News Report: Review of Film Festival

On the inside looking in
-- A frank look at SASOD, Spectrum and the sexual-preference debate in Guyana

Some of my best friends are gay. Seriously. That’s mainly how I found myself at the launching of the SASOD Film Festival two Mondays ago at the Sidewalk Café and Jazz Club in Georgetown.

SASOD – the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination – is currently hosting `Painting the Spectrum’, A Celebration of Love, more specifically gay and lesbian love. The festival consists of the screening of films which feature homosexuality or bisexuality as one of the major themes.

Another important reason why I went is that I had at the time been researching a human interest article on what it is like to be homosexual and bisexual in Guyana. I have had a longstanding interest, I confess, in the issue of these two sexual preferences/choices/states of being. This interest was sparked after picking up a book, several years ago, in the poetry reference section at the National Library, `The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse’.

I found inside that book some of the most personally disturbing and some of the most beautifully crafted poetry I have ever read. From Sappho to Ginsburg, from the pornographic to the sublime, that anthology gave me a glimpse of a parallel human world, possessing all the human beauty and grotesquery that my own offered.

But far more interesting, however, were the few comments scribbled on the front inside cover of the book, alternately for or against different issues, ranging from the appropriateness of the book in the National Library or the sinfulness or lack thereof of homosexuality. I made it a habit of always leaving the book out on a desk and then checking it whenever I went back to see how the debate had progressed. The last time I checked, almost all the inside covers and the two flyleaf pages in the book were overtaken with writing.

It should be said, at this point, that I can tender the fairly inconclusive fact that I live with a beautiful young woman with whom I have a handsome (his mother’s genes) son as admittedly evidence that I am heterosexual. And that my interest in homosexuality and bisexuality is partially academic; and partially out of a perhaps misdirected sense of social justice I have when it comes to the prejudice against gays and lesbians in the Caribbean, Guyana in particular.

Of course I have my prejudices when it comes to gay people. I believe that I am, for example, hardwired to wince whenever I see two men showing public (much-the-less private) displays of affection. No amount of personal tolerance or openness to dialogue is going to change that. Maybe continued exposure might eventually desensitise me, but I don’t feel as if I’ll ever be ready for the marathon session of ‘Queer as Folk’ that that would require.

My prejudices against lesbians are less clear. In fact, I’m not sure if I have any real prejudices against women who prefer to be with other women…except one which I will deal with soon, and which can count as a general prejudice against anyone who deviates too far from the ambit of ‘normal’ heterosexual activity. I suppose my self-confessed ambiguity of judgment concerning lesbians stems from two things: a general societal ambivalence when it comes to women with ‘Sapphic tendencies’ in Guyana; and the ménage-a-trois fantasy that a significant number of men have.

My general prejudice when it comes to same-sex relationships – inclusive of lesbian ones – concerns not any aspect of the sexual act itself but an important corollary, human longing for continuation of species, the desire for parenthood. As open as I am vis-à-vis the issue of legally sanctioned same-sex marriages, I am yet to find any sort of comfort level concerning the parenting of children by same-sex couples.

Why? My argument, simplified, is that non-heterosexual activity is a deviation from the norm – a human deviation I should add, but a deviation all the same. When it comes to children, we should, in my opinion, give them the benefit of the norm (male-female parenting) from birth, since sexual-orientation, while not completely about the actual sex, is primarily about sex, something that is ideally reserved for mature adults. In my opinion, same-sex parenting threatens to skew the development of a child’s sexuality by presenting the deviations (and I do not mean this in any pejorative sense) that are homosexuality and bisexuality as the norm itself.

The Cowardly Lion
Now back to the subject, Spectrum. What was personally interesting to me is that all three films that SASOD screened the first week of the Festival touched separately on the areas of male homosexuality, lesbianism, and same-sex parenting – as if deliberately catering to my general prejudices as outlined above. (See Spectrum mini-review). What was shocking is that the promised discussion about sexuality and the politics about sexual preference in Guyana never happened.

I know a bit about SASOD. During the 2003 furore concerning the proposed inclusion of a clause banning discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual preference, a group called SASOD was at the vanguard of the gay/lesbian defence side of the debate.

The group now calling itself the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination started out then as Students Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, with University of Guyana Law student, Joel Simpson penning most of the letters. The letter-writing campaign was a courageous, almost leonine move then, as Spectrum can be considered as sort of a courageous, almost leonine move now.

From what I’ve seen of the current membership of the new SASOD, the intellectual calibre of the group’s membership – inclusive of the continued presence of Simpson – has not been lowered. They are all above-average intelligent young professionals working with government, private sector, and the international donor community. That is why their inability to stimulate open discussion after each screening is mind-boggling.

At the end of the screening of the third film, one active SASOD member got up and queried whether the movie was nice.

“Was the photography good?” he asked the audience. After a few seconds of non-committal grunting, the proposed discussion petered out. In fact, the most valuable feedback the group got from the audience the entire week was garnered from a badly-designed questionnaire distributed after the screenings.

If anything, Spectrum seems to have simply started the chain of events that will lead to an inevitable shouting match between the group and its opponents, the opponents doing most of the shouting. Evidence enough of this is the scathing letter written by a Roger Williams and published earlier this month in the Guyana Chronicle. Excerpts of Mr. Williams’ October 7 letter:

“Did SASOD receive permission from the Censor Board, and the Police, for the public screening of this pornographic material? Was the fact that the advertisement of this sleaze came only one day before the “festival” started of any significance? Are our children, and communities, at risk?

Contrary to SASOD's flyer, the evidence illustrates that it is a sordid life in the gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender community. Same sex relationships are notorious for the volume of partners involved, used, abused and dumped in the process, and the disproportionate levels of disease they foist upon society….

Guyana’s criminal law prohibits same sex intercourse … for good moral and medical reasons.”

When this article was originally written, I had predicted that SASOD’s response would be well-articulated, well-written, well-researched and…extremely timid. In a letter published in Guyana Chronicle, Monday 10th October, SASOD response begins:

“Film is a visceral artform…”
Luckily for SASOD, one of their biggest opponents in 2003, Bishop Juan Edgehill is now current Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission. I am willing to wager that although Edgehill’s fundamental[ist] position on gays in Guyana – he has the dubious honour of being dubbed Guyana’s anti-gay crusader by several gay/lesbian/transsexual websites – has not changed, it would not do well for the him to be preaching equality on one issue, and intolerance on another.

Still, the debate on homosexuality in Guyana has always been – and from SASOD’s latest ‘volley’ against Williams – one in which the anti-gay activists shout through a megaphone, while SASOD & Co. speak in hushed whispers. But even more importantly – as I mentioned to one of the organisers of Spectrum – on the anti-discrimination side, there has never been any personalisation of the issues.

In addition to knowing about the group, I actually know some of the members of SASOD. I am willing to stake my [perhaps over-inflated] reputation as a journalist that SASOD membership is comprised largely – almost exclusively – of either homosexual or bisexual persons, i.e., people with a vested, personal interest.

My friend – the Spectrum organiser – rationalised that personalisation is going to take away from the objectivity about the debate on human sexuality in Guyana…which I say is bunkum. SASOD can squeak on about inclusivity and tolerance and non-discrimination until the cows come home.

While there is an abundance of intelligence, of intensity towards their ‘cause’, what is common to SASOD’s members and by extension the society itself, is a surfeit of cowardice in regards to representing their position. Until one of its members is brave enough to come out of the closet publicly, to shout “I am gay/lesbian, hear me roar!”, they might as well end all the upper-crust, pseudo-intellectual experimentations, the half-hearted posturing…which is essentially all that Spectrum is.

If not, they’ll continue to be where they have always been when it comes to their place in this society: on the inside looking in.

Painting the Spectrum
– A Mini Review
Monday – My Beautiful Laundrette
The first film shown was `My Beautiful Laundrette’ a quirky drama set in London during the mid nineteen eighties. The film stars Gordon Warnecke as ‘Omar’, a British youth with Pakistani heritage and Daniel Day Lewis as ‘Johnny’, his childhood friend turned punk whom Omar enlists to help him renovate and run a his uncle’s launderette. Despite the automatic wince whenever Omar and Johnny kiss, I was objective enough to notice that `Laundrette’ is a beautifully shot and scored film with a plot that is just complex enough drama to be dubbed as ‘human’ or ‘realistic’ but with mediocre acting by most of the cast with the exception of Lewis and Rita Wolf (Tania).

`Laundrette’ is a poignant love story in which the “wrongness” of Johnny’s and Omar’s affair comes less from its status as a homosexual relationship than the fact that it is an interracial/intercultural one. The seething racism between the Pakistanis and the white Londoners dwarfs any angst that might have come about as a result of the two men being together. Aesthetic considerations aside, one of the highlights of the film was an appearance by Guyanese-born actor Ramjohn Holder, (`Pork-Pie’ of Desmond’s fame) as a scruffy, poet delinquent in his rent to Omar’s uncle.

Tuesday – `little man’
Tuesday, I missed the screening of the second movie, `little man’, by Nicole Conn but went online to look it up anyway. The film is a documentary about the tension that develops between Conn – a lesbian – and her partner when their child being birthed by a surrogate mother is born over three months early. According to online articles and reviews about the film, Conn skilfully follows the initial complications, the birth and the quarrel between her and her girlfriend Gwen whether or not to abort the child. According to one SASOD member whom I spoke to subsequently, unlike `Laundrette’¸ there was actually some post-screening discussion about this film. Notably however, it was about the morality of abortion as opposed to morality of the lesbian relationship around which the film is centred.

Wednesday – `When Night is Falling’
I missed most of the third film `When Night is Falling’, but fortunately I had seen it before. The film is around an uptight religious studies student-teacher, Camille who goes through an existential epiphany of sorts when her dog dies. She realises that she might not be all that hot under the chemise for the man she is about to marry, Martin, and may in fact be falling for an alluring female circus performer she had just met. Again, as was the case with `My Beautiful Laundrette’, there is sensitive writing, a nice plot, good cinematography but sub-standard acting. The added allure of this film is its sensuality though both between Camille and Martin and Camille and Petra.

My favourite scene in this film was when Camille tries to confess her Sapphic sins to a patronising church elder.

Reverend DeBoer: Yes, I think we have been guilty of homophobic cruelty, and, excluded people like you, in the past.

Camille: People like me.
From the Guyana Chronicle:
Tags: NewspaperGuyana ChronicleProfile PhotosEvent