The social history of a “moral panic”

There is no evidence that Nigeria is under attack from gays and lesbians or the nation's "culture" being eroded from within by "waves of sexual marauders."

Celeste Ramsay, via Flickr CC.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Thirty five years ago, Stuart Hall and colleagues wrote one of the founding works of Cultural Studies, “Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order.” They wanted to understand the situation of a curious ‘crisis’ gripping the British population, largely through its media: mugging. As Hall et al. noted, the Daily Mirror early on captured the cultural moment: “As crimes of violence escalate, a word common in the United States enters the British headlines: Mugging. To our police it’s a frightening new strain of crime.”

For Hall and his group, the moment was the beginnings of a moral panic. Now in Nigeria: “No Right To Force The Legalization Of Same-Sex Union.” Different words, same “moral panic”:

When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when ‘experts’, in the form of police chiefs the judiciary, politicians and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms, and appear to talk ‘with one voice’ of rates, diagnoses, prognoses and solutions, when the media representations universally stress ‘sudden and dramatic’ increases (in numbers involved or events) and ‘novelty’, above and beyond that which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then we believe it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic.

That was 1972, England. This is 2014, and this is Nigeria.

In early January, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law something called the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2014. In many ways, the law reiterates laws already on the books that outlaw homosexual practices. It outlaws state same-sex marriage or civil union, which [a] was already illegal and [b] which absolutely nobody was asking for. It outlaws religious same-sex marriage or civil union, which [a] was already illegal and [b] which absolutely nobody was asking for. Nobody.

It outlaws the “registration of gay clubs, societies and organization, their sustenance, processions and meetings” and “the public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly.” Here’s where things get ‘interesting’. What’s a gay club? Even more, what’s a gay society or organization? If, for example, a group dedicated to treating people living with HIV tries to care for gay men, does that make them a gay organization? Especially if they hold “meetings”?

And what is an indirect public show of same sex, or any, amorous relationship, anyway?

The law ends in punishment. Fourteen years imprisonment for gay marriage or civil union, i.e. for “the coming together of persons of the same sex with the purpose of living together as husband and wife or for the purpose of same sexual relationship.” Anyone who acts as ‘witness’ to any such criminal offenses – same sex marriage or civil union, the registration of gay clubs, societies, or organizations – is also in violation of the law. As is anyone who does not report suspicious activity.

From here the script, with a few notable exceptions, is dismally, depressingly familiar. ‘Western’ nation-States – in particular the United States, the United Kingdom, and some members of the European Union – criticize the new law and threaten limited aid cut offs. In response, the ‘nation’ invokes ‘culture’ … over and over and over again. From Sahara Reporters to the Vanguard to Punch and beyond, from pastor to lawyer to activist to person on the street to the ‘human rights and women’s rights activist’ who argues against being forced to legalize same-sex marriage (which, again, no one was arguing for), an almighty hue and cry was raised across the land. Nigeria is under attack. Culture is under attack. Sexual purity is under attack. The Bible is under attack. The children are under attack. 145% of Nigerians support the new law. 400% want a stronger law. Clergy praised the State and thanked the Good Lord for the new law, while police carried out more sweeps and conducted more arrests, and thousands threw stones into Sharia courts, trying men for ‘gay crimes’. The crowds had decided the State was right, and due process was way too slow for this sort of epidemic.

Understandably, most, but not all, of those who publicly opposed the law have done so from outside the country. Binyavanga Wainaina found the lost chapter of his memoir … courageously. From England, Ifeanyi Odigwe despaired of the law’s ‘stupidity’. Bisi Alimi, who had to flee Nigeria for having come out publicly, argues that the law is a ‘distraction’, given the difficulty Jonathan’s government currently has. Alimi notes that the vast majority of Nigerians oppose child marriage, and yet there is no law banning child marriage. Patience Akumu agrees: “Vetoing an anti-gay law will not change a dictator into a democrat or revive a failing economic system.” For many, both in and outside of Nigeria, the law is a crime against humanity and a crime against reason.

The editors of YNaija clearly and forcefully “totally and unequivocally stand against” the law. Olumide Femi Makanjuola, Executive Director at The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER), understands that the content of the law is relatively empty. It’s the impact. For him, the law is a crackdown, and it’s catastrophic, for those living with AIDS, for those treating those living with AIDS, for those living and loving with those living with AIDS:

Nigeria is second only to South Africa as the country with the highest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers; one would have thought a better gift for the New Year from the government to its people would be to urge the national legislature to pass the anti HIV-discrimination bill that has been with them for a while. But alas, what the people received was a bill that further exposes them to violence and discrimination.

Rudoph Okonkwo took on the sanctity of ‘culture’, remember the days when twins were killed, “dumped in the evil forest to die,” because they were believed to be evil.

Neither can passing an anti-gay law create much needed employment or heal the sick. The real target of this law, as Tolu Ogunlesi and Rashidi Williams noted, separately, are the vulnerable, the poor and powerless, on one hand, and the ordinary LGBT citizen, on the other.

If you read the Nigerian press for the last year, outside of those moments in which an anti-gay bill is being discussed, there is little to no discussion of ‘gay men’ and even less about lesbians. There is no evidence that the ‘nation’ is under attack, at least not from that quarter. There is no evidence that ‘culture’ is being eroded from within by waves of sexual marauders. There is everything else, from super development and super highways to spectacular and ordinary violence. For Stuart Hall and his crew, the point of the 1972 British ‘moral panic’ was intensification of control, through the production of a manufactured crisis. It’s déjà vu all over again, but this is 2014, and it’s Nigeria’s time.

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