LGBT Groups Rethinking Strategies After International Setbacks

By Stefano Gennarini, J.D. | March 6, 2014

NEW YORK, March 7 (C-FAM) Groups working for the normalization of homosexuality around the globe are asking themselves what they should do in the face of growing opposition to their efforts.

Nigeria, Uganda, and India are among the countries that have recently rebuffed efforts of homosexual groups in their territories, activists complained last week at an event called “Basic Freedoms in a Homophobic World”. Some 80 countries outlaw sodomy or same-sex sexual acts.

But lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups are less worried about sodomy laws that are largely unenforced than laws that limit the activities of LGBT groups. The space for discussion is being “closed down,” warned Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist UN Office. The Universalists co-hosted the event at the United Nations Church Center with a coalition of organizations.

Laws against targeting minors with information about the homosexual way of life or equating it with “traditional” sexual behavior are sweeping through Eastern Europe. These, and recent laws on homosexuality in Africa, are arguably more about limiting the activities of western LGBT groups than punishing homosexual acts, Knotts observed.

Knotts, whose group partners with GLAAD for outreach to religious groups, said the new laws violate the religious freedom of progressives, adding that too often religious freedom is seen as a “right-wing” issue.

Obstacles to LGBT advocacy are a disquieting to these groups. Without discussion, attitudes about sexuality cannot change, the panelists lamented.

Knotts noted there is nothing more powerful than entertainment, sports figures and other celebrities coming out in favor of LGBT rights. He predicts that there will be “martyrs” who must be “lifted up” like David Kato, a Ugandan homosexual activist who became a symbolic figure after his murder though male prostitute eventually confessed to killing Kato after Kato refused to pay for sex.

Islamic attitudes towards sex and family life are another overwhelming obstacle to LGBT rights internationally. But activists have not given up on Muslims. Hossein Alizadeh, a panelist from an LGBT group in the Middle East and North Africa, appeared optimistic.

Don’t talk about sexual autonomy or human rights, he advised. Both are associated with western decadence and are too political. The starting point of the conversation should be justice and a debate framed within the culture, not imposed from the outside.

Islam is the “centerpiece of identity” for Muslims, and the question is how to reconcile faith with homosexuality, said Alizadeh. He described his successful efforts to get the BBC and Voice of America, which broadcast in Iran, to adopt guidelines prepared by his organization on how to talk about LGBT issues, and pointed to a recent lesbian themed music video from Iranian pop star Googoosh.

But the most urgent question LGBT advocates are asking is: what can western governments do?

The global community, through the United Nations, has mostly remained silent on LGBT issues, only condemning violence against individuals who identify as LGBT. Few countries want a full-scale move on traditional attitudes towards sexuality.

Some argue that Obama’s high profile advocacy on LGBT rights has backfired, and a more subtle approach is necessary. Others insist that outside pressure is the only way to go. Denmark and Norway cut government assistance to Uganda over the recently enacted anti-homosexuality bill. And the World Bank has put a $90 million grant to Uganda on hold after their president signed a law on homosexual behavior.

Panelists at the Church Center appeared to fall back on using asylum laws to get LGBT advocates out of hostile countries when their efforts fail.