If you're a gay activist who gets imprisoned or killed because your government doesn't like your politics, and you want human rights groups to take up your case, it's best
That's a lesson from the International Tribunal on Human Rights Violations Against Sexual Minorities. This impressively titled event took place in New York on October 17th, and was sponsored by a private group, the San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). On the same day, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a ground-breaking report on human rights abuses against gay and lesbian journalists around the world.
The two reports offered compelling testimony. A 20-year-old Romanian told of being arrested with his lover in 1993 for sodomy, suffering beatings and rape in jail. The two finally received suspended sentences at trial, but his lover committed suicide. The Committee to Protect Journalists detailed a wide range of abuses, such as a law in Nicaragua barring writings that "promote" homosexuality, a ban by the Zimbabwe government of a gay group's newsletter, and threats of arrest suffered by gay and gay-friendly journalists in Russia. The CPJ report told of a five-month sentence handed down to Irene Petropolou in 1991 for indecent speech. She had requested in the personals section of Amphi that straight men not reply to the lesbian ads. Her prison sentence was overturned on appeal, and Petropolou never served any time.
The reports brought significant mainstream news coverage to problems not widely acknowledged. But in beaming a bright light on rights abuses of sexual minorities, these sponsoring groups also cast some shadows. Notably absent from the cases they presented were two well-documented and extreme instances of rights violations against gay activists in Western nations: the killing in 1990 of Rev. Joseph Douce in Paris, and the illegal pretrial detention for more than two years of an editor of Babilonia, Italy's national gay and lesbian magazine. The silence says much about the politics of human rights campaigning.
Joseph Douce was a openly gay Baptist pastor in Paris, and one of the founders of the International Lesbian and Gay Association. Douce's Centre du Christ Liberateur was a ministry to sexual minorities. It organized support groups around homosexuality. sadomasochism, pedophilia, and transsexuality, and published a well-regarded series of books on these topics. For his activism, Douce became a target of investigation by the Renseignements Genereaux (RG), a branch of the French national police that gathers intelligence on political subjects. The RG had a reputation for shady dealings. It was linked, for example, to the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, used to protest French nuclear testing. During the summer of 1990, Douce's center was subjected to break-ins and surveillance. According to his lover, on the evening of July 19, 1990, two men in plainclothes knocked on his door, said they were police, and showed a badge, and requested that the pastor come along with them for questioning. Except by his killers, Douce was never seen alive again. His decomposed body was found in October 1990 in a forest southwest of Paris. Oddly, the police did not release the corpse for a year and a half. It was needed, they claimed, for the criminal inquiry. Skeptics wondered whether the cops were trying to cover up evidence of torture. An investigation showed that the Paris police kept a thick file on Douce, and had conducted extensive illegal wiretaps. The French interior minister disbanded the RG partly as a result of the ensuing controversy. But the murder has never been solved.
The case of 26-year-old Francesco Vallini ends more happily. He is back at work in Milan as an editor at Babilonia, Italy's national gay and lesbian magazine. But for more than two years, Vallini was held in jail without trial. Vallini joined Babilonia's staff shortly after they published an essay he wrote describing life as a gay high school student. Though his lovers have all been men, Vallini helped found Gruppo P. which discussed relations between boys and men, and he edited its newsletter. Police surveiled the group's mail, and in April 1993 raided Vallini's home and the offices of Babilonia. In July 1993, they arrested Vallini on vague charges of "conspiracy to commit crimes" and of alleged sex with minors. Babilonia's protests that Vallini was purely a political prisoner fell on deaf ears. Conditions at Milan' s overcrowded San Vittore prison were so bad, that Vallini went on a hunger strike in late 1994 to protest, and had to be hospitalized. When authorities finally held a trial, they dropped the sex charge, leaving only a conspiracy count, based on Vallini's organizing, writing, and publishing. Vallini was convicted, but released on parole this summer. He is appealing the verdict.
Julie Dorf, director of the IGLHRC, tells The Guide that her group has no file on Douce's killing, even though her organization served as Action Secretariat of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, a group Douce served in up till his death. Nor did the group make any inquiries about Vallini's imprisonment. The latter case was discussed in a draft of the CPJ report, but was cut from the final version.
"His treatment was extremely unfair as it was handled by the Italian court," says Jeanne Sahadi, spokesperson for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "But it didn't meet our criteria as closely as we wanted so far as being a press freedom issue. The charges against him had to do with his work for Gruppo P. not Babilonia." Yet Vallini was editor and publisher of Gruppo P' s sober political newsletter, and publications put out by gay organizations count as journalistic endeavors for the purposes of other cases included in the CPJ report.
There is a political context to these choices. It took years of campaigning to get Amnesty International and the human rights bureaucracies of Western governments to admit that the imprisoning of homosexuals simply because of their sexuality is a violation of human rights. As gay and lesbian human rights groups try to twist the arms of the world's Zimbabwes and Nicaraguas the | backing of Western governments is useful leverage. "We try to focus on developing nations, where principles of democracy and free expression aren't so well established," the CPJ's Jeanne Sehadi tells The Guide.
The IGLHRC has been particularly slavish in seeking US support. To meet the conditions laid down in an 1994 Congressional amendment written by Sen. Jesse Helms, the IGHLRC pushed successfully for the expulsion from ILGA of three member groups that focus on intergenerational relationships. When that failed to block US opposition to ILGA's gaining symbolic United Nations recognition, the IGLHRC went further, and supported a move, adopted this past summer, to demand loyalty oaths from all remaining ILGA members that they do not support sex with minors or have anything to do with those who do. A handful of gay and lesbian groups in Canada, Germany, and Greece have dropped out of ILGA in protest. By the terms IGHLRC has embraced, the Rev. Joseph Douce's ecumenical ministry and perhaps Babilonia would today be barred from ILGA.
The power that the US and other Western nations have to define the human rights agenda and to shape it to their ideological and strategic purposes makes "first-world" rights violations especially important to confront. The standards of conduct tolerable to the governments of powerful countries become de facto international benchmarks.
To its credit, the Committee to Protect Journalists highlights rights violations in Western nations, including the US, Canada, and Austria. The author of the CPJ's report, lesbian writer Masha Gessen, makes a point of noting the unfair use of indecency statutes and laws supposedly aimed at punishing child exploitation to attack gay journalists. Her report cites the case of Joseph Couture, a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Toronto gay paper Xtra as well as this magazine, who was threatened by police after he helped expose the fact that a supposed "child porn ring" in London, Ontario, was mostly a police-concocted fraud. Couture's reporting has shown that London police exploited the extraordinary breadth of a 1993 Canadian censorship law to create the illusion of a porn ring and to arrest more than 60 gay men.
But the CPJ report fails to note that this Canadian censorship law is so broad precisely because Parliament wanted to include journalistic and expository writing under its definition of "child pornography." Writing a text that a court construes as "advocating" illegal sex with minors is punishable by up to ten years in prison; possessing it, by five. An article that criticizes the child porn law could itself be "child porn." Yet the CPJ report gives the false impression that threats to gay and lesbian journalists in the West are relatively minor- right-wingers stealing bunches of free gay papers, harassing words from angry cops- and that no journalists really risk years in prison or worse for their ideas.
Despite the sometimes pompous jargon and appeal to lofty ideals, human rights campaigning is, as Clausewitz said of war, the pursuit of politics by other means. If a political killing or jailing doesn't look good in a press release, our gay and lesbian human rights watchdogs may help push it down the memory hole.
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