January 28, 2010
NO EXECUTIONS IN IRAN: A NEW CAMPAIGN
Last month I wrote an article for Gay City News about 12 Iranian youths now threatened with or sentenced to execution for "sodomy." Now I've just received the following press release from my friend Arsham Parsi, the Iranian gay activist and founder of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees:
Today, five human rights advocacy groups in five Western nations announced the official launching of the 346 No Executions campaign, a coordinated worldwide effort to inspire at least 346 citizens in each member nation to submit letters of petition to their respective foreign ministries, specifically requesting that diplomatic pressure be applied to the government of Iran to abolish its death penalty. The Iranian regime routinely carries out government-sanctioned executions in arbitrary, capricious and inhumane fashion to homosexuals, women, young girls, religious minorities, minors and now Green protesters, all of which are in defiance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Iran is a signatory.
The five participating groups in the 346 No Executions campaign to date are: The Iranian Homosexual Human Rights Councils (Canada, United States), OutRage! (United Kingdom), The Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation (Germany) and the Everyone Group (Italy). The participants hope to recruit more human rights groups in other countries to the campaign as word spreads. '346' is derived from the official figure of executions carried out in Iran in 2008, according to the latest Amnesty International report.
Mr. Arsham Parsi (right), who represents the campaign as communications director of the Iranian Homosexual Human Rights Councils, recently stated that AI's official figure of 346 does not accurately reflect the actual number of executions carried out annually by the Iranian regime:
"Three-hundred and forty-six is a conservative estimate," Mr. Parsi stated in a recent interview. "The unofficial number is likely much higher. Iran must stop taking innocent lives in such cavalier, arbitrary and brutal ways. Our campaign's mission is to petition member governments to apply diplomatic pressure on Iran to cease and desist with these barbaric and unjust executions.
"It is the express goal of the 346 No Executions campaign to bring these arbitrary executions in Iran to an end. We seek to do this through letters of petition and by expanding the campaign to other nations, particularly in the European Union. Many EU member states conduct a great deal of commercial trade with Iran, yet the EU is also signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This dichotomy between principles and actions represents a clear conflict of interest in the EU vis-a-vis trade with Iran and the fundamental human rights EU member nations swore to uphold in the Universal Declaration.
"It is our hope that these letters of petition will compel as many governments as possible to address the situation in Iran, and will as a result apply diplomatic pressure on the regime to uphold its own legal, moral and human rights obligations under the Universal Declaration. We also hope that by increasing awareness of this intolerable situation in Iran to concerned citizens and human rights advocacy groups around the globe, that even more governments will pressure Iran. There is great strength in numbers."
For more information on the 346 No Executions Campaign, members of the press and the media are welcome to inquire further at
If you are a member of a human rights organization or NGO and would like launch your own 346 No Executions campaign in your country, we will gladly assist you. Please contact Mr. Arsham Parsi direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 27, 2010
Manuel Ramos Otero--a neglected queer writer
I wrote the following article for Gay City News, New York City's largest queer weekly:
“I couldn’t stand the repressive atmosphere of Puerto Rico,” the gay writer Manuel Ramos Otero once told an interviewer in explaining his decision to move from the island. “I had realized that New York was a city where I could live without feeling persecuted all the time. In Puerto Rico, I felt too much persecution because of the openness of my sexuality.”
Ramos Otero (1948-1990, photo left), considered one of the most significant modern writers in Puerto Rico’s rich century and a half literary history, put his homosexuality at the center of his poetry and fiction. Yet his name is virtually unknown to students of modern gay literature because so little of it has been translated.
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a self-described “gay Puerto Rican scholar, writer, and activist” who teaches Latina/o Studies at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, performs a service by rescuing Ramos Otero from this undeserved obscurity in his new book, “Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Disapora.” He devotes nearly a third of his book to Ramos Otero.
La Fountain-Stokes writes that Ramos Otero’s work is even “overlooked in Latin America because of the peripheral status of Puerto Rico, marginalized in the United States because of the author’s racialized, subaltern, or colonial Puerto Ricanness and Spanish-language use; belittled in the Caribbean because of the author’s homosexuality and exile up north; and looked upon with suspicion everywhere because of his openly militant gay liberationist and feminist politics.”
In one cycle of poems entitled “Epitafios” (“Epitaphs”), included in Ramos Otero’s 1985 collection “El libro de la muerte” (“The Book of Death”), the self-exiled island poet has verses dedicated to such gay literary icons as Federico Garcia Lorca, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Constantine Cavafy, and, above all, the great Spanish poet Luis Cernada, whom La Fountain-Stokes identifies as “one of Ramos Otero’s most important literary precursors” and makes central to his analysis of the Puerto Rican’s work.
Cernada, who took his inspiration from another queer icon, André Gide, was part of Spain’s so-called “Generation of ’27” of writers and artists, which included Lorca, who emerged prominently in the mid to late 1920s; in fact, it was in ’27 that Cernada published his bold collection “Los Placeres Prohibidos” (“Forbidden Pleasures”), a surrealist exploration of same-sex desire. One of his gay-themed poems was cited by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in his 2005 speech to the Spanish Parliament on the day it legalized gay marriage, undoubtedy the most remarkable speech in favor of full equality for those with same-sex hearts ever delivered by a head of government anywhere. Cernada chose exile from Franco’s fascist dictatorship after the assassination of Lorca and took himself to France, Scotland, and California before finally settling in Mexico.
Ramos Otero moved to New York City to flee Puerto Rican homophobia the year before Stonewall, living there until his death from AIDS in 1990. He taught at Rutgers, York College, and Lehman College and founded a small (and short-lived) publishing house, El libro viaje (The Book Trip), which published his only and “highly experimental” novel, the 1976 “La novelabingo” (“The Bingo Novel”).
In an essay on Cernada, Ramos Otero wrote that “his poetic vocation always occurs in the margin and comes from the margin, from the border between the truths that feed his desire from an existence stuck in tradition.” Ramos Otero’s fiction is also located in the margins of society. His mid-’70s short story “Historia ejemplar del esclavo y el senor” (“Exemplary Story of the Slave and the Master”), about gay sado-masochism, created one of “the most notorious scandals in Puerto Rican literary history,” according to La Fountain-Stokes.
To further illustrate the marginality at the heart of Ramos Otero’s work, La Fountain-Stokes provides lengthy synopses and analyses of his short stories, many of them semi-autobiographical and frequently located at the edges of New York’s gay sub-culture, a world of drugs, hustlers, prostitution, and the dark sexual playgrounds that were the rotting piers of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea waterfront in the ’70s and ’80s.
Another of La Fountain-Stokes’ major subjects, the lesbian poet, scholar, and human rights activist Luz Maria Umpierre, like Ramos Otero also migrated to New York while in her 20s, in 1974. She has said, “Like the majority of Puerto Rican gay and lesbian writers in the USA, I left because of persecution — even from the police — for my sexual preference.” But she did not come out in print until relatively late, in her “dramatic” 1987 fourth poetry collection, “The Margarita Poems.” Before that, she concentrated her work on community poverty and the working class, and the condition of women in general.
Some of La Fountain-Stokes’ readings of Umpierre’s poetry are rather contestable. Her poem “Maria Christina,” he writes, “seems an authorial self-projection of Umpierre,” and regarding the line “I do fix all leaks in my faucets,” he says that this “phrase can be seen as an oblique allusion to masturbation, yet Umpierre has stated that it is not a sexual metaphor but rather a reference to women’s technical mastery and skills.” Well, surely she should know better, shouldn’t she?
The filmmakers Rose Troche (“Go Fish,” “Bedrooms and Hallways,” “The Safety of Objects”) and Frances Negron-Muntaner (“Brincado el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican”) and the cartoonist, writer, and performance artist Erika Lopez (whose fiction includes “Lap Dancing for Mommy” and “Hoochie Mama: The Other White Meat/La otra carne blanca”) get lumped together in one chapter as “three diasporic Puerto Rican queer women artists who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.”
And the book also looks briefly at the work of two other performance artists — Arthur Aviles, a former lover of the noted choreographer Bill T. Jones and a member of his dance troop, who was hailed by the New York Times in 2003 as “one of the great modern dancers of the last 15 years” and went on to found his own avant-garde Arthur Aviles Typical Theater, which stages “dance-plays” at its home in the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance; and Elizabeth Marrero, whose one-woman shows have “a variety of characters in a style reminiscent of John Leguizamo’s early work, but with a butch Puerto Rican lesbian twist.”
I was looking forward to reading “Queer Ricans,” but was greatly disappointed. This book is essentially La Fountain-Stokes’ PhD thesis, and has all the faults of the worst of the genre — it is larded with arcane academic buzzwords and concepts; filled with name-dropping of the work of obscure scholars designed to display the graduate student’s erudition but whose content goes unexplained; and has many prolix sentences and paragraphs so embarrassingly bad in their construction as to make one weep for the dead trees sacrificed to this book’s publication. Although he is the author of a recently published book of short stories, “Uñas pintadas de azul/Blue Fingernails” (Bilingual Press, 2009), in “Queer Ricans” he displays little grasp of narrative and his prose is often quite heavy slogging indeed.
Nor can the book be taken as a survey of all that is best in what one critic has called “Diasporican” queer culture. For example, mentioned only in passing are such major queer Puerto Rican writers as Edwin Sanchez, arguably the most important gay Puerto Rican playwright currently working in the American theater (his “Clean” won the American Theater Critics’ 1995 award for Best New Play); the bisexual playwright Miguel Piñero (1946-1988), whose life was portrayed in Cuban-American director Leon Ichaso’s 2001 Hollywood film “Piñero” with Benjamin Bratt in the title role; or the bisexual poet and anthologist Miguel Algarin (b. 1941), founder of the renowned Nuyorican Poets Café, where he still serves as executive producer, and whose acclaimed 1997 collection of poems, “Love is Hard Work,” chronicles his living with HIV. Aldo Alvarez, the short-story writer who edits the well-regarded online queer fiction magazine Blithe House Quarterly (blithe.com/), is mentioned only in an obscure footnote.
Finally, the horrific November 2009 murder in Puerto Rico of the 19-year college student and gay activist Jorge Steven López Mercado, who was beheaded, castrated, and burned in a hate crime, shows that the violent homophobia that drove so many queer writers from the island is still much too rampant, although La Fountain-Stokes’ book is seriously blind to this fact. But what has changed in Puerto Rico is the existence of a large and vibrant LGBT movement that responded to young López Mercado’s assassination with an enormous demonstration in San Juan that drew tens of thousands of participants. Curiously for a self-described “activist,” La Fountain-Stokes in his book shunts aside the crucial role of Puerto Rican queer activism both there and here in creating the public space and audience for the cultural productions he chronicles.
For further exploration of good Puerto Rican queer writing, anyone lucky enough to read Spanish would do well to obtain a copy of the first-ever Puerto Rican LGBT anthology, “Los Otros Cuerpos: Antologia de Tematica Gay, Lesbica y Queer Desde Puerto Rico y Su Diaspora,” edited by David Caleb Acevedo (Editorial Tiempo Nuevo, 2007). It is still in print but unfortunately not sold by Amazon, so it must be ordered from bookstores in Puerto Rico like Liberia Isla (http://libreriaisla.com/mm5/merchant.mvc). It includes work by Ramos Otero, Moises Agosto, Rubén Ríos Ávila, Luz María Umpierre, and Nemir Matos-Cintrón.
January 21, 2010
PETER TATCHELL'S IRONIC AWARDPeter Tatchell (left) is not only Britain's best-known gay rights activist as the leader of the militant queer activist group OutRage!, for 40 years he's been an indefatigable international human rights campaigner for oppressed peoples all over the world, making important contributions to the fight for liberty in Iran, Russia, Baluchistan, Uganda, Iraq, Somaliland, West Papua, Sudan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. And when word came this week that my friend Peter had been voted "Liberal Voice of the Year" by members of Britain's Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest political party (with 63 seats in parliament), I could not help but chuckle at the irony.
Why? Because in 1983, Peter was gay-baited out of winning a seat in parliament by the Liberals (the Liberal Democrats' predecessor.)
Here's the story. That year, Peter Tatchell was the parliamentary candidate of the British Labour Party in by-election in a constituency known as Southwark and Bermodsey, and stood a decent chance of election. His main opponent was Liberal candidadte Simon Hughes, and the Liberals waged what Gay News, at the time Britain's largest gay paper, called ""the dirtiest and most notorious by-election in British political history," marked by noxious homophobic gay-baiting of Tatchell. Hughes, whom his party's campaign literature promoted as the "straight choice" -- the double entendre was clear to everyone -- won this dirty election with 57% of the vote.
Well, 23 years later, it turned out that Tatchell had been beaten by a gay-baiting closetcase. Hughes (right), still in parliament and running in 2006 for leader of the Liberal Democrats (as his party was by then known) admitted his lengthy same-sex past after he was outed by the tabloids, which found charges on Hughes' credit cards for a gay chatline called ManTalk, and declared "I'm bi-sexual." Not only that, Hughes apologized on the BBC for the homophobic smear campaign against Tatchell some two and a half decades before to which he owed his parliamentary career.
In a remarkable display of grace and principle, Tatchell not only accepted Hughes' apology, he issued a statement endorsing his former electoral opponent in the Liberal Democrats' leadership contest as "the contender most likely to move the Liberal Democrats in a progressive direction." In the same statement, Tatchell added: "Since his election, Simon has redeemed himself by voting for gay equality. That's all that matters now. He should be judged on his policies, not on his private life."
A further irony in Tatchell's having been voted "Liberal Voice of the Year" by the Liberal Democrats' members is that Peter is not a member of their party at all, but a left-wing Green Party activist.
In what I consider a tragedy, last month Peter Tatchell was forced by head injuries he'd received in beatings during his human rights work and gay activism to withdraw as the Green Party's candidate for parliament from a constituency in the university town of Oxford, where Tatchell is quite popular, and where the Greens won the most votes of any party in the last election. Meaning he had a real shot at being elected in the parliamentary elections later this year.
The Guardian, in reporting Tatchell's withdrawal from the parliamentary contest under the headline "How Constant Beatings Have Caught Up With Campaigner Peter Tatchell," noted that, "After surviving more than 300 physical attacks, two stabbing attempts, a live bullet posted through his door and a succession of vicious beatings that have left him mildly brain-damaged, Peter Tatchell must be one of the only people in the world who could still consider himself fortunate. 'I'm lucky,' he insists with the quiet nonchalance of someone discussing the weather. 'What helps me cope is to put things in perspective. My injuries pale in comparison to the pro-democracy campaigners in Iran or the environmentalists in Russia or the political activists in Zimbabwe. If I was doing what they are doing, I'd be dead.'"
In two of the most severe attacks on Tatchell, the physically fearless militant activist made headlines in 2001 when he was beaten unconscious by bodyguards of Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe in Brussels as he tried to make a citizen's arrest of the homophobic strongman under the 1984 UN Convention against torture for having ordered the torture of two journalists and inflicted similar treatment on countless political opponents (see The Guardian's account at the time, "Mugabe Men Beat Up Tatchell.") Mugabe is a ruthless tyrant who has used violence and imprisonment against political opponents. He is also a notorious anti-gay demagogue - he has said that gays and lesbians"are worse than pigs and dogs" - who criminalized homosexuality and authorized his political gangs to engage in street lynchings of gay Zimbabweans. The beating at the hands of Mugabe's thugs left Tatchell with permanent damage in one eye and paralyzed down his left side for several days. (Photo right: Tatchell lies unconscious after his beating by Mugabe's thugs.)
Then, in 2007, when Tatchell went to Moscow to support the courageous young Russian lawyer and gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev and his comrades in their attempt to hold a banned Moscow Gay Pride demonstration, Tatchell was again beaten in the head by one of the horde of young neo-nazi goons who violently attacked the gay rights activists with the collusion of the Moscow police (see my report for Gay City News on these 2007 events, "The Agony of Moscow Pride.") In the photo from Moscow at right, one of thpse fascist thugs raises his fist as he prepares to punch Tatchell in the head.
The beating at Moscow Gay Pride was one too many for Tatchell, who has never really recovered and has suffered ever since from permanent severe symptoms of concussion, including vision, memory, concentration, balance and co-ordination difficulties. His injuries were further exacerbated on a parliamentary campaign swing last July when the bus in which he was travelling braked suddenly and Tatchell was thrown forward, hitting his head on a metal rail. And, of course, Peter's recovery has been further impeded because he never slowed down his activist pace, despite the urging of friends (myself included) who kept begging him to take better care of himself. It would have been wonderful to see him win a seat in parliament and take his militant brand of human rights activism to the House of Commons -- but at the same time I deeply regretted his having to stand down as a candidate I was glad to see him realize that he cannot now do everthing he wished as he had in the past and continue to overtax his body.
As I wrote in a 2008 profile of Tatchell for Gay City News after he tried to make a citizen's arrest in London of then Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharaf, "Tatchell has always been a pioneer in catalyzing international solidarity for oppressed LGBT people outside the West as well as other groups suffering political repression. In 1973 Tatchell was arrested in East Germany when he went there to help local activists stage what he says was the first public gay protest in a Communist country. In the 1980s, he traveled to Thailand to support the first wave of gay and AIDS activists in that country, and to El Salvador to highlight the violent attacks on that country's gays and lesbians amidst a bloddy civil war, during which the US gave aid to the right-wing patrons of the authoritarian government's death squads. He's traveled to Malawi to protest the semi-slave labor of children on British-owned tea estates; to New Guinea to protest the Indonesian massacre of indigenous peoples in West Papua; to Latvia for banned 2006 Gay Pride observance that were violently attacked by religious extremists; and to Memphis to confront boxer Mike Tyson after the pugilist gay-baited heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis." This is just a small part of Peter's four decades of activism.
"Is Peter Tatchell The Bravest Man in Britain?" was the headline in the excellent profile of Tatchell the Daily Mail ran last month after his withdrawal from the parliamentary race, in which it reported that "Police intelligence revealed that Tatchell was a prime assassination objective because of his persistent campaign against a group of reggae singers whose lyrics glorify violence and incite the killing of homosexuals. Tatchell had thwarted a string of concerts - at significant cost to the performers."
Tatchell always insists, as he did to me, that "I could never have done half these things without being part of a team and the support of others -- in the Gay Liberation Front in the early '70s, in OutRage! since the 1990s, plus Zimbabwean and Baloch activists and so many others." But Tatchell's attention-getting, media savvy activism and personal courage have made him a unique and globally admired figure.
The Daily Mail noted that despite his national celebrity, Peter lives in poverty: "He subsists on a tiny stipend of around £8,000 a year - the income comes from journalism and personal appearances - and lives in the same cramped South-East London council flat [meaning public low-income housing] that has been his home for 30 years. When it was targeted by arsonists, he refused to move, although flaming rags were pushed through his letterbox and lavatory window. His response, instead, was to become more intransigent. 'Friends urged me to leave, but I was determined to stand my ground. It might seem pig-headed and stupid, but I refused to let anyone force me out.'"
Now that his health is seriously damaged, Peter Tatchell needs our help to be able to hire some activist staff to aid him in his gay and human rights work. YOU CAN, AND SHOULD, MAKE A DONATION TO THE PETER TATCHELL HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN FUND via PayPal by using your credit card (the url is http://www.tatchellrightsfund.org/donations.htm)
Here's what Peter says in his appeal for help:
"As my campaigns go from strength to strength, the requests for support and solidarity grow ever greater.
"Increasingly, these requests come from all parts of the world – from isolated, persecuted individuals in small towns in Pakistan and Jamaica , and from tiny, struggling human rights groups working for democracy and social justice in Iran , Uganda , Palestine , Nepal , West Papua and Zimbabwe.
"This is putting me under unsustainable pressure. Apart from constant exhaustion and illness, I often feel deeply depressed by the sheer volume of demands and the constant crises and deadlines.
"Faced with a deluge of appeals to assist individuals, organisations and whole communities suffering persecution, I usually work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I am doing the work of three or four people.
"I often go for months without a single night off. In the middle of a big campaign, for several days I might not have a proper meal or more than three hours sleep a night.
"Without my intervention, many asylum seekers would be deported and risk arrest, torture and murder; and vulnerable gay and black prisoners in the UK jails would suffer beatings and be pushed towards suicide.
"Given this terrible suffering, it is hard to say no. The solution is not to turn away victims and activist groups requesting assistance, but to get the help I need to reduce the pressure on me and to make my campaigns more effective and long-term sustainable.
"How can one refuse, for example, to help a Muslim woman or a gay man who fears so-called honour killing?
"Almost every day brings news of further abuses. I am constantly dealing with people who have been subjected to rape, torture, imprisonment and attempted murder. Their horror stories cause me nightmares. This cannot continue.
"To ease the pressure, I need to have some time to relax and recharge – three nights off a week and one day off at the weekend.
"To ensure this, I desperately require at least two full-time paid support staff – a campaigns officer and a research and casework officer."
Help this courageous man continue his work -- make a donation by clicking here.