While cities around the world hosted upbeat gay pride parades in recent weeks, human-rights activists kept watch on a contrasting set of developments: gays beaten by demonstrators in Moscow, convicted on sodomy charges in Cameroon, targeted by sweeping anti-gay legislation in Nigeria.
“It shows there are still dangers in just being gay — and dangers in speaking out,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
“You need people willing to stand up and claim their space, even against tremendous odds — country by country, city by city.”
Ettelbrick’s commission, along with other human rights groups and some members of Congress, are intensifying their efforts to monitor and protest abuses and oppression of gays and lesbians overseas. Results have been mixed.
A crime punishable by death?
Regions of concern include Africa, where many politicians engage in anti-gay rhetoric; Islamic countries where gay sex is illegal and sometimes punishable by death; and certain Eastern European countries where gay pride marches have been banned or targeted by harassment and violence.
“In a lot of countries, you’ve got gays and lesbians enjoying new visibility, but at the same time the opposition forces become more angry,” said Scott Long of Human Rights Watch. “People need to be aware of the possible backlash.”
Among the recent incidents:
—In Moscow, gay activists were pummeled by right-wing protesters and detained by police on May 27 when they tried to gather after the city banned a gay pride parade. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov says he will ban such parades as long as he holds office.
More than 30 members of Congress signed a letter asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to condemn the anti-gay violence.
—In Cameroon, where gay sex is punishable by up to five years in prison, seven men were jailed more than a year before being convicted three weeks ago on sodomy charges. Human rights groups say the men were abused in prison and convicted despite lack of evidence.
Ettelbrick’s organization also says many youths have been expelled from schools in Cameroon on suspicion of homosexual behavior. Closeted gays have been targeted by the West African country’s tabloid newspapers, which claim to have “outed” several dozen prominent people.
—Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has proposed a bill that would criminalize same-sex relationships — imposing prison terms for not only for gays or lesbians who have sex, but also for organizers of gay rights groups and participants in same-sex marriage ceremonies.
“In Africa, politicians trying to shore themselves up see homophobia as a useful thing to exploit,” Long said.
Cut in finacial aid threatened
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of three openly gay members of Congress, wrote to Obasanjo in May, warning he might reconsider his support for U.S. aid to Nigeria unless the legislation was withdrawn.
—Frank and five other members of Congress also protested the convictions and imprisonment of 11 men arrested in November at what police in the United Arab Emirates called a mass gay wedding. Initially, authorities said the men would be tested for male hormone levels and might face hormone injections, though these procedures did not occur.
—In Jamaica, which outlaws gay sex, gays are frequent targets of attacks and harassment. The Caribbean island’s best-known gay activist was murdered in 2004 by an assailant wielding an ice pick; a gay man who counseled people with AIDS was shot dead last year.
—Iran is a constant concern to activists because of recurring reports of men being executed for gay sex. A pending Human Rights Watch investigation has verified that such executions occur, Long said, though it is difficult to gauge how frequently.
“The minimum you’ll face is torture in jail or court-ordered floggings,” he said of gays arrested in Iran.
Government takes note of intolerance
U.S. activists were pleased this year when the State Department’s annual worldwide human rights report devoted more attention than usual to problems gays face. Even Frank, who disagrees with most Bush administration policies on gay issues, took note.
Worldwide, Frank said, “things are getting better, but not fast enough.”
Eastern Europe has become one of the most intriguing gay rights battlegrounds, as activists in several countries confront conservative political and religious leaders who disdain Western Europe’s gay-friendly policies.
In Poland, about 3,000 people marched peacefully three weeks ago in Warsaw’s annual gay rights march, an event marked in previous years by violence and official bans. Former Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski, now Poland’s president, refused to grant permits for the parade in 2004 and 2005, saying such events threatened Polish society.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution in mid-June asserting that homophobia is on the rise in Poland.
Latvian lawmakers have approved a constitutional ban on marriage for same-sex couples and refused to outlaw workplace discrimination against gays, despite concerns that European Union policies require such a law. Last year, hundreds of anti-gay demonstrators jeered and hurled debris at marchers in Latvia’s first gay pride parade.
Allan Carlson, a conservative American scholar organizing a World Congress of Families in Warsaw next year, says Polish and Latvian authorities should discourage anti-gay violence, but he supports their efforts to resist the gay-rights and gay-marriage movements sweeping Western Europe.
“The pressure on these countries will be enormous,” he said. “They see the promotion of gay culture as one more ideological threat to their values.”