Punished for being your self

Punished for being your self

30 Sep 2009

dennis-altman Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

Originally published in The Age on 30 September, 2009

The current president of the United Nations General Assembly, Libya's Ali Abdus-salam Treki, has proclaimed that being gay "is not acceptable".

Leave aside the bad joke that allows the representative of a nasty dictatorial regime to chair the assembly, Treki's comments echo a wave of homophobia that appears to be a strengthening theme in global politics.

In the past week there have been scary reports of mass rapes of suspected lesbians in South Africa, and systematic persecution and killings of suspected homosexuals in Iraq. The week before, a planned gay rights march in Belgrade was cancelled because the Serbian police claimed they could not protect the marchers from attacks from right-wing protesters.

The South African cases, which have resulted in several women being killed, remind us that even in countries with legal protection against discrimination and South Africa was the first country to include sexual rights within its constitution traditional assumptions about sex and gender are used to justify appalling brutality.

In Iraq the justifications for killings are religious, and globally there is a tacit alliance between organised Islam and the Catholic Church to prevent what is feared as the legitimisation of homosexuality. Ironically, Islamic countries such as Iran, which have a long tradition of homoerotic literature, now lead the world in criminalising, and in some cases executing, people for homosexual behaviour.

The world has never been as divided in attitudes towards homosexuality. In all Western countries legal prohibitions have been removed, and in some same-sex marriage has become legal. Openly homosexual politicians are increasingly evident, and no mainstream television series seems to be without its gay and lesbian characters.

For many political and religious leaders who dislike what they see as the unnecessary freedoms and hedonism of the West, homosexuality has become a crucial touchstone.

We should not be surprised that regimes such as those of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi rail against homosexuality, which they invoke as a symbol of Westernisation, unlike, for example, shopping malls or DVDs, which they embrace.

Several years ago Brazil, which has an interesting combination of progressive policies arid considerable homophobic violence, led a move to include sexuality within the purview of international human rights.

An attempt to declare that international human rights should include protection of sexual orientation and gender identity gained 66 votes in the UN, with support coming from almost all Western countries, but only three Asian states: Japan, Nepal and East Timor.

The Bush administration did not vote for the resolution (Australia did), but the Obama Administration has changed its position. At a speech earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the US was now engaged in tracking violence against "the LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual arid transgender) community", and that the US would push for a Security Council resolution on sexual and gender violence.

In her speech, Clinton named Brazil, France, Sweden and the Netherlands as partners in this work. For all our closeness to the US it is striking that Australia is not seen as a partner, although our influence within Asia and the Pacific should make us an important partner in expanding human rights in this area. As reports of homophobic violence mount globally both our politicians arid our non-government organisations remain seemingly unconcerned.

Other than Amnesty, I am unaware of any significant non-gay group in Australia taking up the issue, and I can find no statement from either the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister equivalent to that made by Clinton in her address to the Roosevelt Institute.

Yet the scope for winning support within the region is far greater than might be imagined. At last month's regional AIDS Conference in Bali, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke of Government support for "networks of gay, transgender and men who have sex with men". The Indian High Court has now overturned the colonial laws that criminalised sodomy, and there are moves to follow suit in Papua New Guinea. In practice, many governments in east and South-East Asia have supported groups working within homosexual communities to prevent the spread of HIV, now a major issue for homosexual men across the region.

For most people, homosexual rights seems a minor issue, a distraction from bigger concerns such as global warming and world poverty. But rights are not divisible, and our commitment to them is most tested in the case of people who are marginalised and oppressed.

When the General Assembly rejected the Brazilian motion it did adopt a resolution that condemned killings based on sexual orientation (although 60 countries still voted to delete that part of a larger resolution on extrajudicial executions).

There is an urgency to hold governments to account for their failures to enforce what is surely one of the most basic human rights of all, protection from murder and torture based on one's identity.

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