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Gay Rights
Human Rights

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(Appeal Cases - UDHER Campaign 1997) July 1997. Member of FPCU-AL and President of Grupo Gay de Alagoas. Death threats denouncing killings of homosexuals.

The right that

dares not

speak its name

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(Appeal cases - UDHR Campaign 1997) Member of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) organization. Discrimated against for supporting the Human Rights of gays and lesbians.

Gay men and women have not been granted equal rights. They face discrimination, harassment and even murder. And yet no-one wants to talk about it - particularly in the developing world. Ignacio Saiz reports on the forgotten victims.

Oscar wilde is perhaps history's best-known gay 'prisoner of conscience'. He was imprisoned at the close of the nineteenth century for having sex with other men. The recent film of his life celebrates his stature as an artist and intellectual and ensures that 100 years later the injustices committed against him are still remembered.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, men and women around the globe continue to be imprisoned, murdered and ill-treated solely because of their sexual orientation. But the vast majority of cases rarely provoke international outrage. Very often, the facts never even come to light and abuses against lesbians and gay men are not reported. Unlike Wilde, they are forgotten victims.

There are many reasons why this persecution is shrouded in silence. Many of those targeted live on the margins of society and have no resources with which to defend themselves.

Take the example of 18-year-old José Miguel dos Santos, a gay male sex worker from the city of Maceió in the Brazilian state of Alagoas. Living on the margins of society and the law, he and other sex workers in the area were at the mercy of the local civil police who were said to be running a protection racket among the prostitutes. In the early hours of 6 June, he and two transvestite sex workers were found dead. They had been shot in the head. The motive for the killing appears to be that the three had not paid their 'fee' of $10 a night to the police.

Those who dare to speak out against such abuses themselves

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Marching on: gay rights activists protest in South Africa
Eric Miller/Panos

become targets. On 18 June 1997, Pedro Montenegro, Director of the Permanent Forum against Violence in Alagoas and Board member of Amnesty International's Brazilian Section, and Marcelo Nascimento, co-ordinator of the Grupo Gay de Alagoas, both received anonymous telephone calls. They were told they would be killed if they continued to call for investigations into the killings of the sex workers.

Three other transvestite sex workers were detained in Maceio on 10 June for alleged non-payment of fees to the police. They reported that the police beat them with rubber sandals studded with nails and subjected them to humiliating treatment, including being forced to clean the station. On their release, all said they were too frightened to make an official complaint and they went into hiding. The Maceio Civil Police said they would only open an inquiry if the victims made an official complaint.

Fear of reprisals and lack of trust in the authorities are not the only reasons why abuses go unreported. The taboo surrounding homosexuality means that the social consequences for victims of making their sexual orientation public can be crushing, as can the sense of isolation that comes from having no advocates to mobilize
support on their behalf.

Two young gay men from the Romanian town of Timisoara, Mirel Ciprian Cucu and Milorad Mutascu, who had been living together in a flat, were arrested in January 1993. Mirel Cucu was charged with having sexual relations with a person of the same sex. Milorad Mutascu was charged with relations with a minor (a heterosexual relationship between people of the same ages as Cucu and Mutascu would have been lawful). They received suspended sentences of one and two years respectively. The two men also faced vilification in the official police newspaper which published their names, photographs and addresses even before formal charges had been brought against them. The paper described their relationship as a 'social danger'. Milorad Mutascu was subsequently unable to find work because of his 'criminal' record. Two years after his trial, he committed suicide.

Abuses against lesbians are perpetuated and concealed by a double layer of discrimination based on gender as well as sexual orientation. Tsitsi Tiripano knows the price of lesbian visibility. She and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) were threatened by members of an anti-gay pressure group who attacked their stand at the Harare International Book Fair in 1996. The group burned GALZ literature and threatened violence against GALZ members. GALZ and the Book Fair
organizers sought police protection. Their request went unheeded. Virulent articles about GALZ appeared in the national press, which published Tsitsi's photo. Shortly after, she fled to her rural hometown where she was greeted by angry protesters bearing placards saying: 'No lesbians here.'

Governments deploy a range of tactics to keep abuses under wraps and to evade accountability. In countries where homosexuality is not criminalized, gay men and lesbians may be at risk of arrest on vague or bogus criminal charges which conceal the real reason for their detention. Charges of 'hooliganism' and 'unruly behaviour' have been used in this way in the past in China - as with 'vagrancy' in Venezuela and 'dangerousness' in Cuba. Another tactic is the privatization of murder. Killings are committed by private individuals acting with official collusion. The authorities wash their hands of all responsibility, but systematically fail to take action against the perpetrators.

While some governments attempt to disguise persecution, others blatantly boast about it, justifying killings, torture and imprisonment of sexual minorities in the name of religion, ideology, public morality or national sovereignty. Far from deny-
ing responsibility, they deny that such
practices are even human-rights violations. Governments from America to Zimbabwe have claimed - implicitly or explicitly - that human-rights statutes do not apply to gay men and lesbians.

Thus the US Supreme Court found in 1986 that Georgia's 'sodomy' law did not violate fundamental rights because the Constitution did not confer a 'fundamental right of homosexuals to engage in sodomy', described in the judgement as 'immoral and unacceptable' and 'a crime not fit to be named'. Zimbabwe's President Mugabe put it more succinctly in a speech decrying homosexuals in 1995: 'I don't believe they have any rights at all.'

Such statements not only serve to justify and encourage attacks on sexual minorities, they are also an attack on
basic human-rights principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a response to the atrocities of the Second World War, when gay men and lesbians were targeted for extermination along with Jews, gypsies and the disabled. The progress made since then in combating discrimination on such grounds as sex or race has not been matched in the area of sexual orientation. International treaties aimed at eliminating racial and gender discrimination were adopted by the UN in the 1960s and 1970s. And yet discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not yet explicitly prohibited or even mentioned in any international standard.

This legal invisibility has traditionally been a barrier to action by the international human-rights movement. Inaction has also been justified in the name of cultural relativism: asserting universal gay and lesbian rights is seen by some as imposing Western values on cultures who construct sexual and social relationships differently.

But the 1990s have seen encouraging signs that such obstacles to universal activism for the recognition of gay and lesbian rights are being overcome. More and more voices are breaking the silence surrounding the repression. These voices are increasingly coming from the South. GALZ is just one of a host of organizations which have emerged in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to combat discrimination and violence against sexual minorities. Their existence is the most eloquent response to the cultural relativists. They are campaigning to give concrete meaning in their own context to the universal human-rights principles of dignity, equality and freedom from discrimination.

Recent precedent-setting interpretations by international human-rights bodies have confirmed that the universal duty of non-discrimination should be understood to include sexual orientation. In 1994 the UN Committee found that provisions of the Tasmanian Criminal Code criminalizing consensual same-sex relations in private violated the right to privacy and the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sex, recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In the area of refugee law, more and more states have recognized that people fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation are entitled to protection under the UN Refugee Convention. Though the number of refugees who have successfully claimed asylum on this basis is
relatively low, such cases encourage greater international awareness of the plight of sexual minorities in different parts of the world. This awareness, in turn, has contributed to another important development: the strengthening of international gay and lesbian solidarity.

The cases from Brazil, Romania and Zimbabwe mentioned above are merely more dramatic illustrations of the broader discrimination and prejudice sexual minorities face worldwide. In no country have
lesbians and gay men achieved full equality before the law. Even where their basic rights to life and liberty are respected, other fundamental civil, social and economic rights are systematically denied them. Gays and lesbian activists around the world are therefore part of the same struggle. As more spheres of activity become 'globalized', opportunities for greater co-operation are emerging.

These trends give grounds for optimism that the twenty-first century will see sexual-minority rights clearly and unequivocally recognized - just as women's rights have been recognized. This is not asking for 'special' treatment, but merely to demand respect for the inalienable right of all human beings to equality and dignity.

Ignacio Saiz is Mandate Co-ordinator at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. Breaking the Silence (Amnesty UK 1997) documents dozens of cases of violations against gay men and lesbians and offers guidelines for their protection.



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