Finding one of the two gay bars in Bishkek, capital of the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, requires more than a little bit of effort. It helps to have a local as your guide, as I did in April when dispatched for Radio Free Europe to cover the bloody political revolution that swept President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of power. Though the establishment to which my guide led me is located downtown in a large plaza within plain sight of the massive presidential office building, it's as inconspicuous as a speakeasy. My Kyrgyz companion made a quick phone call and performed some sort of special knock on the door, after which the bartender inside undid a series of locks. The whole scene was like something out of a 1920s Prohibition-era detective film.
Viewing any form of independent political organizing as a threat to its power, the Bakiyev regime targeted gay people alongside political dissidents. In 2008, for instance, Kyrgyz police raided a meeting of gay and AIDS organizations for no reason other than to send a message to all nongovernmental organizations: Criticize the government at your peril. With Bakiyev's ouster, I assumed that life would become marginally easier for gays, now that there was an interim government with real challenges--not the phantasm of homosexuality--to confront. But the bar that night was nearly empty, indicative in its small way of the extent to which homophobia is ingrained in Kyrgyz society.
I was reminded of this experience upon reading news that a coalition of 19 American nonprofit groups, under the auspices of the Council for Global Equality, had compiled a report for the United Nations. Submitted to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council as part of the world body's Universal Periodic Review process, the report's purpose, according to one of the contributing organizations, is to "highlight ways in which the United States can improve human rights domestically." The UPR requires all 192 U.N. member states to submit statements declaring "what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations." Since governments--especially undemocratic ones--are unlikely to detail such shortcomings (especially pertaining to gays), the U.N. encourages nongovernmental organizations to contribute research about state-sponsored oppression.
Among the recommendations in the Council on Global Equality's report are the codifying of hate-crimes and employment nondiscrimination laws, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and federal recognition of gay relationships. In other words, the full panoply of measures that, if enacted, would give gay citizens the same rights as straight ones. I can't say I disagree with any of these measures. But given that the United States is a fully functioning democracy with representative bodies and an independent judiciary, the U.N. is hardly the venue through which to raise them. Moreover, classifying the "human rights" situation for American gays alongside the plight of those in most other countries is stunning in its myopia, minimizing the grievous situations faced by gays in unfree societies.
Founded on the lofty principles of preventing war and ensuring human rights for all, the United Nations has consistently fallen wide of the mark. Rather than work to secure these principles, the U.N. spends most of its time passing florid resolutions that pay lip service to them. For instance, the Obama administration earned a great deal of credit from gay rights groups early last year when it decided to endorse a U.N. General Assembly resolution opposing national laws criminalizing homosexuality. This was all well and good--and a welcome departure from the policy of the previous administration, which had opposed the measure. But what effect will a toothless document instructing countries not to criminalize same-sex relations have on Saudi Arabia (which beheads gay people), Iran (which hangs them from cranes), or Zimbabwe (where gays are called "lower than dogs and pigs" by President Robert Mugabe)? Passing a feel-good resolution decrying such activity does little more than salve the consciences of Western human rights activists and--by instilling such complacency--may actually harm, not help, those people most in need.
But the problem with the U.N. runs deeper than mere ineffectiveness; it is more often than not an actively pernicious force in world politics. Rather than address real human rights abuses, the U.N. Human Rights Council spends most of its time attacking the tiny state of Israel. Indeed, its predecessor body, the Commission on Human Rights, was eventually dissolved due to criticism from Western democracies regarding its nonexistent membership requirements (which permitted the likes of Libya, Zimbabwe, and Vietnam--all systematic abusers of human rights--to sit in judgment of other countries). These problems with the U.N. are due to its nature, composed as it is of the world's governments. Most of the member states are not fully democratic and have an obvious interest in whitewashing each other's appalling human rights records and deflecting attention toward democracies that actually have an institutional capacity for self-criticism. This isn't necessarily a negative trait; indeed, it's what distinguishes free nations--which have the structures and traditions, like an independent judiciary and a free press, for exposing the nation's problems and working to solve them--from authoritarian ones. And it's in this civic and constructive spirit, not knee-jerk anti-Americanism, that the Council on Global Equality submitted its report.
But while the council's motives may have been benign, the publishing of the report does a disservice to those gays struggling under the yoke of oppressive regimes. Categorizing the legal discrimination against gays in the United States alongside the policies of authoritarian regimes effectively minimizes the appalling way in which the world's genuine human rights abusers treat their gay citizens. Of course, U.S. sexual minorities do face harassment, violence, and, albeit rarely, even death. The opening anecdote to the report comes from the mother of Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old transgender woman who was brutally murdered in 2002. But the difference between the murder of Araujo and the violence perpetrated against gay people in places like Iran is that the latter form is state-sponsored. The murderers of Gwen Araujo were prosecuted by the state. This is not to downplay the legal difficulties that American gays continue to confront, but there's no comparison between not being allowed to obtain a marriage license and living under constant fear of being lynched.
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.