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

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.

Around the world, sexuality has become a battleground.

“Fundamentalism” is a word both over-used and ill-defined. If it means anything, though, it describes movements that try to capture the state, to enforce social norms that society, community and family used to impose. Fundamentalisms feed on fear, on the sense of social breakdown, on the intuition that old values need new policing to prop them up.

Governments thus use their nightsticks and their surveillance systems to control people’s bodies, to intrude in areas of private life that in many cases used to be irrelevant to them or off-limits. Ambitious politicians exploit fears of women’s and men’s sexual freedom for their own ends. Preachers and reporters alike stoke the atmosphere of prejudice, invoking desperate measures needed to combat what they call decadence.

One example: in Iraq in 2009, media and mosques spread fears that Iraqi manhood was somehow threatened with being “feminized” after years of occupation. Headlines and sermons warned that Western habits and an insidious “softness” were eating away at masculinity. Militias seized the chance to pose as protectors of morality, and started hunting victims — not just gay men, but any men who seemed “unmanly.” Tight jeans or gelled hair could spell death.

Hundreds may have been murdered, kidnapped from homes or killed on the streets. In some cases the killers shot glue up their victims’ anuses: a brutal reminder that their bodies were the abject property of others’ beliefs, a reminder of what happens if you break unwritten laws of gender.

As human rights activists, we try to change practices, not sentiments. Yet LGBT rights defenders always know that the real terrain of our struggles lies in hearts and minds, in consciences scarred by hatred or open to acceptance.

There have been signs of hope this year. In June 2009, an Indian court overturned that country’s 149-year-old sodomy law — the first such law that Britain ever imposed on its colonial possessions. It freed countless citizens of the world’s largest democracy from the threat of blackmail or police harassment.

Yet the court saw its decision as extending beyond a single bad law. It affirmed this was not just about privacy or the citizen’s right to safety behind closed doors, but about Indian democracy itself. It explicitly rejected a vision of the state as protective parent or as divisive judge. It cited Nehru, the nation’s founder, declaring that “Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding,” everyone can lead a life of dignity.

That is the real truth which voices too long shrouded in silence have been saying to us all. The struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people’s human rights is not just a campaign for a minority or a battle for gradual law reform. It is about what kind of societies we want to live in — and what kinds of people we want to be. It is about rejecting hatred and irrational fear; it is about the freedom to live an autonomous life. Ultimately, the struggle is about all of us, for all of us.

Scott Long is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program