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January 31, 2007
TONY BLAIR'S EMBARASSING GAY ADOPTIONS CLIMBDOWN AFTER CABINET REVOLT
The following article was written for Gay City News, New York's largest gay weekly, which publishes it tomorrow:
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left), who had been taking the side of the Catholic Bishops against advocates of gay equality over the issue of adoptions by same-sex couples, last week was forced to back down after an unprecedented revolt by his own cabinet of ministers, which overwhelmingly supported the right of gay couples to adopt.
The serious political crisis provoked by the gay adoptions issue, which has been making front-page headlines for two weeks in the British press, came to a head at a cabinet meeting last Wednesday, when Blair was left isolated within his own government on the issue.
Last year, parliament passed a new Equality Act that included a broad ban on sexual orientation discrimination in a wide variety of goods, facilities, and services, including adoptions -- and the government was required to issue special Sexual Orientation Regulations to spell out how the new law was to be implemented before it takes effect this coming April.
Blair had originally asked Alan Johnson (right), his Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to draw up the new Sexual Orientation Regulations last year, and had ordered him to include an exemption for Roman Catholic adoption agencies from the new Equality Law.
But when Johnson refused to include the loophole permitting the Catholic Church to discriminate against gay couples, Blair took the responsibility for drawing up the new regulations governing anti-gay discrimination away from Johnson and handed the dossier to Ruth Kelly (left), a devout Catholic who is Blair’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and also Minister for Women and Equality.
Kelly is a member of the powerful, secretive, and cult-like conservative Catholic society Opus Dei (of which her brother is a high official), which has gained far greater influence within the Catholic Church under the last two Popes. (The Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei in 1928 was canonized Saint Josemaría Escrivá by Pope John Paul II in 2002, and Pope Benedict XVI recently installed a statue of the new saint in front of the Vatican.)
Kelly had previously voted in parliament against allowing gay couples the right to adopt, and had failed to show up to vote on all but two of the 14 gay equality measures which had come before parliament since Blair’s Labour Party took power in 1997. Upon Kelly’s appointment as Equality Minister, the BBC reported that “she would not say whether or not she thought homosexuality was a sin” -- and her appointment was sharply criticized by gay rights leaders like Peter Tatchell, the founder and head of the militant gay rights group OutRage!, who said, “Tony Blair would never appoint someone to a race-equality post who had a lukewarm record of opposing racism."
When Kelly was handed the Sexual Orientation Regulations dossier by Blair, it was because he knew that she favored the exemption from the ban on discrimination in adoptions for Catholic agencies which Blair wanted.
Blair is a devout Christian and a nominal Anglican whose predilections for the Catholic faith are notorious; he has been granted several private audiences with the last two Popes, and it is widely rumored that he will formally announce his conversion to Catholicism after he leaves the prime minister’s post -- rumors fueled when Blair attended Catholic Mass during a Miami Christmas vacation. Blair’s wife, Cherie (right), is an active Catholic, and the Blairs have sent their three children to exclusive Catholic schools. The leading daily newspaper The Independent reported last week that Cherie Blair was behind the exemption drive that had split Blair’s cabinet.
In 2003, Blair -- in what the newspaper The Observer then called “a decisive break with British traditions that religion and government should not mix” -- set up a ministerial working group in the Home Office charged with injecting religious ideas “across Whitehall,” as the seat of British government is known. Blair believes that the answers to most questions can be found in the Bible, a copy of which he keeps by his bedside.
As the political firestorm raged over the gay adoptions issue, the Catholic Bishops, in a blatant act of political blackmail, threatened to shut down all seven Catholic agencies handling adoptions unless they were granted an exemption from the anti-discrimination law.
The threat came in a letter to cabinet ministers from the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor (left), the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The Catholic agencies all receive public funding, which they could lose if they did not comply with the law forbidding discrimination against gays and were not granted the exemption from it Blair and Kelly had wanted.
But at last Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, only Blair and Kelly supported the exemption for the Catholic Church, while Blair’s senior ministers -- including his closest friend in the cabinet, Lord Falconer (right), who is the Lord Chancellor and was Blair’s former roommate when they were young barristers -- said they could not accept the exemption. Even the most senior Catholic in the cabinet, Home Secretary John Reid, said that “the religious objections of some ministers and churchmen must not be allowed to undermine the fundamental principle of equality enshrined in the law.”
Finally, this Tuesday, Blair -- bending his knee to his cabinet’s majority -- issued a statement that was an embarrassing climb-down from his previous position, and in which he said, “There can be no exemptions for faith-based adoption agencies offering publicly-funded services from regulations which prevent discrimination.
However, at the same time, Blair said the Catholic adoption agencies would be granted a 21-month “transition period” in which to comply with the new ban on discrimination against gay couples.
Openly gay MP Stephen Williams of the Liberal Democrats (left) was sharply critical of this grace period Blair granted. Speaking from his House of Commons office by telephone, Williams told Gay City News, “I’m skeptical that they really need two years to figure out how to comply.”
The Catholic campaign in favor of the exemption was “particularly infuriating,” Ben Summerskill (right), executive director of Stonewall -- the largest British gay rights lobby -- told Gay City News. “The language used was deeply offensive and unpleasant,” he said, “because it linked homosexuality and pedophilia, and you had demonstrators standing in front of Parliament holding photos of kids with the caption, ‘Don’t Corrupt Us.’ The tone of private briefings [by Catholic lobbyists] was similarly heated. By contrast, in our lobbying we were regarded as temperate and reasoned. And the cabinet ministers we lobbied recognized that gay couples are much more likely to adopt children with severe disabilities -- they should be lionized, not demonized.”
Summerskill gives Blair a “B-plus” on gay issues during his decade in office. But two of the changes wrought by Blair -- allowing gay men and women to serve in the military, and equalizing the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 16 -- were in fact ordered by the European Court of Human Rights. And a ban on discrimination against gays in the workplace was decided on by the European Union’s Council of Ministers (although the U.K. was the third E.U. country to enshrine that measure in its national laws.)
Blair did back repeal of the notorious Section 28, which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality.” In practice, this meant local governments and school boards were prevented from distributing any material, whether plays, leaflets, books, or any other material that portrayed gay relationships as anything other than abnormal. Teachers and educational staff in some cases were afraid of discussing gay issues with students for fear of losing state funding, and local authorities shut down support groups for LGBT students for fear of violating Section 28.
However, as openly gay MP Williams pointed out to Gay City News, “The Blair government initially introduced repeal of Section 28 into the House of Lords, where it was sure to be defeated” -- as indeed it was on two occasions -- “which also prevented the House of Commons from taking up repeal. If Blair had put repeal into the Commons, it could have happened as early as 1999.” Section 28 was only repealed in 2003.
And OutRage’s Tatchell (left) points out that, “"The Blair government is refusing asylum to lesbians and gays who have been jailed, tortured and raped in countries like Iraq, Jamaica, Iran, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The Home Office says they won't be at risk of arrest and murder if they hide their sexuality and behave 'with discretion'. Labour is ordering the deportation of lesbian and gay refugees despite the danger that they could be imprisoned or killed.”
In 2005, Blair shocked Democratic members of Congress here by using the British Embassy in Washington to snaggle an internship for his then-21-year-old son, Euan (right), with Republican Congressman David Dreier of California (left) -- at the time a member of the GOP House leadership team as chairman of the Rules Committee, and a notoriously closeted homosexual hypocrite who supports the Republicans’ anti-gay political agenda and consistently votes against gay equality measures.
Homosexuality was not decriminalized in the U.K. until 1967 -- when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson (left) supported legislation implementing the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, a 1957 government study of the laws making same-sex relations a crime, and recommending their repeal, that had been shelved by then-Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, a Conservative.
Posted by Direland at 12:39 PM | Permalink
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January 30, 2007
EUROPARLIAMENT LURCHES RIGHT
The following was written for Gay City News -- New York's largest gay weekly -- which published it on January 16. Technical difficulties prevented my posting it here until now:
As the European Parliament--which in the past has played a key role in advancing gay rights on the Continent-opened its new session in its headquarters at Strasbourg, France, its political complexion has undergone a significant change with the arrival of 53 new, mostly conservative deputies from Bulgaria and Romania, dimming prospects for further progress and strengthening the neo-fascist bloc.
The two countries acceded to full membership in the European Union earlier this month-and the Continental press has been filled with commentaries about the Europarliament's "lurch to the right," as the leading French daily Le Monde put it.
"LGBT issues have become infinitely more complicated as the center of gravity of the European Parliament has shifted further to the right than ever before," Professor Louis-Georges Tin (right), president of the International Committee for the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) --which was endorsed last year by the Europarliament-told me by telephone from Paris.
One immediate result of the shifting composition was to give the ultra-homophobic neo-fascist bloc in the Europarliament enough members, or MEPs as the deputies are known, to form its own recognized parliamentary group for the very first time. The neo-fascist group, to be called "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty" (ITS), will be given a budget of one million Euros (nearly $1.3 million) and is now on equal footing with the seven other political groups in the Parliament. This new status means, Bulgarian MEP Dimitar Stoyanov (left), a member of the ITS group, told The Independent, a British daily, that "We will be able to table amendments, we will have longer speaking time in the plenary sessions, and, eventually, we will win chairman, or deputy chairman, positions on committees."
Stoyanov is from Bulgaria's neo-fascist Ataka (Attack) party, whose leader, Volen Siderov (left), last February called for capital punishment for homosexuality.
Five of the new Romanian MEPs are from the neo-fascist Romania Mare (Greater Romania) party led by the demagogue Vadim Tudor (right)--who, in September 2005, was disciplined by Romania's National Council for Combating Discrimination for having said on television, "Homosexuals are an aberration of nature, and they shouldn't mess with me because I'm going to impale them on wooden stakes and they might like it."
This sort of violent anti-gay rhetoric is typical of both these Bulgarian and Romanian neo-fascist parties, whose stock-in-trade is bashing homosexuals, Jews, and other ethnic minorities, including the Roma (typically called Gypsies in the U.S.) and Hungarians.
Elected this past weekend as president of the new ITS group was French MEP Bruno Gollnisch, the number two man in neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National party and Le Pen's designated dauphin as party leader. Gollnisch, who calls homosexuals "degenerate" and "sick" and equates gay sexuality with pedophilia, crusaded in the most vile terms against France's civil unions law (known as the PACS), and has called the anti-racism movement "mental AIDS." (Photo above left, Le Pen, with Gollnisch on the right)
The anti-Semitic Gollnisch is currently on trial under a French hate-speech law banning Holocaust denial, for having questioned the existence of the Nazi gas chambers in the World War II German death camps, statements which also got him suspended for five years from his post as a professor of law at the University of Lyon.
Other new extreme-right deputies from Bulgaria and Romania have reinforced the ultra-nationalist Union of a Europe of Nations (UEN) group in the Europarliament, which opposes the European Union and will now have 44 members, making it larger than the Green group, with only 40. The UEN includes 20 deputies from the three gay-hating parties that rule Poland in a coalition government--the Law and Justice Party of homophobic Polish President Lech Kaczynski, the right-wing Catholic and anti-Semitic League of Polish Families party, and the agrarian nationalist Self-Defense party. (Above right, the huge Europarliament building at Strasbourg)
At the same time, the very gay-friendly president of the last Europarliament--Josep Borrell, from the Spanish Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Zapatero, leader of the continent's most pro-gay government-has been succeeded by Hans-Gert Pöttering (right), a highly conservative Catholic from Germany's right-wing Christian Democratic Party who has been the head of the Europarliament's conservative group, the Popular Party of Europe, or the PPE. With 277 MEPs, the PPE is the Parliament's largest bloc.
The contrast between the outgoing and incoming Parliament presidents could not be more striking. Borrell, who endorsed the International Day Against Homophobia a year before the Europarliament did so, was a frequent and vocal critic of the conservative-dominated European Commission, which makes day-to-day governing decisions for the European Union. And Borrell was a vigorous opponent of the notorious Italian homophobe Rocco Buttiglione (left), whose 2004 nomination as the EU's justice commissioner created a firestorm of controversy. Buttiglione's anti-gay and misogynist positions eventually led to his nomination being withdrawn.
"As a Spanish citizen I would not want to have as a justice minister someone who thinks that homosexuality is a sin and who thinks that a woman should stay at home and have children under the protection of her husband," Borrell (right) declared at the time in opposition to Buttiglione.
But the new president, orthodox conservative Pöttering, who took office this week, was a fervent support of Buttiglione, and he idolizes homophobic Pope Benedict XVI, the Bavarian who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger enforced an increasingly harsh and conservative orthodoxy in the Catholic Church at the direction of John Paul II.
The Europarliament's gay politicians sound surprisingly sanguine about the body's turn right. Openly gay MEP Michael Cashman from Britain's Labour Party, who is a vigorous defender of his beleaguered prime minister, Tony Blair, and who chairs the Europarliament's Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights, dismisses the new neo-fascist ITS group as "a rag-bag of the desperate and the despicable."
Cashman (left) told me by telephone from Strasbourg, "We must call on the European Commission to issue a new directive against discrimination in the supply of goods and services, a directive that was promised by Commission President [José Manuel] Barroso [a former right-wing Portuguese prime minister] during the Buttiglione controversy."
And, Cashman said, "The European Commission hasn't delivered" on its promise of a "uniform, horizontal anti-discrimination law" on employment that would include sexual orientation. But he did not detail any new legislative initiatives the Intergroup would propose.
Intergroup vice-chair Sophie int' Veld (right), from the Netherlands' D-66 party, which has been part of that country's ruling conservative coalition, told this reporter there has been "no follow-up" on the resolution calling for education against homophobia in schools and universities which the Europarliament passed last January (see this reporter's article in Gay City News, "Europe Targets Homophobia," February 2-8, 2006). But, she said, "I frankly do not think the arrival of our Romanian and Bulgarian colleagues has changed things substantially."
But IDAHO's Tin takes a different view, saying that, given the new political situation in the Europarliament, "I think advances will be more laborious, and more rare. And that which we appeared to have won earlier will be, if not called into question, at least regularly debated and contested. We have a duty to be extremely vigilant
Posted by Direland at 11:59 PM | Permalink
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January 27, 2007
SARAH OLSON, THE PENTAGON, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Last month, military prosecutors subpoenaed Sarah Olson, a 31-year-old writer and radio journalist, asking her to appear at the court-martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. Lt. Watada said that he could not participate in the Iraq War because it was “manifestly illegal” and that his participation would make him a party to war crimes. He had spoken candidly to Olson, who had written about the case, and prosecutors have tried to conscript her into their effort to convict Lt. Watada, whose trial begins February 5.
Now, the Pentagon prosecutors are also trying to force testimony against Lt. Watada from Honolulu Star Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako, who also wrote about the case; and freelance journalist Dahr Jamail and videographer Sari Gelzer, who had simply videotaped Lt. Watada's speech at a Veterans for Peace convention
Olson has refused to testify against Lt. Watada (right), for reasons she persuasively explained in an Editor & Publisher op-ed Olson wrote, in which she said, among other things:
"Doesn’t it fly in the face of the First Amendment to compel a journalist to participate in a government prosecution against a source, particularly in matters related to personal political speech? It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion. Further, it is stunningly ironic that the Army seeks my testimony – the testimony of a journalist – in a case against free speech itself. What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?"
A Los Angeles Times editorial got it right when it said of the Sarah Olson case:
"It's egregious enough when U.S. attorneys subpoena journalists, which is happening at an alarmingly increasing rate (illustrating the need for a national shield law). But there is something especially chilling about the U.S. military reaching beyond its traditional authority to compel a non-military U.S. citizen engaged in news-gathering to testify in a military court, simply to bolster a court-martial case. There is no security interest at stake, and no matter of national urgency...It's time for the Army to back off."
A Defend the Press campaign against military intimidation and harassment of journalists that highlights the Sarah Olson case has just been launched by the admirable John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Stauber reports on this campaign today on the website of CMD's excellent P.R. Watch:
" In the past 72 hours Defend the Press has been endorsed by a diversity of news media and public interest organizations from Free Press to the Organic Consumers Association, from Mother Jones to Mothering magazines. Some of these organizations have sent emails to their thousands of supporters urging support for the campaign. Others have posted banners at the top of their websites. The National Press Club issued a news release on behalf of Sarah Olson and other subpoenaed journalists, and endorsed Defend The Press. Scores of notables in the journalism, academic, and public interest communities have added their names, posting comments, writing letters and articles...." Read all of Stauber's report (and find out what you can do to help) by clicking here.
I was more than happy to lend my name in support of Sarah Olson's courageous and principled refusal to join in the prosecution effort to send Lt. Watada to jail, so I asked a number of my journalist and writer friends to join me in signing a statement against the military's attempt to subpoena Olson and other journalists, and most of them -- like noted sportswriter and HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant (above left); Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner , author of the magnificent "Angels in America" (right); John Berendt, former editor-in-chief of New York magazine and author of the best-sellers "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "City of Falling Angels" (left); and Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, (hero of the movie "The Killing Fields," based on Syd's book about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges) -- said yes. (You can see a list of endorsers so far by clicking here.) Syd Schanberg (below right) wrote me:
"Yes, Doug, please add my name to the appeal. Sarah Olson's principled stand is a crucial one at a time when the mainstream press is bargaining away, in bigger and bigger chunks, the privacy of reporters' notebooks, confidential conversations, e-mails, etc.ad infinitum. Her professional product has been published and is available to the government. As she says, reporters betray their role as fact-seekers for the public if they are forced -- through threat of imprisonment -- to become agents of a particular government's agenda."
If you agree, find out what you can do by visiting the Defend the Press website. A good way to start: sign the petition demanding the military dismiss the subpoena against Sarah Olson, which you can do by clicking here. And Sarah, a penurious young independent journalist, needs money to help pay her legal defense against the military's attempt to force her to testify -- you can donate to the legal defense fund to keep Sarah out of prison by clicking here. Remember, the trial begins on February 5 -- and Sarah can use all the help she can get to fight the Pentagon's First Amendment-shredding subpoena.
Posted by Direland at 05:55 PM | Permalink
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January 26, 2007
U.N. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT CONFIRMS IRAQI GAY KILLINGS
The following was written for Gay City News -- New York's largest gay weekly -- and appears in its current issue, published yesterday:
For the very first time, an official United Nations human rights report released last week has confirmed the "violent campaigns" against Iraqi gays and the "assassinations of homosexuals in Iraq."
"Attacks on homosexuals and intolerance of homosexual practices have long existed, yet they have escalated in the past year," says the latest bi-monthly Human Rights Report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), released on January 16. "Islamic groups and militias have been known to be particularly hostile towards homosexuals, frequently and openly engaging in violent campaigns against them. There have been a number of assassinations of homosexuals in Iraq," the report says.
Including a section entitled "Sexual Orientation" for the first time, the 30-page report goes on to say that the UNAMI Human Rights Office "was also alerted to the existence of religious courts, supervised by clerics, where alleged homosexuals would be 'tried,' 'sentenced' to death, and then executed."
"The trials, presided over by young, inexperienced clerics, are held... in ordinary halls. Gays and rapists face anything from 40 lashes to the death penalty," the UNAMI report says, citing a report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, adding: "One of the self-appointed judges in Sadr City believes that homosexuality is on the wane in Iraq. 'Most [gays] have been killed and others have fled,' he said. Indeed, the number who have sought asylum in the U.K. has risen noticeably over the last few months... [This judge] insists the religious courts have 'a lot to be proud of. We now represent a society that asked us to protect it not only from thieves and terrorists but also from these [bad] deeds.'"
Among a number of assassinations detailed in the UNAMI report, it says that "at least five homosexual males were reported to have been kidnapped from Shaab area in the first week in December by one of the main militias. Their personal documents and information contained in computers were also confiscated. The mutilated body of Amjad, one of the kidnapped, appeared in the same area after a few days."
Gay City News first broke the story about the systematic murder of Iraqi gays last March (see this reporter's article, "Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays-U.S. Indifferent," March 23-29, 2006). The Badr Corps-the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the country's most powerful Shiite political group-launched a campaign of "sexual cleansing," marshaling death squads to exterminate homosexuality, following a "death to gays" fatwa issued in October 2005 by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (left), the 77-year-old chief spiritual leader of all Iraqi Shia Muslims, to whom the SCIRI and the Badr Corps owe total allegiance.
Late last year, the Badr Corps-whose members up until then had been paid their salaries by Iran-was integrated into the Iraqi national police under the Ministry of the Interior, and its death squad members now have full police powers and wear police uniforms, which they don to carry out murders of gays.
Death squads of the Mahdi Army, the armed militia under the control of fundamentalist Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, have also carried out assassinations of gays.
The UNAMI report says that, "The current environment of impunity and lawlessness invites a heightened level of insecurity for homosexuals in Iraq."
One can get a vivid idea of that climate from a conversation this reporter, through a translator, recently had with Hussein, 32, a gay man living with his married brother's family in Baghdad.
"I've been living in a state of fear for the last year since Ayatollah Sistani issued that fatwa, in which he even encouraged families to kill their sons and brothers if they do not change their gay behavior," he said. "My brother, who has been under pressure and threats from Sistani's followers about me, has threatened to harm me himself, or even kill me, if I show any signs of gayness."
Hussein had already lost his job in a photo lab because the shop owner did not want people to think that he was supporting a gay man.
"Now I'm very self-conscious about my look and the way I dress-I try to play it safe," said Hussein, who is slightly effeminate. "Several times I was followed in the street and beaten just because I had a nice, cool haircut that looked feminine to them. Now I just shave my head."
Indeed, even the way one dresses is enough to get a gay Iraqi killed.
"Just the fact of looking neat and clean, let alone looking elegant and well groomed, is very dangerous for a gay person," Hussein said. "So now I don't wear nice clothes, so that no one would even suspect that I'm gay. I now only leave home if I want to get food."
One of Hussein's best friends, Haydar, was not long ago found shot in the back of the head at a deserted ranch outside the city. "Some say he was shot by a family member in an act of honor killing; some say he was shot by those so-called death squads," Hussein said. "Everyone says it's easy these days to get away with killing gays, since there is no law and order here."
All Hussein thinks about is getting out of Iraq.
"Things were bad under Saddam for gays," he said, "but not as bad as now. Then, no one feared for their lives. Now, you can be gotten rid of at any time."
The UNAMI report was hailed for its recognition of the plight of Iraqi gays by Ali Hili, a 32-year-old Iraqi gay man in exile in the United Kingdom who is coordinator of the London-based Iraqi LGBT group, which has a network of supporters and informants throughout Iraq who have helped document the sexual cleansing campaigns targeting homosexuals.
Speaking from London, Hili told me that the UNAMI report helps show how "the new Iraq is denying the right of every homosexual human being to exist and suppressing them ever since the invasion, and it gets worse every day."
The work of the Iraqi LGBT group was cited in the UNAMI report, which noted that "26 of their members have been killed since 2003. This includes the murders in 2006 of two minors, 11-year-old Ameer and 14-year-old Ahmed, because of their alleged sexual orientation even though both were reportedly forced into child prostitution. Another two young women were murdered in Najaf."
A request to the U.S. Department of Defense press office in the Pentagon for comment on the UNAMI report went unreturned. In the past, Hili and the Iraqi LGBT group have reported that when gays went to U.S. occupying authorities in Baghdad's Green Zone requesting protection, they were treated with contempt and derision.
To help support Iraqi gays, or for more information, go to Iraqi LGBT's Web site at http://iraqlgbtuk.com/.
RELATED READING: The current issue of GQ magazine has an excellent long article on Iraqi gays and a profile of Ali Hili by my old friend David France (right), a former senior editor at Newsweek. It has not been posted on GQ's website, but David tells me he'll post it this weekend on his own website. Or, pick up the magazine at the newsstands. And for more background, see some of my previous articles on gays in Iraq:
March 13, 2006: Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays;
October 6, 2006: Hunting Gays in Iraq--How the Death Squads Work
December 6, 2006: Iraqi Gay Activists Abducted, Feared Dead
Posted by Direland at 03:21 AM | Permalink
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January 21, 2007
HITCHENS-NAFISI REDUX --- Updated
Note to readers: please see the important Update at the end of this post for a correction:
A powerful odor of mendacity, to borrow Tennessee Williams' line, floats over the head of my old pal and recent sparring partner Christopher Hitchens (left), for anyone who has read Hitch's review of Nick Cohen's new book in the Times of London for December 21.
In that review Hitch repeats a demonstrably false statement -- he writes of "Iranian feminist Azar Nafisi (right), who three years ago dedicated her book Reading Lolita in Tehran to Paul Wolfowitz." Now, the book in question -- an unforgettable and elegant memoir that examines important issues of identity and intellectual freedom -- does indeed bear a dedication, but it is to Nafisi's family. And the dedication reads:
""In memory of my mother, Nezhat Nafisi
For my father, Ahmad Nafisi, And my family: Bijan, Negar and Dara Naderi"
I thought this whole matter had been put to rest in an exchange about it on this blog three years ago. Hitch's original assertion about Nafisi's alleged "dedication" of her fine book to Wolfowitz had been challenged by the journalists Danny Postel and Jason Vest in correspondence posted on this blog. Both Postel and Vest have written extensively on matters Iranian (I highly recommend Postel's new book, Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism -- the title of which is a tip of the chapeau to Nafisi.)
When Hitchens' original mis-statement about Nafisi's dedication -- which came in a profile of Hitch written by The Independent's Johann Hari -- was brought to his attention in 2004, Hitch claimed to me -- in an e-mail posted on this blog -- that " I may have condensed or elided verbally in my conversation with Hari, who is a fairly meticulous reporter," and that what he had meant to say was that a certain "Paul" (no last name given) whom Nafisi had included in her book's acknowledgements was Wolfowitz. That is in itself an admission that Hitch's earlier claim that Nafisi had "dedicated" her book to Wolfowitz was untrue.
In a comment at that time which Nafisi wrote to be published on DIRELAND, Nafisi said in part: " I do not wish to enter a debate that will reveal nothing of significance, but will serve to divert attention from the substance of my book-- that is focused on the role played by imagination in creating spaces within an oppressive reality-- and from the serious political issues we face today that should be only discussed seriously, thoughtfully and through debates.
"I would like to bring to your attention that many people in my acknowledgments do not have a last name, and as I mention in my note to Mr. Hitchens, these acknowledgements were personal tributes to individuals who came from very different political spectrums and held opposing political views, and my one time association with them in no way reflects my political biases, and if others do not respect my wish for privacy I have to respect it myself and not give in to pressure and innuendos.
"When I was in Iran, the regime and some in the opposition both fabricated and used people's 'associations' in order to divert attention from the real issues and debates, I found this degrading and reprehensible, I am not going to give in to this practice over here..." You can read all of Nafisi's commentary by clicking here.
For any honorable person, that should have put an end to the matter. But now, three years later, Hitch -- in a blatant act of recidivism -- once again attempts to imply (wrongly) that Nafisi is in the same pro-war camp of intellectuals as he is (Nafisi is on record as firmly opposed to any military attack on Iran, quite the opposite of the view taken by Hitch's new neo-con friends.) And this time, Hitch can't suggest he mis-spoke to a journalist or that the journalist got it wrong -- the lie he uses to traduce Nafisi is from Hitch's own pen. And he knows that what he wrote is dead false.
In the ensuing three years since Az Nafisi wrote those words for this blog, she has become a valued friend -- and I have learned to appreciate even more deeply the subtlety of her thought and the depth of her commitment to rigorous intellectual honesty. I cannot let Hitch's latest dragging her into the mud of yet another of his undifferentiated attacks on the left with his faux "dedication" go unnoticed.
Hitch, despite our profound disagreements these last few years on the war in Iraq, George W. Bush, and other issues (anyone wishing to read my debate with Hitchens on these matters for the L.A. Weekly may do so by clicking here), I've never taken your ecological engagements to include the recycling of demonstrated falsehoods. But here you are, signing your name to a statement which you know to be -- without contest -- untrue, in order to score a debating point. And as the old saw has it, everyone is entitled to his own opinions -- but not to his own facts.
Yes, a powerful odor of mendacity...How sad.
UPDDATE AND CORRECTION:
I am delighted to be able to report that the clouds have now dispersed around the head of Hitchens -- the mendacious paragraph originated with Nick Cohen and was parroted by the Sunday Times of London. Here's the explanation:
Hitch, in response to my e-mail to him (sent before the above was posted) wailing about the mis-characterization of Nafisi's dedication, eventually e-mailed me to say that the paragraph in question about Nafisi's dedication was not written by him, but added by the editors of the Times.
Further, although the 'graph appears in the Times' online version as part of Hitch's review, as it also does on Nick Cohen's blog (where the review was reprinted in full), an e-mail from me to Andrew Holgate, Deputy Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, has elicited the further explanation that in the print edition of the newspaper, the Nafisi 'graph does not appear as part of Hitch's review but as part of a section added at the tail end of the review by the Times' editors, just as Hitch informed me, and was separated from the body of Hitch's review by graphics. Here is the text of Holgate's e-mail in full:
Thank you very much for your email, and thank you for pointing out the odd alignment of copy on our website. I can confirm that the copy at the end of Christopher's piece (under the heading odd bedfellows) was not written by him at all, but was actually in an add-on box of additional information. It was very clearly separated off in a colour box in the newspaper edition. We have now taken that information off the web-site
to avoid any further confusion, and will issue a correction online later today.
Thank you for pointing out our mistake.
Deputy Literary Editor, Sunday Times"
In a subsequent e-mail, responding to my question as to how the Times came to publish the falsehood about Nafisi's dedication of her book, Holgate says that "The material itself was taken directly and in good faith from the Nick
Cohen book...we will be issuing an online correction."
And Nick Cohen himself, whom I also e-mailed, has responded and said that he will ask his publishers to correct in his book's second printing his unfortunate error completely mis-representing the Nafisi dedication.
Let's hope that in future the Times will be more careful when putting authors' words online -- and that Cohen will learn to open a book and look at it before he characterizes it.
I'm gratified that my blog has played a useful role in getting the record corrected, and Hitchens' honor in this instance is thus intact.
Posted by Direland at 10:06 PM | Permalink
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January 12, 2007
THE NEW CRACKDOWN ON IRAN'S BLOGGERS (and an important upcoming symposium on Iran's sexual minorities)
The following was written by Iranian journalist, civil society activist, and blogger -- who blogs in both English and Persian -- Omid Mermarian (left), now based in Berkeley, California at the U.C.-Berkeley Journalism School. He's a contributor to the BBC Persian-language service and to Inter Press Service, for which he wrote the report below on the new crackdown on Iranian bloggers. A journalist for reformist newspapers in Iran before a government crackdown shut down most of the independent press, Omid himself was arrested by the Tehran regime in 2004 and imprisoned for two months for activist blogging in defense of human rights (along with 20 other bloggers), kept in solitary confinement, and tortured -- and in 2005 he received the Human Rights Watch Human Rights Defender Award. You can also read an interesting interview Omid gave on Iranian blogging just before Christmas to Global Voices (the website for bloggers around the world run by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School) by clicking here. I'm reprinting Omid's new report here in full because it deserves the widest possible circulation:
by Omid Memarian, Inter Press Service
January 10, 2007
In a bid to clamp down even harder on information disseminated through the Internet, Iran’s hardliner government has demanded the registration of all websites and weblogs sourced in the country by Mar. 1, drawing objections from many Iranian bloggers who say the move clearly violates free speech. A committee of government officials, including members of the intelligence, judiciary, telecommunications, and culture and Islamic guidance ministries, will be in charge of approving the content of websites. The committee is commissioned with blocking or filtring websites or weblogs that they deem illegal.Over the last few years, the government has banned and filtred thousands of websites and weblogs without explanation. However, for the first time, the new law is specific about what kinds of content are not allowed.
Website and weblog registrars must also provide personal information about themselves. Bloggers or website managers who fail to do so risk being shut down, penalised and if the case ends up in court, the accused may find themselves in prison.
Some activists plan to defy the new requirements. Farnaz Seify, a feminist blogger in Tehran, told IPS, “The government’s new policy of forcing registrations indicates that the authorities are making it clear that no one is permitted to criticise or even discuss religion, government’s policies, revolution, ayatollahs and social problems.”
“Freedom of speech doesn’t have such restrictions and limitations — however, Iran’s government ignores this basic right of human beings,” she said. “With this new regulation, the government insults both me and my intelligence. I will not register my personal website. I don’t need to get permission to have freedom of expression.”
Farnaz, whose blog has been filtred because of her outspoken feminist content, added, “I know they will censor me again. It shows their power but not their legitimacy. I will not legitimise their anti-humanitarian law by obeying that law, nor will I respect it.”
The new law requires the weblog or website registrar to provide their name, address, telephone number, intended audience, approximate number of readers and other detailed information. Comprehensive restrictions are placed on content that deals with a range of issues from criticism of religious figures to sexual matters as well as content considered offensive to the Ayatollah Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic), Ayatollah Khamenei (right), (Iran’s Supreme Leader), or that is deemed slanderous of Islamic laws.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which drafted the new law, says that the measures are designed to support legal websites and remove the “illegal” ones.
“This law is intended to make the Internet atmosphere clean and safe,” it announced.
For many Iranians, the Internet is the only public arena where they can share and exchange their thoughts, concerns and emotions on matters ranging from sexuality to social problems and contentious issues such as women’s rights and criticism of the current regime and its policies. While the Internet has provided a relatively safe haven for freedom of speech, critics of the new law say the new requirements will effectively shut down this last refuge of communication.
Since 2002, the Islamic government has employed a highly restrictive filtring system, effectively banning many websites and weblogs for Iranians inside the country. The state controls all Internet Service Providers (ISPs), resulting in the most censored Internet sphere after China.
Not only does the new law grant the Islamic Republic full control over the content of all websites launched within Iran, but now authorities can filtre the thousands of websites and weblogs written in Farsi outside of Iran.
In the last few years — prior to the new law — many journalists and bloggers have been arrested and sent to jail. Arash Ashoriania, an Iranian photo-blogger and winner of the Reporters Without Borders Best of the Blogs competition organised by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2006, told IPS that this law will have no impact on his activities since “my blog has already been filtred by the authorities without any clear reason and I have nothing to lose by refusing to register my website.”
Another well-known Iranian blogger and journalist, Hanif Mazruie, who was arrested and held in solitary confinement for more than 90 days in 2004, believes the new regulation will have only a short-term effect.
“Iranians are continuously working on new ways of going beyond the filtres. These policies just make them more industrious in ignoring proxies and obtaining the information they want,” Mazruie told IPS in a telephone interview from Tehran.
Most political websites and weblogs that are critical of the government have already been blocked. With the increased monitoring, this has paved the way for official suppression and control of the Internet.
“Political blogs and websites are the targeted group,” Mazruie. “Also NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and human rights organisations which use the Internet as their sole means of communication are the main groups to be restricted. The government wants to restrict, stop and warn those who write anonymously.”
“The intelligence officials who ran the parallel security forces during President Khatami’s tenure (1997-2005) are now part of this government and they are eager to continue the crackdown on Internet activists now that Ahmadinejad has come to power,” he said. “However, they have not been successful.”
Journalist and blogger Roozbeh Mirebrahimi told IPS that the registration policy also violates Iran’s constitution. “The approval of the cabinet doesn’t make the government’s decisions legitimate. It should pass it via the parliament. However, it reflects the nature of the conservatives in Iran who easily close their eyes to freedom of speech,” he said.
“All the experiences they have include threatening, arresting and intimidation of Internet activists and journalist,” noted Mirebrahimi, who was jailed for his Internet writings in 2004 and has since been released on bail.
“The government wants to control the virtual atmosphere by all means. However, it is impossible to control the Internet for a long time. Technology and the passionate people who want to increase their awareness and knowledge will find a way to move forward and the government is just wasting its time and money,” he said.
RELATED READING: The Columbia Journalism Review has a new article on Arab, Middle Eastern, and Israeli bloggers, by CJR staffer Gal Beckerman, which you can read by clicking here.
IRAN'S SEXUAL MINORITIES-- A HUMAN RIGHTS SYMPOSIUM: An important all-day symposium on the persecution and rights of Iranian sexual minorities and women will be held from 11 AM to 6 PM on January 27 in Canada at the University of Toronto. It is organized by the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), which recently changed its name to Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), and the group's dedicated Toronto-based General Secretary, my friend Arsham Parsi (right), who last year was granted asylum in Canada as a sexual refugee from persecution in Iran for being gay. Speakers will include several leading Canadian political figures noted for their human rights advocacy, Iranian academics in exile, Iranian gay and women's rights activists, and more. If you're anywhere near Toronto on January 27, get yourself over to the University of Toronto's Hart House Debate Room for what promises to be a highly informative day of debate and discussion. For more information on this PGLO/IRQO symposium, click here.
Posted by Direland at 01:37 AM | Permalink
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January 03, 2007
UNSPEAKABLE LOVE: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (Book Review)
I wrote the following book review for Gay City News -- New York's largest gay and lesbin weekly -- which publishes it tomorrow:
UNSPEAKABLE LOVE: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, by Brian Whittaker; 264 pp.; University of California Press
When Tayseer, a Palestinian from Gaza, was 18, he was found in bed with a boyfriend by an older brother -- and as a result, he was severely beaten by his family and threatened with strangulation by his father if he ever had gay sex again.
A few months later, Tayseer was invited into an orange grove for sex by an undercover police agent of the Palestinian Authority, and subsequently arrested. Police told Tayseer that the only way for him to avoid prison was to himself become a Judas goat, to lure other gay men into sex so that they, too, could be arrested.
When he refused to be police bait in this entrapment scheme, Tayseer was hung by his arms from the ceiling. “A high-ranking officer he didn’t know arranged for his release--and then demanded sex as payback.”
When Tayseer fled Gaza for Tulkarem, he was eventually re-arrested, and forced to stand in neck-high sewage water with his head covered by a feces-filled sack. During one police interrogation, Tayseer was stripped and forced to sit on a Coke bottle.
Tayseer’s story is just one of the accounts by Arab lesbians and gay men in Brian Whittaker’s new book, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, just published simultaneously here and in the U.K. Whittaker (left), the Middle East Bureau Chief for the British daily The Guardian, writes that he was inspired to do this book when covering the infamous Queen Boat case in Egypt, in which 52 men were arrested in 2001 at a gay party on a disco boat, and subjected to a highly-sensationalized trial -- in a state security court normally reserved for terrorists -- for using “perverted sexual acts” as part of “satanic rituals” (one Cairo newspaper headline blared, “Perverts Declare War on Egypt.”) Thirty-five of the men received prison terms and 200 lashes each -- and 70 more men who had initially been arrested, then released, were also later sentenced to prison.
Whitaker writes that “the dearth of coverage about Arab homosexuality encourages the idea that it is almost entirely a foreign phenomenon.” It is the great merit of this book that it helps to give a fuller picture of both the wide-spread existence of same-sex love in the Arab world and of the increasing number of Arabs who are choosing to define themselves through a gay identity.
In dissecting the wide gap between portrayals of homosexuality in Arab media and official discourse, and the lived reality of Arab same-sexers, Whitaker writes that “Arab portrayals of homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon can be [plausibly] attributed to a reversal of old-fashioned Western orientalism. Western orientalism, as analyzed by Edward Said (right) in his influential book, highlights the ‘otherness’ of oriental culture in order (Said argued) to control it more effectively. Reverse orientalism -- a comparatively new development in the Arab world -- taps into the same themes but also highlights the ‘otherness’ of the West in order to resist modernization and reform. Homosexuality is one aspect of Western ‘otherness’ that can be readily exploited to whip up popular sentiment…Where symbolism of this kind applies, the sexual act must necessarily be described in terms that maximize the reader’s disgust: there is no scope for portrayals of homosexuality that are anything but negative.”
In this context, and given prevailing cultural and official attitudes toward homosexuality, the near-impossibility of being openly gay, and the absence of public spaces where same-sexers can lawfully gather and meet, it is hardly surprising that, as Whitaker writes, “a point made repeatedly by interviewees…was that to be gay and Arab is often extremely lonely.”
So great is ignorance about the real nature of the same-sex impulse in the Arab world that the semi-official Egyptian daily al-Ahram al-Arabi could run a lengthy 2001 interview with “a professor of surgical medicine” on the “most successful method” of “curing sexual perversion”: to wit, “cauterizing the anus, which, by narrowing the anus, makes it more painful for the passive homosexual to be penetrated, which makes the active homosexual unable to penetrate, and causes the sexual encounter to fail.”
Whitaker quotes the late Zaki Badawi (right), head of the Muslim College in London, as saying that, “Homosexuality has always existed and continues to exist in all Islamic countries. Many high-ranking leaders in the Islamic world are gay.” Unfortunately, Whitaker doesn’t name any of those leaders, except for the Sultan of Oman. He might well have mentioned King Mohammed VI (left) of Morocco (also the country’s chief spiritual leader as Commander of the Faithful) who was outed on his ascension to the throne in 1999 by the leading Belgian daily, Le Soir, which revealed that as a university undergraduate in Brussels, the king-to-be had spent all his free time in gay bars. Then there’s Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (right), knowledge of whose homosexuality is widespread in his country, where he is frequently referred to as "ateka," a word-play nick-name meant to portray him as a “queen” (it can mean "old maid," and it's been chanted at him by entire football-stadiums!)
Whitaker devotes a chapter to the rare images of homosexuality in Arab cinema -- briefly touching on the work of the likes of Egyptian directors Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Saif, and Yousri Nasrallah, and the Tunisian Nouri Bouzid -- and the relatively few portrayals of it in modern Arab fiction. Novels like the Lebanese Hoda Barakat’s 1990 “The Stone of Laughter,” Egyptian Alaa al-Aswani’s huge best-seller “The Yacoubian Building” (2002), and Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt’s 1947 “Midaq Alley” are discussed. But the burgeoning lesbian and gay literature written in French by Mediterranean Arab writers from former French colonies -- who cannot publish in their own countries in Arabic -- gets only a sentence: the talented Moroccan Rachid O (right), whose novels have won critical acclaim, is mentioned but not discussed; and not even mentioned at all are such interesting writers on gay themes as the Algerian Aniss A., the Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim, the Moroccans Kasim Nasseri and Bahaa Trebelsi, or the Tunisian Eyet-Chékib Djaziri.
It’s unfortunate that, as Whittaker notes, most of his face-to-face interviews with gays and lesbians were limited to Egypt and Lebanon, and to the cosmopolitan centers of Cairo and Beirut --although there are 22 countries in the Arab League. Thus, the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia -- with a combined population of over 80 million -- are hardly mentioned.
The particularly virulent menace to homosexuals posed by the rise
of Islamic fundamentalism gets no systematic examination, although fundamentalism is evoked briefly and in passing in several different sections of the book. Whitaker does, however, dissect the anti-gay arguments of several English-language Islamist websites and the pronunciamentos of Yusuf al-Qaradawi (above left), an influential religious figure in the Arab world popularized by his regular appearances on Al-Jazeera TV.
But the book is also marred by several errors.
For example, Whitaker writes that the Lebanese gay group Helem “is the only specifically gay and lesbian organization functioning openly in an Arab country” -- thus overlooking ASWAT, the self-described “organization of Palestinian gay women,” which received an award for its work inside the Palestinian Authority from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in March 2006.
Whittaker characterizes the Iranian theocracy’s attitude toward the transgendered as “comparatively liberal” -- but he makes no mention of how an Iranian seeking sexual reassignment surgery must have an official document declaring themselves “mentally ill” before being allowed to have such an operation. Nor does he mention how Iran’s mullah-controlled psychologists routinely pressure homosexuals into sex-change operations -- to which some same-sexers reluctantly agree in order to avoid prosecution for homosexuality, a capital crime in Iran. The French public television network France 2 last year gave a detailed account of this phenomenon in a documentary with the telling title, “Changer de Sexe ou Mourir” (translation: “Change Sex or Die.”) And in August 2006, I interviewed for The Advocate a 24-year-old Iranian lesbian refugee named Maryam, now seeking asylum in France as a sexual refugee -- she told me that when, after her lesbian affair was revealed, she was forced to undergo six months of treatment from two women psychologists at the University of Shahid Beheshti, “they ordered me to have it [sex-change surgery]. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m Maryam, a girl, and I do not want to be a man!' The female doctor told me, ‘If you don’t change your sexuality and you continue unlawful acts, your future will be a death sentence.’”
Still, despite these caveats, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE is a valuable introduction to the difficulties of being homosexual in the Arab world, and one of the few recent books in English to discuss contemporary Arab same-sex relations from a sympathetic point of view.
One of the most useful chapters in the book is Whitaker’s dissection and refutation of the arguments of Joseph Massad (left), a controversial Columbia University professor and author of a widely-circulated essay ( "Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World," Public Culture, Spring, 2002) complaining that gay rights in Arab and Muslim countries is an imperialist ‘missionary’ project orchestrated by what he calls the “Gay International.”
In concluding his dissection of Massad, Whitaker writes that Massad and his acolytes present the debate “as a choice between cultural authenticity on the one hand and the adoption of all things Western on the other. In fact, neither is a realistic proposition. Exposure to foreign ideas and influences cannot be prevented, but nor are Arabs incapable of making critical judgments about them. Equally, Arab culture cannot be treated as a fossil; it is a culture in which real people lead real lives and it must be allowed to evolve to meet their needs. The issue, then, is not whether concepts such as ‘gay’ and ‘sexual orientation’ are foreign imports, but whether they serve a useful purpose. For Arabs who grow up disturbed by an inexplicable attraction towards members of their own sex, they can provide a framework for understanding. For families -- puzzled, troubled, and uninformed by their own society -- they offer a sensible alternative to regarding sons and daughters as sinful or mad.”
To which one can only say, Amen!
Visit Brian Whitaker's website al-Bab, an English-language window on the Arab world.
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