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Filling the gaps in Amnesty International's Freedom College.

Amnesty International has a unique opportunity to take a sizable leap forward in its long journey toward acceptance of homosexuals when it holds its International Council Meeting (ICM) in South Africa this December. In its distinguished thirty-six-year history, gays and lesbians have been conspicuously absent from the list of oppressed groups Al has worked to protect from human rights abuses. However, before the new year begins, the 1.1-million-member global organization can cement its commitment to them by giving international approval to two major resolutions passed last spring in New Orleans at its U.S. General Meeting, which took as its theme "Freedom Has Many Faces."

Indeed, from its founding in 1961 by British barrister Peter Benenson to the present, the faces of those "prisoners of conscience" whose causes Amnesty International has championed in 140 countries around the world would make quite an enormous collage. The organization has worked tirelessly to secure freedom and basic human rights (as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations, but still nonbinding on member states) for people imprisoned or otherwise persecuted as a result of their political or religious beliefs, or because of ethnic or racial conflicts. It has worked to ensure prompt and fair trials for political prisoners; to abolish the death penalty, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners; and to end extrajudicial executions and "disappearances." Unfortunately, a large number of worthy faces would be missing from AI's freedom collage: homosexuals.

In 1974, the Danish delegation to the organization's ICM introduced the subject of homosexuality for the very first time. A study was commissioned by this conference, but it would be another five years before Amnesty International would officially recognize imprisonment because of a person's sexual orientation as a violation of basic human rights. Al also affirmed that the proponents of equal rights for homosexuals who are imprisoned for their advocacy are "prisoners of conscience," thereby falling under the organization's official mandate. Nevertheless, at the 1987 ICM, a resolution offered by the Dutch, calling for prisoners of conscience to include those who are incarcerated "solely for acts in private between consenting adults," failed to pass. Not until 1991 did a strongly worded resolution, put forth by the U.S. delegation, calling for prisoner-of-conscience status for people imprisoned "solely because of their homosexuality, including the practice of homosexual acts in private between consenting adults," pass Amnesty International's ICM in Yokohama Japan, by consensus. It was also in 1991 that Demet Demir, a Turkish transsexual woman, became the first person in the organization's history to be declared a prisoner of conscience due to persecution resulting from her sexual orientation.

Two factors have contributed to this sluggish response in the area of gay and lesbian concerns. Operating, as it does, on a worldwide basis has brought about the creation of a massive and tremendously byzantine bureaucracy with in Amnesty International. This, coupled with a rather tediously laborious legislative process, ensures that no change takes place very quickly. Secondly, many Al sections--such as those in Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Romania as well as numerous African states which must deal with officially encouraged homophobia--have been resistant to including homosexuals within the Amnesty International mandate. They fear their homohostile governments will use such inclusion as justification to retaliate against Al by excluding the organization altogether from entering the country to do any investigative research on human rights abuses.

In 1990, a group of members from the United States formed the first chapter of Amnesty International Members for Lesbian and Gay Concerns specifically for the purpose of expediting the veracious inclusion of homosexuals under AI's mandate and the implementation of appropriate research procedures for the uncovering of human rights abuses aimed at lesbians and gay men worldwide. The goals of AIMLGC are:

* To focus public awareness on the human rights abuses gay men and lesbians suffer around the world

* To coordinate the actions of Amnesty International members in the United States on behalf of people who suffer human rights abuses because of their sexual orientation

* To facilitate the continued development of AI's mandate and practices to combat human rights violations directed at people because of their sexual orientation

* To promote and strengthen links between AI and activists in other human rights groups and gay and lesbian organizations

As an indication of how serious the situation for gays and lesbians can get in some countries, AIMLGC Steering Committee member Mark Ungar, an assistant professor of political science at the City University of New York and an expert on international lesbigay human rights issues, estimates "an absolute minimum of 300 people have been executed since 1990 in Iran alone for violation of laws prohibiting homosexuality." Methods of execution in Iran include stoning and cleaving in two. Unger uses 1990 as a starting date because it was not until then that systematic research into such cases first began. No one knows how many were executed prior to that year. As in Iran, so-called Sharia Islamic laws also apply in Saudi Arabia, making homosexuality a capital offense. In total, there are eight nations where being gay or lesbian can get you executed by the government.

In Romania, Article 200 of the penal code--"causing a public scandal--has been used to imprison countless gays and lesbians for up to five years. Section 377 of Singapore's penal code proscribes life imprisonment for "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." In Zimbabwe, the president has claimed that lesbians and gay men are "worse than dogs and pigs" and has threatened to arrest gay rights supporters if they demonstrate. Recent parliamentary discussion has suggested public whipping as punishment and that police "look for homosexuals . . . put them somewhere where they can never be seen." Even in the United States, four states--Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee--have sodomy laws that apply exclusively to homosexuals. Only last July, Montana repealed its gays-only sodomy law. And seventeen other states still have sodomy laws that proscribe certain sexual acts, regardless of whether the partners are consenting heterosexual or homosexual adults. All these statutes call for fines or imprisonment upon conviction.

By 1994, chapters of Amnesty International Members for Lesbian and Gay Concerns had been formed or were forming in several other countries. That same year, the U.S. chapter published "Breaking the Silence," a report on human rights violations based on sexual orientation. The account is founded upon documentary material researched by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International and constitutes the first report of its kind to be issued by any human rights organization. This year. "Breaking the Silence was reissued in a greatly revised and updated form by Amnesty International, United Kingdom. There are AIMLGC chapters in fifteen countries worldwide, with several others planned for the near future.

Still, discontent continues among AI's lesbigay and lesbigay-friendly membership, with the rather dilatory response to the problem of global human rights abuses against lesbians and gay men. As a result, AIMLGC, U.S.A, introduced two formal resolutions at the spring meeting in New Orleans. The first states: "Resolved, that Al will integrate into its research, campaigns, actions, publications, and outreach work on human rights violations, within the mandate, directed against homosexuals. Essentially, this resolution calls upon Amnesty International to do the work that it says it is making a commitment to do. It does not ask the organization to do new things but, rather, to actively integrate work that currently has low visibility and priority. Several groups in various sections are already active in this area but are often forced to reinvent the wheel with each new case. Integration will enable members to have the tools and resources they need to work on this issue efficiently and effectively.

In New Orleans, at an open forum on gay and lesbian issues, AIMLGC Steering Committee Cochair Cynthia Rothschild commented:

All we're saying to Amnesty is

"deal with us." You have a paper

trail that says you are going to do

this work. . . . Come on . . . because

you're not meeting your

promise in terms of what your

membership all over the world

wants to do.

The second resolution asked for a sponsorship commitment from Amnesty International for a general intersectional conference of all AIMLGC chapters. This conference would take place following the International Council Meeting to be held in South Africa this December.

Both resolutions passed: the first. unanimously with a few abstentions; the second, with a majority in favor, two opposed, and numerous abstentions. It must be kept in mind, however, that, although these resolutions have passed the General Meeting of Amnesty International, U.S.A., they do not become binding on the organization worldwide until they also pass the ICM in December.

AIMLGC Steering Committee member Jean Freedberg has been involved with Amnesty International since 1981. when she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She feels that visibility for AIMLGC is crucial to pushing the gay and lesbian concerns agenda forward within the larger organization. In speaking of the New Orleans meeting, Freedberg said:

One of the key things we needed

to do was to be seen. We needed

to have a presence at this meeting,

to have people understand

that AIMLGC is here and that

we're working and that we're a

vital part of the movement. To a

great extent I think we succeeded

in that with our public forum, our

distribution of informational materials

and passage of two resolutions.

The fact that the one resolution

passed unanimously is a

very interesting indication that

there is tremendous support and

that people want to see us out

there doing the work. So, I was

very encouraged.

When asked if she felt there was significant homophobia within Amnesty International, Freedberg replied:

No more and no less than there is

in the rest of the world. Simply

because we call ourselves a

human rights movement does not

necessarily mean that everyone

within that movement has worked

their way through all the issues

surrounding racism and sexism

and homophobia

She sees education--both inside and outside Al--as an important part of her group's work.

Steering Committee Cochair Daniel Soto, a computer specialist who designed AlMLGC's website (www.indiana. edul-arenal/A.I..html), agrees that maintaining a high degree of visibility is of paramount importance:

I think our biggest challenge is to

always be a visible presence, both

in the Amnesty International organizational

structure itself and out

in the world at large. It is our job

to focus the attention of the international

community upon human

rights abuses leveled against gays

and lesbians whenever and wherever

they are happening. We need

to draw attention, for example,

even to so-called First World

countries, such as the United

States, where there are still some

pretty primitive anti-gay laws in


Though falling a little short of euphoria the consensus among lesbian and gay participants at the New Orleans meeting was generally very upbeat, and there was a distinct feeling that significant positive change was afoot. Now, it's on to South Africa in December.

Gary Pool is a freelance writer and editor living in Bloomington, Indiana. His e-mail address is
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Author:Pool, Gary
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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