Labels and assumptions – and single stories

Pride parade in Uganda
Pride parade in Uganda

This blog has been surging up in me all day –more like festering, actually. It started with a Facebook post by one of my friends of a small group of courageous Ugandans having a Pride parade. Recently Uganda has passed laws that have made extreme penalties for homosexuals. These folks were risking a lot to openly declare their support for same sex relationships.

At the same sitting I came across a CBC article by Neil MacDonald talking about the power of words and their interpretation. He was referring to the name Redskins as a football team and how that carries a stereotypic racial connotation that is insulting and degrading to North American native people. He also, in the article listed all the initials that are now used to label in some way people of various sexual persuasion – LGBTTIQQ2SA – or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, 2-spirited, and Asexual.  Are there any letters left? And does this really even include everyone? Can anything as complicated as sexual identification or feelings be reduced to a single letter or word? One single story to determine who we are?

I suspect that each person has their own sexual personality, as unique as any other part of them. No label or initial can adequately or accurately describe that. We are humans. Humans are all sexual (or perhaps asexual) but that is the extent of the categorization that I think can be made. What individuals do with their sexual feelings, as long as it is consensual and respectful, is their own business and really ought not to need a label. So can we get rid of all these restrictive labels, please? Give us back the alphabet.

In Uganda, there has been a lot of public propaganda against homosexuals, generally initiated by American-based, right-wing, Evangelical, Christian groups. Gays are depicted as people who chose their orientation and who are out to convert others to their depraved sexual practices. How silly is this? Yet, even the Ugandan government has reacted to this position by passing the recent draconian laws.

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Because as much as I abhor this position, just like I don’t think homosexuals should be labeled, I don’t want to label all evangelical Christians as hateful, bigots…or all Ugandans as intolerant. Unfortunately, however, our human tendency is to pick a descriptive label and then make general assumptions about an individual based on the label.

I am a male, white-haired, senior, Canadian physician. Describing me as that will help pick me out in a crowd from a young native woman. So using words descriptively has a purpose. But please don’t make any assumptions about who I am as a person based on that description. I might surprise you. (There was also a video on Facebook of three 70-year-olds dancing with a caption suggesting how awesome it was that they still wanted to dance, let alone to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.)

It was refreshing to have our recent election campaign in Ontario not even mention that one candidate for Premier is lesbian. No one cared. It was not an issue. She, herself, identifies publicly that way but it is not a label that pertains in any way to her abilities as a politician. And she won a majority government.

To end my afternoon I went out on my balcony to have a drink and watch a wedding unfold by the waterfront in front of my apartment building. Guests were arriving, all dressed up. Kids in suits and girls in party dresses. A big white limo drew up. The minister stood waiting for the couple to arrive. Bridesmaids walked down the aisle. There were flower girls. Everyone smiling.

Time for the bride to arrive. Out of the limo arose a young woman in a white strapless dress. She slowly walked down the aisle and stood at the front. Then another woman and her father got out of the stretch limo. Another bride. He walked her down the aisle and kissed her on the cheek and presented her to the other woman.

Two brides

I had assumed this would be a wedding with a bride and a groom. I was wrong. These two women exchanged vows with their friends and family supporting them in this commitment. The ceremony ended with cheers and applause.

I was surprised and reminded that I had made assumptions that were subsequently upended. I don’t know this couple but I wish them well. I am so glad to live in Canada.

Now this isn’t just about sexuality.  It refers to all labels that we might put on people, reducing them to a single story. In a Ted Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story” (linked below…i highly recommend it), an African woman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says ” The single story creates stereotypes and the problem of stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete… the single story robs people of dignity… It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

P.S. As a result of my rumination today, I am going to try to be aware of when I am consciously or subconsciously labelling anyone, reducing them to a single story. I know I do. We all do. I am going to try to stop.

An African solution to an African problem…

When I visited my friends, the Moiko’s, in Kenya in January they were having a problem. They are a typical (modern) Maasai family who, in addition to pursuing higher education and communicating with their iPhones and on Facebook, continue to raise cattle. Traditionally, the Maasai have had a strong link with their herds of cows and most of their typical day revolved around tending to their cattle as their main investment. Finding water and grass for their herds, often when water and pasture is scarce, milking the cows in the morning and evening and protecting them from predator animals took most of the Massai herdsman’s time.

img maasai bomaIn many parts of Kenya and Tanzania, there are Maasai villages that continue in this tradition. People live in bomas, small collections of mud huts around a central paddock where the animals are kept overnight. During the day, the women look after the children, collect firewood and water, cook and repair the homes while the men and boys take the cattle and goats out to graze.

At Stephen’s place, the children are up early to catch the school bus and Stephen goes off in his car to work at a Food Security program as he finishes his work on a PhD from McGill in Montreal. But at home, there are still the cattle to manage. Hired herdsmen look after the cows and goats but the family still goes to the paddock in the evening to inspect the livestock and milk the cows. It is a nice mixture of modern life with the traditional. I imagine that this blend is not easy to maintain.

In rural areas, Maasai men, dress traditionally and periodically meet together to "eat meat" and discuss community problems, like predators attacking their cattle.

In rural areas, Maasai men, dress traditionally and periodically meet together to “eat meat” and discuss community problems, like predators attacking their cattle.

One of the problems in more rural settings is with predators attacking the cattle. I remember dropping in to a clinic at Talek, near the Maasai Mara, only to be drawn into the small treatment room by the local health care provider who was covered in blood as he sewed up the wounds of a young Maasai fellow who had been mauled by a lion he was chasing away from his cattle.

Nearer to Nairobi, the risk of these larger predators is not as great although I do recall Stephen’s daughter telling me of having to walk past a cheetah on her way up the driveway one day as she came home from school.

The recent problem for Stephen is buffalo that come down from the Ngong Hills to a salt lick in his pasture. They break down the fence and they eat the grass. Buffalo are also a significant security risk as they can be ornery beasts, dangerous to humans. When I visited in January, Stephen was getting tired of mending the fence and wondering what to do.

Well it seems that not far away other Maasai were having similar problems with lions. And this boy came up with a solution. Check it out. I wonder if it will work for Stephen’s buffalo problem.