May 24, 2008
FRANCE PLEDGES TO LEAD ON GAY DECRIMINALIZATION
I wrote the following article for this week's Gay City News:
This year's observance of the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on Sunday, May 17 was marked by key victories for the global campaign when it was officially endorsed by the governments of France, Cuba, and Costa Rica.
Significantly, France's minister of human rights, Rama Yade (right), convened a meeting with gay activists on Sunday to announce that France would push for "a European initiative calling for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality," according to a statement released by the minister afterward.
Yade said Paris would submit the initiative to the United Nations after it takes over the rotating six-month European Union presidency in July - during which time France will speak for all EU member states at the UN General Assembly, according to Agence France Presse.
The conservative French government's unprecedented action followed year-long negotiations with it led by Louis-Georges Tin, president of the International Committee for IDAHO, and the meeting with Minister Yade came just hours after a "die-in" at the Elysée Palace, the presidential headquarters and residence, in which Tin and a dozen other LGBT activists were arrested and briefly detained. The protestors at the die-in wore T-shirts with the names of some of the 86 countries in which, according to an International Lesbian and Gay Association study released earlier this year, homosexuality is still considered a crime.
"It was rather amusing," Tin told me by telephone from Paris. "Just as the police were arresting me and bundling me away, I got a call on my cell phone from the minister's office asking me, 'Can you come to the Elysée right away?' 'Well, I'm already here!' I replied."
Police told Tin he had no right to use his telephone while being arrested, but when he told them, "I'm on the phone with the minister for human rights," they relented.
The International Day Against Homophobia was the brainchild of Tin (left), a remarkable young French university professor born in the overseas French department of Martinique, in the Antilles chain in the Caribbean. Tin, 33, is not only one of the most creative gay leaders internationally, he is also a rising star of France's emerging black activist community.
IDAHO's founder also launched France's Representative Council of Black Associations. Created in November 2005 during the ghetto riots that shook 150 French cities and towns, CRAN - an alliance of roughly 120 associations - gave French blacks their first national organization, and since its founding has been recognized by the political establishment as a force to be reckoned with.
Tin, CRAN's spokesman, is the author of a number of scholarly books, and of a "Dictionary of Homophobia" published in translation here in the US earlier this year. (A link to this reporter's May 4-10, 2006 profile of Tin, "Going Global on Gay Rights" appears in the web version of this story.)
"We had had numerous conversations over the past year both with top counselors to President Nicolas Sarkozy and with Minister Yade, whom I know because she'd been a member of CRAN, and with her staff," Tin told this reporter. "But we kept being told that it was 'not possible' for the government to endorse IDAHO. But after we were arrested on Sunday morning at the Elysée Palace, there was a flurry of protests from members of parliament quickly broadcast on the radio, and the arrests became an embarrassment for the government's claims to be fully supportive of human rights. So, by the time later on Sunday that we were called to the meeting with Minister Yade, we were told to expect a surprise. So, instead of the symbolic meeting with champagne and petit-fours, which we thought were all we'd get, we were informed that the government would not only endorse IDAHO but press for global decriminalization of homosexuality at the UN by using its EU presidency to do so."
In addition to the International Committee for IDAHO, other French organizations represented at the meeting with the minister included ACT-UP, Solidarité Internationale Lesbiennes, Gays, Bi et Trans, l'Intersyndicale LGBT (which organizes the huge Gay Pride in France every year), Homosexualités et socialism (the LGBT arm of France's Socialist Party, the nation's second largest), and GayLib, the organization of gay conservatives affiliated with Sarkozy's ruling Union pour un movement populaire (UMP).
Tin specifically credited the gay conservatives: "The GayLib lobbied hard and well, their work was very effective, and we might well not have achieved the results we did without them."
The French government has been embarrassed by recent European Court of Human Rights decisions criticizing it over its refusal to allow same-sex adoptions and recognize gay marriages performed in other EU countries. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kochner recently sent an official memorandum to all embassies and consulates advising them not to perform PAC ceremonies, the French version of civil unions, for citizens living in countries where such unions are not recognized.
The Sarkozy government undoubtedlyhopes the initiative will help it skirt thornier issues, like equality in adoptions and marriage, which would raise the hackles of the more conservative and devout Catholic portions of its political base.
In Cuba on May 17, hundreds of gay men and women gathered at an outdoor cultural center for a rare display of public solidarity in support of IDAHO as the culmination of a week-long festival of LGBT events, including film screenings, lectures, debates, and book fairs. The Cuban IDAHO events were organized by President Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela (left), director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. She is considered the country's premier sexologist, and her Center fights both for acceptance of LGBT Cubans and for AIDS prevention.
"This is a very important moment for us, the men and women of Cuba, because for the first time we can gather in this way and speak profoundly and with scientific basis about these topics," said Ms. Castro, who insisted that defending equal rights for Cubans of all sexual orientations is a key principal of the her uncle's 1959 revolution.
"The freedom of sexual choice and gender identity [are] exercises in equality and social justice," she proclaimed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon (right) said he supported the IDAHO celebrations. "I think that it's a good initiative," he said. "It's an issue that raises concern around the world and I think it's good that in Cuba it is also marked in a proper way." Alarcon told reporters that the government needs to do more to promote gay rights, but said many Cubans still need to be convinced. Things "are advancing, but must continue advancing, and I think we should do that in a coherent, appropriate, and precise way because these are topics that have been taboo and continue to be for many."
The day before the IDAHO Havana rally, Cuban TV gave prime-time play to the film "Brokeback Mountain."
When Tin launched the first IDAHO in 2005, he chose May 17 for the annual event because it was on that date in 1990 that the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases. Coincidently, on the same day in 2004, the same-sex marriage ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court took effect.
IDAHO's international campaign for a United Nations decriminalization resolution was launched in November 2006 with a petition campaign endorsed by five Nobel Prize winners, ten Pulitzer Prize winners, six Academy Award winners, and two former French prime ministers. (A link to this reporter's November 21-27, 2006 article, "Bold Move for UN Action" appears in the web version of this story.)
Other governments that previously endorsed IDAHO include the European Parliament, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and several provinces of Canada, Brazil, and Spain. The day is now observed in more than 60 countries worldwide.
The UK held the most extensive IDAHO observances this year. The Trades Union Congress, the Communications Workers, and other large British unions joined in, and the effort was even endorsed by the UK Football Association, which included an article about homophobia in its program for the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.
"Football has already waged a positive war on racism in the game and the FA are now hoping that a similar campaign to ban homophobic behavior from grounds across the country will also make its mark," the article read.
"One of our key messages is football for all and our aim is to confront aggressive issues such as homophobia and making the game family-friendly," the FA's equality manager, Lucy Faulkner, told the UK Gay News.
And for the first time, the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission this year endorsed IDAHO. Noting that 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, IGLHRC said it will employ IDAHO in two of its "top priorities" - challenging violence and discrimination targeting lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered women and ending the criminalization of homosexuality and abuses resulting from arbitrary arrests.
The US, however, remained one of the world's few democracies in which leading LGBT groups failed to organize even one single public IDAHO event.
IDAHO's web site is at http://www.idahomophobia.org/. The IDAHO UK web site is idaho.org.uk/.
May 22, 2008
AN ARTUR RIMBAUD TEXT RE-DISCOVERED
A lost text written by the poet Arthur Rimbaud at the age of 16 has been rediscovered and published today by the French daily Le Figaro. It consists of a polemical “fantasy” with the title “The Dream of Bismarck” and which Rimbaud (left, at 17) contributed to the provincial newspaper Le Progrès des Ardennes under a pseudonym in November 1870, against the background of the Franco-Prussian war. It was rediscovered by a young French filmmaker, Patrick Tarcellio, while researching Rimbaud’s early life in his native Ardennes village of Charleville. It has been authenticated and commented by the noted Rimbaud expert and biographer Jean-Jacques Lefrère. Here it is:
«Le rêve de Bismarck (Fantaisie)»
C'est le soir. Sous sa tente, pleine de silence et de rêve, Bismarck, un doigt sur la carte de France, médite ; de son immense pipe s'échappe un filet bleu.
Bismarck médite. Son petit index crochu chemine, sur le vélin, du Rhin à la Moselle, de la Moselle à la Seine ; de l'ongle il a rayé imperceptiblement le papier autour de Strasbourg ; il passe outre.
À Sarrebruck, à Wissembourg, à Woerth, à Sedan, il tressaille, le petit doigt crochu : il caresse Nancy, égratigne Bitche et Phalsbourg, raie Metz, trace sur les frontières de petites lignes brisées et s'arrête…
Triomphant, Bismarck a couvert de son index l'Alsace et la Lorraine ! Oh ! sous son crâne jaune, quels délires d'avare ! Quels délicieux nuages de fumée répand sa pipe bienheureuse !
Bismarck médite, Tiens ! un gros point noir semble arrêter l'index frétillant. C'est Paris.
Donc, le petit ongle mauvais, de rayer, de rayer le papier, de ci, de là, avec rage, enfin, de s'arrêter… Le doigt reste là, moitié plié, immobile.
Paris Paris ! Puis, le bonhomme a tant rêvé l'œil ouvert que, doucement, la somnolence s'empare de lui : son front se penche vers le papier ; machinalement, le fourneau de sa pipe, échappée à ses lèvres, s'abat sur le vilain point noir…
Hi ! povero ! en abandonnant sa pauvre tête, son nez, le nez de M. Otto de Bismarck, s'est plongé dans le fourneau ardent. Hi ! povero ! va povero ! dans le fourneau incandescent de la pipe… hi ! povero ! Son index était sur Paris ! Fini, le rêve glorieux !
Il était si fin, si spirituel, si heureux, ce nez de vieux premier diplomate !
Cachez, cachez ce nez !
Eh bien ! mon cher, quand, pour partager la choucroute royale, vous rentrerez au palais (…) avec des crimes de… dame (…) dans l'histoire, vous porterez éternellement votre nez carbonisé entre vos yeux stupides !
Voilà ! Fallait pas rêvasser !
May 19, 2008
TARIQ RAMADAN'S FORKED TONGUE
I wrote the following article for NEW HUMANIST, the British bi-monthly, in whose May-June it appears:
In the last decade, Tariq Ramadan (left) has emerged as the most quoted person in Europe on Islam. His reach is global, as he criss-crosses the globe to present his vision for Muslims. In 2000 Time magazine named him one of the six religious figures likely to be responsible for Islam’s possible renovation in the new century. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair even appointed Ramadan to a government commission on preventing extremism.
Always elegantly dressed, extraordinarily articulate in French and English as well as Arabic, this 45-year-old Swiss-born son of Egyptian parents has even been embraced by elements of the anti-globalisation Left, for whom his opposition to Western-style capitalism and American imperialism is an attractive visiting card. And he’s become a familiar face on French and British television, where most often he deftly runs circles around his critics. At the same time, young European Muslims flock to hear this brilliant and powerful orator and to buy cassettes of his lectures. Ian Baruma, writing in the New York Times, last year called Ramadan “an Islamic superstar”.
Ramadan presents himself as a universalist intellectual and an advocate of modern “reform” for Islam. But doubts about him have gradually been emerging. As one of America’s leading dailies, the Boston Globe, put it, to his admirers he’s “Europe’s leading advocate of liberal Islam. To his detractors, he’s a dangerous theocrat in disguise.”
The most compelling case against Ramadan has been painstakingly built by the Arabic-speaking investigative journalist and feminist Caroline Fourest. The author of a number of works on the fundamentalist trends in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Fourest has analysed the 100 cassettes of Ramadan’s speeches and preachings, his 15 books and his hundreds of magazine articles and interviews. Her book Brother Tariq: the Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (right) was published four years ago in France, but is only now being published in English by the Social Affairs Unit. And it presents a radical critique of a man she accuses of hypocrisy, cant and contradictory postures.
For a start, far from being a reformer, she claims that he actually espouses a version of fundamentalist political theology formulated by his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna (left), founder of the militantly fundamentalist Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, whose credo is: “God is our goal, the Prophet our model, the Koran our law, holy war our way and martyrdom our desire.”
“Ramadan,” Fourest writes, “is indeed a reformist, but a Salafist reformist (the word salaf in Arabic means ‘our pious ancestors’.) The term ‘reform’ indicates [Ramadan’s] willingness to renew our understanding of Islam, but the adjective ‘Salafist’ reveals in which direction this reinterpretation is to take us – namely backwards ... [Ramadan] considers the precepts formulated in the seventh century, in a specific historical context, to be ‘in essence eternal truths’ ... a way of refusing to modernise or rethink principles that date from the seventh century.”
Tariq Ramadan enjoys the prestige conferred on him in Islamist circles by being al-Banna’s grandson. And while he says, “I have studied Hassan al-Banna’s ideas with great care and there is nothing in this heritage that I reject,” he has always denied having any “functional connection” with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But he certainly has a suspiciously close kinship with it. The Brotherhood has been illegal in Egypt since 1954, when it was convicted of an attempt to assassinate Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser (right). Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan, a disciple of al-Banna chosen by the Brotherhood’s leader to marry his daughter, fled that same year, eventually to Switzerland, where he founded the Geneva Islamic Centre, which serves as headquarters for the Brotherhood’s European operations, which Said headed. On Said’s death in 1995, Tariq’s mother Wafa al-Banna, Tariq and his brother Hani took over running the Centre.
But Ramadan’s close links with the Muslim Brotherhood go beyond family ties. According to Antoine Sfeir, a Lebanese-born, pro-Palestinian Arab, founder of the respected review on Middle East affairs Cahiers de l’Orient, and an expert on Islam, “He [Tariq] is no doubt one of the key figures of the Brotherhood.” Another respected journalist who shares that view is Radio France Internationale senior editor Richard Labévière, author of a number of authoritative books on Islamist terrorism. In 1998 he interviewed the Brotherhood’s fifth leader, Mostafa Mashour, who told him: “The work carried out by Hani and Tariq [Ramadan] is totally in keeping with the purest traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood.” And, as one of the administrators of the Geneva Islamic Centre, a Brotherhood operation, Tariq does indeed have a “functional connection” to the organisation.
Moreover, most of Tariq Ramadan’s books, and all of the audio cassettes of his lectures in Arabic and French (which sell upwards of 50,000 a year, according to the French newsweekly L’Express), are published by Tawhid, a bookseller and publishing house in Lyon, France, which serves as a major Brotherhood propaganda arm. Tawhid pays Ramadan 2,000 Euros a year – another “functional connection”.
And it’s not just in his ambivalent attitude to the Brotherhood that Ramadan appears to make misleading and even false claims. For example, in signing an opinion piece in Le Monde on 29 February this year, he presented himself to the French as a “Professor at Oxford University”. In fact, he is only a much less prestigious visiting “research fellow”, a temporary appointment with library privileges but no teaching duties at all. This isn’t the first time he’s exaggerated his credentials because, on 31 March 2005 in the same newspaper, he claimed he was a “Professor of Philosophy and Islamology at the University of Fribourg” in Switzerland – when, in fact, he was only an instructor who gave a course of just one hour a week.
Ramadan has long been accused of double-speak, of deploying one discourse when talking to non-Muslim audiences and on television, and quite another when talking to Muslims. He is, in fact, a master of what Arabs call the art of taqiya, speaking one way to fool “non-believers” and “infidels” and another way to followers of Allah. When Cahiers de l’Orient editor Sfeir told a magazine in Lyon in January 2002 that the inflamed Muslim half of Ramadan’s double-speak resulted in a discourse which “can influence young Muslims and can serve as a factor inciting them to join up with those engaged in violent acts,” Ramadan – who could hardly deploy his habitual riposte to his critics of “Islamophobia” against Sfeir – sued for defamation. In May 2003, the Appeals Court in Lyon found against Ramadan and upheld the truth in Sfeir’s declarations. But in 2004, on the French public television broadcast Campus, when host Guillaume Durand (left) said to him: “You lost your lawsuit against Antoine Sfeir,” Ramadan replied, “No, I won my lawsuit against Sfeir!” He simply lied.
And nowhere are his contradictions and equivocations more evident than in the cassettes he has produced for “friendly” audiences – so non-Muslims rarely get to hear them. But Fourest has studied these recordings in meticulous detail, and uncovered some far from liberal declarations.
Ramadan berates “the promotion of the individual that culminates in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man ... Lapsing into individualism is dangerous ... Liberty, which means the freedom to make one’s own choices, has taken on such importance that, when pushed to the extreme, it becomes moral permissiveness.”
Ramadan, a homophobe, is particularly virulent about the role of women, suggesting that they should be forbidden to engage in sports in which their bodies are seen by men, and warning them not to use their looks to attract indecent attention. And as for equal opportunities: “Allowing women to work does not mean opening up all types of work to them ... We are not going to go to the lengths you sometimes see in Western society and say that, in order to prove they are liberated, women must become masons or truck drivers ... We’re not going to be so stupid as to say: prove you’re liberated, drive a truck, whore…”
So beneath the urbane liberal lurks a far more sinister ideologue, committed to some of the most backward fundamentalist repressions. And because he comes over as so contemporary and convincing, he’s feted by a generation of young Muslims looking for a more hip hero.
In 2003, when he was invited to teach a course at Notre Dame University in the US, the Bush administration foolishly refused to let him enter America. All this did was allow Ramadan to play the “martyr” (his favourite role) and increase his popularity among Muslim youth, who see Washington as “the enemy” since the invasion of Iraq and the scandal of Abu Ghraib.
Ramadan is dangerous precisely because he’s such a slick and brilliant dissembler, but the only way to counter Ramadan is not by banning him (which plays into his hands) but by exposing what hides behind his sugared “moderate” pose – which is why Fourest’s book is so invaluable.
May 08, 2008
NEPAL'S FIRST GAY MP SPEAKS -- Nation's Two Largest Political Parties Embrace LGBT Rights
I wrote the following article for Gay City News, New Yorks largest lesbian and gay weekly, which published it today:
In an historic breakthrough, the leader of Nepal's largest LGBT group, the Blue Diamond Society, has been named to a seat in the parliament following April 10 elections in that nation, the largely mountainous home to some 30 million people.
Sunil Pant (right), 35, a Belarus-educated computer engineer who founded the Blue Diamond Society (BDS) in 2002 and has been its executive director ever since, was named to the parliament by the tiny Communist Party-(United). The CPN-(U) won the right to have five seats in the new constituent assembly under a complicated proportional representation system used in the elections, the first since Nepal, long an autocratic monarchy, declared itself a "People's Republic" last December following a 2006 peace deal that ended a decade-long civil war.
The party is one of five separate and competing Communist parties to have gained seats in the 601-seat parliament in last month's elections, with the largest being the Communist Party of Nepal-(Maoist) — which led the armed insurgency against King Gyanendra (left) and his late brother Birendra, who preceded him — won 220 seats, and is expected to lead a coalition government yet to be formed.
The elections saw another first — ten LGBT candidates for the parliament who are BDS members were in the running and "the number of votes we received exceeded our expectations, which is why the CPN-(U) chose me as a member of the constituent assembly," Pant told me from the country's capital of Kathmandu. Eight of those candidates were metis, born as male and transgendered who dress and live as women — "third genders" as Pant calls them — and two were gay men, he said.
"Most of the CPN-(U) party have indicated their support for LGBT rights, and it was very happy to send an openly gay man to parliament. And there are also many good individuals in the parliament with whom we have worked in the past," Pant added.
Nepal is 80 percent Buddhist, and traditional society there has significant social rigidities and discrimination based on caste and gender. In the past, Nepalese police frequently used violence against gays and the metis and subjected them to arrest on various trumped-up charges. Under the monarchy, a law forbade "unnatural" sex.
Until last year Maoist cadres also hunted down, intimidated, and used violence against sexual minorities, particularly the metis, including a campaign to ask landlords not to rent to them.
Maoist leaders used incendiary rhetoric to denounce homosexuals as "unnatural" and for "polluting" society. The military commander of the Maoist militia in western Nepal, who was also a minister in the interim government that followed the 2006 peace accord, proclaimed that "homosexuality is a product of capitalism" and that "there were no homosexuals in the Soviet Union" (the Maoists displayed portraits of Stalin along with Mao at their campaign rallies). (See this reporter's earlier article, "Nepal's Maoist Assault on Gays," which appeared in the April 19-25, 2007 issue of Gay City News.) (Left, the Maoist Militia on the cover of its magazine.)
But, Pant told me, "There has been a significant change in the Maoist attitude toward sexual and gender minorities. I and the BDS had many meetings, dialogues, and orientations with several parties, including the Maoists. And this year, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Nepali Congress Party [the second-largest party in the constituent assembly], and the Communist Party-(United) all included LGBT rights in their election manifestos."
Pant identified a 2004 incident as a critical turning point in public opinion. A policeman forced one of the metis to perform oral sex on him and then slit her throat. Even conservative Nepalese who didn't approve of homosexuality or sexually transgressive behavior of any kind were horrified by the gratuitously cruel violence.
At a BDS-led protest a few days later, police arrested 39 of the LGBT group's members, leading to sympathetic media coverage for the movement, a denunciation by Human Rights Watch, and international outrage.
But the real breakthrough came last December, when Nepal's Supreme Court ruled on a lawsuit brought by the BDS and three other groups challenging the law against "unnatural" sex and demanding equal rights and an end to discrimination for LGBT people.
In its ruling, the court declared that sexual minorities were "natural persons" deserving of protection against discrimination, and ordered the government to come up with legislation guaranteeing civil rights for homosexuals. The court also ordered that a government commission be established to study the legalization of same-sex marriage, and to make official documents like identification cards and passports include a third option for a person's gender.
Since last year's unprecedented court ruling, "violence has been reduced against LGBT people, and many police have become much less brutal than before in treating us," Pant told this reporter.
Pant and the BDS were given last year's Felipa de Souza Award by the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) for their courageous and effective work to end anti-LGBT discrimination and fight the spread of HIV/ AIDS.
Pant now directs a BDS that has more than 50 full-time staffers, funded entirely by donations and grants, and there are now ten other officially registered groups serving Nepal's queer community.
Pant and the BDS will now focus their energies on including pro-LGBT measures in the country's new constitution, which the just-elected parliament is preparing. A two-day "national consultation of sexual minorities" sponsored by the BDS and held in Kathmandu concluded its work on May 6 by voting to issue a list of demands, among them — "affirmative action" to "guarantee fundamental rights including education, health, and employment for our sexual minority," "legal provisions for marriage between homosexuals and third genders," "equal paternal property rights," and "laws against sexual exploitation and sexual violence of lesbians, gays, and third genders, and proper compensation for its victims."
The conference also demanded that "lesbian and third gender women should be included in the 33 per cent of seats" in parliament reserved for women.
The Blue Diamond Society's web site is at http://www.bds.org.np/.