Third World Gays Organize and Take on the World!

Third World Gays Organize and Take on the World!
By Talia Whyte

Copyright 2005, Talia Whyte, All Rights Reserved.

While US gay rights activists celebrate the first anniversary of legalized same sex marriage in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, another landmark in gay rights history is being commemorated this month on the other side of the world. On the evening of May 11, 2001, over 60 Egyptian men were arrested in Cairo for perceived or actual homosexuality in various locations. More than half of these men were detained on a popular gay boat cruise called the Queen Boat. In June 2001, 52 of them were referred by the Egyptian presidential decree to the Emergency State Security Court for Misdemeanors in Cairo, an exceptional court established under emergency legislation.

Human rights activists and the Cairo 52, as the men would later be referred to, accused the Egyptian police of violating the UN Convention against Torture. While these men were imprisoned, they accused Egyptian officials of daily beatings. They also accused the media of exposing family members of the men to the risk of harassment and threats to their physical being.

The following November the court sentenced 23 men to prison terms of between one and five years. Twenty-one were convicted of 'habitual debauchery', one of 'contempt of religion' and another on both charges. There is no law against homosexuality in Egypt so the Egyptian government officially accused the men of committing crimes of debauchery.

Following international outrage Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak ordered a new trial. In June 2003 an appeals court in Egypt either reduced the sentences or released some of the men.

The right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual orientation, is recognized in international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party.

Ironically, progressive activists claim that Egypt and the rest of the Middle East used to be more tolerant of homosexuality. It was said that it was an open secret that gay men congregated freely in designated areas in Cairo for many years until more religious conservatives came to power under Hosni Mubarak.

This irony is also said about most countries in the Global South. Many postcolonial scholars chronicle that homosexuality used to be an acceptable lifestyle in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean before Europeans imported homophobia through Western religious indoctrination and colonization.

The documentary Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World, which will be released on DVD May 24, relives the events that occurred during the "Queen Boat" trial. Ashraf Zanati, one of the Cairo 52 who later sought asylum in Vancouver, tells his story.

"My sexuality is my own sexuality," says Zanati in the film, " It doesn’t belong to anybody. Not to my government, not to my brother, my sister, my family. No one."

While the film focuses mainly on the Cairo 52, it also takes a in-depth look at LGBT repression in the rest of the Global South and the growing international movement fighting for equality and tolerance. Most importantly the film points out how little the Western media covers the atrocities gays in the Global South have to deal with on a regular basis. Even the ‘Queen Boat’ trial received limited coverage, despite massive protests from international human rights advocates such as Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank.

The film interviews some of the fiercest gay activists you probably have never heard of in your local newspaper. Dilcia Molina, a Honduran lesbian mother who had the courage to participate in her city’s pride march without her face covered, had her family attacked by military police.

"One of the men grabbed my son and cut his face with a knife," says Molina in the film, "Those men were looking for me. They were going to rape me to take the lesbian out of me."

The ever-festering homophobia in Jamaica is also up for some discussion in the film. Coincidentally since the film was completed, international gay and human rights organizations have shifted the spotlight from Egypt to Jamaica. This has not gone unnoticed by traditionalist Jamaicans. Many Jamaicans feel that the efforts of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to point out alleged abuses against Jamaican gays and lesbians is another way of enforcing Western values and 'sovereignty' on a predominately black country.

The violent tension on the Caribbean island between gay activists and Jamaican conservatives culminated last June when Brian Williamson, founder of gay rights group Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), was brutally murdered in his Kingston home. The murderer has never been found. While many Jamaicans maintain that Williamson was either murdered by a jealous ex-lover or a thieve, Williamson's friends and colleagues think the murderer had anti-gay intentions and is receiving protection by others in the community.

Larry Chang, a gay Jamaican and friend of Williamson who is also featured in the film, received asylum in the US last year and still is working for equal rights from his home in New York.

"I have the distinction of being the first Jamaican to come out, but I think it was purely accidental," cried Chang at a Amnesty International protest at the Jamaican Consulate in New York last month, "The homophobia in this country [Jamaica] is affecting everyone - gay, straight, man, woman and child - because of this AIDS issue."

He is referring to the recent Human Rights Watch report, Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic, which concludes that the country's sodomy laws, combined with the island's macho-masculine mentality and homophobic lyrics by top reggae stars, are creating a major public health crisis by stigmatizing HIV victims and the medical professionals who treat them. Many Jamaicans equate AIDS to homosexuality and this makes it difficult to deal with those who have any association with the disease.

The Jamaican government rejects the claims in the report. The government strongly supports it sodomy laws, which were maintained from Britain after the country's independence in 1962. At a recent panel discussion in New York Dr Gordon Shirley, Jamaica's Ambassador to the US, reaffirmed the government's position stating, "The government finds it necessary to respond to this report, which provides misleading information with inflammatory and sweeping statements, which undermine the efforts of local persons in the fight against HIV/AIDS." The ambassador further argued that the report has "failed to realize the complexity of dealing with the religious and cultural traditions in a society such as ours."

But Julius Powell, a gay Jamaican who works for the New York AIDS Coalition, sees it differently.

"The Ambassador admits 'pockets of stigma and discrimination exist,' and that the government recognized that acts of discrimination will be severely penalized," said Powell, "But he failed to admit that some 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) persons have been brutally murdered in Jamaica since 1980 as a result of their perceived sexual orientation. What the government of Jamaica fails to realize is that Jamaica's sodomy laws supports a victimless 'crime,' that the law is used disproportionately against homosexual men, and that it is seen by gay rights advocates and groups which support targeted prevention efforts among men who have sex with men as being exceptional, arbitrary and prejudicial. The maintenance of Jamaica’s sodomy laws is a violation of international human rights law in that it violates the right to privacy."

While these human rights abuses portray a very grime picture of the state of gay rights outside of the West, Dangerous Living gives a glimmer of hope for what is to come from these brave advocates. From Manila to Harare, from Sao Paulo to Tehran, and all points in between, the LGBT community in the Global South is a force not to be reckon with no more. Rodney Lutalo, a gay activist in Kenya, was imprisoned and beaten for his efforts in diversity education. "We can only go through this world by educating, not by hating," says Lutalo in the film, "The best will of revenge is forgiveness. For those who hated me, I forgive them."


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