Opinion: Gay rights go global

Updated on
The World

LONDON, U.K. — A new bill before the Ugandan parliament proposes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and “serial offenders.” A sentence of life imprisonment will be imposed for touching a person with homosexual intent. Membership in gay organizations, advocacy of gay human rights and the provision of condoms or safer sex advice to gay people will result in seven years jail for “promoting” homosexuality. Failing to report violators to the police within 24 hours would incur three years behind bars. The new legislation will also apply to Ugandans who commit these "crimes" while living abroad, in countries where such behavior is not a criminal offense.

Over the last few years, Uganda has stepped up its victimization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, often at the behest of Christian leaders who are aided and funded by right-wing evangelical churches in the U.S.

Typical is the fate of gay rights activist Kizza Musinguzi. He was jailed in 2004 and subjected to four months of forced labor, water torture, beatings and rape. Any Ugandan who speaks out against anti-gay violence faces dire consequences. A heterosexual Anglican bishop, Christopher Ssenyonjo, was expelled from the Church of Uganda for defending the human rights of LGBT people. In recent years, the Ugandan government has passed a law banning same-sex marriage, fined Radio Simba for broadcasting a discussion of LGBT issues and expelled a UNAIDS agency director for meeting with gay campaigners.

Similar homophobic persecution is happening elsewhere in Africa, from Nigeria to Cameroon, Burundi, Rwanda and Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh has called for sexual cleansing. He has promised "stricter laws than Iran" on homosexuality, and has begun his witch-hunt by ordering LGBT people to leave the country and threatening to "cut off the head" of any homosexual who remains.

One hindrance to LGBT rights is that no international human rights convention specifically acknowledges sexual rights as human rights. None explicitly guarantee equality and non-discrimination to LGBT people. The right to love a person of one’s choice is wholly absent from global humanitarian statutes. Relationships between partners of the same sex is not specifically recognized in any international law. There is nothing in any of the many U.N. conventions that explicitly prohibits homophobic discrimination and protects LGBT people.

Of the 192 member states of the U.N., only a handful come close to giving full equality and protection against discrimination to LGBT people: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K.

In much of the world, homophobia is still rampant. About 80 countries continue to outlaw homosexuality, with penalties ranging from one year’s jail to life imprisonment. More than half of these countries were former British colonies. Their anti-gay laws were originally imposed by the British in the 19th century, during the period of colonial rule. These homophobic laws, which were retained after independence, are wrecking the lives of LGBT people.

Six Islamist states impose the death penalty, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania and Sudan. In some provinces of other countries, such as Nigeria and Pakistan, Islamic Shariah law is enforced and lesbians and gays can be stoned to death. Hundreds of millions of LGBT people worldwide are forced to hide their sexuality fearing ostracism, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, torture and even murder. Some of this violence is perpetrated by vigilantes, including right-wing death squads in countries like Mexico and Brazil. They justify the killing of queers as "social cleansing." Other homophobic persecution is encouraged and enforced by governments, police, courts, media and religious leaders, as these examples illustrate:

In the new post-Saddam Hussein “democratic” Iraq, people who murder LGBTs to defend the “honor” of their family invariably escape punishment. The rise of Islamist fundamentalism has led to the creeping, de facto imposition of Shariah law, with deadly consequences for LGBTs and for women who refuse to be veiled. The U.S. and U.K.-backed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a fatwa calling for the execution of lesbians and gays in the “worst, most severe way possible.” Islamist death squads of the Badr and Sadr militias are assassinating LGBT people with impunity.

Russian religious leaders have united to orchestrate hatred against the LGBT community. The Orthodox Church has denounced homosexuality as a "sin which destroys human beings and condemns them to a spiritual death." The Chief Mufti of Russia ‘s Muslims, Talgat Tajuddin, says gay campaigners “should be bashed … . Sexual minorities have no rights, because they have crossed the line. Alternative sexuality is a crime against God.” Russian Chief Rabbi, Berl Lazar, has condemned gay pride parades as “a blow for morality," adding that there is no right to “sexual perversions."

The Iranian persecution of LGBTs continues unabated. Twenty-two-year-old Amir was entrapped via a gay dating website. The person he arranged to meet turned out to be a member of the morality police. Amir was jailed, tortured and sentenced to 100 lashes, which caused him to lose consciousness and left his whole back covered in huge bloody welts.

The Western-backed regime in Saudi Arabia retains the death penalty (usually beheading) for homosexuality. In early 2006, its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, imposed six years jail on 11 gay men arrested at a private party. They were not imprisoned for sexual acts, but merely for being gay and attending a gay social gathering.

Despite this oppression, LGBT people have made huge gains in many parts of the world. A mere four decades ago, LGBTs were almost universally seen as mad, bad and sad. Same-sex relations were a sin, a crime and a sickness nearly everywhere. It was only in 1991 that the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as an illness and that Amnesty International agreed to campaign for LGBT human rights.

Last December, something truly historic happened. Sixty-six countries signed a United Nations’ statement calling for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality and condemning homophobic discrimination and violence. This was the first time the U.N. General Assembly had ever considered the issue of LGBT human rights. Previously, all attempts to get the U.N. to endorse gay equality had been blocked by an unholy alliance of the Vatican and Islamic states.

Now, at last, in almost every country on earth, there are LGBT freedom movements — some open, others clandestine. For the first time ever, countries like the Philippines, Estonia, Lebanon, Columbia, Russia, Sri Lanka and China are hosting LGBT conferences and Pride
celebrations. Via the internet and pop culture, LGBT people in small towns in Ghana, Peru, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Vietnam, St Lucia, Palestine, Fiji and Kenya are connecting with the worldwide LGBT community. The struggle for LGBT liberation has gone global. We’ve begun to roll back the homophobia of centuries. Bravo!

Peter Tatchell has campaigned for LGBT human rights for 40 years. For more information about his campaigns: www.petertatchell.net.

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