Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Op-ed: Where Coming Out Is Dangerous

Op-ed: Where Coming Out Is Dangerous

The shocked mother was almost in tears. Not because her son is gay, but because he had been hiding his sexual orientation for years.

“Were you afraid of us? Why didn’t you trust us? We love you, no matter what!”

In my home country, the Netherlands, coming out has become the topic of a popular TV series, Out of the Closet. The famous – and straight – star of the program films young people before, during, and after they come out. Usually the response of parents and friends is favorable.

Such supportive responses are not even exceptional in a country like the Netherlands, but we shouldn’t forget that in approximately 80 countries in the world, homosexual conduct is still criminalized.

On October 11, National Coming Out Day around the world, LGBT people will seize the opportunity to speak about their coming out and the importance of equality and non-discrimination. Their visibility might inspire other LGBT people to throw open their closet door and start a life without hiding their sexual orientation. Often a coming out feels like a liberation for LGBT people. Many cannot imagine a life in secrecy and denial anymore.

But in the countries where homosexual conduct is criminalized, coming out can put your life and safety at risk. Take, for instance, Aceh, one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces. Aceh is the only territory in the predominantly Muslim country that enforces Sharia, or Islamic law. Its provincial government recently revised its interpretation of Sharia, which forbids gambling, alcohol, all sex outside marriage, women wearing tight jeans, and men cross-dressing. The Aceh government made same-sex sexual relations punishable by a maximum of 100 lashes, administered in public, or up to 100 months in prison.

Sharia has a history that dates back to early medieval times, but Aceh’s modern-day whipping sessions are recorded by spectators with their camera phones.

Indonesia’s national criminal code does not prohibit same-sex sexual relations. But it is fair to say that coming out in Aceh puts your safety at risk and is not advisable. Aceh’s government should repeal laws that contravene international standards on privacy and non-discrimination, and instead protect its citizens from gross violations of their rights to freedom of expression and sexual identity. People in Aceh should have the same rights as people in the rest of Indonesia.

Aceh is just one example of government repression against LGBT people. I could offer many more. But on  National Coming Out Day, there is not only a somber and dreary story to tell. It is also a cause for celebration.

At the United Nations, the fight to uphold the rights of LGBT people around the world has made significant progress. On September 26, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and Colombia put a resolution to vote at the U.N. Human Rights Council expressing grave concern regarding violence and discrimination against LGBT people. The resolution was co-sponsored by 42 countries and received a majority of votes.

It is now up to the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights to update the report of his predecessor with a view to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. I hope the new study will highlight the situation in Aceh, but also the joy many gay and lesbian people, as well as their friends and families, experience after coming out. Those positive examples will inspire many, even in countries where the closed closet door protects their life and safety.

BORIS DITTRICH is the LGBT rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Tags: Commentary, World

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