Thursday, 2 July 2009

Queer activists cannot see this 40-year landmark as the finish line

On 28th June 1969, just over 40 years ago, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. This Mafia-owned bar was a welcome hangout for homosexuals, drag queens, transgender people, hustlers, and homeless youth, which was precisely the reason for the raid. However, the raid was the immediate catalyst for the Stonewall riots which kick-started the gay rights movement in the US and worldwide.

Today, it would appear to many, that movement has secured victory. Civil partnerships, an equal age of consent to heterosexuals, and other milestones certainly make it appear that the ultimate goal of Stonewall has been reached. However, such an appearence is a false one.

First and foremost, the stark fact is that - beyond the United States, Western Europe, and "the West" generally, LGBT rights are close to non-existent. Amnesty International highlights the full extent of the problem;
All people should be able to enjoy all the human rights described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet millions of people across the globe face execution, imprisonment, torture, violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The range of abuses is limitless:
  • women raped to “cure” their lesbianism, sometimes at the behest of their parents;
  • individuals prosecuted because their private and consensual relationship is deemed to be a social danger;
  • loss of custody of their children;
  • individuals beaten by police;
  • attacked, sometimes killed, on the street – a victim of a “hate crime”;
  • regular subjection to verbal abuse;
  • bullying at school;
  • denial of employment, housing or health services;
  • denial of asylum when they do manage to flee abuse;
  • raped and otherwise tortured in detention;
  • threatened for campaigning for their human rights;
  • driven to suicide;
  • executed by the state.
Human rights abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity include the violation of the rights of the child; the infliction of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; arbitrary detention on grounds of identity or beliefs; the restriction of freedom of association and basic rights of due process.
To give a couple of pertinent examples of this, in May this year Peter Tatchell - a prominent Queer-Rights activist and member of direct action group OutRage! - was assaulted and arrested during a Gay Pride rally in Russia, not the first time he has faced such treatment there. In Iran, as publicised by the case of Mehdi Kazemi - who claimed asylum in the UK after Iranian authorities executed his boyfriend - homosexuals are murdered by the state in the most brutal manner, namely hanging on a rope winched up by a crane. Further examples abound in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Jamaica, and elsewhere - particularly across Africa, the Middle East, and the Carribean.

Even in the "liberal" West, however, where LGBT rights are unquestionably farther advanced than anywhere else in the world, the struggle is not yet over. As we learn that, according to Pink News, "the Delhi High Court today ruled that a ban on gay sex between adults violates India's constitution" and "the health ministry has called for the ban to be scrapped, saying it hampered efforts to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country," we also find out that "a gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas, was raided on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots." Despite the police statement that "the bars were raided as part of 'alcohol beverage code inspections'," there are "various accounts" of abuse and harrasment and "it is thought that one of those arrested is in hospital with a fractured skull."

In Britain, the Daily Mail has reported with expected disdain that "David Cameron has issued an extraordinary apology on behalf of the Conservative Party for legislation banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools." Referring to Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, they offered overwhelming coverage to the fact that he was "attacked last night by traditionalists on the Right of his party." "Former party chairman Lord Tebbit said he suspected the apology had been driven by 'focus group findings'." The paper continues to insist that "Section 28 was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's government in response to evidence of Left-wing councils promoting gay relationships in schools" despite the inherent absurdity in the idea of "promoting" homosexuality.

It was, of course, the Mail at the forefront of the virulently heterosexist campaign that saw Section 28 introduced. The non-sequitur that non-discriminatory policies amount to "promotion" and "indoctrination" being a typical subterfuge of such apologists for discrimination. That such attitudes still pervade today, as can be seen in the backlash against perceived (and not-necessarily real) "political correctness," and the utterly insane idea that not discriminating against minorities somehow equates to discriminating against the majority, demonstrates that the struggle is far from over.

You cannot force people to change their minds or legislate away bigotry, despite what the most egalitarian of liberals would like to think. However, by continually pushing the boundaries and challenging perceived norms, you can keep debate on "controversial" subjects such as homosexuality alive and encourage people to think twice about their own perceptions.

The plight of LBGT people across the globe certainly serves to put the situation in the West into perspective. However, if we allow this fact to make us complacent, and thus allow conservative and regressive elements to roll back basic freedoms, then we are betraying ourselves as well as the suffering peoples of the world. Only by continually and vocally opposing any and all discrimination in our own society can we hope to raise consciousness enough to force it into actions of solidarity and support with those who face far worse.