Photo essay – Delhi Pride Parade 2014

Hundreds of Delhiites marched together on Sunday, the 30th of November to participate in the city’s seventh LGBTQ pride parade. Stuti Bhattacharya was there. 

By Stuti Bhattacharya, 8th December, 2014 

The Delhi Queer Pride Parade is an annual event that has been held in New Delhi every year since 2007. The parade is a festive event meant to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, while protesting unequal treatment by law and society.

In India, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises sexual activities “against the act of nature”, which is defined in a manner that effectively criminalises homosexuality (it also criminalises certain consensual heterosexual acts). The Delhi High Court declared this section to be unconstitutional in 2009. This judgment, however, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013. The Supreme Court maintained that only the parliament can repeal Section 377. That is unlikely to happen in the near future as the new government in India is led by the BJP, which is a right-wing conservative party. The BJP has explicitly spoken out against homosexuality.

This is the first pride parade since the Supreme Court verdict and since the new government took office.

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Essay: UNiversal – The UN, OIC and LGBT Rights

In this essay the author, William Clowes, addresses the contradictions of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation when dealing with human rights. The OIC claim to be guardians, universalists and victims simultaneously to support their own traditions in the face of universal rights. This double standard is at its most obvious when dealing with the issue of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“When efforts are made to condemn a particular group to secondary status, nobody – not the OIC nor the Vatican – should remain unchallenged as they sing the hymns of universality and feign opposing oppression whilst they studiously gnaw away at those very principles and ignore (or excuse) the persecution carried out in the name of what they defend.”

By William Clowes, 20th March, 2012

Earlier this month the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held its first ever session to specifically address the discrimination faced in many parts of the world by people on account of their ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ – in effect, the LGBT community. The gathering in Geneva followed a resolution passed very narrowly by the Council last June which condemned this kind of discrimination. The resolution, strongly pushed by the USA and South Africa, also tasked Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with producing the UNHRC’s first report into the global extent of this persecution and committed the Council to hold this month’s session.

Despite this apparent progress, a sizeable block of countries either from Africa or members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) absented themselves from the discussion and have refused to consider its recommendation. There has been much press in recent yearsdedicated to the deadly homophobia prevalent in much of sub-Saharan Africa – ironically (given the US’s role in backing the resolution) often funded by the dollars of US Christian groups – but the recalcitrance of the OIC should be unsurprising. This is not simply because all the OIC nations currently part of the UNHRC were amongst the 19 countries that voted against last June’s resolution but it is also symptomatic of their previous form at the UN.

The 57-member OIC, headquartered in Saudi Arabia and comprised of nations with large Muslim populations, has expended significant efforts through its UN delegation during this century trying to persuade the UNHRC and General Assembly to pass illiberal resolutions that would commit member states to combating the ‘defamation of religion’. Up until last year this affront to free speech was repelled by western nations and, in particular, the USA. In 2011 – once the OIC had agreed to omit the offending ‘defamation’ clause – both the UNHRC and General Assembly passed a resolution pithily titled, ‘Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion and belief’.

The title and content of the resolution seem laudable enough, but as UN Watch, the NGO which exists ‘to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own charter’, stated ‘the problem is not with the document per se, but with its sponsor’. The publications and rhetoric of the OIC tend to focus its disapproval solely on anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim happenings in the USA and Europe. They do not acknowledge the black irony that they target the very nations which are most likely to afford citizens the necessary legal protections to fight ‘incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on faith’ and entirely overlook the manifold failures in their own states to protect the rights of religious minorities to practice their chosen religions. It is apparent from the manner in which the OIC went about sponsoring and lobbying the resolution at the UN that the conservative and autocratic leaderships of the group’s member states are far more interested in keeping their versions of state-sanctioned religion uncontested than protecting the individual’s right to practice their religion. As I have written previously, OIC member states generally have a lamentable record at protecting the most basic (supposedly universal) freedoms within their jurisdictions.

On this occasion too, although the circumstances of the situation differ, it is the character of the OIC that is the critical issue. The most conspicuous reason why the OIC members of the UNHRC should object to the recent Council session provides an illuminating parallel with their failings over last year’s resolution on religious freedom. Just as, according to the charity Open Doors, 38 of the top 50 countries where Christians face the ‘most severe’ persecution are OIC members, 39 of the 77 states that criminalise homosexuality and all seven that impose the death penalty are part of the OIC. That data, provided by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, merely surveys laws which criminalise same-sex relationships between consenting adults and does not even begin to assess other forms of stigmatisation and discrimination.

It might seem peculiar to be drawing parallels between an occasion on which the OIC sponsored a resolution it had no intention of honouring and an occasion on which it refused to sign up to a resolution it had no intention of honouring – but therein lies the consistency. In both incidences, the OIC has given religious and cultural justifications precedence over the universal rights they are (as UN members) bound to respect.  Both times they have also used the language of victimhood and rights to deflect scrutiny away from their own deficiencies.

Whereas last year the OIC’s devalued argument was manifest through sponsoring a resolution against a form of bigotry most prevalent amongst its own members, this year they have excused their reluctance to combat another ubiquitous kind of prejudice by accusing the UN itself of discrimination. In a letter sent to the UN by Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, in his role ‘as coordinator of the OIC Group on Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues in Geneva’, he sets out the group’s objections to the resolution and the subsequent session. The OIC, Akram asserts, are ‘deeply concerned at the attempt to introduce in the UN concepts that have no legal foundation in any international human rights instrument’. In the course of the letter he manages to play an array of roles: the guardian of human rights (since the resolution ‘seriously jeopardise[s] the entire international human rights framework’), the universalist (because he is ‘disturbed’ by the ‘attempt to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their abnormal sexual behaviour’) and the victim of oppression (for ‘cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind’ by the UN).

A logical assumption is that OIC states – as members of the UN and often part of the rotating membership of the UNHRC – at least intend to pay lip service to the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Therefore, in order to adopt the letter’s stance, they have to argue that LGBT people are somehow excluded from the Declaration or that this resolution seeks to give them a privileged position.

Indeed, there is no reference to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the UDHR, but there are articles, for example, that prohibit torture and degrading treatment (Art. 5), arbitrary arrest (Art. 9) and the denial of the right to free assembly (Art. 20). OIC members and other states regularly deny these rights to people for reasons other than sexual orientation, but – given the OIC’s letter purports to be concerned about human rights and their universality – they should be able to better articulate why LGBT peoples are excluded from the declaration’s principle of universality without instinctive recourse to convenient cultural and religious justifications.

The OIC are not the only interest group to have attempted to present the resolution as ameans to offer LGBT peoples an exalted, privileged position rather than as an effort to level the playing field for a harried group. The Pope’s Permanent Observer to the UN even told the UNHRC that the Council was pressuring member states to support gay marriage, even though one could be forgiven for thinking that the right not to be executed would more of a priority for an Iranian or Mauritanian homosexual. This conspiratorial leap from an expression of ‘grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination’ against LGBT peoples to advocacy for same-sex marriage was accompanied by an assertion that the Catholic Church opposes attempts to ‘particularize or to develop special rights for special groups [which] could easily put at risk the universality of those rights’. Rick Perry, the erstwhile Republican candidate, was more candid than the slickly worded objections of the OIC and Vatican. He responded to Hilary Clinton’s speech last December arguing that ‘gay rights’ were human rights by declaring that ‘investing tax dollars to promote a lifestyle many Americans of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong’. Integral to all these protestations is the idea that homosexuality is not natural (indeed Akram’s letter opposed the resolution’s ‘focus on certain persons on the grounds of their abnormal sexual behaviour’) and no number of appeals to universal rights will weaken this localised conviction. This creates an obvious problem at the UN – and one patently not confined to only the OIC and Catholic Church – when Navi Pillay says that ‘the balance between tradition and culture, on the one hand, and universal human rights, on the other, must be struck in the favour of rights’.

In what can be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the weakness of the OIC’s argument Akram’s letter claims to find it ‘disturbing’ that the UNHRC would focus on LGBT peoples and not ‘the glaring instances of intolerance and discrimination in various parts of the world, be it on the basis of colour, race, gender or religion’. This ‘whataboutery’ seems to be in keeping with previous efforts to divert attention from issues they find uncomfortable, but is easily rebuked. Firstly, there is no reason why focusing on one form of discrimination should avert attention from others and, secondly, discrimination ‘on the basis of colour, race, gender or religion’ is widespread in OIC states and they show little interest in combating that. Clearly it is important to recognise that in countries outside sub-Saharan Africa and the OIC there exists a great deal of discrimination against LGBT peoples, but one must also avoid the pernicious slippage into indifferent relativism. For example, a country where homophobic attitudes are too common and that is undecided about legalising gay marriage, but yet counts ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ amongst legally protected characteristics, is not the same as a country that criminalises homosexuality or has endemic discrimination against LGBT peoples in the work place or education system.

The UN is by no means the acme of progressive democracy and is often unconcerned with self-determination. There are cogent arguments against the NGO activism and supranational organisations, which the UN typifies, but those usually take a position in favour of more localised, sovereign democracy. A cursory glance at the membership of the OIC immediately reveals that more democracy is not a priority for many of the regimes currently in power. It would also be a point of inconsistency if the OIC were to object to the overbearing nature of external prescriptions when they are quite content to use the institutions of the UN to further causes close to their heart, such as last year’s farcical resolutions on religious freedom. The inevitable response from some ‘anti-imperial’ quarters that this resolution is just another example of cultural imperialism by the west is also easily countered, given that the country that introduced the resolutionand was the first in the world to provide constitutional protection to LGBT people is post-apartheid South Africa. Furthermore, there is the fact that all Latin American nations voted for last year’s resolution on LGBT discrimination and that a number of the laws defended by African and Islamic countries that criminalise homosexuality are relics from the colonial rule (although plenty are also based on Islamic justifications).

There is a final point of correspondence regarding the role of the OIC between the resolutions on religious freedom and LGBT discrimination. This is their stated intentions beyond the resolutions themselves. Despite removing the clause that would have committed UN member states to stopping their citizens ‘defaming’ religions, the OIC’s ‘Ten-Year Programme of Action’ from 2005 emphasises ‘the responsibility of the international community, including all governments, to ensure respect for all religions and combat their defamation’ and, during the 2010 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, they adopted a strategy ‘to broaden support for its Resolution on “Combating Defamation of religions”’. Likewise, in spite of the alleged concern for the universality of human rights and that the leaderships of OIC nations are not monolithic; the organisation adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam in 1990. Supporters of this document claim it ‘complement[s] the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]’ whilst it stresses inter alia that ‘Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah’. Given the interpretation of Islamic law in many OIC member states, this qualification unequivocally compromises the notion of universality for non-Muslims and the ‘wrong kind’ of Muslims and serves to particularise human rights under an Islamic, not a universal, overview.

This recent standoff has served to highlight an obstacle that is very difficult to surmount. A refusal to see same-sex preferences as something universal to all humanity, as something that does not threaten to tear asunder the very fabric of society is sadly too commonplace throughout the world. But this admission is not to say that some parts of the world are not moving in a much more positive direction than others or to conceal that there are monarchs, clerics, dictators and governments that seek to distinguish themselves by malignly endorsing such harassment as a form of cultural protectionism against external intolerance. There will always be a fractious relationship between those who support a basic level of fundamental human rights that is truly universal, trumping localised counter-attacks, and those who are unyielding in their commitment to the supremacy of their own cultural and religious justifications. In spite of this, it is worth remembering the Vienna Declaration, which the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus in 1993, when it states that ‘While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms’.When efforts are made to condemn a particular group to secondary status, nobody – not the OIC nor the Vatican – should remain unchallenged as they sing the hymns of universality and feign opposing oppression whilst they studiously gnaw away at those very principles and ignore (or excuse) the persecution carried out in the name of what they defend.

Does It Get Better?

By Matthias Pauwels, 18 Oct, 2011

The year 1998 was not only dominated by the saga of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, but also saw the horrific hate crime murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shephard on grounds of his sexual orientation. On the night of October 6-7, Shephard got offered a ride home by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. In sharp contrast to their good Samaritan offer, McKinney and Henderson subsequently drove the car to a remote, rural area in Laramie, Wyoming. Shephard was allegedly tortured for several hours and was finally tied to a fence, leaving him to die. Still alive but in a coma, Matthew Shephard was discovered 18 hours later by a cyclist. Having experienced severe brain-stem damage, Shephard never regained consciousness and passed away on October 12, 1998.

At trail, McKinney offered various rationales to justify his actions, ranging from the gay panic defense embedded in alleged sexual advances made by Shephard to involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution alleged that both men had pretended to be gay to gain Shephard’s trust. The testimony of Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price, girlfriends of McKinney and Henderson, came as a judicial drive-by-shooting for the two, claiming that both perpetrators had plotted beforehand to rob a gay man. In 1999 McKinney and Henderson received two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.

The Legislative Struggle of the Hate Crimes Protection Act

The United States 1969 federal hate-crime law encompassed crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin, and only applicable when the victim is engaging in a federally-protected activity. In 1990, United States Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, allowing the government to count the incidence of hate crimes based on religion, race, national origin, and sexual orientation. However, a clause was added to the end of the bill stating that federal funds should not be used to “promote or encourage homosexuality”.

However, the murders of Matthew Shephard and 15-year-old Lawrence King – who was shot and killed in February 2008 by 14-year-old Brandon McInerney who he’d asked to be his Valentine – , and the endless string of gay teenagers committing suicide was living proof that gay and lesbian youth are particularly prone to physical and mental victimization. There was a dire need of expanding the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

The passing of the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act proved to be an epic legislative battle in the American Congress. The bill, first introduced in the 107 Congress’s House of Representatives in 2001, drew specific criticism from American Evangelicals, with the evangelical off-shoot lobbying group Focus on the Family as a prominent force against strengthening federal hate-crimes legislation, stating that “it would muzzle people of faith who dared to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality”.

After having died in Congress three consecutive times, the bill was reintroduced in 2007, this time with a clause adding gender identity to the list of suspect classes for prosecution of hate crimes. When the bill finally passed in Congress and proceeded to the United States Senate, many Republicans got in gear to make sure the Matthew Shephard Act never saw the legislative light of day. After having met its match a first time in the Senate, the bill was reintroduced as an amendment to the Senate Defense Reauthorization Bill (H.R.1585). Although the vote had been put briefly on hold after Republicans staged a filibuster on a possible troop-withdrawal amendment to the Defense Bill, the Matthew Shephard Act did finally pass in the Senate in September 2007 after a six-year-long legislative tour de force. However, as a dispiriting deus ex machina President Bush indicated that he would veto the Defense Bill if it reached the Oval Office with the hate-crimes legislation attached. Ultimately the amendment was dropped, nullifying six years of legislative struggle to expand the federal hate-crimes law incorporating gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Obama administration brought new hopes to those on the barricades for expanding the existing federal hate-crimes law. In a post-Bush era, President Obama communicated that one of the goals of his new administration was to see the Matthew Shephard Act pass. After it was reintroduced in Congress in April 2009, it sparked a feisty debate amongst Representatives, with Rep. Virginia Foxx stating that Matthew Shephard’s death was merely a hoax to further the gay agenda. Despite Republican claims that federal law was already sufficient to prevent hate crimes, the bill reached the Senate in the same month. The Matthew Shephard Act was adopted as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and passed in the Senate in July 2009. Eleven years after the brutal murder of Matthew Shephard, the bill was signed into law on October 28, 2009 by President Obama.

Efficacy of the Matthew Shephard Act

In May 2011, a man in Arkansas pled guilty under the Act for running a car containing five Hispanic men off the road. As a result, he became the first person ever convicted under the new Act. In August 2011, one man pled guilty to branding a swastika into the arm of a developmentally disabled man of Navajo descent. The aforementioned crimes were framed under the Matthew Shephard Act on grounds of hate crimes based on race.

The expansion of the 1969 United States federal hate-crimes law was framed under the empirical observation that hate crimes are worse than regular crimes without a prejudiced motivation from a psychological perspective. The time it takes to mentally recover from a hate crime is almost twice as long than it is for a regular crime. Especially gay and lesbian people often feel as if they are being punished for their sexuality, which leads to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the aftermath of the Matthew Shephard murder, many gay youth reported going “back into the closet”, fearing for their safety and experiencing a strong sense of self-loathing embedded in their sexual orientation. 

Earlier aformentioned examples of the Act’s implementation refer to hate crimes based on race. The legislation’s efficacy regarding hate crimes based on sexual orientation has a much lower public exposure rate, and this is exactly where part of the problem still lies. For many gay youth, there is still is huge threshold in reporting victimization based on sexual orientation, embedded in fear of being labeled with a social stigma. Secondly, mental victimization is often suffered alone in silence, and its lack of visibility or understanding can be attributed to the recent suicide death of Buffalo, N.Y., 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who was bullied online with gay slurs for over a year. Marking a somber beginning to LGBT History Month this October, Rodemeyer’s death is a tragic reminder of the existing vulnerability and marginalization of gay teens. And while a legislative framework such as the Matthew Shephard Act incorporates the corporality of hate crimes, the mental aspect of these crimes based on ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation have proven to be a silent killer which no piece of legislation can easily remedy. The ultimate responsibility here lies with educational systems by installing a protective framework for bullied LGBT students to prevent ostracization.

When the message that is out there claims that being gay equals being a second-class citizen, that message needs to be changed. Matthew Shephard was not a second-class citizen. Lawrence King and Jamey Rodemeyer were not second-class citizens. The Matthew Shephard Act may have given a new dimension to federal hate-crimes law, but doing the same to a social message stating that being gay is threatening, is not something that is easily remedied by any senatorial bill.

In May 2011, after coming out to friends, Jamey Rodemeyer posted a YouTube video on the new online site, It Gets Better Project, which provides testimony from adults and celebrities to reassure victimized and potentially suicidal LGBT youth that life improves as they get older. Jamey wrote: “Love yourself and you’re set… I promise you, it will get better.”