BY James Kirchick
July 12 2010 3:00 AM ET
Events over the past few months have put this problem in stark relief. For the past five years gay activists in Moscow have unsuccessfully tried to stage a gay rights march—their attempts continually foiled by neofascist organizations in cahoots with the government. The mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, is a thuggish ally of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, under whose decade-long rule Russia has devolved into an authoritarian country that threatens (and occasionally invades) its neighbors, kills independent journalists, and indoctrinates its people with a steady stream of virulent anti-American propaganda. Luzhkov has referred to gay rights parades as “satanic happenings” and banned them throughout his tenure.
Yet in May something remarkable happened. A small group of gay activists, operating in secret to avoid infiltration, tricked the police into thinking the parade would be held in one place yet traveled to another location in the city. There they unfurled a rainbow flag for all of 10 minutes before the authorities caught on and blocked their path. “Today it’s like the Soviet era in Russia,” said British activist Peter Tatchell. “Those who seek to hold a peaceful protest are being hunted by the police.”
American gay activists may complain about the political opposition they face, but in many countries governmental leaders don’t even make the pretense of respecting the dignity of gay people. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies their very existence. In Belarus riot police violently beat gay activists peacefully assembling in public. A Scandinavian diplomat told me of a visit to Saudi Arabia during which he met with government officials. When someone in his delegation asked about the kingdom’s treatment of gays, the Saudi interlocutor simply laughed.
Earlier this year I met Kasha Jacqueline, who founded a gay advocacy organization in Uganda, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be gay. Despite this, she has been one of the most outspoken opponents of legislation pending in the Ugandan parliament that would punish homosexuality with the death penalty. Due to a constant stream of death threats, she had stopped going to her office but decided to return because she felt she was “cheating my own struggle” by working from home. By taking part in the U.N.’s charade, American gay activists will ensure that struggles like Jacqueline’s are downplayed while supposed American “abuses” are trumpeted from the rooftops.
Western gay activists living in relative comfort would do well to pour more of their resources into places where their efforts can make a significant difference. Just take a look at Malawi, where international pressure (including, it should be noted, a visit from U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon), persuaded that country’s government to pardon Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who were sentenced to 14 years of hard labor for celebrating an engagement ceremony. “If not for international pressure and exposure,” Jacqueline told me about Uganda’s perverse legislation, “this bill would become law.” From Bishkek to Moscow and Kampala, these are the places where people’s lives are truly on the line. Consumed by legislative minutiae in Washington, let’s not lose sight of where the genuine fights for freedom are under way.
Click here for a rebuttal to this commentary by Julie Dorf and Mark Bromley on behalf of the Council for Global Equality.