Homophobia’s Role in Torture at Abu Ghraib

The old adage that a picture says more than a thousand words holds true in the recent release of a barrage of photos depicting the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, one of the most notorious prisons in the world.

And while top administrators in the Defense Department prefer to excuse this as an anomaly — due to lack of training, and a problem contained solely within the 800th Military Police Brigade — these lurid and sadistic photos of Iraqi detainees in compromising positions are snapshot moments of a pervasive and systemic problem. The U.S. has historically had, and continues to have, a problem in understanding how to humanely treat the “other” with dignity, whether in captivity or not.

The photos taken in those moments at Abu Ghraib also show the U.S.’s continued employment of sexual violence — both intentionally misogynistic and homophobic — to defile, humiliate, or, in military terms, “break the will” of its enemies.

The sexual content of many of the abuses, with women in the photos as the perpetrators, send the wrong message to its viewers about how gender and power in the military can be perceived as a non-issue.

And images of the woman dubbed now as Iraqi’s “queen of mean,” Army Private First Class (Pfc.) Lynndie England, shown in several disturbing photos assaulting prisoners on several occasions, will be indelibly etched in the historical memory of this invasion. In a sadomasochistic scene, we see England in a photo as a dominatrix holding a dog leash that encircles the neck of a naked detainee lying on his side on a cellblock floor.

In another image, Pfc. England and her boyfriend, Specialist (Spc.) Charles Graner, are smiling for the camera and giving thumbs-up behind several hooded naked Iraqi men clumsily piled in a pyramid.

And in another, England, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving the thumbs-up as she leans forward and points at the genitals of a naked detainee with a sandbag over his head being forced to masturbate in front of her.

The photos taken in those moments at Abu Ghraib also show the U.S.’s continued employment of sexual violence — both intentionally misogynistic and homophobic — to defile, humiliate, or, in military terms, “break the will” of its enemies.

With news of this abuse sending shock waves around the world, the photos of England and other women, like Spc. Sabrina Harman and Spc. Megan Ambuhl, apparently at the helm of it was disturbing.

“I was told to stand there, point thumbs up, look at the camera, take the picture. . . They just told us, ‘Hey, you’re doing great, keep it up,’” England told Denver television station KCNC-TV.

Women as visible symbols of abuse in this scandal points to not only how the military prison system used women to shame Muslim men and send shock waves throughout the Islamic world, but how the military system also uses women to show that they are just like the men in their abuse of power.

However, could England and the other women say no to a chain of command that could not only dishonorably discharge them but also subject them to the same type of sexual violence exacted on the Iraqi detainees. The threat of sexual violence against women serving in the military is ever-present, whether they are captured by their enemies or in the company of their fellow male soldiers.

The sexual nature of many of the acts being homosexual, and therefore transgressive and disgusting among Iraqi men, clearly points to the homophobia in Islamic law.

But it also points to the U.S. military’s employment of forced homosexual acts — real or simulated — on its prisoners to control, torture and interrogate them. U.S. soldiers know that the way to degrade Arab men is to force them to engage in homosexual acts, which is against Islamic law, as it is for Islamic men to be nude in front of each other.

Bernal Haykel, professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, explained to The New Yorker that “Being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other — it’s all a form of torture.”

The photo of an unhooded detainee kneeling with his mouth open to give the impression that he is performing oral sex on another detainee is done to not only humiliate the men but also to cast gay sex as reprehensible and as a form of twisted entertainment.

The photo of an unhooded detainee kneeling with his mouth open to give the impression that he is performing oral sex on another detainee is done to not only humiliate the men but also to cast gay sex as reprehensible and as a form of twisted entertainment.

And it is not only an insult to all the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service people in Iraqi, but it is also a reminder of how unsafe it is for them to be with their fellow service men.

In an op-ed piece in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Patrick Moore, author of Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, wrote:

Witnessing one’s very identity being utilized as an extreme form of torture that has evoked worldwide rage is a degrading experience for those of us living in the supposedly more enlightened Western World. For the closeted gay men and lesbians serving in the military, it must evoke deep shame. Gay men should be at the forefront of outraged protesting against these war crimes, as we all will ultimately pay the price for our sexuality being further stigmatized.

It is too easy, simplistic and morally irresponsible to lapse into historical amnesia about the military’s treatment of women and LGBT people.

While it shocks and awes us all to see our young men and women implicated in horrific acts of sexual abuse, let us remember that they are weaned in a military culture that breeds it.

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