Gatekeeper Gambit

A Town Square Opinion: Protesting the injustices againt gays in Iran

On July 19, protests were held around the world marking the first anniversary of the hanging of two gay teens, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, in Mashhad, Iran. The teens were hanged on charges that they raped a 13-year-old boy, charges widely believed to have been trumped up to silence critics. Simon Forbes and Peter Tatchell of the British gay rights group OutRage issued a joint call with the Paris-based International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) for worldwide protests with the message, ”Iran: Stop Killing Gays! Stop Killing Kids!”

In Washington, Rob Anderson led a protest at Dupont Circle. In San Francisco, Michael Petrelis assembled speakers at Harvey Milk Plaza. In Provincetown, Andrew Sullivan led a quiet vigil outside Town Hall. In Toronto, Arsham Parsi, Human Rights Secretary of the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), spoke at a commemorative gathering. In Iran, PGLO members lit candles privately.

During the planning of the protests, OutRage proposed five demands, which were endorsed by PGLO and IDAHO. They included ending all executions in Iran; stopping the arrest and torture of GLBT Iranians; halting the deportation to Iran of GLBT and other asylum seekers; supporting Iranians struggling for democracy; and opposing foreign military intervention in Iran.

Some organizers in an e-mail exchange questioned the need for a list of demands. Andrew Sullivan wrote, ”The images tell you everything. We just need to stop and remember. The rest we can debate later.” I e-mailed to say that the list of demands omitted ‘opposition to Holocaust denial’ and ‘opposition to nuclear saber rattling.”’ But the European organizers kept their demands, while stressing that organizers in other cities were free to adopt them or not.

On July 7, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) announced that it would join the July 19 worldwide action with a vigil against the death penalty, outside the Iranian mission to the United Nations. On July 13, however, IGLHRC pulled out of the protest and announced it was moving its July 19 event and changing its focus to one of introspection for Westerners. (The Iranian mission protest was held by others, organized by Andy Humm.) Joining IGLHRC at New York’s LGBT Community Center were Human Rights Watch (HRW), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and others. IGLHRC said that the worldwide call for protests raised questions like ”How do we avoid reinforcing stereotypes and playing into hostilities prompted by our own government?”

The reference to ”our own government” was illuminated by a July 18 e-mail from Scott Long of HRW to Peter Tatchell, writing, ”Months of U.S. pressure on Iran have only inflated the popularity of the Ahmadinejad government” — thus changing the subject to Ugly Americans. Long accused the protest organizers of rank speculation, and claimed that the concentration on the Mashhad hangings ”pins refugees’ fates and lives on a single undetermined case, rather than on an analysis of the overall situation in Iran” — despite the fact that OutRage three months ago published a report of a nine-month investigation by Simon Forbes into numerous cases based on information gathered from sources inside Iran.

While acknowledging that Iran tortures and kills people for homosexual conduct, Long stated, ”There is no basis whatever for imputing a Westernized ‘gay’ identity to these youths” — thereby employing a Western social-constructionist trope belied by the involvement of self-identified gay Iranians in the July 19 organizing. Long contradicted his professed respect for Tatchell’s work by injecting lines like ”I do not play games with the dead” (as if Tatchell does), ”Look at the world, not just London and New York,” and ”Do you have a plan for change, or just for catharsis?”

Tatchell, whose brave international activism has gone far beyond mere catharsis, had written in a July 14 open letter to Long and IGLHRC’s Paula Ettelbrick that Iranian sources claim that Asgari and Marhoni were gay and were hanged for being lovers. Tatchell wrote, ”I am not prepared to give the benefit of doubt to the murderous regime in Tehran….” He also noted that the July 19 protest message was worded more broadly, without reference to the Mashhad case.

In a July 6 interview in Gay City News, Doug Ireland quotes Mani (not his real name), a 24-year-old PGLO activist living in Iran: ”You who live serenely and comfortably on the other side of Iran’s frontiers, be aware that those who think and feel and love like you do in Iran are executed for the crime of homosexuality, are assassinated, kidnapped, and barred from working in offices…. Be fair and tell us what difference there is between us and you. Isn’t it time that all homosexuals around the world rise up and come to our defense?” On July 19, people in dozens of cities worldwide answered a resounding, ”Yes.”

HRW has written over 50 affidavits for Iranian GLBT asylum seekers, and is preparing a report on abuses in Iran based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is commendable, but does not justify belittling the efforts of others.

The condescension of some professional activists is both illiberal and pointless. No one needs permission from a central committee to fight for our rightful place in the world. Demonstrations are insufficient, to be sure, but the global protests on July 19, organized via the Internet, shone a light on a grave injustice. That is a good and necessary thing to do, the snipings of would-be gatekeepers notwithstanding.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org). He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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