A legal experiment on 'contra naturam' laws

The journal emerged from a pluri-disciplinary inquiry called The Manufacturing of Rights, initiated in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2013 with the NGO Legal Agenda and the art center Ashkal Alwan.

A legacy

As heirs to a secular legal system with a religious imprint, we are subject to the concept and figure of “nature” being used to criminalize individuals for non-reproductive sexual orientations, gender identities, or ways of being. The legal language to support such criminalization often stems from colonial legal codes: the Napoleonic penal code, for example, and various British texts. Defined in some penal codes as an “act against Nature” (Article 534, Lebanon, 1943), “carnal intercourse against the order of Nature” (Section 377, India, 1860) or “carnal knowledge against the order of Nature” (Article 162, Kenya, 1930), these laws often had no cultural translation when they were first introduced in former European colonies. Using this arbitrary concept to divide what is “natural” and “unnatural,” politicians, judges, or religious figures still ascribe to “nature” an undeniable source of authority, enforcing such divisions with the full coercive power of the state. Ultimately, the condemnation of the colonial origins of contra naturam laws is important but insufficient; we bear responsibility for the continuing exercise of these laws in the present.
This authority is arguably based on religious morality: the expression personifies nature as a female figure, “a nurturing mother” whose attributes are laws which impel anyone to obey her; it also refers to nature as a pure environment of chaotic forces separated from and threatened by human action. In both senses, nature’s power is recognized and feared. In fact, the order of nature became a paradigm, a system of beliefs that creates an integrated and unified vision of the world, so convincing that people confuse it with reality. Indebted to Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal’s reader The Moral Authority of Nature, this project identifies nature’s authority as a problem and aims to “shift the focus of inquiry from the existence and (ill) legitimacy of nature’s authority to its jurisdictions and workings.

A legal gesture

In Lebanon, for example, there is no legal document that defines what “against nature” means with regard to the law. Recent cases (in 2009 and 2014) supported by the Beirut-based social-justice organization Legal Agenda demonstrated that judges have the right to interpret the concept of nature in such ways as to dismiss accusations of same-sex relations and sodomy. In 2009, for example, Judge Mounir Suleiman delivered the following verdict, in a criminal case in which two men were accused of violating Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code:

[W]hereas if it were up to the Judge’s decision, we believe that man has not been able to understand all the aspects of the laws of nature and is still trying to explore nature and his own even; whereas based on the aforementioned, the concept of the “unnatural” is related to society’s mindset, customs and its acceptability of new natural patterns which he is not familiar with or that are not acceptable yet; whereas man is part of nature and one of its elements, and a cell within a cell in it, it cannot be said that any practice of his or any behavior of his is against nature even if it is a criminal act because it is the laws of nature. If it rained in summer, if a heat wave struck in winter, or if a tree bore fruit after its usual time, it is all in accordance with the system and laws of nature for it is nature itself.

Based on this precedent, Council proposed The Manufacturing of Rights, a pluri-disciplinary inquiry that unfolds a series of new arguments to show how the concept of nature is imbued with multiple, contradictory meanings used to regulate societal norms. The first sequence of the inquiry led to the organization of a colloquium on May 14–16, 2015 at Ashkal Alwan. Over the course of three days a dozen invited participants from different backgrounds shared legal cases referring to nature with the public, in the form of short speeches, lecture performances, audio pieces, and films.

The Against Nature Journal is the second sequence of this research; building on the Beirut experience it seeks to produce new interpretations of nature and the legal regulation of sexualities and gender identities in a combined program of conversations and a periodical publication.

Text by

  • Aimar Arriola
  • Francesca Bertolotti-Bailey
  • Grégory Castéra
  • Sandra Terdjman

Top image: Judge Mounir Suleiman reading a verdict, xxx