Colonialization never ends well, particularly for sexual minorities. One only needs to look at the situation in Uganda, one of the most hostile environments for LGBT people in the world, to see what happens when Christian missionaries foist their dubious morals on another culture.
We have come to expect institutionalised homophobia from many African countries, but – as revealed by two important documentaries at this year’s BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival - imperialism has also ruptured LGBT lives in India even near the Arctic Circle, leaving a dark legacy which the next generation is still struggling to overcome.
Few hidden LGBT histories are as fascinating – and little known – as that surrounding Inuit sexuality and the alternative family structures explored in Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa’s wonderful Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things.
Back in the 1950s, the Inuit population of north-west Canada was colonised and forced to live in settlement camps run by zealous missionaries. They were promised housing, animals and tools – but received precious little, leaving many of them sick, starving and separated from their loved ones.
The ruthless attempts to assimilate this ancient culture into something other than they were has had a profound and long-lasting psychological and sociological effect on the Inuit population - particularly on LGBT people, who have been at increased risk of suicide and self-harm through drugs, alcohol and unsafe sex.
Through interviews with young LGBT people and the touching story of how Nunavut’s first Pride picnic grew to become its first full Festival, we witness a moving journey of ‘unshaming’ and healing.
Along the way, we hear the sadly all too familiar assertions that homosexuality never existed in the north and that gay people are paedophiles. What resonates throughout all of this, however, is the triumph of the collective will of a small, but mighty community over adversity – a determination to live life on their terms, whatever the costs.
More interesting still, however, is the forgotten story of Inuit sexuality. We see how history is excavated and brought back to the present to reveal that same-sex relationships did indeed occur centuries ago in this remote, snowy outpost – despite the adamant denials of the rapacious colonisers.
The message of this compassionate and intelligent film is ultimately a universal one: uncovering and understanding the past means we can re-examine society’s definitions around sexuality, gender and family structures – giving us the knowledge to empower the youth of tomorrow.
Image from the documentary: Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things.
The fight of LGBT people against brutal colonial ghosts – this time in India – is also the focus of Sridhar Rangayan’s award-winning documentary Breaking Free. The film, which was shot between 2007 and 2014, tracks the frequently traumatic but always startlingly brave attempts by India’s LGBT activists to eradicate section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes sex with persons of the same gender punishable by law.
The film is an excellent study of the power of activism, tracing the fledgeling LGBT rights movement in India from its initial demand for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1989, right through to its landmark victory in July 2009 with the Delhi High Court verdict making consensual sex between adults legal in private.
We’re taken on a painful, heart-pounding journey, which – as we know – culminated in the devastating December 2013 judgment by India’s Supreme Court to overrule the High Court. You are, by this point, so deeply involved in the lives and dreams of Rangayan’s formidable interviewees that you too feel the depths of their pain at this defeat.
The litany of human rights abuses suffered by India’s LGBT population – frequent beatings, sexual assault and extortion (and that’s just by the police, who we see repeatedly using Section 377 to live out their twisted desires) – is almost unimaginable.
From the testimony of the Hijra who was gang-raped and then set upon by police with batons, to possibly the most devastating scene of all, in which a young woman breaks down as she describes her road sweeper brother who set himself on fire during yet another gang rape by the police, every story captivates and humbles as much as it shocks.
India’s LGBT activists will not be cowed. The war against Section 377 still goes on – and the film concludes with the promise of a brighter future as we see images from scores of demonstrations around the world in support of equality.
Yes, for now, the legal system may have won, but Rangayan’s depiction of a community breaking free from hatred, injustice and self-loathing reminds us that when we work together – our bonds cemented by love and integrity - it is only a matter of time before we triumph over the relics of an evil past.
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