Though things may seem peachy for gay people in the UK, what is the state of play in the rest of the world? Brian Whitaker presents a global review for GT
This article originally appeared in GT magazine, April 2009.
On the day that Barack Obama was elected president and spoke of his hopes for a more inclusive America – “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight...” – voters in California sought to turn back the clock by abolishing gay marriage.
In Rome a few weeks later Pope Benedict informed Catholics that “saving” humanity from homosexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforests.
In Iceland they took no notice, and Johanna Sigurdardóttir was duly named as the world’s first openly-lesbian interim prime minister.
In Berlin, a monument to gay victims of Nazi persecution was vandalised for the second time in four months.
All this goes to prove that, just as investments can go down as well as up, so gay rights can move backwards as well as forwards, even in western countries, though the recent global trend has mostly been in a forward direction.
“It depends on the countries and the region but there’s clearly more awareness of gay rights issues throughout the world,” said gay travel writer Mike Luongo. “I’ve been in and out of Argentina for nine years, and within certain circles it’s a non-issue. I think you’re seeing that throughout much of South America – at least in Brazil, Chile, Argentina.”
In the last decade or so, activist groups have sprung up in countries where previously there were none, and even in the most conservative societies, such as Saudi Arabia, taboos about discussing sexuality in public are beginning to be broken.
This is one of the more positive effects of globalisation. The exchange of ideas and information across national boundaries – made possible by the internet, satellite TV, air travel, etc – has a crucial role in spreading awareness.
News media that once thought homosexuality was too distasteful a subject for their readers and viewers now find it difficult to ignore. Debates about gay marriage, gay bishops and the coming out (or outing) of celebrities have forced it onto the news agenda.
“There’s a push and a pull," Luongo said. "You see a lot of bad things in the media, but if we look at President Ahmadinejad [who claimed there is no homosexuality in Iran], just the very fact that he said certain things meant it had to be covered by the media throughout the world, and that itself created a dialogue that wasn’t there before.
“In the United States, people who’d never have talked about gay rights issues talk about Ahmadinejad coming to Columbia University and what he said, and every single person will have a discussion about that – even people who probably never had a polite cocktail conversation about gay rights issues.”
Multinational companies also play a part in raising awareness. Increasingly, businesses recognise the value of cultivating a gay-friendly image – at least in those countries where the pink pound is a valuable source of income. Some do it as a matter of principle, but others bend with the prevailing wind.
In January, Pepsi came under pressure from the American Family Association (which supports “Biblical truth and traditional family values") not to show a gay-themed TV ad in the US that had already been shown in Britain. Pepsi, to its credit, refused.
A month earlier, Campbell's Soup stood up to the ‘Biblical truth’ brigade over a magazine ad in the US, which showed a lesbian couple with their young son. “Inclusion and diversity play an important role in our business,” a company spokesman said.
Others, though, including McDonald’s, Heinz and Wal-Mart, have succumbed in various ways to pressures from anti-gay activists. Some, like ING, hedge their bets. The Dutch-based financial services giant was the main sponsor of last year’s Amsterdam Pride. In easy-going Amsterdam, companies clamour to be associated with the event, but ING’s Polish branch wants nothing to do with the struggling Warsaw Pride, which last year had no business sponsors at all. “In Poland we have different social and marketing goals,” an ING spokeswoman said, explaining that the Polish branch supports children’s charities and Formula 1 racing.
“Gay-vague” advertising – it hints at homosexuality in a deniable way – is as far as most companies in Poland are prepared to go. Last year IKEA faced an organised boycott by Polish Catholics for supposedly “promoting” homosexuality in its furniture catalogues.
Living in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of western Europe, it’s easy to forget how deeply opinion in other parts of the world is divided. These divisions were seen clearly last December, when a declaration calling for worldwide decriminalisation of homosexuality was presented to the United Nations General Assembly. Sixty-six of the 192 member states signed it, while more than 50 – including the US and the Islamic Conference countries – opposed it, as did the Vatican. Same-sex acts, even between consulting adults in private, are still a criminal offence in more than 80 countries, and in six of them (Iran, Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen) the penalty can be execution. The United Arab Emirates possibly also executes gay people, but the wording of the law is ambiguous.
In countries where such laws persist, they are usually seen as upholding local religious and social traditions, and as a barrier against “corrupting” foreign influences. One typical example came in 2004 when President Obasanjo of Nigeria described "homosexual practice" as "clearly un-Biblical, unnatural, and definitely un-African". A Nigerian newspaper columnist supported him, claiming that human rights advocates are "rationalising and glamorising sexual perversion … The urgent task now is to put up the barricades against this invading army of cultural and moral renegades before they overwhelm us."
In India, the Ministry of Home Affairs defended Section 377 of the Penal Code – it criminalises "carnal intercourse against the order of nature” – on the grounds that it had been introduced in response “to the values and mores of the time in the Indian society". Contrasting Indian law with the legal situation in Britain, the Ministry said: "Objectively speaking, there is no such tolerance to [the] practice of homosexuality/ lesbianism in the Indian society." This was pure fantasy. The Indian law against homosexuality had nothing to do with Indian social values: it was imposed without consultation in 1860 by the British authorities who then ruled country.
In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, more than half the countries that still criminalise same-sex acts have these laws because they were once part of the British Empire. The laws were introduced not out of deference to local culture and customs, but because the imperial rulers wanted to inculcate European morality into the conquered peoples. “They brought in the legislation,” Human Rights Watch says, “because they thought ‘native’ cultures did not punish ‘perverse’ sex enough.”
Not all the countries that have such laws enforce them vigorously, but even in places where they’re rarely used, they still have harmful effects, creating opportunities for blackmail (by police and extortionists) and constructing a veil of legitimacy for acts of discrimination and harassment by individuals, as well as vigilante killings of the kind seen in Jamaica, Iraq and elsewhere.
There is no evidence that such laws actually discourage gay sex. Even in Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries with the harshest punishments, men continue to meet in gay cafes and well-known cruising areas, apparently undeterred. In countries where homosexuality is taboo, gay men are usually less worried about the law than the reaction from their families and communities if they come out or get found out. The problem is greatest in societies where everyone is expected to marry and families take on the task of finding wives for their sons. Young gay men then face the dilemma of whether to reveal their sexuality or to be pressurised into a marriage for which they’re totally unsuited.
Some do tell their families, often encouraged by “coming out” stories on the internet, only to discover that the reaction is far from positive. With no-one they can turn to locally for advice and support, they end up sending desperate e-mails to organisations abroad.
Some families respond with violence or threats of violence, while others turn to psychiatrists in the hope of a ‘cure’. Although mainstream medical opinion in the US, Europe and other western countries recognises that homosexuality isn’t an illness, there are still many psychiatrists in other parts of the world who believe otherwise, or who at least seem ready to provide expensive “treatments” under pressure from anxious parents.
Ghaith, a Syrian student of fashion design, was sent to a succession of psychiatrists. “They were all really, really bad,” he said. “They did all sorts of medical tests, like hormones and things, and they always made you masturbate into this little container.
“In Syria they think the only reason why you would be gay is that you’re over-feminine, that you’re having problems with your hormones… that you’re transsexual, basically. I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to be a woman, I’m a man.’”
Eventually, Ghaith decided there was no point in resisting any longer.
"I said: ‘I cannot do this any more. Nobody is remotely trying to understand me.’ I started agreeing with the psychiatrist and saying, ‘Yes, you’re right’. I was going there every day, and soon he was saying, ‘I think you’re doing better’. He gave me some medicine that I never took. I have no idea what it was, but he used to charge a big bill.
“So everybody was fine with it after a while, because the doctor said I was doing OK, and because I was lying to the doctor.”
In those parts of the world where no openly-gay community exists and homosexuality is regarded as shameful, the internet has made a huge difference – not only as a source of information but also as a way of making contacts and breaking the isolation that many gay men feel.
But the anonymity of the internet can also lull people into a false sense of security. Amjad, a lonely young Egyptian, poured his heart out to a newfound friend on a gay website. "I've never told someone the things I told you yesterday," he wrote. "I always keep my feelings concealed in my heart, but I couldn't hide them from you." Unfortunately for Amjad, his “friend” was an undercover policeman, and when they arranged a meeting he was arrested.
It’s not only police who use these tactics. In Turkey, India and several other countries, gay websites are sometimes frequented by extortionists. The result of all this is that millions of gay men around the world continue to lead invisible, secretive lives, fearful that one day they’ll be found out. For many, this is the least-bad option. In societies where keeping up appearances is what matters, the authorities usually turn a blind eye to same-sex activity as long as it attracts no public attention. Officially, what isn’t seen doesn’t happen and so, as one Saudi put it, "Invisibility gives you the cover to be gay."
But without visibility it becomes very difficult to tackle long-term issues such as sexual rights and legal reform. Without visibility, the authorities can argue that there is no need for change, using Ahmadinejad’s familiar line, that “we don’t have homosexuals here”.
In order to become visible, gay people need to assert their sexual identity, which complicates the issue in cultures where men have sex with other men but don’t consider themselves gay. Even those who acknowledge their sexuality often find the word "gay" problematic because it implies a certain kind of westernised lifestyle.
Experience around the world, though, shows that in order to tackle the laws, policies and attitudes that impact on people’s sexual behaviour, there has to be visibility. This is happening in more and more places. Last year, India witnessed its first nationally-co-ordinated Pride parades in three major cities – though many of the participants wore masks to hide their faces. In February, 200 people, some of them waving rainbow flags, gathered in Lebanon to defend the rights of “social minorities”. It was the first demonstration of its kind in an Arab country.
At the same time, increased visibility can lead to repression and violence, as seen, for instance, in the recent attacks on gay events in Russia, Serbia and Poland. In Jerusalem in 2005, a Jewish religious fanatic attacked three marchers on the Pride Parade, saying he had come “to kill in the name of God”. The knifeman was promptly arrested, but in some other countries the authorities are more reluctant to intervene.
Increased gay visibility has also contributed to an unholy, but less violent alliance of the world’s most reactionary religious elements. Western evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons have got together with Muslims to defend "the family" (code for opposing issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality). The Christian Right, though often heavily outnumbered in the West, have discovered that with Muslim backing in the UN and other international bodies they can often succeed in blocking progressive measures.
Though visibility is one of the keys to gay rights, there are still many countries where that is impractical, and where activists (if there are any) can only campaign indirectly – for example, by promoting sexual health or personal rights more generally. How much visibility they can achieve without being crushed by the forces of reaction is the million-pound question for nascent right movements in most of the developing world.