Jamaican AIDS activist, Steve Harvey, was shot dead by a gang of men who burst into his home in late 2005. Soon afterwards, Nokia Cowen, drowned when he jumped into Kingston harbour to escape a violent homophobic mob. A few weeks later, Jamaica’s trade ambassador, Peter King, was found dead with his throat slashed and multiple stab wounds. Then the mutilated bodies of two lesbians were found dumped in a septic pit behind the house they shared.
Homophobic violence is routine in Jamaica – a supposed parliamentary democracy – according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) victims of hate crimes seldom get justice. Police sometimes ignore anti-gay attacks and abuse, threaten, beat and arrest the gay victims.
What is happening in Jamaica is the tip of a global iceberg of homophobic persecution. More than 70 countries continue to outlaw homosexuality, with penalties ranging from one year’s jail to life imprisonment. Six Islamist states impose the death penalty, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and the Yemen. In some provinces of other countries, such as Nigeria and Pakistan, Islamic Sharia law is enforced and lesbians and gays can be stoned to death. Under the new post-Saddam “democratic” Iraqi penal code, people who murder gays and lesbians to defend the “honour” of their family are exempt from punishment.
No international human rights convention acknowledges sexual rights as human rights. The right to love a person of the same sex is not specifically recognised in any international law. There is nothing in UN conventions that explicitly prohibits homophobic discrimination and protects LGBT people. Indeed, an unholy alliance of the Vatican and Islamic states has repeatedly blocked initiatives by Brazil and other countries to condemn queer-bashing violence and discrimination.
Only in the last decade or so has the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) been interpreted to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Since the late 1990s, for example, British LGBT citizens have cited the right to privacy and anti-discrimination clauses of the ECHR to successfully challenge centuries-old anti-gay legislation. Our victories forced the UK government to repeal the unequal age of consent for gay men, homophobic sexual offences laws and the ban on lesbians and gays in the armed forces. ECHR judgments also successfully pressured Romania and Cyprus to decriminalise homosexuality.
There are 192 member states of the UN. So far, only a handful of these have repealed all major legal inequalities against LGBT people: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, New Zealand and, very recently, the UK.
In large parts of the world, homophobia is still rampant. Hundreds of millions of LGBT people 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 recent examples illustrate:
In Nigeria, in 2005, six teenage lesbians, one only 12 years old, were ordered to be punished with an agonising 90 lashes for consensual same-sex relations. In Nepal, dozens of transgender people have been beaten, raped, arrested and detained without trial. Government ministers in Namibia, echoing the homo-hatred of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, have denounced lesbians and gays as unAfrican and as traitors and spreaders of HIV/AIDS.
In Iraq, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism has led to the creeping, de facto imposition of Sharia law, with deadly consequences for LGBTs and for women who refuse to be veiled. The US and UK-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 a campaign of 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; including the hanging, on probably false charges of rape, of two youths in the city of Mashhad in July 2005. Another Iranian, 22 year old Amir, was luckier. He was entrapped via a gay 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 ‘sodomites’. In early 2006, its neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, imposed six years jail on 11 gay men arrested at a private party. They were imprisoned not for sexual acts, but merely for being gay and attending a gay social gathering.
The election of a right-wing, Catholic fundamentalist government in Poland in 2005 resulted in the abolition of the government office for combating discrimination against women and LGBTs. That same year, the Mayor of Poznan banned the Gay Pride parade. LGBT people marched anyway. Over 60 were arrested. Many more were injured after the police failed to protect them from the violence of far right counter-protesters.
Uganda is gripped by the state-sponsored victimisation of LGBT people. Typical is the fate of gay rights activist Kizza Musinguzi. He was jailed in 2004 and subjected to four months of forced labour, water torture, beatings and rape. Another gay Ugandan, Isaac K, narrowly escaped an attempted summary execution by a homophobic mob acting in connivance with local government officials. Those who speak out against anti-gay violence risk dire consequences. 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 UN AIDS agency director for meeting with gay activists.
Despite this oppression, we’ve made huge strides forward in many parts of the world. A mere four decades ago, queers were almost universally seen as mad, bad and sad. Same-sex relations were a sin, a crime and a sickness. It was in only 1991 that the World Health Organisation declassified homosexuality as an illness, and that Amnesty International agreed to campaign for LGBT human rights.
But now, 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.
Much still remains to be achieved. Every government is being asked to legislate for LGBT equality and human rights:
- Decriminalise same-sex relations; in particular, abolish the death penalty and flogging.
- Allow the formation of LGBT organisations and the advocacy of LGBT human rights; and consult with these organisations and advocates when drafting new policies.
- Outlaw discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in employment, housing, education, advertising, health-care and the provision of goods and services, such as hotel accommodation and service in bars and restaurants.
- Establish an equal age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual acts.
- Grant legal recognition and rights to same-sex partners; either via civil marriage or civil unions.
- Teach gay-inclusive sex and civic education in schools, in order to challenge homophobia and promote understanding and acceptance of LGBT people.
- Crackdown on homophobic hate crimes, to protect LGBT from hate-motivated violence.
- Revise all laws to make them sexuality-neutral, so there is no differentiation in legislation between heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.
- Access for same-sex couples to fertility treatment and their eligibility to foster and adopt children.
- Gay-inclusive HIV education and prevention campaigns, non-discriminatory care and support services, and LGBT access to free or low-cost condoms.
Onward, upward and forward to queer liberation worldwide.