, as other practices we may take issue with will remain prevalent in other parts of the world—and probably in our own society too. Are gun violence, racism, or transphobia in the US going anywhere anytime soon? These beliefs and practices are not so easily undone by well-meaning outsiders—nor is it their place to try. Cultural change must come from within.
This is not a call for complacency or apathy in the face of oppressive behaviors on the part of those whom, when it comes to their own oppression, we ought to stand with as allies. It is a call for a level of nuance that I think is unfortunately often lacking on the left, where people who style themselves as activists can be quick to jump to black-and-white judgements that leave little room for the gray areas of life and politics. Compartmentalization is something we should all strive to be better at. Recognizing that different people, let alone different cultures, will always have different and sometimes contradictory values is a basic life skill. I know it’s easy to stay mad at everything and everyone for not sharing your ethical system, which is obviously the best and most logical one out there. Unfortunately, everyone else has the same thought too. When it becomes clear that the whole world will never be in agreement about a great many things, we can at least decide when it is right to stand up as allies—and when sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back.