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Opinion: To struggle for gay rights is to struggle for all rights

Basic rights and freedoms are for all people.

(Photo by Reuters)

NEW YORK — The email came to Human Rights Watch anonymously, late one night.

“I am a gay, working in Saudi Arabia … last night me and my friends were in the shopping mall and suddenly the Saudi police attack us and arrested my friend Mu’ayyad and I managed to run away … He is in jail and they are treating him like an animal, they abuse him and hit him every minute, please we don't have any hope …”

From our office in New York, we spent days trying to find a Saudi lawyer for this man. When he was eventually freed, we worked with refugee organizations to help him escape the country. A few months later, I visited him in Jordan, where he’d found temporary shelter. He spoke haltingly of his ordeal: picked up by the Saudi religious police because they thought his T-shirt suspiciously tight, his walk too “feminine.” They tortured him and tried to rape him in his prison cell.

Mu’ayyad was an Iraqi, not a Saudi citizen. He’d been forced to flee Baghdad for the relative safety of Riyadh a year earlier. When his relatives in Iraq had learned he was gay, his entire extended family vowed to kill him.

As a refugee, Mu’ayyad was finally able to resettle in the United States. We only learned his story by accident: because his lonely, terrified friend sent out an email in the dark.

Many such stories happen. Most remain in darkness. Around the world, few places are safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Some 80 countries criminalize consensual homosexual sex. Over half of them, from Malaysia to Jamaica, are clinging to repressive laws on “sodomy” that were left behind by British colonialism. The United States itself only scrapped its own such laws seven years ago.

New legal repression threatens. Uganda, not content with the law the British left, is debating a draconian “anti-homosexuality bill” that would inflict the death penalty on repeat offenders. “Promoting homosexuality” — any positive mention of it, any advocacy for gay people’s rights — would incur a five-year sentence. And anyone who failed to report a homosexual to police within 24 hours would face three years in prison. The bill would build a nation of informers, turning citizen against citizen, sibling against sibling.

(To hear from the gay community in Uganda, watch this video.)

Mu’ayyad’s story points to deeper dangers, though. For most LGBT people, the law is less threatening than prejudice and panic, hate and fear: an environment where families can be moved to kill their children in the name of “morality” or “honor.” The Uganda bill, too, draws strength from how politicians and religious leaders seeking popularity and power have demonized LGBT people for years. One homophobic minister in Kampala this year promised to lead a “million man march” to support the death penalty for gays.