are our victories hurting LGBT communities around the world?
Political triumphs in Canada gave LGBT people in other countries an idea of what’s possible.
Alas, it gave oppressive governments and homophobes the same idea
Nine years ago, when George Harvey began volunteering with the Amnesty International (ai.aito.ca) booth at Pride, 200 signatures was a good return on investment. Last summer, Harvey closed up the Pride booth with 400 pages—thousands of signatures—of petitions addressing LGBT rights violations in Russia, Cameroon and South Africa, where a young lesbian’s killers have not been brought to justice.
“There’s been a real surge in interest in international LGBT issues, which has been amazing,” says Harvey, who discovered a passion for human rights work during a trip to Kenya when he was 23.
It certainly is amazing. People looking beyond their own lives in order to help people they’ve never met is an act of generosity, even if it’s just a second to “Like” something on Facebook. But in countries with laws, cultures and economic circumstances so different from our own, you have to wonder what effect international activism really has and whether there are times when it does more harm than good. When President Vladimir Putin was about to pass a law prohibiting “propaganda” promoting non-traditional sexual relations, calls for boycotts of Russian products popped up everywhere. One night in Montreal I watched go-go dancers empty Stolichnaya vodka bottles onto the floor and each other. A funny protest, yes, but hard to imagine it doing any good. Calls to boycott the Russian Olympics were all over social media, even as some Russian activists advised against it. Putin signed the law, anyway.
“I don’t think Putin cared,” says Harvey, who points out that Amnesty International has a policy of not advocating for boycotts since they can aggravate the situation. “Boycotts are not about working together to correct the problem.”
But when people’s lives and liberties are at risk, we feel compelled to do something. The question is what should we be doing.
Gay and lesbian Canadians pretty much have legal equality (trans people are not quite so lucky). Rightly or wrongly, our successes have produced a certain sense of domestic fait accompli. But the effects of legalized same-sex marriage here rippled far beyond our borders. Our victories gave LGBT people in other countries an idea of what’s possible. And it gave oppressive governments and homophobes the same idea.
“There’s a direct connection between what we’ve achieved here and the brutality that’s increasing in many countries. It’s not that we need to feel guilty, but we have a responsibility,” says Michael Battista, an immigration lawyer and member of Rainbow Railroad (rainbowrailroad.ca). The Toronto-based organization was founded four years ago to provide practical support to LGBT refugees who might not be able to escape their situation without outside help, whether it’s a plane ticket, paperwork or a temporary place to stay when they arrive in Canada. The organization has helped about 50 refugees, 20 in the last year alone.
Battista sees countries now going beyond “merely” criminalizing homosexuality (76 countries still have laws on the books). They’re prohibiting LGBT people from organizing or expressing themselves. Any freedom, the conservative thinking goes, may lead to same-sex marriage. And so there have been crackdowns and political posturing that has encouraged violence toward LGBT people. While Rainbow Railroad has focused on helping individuals, it hasn’t yet taken on the task of challenging the crackdowns themselves. Helping LGBT people escape might drain away a country’s loudest and proudest voices, but Battista suggests it’s not much of a dilemma—nobody can advocate when they’re dead,
hospitalized or on the run.
While Rainbow Railroad provides triage, long-term strategies must aim to make oppressive countries better places for LGBT people to live; not everybody can move to Canada. Like Harvey, Battista’s first international efforts were channeled into Amnesty International, an organization that advocates through petitions and letter-writing campaigns. Harvey says the organization’s track record for getting prisoners of conscience released is impressive; for LGBT prisoners it’s much less so. Still, Amnesty has been part of some successes, including delaying a proposed Uganda law—which would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with death—which has been kicking around in one form or another since 2009.
The timing and framing of international pressure is crucial. Cynical governments will sometimes propose anti-gay policies they never intend to implement, just to win over conservative voters. But when they see themselves demonized by other countries, they might defiantly move ahead with the plan. This effect was believed to have played a part in Nigeria’s passing a bill in May that threatens those who engage in same-sex marriage, same-sex “amorous relationships” or participate in LGBT rights groups with penalties of up to 14 years in prison. The president has not yet signed the bill into law.
“There’s a lot of times we’re asked by Western media and Western activists, ‘Why aren’t you focusing on this?’” says Harvey. “Often it’s because we’ve spoken to activists on the ground who are working behind the scenes and they need it to be hushed. If there’s an outcry at the wrong time, it could really hurt the situation.”
Smart organizations build relationships with LGBT and human rights groups in countries of concern, and follow their lead on what to say and when to say it. Although the temptation to condemn oppressors is strong, finding and nurturing allies is more far-sighted. Egale Canada (egale.ca), primarily known as a national lobby group, has been working internationally for years. For example, the organization has been involved in training police officers and social workers in Montenegro, as the country’s government actively tries to improve its human rights situation. Some of Egale’s work is consultative: advising other groups on issues like safe schools and what kind of conditions should be placed on international aid. Some of it is more hands-on: staff have been talking with some Saint Petersburg organizations to help 16 queer families leave Russia for Canada because they fear their children might be taken away under the country’s new anti-gay law.
“We have very limited resources to do work internationally, but we’re seen as rich because of Canada’s rich LGBT rights portfolio,” says Egale executive director Helen Kennedy. “What is best for ourselves is not always best for others. Better police training, for example, may improve people’s lives more than a change in a horrible-sounding law. “Sometimes it’s about the right to even exist,” she says.
ARC International (arc-international.net), an internatio-nal advocacy group founded 10 years ago by former Egale ED John Fisher and former Egale board member Kim Vance, has directed much of its efforts toward the United Nations’ human rights system. Their listserv, which started out with 60 members, now has more than 900 groups who use it to communicate across borders.
“When we first started this work, the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered did not even emerge in the UN system and whenever they did, the conversation was shut down immediately,” says Vance. She’s based in Nova Scotia, while Fisher is based in Geneva. “We have played a huge role in making sure that is consistently on the agenda of the UN, that the countries participating in the processes can’t avoid discussing the issue.” Back in 2003, Brazil drafted a UN resolution on sexual orientation and withdrew it amidst fears it would have little support.
Says Vance: “Now we’ve got the majority of members of the UN voting positively on very basic coverage and protection.” A serious consideration of same-sex marriage? Not yet. A consensus that violence and persecution of LGBT people is unacceptable? We’ll take that, thank you very much.
Considering how Pride events usually emphasize the local and the ephemeral, the internationalization of a festival like Pride Toronto (pridetoronto.com) has been intriguing. Since the introduction eight years ago of Pride’s international grand marshal program, where an activist from another country leads the parade, the organization has been increasingly outward-looking. Next year’s WorldPride will feature a human rights conference expected to attract 450 participants, many of them from outside North America. Toronto’s multicultural makeup has played a part in this evolution.
“People may move here from around the world but they’re always connected to their home community and I’ve found they’re always passionate about the situation back in the place they came from,” says Pride Toronto executive director Kevin Beaulieu. In September he visited Belgrade for its Pride march, which went ahead despite a last-minute ban. With the country going through dramatic social change (like Montenegro, Serbia also wants to join the European Union), activists there believe having international witnesses on hand will help their cause.
It’s hard to know how international news about Toronto Pride—its thronging crowds, its international grand marshal, its flashiness—affects the situation in other countries. Does it give people in other countries hope or does it come across as showing off and so create a bigger barrier between the haves and the have-nots? Although Vance says she personally doesn’t quite get the appeal of Pride, she sees how its focus on local empowerment and celebration can give activists around the world a real boost.
“They might say, ‘Hey, in our lifetime, we may never see policy or legislative change, but we can have a Pride festival. We can show the government that we’re here and we exist and that we celebrate who we are. If that’s all we
can do, we can do that,’” says Vance.
While the Internet and social media have raised awareness about the precarious situation of LGBT people around the world, they may not, on their own, be the best tools for change. Real physical presence still counts for something. Face-to-face meetings, colourful Pride celebrations, well-timed protests and even paper petitions usually deliver better results than an infinite number of Like-button clicks.
Not just because the person
receiving the message must realize, deep down, that the extra effort counts for something. It’s also because the people who make a bigger effort to send the message are obliged to do their homework. Like good sex and enduring love, international activism is a two-way street.
Four countries to keep an eye on
Many countries blame the decadent Western world for promoting homosexuality. But in the case of Uganda, which is still contemplating a law that would implement the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” it was American evangelicals who stirred up anti-gay feelings in the country. Still, photos of the country’s exuberant first Pride march this year would give anybody hope.
While international scrutiny did not stop President Vladimir Putin from signing a ban on homosexual “propaganda” into law, it remains to be seen how the overly broad legislation will be implemented in Russia, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. Although calls to boycott Russian products and the Sochi Olympics have not found much traction, it remains to be seen how visiting athletes might flaunt the law.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Africa’s most populous country, but a law passed by lawmakers in the spring, which is awaiting approval by President Goodluck Jonathan, would penalize same-sex marriage with 14 years in jail. So far, Jonathan seems more interested in threatening the law than implementing it.
Although 60 people were injured as anti-gay protesters attacked the Balkan country’s first Pride march last summer, the country’s politicians, at least, are working to improve the situation. About 2,000 police officers were deployed to protect the Pride marchers. The government has floated the idea of same-sex relationship recognition and three years ago agreed to pay 80 per cent of the cost of sex reassignment surgery.