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SDGLN exclusive: Knocking down hurdles to global decriminalization of homosexuality

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth part in a series on “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality,” a consultation about finding ways to decriminalize homosexuality across the world and to bring equality and dignity to LGBT people. Editor in Chief Ken Williams was on the planning committee headed by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego and was a participant in the consultation, and he is sharing with SDGLN’s readers what he learned during the meetings.)

NEW YORK – It is a crime to be gay in 76 countries around the world.

Yes, homophobia rages in the 21st century despite libraries full of scientific and psychological evidence that shows that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

Much attention has been focused over the past two years on Uganda, where anti-gay members of Parliament, funded and supported by America’s Religious Right, have been trying to pass the notorious and universally condemned “Kill The Gays” bill.

Uganda is only the tip of the iceberg. The Religious Right has been busy at work for decades trying to persuade African and Asian countries to embrace the discriminatory policies that in some cases are so far-reaching that they include the death penalty. This movement to criminalize homosexuality parallels Sharia law, which is equally harsh and often deadly to LGBT people living under Islamic governments such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Almost 100 prominent secular and faith leaders attending the “Compass to Compassion – Discovering a Common Way to LGBT Global Equality” last week at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University listened to speakers who talked about the “Political and Legal Responses to Decriminalization.”

Keynote speaker Daniel Baer of the U.S. State Department

Daniel Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, spoke on “Taking Leadership to Address LGBT Human Rights Around the World.”

Baer outlined how the Obama administration is the first-ever American presidency to use foreign policy as a tool to nudge regressive nations toward human rights, including LGBT equality. He said President Barack Obama has a strong record of applying “universal standards” to the human rights issue.

He also saluted his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her steadfast support for gay rights and quoted her:

“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

Baer said Clinton ordered all diplomats to engage their host countries on gay rights.

He was at the United Nations on June 17 when the UN Human Rights Council voted 23-19 in favor of a history-making resolution that supports equal rights for everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“There was a buzz in the audience,” Baer said. “The vote made me very proud.”

Baer said the State Department will be rolling out a tool kit to help fight for human rights globally. His specialty is African and Asian issues, he said.

The openly gay Baer said he takes three approaches in his work: Engage faith leaders, encourages dialogue even among groups with vastly different opinions on human rights, and finding common ground.

Touting the “empowering effect of forgiveness,” Baer also pointed out that “we are all in this together.”

Panel discussion

Krista Lauer, a policy associate at the Global Forum on MSM & HIV, moderated the panel discussion featuring Baer; Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, executive director of ICARH (International Centre for Advocacy on Rights to Health) in Nigeria; Julia Greenberg of the Open Society Institute; Cheikh Traore of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); and Philip Moeller, director of International Programs at Lutherans Concerned/North America.

Lauer talked about how homophobia and the criminalization of homosexuality have contributed negatively to the global HIV/AIDS crisis. MSM (men who have sex with men) are discriminated against and often lack access to health services. She said less than 30% of MSM are able to get health care.

“The No. 1 cause is homophobia,” Lauer said. “No. 2 is HIV stigma. No. 3 is criminalization and repressive policies. No. 4 is lack of access to health-care provides. No. 5 is safety.”

Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, with ICARH, spoke about his grassroots efforts to support the LGBT community in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal.

Orazulike said ICARH has helped 9,000 Nigerians in preventative care despite having to operate out of the view of the government. He appealed for financial support to help ICARH in its lifesaving work.

“The challenges are funding, space, the same-sex bill and blackmail,” he said.

Greenberg reviewed the “Case Study: The 2011 UN High Level Meeting on HIV,” held in June. She talked about the challenges of getting the world body to agree on anything, much less on HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention.

She read the UN declaration on HIV and called it a “qualified” victory, noting that it provided an “out” to member nations who don’t support the declaration. “So it doesn’t protect LGBT in countries where homosexuality is illegal,” Greenberg said.

Traore said UNDP launched a commission in May 2010 to gather evidence about how laws apply to treatment or non-treatment. Regional dialogues have been held in Asia, Central Europe and Africa, with another planned for North America/Europe/Australia.

He said the commission has learned that criminalization of HIV is a growing trend.

Traore blamed laws inherited from the British as the root of all evil concerning homophobia and the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

“Police oppression was quite common,” he said. “Repressing gay men, transgender people and MSM is very common.”

He pointed to some good news. “In Indonesia, a Muslim country with laws against homosexuality, activists are working with police to implement change.”

Moeller, the World Bank consultant, said there is an urgent need to document LGBT needs in social documents worldwide. Do we have access to HIV care? Do we have documentation about the needs of the LGBT community. The World Bank cannot issue loans without documentation, he said.

One of the more interesting discussions centered on the meaning of decriminalization. In some countries that discriminate against LGBT people, politicians ask if decriminalization means the legalization of homosexuality.

Baer, from the State Department, said he had the answer. “To me, decriminalization does mean legalizing homosexuality.”

He said one thing getting in the way of progress toward decriminalization is money to pay for lawyers and the legal processes that are required to change laws.

Traore said he has seen a rise in attempts to criminalize homosexuality. “Two weeks ago in Nigeria, it was debated in Parliament,” he said, adding that it is an issue of values and cultures in Africa.

“There is a lack of knowledge and poor dialogue about LGBT issues,” Traore said. “There is an urgent, urgent need for people to explain the history of same-sex couples in Africa.”

Traore shared the story of the last Ugandan king who “loved his boys.” He noted that the British threw him in prison and criminalized homosexuality, leading to the quandaries that exist in the 21st century.

Orazulike reminded the audience that not all African nations criminalize homosexuality, pointing to South Africa as a prime example of an African country that has shifted its policies on human rights.