« May 2008 | Main | July 2008 »

June 19, 2008

UGANDA'S CRACKDOWN AT AIDS CONFERENCE -- 3 Gay Activists Arrersted

I wrote the following article for this week's issue of Gay City News, New York's largest gay and lesbian newspaper:

In the latest acts of repression against Uganda's LGBT community, three gay activists were arrested on June 4 as they tried to draw attention to the need for HIV prevention among gay people during a peaceful protest at a majorYoweri_museveni  AIDS conference, co-sponsored by the Bush administration. The government of ultra-homophobic President Yoweri Museveni (right) has consistently refused to include any focus on prevention among LGBT Ugandans in its response to the pandemic.

The trio - Julian Onziema, 28, a transgendered man, 27-year-old lesbian Valentine Kalende, and Usaam Mukwaya, a 28-year-old gay man - were part of a group of activists from the nation's leading gay rights coalition, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), whose protest came in response to a new round of anti-gay declarations from the head of the country's AIDS-fighting effort.

"Gays are one of the drivers of HIV in Uganda, but because of meager resources we cannot direct our programs at them at this time," the chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission, Dr. Kihumuro Apuuli, told reporters in the capital Kampala on June 2, according to Reuters.

"The remarks made by the head of the AIDS Commission were very disturbing to members of the LGBT community," said Kasha Jacqueline, chair of Freedom and Roam Uganda, a lesbian organization, adding, "If they want us to die, let them ask themselves if they wish themselves the same. Excluding us is just going to make the situation worse."

Jim_muhwezi Uganda's health minister, Major Gen. Jim Muhwezi (left), recently said that his country's gays "don't deserve a special message" in the fight to prevent the spread of HIV. "They shouldn't exist, and we hope that they are not there."

In March 2002, while accepting an award for his nation's HIV/AIDS prevention programs, Museveni said simply, "We don't have homosexuals in Uganda," and on other occasions he has denounced gays as "worse than dogs." Last year, Human Rights Watch noted that, "For years, President Yoweri Museveni's government routinely threatens and vilifies lesbians and gays, and subjects sexual-rights activists to harassment."

Police persecution of LGBT Ugandans is widespread, and courts can punish homosexual acts with a life sentence in prison. Even "attempted" homosexuality can draw a jail term of seven years.

AIDS workers in Uganda report that, because all government-sponsored HIV prevention materials, like billboards and leaflets, exclusively feature heterosexual couples, many gays in the underdeveloped and poorly educated country believe that AIDS is not a disease that can affect them and remain unaware the virus can be transmitted by unprotected sex.

A 20-year-old Kampala gay man named Joel recently told the African news website Afrolnews that, "Some boys believe that to sleep with a man is safe because all the billboards around town show heterosexual couples, with messages... Nothing is said about homosexual couples using a condom so they think it is safer to sleep with each other than with a girl."

The three arrested and their fellow SMUG activists were distributing leaflets and press releases and holding up placards at the HIV Implementers' Meeting, an annual event co-sponsored by the Bush administration's President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), as well as by UNAIDS, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The conference was held at a Kampala hotel.

After two days of detention, "all three were eventually released on bail, and face a court hearing on Friday," June 20, David Kato, SMUG's crisis officer, told Gay City News by telephone from Kampala.

The SMUG protest and the arrests of its activists received widespread media attention, Kato said, adding that "the government newspaper New Vision denounced us for bringing unwanted attention to immorality from foreign media, saying, 'Uganda is now on TV only because of these bad people.'"

In the past two and a half years, LGBT Ugandans have been under increasing attack, by both leading government figures and the sensationalist media. A popular daily tabloid newspaper, Red Pepper, led outing campaigns in 2006 and 2007 in which it named more than 100 it said were gay or lesbian, printing descriptions of them, and describing their places of residence and employment. (For more on this, see this reporter's September 14-20, 2006 article "Uganda Witch Hunt Escalates" and his September 13-19, 2007 article "Uganda's Anti-Gay Stampede.")

The gay-baiting media campaign forced many LGBT Ugandans out of their homes, SMUG's Kato told me: "One guy was told by his landlord to move out because he was a criminal, and many others had to move away from their homes. Some of those who could left the country."

Victor_juliet_mukasa SMUG co-founder Victor Juliet Mukasa (left), a transgendered lesbian, earlier this year joined the Africa staff of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which has offices in Cape Town, South Africa, after she fled Uganda in fear of her life. When police raided her home, seized documents, and manhandled and arrested a female friend of hers, Mukasa had the temerity to sue the police for an illegal action and took her case all the way to the nation's highest court. The lawsuit received significant media attention in the Ugandan press.

Mukasa, who has been on a ten-day visit to Uganda which began this past weekend, told me by telephone from Kampala, "We know our forefathers knew about homosexuality. It was in all the kingdoms of our forefathers. The homophobia was imported into our culture by colonialism and Christianity, which dehumanized and criminalized us. So we refuse the allegation that homosexuality is incompatible with Uganda's traditional culture, we don't believe it."

Mukasa and other LGBT advocates, however, must fight the widespread practice in Uganda of calling homosexuality "the Western disease."

Mukasa said that she has found that, as a result of her court case and the recent arrests of SMUG members, "more and more people are coming out, and our LGBT movement has grown. There is new leadership which has come up to replace us, and more and more people are turning up to ask, 'What can we do?'"

In previous years Uganda's LGBT community has been riven by factionalism between rival groups, but on this trip home, Mukasa said, "I've observed more unity than ever before, just an amazing amount of solidarity and people working together. It makes me proud and gives me hope for the future."

In a related development, the UK government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown has refused asylum to a 26-year-old Ugandan lesbian, Prossy Kakooza, who was raped and severely burned in her homeland because of her sexual orientation but now faces deportation back to Uganda.

Kakooza (right) had been forced into a marriage engagement but when herProssy_kakooza  family discovered her relationship with her girlfriend, Leah, whom she met at her university, they marched both women, naked, two miles to a police station, where they were jailed. Kakooza was violently raped by Ugandan police officers who taunted her, saying, "We'll show you what you're missing" and "You're only this way because you haven't met a real man."

Her family eventually bribed her out of prison, and decided they would sacrifice her instead, believing that "this would take the curse [of lesbianism] away from the family." While the family was making preparations to slaughter her, she escaped and managed to make her way to Britain.

Despite the fact that forensic medical evidence found by UK doctors on Kakooza's body confirmed that she'd been raped and burned with hot skewers, the Home Office has refused her asylum request on the grounds that her injuries were "the random actions of individuals" and that, if returned to Uganda, she would be safe simply by moving to another town. But in Uganda, one cannot settle in a new town without a reference from one's previous village, and because she is now known to be a lesbian Kakooza would be subjected to similar persecution wherever she went.

Human rights and LGBT groups, pointing out that Kakooza could face life imprisonment if returned to Uganda under the country's anti-homosexual laws, are campaigning for messages to be sent to Liam Byrne, Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, demanding that Kakooza be granted immediate and permanent asylum in the UK.

Messages can be emailed to Byrne at privateoffice.external@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk, faxed to 011-44-870-336-9034, or sent by post to Mr. Liam Byrne, Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, Home Office 3rd Floor, Peel Buildings , 2 Marsham St., London SW1 4DF England.

The Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) web site is at http://www.sexualminoritiesuganda.org/aboutus.html. For more information on the case of Prossy Kakooza, go to http://www.mccmanchester.co.uk/prossy.htm. A videotape of Kakooza telling her own story is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/v/H3doJs98PD0.

Posted by Direland at 06:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

June 13, 2008

IS ITALY GOING FASCIST? A Letter from Rome

The following article was written specially for DIRELAND by this blog's Rome correspondent, veteran expat journalist Judy Harris:

ROME – If you had to describe the regime running Italy for the past two months, Silvio_berlusconi how would you do it? For that matter, is it a “regime” at all, or something else? Even such careful news organizations as the BBC had an in-house debate about over whether the government of Silvio Berlusconi (left) is to be defined as “Center-right” or “Right” (“Right” won). A London monthly defined Rome’s new mayor Gianni Alemanno as a “fascist posing as a respectable politician” and his faction within Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale as right-wing “extremist.”

It is true that a few on the far right assume that the Right’s sweeping victory at the polls in April gives them a passport to extremism, including do-it-yourself justice, which is to say injustice. Racism is on the rise, with immigrants blamed for petty crime to a degree refuted by statistics. Roma (gypsy) encampments have been fire bombed, and vigilante groups roam in North Italy. Nasty attacks on gay individuals have followed, though to lesser degree.

Gianni_alemanno So is this Fascism? Mayor Alemanno (left) was put to the test a week ago when the organizers of the annual Gay Pride Parade requested the obligatory permit for a march through downtown Rome. Alemanno said he opposed the parade as too embarrassingly colorful. Mara Carfagna (right), the sexyMara_carfagna  calendar star chosen by Berlusconi to be his Equal Opportunity Minister, chimed in, declaring that in any case there was no reason to hold the parade, Italy having no anti-gay discrimination.

But just when it seemed no permit would be given, it was. Not only was the march a fantastic success—we ourselves marched in it a few minutes at Piazza Navona—but the great fun was that a few of the trans queens went dressed as, guess who, Minister Carfagna. How could anyone accuse a cabinet minister clone of excess?

“Come on, this is just business as usual,” opined an old Italian hand, revisiting Rome. “Hasn’t it always been thus?”

The answer is no, it has not. But then, if Alemanno is not exactly a Fascist, if Carfagna is an embarrassing joke, if Rome has not yet found a new Duce in Berlusconi, what is going on?

Fausto_bertinotti Fausto Bertinotti (left), former trade union leader, former president (that is, speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies and the leader of Rifondazione Comunista, calls it the advent of a “New Right.” Rifondazione had backed the center-left government led by Romano Prodi, whose flop was also Bertinotti’s. Rifondazione did not win a single seat in Parliament, and its supporters have been holding agitated meetings to ask why the dismal collapse, but with more tears than explanations. Now Bertinotti himself is offering some answers, in an essay in the magazine Alternative per il socialismo. 

Bertinotti’s view is that it is impossible to understand the shellacking the left took without analyzing the nature of the New Right, whose strength and vitality demonstrated that, more than any other political parties, they were the first in Italy to grasp the sea change consequent to the belated modernization of Italy. Italian society has been “de-ideologized” by modernization, resulting in “a new kind of crisis” for the Italian institutions. Ably exploiting this crisis, the New Right is “not Fascist, even as it uses elements of that culture and its vestiges, while exploiting an aggressive aversion to every kind of diversity when insecurity is transformed into fear—and then the figure of the scapegoat re-emerges from the shadows as a shield from fear.”

Bertinotti calls this “a-fascism,” as in apolitical, or without fascism. And from this he deduces that if you don’t have fascism you are also “a-anti-Fascism, in a Republic without roots and without history,” meaning you can’t be anti-Fascist if you don’t have Fascism to oppose. Parliament itself is weaker, for governability matters more than honest confrontation in a debate, he concluded.

Put more simply, the tragedies Mussolini (right) meant for Italy have beenBenito_mussolini  forgotten, but so have the values of the Resistance—the roots and history Bertinotti mentions—which have been a guarantee for a democracy born in 1947 and functioning, however imperfectly, for the past sixty years.

There can be no doubt that this third round of Berlusconi government, in which Berlusconi himself seems puzzled, is different from those that went before.

It foreshadows a different Italy for the future—an Italy that is ill prepared: by its schools that do not train young people for work, by cynicism in the professional classes, by a collapse of the political parties that held the country together for over half a century, and by a collapse in values.

Whether this is or is not re-emergent Fascism,  we are witnessing the re-emergence of the scapegoat. Just as it was for Hitler, fear of the outsider is a useful political glue for building what political scientists call a negative coalition.

It is far harder to rally people toward a common goal than to rally them against a commonly perceived enemy, be he Jew or Gypsy. For this reason the perceived wave of terror, which ordinary people here are accepting as real in their fear of petty crime, is of deep concern, even as the same people overlook the blatant misdeeds on the grand scale of Italian governments—national, regional, local—which have made and continue to make common cause with businessmen and organized crime bosses.

Ironically, at the same time that Italians are blaming petty crime on Foreign and Other Devils, Premier Silvio Berlusconi is promoting legislation that would shield corruption in business and politics, by making it illegal for police to have wiretaps unless for crimes that command a minimum of a ten-year sentence; significantly, a conviction for corruption means only eight years in the jug, if and when such a trial is held at all.

If Berlusconi has his way, phone taps cannot legally be authorized when corruption is suspected, according to former magistrate Giuseppe D’Avanzo.

Judith_harris_large DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris (left), is a veteran ex-pat journalist who used to write from Italy for TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and now writes for ArtNews. She's the author of the recently-published book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery. You can visit her website by clicking here.

Read Judy's previous recent dispatches for DIRELAND: "Prodi's Contradictions," February 26, 2007; "Rome's Anti-Gay Family Day," May 12, 2007; "An Agenda for Bush's Italian Visit," June 8, 2007; "Rome's Gay Kiss-in Protests Arrests," August 3, 2007; "Italy's New Left Party, Old Divisions," October 23, 2007; "Pope Charged With Heresy by Rome University," January 17, 2008; "The Ghosts That Haunt Italy's Elections," March 16, 2008; "Aldo Moro, the Ouija Board, and Romano Prodi: New Revelations About Italy's Most Significant Political Assassination," March 26, 2008; "Italy's Elections: Viagra for the Doldrums?" April 4, 2008; "Rome Turns Right," April 28, 2008

Posted by Direland at 05:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (23)

June 06, 2008

TURKEY'S LATEST ANTI-GAY SURGE

I wrote the following report for this week's Gay City News, New York City's largest gay and lesbian weekly newspaper:
Lambda_istanbulIn the latest in a series of legal attacks on LGBT organizations and publications in Turkey, on May 29 a court in Istanbul, the nation's largest city, ordered the dissolution of Lambda Istanbul. Founded in 1993, the group is Turkey's oldest LGBT organization, and has organized Gay Pride marches in that city every year since 2003.
The organization has been under attack from Istanbul's governor, MuammerMuammeer_guler  Güler (right), since 2007, when his office brought a legal action to close the organization, claiming that Lambda violates both the Penal Code, as an association in violation of "law and morals," and Article 41 of the Turkish Constitution, which is concerned with "the peace and welfare of the family."

Güler was appointed in 2003 by the country's ruling party, the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development), which has governed the nation since 2001. The court ban on Lambda Istanbul was preceded by six hearings on the case over the last year and a half.

Lambda Istanbul lesbian activist Sedef Cakmak told Gay City News by telephone, "We will appeal the court ban to Turkey's Supreme Court [Yargitay], and our lawyers tell us they think we will win on appeal. Unfortunately, the court system in Turkey is very slow, and our lawyers say a decision on our appeal may take one to two years. They have not even been given as yet a copy of the full verdict by the local court."

She continued, "But if our appeal goes against us, we will then take the case to the European Court of Human Rights."
Cakmak told this reporter that Lambda Istanbul has called a protest demonstration against the ban for Saturday, June 7.

The group, she explained, is a non-hierarchical organization with no officers and about 150 official members, "but our real support is much larger than that, because most LGBT people in Turkey are afraid to come out in public and don't want to put their names on our membership rolls. People can be beaten or thrown out of the house by their own families for being gay and ostracized by their friends and communities. Homophobia exists in every part of society, and we are attacked as a disease and a perversion. But despite this, we have 50 active volunteers who work with us, many of whom are not officially members, which is pretty good!"

A lawyer for Lambda Istanbul was told by prosecutors that it has been under renewed surveillance since March of this year, and on April 7, Istanbul police raided Lambda Istanbul's Cultural Center, seizing the group's membership list and other documents. The warrant for the raid cited suspicions that Lambda "facilitates prostitution, acts as a go-between [and] provides a place for [prostitution]."

The police accused us of pimping for transgendered sex workers and of being a center of prostitution," Cakmak said, "but of course they found nothing to confirm these ridiculous and false charges. Our membership list and other documents were eventually returned to us, and up until now none of our members has been bothered by the police because their names were on that list." (For more on the raid on Lambda Istanbul, see this reporter's April 24-30 article, "At World's Crossroads, Backlash," a hyperlink to which can be found on the online version of this story at gaycitynews.com).

Another Lambda Istanbul activist, Öner Ceylan, told me, "Lambda is a 15-year-old organization, so no way we're giving up the fight or closing down, and our Gay Pride march will continue this year as scheduled on June 29. It will be bigger than ever, with some members of the Turkish and European Parliaments joining us and many LGBTs and friends from all over Turkey."

The march will cap a weeklong festival of activities and events that begins June 23 and includes film screenings, parties, concerts, forums, and workshops.

Ufuk_uras_3 At a June 3 Lambda Istanbul press conference on the court ban that included representatives from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Turkish human rights organizations, Turkish Member of Parliament Ufuk Uras (left) the small ODP (Freedom and Solidarity Party) said, "Homophobia is a perverted attitude... Legal protections for all sexual identities should be enshrined in our Constitution."

The day after the court ban on Lambda Istanbul, Luis Maria de Puig (right),Luis_maria_de_puig  the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, issued a stark reminder to the Turkish government that freedom of expression and freedom of association are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey has ratified. De Puig expressed his "profound concern" over the banning of Lambda Istanbul, saying, "The arguments put forward by the prosecutor leading to the closure of the association Lambda Istanbul, whose activities were held to infringe the laws on public morality, are puzzling to me."

He added, "Any person, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, has the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, without discrimination. It rests with the authorities to ensure that everyone can exercise these rights."

De Puig is a Spanish Socialist, and the 47-country-member Council of Europe predates the European Union. It promotes and protects democracy and educational and sporting co-operation, and created the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949.

The court decision dissolving Lambda Istanbul was only the latest in a series of legal attacks on Turkey's LGBT groups and the right to association.

Last spring, Istanbul police conducted a series of muscular raids on gay bars. Cakmak said there had been no further raids since then, but noted, "Transpeople are continually subjected to unjustified police harassment and police violence, whether or not they are sex workers - and even though prostitution is not illegal in Turkey, police will arrest the transgendered and accuse them of being prostitutes and beat them."

Kaos_gl_cover In December 2006, the Ankara-based editor of Kaos GL, Turkey's only magazine for LGBT people (left), 29-year-old gay activist Umut Güner, was indicted under a vague statute banning "obscene" material, and faced up to three years in prison. Authorities seized the magazine's entire press run (see this reporter's August 10-16, 2006 article, "Crackdown on Turkey's Gays," and December 13-19, 2006 article, "Turkish Gay Editor Faces Prison." Güner was acquitted last year.

The year before, Ankara's deputy governor, Selahattin Ekmenoglu, also an appointee of the Islamist AKP, attempted to close down the LGBT association, also named Kaos GL, that publishes the magazine, but the group won its case in court.

This year, to mark the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, Kaos GL organized a march in Ankara, the nation's capital, in which more than 100 gay men and women, bisexuals, and transgender people assembled in front of the human rights monument in Yuksel Street for a march to Parliament co-sponsored by the trans-led Pink Life LGBTT Association.

The march encountered minor difficulty. The police, who outnumbered the demonstrators, stopped the march and demanded that the rainbow flags and banners be taken down. Marchers agreed and were then allowed to continue. There were no other problems.

Michael_cashman Joining local Turkish activists was European Parliament Member Michael Cashman (left), the president of the European Parliament's all-party Intergroup for Gay and Lesbian Rights.

"I found these two days and in particular the march deeply moving," Cashman told UK Gay News, adding, "There were barely 100 of us, and it was a reminder to me of how we in Western countries like the UK take our rights for granted. Those Turkish women and men on that march are heroes and warriors who are prepared to put themselves on the front line to achieve equality. I will never forget them and our sense of solidarity."

Lambda Istanbul's English-language website page is at
http://www.lambdaistanbul.org/php/lambda.php?key=informatio. An extensive LGBT history of Turkey in English is on Kaos GL's website at http://news.kaosgl.com/turkey_lgbt_history.php 

Posted by Direland at 07:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)