The execution of two teenaged males in Iran on Jul 19, and how it was reported in the world and queer media, raises questions about how we in the global West can respond with passion and understanding to international human rights violations.
The initial reports from Iran said that two teens were executed for sodomy by coercion/force, setting off a wave of outrage in the western media, which did not get its facts quite right.
The first concern I have about the way we often respond is that we assume an attitude of moral superiority and outrage. Let me be the first to plead guilty on that one. Last year, while meeting with experts on freedom of expression at the United Nations Commission On Human Rights, the international community was highlighting, in particular, the arrest of two men in Fiji for engaging in private consensual sexual activity. There was instant condemnation and outrage as Fiji was called to task for these arrests in front of the international community.
Upon further reflection, I considered what little international shaming Canada suffered when police engaged in raids in various parts of the country against venues where the queer community was engaging in private consensual sexual activity. Canada got off pretty easy. We simply cannot be asking the world to point a flashlight on the recent executions in Iran, for example, and not be willing to put our own western countries under the same scrutiny.
The second concern I have is how quickly we speak without proper facts and documentation. For example, many in the international community were quick to label the 2004 death of Sierra Leone queer activist Fannyann Eddy (who was a friend and colleague of mine) as a “hate crime.” Similarly, many were quick to label the executions in Iran as a condemnation of homosexual activity.
Indeed, there is no doubt that Iran has committed some of the most egregious human rights violations based on sexuality. The July case certainly makes reference to sexuality, thus warranting further fact-gathering. But this case has also, since before the international furor arose, made reference to a violent rape against a child, which also warrants further fact-finding and not a dismissal that this reference is some kind of veiled Islamic conspiracy to cover up gay killings.
In order to get these facts, we have to lend our financial and moral support to international and domestic nongovernmental organizations on the ground, who can investigate and inform us about the best strategy. Some spokespeople for the queer community in Iran say that they themselves are unsure of the facts in this case, and are asking the international community not do anything until more facts are gathered. We can also support the work of the United Nations and their experts who investigate these kinds of allegations. Quite frankly, it does their work no justice if the rest of us are engaged in campaigns of speculation and accusation, albeit with noble intentions.
My third concern is the westernizing of other people’s reality. Some headlines read, “Two Gay Teenagers Executed In Iran.” It is unlikely that these two youths would have ever used the terminology “gay” to describe themselves. We in the West are constantly engaged in identity politics discussions, but that critical analysis seems to go out the window when an inter-national situation arises.
We must be as critical of our queer and mainstream media in this case as we are when they do not respect people from the West. Would we in the queer community have responded with the same outrage if the headline had read, “Two Teenagers Executed In Iran”?
This brings me to my fourth concern. Our humanity is not dictated by our sexuality. A mainstream US gay rights advocacy group is demanding that Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice issue a condemnation of Iran. This group, however, has never condemned the US death penalty, also used to convict and execute children. Any execution is morally and ethically outrageous and never justifiable.
In the case of children, execution is a clear violation of international law; Iran has ratified both the International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights and the Convention On The Rights Of The Child (only Somalia and the US have not ratified the latter). We must use this opportunity to highlight this fact. “Queer people” can’t be executed if “people” are not executed.
As is often the case here in the West, there may also have been a racial component at work in the conviction and sentencing of the two teens in Iran. Both were ethnically Arab in Persian Iran. In the current climate of rising racial and religious intolerance on many fronts, we have to proceed with understanding and knowledge. Are queers asking what role race played in the convictions, just as they are inquiring about the role that sexuality played? If they are, I haven’t seen it. In fact, some queer groups have used this case as an opportunity to express religiously-charged comments against Islam.
If we cannot address these concerns, our lobbying campaigns will never be successful and could actually result in more harm than good.