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Johann Hari Headshot

There's a Global War Against the Right of Gay People to Live and Love. We Need to Fight Back

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There has been a strange hole in Western gay politics -- until now. We have, understandably, been focused on our own national battles for dignity: to get married, and not get fired for being gay, or bullied into despair as teenagers. But while we were starting to win, millions of gay people were starting to lose -- and lose badly. There are seven countries where the punishment for homosexuality is death, and the number is growing. In dozens more, gay people are being terrorized into the closet, or a prison cell, or the hands of a lynch mob, today, now. To pluck one example at random, this summer, a senior official in Ghana ordered gays and lesbians "rounded up", and announced: "All efforts are being made to get rid of these people." Imagine a thousand Matthew Shephards, lynched with the approval of the state.

These hunted gay people are asking for our help -- and now, at last, organizations are being built to get it to them. This is the new prong to the fight for gay equality, and perhaps the most crucial.

In every human society ever recorded, some people -- around 3 to 5 percent -- have been sexually drawn to their own gender. It is as universal and as harmless a quirk as left-handedness. Yet somewhere along the way, a whole cluster of fears and paranoias furred around homosexuality. There were myths that gay people were subversives or pedophiles or enemies of an invisible deity. For a long time, these myths killed gay men and women in our societies -- and now they are killing people just like us in swelling numbers abroad.

David Kato was a school headteacher in rural Uganda, described by one of his friends as "a small, thin man, with spare hair and dark skin. It was always the eyes that held you: wild and staring, possessed, passionate. And the voice: high and stubborn, insistent on having his own way." He grew up in a society, Uganda, where he was told there was nobody with his natural urges - and if such a freak did arise, he would be jailed or lynched at once. But gradually he began to realize "I didn't know anyone [gay] but I knew there were people there" -- so he took a step nobody had ever taken before in Uganda. He called a press conference and announced he was forming a group for gay Ugandans, asking to be left alone to live their lives.

Not long after, a newspaper put him and a few other gay people on its front page, claiming they were recruiting children, under the headline: "Hang Them." Somebody took the hint: Kato was beaten to death with a hammer. But even death wasn't a release. At his funeral, the presiding pastor raged that the gays present would "be punished by God" unless they repented.

Among some people, there is an unspoken assumption that gay equality inches forward of its own accord -- but in many countries, the situation is dramatically deteriorating for gay people. In Uganda, to name just one, there has been an attempt to reimpose the death penalty that has not yet been conclusively defeated. Campaigners on the ground warn that if the international pressure lets up, it will be reintroduced into parliament very quickly, and pass.

This doesn't have to happen. None of this is fixed by nature. It's patronizing and false to claim that poor countries are inevitably homophobic: in 2007, Nepal -- a bitterly poor country -- introduced binding legal protections for gay people. It's equally patronizing to think that intensely religious countries are inevitably homophobic. Argentina is highly Catholic, but has legalized gay marriage. In the US and Europe, we have shown in just a few lifetimes how deeply homophobic cultures can be transformed. In the year one of us -- Elton -- was born, it was a crime to be gay in Britain, but I survived through the battles to see the day when I could have a civil partnership and a son and be accepted by all but a small circle of bigoted hold-outs.

It didn't happen by magic. It happened because gay people organized and stood together and appealed to the decency and empathy of the heterosexual majority. People like David Kato are trying to do that -- and they need our support.

But there have been few organizations systematically getting help to them. The big human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have done some incredibly valuable work on individual countries, but nobody is even compiling a list of who across the world is in prison or designated for death just for being gay. What are their names? What are their stories? What support do they want?

Until now. A remarkable group called Kaleidoscope has been set up in London, with global reach and a simple goal. Any gay person running for her life, or any gay group banding together to be treated like a human being, will be given the support they need, in the way they want it. Do they want quiet diplomatic pressure on their governments? Do they want computers? Do they want to be smuggled out? Do they want prominent gays to visit the country and sit in the courtrooms with them? What do they need?

Earlier this year, we were shown how far a little bit of international solidarity can go in preventing homocide. In Malawi, a young gay couple -- a 26-year-old and a 20-year-old -- were sentenced to fourteen years' hard labor, just for having consensual sex. It took a small amount of pressure from gay people in Europe on their governments, and then a small amount of pressure by our governments on Malawi, for them to cave in and release the couple. There is a lever here.

But so far, most of the pressure flowing from the US and Europe has been in the other direction -- supporting the murderous homophobes. A battalion of US evangelicals flooded Uganda prior to the move to reintroduce the death penalty for homosexuality, announcing that homosexuality can be "cured", and gays were determined to recruit African children. For example, the Atlantic Monthly has revealed that one of Michele Bachmann's closest advisors, Peter Waldron, is a close personal friend of the man who most aggressively promoted the bill to hunt down and kill all of Uganda's gays.

His name is Pastor Martin Ssempa. He is fond of convening press conferences where he displays pictures of men covered in feces. He announced: "I want to say homosexuals eat each other's poop. Homosexuals stick their hands into their rectums... This man has just eaten the other person's poo poo and is rubbing it into his mouth." He says "fisting [is] practiced by 65 percent of all homosexuals. It is deviant! As if that is not enough, he [the typical gay man] puts it all the way iiiiiin!" Would Bachmann retain an advisor whose friends talked about, say, Jews in this grotesque way?

Yet Bachmann's advisor has not done anything to distance himself from this crazed hatred. On the contrary: we now know that Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, teaches and preaches the central idea behind the movements to hunt down gay people across the world: that homosexuality is a choice, and so gay people who persist with their sexuality are being willfully deviant. Only last week, Herman Cain similarly insisted on The View that homosexuality is a choice -- a fact that is contradicted by overwhelming scientific evidence. These ideas have consequences.

Do the people who put forward this argument realize what they are confessing about their own sexuality? We couldn't be straight, no matter how hard we tried. If Cain or Bachmann or Ssempa are saying they "chose" to be straight, and could have chosen otherwise, they can only be confessing to repressed bisexuality -- and projecting it outwards onto everybody else. If you "chose" your heterosexuality, then you are not entirely heterosexual.

There is a global war going on against the right of an entire group to fall in love. The US hard right is aiding the side of the persecutors and bigots. We need to aid the side of the people who want to live and love. That is the goal of Kaleidoscope. It will carry out its work sensitively, guided by the help gay people in the group want. The murderous homophobes want to claim that homosexuality is an "imperialist" or "alien" import -- so it is crucial that we don't play into their hands. This is a fight that needs to be lead by local people. But we can offer real support and solidarity -- just as the fight against Apartheid was led within South Africa, but supported across the globe.

This doesn't detract for a second from the urgent fight for equality back at home. We can do both. And this isn't just a fight for gay people. One of the most moving aspects of the struggle for gay equality here has been how many heterosexual people have been at its forefront. Indeed, two of the most eloquent enemies of homophobia in the world today are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an African man, and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian woman. Tutu says: "If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn't worship that God."

We know what will happen if we do nothing, and if Kaleidoscope doesn't attract the supporters it needs. It's encapsulated in the story of a young Senegalese man called Bassirou, whose story is told in the Human Rights Watch report 'Fear For Life.' Their team met him as a thirty-year-old man, soon after a local newspaper found out he was gay and concocted a grotesque story that he was a pedophile grooming children. Bassirou ran to his home but his brother came after him with a big stick, and said he would kill him if he ever came back. He ran away to another town and got a job manufacturing plastics, but they found out he was gay and fired him. He said in 2004: "I don't go out. I don't talk to anyone. I don't interact with my neighbors... I go home very, very late at night so that no one will see me... I tell myself, I'll die one day [because of this]. Sometimes I'm very scared." Not long after, he was living on the streets, fell sick, and died.

This doesn't have to happen ever again. On June 28th, 1969, the police famously raided the Stonewall Inn and beat up the people there, just for being gay. Imagine if you had stood in the Stonewall Inn that night and said -- forty-two years from now, on these streets, they will be celebrating the introduction of gay marriage. There will be openly gay cops and politicians and lawyers kissing on the streets across the city, and the people who think you are sick will be the ones regarded as freaks. It would have seemed like the most absurd science fiction -- but it happened. It happened in the lifetime of many of the people who were in the Stonewall Inn that night. They lived to see it. And if Kaleidoscope attracts the support they deserve, we believe we will live to see the day when gay people are able to embrace openly on the streets of Kampala and Kingston and Kandahar. Grab your jacket and your instinct for justice -- the global Stonewall riot has begun.

To find out how you can save lives the lives of persecuted gay people across the world, click here.

To be kept up to date on this issue, follow Johann on Twitter at @johannhari101 and Kaleidoscope at @kaleidoscope_T

Correction: There was an initial misprint in the first line of this story. The first line should not have referred to a "stranglehold on gay politics," but rather "a strange hole in gay politics." The piece above reflects this change.