By Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch
Invisibility and stigma go hand in hand. “Coming out” became a central part of the gay liberation movement in the United States and Europe from the 1960s, a strategy adopted as a prerequisite for claiming rights. And in the late 1980s, in response to the AIDS crisis, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) adopted the slogan “Silence=Death,” which became the rallying cry of a movement challenging silence and stigma. Globally, in the past three decades, there has been a rapid increase in queer visibility, facilitated by many factors including images and ideas circulating through the internet, interconnectedness among LGBT organizations and individuals, and the global response to HIV/AIDS.
As of 2017, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has 1,228 member organizations in 132 countries. Yet visibility also comes with risks. As the visibility of sexual and gender minorities has increased, so too has the prevalence of laws that seek to ban public expressions of identity. When “the love that dare not speak its name” moved into the public square, LGBT activists in many parts of the world were treated with suspicion, accused of importing foreign concepts, promoting homosexuality, and threatening “traditional values.”
In the first week of January, a Chinese court accepted a case challenging a ban on depictions of homosexuality from online video platforms. The vague and sweeping regulations, imposed in June 2017 by the media regulatory authority under the Chinese government, prohibit portrayals of “abnormal sexual lifestyles or behavior,” including homosexuality. Also among the taboo subjects are portrayals of “Chinese imperialism,” “sexual liberation,” or “excessive drinking.” The guidelines were an attempt to bring internet content in line with Chinese television regulations that have explicitly banned depictions of same-sex relationships since 2016. This despite the fact that homosexuality is not criminalized in China, and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its official classification of mental disorders in 2001. These new restrictions are part of a pattern of ever-tightening social control in China.
Similarly, Indonesia’s parliament is considering a revised broadcasting bill that would ban “showcasing lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender behaviors.” Lawmakers say that the ban could include dramas with gay characters, broadcasts advocating for the rights of LGBT people, and traditional folk performances that often include waria (loosely translated as “transgender women”).
Dede Oetomo, an activist, decried this threat to make waria characters, ubiquitous in Indonesian entertainment and beauty culture, invisible on broadcast media. Bobby Rizaldi, a lawmaker, said: “LGBT is not criminal, but if it enters the public sphere, if it is broadcast to the public, then of course it must be regulated.” Another member of parliament said that if the content were aimed at “fixing the abnormality” it would be allowed. The highly polarized debate about LGBT issues in Indonesia is shorthand for competing claims between pluralism and fundamentalism.
In 2013, Russia imposed a national ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Similar propaganda-style legislation has been debated in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine, leading to an increased public discussion of “traditional values” and the perceived threat posed by sexual and gender minorities. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Russian law for reinforcing stigma, encouraging homophobia, and discriminating against a vulnerable minority. Russia is obligated to abide by the ruling, yet continues to charge people under the law – an administrative offense that, at worst, imposes a fine. But its effects are widespread and insidious, leading to self-censorship and contributing to bias-motivated violence. The government of Vladimir Putin has used this law to mobilize popular support domestically and take on the mantle of protecting “traditional values” internationally.
Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (2014) goes a lot further than banning same-sex marriages. The law punishes establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection with 10 years in prison. The law was passed in the midst of security concerns, corruption scandals and a looming election in Nigeria, serving its purpose as a political football.
The idea that homosexuality can be improperly “promoted” is rooted in the fear of same-sex relations as a social contagion. Just as laws prohibiting same-sex conduct seek to regulate what consenting adults may and may not do with their bodies, so too do propaganda and promotion laws that seek to regulate what is permissible in the social sphere. Sodomy and propaganda laws are based on similar ideas of contagion and social pollution.
In this respect, Chechnya is an extreme example. In April 2017, news broke of a systematic purge against gay and bisexual men, who were rounded up and tortured before being released to their families in public rituals of humiliation that encouraged so-called “honor-killings.” Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadirov, said at the time, denying the abuses: “If there were such people [gays] in Chechnya, law enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” In this discourse, gay people are completely erased from Chechnya. Their existence is impossible.
One of the ways governments attempt to curtail visibility is by making it difficult for LGBT groups to operate. In the past year alone, police raids in Uganda forced the closure of the Kampala International Queer Film Festival and a week of activities linked to Uganda Pride. In Turkey, the governor of Ankara imposed an indefinite ban on all public LGBT events in the province. In Egypt, after 75 people were arrested and 40 convicted in late 2017 after a rainbow flag was displayed at a music concert, the government imposed a media blackout on all positive depictions of homosexuality. And Tanzanian authorities suspended an organization that works on LGBT health rights and arrested a prominent South African human rights lawyer together with 12 of her colleagues and activist clients for “promoting homosexuality.”
But in legal systems under which the judiciary enjoys a degree of independence, courts are playing an important role in providing a remedy. Recent court rulings in Botswana (2016), Kenya (2014) and (2015), Tunisia (2016), South Korea (2017), and Mozambique (2017) have asserted the right of LGBT groups to register and advocate for their rights, despite laws in some of these countries that restrict same-sex practice.
Claims such as those by Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni that homosexuality is “un-African” can hardly stand in the face of an increasingly visible, mobilized, indigenous African LGBT movement, and the same holds true for other parts of the world. Homophobia is a convenient political tool precisely because it can be portrayed as a dangerous foreign influence. Symbols of a transnational movement, such as rainbow flags, pride parades, queer cultural events, or LGBT organizations can be used by unscrupulous politicians to stir moral panics about LGBT rights to distract attention from economic woes, social tensions, and political problems.
Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch and teaches at Columbia and Yale. Reid is teaching Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Human Rights at Columbia University this Spring 2018.