Human rights wrongs

From William A. Percy
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from The Guide magazine, July 1998

The International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission bills itself as the 'Amnesty International' for sexual minorities. Why is it silent when queer people are jailed, tortured, and killed?

What would Oscar Wilde have thought? Suppose the brilliant author, broken by the time he spent in an English prison for sodomy, were returned from the dead and plunked down in New York last May 28th. Once Wilde got used to the light of a gorgeous spring day, and oriented himself to the late-20th century American city, he would want to catch up on the news of his kind. Brace him for the shock of the Nazi concentration camps, the post-War anti-homosexual crusades, the plague of AIDS. But today, he would find out, everything was changed. Explain the rules of safe sex, the miracle of protease inhibition. Troubles aplenty persist in the world's unenlightened parts, but people are working hard to correct them. Why, that very evening, he might care to venture to a Soho reception, thrown by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, for which activists had been flown in from around the world to celebrate the advances of just the past year. Wilde would be surprised to see the corporate endorsements, the politicians and lawyers piling out of cabs, gladly forking over $100 a ticket to see and be seen coming out for a good cause. Even Wilde's fertile imagination couldn't foretell the horrors in the century after his death – and now, the unbelievable progress. A cynical wit he may be, but can't you just see, as the crowd roars with a standing ovation, our resurrected Oscar Wilde struck speechless, a tear rolling down his cheek?

Guess again

A touching picture, but a false one. For the sponsors of that evening's ceremony, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), would not lift a finger to defend Oscar Wilde from the charges that sent him to hard labor at Reading Gaol. Nor does IGLHRC protest the sentences that judges impose today on the likes of Walt Whitman, André Gide, Paul Goodman, and Langston Hughes.

Indeed, Oscar Wilde was lucky to face the charges he did – sex with teenage boys – at the end of the 19th century rather than the end of the 20th. For his "crimes," Wilde received two years in prison. In America today, Wilde would suffer up to life imprisonment without parole in many jurisdictions. If released, the late-20th century Wilde would be tracked for life on a sex-offender registry. After his sentence, he could be subject to lifetime confinement in a mental hospital. In some US states he would face mandatory lifetime parole. He would probably be labeled a "sexual predator," forced to report to the police every 90 days for life, with his home and work addresses broadcast on TV or distributed by police on posters. He could be subject to electric shock "therapy" and lie-detector tests to reveal the nature of his fantasies – and sent back to prison if he "failed." He could be forced to wear electronic bracelets or computer chips in his body, be prohibited to travel beyond a 30-mile radius of his home, restricted in his associations, forced to take known carcinogens for chemical emasculation, or be physically castrated.

IGLHRC bills itself as the Amnesty International for sexual minorities. But in eight years of campaigning, it has never noted – let alone opposed – any of these human rights abuses. On the contrary, IGLHRC curries favor with some of the same governments pursuing this repression.

If a gay partnership law is proposed in Brazil or a homophobic official wins a UN award in Zimbabwe, IGLHRC is quick on the draw, with publicity and protest. But in the rich West, when gay men have been unjustly imprisoned by Western governments – and in one case, probably assassinated – IGLHRC has remained silent. It's hard to grasp that a lesbian and gay group supposedly devoted to human rights would abet the jailing, censoring, mutilation, torture, and killing of homosexuals. What's the story?

From Argentina to Zaire

Based in San Francisco, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission was founded in 1990. Despite its official-sounding name, the group is private. It has grown quickly – last year, its budget was around $700,000, almost double the year before, and it has a staff of 12. In 1997, IGLHRC paid Julie Dorf, its executive director, $50,000.

IGLHRC documents and publicizes rights abuses, particularly in poor countries, and sponsors letter-writing campaigns and fax-zaps to let officials responsible know that people are watching. IGLHRC gives support and advice to gay, lesbian, and AIDS groups around the world, and encourages sodomy decriminalization and other law reform. IGLHRC has prepared detailed studies on a number of poor nations where sexual minorities face particular repression, and offers technical assistance for lawyers in rich ones who work on gay and lesbian asylum cases.

In recent years, IGLRHC has addressed such incidents as: the possible infection of homosexual prisoners in Peru, who were forcibly tested for HIV with dirty needles; a police raid of a gay and lesbian bar in Halle, Germany, where patrons were handcuffed for up to four hours and strip-searched; the prosecution of two 17-year-old males in Romania for sodomy; unsolved killings of gay men in Mexico; arbitrary arrests and assaults of transvestites in Argentina and Turkey; the arrest of gay bar patrons in Ecuador and the rape of one while in police custody; attempts by the city of Tokyo to bar homosexuals from youth hostels; the award of a UN prize to a Zimbabwe official who banned homosexuals from a Harare book fair.

But there's a pattern to the cases that IGLRHC hasn't addressed:

  • severe human rights abuses in rich, Western nations – including new laws targeting people accused of consensual sex that call for long-term imprisonment, psychiatric confinement, physical mutilation, and restriction of the rights of free association, movement, and expression
  • the imprisonment, psychiatric confinement, and mutilation of persons, including youngsters, who have had sexual relationships with minors
  • and the censoring, imprisonment, or killing of gay activists who voiced an expansive view of sexual liberation

IGLHRC's apparent focus is on selling the idea of human rights for a narrowly-defined class of self-identified lesbians and gays. When people imprisoned, tortured, or killed because of their sexuality don't serve IGLRHC's purpose, they are ignored.

Parisian intrigue

Take the case of Pastor Joseph Doucé, an openly gay Baptist minister in Paris, and one of the founders of the International Lesbian and Gay Association. Doucé's Centre du Christ Liberateur was a ministry to sexual minorities. It organized support groups around homosexuality, sadomasochism, pedophilia, and transsexuality, and published a well-regarded series of books on these topics. Doucé also founded a bookstore in Paris, Autres Cultures. Police say they began surveillance of the store because Doucé was selling books that were an "apology for pedophilia." Doucé became a target of investigation by the Renseignements Genereaux (RG), a branch of the French national police that gathers intelligence on political subjects. The RG had a reputation for shady dealings. It was linked, for example, to the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, used to protest French nuclear testing. During the summer of 1990, Doucé's center was subjected to break-ins and surveillance. According to his lover, on the evening of July 19, 1990, two men in plainclothes knocked on his door, said they were police, showed a badge, and took the pastor away for questioning.

Except by his killers, Doucé was never seen alive again. His mauled and decomposed body was found in October 1990 in a forest southwest of Paris. The police did not release the corpse for a year and a half. It was needed so long, they claimed, for the criminal inquiry. Skeptics wondered whether the cops were trying to cover up evidence of torture. An investigation showed that the Paris police kept a thick file on Doucé, and had conducted extensive illegal wiretaps. The French interior minister disbanded the RG partly as a result of the ensuing controversy. But the murder has never been solved.

Editor imprisoned

Another case in which IGLHRC was silent: Francesco Vallini was an editor at Babilonia, Italy's national gay and lesbian magazine. He joined Babilonia's staff shortly after they published an essay describing his life as a gay high school student. Vallini also helped found Gruppo P, a pederast discussion group, and he edited its newsletter. Police surveiled the group's mail, and in April 1993 raided Vallini's home and the offices of Babilonia. In July 1993, they arrested Vallini on vague charges of "conspiracy to commit crimes" and of alleged sex with minors. Babilonia's protests that Vallini was purely a political prisoner fell on deaf ears. Conditions at Milan's overcrowded San Vittore prison were so bad that Vallini went on a hunger strike in late 1994 to protest, and had to be hospitalized. When authorities finally held a trial, they dropped the sex charge, leaving only a conspiracy count, based on Vallini's organizing, writing, and publishing. Vallini was convicted, but released in summer 1995, pending appeal. After his conspiracy conviction was upheld by a higher court and Vallini was ordered back to prison, he fled Italy, and now lives in exile.

Italy's jailing of Vallini was protested in a draft of a report prepared in 1995 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group which documents human rights abuses against members of the press. But the CPJ dropped Vallini's case from their report's final version. "His treatment was extremely unfair as it was handled by the Italian court," says Jeanne Sahadi, a CPJ spokesperson. "But it didn't meet our criteria as closely as we wanted." Vallini's case fell victim to the skittishness mainline human rights groups show around queer issues. IGLRHC was founded to counter that timidity, but though encouraged to take action, the group never criticized Vallini's imprisonment.

Canada denies asylum

One of IGLRHC's special concerns is securing the right of political asylum for sexual minorities who face rights abuses in their home countries. Yet IGLHRC ignored a case where Canada broke established rules of international law to return a man to the US to serve a 21-year sentence for sodomy.

Today, Henry Halm is locked in a New York prison. In 1993, before he was sentenced for consensual sex with two youths, ages 15 and 16, Halm skipped bail and fled to Canada, where the age of consent is 14. It's an established principle of international law that people can't be extradited to their home country for prosecution unless the act in question is a crime in the host nation. Canadian authorities arrested Halm anyway. Canada's sex code criminalized anal sex for persons under 18, even though it set 14 as the age of consent for every other sex act. Halm was accused of anal sex with the youths. With Toronto attorney Paul Slansky working for him pro bono, Halm challenged Canada's discriminatory age of consent – and in February 1995, he won. Halm's victory secured the right for all Canadians above 14 to have anal sex. But Canadian authorities argued that Halm should be extradited anyway, on a technicality of immigration law – that he had not informed authorities he was a fugitive when entering the country. Canada handed Henry Halm – a former mayoral candidate in Elmira, New York – back to his US captors.

There are countless other important cases on which IGLRHC has been silent. A few of them include:

  • a life sentence imposed in 1984 on Bernard Baran, an openly gay 18-year-old charged in a case of alleged "Satanic abuse" at a Massachusetts day- care center, where there was no physical evidence of any crime and manifest homophobia throughout the police investigation
  • a 1998 California Supreme Court ruling upholding the statutory rape conviction of a 16- year-old who had consensual sex with a 14-year- old, in which the court declared that persons under 18 have no right to sexual privacy
  • a California law that requires the chemical or physical castration of persons after a second sex offense involving someone under 13. The law, which applies to minors, would require the castration of a 13-year-old boy convicted a second time of consensual sex with a 12-year-old, and would allow a judge to impose that penalty after a first offense.
  • twenty-one life sentences, not concurrent, imposed in Nevada in 1979 on Robert Butler, despite pleas from his alleged victim, his 13-year- old partner in an acrobatic circus act, who said the relationship was consensual
  • the indefinite incarceration in Kansas of Leroy Hendricks, who served ten years in prison for fondling two clothed teenage boys in a public place, but who has continued to be held since 1994, despite completing his sentence. The US Supreme Court upheld a Kansas law in 1997, now being replicated around the Western world, which allows for lifetime incarceration for people the state deems "likely" to have illegal sex in the future – whether or not they've ever been convicted of a crime.

No litmus test

IGLHRC insists that it does not let Western governments off the hook, or exclude young people from its purview. IGLHRC has indeed cited rights cases in the Western world – it opposed the UK's unequal age of consent, and has criticized US immigration policies that adversely affect people with AIDS. IGLRHC has protested rights abuses committed against young people. It defended a Romanian youth, age 17, from sodomy charges stemming from sex with an age mate. In a 1994 position statement, IGLRHC declares that "Acknowledging the difficulty of precisely defining the point at which a child becomes a consenting adult, given both differential processes of maturation and differential cultural norms, we underscore our collective responsibility to always act in the best interests of the child, and to ensure that due weight shall always be given to the views of the child in accordance with the child's age and maturity. Moreover, we recognize the responsibility of adults to provide a supportive and non-coercive environment for children." When it comes to homosexual relationships involving adolescents and adults, Sydney Levy, IGLRHC's program director, says the group may have addressed a few such cases, though he grants he cannot name any. Nor could anyone looking over IGLRHC's public record.

But IGLHRC's criticism of Western governments has been milquetoast. In its review of the most important cases of 1997, IGLHRC cites the US government only for biases in its immigration policies. Matters of imprisonment, mutilation, and denial of due process are neglected. IGLHRC says it is ready to consider any issues that are brought to its attention. But when activists have asked IGLRHC to speak against California's castration law and the Hendricks ruling, and sent along substantial background information, the human rights group didn't reply.

IGLRHC has shown that it will do the bidding of Western governments. To meet the conditions laid down in an 1994 Congressional amendment written by Sen. Jesse Helms, IGHLRC pushed successfully for the expulsion from the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) of three member groups that focused on intergenerational relationships. In exchange, the US promised support (though it later reneged) for ILGA's bid for consultative status on a UN council. At the same time, IGLHRC's director campaigned to have pederast groups barred from the Stonewall 25 march in New York.

IGLRHC did not need to seek the expulsion from ILGA of Centre du Christ Liberateur. The organization had folded after Joseph Doucé was murdered killed – probably for same reason that IGLRHC would have demanded he be purged.

Doctors of the body politic

"Are other lesbian and gay groups dealing with these issues?" Joe Collins asks exasperatedly when queried about IGLHRC's silences. A writer on global food policy and economic development, Collins sits on IGLRHC's board. The question suggests how deeply IGLRHC misunderstands the meaning of human rights, and the responsibilities of those who work to defend them.

Human rights activists are like doctors – obligated to home in on what threatens a person's health, which are not necessarily the problems that are most obvious or easy to treat. There is no part of the body so marginal that it can be left festering with open sores. A body is only as healthy as its sickest part. Human rights are not divisible, any more than the flesh. By definition, human rights cannot be secured for some people and not for others.

Dealing politically with young people's sexuality is a mine field. The Western world is engulfed in a campaign of demonization. Officially the targets are "pedophiles" and a widening category of "sex-offenders." But the new repression extends over what has been historically a large proportion of same-sex relations. This demonization is partly the price being paid for the sexual liberalization that has occurred throughout the West in the past generation. Mainline human rights groups resist dealing with sex. It took ten years of lobbying for Amnesty International to take cases of adults imprisoned for same-sex relations, and even then, AI officially pegs it as a low priority. But to pursue human rights for sexual minorities on the basis of what Western governments or human rights groups are prepared to support ignores the reality of the abuses going on today.

And not just today. Research conducted by John Fout, a historian at Bard College, suggests that the Nazis did not target homosexuals per se for the death camps. Middle and upper-class German homosexuals who kept quiet – and who were not Jewish, Gypsy, or disabled – fared about as well as other Germans. The Nazis targeted mainly two kinds of homosexuals: working-class men caught having public sex, and men of any class caught in relationships with minors. The latter would often be sent to concentration camps after completing their prison sentences. Based on its record, IGLRHC would only quibble with the Nazis' assessment of which homosexuals deserve to live in society.

Sexual relationships between older and younger people may not be much more tolerated today in the West than in Nazi Germany, but they have been the predominant form of homosexuality in most of the world throughout history. This is true for Islamic societies, Melanesia, Japan, many Amerindian cultures, and ancient Persia and Greece. Homosexuality bundled in lesbian and gay identity covers only a small portion of same-sex relations going on in the world today, and a minuscule portion of those in history. If lesbian and gay people's lives have value, it is because of the essential value of same-sex love and solidarity in its varied forms.

Claiming to defend human rights, but using them merely as a political tool, does double injury. It hurts those put beyond the pale by political convenience. And it perverts an essential value of the concept of human rights: as a court of last appeal for the demonized and despised.

In another time and place, Leroy Hendricks, now locked indefinitely at Larned State Hospital because Kansas thinks he is "likely" to have illegal sex, could plead that he was also a pious Christian or subject of Allah. Henry Halm, sentenced to 21 years for sodomy, could plead the good deeds of his ancestors. Joseph Doucé, facing his assassins, could name the village elders who would vouch he was an honorable man.

In the modern, anonymous world, large institutions – police, psychiatry, media – have extraordinary power to determine people's lives. The individual's claim to basic humanity is a crucial and sometimes final counterweight. For those demonized because of their sexuality, asserting that humanness may not save their lives or set them free, but it is their last possession, their last stand. IGLHRC may blind itself in the name of winning access to the UN, cooperation from Western powers, or a stronger hand with which to right wrongs in the Third World. Whatever the reason, IGLHRC connives to remove the last barrier separating an Oscar Wilde, a Leroy Hendricks, a Joseph Doucé, or a Henry Halm from the status of beasts at the slaughterhouse or inmates of the camps. **

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