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16 May 2012

Believing What You See: Iran’s ‘Gay’ Hangings

Yesterday a report that four gay men in Iran were due to be executed for being gay went viral. I read the report, firstly in Pink News and then beyond, with some suspicion. The reports were vague, relying largely on responses from nameless sources and Western activists. Despite Pink News quoting two sources for the story, the latter source seemed to rely on the first. In fact, every single report of the story relied on ‘reports’ from something called the “Human Rights Activist News Agency”. Given that the vast majority of readers are going to be ignorant of this organisation (I certainly was) you would expect some context as to its reliability, but there was none. There was remarkably little variation in the reporting, suggesting no independent verification. From past experience, I thought it reasonable to assume that many of the writers of these reports had made no effort to verify the story or even ascertain further details. Indeed, it’s not the first time that there has been a horror story about gay executions in Iran - and it wouldn’t be the first time that such a horror story had spread across the world with little evidence behind it.

Today, a photo purporting to show the four men’s execution (EXPLICIT CONTENT) was widely shared on social media. Again, I was suspicious. If such an event had taken place with so many onlookers, surely we would be beyond relying on a single report? Surely we would have further details of the men aside from some names in inverted commas? The fact that people sharing the photo couldn’t even agree on which day it was taken further troubled me. So this evening I did some googling. I found this great article. You must read it but in short it argues that many Western gay activists (notably Peter Tatchell) are so eager for ‘gay victims’ that they completely abandon any attempts at objectivity or rationality. It goes on to examine the reports regarding the four men and finds them wanting, to say the least. Unlike, I imagine, pretty much all of those who disseminated the story, the writer actually attempts to find out further information from HRANA and fails.

I then noticed something else: the image purporting to show the men’s execution had ‘2008’ in its file name (at least on the site I first found it linked to this story). Finding that odd, I put the image into Tinyeye search, which aims to find other instances of any picture you input. And there it was - sites using the image in 2008. Notably, they give next to no details about it, observing only that it shows a public execution in ‘Borazjan 2008’.

That search literally took seconds. The fact that none of the hundreds, thousands of people who have shared it, including some professional journalists, noticed this is worrying to say the least.

However, what does it matter? Maybe there are four men as described and Iran certainly has demonstrable form in human rights abuses and executions, including against gays. It is undoubtedly a brutal regime.

The problem is that it was a brutal regime last week and it will be a brutal regime next week. As the image shows, it was a brutal regime in 2008 when it executed four men who are anonymous to the world, preserved forever in that grim image. Yet the issue was not that it’s a despotic regime, or that it uses capital punishment (something it shares, of course, with America). The issue was that it was killing people merely for being gay. That was what made so many suddenly take notice.

This raises troubling issues. Not least, it raises the issue of how easy it can be to manipulate people into believing a certain narrative about Iran - a narrative which, of course, aids the manipulation itself. Given the drumbeats of war sounding for Iran in many powerful quarters, it’s not difficult to imagine how dangerous this could be. I saw many comments, mostly on American sites, demanding that ‘we’ bomb Iran. Some had a tone of ‘alright, now I’m in’, suggesting that previously they had not been eager to support a war but had been convinced by this barbarity. Given the lies and manipulation which led us into the Iraq war, you would surely expect us to be more wary of these emotional responses and, moreso, of whatever information led us to them? There has been a steady drip of stories about Iran’s barbarity over the past year or so - the fact that they so neatly serve powerful interests should put us on guard. It’s a sinister insight into how the softening of public opinion for an attack on Iran could happen (if it’s not happening already).

The very interesting thing is that many of the stories have concerned totemic liberal values such as gay rights and women’s rights. The ‘everyday’ oppression in Iran rarely inspires much ire - it’s these issues which get people worked up. It’s reminiscent of when we have been encouraged to support war in Iraq and Afghanistan on the grounds that it would improve the lot of women. You don’t have to spend long reading about either conflict to see that these claims are, at best, problematic.

The response also reminded me of the response to the murder of Stuart Walker in Scotland last year. There was another case where liberal-minded and I’m sure well-intentioned people rushed to judgement based on little information. That case also quickly went viral with many expressions of disgust and demands that something be done. Within hours, however, it became clear that the case was far more complex and Stuart’s sexuality might not have played a part in his death. As quickly as the outrage and concern arose, it vanished. I didn’t see a single person correct themselves or even admit that they might have got it wrong. Everyone moved on and I sincerely doubt that even 1% of the people who wrote about it have any idea of, or even interest in, what happened in Stuart Walker’s case since.

As with Stuart, we know absolutely nothing about these four Iranian men (assuming the case is real). They have immediately become ‘four gay men’ and that is the extent of their identity. The problem with that is that it becomes the extent of their usefulness. If it transpires that they were executed for, say, rape, the outrage and concern vanishes, people move on, no-one spends any time thinking about why they were so quick to get it wrong. As the Paper Bird piece argues, they are useful ‘gay victims’ for advancing certain agendas and world views and nothing else matters:

But don’t you see?  Marking them “gay” means they are not “innocent,” not in the Iranian judiciary’s eyes. You know nothing about these four men, nothing at all. But you’re still content to call them names that convict them. What gave you that right?

The truly sad thing is that someone, somewhere, deliberately decided to deceive in finding the 2008 photo and linking it to this story. The fact that this deception has so easily and so quickly spread around the world only serves to obscure the real brutalities of the Iranian regime; it serves to bolster the idea that the West will stop at nothing to discredit Iran and so strengthens the regime. More immediately, of course, it serves to obscure the reality surrounding the four men or, if they do not exist, others like them. Others like, in fact, the men in the 2008 photograph.

1 June 2013

Solidarity with Bradley Manning


Today marks the beginning of Bradley Manning’s 4th year in prison and a week of action to mark this grim anniversary. After years without trial - years in which he was subjected to torture - his court martial finally begins next week. Abandoned both by the traditional human rights organisations and by the single-issue morons of Gay Inc, his name is still not widely known and few people are perturbed by his experience. Fewer still will see a link between Manning’s actions and what happened in Woolwich last week yet Manning’s efforts to bring the brutality and illegality of the ‘war on terror’ as experienced on the ground clearly has profound implications as to why so many are so angry at certain parts of the West. Indeed, it’s often argued that Manning’s actions directly led to the US winding down its activities in Iraq far more swiftly than they otherwise would have.

I’ve written about Manning several times so I won’t repeat myself. One point to note however: next week also sees the ‘equal marriage’ Bill reach the House of Lords in the UK and already the usual crowd are whipping up self-victimising melodrama over it. Many of these people don’t even seem to understand what powers the House of Lords have regarding the Bill. Pay attention to the self-flattering hysteria which is whipped up when these debates are happening and compare it to the deafening silence on Manning, a clear example that the rhetoric around perceived slights against LGBT people is increasingly only applied when it doesn’t actually rock the boat or challenge authority too much. Many don’t seem to understand that rights, particularly rights which are bestowed by national governments, mean almost nothing - it’s the lived experience of people that matters. This is why we need to defend the rights of those who break the law in efforts to hold unchecked power to account. This is why we need to understand that notions of ‘equality’ can never, ever be reduced to a legal framework. Solidarity with Bradley Manning.

Edit - Soon after posting this I saw this piece from the brilliant Ian Cobain on the UK’s appalling human rights record. It follows on exactly from what I wrote above and underlines it perfectly. Compare the sound and fury generated by ‘equal marriage’ rights to the attention given to issues of torture, immigration, justice and so on. This is, of course, not something confined to gay activists but rather widespread amongst those of a ‘liberal’ bent.

29 July 2013
9 August 2013

LGBT Rights in Russia and our Western Fantasies


If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.

The above is from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the response to a speech Clinton gave which ‘promoted gay rights around the world’. The overwhelmingly positive reaction (and concomitant presentation of America as a champion of ‘human rights’) neatly illustrated some problematic aspects of ‘LGBT rights’, not least the tendency for them to be viewed as separate from (even superior to)general human rights. At times it can seem like liberal Westerners are like laser-guided drones, zooming around the world in order to pinpoint abuses (perceived or real) against LGBT people (and really we’re overwhelmingly talking about the ‘G’ here.) We get petitions about Uganda, inaccurately attributed photographs about Iran and demands to cut Western aid to ‘anti-gay’ countries and in each case the engagement never progresses beyond the facile. There are no efforts to understand the wider context, few efforts to engage with activists who actually live and operate in the countries in question and certainly no consideration of Western complicity and/or hypocrisy. The simple narrative goes “LGBT rights are being abused somewhere, as Westerners we can do something about it”. And that’s it. You don’t have to ponder this for long for the ‘white saviour’, imperialist and orientalist fantasies to make themselves obvious.

We’ve been seeing this again recently as the noise around Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens grows louder, culminating this week in a New York Times column from Harvey Fierstein and a Buzzfeed ‘article’. Seriously, when you’re sharing Buzzfeed pieces to highlight human rights abuses you should probably have the self-awareness to step back. Now, the situation in Russia is clearly worrying and shouldn’t be ignored. The introduction of such a law on a national level and a law effectively banning LGBT activism have drawn Western attention. However while this marks a deterioration in LGBT rights in Russia, the situation has been troubling for quite some time with various regions of Russia bringing in laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ over the past decade.  More than that, the human rights situation in Russia has been dreadful for many years. Even if we only look at the past month or so, we see a law criminalising blasphemy, the murder of journalists, the persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to the regime, the harassment and murder of human rights activists and extradition and torture. Russia has not been a functioning democracy, or respected human rights, since well before Putin came along. Yet it’s the LGBT issues which are seized on and lead to demands to boycott the country and the Winter Olympics. As is almost always the case, these calls for boycotts don’t seem to have arisen after discussions with activists in Russia over how best to proceed but have rather been imposed on high by Westerners, many of whom have clearly never set foot in Russia.

There’s a lot to be untangled here. There’s the question of whether a country which had its own ‘homosexual propaganda’ law until fairly recently really has the moral authority to be lecturing another on its treatment of LGBT people, of course. There’s the small matter that LGBT people are far from equal and far from free of homophobia in most Western countries. Yet as the wonderful Scott Long notes in this great piece, attacks on LGBT people in Western democracies tend to be portrayed as aberrations rather than being evidence of the daily hell faced by all LGBT people. There’s also the detail that the West has played a massive role in establishing and/or supporting regimes with appalling records on LGBT rights. This obviously brings to mind both the legacy of colonialism and the many repressive regimes which have Britain and America’s sticky fingers all over them but there’s also soft power. For example the One Campaign, which Bono credits as saving 9 million lives in Africa, opened the door to American evangelicals whose influence permeates (for example) the homophobic actions of the Ugandan government.

Then there is the tension between LGBT rights and ‘human rights’ which I wrote about in the piece first linked to above. It’s with neat symmetry that the Youth Olympics are to be held in China next year, as the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The wider LGBT community never joined in calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there are pretty much no calls for a boycott of the Youth ones, yet China is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. As Russia’s human rights record has only become of interest once it was seen to be targeting gay people, China’s perceived lack of laws targeting the same means their appalling human rights record is of little interest to people like Harvey Fierstein. Indeed, our own Olympics last year brought their fair share of authoritarianism and abuse, from ‘pre-arrests’ and forced evictions to exploitation of migrant workers and the prohibition of political protest. Yet speaking about these as a British person was seen as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negative’.

It’s this inability or flat-out refusal to look at our own human rights records first which most grates. Russia has human rights activists and they lead their fights, sometimes apparently with notable success. We should be so brave. Before being so eager to point out the problematic human rights of countries we perceive as lesser we should take a look at ourselves and our allies. It’s not without irony that Edward Snowden looks likely to be given at least a temporary Russian visa as he flees America’s persecution of whistle-blowers which is most notably represented by Bradley Manning (one of whose heroes is Harvey Milk). It is without irony that we condemn Russia for locking up Pussy Riot for ‘criticising the government’. The massive abuses of our national security agencies exposed by Snowden, both in America and here, have been met with nary a whimper by most people despite their enormous implications for our democracies.  We rightly applaud the bravery of Malala Yousafzai yet are utterly silent about the (at least) hundreds of children murdered by Western (mostly but not solely American) drone strikes. The American government has even assassinated its own citizens and it hasn’t inspired much of an outcry. We turn a blind eye to our government’s support for Israel and its brutal oppression of Palestine.  We shriek about the authoritarianism of Russia while the insanity of Guantanamo continues for yet another year and our own government destroys legal aid and sets up secret courts. Yet Fierstein declares that he has “a lot of faith in Obama”. Where is his concern for the human rights of those affected by his own government? From Trayvon Martin to Gareth Myatt, Jimmy Mubenga to Mark Duggan and beyond, our ‘liberal’ Western societies are riven with abuses. We wouldn’t expect activists in Russia to deal with any of these problems yet have no compunction about wading into their country without even speaking to them first. What these cases show is that ‘human rights’ are not experienced by all in the same way. They are always contested and always must be fought for and this requires that we pay some attention to our own societies first and foremost rather than indulging in liberal fantasies that we’re well-placed to start dotting around the world solving the problems which our governments and NGOs often have had a huge role in to begin with. 

08-08-2013: This blog was getting a lot of hits yesterday which I’ve no doubt was due to Stephen Fry’s ‘open letter’ about Russia going viral. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned it’s pretty much a perfect illustration of some of the issues I wrote about here. It’s almost entirely about him, for a start. He finds no space to quote or even refer to voices from within Russia, despite having visited there last year. He surely can’t be unaware, for example, that LGBT activists in Russia have actually spoken out against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics? If you’re directly contradicting the wishes of activists actually living in the country you profess to speak for, you better have a compelling reason. Fry doesn’t even begin to offer one.

Furthermore, he contrasts Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and ends with an obsequious tribute to David Cameron:

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

“I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right”. Clearly this is not a man affected by the government’s ‘austerity’ programme and his words elide the many struggles occurring in the United Kingdom. Yet even looking beyond the myriad of injustices wrought by this government, we see that only this week Cameron entertained the King of Bahrain, a truly brutal dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship which is sold arms by the United Kingdom. Funnily enough, we also sell arms to Russia. “The civilised world”. The situation in Yemen is similarly sold to us as a battle between “the civilised world” and the barbarians – a narrative which obscures the complex and morally abhorrent truth.

Fry’s words further cement the myth that the people of Russia are voiceless, less-than-human and need saving by the eloquent, ‘civilised’ West. They act as propaganda for Cameron and the West and insult the many activists here who are fighting their own struggles against the government. And all for an action which there seems to be little call for from within Russia, and which the only Russian LGBT activists whose words we can find oppose. Western fantasies, indeed.

1 October 2013

Sell Arms to Saudi Arabia, Support Gay Equality!

I noted in this piece that Pink News were holding an award ceremony sponsored by an arms dealer - a perfect illustration both of ‘pinkwashing’ and of the conservative, even reactionary agenda of Pink News and its particular brand of ‘politics’. More details about this ceremony are starting to come out, with the first award apparently being “Parliamentary Speech of the Year’. What this actually means is ‘Parliamentary Speech In Favour of Gay Marriage During the Gay Marriage Debate of the Year’ because of course LGBT people couldn’t care about or be affected by anything else which goes on. Why would we care, for example, that Baroness Barker has collaborated with the Tories and her own party leadership to undermine the NHS? It’s not a ‘gay issue’, is it? More egregiously, why would we care that Mike Freer is a true blue Tory who has supported his party in almost everything that they’ve done, from attacking the NHS to attempting to dismantle legal aid or raising tuition fees to £9000 (to name but a few flashpoint issues)? Even by its own narrow criteria the award is a non-starter - Lord Jenkin of Roding, when he bothered to vote on LGBT issues, voted against the repeal of section 28 and supported an amendment effectively specifying that IVF be available only to heterosexual couples (to his credit, he did rebel against his party and vote to allow unmarried couples to adopt.) David Lammy, supporter of the Iraq war and authoritarian government laws to tackle ‘terrorism’, seems to be nominated because he compared gay marriage to the American black civil rights movement - a comparison which offends many and which raises the gay movement’s own troubling treatment (or avoidance) of race.

I’ve no doubt this will seem quibbling to some who will find a gay site giving an award for a speech on a gay issue perfectly natural. Yet it’s completely arbitrary and yet again pushes this facile notion of ‘gay politics’ as something separate from ‘politics’ in general; worse, it pushes it as something which reflects the narrow concerns of an elite who already have a place at the table. That there are LGBT people out there who are being affected by, and will care more about, cuts to welfare or cuts to health or unemployment or homelessness et al is viewed as irrelevant here. That LGB members of parliament will have spoken on these issues is also irrelevant. Screw solidarity and political consciousness, we’re GAY and as such should care about GAY THINGS!

This approach of course underlies the fact that Pink News sees no problem with being sponsored by BAE Systems, a company immersed in human misery (and which happens to have sold arms to brutal regimes with horrific LGBT rights records). It’s also why it sees no issue with being supported by Clifford Chance, a law firm which has been implicated in several tax avoidance and fraud scandals, or the bank BNP Paribas which has overseen tax avoidance and money laundering while assisting brutal dictatorships. This matters because gay rights are inextricable from wider social justice and human rights. As Margot Salomon of LSE put it over at Open Democracy:

The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights  - Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort.

The line that ‘gay rights are human rights’ was tritely repeated again and again during the gay marriage debate but little engaged with - this is precisely what it means. Gay rights no more exist in a vacuum than gay people do and to deny this is to demean our humanity. To engage with amoral (even actively destructive) corporations while encouraging a shallow focus only on our gay identity is worse than useless - it’s harmful. Equality demands more.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh