Pink Planet

Brian Whitaker reports on the new global upsurge in pink politics, from China and Iraq to South Amer

London, Toronto, Madrid, Paris . . . This summer, Pride marches bring hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of the world's major cities. Politicians and celebrities who once would have shunned them now reap kudos by declaring their support. If Ken Livingstone failed to show up one year at Pride London, the media would want to know why. But don't expect the mayors of Moscow or Jerusalem to put in an appearance any time soon: both have sought to ban parades in their own cities and in some parts of the world only fools would dream of trying to hold one. Yet increasingly, even in countries where public discussion of homosexuality is still largely taboo, questions about gay rights are gradually coming to the surface.

According to Scott Long, of Human Rights Watch, gay activism is growing in both Latin America and Africa. "It's still relative, but ten years ago, outside South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, there were no groups anywhere in Africa," he said. "Now, most anglophone countries and an increasing number of West African countries have at least small organisations that are trying to do something.

"In Latin America there's a really vibrant movement that has connected with the left, and particularly in countries like Argentina and Chile there's a completely different atmosphere now. These issues have become respectable in a lot of places."

But as gay and lesbian activists around the world have become more organised, so too have their opponents - often aided by the spread of religious conservatism, whether of the Christian or Muslim variety. Homosexuality is one issue - perhaps the only one - on which African traditionalists and American evangelicals see eye to eye. In South Africa, Nigeria and Jamaica, for instance, much of the church-based homophobia relies on information from "ex-gay" and "pro-family" organisations in the United States.

When it comes to opposing gay rights, socially conservative Muslims and Christians seem happy to bury their theological differences. IslamOnline, one of the most popular Muslim websites, has a series of articles discussing homosexuality in "an Islamic and a scientific light", but the articles rely almost entirely on material from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a religious-based fringe psychiatric organisation in the US, which promotes "reparative therapy" for gay people.

In various international forums, western evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons have forged alliances with Muslims to defend "the family" (code for opposing issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality). One such event was the conference held in Doha in 2004 under the auspices of the UN's International Year of the Family. Hosted by the Qatari government and organised by the Mormons, it brought together some of the world's most reactionary forces, includ-ing Cardinal Alfonso ópez Trujillo, who campaigns against condoms on behalf of the Catholic Church, and Mahathir Mohamad, the dictatorial former prime minister of Malaysia, who sacked and jailed his deputy for alleged homosexuality.

Another area of organised opposition is the former eastern bloc of Europe, as illustrated by the violence at Moscow Pride last May. Some of this can be attributed to the emergence of nationalist-religious conservatism since the fall of communism. In Poland, for example, the prime minister and head of the Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has opposed the employment of gay teachers and warned that "homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilisation".

In Long's view, the battles over gay parades are a barometer of "how democratic freedom is not fully developed" in eastern Europe. "Particularly in Moscow," he said, "there's one sense in which the crackdown on Pride was symptomatic of the general crackdown that Putin has been engaged in, on freedom of assembly . . . but also I think it shows his willingness to use moral rhetoric to support dictatorial moves."

In countries where gay rights are precarious, Pride marches and other forms of gay visibility are a contentious issue for activists because they can easily lead to violence and repression. The dilemma is that without visibility it becomes very difficult to tackle the long-term issues, such as legal reform: the government can argue there is no need for change - even using the familiar line that "there are no homosexuals here". "You've always got to have a two-pronged approach," said Widney Brown, a senior director of Amnesty International who specialises in international law. "You need to tackle the laws, policies and practices that impact on people, but you have to be visible so that there's not deniability and so that it's a real issue. That's the constant tension."

Civilising the natives Worldwide, about 70 countries still have anti-sodomy laws (in some cases "sodomy" not only covers same-sex relations but also non-vaginal sex between a man and a woman) and many of these are hangovers from the colonial era, according to Brown. "The United Kingdom, during the height of its colonial days, was probably the worst offender," she said. "It basically imposed anti-homosexuality or anti-sodomy laws in almost every country it colonised." One relic of Britain's mission to civilise the natives is Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code - introduced in 1860 - which prohibits "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" on pain of a fine or imprisonment.

Regardless of any moral purpose, there is no evidence that such laws actually discourage gay sex. In Britain, during the early 1960s, it was estimated that for every same-sex act which came to the attention of the authorities, around 30,000 others went undetected - and there is no reason to suppose the pattern elsewhere in the world is very different.

Even in Saudi Arabia, men eye each other in shopping malls and cruise the streets, seemingly undeterred by the threat of jail, flogging or possible execution. In the words of John Bradley, a journalist who worked in the kingdom for two and a half years, from June 2001: "Most male western expatriates between the ages of 20 and 50 have experienced being propositioned by respectable-looking Saudi men in cars, at any time of the day or night, quite openly and usually very, very persistently." Some, allegedly, wave bananas from the car window to signal their intentions.

Whether or not laws against homosexuality are rigorously enforced, their existence, far from preventing crime, tends to encourage it - by creating opportunities for blackmail by corrupt police officers and extortionists. They also provide a background of legitimacy for discrimination and harassment and sometimes vigilante attacks, as witnessed in Jamaica, Iraq and elsewhere. Once introduced, anti-sodomy laws can be notoriously difficult to abolish; for most politicians, there's little or no mileage in trying to change them. In England and Wales, it took 10 years from the publication of the Wolfenden report for parliament to finally grasp the nettle. In Israel, in 1988, the law was repealed by the Knesset in the middle of the night when religious elements were absent (they were furious when they found out next day).

More often, though, abolition has formed part of a broader legal overhaul (as in most of the US states) or has come in the wake of a political upheaval - democratisation in Latin America or the end of apartheid in South Africa.

In parts of eastern Europe, aspirations towards EU membership have also been a factor. According to Maxim Anme ghichean, one of the founders of GenderDoc-M, the gay and lesbian movement in Moldova, it was mainly EU pressure that brought decriminalisation in 1996. "While GenderDoc-M doesn't have access to high-level politicians in Moldova, European officials do, and they act as our voice," he said.

This doesn't work everywhere, though. "International pressure is a double-edged sword, as the key allegation against queer people is that we are 'western' and not 'authentic'," said Arvind Narrain, a lawyer in India, who argues that activism should be led by local people and international pressure applied in consultation with them.

In societies with a strong dividing line between the public and private spheres, there is a popular notion that what isn't seen doesn't happen. The result - in most Arab countries, for instance - is that the authorities usually turn a blind eye to same- sex activity so long as it attracts no pub-lic attention.

Many gay and lesbian Arabs play along with that, leading quiet, secretive lives with varying degrees of willingness. "Invisibility gives you the cover to be gay," one Saudi told the Atlantic magazine recently. But it is not really a solution: the problems start when people are found out, or forced by their families into marriages for which they are totally unsuited.

There is no doubt that many traditional societies feel challenged by new (largely western) ideas about sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation and the like. There was a time, of course - not very long ago - when such concepts were new in the west, too, but in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East, they have become so closely associated in the popular imagination with "western values" that it is difficult to separate them from broader political conflicts.

Along with much else, the issue of gay rights is gradually becoming globalised - not least as a result of modern communications: satellite television, foreign travel and the internet. The latter is making a huge impact, though the effects are both positive and negative. It certainly helps to break down the isolation that many gay people feel - "the sense that 'I am utterly alone'," as Widney Brown put it. In countries where public discussion of homosexuality is still taboo, the internet is often the most accessible source of information.

"If it wasn't for the internet I wouldn't have come to accept my sexuality," said one young Egyptian who is now a rights activist. But he was worried that a lot of the advice provided by gay websites - especially about coming out - is addressed to a western audience. Coming out in Arab countries can be a highly traumatic experience and stories abound of people who have been beaten by their families, thrown out of home or sent to be "cured" by psychiatrists.

In places where no openly gay "community" exists, the internet also allows people to make social contacts that were unimaginable just a decade ago.

"It's become a way for people to connect who would absolutely never have connected before," Scott Long said. "It has happened in the Middle East and the same thing has been happening in Africa. Quite a lot of the really small movements that are starting off now began as friendship circles over the internet."

But the internet also lulls people into a sense of freedom and anonymity that may be misplaced. In Turkey, India and probably other countries too, gay dating sites are also frequented by blackmailers. "They'll arrange a meeting and then extract money," Long said.

In Egypt, starting around 2001, the newly formed internet crimes unit turned its attention to gay dating sites and is known to have entrapped dozens of men. One of them, a lonely young professional identified as Amgad, posted his details and got a reply from a man who called himself Raoul. Soon, Amgad was pouring his heart out to "Raoul", not realising that he was an undercover policeman. "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."

Eventually they arranged a meeting. "Raoul" didn't turn up but the vice squad did, and Amgad was duly arrested.

Brian Whitaker is the author of "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East", published by Saqi Books (£14.99)

Voices from new frontiers

Interviews by Richard Maiden and Marika Mathieu


Law: Sodomy was decriminalised in 1997 and homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 2001, but no legislation exists to protect gays from discrimination. Proposals to legalise gay marriage failed in 2003, 2004 and 2006.

Society: The gay scene is open and thriving in centres such as Beijing and Shanghai. Old attitudes are still prevalent in the countryside, smaller towns and among older generations.

Media: "Gay" magazines exist in everything but name. Some films and TV programmes containing gay scenes or topics are still censored, recently including Brokeback Mountain.

Name: G an Tian (right)

Age: 22

Occupation: Journalist

"I discovered my identity at the age of 17 when I was living in a small city in Hunan Province. I had these tendencies since I was young, but when my parents bought me a computer, I found this big circle of people on the internet and I thought, "I am just like this." I have a very close relationship with my parents, but I didn't tell them. In smaller places and the countryside it is more difficult. People are not so open-minded and cannot accept it in their hearts.

"I knew Beijing was a good place for gays, so I studied very hard for a place at Beijing University. Since moving here, I have told my secret to friends and some colleagues and never had any problems, but I think it is not the same all over China.

"The gay scene in Beijing and Shanghai is more like London; people take it for granted. Now mainstream newspapers have covered gay issues and there are special magazines - they don't say they are gay, but people know. Three years ago this couldn't happen: they were not banned, but the topic was too sensitive.

"Chinese culture is deep. People basically think that a man should marry a woman. There is a Chinese tradition of 'chuan zong jie dai', meaning boys bear responsibility for carrying on the family. This attitude makes it hard for the older generation to accept homosexuality; it keeps the gay community isolated from hetero society, in a way. I think it is important that people say what they are. They will enjoy life better. They should be honest and brave."


Law: South Africa's post-apartheid interim constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, in 1993. In December 2006, South Africa made history by becoming the fifth country in the world and the first in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage. The age of consent is equal - 16. However, there is no specific "hate-crime" legislation and human rights organisations have criticised the South African police for failing to address "bias-motivated crime".

Gay movement: Until the late 1980s gay organisations were often divided along racial lines. The outbreak of HIV/Aids forced gay South Africans to work together to fight the spread of the disease. Cape Town is considered the gay capital.

Society: Homosexuality is generally regarded as a taboo topic outside middle-class, urban areas. Gay women from smaller towns are often victims of beatings or rape because of the perceived threat they pose to male authority.

Media: There are three main magazines: Exit, Outright and Esteem. Also TV programmes.

Name: Phumla Rose Masuku

Age: 32

Occupation: Programmes officer for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women. Part-time student in business management

"Being gay in South Africa is very difficult. When I came out, I was 15. My family tried to 'save' me. They took me to the church. I met priests who made rituals to kill the demons inside me. Then they took me to the sangoma - the traditional healer - thinking that I was a witch.

"Everyone here is supposed to be equal according to our constitution, but it doesn't work for me. Sometimes I think there is no place here for women, straight or gay. Look at how many women in the country have been raped and killed, like the two lesbians last week, without anyone being arrested. Which kind of woman has the right to exist in South Africa?

"I am afraid sometimes to go home. It is unbearable. The only moments I feel safe are when I talk with people of different organisations who have the same issues as me, the same fears.

"I am not married. Not yet. I know it is easy but my partner is not ready. I would like to be part of the whole community, to enjoy my life in my township saying to people, 'Hey, I am Phumla, from next door.' Not driving to another town paying 50 bucks for a coffee in a gay bar.

"We have to fight to make our beautiful constitution be respected."


Law: Homosexual sex was legalised in 1932, but there is still resistance to gay rights: a survey two years ago found 89 per cent of Poles considered homosexuality "unnatural" and only half believe it should be tolerated. In March the government attempted to introduce legislation that would allow teachers to be dismissed for promoting "homosexual culture".

Gay movement: About 5,000 demonstrators marched in the capital's annual gay rights parade in May, amid a heavy police presence. A national Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH) has existed since 2001. Over the past decade, the number of gay venues in Warsaw has increased almost tenfold.

Media: Pink Press is the biggest adult press publisher. The leading title, Gejzer magazine, has approximately 35,000 readers.

Vocabulary: Equating homosexuality with child abuse is now common in Poland. Right-wing youth groups carrying anti-gay banners hurl stones at Gay Pride marches.

Name: Marta Abramowicz

Age: 29

Occupation: Psychologist

"I am bisexual; when I was younger I had boyfriends, then I fell in love with a girl in my class in school and we were together for five years. It seemed quite normal for me: I was in private school, so in fact it was quite open, but later I realised that in Poland to have a boyfriend is OK, having a girlfriend isn't.

"I started to have problems because of the homophobia in Poland. I split up with my girlfriend, so I was alone, and I didn't know any other lesbians or gays. I had friends who supported me, but I didn't know how my life would turn out.

"It is harder than it was for us. People are frightened. They are afraid they will be dismissed from the world because of our politicians and they are afraid to go to the media to show their faces. In Warsaw it is more normal - we have gay clubs and you can live normally if you are very stubborn. But in other cities like Kraków and smaller villages it's much more difficult. Homophobia is growing because of the actions of our government. Politicians make these stupid aggressive and homophobic statements and this encourages youngsters to be violent. There is also an idea that gay people are paedophiles and should not work with other people, especially with children.

"I think things are changing and people are talking about this now, which was not the case before 2003. I love my country but I wish more people would get involved. They think they can't change anything so they just accept these attitudes - but they can."


Law: Since 2003, the criminal code does not explicitly deal with homosexuality or cross-dressing, but has provisions that could be used to punish such practices. Homosexuality is taboo, however. Several clauses of the proposed Iraqi constitution assert that various civil liberties shall be limited by "public morality", ie, Islam.

Gay movement: Iraqi LGBT, led by Ali Hili, has established the only (clandestine) network of lesbian and gay activists inside the main cities.

Under Saddam: Discreet homosexuality was usually tolerated. Gays and bisexuals reported a Ba'athist crackdown in the 1980s and 1990s.

After Saddam: Honour killings by Iraqis against a gay family member are common and are given some legal protection. The UN has confirmed gay killings. Gay rights groups talk about sexual cleansing taking place in Iraq. Iraqi Shia militias are known to be linked this year to the kidnapping and killing of Iraqis for homosexuality or transgenderism.

Name: Ahmed

Age: 49

Occupation: Hotelier

"I left Iraq a year ago to get away from the violence - it is too dangerous now.

"It is much harder for us since 2003. There are people who trick you, then ask for money. Men go with you to your home or in a car or whatever, then they ask you for money, or they will kill you or tell your family or neighbours. It happened to me twice, and to friends. Before, there was nothing like this.

"I realised that I was gay when I was about 13 or 14 but I didn't do anything until I came to study in London for a year, then I returned to Iraq in 1982. It was so easy to find someone then. No one was telling you what you were doing during Saddam. As long as you were far from them it was OK.

"There were gay bars and gay cinemas in Baghdad or Basra in the Eighties. They didn't advertise themselves, but everyone knew, and we never had any problems with the police. We felt nearly 100 per cent free. Then after the Kuwait war things got harder. We couldn't go with foreigners any more. I had three friends who were with British and Indian guys and they were killed because the police thought they were spies.

"Now, out of a group of 30 close friends, five are dead. The people I know who are still in Iraq, they cannot go outside and they are starting to take drugs and they sleep all day. They are afraid of everyone: their families, their communities, the police, everyone.

"I feel so sad for them. At least we had a life, good times. They have nothing."


Law: In 1996 measures forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were introduced, making Buenos Aires the first Spanish-speaking city in Latin America to do so. Legislation will be presented this autumn to give same-sex couples all of the rights of marriage.

Gay movement: The first gay rights organisation was created in 1984, the year after the end of military dictatorship. Buenos Aires, one of the most liberal cities in Latin America, is in the midst of a gay tourism boom.

Society: An early 2007 poll showed that 75 per cent of those surveyed in the capital believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.

Media: Several monthly magazines. The country's first gay radio station was launched in 2004.

Name: Marcelo Ferreya

Age: 47

Occupation: Former interior designer turned activist

"I have been openly gay since I was 28, which was at the beginning of the Buenos Aires scene. Here, like most places, gays live more comfortably in big cities than in small towns. Back then you used to have discos and bars but it was not usual to be openly gay.

"The situation with my family meant I could manage. My brother and sister supported me from the start, but it took about a year and a half before the rest of my family could properly accept it. At first they were shocked and wanted easy solutions like seeing a psychiatrist, but after three years it was fine and me and my partner now live with my family. It took time, but we managed.

"The gay movement had an advantage in Argentina. Because we came from a dictatorship, people are suspicious of institutions and had a new understanding about what it meant to tell the truth. The gay community took advantage of that. Machismo is part of the institutions that people started to distrust: in the past 20 years, feminists and new sexual politics started coming out, and people started seeing a difference between an image and the truth behind the image. So it was easy for us.

"The Roman Catholic Church was another institution that people lost faith in, so that was another help to our cause.

"There are, of course, a lot of gay clubs in Buenos Aires, but also other kinds of groups. It's not just a night thing any more - there are gay tango academies and sports and social groups."


Death penalty for male intercourse

Life in prison for consensual gay sex

Saudi Arabia
Gay men have been publicly beheaded

Vigilantes/militias kill suspected gay people

Death penalty in some states

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet