Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia

60 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2004 Last revised: 6 Apr 2008

See all articles by Larry Catá Backer

Larry Catá Backer

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law


This paper focuses on an area of study largely neglected in feminist theory - the development of gender differentiation within masculinity, and its application in law in three socio-culturally distinct communities. In the United States, rumors of homosexuality surfaced in the non-elite press to demonize and explain the motivation of Mohammed Atta, one of the suicide pilots of September 11, 2001, Jonathon Walker Lindh, the American Taliban and John Mohammed and Lee Boyd (John) Malvo, the D.C. snipers of 2002. In Zimbabwe, the sodomy trial of Zimbabwe's first President provided a focal point for the campaign to de-colonize the law of Zimbabwe from an effeminate corrupting foreign law and reinforce rulings on the gendered consequences of a reconstituted customary law. In Malaysia, the Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was convicted of corruption and sodomy, in actions instigated by the Prime Minister, after Anwar had criticized him for political and economic corruption. Within a variety of very distinct cultures, certain male wrongdoers are also represented as homosexual. This characterization draws upon a locally powerful logic, which varies with the cultural context. The insertion of allegations of sexual deviance in each case serves to amplify and fix the other allegations of consequentially bad behavior. This process reiterates the deviant nature of homosexuality, and reinforces the association of homosexual behavior with characteristics that are undesirable in men specifically and people in a more general sense. Since proscriptions of homosexuality at their core seek to prohibit particular behavior that appears to invert a natural order based on conceptions of appropriate gender behavior, the homosexual accusation functions to conflate undesirable characteristics - weakness, illness, corruption or impurity - with defective manhood, and thus with the not-male. Ironically, strengthening this association enables the gendered foundations of behavior regulation without a loss of its regulatory power. Thus, the gendered character of behavior norms disappears, in neutral discourse: science in the U.S., customary law in Zimbabwe, and Islam in Malaysia. Though such systems of conflation appears to affect only relations between men, in actuality, the power of gendering behavior among men has strong spillover effects on all social ordering. Behavior or expectations unreasonable for men will be generalized for the population as a whole as necessarily undesirable and gendered female or not-male. Because each of these episodes takes place on a legal stage, they each give force to a system based on gendered behavior and the association of that gender system with locally powerful logics. This in turn authenticates and legitimizes the resulting conduct system in the neutral terms of the culture in which it is served up. Memorialized as law, the political system can then embrace gendered behavior in culturally acceptable non-gendered terms.

Keywords: Gender, comparative law, sodomy, feminist theory, cultural studies

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K14, K19, K39, K42, Z10

Suggested Citation

Backer, Larry Catá, Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=618863

Larry Catá Backer (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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