Like almost all modern and clever quotes, ‘I feel like a lion in the den of Daniels’ is often attributed to the great wit of the 20th century, Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde found himself much like the Belizean and the Jamaican men who now challenge the buggery laws, in the middle of a great national court case, his sexuality on trial. Those who attribute the quote to the playwright probably imagine him standing up in the courtroom with theatrical flourish, looking at the jurors and the disgusted spectators, and declaring himself – a lion in a den of daniels.
It’s a great story. But it’s not quite true. In fact the quote comes from another source – William S Gilbert in 1912 — and I’m not sure of the circumstances that surrounded its first utterance. None the less, since then many broad-minded Christians have co-opted it, those willing to be introspective and thoughtful and reflect upon this comic idea of a band of a zealous and heavily armed pack of Daniels happening upon a defenseless lion. Or as one pastor put it, ‘you know that thing when bad Christians happen to good people?’
Indeed, if you want to see a den of Daniels in Jamaica today, you only need to drive by UWI’s main gate on a Monday, Wednesday or a Friday. They are out there protesting. Never before in Jamaica’s recent history has the church been so incensed to mobilize themselves in such fashion, to march and agitate about a perceived injustice. Corruption did not get them out in the streets. The theft of electricity didn’t. The passing of the gambling laws which caused much righteous hullabaloo in the lead up did not get anyone out of their armchairs when it was finally passed. The constant rape of our little girls hasn’t moved them. Alas, gay people trying to argue for their rights and their humanity is the final straw, an immorality that cannot be tolerated.
The original story of Daniel in the lion’s den is a classic story in and of itself, but also it is an archetypal story: it is the story of the puny versus the mighty, the victim versus the bully, or to use yet another biblical reference – it is the story of David versus Goliath. It is an odd but profound truth that at certain points in every fight a dueller will find it advantageous to claim the identity of the puny, of the underdog, of the victim. Little children know this. Their parents catch them fighting and in unison they shout, ‘HE started it!!’ ‘No! No! SHE started it!’
You see, to be the official victim is to be in a place that can evoke and channel sympathy. It is to be in a position that can morally call on others to fight with you and for you. Victims must be protected. They must be defended. To be in the position of the victim is to be in a position that can mobilize an entire movement. So it is little wonder then that as Jamaica now wrestles over this issue of the buggery law, and other human rights that really ought to be afforded to gay men and women, that both sides are not so much trying to outmuscle each other as they are trying to out-victim each other – trying to paint the other side as strong, themselves as weak.
A recent headline from the Jamaica Observer carries a fear-mongering story about ‘Homo-Thugs’.
It has already achieved its desired effect – to portray gay people as armed, dangerous and powerful. One poster on facebook commented, ‘At least now we have a legitimate right to our homophobia!’ It doesn’t occur to him that Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world and that no story of any other gang killing or murder or rape that is in the papers every minute of every day has ever borne a headline, ‘Heterosexual Gang kills 3 men in Portmore.’ ‘Heterosexual men gangrape woman.’
Other strategies to paint the gay community as powerful are more subtle. Consider even the term ‘gay lobby’. A Trinidadian activist, Colin Robinson, recently despaired at the phrase that I think imagines a tremendously organized group of men who probably meet under the cover of night, pulling up in their black limos, knowing each other by secret handshakes, and who evilly plot the moral destruction of the Caribbean. Colin writes “What “gay lobby”? People struggling to carve out some space for humanity and dignity is a “lobby” now?”
Things have recently gone a step further as one can no longer talk just about the ‘gay lobby’. The word ‘powerful’ has to be put in front of it. The POWERFUL gay lobby. Once again, the point is clear – to establish over and over again that gay men and women are the ones with muscles, with money, with power, and that they are the ultimate bullies, the brutes. The church on the other hand is the hapless victim. They are Davids facing Goliaths. They are Daniels – each one of them – in their own den of lions. They are therefore calling on the wider Caribbean to fight with them and for them.
But we must face facts. The Jamaican church claiming the place of the victim is a bit like those white people in America who now insist that they are being oppressed by discrimination and the reverse-racism of black people. BOOHOO! Or again, it is like the growing group of men on university campuses marching and agitating about their subjugation under the heavy feet of women. Awww! They have it so bad! It’s so unjust what they go through. Of course, we partly understand these protests. People who have lived their whole lives with privilege will always take that privilege for granted, and any movement that challenges that privilege will feel like oppression. The privileged and powerful will throw a tantrum and claim that they are being bullied.
This question of power is not a flippant one. We must figure it out, because we really do owe a moral debt to the powerless, to those who have been traditionally marginalized and disempowered. So who is it that really wields power here? Whose power has constructed and defined the society we presently live in? Whose power limits who? Who is wrestling power from whom? Whose show of power represents a selfish holding on – a refusal to let go, and whose show of power represents an act of the powerless finally daring to claim some level of power and agency for themselves? Who in all of this is the real bully?
On facebook, a former UWI student of mine, Kenyatta Powell, goes into brilliant satirical mode when he writes a letter from ‘a disgruntled Jamaican of Faith’. It deserves to be quoted in full. We might imagine it as an open letter addressed to ‘Dear Gay Lobby’.
Stop violating my right to call for the state to punish your private adult consensual sexual conduct with up to 10 years imprisonment, you anti-freedom bully!! Stop silencing me and people like me who loudly voice our opinions everyday and more often than not get what we want in terms of public policy by raising your voice in opposition. My freedom of speech means freedom to say whatever I want, advocate for whatever policies I prefer and inveigh against anyone I deem unclean or unworthy without any consequences whatsoever. Your freedom of association and choice on the other hand is negotiable based on the rules laid down by my god; your belief in my god or the existence of any supernatural force for that matter is irrelevant to the discussion.
I and people who share my faith are being oppressed in this country, even though for instance the national anthem is a prayer to my god and nearly every gathering of more than 2 people commences with an obligatory prayer to my god despite the makeup of the gathering or the nature of the meeting. Sure we get our way with things like the very law designed to criminalize your private consensual adult behaviour, the Charter of Rights that restricts the definition of marriage and immunizes the aforementioned law from constitutional scrutiny and most recently the removal of content in a text book which we found objectionable. But the real problem here is all you others who don’t share my faith or values; all you “gaytheists”. You want to oppress me with your bold advocacy for your godless nastiness. You say you want to change the law so that it no longer criminalizes your consensual adult sexual behaviour but I know that is just a pretext for your greater plan.
For however will I be able to say that your nasty behaviour is nasty if the law doesn’t criminalize it? Clearly you are trying to take away my freedom of speech. How will I be able to raise my children in the way I want if the state doesn’t sanitize the whole country of the things and behaviours that run counter to what I teach my children? Clearly you are trying to interfere with my right to raise my children as I see fit. The nerve of you shameless bullies. You throw around disparaging names like “homophobe” to silence me and people like me from dismissing you as the deviant ba__ymen you are. You want to prevent me from using government resources and school time to specifically promote my faith to the exclusion of all other view points including your godless wickedness. It is clear that your plan is to unleash a tide of wickedness on Jamaica land we love. But I am on to you. Prof. Bain is the last straw!! I will fight your oppression with all the might I can muster. Your reign of terror stops here.
signed: Disgruntled Jamaican of Faith.
It is a great misfortune that at least one poster completely missed the satire in this and proceeded to profusely thank Kenyatta for so eloquently expressing the Christian position. Or if it isn’t sad that the poster was irony-impaired, it is sad that the Christian position is already so extreme, already such a parody of itself that even the attempt to satirize it fails miserably because it looks too similar to what the actual position is.
Kenyatta’s angle is an interesting one. He grew up Muslim and so understands too well what it means to stand outside of the privileged majority culture of Jamaican Christianity. When I asked him permission to publish this satirical letter, he explained to me in a much more serious tone,
“The thing I find as I look around me in this is that Christianity is quite obviously privileged; the privilege is obvious if like me you have never had the opportunity to share in it or if you are like my LGBT friends you are the target of Christian condemnation.”
Once again a sad but important truth comes out, that those who enjoy power and privilege will almost never be conscious of that privilege. Any attempt to challenge that privilege, or in some cases to revoke that unfair power, or to balance it out, or to hold people to account for the things they might blindly say and do which discriminates other lives that they are too privileged to consider or give a rat’s ass about – all of this will be regarded as bullying, as the victims being the victimizer.
Despite all of what Kenyatta’s satire so brilliantly reveals – the church with the law on their side, the church with the culture on their side, the church with the anthem and the pledge on their side, the church with the majority of the population on their side, the church who now insists on holding on to their disgust of homosexuality while claiming it isn’t homophobia – a kind of logic which demands a whole other blog post by itself, and I will get to it; despite all of this, the church will continue in its bizarre demands to legislate the lives of others, to essentially hold power over them, to uphold laws that don’t affect their own lives, but the lives and freedoms of others – and the Jamaican church will be absolutely incensed that those whose lives are actually affected and limited and dissempowered by such laws should have the audacity to protest this. Such protests or advocacy or lobbying will be labelled as bullying and the Jamaican church will claim to be the victims in this fight. For they have learnt the lesson well – the same lesson we all have learnt as children – that there is power in being the victim, or at least in being perceived as the victim. There is power in shouting out, ‘HE STARTED IT!’
But let us stop for a minute to think about power, about how power constructs the world, about who has access to real power and who doesn’t, and we might be able to see how the gay community in Jamaica now finds itself, tragically, a bit like a lion in a den of Daniels.