As Halifax marks the end of another successful Pride festival, it's important to remember the challenges LGBT people face globally. In February this year, Ugandan president Yoweri Musevni signed into law a bill legislating lifetime imprisonment for homosexuals. The legislation is a serious threat to the safety and freedoms for the estimated 500,000 LGBT Ugandans. There are many countries where homosexuality is illegal, and no country is free of homophobia.
After marching in Saturday's Pride parade, I went to the community fair where LGBT organizations set up information tents. One was a display of LGBT rights around the world, complete with images of gay men being hanged in Iran, lists of anti-gay legislation in Africa and the struggles of people in Asia. The message, though not displayed, is clear: I'm lucky to live in North America and not the proverbial “there.” At another booth, I was handed a pamphlet about LGBT rights in the Middle East, telling the reader about the repression LGBT people face everywhere but Israel. The message, though not displayed, is clear: if I support LGBT rights, I should support Israel. In the context of the current conflict in Gaza, which has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, this was a striking contrast.
I've been warned about and even accidentally participated in well-intentioned but backfiring efforts to help people in the third world. A common example is young volunteers building houses overseas instead of employing locals that actually know how to build houses. We can cause accidental harm on LGBT rights too. Back in 2012, Canadian Foreign minister John Baird gave a speech against Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act when Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of the Ugandan parliament was present. As a gay person, I appreciated Baird's comments. What I didn't consider was: did that help LGBT Ugandans at all? As it turns out, it was counter-productive. Kadaga was outraged at what she described as a “colonial attitude aimed at forcing the people of Uganda to embrace homosexuality.” She promised that the bill would be passed early as her “Christmas gift to Uganda.” Baird's comments highlight the difference between acting in solidarity with local LGBT activists and trying to save them. Had Baird consulted Ugandan LGBT activists, he'd have learned that they wanted to link the anti-homosexuality act with the broader authoritarian agenda of the Musevni government, with other examples like the Anti-Pornography Act and legislation curbing the right to protest. Instead, the encounter with Baird provided an anti-colonial and nationalist facade that boosted support for the bill.
One can (almost) sympathize with that sentiment. African countries have a history of coercion by foreign powers and many Africans understandably resent attempts to do so now. And our governments in the global north are inconsistent with what they denounce. Criticism from western countries over LGBT rights but relative quiet on authoritarianism, corruption, police abuses or economic exploitation gets pointed out by pundits, turning people against the West and playing into the hands of people like Musevni. Homophobia intensifies and becomes more dangerous as a result.
Similarly, we should think critically when handed pamphlets celebrating Israel as a gay oasis in a desert of backwardness. When promoting LGBT issues internationally, we should try to situate ourselves in the political, social and economic context in order to prevent our efforts from misfiring. Acceptance of LGBT people doesn't happen overnight, can't be forced upon a population and isn't just handed down by enlightened politicians—it happens through a prolonged debate and struggle within a society. Palestinian LGBT organizations such as al-Qaws and Aswat endorse activism against the Israeli occupation as a part of their work to advance LGBT interests in Palestine. This is because there can’t be freedom of gender and sexuality without freedom from daily violence, the right to love who you choose, live where you choose and attend groups, meetings and political activities without persecution.
Road blocks, military checkpoints, house demolitions, curfews and a separation wall around the West Bank are all part of the daily reality for all Palestinians, regardless of their orientation. Gazans are under siege and cannot leave, people in the West Bank need permits to travel, Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot go to Gaza or the West Bank and many refugees cannot go anywhere. So before we criticize Palestinian homophobia, we need to look at the challenges facing activists there, and remember that there are activists there. Listening to them rather than assuming we know how to save them is where to start.
Fighting for LGBT rights cannot be separated from fighting against all forms of oppression. So when we talk about LGBT rights internationally, lets make sure we're not just congratulating ourselves for being more civilized than the rest of the world or playing into the hands of those that would oppress people further. —John Hutton is a proud Nova Scotian queer person studying international development studies and economics at Dalhousie University.