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Are some gay people worth more than others in the activism game?

Omar Kuddus asks if LGBTI activism has become dominated by ‘fashions’ and whether a focus on Russia is distracting from the wider struggle for rights

Are some gay people worth more than others in the activism game?

Whilst the world’s and media’s attention is focused on the plight of Russian LGBTIs, we must not forget homosexuality is illegal in 76 countries.

With the Winter Olympics Sochi in 2014 and Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws firmly in place, not a day goes by without some news about the conditions Russian homosexuals face under the heinous anti-gay propaganda laws.

Russia’s anti-gay legislation and homophobic and transphobic climate have drawn condemnation from around the world and many governments. And activists have been targeting Russia Sochi and the multinational companies supporting and endorsing the Winter Olympics to make a stand.

But the plight of fellow LGBTIs in the rest of the world seem to have been ignored.

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), lists over 76 countries with criminal laws against sexual activity by LGBTIs including the infamous seven which carry the death penalty for these ‘offenses’: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – plus some parts of Nigeria and Somalia via Sharia law.

The countries criminalizing homosexuality are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Dominica, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, St Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, São Tomé and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In addition, gay sex is illegal in the Cook Islands (a self-governing democracy in free association with New Zealand), the Gaza Strip in Palestine, and Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.

It’s a long list but it’s worth printing it in full – putting all the names down focuses the eye and the mind on the problem far more effectively than the number alone.

News about the treatment of and against LGBTIs from these countries does sometimes make it into our media (actually Gay Star News is one of the few organisations which reports regularly, rather than tokenistically, on these situations).

But sadly I feel their plights are falling on deaf ears, and all too often horrendous abuses occur without fellow activists or the wider LGBTI community responding with the swift and strong action required.

The recent news from Ghana where the Education Ministry has vowed to severely punish any student caught engaging in ‘homosexual or lesbianism activities’ is a prime example.

The ministry’s threat ‘so when the culprits are found out we will punish them’ received no outrage or worldwide condemnation which would not have been the case had it come from Russia.

Under the Ghana Education Ministry rules and regulations, any penalty for major misconduct is expulsion for the student. A teacher must also take the student to the police station. Gay sex and behavior between men is illegal in Ghana and punishable with up to three years in prison. It is unclear whether same-sex sexual activity among females is illegal.

In April this year, 53 male students were expelled from Ghana high schools for being gay. There was no outrage or flurry of tweets and as far as I can ascertain this was only highlighted in the west by Peter Tatchell and myself.


Tatchell told me: ‘The protests against Russian homophobia are important, but not to the neglect of equal or worse oppression of LGBT people in many developing countries.

‘When there are protests about homophobia in Africa, they are nearly always about Uganda and perhaps Nigeria. But there is also LGBT persecution in Ghana, Zambia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and other African countries too.’

And fellow advocate, the UK-based Nigerian gay rights campaigner Bisi Alimi said: ‘Even when the issues are raised, it becomes a source of self glorification as seen in the case of many western LGBT activists taking credits for the struggle of others – thereby assuming the role of a 21st century messiah.’

The proposal by Kuwait to medically identify gay and transgender foreigners to prevent them from working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries similarly has not had the condemnation it deserves.

In September Bangladesh refused the UN demand to axe its law criminalizing gay sex. This missed opportunity will directly impact millions of people.

As a gay Bangladeshi, I revealed the human cost of the country refusing to repeal its sodomy law in a GSN article.

But Bangladesh’s LGBTIs are forgotten by their western counterparts – there are no mass demonstrations, protests, boycotts, but there is plenty of persecution which should trigger action.

Uganda filled our media with the proposals of the introduction ‘Kill the Gays Bill’. But Uganda now is also ignored as was evident when Uganda police arrested activist Mleuben Maccarthy as he grieved for his mother.

As was the news that police arrested and abused a British ex-pat and former banker Bernard Randell and his alleged Ugandan lover Albert Cheptoyet who went on trial over gay sex videos.

This has also been the case with recent developments for Gambian homosexuals as well as those in Zambia.

In Zambia a judge has ruled an activist will face court for their TV gay rights plea.

And an alleged gay Zambian couple were tortured, jailed without food and water. They have been in prison for months without being tried and their court case – under charges of having gay sex – has been further delayed, meaning they will have to wait even longer before they learn their fate.

Focus is useful in tackling abuses – but we must not make LGBTI rights and activism a ‘fashion’ or a tool to get oneself media attention.

Late last month, my friend and long-time fellow activist Doug Ireland died. He was one of those born to be an advocate. For him, and others like him, activism is a passion – not for the glory or recognition, not as a business but for what they believe to be right and their duty to address the injustices and wrongs fellow LGBTIs face.

The attention and plight of fellow homosexuals in Russia is appalling and needs condemnation – but the west must not forget the plight of others around the world.

It wasn’t long ago Uganda was the ‘hot’ topic – and Nigeria and its LGBTI population were ignored by the west.

The resulting inaction made it easier for the country to vote for the ‘Jail All The Gays’ law, which if enacted will be one of the harshest pieces of anti-gay legislation put in place around the world in decades.

Alimi, Tatchell and I warned of the danger – but our message fell on deaf ears.

Tatchell told me: ‘It has been surprising and depressing the way the “Jail the Gays” bill in Nigeria has received so little coverage or protest. Although it doesn’t include the death penalty, in some respects it is even more repressive than the Ugandan legislation in that it criminalizes gay rights advocacy and organizations.

‘Where is the global LGBT outcry?’

And Alimi said: ‘The increasing cherry picking activism of the west does no-one any good.

‘Like a fashion statement, western LGBT activism has become what is in season and if your plight is not fashionable, you either get missed or just given a little mention in the sea of conversation.

‘More LGBT criminalization goes unreported every day because the militia LGBT movement of the west care less about the issue as it is not sexy enough for them or possibly wont make the desired headlines.’

I fear as the western world concentrates on Russia and symbolically pours vodka down drains, protests against Coca-Cola and asks us to boycott Sochi – proposals incidentally not supported by the most prominent Russian activists including Nikolai Alekseev – the plights of other LGBTIs are being ignored.

Tatchell said: ‘Queer humankind is global. It transcends all borders. We are part of the worldwide LGBT family.

‘When homophobic and transphobic abuse happens in other countries, we should not ignore it. The victims are our LGBT brothers and sisters.

‘International queer solidarity is right and necessary. That’s why the Peter Tatchell Foundation has supported recent protests against LGBT persecution in Cameroon, Jamaica, The Gambia, Uganda, Malawi and other Commonwealth countries.’

We must collectively voice our condemnation against all governments who deny rights to fellow homosexuals, and lobby not only those responsible but our own governments to make a stand against injustices and intolerance.

Nor must we ignore the persecution they face and the stealth laws being introduced to further deny LGBTI people the rights they are entitled to under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as members of the human race.

Activism for the LGBTI cause seems to be becoming segregated and diluted into country-specific causes and we are losing the global picture for equality for all – this must be addressed.

Local activists, who are on the ground, must be respected. And we must amplify the voice of those in Africa and the Middle East and Asia and offer them support. They know what is happening and how we can all help.

We are not second-class citizens. All LGBTIs are equally important and need protecting.

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