Have you seen the BBC documentary The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay?
Scott Mills travels to Uganda to find out why it is that a Steadman poll shows that only four percent of Ugandans believe that homosexuality should be decriminalized. It’s a shocking picture: a lesbian victim of “corrective rape”; a gay activist brutally murdered; a witch-hunt on homosexuals in local media; and person after person unapologetically proclaiming that they’d like to see the death penalty introduced for homosexuals.
While President Obama and a range of his European counterparts have expressed their disdain for Uganda's policies on homosexuality, no country has as of yet withdrawn financial or other support to Uganda for failing to protect its gay minority (Sweden has threatened to discontinue its aid if the legislation is passed, but has not yet acted). Bigger fish to fry in Uganda, some say. Well, first of all, these are extremely grave violations of people’s rights. And second, Uganda is by no means alone. It’s time to do something about these state-sanctioned acts of oppression, hate and destruction.
Over the last six month I’ve visited a number of countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Kenya, the UAE, Mauritania, and Egypt. One thing they all have in common: they’ll lock you up for being gay. In fact, in both the UAE and Mauritania, they may even sentence you to death.
You thought despicable laws and practices like these would impact how we deal with foreign countries? Think again. Egypt receives some $1.3 billion in military support from the U.S. government every year. Kenya is also a major recipient of such “aid.” Has the government ever even considered making military support conditional upon decriminalization of (sexual) relationships between same-sex persons? No. Why? Because this is not an issue that is taken seriously.
Seven countries around the world still apply the death penalty against homosexuals. One of them in particular, Saudi Arabia, is a great friend of the U.S. The State Department, in its Background Note on Saudi Arabia, only briefly describes the human rights situation, and fails to mention discrimination against LGBT persons altogether.
At the UN Human Rights Council—of all places—the Nigerian ambassador in 2006 said, “The notion that executions for offenses such as homosexuality and lesbianism is excessive is judgmental rather than objective. What may be seen by some as disproportional penalty in such serious offenses and odious conduct may be seen by others as appropriate and just punishment.” This in reference to the death penalty that is imposed on homosexuals in parts of northern Nigeria.
While genocide under international law is limited to ethnic, racial, religious and national groups, this deliberate and systematic destruction of gays is genocide in all but name. Just imagine for a second that we were talking about ethnicity, rather than sexual orientation.
Approximately another 75 countries criminalize same-sex relations, with punishments ranging from fines to many years imprisonment. In Jamaica, homosexuality is known as “the abominable crime of buggery” in the law and can lead to 10 years in prison. In Tanzania, life imprisonment can be imposed for homosexual acts. And in Belize, male homosexuality became a crime as recently as 2003.
Why is it that we are so far behind on this issue? The explanations are many. First, homosexuals are still discriminated against in the West too—both in law and in practice. Real equality before the law is only a reality in a few countries: recognition of right to same-sex marriage and adoption, and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation exist only in Argentina, Belgium, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, South Africa, and Spain. The U.S. is not one of them. Nor is Russia, the UK, China, France, India, Germany, Brazil or any other major power. As recently as this week, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi promised a Catholic conference that his government would never allow gays to marry or adopt. How can we expect governments like these to promote an honest policy of equality for all in their external relations?
Moreover, while Western society has become more and more tolerant over the last few decades, stigma is still a problem. Even in the West, people are still shunned by their families when they come out. Hate crimes are rampant even in the most liberal of cities; London has recently seen a spate in attacks on gay men, and in New York many have been arrested for violent hate crimes over the last year. Also in New York, as many as 40 per cent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Could it be that deep down (or, as the case may be, right on the surface) many of our politicians don’t actually believe in true equality for all. I don’t know, but I’m still looking for evidence to the contrary.
And then there is religion. Let’s face it: Religious fundamentalists of all persuasions are some of the most ardently homophobic on the planet. When I lived in Cairo a few years back, I met several American missionaries who expressed the view that homosexuality was disgusting and should be criminalized—ideas they actively promoted.
Worse, several U.S. pastors have recently been heavily criticized for their support to the Ugandan anti-homosexuality movement. Carl Jenkins, for example, recently announced that he is opening 50 new churches in Uganda to “help clean up bad morals, including homosexuality.” In fact, one could argue that this is simply the continuation of an extremely unfortunate history of Western colonialism and domination, that it was the West that brought homophobia—rather than homosexuality, as some contend—to developing countries. There is plenty of evidence that homosexual relations and various queer identities existed and were accepted in many parts of pre-colonial Africa and Asia.
A gloomy picture perhaps, but in some places things are looking up. An increasing number of EU states are adopting comprehensive antidiscrimination laws. The U.S. is taking small steps towards equality. And a diverse range of states have decriminalized same-sex relations in the last decade, including Mongolia, India, Iraq and Nicaragua. But there is little doubt that more can be done.
Countries that care about nondiscrimination and equality before the law must demonstrate to others that this is a human rights issue worthy of global attention by actively promoting human rights for gay persons through their foreign relations—and in the worst of cases be ready to impose sanctions. We don’t tolerate genocide of ethnic minorities, so why should we accept mass killings of homosexuals?